Organised by: Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi.
Date & Time: September 17, 2021, at 05.00 PM
Webinar: CPPR Webinar Series on the Political Crisis in Afghanistan: The National Interests of India and China.
About the Event: The Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi organised a panel discussion as part of its webinar series on the situation in Afghanistan, with a special focus on the implications of a Taliban-led Kabul for India and China.
Ambassador Venu Rajamony has been the Ambassador of India to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Permanent Representative of India to the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, and was responsible for India’s relations with the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. He was the Press Secretary to Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. He has also served as Joint Secretary and head of Multilateral Institutions Division of the Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, Government of India from 2010-12, where he was responsible for formulating India’s policies towards the IMF, WB and IFAD. He was India’s Deputy to the International Development Association and member of India’s delegations to the Fund Bank meetings and meetings of the ADB. He is Professor of Diplomatic Practice at the Jindal Global Law School of the O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. He has recently been appointed as Kerala government’s OSD for External Cooperation and will liaise with the Ministry of External Affairs, foreign missions in New Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, and diplomatic missions abroad on various matters. He is also an Advisor to the CPPR.
Professor Harsh V Pant is the Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He holds a joint appointment with the Department of Defence Studies and King’s India Institute as Professor of International Relations at King’s College London. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC. Professor Pant has been a Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore; a Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania; a Visiting Scholar at the Center for International Peace and Security Studies, McGill University; and an Emerging Leaders Fellow at the Australia-India Institute, University of Melbourne. His current research is focused on Asian security issues. He writes extensively on foreign policy issues for the Japan Times, the Wall Street Journal, the National (UAE), the Hindustan Times, and The Telegraph. He is also the author of several books like India’s Nuclear Policy, The US Pivot and Indian Foreign Policy, Handbook of Indian Defence Policy, India’s Afghan Muddle, and The US-India Nuclear Pact: Policy, Process and Great Power Politics.
Dr Shelly Johny is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at St. Aloysius College Thrissur. He has held research positions at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, which is a think tank of the Indian Air Force, and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), New Delhi, which is under the Ministry of Defence, Government of India. His research interests include contemporary West Asia with special emphasis on the Arab Gulf states, Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah and the Af-Pak region. Within these regions, the focus is on the nature and development of the ongoing conflicts in these regions and the overall security and terrorism-related aspects. His other research interests include the nature of material and cultural exchanges between West Asia and South Asia in the early historical period through both overland and maritime routes. He is also a Senior Fellow (West Asian & Security Studies) with the CPPR.
Ms Purvaja Modak (Research Fellow, International Relations, CPPR) commenced the webinar with an introduction of the webinar series on Afghanistan being conducted by the Centre for Public Policy Research, and the topic for discussion – Political Crisis in Afghanistan: The National Interests of India and China. She gave a brief overview of the CPPR and the various initiatives undertaken by it. After welcoming the audience and introducing to them the moderator Dr Shelly Johny and the panelists, Ambassador Venu Rajamony and Professor Harsh V Pant, she handed over the proceedings to the moderator.
Dr Shelly Johny began by briefly explaining the evolving situation in Afghanistan that has been captured by the Taliban again. He explained how this time, the situation is different from the 1990s. China introduced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 and has been pushing it more aggressively recently. For India, an alternative to the Taliban that existed in the form of the Northern Alliance is no longer available. Pakistan now has much more leverage within the country. Following these introductory remarks, he invited Ambassador Venu Rajamony to share his thoughts.
Ambassador Rajamony thanked the moderator and the CPPR for inviting him to the webinar. He began by emphasising how the events that have unfolded in Afghanistan are a huge setback for India, and more so for the people, especially women and girls, of Afghanistan. The Taliban regime has slowly consolidated its power in the country with little resistance from the international community and the subjugation of the only major resistance that had emanated out of the Panjshir Valley. He explained how the refugee outflow threatens other countries, especially the neighbours. He took the example of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit that was taking place that day to showcase the worries that the region has. One of the greatest concerns for India is the possibility of a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorism. There have also been allegations against Pakistan and its Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) on aiding the Taliban militarily.
Shifting his focus to China, Ambassador Rajamony highlighted that Beijing has landed itself in an extraordinary opportunity to expand its economic and political influence, while it is also worried about terrorism along its borders, especially from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). He concluded his introductory remarks by showcasing how China is extremely important for the Taliban, in view of the Western sanctions against the Taliban-led Afghanistan.
Dr Shelly Johny then requested Professor Harsh Pant to make his opening remarks. Professor Pant began by expressing his gratitude to the CPPR for the invitation to the discussion. He remarked that the discussion on Afghanistan will continue for a long time as the challenges will not disappear in a hurry. With an intention to change the focus of the discussion to an argument that he believes India should ponder upon, Professor Pant argues how the American security umbrella in Afghanistan since 2001 has been beneficial to India. India did not have to worry much about its western frontier, which proved to be a productive phase with US-India dynamics improving post-2001. One of the biggest achievements of Indian diplomacy, in his opinion, was to marginalise Pakistan in global discourse. No one talks about the India-Pakistan prism anymore and India has become part of a separate league, and he believes that this occurred partly because of India’s rise and partly because of what was happening on India’s western frontier.
Until 2001, Professor Pant says, India was boggled down about its western borders and could not focus on the East. However, an opportunity emerged in the last two decades, which the country seized upon, to rethink India’s focus towards the East. He believes that a larger game is now evolving in the Indo-Pacific region with multilateral engagements such as the Quad and the newly announced AUKUS. However, the challenge that now arises before India is managing its western frontier along with focusing on the East. He emphasises that it is likely that there would be a strong emergence of jihadists throughout the world, energised by the momentum of the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, which could mount additional pressure on India’s internal security. China and Pakistan would also find strategic depths in Afghanistan. Given all this, Professor Pant pondered on whether India could still manage to be part of the discourse on the Indo-Pacific. This, he said, would be a challenge to Indian diplomacy, with which he ended his opening remarks.
Dr Shelly Johny took the discussion forward by asking the panelists what they thought would be India’s strategy in Afghanistan and the wider region as part of countering the attempts by China and Pakistan to keep India out of Afghanistan. Ambassador Venu Rajamony asserted that such a strategy would depend on how the situation on the ground evolves, how the Taliban works, and how the international community responds to these developments. He believed that the words of ‘strategic pause’ or ‘strategic patience’ would have to continue in our thinking towards Afghanistan. He agreed with Professor Pant on the importance of the Indo-Pacific and the Eastern interests of India, but he was doubtful on whether India would be able to maintain its focus on the East since the hard power realities dictate otherwise. India’s concerns in Afghanistan would include the association the Taliban keeps with the Haqqani network and other adversaries of India, and the ground these groups will gain. Shifting his focus to India’s domestic security situation, Ambassador Rajamony underscored the need to ensure no forms of extremisms emerge, like Hindu extremism leading to Islamic extremism or vice versa, from within the country as such extremists could potentially be recruited by forces in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Externally, Pakistan’s future course of action and the stand-off between India and China are serious concerns for India. Citing the examples of Nepal, Myanmar, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, Ambassador Rajamony showed how the neighbourhood is not in the happiest situation for India, and a spillover from Afghanistan into Central Asia could also pose risks to India’s interests. In such a situation, he believes it may not be possible for India to look towards the East, and even if a crisis erupts in the East, say in Taiwan or the South China Sea, India may not be able to play an important role. As a final argument to the question, he highlighted the need to consolidate and revitalise India’s economy to back our external interests.
Taking a cue from where Ambassador Rajamony had concluded, Professor Harsh Pant argued that all countries are turning inwards, including India which has embarked on a policy towards Atmanirbhar Bharat. He further pointed out that no country has formulated a strategy with regards to Afghanistan as no one knows what would happen there further, and therefore, there was no particular need for India to devise a definite strategy and it should be based on how the situation on the ground evolves. There is also uncertainty on the potential roles Pakistan and China may play in Afghanistan especially since the different stakeholders have not yet been reconciled. He remarked that an undercurrent of continuous ‘civil-war like’ situation is possible in Afghanistan. He concluded by saying, “If there is a game, it has just started.”
Dr Johny then asked the panelists whether they believed that the Taliban would be able to keep their promise to China that it would contain the ETIM considering the factionalism within the Taliban. To this, Ambassador Venu Rajamony said that there was very little understanding of the factions within the Taliban and the dynamics amongst them. However, he expected that when it would come to China, the Taliban would speak in one voice. The one concern that China may have is whether the orders from the Taliban leadership to contain the ETIM would translate into action on the ground. Professor Pant further added that it is difficult to sustain informal understandings, especially with radical groups, and thus, China would be as much pressurised as India is.
The moderator asked his final question to the panelists on the likely impact of the Taliban’s support to the Kashmir issue and how India can contain any fallout from this kind of support. Ambassador Rajamony advised a wait-and-watch approach. He said that India’s security forces are believed to have a tight lid on the Kashmir issue, and it would be unlikely for the Taliban to openly support terrorism, but terrorist efforts may still occur. He reiterated his point that India should build itself as ‘Fortress India’ and should find an amicable solution to the political problems in Kashmir, lest Pakistan or China intervene there. Professor Pant emphasised on this latter point that India should strengthen itself, especially since the situation is different from the 1990s with Delhi having a closer control on Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370.
The floor was opened to questions, and one of the members from the audience asked whether the Biden administration’s policies such as the AUKUS ensure India’s strategic interests. Ambassador Rajamony responded by saying that the AUKUS does not have any direct benefit or impact for India, and the merits of this trilateral agreement are still being debated, with France and China expressing discontent. On the other hand, North Korea is taking some attention after it resumed its missile testing. In his opinion, the overall tensions in the region seem to be increasing.
The final question from the audience was regarding New Delhi’s resistance to direct talks with the Taliban. Professor Pant indicated that India had engaged in more infrastructure and capacity development that would help the Afghans, and thus, he believed that our economic stakes in Afghanistan were not as high as being portrayed. There was, therefore, no urgent necessity to take a call right away. However, he contended that New Delhi would have to engage with whoever runs Kabul either for its short-term or its long-term interests. He concluded by saying that India is a major power in the region and must work it out on its own terms.
In his closing remarks, Dr Shelly Johny thanked the panelists and highlighted two key takeaways from the webinar. Firstly, unlike in the 1990s and early 2000s, the situation is linked to the larger context of India-China and Indo-Pacific. The situation in Kashmir has also changed. His second takeaway was that a simplistic understanding of the China-Pakistan-Taliban axis does not work, and there is a diversity of opinion within the Taliban and Pakistan. Ms Purvaja brought the discussion to a close and thanked the moderator, the panelists, the audience, and the organising team at the CPPR.
This event report was prepared by CPPR Intern, Jedidiah Asriel.