NEW DELHI: Ahead of his three day trip to China from May 14 to 16, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that China has a “right” to seek greater regional influence. The Prime Minister also provided insight into India’s strategic interest in Afghanistan, of added relevance as US troops prepare to withdraw from the troubled country.

In an interview with Times Magazine, PM Modi, in reference to China, said:

“For nearly three decades there has been, by and large, peace and tranquility on the India-China border. Not a single bullet has been fired for over a quarter-century. Both countries are showing great maturity and a commitment to economic cooperation.”

“In so far as the India-China relationship is concerned specifically, it is true that there is a long border between India and China and a large part of it is disputed. Still, I think both countries have shown great maturity in the last couple of decades to ensure and commit to economic cooperation which has continued to grow over the last 20 to 30 years to a stage where we currently have an extensive trade, investment and project related engagement between the two countries. Given the current economic situation in the world, we are at a stage where we cooperate with China at the international stage but we also compete with China when it comes to commerce and trade.”

“You referred to the increase in Chinese influence in the region and in the world. I firmly believe that there is not a single country in the world, whether its population is one million or much more, which would not want to increase its influence internationally. I think it is a very natural tendency for the nations to increase their influence in the international space, as they pursue their international relations with different countries. I firmly believe that with due regard to international rules and regulations, and with full respect for human values, I think with these two perspectives in mind each country has the right to increase its presence, its impact and influence internationally for the benefit of the global community.”

‘I firmly believe that the relationship between two countries, the India-China relationship as you are referring to, should be such that to communicate with each other there should really not be a need for us to go through a third entity. That is the level of relationship that we currently have.”

In March this year, the two countries resumed contentious border talks -- the first such discussion since PM Modi came to power. The two countries share an ill-defined 4,057km (2,520 miles) border that has complicated relations. In fact, border tensions overshadowed a high profile visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India in September 2014, for talks with PM Modi. As hundreds of Chinese soldiers moved into Indian territory in Ladakh, bilateral relations between the two countries dipped and India raised “serious concerns” about the transgressions. “Clarification of the Line of Actual Control would greatly contribute to our efforts to maintain peace and tranquillity and I requested President Xi to resume the stalled process of clarifying the LAC,” PM Modi had said at the time.

More recently, a few months ago, China objected to PM Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, saying that it could add fuel" to the territorial dispute. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin summoned Indian Ambassador Ashok Kantha to say that PM Modi's visit "infringes on China's territorial sovereignty and interests, magnifies the dispute on the border issue and violates the consensus on appropriately handling the border issue."

Arunachal Pradesh is a bone of contention between the two countries, with China maintaining that the border dispute is confined to the area, whereas India claims that China occupies 38,000 square km (14,600 sq miles) of its territory on the Aksai Chin plateau in the west.

The dispute led to the 1962 Sino-Indian War, and has characterised relations between the two countries ever since.

PM Modi also spoke about another regional country, Afghanistan. In response to the question “he US is gradually drawing down its forces in Afghanistan. I am wondering whether you worry about the Taliban returning to power, and about the threat from ISIS and how you see that,” PM Modi said:

“There are two different perspectives to the question that you asked and I would try and answer each of those two separately. The first refers to the India-Afghanistan relationship. It is well known that India and Afghanistan have enjoyed ancient ties and a very close relationship. People talk of infrastructure development these days. But if you go back in history, you’ll see that one of the former kings in the region Sher Shah Suri is the one who built the Kolkata-Kabul Grand Trunk Road.”

“The closeness of the India-Afghanistan relationship is not a new phenomenon. It has existed since time immemorial. And as a close friend, ever since India’s Independence, we have done and will continue to do whatever is required to be done to see Afghanistan grow and progress as a close friend.”

“President Ashraf Ghani was here last week. We had a good meeting and extensive discussions. One of the key points of discussions was the roadmap for development and progress in Afghanistan. We have in the past committed extensively to that. In fact, India’s assistance to Afghanistan is close to about 2.2 billion dollars for reconstruction and development. We have made further commitments to do whatever is required to be done for Afghanistan’s development. And not only have we made commitments, we are also taking concrete and specific steps to implement those commitments.”

“In so far as the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan is concerned, this is a point on which I had extensive discussions with President Obama when I visited the US in September last year. I mentioned to him that the drawdown of troops is of course an independent decision of the American government, but in the interest of a stable government in Afghanistan, it would be important to hold consultations with the Afghan Government to understand their security needs as the US troops draw down. And I did mention to him that we should all try to meet the security needs of Afghanistan post drawdown of American troops. Rest of course is a decision that is for the US Government to take. But our interest is in ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan; and whatever is required to be done for that, we will do that.”

“In so far as the Taliban and the ISIS issue which you referred to is concerned, I firmly believe that there is a need for the international community to undertake a detailed introspection of the overall perspective, the way they have looked at terrorism internationally. Till 1993, for example, there were several countries that did not fully understand the full force of this evil. They used to see it and they used to appreciate it purely as a law and order situation of individual countries rather than as an evil force internationally.”

“If you actually analyze the situation closely, what is needed perhaps is for the countries that believe in human values to come together and fight terrorism. We should not look at terrorism from the nameplates – which group they belong to, what are their names, what is their geographical location, who are the victims of terrorism…I think we should not see them in individual pieces. We should rather have a comprehensive look at the ideology of terrorism, see it as something that is a fight for human values, as terrorists are fighting against humanity.”

“So, all the countries that believe in human values need to come together and fight this evil force as an ideological force, and look at it comprehensively rather than looking at it as Taliban, ISIS, or individual groups or names. These individual groups or names will keep changing. Today you are looking at the Taliban or ISIS; tomorrow you might be looking at another name down the years. So it is important for the countries to go beyond the groups, beyond the individual names, beyond the geographical location they come from, beyond even looking at the victims of the terrorism, and fight terrorism as a unified force and as a collective.”

The comments follow Afghan President Ghani’s visit to India, which prompted the Indian media to churn out story after story on how this visit “has dispelled all apprehensions of a chill in the relationship between the two countries."

As the two countries vowed to boost trade, cooperate on terrorism and promote defence ties, opinion makers in India who have long been gunning for an enhanced role in Afghanistan smiled ear to ear. India, finally, seems to be taking the possibility of a strategic presence in Afghanistan seriously. This is important, these opinion-makers -- professional and self styled -- reaffirmed. It is important to control the situation in historically uncontrollable Afghanistan lest it spill over into India, they said.

India has flexed its soft power muscles in Afghanistan, emerging as one of the leading donor nations, with aid standing at $2 billion. India has invested in hospitals, institutional buildings, including Afghanistan’s parliament, educational institutions, and signed accords to train army and police officers, amongst other capacity building measures.

The question worth asking, however, is why should India concern itself with Afghanistan? The contention that trouble in Afghanistan can spill over into India is tenuous, given that the two countries do not share a border.

More significantly, intervening in Afghanistan will possibly have disastrous consequences for India. The country, with a population of 29.83 million people, has a GDP of $26 billion -- making it one of the poorest countries in the world. What the GDP is made up of is even more worrying. About 35% of Afghanistan’s GDP is due to grants from western sources, Saudi Arabia and in part from countries like India.

As Mohan Guruswamy wrote in a previous article for The Citizen: “Since 2002, the USA has expended about $100 billion on non-military aid to Afghanistan, but during the same period it has also spent $642 billion on military operations in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s own revenues account for less than 10% of its GDP. Quite clearly, without this continued burn rate of western aid Afghanistan’s GDP will undergo a massive contraction, something few countries can emerge from without irrevocably and irretrievably changing. Just not to fall off the treadmill Afghanistan needs an annual grant-in-aid package of about $12 billion. Military operations will cost much more. Of this, only Germany has made a commitment of about $587 million annually, but only till 2016.”

The bad news continues. The total exports from Afghanistan are estimated to be about $2.5 billion a year, of which illegal opium trade accounts for a whopping $2 billion. Opium cultivation in the country has risen to record highs, with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluding that cultivation rose seven percent over the 2013 figure to account for 90 percent of the world's heroin supply. The US/NATO war in Afghanistan has directly contributed to the increase in opium cultivation, with the total area under opium cultivation in the Taliban period being a mere 3000 hectares; today, 224,000 hectares (553,500 acres) of land in Afghanistan is used for opium cultivation.

The total value of “legal” exports from Afghanistan are about $376 million, of which $154 million is to India and most of the rest is to Pakistan. As Guruswamy wrote, “Afghanistan now imports almost seventeen times that, which leaves it with a trade deficit of $8.52 billion. But with the grant munificence Afghanistan has a positive Current Account Balance of 1.7% of GDP. This further underscores the dependence on grants-in-aid.”

Add to this the insurgency in Afghanistan, which claimed a record number of civilians lives in 2014, and the dismality of the situation becomes more evident. The UN Mission in Afghanistan noted that the number of civilians killed or wounded in the troubled country climbed by 22 percent in 2014 to reach the highest level since 2009. The UN agency documented 10,548 civilian casualties in 2014, the highest number of civilian deaths and injuries recorded in a single year since 2009. They include 3,699 civilian deaths, up 25 per cent from 2013 and 6,849 civilian injuries, up 21 per cent from 2013. Since 2009 -- when UNAMA began tracking casualties -- the armed conflict in Afghanistan has caused 47,745 civilian casualties with 17,774 Afghan civilians killed and 29,971 injured. The UN says that Taliban militants -- who have been waging an insurgency in Afghanistan since a US-led invasion toppled their government 13 years ago -- were responsible for 72 per cent of all civilian casualties, with government forces and foreign troops responsible for 14 percent.

PM Modi’s comments therefore need to be seen in light of the above -- India’s tense relationship with China and the futility of eyeing Afghanistan.