Marking 10 years since the inception of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a ‘flagship’ project under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Foreign Ministers of Beijing and Islamabad, along with the acting Foreign Minister of the Taliban-ruled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, ‘reaffirmed’ their commitment to ‘further the trilateral cooperation under the BRI and to jointly extend the CPEC to Afghanistan’. This decision was taken during the fifth China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue, held on 6 May 2023—the first since the coming of the current regime in Afghanistan.
While this isn’t the first time that such a declaration of intent has been publicly made, it does highlight China and Pakistan’s strategic imperatives behind considering Kabul’s inclusion in the project. For the regime in Kabul, the decision is a welcome development as it struggles to attract investment into the country. Some Indian sources have questioned the utility of expanding the project into Afghanistan, arguing how the security guarantees that Beijing wants from both Pakistan and Afghanistan will be tough to get. Notwithstanding the consequences for either Pakistan or Afghanistan, for New Delhi, Kabul’s possible induction will raise sovereignty and strategic concerns.
The politics of CPEC
Back in 2013, the conceptualisation of CPEC and its ambitious projects were regarded as a game changer in Pakistan as well as the whole region. Hopes and aspirations about its potential to transform the economic travails of Islamabad and become a concrete testament of the ‘all-weather friendship’ between China and Pakistan were present and potent. The corridor was to leverage the already existing Karakoram highway and build new trade routes around it in the less developed regions of Pakistan, in turn linking China’s western Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang with the Arabian Sea coast of Baluchistan. This was intended to fill the infrastructure deficit in Islamabad and establish industrial zones.
Ten years later, while Beijing and Islamabad describe the project as a ‘shining example of BRI’, the reality on the ground has never been darker. While the structural issues with Pakistan’s economy were present even before the conception of the project, the economic requirements of the project exacerbated its difficulties, with the country’s forex reserves dwindling and its current account deficit increasing. Far from ensuring equitable development in all provinces, the project led to resentment in the province of Baluchistan with locals decrying their exclusion from the economic dividends, with many separatist and terrorist groups targeting Chinese workers and Pakistani paramilitary soldiers securing the projects.
Notwithstanding these concerns, both China and Pakistan have discussed Afghanistan’s inclusion in the CPEC since at least 2017, when the trilateral format between the three countries first began. When the Ghani government fell in Kabul and the Taliban took over, Pakistan considered CPEC as a major mode of economic interaction between the two sides. In 2022, Muttaqi, in his first meeting with the then-Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, tweeted about the possible induction of Kabul into the CPEC. Even in the months before the United States (US) forces finally withdrew from Afghanistan, the extension of CPEC into Afghanistan was seen as a means of achieving peace and aid in the reconstruction process.
A win for the Taliban
Afghanistan shares a 92-kilometre long border with China through the narrow Wakhan corridor, extending from Badakhshan to Xinjiang. While the corridor has three passes, their precarious geographical location deems any direct induction of Afghanistan into the BRI improbable in the short to medium term. The development of the existing Karakoram highway, which passes through the Khunjerab pass linking Peshawar with Kabul, is considered a feasible route to connect Kabul with the CPEC and ultimately with China.
For a cash- and influence-starved Taliban, any infusion of investment in infrastructure and revival of the Afghan economy is welcomed. The group has been receptive to the idea of reopening the historical Silk Road trade routes through the Wakhan corridor to increase the level of trade with China. It has welcomed China’s ‘long-term political support’ positively, hoping that Beijing will increase its investment in the country. Both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the IEA and the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment concede that the country’s inclusion in the corridor will give it much-needed investment and support the ‘iron and energy producing’ sectors. It is also being perceived as enabling Kabul to become self-sufficient and no longer rely on others for economic development.
But these assessments of the probable routes have been debated for many years with no tangible progress on the ground. Considering the current situation of the CPEC in Pakistan, the possibility of the decision materialising on the ground seems bleak, owing to situational and practical problems.
A responsible regional stakeholder?
Consistent with its recent efforts to portray itself as a responsible country taking initiatives to address major global issues, China has emphasised the development and reconstruction potential of the CPEC’s extension into Afghanistan. Even Islamabad regards the corridor as a force multiplier for regional connectivity and a means to expedite its shift from a geopolitical to a geoeconomic foreign policy. But apart from the developmental aspect (if any), both Beijing and Islamabad have certain strategic obligations supporting this decision. Since the fall of Kabul, China’s engagement with the Taliban has been consistent, with a degree of interaction similar to de facto recognition. While the vacuum left by the US did give China the time and space to carve out its influence in the country, the absence of a US security umbrella also brought to life concerns over the infiltration of militants from its border with Afghanistan into the western Xinjiang region. These fears have dictated Beijing’s approach even as the Taliban failed to dial down on the militants.
Beyond the security concerns, gaining access to the untapped mineral resources of the country is also important for Beijing. It also wants to use the country to expedite its ‘pivot to Eurasia’ as is evident with its recent outreach to the Central Asian Republics at the summit in Xian, an integral region for its BRI. The attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan, while seen by some as reason enough for Beijing to limit its investments, is also important to further entrench its presence in the country. Pakistan’s hopes of retaining its strategic depth in the country after the Taliban’s return were shattered soon after. The bilateral relationship has been disastrous with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) severely destabilising the law and order in the country. In this context, for Beijing, ensuring that the two neighbours have a modicum of stability between their borders is essential to ensure the security of its hinterland.
Implications for India: Strategic and sovereignty concerns
On the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Goa, Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr S. Jaishankar, restated India’s principled opposition to the CPEC, highlighting how connectivity cannot violate a country’s territorial integrity or sovereignty. India’s opposition to the CPEC in general, irrespective of its extension into Afghanistan, rests on two scaffoldings—strategic and sovereign. Strategically, an increased Chinese presence in the Khunjerab pass area will reduce India’s strategic space while further securitising the region. The CPEC also passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which is why India considers the project ‘illegal, illegitimate, and unacceptable’.
India-China relations have degraded exponentially in the past few years. Against the backdrop of a highly suspicious relationship, any attempt to increase China’s presence in the region cannot be viewed without uneasiness in India. China’s engagement with the Taliban after the US withdrawal has already left New Delhi in the back seat in a country where it has historically played an important role. The possibility of the Taliban regime gaining economically from an increased Chinese presence will, in effect, further entrench their hold over the country and raise the threat perception for India. For New Delhi, even an economically-empowered Pakistan, which is more deeply integrated with a ‘Sino-centric geoeconomics space’, is not good news. But India’s strategy of opposing the BRI has also limited its potential to shape regional infrastructure development. Its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy has failed to reap any major dividends while China is slowly expanding its footprint in the Central Asian Republics.
The road ahead
While some differences over the Taliban’s governance system are present between Beijing and Kabul, the two sides have ratcheted up the degree of engagement, with the resumption of direct flights and China’s removal of restrictions on visas for Afghan nationals. Despite this, it is still difficult to see any real tangible economic benefits for China if the CPEC is extended to Afghanistan. But it is exactly the lack of these economic benefits which indicates how crucial the strategic imperatives are for Beijing. For Pakistan, Afghanistan could become a regional bargain for economic connectivity.
China’s efforts to stabilise the fraught Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship aren’t set to be successful. The recent remarks of the interior minister of Pakistan, expressing dissatisfaction with how the Taliban have responded to the TTP militants who are still entering the country from Afghanistan, indicate the degree of the trust deficit between the two. Beijing’s efforts to inject stability by increasing investment in the country can prove to be counterintuitive as the very absence of stability in the first instance can derail its investment plans.
*About the author: Shivam Shekhawat is a Research Assistant with Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation
Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation