A very crucial development has taken place in the region as Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has expressed its willingness to become part of the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), breaking years of Kabul’s recalcitrance to join the project.
The Taliban, who ultimately control Kabul and thus nearly the entire Afghanistan after a 20 year-long militant struggle against the United States-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization and 300,000-strong Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), have recently expressed interest in the CPEC extension into Afghanistan. Dubbing the CPEC an important development project for the entire region, Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a recent press conference that the Afghan government would like to become part of the project.
It is indeed great news for both China and Pakistan and the entire region as by making Afghanistan part of the CPEC the wider aims of Beijing’s around one trillion dollar project of Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), of whose part is the CPEC, could be realistically achieved. The BRI aims at economically integrating around 60 countries of the Afro-Eurasian region mainly through rail and road corridors and networks facilitating cross-regional and intra-regional trade and investment.
It is very important to note that when in 2013 China’s President Xi Jinping came up with the idea of the CPEC, in line with his dream project of BRI, Beijing had highlighted that the success of the project depended on peaceful relations between Islamabad and Kabul. According to a reported statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the eve of the April 20, 2015, visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pakistan, Beijing had asked Islamabad to upgrade the proposed plan to build roads under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) from six to eight lane arteries extending them to Afghanistan as the success of the project was highly dependent on the access roads penetrating Afghanistan. It was a very significant adjustment of policy by Beijing as it has clearly indicated the inclusion of Afghanistan into the project, which was not previously the case. Now when the Taliban on the eve of the formation of their government in Afghanistan have unequivocally announced that they would like to become part of the CPEC, Beijing’s efforts and diplomacy seem to have succeeded.
Since 2015, China has consistently asked Pakistan to ensure normal political relations with Afghanistan as well as to enhance its economic ties with Kabul. Pakistan, on its part, has also responded positively sensing China means business. It was under the Chinese influence and prodding that Pakistan had also expressed interest in signing a free trade agreement with Afghanistan. It was a departure from the decades of policy of restricting trade with Afghanistan because of the smuggling back of billions of dollars of foreign goods meant for Afghanistan into Pakistani markets. However, due to certain other problems and American’s pressure to open trade with Afghanistan on the latter’s term, Islamabad has desisted from signing a free trade agreement with Kabul. However, once the Taliban return to power formally it is expected that Pakistan would sign a free trade agreement with Afghanistan.
At one point in 2015, Pakistan had invited the then Afghan military chief General Sher Mohammad Karimi as the chief guest to a passing-out parade of cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul. The unprecedented move to invite the Afghan Chief of General Staff was also an effort by Pakistan to improve ties with Afghanistan. Noticeably, Gen. Karimi’s visit had also come a few days before the Chinese President’s visit. Growing economic ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan are indeed very important to build confidence and overcome the trust deficit between the two countries. Suspicions over each other’s role by Islamabad and Kabul have cost Pakistan and Afghanistan dearly and resulted in large-scale political instability and security issues in the region. It is expected that after the return to power of the Taliban the trust deficit would be overcome to a great extent, if not fully.
The inclusion of Afghanistan into the CPEC by Beijing was a strategic decision. In fact, it was this writer, who before anyone else had proposed the looping of Afghanistan into the CPEC, when it was unveiled in July 2013. The Cutting Edge at that time had written, “If Afghanistan is somehow provided a link to the economic corridor it would further boost the prospects of South Asian trade with Central Asia.” Such a foreign policy proposal was made to Beijing and Islamabad keeping in view the immense benefits which the three countries could reap by making Kabul part of the project.
The CPEC is a multi-billion dollar project which would link both countries’ remotest parts and when completed could usher in an era of prosperity and development in the territories. The economic corridor would link Pakistan’s underdeveloped and largely underutilised but strategically located Gwadar seaport to the remote Kashgar border region in Western China. The economic corridor would include both road and railway links. The total length of the economic corridor would be more than 2000 kilometers and it would be completed at a cost of around $60 billion, mostly to be funded by China. The cost includes infrastructure development projects other than the actual routes.
The trading route from Gwadar to China now again would pass through three of the four Pakistani provinces including Balochistan, KP and Gilgit-Baltistan region. Balochistan borders both Iran and Afghanistan, KP borders Afghanistan while Gilgit-Baltistan borders China and is situated next to Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir.
By desiring to include Afghanistan into the CPEC, Beijing wanted to get maximum advantage from the project by increasing intra- and inter-regional economic ties and trade. This was not the initial purpose of China as it only wanted to connect its remotest western regions to the shortest seaport, Gwadar, to economically develop them. It was the objective of Chinese foreign policy that Beijing came out of its traditional off-hand approach in Afghanistan’s affairs and started playing a proactive role in the Afghan peace process in 2015. It was due to the initiative that the Afghan Taliban sent their delegation to China for talks on Afghan peace.
By including Afghanistan into the CPEC, the project could be instrumental in increasing trade between the two states manifold while also facilitating intra-regional trade among South-Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Unlike Europe, Americas and Australian continents, or for that matter other regions of Asia, any economic project of import in our region must be inter-regional. In other words, the geostrategic realities of the regions in which Pakistan and China are located are unique. It is the most thickly populated region of the world housing two of the most populated countries of the globe—China and India—respectively, while Pakistan and Bangladesh follow with fifth and sixth positions. Moreover, the regions are closely interlinked economically and culturally. In this situation, the inclusion of Afghanistan in the CPEC would be of monumental value.