Naveed Aman Khan
Pakistan, Afghanistan and China trilateral economic cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative would benefit all three of the countries. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is believed to be a game changer in South Asia. Part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative (BRI), CPEC is over US $ 60 billion infrastructure development project that aims to connect Xinjiang region of China to Gwadar Port in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province. With such a large scale infrastructure investment, CPEC has drawn attention of other regional powers. Since October 2016, Afghanistan has expressed strong desire to join and has even done through official channels. Former Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan, Mr.Omar Zakhilwal, showed his country’s interest in joining CPEC and stressed that a development project of this scale would be beneficial to Afghanistan. If rightly executed, China and Pakistan stand to gain enormously by welcoming Afghanistan to CPEC. China has long harboured an interest in Afghanistan’s untapped reserves of natural resources, but the security situation in the country has prevented further investment and procurement. Pakistan will benefit from easier access to Central Asia through Afghanistan, as well as economic relief from the return of Afghan refugees to their country once the security situation is stabilized. As a landlocked, terrorism and militancy prone nation, Afghanistan is in desperate need of infrastructural development and uplifting its economy by access to Chinese investors. Thus, it appears that trilateral cooperation (to include Afghanistan into CPEC) can be a win for all parties involved. Afghanistan’s security situation has been steadily declining since 2014, when a large number of international forces began to withdraw from the country. The Taliban’s resurgence, which coincided with the withdrawal of forces, has led to several large scale attacks in the country. While the exact numbers are currently unclear, as Afghanistan has yet to officially be invited to be a part of CPEC, joining may offer several benefits.
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is to bring industrialization and investment to Pakistan, the carry over effects of which will benefit neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan has already undertaken building of several roads to improve connectivity between the two countries. The 75 km Torkham-Jalalabad road is one of them, while the Peshawar-Torkham road is another. While both these developments have faced considerable completion challenges, they are a step toward increasing connectivity with Pakistan, and in turn, gaining Afghan access to CPEC. Pakistan has constructed two roads leading from Dera Ismael Khan to Angoor Adda and Ghulam Khan, linking with the Paktika and Khost provinces of Afghanistan respectively. These roads will enable Afghan business people and investors to access the enormous consumer markets in South Asia, increasing Afghanistan’s exports and reducing the cost of imports.
By becoming a part of CPEC and BRI, Afghanistan will have the opportunity to stabilize its economy by enhancing its trade opportunities. Over 75 percent of Afghanistan’s total exports are to Pakistan and India. Main Afghan export goods are carpets, rugs, dried fruit and medicinal plants, not the copper, iron ore and other valuable resources Afghanistan possesses in abundance. Accessing the wider BRI network will provide two opportunities. firstly, access to markets in China, Central Asia and parts of Europe that Afghanistan doesn’t currently trade extensively with and secondly, the chance to diversify Afghan trade products by exporting copper, iron and other resources to countries on the BRI.
For China, Afghanistan presents strategic value due to its geographic location at the crossroads of South Asia and Central Asia. Its vast mineral resources are untapped and present a valuable economic opportunity. These are valued at US $ one trillion. Afghanistan’s security and corruption challenges have in the past deterred many investment opportunities. Potential investment will stabilize Afghanistan’s security situation. This effort will require great cooperation. In 2008, China signed a thirty-year agreement with Afghanistan government to access Mes Aynak, the world’s second largest untapped copper deposit. The deal, worth over $3 billion, was viewed with great interest until it was stalled due to security concerns and attacks by the Taliban.
China has played central role in successful peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban by encouraging the latter to join the peace process. Ensuring security in Afghanistan not only contributes to stability in the country, but it also allows China to be at ease regarding instability from Afghanistan impacting security and stability in its western region, specifically Xinjiang. China has only made minimal contribution to directly support the security effort in Afghanistan, largely deferring to America and NATO. Since 2014, China has increased its security cooperation, providing military aid for counter-terrorism efforts. A greater effort to combat militancy in Afghanistan will open the doors for Chinese investment and access to the country’s untapped resources.
A stable and thriving Afghanistan offers several direct benefits to Pakistan. Firstly, it will allow Pakistan to ease the economic toll of hosting Afghan refugees. For decades, Pakistan has hosted millions of Afghan refugees, who fled major wars and conflicts in their country. Over the years even more Afghans were born within Pakistan, which increased the economic burden on a country that was already struggling. Pakistan had spent over US $200 billion on hosting Afghan refugees. As a result, since 2015, the Pakistani Government has forced several hundred thousand refugees to return to Afghanistan, drawing the ire of humanitarian organizations. The economic integration and improvement of Afghanistan’s economy will allow for millions of refugees to slowly return to their homeland and reap the benefits of the new economic opportunities, while easing the burden on Pakistan’s economy. Secondly, a cooperative relationship will open up the doors for easier access to trade with Central Asia for Pakistan. Already, there is some movement in this direction. The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Sher Khan-Ninjpayan border route has been identified by Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan as a potential corridor for trade. With an improving economic situation in Afghanistan, supplemented by enhanced security, the region could serve as a transit hub for countries like Pakistan to reap the benefits of trade. Thirdly, cooperating on economic development while also emphasizing security will be a win-win for both countries and allow for the improvement of cross-border relations. Afghanistan and Pakistan have long blamed each other for security concerns within their borders. Close cooperation between both countries’ security forces will lay the ground work for eliminating militancy along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border which has been a militant haven. Such regional cooperation will ensure regional development.