The participation of Afghanistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will not only be a key confidence-building measure for Pakistan-Afghanistan troubled relations but also help bring the much-needed and long-awaited peace in the region.
China is in planning phase to connect Afghanistan with China-Central and Western Asia Economic Corridor using CPEC as a medium. According to Chinese foreign minister, as an important neighbour of China and Pakistan, Afghanistan has an urgent desire to develop its economy and improve peoples’ lives for which it is willing to integrate itself into the process of regional interconnection.
On February 28, 2018, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani while speaking at a peace conference in Kabul offered peace talks ‘without preconditions’ to the Taliban after 16 years of war. He also declared that his government wants to make a fresh start as far as relations with Pakistan are concerned. As China is always concerned about maintaining peace within the region, it has played a critical role in bringing a change in Afghanistan’s attitude towards Pakistan and the Taliban. On December 26, 2017, the first China-Afghanistan-Pakistan foreign ministers’ dialogue was held in Beijing. The two most important takeaways from this trilateral dialogue were Beijing’s readiness to play a constructive role in improving Afghanistan-Pakistan relations and decision on extending the CPEC to Afghanistan. One of the main objectives of China to extend CPEC connectivity to Afghanistan is to create conducive environment for regional connectivity in the broader perspective of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The CPEC can help Afghanistan reduce its dependence on foreign aid as well as provide both Kabul and Islamabad with an opportunity to improve relations.
Trilateral cooperation between Pakistan, Afghanistan and China on BRI would benefit all three countries. Pakistan considers China’s enhanced involvement in Afghanistan as a stabilizing factor to counter the negative fallout of Indian influence in Afghanistan. On the contrary, India might be alarmed by the extension of CPEC to Afghanistan. For a landlocked country like Afghanistan, CPEC is of vital importance in geo-strategic sense. With the extension of CPEC to Afghanistan, the country can become a major beneficiary of this project as in future the corridor will contribute to its economic development by enhancing economic activities in the area which can put the fragile economy of Afghanistan on a sound footing. Pakistan, China and Afghanistan can undertake several connectivity projects which may be included in the CPEC, like: 265-km Peshawar to Kabul motorway and the road link connecting western alignment of CPEC to Afghanistan by linking Chaman to Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif to Termez near the border of Central Asian countries. This route will provide an easy and short access to Afghanistan to reach the sea port of Gwadar which is almost 600 kilometers shorter than the existing transit route being used by the traders and people of Afghanistan. This connection will integrate Afghanistan with other regions and also allow it to start commercial activities through the Indian Ocean.
There are a lot of economic benefits which China can expect through investing in Afghanistan. The expected investments would strengthen the Chinese projects in Pakistan whereas it would help China to reach natural resources in Afghanistan. Afghanistan also has an abundant potential of hydroelectricity which Chinese companies can tap and sell to Pakistan. For instance Pakistan and Afghanistan are moving towards the joint management of common rivers starting with construction of a 1,500MW hydropower project on Kunar River, a major tributary of Kabul River contributing almost 13 million acres feet (MAF) annually to Pakistan. China may help them complete the project.
Further the extension of CPEC to Afghanistan may help in identifying projects relating to communications, railways, transit trade and the power sector. The Central Asian Region being physically attached to Wakhan Corridor, Pakistan can utilize its value by linking the corridor with its northern highlands most suitably along the Chitral River and improvement of existing route from Chitral to Afghanistan. This 250-km-long route should start from Broghal Pass linking Mastuj, Booni, and Chitral and up to Afghanistan. The proposed route will serve as a subsidiary to Karakorum Highway for China and Pakistan.
Published in Daily Times, June 14th 2018.