Afghanistan is Next in China’s Eurasian Connectivity Dream, but Old Problems Persist

The momentum of Chinese investments in Afghanistan is picking pace as the Taliban courts Beijing to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Kabul under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In May, Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang was in Islamabad, where he met Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and the acting Minister for Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan Amir Khan Muttaqi – and pledged to bring the fruits of BRI to Kabul. “The three parties reaffirmed their support for Afghanistan in realizing its full potential as a regional connectivity hub. The parties reiterated that they would promote trilateral cooperation between China, Afghanistan and Pakistan under the framework of the joint construction of the ‘Belt and Road’ and promote the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan,” said the statement released after the Fifth China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue.

Besides the trilateral meeting, China and Pakistan have also been coordinating efforts to extend their security umbrella to Afghanistan through the BRI. “The two sides agreed to continue to provide humanitarian and economic assistance to the Afghan people and strengthen development cooperation in Afghanistan, including promoting the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan,” said the joint press release of the Fourth China-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue. The trilateral mechanism, including China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, was first introduced in 2017. Pakistan has an equally significant interest in stabilizing Afghanistan’s economy to sell Beijing a new regional bargain of economic connectivity.

China’s increased geopolitical attention on Central Asia is transforming Afghanistan into a pivotal state for the BRI’s westward push. The high-level engagement by the visiting Foreign Minister Qin Gang was to consolidate the efforts of China’s state-led investment in Afghanistan.

Increasing Investment

In January, the Taliban-led administration signed a contract with China’s Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co (CAPEIC) for an oil extraction deal from the Amu Darya basin. Under the agreement, CAPEIC will invest $540 million over three years, and the contract will be valid for 25 years. Since July 2022, China has granted 98 percent of Afghan goods a zero-tariff treatment and increased the import of Afghan pine nuts. The reduction in trade barriers for Afghan goods is aimed at integrating Afghanistan’s economy more closely with China.

The successful trilateral meeting between China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan may give the impression that connecting the BRI  to Kabul would be easy. But unsurmountable challenges remain as the threat to Chinese nationals doing business in Afghanistan continues to compound. Beijing’s push to connect CPEC with Afghanistan will bring more Chinese security forces to the Khunjerab Pass in the Pamir Knot – furthering China’s geopolitical interests in Central Asia. The Khunjerab Pass connects Pakistan’s Karakorum highway with the southwestern border of China. ‘Khunjerab’ means ‘blood-stained passage’ in Tajik. The pass is located in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which India considers part of its territory.

China has deployed the People’s Liberation Army forces at the Khunjerab Pass to protect its economic interests including trade via the CPEC. No one is denying that the security of Chinese nationals in Afghanistan won’t be a priority for Beijing. The risk of extending the CPEC to Afghanistan remains, as a recent attack on Chinese nationals in Kabul shows. At least five Chinese citizens were wounded during the hotel attack in Kabul on December 13, 2022. But these attacks in Kabul only provide a reason for Beijing to extend its security parameter further into Afghanistan via the Khunjerab Pass.

“What excites the officers and soldiers is that their way of guarding the border has also undergone earth-shaking changes: the construction of ‘smart border defence’ has been accelerating, and the observation and duty facilities have been steadily upgraded. Since the company implemented information-based duty, its duty efficiency and handling capacity have improved,” said an article about PLA forces defending the Khunjerab Pass.

Beijing also wants to link Afghanistan through ‘hard connectivity’ of infrastructure to Pakistan’s Gwadar port. The joint statement of the trilateral meeting said, “The three sides stressed that they will promote ‘hard connectivity’ of infrastructure and ‘soft connectivity’ of rules and standards, and further explore measures to facilitate the movement of people and trade activities among the three countries. The three sides decided to upgrade the level of re-export trade at Gwadar port.”

But the project that Beijing will now push to bring BRI to Afghanistan is building ports and depots along the Jalalabad-Kabul Road, which Beijing helped build. “China supports the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, and is ready to promote synergy between the Belt and Road Initiative and the development strategies of Afghanistan, and support the smooth operation of the China-Afghanistan freight train services, to help Afghanistan better integrate into  regional economic integration process,” said a statement issued after a meeting of China and Central Asian countries in April 2022 under the Tunxi Initiative.            

These connectivity efforts are being made to allow Chinese companies to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources. Recently, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum suggested that a Chinese company named Gochin was planning to invest $10 billion to mine Lithium reserves. The Chinese foreign ministry obliquely confirmed the investment talks. “China supports Chinese companies in cooperating with Afghanistan in line with market principles, and playing a constructive role in helping Afghanistan rebuild its economy and achieve self-generated and sustained development. As to the specific project you mentioned, I do not have information about it,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin. Several experts are skeptical about Beijing’s ability to stabilize Taliban-run Afghanistan and extract large reserves of minerals – a fair assessment given the U.S.’s experience.

Similarly, Indian officials have downplayed the potential impact of these efforts in Afghanistan, making the same argument as some experts have elsewhere. “This is the wrong time to invest in CPEC in Afghanistan. The Afghans are not interested in the CPEC corridor. The Chinese are worried about going into Afghanistan…. China wants to build large-scale ports, roads, container depots, etc., in Afghanistan, but that would not be possible. The Afghans are not interested in it,” an unnamed Indian official told the News18 network. But for India, other immediate concerns are linked to its border dispute in Ladakh. China will only use the connectivity to further securitize the region immediately north of Eastern Ladakh, which connects China with Pakistan.

Westward Thrust

These connectivity projects clearly have a broader strategic goal for Xi. As part of his wider game plan in Central Asia, Xi Jinping hosted the inaugural China-Central Asia Summit in China’s Xi’an from May 18 to 19. Securitizing Afghanistan is just a part of Beijing’s long-term plan to move westward into Central Asia.  

In December 2022, the first commercial flight (CSN5193) to Taxkorgan Khunjerab Airport took off from Urumqi Diwopu International Airport, marking a significant expansion of China’s growing presence in the immediate neighborhood of Afghanistan. The Taxkorgan Khunjerab Airport in Xinjiang will soon connect via flights to cities in Pakistan and potentially even Afghanistan.

Chinese researchers have, in fact, suggested building a second capital in Xinjiang to balance the difficulties of governing the Western regions of China from Beijing – part of China’s movement westward – which will engulf Afghanistan into a China-centric security order. A Chinese government funded study has suggested creating a second capital in Xinjiang, close to Urumqi, to “rebalance the country’s economic centre of gravity and create new growth opportunities”.

The BRI’s viability to connect Kabul with Karachi remains vague, but that is unlikely to stop Chinese companies from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan’s natural resources market. China’s growing geopolitical interests in Central Asia will make Afghanistan’s political stability crucial for Beijing’s economic interest.