After the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021; once again Afghan land became free from the shackles of external power but since then the country is facing grave economic, security, and humanitarian crises. Afghanistan is placed under draconian sanctions by the USA and its foreign assets are suspended including gold reservoirs and foreign reserves of US$9 billion of Afghanistan’s central bank.
Many countries including China, Russia, and Pakistan have requested the international community to unfreeze the Afghan assets to save the country from falling into more profound humanitarian crises. However, the Western approach is still punitive towards Afghanistan.
However, in the wake of these afghan crises regional countries such as China and Pakistan have kept normal relations with the Afghan government. Beijing is willing to build ties with Kabul at various levels to improve the security and economic condition of the region. Still, China does not want to enter conflict-prone Afghan land without a partnership with Pakistan. In this regard, China has adopted measures with the help of Pakistan to provide economic assistance to Afghanistan even though it is diplomatically isolated and unrecognized.
The recent development is the inclusion of Afghanistan into BRI through CPEC. A joint agreement between China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan has reached in May 2023; under which many strategic projects are initiated by China. The project of the Trans Afghan railway from Uzbekistan to Gawader port in Pakistan will strengthen the transit routes between both countries.
The other projects of China in Afghanistan are related to infrastructure and oil extraction. In January, a Chinese company signed a contract to extract oil from the Amu Darya oil field. In mining-related projects, China is keen to extract copper from Mes Aynak; the second largest copper mine in the world, and lithium which is present in abundant amounts in Afghanistan. For China’s resource-dependent economy, the natural resources in Afghanistan can be fruitful. China has long-term investment plans as it is interacting economically on many levels; for instance, china has opened an air corridor to expand the imports of agricultural products. Also, china has given duty-free access to 98% of Afghan products.
Chinese initiatives exhibit its economic, strategic, and security interests in Afghanistan. Both china and Pakistan wanted to extend CPEC into Afghanistan for a long time but security issues, political instability and the presence of the USA in the region made it difficult for China and Pakistan to pursue their interests in the region. However, China wants to stabilize the region to promote its economic initiatives and to connect its trade routes with the rest of the world by using Afghanistan as it is a landlocked country that can connect China and Pakistan to Central Asian states and Europe. Apart from the economic initiatives, China has security concerns in Afghanistan as well.
China wants to tackle terrorist Organizations such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Turkistan Islamic party (TIP) operating through the land of Afghanistan to suppress the threat of Uighur militancy in the Xinjiang region. Hence, china does not want the growth of terrorism in Afghan land.
The Chinese inclusion in Afghanistan can impact Pakistan in different ways. The projects initiated by China will take time; however, for now, Pakistan is considering it a positive sign for its economy and friendly relations with Afghanistan. History also highlights that Pakistan is keenly interested in the Afghan situation as it directly affects Pakistan. So, the involvement of china in Afghanistan will have significant impacts on Pakistan as well. The transit trade routes of Pakistan can get better by extending CPEC into Afghanistan which would improve the regional connectivity across the countries. China has provided military and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan with the assistance of Pakistan in the time of crisis which highlights china’s increasing diplomatic activity in the region.
The role of the USA has diminished to a larger extent in Afghanistan as the Taliban government is enhancing ties with China. Pakistan is playing a key role in building the ties between the two countries to tackle cross-border security threats from non-state actors such as TTP and other terrorist organizations which also serve Chinese interests. China is also joining hands to adopt counter-terrorism measures with Pakistan and Afghanistan which would improve the domestic security situation of the countries. Pakistan can tackle its security issues with the help of China which can strengthen its regional status. Hence, the bilateral ties of Pakistan with Afghanistan and China can improve at various levels.
On the other hand, Pakistan and CPEC can face worse consequences if Afghanistan fails to secure the security concerns of China. The project of CPEC will be directly affected by the situation in Afghanistan which can prove to be a headache for Pakistan and ultimately impact its relations with Beijing. Pakistan cannot pay this price as it greatly depends on China for its economy and regional support. The bilateral issues between Pakistan and Afghanistan can also have bad impacts on the project of CPEC.
The border dispute, growing cross-border clashes, and issues related to fencing can be a hurdle in achieving the set economic and security initiatives and agreements between Afghanistan and China.
Pakistan has to take things carefully with Afghanistan when acting as a bridge between China and Afghanistan. Both countries have to satisfy the concerns of China for better economic ties and security stability. The situation in Afghanistan will determine the future of its diplomatic relations with China, and Pakistan will have to deal with the consequences accordingly. If the relations between China and Afghanistan get better, it would be a win-win situation for Pakistan as well.
The author is a graduate of the National University of Modern Languages. Her academic interests are centered on Geopolitics and Foreign policies of nation-states. She has also been associated with the China Pakistan Study Centre at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.