China is extending its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to troubled Afghanistan, causing analysts to wonder if Beijing is trying to expand its role in the Middle East and also putting itself at the center of the international battle against terrorism.
China’s connectivity program involves extending the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of BRI, to Afghanistan, and then stretching the “belt” to its neighbors -Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran.
Reseacher Ahmad Bilal Khalil, with the Center for Strategic and Regional Studies in Kabul, who is in close touch with the Afghan government on the development plans, provided details in an interview with VOA.
The projects include two highways, two railway lines and a major hydroelectricity dam over the Kunar river. The idea is to lay a road linking Pakistan’s Peshawar to Kabul and also to Kunduz in Afghanistan and further into Central Asia. Railway lines are expected to run from Landi-Kotal in Pakistan to Afghanistan’s Jalalabad, and also from Pakistan’s Chaman to Spin Buldak in Afghanistan.
Ahmad Bilal Khalil said China needs to enter Afghanistan with economic projects to ensure the unhindered progress of its ongoing $50 billion project in Pakistan.
“If Afghanistan becomes involved in these two (highway) projects, so it will somehow affect the security situation in Afghanistan, and it will bring more Pakistani and Chinese economic interests into Afghanistan,” he said. “If there is insecurity in Afghanistan, (it) can also affect CPEC and One Belt, One Road.”
Link to world power
China’s plans are indeed ambitious, and prompted by its foreign policy objective to be regarded seriously as a big power. It is important for China to show it can do what the U.S. has failed to achieve in the Middle East, analysts said.
“If the interest of the Belt and Road is to run through the Middle East, Afghanistan is an area where China hopes to make a difference,” David Kelly, Director, Geopolitics of Beijing-based consulting firm, China Policy said.
“It hopes that its investments in connectivity will ameliorate the tensions that are in that country, and that they can achieve something that the Americans and before them the Soviets were unable to do, that is to dampen the sectarian violence and conflict,” he said.
But these plans are easier said than done. There are clashes on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan which have killed more than 50 people in the past few days.
Uzbekistan has opposed the plan for extending rail and road connectivity to Central Asia saying they will be utilized by terrorists for expanding their activities.
Ambitions apart, there are some real-life dangers concerning terrorism that China wants to tackle by presenting itself as a benefactor in Afghanistan. Violent separatists based in China’s Xinjiang region are known to have cross-border links with the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and also with Islamic groups in Central Asia.
“If drugs or ‘afim’ [opium] can be transported or exported from Afghanistan to central Asia, there is also a huge possibility that terrorism and extremism will also be exported to central Asia. That’s where the Chinese [have] concerns,” Khalil said.
China has invested heavily in the copper mines of Afghanistan although the results have not been encouraging because of political and infrastructural challenges. It wants to build connectivity to access the mountain country’s minerals.
“One trillion dollars worth of mineral resources are available in Afghanistan. Extending the BRI to Afghanistan will facilitate extraction of the minerals to the Chinese economy. It will also facilitate export of China’s industrial surplus to Afghanistan, ” said M.K.Bhadrakumar, author and Indian diplomat.
Analysts said China is also laying the pathway for the massive construction business that will be available once the process of reconstructing war torn Afghanistan gets underway. But Beijing’s main objective is advancing its strategic and security interests beyond Pakistan.
“Indeed, the Belt corresponds with China’s increasingly proactive security concepts, which stress common security through development and economic cooperation,” said analysts at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in a recent report.
But it is more than an uphill task.
“Furthermore, at this stage, the Belt has little potential to help thaw relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there may be prospects for this over the medium to long term… the pathway to this scenario is long and fraught with obstacles,” wrote SIPRI researchers Richard Ghiasy and Jiayi Zhou.
There are some risks inherent in China’s view of the world, as well. Beijing believes it is possible to replace religious fundamentalism by offering economic benefits. But this policy has been proven wrong in the past, said Kelly of China Policy.
“We see that the problem is that the Taliban do not have a central authority in the same sense that China is used to,” he said. “So, whereas China can negotiate with the Vatican, they may find that the political structure of power in Afghanistan and with the Taliban is dispersed”.