The Pulse

Linking Afghanistan to China’s Belt and Road

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The Pulse

Linking Afghanistan to China’s Belt and Road

Linking Kabul to both the China-Pakistan Energy Corridor and OBOR could go a long way in bringing the region together.

Linking Afghanistan to China’s Belt and Road
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo

From the first day, Kabul pragmatically wished to be a part of two Chinese regional projects — the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative and the China-Pakistan Energy Corridor (CPEC). Firstly and historically, Afghanistan considered itself as a “transshipment point of commerce,” where “half of the old world’s roads lead to Bagram [Near Kabul],” as prominent historians Louis Dupree and Arnold Toynbee put it. Basically, the foundation of the Silk Road was laid when the prominent and most adventurous of ambassadors Zhang Qian visited Balkh, a northern Afghan province, to get help from Yue-Chi (The Kushans) against the Huing-Yu tribes in China. Although he wasn’t able to get Yue-Chi’s support, in returning to China he advised the Hun Emperor of starting trade with the East.

Secondly, in the past decade and a half, Kabul has pushed for regional integration. In the period since 1980, it has tried to get full membership or observer status in regional economic, security and political organizations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Central Asia Regional Cooperation Program (CAREC), Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and most recently in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). To make progress on transnational projects it initiated the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference for Afghanistan (RECCA) in 2005 which until now has held six conferences. Moreover, in order to promote regionalism in Afghan foreign policy and to “lead, coordinate and facilitate regional initiatives, processes and organization to which Afghanistan is a part,” Kabul established a Regional Cooperation Directorate in the Afghan foreign ministry in 2011. The Lapis Lazuli Corridor, Five Nations Railway Line, and various gas pipeline projects fit well into China’s regional strategy and the OBOR initiative.

Thirdly, according to a high profile diplomat in the Afghan foreign ministry in a meeting with the Vice President of China, Ashraf Ghani said that among China, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kabul prefers economics over politics and security.

Lastly, domestic Afghan infrastructure projects — such as the Afghan Railway Network, developing untapped mineral resources, and the National Afghan ring road — correlate with Beijing’s OBOR.

Extending CPEC to Afghanistan

The former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Janan Musazai, and the present ambassador Omar Zakhilwal have already extended supported for the China-Pakistan Energy Corridor (CPEC) and showed interest of joining it.  Both the Pakistani military and civilian administration also seems positive when it comes to extending CPEC to Afghanistan. The problem isn’t the positive intentions or formal support, but the absence of the debate as to how to extend CPEC into Afghanistan.

If we look into CPEC, it has four main components: Transit and trade, infrastructure, energy cooperation, and economic integration. Afghanistan can be helpful when it comes to all these components. In order to connect Central Asia and Afghanistan with CPEC the following steps, among others, can be taken:

First, the renewal of the expired Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA). The Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan and beyond should be included. The inclusion of India, as well, may make an OBOR-supporter of New Delhi. China should also become a part of APTTA, because currently there is no direct route between Afghanistan and China. Afghan transit to and from China should be discussed via the Pakistani Karakoram Highway. Afghan exports to China via the Sino-Afghan Special Railway were stopped due to the absence of a transit agreement with Uzbekistan.

Second, building a trans-Hindukush Motorway and Railway line to Central Asia would link Afghanistan into China’s regional network. It would diffuse CPEC into the Asian Development Bank’s CAREC project, a great sign for the region. Both China and Pakistan should support this. Moreover, a railway line from Mes Aynak to Torkham which was initially agreed upon by Chinese Company could also be included into CPEC.

Third, Afghanistan has huge potential to produce and transit energy. According to some estimates, Afghanistan has the potential to produce 223,000 MW of solar energy, 23,000 MW hydropower energy, 68,000 MW of wind energy. But, despite this potential, only 41 percent of Afghans have access to electricity; and the country produces less than 2,000 MWs of electricity. It is thus heavily reliant on importing electricity to fill the demand gap. From 2007-2015, Afghanistan imported electricity at a cost of $973 million.

Pakistan is also facing an energy deficit. Currently the electricity shortfall is greater than 6,000 MWs. So it needs either to produce energy at home or import it in via the planned CASA-1000 network or the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan electricity transmission line (TAP-500v). China, Pakistan and Afghanistan have already agreed to cooperate in making a hydroelectric dam on the Kunar river in the Kabul river basin. According to the estimates of the Afghan inter-ministerial energy commission, the Kabul river basin can produce more than 2,800 MWs of electricity annually. The Chinese investment, and mediation in a water-sharing agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan is crucial before anything else. Since 2006, both Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the help of World Bank, failed twice to sign a water sharing agreement.

Projects involving Afghanistan — such as TAPI, CASA-1000, TAP-500v, TUTAP and various road and rail projects — can become a part of CPEC if the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Bank of China, the Chinese Development Bank and the Silk Road Fund financially contribute to them.

Extending of CPEC into Afghanistan may also be helpful when it comes to decreasing religious and nationalists’ parties based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan, both of which border Afghanistan. The CPEC route initially passed through FATA and KP province, a the western route. By changing the route of CPEC these Pakistani political parties argue they are being isolated and deprived.

The inclusion of Afghanistan into CPEC will also be helpful when it comes to transforming the region from a hotbed of “terrorism, extremism and separatism” or the three evils, as identified by Beijing, into a more prosperous region. Although, economics isn’t considered as the main driver of the three evils, it surely is a factor to be reckoned with.

Integrating Afghanistan into OBOR

The primary steps to include and integrate Afghanistan into OBOR have already been taken. Afghanistan and China signed an MoU on OBOR last year, and according to an IMF report, Beijing has allocated some money to Afghanistan from the OBOR fund. Furthermore, Afghanistan recently joined the AIIB. But nothing has surfaced practically. The connection between the OBOR and Afghanistan requires taking several steps.

First, integrating Afghan domestic infrastructure projects into OBOR. For instance, the northern zone of the Afghan Railway Network — in which the Afghan government wants to build a railway line starting at Sher Khan port on the Panj river, passing from Kunduz to Mazar-e-Sharif and then to Aquina-Herat. This would also pave the way for the Five Nations Railway Corridor between China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran and could thus link into OBOR in Central Asia.

Second, the Lapis Lazuli Transit, Trade and Transport Route between Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey should become a part of OBOR. This corridor already has at least partially improved road, rail and sea infrastructure and transit procedures. The OBOR passes through many of these countries. The addition of China to the Lapis Lazuli route will latch OBOR onto an existing process of regional integration regarding transit and trade procedures between these five countries.  

Third, the Indian project at Chabahar port in Iran should be seen as complementary to OBOR (as argued in a previous article for The Diplomat) because it would improve infrastructure in the region through which OBOR would pass. Moreover, Chabahar port is neither a military port, nor would it directly and indirectly affect CPEC.

Fourth, a feasibility study of the TATC (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China) energy pipeline should begin and explore making it a part of OBOR. Currently there is an MoU between the Afghan government and a Chinese company for the project. There is also another project under way to export Afghan gas to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan has also taken interest. It may pave the way for TATC. Moreover, post-nuclear sanction Iran may be interested in a pipeline across Afghanistan, with China the ultimate destination. A Chinese company has also taken interest into this, but with no additional steps taken.

Fifth, incomplete Chinese projects such as Mes Aynak and Amu Basin Oil contracts should also be included into OBOR and completed.

The fusion of CPEC, CAREC and OBOR (especially the mainland route: The Silk Road Economic Belt), would not only make Afghanistan a land bridge between Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and China but would also be in accordance with the U.S.’ New Silk Road Initiative. Hence, connecting CPEC and OBOR with Afghanistan would also pave the way for possible coordination and cooperation between China and the United States in Afghanistan as well.

However, the taunting question whether it is possible depends upon the security policies of Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is no doubt on the possibility of the above outline, but the probability of it all happening is a concern.  Implementation is another worrisome piece of the puzzle. Currently, there are many agreements between Afghanistan and Pakistan, such as APTTA which isn’t fully implemented, that now and then become the victims of strained bilateral relations. The absence of conflict resolution procedures is another factor which increases the trust deficit between Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to an Afghan realist Halimullah Kousary, China should take the lead and play a “leadership” role. CPEC and OBOR — with Afghan involvement — could become a rust booster between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ahmad Bilal Khalil is a researcher at the Center for Strategic and Regional Studies, Kabul (csrskabul). He follows Afghan foreign policy, Islamists, regional geopolitical and geoeconomic matters, and Kabul’s relations with its neighbors (especially China, Pakistan, and India). He is the lead researcher of CSRS report ‘Afghanistan in the last one and a half decade’ and is the author of upcoming book on ‘Sino-Afghan relations: 1955-2017’ in Pashto.  He tweets at @abilalkhalil