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Can China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan Work Together?

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The Pulse

Can China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan Work Together?

Trilateral cooperation could hold the key to stabilizing the region.

Can China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan Work Together?
Credit: Pakistan Prime Minister’s Office

Before the English came to the Indian subcontinent, modern-day boundaries did not exist in the AfPak region. In particular, China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan had a long tradition of interactions. In fact, two ancient empires — the Kushan and the Hephthalite empires — who ruled most of today’s AfPak region originated from China. The Kushans, known as the Yuezhi in Chinese, are believed to have come from modern-day Gansu, China. The Hepthalites (or Yada in Chinese) are also considered to have migrated from China into Afghanistan. These two tribes built two strong empires one after another in the AfPak region.

Moreover, Buddhism spread into China from the Buddhist centers of present Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan and Logar province in Afghanistan, as well as many other regions. Islam also spread into China and migrations occurred from China’s Xinjiang into Afghanistan and vice versa — such as the migration of Tajiks and other ethnic groups into Xinjiang and the migration of Uyghurs and others into Badakhshan, Afghanistan.

Apart from this, one can’t forget the historical Silk Road, which flourished due to the adventurous ambassador Zhang Qian’s visits to China’s west, including Balk, Afghanistan. The success of the old Silk Road at those times was mainly due to the presence of strong empires and a stable security situation in the AfPak region and beyond.

Today, there are very close people-to-people and business-to-business relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan; rising people-to-people, business-to-business, and government-to-government relations between China and Afghanistan; and the “sweeter than honey, stronger than iron, higher than the Himalayas, and deeper than the deepest ocean” strategic relationship between Pakistan and China. But aside from these bilateral relations, the trio hasn’t cooperated very much trilaterally despite the example provided by ancient times, the era of the old Silk Road.

For instance, since 1950, Pakistan and China have signed more than 350 Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs). Afghanistan and China have signed more than 150 MoUs in this period, while Afghanistan and Pakistan has also signed more than 250 MoUs as well. However, only a very limited numbers of MoUs have been signed between the three. The lower the number of MoUs, the lower the chances for trilateral cooperation.

There are a number of obstacles to trilateral cooperation: The absence of conflict resolution methods in trade, security, military, and economic issues; the politicization of problems relating to refugees, trade, transit, and others; and the lack or slowness of implementation of prior policies, pledges, or promises.

Is Trilateral Cooperation Possible Today?

The greater the Chinese engagement in Afghanistan, the better the chances that it would impact Afghanistan’s politics and security situation. Afghans are looking forward to more proactive Chinese engagement in Afghanistan; Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to visit China for his first foreign trip is just one indication of Kabul’s eagerness to get Beijing on board when it comes to bilateral Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, the Afghan security situation, and the peace process.

Pakistan also favors Chinese meditation and engagement in Afghanistan. From Pakistan’s perspective, China can limit Indian influence in Afghanistan. In this regard, Pakistan’s army spokesman, Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa, said in an interview with CCTV that:

… Anything which is to happen in Afghanistan is basically for the Afghans to decide, but as they decide that they want to take help from China … Pakistan has always as a matter of policy welcomed any country which is [to] come and help Afghanistan stabilize without using Afghanistan’s soil against any country, Pakistan has [been] welcoming it. And since China is our closest friend I think it would be a pleasure for Pakistan to see China playing a constructive role in Afghanistan.

China, on the other hand, is also slowly taking some measures to be involved in Afghanistan by increasing aid, becoming a host and observer in Afghan peace talks in Urumqi and Murree and joining the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (QCG). For the first time, China has started providing military assistance to the Afghan government, due to concerns over its own Xinjiang problem and the Belt and Road Initiative.

Trilateral cooperation among Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan was initiated during the second term of former President Hamid Karzai. Talks and meetings were started at the deputy ministerial level between the foreign ministry of the three countries, but now these meetings have been halted due to the triumph of security-centric policies over economy-centric ones. Currently, Kabul is cooperating wholeheartedly with Beijing on security policies. The problem lies between Kabul and Islamabad.

Unfortunately, Pakistan has continued its Cold War-era “strategic depth” policy, which was influenced by Great Britain’s “forward policy.” Afghans view both these policies as imperialistic ones. As a result, Islamabad’s approach to Afghanistan is becoming ultra-focused on security rather than economic issues. Pakistani security officials, for example, don’t fear the loss of trade and transit with Afghanistan due to the closure of borders at Torkham and Chaman. However, Pakistan’s “strategic depth” policy in Afghanistan is becoming a failure. Both the Afghan public and Afghan government now link the independence of their foreign policy not with the U.S. military forces’ presence or absence in Afghanistan, but to their relations with New Delhi — precisely what Pakistan wants to prevent.

Given the notable concurrences in the three countries’ regional economic policies, this security-centric pattern should and can change. The trio should cooperate with each other multilaterally. All three policies — China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and the numerous projects of the Regional Economic Cooperation Conferences on Afghanistan (RECCA) — have the capacity to promote multilateral cooperation aside from politics and security matters. Ghani, while meeting the Chinese vice president in Kabul, said outright that when it comes to relations between China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Kabul prefers economics over politics and security. The trio can easily cooperate on such projects, which can be a win-win situation for all (as discussed in my last Diplomat article, “Linking Afghanistan to China’s Belt and Road”).

The Blueprint for Trilateral Cooperation

If the trio deepens their trilateral cooperation, what will be their respective roles? Kabul would hope to see a Chinese leadership role in CPEC and OBOR, as well as having China mediate in the tense Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral ties. China can play a beneficial role in unfreezing Kabul-Islamabad relations at a time when the Trump administration doesn’t have any ambassadors and policy in place for the AfPak region, elections are on the way in the U.K., and Turkey is entangled in Syria. Afghanistan would also like China to play a more proactive role in the Afghan peace process, irrespective of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. After all, in the long run a peaceful and secure Afghanistan is in China’s interest. It might be due to this factor that, in the context of the U.S. withdrawal, Beijing is gradually moving toward deep involvement in Afghanistan, despite the American presence.

Afghanistan, through its strategic location, cannot only impact the success of OBOR and CPEC but can become an intersection point for both projects as well. Afghanistan is a natural transit corridor, and most of its own infrastructure projects can be aligned with OBOR. Afghanistan’s untapped minerals and resources (currently according to United States Geological Survey, Afghanistan’s reserves are worth over $1 trillion) can also Chinese interests and investments.

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan will be greatly looking forward to Chinese investments in and financing for either Chinese projects or other projects, such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline (TAPI), Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan 500-kV Line (TAP-500), CASA-1000, Five Nations Railway Corridor, and others. As an added benefit, as China, either alone or alongside Pakistan, increasingly engages with Afghanistan, it will assuage Islamabad’s concerns related to Afghanistan.

This article was presented as a paper at the China Institute of International Studies’ (CIIS) International Symposium titled “Deepening Practical Cooperation among China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.”

Ahmad Bilal Khalil (@abilalkhalil) 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 the CSRS report “Afghanistan in the Last One and a Half Decade” and is the author of upcoming book Sino-Afghan relations: 1955-2017 in Pashto.