What extending CPEC to Afghanistan will mean for China, Pakistan, and India
Although not an entirely new idea, recent discussions suggest its possibility. This will give fresh impetus to the project, but will also see the exploitation of Afghanistan's untapped mineral reserves by China
On March 24, Taliban foreign ministry spokesperson Abdul Qahar Balkhi tweeted after a meeting between Taliban interim foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi that the two sides had discussed “Afghanistan’s role in CPEC”.
Within minutes, Balkhi deleted all his tweets regarding the meeting between Muttaqi and Wang and replaced them with others, including one that removed the mention of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and spoke more generically about “Afghanistan’s role in BRI” or China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Wang’s visit to Kabul was the first by a senior Chinese leader since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Even before Wang flew into Kabul for meetings with the top Taliban leadership, he and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had, during a meeting in Islamabad on March 23, discussed the extension of CPEC to Afghanistan.
A readout from the Chinese foreign ministry on the meeting between Wang and Khan had quoted the Pakistani prime minister as saying that “Pakistan is ready to work with China to jointly advance high-quality Belt and Road cooperation and extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan”. Khan was also quoted as saying that “China-Afghanistan-Pakistan cooperation is conducive to stability in Afghanistan and its role as a hub in regional connectivity”.
While there was no clarity on why the Taliban spokesperson removed his tweets referring to CPEC, it is now apparent that the flagship project of China’s BRI figured in Wang’s discussions in both Islamabad and Kabul.
The suggestion to extend CPEC to Afghanistan is not entirely new. It was mooted as far back as April 2018 by Wang while addressing the first trilateral meeting of foreign ministers of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan. The issue also figured during Wang’s visit to Pakistan in September 2018, with a Chinese foreign ministry saying at the time that the two sides had discussed ways to “extend the CPEC to the western area”.
CPEC was originally conceived as a strategic link between China’s Xinjiang region and Pakistan’s Gwadar port and includes highways, railway lines, pipelines, optical fibre networks and power plants. India has consistently opposed CPEC as a key part of the project passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
When a joint statement issued by China and Pakistan in February referred to CPEC, the external affairs ministry spokesperson said India has always rejected such references and consistently conveyed its concerns to the two countries on “projects in the so-called CPEC, which are in India’s territory that has been illegally occupied by Pakistan”.
“We resolutely oppose any attempts to change the status quo by other countries, as also by Pakistan, in the areas under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. We call upon the parties concerned to cease such activities,” the spokesperson added.
Weeks after the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government in mid-August 2021, Pakistan’s ambassador in Kabul, Mansoor Ahmad Khan, told Reuters that his country had discussed Taliban-led Afghanistan joining CPEC. “Regional connectivity is an important element of our discussion with Afghan leadership and our way forward for our economic interaction with Afghanistan,” he said.
CPEC “provides good opportunities, good potential for providing infrastructure and energy connectivity between Afghanistan and Pakistan “ and for connecting South Asia to Central Asia, Khan added.
Experts believe extending CPEC to Afghanistan would be one way for China and Pakistan to give fresh impetus to the project after it largely stalled within Pakistan in recent years. Chinese companies engaged in CPEC have expressed their dissatisfaction with the pace of work. There have also been complaints regarding corruption in some projects and the Chinese side has been irked by the lack of security for Chinese workers engaged in CPEC.
The extension of CPEC would also dovetail with the Chinese side’s plans to exploit Afghanistan’s extensive untapped mineral reserves, experts believe. China is reportedly negotiating with the Taliban to start mining copper reserves at Mes Aynak, located south of Kabul. Afghanistan is also believed to have reserves of coal, lithium and other rare earth minerals.