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Chinese dilemma in Afghanistan The Statesman 05 Oct 2021
Last week, Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul, Mansoor Khan, discussed expanding the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan with the interim Afghan government. He stated post discussions, ‘I think there has been deep interest in terms of developing economic connectivity of Afghanistan with Pakistan through CPEC and with other neighbouring countries including Iran, China, Central Asian countries,’ adding, ‘Afghanistan has been plunged into economic crisis as the nation’s international assistance has been largely cut off.’ Pakistan is desperate to have financial assistance restored, which the world avoids.
A nation in an economic mess and that too a neighbour which supposedly possesses trillions of dollars’ worth of natural resources provides China with an exploitation opportunity, which it can never ignore. China had been wooing the Taliban leadership for years waiting for this opportunity. The Afghanistan interim government spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, stated, ‘(China is) the most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us. China is our pass to markets all over the world.’
The Global Times in an article of 27th Sept stated, ‘Afghan people are desperately looking for a ‘Viable Economic Masterplan’ to avert spiralling financial and humanitarian catastrophes that are looming large. An initiative of CPEC-extension into Afghanistan with introduction of de-dollarization sounds deliverable.’ What China never mentions that most loans it provides are at commercial rates. Currently, 42 nations involved in the Chinese Belt Road Initiative owe USD 385 billion to China. Further, China is desperate to project the Yuan as an alternative to the dollar.
For China, Afghanistan is strategically important. The Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan had stated in 2016, ‘Without Afghan connectivity, there is no way to connect China with the rest of the world.’ This is never officially mentioned by China. On the contrary, China states it is intending to enhance quality of life of Afghani’s and improve their economy. In return, it seeks agreements to exploit the mineral wealth of Afghanistan. Afghanistan would lose its mineral wealth as also be debt ridden, while China would expend little in extending the CPEC.
As per Global Times, the Chinese have already planned the extension of the CPEC. The first stage involves connecting Peshawar in Pakistan to Jalalabad in Afghanistan by rail. Subsequently investments in roads, energy sector etc would be made. The article impresses the Afghan government by mentioning that this would open floodgates in global investment and enhance employment opportunities. China is, as usual, selling pipe dreams, as no country in the world is willing to invest.
China was amongst the few countries which kept its embassy open during the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and has been regularly engaging with its current leadership. It hoped that this would lead to the current leadership trusting it. Those with whom the Chinese had traditionally engaged, including Mullah Baradar, have been sidelined. The fact that this has been done by the ISI to possibly gain a lever over the Chinese would not have been missed by them.
In Pakistan the CPEC is already facing threats and is the target of multiple terrorist groups. Attacks on Chinese involved in construction project have been on the rise. In 2016, Pakistan raised Special Security Division comprising of 15,000 personnel for protecting the CPEC and Chinese workers. In 2019, post the attack on the Pearl Continental in Gwadar, Pakistan raised another division for security of the Chinese. This did little to stop the attacks. This has added to Chinese concerns.
While publicly displaying confidence in Pakistan’s ability to handle its internal security issues, privately the Chinese are outraged. It was possibly to show Pakistan that its patience is running out that China agreed to listing of Azhar Masood as a global terrorist. Post the attack on its personnel working on its East Bay Expressway in August this year, China issued a strong statement and ‘demanded’ Pakistan take ‘practical and effective measures,’ to thwart such attacks.
Till recently, all attacks on Pak soil, including the one on Chinese engineers working on the Dasu hydropower plant, was blamed by Islamabad on India. It always stated that Indian consulates in Afghanistan were fuelling terrorism in Pakistan. In the current scenario, where India has no presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan will find it difficult to find a scapegoat. Every attack impacts Pak-China trust.
When China entered the CPEC, it had never visualized levels of violence it’s projects would face. Historically, China has never ventured into an unstable country, neither will it in Afghanistan, despite backing any form of repressive government, aligned to it. Hence, while it has sent some medicines, clothing and food stocks, it hesitates to move forward. It would seek assurances of its investments and security of its personnel.
For Pakistan, an extension of the CPEC would be a small lifesaver. It has no funds to repay the Chinese for their investments and with no other country exploiting the CPEC, it is facing a financial crunch. Drawing in Afghanistan may be some relief. However, to convince the Chinese on the security of their investments and safety of their personnel in Afghanistan is another issue.
As per reports, there are over 16 terrorist groups active in Afghanistan. The Taliban is already facing challenges to its rule. The Northern Resistance Front (NRF) is regrouping in Tajikistan. There have been 22 attacks launched by the ISIS-K against the Taliban in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces in the past two weeks. Without support from the Pakistan side of the Durand Line, this would not be feasible. Whether this is being done by disgruntled elements within Pak is unknown. In addition, there are a collection of warlords in Afghanistan who would demand their pound of flesh.
With the CPEC already facing attacks leading to delays, would China investment in a region with even greater risk, remains to be seen. For the west, creating a turbulent environment in Afghanistan adding to concerns of China, Pakistan and Russia would be a strategic advantage, which they would grab with both hands. Hence, despite all their bravado and promises, China will remain hesitant to invest in Afghanistan.