China is set to make an exclusive entry into post-American Afghanistan with its Belt and Road Initiative (BIS). Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source close to Afghan government officials told the Daily Beast that authorities in Kabul are increasingly engaging with China as part of an extension of the China-Pakistan economic corridor ( CPEC) of $ 62 billion, the BRI flagship project, which involves the construction of highways, railways and energy pipelines between Pakistan and China– in Afghanistan.
US troops left the main and last US military base in Afghanistan on Friday, and although the initial withdrawal date was set for 9/11, security officials said Reuters that the majority of troops would be out on July 4.
According to another source familiar with conversations between Beijing and Kabul, one of the specific projects on the table is the construction of a China-backed main road between Afghanistan and the city of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. , which is already linked to the CPEC route. “There is a discussion over a Peshawar-Kabul highway between authorities in Kabul and Beijing,” the source told the Daily Beast on condition of anonymity. “Connecting Kabul to Peshawar by road signifies Afghanistan’s official membership of the CPEC.
In other words: the Afghan government, behind the scenes, greets China immediately after saying goodbye to America.
China wants to extend its BRI to Afghanistan and has been asking Kabul to join it for at least half a decade. But the US-backed Afghan government was reluctant to join the BRI for fear it might raise Washington’s eyebrows.
“There has been an ongoing engagement between the Afghan government and the Chinese over the past few years … [but] it made the United States suspicious of the government of President Ashraf Ghani, ”the source said. He added that now the engagement is getting “more intense” as US forces leave and “Ghani needs an ally with resources, clout and the ability to provide military support to his government.” .
After US President Joe Biden announced his intention to withdraw US forces completely by September 11, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian confirmed last month that China did indeed have talks with third parties, including Afghanistan, on the extension of the CPEC.
As part of its BRI strategy, China wishes to link Asia to Africa and Europe through land and sea networks covering some sixty countries. The strategy would not only promote inter-regional connectivity, but would also strengthen China’s influence in the world at an estimated cost of $ 4 trillion. Due to its geographic location, Afghanistan can provide China with a strategic base to expand its influence around the world, ideally located to serve as a trade hub connecting the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe.
“The Chinese have very carefully cultivated many political leaders to buy political support for the projects in Afghanistan at the same time,” the source said, adding that “the Chinese government cannot afford to see Afghanistan not pass. by the BRI ”.
He continued: “Certainly, the investment that would be injected into the economy will employ many people… and in the absence of other economic activities, people could be happy about it. But the political landscape in Afghanistan is divided, and there will be ethnic leaders who oppose the BRI, not because they see downsides, but because external actors want to stop it.
According to the source, a senior Afghan foreign service officer told him that Chinese officials met with Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani about five years ago, to discuss the expansion of the CPEC and the BRI. . The minister was interested – that is, until an Indian ambassador went on the offensive to push back the deal. The Indian ambassador to Afghanistan even approached the American ambassador in Kabul to express his concerns, according to the same source. In the end, the US ambassador reportedly pressured Rabbani to drop further CPEC talks with the Chinese.
In another case, “an emotional diplomat openly accused [President Ghani] to side with the Chinese and offer them Afghan resources, ”the source said, and the project was blocked.
But now, in light of the US exit, Beijing could be in a good position to pick up where it left off and push Kabul to join the BRI, especially if a US withdrawal leads to the installation of the Taliban regime. . Since last February, when the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban, Chinese officials have would have been in frequent contact with representatives of the militant group.
“The Taliban certainly offer a more unified partner to the Chinese. But other countries in the region have tried to bring warlords together to think about resistance rather than peace with the Taliban, ”the source told The Daily Beast.
As part of its homework strategy for Afghanistan, China has launched some strategic projects, including the construction of Taxkorgan airport on the Pamir Plateau in the northwest of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which borders Afghanistan. China is also the builder and operator of the Gwadar seaport in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, also bordering Afghanistan. Both Taxkorgan and Gwadar are developed under the CPEC.
“Washington’s departure from Afghanistan gives Beijing a strategic opportunity,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, told The Daily Beast. “There will certainly be a void to be filled, but China’s ability to fill it should not be overestimated. With the security situation in Afghanistan sure to spiral out of control, there is little that China can do to deepen its footprint.
As a strategic partner of China, Pakistan could prove to be an asset for China in the Afghan endgame.
“I think China could be more successful than the United States in Afghanistan given its close ties to Pakistan and its enormous influence over Pakistan,” Sudha Ramachandran, India-based analyst on the issues, told the Daily Beast. politics and security in South Asia. “China wants to make sure that the instability in Afghanistan does not negatively impact the BRI, and it wants to push Afghanistan to join the CPEC or the BRI.”
Yet China’s ability, Kugelman explained, to deepen its footprint in Afghanistan “will largely depend on its agreement with the Taliban, which will see its influence continue to grow whether it holds power or not. If the Taliban allow China to build infrastructure and other projects in Afghanistan, Beijing will be in a much better place. “
“China may well bring the Taliban on board with the BRI. The insurgents said they would support development projects if they served Afghan national interests, ”he added.
What China really needs to extend its Belt and Road program to Afghanistan is ultimately peace. Beijing has gone so far as to offer the Taliban multibillion-dollar infrastructure and energy projects in exchange for peace in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban is not the only challenge to overcome,” Kugelman said. “There are many sources of violence, both anti-state and pro-state, in Afghanistan. China will therefore always be faced with an extremely precarious environment, even if it obtains the support of the Taliban for its projects. “
There is no doubt that the strategic assets of Taxkorgan, Wakhan and Gwadar will strengthen China’s logistics infrastructure, helping it achieve its long-term economic and security goals in the region.
Peace, however, remains the key to China’s master plan for a post-American Afghanistan.