China is poised to make an exclusive entry into post-U.S. Afghanistan with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source close to government officials in Afghanistan told The Daily Beast that Kabul authorities are growing more intensively engaged with China on an extension of the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—the flagship project of BRI, which involves the construction of highways, railways and energy pipelines between Pakistan and China—to Afghanistan.
American troops exited the main and final U.S. military base in Afghanistan on Friday, and though the initial withdrawal date was slated for Sept. 11, security officials told Reuters that the majority of troops would be out by July 4.
According to another source privy to conversations between Beijing and Kabul, one of the specific projects on the table is the construction of a China-backed major road between Afghanistan and Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar, which is already linked with the CPEC route. “There is a discussion on a Peshawar-Kabul motorway between the authorities in Kabul and Beijing,” the source told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity. “Linking Kabul with Peshawar by road means Afghanistan’s formal joining of CPEC.”
In other words: The Afghan government, behind the scenes, is welcoming China immediately after saying goodbye to America.
China has been keen on extending its BRI to Afghanistan, and has been asking Kabul to join it for at least half a decade. But the U.S-backed Afghan government was hesitant to join BRI for fear it could raise eyebrows in Washington.
“There has been continuous engagement between the Afghan government and the Chinese for the past few years… [but] that made the U.S. suspicious of president Ashraf Ghani government,” the source said. He added that now, the engagement is growing “more intense,” as U.S. forces are leaving and “Ghani needs an ally with resources, clout and ability to provide military support to his government.”
After U.S President Joe Biden announced plans to fully withdraw American forces by Sept. 11, Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesperson Zhao Lijian confirmed last month that China was indeed having discussions with third parties, including Afghanistan, on the extension of CPEC.
Under its BRI strategy, China wants to connect Asia with Africa and Europe through land and maritime networks spanning some 60 countries. The strategy would not only promote inter-regional connectivity, but would also enhance China's influence across the world at an estimated cost of $4 trillion. By virtue of its location, Afghanistan can provide China with a strategic base to spread its influence across 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 can ill afford to see Afghanistan not webbed through 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 may welcome it. But the political landscape in Afghanistan stands divided, and there will be some ethnic leaders who will oppose BRI, not because they see disadvantages, but because external actors want to stop it.”
According to the source, a senior officer in Afghanistan’s foreign service had told him that Chinese officials had engaged with foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani about five years ago, to discuss the extension of CPEC and BRI. The minister was interested—that is, until an Indian ambassador went on the offensive to push back on the deal. The Indian ambassador to Afghanistan even approached the U.S. ambassador in Kabul to express his concerns, the source said. Ultimately, the American ambassador allegedly pressured Rabbani into backing away from further talks on CPEC with the Chinese.
In another instance, “an emotional diplomat openly accused [President Ghani] of siding with the Chinese and offering them Afghan resources," the source said, and the project was stalled.
But now, in light of the U.S. exit, Beijing might be in a good position to pick up where they left off and push Kabul to join the BRI, especially if an American withdrawal leads to the installation of the Taliban regime. Since last February, when the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban, the Chinese officials have reportedly been in frequent contact with representatives from the militant group.
“The Taliban certainly offers a more unified partner to Chinese. But other regional countries have been trying to bring together warlords to think of resistance rather than of peace with the Taliban,” the source revealed to The Daily Beast.
As part of its homework strategy for Afghanistan, China has launched some strategic projects, including the construction of Taxkorgan airport on Pamirs Plateau in the northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which borders Afghanistan. China is also the builder and operator of Gwadar seaport in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, also bordering Afghanistan. Both Taxkorgan and Gwadar are being developed under CPEC.
“Washington’s departure from Afghanistan gives Beijing a strategic opportunity,” Michael Kugelman, the deputy director and senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington told The Daily Beast. “There will certainly be a vacuum to fill, but we shouldn’t overstate China’s capacity to fill it. With Afghanistan’s security situation sure to spiral out of control, there’s only so much China will be able to do to deepen its footprint.”
As China’s strategic partner, Pakistan could prove a trump card for China in the Afghan endgame.
“I think China could achieve more success than the U.S. in Afghanistan given its close ties with and enormous leverage over Pakistan,” Sudha Ramachandran, an India-based analyst on South Asian political and security issues, told The Daily Beast. “China wants to ensure that instability in Afghanistan does not impact BRI adversely, and it wants to push Afghanistan to join CPEC or BRI.”
Still, China’s ability, Kugelman explained, to deepen its footprint in Afghanistan will “depend in great part on whether it reaches an understanding with the Taliban, which will see its influence continue to grow whether it holds power or not. If the Taliban is okay with China building out infrastructure and other projects in Afghanistan, Beijing will be in a much better place.”
“China could well bring the Taliban on board with BRI. The insurgents have said they will support development projects if they serve Afghan national interests,” he added.
What China actually needs to extend its Belt and Road program to Afghanistan is, ultimately, peace. Beijing has gone so far as to offer infrastructure and energy projects worth billions of dollars to the Taliban in return for peace in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban isn’t the only challenge to overcome,” said Kugelman. “There are many sources of violence, both anti- and pro-state, in Afghanistan. So China will still face an extremely insecure environment, even if it gets Taliban buy-in for its projects.”
There’s no doubt that the strategic assets in Taxkorgan, Wakhan and Gwadar will strengthen China’s logistical infrastructure, helping it achieve its long-term economic and security objectives in the region.
Peace, though, remains the actual key to China’s master plan for a post-U.S. Afghanistan.