China nurses serious reservations about extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, despite public resolve to do so during Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s Beijing visit last week.
It is more than clear from the high priority accorded to the safety of Chinese personnel and projects in Pakistan during the talks. China has been unsatisfied with the existing arrangements by Pakistan. The movement of Chinese personnel in bullet-proof vehicles was one of the proposals, but this may not fully yield the desired results.
To China, extending the multi-billion project in the foreseeable future means extending the security problems it is already facing in Pakistan into more difficult terrain. Beijing cannot ignore the fact that Afghanistan is poorer than a problematic Pakistan in terms of infrastructure, has a lower capacity to absorb economic development and poses a greater threat from Islamist groups opposing the Taliban regime.
China’s major worry, says Claudia Chia Yi En, a Research Analyst at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, says: “The Taliban initially had high expectations for Chinese investment, but this has not materialised. Beijing remains reluctant to invest and harbours suspicions about the Taliban’s commitment to cut ties with the Turkistan Islamic Party, formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Khan Jan Alokozay, the vice president of Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce and Investment, publicly stated that ‘there has not even been a penny of investment by China’. Beijing’s bigger worry, she notes, is the use of an ungovernable tribal region that straddles Afghanistan-Pakistan for training Islamist militants. “Reports of former Taliban and Central Asian fighters joining IS ranks have added to the severity of the security threat.
This is also the problem Russia faces as it tackles sanctions following the Ukraine crisis, selling oil and doing business with many other countries. Afghanistan is not high on its list, even though it would like to increase trade with the Taliban regime if only to show that neither is isolated from the world community. Despite their provisional trade deal, it does not appear that the Kremlin will officially recognise the Taliban. The clearest indication yet is the exclusion of the Taliban from the September 2022 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)’s summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. This is also the approach of China that dominates the SCO. “Whether Afghanistan will retain its observer status at the SCO is unknown, given that the international community has not recognised the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan,” Claudia notes in her study for East Asia Forum.
Aside from issuing statements on helping the Afghan economy, the summit discussions highlighted that the region is more concerned with how best to protect itself against any potential spill-over of violence from Afghanistan. Separately and together, China and Russia want to fill the vacuum that the American exit from Afghanistan has left. Their interests converge in that while Russia is an existing trade partner, China is keen to explore the untapped Afghan resources. Although both may work in tandem up to a point, neither Russia, nor China has shown a willingness to recognise the Taliban regime, or even upgrade the diplomatic intercourse. And while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov received a high-level Afghan delegation in March this year, the two giants have not extended any economic help to rescue an Afghan economy now in limbo.
Terror threat concerns Moscow as well, having had a longer history than China in Afghanistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly expressed his wariness of militants camouflaging as refugees from Afghanistan crossing into neighbouring states and plotting acts of terror. The so-called Islamic State (IS) has reportedly increased its anti-Russia propaganda. They have lambasted Russia as a ‘crusader government’ and ‘enemy of Islam’, actively encouraging their supporters to inflict harm on the country.
The September 5 suicide bombing of the Russian embassy in Kabul exemplified Russian concerns about the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP)’s expanding presence in Afghanistan. That was the first attack on a foreign embassy since the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021. Analysts say both Russia and China face similar obstacles in Afghanistan and are in the process of working out a joint security strategy as they pursue their economic interests. The concerns extend to the largely-landlocked Central Asian Republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. They are taking a keen interest in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and in particular, the prospects of the CPEC opening up the region when China would extend it to Afghanistan, using the Wakhan Corridor.
However, the entire lot of these nations are baulked by Islamist terror as each has such groups operating and they coordinate among themselves. As they await the CPEC expansion or the BRI projects, they are yet to find a solution to the ideological problems terrorism confronts them with.