In October this year, Islamabad played host to the 11th China-Pakistan Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) meeting to discuss the progress of projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). New projects and progress on existing ones as well as the expansion of CPEC were the main items on the agenda of the meeting.
The meeting was important for both countries. When the last JCC meeting was held in 2021, Imran Khan was the prime minister. In April this year, his government was ousted from power after it lost a no-confidence vote in parliament. A new coalition government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has taken charge since. With new ministers heading ministries in the federal government, it was important for both sides to review CPEC projects; discuss new projects, especially in the areas of energy, transport and infrastructure; address security concerns; and explore the inclusion of a third party – Afghanistan – in CPEC.
Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China foresees a future of vast expansion of road, rail, and port networks, and consequently, unprecedented growth in its global economic influence. The more countries that sign up for the BRI, the larger will be China’s global business footprint. And CPEC has been described as the “crown jewel” of the BRI.
During his visit to Kabul in March this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met the Taliban leadership to discuss Afghanistan’s inclusion in CPEC.
So why is China keen to include Afghanistan in CPEC? The answer lies in China’s long-standing interest in mining Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.
Chinese companies have been working on mining projects in Pakistan’s Balochistan province since 2002 and earned millions in profits. China would like to use the experience gained in Balochistan in Afghanistan and Central Asian countries, where Beijing plans to undertake similar mineral extraction projects.
Mining is undeniably profitable, but it requires rail and road infrastructure too. China already has much of this transport connectivity infrastructure in place as it plans to transport minerals from Afghanistan to China via Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Since it has already built road and rail infrastructure linking Pakistan and China, it will only need to build roads and rails in Afghanistan’s mining areas.
However, how feasible are China’s ambitions to extend CPEC to Afghanistan?
CPEC projects in Pakistan are already plagued by delays and security concerns. China has been struggling to make Gwadar port fully functional since 2007. Beijing is also grappling with economic instability at home. Why is China taking on more risks by bringing the Taliban regime on board CPEC?
The security situation in both Pakistan and Afghanistan is alarming.
A powerful mass movement for rights continues to rock the port city of Gwadar. Local communities in Gwadar have been protesting against their exclusion from the benefits of development projects in and around Gwadar. They feel that the “development has left them behind.” So far, the government has failed to address their demands for better living standards and necessities like improved water and power supply and drainage facilities.
Even more worrying is the violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On December 11, Afghan forces opened unprovoked fire on civilians along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at Balochistan, which resulted in the deaths of six people, with scores of others severely injured.
Across the border in Afghanistan, a bomb-and-gun attack on December 12 on a Chinese-owned hotel in downtown Kabul, which is frequented by Chinese diplomats, left at least three of the assailants dead and 21, including two foreigners, injured. A day before the attack, the Chinese government had asked the Taliban administration to pay attention to the security of the Chinese embassy in Kabul. Following the attack, China issued an advisory asking its nationals in Afghanistan to leave the country.
Unrest and violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan and clashes along the border between the two countries do not bode well for China’s plans to expand CPEC to Afghanistan. Profits from mineral extraction may be attractive, but is it worth the risk?