By Sadia Kazmi
While the acronym CPEC only seems to cater to China and Pakistan, there is no doubt about the fact that its geo-economic and geopolitical dividends are not just limited to these two countries rather reach far beyond the immediate region. CPEC offers a large scale infrastructural development projects, which grabs the attention of other regional stakeholders as well. Specifically mentioning Pakistan’s westward neighbor Afghanistan, CPEC brings a huge opportunity to bind the three countries into mutually beneficial cooperative relation at various levels including economic, political, and social etc. This trilateral bond although is yet to be materialized despite an open invitation to Afghanistan by both China and Pakistan to be part of the CPEC. Afghanistan on its part has also shown inclination to join the CPEC. These intentions became more prominent since October 2016; however, many factors are at play in keeping this from happening.
Nonetheless the benefits to the three states far outweigh the hurdles. Not only does Afghanistan stand to benefit from joining CPEC, but both China and Pakistan will gain immense profit by Afghanistan’s inclusion into this project. The infrastructural development is what Afghanistan desperately needs. The long decades of war, militancy and terrorism has caused immense damage which can be compensated sufficiently through the CPEC project. Also by being part of CPEC, Afghanistan will eventually be part of the larger BRI of China. Which means the bigger outreach of Afghan goods to other countries included in the Belt and Road Initiative. Hence it promises a huge economic relief for Afghanistan, simultaneously bringing stability in the country and the same fall out in the adjoining countries. Connectivity with Pakistan for a formal trade under CPEC will allow Afghan business, trade and investment to spread out in rest of South Asia.
China, on the other hand, can gain access to the untapped natural resources of Afghanistan. China also acknowledges the strategic location of Afghanistan at the crossroads of South and Central Asia. Previously in 2008, China signed a 30-year agreement worth $ 3 billion with the Afghanistan government to access Mes Aynak, the world’s second largest untapped copper deposit. However, the deal was stalled due to the internal security situation of Afghanistan. It is for the same reason China is now so dedicated toward peace efforts in the country. Similarly, the third and the most focal player in this trilateral cooperation Pakistan can also reap major benefits if Afghanistan joins CPEC. First and foremost, Pakistan can get an easy access to Central Asia through Afghanistan. At the same time a developed, stable and peaceful Afghanistan would mean peace and security for Pakistan also. This will also help in the revival of warm and cordial relations with Afghanistan. Pakistan will be able to release the burden of Afghan refugees by sending them back to their developed, stable and progressing country. This will lead to huge economic relief for Pakistan while at the same time settling the Afghan nationals back into their homeland. An improved security situation will be a win-win for both the countries.
Hence, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan all stand to benefit from trilateral cooperation that enhances security and stability, increases infrastructural development, and opens the doors to economic development and connectivity.
Having said that it is important to not ignore the hard realities that pose serious challenges to the formation of the trilateral cooperation. Most important to mention are the security concerns and mistrust that is unfortunately on a rise between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Despite Pakistan’s genuine efforts to bring peace in Afghanistan through Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, it is being constantly blamed for aiding militants on the Afghan soil. Afghan President categorically mentioned in his speech last month in India that “we would like a push factor from Pakistan vis-à-vis the Taliban, not a Pakistan-managed peace process”. It is unfortunate that Pakistan is perceived as manipulator instead of a peace broker. While Pakistan has denied all the allegations and has constantly urged Kabul to eradicate “sanctuaries”, the Pakistan Army is efficiently busy lying the barbed wire along the Afghan border to keep the militants from crossing into Pakistan. It is not to be forgotten that at the core of any potential investment will be the stabilization of Afghanistan’s security situation, an effort that will require great cooperation.
The stability in Afghanistan will ensure peace in the country and will also help improve security situation in China’s western region specifically the Xinjiang province. India is another major player relevant in this whole picture. India has its own grievances against CPEC, and the growing Indo-Afghan propinquity makes it natural for Afghanistan to look after India’s interests in the region. Owing to these very factors, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, last month gave a statement refusing to join CPEC if Pakistan refused to permit connectivity between India and Afghanistan. This statement came only a week after the recent Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) talks in Oman. Hence, in the wake of these realities, it is important that both Afghanistan and Pakistan work towards having at least some workable relation between them. Being the immediate neighbors and having enjoyed cultural, religious and ethnic ties spanning over the history, alienating each other is never a good option. CPEC in this regard provides a fresh opportunity to the two where Afghanistan specifically could try to break from its habit of suspecting Pakistan’s motives and embrace the Chinese initiative with open arms for the ultimate economic relief of the whole region.