Pakistan’s perspective on Chinese engagement with the Taliban-led Afghanistan
Over the past couple of decades, bilateral relations between China and Afghanistan have evolved from being minimalistic to becoming considerably deepened. This has happened primarily due to China’s growing economic as well as linked security interests in Afghanistan and the wider region. China-Afghanistan ties have mainly played out in the domains of trade and development, humanitarian aid, and security cooperation. Following the U.S. withdrawal, China-Afghanistan ties are generally expected to expedite further. Practically, since August 2021, when the Taliban took power in Kabul, China has been displaying greater concern for socio-political and economic stability in Afghanistan.
China’s increasing footprints in Afghanistan may also translate into a changing regional geopolitical environment with significance for Pakistan. While Pakistan and Afghanistan have had a chequered history of bilateral ties, the impact of the emerging political scenario remains to be seen. So far, Pakistan and China seem to have developed a great degree of convergence of interests viz a viz Afghanistan. Since the August 2021, China and Pakistan have incessantly called for the Taliban-led Afghanistan’s political and economic stability. However, how the regional dynamics would unfold for Pakistan in the future is yet to be seen. At the same time, China’s increasing engagement in Afghanistan is somewhat new phenomenon, and it may require time to strengthen and deliver substantial dividends to regional stability. Similarly, the Afghan Taliban are yet to develop strong governance and law enforcement structures to ensure domestic stability, as well as guard Pakistan’s and China’s stakes in Kabul. In this regard, this research article seeks to study Beijing’s growing engagement with the Taliban-led government at Kabul, and how it is perceived in Islamabad.
1. China-Afghanistan ties: a brief historical context
Afghanistan was the first country to officially recognise the People’s Republic of China in 1950. However, during the next two decades, direct inter-state engagement between the two countries remained limited and inconsequential. A major development in Sino-Afghan relations took place in 1956, when the two countries signed an agreement over China-Afghanistan border. Nevertheless, any meaningful political or economic exchange between the countries did not occur for many years to come.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, China’s threat perception about Russian encirclement of its frontiers, through a Soviet-influenced Afghanistan, raised Chinese stakes in Afghanistan. This set the stage for inflow of Chinese military assistance into Afghanistan. The underlying Sino-Soviet rift served as the premise of Chinese engagement in Afghanistan, thereby aiming at bringing down the Soviet influence in Afghanistan. Hence, Chinese military assistance was directed towards the rebels or mujahideen rather than the Soviet-backed Afghan government. However, China was not a party to the Geneva Accords, signed in 1988. Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was not followed by an internationally led post-war reconstruction effort, and hence, internal security issues like brewing civil war, extremism, terrorism, and drug trafficking became rampant, and also held the potential to become transnational threats. However, China cautiously chose to refrain from any meaningful engagement with its eastern neighbour in subsequent years.
After years of civil war, Afghanistan was taken over by the Taliban in 1996. Following Taliban’s rise to power, China closed its embassy in Kabul, which remained shut until the establishment of provisional Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai in 2002 (Attanayake & Haiqi, 2021). During and after the Taliban rule, the presence of foreign extremists in Afghanistan, particularly from China’s Xinjiang province and Central Asian Republicans had become a threat for regional stability, particularly for China. In order to mitigate this threat, a Chinese delegation held talks with Mullah Omar in 2000. As a result of these talks, Mullah Omer pledged that the land of Afghanistan would not be allowed to be used against China.
Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops, China became a part of the ‘6+2 format’, which was constituted by the United Nations to devise a way forward for establishing peace and political reconciliation in Afghanistan. In 2002, China became a signatory of the Kabul Declaration on Good Neighbourly Relations, thereby pledging to respect the independence and territorial integrity sovereignty of Afghanistan. Over the subsequent years, China fully supported the cause of stability in Afghanistan.
2. The nature of contemporary China-Afghanistan relations
Quite evidently, Beijing’s foreign policy in Afghanistan has entered into a new phase with both countries upping their bilateral cooperation on strategic and economic matters. An evident shift in China’s Afghanistan policy was observed back in 2014 including in terms of its support for Afghan reconciliation process. However, after August 2021, Chinese engagement in Afghanistan has increased manifold. China’s contemporary Afghanistan policy is characterised by a pragmatic, yet cautious, acceptance of Taliban as a political force in Afghanistan. In recent past, China has also engaged with Taliban for the facilitation of inclusive intra-state reconciliatory politics (Zhang, 2022). It is also believed that by strengthening its diplomatic footprint in Afghanistan, China may also seek to override the influence of the United States there. While the future role of the U.S. in Afghanistan is not certain, yet it is quite likely that Chinese role in Afghanistan, shall be of selective engagement rather than an all-out dominance, as was the case of the U.S.
It is generally understood that Chinese interests in Afghanistan primarily lie on the premise of security concerns. China seeks to curb the threat of Uighur militancy emanating from groups like Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which have significant presence in Afghanistan. However, this is also coupled with the goal of achieving economic stability and protection of Chinese human resource and investment in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. On a wider spectrum, China also seeks to extend its soft power projection in Afghanistan. This is currently being achieved by Chinese military and humanitarian assistance. Lastly, some observers believe that Afghanistan’s natural resources remain another key area of interest for policymakers in Beijing. According to one estimate, Afghanistan possesses $1 trillion worth natural resources that still remain untapped. Hence China’s resource-dependent economy deems Afghanistan as a potential hub for its resource extraction and development industry.
On the other hand, the Taliban-led Afghan government desperately looks forward to establishing a working relationship with the regional countries. On the one hand, the Taliban government is struggling to gain international recognition, and on the other hand, it is facing dire financial crisis and humanitarian emergency in terms of rising inflation and poverty. Therefore, Afghanistan’s reliance on China’s financial, diplomatic, and commercial support renders China a significant leverage in the country.
However, the future of Chinese engagements in Afghanistan would heavily depend on Afghanistan’s ability to fulfil Beijing’s security interests, in particular Beijing’s threat perception viz-a-viz the ETIM (Taneja, 2022). Therefore, in order to achieve better outcomes, Kabul will need to attach special focus to catering to Beijing’s interests. In an otherwise case, a possible delay or derailing in Chinese investment projects might be expected as a worst-case scenario for Kabul.
3. Mapping Chinese engagements in Afghanistan
China’s political ties with Afghanistan have been characterised by pragmatism. Realising its commercial and security interests vested in Afghanistan, China has been able to sustain a working equation with competing power centres in Afghanistan for decades. Beijing’s post-9/11 foreign policy in Kabul primarily relied on provision of economic aid and foreign investments, with the overture of enabling post-war reconstruction. Of now, China also views Afghanistan as a potentially important player in China’s regional connectivity ambitions and strategic contingencies in the China’s Xinjiang province.
This section seeks to map Chinese engagements in Afghanistan, primarily in the domains of diplomacy, trade, security, and humanitarian assistance.
3.1 Diplomatic engagements
Diplomatic ties between China and Afghanistan have generally played out on the pretext of furthering security cooperation and trade-based engagements. As noted earlier, following Taliban’s rise to power in 1996, China closed its embassy in Kabul, which was reopened during Karzai regime. In subsequent years, Beijing provided diplomatic support to Kabul in a number of U.N. resolutions concerning Afghanistan. Afghanistan has also been given the status of an observer state in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, with the aim of curbing terrorism, drug smuggling and other crimes within the country. While China officially recognised the provisional Afghan government led by Karzai, in the next few years, also sought to establish informal ties with Afghan Taliban.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to China in 2010 resulted into the signing of a number of trade agreements, leading to an enhanced cooperation in infrastructure development, natural deposits, electricity, and agriculture. Another politically significant development was the conclusion of a ‘Joint Declaration on establishing Strategic and Cooperative Partnership between China and Afghanistan’ in 2012. The declaration also signified China’s recommitment to the “Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation” of 2006 (Maan, 2021).
Over the years, China also participated in initiatives on intra-Afghan talks for political reconciliation. In 2015, China participated in the Murree peace talks as an observer state along with the U.S. It also became part of the 2016 Quadrilateral Coordination Group and the six nation talks (Khan, 2016). In 2017, China participated in the Kabul process, which was organised by Ashraf Ghani, the then Afghan president. In 2018, talks between the Taliban and Afghan politicians were carried out in Russia, which were also attended by Chinese diplomats. Apart from this, formal meetings between the Afghan government’s representatives and Taliban were also held in Beijing. Once again, in October 2019, Taliban representatives were invited by China to take part in an intra-Afghan conference, which continued for two days in Beijing (Al Jazeera, 2019). A number of unconfirmed bilateral meetings between the Taliban and Chinese reportedly took place in the recent years (Stone, 2019a).
In October 2021, the Afghan interim government agreed to establish a working-level mechanism with China after the representatives of the Taliban met with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Doha, Qatar. In December 2021, China also established a bilateral working group with the Taliban on humanitarian assistance and economic rebuilding (Yau, 2022). Also, in March 2022, prior to the Tunxi Initiative, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi paid an unannounced visit to Afghanistan.
3.2 Trade-related engagements
Trade ties between China and Afghanistan have mainly relied on the Silk Road for the greater part of history. Likewise, in current times, the Silk route, coupled with China’s increasing demand for natural resources have directed Chinese trade-related engagements in Afghanistan (Ehsan, 2013). Particularly, the past two decades have experienced a relatively expanding Chinese economic footprint in Afghanistan. As of now, China stands as the largest business investor in Afghanistan. The fact that Afghanistan is a resource rich but financially impoverished state, whereas China is vice versa both financially as well as in terms of resources, offers quite a functioning bilateral equation.
In 2002, as Chinese diplomatic engagements with Karzai’s provisional government increased, trade-related ties were also augmented. In 2008, Chinese investment gained substantial significance in Afghanistan. Between 2000 and 2009, China emerged as Afghanistan’s biggest trade partner, as bilateral trade between Beijing and Kabul rose from $25 million to $250 million (Tahiri, 2017). Most prominently, the development of Mes Aynak copper mine emerged as Afghanistan’s biggest ever foreign-investment worth $4 billion project. Nevertheless, this project was fraught by delays, discrepancies, and still remains controversial.
In particular, the formation of the Sino-Afghan Economic Committee in 2006, and the signing of the “Comprehensive Cooperative Partnership Agreement” in 2010 paved the way for an increased economic activity between the two countries. The two countries also established China-Afghanistan Joint Committee on Economics and Trade (JCET), which has continued to meet intermittently over the years. Additionally, in 2014, Beijing and Kabul also signed the ‘exchange notes on granting zero-tariff treatment to the exports of some Afghan goods to China’. Consequently, it is estimated that since 2015, almost 97% of Afghan exports to China enjoy zero-tariff treatment.
In 2016, Beijing and Kabul signed a memorandum of understanding, which is generally viewed as a major Chinese step towards bolstering Afghanistan’s inclusion into the BRI (Stone, 2019b). In 2017, the number of government-level visits that happened between the two countries’ representatives, as well as agreements signed and summits held, indicated the growing convergence between Afghanistan and China (Cowan, 2018). In 2017, an Afghan delegation also attended the China’s Belt and Road Forum (Sacks, 2021).
Chinese leadership has also expressed its wish to incorporate Afghanistan into the CPEC. In June 2021, during the ministerial-level trilateral dialogue among China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the representatives of the three countries reached an 8-point consensus. The ministers also pledged to expand the economic dividends of the BRI for regional growth (CGTN, 2021). During an international conference at Tashkent in July 2022, China’s special representative for Afghanistan Yue Xiaoyong said that China would provide finances for building a railway line in Afghanistan, connecting Uzbekistan to Pakistani seaports.
In July 2022, as Afghan foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met at the sidelines of the SCO Foreign Minister Summit, Wang Yi expressed the Chinese government’s willingness to extend CPEC to Afghanistan (Pakistan Today, 2022). Most recently, in November 2022, during Pakistani premier Shehbaz Sharif’s visit to China, both President Xi and Prime Minister Sharif pushed for extending CPEC to Afghanistan. The joint statement of the visit emphasized on increasing Afghanistan’s connectivity got regional growth and prosperity (Yousaf, 2022).
In January 2023, Beijing and Kabul signed an agreement for the extraction and development of Afghan oil reserves in Afghanistan’s northern Sar-e Pol, Jowzjan and Faryab provinces, covering an area of approximately 4,500 square kilometres. This was the first international agreement, signed by the Taliban government since coming into power back in August 2021. The deal would pave way for increased Chinese investment in Afghanistan.
3.3 Security engagements
Security ties between Afghanistan and China are a relatively newer phenomenon spanning over not more than two decades. China’s security-related engagements in Afghanistan primarily hinge on its threat perception arising from militancy and terrorism, coupled with security concerns for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Nevertheless, the current times are witnessing Chinese security-related engagements in Afghanistan at a relatively unprecedented level.
Apart from the mutually agreed-upon border agreement between China and Afghanistan signed in 1965, Chinese security ties with Afghanistan have remained largely non-existent. In the cold war era, China militarily supported the Afghan mujahideen, rather than the Afghan government. Different accounts have presented different estimates of the magnitude and worth of Chinese military assistance to the mujahideen groups, ranging from $100 million to $400 million (till 1985). Peter Tomsen, America’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, in his book, “The Wars of Afghanistan” states that Chinese military factories were “switched over to producing Soviet-type AK-47s, RPGs, and 122-mm rocket launchers [for Afghanistan]” (Khalil, 2016). After the Soviet forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, security threats emanating from Afghanistan due to the onset of civil war rather increased for China. However, China refrained from any kind of military-oriented interference in Afghanistan. During the post-9/11 era, China provided some military assistance to Afghanistan; however, it was too meagre to merit a mention (Ibid).
In, during Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s visit to China, the leaders of both countries pledged to join hands to curb ETIM. As a continuation to the pledge, in February 2015, Afghan 2014government handed over more than 15 Uyghur militants to the Chinese government. In May 2015, Afghanistan’s then interior minister Noor-ul-Haq Ulomi visited China and signed an MoU regarding security cooperation. Agreements mainly revolved around providing financial assistance, military equipment, and trainings to Afghan security forces. Additionally, an agreement for cooperation between the border police of the two countries was also signed. In February 2016, the Chief of China’s Central Military Commission General Staff, General Fang Fenghui visited Afghanistan. During the visit, he announced China’s willingness to cooperate with Afghanistan against terrorism. In this context, he also announced Beijing’s assistance to Afghan security forces, which amounted to around $73 million. The overarching objective was the protection of Chinese connectivity infrastructure in the region.
In 2017, the international news media reported that the Chinese security forces were present at the Wakhan Border. In response, Beijing maintained that it was rather “joint counter-terrorism operations (Stanzel, 2018). In 2018, once again reports regarding China’s alleged funding and training of the Afghan Brigade (operating at the Wakhan Border) made rounds in media. These reports, however, were denied by Beijing. China also asserted that it never intended to deploy its military personnel in Afghanistan (Standish, 2021). Most recently, during Ashraf Ghani’s government, the Afghan security forces collaborated with Beijing for monitoring and targeting Uyghur militants (Rehman, 2022). Even before Afghan Taliban’s rise to power in 2021, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi was reported of obtaining guarantees from the Taliban regarding their all-out resistance to anti-China militant groups (Ibid).
3.4 Humanitarian aid and assistance
An overarching feature of China-Afghanistan bilateral ties has been humanitarian aid and assistance. In 2010, a report titled “Humanitarian Assistance: Truly Universal?” published by the Global Public Policy Institute, Germany, suggested that total Chinese aid disbursements to different states could be much higher than the documented estimates. Likewise, China has been disbursing aid to Afghanistan on different instances.
The Afghan economy remains heavily reliant on foreign aid. While China’s providing development aid to Afghanistan since 2001 has been documented, yet this aid remains modest if compared with western states (Weitz, 2021). Chinese financial assistance to Afghanistan has mainly comprised development assistance funds, customs-duty waivers, infrastructural development, loan forgiveness, and emergency aid disbursements. It is also argued that Chinese economic assistance to Afghanistan also lacks transparency.
In January 2002, after the formation of Afghanistan’s provisional government led by Hamid Karzai, China committed to offering $150 million to Afghanistan for post-war reconstruction. China also funded the construction of a hospital in Kabul, along with the Parwan Irrigation project. In 2003, Beijing and Kabul arrived at a mutual agreement for increasing technical and economic cooperation, which resulted into Beijing disbursing a grant of $15 million to Afghanistan (Bukhari, 2012). Additionally, China also offered human resource and technical trainings to different Afghan officials. Zhao Huasheng, in one of his research reports for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C., stated that between 2002 and 2010, China was estimated of providing around $205.3 million to Afghanistan, along with $19.5 million, remitted as debt. In 2009, China was estimated of providing $75 million to Afghanistan as economic aid (Paliwal, 2011). Once again in 2011, the Chinese government decided to provide another $23.7 million (approximately) of free assistance to Afghanistan. According to a recent report by the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore, China provided around $240 million of economic aid to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2013 (Huasheng, 2015).
In October 2014, president Ashraf Ghani paid a visit to China, which was followed by Chinese pledge to providing $327 million as financial aid to Afghanistan. Additionally, in the next four years, the Chinese government assisted Afghanistan in expanding Kabul University and solar power plants in Afghanistan. In 2016, Beijing once again pledged to provide $100 million to Kabul.
An increasingly convergent Pakistan-China posturing viz-a-viz Afghanistan was observed on the issue of humanitarian assistance following the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan. China was once again quick to furnish its position on the question of Afghanistan’s economic stability. China called on the international community for the provision of unconditional assistance to Afghanistan and unfreeze Afghan financial assets in order to “remove obstacles to reconstruction.” Along with Islamabad, Beijing pledged to provide $31 million worth of life-saving drugs, food, and winter supplies. to Afghanistan as foreign assistance (Calabrese, 2021). On December 19, 2021, Pakistan hosted the “17th Extra Ordinary Session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation” in Islamabad. The session was organised with the aim of arriving at a practical solution to Afghanistan’s impending humanitarian and economic crisis. The session was also attended by representatives of United States, China, and Russia.
In March 2022, China spearheaded the Tunxi Initiative, with the aim of encouraging the regional states to step up financial assistance and reconstruction for Afghanistan. Over the next few months, China cut down tariffs on Afghan imports by 98%. In June 2022, after a massive earthquake hit parts of Afghanistan, China disbursed emergency financial assistance worth RMB 50 million.
4. The trends of emerging China-Pakistan-Afghanistan convergence
Pakistan and Afghanistan have had a chequered history of bilateral relations. While a growing convergence between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China has been observed recently, however, the former two have generally relied on a third-party mediation for maintaining a functional relationship. For the larger part of history, this role had been played by the U.S. owing to its presence in Afghanistan (Khalil, 2018). However, the extent to which that role remained useful is debatable. At present, China has a growing relevance to South Asian politico-economic realities, which warrants an enhanced Chinese diplomatic activity in the region.
In Sino-Afghan-Pak equation, apart from China’s mediatory role between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but its efforts for Afghanistan’s internal political stability warrant a special mention. The off-start of Chinese engagement in the South Asian region, particularly the Afghan crisis can be said to take place in 2014 after the draw-down of US and NATO forces from the Afghan soil. With an increasing probability of diplomatic manoeuvrability, as well as the inception of the BRI, China found greater space for engagement in the region. Hence, it is believed that ahead of 2014, China’s Afghanistan policy shifted from “calculated indifference to strategic engagement” (Chia, et al., 2021).
In the past, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan came together on different multilateral fora. For instance, in July 2015, China attended the 2-days Murree peace talks in Pakistan. The talks were facilitated by Pakistan and marked the first ever officially acknowledged interaction between the government of Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban. Called as ‘2+2+1’, the talks also involved representatives of the Haqqani network and the U.S. While acknowledging the centrality of ceasefire, both Afghan government and the Taliban agreed to observe it in case Pakistan and China guaranteed the formation of a ‘united national government’. The second round was scheduled to be held on July 31st, however it failed to take off including due to revelation of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death two years before.
Similarly, in 2016, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi became part of a quadrilateral coordination group comprising Afghanistan Pakistan, China and U.S. The formation of the QCG was agreed upon in 2016 following the 2+2 meeting between the delegations led by above-mentioned parties at the side-lines of the 5th ‘Heart of Asia’ Ministerial Conference (2015), which took place in Pakistan (Idrees, et al, 2019). The first meeting of the group took place in August 2016 highlighting the urgency of resumption in direct talks between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban. After a series of five meetings, the quartet experienced a halt for around a year and a half following the killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the Taliban chief, in May 2016 in a U.S. drone strike (Dagia, 2017). The last meeting of the group took place in October 2017, ending inconclusively. The QCG could not yield any substantial results (Khan, 2016).
In 2017, the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers Dialogue was also initiated, first session of which was held in Beijing, on December 26th. The talks took place between Afghan foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani and Pakistani foreign minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif. It was presided over by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. The joint press release of the dialogue highlighted the three countries’ commitment to economic cooperation for the promotion of the BRI. Most importantly, the dialogue resulted into the decision of extending the CPEC to Afghanistan. The countries also pledged to enhance bilateral ties and work towards counterterrorism efforts.
On similar lines, three further rounds of trilateral talks were conducted in the successive years, the latest of which took place in 2021. The fourth round of the three countries’ trilateral talks was held in June 2021, via video link. While resonating the previous commitments, the three countries vowed to deepen trilateral cooperation through forums the Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process, Regional Economic Cooperation Conference (RECCA), and BRI. Recognising the Taliban’s increasing and inevitable relevance to Afghanistan’s political landscape, Chinese leadership also cozied up with the Taliban. In July 2021, a nine-member Taliban delegation met Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi during its visit to China.
Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, China has been displaying even greater interest in Afghanistan. On November 11, 2021, China participated in the Troika Plus talks, which comprised U.S., Russian and Pakistani representatives, and met with the Taliban leadership at the side-lines of the meetings. The talks led to the development of a consensus-based message which was delivered to Afghan foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. On the other hand, China avoided becoming a part of Indian-led Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan. This depicted the growing policy convergence of China and Pakistan viz-a-viz Afghanistan. On March 30, 2022, a foreign ministers’ meeting among China, Afghanistan and Pakistan was organised in China. The meeting was called on to respond to the evolving situation in Afghanistan and to expedite humanitarian assistance and inter-state relations at the regional level.
5. Pakistan’s perspective on evolving China-Afghanistan engagement
To Pakistan, a stable Afghanistan offers the prospects of greater regional connectivity, bilateral cooperation, as well as domestic security. As a consequence, power-centers in Islamabad have consistently looked forward to a friendly government in Kabul. Nevertheless, as noted earlier, bilateral ties between the two countries have always experienced a topsy-turvy trend. Since the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan has been pushing for enhancing bilateral ties with the newly formed Taliban government. In the new setting, a key geopolitical development has been Beijing’s involvement in Afghanistan. The future of U.S. diplomatic engagements in Afghanistan and their probable impacts on China-Afghanistan ties also remain uncertain. Hence, the current geopolitical make-up of the region leaves little space to predict with certainty.
As it may appear from the onset, Pakistan’s ambitions and policies in Afghanistan may fall in congruence with China, thereby leading the two countries to achieve better partnership and deriving better outcomes. For instance, soon after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Pakistani foreign minister and his Chinese counterpart held a telephonic conversation, discussing their mutual interests in Afghanistan (Pakistan Today, 2021). In March 2022, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi stated that China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan could jointly build BRI by extending the CPEC to Afghanistan (Global Times, 2022). In July 2022, China’s special representative for Afghanistan Yue Xiaoyong was reported of having stated that China was all set to support a railway project that could connect Peshawar in Pakistan to Kabul in Afghanistan, which could further connect to Uzbekistan (Silk Road Briefing. 2022).
As Islamabad keenly looks forward to Chinese connectivity initiatives in Afghanistan, it can be predicted that Pakistan may be freely riding the political and economic dividends of the growing China-Afghanistan convergence. However, such an assessment will come at the cost of ruling out some important regional realities. For instance, towards the end of last year China and Afghanistan held bilateral talks for reopening the Silk Road trade routes, specifically the Wakhan Corridor. According to Nooruddin Azizi, Afghanistan’s industry and commerce minister, the Wakhan Corridor holds the potential to increase the level of trade between the two countries and become a reliable route for the transit of goods (D-Ellis, 2022). However, the operationality of the Wakhan corridor may reduce Pakistan’s relevance to the overall regional connectivity framework. This is coupled with China’s decreasing reliance on Pakistan for holding talks with Afghanistan, as China and Afghanistan are holding bilateral talks on issues of regional connectivity.
Additionally, several other ground realities currently in the offing may pose challenges to Pakistan’s position in this growing trilateral engagement among the three countries. Foremost of these challenges remains the Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral issues including cross border clashes, terrorism, and border fencing. Apart from this, CPEC’s expansion, and Afghanistan’s incorporation into it remain to be accomplished yet.
5.1 Pak-Afghan bilateral issues
Contrary to the popular belief that the Taliban-led government could offer political leverage to Pakistan, fact of the matter is that it is not offering a smooth-sailing for Islamabad’s interests. In particular, the issues of terrorism, border fencing, and cross-border clashes have continued to remain as outstanding irritants.
After the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Islamabad proactively assisted Afghanistan in the process of evacuations, and the delivery of medical and other humanitarian supplies. On August 15, 2021, Pakistan hosted a high-level Afghan political delegation, which discussed the future of Afghanistan (News 18, 2021). Moreover, Pakistan also pledged for humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan worth $28 million (Hashim, 2021). In December 2021, as an effort to enable financial assistance to Afghanistan, Islamabad hosted a foreign ministerial level emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). In order to respond to the impending economic and food crisis in Afghanistan, the meeting agreed to set up a humanitarian trust fund under the Islamic Development Bank (Middle East Eye, 2021).
However, since the beginning of the current Taliban rule in Afghanistan, several untoward incidents have taken place that may seemingly signify a continuity of strain in the Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral ties. To begin with, in August 2021, the Taliban government freed Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, a senior TTP commander, along with other prisoners of the Pul-e-Charkhi prison. The freeing of a TTP commander served as the first blow to Islamabad’s interests in Kabul since the Taliban takeover (Raashed, 2021). Apart from this, the Taliban expressed their discontent for Pakistan’s fencing of Pak-Afghan border. Kabul has also accused Islamabad of carrying airstrikes in the Afghan territory aiming to attack TTP strongholds (Al Jazeera, 2022). In November 2022, Afghan authorities claimed that Pakistan carried out air raids in Afghan provinces of Khost and Kunar, that led to around 47 civilian casualties. Once again in January 2023, Afghan authorities claimed that Pakistani forces launched air strikes in Eastern Afghanistan, more specifically, the Salala neighbourhood, near the Gushta district. Islamabad, however, denied the Afghan claims (Siddiqi, 2023).
Terrorism has always constituted as a key facet in the Afghan-Pakistan relations. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, terrorism, particularly, spearheaded by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has once again surfaced in Pakistan. In 2022, a total number of 376 terror attacks were recorded, mainly in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces (Dawn, 2022). Despite the Afghan Taliban’s earlier reassurances against harbouring terror groups, it has failed to meaningfully crack down on the TTP leadership in Afghanistan. Hence, the rise of terrorism in Pakistan has been generally attributed to the developments in Afghanistan. It is estimated that terrorism has experienced a spike by 50 percent since the Afghan government has come into power. In particular, terror attacks dramatically rose after the TTP’s announcement of ending ceasefire with the Pakistani state in November 2022 (Ibid). By the end of November, Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs Hina Rabbani Khar visited Afghanistan. The visit came amid the rising threat of terror activities from the TTP, and therefore it was aimed at pressing Kabul regarding Islamabad’s security concerns. Also, two months earlier, Pakistan’s foreign office had written to Kabul, requesting it to locate and arrest Maulana Masood Azhar, who was allegedly in hiding in Afghanistan (Syed, 2022). In January 2023, policymakers in Islamabad, during a National Security Committee meeting, iterated their resolve for zero-tolerance for terrorism and violence (Abrar, 2023). In this scenario, Pak-Afghan bilateral ties hinge upon Afghanistan’s propensity to act against the TTP leadership that finds safe havens in Afghanistan.
Fencing of the Durand Line is an ever-impending point of contention between the two countries. As mentioned earlier, the Afghan Taliban have already expressed their contentions against Pakistan’s fencing of the border, deeming it illegitimate, one-sided, and a blatant attempt to change the status quo. In many reported instances, the Taliban border troops had removed or attempted to remove the barbed-wire fence at many places along the Durand Line. As an extension of Taliban’s contentious stance on the Durand line, it is estimated that Pak-Afghan border clashes have only increased after the Taliban takeover in 2021. In November 2022, the Chaman border was closed down after clashes took place between the security forces of Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, it was later reopened (The Express Tribune, 2022). On the other hand, an unfenced Pak-Afghan border has been seen as the primary reason for cross border infiltrations, crimes and terrorism in Pakistan.
5.2 Expansion of CPEC
Multiple official statements and press releases by foreign ministries of all three countries have talked in the favour of CPEC’s expansion to Afghanistan. However, practical efforts to that end have not begun yet. Most importantly, the expansion of CPEC (particularly infrastructure development) shall be an economically hefty project. A Pakistan-based researcher, who was interviewed for this research project, sceptically argued that neither Pakistan’s foreign office, nor the planning ministry is displaying any meaningful commitment to pursuing the subject of CPEC expansion towards Afghanistan. Additionally, security concerns might also continue to pose challenges to it. In particular, China shall seek a fool-proof solution to the threat of Uyghur militancy, stemming from Afghanistan. In this regard, Kabul shall have to display its utmost ability to curb this threat. While the Taliban had initially relocated the Uyghur militants from Afghanistan’s areas bordering China’s Xinjiang province, however, the militants continue to find havens in Afghanistan (RFERL, 2021).
5.3 Afghanistan’s domestic challenges and instability
While the Afghan Taliban have established its rule within the country, yet the situation of law and order and socio-economic stability remains in limbo. On one hand, the Taliban’s government has little experience of governance, and on the other hand, it faces the western world’s isolation on account of Taliban’s failure to honour its commitments to protect human rights and freedoms. This isolationism has further exacerbated the already deepening socio-economic crisis domestically. Afghanistan is estimated to be on the verge of an economic collapse, with foreign investments experiencing a drastically downward trajectory due to the country’s disconnect from the international banking system. In this regard, the US played a particularly ostentatious role by freezing Afghan assets (worth almost $7 billion) present in U.S. banks. The country has plunged into a food crisis, with decreasing incomes, sky-rocketing inflation, and a high unemployment rate (Mohmand, 2022).
On the other hand, terrorism, most prominently being spearheaded by the IS-K, also continues to threaten social life, as well as Chinese and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. Most recently, in January 2023, the IS-K carried out a suicide bomb blast in Kabul, outside the Afghan foreign ministry, where Chinese officials were scheduled to meet (BBC News, 2023). Another high-profile terror incident by the IS-K had taken place in December 2022, when the militants attacked Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul (Reuters, 2022). Both the attacks were condemned by the respective targeted countries. While geostrategic and economic interests in Kabul will continue to constitute as one of top priorities for China and Pakistan, yet the issue of domestic instability and insecurity in Afghanistan will continue to pose a potential threat to a smooth and operational bilateral relationship at functional level.
China’s diplomatic sailing in Afghanistan is a recent phenomenon. The uptick in China-Afghanistan bilateral ties may well be on the way to acquiring some substantial shape in the future. However, this hinges on a number of factors, foremost among which remains Afghanistan’s inability to maintain domestic political and security stability. For Islamabad, the threat of cross-border militancy may continue to challenge its policies and options in Kabul. While Islamabad may seek to reap the gains out of this emerging rapprochement between Afghanistan and China, yet it shall require bureaucratic proactivity, coupled with greater political efforts to achieve the desired ends. In either case, Afghanistan’s internal instability and its limited leverage on transnational groups shall present as the biggest challenge. For China, Pakistan and Afghanistan to achieve tangible outcomes of trilateral engagement, they need to practically ascertain the parameters of their partnerships in political, strategic and economic domains.
 Details are available are on the official website of the Embassy of People’s Republic of China in Afghanistan: <http://af.china-embassy.gov.cn/eng/zagx/asdfg/201311/t20131115_1312054.htm>
 Joint statement can be seen here: <https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/201605/t20160530_679461.html>
 The report can be seen here: <https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/121615/GPPi12.pdf>
 Joint press release of the 1st China-Afghanistan-Pakistan FMs’ dialogue is available here: <https://mofa.gov.pk/joint-press-release-of-the-1st-china-afghanistan-pakistan-foreign-ministers-dialogue>
 Details can be seen here: <https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/202106/t20210604_9170564.html>