Since years, China has been striving to revitalise the ancient Silk Road and expand it into a global trade network to connect its southernmost parts to Central Asia and South and Southeast Asia, Eurasia, and Europe.
But Afghanistan has been peripheral to China’s intercontinental project because drastic security conditions have made it impossible to pursue a serious economic agenda there.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is a vast network of infrastructure projects spans more than 60 countries. But the BRI largely excludes Afghanistan, moving through Central Asia and Pakistan instead.
Although there have been painstaking efforts in place by the Afghan government to make the BRI happen in the war-wracked country, the speed of the project has remained snail-paced considering the security and political turmoil.
Alas, as Afghanistan’s allies are reaching a negotiated settlement with the radical Taliban to put an end to an 18-year insurgency and with these negotiations edging toward a concrete conclusion, peace may now be on the horizon.
For Beijing, peace would not only reduce the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan, but it could also boost Chinese economic activity. It will give rise to an era when there will be no hindrance to implementation of the Belt and Road and a vast chunk of investment is funnelled into Afghanistan for building transit routes and other infrastructure projects.
With the war in Afghanistan winding down, China seems willing to make Afghanistan a bigger part of its regional ambitions. The ground realities have also manifested China’s will to establish its grip by simply engaging in trade and economic activities.
In 2016, China and Afghanistan entered a new phase of economic cooperation; Beijing and Kabul signed a MOU on the BRI then and the first Chinese cargo train carrying goods valued at $20 million arrived in the northern Afghan port city of Hairatan after about two weeks of journey via Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Since then, China has been planning to send two trains per month to carry textiles, electronic products and construction materials to Afghanistan. Moreover, Kabul-Urumqi direct flight was resumed after being closed at the end of 2012 and there is a flight every once in a week from Kabul to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and vice versa cutting travel time between the two cities from 13 hours to 3 hours.
China is also Afghanistan’s largest business investor, it has pledged increasing amounts of aid to the country, and Chinese companies have been involved in construction projects.
China will be able to potentially use the opportunity to cut transit costs and time and obtain easy access to South Asia and Europe. A trade and transit feat under an ambitious BRI mega project in the continent is highly unlikely if Afghanistan is not a significant part of it and if the strategically significant land-locked country is bypassed.
Afghanistan has huge potential energy and a lot more to offer in terms of access to regional trade routes.
It is the shortest route between Central Asia and South Asia, and between China and the Middle East, while also serving as a gateway to the Arabian Sea. The mineral-rich country has a serious infrastructure deficit, making it an ideal candidate for Chinese investment.