KABUL – China’s ambitious plans for expanding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan are facing multiple challenges, primarily due to the precarious security situation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The recent Taliban takeover and the withdrawal of foreign forces have added further complexity to the implementation of these projects. Additionally, doubts persist regarding the long-term financial viability of the CPEC, further complicating China’s efforts.
The recent meeting of the foreign ministers of China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in Islamabad aimed to discuss the extension of the CPEC into Afghanistan. While this move could provide China with significant diplomatic leverage in the region, it is primarily driven by China’s strategic positioning against the United States. The ongoing terrorism and border skirmishes between Pakistan and the Taliban have destabilized the region, posing additional challenges for China’s long-term plans in Afghanistan.
Moreover, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is facing international accusations of employing a “debt trap” policy on weaker developing economies. Despite these concerns, China has continued to secure new projects in Afghanistan, highlighting its keen interest in exploiting the country’s abundant natural resources, including rare minerals like lithium and cobalt.
Since the Taliban’s return to power, China has signed agreements with various entities to invest in Afghanistan’s resources. Notably, the Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Company (CAPEIC), a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), signed an agreement for oil extraction from the Amu Darya basin. Furthermore, the Chinese company Gochin has expressed interest in investing in Afghanistan’s lithium reserves, and discussions are ongoing to renegotiate the terms of a 2008 contract for mining copper from the Mes Aynak reserves.
China’s interest in Afghanistan is not solely driven by its natural resources but also by concerns about the security situation in its troubled Xinjiang region. China fears that alleged Uyghur militants from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) are finding refuge in Afghanistan, forming alliances with the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State (IS). However, some experts argue that the ETIM threat to China is exaggerated, as the US government removed ETIM’s designation as a terrorist organization in 2020 due to a lack of evidence for its continued existence.
Despite maintaining extensive diplomatic contacts with the Taliban leadership, China’s projects in Afghanistan have been hampered by the country’s financial difficulties. The frozen assets abroad, lack of foreign aid, and sanctions have hindered Afghanistan’s ability to proceed with economic and infrastructure development. While China marketed the CPEC extension to the Taliban as an opportunity for investment and business, Afghan officials have reported that Chinese businessmen visit the country for inquiries and feasibility studies but often do not return to invest, leading to regular roadblocks and delays for any CPEC-related developments in Afghanistan.
In conclusion, China’s CPEC projects in Afghanistan are facing significant challenges due to the security situation, doubts about financial viability, and the Taliban-led government’s financial constraints. As the region grapples with these issues, the future of China’s economic initiatives in Afghanistan remains uncertain.