China has signaled that it will establish new diplomatic relations with Kabul after the stabilization of the situation. There are many unknowns about the country’s future after the Taliban’s* takeover, but Beijing could help Afghanistan reap new business opportunities if peace and order are restored.
This turn of events puts a new spin on potential changes for the relationship between China and Afghanistan. The two-share a (short) border, and China has attempted to make investments in Afghanistan, which have thus far gone badly. But with the departure of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan, the two neighbors may recalibrate their positions vis-à-vis one another, based on mutual interests and, of course, money. Chinese concerns that a Taliban-led Afghanistan may pose new security threats to China, particularly the prospect of jihad in support of Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region, would seem to be mitigated by Afghanistan’s increased need for Chinese investment, technology, and support services if they can get it.
Thus, it would seem unlikely that a Taliban-led Afghanistan would provoke China with an open campaign of defense of the Uyghurs. It can follow the footsteps of other Muslim countries – not least the Taliban’s longtime patron, Pakistan – that have declined to come to the moral and material aid of the Uyghurs. Afghanistan has no overriding reason at this point to buck that trend.
However, at the same time, it appears that the Taliban is beginning to witness the benefits of a peaceful transition to power, in reference to the Afghan group’s reported attempts to preserve peace and order in territories under its control.
If safety and stability are restored in Afghanistan, China could contribute to post-war reconstruction and development there and push forward joint projects under the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
There could be some amazing business opportunities for both Afghanistan and China. According to some estimates, Afghanistan holds between $1 trillion and $3 trillion in mineral wealth in underground reserves, including vast gold deposits and lithium that may be used to develop batteries for electric vehicles (EVs).
The climate change agenda and shift from fossil fuel vehicles to EVs make the country’s reserves of silvery-white alkali metal especially important. Back in 2010, The New York Times noted that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” citing an internal Pentagon memo.
While Afghans hold many minerals and rare earth, but they lack the infrastructure and equipment to mine it and sell to global buyers, for which China’s help to explore this wealth could come in handy.
Wakhan Peace Project or Bam-i-Dunia
Is a peace project recommended by AISSC which focuses on the transit region created as a buffer between the Russian & British empires? The region is a panhandle connected to the rest of Afghanistan by unpaved hilly roads with no means of regular public transport bordering the four nations of Silk Road (Tajikistan, China, (India & Pakistan)*).
Note- Gilgit Baltistan sub-region of the disputed territory of Kashmir which shares the border with Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor is claimed by India and controlled by Pakistan in the current state of affairs.
In sharp contrast to the financial ties, Afghanistan’s physical border with China is a barrier that most don’t and won’t breach.
Relations with China, which shares a merely 76 km border with Afghanistan that runs through almost impassable mountains east of the Little Pamir, are practically non-existent. The Afghan-Chinese border can only be crossed via two so far undeveloped mountain passes… both reaching altitudes of almost 5,000 meters above sea level.
Although the passes “could be crossed on foot,” they don’t see any travelers. China has a strict border regime with surveillance cameras.
Although Spin Boldak near Kandahar bordering the Baluchistan province of Pakistan, is regarded as a key border, an even more significant one (even though it is currently closed) could be the Wakhjir Pass at the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor, which is the most eastern point of the Badakhshan Province bordering China.
The narrow finger of land extends for about 350 km northeast of Afghanistan and varies in breadth from about 15 to 60 km. With a population of under 15,000, it has few roads and towns and is more a collection of small settlements of various ethnicities.
The border is at the eastern end of the 350 kilometer-long (220 miles) Wakhan Corridor, which protrudes like a feather out of northeastern Afghanistan. Beijing has been concerned that the corridor may be used by Uyghurs living in Afghanistan as a route back into China to spread Islamic separatism. China has not shown much interest in opening the border.
Nonetheless, a historic and wholly ex-Afghan government-financed road was being built for the first time in the corridor. But there are widely differing viewpoints on just what that road will accomplish after the US humiliating and chaotic evacuation and Taliban take over.
The current relevance is that the eastern end of the corridor borders China at the Wakhjir Pass. China maintains occasional military patrols on its side, which is part of Xinjiang Province. On the Afghanistan side, the Taliban have just taken control of the corridor as one part of overrunning Badakhshan Province. Thus, with the Taliban and China on either side of a common border, the significance of the China/Taliban meeting in Tianjin becomes greater.
The potential for physical contact across the border is at present limited. At an altitude of 4,923 meters (16,152 feet), the pass is closed for four months or so each winter and even in summer is used by only a few local people, principally herders. Its potential, however, is great.
There have been some road improvements in the corridor and China has upgraded a military road on its side, but construction of a metaled highway, possibly with a high-altitude tunnel, is well within Chinese capabilities.
According to the July 30, 2021, Quarterly Report to Congress by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the $5 million roads were approximately 20 percent complete as of mid-June 2021. “Once completed,” the report continues, quoting the Afghan Public Works Ministry spokesperson, the 50-kilometer road “will be used for commerce, imports, and exports as well as a transit” between Afghanistan and China.
China has expressed a huge interest in investment in Afghanistan, particularly in the mining sector, and this road will be good for that, too.
At the moment, the road in the Little Pamir is only an access road for local people, but we hope that it could become a transit route and attract Chinese investment.
“Whether such a transit corridor will ever materialize is far from clear.” noting that the Taliban lead Afghan government has not had “official meetings with China” on the question of a border crossing.
Wakhan for decades hasn’t seen any activities which can benefit its people & the nation together. The diplomacy of selfishness restricts the will of the great economies of the region which borders it.
This project shall aim at providing Afghanistan with long-term solutions for its economic prosperity & making it a regional transit nation for tradable products such as oil & gas, minerals, gems & consumer durables.
The ultimate vision of it should be to make this area a special economic zone that facilitates trade throughout the ancient routes of the Silk Road & connects ancient civilizations where cultural exchange can take place on a much broader level.
The project considers the education & demographic management program too that will concentrate on the possible upliftment of the Wakhi or Pamiris people who have not been in the focus of any national welfare program for decades now & are still found themselves highly backward in the modern world of 21st century with no accessibility to the civic & social amenities.
The potential for both sides is considerable. China could obtain new routes through Afghanistan to Iran in the west, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in the north, and down to western Pakistan’s new Gwadar Port in the south, itself part-financed by China.
It could also resurrect its earlier interests in Afghanistan’s formidable mineral reserves, including copper, chromite, lithium, and rare earth elements, as part of developing extensive economic and political links with a new Taliban-controlled country.
Bam-i-Duniah is still alive which just wants to see the glory of its past famed by the great journey of Marco Polo through this ancient path of the silk route. Now Taliban Government should take this responsibility created on the chessboard of the Great Game played by the two imperial giants of the 19th century, to bring this region to life and on the path to prosperity for the greater good of the country and the region through the border crossing that China has so far suppressed.
Written by Hon’ Executive Board Member of AISSC – Syed Shah Fahad Hussain
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