During the time of the ancient Silk Road, there was a great cooperation among geographical areas that currently belong to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. Great cultural, political, economic and religious exchanges occurred.
However, in the 20th century, despite being neighbors, there was no trilateral cooperation. During the Cold War, Kabul had excellent relations with Beijing but many issues in ties with Pakistan: Afghanistan’s support for “Pashtunistan” and territorial disputes linked to the Durand line, as well as a tendency for both sides to support proxies against their neighboring government. Afghan jihad was an exception in triangular relations, but instead of state level cooperation, for the first time, Pakistan and China’s cooperation increased with Afghan non-state actors, namely the mujahideen.
In recent years, Beijing’s interest in Afghanistan and the importance of trilateral cooperation in the Chinese perspective slowly increased due to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; the security situation in Xinjiang after riots in 2009 and 2014; and the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Belt and Road. Kabul has also been eager to bring China to Afghanistan thanks to Beijing’s influence in Islamabad as well as an acknowledgement of the importance of a secure Afghanistan to China.
Yet until today, there has not been a single project undertaken with trilateral cooperation. So how can the three neighbors initiate and increase their trilateral cooperation?
The first goal should be to boost trilateral people-to-people exchanges. Afghanistan and Pakistan regularly exchange think tank, journalist, and parliamentary delegations. On the other hand, Sino-Afghan exchange programs are also on the rise. According to the Chinese embassy in Afghanistan, in 2016, they had sent 26 Afghan delegations to China. But there is a very limited number of exchanges fostering a trilateral “connectivity of minds.” That needs to change. Such delegations could play an important role when it comes to connecting the region.
The three governments also need to address the physical and political obstacles hindering trilateral people-to-people and business-to-business relations. Between China and Afghanistan, there are physical barriers, especially the absence of direct infrastructure links (currently Sino-Afghan bilateral trade passes through a third country, like Iran or Pakistan). Some might argue that the tough physical terrain in Wakhan, Badakhshan, the part of Afghanistan bordering China, is a big hindrance for directly connecting the two countries. But if building the Karakorum Highway in Pakistan is possible, why not undertake such a project in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan? Paving the way for direct road links between Afghanistan and China would enormously boost the bilateral trade, which has crossed the $1 billion mark every year since 2014, compared to a mere $457 million in 2013.
Meanwhile, between Pakistan and Afghanistan there are political barriers, which then cause rising physical barriers through the closure of borders. These barriers have badly influenced bilateral trade and transit. For instance, according to Afghan statistics, the total volume of Afghanistan-Pakistan trade decreased from $1.573 billion in 2015-2016 to $1.482 billion in 2016-2017. Similarly, Afghan imports from Pakistan dropped from $1.346 billion to $1.199 billion during the same period. Overall, since 2010, Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral trade had decreased from a peak of $2.5 billion.
All the three sides should freely encourage each other to point out their red lines. If these red lines or concerns are not logical, they should be discussed. Some red lines are not negotiable but others stem from miscommunication or misunderstanding rather than reality. It is here that China can play a very important role by persuading its two neighbors to effectively engage. China has every reason to do so, because the security situation of Afghanistan is also a headache for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and its heavy investments in CPEC. With China interested in mediating between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it has the potential to outperform previous attempts by Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Currently there are six projects that have been pegged as prospects of trilateral cooperation among Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan: the Peshawar-Kabul motorway, the Landi Kotal-Jalalabad Railway, the Chaman-Speen Boldak Railway, the hydropower dam on Kunar River, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan electricity transmission line, and the trans-Afghan highway to Central Asia from Peshawar, Pakistan. These projects, along with the Logar-Torkham Railway line, will be a part of CPEC. Other projects that could be folded into China’s Belt and Road initiative include the five nation railway, Lapis Lazuli Transit and Trade Corridor, Amu River oil basin (whose contracts were taken by Chinese companies in 2011), the TATC (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan-China) gas pipeline and Tajikistan-Afghanistan gas pipeline. If all three countries engage in these projects, it will make Afghanistan an intersection point between CPEC and the Belt and Road, fulfilling President Ashraf Ghani’s dream of making Afghanistan into a regional corridor.
In addition, China and Pakistan can cooperate with Afghanistan in the health sector. Currently, there is huge demand in the Afghan health industry. Due to the absence of large scale investment and weaknesses in human development or capacity, Afghans are going to Pakistan or India for health tourism. Disaster management is another area where all three countries can cooperate with each other. Recently Afghanistan signed a MoU with a Chinese counterpart in this regard.
From a security perspective, the repatriation and re-integration of Afghan refugees are in the best interest of all three countries. This is another area where all can cooperate with each other. China can influence the process by providing aid and helping build houses. However, solving the decades-old refugee problem may take some years. It is therefore necessary for Pakistan to allow the holders of Afghan citizen cards to move across the border without any legal, physical, and non-physical barriers. Doing so will increase people-to-people relations and help Pakistani soft power in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, both Afghanistan and Pakistan should establish special cells alongside the border checkpoints to issue emergency or normal visas to Afghans and Pakistanis.
Finally, efforts should be made to cooperate with each other in advancing Afghanistan’s peace process and ensuing security. But the problem is reaching agreement on who would rule Afghanistan and what would be the nature of its foreign policy. An Afghanistan completely ruled by the Taliban is not aligned with the Afghan political landscape and ground realities. Since the withdrawal of the international combat forces, despite the Afghan security forces and Afghan government being heavily challenged, the Taliban hasn’t been successful in controlling or seizing even a single provincial capital, with the exception of Kunduz, which the group held for only two weeks. However, this doesn’t mean that the Afghan government has the upper hand in its fight against the Taliban; rather, it’s an indication of the polarization of Afghanistan’s political landscape. China also may not want Afghanistan to come under Taliban rule. Despite the Taliban’s continuous claims that it has a limited agenda within nation-state boundaries and pledges to prevent external groups from using Afghan soil to plot against other states, there lies a hidden link between the Taliban and ethnic Uyghur militants. Soon or later such links would come to the surface, as Beijing is aware.
Pakistan, however, has persisted in pursuing its strategic interests through the Taliban. Backing a proxy or a group with little hope of ever completely controlling Afghanistan will not give Pakistan the desired results. Instead, Islamabad will only have less soft power in Afghanistan and accordingly less influence over Kabul’s relations with New Delhi in the future.
Trilateral cooperation won’t be easy, particularly because there is much uncertainty as to the long-term interests of major players in Afghanistan. Such confusion is paving the way for conspiracy theories and hence providing ground for more anti-Afghan state activities, especially from Pakistan. In such an environment, the connectivity of minds is necessary before anything else– which brings us back to my first recommendation: trilateral people-to-people exchanges.