Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue: Chinese Economic Engagements with Afghanistan

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Pakistan recently hosted 5th China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue in Islamabad on 6th May. It was, attended by Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of Pakistan, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang of China and the Acting Foreign Minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi of Afghanistan.[1] The acting foreign minister of Afghanistan was given a special exemption by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to visit Islamabad and attend the trilateral dialogue. On the sidelines, three foreign ministers also held bilateral talks to review respective relations between their countries.

At the trilateral dialogue, foreign ministers agreed to uphold good relations, respect each other’s territorial integrity and to address the issues through consultation and dialogue. They agreed to tackle the security challenges, which pose a serious threat to the stability and prosperity, while having mutual respect, equal footed consultation and mutual benefit.[2] China and Pakistan, being active neighbors, are trying to engage Afghanistan whilst changing regional dynamics. Pakistan has expressed concerns regarding spillover of terrorism from Afghan soil. Meanwhile, Islamabad has shown a keen interest in engaging with Afghanistan for strategic and economic interests. China on the other hand, is trying to engage and incentivize Afghanistan, not only to stabilize the country, but also to extend its trademark Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

International community, particularly Western countries, are skeptical about Taliban regime as evident from the recent meeting convened by United Nations Secretary General on Afghanistan in April. The meeting was held to discuss the grave situation confronting Afghanistan, including the issues of terrorism to the right of education of girls to economic stagnation. It was ironic that the meeting was attended by many key countries, but the de facto regime was not invited to join and share for their input.[3]

After US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the country has plunged into economic and humanitarian crises as the Taliban regime was lambasted with sanctions and international isolation. The regime since then has been trying to seek investments from China in the infrastructure and mining projects under BRI framework. China has already invested billions in the CPEC projects of Pakistan, and it has expressed willingness to expand CPEC to Afghanistan under the ambit of project BRI.[4] China is indicating interest in capitalizing on the opportunity to advance its interests in the region. Beijing signed its first oil extraction and refining deal with China in January. It further opened avenues for Sino-Afghan cooperation in other fields as China is now exploring investments in lithium sector and other infrastructure projects.[5] With Afghanistan desperately seeking global recognition, China’s use of political engagements and economic diplomacy has compelled China to urge the West to lift sanctions on Afghanistan.[6]

Meanwhile,, policy stance of Pakistan and its regional outlook has always given immense importance to Afghanistan whenever issues of Afghanistan are discussed. China and Pakistan encouraged international community to uplift sanctions and maintain engagement with the regime, which indicates that Beijing and Islamabad recognize the need for an efficient government in Afghanistan that is able to solve the challenges of the country.

Trilateral dialogue called for extending BRI and CPEC cooperation to Afghanistan. Such trilateral cooperation will bridge the trust deficit that the regime has with its neighbors. Parties agreed in trilateral talks to have “hard connectivity in infrastructure and soft connectivity in norms and standards.”[7] Afghanistan joining BRI will certainly have an impact on Pakistan as it will strengthen the transit routes especially Trans-Afghan ‘Mazar Sharif, Kabul and Peshawar’ corridor and Gwadar Port.[8]  Meanwhile, it will further open new avenues for bilateral projects as in the case where several energy projects were started under CPEC.[9] Other than the Chinese affirmation of extending CPEC to Afghanistan, they have begun supporting the construction of Uzbekistan-Pakistan cross-border railway through Afghanistan and have shown keen interest in China-Krgyzstan-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan Corridor Agreement.[10]

Beyond economic cooperation, Pakistan and China are extremely concerned about the security threats emanating from Afghanistan that have a spillover effect. Similar concerns were expressed at the 5th trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue about these threats. It was stressed that Afghan territory not be used for any kind of terrorist activities. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic State-Khorasan IS-K and etc. have been operating from Afghanistan undermining the regional peace and stability.[11] The reemergence of terrorist wave in Pakistan has made the policymakers skeptical, which were supporting the Taliban administration through various indirect means. The statement of Afghan Foreign Minister where he pronounced that Pakistan should have a dialogue with TTP, keeping in account the ceasefire violations has given Pakistan a pessimistic note.[12]

Besides, the internal turmoil in Afghanistan is not fully settled. In April, an ISIS leader was killed by the Taliban responsible for the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. Skirmishes between Taliban and other terrorist outfits have been reported. Indeed, the Taliban took a firm verbal stance against the terrorist outfits, but there is much that needs to be done. Moreover, concerns have been raised by both, China and Pakistan, regarding organized crimes such as drug trafficking which is an impediment to gain a credibility in international arena. Humanitarian crises, mass exodus of Afghan migrants and curb on press freedom are the issues still to be addressed, however, Taliban have been assuring the women rights to be given once the state goes back to normalcy.

The recent dialogue was a follow up of previous four trilateral meetings. The Taliban had a sigh of relief as they were regarded as Afghan representatives in the neighborhood unlike at other global forums. Women education and their participation in governance affairs is essentials for the regime to gain acceptability in the international community. The people of Afghanistan have been in constant suffering for a long time, but until the international stakeholders do not de freeze the Afghan assets, it is hard for the country’s rulers to invest in the beleaguered Afghans. Until then, The Chinese engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan’s support will prove to be strategically and economically beneficial for the regime, but whether the benefits would trickle down to the people of Afghanistan. The question is yet to be answered in practice.

The author is the Research Associate at Islamabad Policy Institute. His work focuses on the geopolitics of Afghanistan and Middle East.

 

[1] “China, Pakistan and Afghanistan FMs Hold Talks in Islamabad,” Aljazeera, May 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/7/china-pakistan-and-afghanistan-fms-hold-talks-in-islamabad

[2] “Joint Statement of the 5th China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs Government of Pakistan, May 2023, https://mofa.gov.pk/joint-statement-of-the-5th-china-afghanistan-pakistan-foreign-ministers-dialogue/

[3] Human Rights, “Guterres Convenes Meeting in Doha to Discuss Key Issues in Afghanistan,” UN News Global Human Right Stories, 2023, https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/04/1136217

[4] “The Future of the Belt and Road Initiative in Afghanistan: Obstacles, Opportunities, and The Taliban’s Perspective,” Silk Road Briefing, February 2023, https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2023/02/20/the-future-of-the-belt-and-road-initiative-in-afghanistan-obstacles-opportunities-and-the-talibans-perspective/

[5] Catherine Putz, “Taliban Settle Oil Deal With Chinese Company,” The Diplomat, January 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2023/01/taliban-settle-oil-deal-with-chinese-company/

[6] Lilly et al, “Chinese Investment in Afghanistan’s Lithium Sector: A Long Shot in the Short Term,” Brookings, August 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2022/08/03/chinese-investment-in-afghanistans-lithium-sector-a-long-shot-in-the-short-term/

[7] “Joint Statement of the 5th China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs Government of Pakistan, May 2023, https://mofa.gov.pk/joint-statement-of-the-5th-china-afghanistan-pakistan-foreign-ministers-dialogue/

[8] “The Future of the Belt and Road Initiative in Afghanistan: Obstacles, Opportunities, and The Taliban’s Perspective,” Silk Road Briefing, February 2023, https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2023/02/20/the-

future-of-the-belt-and-road-initiative-in-afghanistan-obstacles-opportunities-and-the-talibans-perspective/

[9] “What Drives Pakistan’s Coal-Fired Power Plant Construction Boom? Understanding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s Energy Portfolio,” Global Development Policy Center , Boston University, January 2022, https://www.bu.edu/gdp/2022/01/24/what-drives-pakistans-coal-fired-power-plant-construction-boom-understanding-the-china-pakistan-economic-corridors-energy-portfolio/

[10] “The Future of the Belt and Road Initiative in Afghanistan: Obstacles, Opportunities, and The Taliban’s Perspective,” Silk Road Briefing, February 2023

[11] Zafar N. Jaspal, “Trilateral Dialogue: Impracticable Commitments sans Afghan Representation,” Arab News Pakistan, May 2023, https://www.arabnews.pk/node/2304256

[12] Zafar N. Jaspal, “Trilateral Dialogue: Impracticable Commitments sans Afghan Representation,” Arab News Pakistan, May 2023, https://www.arabnews.pk/node/2304256

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The Islamabad Policy Institute (IPI) is a nonpartisan, independent policy research institute based in Islamabad. Our goal is to undertake in-depth analysis of challenges and choices confronting Pakistan. We aim to help policymakers and public better understand the world, region and Pakistan-specific challenges and opportunities. We make efforts to engage government, civil society, private sector, media, academia in open debates and dialogue on the most significant developments in national and international affairs. We envision contributing to policy-making through periodic policy-papers putting forward policy-recommendations developed in collaboration with experts and stakeholders in each area. IPI takes no institutional position on policy issues.

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