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On May 5, Afghan security forces stand near an armoured vehicle during fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the capital city of Helmand province. Photo: AFP

China seeks to expand belt and road to Afghanistan in name of security as US withdraws troops

  • After China-Afghanistan-Pakistan video conference foreign minister says Afghans face uncertainty but also opportunity to ‘truly control their own destiny’
  • Risks for Beijing include a lack of cultural understanding in the region and potential accusation of creating a ‘debt trap’ for Kabul, says professor
China has said it will seek to expand substantially Belt and Road Initiative projects to Afghanistan and deepen the “dialogue mechanism” for the region, in an apparent effort to raise its influence after the US withdraws its troops from the country.

Wrapping up a video dialogue on the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan with his counterparts in Afghanistan and Pakistan on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that while the withdrawal of US troops might bring uncertainties regarding security, it gave Afghan people an opportunity to “truly control their own destiny” and was good for the country’s long-term stability, according to China’s official readout.

“The three sides agreed to deepen the cooperation in BRI, supporting the substantial expansion of it to Afghanistan, and enhance the level of interconnection between the three countries,” Wang said.

The three parties also agreed to create a strong dialogue mechanism between the respective foreign ministers, with China calling to add dialogue between their envoys to discuss peace talks in Afghanistan and specific steps to be taken.

The US is expected to pull its remaining 2,500 to 3,500 troops out of Afghanistan by September after two decades of deployment. Beijing fears the withdrawal will lead to a potential resurgence of terrorism in the country, which would pose security risks to its predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region bordering Afghanistan and threaten its belt and road projects in the region.

China says extremism must not be allowed to return to Afghanistan

China has sought to strengthen cooperation with Central Asian states on security to manage any potential spillover of turmoil from Afghanistan. During a meeting with the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan last month, Beijing said they should jointly crack down on terrorists and prevent transnational crime. Last month, Beijing also offered to host talks in China for parties in Afghanistan during a call with Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib.

“We can expand China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) cooperation to Afghanistan and improve the level of trade cooperation and interconnection between Afghanistan and other countries in the region,” Wang said.

Launched in 2013, CPEC, which includes a network of roads, ports, oil and gas pipelines and optical fibre cables, is a belt and road project that aims to enhance trade and infrastructure links across Asia and beyond. It is strategically important for China because it provides an alternative route for oil and gas imports from the Middle East.

The project has been accused of being a debt trap for Pakistan.

Pakistan bombing spotlights security at China’s flagship belt and road project

Zhu Yongbiao, a professor of international relations at Lanzhou University, said the expansion of belt and road projects to Afghanistan could face multiple challenges.

“First, it will face security risks due to the instability there. Besides, investment of Chinese enterprises may also fail due to the lack of understanding of Afghan culture and society. Moreover, China will be highly likely to face international accusations such as the ‘debt trap’,” Zhu said.

“Looking from China’s recent official statement, it is likely to be more active in Afghanistan from now on than in the past, which means China’s influence in the country will be expanded.

“But it does not necessarily reduce the influence of the US, because the stance of China and the US on Afghanistan is not conflicting. Instead, they share common interests in improving the self-development capacity of Afghanistan.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Wang welcomes expansion of projects to Afghanistan