The China Connection Between Pakistan and Afghanistan By Moneeb Ahmad Barlas

Last year China hosted the first China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue. “As a good friend of Afghanistan and Pakistan, China is willing to play a constructive role in improving Afghanistan-Pakistan ties through a trilateral dialogue,” China’s Foreign Minister told the press. Beijing is keen to mediate between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Arguably, it can do so by addressing the critical issues in the fractured Pak-Afghan relationship.
To begin with, China can help strengthen cooperation on cross-border terrorism which is the major bone of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan. While the Pakistani military has made tremendous gains in the war against terror and is also fencing off the porous border with Afghanistan to prevent the infiltration of non-state actors, the regime in Kabul still needs to demonstrate its intent and willingness to deal with India-sponsored terrorists operating from Afghan soil. Not only is Pakistan frustrated at the terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan but China too is troubled by East Turkestan Islamic Movement’s (ETIM) activities from its safe havens in Afghanistan.
Beijing blames the group for instigating terror attacks in the restive province of Xinjiang. Chinese military is working closely with its Afghan counterpart to prevent ETIM’s incursions into Xinjiang from the Badakhshan province in northeastern Afghanistan. A section of the media has reported that China is building a military base in the Wakhan Corridor. Although, Chinese officials have denied any such plans, yet, concerns about terrorism are real as it threatens the peace and development of the region.
Beijing must push the government in Kabul to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries on its soil. This is necessary for CPEC’s security and the successful integration of Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In addition to this, China can also contribute economic investments in Pak-Afghan border areas, thereby, providing incentives for people to shun violence and extremism for growth, development and prosperity. Beijing itself can benefit from Afghanistan’s large reservoir of mineral resources.
The Pakistani military has made tremendous gains in the war against terror and is also fencing off the porous border with Afghanistan to prevent the infiltration of non-state actors, the regime in Kabul still needs to demonstrate its intent and willingness to deal with India-sponsored terrorists operating from Afghan soil
According to some estimates, Afghanistan’s mineral resources are worth $1 trillion. As China continues on the path of economic development, its industries could draw on mineral imports from Afghanistan. The resulting benefit from exports to China will also be a major boost for Afghanistan’s shattered economy and its impoverished people, while Pakistan can provide additional dividends by linking Afghan exports to the Middle East and European markets. Nonetheless, any such endeavors along with the possibility of Afghanistan serving as a transit route to Central Asia remain hostage not only to the security situation in the country but also to the American agenda in Afghanistan.
However, when peace in Afghanistan becomes a reality, the territory of Afghanistan can serve as an important economic and cultural bridge between South and Central Asia, linking Pakistan to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and attracting even heavier investments from China. Such anticipated benefits of China-induced economic growth coupled with Beijing’s perceived political neutrality can also help rekindle the stalled Afghan peace process.
China has already participated in earlier efforts at an Afghan reconciliation including the Quadrilateral Coordination Group involving Pakistan, China, Afghanistan and the United States. However, considering the Taliban’s aversion to a US-brokered agreement, the trilateral forum initiated by Beijing includes only China, Pakistan and Afghanistan which may prove to be more effective. Beijing and Islamabad must strive for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process that satisfies the aspirations of all stakeholders inside the country. While the details are for the Afghans to work out, tribal autonomy as well as economic interdependence between the tribes will be imperative for sustainable peace in the country.
In this regard, any economic scheme offered by China should advisably be pan-tribal, involving widely distributed benefits for most of the tribes if not all. This requires an understanding of Afghanistan’s cultural sensitivities, something that most countries have overlooked thus far. China, Pakistan and Afghanistan should nurture cultural harmony through direct contact between their people.
Cultural exchanges not only play an important role in fostering a better understanding of each other but also provide an environment for shared learning. People-to-People linkages will also help inculcate a regional mindset based on a shared vision of the future. Therefore, governments of Pakistan, China and Afghanistan should encourage the establishment of trilateral thinks tanks, student exchange programs, industrial linkages, and tourism programs. A strong network of civil societies among these countries will also pave the way for political reconciliation between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Nonetheless, China’s influence in bridging the trust deficit between Afghanistan and Pakistan goes only so far. The primary responsibility for overcoming their differences lies with Islamabad and Kabul. Hopefully, the two neighbours will find ways to mend their troubled relationship.
The writer is an independent researcher in public policy and international relations. He can be reached at moneeb.barlas@gmail.com
Published in Daily Times, October 17th 2018.
Source: https://dailytimes.com.pk/311111/the-china-connection-between-pakistan-and-afghanistan/

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