With NATO forces out of Afghanistan, the Russians will largely provide security in the region and China will be exploring the possibility of restructuring Afghanistan’s supply and trade chains after twenty years of war. Although several potential routes exist along the Wakhan Corridor and via Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, here is why China is planning to link CPEC to Afghanistan.
The Pakistan Connectivity Route
There are several options for China to develop trade routes with Afghanistan – the Wakhan Corridor, the finger of Afghanistan that reaches east to the Chinese border, existing trade routes via Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the potential to further develop the Karakorum Highway route through the Khunjerab Pass and ultimately via Peshawar to Kabul.
It is however, the southern Afghanistan connectivity that is likely to be developed first due to the northern routes via Wakhan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan being difficult and expensive, although that’s not to say they may not eventually happen.
A more likely scenario for China to access Afghanistan is to expand and develop the existing road network through from Taxkorgan in Southern Xinjiang across the border to Pakistan and Gilgit.
This route, the Karakorum Highway, already exists and has been in use for decades, although it too is subject to weather extremes, the terrain is rather easier to engineer.
Subscribe to GreatGameIndia
This route, known as Highway 314 in China and the N35 in Pakistan, extends through from China as far as Islamabad, the Pakistan capital. A route from Islamabad, the N5, connects through to Peshawar.
There has been significant discussions to extending the existing Chinese railway, which runs through to Kashgar and Yarkand, through the same Khunjerab Pass to Gilgit, on the Pakistan side, which has national rail connectivity to the rest of Pakistan.
In 2014, China commissioned a “preliminary research study” to build an international rail link to Pakistan. In 2016 this 682 km proposed railway link was reported to be part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and was to commence construction during the second phase of CPEC between 2018-2022.
However, the construction of this railway line was not mentioned in the CPEC Long Term Plan from 2017-2030 released jointly by China and Pakistan in 2017. China’s involvement in several rail projects in Pakistan is motivated primarily by commercial considerations, but it also sees distinct advantages for its improved transportation and access to Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, as Pakistan’s national rail network connects through to Pakistan’s Seaports at Karachi and Gwadar.
Significant new investment has taken place at Gwadar to cater for Afghani trade, while China has also been developing Special Economic Zones in the Punjab region near Afghanistan.
The Peshawar-Kabul Connection
The Peshawar connection is also highly valuable. This is already operational as it is part of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline that bisects Afghanistan running West to East.
That is supported by an existing road network providing maintenance and some trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pakistan’s N5 highway runs from Islamabad to Peshawar and onto the Afghan border at Landi Kotal on the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan. From there it is now known as the AH76 which connects directly to Kabul – a five and a half hour drive.
The Afghanistan-CPEC Corridor
It is for these reasons that an extension of CPEC into Afghanistan and directly to Kabul looks the most likely option, while China’s Belt and Road connectivity with Afghanistan from its direct borders looks a longer-term play.
The Wakham Corridor itself is only sparsely populated and at present offers minimal opportunities – unless any viable mineral extractions are within the region.
Accordingly, while China’s Pamir infrastructure build with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan can be expected to include the potential for future Afghan routes, a simpler, and less expensive solution for China to access Afghanistan is via the Khunjerab Pass from Kashgar into Pakistan and improving the existing Friendship Highway with links through to Islamabad and Peshawar.
That can be expected to be augmented with a reappearance of the proposed Kashgar-Gilgit railway with improvements also to be made to the Pakistan national rail network from Gilgit to Peshawar as part of this. Connectivity from Peshawar to Kabul then makes sense.
Excerpted from the Silk Road Briefings.