China and Pakistan consider including Afghanistan in $57 billion economic corridor, as Beijing looks to broker peace between troubled neighbors

Bloomberg, Reuters

China and Pakistan will consider extending their $57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said earlier this week, as part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road plan linking China with Asia, Europe and beyond.

China hosted top diplomats from Afghanistan and Pakistan in Beijing on Tuesday in a bid to mediate a long-simmering conflict between the neighboring countries.

Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani and Pakistan Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif joined their Chinese counterpart for the first trilateral minister-level dialogue, to discuss possible economic and security cooperation as China expands its economic interests in Pakistan.

“China, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as three neighbors, will naturally try to strengthen cooperation amongst each other,” Wang was quoted as saying by state broadcaster CCTV. “This is fully in accordance with our common interests, and is a good thing for us.”

China hopes its economic corridor could benefit the whole region and act as an impetus for development, Wang said to reporters, adding that Afghanistan has an urgent need to develop and improve people’s lives and hopes it can join inter-connectivity initiatives.

“So China and Pakistan are willing to look at with Afghanistan, on the basis of win-win, mutually beneficial principles, using an appropriate means to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan,” he added.

How that could happen needs the three countries to reach a gradual consensus, tackling easier, smaller projects first, Wang said, without giving details.

Pakistan’s Asif said his country and China were “iron brothers”, but did not directly mention the prospect of Afghanistan joining the corridor.

“The successful implementation of CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) projects will serve as a model for enhancing connectivity and cooperation through similar projects with neighboring countries, including Afghanistan, Iran and with central and west Asia,” he said.

India has looked askance at the project as parts of it run through Pakistan-administered Kashmir that India considers its own territory, though Wang said the plan had nothing to do with territorial disputes.

The Belt and Road infrastructure drive aims to build a modern-day “Silk Road” connecting China to economies in Southeast and Central Asia by land and the Middle East and Europe by sea. China’s investment in Pakistan is intended to link its remote western region to the Arabian sea. Beijing’s leaders have also boosted economic and trade links with Afghanistan.

The meeting highlighted China’s growing role in global hot spots as U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration embraces a more inward-looking foreign policy. President Xi Jinping has sought to present China as a responsible alternative to the U.S., shifting from a long-standing policy of keeping a low profile in international affairs.

China has sought to bring Kabul and Islamabad together partly due to Chinese fears about the spread of Islamist militancy from Pakistan and Afghanistan to the unrest-prone far western Chinese region of Xinjiang.

As such, China has pushed for Pakistan and Afghanistan to improve their own ties so they can better tackle the violence in their respective countries, and has also tried to broker peace talks with Afghan Taliban militants, to limited effect. A tentative talks process collapsed in 2015.

Wang said China fully supported peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban and would continue to provide “necessary facilitation”.

China hoped the meeting could set up a communication platform for Afghanistan and Pakistan that would allow the two countries to build trust, enhance understanding and improve ties, Wang said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The three countries agreed to establish the mechanism during Wang’s visits to Kabul and Islamabad in June.

The three ministers agreed to work together on political mutual trust, reconciliation, development cooperation, connectivity, security cooperation and counter-terrorism, according to a joint media release issued by Pakistan’s foreign ministry. The countries will host their second meeting in Kabul in 2018.

“A broad-based and inclusive peace and reconciliation process, which is ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’, and fully supported regionally and internationally, is the most viable solution to end the violence in Afghanistan,” they said in the statement, calling on the Taliban to join the peace process.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have been uneasy neighbors ever since the latter’s independence in 1947, their ties poisoned in recent years by Afghan accusations that Pakistan is supporting Taliban insurgents fighting the U.S.-backed Kabul in order to limit the influence of rival India in Afghanistan.

Pakistan denies that and says it wants to see a peaceful, stable Afghanistan.

Several rounds of meetings in the past few years between the U.S., China, Pakistan and Afghanistan have failed to facilitate meaningful peace talks.