- Afghanistan and the Belt and Road Initiative:Hope, Scope, and Challenges
In September and October 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Central Asia and Southeast Asia, where he announced an initiative to jointly build the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. From the Chinese perspective, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an ambitious economic vision aimed at "cooperation among the countries along the Belt and Road" whereby they "work in concert and move towards the objectives of mutual benefit and common security."1 The BRI vision document emphasizes the great potential and space for cooperation among regional countries by promoting policy coordination and facilitating connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people bonds. These have been identified as the initiative's five major goals.
Since being announced in 2013, BRI has become the centerpiece of Xi's foreign policy. In May 2017, representatives from over 100 countries, including Afghanistan, attended the Belt and Road Forum, at which 68 countries and international organizations signed cooperation agreements with China. Xi explained that China hopes to "find new driving forces for growth, create a new platform for global development, and re-balance economic globalization."2 This essay examines Afghanistan's high expectations for BRI and Chinese perceptions of the country's potential role in the initiative. The essay concludes by discussing the challenges that Kabul faces in realizing the benefits of participation in this ambitious connectivity project.
Afghanistan's Expectations for BRI
From Afghanistan's perspective, BRI is a welcome project. The Afghan government has shown interest and already confirmed its participation [End Page 103] in the initiative. Highlighting the importance of this megaproject, Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai said that the "economic development process along the Silk Road will reshape the international development order that has been centered in our region and carries great significance for human development in the 21st century."3
For Afghans, this initiative is a very important step toward improving regional cooperation and regional and interregional connectivity, which complements Kabul's long-standing policy of promoting regional integration and economic cooperation. With an aim to advance transnational projects, Kabul initiated the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan in 2005, and in 2011 the Regional Cooperation Directorate was established in the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In March 2017, Finance Minister Eklil Hakimi stated that Afghanistan has already aligned most of its domestic plans with BRI.4 The government believes that the initiative will provide an opportunity for Afghanistan to once again become an "Asian transit and trade roundabout" connecting South Asia to Central Asia and East Asia to West Asia, thus bringing economic benefits not only to Afghanistan but to the entire region. Specifically, Afghan leaders argue that the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, the Five Nations Railway, and several gas pipeline projects can be linked to other projects under China's grand connectivity initiative.5 In addition, since October 2016, Afghanistan has expressed interest in joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and its ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal, has already extended Afghan support for CPEC. Both Pakistan and China seem open to this possibility, but the logistical question of how to extend CPEC into Afghanistan remains unanswered.
The proponents of Afghanistan joining CPEC in particular and BRI in general have argued that participating in this megaproject will bring the following benefits to the country. First, the new infrastructure within Pakistan could give Afghan businesses and investors access to the consumer market in South Asia, thus reducing the cost of imports and increasing exports to the region. This could help Afghanistan enhance its [End Page 104] trade with regional countries, thereby stabilizing its economy. In 2015, Pakistan was the top export destination for Afghanistan ($392 million), followed by India ($277 million). Similarly, Pakistan emerged as the top origin for imports, with trade amounting to $1.95 billion, followed by China ($587 million) and India ($560 million). So far Afghanistan has been exporting goods like carpets, rugs, dried fruits, and medical plants but not copper, iron ore, and other natural resources. BRI is expected to offer the opportunity for Afghanistan to export these and other valuable resources to...