China and Pakistan say they are exploring the extension of their bilateral infrastructure development project to Afghanistan.
During the past four years of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing has provided Islamabad $19 billion in soft loans and direct foreign investments, upgrading or constructing Pakistani transportation networks, power plants and the strategic Arabian Sea port of Gwadar.
The stage is now set for “expansion and geographical extension” of CPEC to western Pakistan and to landlocked Afghanistan, say Pakistani and Chinese officials. They say later this year Kabul is to host the next round of a trilateral peace and security cooperation dialogue with Beijing and Islamabad and discussions will also include a proposed framework for engaging Afghanistan in CPEC.
“We should make this bilateral cooperation of CPEC project another platform for a better regional cooperation or connectivity. This economic development of Pakistan in fact is an opportunity for the whole up-gradation of the regional economic development,” says Chinese Ambassador to Islamabad, Yao Jing.
During the past four years CPEC, the flagship and fastest growing project of President Xi Jinping’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has created more than 75,000 local jobs and has helped Pakistan increase its economic growth rate from more than three percent to 5.8 percent in 2017. The construction of power plants has almost ended the crippling electricity crisis in the country.
‘Time has come’
Officials say the second phase of CPEC will be launched in coming weeks to construct special economic zones to help Pakistan advance and revive industrial development.
Officials tell VOA, China could initially propose capacity building training programs for Afghans and funding for linking a Pakistani motorway to Afghanistan’s border cities of Jalalabad and Kandahar.
The Chinese are helping Pakistan build the motorway linking the northwestern border city of Peshawar to the southern port of Karachi, which Kabul uses for its international trade. The proposed motorway would provide a much shorter route for Afghanistan to the Chinese-operated port of Gwadar, known as the gateway to CPEC.
Mushahid Hussain, head of the Pakistani Senate’s foreign affairs committee, says despite U.S.-led foreign skepticism and suspicions about CPEC, all 22 “early harvest” projects under the initiative have been successfully completed or are on route to completion.
“Now the time has come for CPEC to move beyond Pakistan and China, and the natural extension or expansion of CPEC should be towards Afghanistan because Afghanistan has a border with Pakistan and China and these three countries have a natural correlation in terms of economy, culture and geography,” Hussain told VOA.
He said later this month in Islamabad an unofficial trilateral think tanks conference of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan will also discuss how to include Kabul into CPEC.
Beijing initiated official trilateral dialogue with Afghanistan and Pakistan last year in an effort to ease regional tensions and promote a peaceful settlement to the Afghan war.
"China’s role is extremely important ... in bringing Pakistan and Afghanistan together because China has very strong relations with Pakistan. China is one country which has no extra baggage in Afghanistan because it has no history of involvement or no negativism about its role in Afghanistan,” Hussain noted.
BRI, CPEC skepticism
Both Chinese and Pakistani officials dismiss as “misplaced and irrelevant” criticism that CPEC and the BRI initiative is a debt trap for developing nations and an effort to increase Beijing’s political influence in the region.
Speaking at the Chinese embassy with CPEC project directors, Ambassador Jing said, “There is a kind of force in the world who do not want to see a rising a China, who don’t want to see a prospering China. Naturally, there are some forces who don't want to see this kind of a partnership between China and Pakistan. We should be alert against these kind of negative forces or elements.”
Islamabad and Beijing have also rejected reported concerns that Pakistan’s economic woes are forcing Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government to slow down or revisit CPEC projects.
Jing said the investments under the multi-billion dollar CPEC is a “new demonstration of China’s confidence and trust” in Pakistan.
Responding to CPEC critics, senior Pakistani Cabinet minister Shireen Mazari has stated the government is committed to the project and pushing for involving neighboring countries to make Pakistan a hub for regional development
CPEC is estimated to bring more than $62 billion in Chinese investment to Pakistan during the next decade.
Jing says Khan's first official visit to China this week will take the friendship between the two countries to "new heights." He added that agreements expected to be singed during the visit would help ease the bilateral trade-deficit. Beijing also plans to announce an unspecified financial "grant" for Pakistan to help it deal with a looming balance of payments crisis.
“We want to invest more in Pakistan and buy more from Pakistan. China’s capital, China’s technology and also China’s huge market could offer a bigger contribution towards Pakistan’s future development," said the Chinese ambassador.