Pakistan Reader# 593, 9 May 2023
On 8 May, the foreign ministers of Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan concluded their trilateral dialogue. A joint statement was issued, stressing trilateral cooperation on regional connectivity and the ethical need to reconcile with Afghanistan to reaffirm inclusion and promote economic development in the larger region.
The international community was called upon to assist Afghanistan in countering narcotics effectively. The need to tackle security challenges through coordination and cooperation on security, organized crimes and drug smuggling was emphasized.
Second, the joint statement stresses the need to refrain from internal matters in Afghanistan to enable stability and peace. Terrorist groups like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), East Turkistan Islamic Movement and others were to be not allowed to use territories of the dialogue participants. This effectively means that China is not considering sending its military to neutralize the terrorists and bring stability.
Third was the emphasis on the Afghan reconstruction through trilateral investment possibilities and supplementing existing connectivity projects on energy, railways and transit. There was a distinction on hard and soft connectivity, implying hard infrastructure will come first and then will follow the norms and standards. The three countries emphasized trilateral cooperation in the exchange and training programs ‘to strengthen agriculture, trade, energy, capacity building and border management etc.’
The following three can be considered as takeaways from the joint statement.
1. China wants to be in all the spheres
China wants to be seen as a peacemaker, as witnessed recently during the reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia at its behest. Five days before the trilateral summit, Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministers were in India for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Foreign Ministers. The foreign ministers discussed various issues like multilateral cooperation in SCO through trade, terrorism and the addition of new dialogue members. China is also part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
The trilateral summit emphasized boosting transit trade through Gwadar port and extending CPEC into Afghanistan. The trade networks under BRI may start from China but must conclude profitably at a point down south in Gulf or Africa. Similarly, a diversified volume of trade in terms of commodity and origins will determine the viability of the idea of promoting economic development in the region. China despite being aware of the limitations of one-way trade and connectivity seems ready for taking the mundane hard investment route. With the joint statement, China is signalling to hedge the security of CPEC as well. Safeguarding and securitizing its supply chain lines to the global hegemon, the USA and its associates seems to be the posture from the latest meeting on Afghanistan.
2. A pragmatic approach to Afghanistan
In a separate lecture in Pakistan, the acting Afghanistan foreign minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi denied that the TTP was using Afghan soil to carry out attacks in Pakistan. He advised the revival of talks between Pakistan and TTP, however, Pakistan blames external actors for facilitating TTP attacks within Pakistan. The foreign minister added that TTP is an older issue and at the current institutional strength, the Taliban government in Kabul may only be able to do a little more if facilitating negotiations.
While Kabul would not resist a boost to its classical importance of being at the centre of Asia, it will also be mindful of the difference between words and actions. An isolated Afghanistan found it merry to become part of extended CPEC while it continues engagement on the development of Ring Road with other partners.
3. China’s emphasis on Pakistan
During his visit to Pakistan in the first week of May, State Councilor and Foreign Minister China Qin Gang asserted that China and Pakistan were all-weather friends and the friendship between the two countries was “as solid as a rock”. Recently, an evaluation of expanding rail network to Pakistan from China was endorsed under CPEC despite its huge cost of around USD 58 billion. This means that China is willing to compete and finish up first in connecting China and Central Asia with the Arabian Sea and Pakistan is a critical link to it. Pakistan, for its own sake, has been balancing its relationship between the US and China. There have been calls from the US to continue helping Pakistan in its anti-terrorism operations while Pakistan is in a cyclical economic downturn and the majority of its lenders are situated in the west.