US backs China economic support to Afghans, while India okay with it: expert

CPEC Triumvirate --Picture Courtesy VOA
Foreign Minister of China’s Wang Yi makes Afghanistan’s Salahuddin Rabbani and Pakistan’s Khawaja Asif shake hands Tuesday in Beijing

The picture of the foreign ministers of China, Pakistan and Afghanistan in Beijing, the day after Christmas, raised quite a few questions: has the US and India given Afghanistan the nod to join the controversial $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)?

The joint communique after the Beijing conference said that the three countries reaffirmed their commitment towards “advancing connectivity under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),” The Hindu reported. The statement was released after a conference attended by foreign ministers of the three countries, China’s Wang Yi, Afghanistan’s Salahuddin Rabbani and Pakistan’s Khawaja Asif

While India’s opposition to the CPEC, the US threw its weight behind India: in October, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee October “no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating such a project. In a globalised world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘one belt, one road’,”  The Hindustan Times reported. The CPEC is part of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s One, Belt, One Road, OBOR, aka BRI.

A key China expert in Washington DC, Andrew Small, fellow at German Marshall Fund in Washington DC and author of The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Politics” says the question of US and India nod to Kabul did not arise as the “US has been actively encouraging of any Chinese economic support for Afghanistan – and India has respected the fact that Kabul continues to seek deeper economic engagement from Beijing,” I don’t see any obstacle in Delhi or Washington in that respect.

Small explained that “joining CPEC” is a slightly mysterious concept anyway – if China pushes forward various forms of cross-border infrastructure between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether it is formally part of CPEC or not; “if there’s a political sensitivity, these projects can simply be classified as non-CPEC projects.”

Small said the bigger challenge is that there has been talk of this before – it was one of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s earliest suggestions to the Chinese – but China has proceeded very slowly, suggesting that Afghanistan needs to improve its relations with Pakistan first and so on.

“This time the effort may have more legs – the first phase of CPEC was heavily bilateral whereas now there are more active Chinese efforts to build in other partners and to make the scheme appear more politically constructive,” Small said. “Given the track record, though, the Afghan side will still be wary, however, about making any political concessions without strong commitments that the Chinese will actually deliver.”

A leading US scholar, who is most hated by Pakistan army and spy service ISI, Prof C. Christine Fair, who is Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, said the US is not bothered by Afghans joining the CPEC or not.  “I don’t think the United States cares,” Prof Fair said. “India surely does.  India is betting on the Chabahar GLOC  (Ground Lines of Communication) and CPEC is a natural competitor.”

But Prof Fair said from Afghanistan’s point of view, both India-Iran GLOC and China-Pakistan CPEC are beneficial as Afghanistan needs trade routes.

Pakistan will have to dismantle the Haqqani network if it wants Afghans as a longterm partner in the CPEC. The eyes of Pakistan the economic and commercial benefits of Afghanistan becoming part of CPEC may be of lesser importance than subduing Kabul as a fifth province of Pakistan for military-strategic reasons.

Prof fair is a fierce critic of the CPEC as she thinks it will become a huge liability for the country.

Bertil Lintner, Swedish journalist and strategic analyst and author of, “China’s India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World” opines the CPEC has been much of a success. “Pakistan is not a stable country, and China will have to deal more and more with its internal dynamics. Plus, the CPEC connects to Xinjiang, away from China’s economic centres,” Linter said told  The Hindu.

Strategically sexy Gwadar Port in Balochistan is the main element of the CPEC and the Baloch are wary of the Afghans ganging up with China and Pakstan, but the Afghans say the Baloch will have an ally if Kabul joins the CPEC.

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