By A. Shafaq
The completion of the Little Pamir Road, linking Afghanistan and China, has raised geo-political concerns, particularly concerning security issues involving terrorists and separatist militants. Despite the Taliban’s aspirations for the road to boost commerce and connect with China, Beijing remains cautious about extending full access due to various factors, including concerns over the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the security situation in the region.
Initiated by the former Afghan government as an effort to attract Chinese investment in untapped mining resources, the 50km Little Pamir Road project began in May 2021 but was halted when the Taliban regained control three months later. Completed around January 15, the road, costing approximately US$5 million, is set to undergo asphaltation in the near future. The Taliban envisions the road connecting to China’s vast network, facilitating commerce, imports, and exports, and potentially expanding into a strategic corridor linking Afghanistan with China, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
China’s Cautious Approach
Despite the Taliban’s hopes, China remains hesitant to fully embrace the road project. Experts from mainland China argue that the road lacks economic value and practical access, making it of little interest to Beijing. The absence of Chinese customs facilities and only frontier border guards in the area signals China’s reluctance to invest further. Moreover, China sees the Wakhjir Pass as a crucial counterterrorism front line, given the presence of ETIM fighters in northern Afghanistan, particularly in Badakhshan province.
China’s reservations stem from its concerns over terrorism emanating from Afghanistan and threatening its autonomous region of Xinjiang, which has a predominantly Muslim Uygur population. Reports indicate that around 500 ETIM fighters are present in northern Afghanistan, further exacerbating China’s worries. Despite assurances from the Taliban to prevent Afghan territory from being used for terrorist activities, China remains distrustful and has consistently urged the Taliban to intensify efforts against terrorism. However, China continues to pursue cultural suppression against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, demolishing mosques, prohibiting religious symbols, and labeling activities such as wearing a veil, growing a long beard, and violating family planning policies as illegal religious activities or extremism. These inhuman actions against Muslims in China has increased the support for Uyghurs among the Afghan Tribal groups residing along the border with Xinjiang. This makes the job of controlling the expansion of support for ETIM more difficult for the Taliban.
China’s foreign policy is characterized by self-driven diplomacy and hegemonic pursuits to secure its interests in security, geoeconomics, and geopolitics. Even China’s recent decision to accept the credentials of the Taliban ambassador to Beijing without formally recognizing the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government is also part of this strategy. While acknowledging the Taliban’s authority, China emphasizes the need for an inclusive government, moderate policies, and a firm commitment to counterterrorism for formal recognition. Experts describe this move as paradoxical and transactional, highlighting China’s attempt to balance its engagement with the Taliban while at the same time maintain certain distance.
The completion of the Little Pamir Road marks a significant development for the Taliban-led Afghan Government. However, Beijing’s cautious approach, driven by security concerns and economic considerations, might shatter the dream of the Taliban to use this road to stimulate economic activity in the region using the physical connection with China. As the situation evolves, the interplay between security dynamics and diplomatic strategies will continue to shape the future of Afghanistan-China relations.
A. Shafaq (pseudonym) is a researcher and lecturer at one of the private universities in Kabul.
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