Afghanistan Begins Road Link to China; Beijing Discusses Adding Afghanistan to CPEC

On May 23, a government official in Afghanistan disclosed that construction had begun on a $5 million road in the country’s Pamir mountain region that will become the sole land route between Afghanistan and China.  Once completed, the official noted that the road would be used to export raw materials to the Chinese market from untapped Afghan mines.

The Afghanistan government is reportedly financing the 50 km road, and, thus far, no direct involvement by Chinese companies or banks is evident.  For more than a decade, China has expressed interest in investing in Afghanistan’s raw materials and mineral resources, but has not followed through due to persistent violence and conflict in the country.

Some observers are speculating, however, that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could prompt Beijing to be more proactive in the country through investment (potentially leading also  to the presence of additional security personnel).  On May 24, just one day following Kabul’s announcement on the road project, China’s Foreign Ministry said it has been in communication with Pakistan and Afghanistan about the inclusion of Afghanistan within the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) framework.  

Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, added,

We have also noticed that Afghanistan has imported and exported related goods through the Gwadar Port and Karachi Port.  China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are discussing issues related to extending roads and expressways in Pakistan to Afghanistan.

In January 2020, Gwadar Port in southwestern Pakistan began taking cargo shipments under the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), whereby Afghanistan was granted access to the port to import and export goods via Pakistani land routes.  Gwadar Port has been developed and is now operated by China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC), which is contracted to receive 91% of the revenues from Gwadar over the next 40 years.  Per reports, the Afghan transit trade has been an important first source of revenue for the Chinese operators of the port.

Notably, the Wakhjir Pass through which the new road will be built is the only direct route between China and Afghanistan that is potentially navigable.  The mountain pass connects Afghanistan’s Wakhan region with the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County in Xinjiang, China.