The Wakhan Corridor between Afghanistan and China: What Does It Mean for Bilateral Cooperation?

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In the current global landscape, Afghanistan finds itself at a crucial crossroads, where nations are actively exploring new opportunities for economic collaboration in light of the post-COVID era. An area of great interest for both Afghanistan and China is the rugged expanse of the Wakhan Corridor in eastern Afghanistan. This place holds great historical importance due to its connection to the Silk Route and its strategic location. It plays a crucial role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which could potentially reshape the dynamics of the region. In a recent update, the Afghan government shared that the Pamir Highway has been completed up to the Chinese border. This milestone marks an important step towards the future planning and budgeting of the Wakhan Corridor’s development. Afghanistan, which has faced security challenges in the past, presents China with a chance to advance its economic interests and solidify the corridor’s importance within the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. This development seeks to establish a practical and crucial trade route, linking Central Asian and European markets with China and representing a significant milestone in the partnership between Afghanistan and China.

Wakhan Corridor: Afghanistan’s Strategic Pivot, Silk Road Resurgence, and Evolving Trade

Dynamics with Major Global Partners

The Wakhan Corridor, located within the Badakhshan province, has significant geopolitical importance because of its strategic position. It shares a border with Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region to the north, and is located near the disputed greater Kashmir region, which is contested by India, Pakistan, and China. In the past, this corridor has been a significant meeting point along the Silk Route, linking Afghanistan with its neighboring countries to the north and south.

With the completion of the Pamir Highway up to the Chinese border, the corridor has gained even more strategic importance. This development comes after Afghanistan’s governance transition in 2021. This accomplishment paves the way for the development of the Wakhan Corridor, opening up possibilities for strategic planning and financial allocation. Despite the difficult conditions of the region, there is a strong determination to make strategic use of it.

The Wakhjir Pass, located at the eastern end of the corridor, has always played a vital role on the Silk Road. The construction of a road through the Wakhjir Pass by China has significant geopolitical implications. This project connects Afghanistan’s road system to the Karakoram Highway, which joins Xinjiang’s Kashgar with Islamabad. The road is a highly efficient route connecting China and Central Asia, which allows China to expand its economic and military influence in the region.

The construction of a road through the historic Wakhjir Pass in China not only brings back the legacy of the Silk Road, but also has significant geopolitical implications. China’s strategic positioning in Central Asia is bolstered by its connection of Afghanistan to the Karakoram Highway and the Gwadar port in Pakistan. This move has significant implications for both economic and military dominance in the region. Simultaneously, Afghanistan’s important role in building stronger connections with major global players like China, India, and the EU through the Wakhan Corridor highlights its growing importance in the changing world of international diplomacy.

As for trade relations, the economic interactions between India and Afghanistan, and Afghanistan and the EU, have witnessed notable fluctuations in recent years:

India Trade Relation with Afghanistan (in Million $)

Year Export Import
2020 855 511
2021 662 561
2022 482 415
2023 545 200

Afghanistan Trade Relation with EU (in Million $)

Year Export Import
2020 34 324
2021 88 361
2022 33 284

China’s Strategic Pivot: Bolstering Diplomatic Relations with Afghanistan amid Global Shifts

In the ever-changing geopolitical landscape of Afghanistan, China is taking proactive steps to establish itself as a major player by strengthening its diplomatic ties with Kabul. A recent connectivity agreement showcases China’s active involvement in addressing the void created by years of turmoil, in line with the growing global trend of heightened interactions with Afghanistan. With the United States pulling out and regional powers like India and Gulf Cooperation Council members reevaluating their strategies, China’s comprehensive approach shows a keen interest in Afghanistan’s economic potential and security. This signifies a significant change, where Afghanistan is now recognized as a crucial player in shaping regional and global stability, rather than solely being seen as a conflict zone. China’s approach reflects a pragmatic recognition of the current Afghan government, in line with the global trend of countries navigating a challenging landscape to promote economic cooperation, diplomatic efforts, and regional stability in Afghanistan. This marks a significant milestone in Afghanistan’s global connections, representing a shift away from past hesitations and embracing a future shaped by changing geopolitical forces.

Unlocking Economic Prospects: Infrastructure Development in the Wakhan Corridor as a Catalyst for Afghanistan and China

The ongoing construction of infrastructure in the Wakhan Corridor holds great economic promise for Afghanistan and China. Previously hindered by geopolitical conflicts, the corridor now presents an opportunity for Chinese goods to enter the Afghan market.

Significant amounts of money have already been invested by China in Afghanistan’s natural resources. Trade between Afghanistan and China is increasing, and it is projected that China will become Afghanistan’s second-largest trade partner by 2023. In 2022, China’s imports totaled USD 9.09 million, while its exports reached USD 59 million, resulting in a positive trade balance. As reported by the Silk Road Briefing, there has been a significant 56.4% increase in Chinese exports to Afghanistan. Some of the exports from Afghanistan include nuts and semi-precious stones, whereas China’s exports consist of synthetic filaments and rubber tires.

Afghanistan Trade Relation with China (in Million $)

Year Export Import
2020 54 501
2021 49.1 472
2022 40.02 553
2023 50 774

Over the past 26 years, Afghanistan’s exports to China have consistently grown, with the expected average trade in 2023 reaching USD 816 million, highlighting China’s growing economic influence in Afghanistan. The Wakhan Corridor, functioning as a trade route, provides an avenue for Chinese goods to enter the Afghan market, fostering economic ties and contributing to the region’s economic rejuvenation.

For Afghanistan, this presents an opportunity to diversify its trade relationships and establish new economic partnerships, reducing dependence on volatile trade dynamics. Concurrently, for China, the corridor offers an alternative to Pakistani ports, aligning with its Belt and Road objectives. The Wakhan Corridor, with its potential for market access, economic cooperation, and regional stability, emerges as a symbol of shared opportunities and mutual benefits. In this bilateral interaction between Afghanistan and China, the Wakhan Corridor is more than a mere passage; it represents the potential for harmony when nations align their interests on the geopolitical stage.

With the completion of the Pamir Highway up to the Chinese border, paving the way for the Wakhan Corridor’s development, economic opportunities unfold for both Afghanistan and China. Extensive Chinese investments in Afghan natural resources and the increasing bilateral trade underscore the economic promise that this corridor holds. It goes beyond being a trade route; it is a transformative corridor that can revitalize local economies, reconnect historical ties, and redefine regional dynamics.

Diplomatic Aspirations: Charting the Afghanistan-China Resource Connection

The developing relationship between Afghanistan and China indicates a fresh wave of hope, highlighted by Afghanistan’s favorable response to China’s ‘long-term political support.’ Both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), and the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment are optimistic about attracting more Chinese investments, especially in the fields of iron and energy production. This partnership is seen as a vital step towards achieving self-reliance in Kabul, decreasing the need for external assistance in economic growth.

Nevertheless, despite the excitement, talks about potential collaboration paths have been met with extended discussions without any tangible advancements. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has faced significant challenges, casting doubt on the feasibility of its implementation.

For China to engage positively with the regime, it is crucial for Afghanistan to maintain control over its territory from a diplomatic standpoint. Viewed as a potential economic opportunity, the Wakhan Corridor also carries the weight of fostering regional stability. Envisioned results encompass lawful trade, economic collaboration, and enhanced customs controls, all playing vital roles in promoting stability and security in the region.

China’s involvement in building alternative corridors is in line with its Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to create trade connections across Asia. Positioned as an alternative to Pakistani ports, the Wakhan Corridor signifies a diplomatic shift by reducing Afghanistan’s reliance on historically tumultuous trade relations with Pakistan. It paves the way for enhanced economic cooperation with neighboring nations, signifying a significant shift in diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and China.

The Wakhan Corridor becomes a symbol of possible cooperation between China and Afghanistan, indicating a change in the geopolitical environment of Afghanistan after the war. This region’s infrastructure development has far-reaching impacts, fostering economic opportunities, enhancing connectivity, and promoting regional stability. With China’s focus on expanding its reach through the Belt and Road Initiative, the Wakhan Corridor is emerging as a significant factor in shaping regional dynamics and promoting collaboration among nations. This partnership has the potential to reshape economic and geopolitical landscapes, bringing about a new era of collaboration and development in Asia.

Similar initiatives in the past have faced challenges that have dampened the optimism surrounding this bilateral endeavor. It highlights the need for a delicate diplomatic approach to turn hopeful aspirations into concrete results. With Afghanistan and China working together, the Wakhan Corridor becomes a crucial area where economic interests and diplomatic endeavors converge, holding the power to shape the region’s future.

– S. M. Saifee Islam is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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