Afghanistan has committed to "deepening cooperation" with China on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, as the foreign ministers from Beijing, Kabul, and Islamabad held their "Fourth China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers' Dialogue" in a virtual format on Thursday.
A joint statement after the three-nation meeting between China's Wang Yi, Afghanistan's Mohammad Haneef Atmar, and Pakistan's Shah Mehmood Qureshi noted that Afghanistan was already importing goods through Pakistan's Gwadar Port. The Arabian Sea port, backed by Beijing, is a crucial terminal in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship and by far the most expensive segment of the $1 trillion BRI projects.
"The three sides commended the progress made by Afghanistan in the area of connectivity and in carrying out trade through the Gwadar Port, and other seaports in the region, and expressed readiness to further tap cooperation potential to raise the level of connectivity among the three countries in the region", said the statement.
— Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Afghanistan 🇦🇫 (@mfa_afghanistan) June 3, 2021
During the meeting, Qureshi and Wang also expressed their readiness to "expand economic and trade ties" with Afghanistan, as they vowed to "play a bigger role" in Afghanistan's reconciliation process after the withdrawal of American and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-allied troops from the insurgency-ravaged nation.
Pakistan's former Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir told Sputnik that although rebuilding Afghanistan's economy was "extremely critical" to securing its future, economic issues haven't received the focus they deserve.
"It is therefore heartening that two immediate neighbours of Afghanistan are prepared to focus and cooperate with Afghanistan in building infrastructure and connectivity enabling Afghanistan better access for trade through transit facilities and ports on the Arabian Sea", said Bashir.
Bashir reckoned that the BRI had the potential to transform the economic landscape of a post-war Afghanistan, much like what has been Pakistan's own experience as being part of the Beijing-backed initiative.
"The CPEC has contributed in a big way to developing infrastructure, ports, and energy sectors in Pakistan. The region as a whole can benefit. This has enormous importance for a landlocked Afghanistan", the ex-Pakistani diplomat added.
While China and Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on cooperation on the BRI back in 2016, it was only last month that the world's second-biggest economy announced its intention to extend the CPEC into Afghanistan.
"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", Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press briefing on 24 May.
In Thursday's meeting, Atmar and Wang also appreciated Islamabad for hosting millions of Afghan refugees during the war years and called for their early return and "reintegration" into Afghan society.
The reaffirmation to extend the CPEC into Afghanistan comes against the backdrop of the US accelerating its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, in the wake of President Joe Biden announcing a 11 September deadline to complete the process.
Both the US and India, one of Afghanistan's biggest regional donors and a close development partner, have been warning other countries against joining the BRI on account of a range of concerns.
The US National Defence Strategy in 2018 accused China of practicing "predatory economics" in the guise of the BRI.
New Delhi, on the other hand, has so far refused to recognise the CPEC on the grounds of "sovereignty", noting that a section of the connectivity project passes through parts of the disputed territory of Kashmir.
As part of its own initiative to help the landlocked Afghanistan, New Delhi has also been developing the Chabahar Port in Iran, with over 75,000 tonnes of wheat transported to Kabul during the COVID pandemic.
'Welcome Return of the Taliban to the Mainstream'
The three governments also welcomed the "early return" of the Taliban to the political mainstream of Afghanistan, as the foreign ministers warned against imposing any foreign pressure in choosing the next Afghan government.
The joint statement also called for a "comprehensive ceasefire to avoid senseless violence", in order to create the conditions needed for negotiations between Afghanistan and the Taliban.
Further, the three sides acknowledged that the troop pullout from Afghanistan would have a "complex impact" on the overall security situation in the region, but said it would also provide opportunities for the region to take the future into its own hands.