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Afghanistan and the Belt and Road Initiative

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The Belt and Road Initiative


This chapter has a twofold objective: to understand how China’s cooperation with Afghanistan has served the purposes of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and to assess the role played by Afghanistan in the implementation of that project. The study is carried out in three domains—political and diplomatic, economic and security. In the political and diplomatic, we examine the evolution of China’s bilateral and multilateral diplomatic initiatives with or involving Afghanistan, underlining their economic and security implications. Attention is paid to China’s diplomatic efforts to find a political solution for the conflict in Afghanistan. In the economic, we study the evolution of the relations between both countries along three topics—aid and development financing, bilateral trade and investment in natural resources. The security domain is studied along two aspects: the regional impact of Afghanistan’s insecurity, namely in the security situation along the two BRI corridors that go around Afghanistan, and in Central Asia and China Islamist movements; and China’s competition with the United States in Central Asia. The evolution of the cooperation in those three domains comprises the analysis of its impact on BRI, and the identification of noticeable changes of strategy after the announcement of BRI by President Xi Jinping, in 2013. We argue that Sino-Afghan cooperation, beneficial for both countries, has not been oriented to the implementation of BRI. Despite the importance that BRI might have for the economic development of Afghanistan through investment in transportation, energy and telecommunications infrastructure and in its regional integration, China has not assigned to Afghanistan a relevant role within the framework of BRI, a project where Afghanistan plays a marginal and subsidiary role.

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  1. 1.

    Despite this editorial deadline, the last trade data refers to 2017, and the information on peace initiatives extends to 2019.

  2. 2.

    The CCAWEC connects Urumqi, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Peninsula; the CPEC connects Kashgar, Khunjerab Pass, Islamabad and Gwadar, accessing the Indian Ocean and the Hormuz Strait. See a comprehensive explanation on BRI land corridors and Maritime Silk Road in Leandro (2018, 4–5).

  3. 3.

    Despite being a low diplomatic priority for Beijing, China was one of the first states to establish official relations with the Afghan Transitional Authority. In February 2002, China reopened its embassy in Kabul after seven years closed.

  4. 4.

    Which is radically different from supporting insurgencies in other countries, as China did under Mao.

  5. 5.

    On a different approach to China’s neighbourhood policy, see Chung (2010), chapter 2, Godement (2014) or Lin (2005).

  6. 6.

    According to the final joint statement of President Karzai’s state visit, beyond the signature of the “Treaty of Good-Neighbourly Friendship and Cooperation” and the “Agreement on Trade and Economic Cooperation”, the two sides signed 10 agreements, protocols, exchange letters and memoranda of understanding, most of them of economic nature. For a full list of those documents, see Zhu (2006).

  7. 7.

    The “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighbourly Relations” is an expression of the so-called China’s “Good Neighbour Policy”, a diplomatic approach oriented to cooperative multilateralism, particularly in the regions surrounding China, through “consultations, negotiations, and seeking common ground while reserving differences” (Chung 2010, 7). On China’s “Good Neighbour Policy” towards Russia and Central Asia (adopting the “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence”: mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, peaceful bargaining and respect for differences in the search for common development) see Chung (2010, 22–23).

  8. 8.

    Good neighbourhood became an important feature of China’s foreign policy. To nurture those relations, China signed similar treaties with other countries it shares border (Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan).

  9. 9.

    For complete information on the major aspects discussed in the summit, see Zhu (2006).

  10. 10.

    (1) political and diplomatic; (2) economic and trade; (3) humanitarian; (4) security and police affairs; and (5) multilateral efforts to build the comprehensive cooperative partnership of good-neighbourliness, mutual trust and friendship for generations, see Souza (2010).

  11. 11.

    For complete information on the major aspects discussed in the summit, see Joint Statement (2010).

  12. 12.

    In June 2016, under the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, China organized a seminar and Field Trip on the “One Belt one Road initiative”.

  13. 13.

    For an evaluation of the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process as of November 2014, see Kazemi (2014).

  14. 14.

    Important to emphasize the fact that China has established strategic partnerships, similar arrangements, with all five Central Asian countries. See the text of the joint declaration of the summit in the website of the PRC embassy in the United States (2012).

  15. 15.

    This “forum” met for the first time in Beijing on 26 December 2017.

  16. 16.

    Others, more sceptical, consider that this mechanism was created fundamentally “to increase cooperation between the hostile neighbours in order to develop effective counterterrorism mechanisms” (Shams 2017).

  17. 17.

    Still according to Stanzel (2018), “to extend CPEC to Afghanistan” could mean only small-scale projects for instance, joint industrial parks.

  18. 18.

    Kalil (2017) pointed out that Afghanistan and China signed in 2016 an MoU on OBOR, and according to an IMF report, Beijing has allocated some money to Afghanistan from the OBOR fund. However, no further information was disclosed.

  19. 19.

    It is important to underline that the Taleban sat in various occasions in the same room with Afghan government representatives, however, in lower key events not directly related to Afghanistan, such as a peace seminar in Oslo, March 2015. On this issue, see Ruttig (2016) and NDTV (2015).

  20. 20.

    For a comprehensive analysis on the role played by the QCG in the search of peace, see Ruttig (2016) and GKTODAY (2019).

  21. 21.

    Chung (2004) argues that China wants to strengthen the SCO to counter US influence in Central Asia. “Diplomatically, China fears that the American presence means that regional states will be less accommodating to China’s political demands. Economically, China worries that the United States’ support for American petroleum companies will compromise Chinese efforts to wrest concessions from Central Asian governments”.

  22. 22.

    This issue will be developed with more detail in the section dedicated to security cooperation.

  23. 23.

    It is important to underline that China’s support to Afghanistan through regional organizations is not limited to the SCO. One good example of that is the “Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan” (RECCA). For further information on the RECCA activities in support of Afghanistan, see Govserv (2019).

  24. 24.

    “The narcotics problem with Afghanistan was in fact first raised at the Fourth SCO summit in June 2004 at the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, where an accord was achieved to tighten customs regimes bordering Afghanistan, improve anti-drug smuggling efforts, and develop and implement relief programs for poppy farmers in that country” (Chung 2010, 64). On the economic implications of the opium economy and its relationship with security, see Byrd (2008).

  25. 25.

    We refrain to mention all decisions taken by the SCO on Afghanistan, such as “The Plan of Action of the SCO Member States and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on Combating Terrorism, Illicit Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime” signed in 2009 because its scope goes beyond the Sino-Afghan relations. For detailed information on the relations between Afghanistan and the SCO, see Feihong (2012).

  26. 26.

    Despite the desperate efforts done by some Afghan politicians and academics to deny this evidence, one example is the report prepared by Mariam Safi and Bismellah Alizada with the appealing title “Integrating Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative” where sometimes Kabul’s undertakings (economic development, investment in national infrastructures, etc.) to benefit from BRI are mixed with BRI adaptation to serve Kabul needs. It is required a separation of actorness. Kabul should do everything it can to benefit from the BRI, not the other way around. This blurriness is obvious when Safi and Alizada state that in May 2017 “China included Afghanistan in the BRI plans, potentially through the CPEC”, or consider the possibility “to extent the CPEC to Afghanistan and to eventually connect it to the China–Central Asia–West Asia Economic Corridor”, without explaining why China would/should link the CCAWEC to the CPEC. What does China benefit from that?

  27. 27.

    Important to note the largest economic presence of China in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In the latter, China is a major investor in Kazakhstan’s oil industry. On China investments in Central Asia, see Olcott (2006). The dimension of those investments already in 2006 gives us a notion of the relative importance of Afghanistan in the Chinese strategic calculus. On this issue, see also Weihman (2003).

  28. 28.

    Reports from the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), the Carnegie Endowment, the Associated Press (AP) and other sources indicate that China has been involved in a number of specific projects in Afghanistan, including: $5 million for humanitarian aid in February 2002; an irrigation initiative in Parwan Province; the re-building of hospitals in Kabul and Kandahar; the construction of the $25 million Jamhuriat Hospital in Kabul in 2010; the establishment of the Confucius Institute, at Kabul University in 2010; building of a national vocational training centre, highway development in Kunduz-Jalalabad, repair and reconstruction work of the Kabul-Jalalabad and Bamiyan-Samangan highway, and custom building in Torkham. China has provided training to more than 800 different officials of Afghanistan and to local Afghans in different departments. In addition, for at least five years, China has provided scholarships, approximately 30 per year, for Afghans wishing to attend Chinese universities. “Statistics show that China has trained over 2300 Afghans specializing in various fields since 2015, and the number of trainees is set to be at least 1000 this year [2015]. On top of that, China granted scholarships to over 150 Afghan students in 2017, and currently, there are 307 Afghan students studying in China” (Fengyuan 2019).

  29. 29.

    These figures are very close to those advanced by a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s report authored by Huasheng (2015), who also acknowledged that “China’s economic support for Afghanistan has also increased significantly. Between 2001 and 2013, China provided Afghanistan with a total of approximately $240 million of aid”. “But in 2014 alone, China provided Afghanistan with $80 million of aid and pledged to provide an additional $240 million over the next three years” (Huasheng 2015).

  30. 30.

    To understand the real impact of foreign aid on the growth and development of the country and its implications for the overall performance of the country, see Fayez (2012).

  31. 31.

    The five top export destinations of Afghanistan are India ($411 million, 47%), Pakistan ($392 million, 45%), Germany ($8.9 million, 1%), Turkey ($8.74 million, 0.99%) and France (8.22 million, 0.94%).

  32. 32.

    The five top imports of Afghanistan are Pakistan ($1.39 billion, 27%), India ($631 million, 12%), Kazakhstan (563 million, 11%), China ($532 million, 10%) and Turkey (120 million, 3.4%). According to the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, the bilateral trade volume between the two countries reached $544 million in 2017, a figure slightly different from ours.

  33. 33.

    In addition to the “Afghanistan-China Air Corridor”, Afghanistan has opened air corridors with India, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Efforts are underway to extend air corridors to more countries.

  34. 34.

    According to Tanha (2017), China promised to spend $70 million on extending the fibre optic network from Kashgar to Badakhshan. For a detailed description of the Afghanistan and China Trade Relationship, see Tahiri (2017).

  35. 35.

    A team comprising US geologists and Pentagon analysts conducted an evaluation of Afghanistan’s mineral resources and concluded that Afghanistan’s deposits of iron, copper, niobium and other minerals could be worth at least $1 trillion. But Afghan officials, “noting that 30 percent of the country had yet to be surveyed, estimated the actual worth to be three times that amount” (Ng 2010). On the oil and gas resources of Afghanistan, see Afghanistan Inter-ministerial Commission for Energy (2016).

  36. 36.

    This was a joint project with an Afghan firm (Watan Group) in the Qashqari, Bazaar Kami and Zamrudsai areas of Sar-i-Pul that would earn Afghanistan $7 billion over the next two decades and a half.

  37. 37.

    This transnational railway was supposed to have two legs: one, linking the mine to Kabul, and from there to the Afghan-Pakistani border crossing of Torkham; other, from Kabul to the border with Uzbekistan in the north. The feasibility study was launched in 2011.

  38. 38.

    The Taliban attacked the camp with the Chinese engineers’ advance team for the first time in 2008. The Chinese engineers and technicians abandoned temporarily the camp after repeated rocket attacks and a Taleban ambush which killed 15 Afghan policemen.

  39. 39.

    For a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the problems surrounding the Mes Aynak mines, see the article by Thomas Ruttig posted in the Afghanistan Analysts Network (11 July 2015), with the title “Copper and Peace: Afghanistan’s China dilemma”. Although a 4-year-old article, the situation in 2019 is not significantly different. For a point of the situation in 2018, see Marty (2018).

  40. 40.

    One illustration of this is the failure to rehabilitate a road from Kabul to Jalalabad by the Chinese private company Xinjiang Bexin due to difficult operating conditions.

  41. 41.

    For a view of the significant mineral and petroleum deposits in Afghanistan that have been awarded or are being tendered, see Global Witness (2012).

  42. 42.

    Afghanistan has only one small-scale oil refinery near the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan border and is very dependent on the expensive supplies coming from Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia republics.

  43. 43.

    Like China in Mes Aynak and in the oil fields in the basin of the Amu Darya River, six years after winning the tender to mine Hajigak, the Indian consortium and the Canada company are facing problems and the mining has not started (Jahanmal 2018).

  44. 44.

    Daniel (2015) elaborates lengthily on the potential of the Afghan stone industry and market conditions that make it a very attractive investment.

  45. 45.

    Like the service that runs from the Chinese city of Yiwu, in the Zhejiang Province, to Barking in London conceived within the framework of BRI that lasts an average of 18 days to run more than 12,000 kilometres. On this issue, see Crabtree (2017) and Hillman (2018). Today, freight services from China to Europe connect roughly 35 Chinese cities with 34 European cities. The plan includes the construction of a “Silk Road high-speed railway” to provide a single line connecting the Chinese network, Central Asia and Iran. On this see Rogers (2015).

  46. 46.

    In September 2016, “the first-ever cargo train from China, after some two weeks of journey, has arrived in Hairatan port, some 300 km north of Kabul, in the northern Balkh province” (Ecns 2016). Some critic the merit of this initiative because trains arrived in Afghanistan full of Chinese goods and return to China almost empty.

  47. 47.

    China’s discomfort with American presence in Central Asia extends to the initiatives carried out by NATO under the framework of “Partnership for Peace”, the annual multilateral military exercises called “Steppe Eagle” carried out by soldiers from the United States, UK, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkey (U.S. Army Central 2019), and the Defence Education Enhancement Programme (DEEP) oriented to professional military education institutions.

  48. 48.

    In addition to the ground troops deployed in Afghanistan, the US Air Force operates four airports/airbases (Bagram Airfield, Herat International Airport, Mazar-i-Sharif Airport and Shindand Air Base). The United States ended up its presence in Manas (Kyrgyzstan) and Khanabad (Uzbekistan) air force bases, in 2014 and 2005, respectively, and made an unsuccessful attempt to deploy in the Ayni Air Force Base (Tajikistan). In a hearing before the US Senate, General Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, complained on the breakdown of US-Kyrgyzstan military cooperation, after ending the presence in Manas, which was replaced by the Russian and Chinese. Bishkek has thrown its lot with Russia and China. Still according to Votel, “The Kyrgyz Republic has increasingly aligned its interests with Russia and China” (Kucera 2018).

  49. 49.

    Although this section is focused on security, we should bear in mind that security is only one element of China’s policy towards Central Asia neighbours. Other aspects also count. For a view of a relation established upon economic development and political stability arguments, see ICG (2013).

  50. 50.

    Some challenge this view. For instance, Hong (2013) argues that “Beijing has come to realize that the American counter-terrorism war is actually favourable to China, and it will have to play a more active role in the future of Afghanistan”.

  51. 51.

    The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) is an Islamic extremist organization founded by Uyghur jihadists in western China. Its strategic objective is to establish an independent state in Xinjiang (“East Turkestan”).

  52. 52.

    The Khorasan region historically encompasses parts of modern-day Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  53. 53.

    The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is the former name of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) or Turkistan Islamic Movement (TIM).

  54. 54.

    According to the Afghanistan Analysts Network “there is a proposal for a Chinese-financed Afghan National Army mountain brigade that would also include a base. Both the Afghan and Chinese governments denied arguing that the proposal has not gone beyond the discussion phase and neither the location for a base nor the schedule for its construction have been agreed.”

  55. 55.

    Although not sending military troops to Afghanistan, China has provided limited training (compared with American’s) for Afghan police and mine-clearing teams.

  56. 56.

    China has celebrated military cooperation programmes with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan aiming at deepening collaboration on defence and military education matters.

  57. 57.

    Lest not forget that the major security challenge to CPEC resides in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan (Voice of Balochistan 2016). There are reports that China has agreed with Pakistan to build a military base in Pakistan to protect the CPEC, as well as several road and rail improvement projects, including a highway linking the cities of Karachi and Lahore, reconstruct the Karakoram highway, linking Hasan Abdal and the Chinese border, as well as the modernization of the main Karachi-Peshwar railway line by the end of 2019, for trains to travel up to 160 km/h. On this issue, see Connor (2017) and Rajagopalan (2018).

  58. 58.

    It might be deceiving to establish analogies between the 2 BC Silk Road and the current project. Camels and horses don’t move in the same spaces as high-speed trains and lorries.

  59. 59.

    The Hindu Kush stretches through Afghanistan from its centre to northern Pakistan, Tajikistan and China and has immense peaks above 4500 m of altitude with deep gorges, canyons and permanent snowfalls and blizzards.

  60. 60.

    Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, in the north, and Pakistan in the south are the fastest routes to transport goods from China to Europe. Pakistan is the fastest and the shortest way to reach Gwadar, a port city on the southwestern coast of Balochistan, on the shores of the Arabian Sea from China. On 13 November 2016, CPEC became partly operational when cargo from China arrived at the port of Gwadar and was shipped to Africa and West Asia. On this issue see Voice of Balochistan (2018).

  61. 61.

    Afghanistan and security for China still include two additional fronts without relation with BRI. One lengthily explained in this text (the US military presence in Afghanistan), and other connected with the China competition with India, which means allying with Pakistan and watching very closely India moves in Afghanistan. Beijing wants to make sure that Kabul does turn a Delhi’s proxy.

  62. 62.

    The US scholar Barnett Rubin said at an event in Oslo that a “major reason for the China’s involvement in Afghanistan was its desire in identifying some common interest and potential cooperation with the U.S.” (Ruttig 2018). Barnett Rubin is not alone in this explanation, which is for us highly unlikely and illogical, if we take into consideration the reasons why China promoted the foundation of SCO or China’s approach to Central Asia security.

  63. 63.

    Others even more optimistic like Duarte (2018) consider “unthinkable that Afghanistan will not occupy, in the medium to long term, an increasingly important place within the BRI”. Kalil (2017) explained superbly the advantages of having Afghanistan in the project, but in some occasions exaggerated on the role that Afghanistan can play and on the added value it could bring to BRI.



Afghanistan Analysts Network


Belt and Road Initiative


China-Afghanistan Comprehensive Cooperative Partnership


China-Central Asia-West Economic Corridor


China National Petroleum Corporation


China-Pakistan Economic Corridor


Deutsche Welle


English language website of China News Service


The Economic Times


East Turkestan Islamic Movement


General knowledge Today (Indian website)


International Crisis Group


Islamic State Khorasan


Metallurgical Group Corporation


Middle East North Africa Financial Network


Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Ministry of Mines and Petroleum


Memorandum of Understanding


Munich Personal RePEc Archive


North Atlantic Treaty Organization


New Delhi Television Limited


One Belt One Road


Observatory of Economic Complexity


Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development


People’s Republic of China


Quadrilateral Coordination Group


SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure


Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan


Steel Authority of India Limited


Shanghai Cooperation Organization


Turkistan Islamic Movement


Turkistan Islamic Party


Voice of Afghanistan


Wall Street Journal


Official State-run Press Agency of the PRC


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We acknowledge that Afghanistan is a field of competition between China and India, but we are not going to study it because it has no direct relation with the two goals of this article.

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Correspondence to Carlos Martins Branco .

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Branco, C.M. (2020). Afghanistan and the Belt and Road Initiative. In: Leandro, F., Duarte, P. (eds) The Belt and Road Initiative. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

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