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Wakhan Corridor: Vital for CPEC and BRI

Qamar Bashir

By: Qamar Bashir

An important development that went unnoticed by the Pakistan media radar was the construction of a 50-kilometers stretch of the Silk Road, extending from the Wakhan district of Afghanistan to the Chinese border. This road was inaugurated by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development in September last year (2023). With the construction of this road, Afghanistan has established a direct link with China, reducing the distance and lowering the cost for the import and export of commercial goods between the two countries. Meanwhile, the Afghan and Chinese governments are feverishly discussing the commencement of traffic through the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory in northeastern Afghanistan stretching 350 kilometres to China and separating Tajikistan from Pakistan. It is located at the confluence of three mountain ranges — the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and the Pamir, forming the Pamir knot.

The construction of the road and the serious discussions between the two governments are highly significant and have the potential to impact Pakistan both positively and negatively. Positively, it could extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) from Pakistan to Tajikistan through Afghanistan, and link the landlocked Central Asian states with the Karachi and Gwadar ports. Negatively, it could reduce Afghanistan’s reliance on Pakistan for transit trade.

With the opening of the Wakhan Corridor, a highway linkage between Tajikistan and Pakistan through Azad Kashmir could be established, creating a significant opportunity for enhanced trade and economic activity in the region. This route could facilitate the trade of various goods such as minerals, textiles, agricultural products, and manufactured goods. Central Asian states could export natural resources such as oil, gas, and minerals, while importing goods like textiles, machinery, and electronics. Though, the trade volume would depend on several factors such as infrastructure capacity, ease of trade regulations, and market demand. However, with the potential opening of new trade routes and access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea through Karachi and Gwadar Port, trade volumes could be substantial.

If CPEC were extended through Afghanistan to Central Asia, the benefits for Pakistan could be significant. It could further enhance Pakistan’s strategic position as a trade hub, increase connectivity with Central Asian markets, and boost economic growth. In dollar terms, the benefits could include increased revenue from transit fees, expanded trade opportunities, and improved economic ties with regional countries. This would strengthen Pakistan’s geopolitical position and the  development of infrastructure along this route would stimulate economic growth, create job opportunities, and foster cultural exchanges and people-to-people connections, contributing to greater understanding and cooperation in the region.

Additionally, the corridor would provide Central Asian states with a shorter and more efficient route to access international markets via Gwadar Port, which is strategically important due to its location at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. It would enhance its strategic importance by providing an alternative route for trade that bypasses traditional chokepoints and improves connectivity between South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East, facilitating greater economic cooperation and integration in the region.

For Afghanistan, the direct access to China through the Wakhan border would enable Afghanistan to carry out its entire trade of over $1.3 billion with China through this route. As a result, Pakistan could potentially experience a reduction in its geopolitical advantage and security leverage over Afghanistan. Alternatively, Afghanistan would reduce its dependence on Pakistan and vulnerability to disruptions in transit trade, thus weakening Pakistan’s ability to use security concerns. Afghanistan would potentially seek closer ties with other regional powers, diminishing Pakistan’s geopolitical leverage in the region.

For China, the opening of the Wakhan border would give a much-needed boost to extending Chinese reach to diverse markets as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. However, security and cross-border terrorism will continue to be Beijing’s primary focus. Therefore, the opening of the road will largely depend on the ability of the Taliban to maintain control over Afghan territory, prevent the emergence of any real threat to China’s domestic security by groups and militants inside Afghanistan, and Chinese willingness to set up a border control regime and construct necessary infrastructure such as roads, highways, and bridges to link Afghanistan with China through the Wakhan Corridor.

After the opening of this trade route, all traffic originating from Afghanistan for China, either via sea or through the Karakoram Highway, will be diverted toward the Wakhan border. This route will assume high significance as China is increasingly tapping many areas of Afghanistan for mining precious and rare minerals. China has signed impressive deals, including a $10 billion deal for access to lithium deposits in Afghanistan and a $3 billion deal to develop Afghanistan’s largest copper deposit near Kabul. In Badakhshan, China is exploring minerals such as gold, lapis lazuli, and various gemstones. Additionally, China is exploring copper reserves in Balkh, a rare mineral in Helmand, and iron ores in Herat, as well as iron, copper, and precious stones in Kandahar.

The current route for transporting millions and millions tonnes of minerals every day extracted from Afghanistan and transported to China involves using the Karakoram Highway, which is far more costly compared to transportation directly from Afghanistan to China through the Wakhan Border. The distance between Badakhshan Province and Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, via the Wakhan Border is approximately 600-800 kilometers, whereas the distance from Badakhshan’s capital, Faizabad, to Urumqi via KKH is approximately 1500 km. This means that all minerals being transported through the Karakoram Highway will be diverted to the Wakhan Border, depriving the KKH of a significant amount of traffic and depriving the government of Pakistan of transit fees, levies, customs duties, and Pakistani trucks of business, negatively impacting all businesses along the entire route.

The development of the Wakhan Corridor has transitioned from a mere discussion to a tangible possibility. This vital route is set to open soon, presenting Pakistan with numerous strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It is imperative for the government of Pakistan to proactively position itself to assess the current scenario and future prospects. A comprehensive vision, mission, strategies, and plan should be developed to fully exploit the potential of the Wakhan Corridor and leverage the strategic significance of the region, which is at the center of imperial ambitions and geopolitical complexities. Failure to do so may result in Pakistan missing out on significant economic and strategic opportunities while facing potential challenges from shifting geopolitical dynamics in the region.

By: Qamar Bashir

Former Press Secretary to the President

Former Press Minister to the Embassy of  Pakistan to France Former MD, SRBC






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