The narrow strip of territory in northeastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan this strip is about 350km (220 mi) long and 13-65 km (8.1-40.4 mi) wide. Yes this strip is known as Wakhan corridor which enjoys extreme strategic position. Between China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, inside the Pamir Knot, lies the Wakhan corridor. This strip of land sandwiched between the four countries was created as a buffer between the territories of British India and Tsarist Russia in the 19th century, which was then formally demarcated between the Kingdom of Afghanistan and the Chinese People’s Republic in November 1963. The Wakhan corridor has historically been an important transit path of the ancient Silk Road route.
Given the geography of the Pamir Mountains, building infrastructure in the Wakhan could be difficult and costly. However, there are many instances of projects that have been successfully completed in the similar and even more geographically complex terrains of the region. The Karakorum Mountains, into which the Karakorum Highway was built (using 1960s and 1970s technology, taking 20 years to complete), and the Pamir Mountains where the Wakhan corridor lies are in the same area with similar topography.
A nutshell comparison of these areas indicates that the feasibility of infrastructure in Wakhan is increasingly viable given the road and tunnel-building technologies available in China today. The cost of the 400 km Wakhan project would be trivial compared to the $794-million upgrade of the Karakorum Highway or the $4.2 billion for the 1,600 km China-Tibet railway that opened in 2006. If such mega projects could be built on the roof of the world way back in the late 1970s and early 2000s, there is no reason to perceive geographic complexity as a barrier to building connectivity via Wakhan.
What is currently missing is an initiative to open borders and collaborate. While geographical complexity has not been a barrier to the development of the infrastructure in Wakhan, security concerns and regional political play seem to be the major roadblocks on the way to the development of Wakhan.
Yet until today, there has not been a single project undertaken with trilateral cooperation. So how can the three neighbors initiate and increase their trilateral cooperation? The first goal should be to boost trilateral people-to-people exchanges.
The three governments need to address the physical and political obstacles hindering trilateral people-to-people and business-to-business relations. Between China and Afghanistan, there are physical barriers, especially the absence of direct infrastructure links (currently Sino-Afghan bilateral trade passes through a third country, like Iran or Pakistan). Some might argue that the tough physical terrain in Wakhan, Badakhshan, the part of Afghanistan bordering China, is a big hindrance for directly connecting the two countries. But if building the Karakorum Highway in Pakistan is possible, why not undertake such a project in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan? Paving the way for direct road links between Afghanistan and China would enormously boost the bilateral trade.
Meanwhile, between Pakistan and Afghanistan there are political barriers, which then cause rising physical barriers through the closure of borders. These barriers have badly influenced bilateral trade and transit. For instance, according to Afghan statistics, the total volume of Afghanistan-Pakistan trade decreased from $1.573 billion in 2015-2016 to $1.482 billion in 2016-2017. Similarly, Afghan imports from Pakistan dropped from $1.346 billion to $1.199 billion during the same period. Overall, since 2010, Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral trade had decreased from a peak of $2.5 billion.
All the three sides should freely encourage each other to point out their red lines. If these red lines or concerns are not logical, they should be discussed. Some red lines are not negotiable but others stem from miscommunication or misunderstanding rather than reality. It is here that China can play a very important role by persuading its two neighbors to effectively engage. China has every reason to do so, because the security situation of Afghanistan is also a headache for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and its heavy investments in CPEC. With China interested in mediating between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it has the potential to outperform previous attempts by Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Besides this, there are three main advantages of building infrastructure through Wakhan corridor. First, the inhabitants of the Pamir Knot — encompassing Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan, Wakhan District in Badakhshan province of Afghanistan, Kashgar in Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, and Chitral in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of Pakistan — share a common history, culture, religion and geography.
People in this enclave have been isolated from wider civilisations for centuries. Moreover, the border areas among these four countries are widely underdeveloped and economically insecure. Their primary sources of livelihood have been livestock husbandry and, to some extent, agriculture. According to a 2008 report, the literacy rate in Wakhan district hardly reaches 5 per cent.
The foremost advantage of building infrastructure in this region would be to bring change in the life and livelihood of the local population. Their access to markets and cities would help them sell their products, get access to education and find alternative sources of income. Regional investment in infrastructure and trade would provide locals with reliable sources of employment, rejuvenating these people’s historical ties to the ancient Silk Road.
Second, connecting the bordering countries and facilitating economic integration through better infrastructure would lead to more stability and security in the region. Better customs controls and the deployment of border guards, as well as control of the illegal cross-border trafficking, would encourage legal exchange and cooperation.
Indirectly, the integration of the border areas would strengthen local development and lead to an increase in the economic well-being of the local population, which would lead to more secure and stabilised border regions.
Finally, linking the Wakhan corridor to the Karakorum Highway would provide the shortest route for China to reach its mega projects in Afghanistan, and for the Afghans to access the vast Chinese market. The north-south expansion of the corridor would help landlocked Tajikistan to get access to Pakistan’s ports, allowing the Pakistanis to reach the resource-rich Central Asian republics by traversing Afghanistan through the shortest possible route.
If built, the Wakhan corridor would be the least costly trade route between China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan compared to the current alternatives. This should compel the four countries to transform this land buffer into a bridge between them.
Currently, CPEC benefits Pakistan and China, but it can be easily extended to include Afghanistan and Tajikistan. If the Wakhan route is connected to the CPEC, it would undoubtedly boost trade and transform the economic outlook for the entire region.
In my view, political bottlenecks and security fears should not hold back economic progress and regional prosperity. It would be in the best interest of the region as a whole to develop more projects like CPEC and Chabahar, with regional integration and economic cooperation in mind. These megaprojects, linked together in good faith, could reinforce and facilitate trade and transit in the region with the lowest possible costs and numerous benefits.