China is poised to finance a series of major energy and infrastructure projects to enhance cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In a sign of its increasingly assertive and central role in the future of the two neighboring countries, Beijing has promised to build a hydroelectric dam in eastern Afghanistan along with new road and rail links to connect major cities in the two countries.
Officials confirmed that during the first round of the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue in Kabul this week the three sides agreed on the projects. But Beijing has yet to unveil the amount of financing it will provide.
"China has agreed to support relevant initiatives for projects including the Kunar hydropower plant and strengthening road and rail connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told journalists in Beijing on February 10.
The proposed 1,500-megawatt dam in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar is expected to supply electricity to energy-starved Pakistan. Islamabad and Kabul had previously agreed on the joint management of the hydroelectric project, but it was not clear who was going to provide the funding.
Beijing is also expected to fund the construction of a motorway connecting the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar to Kabul and a railway line from Quetta, the capital of southwestern Balochistan Province, to Kandahar, across the border in southern Afghanistan.
Chunying said that China is encouraging "Afghanistan and Pakistan to enhance a mutually beneficial cooperation." She said the three neighbors have "reaffirmed their willingness to deepen cooperation on counterterrorism and security as terrorism, extremism and separatism pose a grave threat to the peace and stability of the region."
Islamabad also acknowledged the progress. A February 9 statement by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry noted, "China and Pakistan have reiterated support for the 'Afghan-led and Afghan-owned' peace and reconciliation process."
China has emerged as a major force in shaping the future of Pakistan and Afghanistan after U.S.-led Western forces recently ended their combat operation in Afghanistan and are gradually heading toward an exit.
In recent months, Beijing is seen as leaning on traditional ally Islamabad to abandon its support for the Afghan Taliban now fighting against Kabul.
Western and Afghan diplomatic sources say Beijing wants to weaken Uyghur separatists from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). China sees the hard-line separatists as a major threat to its security. In recent years, hundreds have been killed in attacks attributed to Uyghur militants in their Xinjiang homeland in western China.
During the past decade, ETIM has mainly operated from Pakistan's tribal areas, which form an arch along the country's western border with Afghanistan. Uyghur militants are closely allied with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and a host of Islamist extremists operating from the border region.
Beijing has already invested billions of dollars into developing infrastructure, mineral extraction and energy resources in Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years.
The two countries figure prominently in Chinese President Xi Jinping's Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. Under this plan, Beijing will invest hundreds of billions of dollars into energy and infrastructure projects in neighboring South and Central Asia countries.
With reporting by Reuters