During last week’s State of the Union Address, Ursula von der Leyen (President of the European Commission) affirmed the EU’s commitment to “stand by the Afghan people”. Although the EU’s pledge to provide humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and the neighbouring countries is commendable, it also reveals that very little thought has gone into formulating a long-term strategy for the future of the region or the EU’s role in it.
So far, the EU’s response to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan has largely focused on how poor the ethnic, religious and gender balance of the provisional Taliban government is. It is consumed by debates over whether to halt foreign aid – fearing that the Taliban will not respect Western hopes of an “inclusive and representative government”. Whilst the West hesitates, its adversaries are already taking action on the ground. China, having long been flexing its soft power muscles in the region, is poised to step in and write the Taliban a cheque – no questions asked, no strings attached.
Forty years of war and conflict has left Afghanistan with no industry or infrastructure to sustain a functioning economy without ongoing foreign financing. China not only has unrivalled capabilities in infrastructure building but is also eyeing up the country’s trillion-dollars-worth of untapped minerals and precious metals. China will surely not miss this golden opportunity to solidify its influence in the region; this will only end in Europe finding itself at the losing end of a zero-sum game.
As I argued in my most recent article for Mace, if Europeans wish Afghanistan to model an image they approve of (one with human rights, democratic values and inclusive political institutions), they must engage in a long-term economic project in central and southern Asia. Locking Afghanistan in requires a heavy measure of pragmatism combined with a healthy dose of economic competition on the ground.
Allowing China’s transactional foreign policy to capitalise on Western failure will not only ensure that European liberal values will fail to take root among the Afghan people, it will also further imperil Europe’s efforts and ambitions for the region’s economic, political and social development.
If China takes the wheel
If Afghanistan were to become China’s client state, the EU’s plan for economic and political influence in the region would be scuppered. China commandeering Afghanistan’s infrastructure development would mean other countries losing out.
Such a path would put an end to the central Asian states’ (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) connecting to global trade routes through Afghanistan and Pakistan. It would keep them landlocked, geographically isolated and heavily dependent on Chinese (and Russian) trade.
Pakistan, too, would lose out. Not only it is an important trading and security partner to the EU, but its economic development is equally dependent on its regional integration and market access to northern neighbours. A trusted ally of the West in the war against terror, and a crucial conduit facilitating ties between Afghanistan and the outside world, Pakistan’s role in the region is vital. Allowing China to steer Afghanistan’s future not only risks driving a wedge between the two countries but would further undermine the prospects of bringing stability into the region. The West’s commitment to ensuring Pakistan is part of the solution can be seen in recent visits made by foreign ministers from the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, to name a few.
The EU has a unique opportunity to shape the future of the region, yet its diplomatic efforts have done very little so far to advance its vision on the ground. Engaging with the new leadership in Afghanistan is a necessary challenge and priority. Despite being far off from seeing a Western long-term vision being realised, on-the-ground realities compel the EU to act.
The EU should use its convening power to bring Afghanistan, Pakistan and the five central Asia nations together. It has the opportunity to help them coordinate a shared economic and political vision for the future. These seven nations lying in the ancient silk routes share more than just the same neighbourhood and modern-day borders; they are bound together by history and by ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural ties. The EU should use this historic geopolitical opportunity to host an international summit serving as the bedrock for future regional and global integration.
The G7 as precedent
The concept of informal intergovernmental meetings goes back decades. In the 1970s, the leaders of the world’s most advanced democracies began to meet and discuss solutions on global economic challenges, in what later developed into the Group of Seven (commonly known as the G7). Although the G7 was originally set up as an economic forum, in the course of time its role has significantly expanded to include and drive global policy agendas on human rights, international security, health and climate change.
Similar to the early days of the G7, the EU should organise and host a “Silk Seven Summit” which would be a platform for engagement and dialogue between the Silk Seven nations and the EU. It could, like the G7, establish cooperation at a technical level through working groups and include ministerial meetings and annual head of state summits.
These meetings can facilitate closer technical collaboration where the EU, itself a successful project of economic and political connectivity, would have plenty of experience to share. Most importantly, the EU, as the host and interlocutor in this process, could provide with the institutional and political legitimacy this ambitious diplomatic, economic and political initiative needs. And as with the G7, where its initial mandate was narrow, the EU can gradually expand the agenda and role of the Silk Seven Summit to include political and geo-strategic cooperation.
Once in a generation
Hosting the inaugural Silk Seven Summit as a means to creating stable economic conditions, would be just the first step in achieving the EU’s long-term goals for the region. Afghanistan’s economic integration within the region is an essential condition for long-term peace and stability, political development and the global integration of southern and central Asia’s economies. A number of economic and infrastructure projects are currently in progress across the region including the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) Power Interconnection Project and the Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project. These reveal not only the untapped potential for economic connectivity, but a framework for ongoing cooperation that has already been established.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that the EU cannot afford to miss. Elevating the economies, stabilising the political systems and enshrining commitments to human rights in the Silk Seven nations would solidify the EU’s own global image and influence.
Creating the conditions for peace, stability and prosperity (especially for Afghans) is just one of many long-term gains. For the Central Asian nations, where there’s a burgeoning momentum for economic and political reform, cooperation with Afghanistan would provide access to new markets. Pakistan has already proven itself an ally to the EU. It has been a reliable diplomatic, security and humanitarian assistance partner; integration and democratisation in its vicinity would allow it to continue strengthening its economic and trade ties with the EU through the GSP+ (Europe’s special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance).
Clearly, ending the Silk Seven region’s fragmentation has both close and far-reaching benefits. Although the political dividends, such as improvement of rule of law, good governance and human rights from integrating Afghanistan in its EU-Asia policy might not yet be visible to the EU, the short-term gains are easier to see. Becoming a partner in trade and infrastructure to the Silk Seven nations would allow the EU to reap economic benefits for its member states’ markets and further extend its influence in a multipolar world.