China Lays New Brick in Silk Road With First Afghan Rail Freight

  • New rail route cuts travel time and expands China’s influence
  • Offers a link in Xi Jinping’s ‘one belt, one road’ endeavor

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Oct. 28, 2014.

Photographer: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

For centuries, Chinese products have wended their way thousands of kilometers across mountains and deserts to the heart of central Asia, Afghanistan. Now, for the first time, the trade is carried by rail.

With the first train last week pulling in to Hairatan, northern Afghanistan, China marked another advance in President Xi Jinping’s Silk Road project to deepen his nation’s influence along old trade routes. For Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the new link also marks a small step toward a dream of turning his landlocked country into a transit hub of Asia. 

Already the top investor in the war-torn country to its west, China is aiming to boost its commercial standing, as the no. 5 trading partner currently. Deepening those ties would help Afghanistan pare back the influence of Pakistan, the southern neighbor with which ties have sometimes been strained over outbreaks of violence and closures in border crossings.

Afghanistan’s first cargo train from China approaches to cut the ribbon.

Photographe: Eltaf Najafizada/Bloomberg

“It’s an unprecedented, vital project for the Afghan economy,” said Azarakhsh Hafizi, the head of the international relations committee at Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce & Industries in the capital, Kabul. “That will greatly reduce Chinese imported commodities’ prices and unprecedentedly improve our trade with China, now standing at tens of millions of dollars.”

The train, carrying $4 million worth of commercial goods such as fabric, clothes and construction material, took just two weeks to arrive from the east coast of China, a fraction of the three-to-six months the road transit takes via Pakistan to the eastern border crossing into Afghanistan. It’s a new link in Xi’s “one belt, one road” project deepening the lattice of transport links across Eurasia, an initiative that’s coming together in fits and starts, with advances in places like Bangladesh, and setbacks in locations including Thailand.

For a QuickTake look at China’s Silk Road push, click here.

“Without Afghan connectivity, there is no way to connect China with rest of world,” said Yao Jing, Chinese ambassador in Afghanistan, in a speech marking the first freight train’s arrival on Sept. 7. “As a neighbor, China attaches greater importance to the development and peace process in Afghanistan.”

China has for years had grand investment plans for Afghanistan’s resource riches, which the Afghanistan Geological Survey estimates are as much as $3 trillion. While the Metallurgical Corp. of China Ltd. received a license in 2007 to mine the biggest Afghan copper deposit, and China National Petroleum Corp. won a contract in 2011 to drill for oil, development of the resources is still some ways off, thanks in part to the nation’s patchy infrastructure.

Copper Riches

“The direct railway can be the best route for them to transfer copper to China,” Hafizi said.

Further economic development is being stymied by increasing terrorist attacks by the Taliban, Islamic State and other insurgents against Kabul’s central government, which has often exercised little control over much of the country. Abduction is another impediment as at least 35 traders and businessmen were kidnapped in July, according to the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce. 

“China still confronts two major problems,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, foreign policy fellow with Brookings Institution India Center. “First is that connectivity is still subject to a stabilization of the security situation in Afghanistan. The second is that many projects, including this one, will face questions of commercial viability.”

The new transport corridor to China may help avoid these ongoing security threats, officials say. “Pakistan won’t any longer be our only option for transit to have our goods imported from China,” said Javid Faisal, a Afghanistan government spokesman.

Pakistan Ties

A spokesman at the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul, Akhtar Muneer, declined to comment on the opening of the China-Afghanistan rail corridor or its affect on trade with his nation, currently the Afghans’ top trading partner.

Afghanistan’s $600 million export industry -- including shipments of saffron, marble, lapis lazuli and high-quality Kurk wool -- will see “a considerable” increase following the opening of the rail route, said Khan Jan Alokozay, a deputy chairman of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce.

Reducing import costs could help hold down inflation as Afghanistan takes from abroad some 90 percent of its commercial products such as food, fabric, electronics, construction materials, oil and gas.

Mohammad Rafi Amiri, the general director of Harirod Logistical Co. in Afghanistan, the company that imported the goods from China to Afghanistan, said transporting directly from China could “reduce prices by 30 percent.”

The freight trains are expected to carry 45 containers of goods twice a month from the Chinese city of Haimen to Hairatan, according to Musafer Quqandi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce and Industries. Once inside Afghanistan the goods will be transported to Mazar-e-Sharif city, the country’s second biggest commercial center, through an extended 75 km railway built in 2010 with Asian Development Bank funding.

“The investments boost China’s position as Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor,” said Sayed Masood, an economics professor at Kabul University, in a phone interview. “The country now seeks to be Afghanistan’s biggest trading partner.”