Press reports of China hoping to strike deals with the Taliban to secure mineral rights in Afghanistan are very likely to be an exaggeration, explains Lukas Trakimavičius. It’s true that China wants minerals essential to the clean energy transition and other technologies. It’s also true that Afghanistan has an abundance (copper, cobalt, lithium, rare earths, etc.), and they’re worth something of the order of $1tn. But it can take a decade to get a single mine up and running, costs billions, and needs significant transport and logistical infrastructure (minimal in Afghanistan). And then there’s the obvious political risk of such a long-term venture in a conflict zone that’s still in the cross-hairs of its neighbours and every superpower. China has much better options for foreign mineral extraction and is already using them, for example Argentina, Chile, Zambia and Congo DRC. Cool heads will understand that China’s main reasons for engaging with the Taliban is to defend its security interests and prevent the spread of instability and militant Islam to Central Asia and China itself, says Trakimavičius.
In recent days there has been a lot of talk about how China’s recent engagement with the Taliban is driven by the goal to tap into Afghanistan’s mineral resources. While there is likely some truth to this, it would be misleading to portray Beijing’s current policy steps towards Kabul as purely economically motivated.
As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban and scenes of horror were unfolding around Kabul, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said that Beijing is “ready to develop good-neighborliness and friendly cooperation” with the new regime. This statement was firmly in line with China’s earlier attempts to establish friendly relations with the Taliban. Back in July, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi hosted a senior Taliban political leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and his entourage in Beijing.
In response to this, some pundits started making claims that China is doing all of this in a bid to gain access to Afghanistan’s natural riches and that dealmakers “will arrive on the first flights after the airports open.”
Minerals for the clean energy transition
Indeed, Afghanistan is rich in copper, cobalt, lithium, rare earths and other minerals, which are key for the clean energy transition and other cutting edge technologies. Though the exact quantities of these mineral deposits are uncertain, some sources value them at nearly $1 trillion.
Meanwhile, China has time and again made it public that it wants to position itself as a clean technology leader for economic and political reasons alike. Therefore, in principle, Beijing would definitely be keen on having access to Afghanistan’s vast natural resources.
For its part, the Taliban most certainly has an interest in those mineral resources being extracted by China as it would generate handsome revenues and fill the regime’s coffers.
Yet, while at first glance an economic partnership between Beijing and the Taliban would seemingly make a lot of sense for both parties, a closer look at the intricacies of resource development reveals a slightly more complicated picture.
Cost of extraction
First, there is the cost. As anyone with commodities experience can attest, it is extremely expensive to develop mines and related facilities. For example, the recent expansion costs of an already functioning mine in Congo DRC (largely China-owned) required the investments of some $2.5 billion. However, the development costs of a greenfield mine are usually many times that. Therefore, China is unlikely to pull the trigger until it’s absolutely confident that a mining project is really worth the cost.
10-year lead time, maybe more
Second, there is the time. Contrary to popular belief (or at least that’s the impression one might get after reading some of the recent commentaries), the development of a lithium, copper or pretty much any other mine is not as easy as building a shopping mall. At times, it may even take up to a decade or more to get some mines and related facilities up and running. In fact, China has been trying to develop the gargantuan Mes Aynak copper mine in Afghanistan since 2008, but the project has yet to see the light of day.
Logistics infrastructure is minimal
Third, there are the logistics. Building the mineral extraction facilities is one thing, but China would also have to be able to get these resources out of the country. This means that it needs to have access to good transport networks, including roads, railroads and, most importantly — ports. However, Afghanistan is a landlocked country (the nearest port is in Pakistan) and some of its resource-rich regions are not particularly famed for the quality of its infrastructure.
Fourth, there is the political risk. China has already invested a lot in copper mines in places like Zambia and Congo DRC, just to name a few. Also, Beijing can get coveted resources like lithium from Argentina and Chile as it already has a significant presence in those countries. Considering the alternatives, it’s likely more appealing for China, at least for the time being, to invest in countries that are run by more predictable governments than the Taliban.
In the long run, China would no doubt be interested in getting its hands on some of Afghanistan’s minerals and integrating the country into the Belt and Road Initiative. However, given the political uncertainty and various other constraints, it’s somewhat unlikely that China would start a mine building spree in Afghanistan anytime soon.
The real reason?
Instead, China’s recent engagement with the Taliban should be seen for what it is: an attempt to defend its security interests. Right now, Beijing’s foremost concern is to prevent the spread of instability and militant Islam from Taliban-run Afghanistan to Central Asia and China itself.
Lukas Trakimavičius works at the Research and Lessons Learned Division of the NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence. He previously worked at NATO and the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and are contributed in a purely personal capacity.