The Americans are leaving Afghanistan, quickly. The Chinese may replace them, slowly.
China has never had much success in Afghanistan. Endless war, political and social instability, corruption and lack of infrastructure made the country largely unappealing to Chinese investors (and all other foreign players), even though they had never shied away from messy countries.
Their position could change for one compelling reason: Afghanistan is thought to hold boundless mineral treasures, especially those needed to underwrite the “green” revolution.
Twenty years ago, when the United States invaded Afghanistan and sent the Taliban packing, mass fleets of electric vehicles (EVs) were still a fantasy; today they are a reality. EVs’ battery powertrains require big amounts of copper and lithium, and various geological surveys done over the decades, starting with those done by the Soviets, who invaded the country in 1979, suggest Afghanistan has abundant supplies of both minerals.
Afghanistan is also known to have sizable gold, silver, platinum, iron ore and rare earth resources. In 2010, a U.S. military report estimated that Afghanistan was sitting on almost US$1-trillion of mineral wealth and could be “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.” Other estimates put the potential wealth as much as three times higher, though not enough drilling has been done to back the figures.
Various efforts by China and other countries to extract these minerals pretty much went nowhere in recent years, even when the U.S.-backed Afghan government was in control of much of the country and overseeing relative stability.
A decade-long effort by British mining entrepreneur and corporate financier Ian Hannam, a former hotshot at J.P. Morgan Cazenove and ex-captain of the elite Special Air Service, to extract copper and gold from Afghanistan’s mountains finally collapsed last year, according to reports by the Financial Times. China’s state-controlled Metallurgical Corp. also hit a dead end. Some 15 years ago, it won a multibillion-dollar bid to build a copper mine at Mes Aynak, just southeast of Kabul, the capital.
Various reports said that security and infrastructure problems, coupled with the discovery of historical Buddhist artifacts on the site that UNESCO wants to protect, proved too onerous to overcome, though the project apparently has not been abandoned and could still move ahead.
The Taliban, now back in control of most of Afghanistan after the collapse of the Afghan army earlier this month, will be eager to use foreign investment to help establish a viable Islamic emirate. Their desire will become more pressing because of the inevitable financial crisis that could hit the country with savage speed. The Taliban face international sanctions. The suspension of foreign aid and Washington’s freezing of most of the Afghan central bank’s US$9-billion of reserves could plunge the country into economic misery.
Creating long-term stability might be impossible unless the industry with the greatest potential – mining – is developed, and that can’t be done without foreign capital and expertise.
The Chinese are the obvious contenders for Afghan mining rights. Afghanistan shares a (short) border with China and, through Metallurgical Corp., already has a presence in the country. China is keeping its embassy open in Kabul and, in recent days, has made it known that it is willing to work with the Taliban.
On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin used a call to discuss the Afghan situation as the Americans rush to finish their evacuation flights from Kabul airport by the end of August. According to China’s People’s Daily, Mr. Putin agreed that Russia and China should work together to “prevent foreign forces from interfering and destroying” Afghanistan.
China’s intentions are already clear. It would love to recruit Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative, its global infrastructure development strategy. It would love to exploit Afghanistan’s minerals, especially the ones essential for EV batteries. China is already the world’s largest lithium consumer and wants to dominate the global market for EV batteries. The International Energy Agency recently estimated that demand for lithium will increase 40-fold under its “sustainable development scenario.” As the planet warms up with alarming speed, the demand for EVs can only soar.
A lot could go wrong for Afghanistan – and China. Through incompetence, human rights abuses, internecine feuds or financial crisis, the Taliban could ensure that Afghanistan becomes a pariah state for foreign investors, including Chinese ones. A civil war could break out.
But if a mining industry develops, you can bet the mineral riches will go to the Chinese, not the Americans, as they have in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where cobalt, another essential EV metal, is produced in great quantities. If China is able to use Afghanistan to help it dominate global lithium and copper supplies, it will dominate the burgeoning EV market.
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