The Americans are leaving Afghanistan, quickly. The Chinese can 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 unattractive to Chinese investors (and all other foreign players), even though they had never fled the countries messy.
Their position could change for a compelling reason: Afghanistan is believed to hold unlimited mineral treasures, especially those needed to support the “green” revolution.
Twenty years ago, when the United States invaded Afghanistan and sacked the Taliban, massive fleets of electric vehicles (EVs) were still a fantasy; they are a reality today. The powertrains for electric vehicle batteries require large amounts of copper and lithium, and various geological studies carried out over the decades, starting with those carried out by the Soviets, who invaded the country in 1979, suggest that Afghanistan has abundant reserves of these two minerals.
Afghanistan is also known to have significant resources of gold, silver, platinum, iron ore, and rare earths. In 2010, a US military report estimated that Afghanistan had nearly a trillion US dollars in mineral wealth and could be “Saudi Arabia of lithium”. Other estimates place the potential wealth up to three times as high, although little drilling has been done to support the numbers.
Various efforts by China and other countries to extract these minerals have gone largely unsuccessful in recent years, even when the U.S.-backed Afghan government controlled much of the country and oversaw relative stability.
A decade-long effort by British mining entrepreneur and corporate financier Ian Hannam, a former JP Morgan Cazenove hotshot and ex-captain of the elite Special Air Service, to mine copper and gold from the Afghan mountains finally collapsed last year, according to Financial Times reports. The state-controlled Metallurgical Corp. also found itself in a bind. About 15 years ago, it won a multibillion-dollar bid to build a copper mine in Mes Aynak, just southeast of the capital Kabul.
Various reports have indicated that the security and infrastructure issues associated with the discovery of historic Buddhist artifacts at the site UNESCO wants to protect have proven too difficult to overcome, although the project apparently did not been abandoned and can still move forward.
The Taliban, now back in control of most of Afghanistan after the collapse of the Afghan military earlier this month, will be eager to use foreign investment to help establish a viable Islamic emirate. Their desire will become more pressing due to the inevitable financial crisis that could hit the country at breakneck speed. The Taliban face international sanctions. Suspension of foreign aid and Washington’s freezing of most of the Afghan central bank’s $ 9 billion in 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 this cannot be done without foreign capital and expertise.
The Chinese are the obvious contenders for Afghan mineral rights. Afghanistan shares a (short) border with China and, through Metallurgical Corp., is already present in the country. China is keeping its embassy open in Kabul and, in recent days, has indicated its willingness to work with the Taliban.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday used a call to discuss the Afghan situation as Americans rush to complete their Kabul airport evacuation flights by the end of August. According to the People’s Daily of China, 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. He would love to recruit Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative, its global infrastructure development strategy. He would love to mine Afghan minerals, especially those essential for electric vehicle batteries. China is already the largest consumer of lithium in the world and wants to dominate the global market for batteries for electric vehicles. The International Energy Agency recently estimated that lithium demand would increase 40-fold under its “sustainable development scenario”. As the planet warms at an alarming rate, the demand for electric vehicles is bound to skyrocket.
A lot could go wrong for Afghanistan – and China. Through incompetence, human rights violations, internal strife or financial crisis, the Taliban could cause Afghanistan to become a pariah state for foreign investors, including Chinese. A civil war could break out.
But if a mining industry thrives, you can bet the mineral wealth will go to the Chinese, not the Americans, like they did in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where cobalt, another essential metal for electric vehicles, is produced in large quantity. If China is able to use Afghanistan to help it dominate global lithium and copper supplies, it will dominate the burgeoning market for electric vehicles.
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