China has scoured the globe for natural resources to feed its prodigious growth, sinking billions into Peruvian oil fields or cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now it need look no further than next door, Afghanistan. Maybe.
A footnote to the hand-wringing over the Taliban’s lightning victory has been concern over the strategic minerals they now control. A decade-old U.S. government report estimated a $1 trillion-plus mother lode of valuable metals and stones beneath Afghan soil.
Particularly interesting at this juncture are posited reserves of rare earth metals, essential for modern electronics and weaponry, and lithium, the basic ingredient in electric-vehicle batteries. A declassified Defense Department note described Afghanistan as “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
China signaled its willingness to do business in the new Afghanistan a few weeks ago, when its foreign minister met Taliban leaders. The “Chinese can’t believe that America walked away from this asset,” says Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center think tank.
Yet Beijing won’t rush to fill the void and grab Afghan resources, she predicts. China entered two big projects in the then-U.S.-protected Afghanistan: a copper mine, which was supposed to be the world’s second-largest, at a place called Mes Aynak, and an oil field in the Amu Darya Basin.
They were “burned really badly” on both, Sun says, though one reason was harassment by Taliban guerrillas. A source from one of the Chinese companies involved in Mes Aynak told local press: “We would consider reopening after the situation is stabilized and international recognition of the Taliban regime takes place.” A lot of ifs.
Those rare earth and lithium deposits are less of a geopolitical trump card than you might think, says Rod Schoonover, who studies climate-related risks at the Council on Strategic Risks. Rare earth metals themselves are actually less rare than the capacity to process them, which is already concentrated in China. Lithium is plentiful in friendlier locations like Chile and Australia.
“Even taking EVs into account, the world has maybe a 75-year supply,” Schoonover says.
China’s record on megaresource projects elsewhere is mixed. Its “deal of the century” to secure cobalt, another EV battery staple, from the Republic of Congo is now under scrutiny by that country’s new government.
Then there is the small matter that China’s narrow boundary with Afghanistan abuts the Xinjiang region, where Beijing has been persecuting its Muslim Uighur minority for fear of an ethnic insurgency.
Xi Jinping’s government will want assurances that the Taliban isn’t spreading jihad eastward before investing in their shattered economy.
“Security is more important here for China than economic opportunity,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, director of the Brookings Institution’s Initiative on Non-State Armed Actors.
One way for China to stick a toe back into Afghanistan could be via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a huge initiative meant to reroute Chinese oil supplies via Pakistani ports, lowering their vulnerability to the U.S. Navy in a conflict. Afghanistan has no sea access. But it does share a 1,600 mile border with Pakistan, which has been the Taliban’s key foreign backer.
A new great game may be afoot in Afghanistan involving a new imperial power, China, and a new prize, mineral wealth. It doesn’t look much easier than the ones that have failed before.