Among global and regional powers, Beijing is at the forefront of efforts to recognize the Taliban regime. Its eagerness to normalize relations with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan may even be greater than that of neighboring Pakistan, which has faced a surge in terrorist attacks from the Afghanistan-based Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan.
China’s primary motivation is to ensure a stable, compliant regime in Afghanistan that does not challenge the status quo in Xinjiang, the region of China where millions of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims have been forced into “re-education camps” as part of President Xi Jinping’s forced Sinicization program.
But metals and minerals are also on China’s mind. And Afghanistan has lots of them. So too does neighboring Pakistan. What we’re now seeing is a rise in interest in accessing the region’s treasures from a range of global players in what has been seen as China’s backyard.
Earlier this year, a previously unknown Chinese company expressed interest in investing $10 billion to mine Afghanistan’s massive lithium reserves and build the necessary infrastructure to transport the metals out of the landlocked country. A Pentagon task force in 2010 assessed that Afghanistan was home to upwards of $1 trillion in mineral and metal wealth — including deposits of copper, iron ore, gold, as well as lithium.
Untapping the mineral wealth of Afghanistan and Pakistan faces serious headwinds: including violence, poor governance, and the absence of basic infrastructure. But the potential upside here is huge.
Mining companies get access to “green metals” like copper and lithium, which are key for the transition toward clean energy. Lithium powers the batteries in electric vehicles, while copper is used extensively in their wiring.
Local governments get both much-needed revenue and potentially transformative infrastructure.
Beijing’s aims here are probably more defensive than offensive. By securing contracts, it’s denying other state or state-aligned actors access to these precious resources, as China expert Haiyun Ma told Globely News earlier this year. And it is prepositioning itself to execute such contracts should the conditions for a viable mining project emerge.
One such condition is an internationally recognized host government with a legal framework that addresses mining laws and regulations. There may be some progress on that front in the coming months.
The Taliban are taking steps to transition from an “interim” government to a permanent one with a constitution. The move would reduce some of the ambiguity in terms of governance and laws — potentially accelerating the awarding of concessions and renegotiation of contracts like for the Mes Aynak Copper Mine. Yet the Taliban’s abhorrent treatment of women makes global recognition unlikely in the near future.
Importantly, China is not the only player in the region. The Barrick Gold Corporation is moving forward with the Reko Diq project in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province. If the project moves forward by the mid-part of this decade as planned, Barrick says Reko Diq will be among the world’s top ten copper mines once it reaches full production.
Saudi Arabia is exploring entry into the Reko Diq project as part of its pivot to renewables. Long an oil superpower, Riyadh is now looking to invest in metal and mineral projects at home and abroad. It could emerge as a strategic investor in Reko Diq, purchasing some or all of the Pakistani government’s stake in the project.
Barrick now says other mining giants like the British-Australian Rio Tinto have also expressed interest in joining the Reko Diq project. Pakistan, which has become dependent on foreign direct investment and loans from China over the past decade, now could see more diverse inflows, including from major Western mining giants.
If these potential investments materialize, they would not just be a shot in the arm for Pakistan’s struggling economy, but they could also help alter the region’s geopolitical balance of power. Western companies would gain a foothold in a region dominated by China in recent years.
The Reko Diq project, for example, would use the Chinese-operated port of Gwadar — which the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan recently visited — to transport copper concentrates abroad.
The use by non-Chinese companies of the Gwadar port, long suspected to be a future home to a Chinese naval base, would reduce Pakistan’s dependence on Chinese aid and investment and make it less susceptible to pressure from Beijing to allow for the militarization of the port.
The bottom line: mega-mining projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan are not just high-risk and high-reward, they also fit into strategies of denial used by China and the West as they vie for dominance of the emerging green economy.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine. He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.