With Taliban in Power, Is China Eyeing Afghanistan's Mineral Deposits?

The region is rich in copper, iron ore and even rare earth elements.
Ameya Paleja
Afghanistan is in turmoil after US troops leftKeith Binns/ iStock

It is painful to see people attempting to flee their own country on the wings of foreign military airplanes. But the sudden shift in politics in Afghanistan has made fleeing the country an easier option than staying back amidst collapsing infrastructure. With the Taliban now in charge of the capital city of Kabul, it is also now in charge of the mineral deposits in the country, which include cobalt, iron ore, copper, and rare elements like lithium. 

Early in 2020, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghanistani President, now in exile, had termed these mineral deposits a curse. The areas with rich natural reserves have been sites of criminal activity and attracted militant groups such as the Taliban. There are multiple groups contesting the area for control. On its part, the Taliban is aware of the value of the region's mineral exploits and has even utilized it to fund their own operations

The US attempted to engineer the country with civil structures that could support the utilization of the reserves, pegged at $1 trillion by 2010 estimate, for its autonomy. Afghanistan's economy has largely been supported by foreign aids. With the Taliban take over, the financial aid will stop and citizens of the country would also face hurdles in accessing basic amenities that the Taliban is not equipped to control and manage. 

The abrupt removal of the US forces has left a political vacuum that China seems eager to fill. The Week reported that Foreign Minister Wang Yi met a Taliban delegation earlier in July and the two have agreed on a bigger role for China in the "future reconstruction and economic development of the region."

China had made some inroads in mining projects in 2008 with a plan to mine copper out of what is believed to be the second-largest copper reserve in the world. However, progress on the project had been slow. Its next target could be the rare earth elements like lithium that China currently mines and exports from its mainland to fuel the electric transformation of transportation in the US and Europe.

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Lithium-ion batteries are now ubiquitous in almost all electronic appliances and even working as storage systems for grids powered by renewable energies.  However, China would be happy to move the operations to another country, given the environmental risks entailed in the process. 

With the US looking to reduce its dependence on China for lithium and electric vehicles, it does seem like an unwise step to move out of a region that was termed as the "Saudi Arabia of lithium" in 2010. Or has the 2020 United States Geological Survey (USGS) report that does not even mention Afghanistan in the list of global lithium reserves, led to a change in its strategy for the region. 

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