Contested Terrain: Afghanistan in the BRI
Key words: Investments, China, Afghanistan, Minerals, Land, Belt & Road Initiative
Landlocked and poor in fossil fuel resources, Afghanistan has historically been at risk of external influences and played as a “classic buffer state” for British and Russian empires, and then transitioned to a territorial pawn for the Soviets and Americans during the onset of the Cold War. Before the 1950s, the country was known as a territory that armies crossed and threw imperialist bet’s on, from minting a developing communist country to being in a British chokehold during Nazi’s reign on terror. An example of the influence of other state players in Afghanistan’s economy is that in the 1980s, under Soviet control, around one-third of the population went into exile, and most of the countryside laid at waste as arable land decreased overall by 23%, creating spikes in food and heat deserts.
What makes Afghanistan’s relations with its natural resources and neighbors prominent from other failed states is its tendencies of “insulating itself and attracting benefactors.” In the period of U.S. occupation in Afghanistan in the last twenty years, it has savored limited yet exchanged benefits of resources from international patrons in the recovery of the ongoing wars. Nevertheless, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was delayed due to the U.S. emphasis on pleasing the most democratic state in the Middle East/Western Asia subcontinent, Pakistan. Simultaneously, Pakistan often closed its borders to Afghanistan and denied access to the Karachi port — one of the only entries of exports and imports of Afghan — during disputes over its “irredentist rhetoric during the ’60s in promoting a Pashtun state.” Over time, Pakistan was pushed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia into Afghan affairs to liberate the territory from Soviet lockdown. Fast forwarding, the eventual Pak-Afghan relations resulted in the Pashtun-led Taliban taking over Afghanistan with assistance from the Pakistani security forces sponsorship and protection of fundamentalist students who forcefully annexed Kabul. However, as the post-Taliban euphoria dramatically concluded when the predatory terrorist group resurged in late 2020, the country remains uncertain of its domestic and international value. “[Afghanistan] remains a potential source of instability through the export of arms, drugs, and ideology,” especially with economic deficits too overbearing to handle independently.
Iran also directly influences Afghanistan, adding to the dangerous geographic neighborhood the country is locked in. As a competitor of Pakistan’s military partnerships with Saudi Arabia and the US, Iran raced to take over the regional markets of Afghanistan, and the evidence can be traced by its transnational drug trade and nuclear development in Kabul. This adds additional pressure to the country’s geopolitical affairs, thus preventing it from striving economically with geological interference from multiple countries with differing intentions. However, in alignment with Afghanistan’s values and other landlocked countries within the region, many are “anxious to create alternative routes to international markets” in fear of further exacerbating corruption.
Another neighbor, China, notorious for its role in the international market, hindered the ability to influence Afghanistan directly, unlike other countries. Previous interactions between China and Afghanistan were limited due to the two countries’ inhabitable and narrow mountainous borders. Beijing invested around a mere $150 million during the onset of the present century, and most of the Chinese influence was carried out by Pakistan as a representative for the country. During the early 21st century, China’s interests mainly used diplomatic means to thwart an open-ended U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. In the present insurgent state, however, attitudes from China and neighboring countries have begun to shift primarily due to the growing capacity of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and new values in the market like green energy.
In terms of understanding Afghanistan’s greatest assets, the country’s neighbors now see Afghan land differently than that of just a territorial bridge. Up until 2005, Afghanistan accounted for almost 90% of the world’s heroin output. It was labeled a narco-state mainly at fault for being war-torn and the internationally mistaken assumptions that the country was extremely resource poor. Until 2007, the U.S. Geological Survey uncovered Soviet drafted maps of Afghanistan’s inner mining networks. The survey drew attention to the dormant minerals in the nation’s C horizon soil layers, such as iron, cobalt, rare earth, and most importantly, lithium and copper.
While multiple countries averted their attentions back to possibly investing in Afghan’s unveiled mineral market, China quickly obtained the rights to a mine in Mes Aynak in Logar, a region within Afghanistan known for housing the world’s largest copper deposit. The company which operates, known as China Metallurgical Group Corp (MCC), didn’t start operations until early 2020 due to security concerns. MCC purchased the rights to the copper for 30 years, even though the setback of volatility continued in the region and concerns of no reliable transportation route grew Chinese impatience.
What are the intentions behind sudden Chinese interests in these U.S. $1 trillion mines? Chinese investments in the energy sector of BRI in the past 20 years have focused on coal and fossil fuels. Since 2011 and hitherto 2020, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has had agreements with Kabul to develop the very few oil fields in Afghanistan. However, the fuel deposits with roughly $200 million investments don’t compare to the country’s major mineral deposit’s supposed profit and cost-benefit. In 2020, as countries realigned values to focus on sustainable and green infrastructure, China was and continues to be pushed into switching its investments from fossil fuels to green energy if it wanted to continue bilateral and multilateral deals in growing the BRI. This is where Afghanistan comes to the international spotlight, especially as it accentuated itself within perfect timing as the international market learned of its untapped potential. China hunts for green energy resources in further developing the BRI.
Zhou Bo, a People’s Liberation Army senior colonel, stated that as the U.S. withdrew, Beijing could offer what Kabul needs most: “political impartiality and economic investments.” In return for their success of the Afghan copper mines and lithium to boost China’s battery materials supply chain, China has prepared agreements and set investments in developing the badly deficient infrastructure of Afghanistan.
Other countries such as the U.S., Japan, and Europe look to cut their dependence on China for rare earth, which brings to question whether they will or will not interfere with China in collecting the gems of Afghanistan first by growing competition in investments in the country. Such infrastructure investments could bring Afghans dependability on foreign states to an end and intraregional economic growth to prosper in the country, yet even China finds itself staggering with the lack of skilled policymakers in the Taliban government to consistently move forward and ramp up infrastructure projects such as expanding water supplies and hydroelectric facilities. However, with Pakistan as a strong business partner and supporter of the expansion of the Chinese BRI, Sino policy influence and infrastructure agreements can once again be carried out by Pakistani influence in the Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Sino-Pak partnerships in Afghanistan could increase connectivity for the BRi to thrive in Central Asia. The latter is especially true as the Afghanistan infrastructure could thrive with the Chinese-built port in Gwadar, sitting at the southern boundary of the province, serving as central to Pakistan’s conjoint plans to create a new international route for naval trade traffic with China and the rest of the nations affiliated with the current BRI.
For full paper, see here (originally written for course at American University— New Silk Road, offered Fall ‘21)