China and the Taliban are pushing ahead with plans for a big copper mine in Afghanistan, plus formally joining President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’.
The Taliban will send a technical team to China for talks to clarify how the infrastructure scheme may be expanded to Afghanistan, the country’s acting commerce minister said late last week.
Beijing has sought to develop its ties with the Taliban-run government since it took over in 2021, even though no other foreign government has recognised the administration.
Last month, China became the first country to appoint an ambassador to Kabul, with other nations retaining previous ambassadors or appointed heads of mission in a charge d’affaires capacity that does not involve formally presenting credentials to the government.
“We requested China to allow us to be a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Belt and Road Initiative… (and) are discussing technical issues today,” acting Commerce Minister Haji Nooruddin Azizi said in an interview a day after the Belt and Road Forum ended in Beijing last week.
The Pakistan “economic corridor” refers to the huge flagship section of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Afghanistan’s neighbour.
Azizi said the administration would also send a technical team to China to enable it to “better understand” the issues standing in the way of it joining the initiative, but did not elaborate on what was holding Afghanistan back.
‘No easy options’
A spokesman for the minister said earlier this month that the talks in Beijing would focus on plans to build a road through the Wakhan corridor, a thin mountainous strip in northern Afghanistan, to provide direct access to China.
Back in May officials from China, the Taliban and neighbouring Pakistan said they would like the Belt and Road to extend the flagship China Pakistan Economic Corridor across the border to Afghanistan.
The Wakhan corridor is ancient high-altitude route allegedly only operational for less than half the year. And it is not yet known whether Beijing may prefer to build a spur off the CPEC corridor, with a route that extends through to Iran.
One analyst said there may be no easy options because relations between Kabul and Islamabad have deteriorated, and while security concerns may have eased, many of Afghanistan’s best educated citizens have left and the country is still plagued by “lack of governance and widespread incompetence.”
Afghanistan could offer China a wealth of coveted mineral resources. Several Chinese companies already operate there, including the Metallurgical Corp of China Ltd (MCC) which has held talks with the Taliban administration, as well as the previous Western-backed government, over plans for a potentially huge copper mine.
“China, which invests all over the world, should also invest in Afghanistan… we have everything they need, such as lithium, copper and iron,” Azizi said. “Afghanistan is now, more than ever, ready for investment.”
Asked about the MCC talks, Azizi said discussions had been delayed because the mine was near a historical site, but they were still ongoing. “The Chinese company has made a huge investment, and we support them,” he added.
Investors have said security remains a concern. The Islamic State militant group has targeted foreign embassies and a hotel popular with Chinese investors in Kabul.
Asked about the security challenges, Azizi said security was a priority for the Taliban-run government, adding that after 20 years of war – which ended when foreign forces withdrew and the Taliban took over – meant more parts of the country were safe.
“It is now possible to travel to provinces where there is industry, agriculture and mines that one previously could not visit… security can be guaranteed,” Azizi added.
Afghanistan and 34 other countries agreed to work together on the digital economy and green development on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum on Wednesday.
- Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard