The dramatic fall of Afghanistan has left returning Taliban militants in charge of an estimated $1 trillion worth of rare earth mineral deposits, raising the prospect China may seek to work with the Taliban to boost its mining activity there.
In 2010, US military officials and geologists revealed that the conflict-riven country was sitting on vast resources of iron, copper, gold, rare earths and, in particular, coveted supplies of lithium – a scarce but vital component of electric vehicle battery production.
The nation had the potential to become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a Pentagon memo at the time said.
The Taliban takeover has now raised fresh questions about how this untapped wealth will be managed and presents a new dilemma of whether to trade with a regime known for human rights abuses in order to supply green technologies.
But China is wasting no time. Just a day after the militants entered Kabul, Beijing said it was ready for “friendly and cooperative” relations with the Taliban.
A Chinese consortium, including the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp, already has a 30-year contract to extract, smelt and process material at Mes Aynak, the world’s second-largest copper mine.
This week, state media said work might resume after being halted over security concerns.
China is the world’s largest lithium consumer – accounting for 39 per cent of global consumption by 2019 – because of soaring demand for electric vehicles as the country tightens its air quality regulations.
It is believed Afghanistan could have one of the world’s largest deposits of lithium. Known global resources of the rare earth are mainly concentrated in Chile, Australia and Argentina and China also has its own supplies.
Experts suggest, however, that while China may be tempted, political instability, security concerns and poor infrastructure may also give Beijing pause for thought.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore who specialises in Afghanistan, said extracting rare earths was not China’s first priority in dealing with the new Afghan regime.
“I think their immediate priority is: ‘We don’t want your country to become a place where Uyghur militants can gather to cause trouble for us at home’,” he said.
“Even more worrying is that China’s backyard suddenly goes up in flames and this is a region that is important to China, mostly because it is connected to Xinjiang,” he added.
“From a Chinese perspective they’re thinking, ‘What’s the hurry?. We mine it today, in five years, in 10 years, we’re still going to be here and the obvious candidate to purchase this stuff so why don’t we wait and see when stability comes.”