Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Afghanistan Is No Treasure Trove for China

The country’s mineral wealth remains largely theoretical.

By , a senior fellow with the China Power Project, and , an associate fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Afghan laborers work at a stone mine.
Afghan laborers work at a stone mine on the outskirts of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on Dec. 27, 2016. Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a popular narrative has emerged that paints the war-torn country as a geopolitical prize ripe for China to take. According to this logic, Beijing is greedily eying Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, and Chinese policymakers are chomping at the bit to cut deals with the Taliban. Much of this concern is hyperbolic. Afghanistan is no treasure trove, and viewing it through the narrow lens of great-power competition with China constrains policy options in Washington.

Current discourse on China’s ambitions follows a familiar narrative. Foreign powers have long eyed Afghanistan’s mineral resources. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, imperial Britain and Germany performed large-scale geological surveys of the country. The Soviets conducted their own systematic surveys during the Cold War. More recently, the U.S. Defense Department released the findings of a 2010 study that concluded Afghan deposits of copper, rare earths, lithium, and various minerals could be worth more than $1 trillion.

None of these powers marshaled the will to tap Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, but many analysts now speculate that, with the United States out of the picture, China may be the first to do so. This concern is somewhat understandable. Chinese companies use enormous quantities of mineral resources and hunger for more. China is already the world’s top producer of electric cars, and consolidating its advantage in that growing industry will require even larger amounts of lithium. Similarly, many industries critical to China’s push to become a science and technology superpower rely on rare earths, a collection of 17 minerals with unique chemical properties.

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a popular narrative has emerged that paints the war-torn country as a geopolitical prize ripe for China to take. According to this logic, Beijing is greedily eying Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, and Chinese policymakers are chomping at the bit to cut deals with the Taliban. Much of this concern is hyperbolic. Afghanistan is no treasure trove, and viewing it through the narrow lens of great-power competition with China constrains policy options in Washington.

Current discourse on China’s ambitions follows a familiar narrative. Foreign powers have long eyed Afghanistan’s mineral resources. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, imperial Britain and Germany performed large-scale geological surveys of the country. The Soviets conducted their own systematic surveys during the Cold War. More recently, the U.S. Defense Department released the findings of a 2010 study that concluded Afghan deposits of copper, rare earths, lithium, and various minerals could be worth more than $1 trillion.

Mining the Future, a special report by FP Analytics, is the first systematic and comprehensive assessment of China’s accumulation of control and influence over a range of critical metals and minerals, and the supply chains upon which the future of the high-tech industry depends. Read it now.

Mining the Future, a special report by FP Analytics, is the first systematic and comprehensive assessment of China’s accumulation of control and influence over a range of critical metals and minerals, and the supply chains upon which the future of the high-tech industry depends. Read it now.

None of these powers marshaled the will to tap Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, but many analysts now speculate that, with the United States out of the picture, China may be the first to do so. This concern is somewhat understandable. Chinese companies use enormous quantities of mineral resources and hunger for more. China is already the world’s top producer of electric cars, and consolidating its advantage in that growing industry will require even larger amounts of lithium. Similarly, many industries critical to China’s push to become a science and technology superpower rely on rare earths, a collection of 17 minerals with unique chemical properties.

Yet China is unlikely to dot the Afghan countryside with mining projects anytime soon. Chinese companies can more easily acquire critical minerals from alternative sources, and they know well the risks and headaches that come with doing business in Afghanistan.

China already has a large bounty of rare earth elements within its own borders. According to recent estimates, nearly 37 percent of global rare earth reserves that are economically viable for extraction are in China. The Bayan Obo mining complex in the Inner Mongolia region of China holds more than 48 million metric tons of rare earths, making it the largest known deposit in the world. By comparison, Afghanistan’s primary concentration of rare earths, located within the Khanneshin carbonatite complex in the southern province of Helmand, likely contains just around 1.3 million metric tons of rare earths.

Furthermore, the Khanneshin complex is believed to contain primarily the same rare earths—namely cerium, lanthanum, and neodymium—found at Bayan Obo. These elements are all part of a group of “light” rare earths, which are generally more abundant and less valuable than their “heavy” rare earth counterparts. If there were sizable deposits of less common elements in Afghanistan, China might have a greater incentive to act.

Lithium is perhaps more enticing for the Chinese. An internal U.S. Defense Department memo once described Afghanistan as the potential “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” And China is not well-endowed with the metal, possessing only about 7 percent of global reserves.

To meet China’s need for lithium, its mining companies have already made deep investments in an area of South America known as the “Lithium Triangle.” The countries comprising the triangle—Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile—are home to 58 percent of the world’s discovered lithium deposits and 53 percent of economically viable reserves.

China’s massive Ganfeng Lithium corporation is a principal stakeholder in developing Argentina’s Caucharí-Olaroz site. When production begins in mid-2022, it is slated to become the largest new lithium brine project in the last 20 years. Another major Chinese miner, Tianqi Lithium, paid almost $4.1 billion in 2018 to buy a nearly 24 percent share in Chilean chemical company Sociedad Química y Minera, the world’s largest lithium producer. China is betting big on acquiring lithium from South America, and Chinese companies are likely to see these projects through before probing untested deposits in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s proximity to China could theoretically make it more attractive to Chinese investors than locations farther afield. But many of Afghanistan’s mineral deposits are in remote locations with limited infrastructure. Decades of war and economic hardship have only compounded the issue. China has been willing to undertake risky projects to support strategic investments in other countries—such as building infrastructure to extract oil from places like Nigeria and South Sudan—but Afghanistan’s uniquely complex security environment is sure to make Chinese political and business leaders extremely wary.

As it is, China’s marquee mining investment in Afghanistan to date has been an abysmal failure. In 2007, the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) signed a $2.8 billion deal for a 30-year lease to mine copper at Mes Aynak, Afghanistan. MCC reportedly spent $371 million toward developing the area, yet work on the project has been effectively discontinued. The enterprise’s failure to live up to its promise, coupled with numerous allegations of corruption, led officials in the former Afghan government to threaten to retender the project.

For now, China has few incentives to enter the unstable Afghan market and many disincentives. The situation on the ground could change, of course. The Taliban, desperate to consolidate their power, would stand to benefit from an influx of Chinese investment. If Taliban leaders can stamp out security threats and usher in a semblance of economic stability, they might succeed in enticing Beijing to open its checkbook. But the prospects of such a scenario are by no means promising. Even if Chinese companies do eventually ramp up investments in Afghanistan, it is likely to first come in the form of much needed basic infrastructure, such as the roads, bridges, and rail lines touted by Chinese companies as hallmarks of the Belt and Road Initiative.

China is not going to rush into Afghanistan. Policymakers in Washington would do well to recognize that and avoid falling prey to exaggerated threats. Doing otherwise risks squandering attention and resources as well as failing to compete with China on issues that really matter.

Matthew P. Funaiole is a senior fellow with the China Power Project and senior fellow for data analysis with the iDeas Lab at CSIS.

Brian Hart is an associate fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.