Fri, 29 Sep 2023

New Delhi [India], June 7 (ANI): After leaving a number of smaller countries 'high and dry', China, the current villain in global politics, has now set its sights on Afghanistan, a war-torn South Asian country that has been facing increasing global marginalisation owing to its appalling human rights track record.

A prolonged stressed financial system has already resulted in widespread unemployment, economic deprivation, and high inflation in Afghanistan. China has latched on to the opportunity to gain a foothold in the devastated country. From oil extraction to lithium deposits, China is eyeing Afghanistan's both untapped and underexplored reserves and facilities.

The Taliban, finding itself with fewer allies by the day, is blindly following Beijing, desperate for some economic assistance.

While China insists its interest in Afghanistan are truly altruistic, experts and observers insist there are other interests at play.

Foreign ministers of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan recently met in Islamabad in furtherance of Beijing's unrelenting efforts to tap new investment avenues under its Belt and Road Initiative.

Apart from discussing a host of regional issues including security, the three sides reached a unanimous agreement to further extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan.

Observers believe that Beijing is seeking to exploit untapped natural resources in Afghanistan, which have an estimated value of over 3 trillion US dollars.

The country is rich in resources like copper, gold, oil, natural gas, uranium, bauxite, coal, iron ore, rare earth, lithium, chromium, lead, zinc, gemstones, talc, sulphur, travertine, gypsum and marble.

Earlier in January of this year, the Taliban-led administration signed a contract with China's state-owned company, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to extract oil from the Amu Darya basin and develop an oil reserve in the Sar-e-Pul province.

An Afghan official spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said on Twitter that the Chinese company will invest 150 million dollars a year in Afghanistan under the contract. Its investment would increase to 540 million dollars in three years for the 25-year contract.

As Western aid dries up in Afghanistan, this is a win-win situation for China, which has major plans to invest in various sectors including exploring lithium reserves.

Professor Dipankar Sengupta an expert of South Asian political affairs while explained how China is trying to trap Afghanistan. He said that" they (China) initially promised an investment of USD 450 million and in the next year they plan to invest USD 150 million, and these are into oil fields. Afghanistan has some oil, which it is unable to extract with the Chinese will. Now this is basically that China is basically testing waters in Afghanistan because Afghanistan has a lot of mineral reserves. For example, it has lithium, it also has tremendous iron ore reserves. So China is a growing economy that is hungry for material resources and which is eying lithium because China wants to make a slash in electric vehicles and Lithium is one of the key components when it comes to making batteries. So China is looking at Afghanistan as a country from where precious materials can be extracted.

Why has China been granted such easy access to Afghanistan's mineral reserves? According to the Brookings Institution, the Taliban's rule has progressively hardened and become more authoritarian and dogmatically like their reign in the 1990s.

Individual rights have been embowelled, and women's access to education, jobs, and even the public sphere for travel and medical care has been decimated.

This has led to the suspension of operations by major international humanitarian organisations in the country. Foreign aid has nearly all but dried up.

Almost half of the Afghan population was projected to be acutely food insecure between November 2022 and March 2023, with 6 million on the brink of famine. (Source: The Brookings)The deteriorating economic situation in Afghanistan has forced the Taliban-led government to let Chinese investment into the country.

Security is the most important issue that China is currently concerned about in Afghanistan, especially in the most remote of areas. Major Chinese investments have been targeted by the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and other terrorist groups.

On December 12th of last year, just a day after the Chinese ambassador Wang Yu met with Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister, Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, about the security of Chinese investments, ISIS-K targeted a Chinese-owned hotel in Kabul, popular with Chinese nationals.

Islamic jihadist groups, especially the ISIS-K, are targeting the Chinese for suppressing the Uyghur Muslim community and its "imperialist" policies like the Belt and Road Initiative.

Although Chinese investment in Afghanistan is growing exponentially, the security of their citizens and workers remains to be a concern.

Dr MS Pratibha a research fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses said that" Chinese are very much aware of the threats posed by ISIS to its projects. So, I believe that one of the things that the Chinese would be expecting from the Taliban is to make sure that there is political stability within Afghanistan and make sure that many of its projects are protected by the Taliban.

According to Militant Wire, ISIS-K published an editorial in its Voice of Khurasan magazine last year, showing concern over Taliban-Beijing relations. The editorial even highlighted concerns about China's agenda of expansionism and colonization.

Beijing is closely allying itself with Islamabad to engage the Taliban government in Kabul with an aim to gain easy access into Afghanistan.

China was the first country to welcome the Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar after the drawdown of US and NATO forces from war-ravaged Afghanistan.

The meeting with the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Tianjin was largely focused on engaging Afghanistan to join the Belt and Road Initiative.

While the West continues to stay away from Afghanistan, China has no qualms about exploiting the trillions of dollars worth of untapped natural resources from the country.

Dr Deepankar also mentioned that" if the initial investment of USD 150 Million and then in two to three stages USD 450 Million is successful and China is able to extract oil from those particular oil fields, I think then China will start making a big-ticket investment, particularly in lithium. Afghanistan's sources of Lithium are supposed to be considerable if China, which already has garnered or cornered all the resources when it comes to electric batteries is also able to corner Afghanistan's resources. I think it will be a massive boost when it comes to Chinese power".

Central Asia was traditionally within the Russian sphere of influence, but after the Russia-Ukraine war, China has been gearing up to take on a new leadership role in the region.

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently unveiled a grand plan of investing USD 3.8 billion in Central Asia's development, from building infrastructure to boosting trade.

With its engagement in the region, China has put itself at the forefront of the race for political influence and energy assets in the resource-rich region, with Russia distracted by its war in Ukraine and the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan diminishing the US presence in the region. China's rise will bring new risks for the region which India will need to remain vigilant and cognizant of. (ANI)

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