Why the US should relax about the China-Taliban romance

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As frustrations mount over the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, so do concerns among America and its allies about the apparent emergence of a China-Taliban alliance.

One critical tension point is Afghanistan’s vast reserves of minerals, especially rare earth elements and lithium, which are essential for many of the technologies of our time. China already has a global dominance of rare earths, the reasoning goes, and friendlier access to Afghan minerals – estimated to be worth trillions of dollars – would only enhance the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) economic leverage over the rest of the world.

While Beijing’s economic aggression is a problem, we need not fret too much about emerging China-Taliban economic ties. The cost for China to tap into Afghanistan’s minerals is much more than meets the eye, and Western nations are already on their way to regaining some mineral independence from the CCP.

There’s no question that Afghan resources interest Beijing. For example, one estimate has the global demand for lithium – critical for making lithium-ion batteries – multiplying by over 40 times by 2040 because of the rise of renewable energy. Afghanistan’s lithium reserves have yet to be mined and could be the world’s largest, according to a 2010 Pentagon assessment.

But Afghanistan’s minerals are unmined because of the deep structural deficiencies of its economy, and Chinese involvement in place of America’s is unlikely to change that. The Mes Aynak copper mine and the Amu Darya basin oil project are the most significant investments China has attempted in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Both have stalled due to poor security and a lack of basic infrastructure. Turning these projects around may require extensive work with the Taliban to provide fundamental public goods. 

China is not experienced in this kind of nation building; its involvement in Djibouti is the only such experiment it has conducted so far. Having made years of infrastructure investment in the small-but-critical African state sitting at the mouth of the Red Sea, China established its first overseas military base there in 2017. The base is only minutes away from the Doraleh Multipurpose Port, jointly constructed by Djibouti and China, and protects Beijing’s investment. Nevertheless, Sino-Djiboutian relations are showing signs of cooling off after the Chinese investment didn’t turn out to be as profitable as expected.

Even if China has the will to fill the void in Afghanistan, U.S. reliance on Chinese rare earths and other minerals may soon be greatly alleviated thanks to recent technological advances.

The United States fills virtually all its domestic demand for these materials with imports, not because the country doesn’t have the mineral reserves but because mining and processing them have traditionally been too environmentally harmful — a problem China isn’t overly concerned with. Lithium extraction, for example, has been known for emitting CO2, contaminating water and taking up land.

This will be a problem of the past, according to Western companies working on green technologies to extract lithium. At the lithium-rich brines of California’s Salton Sea, now dubbed the “Lithium Valley,” sustainable extraction can be done in geothermal plants. Leaving little environmental footprint, innovative companies are building demonstration projects here that hold the promise of extracting 40 percent of global lithium demand in just a few years. Similar efforts are also underway in the United Kingdom and Germany.

Government agencies have also been encouraging these innovations. The Department of Energy has been funding experimental projects on different methods for extracting lithium from brine. The California Energy Commission has awarded grants for pilot projects at the Salton Sea. Barring any policy or regulatory hurdles, these promising developments could soon liberate U.S. lithium demand from China’s monopoly. 

The way the United States is ending the “endless war” in Afghanistan is frustrating in many respects. But while it’s tempting to be concerned about China’s ambitions to secure its mineral monopoly in Afghanistan, this is one case where we can relax.

 Weifeng Zhong is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a core developer of the open-sourced Policy Change Index project, which uses machine-learning algorithms to predict authoritarian regimes’ major policy moves by “reading” their propaganda.

Tags Afghanistan Beijing CCP China Kabul Lithium-ion battery Rare earth elements rare earth minerals

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