One of the first nations to move to recognize the Taliban’s legitimacy amid its takeover of Afghanistan was communist China. For those that pay attention to geopolitics, this didn’t come as much of a surprise. Yet, beyond mere realpolitik and great-power posturing, another tangible, even materialistic, reason has become clear: Afghanistan’s abundance of critical minerals.
Despite being a poor nation, Afghanistan has nearly $1 trillion worth of untapped mineral deposits, many of which are critical minerals such as cobalt, nickel and copper. Used in everything from cellphones and laptops to medical and military equipment, these critical minerals are the building block of a modern, technologically advanced society. Afghanistan is thought to have the largest lithium deposit in the world, which is a key component of modern forms of energy storage, such as batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy.
As the world transitions from fossil fuels to clean energy, the demand for lithium especially will continue to skyrocket. Increasingly, access to critical and rare earth minerals will define the future of geopolitics, in the way that oil and natural gas have shaped the modern world’s balance of power. Worryingly for the United States, China not only possesses 35 percent of the world’s entire rare earth mineral supply, but it also accounts for 70 percent of global production. Additionally, China directly supplies 80 percent of the U.S.’s rare earth imports.
This could have severe consequences for U.S. national and economic security. As the U.S. seeks to hold China accountable for its crimes, such as oppression of the Uyghur population, infringement on Hong Kong’s sovereignty, or the country’s environmental abuses, China can leverage its critical mineral dominance over us to evade genuine accountability. In 2019, at the height of the escalating U.S.-China trade war, the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) internal newspaper published a warning that the Chinese government might cut off all exports of rare earth minerals to the United States. This isn’t just empty rhetoric. In 2010, the CCP followed through on a similar threat, using a minor diplomatic scuffle with Japan to temporarily halt rare earth mineral exports to the country.
The opportunity to seize further control over the world’s supply of these critical minerals, particularly lithium, is a determining factor in China’s cozying up to the Taliban. If the CCP successfully aligns itself with the Taliban and brokers a productive relationship to tap the nation’s mineral resources, China will gain a nearly insurmountable leg up in the global clean energy arms race.
Allowing CCP influence over Afghanistan’s mineral resources would be a mistake with repercussions for the entire international community. With lithium quickly becoming one of the most sought-after minerals for clean energy development, a Chinese monopoly would weaken America’s geopolitical standing in the world, while making addressing greenhouse gas emissions even more difficult.
Fortunately, there are several steps we can take to address this looming problem. First and foremost, the United States must establish reliable, domestic supply chains for key critical minerals to remain competitive in developing and deploying clean energy technologies. While progressive environmentalists often look at mining as an unequivocally bad thing, the fact remains that we actually mine much more sustainably here than China does. Incentivizing mining in the U.S. is of crucial importance, for example by encouraging greater capital investment and simplifying the permitting process.
Secondly, the U.S. should diversify beyond lithium-ion batteries to meet our clean energy needs.
Rich Powell from ClearPath recently wrote that “innovators are exploring solutions to source lithium domestically but also get beyond lithium-ion batteries for grid-scale storage.” Indeed, while companies such as Lilac Solutions are seeking to make domestic lithium extraction more efficient, many other energy storage technologies are showing promise too. These other forms of energy storage, from pumped storage hydropower to iron-air batteries, are expanding and innovating, providing alternatives to full lithium-ion dependence. Innovation in these technologies is crucial to clean energy diversification.
Yet, we must not forget that lithium-ion batteries are still by far the fastest-growing energy storage technology in the U.S., with costs having fallen 88 percent in the last decade. Third, therefore, the U.S. should seek to build closer relationships with other countries that also have significant resources of these minerals, such as Australia, South Africa and India. Sourcing critical minerals such as lithium from allies is far preferable to dependence on China. Moreover, sharing innovations, embarking on joint mining projects and creating closer ties with other countries is crucial to the U.S. creating a much friendlier, non-China supply chain.
Ultimately, the U.S. should counteract China’s ventures in Afghanistan and the burgeoning critical minerals monopoly by going on the offensive when it comes to domestic mining, technological innovation, and non-China supply chains. America’s clean energy future should be beholden to neither the CCP nor the Taliban.
Christopher Barnard is the national policy director for The American Conservation Coalition (ACC) and regular contributor to a variety of news outlets.