Coen Nij Bijvank
Coen Nij Bijvank
For less than 2.50 euros a day, Sayed Hassan works in the coal mines of the Afghan province of Bamyan. “It’s very tough. We go in 100 to 150 yards. It’s very tight and you can’t really move very well.”
It’s dangerous work, but Hassan has no choice. The mines are the only source of income in his village. In fact, almost all of Afghanistan depends on coal export revenues, now that the rest of the economy has completely collapsed.
Hardly any country wants to trade with Afghanistan since the Taliban took power there a year and a half ago. But there is an exception: China. That country senses its chance and is planning one million dollar to extract oil in northern Afghanistan. It seems to be a prelude to more Chinese investment in the Afghan mining industry, although there are serious doubts about safety.
China feels doomed to do something in Afghanistan.
The oil deal is small beer by Chinese standards. The Chinese company that signed the agreement will initially invest USD 150 million every year, according to the Taliban. “It is a small deal, with great symbolic value,” says China expert Mohammadbagher Forough, affiliated with the Clingendael institute.
“China operates according to the saying: when you cross a river, take it one step at a time. After the first step, you see what happens. If it goes well, then you take the next step. they did it in Africa too.”
China’s interest in Afghanistan is not new. In 2011, China already signed a deal with the previous rulers, which means that it already receives oil from Afghanistan. And there are contracts to mine copper and coal, although the Chinese have not yet started exploiting them.
There is also a lot of gold, iron, lead and zinc in the Afghan soil, as well as the metals lanthanum and cerium. And lithium, one of the most expensive metals, and indispensable for the energy transition. According to American research, all this is worth several thousand billion dollars.
The Chinese Yu Minghui is one of the few foreign businessmen in Afghanistan. He wants nothing more than to plunge into mining, but is now mainly concerned with completely different products:
Made in China, in Kabul: ‘Afghans love it’
And there is another reason for the Chinese interest in Afghanistan: security. Afghanistan is one of China’s “headaches,” Forough says, because the countries share a stretch of border near Xinjiang province. The Uighurs live there, a Muslim minority oppressed by China. “China fears that armed, extremist Uyghurs are sheltering in Afghanistan.”
China hopes to fight these extremist movements or sympathizers together with the Taliban. And China knows that if they want to get anything done from the Taliban, they have to build ties with them.
For China, trade and stability also go hand in hand, says Forough. “A Chinese concept is: security through economic development. If a country is not developed, it can never be completely safe, is the idea. China now feels doomed to do something because Afghanistan is becoming more and more bankrupt.”
It is our duty to uphold Sharia law.
Most countries do not want to do business with the Taliban government because of the position of women and the reintroduction of corporal punishment. Although the Taliban themselves do not see the problem that way. In conversation with News hour Javad Afghanzada, an executive at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, calls the human rights abuses “rumours”.
According to Afghanzada, they only follow the law. “We enforce Islamic law, Sharia law, just like everywhere else in the Islamic world. That is our duty. For thieves, murderers and people who commit adultery, there are certain punishments.”
The fact that the Taliban does not take human rights very seriously does not matter to China. Forough: “The Chinese have a lot of geopolitical concerns. What they care about is stable relationships.”
IS commits attacks
What matters to China is the security situation in Afghanistan. The Taliban has no control over it: the terrorist organization IS still carries out attacks. More recently at a hotel with Chinese businessmen.
These attacks make it less attractive for China to do business in the country, but “at the same time they reinforce the idea that something needs to be done,” says Forough.
In any case, under the current circumstances, it is highly questionable when the first ‘Chinese’ oil will come out of the ground under the new deal. “The time is not yet right, there is still too much uncertainty,” says Chinese entrepreneur Yu. He currently limits his trade to ‘Made in China’ products such as heaters and fake flowers. “Afghans love that.”
And miner Hassan knows he won’t see any resources other than coal for a while. “We work day and night. There is no other work here.”