In Afghanistan, China extends its reach

March 23, 2009

Afghanistan sits on one of the largest mineral deposits in the region, the country’s mines minister told Reuters in an interview this month.

And the Chinese are already there, braving the Taliban upsurge and a slowing economy at home to invest in the vast Aynak copper field south of Kabul, reputed to hold one of the largest deposits of the metal in the world.

In what is the biggest foreign investment in Afghanistan, China  last year committed  nearly $2.9 billion to develop the Aynak field including the infrastructure  that must be built with it such as a power station to run the operation and a railroad to haul the tons of copper it hopes to extract.

Despite Afghanistan’s deteriorating security including in Logar province which is where the Aynak reserves are located and which serves as one of the gateways  to Kabul,  China has said it will carry out the project, the Afghan mines minister Mohammad Ibrahim Adel said.

China Metallurgical Group,  the state-run firm which won the 30-year concesssion along with Jiangxi Copper Co, has already begun paving a dirt road near the mine, according to a report by McClatchy Newspapers this month. Interestingly, the report notes that the U.S. military, which has set up bases in the Logar area to strangle Taliban infiltration into Kabul, has ended up indirectly “providing security that will enable China to exploit one of the world’s largest unexploited deposits of copper, earn tens of billions of dollars and feed its voracious appetite for raw materials.”

China has operated in the shadows in Afghanistan, compared with Pakistan, India and Iran which  are engaged in a much more public battle for influence there.

The Chinese decision to invest in the copper reserves which were discovered back in 1974 could make a real difference to ordinary people. The government estimates the mine will directly employ 10,000 Afghans and indirectly employ 20,000 more. Further, the contract obliges the Chinese firm to build new living areas for workers and provide much needed infrastructure like roads, hospitals, schools, and electricity, along with the railroad.

Besides building influence in Afghanistan, the Chinese have long been suspected of playing a bigger game of securing cross-brder connections in Central Asia, Iran and South Asia to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. The freight railroad that they envison will run through its western provinces to Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and then Pakistan.

One part of this grid may already be falling into place after Tajikistan announced last week that it had begun building a railroad to connect its capital Dushanbe to a bridge on the Afghan border. The immediate trigger for building the Afghan-Tajik link is because NATO is looking for a route through the former Soviet Union to move supplies to Afghanistan as an alternative to Pakistan.

But again, it also fits in nicely with China’s own plans for connectivity in the region. Is it a  case of heads America loses, tails China wins ?

[Photo of women in Logar and Presidents Hu Jintao and Hamid Karzai]

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