China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made an unannounced surprise visit to Afghanistan Thursday, where he held talks in Kabul with Acting Deputy Prime Minister of the Afghan Interim Government Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi.
The visit comes seven months after the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving behind a power vacuum that China is waiting to fill. China is especially interested in Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which includes gold, precious stones, coal, oil and gas, lithium, copper and rare-earth minerals.
Copper and rare-earth minerals are particularly crucial elements in China’s burgeoning renewable energy production – China is the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer and owns five of the world’s six largest solar module manufacturing companies. China is currently in negotiations with the Taliban on mining in Mes Aynak, the site of one of the largest untouched copper reserves in the world, according to the Wall Street Journal. It is also in talks about drilling for oil and gas in Amu Darya in the north of Afghanistan.
China is not the only power taking advantage of the power vacuum that the U.S. withdrawal has left behind. Iran is also in talks with Taliban authorities to mine iron ore in the west of Afghanistan. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Afghan Geological Survey (AGS), the iron and copper reserves alone could be worth as much as $700 billion.
In his talks with the Taliban, Wang Yi stressed the friendly neighborly relations between China and Afghanistan and made it clear that China “respects” the Taliban takeover. Acquiring international recognition has been a key priority for the Taliban, and although China has yet officially to recognize the terrorist group as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, Wang Yi’s language would appear to hint that it might not be far off.
“China respects the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Afghanistan, respects the independent choices made by the Afghan people, and respects the religious beliefs and national customs of Afghanistan. China never interfered in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, never seeks self-interests or the so-called spheres of influence in Afghanistan,” Wang Yi said. “As Afghan friends often point out, China is the only major country that has never hurt Afghanistan. We are proud of this and are ready to carry forward the traditional friendship between the two peoples, develop normal and friendly neighboring relations with Afghanistan based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and help Afghanistan achieve true independence and self-generated development, thus taking the future of Afghanistan into its own hands.”
Afghanistan’s Muttaqi, for his part, thanked China for “its invaluable assistance to Afghanistan, especially its humanitarian supplies to the Afghan people in urgent need during the winter.”
He went on to announce the Taliban’s eagerness to be part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative – the global infrastructure and economic development project that Chinese President Xi Jinping launched in 2013. It aims to build an economic and infrastructure network – connecting Asia with Europe, Africa, and beyond – and has already enhanced China’s global influence from East Asia to Europe by making countries worldwide increasingly dependent on China.
“Afghanistan is ready to actively participate in Belt and Road cooperation and strengthen trade and investment cooperation with China,” Muttaqi said. “Afghanistan is willing to deepen friendly exchanges with neighboring countries, and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability.”
At the end of March, China will host the Third Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the Afghan Issue Among the Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to attend the meeting.