On July 28, in the Chinese northern city of Tianjin, Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with a delegation of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission, led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
The United States had withdrawn its troops in May, and the Chinese leapt at the opportunity to forge ties with a regime that had been rapidly occupying territory in Afghanistan. From the images that have dominated our screens over the past week, we are now all too aware that the takeover is complete.
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Wang Yi’s meeting with Taliban officials was not premature. Ground was being ploughed for the inevitable seizure of a country all but abandoned by the West. What sort of an opportunity were the Chinese eyeing up, and how would it affect us in Europe?
Just a few years after the US had installed a military presence in Afghanistan, in 2004, American geologists and Department of Defence officials were dispatched to the region to produce a report on the country’s mineral resources. They picked up where the Soviets left off in the 1980s and began studying the reserves earmarked in a series of maps produced decades prior.
Then in 2010, internal Pentagon memos were leaked to the media, detailing exchanges between US representatives, highlighting how Afghanistan could one day become the ‘Saudi Arabia of Lithium,’ with the potential of transforming itself into a paradise for critical raw materials.
Years passed and Afghanistan’s promise as a mineral haven never materialized. With a lack of infrastructure and investment, efficient governance, and far from ideal weather conditions, the minerals that could have potentially driven the coming industrial revolution remained firmly beneath the earth’s surface.
The modern day sees a political and social drive towards adopting climate-friendly agendas. For the European Commission in Brussels, the Green Deal has been heralded as an opportunity to tackle the existential threat posed by environmental degradation and climate change. At the heart of the effort is the objective to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, alongside the benchmark to achieve zero emissions for new cars by 2035, embedded in the longer-term objective of Europe becoming the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050.
This ambitious emissions reductions programme will rely on the promotion of zero and low emission vehicles, particularly the electric cars that use critical raw materials such as the ones the Taliban now sits on. Of particular relevance here is Afghanistan’s lithium, a mineral of which has become vital in the production of batteries in a range of technologies, including electric vehicles. The global demand for lithium stands at levels never before seen.
The EU Commission has long cited the importance of critical raw materials in terms of achieving its long-term sustainable objectives. In a communication from the EU executive last year, it noted how for electric vehicles and battery storage, the bloc would require “18 times more lithium and 5 times more cobalt in 2030, and almost 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt in 2050, compared to the current supply.” Statements such as these have been echoed the world over. Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency said that “the rapid deployment of clean energy technologies as part of energy transitions implies a significant increase in demand for minerals.”
The European Union has a 100% import reliance on lithium, predominantly sourcing the mineral from Chile. As well as Chile, China, Australia and Argentina are some of the world’s biggest producers. With this in mind, it becomes evident that Europe’s clean energy transition is profoundly reliant on relationships with extra-territorial jurisdictions. The Green Deal is not solely a sovereign EU project. It’s objectives can’t be met without a tactful geopolitical diplomacy with global partners. The question then arises – what will Europe privilege more: Achieving sustainable goals or defending modern liberal democracy in an increasingly tyrannical Middle East?
The two choices aren’t quite mutually exclusive yet, and, in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, there has been no shortage of commentators who have highlighted the fact that the country is far from establishing any form of a coherent programme for extracting its supposed wealth of mineral resources.
Yet, that has not deterred the Chinese, the world’s largest polluter and a country still heavily reliant on coal, oil and gas for energy production. It is also Afghanistan’s largest foreign investor, and in order to meet its modest pursuance of sustainable goals, it will most likely turn to the nation now under Taliban hands as a means to source new markets for mineral production.
Afghanistan’s mineral revolution will come no time soon. With the myriad security obstacles as well as the dire lack of infrastructure, it will be years before the voluminous lithium deposits ever make their way into the batteries that may one day power the EU’s Green Deal.
That being said, it would be remiss not to mull over an alternative version of events in Afghanistan, with the Americans still at the helm and the country’s mineral deposits being put to use in the West’s efforts to create a sustainable future. In this regard, Afghanistan may have been a missed opportunity, but perhaps the lack of coherence and stability in the region rendered such an undertaking unviable anyway. Whether it remains so, only time will tell.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.