A 2007 agreement worth $3.4bn between the Afghan government and state owned Chinese companies went awry due to the security situation

With Taliban 2.0 now in the saddle, Chinese firms are now looking at reviving their plans.

The war-torn Afghanistan possesses a wealth of nonfuel minerals whose value has been estimated at more than US$1 trillion. The country is endowed with vast reserves of iron, copper, lithium, rare earth elements, cobalt, bauxite, mercury, uranium and chromium. The country may also be holding the world’s largest lithium reserves.

The ignominious and undignified exit of United States from Afghanistan has opened up the possibility of China filling up a huge strategic vacuum. The new Taliban regime has sought good international relations, particularly with China.

China is aggressively seeking to leverage earlier investments and also explore new opportunities to invest in the country’s mineral sector, which it then plans to transport back to support Chinese-financed infrastructure that includes about $60 billion of projects in Pakistan.

In 2007, the Afghan government signed a 30-year lease agreement to develop the Mess Aynak mining project with a consortium of state-owned Chinese mining companies including China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper, a Chinese copper producer. The agreement was worth $3.4bn.

Mes Aynak in Afghanistan holds 240 million tonnes of 2.3% grade copper ore making it one of the largest untapped high-grade projects in the world. The reserves are estimated to be worth at least $50bn

As part of the deal, MCC pledged to build the mine and the infrastructure around it—including a railway and roads for transportation and a generating plant to power the smelter.

The two companies planned to develop the mine with an annual output of 320,000 tons of copper concentrates, ready to feed Chinese juggernaut's insatiable appetite for copper raw materials. But the plans went awry due to the security situation in Afghanistan. Chinese companies are yet to mine a tonne of copper from the resource.

Jiangxi Copper on Monday (Sep 13) announced that the company, along with the Metallurgical Corp of China (MCC), is monitoring the situation in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and will push forward with the Mes Aynak copper mine when they can.

"Due to the unstable situation in Afghanistan, the Mes Aynak copper mine invested in by the company has not yet undergone substantial construction," Reuters reported Zheng Gaoqing, the chairman of Jiangxi Copper as saying during an online briefing.

Buddhist Heritage Site

Mes Aynak, about 40 kilometers southeast of the capital, Kabul, is also the site of ancient Buddhist ruins. The ruins sit atop 450 million metric tonnes of copper ore.

Once a major hub on the Silk Road, the site encompasses close 400 statues and wall paintings across a citadel, numerous monasteries, stupas and small forts. The site provides an extraordinary window into the development of Buddhism in the region. Heritage campaigners have called for preserving the site,

According to a report in The Art Newspaper, mining contracts do now go ahead, Chinese firm MCC will need to build a railroad in order to remove the copper and will request the clearance of the archaeological remains.

With Taliban cosying up to China and likely to give a go ahead to the project, priceless Buddhist heritage could be lost forever.

China though has maintained that project is critical for the economy of Afghanistan and claimed that western nations are unleashing a 'malicious propaganda' upset over Kabul's decision to award the contract to the Chinese company. Chinese observers point out that archaeologists working on the site have had sufficient time to recover the artefacts, but they have failed to utilize it properly.