China’s Energy Quest and Afghanistan 3/5 (4)


Devmani Yadav,

Research Scholar,

School of International Studies,

JNU, New Delhi


China is the biggest energy consumer of the world at present. In the past, China was not dependent on foreign sources of energy due to sufficient domestic production of energy. But with the passage of time, China’s energy consumption witnessed a surge due to booming economy, expansion of middle class, urbanization and mechanization. Its domestic sources could not supply required quantity of energy resources and it had to start importing energy from foreign countries. Since late 1990s, China has realized the significance of its energy security. China’s dependency on oil import started in 1994 and is still increasing. The International Energy Agency (IEA) prediction is that China will have to import 75 per cent of its total oil consumption by 2030 (Tianyu, 2008). China became an importer of natural gas since 2007. In 2009, China became a coal importer country (Hongyan, 2010). Further, after the global financial crisis, China started to import more oil and natural gas to take benefit of lower prices and surplus supply and in 2008 its primary energy consumption showed a 7.2 per cent increase (BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2009). In the same year (2008), China became the 2nd biggest consumer and 3rd biggest net importer of oil in the world (Country Analysis Briefs 2010).

China is making progress not only in energy consumption, but also focusing more on energy production to satiate her needs. In 2012, China was the world’s largest producer of hydroelectricity, the 4th biggest producer of oil and the 7th largest producer of natural gas. It produced almost half of the coal produced world over (Talamantes 2014). China’s energy consumption pattern is dominated by coal (69%) and oil (18%). Coal is found in abundance in China and has been the main source of energy for many decades. The coal use is expected to decrease due to environmental reasons (Stang 2014), which will leave increasing pressure on oil and natural gas imports.

Presently, China is highly dependent on the West Asian countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq for fulfilling its energy demands. China imports around 50 per cent of its total oil consumption and the 50 per cent of all the imported oil is from the above three countries. Any disruption in the Straits of Malacca, Hormuz and Suez can adversely affect China’s development, because these straits are lifeline for many countries. China wants to decrease its dependence on these countries. Moreover, the effects of instability and conflicts in the West Asia and North Africa in 2011 have further compelled China to diversify its energy sources (Feng 2015). Japan’s nuclear crisis prompted China to think over future of its nuclear energy, which would surely increase its oil demands (Stanford University 2012).

China has moved beyond the West Asian countries to fulfill its energy needs. It is making sustained efforts to secure energy resources through investments in several African countries like Angola, Congo, Libya, Sudan and the neighbouring Central Asian countries. According to 2011 UNCTAD data, China was the 4th biggest investor in Africa, the top three being France, the United States and Malaysia respectively (Reuters 2013). In Central Asia, China has started to import oil from Kazakhstan and natural gas from Turkmenistan through pipelines. China is also targeting Afghanistan’s untapped energy resources.

China is promoting its companies for Outward Foreign Direct Investment (OFDI) in energy and resource sector. The 2008 Statistical Bulletin of China’s Outward Foreign Direct Investment (OFDI) suggests that 43% of China’s 40 largest OFDI enterprises in 2008 were firms related to energy or resource sectors (Morck, Bernard and Zhao, 2007).

China has become aggressive in respect of foreign policy to secure its demand for energy supply. It is claiming large parts of the East China Sea and South China Sea due to its energy demands. The East China Sea has been producing oil and gas since 1980s and it can’t be relied for constant production for a longer period. Now Sino-Japan tussle has intensified due to controversial Okinawa basin. Indeed China is attempting to open a new front in its territorial dispute with Japan by questioning Tokyo’s sovereignty over the island of Okinawa, home to 25,000 US troops (The Guardian 2013). The conflicting claims on the South China Sea are not giving positive signs from the perspective of energy security (Stang 2014). China is even showing eagerness to access natural resources in the Arctic region. This region contains approximately 25 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas. (The Associated Press, 2010).

China’s Energy Security Policy

The phases of China’s energy security policy can be divided into four. During the first phase (1949-1993), China wanted to fulfil all its energy needs by domestic production and avoided energy imports to ward off any kind of undue foreign interference. It was the period of self-dependence. The second phase can be marked from 1993 to 2005. From 1993 onwards, China had to start importing oil from abroad. China’s energy consumption rapidly increased after its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. During this period, China encouraged its firms to seek energy resources abroad. During the third phase (2006 to 2008), Chinese firms invested billions of dollars in foreign countries, while complying with the local needs of the host countries such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), environment protection and development issues. China’s 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010) gave priority to energy security.

The financial crisis of 2008 marked the beginning of the fourth phase of China’s energy security policy. China expanded its investment in the world market taking benefits from lower prices and excess supply of oil (Jian 2011). In quest of its energy security, Chinese leadership eyed on the neighbouring areas such as Central Asia and Afghanistan where abundant natural resources are available.

Afghanistan’s Natural Resources

The concept of natural resources is wide, but considering Afghanistan’s relations with China, the focus is here on mineral and energy resources. Now it is not a secret that Afghanistan is full of fuel and non-fuel minerals. These resources are estimated to be between 1 to 3 trillion US dollars. Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, Afghanistan estimates the total value of its resources about 3 trillion US dollars (Shafaie 2014).

There is a long history of discovery of Afghanistan’s natural resources. The first oil field of Afghanistan was found in 1959. The Soviet geologists discovered vast reserves of natural gas in the 1960s. At that time, the first gas pipeline was built to supply natural gas to Uzbekistan. The USSR received 2.5 billion cubic metres of gas from Afghanistan annually during 1960s (Alikuzai 2013). Several surveys conducted by the USSR in 1970s and 1980s, also confirmed the existence of huge reserves of copper (Aynak), iron (Khojagek), gold, silver, uranium, lead, zinc, bauxite, chrome ore, barite, fluorspar, lithium, emeralds, tantalum (The Mining Journal, 1984). The USSR identified more than 150 million barrels of oil reserves and more than 4,500 billion cubic feet of gas (bcfg) in as many as 29 fields in the Afghan part of the Amu Darya and Afghan-Tajik basins (CMI Report, 2010). According to these surveys, the actual value is much higher than the one suggested by the US surveyors. However, it is considered that American business leaders and the US government knew about Afghanistan’s huge mineral and energy resources even before the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan (Chossudovsky 2010). In 2002, even the Russian government accepted the existence of these vast mineral resources (Novosti, 2002).

After the arrival of NATO forces following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in USA, efforts were made for better estimate and assessment of natural resources by the United States. In 2003, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) started a nationwide resource assessment. It was funded by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (CMP Report, 2010). A small team of Pentagon officials and US geologists discovered Afghanistan’s huge mineral resources. The joint report by the Pentagon, the US Geological Survey (USGS) and USAID estimated Afghanistan’s untapped natural resources of one trillion US dollars. The details of the findings of the USGS were revealed in November 2007 at a Conference of Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce in Washington (Chossudovsky 2010).

Afghanistan has abundant natural resources. Its huge unknown resources include iron, copper, cobalt, gold, lithium, niobium, uranium, chromite, granite, marble etc. In addition to this, high-quality emerald, lapis lazuli and ruby are also found in abundance in this war torn country. (Joya 2013). Ghazni province has huge deposits of lithium (NY). An internal Pentagon memo expects Afghanistan to become the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium’. Lithium is an important material for the manufacture of batteries for many electronic gazettes like mobile phones, laptops etc. Presently, Chile, Australia, Argentina and China are the main suppliers of lithium in the world (Risen 2010). In Afghanistan, the deposits of copper and iron ore are 60 and 2,200 million tonnes respectively (Joya 2013). Aynak copper deposits, located 40 km southeast of Kabul in Logar province, are considered to be the largest in the Eurasian continent. Hajigak iron ore deposits in Bamian province are Asia’s largest untapped iron ore deposits. The iron is of high quality and is estimated to be approximately 1.8 billion metric tons (Bowley, 2012).

In addition to mineral resources, Afghanistan also has hydrocarbons in its northern part, which is located on the Eurasian plate (Ministry of Mines, Afghanistan, 2011). According to one estimate Afghanistan has approximately 3.4 billion barrels of crude oil, 444 billion cubic meters of natural gas and 562 million barrels of natural gas liquids (Joya, 2013). Most of the undiscovered crude oil is located in the Afghan-Tajik Basin and natural gas is in the Amu Darya basin. Amu Darya is estimated to have 87 million barrels of crude oil (Shalizi, 2012).

Most of the mineral resources of Afghanistan are untapped. Till now, only three important deposits namely, Aynak copper reserves, Amu Darya oil basin and Hajigak iron ore deposits have been allotted to the foreign companies for extraction. In 2011, three blocks of Amu Darya oil basin, namely Kashkari, Bazarkhami and Zamarudsay, located in north-western Afghanistan, were awarded to China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) for 25 years. The Kashkari block includes Angot, which is Afghanistan’s only oil field to have sustained production (Petzet, 2012). In the same year (2011), three of 4 blocks of Afghanistan’s biggest iron ore deposits were awarded to an Indian group of 7 state-run and private firms and the final block was awarded to a Canadian firm ‘Kilo Goldmines Ltd’ (Najafizada & Shanker, 2011). In 2013, two blocks in the Afghan-Tajik basin were awarded to a consortium consisting of Dragon Oil, TPAL and Ghazanfar Investment Ltd. These tenders and other hydrocarbon work in northern Afghanistan have generated significant growth in infrastructure and industry development.

There is an urgent need to develop infrastructure in Afghanistan in order to establish mining as an industry. Afghanistan needs a business-friendly environment to promote FDI in natural resource sector. It can lead country towards growth and self-dependence (Shafaie 2014). An advisor to the Afghan Minister of Mines, Jalil Jumriany, expected these huge resources to become the backbone of future Afghan economy, which has been debilitated by conflicts, war and terrorism. The US officials believe that these huge deposits have the potential to transform Afghanistan as one of the important mining centres of the world (Risen 2010).

The development of natural resources can benefit Afghanistan in many ways. Afghanistan is economically weak and one of the poorest countries of the world, with a per capita gross national income of 470 US dollar per year (Trading Economics 2015). The exploration of these minerals will surely attract heavy investment from foreign countries. The investment will promote the development of social and physical infrastructure and technology transfer (The World Bank 2013). As we know that Afghanistan’s present economy is mainly based on opium production, drug trafficking and aid from US and other foreign donor countries. The government will get huge amount of revenues, taxes which will provide Afghanistan’s economy self- dependence and dignity. For example, Aynak mine will generate more or less $250 million in the form of annual revenues after the operation reach a capacity of 2,50,000 tons copper annually. Afghanistan will also be able to increase exports which will result in favourable balance of payment. Mining in Afghanistan can be a boon for poverty reduction and overall development. It is estimated that Afghanistan’s Aynak will be able to create 4,500 direct, 7,600 indirect and 62,500 induced jobs. In this way, it will result in overall development of Afghanistan’s economy. The World Bank (2012) states that the mining sector of Afghanistan will enhance the average growth rate of Afghanistan from 5.9 per cent to 7 per cent from 2011 to 2019.

Aynak Copper Deal with China

Aynak, located in Logar province of Afghanistan, 30 km. southeast of Kabul, has been famous for copper since ancient times. In 1970s, Russian geologists discovered the possibilities of copper in Aynak, nearby Darband and Jawkhar. Even during 1978 to 1989, the USSR geological mission undertook exploration of Aynak, but this mission could not be continued further due to retreat of Soviet Union from Afghanistan and subsequent civil war.

China gained a major success in 2007 when Aynak reserves were awarded to a Chinese company the Metallurgical Corporation of China and Jiangxi Copper Company (MCC, which later created an Afghan entity named MJAM) for a period of 30-year lease (World Bank, 2013) in exchange for 3 billion US dollars. MCC also offered the Afghan government a railroad, a 400-megawatt power plant, a smelter and a coal mine. The lease not only included exploration and the construction of the copper mine, but also a feasibility study and environmental social impact evaluation (Alikuzai 2013). Afghanistan’s government expects to get approximately 250 to 500 million US dollars from this project as royalty per annum (Kuo 2013).

China’s challenges did not end with winning the bidding. There are many more hurdles to conquer. The security situation is not conducive at all. The Chinese have been attacked several times in the past. Land mines laid during the time of Soviet occupation are of great concern. There are also some concerns due to possible backlash of displacement of local people, underpayment of workers and environmental issues like water contamination. The extraction was obstructed even due to the archeological sites. There are some other concerns like falling prices of copper in the world market and the slowdown in the Chinese economy. In 2011, Copper rate was US$9.90 per kg., which fell to US$6.60/kg in 2014. China recorded the weakest growth rate (7.4%) in 24 years according to 2014 GDP data. It was for the first time that China missed its official target of 7.5 per cent growth (The Economist, 2015). Due to all these reasons, Aynak mine reportedly got delayed by 5 years. In 2013, there were official claims even about the possibilities of cancellation of the contract, but in practicality, there was not even a remote chance. (Price 2013).

In 2014, China even considered to renegotiate the terms of the 2007 deal. According to 2007 deal, the MCC promised to build railway, power plant and processing factory, but in 2014 the company showed unwillingness to abide by these terms. The MCC had already paid US$ 133 million of bonus and wanted to alter conditions regarding the payment of the remaining bonus worth US$ 808 million. Earlier the MCC had agreed to pay the royalty at the rate of 19.5 per cent that is double the world average rate. In 2014, the company even wanted to cut this rate. MCC even showed unwillingness to continue with the processing plant due to lack of phosphate in the local area. Phosphate is indispensable part of the refining process of copper. Instead, the Chinese wanted to build roads to send ore to China for processing (O’Donnell, 2014)

Chinese Investment in Amu Darya Basin

China’s quest for its energy security got a major boost in Afghanistan in 2011. This year China’s state-run company China National Petroleum Corporation, which is the country’s biggest oil company, with its Afghan partner, Watan Oil and Gas, obtained the right to explore and extract three oil blocks of Amu Darya basin of Afghanistan, located in the provinces of Sari-Pul and Faryab. It is a 25-year contract. Both the exploration and extraction are included in this contract. CNPC offered to make a refinery in 2-3 years (Najafizada, 2011). The amount of 400 million US dollars will be invested initially by the Chinese company in this project. This deal strengthened China’s position as the largest foreign investor in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s government will get huge financial benefits. According to mining minister Wahidullah Shahrani, CNPC will pay more royalty than its competitors from the UK, the US, Australia and Pakistan. It will pay 15 per cent royalty, 20 per cent corporate tax and give almost 50 to 70 per cent of its profit to the Chinese government (Shalizi 2012). Afghanistan government will get 70 per cent of the profit that the company will earn by selling each barrel of oil. Afghanistan expects to gain 7 billion US dollars in profit by this project (Behdud 2012).

This project will reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on neighbouring countries like Russia, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Iran for oil import. Presently, Afghanistan spends 3.5 billion US dollars for purchasing required fuel. Amu Darya basin hopefully will fulfil Afghanistan’s all domestic oil requirements. This project will also help Afghanistan to fight against unemployment. The recent development works in the Amu Darya basin provided Afghans approximately 2,100 jobs in the Sar-e-Pul province. This province has unemployment rate of 18 per cent, which is more than twice the national rate (Shalizi, 2012).

However, all is not well here for the Chinese as they face some challenges. The work at Amu Darya basin was disrupted in June 2012 when Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s men threatened Chinese engineers and demanded a share on monetary basis. The posters of Rashid Dostum were pasted in local areas of the basin. In mid-2013, CNPC halted its drilling work in the Amu Darya basin for some time due to a disagreement with Uzbekistan over transportation of oil to China (Murtazaie, 2013).

Chinese Financial Assistance to Afghanistan

China is moving forward in its relations with Afghanistan by providing financial assistance for its reconstruction efforts. China initiated a number of assistance programs in Afghanistan for improving peoples’ lives, like Jomhuri Hospital (Republican Hospital) and the Parwan irrigation project. These projects contributed a lot in the country’s reconstruction efforts (Yan, 2010). In January 2010, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, said at the Istanbul Summit on Afghanistan that China provided 900 million yuan (132 million US dollars) in reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan since 2002 and cancelled all mature debts that Afghanistan owed to China. In 2009, China converted 75 million US dollars concessionary loans into grant assistance. The first installment of 15 million US dollars was delivered in 2009 and the remaining 60 million US dollars will be delivered to Afghanistan in four installments by the year 2013 (Laruelle and Balci 2010). During Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s Beijing visit in September 2013, China pledged to provide a 200 million RMB (32 million US dollars) grant to Afghanistan government for the year 2013. The two countries also signed an agreement on economic and technical cooperation (Xuequan, 2013). In 2014 the fourth Ministerial Conference of Istanbul Process of Afghanistan was held in Beijing, where China promised to provide non-reimbursable assistance of 500 million RMB (81.43 million US dollars) to Afghanistan in 2014. China also pledged to provide a non-reimbursable assistance of 1.5 billion RMB (244 million US dollars) in the upcoming three years to Afghanistan. China promised to help develop three sectors of Afghan economy such as agriculture, hydroelectricity and infrastructure. (Xinhua, 2014).

The development assistance provided by China to Afghanistan is not very less when compared to other countries. The United States gave 5.87 billion US dollars between 2002 and 2007. The US gave the $12.9 billion in aid to Afghanistan in 2012, and out of this amount $9.95 billion went towards spending on military and security assistance to arm and train Afghan military and police forces (Dhillion 2014). The UK’s Department for International Development spent £147.5 million (220 million US dollars) in 2008-2009 in Afghanistan. The UK’s planned annual expenditure on bilateral aid to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2015 was £178m, with the money allocated to four areas: governance and security, education, wealth creation and humanitarian assistance (The Guardian 2012).

The western companies are more hesitant than the Chinese companies for making investments in China. It is a weird fact that in contrast to huge investment by China in Afghanistan, 70 US companies had invested only 75 million US dollars in Afghanistan by 2012 (Afghanistan Embassy 2015). The main reason of comparatively lower investment by the western companies is that they are concerned about security issues in Afghanistan. The terrorist organizations like the Taliban, al-Qaeda and even the general Afghan population view the western countries with suspicion. On the other hand, due to Chinese record of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal matters, Chinese companies do not have to face as much security threats as the western companies.

Chinese Efforts at Afghanistan’s Human Resource Development

Afghanistan has also been assisted by China in the field of vocational training and human resource development. China trained approximately 500 Afghan government officials in many areas like diplomacy, trade and economy, health care, medicine, finance, counter-narcotics, tourism etc. In 2012, China’s domestic security Chief Zhou Yongkang visited Kabul, perhaps the most senior Chinese official to visit Afghanistan for almost 50 years. An important agreement was signed during his visit, under which, around 300 Afghan police officers will be sent to China for training over the next four years (BBC September 2012). In 2014, at the Fourth Ministerial Conference of Istanbul Process of Afghanistan in Beijing, China pledged to help Afghanistan train 3,000 Afghans in 5 years and provide 500 educational scholarships (Xinhua, 2014).

China’s Free Ride

The NATO-ISAF forces had to make many sacrifices in their efforts to establish peace and order in Afghanistan. China did not provide help to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by offering troops, equipment or finance. But when the issue of investment came, the Chinese companies outperformed the western firms. China successfully secured Aynak mines and later on obtained oil blocks of Amu Darya Basin. The US concentrated on establishing security in the region and China concentrated on commerce. This phenomena provoked some anger and frustration among the US observers over China’s ‘free riding’ on the back of martyred European, American or Afghan soldiers (Chen 2014). One western scholar S. Frederick Starr stated that while NATO prepared the ground for the Chinese economic penetration of Afghanistan, the Chinese companies went on garnering commercial benefits due to American efforts and sacrifices (Weitz, 2011).

After China’s state-owned company MCC won Afghanistan’s first mineral tender at Aynak, generous infrastructural packages were offered that its western competitors were unable to match. It is very surprising that the US forces indirectly contributed in security for the Chinese companies by patrolling in their operation area. Even the Afghan National Police, which protect the mining area, was mainly trained with the help of American wealth (Wines, 2009). In fact, from the western point of view, it is very disappointing that the Chinese companies snatched those important mining contracts that should have been allotted to the companies of the countries which contributed in NATO forces as a reward for their sacrifices and contributions in Afghanistan (Downs, 2013).

There is a general opinion among the scholars and strategists that the war in Afghanistan was not started by commercial motives. If a US company had won the contract of Aynak, then critics would have blamed the US of waging war for capturing the mineral and energy resources of Afghanistan (Wines, 2009). Chinese and Indian firms are very interested in developing Afghanistan’s mineral resources, on the other hand the western firms are hesitant to invest in Afghanistan due to security reasons.

Afghanistan as a Transit route

Afghanistan has become the centre of pipeline-politics in Afghanistan. Various world powers want to promote pipelines which favour their national interests and regional influence. The USA is leaving no stone unturned to make TAPI a success, on the other hand China is coming up with new proposals which are not only aimed at fulfilling its energy needs, but also to curb US influence in the region. The implications of the New Silk Road have been discussed in the previous chapter, now here the focus is on pipeline connectivity and Afghanistan-China cooperation and its implications.

China envisaged a pipeline to supply Turkmenistan’s gas to China via Afghanistan’s north and Tajikistan in 2012. Afghan President Hamid Karzai met China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) Chairman, Jiang Jiemin and China’s President Hu Jintao during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Beijing in 2012. The Afghanistan-Chinese agenda included the proposed Turkmenistan-northern Afghanistan-Tajikistan-China gas pipeline. CNPC offered to conduct an economic and technical feasibility study for this proposed pipeline-segments on the regions of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Afghanistan supported the Chinese proposal and Hamid Karzai considered this proposed pipeline as an important step for Afghanistan’s stability and development (Socor 2012).

This proposed Turkmenistan-northern Afghanistan-Tajikistan-China pipeline will provide an extra route from the same production locality (Turkmenistan) to the same destination (China). It may be an attempt by China to counter the US-supported Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline (TAPI). The main problem of TAPI is that its route through Afghanistan’s sensitive Pashtun heartland is not secure and there is always a security challenge due to the presence and dominance of Taliban in that area (Foster 2010).

The competition between TAPI and proposed Turkmenistan-north Afghanistan-Tajikistan-China pipeline for Turkmenistan’s gas is inevitable, because Turkmenistan can’t produce enough gas to supply both of these pipelines. There are some reasons that are tilting towards the success of Chinese-led pipeline. The security issues are haunting TAPI, but the other pipeline is free from such concerns. China is in a position to finance the construction of the proposed pipeline, but TAPI does not have that privilege. Turkmenistan’s Galkynysh gas field is yet to be developed. This development is possible only with the involvement of international companies like Chevron, ExxonMobil and Gazprom who are interested in investing in Turkmenistan gas fields, but are hesitant to take risk with laying a pipeline into Taliban-controlled area (Socor, 2012).

In fact, Afghanistan-China cooperation has made a tremendous progress in last decade and is moving forward. Afghanistan gives China a hope for fulfilling its increasing demand for energy and natural resources. Aynak and Amu Darya Basin bear testimony to this. Even China is sensitive towards Afghanistan’s reconstruction process and providing Afghanistan with huge financial assistance. Even though China-Afghanistan economic and energy relations are going in right direction, but they are far from realizing their full potentials. The need of the hour are the sustained and constant efforts by Afghanistan and China to utilize bilateral and multilateral forums to give a new height to their relations.


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