In The New York Times, Michael Wines writes about China Metallurgical Group Corporation‘s $3.4 billion investment in the Aymak copper mine in Afghanistan. While S. Frederick Starr, the chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, accuses China of free-riding on security paid for by the U.S., Wines notes that the Chinese company outbid all other companies, inluding an American one, and that
China is investing more in extracting Iraqi oil than American companies are. It has reached long-term arrangements to buy gas from Iran, even as the government there comes under the threat of Western sanctions for its nuclear program. China has also become a dominant investor in Pakistan (…)
The investment follows the familiar model (increasingly referred to as “the Angola model”): it includes a power plant that will supply not just the mine but Kabul; a coal mine that will supply the power plant; a smelter for the copper ore; and a railway that will link the mine, the smelter, and China. In addition, the contract includes building schools, roads, and even mosques, as well as stipulating that all non-managerial staff (including engineers) will be Afghan within five years.
But the conclusion is inescapable: American troops have helped make Afghanistan safe for Chinese investment. And there is no sense that either government objects to that reality. As diplomats and soldiers alike stress, the war in Afghanistan was never motivated by commercial prospects. Had an American company won Aynak, some Afghans noted wryly, critics inevitably would have accused the United States of waging war to seize the country’s mineral wealth. Moreover, if China succeeds in developing Aynak and generating revenue for the Kabul government, that helps achieve an American goal.
While accusations of bribery have been made against the Chinese company, “the Chinese bid was so clearly superior to others that any bribe money may have been incidental to the outcome.”
As usual, some observers think the bid is unsustainably high, and Wines notes that “an M.C.C. copper mine in Pakistan is widely said to have serious environmental problems. A Pakistan lead mine has been dogged by conflict, including a suicide bombing that killed 29; residents accuse the company’s Chinese work force of stealing local jobs.”
China Metallurgical is not talking. Its officials not only refused to be interviewed for this article, but also sought to prohibit a journalist even from photographing the mine site from afar.
But the company clearly is undeterred. The Afghan government is seeking bids for its second great mineral project, a behemoth called Hajigak that is said to contain 60 billion tons of iron ore. There are seven finalists — all companies from India and China. M.C.C. is one of them.
Steven Walt, a Harvard professor of international relations, compares China’s strategy in Afghanistan favourably to the U.S. government’s “playing whack-a-mole with the Taliban and ‘investing’ billions each year in the corrupt Karzai government,” and reminds his readers that “the United States rose to its position of great power by letting other major powers do the heavy lifting, while Americans concentrated mostly on building the world’s biggest and most advanced economy and building influence with lots of other countries.”