China’s exercise of economic statecraft to exert influence in pursuit of foreign policy objectives is nothing new. Nor are its security interests in Afghanistan. This combination is usually assumed to come together in the form of mineral exploitation in exchange for security guarantees.
But it is possible that China is planning a more complicated game which reduces its exposure but benefits a larger number of Afghans. Deliveries of pine nuts to China were first formalized in 2018 under the Western-backed government in Kabul with annual exports worth up to $800 million. By end of 2019, Afghan traders had inked over $2 billion worth of contracts with China for exporting pine nuts over a period of five years. Unlike the large and complicated mineral deals whose stories fill the press, the export of agricultural products like pine nuts is a way to immediately reach a large community of Afghan farmers, something the Taliban are very happy about and Beijing can commit to at little cost.
The China-Afghan pine nut story is a complicated one. While it can be simply explained as the law of supply and demand (with an almost bottomless consumer market in China that can absorb almost anything), a question not being asked is why China picked pine nuts among many other high-quality Afghan cash crops on which it could focus its attention.
A key reason is location. Pine nuts are naturally grown in the wild in Laghman, Kunar, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces. These areas have long been hotbeds of insurgent activity from the Haqqani network, in Khost, Paktia, and Paktika, to the Islamic State (ISK), in Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman. These are also the areas where China feels it faces greater security threats from groups like the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). This could explain why China suddenly developed a taste for Afghan pine nuts.
While China’s facilitation of output-type contacts (whereby the buyer guarantees purchase levels as long as quality is maintained) and removal of logistical barriers have lifted thousands of pine nut growers out of poverty, it has also made these pine nut growing areas export-dependent on China. This gives China an interesting form of leverage and economic influence over the inhabitants of this region regardless of which government rules in Kabul.
Chinese purchasers of pine nuts for export were always keener to be in direct touch with the farmers than to use middle men. The result of this link might be seen in an espionage case that blew up in Kabul in December 2020, when the old local intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), rolled up a cell of 10 Chinese citizens on accusations of espionage. According to stories that later emerged, one of the purported spies was allegedly involved in pine nut export, and the network was reported to have been building links to the Haqqani Network.
Whatever the details of this case, pine nuts remain at the top of China’s Afghan agenda. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to Doha to meet Taliban officials at the end of October coincided with the harvest season for pine nuts. With air corridors closed and all financial transactions with Afghanistan disrupted, the pressure was building on the Taliban to re-establish international trade. The Afghanistan Pine Nuts Union issued a statement calling on the Taliban administration to ban the smuggling of pine nuts and resume air corridors to facilitate exports to China.
In the staged portion of Wang’s visit to Doha a short video was released of Taliban Foreign Minister designate Amir Khan Muttaqi handing over an elaborate box of pine nuts. The topic was not reported as coming up during Wang’s meeting with Taliban Deputy Prime Minister designate Abdul Ghani Baradar, where instead he was reported as focusing on China’s security concerns, stating “China hopes and believes that the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with the ETIM and other terrorist organizations, and take effective measures to resolutely crack down on them.”
While it is believed that China discussed a whole host of economic and state building opportunities, re-establishing the pine nuts air bridge was the most practical and easy solution with immediate wins for both sides. And China was able to show results very quickly. On November 1, the first flight of the restarted air corridor went to Shanghai, bringing with it 45 tonnes of pine nuts. A week later, online superstar salesman Li “lipstick king” Jiaqi and CCTV news anchor Wang Bingbing showcased cans of Afghan pine nuts on their online shopping show, shifting 120,000 cans with the support of Chen Zhong, a Chinese Pashto speaker and expert on Afghanistan.
This rapid market to cash transaction highlights part of the way out of Afghanistan’s current liquidity crisis to the Taliban, while also giving China an easy way of supporting the Afghan economy at little cost to itself. It also gave the Taliban a way of showing their positive capability as export promoters to a part of the country where dangerous groups thrive.
Of course, both China and the Taliban recognize that the long-term answer to Afghanistan’s economic stagnation does not lie in pine nuts. According to reliable sources at the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, samples of rare earths from Helmand’s Khanneshin district were handed to a Chinese delegation that met the Taliban acting minister of mines shortly after Wang’s visit to Doha. A delegation of Chinese company representatives were issued special visas and were reported to have visited Kabul in early November to conduct site inspections of sites of potential lithium mines, though their official read-out was very wary of committing to anything specific.
China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has restarted exploring opportunities in the Amu Darya field it had been thrown out from under the former government. Production from 11 wells at Angot and Kashkari blocks can start fairly quickly and without any large upfront investment because much of the existing infrastructure and wells were rehabilitated when CNPC took over the operations 10 years ago.
With global oil prices above $80 a barrel for the first time in three years, and a severe winter ahead of a cash-strapped Afghan population, resuming production from Amu Darya could provide another “win-win” opportunity for China and the Taliban government. There are also reports that MCC, the firm that won the tender to mine the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar, have sent teams to discuss restarting with the Taliban – though they state they remain highly concerned about the security situation.
But all of these projects are longer-term and far more expensive. It will require considerable outlay on the Chinese side for a project which may or may not work, and will take a long time to deliver cash to the government and people. Pine nuts in contrast offer a quick turnaround which both helps get currency into the hands of farmers and the laborers they need to harvest the nuts, and requires little major commitment by China except easing access to the Chinese consumer market. They also provide an interesting possible avenue for Chinese intelligence to gain direct contact in areas of concern.
All in all, it is a win-win that both the Taliban and Beijing can sign off on with little cost, but lots of positive imagery on all sides. Crucially, it allows China to play an economic role and deal with security issues, all without feeling like it is being dragged too far into the Afghan quagmire.