A new player in Afghanistan's Great Game

A Chinese mining company wins the rights to develop what could be the world's biggest copper mine

Published November 21, 2007 5:06PM (EST)

In what is being called "the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan's history," a Chinese mining company has won the right to exploit a huge copper field not far from Kabul, the Financial Times reports. The price tag: 3 billion dollars. The spoils: a potential 12 million tons of copper.

Extracting the copper will be a mighty endeavor for the China Metallurgical Group (MCC), which beat out contenders from Russia, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. to win the bid. MCC must first build a power plant to provide electricity for the mining operations, and simultaneously develop coal resources to fuel the power plant. Excess power from the plant will be used to supply Kabul with much-needed electricity. Thousands of jobs will reportedly be created, though if China's record in Africa is any guide, many of those jobs may be filled by Chinese workers, and not Afghanis.

In the context of China's scramble to secure natural resources across the globe, the successful multi-year bid is just another data point to match up with soybean imports from Brazil, oil from Sudan, and liquefied natural gas from Australia. But it's also intriguing from a geopolitical perspective. The Great Game first featured England and Russia fighting over Afghanistan. Then the Americans replaced the Brits, and squared off against the Soviet Union.

Soviet geologists are believed to be the first to have pinpointed Afghanistan's copper resources, which have now been confirmed by the United States Geological Survey. But China will mine them.

At first glance it's hard to imagine two countries more different than China and Afghanistan -- one is the world's emerging superpower, the other is the epitome of a failed state. But China and Afghanistan actually share a 76 kilometer border, albeit mountainous and impassable for much of the year. Afghanistan is believed to be rich with a vast variety of mineral resources for which China has a seemingly insatiable hunger. And there China is, just a stone's throw away.

It is remarkable to think about how the world has and hasn't changed since the U.S. started dropping bombs on Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. The U.S. remains mired in an apparently endless struggle against jihad on multiple fronts. But if it hadn't topped the Taliban, would Afghanistan be "safe" for foreign mining companies? And while the U.S. spends hundreds of billions of dollars fighting its war in Iraq, China spends its currency doing business.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Afghanistan China Globalization How The World Works Mine Disasters