Afghan envoy calls on China to open trade to ease crisis

(Bloomberg) – Afghanistan’s top diplomat in Beijing called on China to shut down more of its agricultural products, saying that expanded trade would do more to ease a humanitarian crisis next door than financial aid.

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Ambassador Javid Qaem, a detainee from the Islamic Republic government who fell to the Taliban, said in an interview Friday that more flexible trade rules on the Chinese side and better logistics could help Afghanistan expand its annual exports of agricultural products like pine nuts from $ 500 million to as much as $ 2 billion annually trading with its larger neighbor.

He called on China to expand air shipments of pine nuts, which were resumed last month, and said the two countries were a “week or two” from agreeing to a similar arrangement for saffron.

“This is what we really expect from China,” Qaem told Bloomberg News at the embassy in Beijing. “Humanitarian aid is on the one hand, but because China is a very good market – and it is a very large market – what we really expect is trade.”

The plea for Chinese support comes as Afghanistan prepares for a winter of political and economic unrest following the US exit and the Taliban’s conquest of Kabul in August. China is eager to prevent either militants or refugees from spreading across the border, and China has embraced the Taliban regime and promised during a meeting in Doha, Qatar last month, to help the Islamist group “rebuild the country.”

China has so far pledged about 200 million yuan (about $ 30 million) in aid to Afghanistan, a figure that includes food supplies and Covid-19 vaccines. Still, it is probably not enough to address a food shortage that UN aid programs have predicted will affect 23 million people in Afghanistan this winter, or more than half the population.

“We need assistance – the people need help, and they need it soon,” Qaem said, addressing all world powers. “It should not just be promises.”

Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute who researches counter-terrorism and Beijing’s relations with the West, described China’s efforts as a positive development. But he said Beijing could provide more transformation support by restarting major mining projects or describing Afghanistan’s role in its Belt and Road initiative.

“In economic terms, it has not done as much as it could have contributed to the country, in trade, investment or aid,” Pantucci said. “The likely hesitation in China’s end comes from concerns that Beijing, when making major plays, will end up being perceived as a sponsor and main proponent of the new Taliban regime, which could lead to a number of complicated responsibilities on the international stage. which China wants to avoid. “

Qaem spoke largely independently of the new Taliban government, saying Afghan diplomats in Beijing were no longer paid and “just went on somehow.” He acknowledged that he was not aware of a Pakistani statement late Thursday that Taliban officials would soon travel to China to attend a meeting with envoys from Beijing, Moscow and Washington.

While Qaem stopped criticizing the Taliban’s ideological views, he questioned their slow resumption of services, especially education for girls. “I do not see anything that will stop them from doing that. The girls’ education should start from today – why should we wait for it at all?” he said.

He blamed the delay on “internal issues” in the Taliban, between factions he described as “politicians” and “the tough ones”.

The militant group is suddenly responsible for restarting an economy hit by the pandemic on top of decades of war, even though the United States is withholding about $ 9 billion in Afghan central bank reserves. An immediate victim of the chaos was the “pine core corridor” of direct cargo flights that began in 2018, cutting off Indian and Pakistani middlemen, bringing an estimated $ 800 million in annual revenue to Afghanistan.

China’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Wang Yu, praised a 45-tonne ship that reopened the corridor on October 31, as a symbol of the “important friendship between our two countries.” Qaem said he hoped China could expand these shipments and help remove other barriers restricting trade in other goods such as saffron and pomegranates.

China, which has not yet formally recognized the new government in Kabul, “played a constructive role” in talks with the Taliban, Qaem said. The international community had to overcome their uncertainty about how to deal with the Taliban, whether it works with them directly or through the UN, he added.

“This is the reality of the place: the Taliban are there and they have a piece of land where 35 million people live,” Qaem said. “And we have to find a way to reach the people and get them out of this serious situation.”

(Analyst Comment Updates in Eighth Section.)

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