By: Wang Shida, Deputy Director, Institute of South Asia Studies,
China Institute of Contemporary International Relations
On 1 November, a special flight landed at the Shanghai Pudong Airport. The flight is special for two reasons: first, its place of departure is somehow unusual. The flight took off from Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, where the situation has caught global attention since its transition began on 15 August. The world has been eager to know the latest about the country. Second, the plane was loaded with a distinctive type of products: 45 tons of Afghan pine nuts, which were quickly sold out a few days later at the China International Import Expo held in Shanghai. Afghan pine nuts are mainly grown in northeastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. They are slender in shape, with thin shell and delicious taste. Small as they are, the pine nuts tell a lot about Afghanistan.
Looming humanitarian crisis
For Afghanistan, 2021 is a year of major changes happening one after another, and the situation is still evolving. The Afghan economy has long relied on external investment, international aid and the military service sector sustained by the large presence of foreign troops. A local system for indigenous economic growth has not been fully developed. With the U.S. military withdrawal, aid and investment from the United States and the Western countries have largely ceased. Worse even, since this August, the U.S. government has frozen the assets of the Afghan central bank worth of 9.5 billion dollars. The reason was that major Taliban leaders were still on the U.S. sanctions list. Meanwhile, the U.S. has continued to prevent the Afghan interim government from obtaining financial support from the U.S. and international financial institutions. This has severely strained the interim government’s financial capacity, making it unable to pay salaries to government officials and security forces, let alone restoring social order and reconstructing the economy. The many years of wars has almost ravaged Afghanistan’s food production. Now, the normal food imports were disrupted due to the lack of foreign exchange and the closure of Kabul International Airport. Across the country, including in the capital Kabul, food shortages are severe and food prices are soaring, exacerbating starvation. At the end of October, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) concluded that more than half of Afghanistan’s population (22.8 million people) will face severe food insecurity from November, which is an unprecedented, critical situation. Afghanistan is confronting other humanitarian challenges as well: with winter approaching, clothing and other essentials are insufficient; the war and international blockade have hit hard the already weak epidemic prevention system, aggravating the spread of COVID-19. WFP Executive Director David Beasley recently said that Afghanistan is into what may be the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth.
China extends a helping hand for Afghanistan to restore peace and development
The friendly exchanges between the people of China and Afghanistan date back to more than 2,000 years ago. The Silk Road that stretched across Eurasia not only enhanced mutual understanding between the two civilizations, enriching each other’s material resources and cultural life, but also boosted trade and cultural exchanges between the East and the West.
As a friendly neighbor and country with important international and regional influence, China has deep sympathy for Afghanistan and its people who have suffered so many years of war and turbulence. That has willed China to do its best to contribute to Afghanistan’s peace, stability and development. The Chinese people, feeling for the Afghan people, have always been a friend in need. On September 17, President Xi Jinping attended the Meeting on Afghanistan of the Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). He stated that Afghanistan should receive timely humanitarian and anti-COVID support to navigate the hard time. China has pledged more than 200 million yuan (over 31 million dollars) in humanitarian aid. Many shipments of assistance in kind have already arrived in Kabul, with more coming through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations Refugee Agency. China also arranged for its provinces to provide emergency supplies. It is among the first to pledge aid to Afghanistan, and has acted promptly to deliver.
At the same time, China knows well the importance of “teaching people how to fish rather than only giving the fish”. To avert the looming crisis, it is imperative to foster Afghanistan’s own system for economic growth and improve the fiscal capacity of the interim government. To that end, China actively supports Afghanistan’s efforts to tap its own potential and grow the economy. In October, in response to the needs of the Afghan interim government, the Chinese government made special arrangements to update charter flight permits and restarted the China-Afghanistan “air corridor of pine nuts”. As a researcher on South Asian issues, I have visited Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years, and every time I would buy some local pine nuts. The taste is very good. I am confident that China’s vast domestic market is capable of absorbing the various Afghan agricultural products including pine nuts. Up to now, 26 chartered flights have brought 1,500 tons of pine nuts to China, generating over 100 million yuan (157,000 dollars) of income for Afghan farmers and businesses. In addition to expanding imports from Afghanistan, China is also willing to explore cooperation on economic reconstruction, once the situation gets more stable and secure. China supports Afghanistan in leveraging its geographical advantage, enhancing connectivity, and building up its ability for independent development.
In the past or at present, China offers friendship and help, not swords and plunder. That is why the Afghan people do not see China as a threat but have a feeling of amity toward the Chinese people, something China enjoys while many other countries don’t. The Afghan interim government has made it clear its expectation for China to help build the Afghan economy. And indeed, what China has done, as I have listed in this article, is in clear contrast to the acts of the United States. The latter, advocating “human rights protection” but refusing to unfreeze the assets of the Afghanistan central bank, has played a part in the humanitarian hardships in Afghanistan. Pine nuts are small, but convey sincerity and good will. With that, China-Afghanistan cooperation will surely set sail toward a new era.