Afghan envoy urges China to lift trade barriers to ease crisis

A farmer at a grape farm in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Sept 6, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Afghanistan's top diplomat in Beijing has called on China to let in more of its agricultural products, saying that expanded trade would do more to ease a humanitarian crisis next door than fiscal aid.

Ambassador Javid Qaem, a holdover from the Islamic republic government that fell to the Taliban, said in an interview last Friday (Nov 12) 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 US$500 million (S$676 million) to as much as US$2 billion of annual trade with its larger neighbour.

He urged China to expand air shipments of pine nuts that 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," Mr Qaem told Bloomberg News at the embassy in Beijing. "The humanitarian assistance is on one side, but because China is a very good market - and it's a very big market - what we really expect is trade."

The plea for Chinese support comes as Afghanistan braces for a winter of political and economic turmoil after the United States' exit and the Taliban's capture of Kabul in August.

Anxious to prevent either militants or refugees from spreading across the border, China has embraced the Taliban regime, pledging during a meeting last month in Doha, Qatar, to help the Islamist group "rebuild the country".

China has so far pledged some 200 million yuan (S$42.4 million) in assistance to Afghanistan, a figure that includes food supplies and Covid-19 vaccines.

Still, that is likely not enough to relieve a food shortage that United Nations aid programmes have projected will affect 23 million people in Afghanistan this winter, or more than half the population.

"We need assistance - the people need assistance and they need it soon," Mr Qaem said, addressing all world powers. "It shouldn't be only pledges."

The ambassador was speaking largely independently from the new Taliban government, saying that Afghan diplomats in Beijing were no longer getting paid and "just continuing somehow".

He acknowledged being unaware of a Pakistani statement late last Thursday that Taliban representatives would soon travel to China to attend a meeting of envoys from Beijing, Moscow and Washington.

While Mr Qaem stopped short of criticising the Taliban's ideological views, he questioned its slow resumption of services, especially education for girls.

"I don't see anything that should stop them from doing it. Girls education should start from today - why we should even wait for it?" he said.

He blamed the delay on "internal issues" in the Taliban, between factions he described as "the politicians" and "the hardliners".

The militant group is suddenly responsible for restarting an economy battered by the pandemic on top of decades of war, even as the US withholds some US$9 billion in Afghan central bank reserves.

One immediate casualty of the chaos was the "pine nut corridor" of direct cargo flights that began in 2018, cutting out Indian and Pakistani middle men, and bringing an estimated US$800 million in annual revenue to Afghanistan.

Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan Wang Yu has hailed a 45 tonne shipment that reopened the corridor on Oct 31 as a symbol of the "important bond of friendship between our two countries".

Mr Qaem said he hoped China could expand those shipments and help clear other barriers restricting trade in other goods such as saffron and pomegranates.

China, which has not yet formally recognised the new government in Kabul, was "playing a constructive role" in talks with the Taliban, Mr Qaem said.

The international community needed to overcome its uncertainty over how to deal with the Taliban, whether that is working with it directly or through the United Nations, he added.

"This is the reality on the ground: The Taliban is there and it has a piece of land where 35 million people are living," Mr Qaem said.

"And we have to find a way to reach the people and get them out of this dire situation."

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