China has reactivated a direct air trade link with Afghanistan in a bid to assist the war-ravaged neighbor’s new Taliban rulers in dealing with a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis.
A cargo plane carrying 45 tons of pine nuts Sunday flew out of Kabul for Chinese markets, marking the restoration of the commercial corridor after the Islamist Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August.
“We hope the commercial activity will continue and boost our trade ties with China,” Bilal Karimi, a Taliban government spokesman, told VOA.
He said the export of pine nuts was an outcome of recent wide-ranging “good discussions” between Kabul and Beijing, anticipating progress in other areas of bilateral trade in coming days.
“Today’s export of pine nuts in particular marks a new good beginning (in relations between the two countries),” Karimi added.
China, one of the largest importers of Afghan pine nuts, launched the air freight corridor in November 2018 to help Afghanistan increase its exports of dry and fresh fruits to Chinese markets and address a massive trade deficit.
Officials at the time estimated the trade link would enable Afghan exporters to dispatch 23,000 tons of pine nuts annually to China, bringing home up to $800 million in revenue.
The initiative boosted the Afghan pine nut industry as Chinese importers last year reportedly were contracted to purchase more than $2 billion of pine nuts over the next five years.
Beijing has long seen bilateral economic cooperation as a way to stabilize Afghanistan and deter anti-China militants from using the country as a launching pad for terrorist attacks, particularly in the western Xinjiang border region.
China has been actively working in coordination with neighboring and regional powers to help the Taliban stabilize the country since the United States and NATO allies left Afghanistan in August after nearly 20 years of war.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held two days of talks with senior Taliban leaders in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
A Chinese post-meeting statement quoted Wang as telling Taliban interlocutors that Beijing has been concerned about “the potential outbreak” of a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
“Once the security situation in Afghanistan is stabilized, China will discuss with Afghanistan the cooperation in the field of economic reconstruction and support the country to boost its connectivity with the region and its capability to seek independent development,” Wang said after his meeting in Doha.
China has already announced more than $30 million worth of humanitarian aid for Afghanistan. Wang announced an additional $6 million cash and material assistance after last week’s talks.
Washington and the global community at large have not granted legitimacy to the Taliban administration. The U.S. has blocked its access to about $10 billion in Afghan assets parked largely with the U.S. Federal Reserve, even as Afghanistan faces the humanitarian crisis and prospects of an economic meltdown.
The sanctions stem from concerns over human rights and terrorism under the Taliban rule.
China, along with Pakistan, Turkey, Iran and Russia, have been urging Western nations to unfreeze Kabul’s assets abroad and send urgent humanitarian assistance to Afghans.
While Washington and European nations have so far ignored calls for recognizing the Taliban government, they have announced urgent humanitarian aid for Afghanistan.
The United Nations says more than half of the country’s population of nearly 40 million people will face acute hunger this winter unless urgent aid arrives.