The humble pine nut – a staple of pesto sauce and superfood salads – rarely plays a geopolitical role. But in the last fortnight these small, edible seeds have been at the forefront of an effort to showcase Beijing’s economic support for Taliban-run Afghanistan.
China’s ambassador to Afghanistan Wang Yu revealed on Twitter on November 1 that a cargo flight bearing 45 tonnes of Afghan pine nuts had landed in Shanghai, marking the first shipment of goods from Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover.
“The little pine nuts bring happiness to Afghan people and good taste to the Chinese,” waxed Wang happily (he is one of the few foreign diplomats still in Kabul).
Wang was in descriptive mood, celebrating the “pine nut air corridor” as an “important bond of friendship between our two countries” and claiming that thousands more tonnes of nuts would arrive in China in the coming months.
Pine nuts aren’t widely eaten in China, although they are occasionally consumed as snacks or cooked with sweetcorn in a popular northern dish. They are also a feature of several Western-style dishes and salads that have become more popular among Chinese urbanites in recent years.
To promote sales of the new Afghan imports, their Chinese distributors have gone to unusual lengths to create social media buzz, presenting the seeds as a tasty, healthy and even patriotic purchase.
On November 6, Li Jiaqi, one of the country’s most popular livestreamers joined up with a reporter from state-run broadcaster CCTV to sell 120,000 cans of the nuts in an event broadcast live across several social media platforms. Selling the seeds for Rmb99 a can, the livestreamers generated revenues of more than Rmb10 million ($1.56 million) in total.
The event seems to have had the desired effect on its domestic audience, judging by some responses on social media.
“Our country is so great. This is a global power’s behaviour,” read one of the comments on the Sina Weibo platform. “Helping a war-worn country is so good,” celebrated another.
The Afghan nut diplomacy fits into a broader effort by the Chinese government to present itself as a more reliable alternative to the United States as a source of aid, trade and investment, especially in the developing world.
It also comes at the same time as the China International Import Expo (CIIE), an annual trade fair launched by President Xi Jinping in 2018 as a complement to the Belt and Road infrastructure programme (for more on the expo, see page 9).
China is already one of Afghanistan’s top trade partners and foreign investors, with projects (albeit slow-moving ones) including an oil field in the north of the war-torn nation and a copper mine near Kabul.
The pine nut promotion was originally hatched with the previous Afghan government, back in 2018. Under the agreement, Afghanistan could export as many as 23,000 tonnes of pine nuts a year to China, earning up to $800 million in revenue.
By sticking to the deal under the new Taliban government, China is presenting itself as an active contributor to Afghan stability, following the chaotic withdrawal of the US and its allies in August.
Washington and much of the international community is yet to recognise the Taliban government and the United States is blocking access to about $10 billion in Afghan assets overseas.
China, too, has yet to formally recognise the new Afghan government but it has announced more than $30 million of humanitarian aid to the country and held talks with the Taliban leadership. Last week China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with senior Taliban leaders for two days of conversations in Doha, the capital of Qatar. A statement after the meeting quoted Wang as saying that Beijing was concerned about the risks of a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
“Once the security situation is stabilised, China will discuss cooperation with Afghanistan in the field of economic reconstruction,” the top Chinese diplomat said.
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