For the Chinese leadership, the chaotic scenes unfolding in Afghanistan have served as a scathing justification for their hostility to American power. “The last twilight of the empire,” the state-run Chinese news agency said. The Chinese Foreign Ministry called it a lesson in “reckless military adventures.”
Any complacency in Beijing could be premature. China must now scramble to judge how the US defeat might reshape the competition between the two great world powers. While the Taliban rout has weakened American prestige and its influence on China’s western border, it could also create new geopolitical dangers and security risks.
Officials in Beijing fear extremists could use Afghanistan to regroup on China’s flank and sow violence in the region, even as the Taliban look to deep-pocketed countries like China for help. aid and investment. The US military withdrawal could also allow the United States to direct its planning and materiel towards the fight against Chinese power across Asia.
“There should be anxiety rather than joy in Beijing,” said John Delury, professor of Chinese studies at Seoul Yonsei University. “The United States is finally extricating itself from an unpopular and impossible to win war in a geopolitically peripheral theater. Ending the military presence in Afghanistan frees up resources and attention to focus on the long-term rivalry with China. “
The two-decade American effort to build a functioning democratic government in Afghanistan has collapsed much faster than the world expected. The Chinese government criticized what it called a hasty and ill-planned American pullout, which dashed hopes that the Taliban would form a larger governing coalition before taking power.
“Everywhere the United States sets foot, whether in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, we see turmoil, divisions, broken families, deaths and other scars,” said Hua Chunying, door -speak of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during a regular press briefing. the week.
How China engages the Taliban will be closely watched far beyond Afghanistan. Governments around the world are grappling with the new rulers there, especially their pledges to pursue more moderate policies and to stop all violence abroad. China, Afghanistan’s richest and most powerful neighbor, will pay particular attention to the performance of a Taliban-led government.
China says it has obtained assurances from the Taliban that Afghan territory will not be used as an attack ground for attacks inside China, but its influence over the group is unclear.
Just three weeks ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Taliban leaders in northern China’s Tianjin city and urged them to “hold up the banner of peace talks.” . Instead, the Taliban exploited the cratered morale of Afghan government forces to take over city after city.
“Although the Taliban have made promises, there is still great uncertainty as to the extent to which they will be fulfilled,” said Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at Lanzhou University in the northwest. from China, in a telephone interview.
“I think the Chinese influence on the Afghan issue has been overestimated,” he said. “The United States finally believes that after withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, this mess will become one for China. I find that a bit confusing. “
For China, the stakes are high. If the Taliban’s victory leads to a wave of regional instability, it could disrupt China’s Belt and Road program to finance and build infrastructure in the region, which has largely bypassed Afghanistan because of the war. Beijing is worried about the security of other countries close to Afghanistan: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. An attack last month on a bus carrying Chinese workers in Pakistan, killing nine of them, has since been attributed to attackers operating from inside Afghanistan.
“All of their concerns are magnified by this result,” said Andrew Small, senior researcher at the US German Marshall Fund who studies China’s relations with Afghanistan, referring to Beijing’s perspective.
“They fear it will have some kind of uplifting effect, with the country becoming a permissive environment for the groups they care about most,” he said.
The US withdrawal will also allow the United States to refocus its attention on Beijing. President Biden has made it clear that the war in Afghanistan – however chaos its outcome may be – has for too long distracted the country from broader geopolitical priorities.
“Our true strategic competitors – China and Russia – would love nothing more than the United States to continue to channel billions of dollars in resources and attention to stabilize Afghanistan indefinitely,” Biden said. at the White House Monday.
Twenty years ago, the rapid American overthrow of the Taliban in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was seen by China as a disturbing display of military might near its border, but it also brought some kind of relief.
Until then, President George W. Bush had seemed eager to keep his election promises to put the brakes on China. He expressed support for Taiwan, the autonomous island claimed by Beijing, and criticized China’s manipulation of trade rules to the detriment of American companies.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
After September 11, however, as the United States sought Chinese support for its war in Afghanistan, it agreed to designate a group of Uyghur fighters from Xinjiang, China’s far western region, as a terrorist organization. which shares a short mountainous border with Afghanistan. . According to the United Nations, the Uyghur group, known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, once had ties to al-Qaeda and was responsible for a number of violent incidents, including several in Xinjiang at the end of the day. of the 1990s which killed 140 in total.
“Anytime it looks like the United States is going to be able to focus seriously on China, something gets in the way,” said Mr. Small, a researcher at the German Marshall Fund. “You’ve had this succession of crises that have given China extra space, and Afghanistan has been a constant. When American forces and lives are at stake, it dominates. “
The question is, what is China going to do now? While some expect China to break through the loophole created by the US withdrawal, Beijing is deeply suspicious of engaging in the Afghan political and military conflicts that brought on the United States and the Soviet Union.
China’s unofficial contact with the Taliban dates back to the 1990s, and Beijing officials have kept in touch with the group for the past two decades, mainly to urge the Taliban not to support attacks in Xinjiang.
These contacts have recently served China well. The Chinese embassy in the Afghan capital Kabul remained open after the Taliban took control. Despite this, China has shown no eagerness to step up its involvement in Afghanistan under its new leadership.
“In Chinese discussions about Afghanistan, you will often hear this expression, ‘the graveyard of empires’,” said Raffaello Pantucci, senior researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. . “I think their concern is that the instability in Afghanistan is spreading north and south, and it’s a bigger problem for them. It could destabilize their entire rear region.
Given these concerns, it seems unlikely that China will move quickly to recognize the Taliban’s seizure of power. A week before the fall of the Afghan government, Chinese, American, Russian and Pakistani officials gathered in Qatar to discuss a way forward. It is not yet clear whether countries will choose to negotiate with the Taliban or rather repeat efforts to isolate them, as happened after they took power in 1996.
China’s statements suggest that it first wants clarification on Afghanistan’s political future and whether the Taliban will keep its security promises. Ms. Hua, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said on Tuesday that the Taliban should “pursue a moderate and cautious religious policy” and “work with other parties to form an open and inclusive political structure.”
Even if Beijing decides to support Afghanistan more actively, it should only do so under the auspices of the United Nations and regional groupings, said Wu Baiyi, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“Relying on a great power to solve Afghanistan’s problems will not work,” Wu said. “We are all absorbing the lessons of the past 40 years. We can’t go on like this.
Liu Yi and Claire Fu contributed to the research.