Neeraj Singh Manhas
12th December 2021
Many analysts have come forward in recent days to predict how America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will affect China’s regional and global standing. Some argue that the withdrawal will free up American resources for a greater focus on China and the Indo-Pacific. Others see the withdrawal as creating a vacuum for China to fill. Others argue that Taiwan is now more vulnerable because Beijing has evaluated America’s resolve and competence and found it wanting. The piece will try to look at three questions; first, does China see an opportunity to exploit Afghanistan after the US Withdrawal? Second, how will China react to the US withdrawal? Third, is Taiwan now at risk as a result of Afghanistan’s event?
While it is difficult to know with certainty how China’s leaders are assessing developments in Afghanistan, a few preliminary conclusions can be drawn. China does not seem to exude the desire to rule Afghanistan or to use it as a model for their own form of governance. Beijing is only concerned with its own interests in Afghanistan, which are primarily motivated by security concerns. Chinese leaders are concerned about the spread of insecurity from Afghanistan into neighbouring countries, including spillover into China. They are also concerned about the inspiration that Islamic militarism may provide to others with similar goals.
Although Chinese leaders are not thrilled with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, they will not let principle get in the way of pragmatism, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi demonstrated it when he hosted Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin. Beijing will recognise the Taliban and seek ways to persuade them to be concerned about China’s security. Beijing will also rely on the Taliban to support them by denying safe haven to Uyghur fighters and other groups that could destabilise Central Asia or harm Chinese interests in the region or at home.
China would likely welcome opportunities to benefit from Afghanistan’s rich mineral deposits and incorporate Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative in the long run, but it has likely learned from America’s experience that even modest expectations in Afghanistan must be tempered. The lack of development at Beijing’s major investment in the Mes Aynak copper mine demonstrates the Chinese government’s willingness to be patient in pursuit of a return on investment. Before attempting to advance its affirmative interests in Afghanistan, Beijing will most likely take the time necessary to gain confidence that its defensive security requirements are met.
China’s efforts to advance a narrative of American decline may be the primary means by which it seeks to profit from America’s withdrawal. Chinese propaganda officials will almost certainly try to use tragic images of America abandoning Afghan partners as proof of American unreliability and incompetence. These efforts will most likely aim to reach two audiences: domestic and international (non-American).
Beijing’s message to the domestic audience will be that the United States is not an object of worship. Unlike Washington, Beijing will not intervene in other countries’ civil wars, spill blood, or leave a trail of destruction, as evidenced by their actions.
For a global audience, the message will most likely be that America’s best days are behind it. Afghanistan is just another stop on America’s downward spiral. The rise of China is the story of the future.
Beijing’s bravado and confidence in exploring the Afghanistan tragedy will certainly diminish the impact of their actions. The most effective action the US could take to undermine Beijing’s narrative will not be to complain about them, but rather to work to restore trust in the US’s ability to do big things well, as in playing the savior when there is an issue. Performance will ultimately define prestige on the global stage.
Taiwan is no more vulnerable today than it was in terms of hard security. Because of developments in Afghanistan, none of the constraints on Beijing’s ability to wage war on Taiwan have been lifted. China’s leaders are likely aware that the United States’ only vital interest in Afghanistan is preventing a terrorist attack on the American homeland.
Taiwan is not comparable to Afghanistan. Taiwan is a thriving democratic society, a vital link in global supply chains, and a close partner and friend of the United States and other regional countries such as Japan and Australia. Even though Taiwan is not a formal American alliance partner, it is regarded as a barometer of the credibility of American security commitments.
The immediate focus of Chinese efforts will most likely be on undermining Taiwanese people’s psychological confidence in their own future. Beijing would like to promote a narrative within Taiwan that the US is distant and untrustworthy, Taiwan is isolated and alone, and the only path to peace and prosperity leads through Beijing. Chinese propaganda outlets will almost certainly try to use events in Afghanistan to promote their preferred narrative within Taiwan.
Given Beijing’s current hardline stance toward Taiwan, fresh memories of events in Hong Kong, and the Democratic Progressive Party’s control of the presidency and legislature, psychological pressure from Beijing is unlikely to result in near-term policy shifts in Taipei. However, if questions of American dependability become a topic of political debate in Taiwan, they may become a factor in upcoming elections and the policies that result from them.
The events in Afghanistan will have no bearing on America’s determination to maintain a firm and consistent military posture in the Western Pacific. Arguably and more importantly, senior American officials will need to send clear, authoritative messages to Taiwan’s leaders and the public about America’s determination to ensure that differences in the Taiwan Strait are eventually resolved peacefully and in a way that reflects the will of Taiwan’s people. The three theater chains mentioned in the piece are examples of US-China tensions manifesting themselves in these locations. Given the improbability of direct confrontation, these incidences point to the evolution of the terseness of current US-China ties in the region, which will continue to underpin the direction that will be taken in terms of global politics pertaining to the three theatres in the coming years. China would also make it a point to leverage as much as they can to gain the best benefits out of their relationship with Afghanistan.
The author is a Research Intern at Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies
Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are those of the Author
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