BEIJING — In public, China has crowed over the U.S.’s embarrassing exit from Afghanistan, with officials saying the chaos highlighted America’s diminished standing on the world stage.
A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman cited the tragic death of Zaki Anwari, a teenage soccer star who fell to his death as he tried to cling to the landing gear of a departing American C-17.
“American myth down,” the spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said Aug. 20. “More and more people are awakening.”
In private, however, Beijing is more circumspect about its rival’s departure. While its main concern is security amid worries that Afghanistan under the Taliban will again become fertile ground for extremist groups, now Beijing may also have to face a U.S. freer to focus on its main rival: China. There is also the risk of getting sucked in.
“They tend to see Afghanistan as a trap and will be wary about taking on too prominent a role there,” said Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Small, who wrote “The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics,” added that the Chinese saw “the success of a radical Islamist movement in Afghanistan as inherently threatening.”
‘Its own national interest’
For much of the past two decades, Beijing was ambivalent about the massive U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Having its chief strategic rival planted in the backyard presented challenges, but China’s leaders also saw the benefit of having threats posed by extremist groups largely quelled along its western border. That the U.S. was shouldering the security burden made it, in many ways, the lesser of two evils for Beijing.
How China engages in Afghanistan will be closely watched by the U.S. and other countries. Even before Taliban fighters made their push into Kabul, the group’s senior leaders were laying diplomatic groundwork with Beijing. China was eager to oblige, hosting a delegation led by the head of the Taliban’s political office, Adbul Ghani Baradar, for talks in Tianjin in July with Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The men posed for cameras, albeit awkwardly, in a lobby adorned with red flowers (where U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had stood with Wang just two days earlier) to signal what Chinese officials called their “friendly relations.”
“China needs to develop relations with this neighbor,” said Fan Hongda, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Shanghai International Studies University. “The Taliban has become a political force that can’t be ignored in Afghanistan.”
At those meetings, the Taliban offered security assurances to Chinese officials that they would not allow their fighters to use Afghan territory as a base for attacks inside China — a version of the same promise they have made to the U.S. It speaks directly to Beijing’s fear of extremism in its western region of Xinjiang, where it has used the threat of terrorism to justify the wholesale detention of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minority groups — policies the U.S. has called “genocide.”
In the sort of transactional diplomacy that Chinese officials are known for, the Taliban left Tianjin with the pledge of possible backing from their richest neighbor.
“China is our most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a recent interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “It is ready to invest and rebuild our country.”
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So far, neither side has acknowledged the irony of their partnership: a powerful country using repressive tactics to fight extremism at home while embracing an extremist Islamist group next door.
“No matter what you think of the Taliban, the reality is that the Taliban is [an] important force affecting the situation and the future of Afghanistan,” said Qian Feng, research director at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University. “But China definitely has its own national interest.”
Aside from trying to prevent extremism, those interests are also economic.
Much is at stake for China, with potential investments in Afghanistan and the sweeping “Belt and Road” initiative to build roads, ports and other infrastructure to extend Chinese influence across Central and South Asia. The program has avoided Afghanistan because of the war; taking a gamble on the Taliban could change that. Chinese companies are also eyeing an opening to resume stalled projects like the Mes Aynak copper mine, which has languished since the deal was signed in 2008.
Limited amount of control
Whether China (or any country, for that matter) can trust the Taliban to deliver remains uncertain. While the speed at which the Afghan government and security forces collapsed caught much of the world off guard, the house of cards within the country had arguably long been teetering. For years, Taliban shadow governments had been thriving in villages and cities, far from Western-backed government ministries in Kabul widely regarded as bureaucratic and corrupt.
Billions of dollars in foreign aid flowing into the country worsened a culture of graft and bribes at every level and scale, including reports of cash being spirited out of the country by Afghan elites to bank accounts and villas in the Persian Gulf.
But while the Taliban have taken control so quickly that even many militants were surprised, the horrific attacks carried out by ISIS-K at the Kabul airport on Aug. 26, which killed more than 100 people, including 13 U.S. service members, have already exposed the limits to the Taliban’s absolute hold on the country.
The agreement struck in February 2020 by former President Donald Trump and Taliban leaders and implemented by President Joe Biden includes no provisions to safeguard women’s rights, education, democracy or any of the projects undertaken as part of the rebuilding effort that cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.
“Nobody has been able to control Afghanistan from outside,” Moin ul Haque, Pakistan’s ambassador to China, said in an interview last week. “So all we can do is that we can measure them, we can encourage them to, of course, meet the expectations of the international community.”
‘Last dusk of empire’
While China is concerned about what is unfolding in Afghanistan, the propaganda machine here is using the unraveling of the U.S. legacy to declare it the peak of American failure. Xinhua, the state-run news agency, said it was “the last dusk of empire,” and it has regularly highlighted international media coverage that questions U.S. credibility among its allies. China’s Foreign Ministry said it was a “lesson in reckless military adventures” amid days of comparisons to the U.S. departure from Vietnam in 1975.
“Wherever the United States sets foot, be it Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, we see turbulence, division, broken families, deaths and other scars,” said Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.
Social media posts and state-run newspapers, including the nationalist tabloid Global Times, outright trolled the U.S., joking that the Taliban takeover was smoother than the U.S. presidential transition.
The subtext? That the U.S. is in decline and unreliable.
But all that carries a risk for China, said John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.
“Since 9/11, Washington was so hellbent on counterterrorism and winning ‘forever wars,’” he said. “The risk for Beijing is that, for all the tragedy and humiliation of the withdrawal, the United States in the end succeeds in refocusing strategic attention to the rivalry with China.”
Pakistan, a close Chinese ally, is likely to serve as a conduit for doing Beijing’s business — political or otherwise — in Afghanistan. The country has a long history of ties to the Taliban, and its relations with the U.S. during the war in Afghanistan were seen as duplicitous at best.
“The Taliban’s victory is ultimately the result of Pakistani policy in hosting and supporting them,” said Small, warning that the “inspiration effect” of a resurgent Afghan Taliban could raise the risk of attacks by militant groups inside Pakistan.
On Sunday, a suicide attack targeting a paramilitary force in Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan killed at least four people and injured 20 others. The militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which is separate from the Afghan Taliban but recently renewed its allegiance to the group, claimed responsibility for the attack.
It is true that China is ready to step into the void in Afghanistan, but not necessarily to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal. Beijing is poised with economic inducements and “cooperative relations” to redraw the region’s geopolitical map.
“They have sympathies in their people,” ul Haque, Pakistan’s ambassador, said of the resurgent Taliban, “and now they are a political reality.”
That is unlikely to mean a Chinese security presence in Afghanistan. China’s embassy in Kabul remains open, and the ambassador there has met with senior Taliban officials. The Taliban may prove eager to revive Chinese investment to prop up an economy that, according to the World Bank, has relied on foreign aid for almost half of gross domestic product.
“Our leadership has a very rational outlook,” said Qian, the Tsinghua University professor. “So that we don’t follow the tracks [of the U.S.] and make the same mistakes.”