In recent days, many analysts have stepped forward to provide predictions on how America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will impact China’s regional and global standing. Some argue the withdrawal will free up American resources to focus on China and the Indo-Pacific. For others, the withdrawal opens a vacuum for China to exploit. Still others assert that Taiwan is now more vulnerable because Beijing has taken the measure of America’s resolve and competence and found it lacking.
While it is difficult to know with certainty how China’s leaders are evaluating developments in Afghanistan, it is possible to draw a few preliminary conclusions. The following observations are based on over a decade of discussions with Chinese officials and experts focused on such questions.
Does China see an opportunity to exploit in Afghanistan following America’s withdrawal?
Most Chinese counterparts I know are unclouded by any optimism about their capacity to transform Afghanistan. They harbor no ambition to run Afghanistan or to turn Afghanistan into a model of their own form of governance. Beijing is master only of its own interests in Afghanistan, which are predominantly animated by security concerns. Chinese leaders worry about the spread of instability from Afghanistan into adjacent regions, including spillover into China. They also worry about the inspiration that Islamic militarism could provide to others with similar aspirations.
Although Chinese leaders are not enthusiastic about the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, they will not allow principle to stand in the way of pragmatism, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s hosting of Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin three weeks ago signaled. Beijing will recognize the Taliban and seek ways to encourage the Taliban to be attentive to China’s security concerns. Beijing will urge the Taliban to deny safe haven to Uyghur fighters and other groups that could destabilize Central Asia or harm Chinese interests in the region or at home.
Over time, China would welcome opportunities to benefit from Afghanistan’s rich mineral deposits and incorporate Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative, but it likely has learned from America’s experience that even modest expectations in Afghanistan must be tempered. Beijing’s lack of development at its major investment in the Mes Aynak copper mine demonstrates its willingness to exercise patience in pursuit of return on investment. Beijing likely will take the time necessary to gain confidence that its defensive security requirements are met before it attempts to advance its affirmative interests in Afghanistan.
How will China respond to America’s withdrawal?
The principal means through which China may seek to profit from America’s withdrawal might be its efforts to advance a narrative of American decline. Chinese propaganda officials likely will seek to exploit tragic images of America’s abandonment of Afghan partners as proof points of American unreliability and incompetence. These efforts likely will seek to reach two audiences: a domestic one and an international (non-American) one.
For the domestic audience, Beijing’s message will be that the United States is not an object of worship. Unlike Washington, Beijing will not intervene in other country’s civil wars, spill blood, and leave messes behind.
For an international audience, the message likely will be that America’s best days are behind it. Afghanistan is but another way station on America’s path of decline. China’s rise is the story of the future.
Beijing’s unsubtlety in its efforts to score points off tragedy likely will diminish their impact. The most potent action the United States could take to undercut Beijing’s narrative will not be to complain about them, but rather to work to restore confidence in the competence of the United States to do big things well. Prestige on the world stage will ultimately be defined by performance.
Is Taiwan now at greater risk due to events in Afghanistan?
From a hard security standpoint, Taiwan is no more vulnerable today than it was one week ago. None of the constraints on Beijing’s capacity to wage war on Taiwan have been lessened due to developments in Afghanistan. China’s leaders likely understand America’s only vital interest in Afghanistan was preventing a terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland.
Taiwan is not Afghanistan. Taiwan is a thriving democratic society, a critical link in global supply chains, and a close partner and friend of the United States and other countries in the region, including Japan and Australia. It also is viewed as a bellwether of the credibility of American security commitments, even though Taiwan is not a formal American alliance partner.
The proximate focus of Chinese efforts likely will be in seeking to undermine the psychological confidence of the Taiwan people in their own future. Beijing would like to advance a narrative inside Taiwan that the United States is distant and unreliable, Taiwan is isolated and alone, and Taiwan’s only path to peace and prosperity runs through Beijing. Chinese propaganda outlets almost certainly will seek to use events in Afghanistan to push their preferred narrative inside Taiwan.
Given Beijing’s current hard-edged disposition toward Taiwan, fresh memories of events in Hong Kong, and the Democratic Progressive Party’s control of the presidency and legislature, there is a low likelihood of Beijing’s psychological pressure resulting in near-term policy shifts in Taipei. If questions of American reliability grow as a topic of political debate in Taiwan, though, they could become a factor in upcoming elections and the policies that flow from them.
Events in Afghanistan will not impact America’s determination to maintain a firm, steady military posture in the western Pacific. Arguably as important, though, senior American officials also will need to provide clear, authoritative messages to Taiwan’s leaders and public of America’s resolve to ensure differences in the Taiwan Strait are ultimately resolved peacefully and in a manner that reflects the will of Taiwan’s people.