China doesn't want a power grab in Afghanistan, it's more interested in regional stability, argue Lukas Fiala and Hugo Jones.
The Afghan government’s collapse, the Taliban’s subsequent capture of Kabul, and horrific scenes of abandonment at the capital’s airport shell-shocked international observers over the past week.
Afghans clinging on to a US Air Force jet in a desperate bid to flee the country painfully reminded the apparent failures of costly military assistance and external intervention.
While the West ponders over what went wrong and scrambles to evacuate nationals and their local aides, millions of Afghans fear for their lives and future in a repressive, Taliban-led regime.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a spate of provocative narratives has emerged about how America’s withdrawal relates to China’s future as a global power.
Many of these are misleading or downright ignorant. But two have gained more traction than others: (1) the idea that China will move into and exploit any potential power vacuum left by the US in Afghanistan; and (2) that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan means that Taiwan cannot count on US assistance should cross-strait relations turn (even more) sour. These conclusions, however, are premature and short-sighted.
Let’s tackle each one in turn. China was certainly one of the first countries to indicate it would recognise the Taliban as the new government of Afghanistan. In a phone call with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also scolded America’s record of "mechanically copying foreign models" in historically and culturally different settings.
Chinese political figures, state media and diplomats have further used this opportunity to publicly shame the US’ record of "arbitrarily interfering in other countries' internal affairs".
They argue that the botched nation-building project in Afghanistan distinguishes the colonial West from a peaceful China.
This may sound like a great power play – but really it isn’t. In fact, China actually supported the "War on Terror", albeit tacitly, and instrumentalised the political discourse of combatting extremism to reinforce the "Three Evils" (separatism, terrorism and religious extremism), which continue to inform and justify policy in Xinjiang today.
Beijing has accordingly sought assurances from the Taliban that the potential for Uyghur separatist organisations to germinate within Afghanistan won’t become an issue.
Observers rightly note that Beijing may offer its ultimate carrot – financial firepower – to extract favours from the Taliban leadership by aiding Afghanistan’s dire economic situation.
However, rather than a power grab by Beijing, this would aid its prime objective of fostering regional stability: neighbouring Pakistan, for instance, is a linchpin of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and projected costs for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was officially launched in April 2015, have skyrocketed to an estimated $62 billion.
Beijing is duly aware of the risk that extremist groups pose to Chinese investments and nationals in the region.
Just last April a car bomb in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta exploded in the parking area of a hotel in which the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan resided. While the ambassador was not on the premises when the explosion happened, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) took responsibility for the attack, reflecting the risks China faces from Taliban operations in the region.
Political capital is also on the line for China.
The last thing Beijing wants is a very public security incident that demands a heavy-handed response, which, if the history of external interference in Afghanistan is anything to go by, would be doomed to failure.
How Beijing navigates difficult security concerns around Afghanistan will be a bellwether for its overseas security strategy elsewhere. The balancing act of reconciling the protection of Chinese nationals and economic interests with China’s long-proclaimed resistance to interventionist policies is certainly not an easy one. In short, the situation in Afghanistan is definitely not a clear win but rather a headache for a stability-seeking Beijing.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan is also more complex for China than simply an analogue for Taiwan. Indeed, the argument that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the admittedly unprepared response to the Taliban takeover is bad news for Taipei because it signals that the US only provides security if an issue falls within the remit of national interests, is logically flawed.
Countering China is, by far, the most coherent objective of the Biden administration. Moreover, Taiwan occupies a historically and diplomatically unique position in US politics and is a key objective of US foreign policy. If the situation in Afghanistan should mean anything to Taiwanese policymakers, it’s that the US increasingly prioritises its overseas security posture in favour of East Asia. To argue that waning US interests in protecting the Afghan government from the Taliban has direct implications for Taiwan is to misunderstand America’s strategic thinking. After all, these exact interests have led to a shift in US foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific and thus Taiwan in the first place.
China is thus neither likely to benefit from the supposed “power vacuum” in Afghanistan, nor should Afghanistan be interpreted as a straightforward reference to assess US commitments towards Taiwan. To do so also disregards the very real humanitarian crisis which is still occurring on the ground in Afghanistan, in an attempt to transplant the geopolitical significance elsewhere.
The underlying reason for such short-sighted assessments is readily found in the persistent reluctance on part of a host of Western observers to recognise and appreciate political phenomena across the Global South in their own right. Doing so firstly requires us to avoid framing the Afghan crisis as a subset of US-China competition and recognise the complexity of the situation at hand. After all, it is exactly the kind of simplified thinking that has led the West to reproduce our own foreign policy disasters in the past by failing to appreciate regional and local politics and histories.
Lukas Fiala is an incoming PhD International Relations candidate at the London School of Economics and Project Coordinator of China Foresight at LSE IDEAS. He is also a Yenching Scholar at Peking University and holds an MSc in International Relations from the LSE and a BSc in Politics and International Relations from New College of the Humanities, London.
Hugo Jones is an MSc International Relations candidate at LSE. He is Project Assistant to LSE IDEAS China Foresight.