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The US withdrawal from the Afghanistan poses short- and long-term challenges for China

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Nov.1

Since the chaotic withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover, much has been said and written about the implications of the US pullout.  

Amid the ongoing US-China rivalry, one of the most debated issues is whether China will emerge as a major beneficiary of the crisis. In general, two apparently conflicting observations are offered. For optimists (or pessimists depending on where they come from), the withdrawal of the US from the central Asian country will allow China to extend its influence to the mineral-rich country, consolidate its presence in the region and provide a major boost to its Belt and Road Initiative.  

For others, China, if tempted to fill the security vacuum left by the US, could be the next one consumed by the “graveyard of empires.” Even if China refrains from playing a military role in the country, the Taliban’s return to power could lead to increased terrorist activities on China’s doorstep and destabilize western China, in particular, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. 

While the situation remains fluid in Afghanistan, it is unclear whether Afghanistan under Taliban rule will become an opportunity or crisis for China.  

“It depends on whether the Taliban can transform into a moderate force, maintain social stability and distance itself from extreme groups,” said Liu Zhongmin, director of the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University.  

China and the Taliban both said they want to cooperate. In late July when many Western officials and analysts still believed it would take months for the Taliban to overwhelm the forces of the Afghanistan government, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi had already met with the group’s cofounder and political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, China.  

At the meeting, held only two days after Wang’s meeting with US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in the same city, Wang urged the Taliban to “make a clean break” with all terrorist organizations.  

Wang said the Taliban is expected to play a key role in the country’s peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process and called for the group to adopt an inclusive policy in the establishment of “a broad and inclusive political structure that suits Afghanistan’s national realities.” 

Baradar said that the Taliban will “never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China,” and that it welcomed China to play a bigger role in the country’s future reconstruction and economic development.  

‘Wait and See’ 
Now that the Taliban is in control, its officials have repeatedly voiced support for the Belt and Road Initiative, pledging to protect China’s interests in the country.  

While China has maintained its embassy in Kabul, China has not recognized the Taliban rulers as the legitimate government. Reiterating that it is ready to help Afghanistan in reconstruction, China, like most other countries, has adopted a “wait-and-see” policy.  

According to Professor Zhu Yongbiao, an expert on Central Asian studies from Lanzhou University, there are too many uncertainties regarding the Taliban’s future rule in Afghanistan. “The Taliban has portrayed itself as much more moderate than 20 years ago, but the question is, will it last and to what extent?” Zhu said.  

Another concern for China is whether the Taliban can effectively maintain social stability and provide functional governance. “The challenges faced by the Taliban are no less serious than those faced by the West-backed Afghan government that has collapsed,” Zhu said.  

“Internally, the Taliban will face great difficulties in forming and sustaining an effective national government, providing basic livelihoods and promoting economic development,” Zhu said, “Externally, the Taliban still has a very tense relationship with the West, which could impose sanctions and boycotts and even launch military strikes in the future.”  

China is also wary about the future policy of the West, particularly the US, toward the Taliban regime. “Now that the US has abandoned its ‘nation-building’ objective in the region, what’s its next objective?” Zhu said. “You can’t rule out the possibility that the US will seek to cause instability in Xinjiang.”  

This may be why China called on the US to play a “positive” role in the future. In a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on August 29, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Yi said that the international community should “positively guide” Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, including providing economic and humanitarian aid and helping them govern and maintain social stability.  

Warning that the “hasty withdrawal” of the US could allow terrorist groups to regroup, Wang said that the US should not “play double standards or fight terrorism selectively.”  

In the meantime, China has been coordinating its stance with other countries in the region, including Russia and Iran, which have kept their embassies in Kabul open.  

On September 6, the Taliban invited Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Qatar to attend its government formation ceremony, which gave an early glimpse into its strategic alignment. But until some of the key questions about the Taliban’s rule can be answered, it is unlikely that China will elevate its ties with the Taliban soon.  

Beyond Afghanistan 
While the future of Afghanistan remains uncertain, the ramifications of the US withdrawal extend far beyond the Central Asian country.  

From Europe to the Asia-Pacific, the US’s perceived abandonment of the country cast serious doubts over its role as a global leader and its commitment to allies, which many believe turned into political capital for China.  

In Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province yet to be unified with the Chinese mainland, what happened in Afghanistan led to heated discussions on whether the island can rely on Washington for its defense.  

The Afghan crisis also distracted media attention from the high stakes visit by US Vice President Kamala Harris to Singapore and Vietnam in late August. While the trip intended to project the Biden administration’s focus on bolstering its influence in Asia, Harris had to face many questions about the Afghanistan crisis.  

But while the crisis seems to benefit China politically in the short term, many in the country are concerned that it is bad news in the medium and long term. In China, the past 20 years when the US was engaged in its War on Terror following the 9/11 attack has long been described as a golden “window of strategic opportunity,” during which China’s GDP increased more than tenfold.  

As the US withdraws from Afghanistan and shifts its foreign policy back onto great power politics, the window appears to have closed. In defending his decision to pull American troops out of Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden explicitly said that the decision was a necessity so that the US could shore up its competitiveness against China and Russia.  

“The US withdrawal from Afghanistan will lead to greater pressure and challenges [from the US] for China from a greater scope,” Zhu Yongbiao warned.  

But according to Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center of the Brookings Institution, as the Biden administration has not planned a China strategy, it remains unclear how the end of the Afghan war will transform the US policy toward China.  

“We need to take the comments of senior US officials including the president with a grain of salt, as they are often made in consideration of domestic politics rather than as a result of carefully conducted strategic thinking,” Li said in an interview with the Beijing News published on September 7.  

For Li, the significance of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan lies in that it dealt a serious blow to its long-held confidence in its military might and political influence. As a result, it leads to a sense of vulnerability that could prompt US leaders to adopt “tougher, more radical, impatient and risk-prone decisions,” Li said.  

“A superpower that is internally divided, mentally frustrated and desperately trying to get out of its troubles will pose new challenges not only for China, but for the whole world,” Li added. “This is the new reality we live in, 20 years after the 9/11 attack.”