Q+A  

Tony Saich on How Beijing Views the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

We sat down with Ash Center Director Tony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs, to discuss China’s reaction to the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul and how recent events may impact the U.S. role in the Asia-Pacific region.

 

Tony Saich stands with his arms crossed looking at the camera

Ash: What is the view in Beijing of the abrupt collapse of Afghanistan’s government following the withdrawal of US troops?

Saich: Chinese state media has been using the US withdrawal to score propoganga points. It has highlighted the chaotic scenes that followed the initial withdrawal and this fits with the general narrative that the US is in decline and is no longer a major global force. Second, they have used this to stress that the US is not a reliable ally and thus cannot be counted on. This has included indicating to Taiwan that there is no guarantee that the US would provide support to the island in the future. Taiwan is on its own in the face of Beijing’s pressure. However, these public statements mark concerns and some commentators have suggested a more nuanced view. The primary interest for China in Afghanistan is ensuring stability so that no unrest would spill over into the wider region and China in particular. In this sense, the US presence in Afghanistan has been a positive for China as it has played the security role at no cost to China. Now, China will have to develop its own relationships with the Taliban. Thus, China’s Foreign Minister met with a Taliban delegation headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (July 28) in Tianjin to discuss relations.

How does the Taliban’s capture of Kabul impact China’s interests in the region? 

Meeting in Tianjin, Wang Yi stressed China’s desire to have a stable neighbor and to guarantee that Beijing would play an active role in helping the country rebuild. Wang stressed the principle of non-interference to contrast with the actions of the USA and NATO. For his part, Baradar welcomed China’s economic engagement. This could be beneficial for China, given the richness of rare earth and other resources that Afghanistan possesses. With the US blocking access to funds and the IMF doing the same, Afghanistan will be reliant on countries such as China, Iran, and Russia to help. As noted, with the US presence gone, China will have to step up its monitoring of security threats in the region, but this is very unlikely to include any physical presence of Chinese forces.

Does the rise of the Taliban have any implications on separatists from Xinjiang Province?

China’s main concern is with possible Taliban support or acquiescence with respect to terrorist organizations. In particular, Wang Yi called on the Taliban not to provide a safe haven to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Although there is very little evidence of continued activity from the group. However, the potential threat has been used, in part, by the Chinese authorities to engage in harsher oppression of the Uighur population in Xinjiang, including the use of internment camps (reeducation camps in Chinese parlance). Wang Yi received the promise from Baradar. To date, Muslim nations have shown little interest in criticizing China’s policies toward the Uighurs and given its need for capital, the Taliban may prove to be no different. However, the Taliban is not a centralized organization and power is fragmented. Currently, it is not clear what kind of authority the new central government will have over the various different groups spread out over the country. Monitoring the situation will be the highest priority for Beijing.

The Biden Administration has argued that withdrawing from Afghanistan would allow the US to refocus on China and Russia, what the White House terms the US’s biggest strategic competitors. Will the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan ultimately foil President Biden’s attempt to pivot attention to Beijing?

I am not sure that the chaotic pull-out will have a great effect on the approach of the administration to China. Other factors will be more important in impacting the way that the Biden administration can deal with China. First, while there is congressional support for the view that China presents the major threat to continued US authority globally, different interests in the US will make the implementation of a consistent, tough anti-China policy difficult. Allies in Europe and throughout the region are cautious about the Biden approach. Most do not want to be forced to choose. While Europeans might be willing to go along with criticism of human rights practices, they are much more careful when it comes to trade and investment. The US business and financial community has a massive stake in China’s development and they will resist measures to decouple. Perhaps more importantly, the US cannot achieve some of its policy goals without the active engagement of China. Climate change is the most obvious example but not the only one. While the US used to want to link specific areas of work to the overall relationship, it now wants to isolate certain policy areas and it is China that wants to look at policy domains in terms of the relationship as a whole.

Has the pullout in Afghanistan undermined the credibility of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, or did allies and competitors see the ultimate collapse of the Kabul government as a foregone conclusion?

I am not convinced that it will have a long-lasting impact. While Beijing has pushed the idea that the US is an unreliable ally, I do not think this will impact other countries in the region. I doubt that many did not think that Kabul would fall eventually. US credibility in the region is more impacted by the divisions within the US political domain. There is concern that a successor administration could swing back to the policies promoted by former President Trump. This is a more significant factor in their thinking than the mess in Afghanistan.

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