As the United States ends its long war in Afghanistan, the Chinese government this week welcomed a Taliban delegation to the port city of Tianjin. Chinese diplomats offered the Afghan delegation warm hospitality, flattering words and signs of an apparent willingness to play a greater role in Afghanistan in the future.
Personally, I think the United States’ stance towards China has at times been more hostile than helpful in recent years. But handing over Afghanistan to them seems particularly hard. After all, for centuries this has been the losing ticket of geopolitics and, for the past decades, for the United States and the Soviet Union, a particularly expensive and tormenting ticket.
Of course, the US government is not actually pulling out of Afghanistan to make way for China or to lure it into a trap. Quite the contrary, one US official I spoke with said that the United States will closely monitor China’s involvement and that it may one day become a potential source of concern if China’s role becomes ” too large ”.
China has a BIG plan for post-American Afghanistan, and it’s worth billions
When it comes to Afghanistan’s history as “the graveyard of empires,” China may think it knows better than we do how to avoid the country’s pitfalls. After all, the invasion of what is now known as Afghanistan by Genghis Khan in 1219 marked the start of one of the longest terms of a foreign power ruling the country. Yes, Khan’s grandson was eventually killed in the case, but Mongol rule lasted until 1332.
Moreover, it must be said, China has not really celebrated the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as an opportunity. On the contrary, their engagement is due in part to their fear that America’s absence will create a destabilizing vacuum in the region. In mid-July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wan Yi said, “The United States, which created the Afghan issue in the first place, should act responsibly to ensure a smooth transition in Afghanistan. He shouldn’t just shift the burden onto others and withdraw from the country with mess left unattended. “
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For China, the troubles related to Afghanistan are worrying on several levels. First, they fear that this will impact their significant investments in the region. China is the largest foreign investor in neighboring Pakistan and has made developing ties with that country a key component of its Belt and Road initiative. An explosion killed nine Chinese workers in Pakistan in July and Beijing quickly condemned it as an act of terrorism even though Pakistan has denied it. The Chinese understandably fear that if Afghanistan turns into chaos, it could impact their participation in the region.
They also fear that Islamic extremism will exacerbate problems that sweep across Central Asia, inflaming China’s Uyghur population and, for all these reasons, could not tolerate a collapse in Afghanistan. Therefore, they are likely to be very attentive to what is going on there and keep their links open with all important parties for the foreseeable future. This includes, by the way, the government of Kabul as well as the Taliban. In this regard, their approach is very similar to the one the United States has taken in recent years. They want to do whatever they need to do and deal with who they need to to make sure Afghanistan doesn’t metastasize in a way that would negatively impact their interests.
While US interests in Afghanistan were largely tied to harnessing terrorism and avoiding threats such as the one that has emerged from Al Qaeda, China’s interests run deeper and more complex. There are historic ties and security concerns, their shared 47-mile border, and China’s broader concerns about stability in the subcontinent and its strategy to counterbalance India, a regional rival with whom tensions have grown. been raised recently. Afghanistan has a direct impact on China’s major investment in Pakistan and it also has an impact on China’s growing involvement in the Greater Middle East. In short, while the American reasons for staying engaged in Afghanistan were few and diminishing, those for China are manifold.
It might sound like an isolated issue or maybe an example of a foreign policy schadenfreude (Afghanistan couldn’t become the puzzle of a bunch of nicer guys), but it’s more than that. It’s a story being told around the world. It is in part motivated by China’s express desire to assume a greater leadership role on the world stage, a goal articulated by Chinese President Xi as the centerpiece of his policy. This goal is driven by the realization that to continue to grow, China needs massive inflows of resources from around the world and active markets to sell to. Of course, with these deeper economic ties comes deeper political ties and greater influence for the leadership in Beijing. It’s all part of China’s emergence as one of the two dominant powers of this century alongside the United States.
But there is a twist here. For decades, the United States has paid a heavy price for its status as a superpower. Some of it was motivated by pride, others by the global expectations of the richest and most powerful nation in the world. Our wars in the Middle East alone have been estimated at over $ 3 trillion, and the cost of loss to our troops has also been immense. In fact, for much of the past two decades, China has been content to see its main rival distracted and overwhelmed by its foreign entanglements while China, without such costs, could focus on investing in its own. infrastructure and domestic growth.
But this period of global activism appears to be drawing to a close, at least for now, for the United States. Moreover, as this week’s headlines point out, the United States is finally starting to seriously consider investing in itself.
This policy change creates a vacuum. And in some cases, especially for China in its own neighborhood or in regions on which its future growth will depend, it finds itself having to fill this void. As the United States moves away from the regions that have cost it so dearly for so long, China is moving in cautiously, gradually, but seemingly inevitably. China’s involvement does not and probably will not resemble America’s sometimes gigantic past mistakes. But for every area in which he gains influence, he will also gain headaches.
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