How Much Does China Benefit from the Taliban Victory over the United States?

Aug 27, 2021

A backward impoverished country, led by a radical Islamist group, has defeated the twenty-year occupation of various Western powers led by the superpower, the United States. Taken by surprise at the speed of the Taliban victory, all these powers could do was to organize the retreat and departure of their own people and Afghan followers, and issue moralistic warnings about their own virtues. Australian Prime Minister, for example, declared that the Australian participation had been right all along, because we were fighting only for justice, despite taking part in a sometimes brutal occupation of a foreign country that proved totally futile in bringing peace, stability or advancement.

The mainstream Western media have questioned numerous Taliban assurances that it has changed in the twenty years since it was last in power, especially that it will not take vengeance on its enemies. In particular, there is considerable worry over how a new Taliba government will treat women.

These are legitimate concerns. However, there is at least the possibility of better times ahead. The West is not the preserve of justice and women’s rights it pretends to be. The Taliban is much more ethnically diverse now than twenty years ago, and may have learned a great deal. It has been for some time the main opposition to a foreign occupation in support of a regime that has become more and more unequal, corrupt and warlike. Reports outside the mainstream suggest far more people in Afghanistan support the new regime than one might think. Nobody can win without significant popular support.

My interest here is the geopolitical implications.

The Taliban victory is obviously a crushing blow to the American/Western world order and signies the defeat of the “war on terror”. It is probably marks the end of “the American century”. The United States still has many military bases around the world. They still have economic and cultural power.  But American democracy has suffered a blow from the controversy revolving around the 6 January uprising at the Capitol. And its society has become increasingly divided along racial, economic and gender lines.

There has been much discussion over what we can learn from the collapse in Saigon in 1975. Obviously, there are parallels with the present situation in that the Americans and their allies and hanger-ons pulled out in disorder. But there were some very striking differences too. For instance, it was only three years before that Richard Nixon had visited China (February 1972) and inaugurated an era of US-China quasi-cooperation that, despite limitations, was a real victory both for American and Chinese diplomacy.

But on the negative side was the victory of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Phnom Penh fell on 17 April 1975, less than two weeks before Saigon, on 30 April. But this could be interpreted as good for the Americans. The Chinese and Soviets were at loggerheads with each other. Vietnam quickly became so hostile towards the new Cambodia (Kampuchea) over ideological, humanitarian, geo-political and security issues that, with Soviet support, it invaded Kampuchea at the end of 1978, imposing its own regime there. China supported the Pol Pot regime and was so furious at Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia that it sent its own troops into Vietnam at the beginning of 1979. This is actually the last time China sent troops outside its own borders for war. It should be noted that it made no attempt to seize the Vietnamese capital or change its government, and withdrew after only a few weeks.

Will the Taliban situation in Afghanistan disintegrate so quickly? It certainly could, there are many ideological, historical, ethnic and other tensions within this government. However, we don’t know that it will fall apart. The people may not like them that much, but they have gained preference from at least a significant proportion for having resisted the occupation of the Western powers.

We are in a different world from the 1970s. China and Russia are now on very good terms, all the stronger because the West dislikes them both. Vietnam gets on pretty well both with China and its former occupier the United States. Having a non-democratic system of government similar to China and led by a communist party, it does not suffer the opprobrium given to China. And the Sino-American quasi-cooperation has broken down on American initiative. Bilateral relations are tense and continue to worsen, though they are not yet irretrievable.

The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has already met with his Taliban counterpart Mulla Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin. They appear to have reached a deal that China would assist in Afghanistani development and infrastructure if the Taliban promised not to help terrorism in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

On 20 August, Zhou Bo, who now holds a senior academic position at Tsinghua University but was a senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army from 2003 to 2020, had an article in, of all places, The New York Times. He declared that China was “ready to step into the void left by the hasty U.S. retreat to seize a golden opportunity.” According to Zhou, China “has few qualms about fostering a closer relationship with the Taliban and is ready to assert itself as the most influential outside player in an Afghanistan now all but abandoned by the United States”. He took a very optimistic view, concluding that, though Afghanistan had long been considered a graveyard for conquerors, China came “armed not with bombs but construction blueprints, and a chance to prove the curse can be broken”.

Although Zhou showed himself aware of the issue of terrorism, he may underestimate its long-term danger. Baradar may not represent all streams of thinking within the Taliban and may not always be as influential as at present. Still, I don’t think we can dismiss the Tianjin agreement. Poverty remains one of the main problems in Afghanistan, with foreign occupation failing to make promised improvements in the economy. Perhaps Chinese investment and infrastructural and economic aid can help drag Afghanistan out of the mire of misery. For myself, I won’t hold my breath, but won’t give up just yet.

We know that terrorists have long been active in the Wakhan Corridor, the area of Afghanistan nearest the short border with China. Their trainees have included Uighurs who are able to cross back into Xinjiang. Baradar agreed not to interfere in China’s internal affairs. That means he, as a Muslim, will not criticize China’s policies in Xinjiang. The United States and Western countries, including Australia, are intensifying their pressure on China over Xinjiang. The irony is that, just as Afghanistan has incentives to help reduce terrorism in Xinjiang, the U.S. is likely to increase hostility both to Afghanistan for pursuing Islamist terrorism and to China, for taking actions aimed against it, but which the West interprets as human rights abuses.

In the big picture of history, there has been a shift in the strategic balances of power and wealth away from the West, especially the United States, and towards Asia, especially China. Will the U.S. humiliation in Afghanistan intensify the shift? Yes, it certainly will, especially given how badly the West has coped with COVID-19 as compared with China.

How much will it intensify the shift? We don’t know yet, but I suspect the extent will be substantial. After its defeat in Vietnam, the U.S. tried again to recoup its power fortunes through its war on terror following the incidents of September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington. As we know, the resultant wars have all meant nothing but disaster. Meanwhile, the Chinese grew economically and strategically and in terms of international influence. Will the United States try again should a major crisis blow up, for example over Taiwan? Nobody knows, but it seems to me reasonable to ask who can rely on them now, after all that has happened.

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