For China’s leaders, the chaotic scenes unfolding in Afghanistan have served as stinging vindication of their hostility to American might. “The last dusk of empire,” China’s official news agency said. The Chinese foreign ministry called it a lesson in “reckless military adventures.”
Any smugness in Beijing could be premature. China is now left scrambling to judge how the American defeat could reshape the contest between the world’s two great powers. While the Taliban’s rout has weakened American prestige and its influence on China’s western frontier, it could also create new geopolitical dangers and security risks.
Officials in Beijing worry that extremists could use Afghanistan to regroup on China’s flank and sow violence around the region, even as the Taliban look to deep-pocketed countries like China for aid and investment. The American military withdrawal could also allow the United States to direct its planning and matériel toward countering Chinese power across Asia.
“There should be anxiety rather than glee in Beijing,” said John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “The U.S. is at last extricating itself from an unpopular, unwinnable war in a geopolitically peripheral theater. Ending the military presence in Afghanistan frees up resources and attention to focus on the long-term rivalry with China.”
The two-decade American effort to build a functioning democratic government in Afghanistan crumbled far faster than the world expected. The Chinese government criticized what it called a hasty, ill-planned withdrawal by the Americans, which has upended hopes that the Taliban would build a broader governing coalition before taking power.
“Wherever the United States sets foot, be it Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, we see turbulence, division, broken families, deaths and other scars,” Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a regular news briefing this week.
How China engages the Taliban will be closely watched well beyond Afghanistan. Governments across the world are grappling with the new rulers there, especially their promises that they will pursue more moderate policies and stop any violence spilling abroad. China, Afghanistan’s richest and most powerful neighbor, will be particularly attentive to how a Taliban-led government performs.
China says it has won assurances from the Taliban that Afghan territory will not be used as a staging ground for attacks inside China, but its sway over the group is unclear.
Only three weeks ago, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, met with Taliban leaders in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin and urged them “to hold high the banner of peace talks.” Instead, the Taliban exploited the cratering morale of Afghan government forces to seize city after city.
“Although the Taliban has made promises, there is still great uncertainty about the extent to which they will be fulfilled,” Zhu Yongbiao, the director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at Lanzhou University in northwest China, said in a telephone interview.
“I think Chinese influence over the Afghanistan issue has been overestimated,” he said. “The United States finally thinks that after pulling its forces out of Afghanistan, this mess will become one for China. I find that a bit baffling.”
For China, a lot is at stake. If the Taliban victory leads to a surge of regional instability, it could disrupt China’s “Belt and Road” program to finance and build infrastructure across the region, which has largely sidestepped Afghanistan because of the war. Beijing is concerned about the security of other countries near Afghanistan: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. An attack last month on a bus carrying Chinese workers in Pakistan, killing nine of them, has since been attributed to assailants operating from inside Afghanistan.
Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan ›