As the U.S. brings its long war in Afghanistan to a close, the Chinese government this week hosted a Taliban delegation in the port city of Tianjin. Chinese diplomats extended to the Afghan delegation warm hospitality, flattering words, and signs of an apparent willingness to play a greater role in Afghanistan going forward.
Personally, I feel that the U.S. stance toward China has sometimes been more hostile than is helpful in recent years. But, passing the baton on Afghanistan to them seems especially harsh. After all, for centuries it has been the losing ticket of geopolitics and, in recent decades, for the U.S. and the Soviet Union a particularly costly and tormenting one.
Of course, the U.S. government is not actually pulling out of Afghanistan to make way for China or to lure it into a trap. Quite the contrary, one U.S. official with whom I spoke said the U.S. would monitor China’s involvement closely and that it might someday become a potential source of concern should China’s role become “overlarge.”
When it comes to Afghanistan’s history as “the graveyard of empires,” China may think they know better than us how to avoid the country’s pitfalls. After all, the invasion of what is today known as Afghanistan by Genghis Khan in 1219 marked the beginning of one of the longest tenures for a foreign power ruling over the country. Yes, Khan’s grandson was ultimately killed in the bargain, but Mongol rule lasted until 1332.
In addition, it has to be said, China has not exactly celebrated the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as an opportunity. Quite the contrary, their engagement is due in part to their fear that America’s absence may create a destabilizing void in the region. In mid-July, China’s foreign minister, Wan Yi, was quoted as saying “The United States, which created the Afghan issue in the first place, should act responsibly to ensure a smooth transition in Afghanistan. It should not simply shift the burden on to others and withdraw from the country with mess left behind unattended.”
For China, unrest associated with Afghanistan is troubling on several levels. First, they are concerned it may impact their significant investments in the region. China is the largest foreign investor in neighboring Pakistan and has made developing links to that country a key part 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 as Pakistan denied it was such. The Chinese are naturally worried that if Afghanistan turns to chaos, it may impact their stake in the region.
They also worry that Islamic extremism may exacerbate problems that extend across Central Asia, inflaming China’s Uighur population and, for all these reasons, could not tolerate a meltdown in Afghanistan. Hence, they are likely to be paying close attention to what happens there and keeping their ties open to all significant parties for the foreseeable future. That includes by the way, the government in Kabul as well as the Taliban. In this respect, their approach is pretty much like that the U.S. has embraced the past few years. They want to do whatever they need to and deal with whomever they must to ensure Afghanistan does not metastasize in a way that negatively impacts their interests.
Whereas U.S. interests in Afghanistan were largely tied to containing terrorism and avoiding threats such as the one that emerged there from Al Qaeda, China’s interests are deeper and more complex. There are historical ties and security issues, their shared 47-mile border and China’s broader concerns about stability in the sub-continent and its strategy for counterbalancing India, a regional rival with whom tensions have been high recently. Afghanistan directly impacts China’s major investment in Pakistan and it also impacts China’s growing involvement in the greater Middle East. In short, while the U.S. reasons for remaining engaged in Afghanistan were few and diminishing, China’s are manifold.
This may seem like an isolated issue or perhaps an instance of foreign policy schadenfreude (Afghanistan couldn’t become the headache of a nicer group of guys) but it is more than that. It is a story that is being told around the world. In part, it is driven by China’s express desire to assume a greater leadership role on the world stage, a goal articulated by China’s president Xi as a centerpiece of his policies. That goal is driven by an awareness that to continue its growth, China requires massive resource inputs from around the world and active markets to which to sell. Of course, with such deepened economic ties come deepened political ties and greater influence for the leaders in Beijing. It is all part of China’s emergence as one of this century’s two dominant powers alongside the U.S.
But there is a twist here. The U.S. has for decades paid a high price for its superpower status. Some of this has been driven by hubris, some by global expectations of the world’s richest and most powerful nation. Our wars in the Middle East alone have been estimated to cost over $3 trillion and the price in losses to our troops has also been immense. In fact, for much of the past two decades China was content to see its principal rival distracted and burdened by its foreign entanglements while China, with no such costs, could focus on investing in its own infrastructure and domestic growth.
But that period of global activism seems to be coming, at least for the moment, to an end for the U.S. We are eager to end our “forever wars” and deeply reluctant to be drawn into others. Also, as this week’s headlines underscore, the U.S. is finally starting to seriously consider investing in ourselves.
This policy shift is creating a void. And in some cases, particularly for China in its own neighborhood or in regions upon which its future growth will depend, it is finding itself drawn into filling that void. As the US pivots out of the regions that have cost it so dearly for so long, China is cautiously, gradually, but seemingly inevitably pivoting in. China’s involvement does not and likely will not look like America’s sometimes gargantuan past errors. But for every area in which it gains influence, it will also gain headaches.