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China’s Afghanistan Dilemma

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The hasty and tumultuous U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s subsequent military victory have occasioned more than a little gloating from China. According to Chinese state media, the U.S. withdrawal marked “the last dusk of empire.” China’s Foreign Ministry declared that the experience of the war in Afghanistan should teach Washington a lesson in “reckless military adventures.” And some in Beijing even claimed that China would succeed where the United States had failed. “Afghanistan has long been considered a graveyard for conquerors—Alexander the Great, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States. Now China enters—armed not with bombs but construction blueprints, and a chance to prove the curse can be broken,” Zhou Bo, a retired senior officer in the People’s Liberation Army, opined in The New York Times.

Beijing’s triumphalism has stoked fears in the United States that China will capitalize on the shifting strategic landscape in Central Asia. As John Bolton, who served as national security adviser to President Donald Trump, warned last month, “China and Russia, our main global adversaries, are already seeking to reap advantages.”

But for all their bluster, China’s leaders are deeply anxious about the emerging order in Afghanistan, which could threaten the region’s stability and enable jihadi terror to spill over into China’s restive western regions, which are home to large Muslim populations. Along with Afghanistan’s other neighbors, China must now depend on the Taliban to stabilize a fractured and violent country. Yet as Beijing well knows, the group’s governing track record is bleak, even in the rural areas it has controlled for the past several years. And to make matters worse, Afghanistan’s economy has cratered and will struggle to rebound without an enormous infusion of international aid, including from China.

Such uncertainty will exacerbate Beijing’s long-standing fears about transnational extremist links between Afghanistan and Xinjiang, the autonomous region in western China where the government has interned more than a million Muslim Uyghurs under the pretense of counterterrorism and internal order. It will also heighten concerns about regional stability, especially in the lead-up to China’s 20th Party Congress next fall, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping will solidify his plan to serve a third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Finally, the crisis in Afghanistan could test China’s relationships with Russia and Pakistan, as all three countries jockey for influence with the Taliban and struggle to deal with a collapsed state and attendant humanitarian crisis in their neighborhood.

As Beijing assesses the post-American landscape in the region, the risks associated with the U.S. exit outweigh the possible benefits. If China appears to be embracing the Taliban, that is because it has no choice. Beijing now faces a failed state in Afghanistan to its west, rising tensions with India to its southwest, a volatile and truculent partner in North Korea to its northeast, and escalating competition with the United States—most notably in the Taiwan Strait. Xi’s government craves........

© Foreign Affairs

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