China will gain strategically from the removal of troops from Afghanistan after the stunning collapse of the U.S.-backed government and military there, American analysts say.
But that success will be balanced against the ruling Communist Party‘s fear of contending with a radical Islamic state on its border in Central Asia and the potential flow of terrorists into China‘s Xinjiang province.
Militarily, the Taliban takeover of the Southwest Asian state means Beijing can celebrate the removal of U.S. troops and accompanying spy bases from its western border. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders have long regarded the presence of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan as a major threat.
Afghanistan has a limited border with China through a strip of land known as the Wakhan Corridor linking the country to Xinjiang, where Uyghur Muslims face what the State Department calls genocide carried out under the guise of Chinese anti-terrorism policies.
With the withdrawal of American troops, however, Beijing faces the threat of a hostile, Taliban-led Islamic state on its border with Xinjiang and other western provinces.
China has signaled that it wants to work with the new regime in Kabul. Foreign Minister Wang Yi met last month in Shanghai with a Taliban official, prompting speculation that Beijing will be among the first to recognize the government.
The Chinese are expected to use President Xi Jinping’s centerpiece global infrastructure development project known as the Belt and Road Initiative as a means of influencing the Taliban regime, offering greater economic benefits in the Chinese trading and investment web.
The American military presence in Afghanistan provided China with a pacifying influence on its western border.
Leaders in Beijing long feared that a conflict over Taiwan would escalate and include attacks from neighboring states such as India, Mongolia or Central Asian nations. The withdrawal of U.S. troops allows Chinese party and military leaders to limit the spread of a conflict from that region as they focus on the Taiwan question.
Chinese state media also have been quick to seize on the swift Taliban victory in Afghanistan to further their claim that the United States is an unreliable security partner. China on Monday put the Taiwanese government on notice that it should no longer rely on American military power to deter or prevent a mainland military takeover.
The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times tweeted on Monday: “From what happened in Afghanistan, those in Taiwan should perceive that once a war breaks out in the [Taiwan] Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and the U.S. military won’t come to help. As a result, the DPP will quickly surrender.” DPP is the acronym for Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
On the terrorism front, Afghanistan remains a haven for more than four Islamic terrorist groups: al Qaeda core, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the Haqqani Network, and Islamic State-Khorasan Province, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
China‘s aggressive propaganda operations have been trumpeting the defeat of the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul as proof of their narrative that the United States is a superpower in decline.
Kerry Gershaneck, a visiting scholar in Taiwan and Southeast Asia, said China‘s regime is reaping clear political benefits from the U.S. and NATO rout in Afghanistan.
“As part of its psychological warfare and media warfare against Taiwan, Beijing will work with news media it has co-opted there as well as with pro-PRC politicians and academics to corrode any faith Taiwan has in America’s ability to defend Taiwan if Xi Jinping follows through on his threats to invade that country,” Mr. Gershaneck said.
Analysts say China secured tacit Taliban support years ago with covert arms and equipment. In exchange, Beijing demanded assurances that the Taliban would not back Islamic terrorists in Xinjiang.
But Chinese support of the Taliban could backfire because of the government’s harsh treatment of all religions, especially Islam, as ideological competitors to the ruling CCP.
Beijing‘s support of the Taliban, whose leaders are radical Islamists, is unlikely to prevent the regime from returning to the hard-line rule of the late 1990s.
Miles Yu, a State Department policy planning specialist for China during the Trump administration, said China achieved a strategic goal with the removal of American troops but now faces a “double-edged sword” with a potentially hostile Islamic state on its western border.
“Beijing is aligning itself with one of the most notorious rogue regimes in the world,” Mr. Yu said. “There will be reputational costs for China to be associated with the Taliban.”
The Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 was marked by mass repression, public beheadings, and the destruction of historical and religious monuments. U.S. troops ousted the regime in October 2001 after al Qaeda conducted the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks from a sanctuary inside Afghanistan.
China‘s Communist Party leadership has shown no qualms about working with terrorist states. It has long provided backing for North Korea and Iran, which are considered the world’s leading rogue states and key U.S. enemies.
Dividing the allies
Mr. Gershaneck, a retired Marine Corps officer and former Pentagon strategic planner, said he also expects China to exploit the Afghanistan turmoil to further divide the United States from its allies and other nations that Washington has cultivated to counter China‘s expansionist agenda.
“The Politburo has taken note,” he said. “China will adapt its gray zone operations and its war planning accordingly and accelerate its timetables for key geopolitical milestones it aims to achieve by the PRC centennial in 2049.” Gray zone warfare uses nonmilitary means.
The defeat in Afghanistan also is likely to undermine growing U.S. military efforts to retool its mission for the threat posed by China after decades of focus on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism after the 9/11 attacks.
“That focus will now be diffused by a clearly foreseeable resurgent terrorist threat against the American homeland and our interests worldwide,” Mr. Gershaneck said.
China‘s government is likely to present itself to the Biden administration as a key intermediary in dealing with the Taliban and other Afghanistan-based terrorist groups in ways similar to the questionable cooperation Beijing has offered in confronting the threat from North Korea.
The United States has spent more than $2.6 trillion in Afghanistan since 2001, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, including arming and training the 300,000-member Afghan National Army, which collapsed after several days of fighting a nationwide Taliban offensive.
Now, much of the U.S. arms and machinery are under the control of the Taliban, making the Islamist militia perhaps the best-equipped terrorist group in the world. Reports from Afghanistan showed Taliban fighters taking control of stockpiles of U.S. military weapons and equipment, including Black Hawk helicopters and Scan Eagle drones.
A senior national security official in the Trump administration said President Trump told aides during several Oval Office meetings that the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan must avoid two things: a loss of American arms and equipment to the Taliban and a “Saigon-style exit.”
“Now both of those things are happening,” the former official said.