China’s fears increase as U.S. troops leave Afghanistan


China has long dreaded the regional and domestic security implications of a peremptory U.S. withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan. Beijing is now watching that scenario play out as a seemingly unstoppable Taliban offensive against the increasingly beleaguered Afghan National Security Forces penetrated Kabul, the heavily fortified capital, on Wednesday.

China was dismayed by what it perceived as the “unilateral” nature of President Joe Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal announcement in April, Barnett Rubin, a former adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told China Watcher. Rubin, who has co-chaired a U.S.-China dialogue on Afghanistan since 2012, said the U.S. withdrawal was the articulation of China’s long-standing fear “that the U.S. could get out of Afghanistan too soon,” and create a dangerous regional security vacuum.

The Taliban’s pursuit of military victory rather than a negotiated peace settlement is also deeply troubling for China, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology at the Brookings Institution. “The prospect of the Taliban seizing vast tracts of territory and possibly taking Kabul was not what [China] preferred,” Felbab-Brown said.

Rubin said that China also recognizes it’s woefully unprepared to effectively engage with Afghanistan in the post-withdrawal period. “The Chinese have very little institutional knowledge about Afghanistan [and] Chinese diplomats have not established deep relations with people on the ground,” he said.

That deficit weakens the Chinese government’s capacity to effectively counter what it describes as “the three evil forces” of Afghanistan-based ethnic Uyghur “terrorists, separatists and extremists.” China is obsessed with the possibility that such groups could exploit a Taliban victory to pursue cross-border incursions from Badakhshan province into Xinjiang, a senior Afghan government official told China Watcher. “As the Taliban has gained ascendancy, [China’s] concerns have gone up,” the official said. Rubin said that China’s concern about a “spillover” of violent radicalism from Afghanistan has prompted it to harden its borders and forge bilateral security deals with neighboring Tajikistan and Pakistan.

China’s deepening concerns of the implications of a possible Taliban victory is reflected in its changing public messaging on prospects for the China-Afghanistan relationship after the withdrawal of U.S. troops later this month. President Xi Jinping, in a July 16 phone call with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, pledged Chinese support for Afghan peace and reconciliation “and an early peaceful reconstruction of the country.” Chinese Foreign Ministry messaging on Afghanistan has blended schadenfreude-laced musings on the “failure of the U.S. policy toward Afghanistan” with emphasis on post-withdrawal “national stability and development.”

That narrative shifted drastically on Thursday when Colonel Wu Qian, spokesperson of China’s Ministry of National Defense, excoriated the U.S. for fostering a deterioration in Afghanistan’s security situation that poses a threat to China. “[The U.S.] bears an inescapable responsibility for the current situation in Afghanistan,” Wu said at a press briefing. “It cannot leave it alone and shed its ‘burden’ on regional countries.”

Wu’s comments reflect Chinese government alarm about the implications of either a resumption of a grinding civil war or a potential Taliban victory in its western neighbor. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction warned last week that the Afghan government faces an “existential crisis” due to an intensifying Taliban onslaught. That offensive has included a coordinated assault on three major provincial cities that has sparked an exodus of tens of thousands of Afghans. Ghani signaled the government’s desperation on Monday by announcing that he was enlisting the assistance of “people’s militias,” — code for paramilitary forces linked to regional warlords — to fend off the Taliban advance.

China’s nightmare is that a Taliban victory might embolden the Uyghur armed insurgency group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, to launch attacks in China. Rubin attributed ETIM’s presence in Badakhshan to the group’s expulsion from Pakistan in recent years.

Chinese authorities have sought to counter ETIM’s influence in Badakhshan through establishing direct relationships with domestic power brokers in the province hinged to promises of economic development in exchange for intelligence about ETIM’s activities in the province. “We’re talking bags of cash to key political leaders and tribal elders,” Felbab-Brown said.

The senior Afghan official said that the ongoing Taliban offensive is spurring Beijing to offer Kabul greater military support, such as such as “drones and eyes in the sky.” The official said that the Afghan government has explicitly precluded any possibility of on-the-ground Chinese military intervention in Afghanistan.

“China is never going to be that [on-the-ground security] partner because there is a fundamental DNA level incompatibility between us,” the official said. “We are a challenged democracy, but still a democracy.” That echoes Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who has repeatedly sought to counter speculation of a possible future U.S.-style military intervention in Afghanistan by emphasizing China’s respect for its neighbors “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.”

Despite the Taliban advance, the U.S. government maintains hope for the survival of Ghani’s government and a peaceful end to the conflict. In a discussion on Tuesday at the Aspen Security Forum, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad noted the “emboldened” Taliban was “in a maximalist frame of mind, “ but insisted that a “political settlement and agreement” is possible. The U.S. and China are both members of the “Extended ‘Troika’ on Peaceful Settlement in Afghanistan,” which includes Russia and Afghanistan. But that grouping’s relative inactivity in the face of a drastic deterioration in Afghanistan’s security environment — its last meeting was in April — raises questions about its relevance.

As a result, China has scrambled to try to bring the Afghan government and the Taliban to the negotiating table under a regional peace framework coordinated by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional intergovernmental body that includes China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. But the Taliban’s deaf ear to a July 14 plea by SCO member state foreign ministers for all parties to the Afghan conflict to “refrain from the use of force and actions that could lead to destabilization and unpredictable consequences” underscores the SCO’s impotence in halting the ongoing Taliban offensive.

But China’s long-time adherence to a principle of “non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs”, which imposes a hands-off approach by its diplomatic corps in regions of civil conflict, may hamper its effectiveness in mediating an end to the Afghan conflict. “Strategists in Beijing are motivated by a sense of self-confidence that China’s growing power will help it establish greater geopolitical influence in Central Asia,” Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, told China Watcher. “But China is not experienced in mediating long-standing domestic political struggles in a foreign country, and it will be a learning process for Beijing.”

China has also dangled the prospect of a hefty increase in investment in Afghanistan in return for stability and peace. It reportedly includes the possible extension to Afghanistan of the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a regional cornerstone of Beijing’s Belt and Road international infrastructure development program. “The offer is phrased to both sides: ‘We want you to make peace,’” Rubin said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday expressed muted support for China’s involvement in Afghanistan, describing as “a positive thing” any assistance China provides to “peaceful resolution of the conflict.”

Meanwhile, China is hedging its bets with direct bilateral engagement with the Taliban’s leadership. Wang met July 28 in Tianjin with a Taliban delegation led by head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Wang praised the insurgent group as “an important military and political force” and urged it to “make a clean break with all terrorist organizations including the ETIM.”

Baradar sought to ease China’s ETIM concerns by committing to “never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China.” The Taliban’s ongoing engagement with al Qaeda makes that promise highly questionable, the senior Afghan official cautioned.

China’s outreach to the Taliban demonstrates a hard-eyed realpolitik approach to the Afghan conflict and a willingness to cooperate with whichever side eventually triumphs.

“If the Taliban is on the doorstep of Kabul, would China want to jeopardize its relationship with the Taliban to support the [Ghani] regime at a critical moment? I don’t think so,” Felbab-Brown said. “China may send weapons, but now that the Taliban is so ascendant and the government is so weak, why would they want to throw in their lot with the loser?”

TRANSLATING WASHINGTON

— Austin lands Philippine forces deal renewal: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s Indo-Pacific tour last week reaped an unexpected geopolitical bounty: convincing mercurial Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to agree to a long-delayed extension of the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement. Duterte had threatened to terminate the 22-year VFA, which sets the conditions that regulate the conduct of U.S. military and civilian personnel in the Philippines, in January 2020 after the U.S. refused to grant a visa to close Duterte ally Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa. Duterte has since kept the U.S. guessing on whether he would terminate the bilateral agreement.

Philippine analysts say the renewal dealt a blow to speculation that Duterte would establish a new military partnership with China. China’s state media Global Times on Sunday sounded a sour-grapes tone on the renewal by dismissing the possibility that the Philippines will “align itself closely with Washington to confront Beijing.”

— Lawmakers demand “China Initiative” probe: A group of 91 members of Congress on Friday formally requested Attorney General Merrick Garland probe “the repeated, wrongful targeting of individuals of Asian descent for alleged espionage.” The Congress members also asked Garland in a letter to open an investigation into the possible existence of “a written or unwritten policy, program, pattern or practice to target people based on their race, ethnicity or national origin” under the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative.”

The China Initiative is a Trump administration program that focuses on investigations of Chinese state-backed efforts to steal intellectual property through collaboration with American academics and U.S. universities. The program has drawn fire from civil rights organizations, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice, for allegedly racial profiling Asian Americans and Asian immigrants.

— Blinken decries Chinese foreign media abuses: Secretary of State Antony Blinken last Thursday tweeted his concern about recent attacks on foreign media covering the devastating floods that hit Zhengzhou in Hunan province late last month. Blinked tweeted: “The United States is deeply concerned by the increasing trend of surveillance, harassment, and intimidation of foreign journalists in China. The People’s Republic of China can and must do better.” State Department spokesperson Ned Price hammered that point home the same day by calling on China “to act as a responsible nation hoping to welcome foreign media and the world for the upcoming Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian counterattacked on Friday by deeming Blinken and Price’s criticism “hegemony and bullying” and accusing the U.S. of “using press freedom as a cover to advance its real agenda of suppressing China.”

— Congressional amendment maps China-Taiwan divide: An amendment to an appropriations bill for State Department operations passed by the House of Representatives on July 28 puts Taiwan firmly on the map. Literally. The H.R. 4373 amendment, sponsored by Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wisc.), prohibits spending of tax dollars to purchase, create or display any map of the People’s Republic of China that includes the self-governing island of Taiwan as part of PRC territory. That same day, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed a bill that instructs the State Department to create a pathway for Taiwan to regain observer status at the World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly. China’s opposition to Taiwan’s participation in the assembly led it to exclude the self-governing island in 2016.

— Congressional committee protests new Hilton hotel: The bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China last Thursday demanded that Hilton Hotels & Resorts “take steps to halt construction and otherwise disassociate itself” with the construction of an allegedly Hilton-branded hotel in the city of Hotan in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In a letter signed by CECC commissioners Sen. Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-Ore.), Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the CECC urged Hilton to do so based on reports that “a Hampton by Hilton hotel is being constructed on the site of a mosque that was destroyed in Hotan prefecture.” The CECC linked the demolition to China’s “official efforts to eradicate Uyghurs’ religious and cultural practices.” Zhao, of the Foreign Ministry, Friday described the CECC initiative as an effort to “spread lies and rumors about Xinjiang.”

— Delta variant defies China lockdown: China is grappling with a sudden resurgence in COVID-19 infections fueled by the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. Over the past week, Chinese authorities have recorded more than 500 cases of COVID-19 nationwide, including in the city of Wuhan where the coronavirus first emerged in late 2019. Chinese authorities have linked the uptick in infections to Nanjing airport and an infected passenger who had arrived from Russia. The Chinese government is responding to the outbreak with mass testing in urban centers and domestic travel restrictions in order to limit the scale of the outbreak.

— Olympians’ Mao badges draw heat: The International Olympic Committee is investigating whether lapel badges worn by Chinese cycling stars Bao Shanju and Zhong Tianshi at their gold medal ceremony at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday violated IOC rules forbidding “political demonstrations” at the Games. The two athletes stood at the podium wearing lapel pins depicting an iconic image of former Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong after winning the gold in the women’s track cycling competition. The IOC announced on Tuesday it is “looking into” whether the Mao pins violated Rule 50 of the IOC Charter which prohibits “political, religious or racial propaganda” at Olympic sites.

— Vatican consecrates fifth Chinese bishop: The Vatican consecrated its fifth bishop in China on July 28 under a Sino-Vatican deal struck in 2018 that gives the pope approval power over Chinese Communist Party-recommended bishop candidates. That agreement has allowed the Vatican to have a degree of influence in China’s tightly regulated Catholic Church while sidestepping the thornier issue of its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

— Singapore embassy rebuts Austin: The Chinese embassy in Singapore launched a blistering response on Thursday to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s July 27 speech to the Singapore office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, calling it an attempt “ to stir up troubles in the region.” Austin’s speech warned of the threat of growing Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific. The embassy’s response, posted on its Facebook page, dismissed Austin’s speech as “a smear” that deliberately “distorted facts and created falsehoods, only to serve the U.S. geopolitical strategy.”

— HK police probe Olympic spectator: Hong Kong police arrested a man on Saturday who allegedly booed China’s national anthem during a public screening of a Tokyo Olympics fencing event. Hong Kong authorities criminalized insults to China’s national anthem in June 2020 under a law that allows courts to impose a maximum three-year prison term for such offenses. Police say the suspect, who was waving colonial-era Hong Kong flags, was part of a crowd gathered in a shopping mall on Friday to watch Hong Kong fencing champion Edgar Cheung take the gold medal.

— Nationalists call Olympic fouls online: The Tokyo Olympics have pushed online Chinese nationalist sentiment to hair-trigger mode, Taiwanese celebrities Dee Hsu and Jolin Tsai learned this week. The BBC reports that Taiwanese TV host Hsu’s online reference to Taiwan’s Olympic athletes as “national heroes” sparked a wave of online criticism on Weibo. Even worse for Hsu, the online anger reportedly prompted several of her corporate sponsors, including Unilever’s hair care brand Clear, sex toy maker Osuga and soft drink maker Shou Quan Zha, to cut ties with Hsu. Weibo users accused Tsai of a patriotic sin of omission for expressing support online only for Taiwan athletes, ignoring Chinese Olympians. Meanwhile, South Korea’s national badminton association told CNN on Tuesday that it intended to file a formal complaint with the World Badminton Federation over Chinese table tennis player Chen Qingchen’s repeated and loud use of profanity in a doubles match with South Korea.

— Dognapping prompts online anger: Online Chinese dog lovers rose up this week in expressions of anger and sorrow over a Weibo user’s account of the abduction of her dog, a Shiba Inu, by thieves that supply Guangdong province’s Zhuhai city’s underground dog meat trade. The hashtag “What do you think of the theft of my pet Shiba Inu for dog meat” had recorded more than 10 million shares by Wednesday afternoon. The majority of comments railed against the dog thieves, with one Weibo user comparing them to “demons.”

Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Luiza Ch. Savage, Matt Kaminski and editor John Yearwood.

Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week’s items? Email us at [email protected].



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