China and the World, Talking Point

Capitulation in Kabul

What a hasty US pull-out and an Afghan regime collapse mean for China


Firmly in control: Taliban forces overran Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan in a blitzkrieg offensive this month

There are only five mentions of the Taliban in WiC over the last 13 years. Perhaps that’s because Chinese media outlets haven’t been particularly keen on reporting what is happening in Afghanistan, a restive neighbour that shares a short border with Xinjiang.

For example, when Beijing hosted a small delegation from the Taliban in January 2015, there were no photos, no official statements and no reports in state media at all (see WiC267).

Yet the media coverage was different when Xinhua published unprecedented photos of another visit from the Afghans last month, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi rubbing shoulders with senior Taliban members after a meeting in Tianjin.

The events that have unfolded since then have made Afghanistan one of the hottest topics across Chinese social media. Indeed, the Taliban takeover following the withdrawal of US troops has seen many Chinese draw parallels not only with Saigon in 1975 but also with more distant events in Peking in 1949. Others speculated on how the fiasco could influence the situation in an area of more immediate interest for Beijing: Taiwan.

An eventful month…

In mid-July Chinese social media was more fixated on a much smaller scale incident: a bus blast that had killed nine Chinese workers travelling to a hydropower dam under construction in Pakistan.

Netizens asked questions about whether the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was going to be derailed, after security experts claimed that the Pakistani Taliban was responsible for the deadly explosion, which was classified as a terrorist attack by both Beijing and Islamabad.

Two days later, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian weighed in, clarifying in a press conference that the Afghan Taliban was different from its offshoot in Pakistan.

While the latter is designated universally by the international community as “a terrorist organisation”, the foreign ministry described the Taliban in Afghanistan as “a self-styled political and military organisation” opposed to terror groups on Afghan territory that threaten other countries.

Zhao noted the Islamist group had also maintained dialogue with the administration of the Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, as well as members of the international community in recent years. On July 16 Chinese President Xi Jinping told Ghani in a phone conversation that China would play a constructive role in any peaceful reconciliation process in Afghanistan in the months ahead.

But soon afterwards came Beijing’s official release of the afore-mentioned photos of the visiting Taliban delegation – surprising many international observers.

Indeed, in the strongest signal yet that Xi was readying for a more formal relationship, on July 28 his foreign minister met Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of the Afghan Taliban.

Many Chinese were puzzled, wondering why their leaders would offer the chance of diplomatic recognition to a fundamentalist group still described by many Western media outlets as terrorists. They soon had an answer with the fall of Kabul to Taliban forces this month While the Taliban’s triumph has come at a pace that has shocked Western governments and international media alike, the Chinese seemed more prepared for the sudden advent of a new era of Islamist government in Afghanistan.

What is Beijing’s official stance on the new Afghan regime?

President Joe Biden is on record as saying that he expected Ghani’s American-supported troops to hold out for months, which would have given more time to broker a broader Afghan peace deal. But while Wang was meeting Baradar as well as the heads of his organisation’s religious and publicity committees, the Taliban was already rapidly expanding its control over much of the country. Final resistance collapsed in a matter of days and all foreign troops are now expected to leave the country by August 31.

Beijing’s official stance is that the war in Afghanistan is now over (it dates its commencement to the Russian invasion 40 years ago) and that the Chinese will respect “the will and choice of the Afghan people”. The diplomatic niceties of how to recognise the new Taliban regime are ongoing, however. When asked the same ‘recognition’ question in the foreign ministry’s press conference this week, spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that China would stick to the international practice that “the recognition of a government comes after its formation”.

Amid the chaos of events in Kabul this week, the Americans scrambled to get Chinese help for a peaceful transition and the evacuation of foreign nationals. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave his Chinese counterpart Wang a call this week (Blinken is said to have had 17 phone conversations with global leaders amid the Kabul crisis) to exchange views on Afghanistan’s security situation, as well as ask for support in efforts to bring foreign nationals to safety. It was the duo’s first interaction since the ‘frosty’ summit in Alaska in March, where Chinese diplomats unleashed a 16-minute rant on Washington’s misdoings in China relations.

Washington issued a 36-word statement on the latest conversation, although the Chinese foreign ministry grabbed the opportunity to relate how Wang gave Blinken another lecture on the ‘rules-based’ international order.

Wang said that China was ready to work with the US to prevent a new civil war and humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan, although the crisis had again proved the fallacies of “mechanically copying an imported foreign model” into a country with completely different cultural and economic conditions, he said.

“The US side cannot, on the one hand, deliberately contain and suppress China and undermine China’s legitimate rights and interests, and on the other hand, expect support and cooperation from China, because such logic never exists in international exchanges,” Wang pointed out.

The reaction to the Taliban’s triumph in the Chinese media?

Netizens were less restrained than their foreign minister in mocking the American handling of their exit from Afghanistan. “At least the power transition to the Taliban in Kabul was more peaceful than that in Washington in January,” one scoffed, referring to the chaos in January when an angry mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed Capitol Hill.

Another wildly forwarded meme laughed at the limitations of American efforts to hold back the Taliban tide, featuring an aging Sylvester Stallone, with the caption: “Rambo: I am too old. Send the Wolf Warriors.”

China’s ‘wolf warrior’ spirit has manifested itself in a series of fiercely patriotic war and adventure films, as well as some aggressively undiplomatic behaviour from its government representatives overseas (see WiC521).

On a more serious note, an excerpt from the memoir of former American president George W Bush also went viral. “Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission… and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better,” Bush recalled of his motives in ordering the invasion of Afghanistan two decades ago.

“Death, bloodshed and a tremendous humanitarian tragedy are what the United States has truly left behind in Afghanistan, which is vividly exemplified by the Afghans who fell to their death from a US military plane rushing to leave,” the People’s Daily lamented in a commentary, noting that there had been at least 30,000 civilian deaths in the country since hostilities began.

What are the Chinese priorities for the new relationship with the Taliban?

Citing a number of Chinese security analysts, other commentators on social media complained that the coverage of the Taliban in the Western media only underscored how hypocritical US politicians have been on counter-terrorism issues.

A particular frustration was that the Donald Trump administration removed the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from the State Department’s designation as a ‘terrorist organisation’ last year. “This is another blatant example of applying double standards to China,” fumed a popular WeChat blogger who specialises in geopolitics.

However, a clear priority for China’s future relations with the Taliban is that the senior mullahs refuse to allow Islamist terror groups to train on Afghan soil, particularly those with a focus on opposing Chinese policy in its restive region of Xinjiang. During the gathering in Tianjin, Wang told Taliban leaders that they must make “a clean break” with terrorist organisations, including ETIM, a Uighur Muslim group that Beijing has blamed for violent attacks in Xinjiang.

Commentators in the West are more sceptical about promises from the Taliban to curtail organisations of this type, with predictions that the governing coalition could splinter into different factions if the leadership tries to impose a complete ban.

For his part Baradar said last month that China had always been “a reliable friend of the Afghan people”. And in emphasising that he would oppose acts detrimental to Chinese interests on Afghan soil, he also expressed hopes that the Chinese would play a bigger role in his nation’s future reconstruction and economic development.

China’s economic interests in Afghanistan are minimal relative to other countries in the region. The Chinese were cited as the largest investor in Afghanistan in a report published by China’s Ministry of Commerce (MoC) last year. But only $400 million had been invested by the end of 2017, despite talks to extend part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into the world’s most impoverished Islamic state.

According to the same study, the economy has great potential with rich but untapped natural resources. But years of conflict have contributed to Afghanistan’s image as “a poor guy sleeping on a gold mine” and Chinese policymakers will be reluctant to encourage a broader investment effort until the security situation across the country is more settled.

In 2008 China Metallurgical Group and other state-owned entreprises signed a concession to build a major copper mine in Mes Aynak. Three years later CNPC won a 25-year bid to explore three oilfields too. But these projects have stalled and there is unlikely to be a sudden surge in investment, Phoenix News reported, with the Chinese adopting a more cautious approach in helping the country to rebuild.

How might events in Kabul have an impact on Chinese policy elsewhere?

One line of commentary on Chinese social media was that the Taliban had copied some of the tactics of Mao Zedong, who led the Communist Party of China (CPC) to power by rallying support in remote areas, eventually seizing power by “surrounding the cities from the countryside”.

In other ways, the Taliban’s victory appears to resemble the CPC’s dramatic victory over Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) during the Chinese civil war some seven decades ago. A determining factor back then was also the withdrawal of US support, underlined by the publication of Harry Truman’s ‘China White Paper’ in August 1949, which acknowledged that the outcome of the civil war was beyond American control (although the same white paper also suggested that the US had forked out more than $2 billion of military aid to the KMT between 1946 to 1949).

In the later stage of the conflict Chiang’s troops suffered defeat after defeat, with Communist soldiers equipping themselves with US weapons confiscated from the KMT. Even the jeep that Mao chose for his victory parade in Peking in 1949 was a US military vehicle (Taliban soldiers were reported to be arriving in Kabul this month in US Humvees too).

Of course, Chiang and the KMT eventually retreated to Taiwan. And commentators on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have been quick to compare the Taliban’s march into Kabul to the fall of Peking in 1949, with suggestions that the debacle in Afghanistan reflects poorly on Taiwan’s chances of defending itself from an invasion by the People’s Liberation Army from the mainland. The other key takeaway from the current capitulation – after what has happened in Afghanistan how much can Taipei count on US military support?

For instance, the hawkish tabloid the Global Times was quick to claim that the chaos in Afghanistan was “a lesson that Taiwan needs to learn”. Zhao Shaokang, a Taiwan commentator who is tipped to be a candidate to run for the island’s next presidential election, also piped up: “Events in Afghanistan could likely happen in Taiwan and it is foolish to tell Taiwanese that the US will come to save us. China is unpredictable and the US is unreliable. Taiwan must choose between peace and war if it doesn’t not want to become another Afghanistan.”

The Chinese social media blitz on this topic was so fierce that White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan was forced to put out a statement on Tuesday rebutting claims that Taiwan would be abandoned to its fate in the same way, stressing that Washington’s commitment to Taiwan “remains as strong as it’s ever been”.

Meanwhile in comments that same day that were attributed to the island’s premier Su Tseng-chang by Reuters, Su dismissed comparisons between Taiwan and Afghanistan, saying that Taiwan would not crumble like Afghanistan in the event of an attack, nor would the island’s leadership flee as Ghani had done. “We’d [like to] tell foreign forces who want to invade and grab Taiwan, don’t be deluded,” Reuters quoted Su as saying.

In the meantime Joe Biden – a longstanding sceptic of the US policy of direct intervention in Afghanistan – has tried to fight back against the furious condemnation of the handling of the US withdrawal and its humiliating outcome after two decades of occupation and exorbitant expense. “I cannot and I will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another country’s civil war, taking casualties,” the US president explained of his decision to pull American troops out of the war-torn nation. Biden’s declaration suggests a new US hesitancy about intervening in other place’s civil wars. This will resonate with Xi – after all Beijing has never signed a peace treaty with Taipei to formally end the Chinese civil war.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.