As US pulls out of Afghanistan, China sees opportunities

PRESS CONFERENCE. China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during his online video link press conference during the National People's Congress at the media center in Beijing on May 24, 2020. Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

BEIJING, May 16, 2021, CNN. China is conflicted about Afghanistan. Speaking at a forum of Central Asian leaders this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing supports the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and stands ready to play a role in promoting future “stability and development,” CNN reported.

Days earlier, however, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry had criticized the “recent abrupt US announcement of complete withdrawal of forces,” saying this had “led to a succession of explosive attacks throughout the country, worsening the security situation and threatening peace and stability as well as people’s life and safety.”

These contrasting statements are indicative of how Beijing is torn between seizing the potential opportunity presented by the United States finally pulling out of Afghanistan, and the widespread — and well founded — fear that the country could plunge once again into civil war and chaos.

China is normally loathe to support any foreign intervention on principle, but unlike the Iraq War, which Beijing vociferously opposed, China’s leaders were quietly supportive of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, signing on to a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and calling for a new government.

This was in large part due to a recognition that under the Taliban, Afghanistan had become a source of instability on China’s border, hosting not only militant groups targeting the West, but also alleged Uyghur extremist organizations seeking an independent Xinjiang, including one that Beijing would blame for numerous terrorist attacks in China during the 1990s and 2000s.

Speaking to state media this week, Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, warned that even “if the Afghan government and Taliban reach an agreement to form a new government peacefully … we should be prepared for any other possibility.”

This could mean greater military engagement in the region: China has ramped up its foreign troop presence in recent years, and there have long been unconfirmed reports of People’s Liberation Army soldiers operating in Afghanistan. Beijing has also increased its military cooperation with Pakistan and set up a presence in the port of Gwadar, the closest port to landlocked Afghanistan.

Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center, wrote this week that Chinese experts are divided “on whether the US withdrawal from Afghanistan presents more challenges or opportunities,” pointing out that while the presence of American troops on its border was never welcome, the Afghan quagmire did create a welcome distraction for Washington.

Even by inaction, let alone active interference, the US could easily make Afghanistan a security headache for Beijing, one that distracts China militarily from its major areas of focus in the South China Sea and the border with India.

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