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EFSAS Commentary

The US exit from Afghanistan is questionable but China lacks the credentials to claim higher moral ground


There is little doubt as recent developments in Afghanistan have been demonstrating, and as EFSAS has been underlining in successive publications over the past year, that the decision of the United States (US) to withdraw from the country and abandon the Afghans to the brutality of Taliban terrorists was severely flawed. During its long presence in Afghanistan, the US policy of flying in Afghans from abroad to run the country quite obviously did not work. While the impact of the democratic practices that were introduced and the immense amount of funds that the US-led coalition pumped into Afghanistan did benefit the average Afghan over the last two decades, it was the highly corrupt Afghan elite that milked the US largess and frustrated US efforts towards genuine progress and reform. This elite must take a fair share of the blame for looting the country and hollowing out the institutions of governance, and the Army, which more than anything else was what allowed the Taliban a virtually uncontested march into Kabul and left Afghan women, children, and minorities to fend for themselves. The US efforts and investments towards a moderate, democratic Afghanistan were, shorn of the devastation of the withdrawal, wholehearted and well-meaning. It therefore comes across as strange and characteristically opportunistic that China, one of the several countries that benefitted considerably from the security and stability in Afghanistan that was made possible mainly due to the US, has chosen at this important juncture to question the reliability of the US as a partner and protector of its allies, especially those in South-East Asia. The Chinese allegation is even more problematic if the country’s track record as a gross suppressor and exploiter of its own citizens, and those of countries that it has deceptively ensnared in debt traps, is considered.

Reacting to US Vice President Kamala Harris’ assurances of support to China’s South-East Asian neighbours and her accusations of Chinese intimidation in Asian waters and its illegal claims to “the vast majority of the South China Sea”, China contended on 24 August that no country would trust the US after its withdrawal from Afghanistan as part of its “selfish” foreign policy. In a speech in Singapore which she was visiting as part of a week-long trip to the region, Harris laid out the US vision for the region built on human rights and a rules-based international order, and reiterated Washington’s commitment to its pivot towards Asia. She said, “We know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea. These unlawful claims have been rejected by the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision, and Beijing's actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations”. Her reference was to The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling against China’s claims. Harris added that “Our partnerships in Singapore, in South-East Asia, and throughout the Indo-Pacific are a top priority for the United States”, and that the region was “critically important to our nation's security and prosperity”.

Concerned over the US’ reiteration of President Joe Biden’s commitment to shift focus more directly to containing and countering China, and Harris’ efforts to reassure US allies in China’s backyard, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin retorted by accusing the US of using insistence on a rules-based global order to defend its own “bullying, hegemonic behaviour”. Wenbin added during a press briefing that “The current events in Afghanistan clearly tell us what the rules and order the US speaks of are. The US can wantonly conduct military intervention in a sovereign country and does not need to be responsible for the suffering of the people in that country. In order to defend ‘America first’, the US can arbitrarily smear, suppress, coerce and bully other countries without paying any price. This is the order the US wants... but who will believe them now”?

China’s attempts to propagate the view that the US decision to exit Afghanistan was a sign that it would not stand with its other allies appears to have few takers, mainly because international acceptance of the rules of order and the inclusive systems of governance that the US stands for is much higher and wider than the exploitative policies that China has become known for. In South-East Asia, where China’s overbearance is at its most pugnacious, the nations at the receiving end rely on the US to be a strong and reliable bulwark against Chinese expansionism. They view with considerable scepticism the Chinese State-owned media’s attempt to project US resolve towards South-East Asia as having weakened just because Washington pulled out of Afghanistan. Quite the contrary, the rationale put forth by Biden to exit Afghanistan was that doing so would free up Washington’s resources to focus more on China, whose disruptive ways have caused it to become the real challenge for the US today. The US administration has called the rivalry with China “the biggest geopolitical test” of the century, and the South China Sea and Taiwan remain major bones of contention. This region is, therefore, likely to become a theatre where the US will focus more attention and resources in the coming months and years. Harris’ visit to the region at a time when a serious crisis is still playing out in Afghanistan is a clear harbinger of this.

China’s endeavor to project the US as an unreliable and unethical partner and thereby stake claim to higher moral ground is ludicrous. After what China has done to what it claims are its own citizens, the people of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia to name just a few, any such claim of being better is preposterous. China has violated all principles of propriety and trampled upon the most basic human rights of the people of these regions. More recently, the way China has blatantly and defiantly violated international agreements to crush the people of Hong Kong is fresh in everybody’s memory. China’s recent aggressive actions against Taiwan, which include a record number of transgressions into the latter’s airspace and a regular dispatch of Chinese naval warships into Taiwanese territorial waters, have generated fears of an attempted hostile takeover of the democratically steeped island. In recent years, China’s expansionist designs have extended beyond South-East Asia and the Far East. The bloody border clashes with India last year that resulted out of Chinese attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo has shaken the core of the bilateral relationship between the two Asian giants, and a deep distrust of China has engulfed the South Asian country. Even the tiny Himalayan State of Bhutan has not been spared of several Chinese attempts to grab territory.

The Chinese policy of expansionism is not always as direct, though. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that the country has been flaunting and projecting as the economic future of the world is also directed at gaining influence and control over smaller and vulnerable nations through surreptitious means. The conscious Chinese strategy of exploiting the economic and political vulnerabilities of poor nations worldwide by seeking to enslave them through debt trap diplomacy has been reported upon extensively in recent years. Some countries in South Asia have already fallen into the trap that the lure of supposedly easy Chinese money has set for them. Both Sri Lanka and The Maldives have had to part with physical national assets as a consequence of their inability to adhere to the exploitative repayment conditions that China had set for loans that it extended to these countries. Pakistan, whose China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been projected as the flagship project of the BRI, is probably the worst affected by Chinese economic exploitation. Pakistan’s tragedy is that it has become so much of a vassal State of China, dependent upon it for literally all aspects of its existence, that it cannot dare or afford to even speak out about its subjugation by China.

Most democratically inclined countries across the world abhor the Chinese brand of authoritarianism that is bereft of respect for human rights and is instead characterized by exploitation and domination. The few nations that claim to be China’s friends are either those that have equally authoritarian and undemocratic governments which rely on intimidation, aggression, and violence as their basis of power, or countries that have been naïve or desperate enough to be encompassed in China’s debt trap. China’s most recent major export to the world, COVID-19, has also not helped endear the country to many. Given the nature and scale of this China-gifted catastrophe that has befallen the whole of humanity over the last two years, China can hardly lay claim to being a reliable and trustworthy partner.

While China is proactively involved in tarnishing the image of the US in Afghanistan, its own engagement with the country is not really bathed in milk. From what has emerged thus far, China’s basic policy after the Taliban’s military takeover can only be termed imperialistic, opportunistic, exploitative, and highly selfish. While it is making feeble noises about an inclusive government in Kabul, China has made it clear that it accepts the Taliban as having all the legitimacy that China needs so long as the terrorist organization opens up all of Afghanistan’s considerable natural resources for China to exploit in an unbridled manner. As Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi put it, “An opportunistic China is certain to exploit the new opening to make strategic inroads into mineral-rich Afghanistan and deepen its penetration of Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia”.

China has also spoken sporadically about the Taliban needing to ensure human rights in Afghanistan, but given its own gross disregard for such rights, China is clear that it would be satisfied even if the new Taliban regime gives the impression of being just a tad more moderate than it was during its previous stint in power in the 1990s. The welfare and the interests of the people of Afghanistan, which has consumed the narrative of most of the rest of the civilized world, seems to matter little to China. It has already begun holding meetings at a senior level with the Taliban, and when Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin was asked about one such meeting in Kabul earlier this week between Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan Wang Yu and the deputy head of the Taliban's political office Abdul Salam Hanafi, he replied that “China and the Afghan Taliban have unimpeded and effective communication and consultation. Kabul is naturally an important platform and channel for us to discuss key issues”.

China’s comfort level in accepting that a terrorist outfit can rule Afghanistan, impose its archaic and brutal systems of governance on the Afghan people, and reduce half the country’s population, its women, to second class citizens, is not surprising given China’s own low level of respect for, and adherence to, the rule of law and human rights. As Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying contended, “Some people stress their distrust for the Afghan Taliban – we want to say that nothing is unchanged forever. We need to see the past and present”. It also comes as no surprise that Taliban leaders have stressed on China when they have spoken about wanting good relations with other countries. For the rest of the international community, though, the rise of a world power with an outlook like China’s spells a particularly serious danger, one if left uncontrolled and unchecked will spread silently like another deadly virus and damage the international order immeasurably.

As China wades optimistically and expectantly into highly turbulent Afghan waters, it needs to be fully conscious of the perils that lurk ahead. If it needed any reminding, yesterday’s multiple suicide attacks ought to serve as a timely reminder of what lies ahead for it. At the time of writing, well over a hundred Afghan nationals and US troops had been killed near Kabul airport in the attacks that were claimed by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). The antecedents and linkages of the ISKP have been touched upon in the EFSAS commentary of 10-04-2020. The ISKP was prominent among the specific terrorist groups that the Taliban had promised to keep out of Afghanistan. China must bear in mind that the Taliban have already broken well-nigh every promise made in last year’s deal with the US in Doha, and the terrorist outfit’s attitude and principles are highly unlikely to change in the future.

If it were to take a dispassionately honest view of the matter, China would acknowledge that what it was actually attempting was to step into the really large shoes of the US in Afghanistan. Such a misadventure, if China still chooses to push ahead with its plans despite the lessons of yesterday’s deadly terrorist attacks, may force it to realize the hard way that it possesses neither the resources nor the skills to subjugate the Afghan people in the same manner as it had done other less complex and warlike nations that were characterized by their vulnerability. The US possessed the rawness of the wounds of the 9/11 terror attacks, a depth of resources, a tenacity of purpose, and the support of almost the entire international community when it entered Afghanistan. That enabled it to navigate the Afghan quagmire and emerge from it dented, but relatively intact, despite all the serious challenges and the losses that it encountered along the way.

China, if it takes the plunge in Afghanistan as it appears so far to be doing, is unlikely to be as fortunate and may end up being much more severely damaged and weakened, its aspiration for world leadership in tatters.