China greeted America’s chaotic retreat from Afghanistan and the Taliban seizure of power with a mixture of glee and trepidation. Its well-oiled propaganda machine has revelled in the fall of Kabul, but Beijing is fretting over the threat of instability on its doorstep – and there is a very real possibility that China will become next power sucked into the ‘graveyard of empires’.
The humbling of the United States in Afghanistan fits nicely into the Chinese narrative of American decline, but Beijing has also used the withdrawal to pile pressure on Taiwan, warning the self-governing democratic island that Washington is an unreliable ally. ‘Afghanistan today, Taiwan tomorrow,’ ran a headline in the Global Times, a communist party tabloid. ‘US will abandon Taiwan in a crisis given its tarnished credibility.’
The newspaper’s editor also shared photographs taken by China’s ambassador in Kabul of China’s tranquil embassy. The carefully crafted images of calm amid the chaos were somewhat undermined though by a hastily arranged joint ‘anti-terrorism exercise’ in neighbouring Tajikistan, which shares an 835-mile border with Afghanistan. Chinese and Tajik forces took to the hills outside the capital Dushanbe, while in a letter to his Tajik counterpart China’s minster of public security said, ‘The current international situation is changing and the regional counterterrorism situation is not optimistic.’
China has declared that it will respect the ‘choices’ of the Afghan people, and is moving quickly to build ties with the Taliban. It hosted Taliban leaders in Beijing even before the US withdrawal was complete. That followed a growing number of contacts over recent months as the endgame in Afghanistan became increasingly clear. Beijing is holding out the promise of investment as part of its Belt and Road Initative (BRI) of international construction to rebuild Afghanistan.