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After Kabul, China exploits perceptions of American weakness

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“If the U.S. cannot even secure a victory in a rivalry with small countries, how much better could it do in a major power game with China?” asked the Communist Party’s Global Times on Monday, hours after the Taliban captured Kabul. The semi-official tabloid also stated this, referring to America: “It cannot win a war anymore.” 

China’s regime this year has highlighted themes intended to intimidate others into submission, and Beijing doubled down on this approach in the wake of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The risk is that Beijing will now press the advantage, taking on what it says is a weak America. 

“His bigger intention is to focus on China, pooling as many U.S. military forces as possible into the Indo-Pacific region,” the Global Times reported, referring to President Joe Biden. “The grand strategy seemed flawless and inspiring for Washington, until the U.S.’s epic defeat and chaotic retreat in Afghanistan mirrored how shaky it is.” The tabloid then quoted Lu Xiang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing: “A little bit more troops, relocated from Afghanistan to China’s periphery, do not make much difference for China.” 

Where will China strike next? Taiwan is now a main focus of Beijing propaganda. In an editorial on Monday, the Global Times analyzed in depth American security commitments to the island republic, which Beijing claims as its own.

“The DPP authorities,” a reference to Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party, “need to keep a sober head, and the secessionist forces should reserve the ability to wake up from their dreams,” the editorial stated. “From what happened in Afghanistan, they should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and the U.S. military won’t come to help.” 

Deterrence is obviously breaking down, something demonstrated in the middle of March when China’s top two diplomats, Yang Jiechi, and subordinate Foreign Minister Wang Yi, traveled to Anchorage, Alaska to meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

“So let me say here that, in front of the Chinese side, the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” Yang said in opening remarks at that now infamous confrontation.

Beijing has repeated the America-is-done narrative many times since, such as in an authoritative Aug. 10 People’s Daily piece titled “U.S. No Longer Has the Position of Strength for Its Arrogance and Impertinence.”

At the moment, Beijing is extending the prospect of cooperation. In a Monday phone call, Wang offered Blinken a deal: Chinese cooperation on achieving a “soft landing” in Afghanistan in return for the adoption of pro-Beijing policies. The peace offering, however, was accompanied, Chinese-style, with threatening actions. On Tuesday, Beijing announced sea and air military exercises both southeast and southwest of Taiwan. The drills come after a long pause in these provocative maneuvers in and around that self-governing island.

For the most part, Taiwan’s people do not appear unnerved by the recent Chinese propaganda initiatives. The view, evident this week, is to focus on the overall reliability of the U.S., not the Biden administration’s failure in Afghanistan. The island’s people know that Beijing’s threatening actions are in response to the growing Washington-Taipei relationship that became clear beginning in the second half of the Trump administration and continued by Biden.

All of this means the world should expect trouble soon.

“We’re at the start of one of the biggest geopolitical challenges the modern world has ever faced,” Thomas Friedman wrote Monday. The New York Times columnist was not referring to China, but China is the reason why he is right. Beijing will now press the advantage. 

In the past, a succession of American presidents issued warnings to China but rarely enforced them. In effect, American leaders taught China to ignore warnings. This emboldened the worst elements in the Chinese political system by showing everyone else in Beijing that aggression and other bad acts carried no cost.

So it is understandable that Xi Jinping, the Chinese ruler, now thinks he can do what he wants. The failure in Afghanistan, however, could be a false signal to the Chinese leadership. After all, the difference between Afghanistan on the one hand and China and Taiwan on the other is that Americans realize — or will do so soon — that the struggle with Beijing, unlike the one with the Taliban, directly and immediately affects them. The perceptions of Chinese intentions, post-COVID, have darkened in America.

The danger now is the result of a mismatch of perceptions between Beijing and Washington. And a tense situation in one part of the world can spread to other parts fast. Chinese partners — Russia, Iran, North Korea and friends — could join in on China’s side or take advantage of a conflict involving China and America to start new confrontations. The coming months, therefore, could be some of the most turbulent moments ever. 

Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.  

Tags Afghanistan withdrawal Antony Blinken Antony Blinken China-Taiwan tension China–United States relations Cross-Strait relations Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Taliban

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