Even with terrorism in Afghanistan, China remains the greater threat

Even with terrorism in Afghanistan, China remains the greater threat
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The tragic, poorly executed withdrawal from Afghanistan is a major setback for U.S. aims in the region and for America’s position in the world. The terrorist attack on Thursday at the Kabul airport and the Taliban’s full control of Afghanistan introduce the risk of attacks on the U.S. homeland, as well as U.S. interests in the region and U.S. allies. As we saw with ISIS-K claiming responsibility for the Kabul blast, these attacks will be conducted by terror groups such as ISIS, al Qaeda and others, all of whom will be sustained in the fertile soil of Afghanistan under the Taliban. This deleterious development requires serious U.S. response.  

Yet, as injurious and significant as these dangers are, perhaps the greatest danger present in the withdrawal from Afghanistan is that the U.S. will lose its strategic focus on peer competitive threats, as it did after the Cold War’s end and was magnified by 9/11 and expanded U.S. involvement in Southwest Asia. 

The events in Afghanistan must not detract the U.S. national security community from the global threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP’s control of China provides it with the power to supplant the U.S., and the Sino-American struggle will define the nature of politics in the 21st century. Its outcome will determine the future of freedom and democracy, or whether that future is occluded by repression. This threat should be the consistent, perennial priority of the U.S. government.  

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The CCP took advantage of America’s efforts to combat terrorism after 9/11, identifying this shift as a critical period of strategic opportunity to become more powerful. As CCP leader Jiang Zemin instructed at the time, China needed to thwart a potential U.S. focus on China’s expansion and efforts to catch up with the U.S. At the same time, China determined the Uyghurs and other Muslims could be repressed under the cover of combating terrorists. In this period, much was lost to the CCP with respect to U.S. interests abroad and China’s threat to the American people at home — including China’s export of fentanyl, America’s loss of manufacturing to China, and China’s theft of intellectual property, including antibiotics and other critical products.

The events in Afghanistan come at a perilous time for the U.S. government. Much of its attention has been focused upon the aftermath of the war in Iraq and fighting terrorism. With the probable renaissance of Afghanistan as terrorist base, there is the likelihood that terrorism once again will become the focus of the national security community — to the detriment of the CCP threat. This would be a mistake. Bureaucratic resources are always scarce and funding is usually inadequate; as a practical matter, members of Congress and other leaders center their attention upon a small number of threats, and it is always a challenge to focus on longer-term threats. Additionally, centers of professional military education, including the service academies and war colleges, and the government as a whole have developed great expertise in Southwest Asia, the study of counterinsurgency, and the threat from terrorism. This leads to considerable pressure to maintain these issues as the principal object of attention — even in the face of China’s belligerence.

But America’s national security leaders must keep their attention on the China threat. The U.S. cannot afford to repeat the decades in which the CCP threat was ignored at best, and embraced at worst. Likewise, the American people are focused on Afghanistan now, outraged about the deaths of U.S. service members and Afghan civilians — and they will continue to ignore the greater menace to the U.S. economy, their lifestyle, power and birthright. U.S. policymakers should explain clearly why the CCP is a threat to all Americans.  

The United States must anticipate and prepare for a possible war with China. Under President Lyndon Johnson, the U.S. military had a “two-and-a-half wars” standard. While this standard varied in the course of the Cold War, it meant that the U.S. military simultaneously had to plan for two major wars — one against the Soviets, another against China — while possessing the ability to fight a smaller war such as Vietnam. The U.S. should consider returning to a similar standard — able to fight China while cooperating with NATO allies against Russia and fighting terrorism. But the bulk of that effort must be directed toward China.  

With the Taliban’s return to power, the U.S. is rightly worried about what will follow in the weeks to come. But there is a far greater danger looming. China’s global reach and increasing power means that U.S. interests, values, allies — indeed, the world’s population — should be considered vulnerable to the CCP’s depredations. The U.S. and its allies cannot afford to give China’s communist leaders another period of strategic opportunity.

Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.

Bradley A. Thayer is the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”

They are co-authors of the forthcoming book, "Understanding the China Threat," in 2022.