The best place to test cooperation with China is in Afghanistan

The best place to test cooperation with China is in Afghanistan
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Contentious rhetorical fireworks at the opening session of talks between U.S. Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Low-lying countries plead for action to avoid climate change 'death sentence' French diplomat says 'time and actions' needed to restore ties with US MORE and National Security Advisor Jake SullivanJake SullivanSchumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks Sen. Hawley's 'holds' on Biden nominees are hostage-taking, not policymaking Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' MORE and their Chinese counterparts, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, gave us a glimpse of what “extreme competition” between the U.S. and China will look like.

Yet the test of a sophisticated and sustainable U.S. strategy on China also lies in figuring out how best to cooperate on matters of vital mutual interest, like peace on the Korean peninsula, and of global consequence, like climate change. Given the current chasm of disagreement and distrust separating Washington from Beijing, determining where and how to work together will be an equally tough nut to crack.

Instructively, even as Yang Jiechi was unloading his lengthy diatribe about American “condescension,” other Chinese and American diplomats gathered in Moscow, along with delegations from Pakistan and Russia. Their focus was on Afghanistan, the best and most urgent place to explore prospects for U.S.-China cooperation.

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To be clear, cooperation with Beijing does not mean Washington should shy away from competition. On this score, Biden’s team was already on solid ground even before Blinken and Sullivan landed in Anchorage, Alaska. The president and his top Cabinet officials are united in criticism of Beijing’s anti-democratic agenda in Hong Kong and genocidal policies in Xinjiang. They have raised concerns about Chinese bullying of Taiwan and Australia and of violence against India. 

To back up that criticism, Biden’s Cabinet secretaries and the president himself have made a point of reaching out to allies, from Japan to NATO, and partners, like India, putting into place the critical building blocks needed to defend against, discourage and if necessary, punish Chinese intimidation, rule-breaking and aggression. More will likely follow, in defense, technology, trade and other sectors. 

But even if the ultimate, long-term aim of U.S. policy is to out-compete China in ways that would force a fundamental political change in Beijing, no reasonable observer expects that to happen anytime soon. In the interim, the world is filled with urgent problems that are only manageable by way of international cooperation, and China is too powerful, too wealthy and too influential to be left on the sidelines.

Cooperation between geopolitical competitors is possible. Cooperation need not mean woolly-headed altruism. Working with China should always be approached with clarity about what U.S. interests are advanced through it. Nor should Americans expect that cooperation will ever transform China or soften Beijing’s approach. But neither should the U.S. dismiss opportunities for cooperation merely for fear of appearing soft before domestic or international audiences. Working together on issues where both sides appreciate the nature of an urgent problem does not always demand major concessions. Sometimes diplomatic coordination and information sharing is enough. 

Afghanistan, despite all its bedeviling complexity, now offers an excellent opportunity for narrow, self-interested cooperation of this sort. The Biden administration has already declared its plan to accelerate and intensify international diplomacy to deliver an Afghan political framework that averts collapse as the U.S. military withdraws quickly enough to keep the Taliban at the negotiating table.

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For its part, Beijing has always sought three main goals in Afghanistan: elimination of international terrorist groups, especially those with ties to Xinjiang; withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from China’s western doorstep; and sufficient security to enable the extraction of Afghanistan’s rich natural resources and to permit safe transit across its landlocked territory. Although Beijing only grudgingly accepted the presence of U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan after 9/11, their imminent departure threatens a new descent into civil war. So, like their American counterparts, China’s leaders now appreciate the urgent need for a negotiated settlement.

Of the five Afghan “neighbors” the U.S. has invited to participate in talks under the auspices of the United Nations, only India can reasonably be considered a solid American partner. The others – Russia, Iran and Pakistan – are all on significantly better terms with Beijing than with Washington. Moscow and Tehran would take some pleasure in watching the U.S. fail, and will have trouble looking past that destructive impulse, even though both have much to lose from an intensified Afghan civil war that puts a terrorist-sponsoring narco-state on their borders. Pakistan is simultaneously most aligned with Beijing and Afghanistan’s most influential neighbor. Islamabad lacks sufficient control to singlehandedly deliver Afghan peace but holds more than enough cards to delay or derail any settlement. In short, Beijing’s influence with Moscow, Tehran and Islamabad will be essential to avoiding unnecessary grandstanding, costly disruptions and escalating support to Afghan factions.

Both Beijing and Washington thus have something to gain by coordinating their diplomatic efforts on Afghanistan. In doing so, they will also be conducting an important, precedent-setting test of narrow cooperation under the shadow of competition, with implications for Iran, climate change, pandemic response and other challenges on the horizon.

Daniel Markey is the author of “China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia” and academic director of the Global Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @MarkeyDaniel.