Opinion | National Security

China moves quickly to replace America in Afghanistan

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

As the United States withdraws its forces from Afghanistan, China is not hesitating to move in. Earlier this week, nine Taliban leaders accepted Beijing's invitation and met in Tianjin with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. One of those leaders was the group's co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Wang told his visitors that China expects the Taliban to play an important role in the "process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan" and described the group as a "pivotal political and military force" in the country. 

It appears to be only a matter of time before China recognizes the Talban's de facto control of the country even as Washington remains formally committed to supporting the Kabul government.

Although he urged his Afghan visitors not to allow their country to serve as a staging area for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement that seeks independence for Xinjiang, true to China's longstanding policy, Wang avoided any reference to the state of Afghanistan's internal affairs. As Taliban spokesman Mohammed Naeem put it, no doubt gleefully, "China ... said they will not interfere in Afghanistan's issues." 

In other words, unlike the United States and its Western allies, China has every intention to remain silent regarding the Taliban's brutal treatment of women and the Hazara minority, as well as those Afghans who worked closely with America and its allies. Subsequent to the meeting, a Chinese spokesman contrasted his nation's policies with those of the United States, again stating that "China has throughout adhered to non-interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs," as opposed to the "failure of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan."

China formally recognizes the Afghan government, and as late as June held a video meeting with Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar, together with their Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, to discuss Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China, which long has been Afghanistan's major trading partner, seeks to expand BRI projects in Afghanistan; Beijing 's objective is to have the country serve as a critical node for the BRI in central Asia. 

Indeed, only days before he met with the Taliban, Wang had yet another meeting with Atmar. Unlike the United States - which remains hostile to the Taliban even as it negotiates with the group - China truly is covering all its bases. 

Nevertheless, China's focus is clearly on the Taliban. Its close so-called "all-weather friend" Pakistan has served as the Taliban's staging area ever since American forces and their Afghan allies ousted the group from power. Wang met again with Qureshi in Chengdu only a few days before his meeting with the Taliban, presumably to coordinate their positions on Afghanistan once all American forces had left the country.

When Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin addressed Singapore's International Institute of Strategic Studies at roughly the same time that the Taliban was in Beijing, he excoriated China for its claims in the South China Sea, which he asserted "has no basis in international law [and] treads on the sovereignty of states in the region." He also noted what he termed Chinese "aggression against India," and spoke of "genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang." 

Austin had nary a word about China's clear effort to curry favor with the Taliban. Perhaps he and his advisers felt that because Afghanistan is a Central Asian state, it was not a subject for a Southeast Asian audience. Yet Xinjiang is in central Asia; indeed, Xinjiang borders Afghanistan's Badakhshan Province.

Washington insists that it will continue to support the Kabul government, economically and militarily, though the latter will be from a distance. It has not specified how it plans to implement that military support - which, if it fails to sustain the government, will render economic assistance moot. In the meantime, as many observers predicted, China is rushing to fill that vacuum that America's departure is creating. 

A potential Taliban government with close ties to China could represent the worst possible fallout from America's hasty withdrawal from a country to which it devoted so much blood and treasure. Equally troubling, it would add to Austin's already lengthy list of American concerns about Chinese influence and aggressiveness throughout much of Asia.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.