By: The Editorial Board – wsj.com – August 17, 2021
It’s too early to know the wider strategic fallout from America’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal. But there’s strong reason to doubt convenient claims that the retreat will help the U.S. balance a revisionist China. Beijing is more likely to see the display of fecklessness as an opening to exploit.
“Our true strategic competitors, China and Russia, would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely,” said President Biden in his defiant Monday speech.
Put aside that, because of the Taliban triumph, the U.S. now has more attention and troops devoted to Afghanistan than it did before the exit. Beijing is already using the debacle to taunt Taiwan and the U.S.
“Is this some kind of omen of Taiwan’s future fate?” said an editorial in the Global Times, a Communist Party organ. “Once a cross-Straits war breaks out while the mainland seizes the island with forces,” the paper added, “the US would have to have a much greater determination than it had for Afghanistan, Syria, and Vietnam if it wants to interfere.”
China’s Foreign Ministry also took a victory lap in a press briefing Tuesday. Its spokeswoman said the Afghanistan war shows that the U.S. shouldn’t “interfere in other countries’ internal affairs,” pointedly using the same language Beijing uses to object to America’s support of Taiwan’s independence. China says Taiwan’s status is an “internal” issue, though the self-governing democracy is a linchpin of security for Pacific states including Japan.
Beijing’s propagandists will take any opportunity to denigrate the U.S. But its strategic opportunities from the Afghanistan withdrawal are real. The U.S. abandoned its air base at Bagram for nothing, sacrificing some of its ability to project power in Central Asia. Afghanistan under Taliban rule may also be a fruitful source for China’s development of strategic rare-earth minerals.
One clear loser from the regime change in Afghanistan is India, whose ambassador fled Kabul amid the Taliban takeover. India’s northern border was the site of deadly clashes with Chinese troops last year, and New Delhi is part of the “Quad” coalition for checking China in the Indo-Pacific. But if India needs to manage renewed security threats from jihadists, it will have less capacity to resist China’s bullying.
Beijing’s Afghanistan taunts resonated enough in Taiwan that the island democracy’s premier repudiated them in press remarks Tuesday. He said Taiwan’s leaders are “not afraid of being killed or imprisoned” in case of an invasion, Reuters reports. China’s military flew sorties near the island the same day.
Taiwan’s government is far more advanced than the fragile state the U.S. stood up in Kabul. Many in the Biden Administration who were willing to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban may be more committed to U.S. allies in the Western Pacific.
But as Beijing watches the U.S. retreat in Kabul, it might miss that message—especially as the Administration proposes a stagnant defense budget despite rising threats. If China’s Communist Party perceives that the U.S. won’t “interfere” to protect its allies in the Pacific, the world will soon be a far more dangerous place.
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