China walks a fine line in Taliban talks amid Kabul turmoil

Beijing’s crowing about Washington’s ‘humiliation’ cannot hide security risks

Images of American helicopters circling the United States Embassy in Kabul have evoked humiliating memories of Vietnam.

At times, the collapse of the Afghanistan army and the speed of the Taliban advance has mirrored the fall of Saigon in 1975.

The similarities and the predictable outcome of the decision to rapidly withdraw US troops after 20 years of conflict have left China and even major democracies questioning Washington’s judgment.

“The US has fully misjudged the situation. Last month, when US President Joe Biden made remarks on the withdrawal of the US forces in Afghanistan, he said, ‘The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army,’” Wang Jin, an associate professor at Northwest University’s Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, said. 

“A few days ago, US military officials assessed that Kabul’s collapse could occur within 90 days, faster than originally anticipated. But now, Afghanistan and the rest of the world are witnessing a change of government in the war-torn country,” he wrote in a commentary for China’s state-run Global Times earlier this week.

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John Blaxland, a professor of strategic and defense studies at the Australian National University, went even further. “What we are seeing … echoes what happened in Saigon in 1975, as the United States and its allies exited the Vietnam War,” he wrote for The Conversation, an independent academic website. 

Yet that comparison was always “inevitable” after panic gripped Kabul on Monday. Still, this foreign policy shambles might have more far-reaching consequences than the final chapter of the US defeat in Vietnam.

“Inevitably, comparisons are being made between America’s panicky withdrawal from Kabul and similar scenes in Saigon, 46 years ago. In some respects, the Afghan situation is more concerning because so much of the Middle East is at risk of descending into chaos,” Tony Walker, the vice-chancellor’s at La Trobe University in Melbourne, said.

Changing the guard:

  • Beijing sees this as the latest sign of the rapid decline of the West and particularly the US.
  • It also aims to engage Afghanistan in economic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative.
  • Discussions in Beijing have already touched on a rebuilding program.
  • In return, President Xi Jinping’s administration is eager to sign mining contracts in the country.
  • Afghanistan is believed to have large deposits of gold, iron, copper, zinc, lithium, and other rare earth metals, valued at more than US$1 trillion.

Underground riches: “Afghanistan may hold 60 million metric tons of copper, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements such as lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, and veins of aluminum, gold, silver, zinc, [and] mercury,” Ahmad Shah Katawazai, of the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan and a former diplomat at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, wrote in a commentary for The Diplomat last year.

Delve deeper: Last month, Beijing continued cultivating its relations with Taliban leaders. In a high-profile visit, political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar held discussions with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin.

What was said: “The Taliban have repeatedly expressed their hope to develop good relations with China, and that they look forward to China’s participation in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan … we welcome this,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a routine media briefing.

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Friend or Foe? “Isn’t this the same Taliban that blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in front of [the] world media? Shouldn’t we have a bottom line?,” a Chinese netizen said on the Twitter-like Weibo social media site.

Security concerns: Xi’s regime is walking a fine line since Afghanistan borders on China’s autonomous region of Xinjiang, where at least one million ethnic Uighur Muslims have been held in internment camps. The silence has been deafening from the Taliban’s Islamist commanders on what the West has called acts of “genocide.”

Deadly game: In July, the risks to Beijing from regional instability were highlighted when nine Chinese workers were killed in Pakistan during a suicide bombing on a bus. China is building infrastructure projects in Pakistan under its New Silk Road strategy. Pakistan is also the Taliban’s main sponsor.

Political turmoil: “Defeat in Afghanistan is a complete humiliation for the US. It brings into question the competence of [America’s] political and military leadership, its willingness to engage in further military entanglements, and its reliability as an ally,” an editorial in the state-controlled Global Times stated.

China Factor comment: Brown University has estimated that the Afghan war has cost the US $2.26 trillion. That is more than the national debt of the United Kingdom, which stood at 2.21 trillion as of the end of June. Yet the damage done to Washington’s credibility far outweighs monetary issues.