How China Views the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan
On May 8, a bomb attack outside a school in Kabul killed at least 68 people. More than 160 people were injured. Although no one has claimed responsibility, the bombing has cast a shadow over the future of Afghanistan as the U.S. withdraws its troops from the country by Sept. 11, 2021.
China’s reaction was quick and harsh. In a public statement the next day, the Foreign Ministry condemned the violent attack. However, it also made a heavy-handed accusation against the “sudden announcement by the U.S. of its complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, which led to a series of bomb attacks in many locations in Afghanistan.” This biting comment raises the question: What are China’s views on the U.S. withdrawal? Beijing has long criticized the American presence in Afghanistan and the prospect of a destabilizing withdrawal. The foreign policy community in China remains deeply skeptical about U.S. intentions in the region as it withdraws its troops and harbors serious concerns about the prospect of chaos and instability along its western frontier.
China’s Contradictory Attitude over the U.S. Troop Withdrawal
For the past 20 years, China has demonstrated a contradictory attitude toward the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. On the one hand, China has seen America’s war, presence, and “manipulation” or “distortion” of Afghan politics as the cause of instability. In Beijing’s view, the war has long deviated from its original goal of counter-terrorism and morphed into a plan to control the heart of Eurasia and China’s backyard. Therefore, across the board, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has been portrayed in a highly negative light and as a source of regional instability and concern.
Ironically enough, China holds an equally if not more critical attitude toward the U.S. troop withdrawal. Just as it did with the Foreign Ministry’s statement after the bombing on May 8, China causally attributes the deterioration of Afghanistan’s security to the U.S.-announced plan of troop withdrawal and blames Washington for its “irresponsible” behavior. China rarely misses an opportunity to blame the United States for the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan — especially in its urban areas — and the potential explosion of a civil war.
The contradictory attitude of China toward the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan demonstrates Beijing’s multifaceted calculations. China would like to see the U.S. bogged down and bled out in “the longest war in American history” as the war erodes U.S. national wealth and moral superiority in the region and across the globe. Indeed, China has consistently seen the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as godsends that blessed China with a golden “window of strategic opportunity” to develop its strength without alarming the United States after 2001. Thus, the U.S. war in Afghanistan is viewed with both negativity and schadenfreude in China.
China — which was looking to inject some positivity into U.S.-Chinese relations — has hoped that Afghanistan could be an area of cooperation. In fact, the U.S. and China have maintained an official channel of consultation on Afghanistan in the past years. In addition, Beijing believed it could use “issues of shared concern”, including Afghanistan to neutralize America’s “hostile” policy toward China through “issue linkage” — in other words, it could offer cooperation in exchange for U.S. concessions in other areas. According to Chinese analysts I spoke with in Track II meetings in the past several months, China prepared for potential American “asks” at the very beginning of the Biden administration, including on North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, and climate change. Chinese interlocutors were very clear that Beijing was prepared to work with Washington if the new administration was willing to be more accommodating of China’s policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet. However, the potential for cooperation dimmed significantly after the contentious bilateral meeting in March in Alaska between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Nevertheless, Beijing still hopes that Washington will turn to China for assistance (and probably will eagerly respond if it does).
Beijing’s Skepticism and Cynicism: What Is America Withdrawing?
China’s narrative about the U.S. withdrawal, one striking feature is a consistent and persistent skepticism of the U.S. withdrawal. The essential question remains: What precisely is the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan? From China’s perspective, even if the U.S. withdraws its formal military forces, it will not likely withdraw its security presence or, more importantly, its influence as represented by private security forces, defense contractors, and local partners. Currently, there are 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan — 3,300 if special forces are also included. Such a small number of troops is not in a position to play a determining military role on the battlefield. Instead, the U.S. presence projects a political and symbolic message that the U.S. remains involved and committed. Therefore, the withdrawal of troops is only symbolic as well.
Chinese analysts have identified multiple ways that the U.S. will continue to exert influence. China believes the United States will maintain a sizable contingent of “unofficial” U.S. security personnel. In addition, Washington will continue to exert influence in Kabul via its extensive political networks and partnerships. The United States has established a sophisticated and comprehensive network of partnerships, relationships, and patron-client arrangements with political elites in Afghanistan. These relationships will continue to play an important role in the politics of the country. As the U.S. tries to coordinate with allies and partners in South Asia, Beijing clearly sees an attempt by the United States to retain its central position in the future arrangement regarding the country.
For China, the troop withdrawal announced by President Joe Biden is aimed at closing “a humiliating chapter” in U.S. politics and absolving the United States from its material and moral responsibility to Afghanistan without having to abandon practical U.S. influence or agenda-setting on the ground. It will liberate Washington from the symbolic and political burden of its “longest war” but give the U.S. operational freedom with less public scrutiny and reputational concern. From China’s perspective, this approach reduces America’s political, financial, and reputational liability but maintains almost the same benefits of influencing the situation inside Afghanistan.
Challenges and Opportunities
This is certainly not considered good news in China. Once the U.S. absolves itself from the material and moral responsibilities to Afghanistan, its approach to the country could become more flexible, pragmatic, and tactical in serving a broader agenda. China and the need to focus on great-power competition appears to have factored significantly into the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Blinken’s recent comment that the United States now has to focus its energy and resources on other very important items, including its relationship with China, serves as a solid confirmation to China that the U.S. strategic retrenchment from Afghanistan will free up its capability to compete more vigorously with China.
This has significant implications for China on several levels. A less distracted United States is not seen as a blessing by Beijing. And it also means that the U.S. will not easily abandon its leverage and influence in Afghanistan even just to counter China’s potential role. What is possibly more critical and alarming for China is that once the U.S. formally ends its war in Afghanistan, it could once again use the country for tactical purposes in the region — and China remains fully convinced, no matter how erroneously, that it was the United States that trained, financed, and armed Osama bin Laden and his supporters during the Soviet occupation to counter Moscow’s expanding influence. While China may never be so bold as to invade Afghanistan, such American capabilities have serious implications for China’s homeland security in Xinjiang and beyond. Within the framework of U.S.-China great-power competition, the prospect of Afghanistan becoming a battlefield for not only political influence but also security competition has grown significantly.
What Will China Do?
China’s policy community appears to diverge on whether the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan presents more challenges or opportunities for China in the region. First of all, most Chinese analysts seem to be pessimistic about the outlook for Afghan politics after the withdrawal. In their view, the government of Ashraf Ghani doesn’t stand much of a chance of surviving the power struggle with the Taliban in the years, if not months, to come. But the process of that power contest could easily drag the country back to a civil war, leaving China vulnerable to its spillover effects, including that of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism. In this sense, there is a shared view that Afghanistan will face an intense period of instability after the United States leaves, and the region, including China, will need to deal with the mess left behind.
But compared to a year ago, China has grown increasingly resigned to the prospect of instability in Afghanistan after the withdrawal. China has been actively and vigorously laying the groundwork for what appears to be an inevitable fallout. The China-Afghanistan-Pakistan foreign minister/vice foreign minister dialogue mechanism has been ongoing since 2017. It has emerged as a primary channel for China to advance strategic dialogue, counter-terrorism security consultations, and cooperation dialogues among the three sides. China has consistently participated in the Istanbul Process and has remained engaged in negotiations in Doha and Moscow. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit last November, General Secretary Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of the Afghanistan Contact Group in the peace and post-conflict reconstruction process in Afghanistan.
Ideally, China would like to see a transitional government in Afghanistan followed by a general election to create a coalition government that encompasses both the current Ghani administration and the Afghan Taliban. This would constitute the default definition of “Afghan-led, -owned, and -controlled.” In the worst-case scenario that an organic political reconciliation fails and that all the regional frameworks are unable to bring about a solution, China would likely reach out to the United Nations, including asking for a potential U.N. intervention, to stabilize Afghanistan. The recent message from Chinese analysts about China potentially sending peacekeepers to Afghanistan “under the terms of U.N. Charter if the security situation in the South Asian country poses a threat to Xinjiang after American troops pull out” is a signal and a testing of the waters in this regard.
It is entirely conceivable that China’s own security presence along the border — and even inside Afghanistan under the banner of bilateral cooperation — will intensify. In recent years, evidence of these activities include China helping Afghanistan patrol the Wakhan Corridor and the widely reported arrest of a Chinese intelligence network in Afghanistan this past January.
China still holds out hope that economic development could stabilize Afghanistan. Although it’s realistic about the security situation, China would like to incorporate Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative, or even make it an organic addition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This proposal was first made in 2017 and in the past year has seen “encouraging signs” as Afghanistan re-export trade through the Gwadar port in Pakistan commenced in 2020. China understands that economic development in Afghanistan and regional integration will remain challenging after the U.S. withdraws. Nevertheless, this is a policy objective that Beijing will likely continue to pursue.
China’s geo-economic interests in Afghanistan are consistent with Pakistan’s aspiration to turn itself into a regional trade hub. And Chinese support of that reflects Beijing’s continued conviction that Pakistan has an essential role to play in the stabilization of Afghanistan upon the withdrawal of troops by the United States. China is perfectly aware of how Pakistan exaggerates its control of the situation and plays competing sides of the conflict to advance its own interests. However, from China’s perspective, Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan — even if exaggerated — is a political reality that cannot be ignored. Moreover, Chinese and Pakistani objectives in Afghanistan are aligned, if not identical. And that is particularly true in terms of countering India’s influence.
Broadly speaking, China’s reaction to American troops withdrawal from Afghanistan is complicated. In the short term, Beijing is concerned that without the U.S. military, Afghanistan will soon descend into chaos and will inevitably serve as a haven for Islamic extremism. But in the long run, the Chinese policy community remains deeply skeptical of U.S. intentions, and it assumes the United States will retain and use its influence in Afghanistan to advance its interests. Moreover, Beijing fears that the United States — freed from its on-the-ground military commitment in Afghanistan — will now use the country to undermine China’s regional position and key interests.
Yun Sun is the director of the China Program and co-director of East Asia Program at the Stimson Center.
CORRECTION: A previous version of the article stated that China considered the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as a “window of strategic opportunity” to develop its strength without alarming the United States after 2011. This was incorrect. The “window of opportunity” began in 2001, not 2011.