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Foreign Policy

U.S. Needs China’s Help in Afghanistan

Sep 06, 2021
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

Successive attacks by suicide bombers in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 26 left at least 180 dead and 155 injured. Thirteen American soldiers were among those killed, and 18 others were wounded. The attacks showed that conditions in Afghanistan are far from stable after the Taliban regained control. And they serve as a warning to the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden. Even if Washington wants to restart major-power competition, the U.S. will need to cooperate with other countries when it comes to Afghanistan — especially China, its close neighbor.

First, the Biden administration’s troubles concerning Afghanistan won’t end just because the U.S. has withdrawn. Biden has been attacked both at home and abroad over the chaotic U.S. military pullout, and his approval rating has dropped below 50 percent. Some Republican members of Congress have even been talking about impeachment. With the 2022 midterm elections approaching, pressure on the Biden team and the Democrats will inevitably escalate.

In Afghanistan, where the Taliban recently assumed ruling status, the war-torn country remains divided and people continue to suffer the great trauma of war. Serious humanitarian crises or significant terrorist activities involving foreign nationals may occur at any moment. Once any of such event happens, the international credibility and soft power of the United States will face a severe test.

At the same time, the Biden administration’s capacity for direct intervention in Afghanistan has dramatically decreased with the departure of U.S. troops. Biden will be the center of ferocious political debate over whether to continue sanctions against the Taliban or intervene again in Afghan affairs. 

Second, even all U.S. troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan, the U.S. can't be a total outsider when it comes to Afghan affairs. Although the pullout will reduce U.S. military input, the future of Afghanistan will remain closely tied to U.S. politics. If Afghanistan cannot form a truly inclusive government, its political infighting still has the potential to evolve into a regional conflict, which will expose U.S. partners in Afghanistan to huge risks. Economically, if the U.S. refuses to offer humanitarian aid and instead continues to sanction the Taliban, a cornered Taliban may again resort to opium as a financial source. Or a bankrupt Taliban may face a serious humanitarian crisis. In either case, the U.S. will continue to be a target of international condemnation and pressure.

As for the fight against terror, although the Taliban has made promises to the U.S., it remains to be seen whether it will honor those — or even have the ability to do so. There still are more than 10,000 international terrorists active in Afghanistan, many of whom are anti-U.S., and Washington won’t turn a blind eye to them.

But China and the U.S. can engage in win-win cooperation on Afghanistan. As a neighbor, China has no historical baggage with respect to Afghan affairs, and it hopes to see Afghanistan end its internal turbulence so it can better preserve security on its periphery and in the wider region. Chinese and U.S. interests overlap to a great extent on promoting domestic stability in Afghanistan and rebuilding the country. In today’s nternational community, China is one of the few countries with both the resources and willingness to promote the peaceful rebuilding of Afghanistan.

There is huge room for China-U.S. cooperation, whether that means promoting Afghan political reconciliation, carrying out an international anti-terror campaign, providing international aid to the new government or diplomatically recognizing the government and lifting sanctions. No matter how Washington defines the China-U.S. “strategic competition,” it should realize that China is its real partner in Afghanistan, and the two parties can succeed together there, and prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a gladiatorial arena for geopolitical rivalry.

But China-U.S. cooperation on Afghanistan won’t happen automatically. It will require concerted efforts by both parties. The Biden administration must realize as soon as possible that China is a trustworthy partner, not a rival, on Afghan affairs. For that, the U.S. side should show China its willingness to collaborate with sincerity. Considering the state of damage to China-U.S. strategic mutual trust, the Biden administration can’t expect to cooperate with China while maintaining double standards on such matters as terrorism. It may be a normal for the U.S. to cooperate while competing, but this is difficult to accept for the Chinese, who emphasize the overall picture.

China also needs to change its thinking and do as much as it can with Afghanistan. Although China has long followed a foreign policy of non-interference in other countries’ affairs, and has limited direct interest, future development in Afghanistan will have significant influence on China. Only by proper participation can China actively formulate an external environment for its own benefit and preserving its own interests. China-U.S. cooperation will not only be conducive to preserving peace and stability in a future Afghanistan but also will be a blessing to regional development and peace for humanity.

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