A post-post-9/11 era? The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the China question

Encyclopedia Geopolitica Guest Contributor Archishman Ray Goswami explores what the prospect of an American withdrawal will mean for China, what interests Beijing will pursue, and how future American foreign policy will address both China and Afghanistan.

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On 14th April 2021, US President Joe Biden declared that the last US troops would withdraw from Afghanistan on the 11th of September 2021, exactly twenty years after the Twin Towers fell, precipitating a US-led invasion of the country that would define US foreign policy for much of the new century thus far. Four days later, in a conversation with ABC News, Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was in line with Washington’s new policy focussing instead on the threat posed by China to US geostrategic interests in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Yet to argue that US interests vis-à-vis China on one hand and Afghanistan on the other are divorced from one another would be fallacious. China has crucial security, geo-economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan, which have at various points over the past two decades clashed with US and allied interests. As Washington prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, China is expected to deepen its engagement with Kabul to cement its interests in the country – with consequences for US foreign policy, primarily as Beijing leverages its gains in the country to counter US/Western hawkishness elsewhere.

Given China’s attempts to counter US-led attempts to secure digital supply chains amid the Coronavirus pandemic by emerging as a key manufacturer of semiconductors, Afghanistan with its vast mineral deposits is likely to remain a key geopolitical flashpoint, with both countries attempting to secure commercial interests in the country before and even after the 11th September deadline. With concerns over cyber-espionage fuelling both nations’ moves to secure their digital supply chains and semiconductor industries against foreign investment, resources key to its production such as lithium, found in abundance in Afghanistan, are expected to foment further competition between the two powers. Indeed, with Afghanistan holding approximately $3 trillion worth of rare-earth minerals critical to the manufacturing of semiconductors and other forms of digital infrastructure, a continued clash between Sino-American interests may be expected in Afghanistan in spite of the US withdrawal. It is therefore unlikely that the US will lose strategic interest in Afghanistan vis-à-vis China following the completion of the troop withdrawal later this year. With the QUAD leaders having covered semiconductor manufacturing and during their March 2021 virtual summit, it becomes increasingly clear that the question of semiconductors – and hence the resources that go into manufacturing them – will be a cornerstone of the Biden Administration’s Indo-Pacific policy. It is in this regard that the question of Afghanistan is expected to remain closely tied to Washington’s cold war with China.

Beijing’s complex relationship with the Taliban is similarly expected to play a role in determining Washington’s Afghanistan policy after the troop withdrawal. For much of the post-9/11 era, China has maintained cordial, secret relations with the Taliban for the achievement of national security objectives, such as preventing the al-Qaeda affiliated Uyghur jihadist group the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) from finding safe haven in Taliban-controlled regions of Afghanistan. Yet with the slated US withdrawal, Beijing is less trusting of a strengthened Taliban’s willingness to continue with such relations. Concern similarly exists regarding a potentially hostile, resurgent Taliban posing a military challenge along China’s western flank- especially as resentment grows among sections of Afghan society regarding China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s comments in response to President Biden’s 14th April announcement appear to point towards Chinese anxieties about her national security consequences as a result of the power vacuum created by the US withdrawal. His remarks that the US was “the biggest external factor affecting the issue of Afghanistan” and that the troop pull-out “would allow terrorist forces to take advantage of the chaos” indicates that Beijing is increasingly wary of the Afghan Taliban’s power, a problem further complicated by reports of apparent factionalism within the Taliban between Mullah Yaqoob’s more moderate group and Sirajuddin Haqqani’s increasingly radical clique. This vulnerability provides the Biden Administration with leverage against Chinese belligerence elsewhere – at least until the 11th of September. The planned date of withdrawal may be postponed at will by the US in diplomatic negotiations with Beijing in return for assurances in other theatres, such as the Indo-Pacific.

Concerns regarding China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also compel Washington to continue keeping an eye on Afghanistan as a crucial node of Chinese sub-regional transport networks connecting Central Asia, China, Pakistan, and Iran. Given Afghanistan’s place within the BRI, and the fact that BRI projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) also provide Kabul with access to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the question of Afghanistan remains closely tied with Sino-American geopolitical rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. As President Biden looks to create new infrastructure and global connectivity programmes to rival the BRI, Afghanistan will remain crucial in Washington’s new grand strategy against China. As a key transport hub linking West and Central Asian markets to those in the Indian Ocean Region, South Asia and China, political influence in Kabul will remain a key point of contention between Washington and Beijing. The interconnected nature of such projects holds significant consequences for geopolitics as the US seeks to stem China’s growing economic and political influence in Asia. Losing influence in Afghanistan would hold significant consequences for US policymaking in South, Central and West Asia, and provide Beijing with new economic opportunities in the region, from control over maritime chokepoints in the Western IOR, to the opening up of new fronts for conflict in the Arabian Sea.

As the 11th of September approaches, it becomes increasingly evident that as far as US foreign policy is concerned, the question of Afghanistan remains fundamentally tied with the issue of China. In the interim, opportunities remain for either side to cement gains made in the country for leverage against the other in different theatres. Even as the US acclimatises to the reality of long-drawn competition with China, her Afghan past will continue to haunt her policymaking with respect to Beijing and vice versa. As the last American soldier leaves the country, one factor remains clear: that Afghanistan will remain a flashpoint for Sino-American competition well into the 2020s even as tensions mount between the great powers in the Indo-Pacific.

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Archishman Ray Goswami is a political risk and strategic intelligence analyst at Prelia Strategic Advisory, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Rome and London and is joining the Council on Geostrategy as a Charles Pasley Intern in May 2021. He specialises in the geopolitics of the Af-Pak region, Central Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, with a specific interest in issues related to intelligence and diplomacy.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Cover Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo with U.S. Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the President’s wife, Peng Liyuan, before a luncheon in the Chinese President’s honor at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on September 25, 2015. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]