In the wake of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan amid the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces and their allies, China has rhetorically seized upon America’s failures. The official Xinhua news agency lambasted the United States as “the world’s largest exporter of unrest,” arguing that “its hegemonic policies” have led to far too many human tragedies, and that the fall of Kabul marked the collapse of America’s international image and credibility.
Beijing also appears to be extending an enthusiastic hand to the Taliban. In late July, several of the group’s leaders visited China and met directly with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who referred to the Taliban as “a pivotal military and political force” that is expected to play “an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan,” according to a subsequent Chinese readout of the meeting. More recently, following the fall of Kabul, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing said it has established “open and effective communication and consultation with the Afghan Taliban,” and that it seeks to “play a constructive role in the peace and reconstruction of the country.” The Taliban, for their part, have also made known their desire for Chinese investment in the country and help from Beijing in the reconstruction process.
Despite this apparent entente, it would be a mistake to believe, as some analysts have argued, that China is now poised to “step into the void in Afghanistan” following America’s exit. The reality is that Afghanistan does not rank among Beijing’s top strategic priorities, and it has no interest in becoming the main security guarantor in the country. As Azeem Ibrahim of the Washington-based Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy has argued, China “has no inherent affinity or interest in an Afghan party.” As much as Chinese propaganda outlets celebrated the departure of U.S. forces, China actually benefited from a U.S. security presence that tamped down extremist activity in a country that shares a small border with it. Beijing’s focus now will primarily be on risk management, particularly minimizing security threats that may emanate from Afghanistan.