An ‘Early Test Case’ for a China-Led World

Beijing’s policies now that the Taliban is in charge will provide clues as to how it views global leadership.

A masked Taliban official stands next to a masked Chinese official.
Li Ran / Xinhua via Getty

For those of us wondering what kind of superpower China might be, we’ll soon get some clues in, of all places, Afghanistan.

In the aftermath of the American departure, how Beijing handles relations with Kabul—whether it can forge economic ties with the Taliban, how much political and diplomatic sway it seeks, and, most crucial, if it can use its leverage to influence the new regime—could offer a window into how it might wield its newfound power in other global-security crises, especially in the absence of a strong American presence.

Why China would want to wade into an Afghan morass may at first seem bewildering. To a certain extent, it has little choice, with the mess perched precariously on its western border and the Americans no longer around to do the job of maintaining security. But the U.S. withdrawal also presents Beijing’s leaders with an opportunity: to solidify their dominance in a region they consider their backyard and, even more, to play the role of hero by succeeding where Washington failed.

It’s a big unknown, however, whether China can, or will, aggressively seek to fill the void left by the United States. Doing so will force Beijing to get its hands dirtier than it usually prefers. Generally speaking, Chinese leaders have avoided the urge to intervene in global-security issues and regional disputes. (In certain respects, China has been a source of instability, with its territorial claims in the South China Sea and persistent support of toxic regimes such as North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela.) Instead, Beijing tends not to take sides and attempts to do business with everyone. Beijing has left political problem-solving to Washington and its allies, while Chinese companies (typically with ties to the government) go around building highways and selling telecom networks. Except now in Afghanistan, they’ll need to step out onto the tightrope without the American safety net to catch them.

Afghanistan “is a sort of early test case” for how China will handle “a specific group of countries that the U.S. has been so deeply absorbed with over the past couple of decades,” Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a policy think tank, told me. “There is this question of what China’s approach is actually able to deliver.”

Beijing’s Afghan policy will also be something more, though: a test of its entire worldview, and the specific form of international relations it has created. Beijing and Washington have the same basic concern about Afghanistan—that it will again become an international threat—but China’s leaders see the problem in an entirely different way.

The Chinese often deride America’s penchant for foreign interventions (though in the case of Afghanistan, they derived some benefit from it), and Washington’s promotion of democratic ideals through its foreign policy. China’s leaders advocate the principle of “noninterference” in other countries’ affairs. That translates to a diplomatic order stripped of its values (or at least those of the liberal variety). While Americans try to make other societies more like America’s, the Chinese don’t much care what kind of government another country has, or what it might be doing to its own people, as long as it’s not causing trouble for China.

The Chinese viewpoint—leaving foreign peoples under brutal regimes to their fate—may seem callous. Yet the strategy has a degree of pragmatism. The Chinese simply deal with other governments as they are, not how they wish them to be. That allows Beijing to sidestep ideological hang-ups and forge ties to successive regimes—as in Myanmar, where it got on with the junta, then the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and then the junta again, without much fuss.

The big question in the Afghan context is: Will China’s methods work? Beijing may have some advantages in navigating a quagmire such as Afghanistan by adapting to events as they unfold. Yet its approach also has limitations, and could badly tie its hands if things in Afghanistan start to go south. There is a chance—indeed a good one—that despite all the purported differences in policy, strategy, and worldview, China could find itself chased from Afghanistan, just like the Americans (and the Russians, and the British) before it.

Thus far, China is already declaring victory. Wang Yi, the foreign minister, has called the situation in Afghanistan “yet another negative example” of the folly of military intervention in foreign hot spots, and warned that “if the United States does not learn from the painful lessons, it will suffer new ones,” according to a summary of his comments in official Chinese media. Hu Xijin, the editor of the Communist Party–run Global Times, crowed that “China doesn’t have a feud with Afghanistan … No matter who is in power, we’re ready to be Afghanistan’s friend.”

The bravado may mask some serious jitters, though. Although uncomfortable with the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan—fearing that Americans would entrench themselves on China’s western flank as they already have in Japan and South Korea, to its east—Beijing also understood that Washington was doing the heavy lifting to at least maintain a modicum of stability. So Chinese leaders may not be as thrilled to see the U.S. go as their propaganda suggests. Beijing is especially worried that the Taliban could harbor Uyghur militants who would direct their ire at China. The Chinese government has detained perhaps a million Uyghurs in camps in the country’s far-west province of Xinjiang in what it claims is a crackdown on terror but which an array of governments and human-rights groups allege is in fact a cover for torture, forced labor, and other atrocities.

But while the U.S. and China both fear an unstable Afghanistan will become a haven for militancy once again, they don’t at all have a common purpose. Beijing isn’t talking about putting boots on the ground or making any other sort of direct intervention. Nor are China’s ambitions in the country nearly as lofty as America’s. The U.S. wanted to solve its Taliban problem by creating an entirely different form of government. The Chinese are content to solve their Taliban problem by engaging the Taliban: Beijing has already hinted that it would recognize the Taliban regime as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.

The U.S. “wanted to transform [Afghanistan] into something very different to what it was before,” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense-focused research center in London, told me. “The Chinese will never offer the pretense that that is what they are trying to achieve.”

Some of the benefits of China’s approach are already becoming apparent. Though Washington’s diplomats have negotiated with the Taliban, doing so leaves them queasy, and fully accepting such a regime would be a painful step. Chinese leaders, though, have no such scruples. How could they, based on their own abysmal human-rights record? Foreign Minister Wang met with Taliban representatives in July and hit home Beijing’s position that “Afghanistan belongs to the Afghan people, and its future should be in the hands of its own people,” according to a ministry statement.

Such efforts are paying off. The Taliban has responded positively to Beijing’s overtures and seems ready to allow China a significant role in Afghanistan. “We have been to China many times, and we have good relations with them,” Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the militant group, has said. “China is a friendly country that we welcome.” The group is also making all the right noises on the Uyghur issue. “People from other countries who want to use Afghanistan as a site [to launch attacks] against other countries, we have made a commitment that we will not allow them in, whether it’s an individual or entity against any country including China,” Shaheen said.

Still, Beijing probably has no illusions about what dealing with the Taliban means. The Chinese have extensive diplomatic experience in Afghanistan, including a concerted effort in the mid-2010s to mediate between its government and the Taliban. “In consideration of [the] Taliban’s past behavior and its embedded, rampant fundamentalist Islam ideology, together with its necessary rampant pride [resulting] from its recent drastic victory,” Shi Yinhong, an international-relations professor at China’s Renmin University, wrote me, “I guess the Chinese government would not believe without serious reservation … the initial promise made.”

Beijing will likely try to hold the Taliban to its word with ample economic aid and infrastructure projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But that might not be enough. “China has the advantage which no other country has in the region when it comes to dealing with the Taliban,” Vinay Kaura, an assistant professor at India’s Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, said in an email. “However, it would be risky to believe that China can have enough influence over the Taliban to fulfill its promises.” Kaura believes that Beijing may have to count on its allies in Pakistan, who have long-standing ties to the Taliban, to exert influence, though analysts point out that Islamabad isn’t particularly trustworthy either.

Ironically, there’s a chance Beijing could find itself facing the same conundrum the U.S. did: struggling to keep the lid on a security fiasco through unreliable partners. In that sense, Afghanistan is also a potential test case of something else—the ability of the U.S. and China to set aside their superpower competition to tackle security problems that threaten them both.

In the end, though, their divergent worldviews would likely get in the way in Afghanistan, as they have just about everywhere else. “The U.S. and China can agree—we want a stable Afghanistan,” Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, told me. “But when you peel that onion away, it quickly becomes apparent that the two sides are not going to agree.”

Were China’s efforts to fail, from its perspective—because it found the Taliban untrustworthy or because the Taliban broke its pledge not to shelter terror groups—Beijing would be paralyzed by its commitment to noninterference, unable to take the kind of drastic action it might believe necessary to secure its priorities in Afghanistan.

Yet if China succeeds, the blow to the U.S. could be a heavy one. That would score a point for China’s values-free vision of a world order. “My concern … with China becoming such a dominant actor across the entire territory is their view of the world, which is essentially one that is not built on value judgments but also doesn’t concern itself with certain human rights,” said Pantucci, of the Royal United Services Institute. It “could lead to a lot of suffering.”