China’s ‘Very Tricky Situation’

Beijing’s gloating over America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan masks a deeper anxiety.

An illustration of China and Taiwan combined with photos of the American and Taiwanese flags, and a photo of Xi Jinping.
Illustration by Valerie Chiang ; images by Greg Baker/ Sean Gladwell / GraphicaArtis / Tom Stoddart / Getty

As the United States rushed to evacuate people from an Afghanistan that is once again controlled by the Taliban, China has crowed over America’s failure in nearly every conceivable way. A former high-ranking member of the People’s Liberation Army has written a jubilant op-ed. State media have published scathing editorials. Chinese officials have circulated jingoistic tweets and nationalist cartoons.

Although the platform has varied, the message has been largely the same: The U.S. ran away from Afghanistan in defeat, leaving its partners behind. The lesson? Taiwan—dwarfed in size by China, separated by only a narrow strait, and with few formal friends—should prepare for the same. Best to just give up now.

Following China’s breakneck reengineering of Hong Kong, which has decimated many of that city’s unique freedoms, the questions about whether Taiwan (which Beijing regards as a renegade province, albeit one that the Communist Party has never actually controlled) will be next have multiplied. America’s retreat from Afghanistan has provided Beijing with an opportune moment to gloat, and to darkly remind Taiwan that even with a superpower on its side, it is still vulnerable. The story line has managed to take hold in the U.S. and Taiwan, forcing leaders in both places to defend the strength of their partnership.

Yet the comparison between Taiwan and Afghanistan is a monumental stretch, and Beijing’s bluster may mask anxiety about what will come next in Afghanistan, and beyond. China has long-running concerns about Islamist militant groups—this is its pretense for its campaign of repression against the minority Uyghur Muslim population in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, which shares a short, rocky border with Afghanistan. The withdrawal could also finally free up the U.S. to pursue greater engagement and investment in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific, setting up a larger challenge to Beijing. “There is no comparison,” Joanne Chang, an expert in U.S.-Taiwan-China relations at the Taiwanese-government-linked research institute Academia Sinica, told me. “Compare Afghanistan to Taiwan? I think it is wishful thinking from the Chinese side.”

Taiwan—formally known as the Republic of China—exists on the international stage in a sort of diplomatic purgatory, unwelcome at the United Nations, competing under an alternate flag and name at the Olympic Games, and recognized by just a handful of countries. The U.S., for its part, maintains a relationship of “strategic ambiguity” with Taiwan. Beijing has amped up its rhetoric and intimidation tactics against Taiwan in recent years, flying dozens of warplanes over the Taiwan Strait and conducting military drills near the island. The U.S., meanwhile, has continued its arms sales to the Taiwanese military and sent a number of formal and informal delegations to the island in recent years. And though American voters have long supported a withdrawal from Afghanistan, a Chicago Council for Global Affairs survey published in August found that for the first time, half of Americans favored using U.S. troops to defend Taiwan if China were to invade.

“Taiwan is just a fundamentally different issue for the United States,” Kharis Templeman, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, told me. Afghanistan was a “pretty marginal place strategically,” he said. “Taiwan, on the other hand—there is a much longer history there. We have a much deeper economic and political engagement with Taiwan.” Templeman pointed to these long-term relations in rejecting the comparison, as well as to fundamental differences between Taiwan and Afghanistan.

“What Biden does or doesn’t do in Afghanistan doesn’t tell the Chinese anything about what he would or wouldn’t do in the Taiwan Strait,” Templeman told me. Taiwan is a self-ruling, prosperous island. The president maintains a well-manicured image—she’s often pictured cuddling her cats. (This week, she appeared in a New York Mets uniform as the club celebrated Taiwan at its stadium in Flushing.) Afghanistan is racked by poverty and violence, and has repeatedly been invaded by foreign forces. One of its prospective future leaders spent eight years in a Pakistani prison.

Taiwan, unlike Afghanistan, has enormous strategic importance to the U.S. and its allies: A Beijing takeover would present a considerable threat to Japan and the Philippines (both American treaty allies); offer China the opportunity to control international shipping routes used by the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and others; and offer Beijing access to cutting-edge technologies, particularly in sectors such as chip manufacturing. Such a move would not only have concrete global repercussions; it would carry “huge symbolic importance,” Templeman said.

Why, then, does Beijing continue to push a comparison that is so obviously far-fetched? Jessica Drun, a nonresident fellow at Project 2049, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that studies security and policy issues in Asia, told me that the pervasiveness of the narrative serves two purposes. Internationally, it is “giving oxygen,” she said, to Beijing’s preferred narrative—that the U.S. is unreliable and hastily vacating its position as a global player. And within America, it is “politicizing an issue—support for Taiwan—that has largely enjoyed consistent bipartisan support.”

On the right, former President Donald Trump weighed in earlier this month. Egged on by the Fox News personality Sean Hannity, Trump said that he believed “bad things” were going to happen to Taiwan because China doesn’t “respect our leadership and they no longer respect our country.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich seized on the comparison during his own appearance on Fox News, saying, “Taiwan had better realize that Joe Biden can’t possibly protect them.” Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, in a botched attempt to show that stability could have been maintained with a small U.S. presence in Afghanistan, tweeted that the U.S. had 30,000 troops stationed in Taiwan, far more than it had just before its withdrawal in Afghanistan. The number was, however, incorrect. (The U.S. withdrew its military presence from the island in 1979.) The glaring miscalculation sparked the tone of discourse regularly seen on Twitter: Cornyn was called a “dotard” by Chinese state media, coupled with at least one threat of war, before the post was deleted. Groups on the left, such as the anti-war organization Codepink, have also recently turned attention to Taiwan, opposing U.S. arms sales to the island.

Meanwhile, Beijing has taken the opportunity to “conduct psyops against the Taiwanese people,” Alexander Huang, a former Taiwanese national-security official who teaches at Tamkang University, near Taipei, told me. One goal, he said, was to further polarize political debate on the island. This, too, looks to have succeeded. Figures from the main opposition, the Kuomintang Party, which traditionally favors closer ties with China, have leaned into the comparison, saying the situation in Afghanistan proves that the U.S. cannot be trusted. Premier Su Tseng-chang was defiant when asked about the implications of the Afghan withdrawal. “We must guard this country and this land, and not be like certain people who always talk up the enemy’s prestige and talk down our resolve,” he said.

The most bombastic voices have been unrelentingly positive about China’s future relationship with Afghanistan. In a New York Times op-ed, Zhou Bo, a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel, recycled past tropes of Afghan conquest, albeit in a more polished format and with a Chinese spin. He championed the Belt and Road Initiative and the speed at which Chinese investment would rush into Afghanistan, and he seemed to take Taliban pledges to remain peaceful toward Chinese interests at face value. “It is definitely a very weird celebration,” says Niva Yau, a researcher at the OSCE Academy in the Kyrgyzstan capital, Bishkek, who studies China’s role in Central Asia and Afghanistan. “The Chinese government,” she told me, “is putting itself in a very tricky situation associating themselves with the Taliban.”

The U.S.’s departure from Afghanistan after two decades of conflict, trillions of dollars in investment, and thousands of casualties has created a sheaf of concerns and unknowns for China. Topping the list is the possibility of mushrooming terrorism and the apparent potential of Afghanistan to offer haven to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Uyghur group that the United Nations said once had links to al-Qaeda and took part in a number of deadly attacks, including within Xinjiang. In 2002, Washington designated the group a terrorist organization as it sought cooperation from Beijing during the early years of the War on Terror. Despite serious doubts among scholars about ETIM’s continued existence, the movement has been used by Beijing to justify its crackdown on Uyghur Muslims. During the Trump administration, the State Department removed the group from its list of terrorist organizations, saying that it was defunct. Beijing responded angrily, accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy.

Beijing’s response to America’s Afghan withdrawal has also not been completely uniform, suggesting that China is still grappling with the speed and breadth of the changes in Afghanistan. Speaking to the nationalistic news site Guancha.cn, Liu Zongyi, secretary-general of the Research Center for China-South Asia Cooperation at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, offered a more nuanced and less victorious assessment, touching on Afghanistan’s devastated economy and rampant drug production, and the factional nature of the Taliban, which makes relations with the group difficult to predict. Crucially, Liu said, it’s too early to tell if the Taliban’s ideology and hard-line approach to governing have really changed. He warned that if they haven’t, the Taliban might assist terrorist groups such as ETIM. The Taliban’s insistence that it has turned a new page “may only be a strategic approach,” he said, “and the Islamic fundamentalism they pursued may not have changed much.”

Adding to Beijing’s unease are questions about where the U.S. may deploy its resources and center its attention after Afghanistan. During a recent visit to Singapore, Vice President Kamala Harris renewed calls made by former President Barack Obama for America to focus on the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asian regions, saying they would “dictate the future of our world.” She also singled out China, which has moved in recent years to expand maritime claims in the area and insert itself more forcefully into regional issues. “Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate, and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” she said, moves that “undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.”

A “pivot” to Asia was much touted by the Obama administration but never fully materialized, in part because of its inability to extract the U.S. from its engagements in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank, told me that Beijing was trying to spin the U.S.’s reorientation of its priorities into a tale of abject failure, a narrative that has been aided by days of frantic and desperate images from Kabul’s airport. “There is this concern,” Small said, “that the two-decade window of opportunity that there has been for China, with the U.S. continually pulled back into these conflicts, is definitively coming to an end.”