It is easy to think the Taliban is the biggest winner in Afghanistan, since it has overtaken the entire nation in days as the United States, once clearly the most powerful nation on earth, pulled out of Afghanistan in the most humiliating fashion. But in the larger geopolitical context, the real biggest winner in Afghanistan is the Chinese Communist Party.
The CCP has benefited from America’s military engagement in Afghanistan for the last 20 years. As the United States spent trillions of dollars and sent thousands of troops to fight a futile “war on terrorism,” successions of U.S. administrations, regardless of party affiliation, lost their focus on the great-power competition between China and the United States. The CCP took advantage of this opportunity to grow economically and militarily and expand its geopolitical influence overseas with astonishing speed.
On the economic front, Beijing rolled out a massive global infrastructure project called “One Belt, One Road” in 2013 to help the CCP spread its influence. A vital component is building infrastructure projects along a Eurasian land route linking China and Europe through Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan has kept the violence in the nation under control and effectively provided China a security service free of charge. China has taken advantage of the situation to seize a significant share of Afghanistan’s natural resources. For example, Chinese state-owned companies are developing the world’s largest copper field in Afghanistan. China is also building a freight railroad from western China to Pakistan through Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
China Tripled Its Battle-force Ships, Expanded Territory
On the military front, two decades of America’s war in Afghanistan have drained valuable U.S. military resources, and U.S. political leaders and military brass failed to take effective measures to counter China’s military buildup. At the beginning of 2000, the People’s Liberation Army navy had 110 battle-force ships.
By 2020, the number of PLA navy battle-force ships had increased to 360. Measured by the number of ships, the CCP has built the world’s largest navy in 20 years, while the United States was preoccupied with Afghanistan.
The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimates that the PLA navy will have 400 battle-force ships by 2025. In contrast, the U.S. Navy has only 297 battle-force ships today. The Pentagon plans to increase its number of battle-force ships to 350, but has no target date for doing so. Many naval experts regard the number as less than optimal for the U.S. Navy to maintain its ability to deter adversaries on the sea.
While building up its navy, the CCP also reclaimed more than 3,200 acres of land in the South China Sea by building artificial islands between 2013 to 2015, with little objection from the Obama administration. The PLA navy has equipped these artificial islands with runways, ports, aircraft hangars, radars, sensor equipment, and military buildings.
By 2015, it was too late for the United States to stop China’s expansion in the South China Sea. In March 2020, the Chinese Navy conducted an anti-submarine drill over the South China Sea, clearly preparing for possible conflict against the United States. China’s militarized islands and its naval expansion have greatly enhanced China’s ability to control access to the majority of the South China Sea and effectively erected a blockade to any U.S. naval intervention should the CCP decide to invade Taiwan.
There is no doubt that China has benefited greatly from America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan will open more opportunities for China’s geopolitical ambition.
China Prepared to Fill the Void as Americans Leave
In Afghanistan, America’s loss is Beijing’s gain, and China has wasted little time in getting ready to fill the power void left by Americans. In July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with senior Taliban leaders in China. Wang criticized U.S. policies toward Afghanistan and dangled economic opportunities from China, including extending to Afghanistan the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor, a key component of China’s “One Belt and One Road” project.
The Taliban, a radical Muslim militant group, doesn’t seem bothered by China’s human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Taliban leaders called China a “warm friend” and offered security protection to China’s investments in Afghanistan. This gave Beijing enough comfort to leave the Chinese embassy in Kabul open while the U.S. ambassador fled.
Unlike the former Soviet Union or the United States, China clearly learned that Afghanistan is a graveyard for empires. Beijing has no intention of getting involved in Afghanistan in any military sense. Instead, it is turning the Taliban regime into a client state by deepening Afghanistan’s economic dependency on China.
This approach has worked well for China with other countries in the region, such as Pakistan. It allows Beijing to secure access to natural resources for its economic development and to strategic locations for its military reach, without committing China’s military.
China More Likely to Invade Taiwan
A far more significant implication of the Biden administration’s embarrassing retreat from Afghanistan is how it may change the CCP’s calculus on Taiwan. The CCP has failed to win the hearts and minds of most Taiwanese through its decades of economic engagement.
Since peaceful means haven’t made Beijing’s long-desired “reunification” with Taiwan a reality, Beijing may view force as its only option. No Chinese leader, including current leader Xi Jinping, ever rules out the possibility of taking Taiwan by force. Xi has been building a modern Chinese navy that is capable of carrying out such a mission.
The only reason Xi hasn’t launched an invasion of Taiwan is that he isn’t sure how the United States will react. The United States has maintained strategic ambiguity about whether it will defend Taiwan militarily in the event of China’s invasion. So Xi must weigh the risk of turning his invasion of Taiwan into a full-blown war against the United States.
But the Biden administration’s catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the incompetence demonstrated by the leadership of the U.S. government, intelligence agencies, and the military has probably boosted Xi’s confidence and the likelihood he may solve the “Taiwan problem” within the next three years.
The Biden administration has shown that it is all talk, no action. The only thing it is good at is lofty rhetoric. The administration has demonstrated it couldn’t even handle a group of ragtag militants in Afghanistan. The administration’s ineptitude and lack of willpower is an open invitation for the CCP to strike Taiwan sooner rather than later.
Even if the Biden administration somehow summons enough willpower to go to war with China over Taiwan, the United States will likely engage in such a conflict alone. No U.S. allies will want to take part in any U.S.-led military intervention in the future after they witnessed how quickly the Biden administration abandoned its allies in Afghanistan. The Taiwanese government probably is reevaluating whether it is futile to resist China’s invasion since the Biden administration has proven to be such an unreliable ally.
If China successfully takes over Taiwan with little or no resistance from the United States, it will mark the end of America’s global leadership. The liberal world order that the United States helped build and maintain, which has guaranteed peace and prosperity for most of the world for more than seven decades, will collapse.
Besides China, other U.S. adversaries from Moscow to Tehran are working on their plans to take advantage of the Biden administration’s foreign policy failures to achieve their geopolitical goals. We’re only eight months into Joe Biden’s four-year term. Americans should get ready for many dark days ahead.