President Joe Biden argued that leaving Afghanistan would allow the U.S. to pivot to a foreign policy focused on great power competition, but his failures could embolden America’s chief rival, China.
Biden telegraphed his desire to move away from a counterterrorism focus during the 2020 campaign and shortly after his inauguration, and he viewed an American presence in Afghanistan as a hindrance to those efforts.
Nonetheless, the decision to withdraw will have implications for America’s place and perception on the international stage. For example, it will hinder American intelligence-gathering in a crucial part of the world. Furthermore, the loss of Bagram Air Force Base deprives the military of a launching point right next to major powers like China and Russia. Additionally, China has begun using the chaotic withdrawal as a propaganda boost, arguing that the U.S. can not be trusted on the world stage.
Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized their desire to combat China on human rights abuses and trade policy before they were sworn into office. Less than a month in, Biden announced a task force to coordinate military, economic and political capabilities in countering Chinese expansionary policies. Those Chinese actions include military expansion in the South China Sea and economic involvement in Central Asia and Africa via the “Belt and Road” initiative. (RELATED: Biden National Security Adviser: Administration To Prioritize ‘Dealing With China’s Trade Abuses)
“American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy,” Biden said on Feb. 4, during his first foreign policy address.
Biden approved a $750 million arms sale to Taiwan in early August. The deal outraged Beijing, which blasted the sale as “seriously damag[ing] Sino-US relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
In an Aug. 16 address, Biden framed his Afghanistan policy in the context of great power competition.
“Our true strategic competitors — China and Russia — would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely,” he said. The president repeated the talking point in an Aug. 18 interview with George Stephanopoulos. “You know who’s most disappointed in us getting out? Russia and China,” he claimed.
At the very least, Biden’s assertions of what China and Russia’s interests are did not capture the full picture. Government officials on Twitter compared the American withdrawal to the 1975 fall of Saigon, using the collapse as a propaganda boost.
— Hua Chunying 华春莹 (@SpokespersonCHN) August 17, 2021
History repeats itself. pic.twitter.com/L0Ib8uBplD
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) August 19, 2021
Taiwan “should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and the US military won’t come to help. As a result, the DPP authorities will quickly surrender, while some high-level officials may flee by plane,” China’s state-run Global Times crowed in an Aug. 16 editorial.
Some commentators have argued that giving up Bagram Air Force Base will further harm the U.S.’s ability to assert itself in East Asia.
“Bagram Airbase was the single thorn in the side of everyone in the neighborhood,” retired Army Lt. Col. Brad Taylor wrote in National Review. “Take a look at the location of Afghanistan. To the north of Bagram airfield is Russia. To the east is China. To the west is Iran. You couldn’t ask for a better force-projection platform for the shift to the so-called ‘Great Power Competition.'”
Also concerning for the U.S., China could normalize relations with the Taliban in exchange for mineral rights. Afghanistan has some of the largest Lithium deposits in the world, and geologists estimate that the country’s total gemstone and precious metal reserves could be worth more than $1 trillion.
Discussions for the rest of the 2020s
“Smartphones & electric vehicles have created new demand for Afghanistan’s rare earths and lithium. China…has invested $60bn in neighboring Pakistan, is well positioned to dig them up and transport them to its factories” (via Bloomberg) pic.twitter.com/BnSHJdjsTp
— Chris Bailey (@Financial_Orbit) August 25, 2021
Chinese officials are already offering their support to the Taliban.
As a close neighbor & sincere friend of #Afghanistan, #China follows friendly policy toward all Afghan people. This will remain unchanged. China will continue to support peace & reconstruction in Afghanistan, and do our best to help it with economic &social development. pic.twitter.com/ld73P0eexd
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) August 18, 2021
“China will continue to support peace [and] reconstruction in Afghanistan, and do our best to help it with economic [and] social development,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao promised.