US exit from Afghanistan would leave the way clear for China to increase its influence in the region
- China’s shared border with Afghanistan through the Wakhan Valley and its model of non-intervention are advantages it can exploit to cement its foothold
- The withdrawal of US troops would also send a serious message of diminishing US power
While sounding logical, considering the 18 years of war, a US departure from Afghanistan would create a geopolitical reconfiguration detrimental to the US and favourable to China.
As US involvement in Afghanistan drags on, the land and its people further cement their reputation as the graveyard of empires. The first thoroughly documented invasion of Afghanistan was Britain’s two ill-fated attempts beginning in 1839 when it was at the height of its power.
The USSR’s invasion in 1979 ended in an embarrassing defeat and was a major catalyst in the fall of the Soviet Union. The US’ failed attempt in 2001 to conquer Afghanistan, even with a population exhausted by decades of war, just adds to this categorisation.
Unassuming and barren, with an inhospitable terrain, Afghanistan looks unbecoming of a superpower’s attention. However, its geography has it cursed. As the gateway linking Asia and the Middle East, in light of the “Great Game 2.0”, controlling Afghanistan is an essential part of ruling the Eurasian land mass.
For China, an unoccupied Afghanistan would create opportunities for greater efficiency in trade, in addition to security benefits.
When adding Russia’s historic influence in the region, along with its own strategic partnership with China, one can see a geographical arc of complementarity the Chinese have at their disposal.
As the belt and road quietly moves ahead, Chinese influence has slowly advanced westward of Afghanistan, an important strategic partner being Iran. China is now courting the energy-rich Iraqi government with similar investments in their oil industry.
This makes Afghanistan’s control of the most lineal land bridge between China and the Middle East the last piece of the puzzle for China.
US attempts to prop up the government in Kabul has been a momentous task that peaked long ago. The slow erosion of power from past and present regimes has given strength to the Taliban, thereby corroding the US position. With direct dialogue between the US and the Taliban, reminiscences of Vietnam come to mind.
The shifting power dynamics means a face-saving solution, along with significant compromise, is required.
China’s advantage is its ability to work with governments of all persuasions. Its model of non-intervention allows for the political and ideological sovereignty of its allies, an appealing proposition to nations who fall outside the Western liberal order.
However, its communist ideology could be exploited as being godless to a nation of devout Muslims, thus creating the same conditions the Soviet Union faced 40 years ago.
Though Beijing’s attempts at soft power are still inadequate to meet the challenge, by leveraging its regional partners and furnishing aid and development to Afghanistan, its modus operandi will see it increase its sway over the region. If this happens, there would be serious geopolitical ramifications for the rest of the 21st century.
While talk of a US departure from Afghanistan is merited, especially since this theatre of war has now lasted the longest in US history, one should not expect a withdrawal any time soon. As China exercises strategic patience, all the while increasing its influence in the region, the US will have to maintain its current status.
Though Trump has campaigned on the need for America to leave Afghanistan, doing so will only open the way for greater continental reach by the Chinese, while sending a serious message of diminishing US power.
S. George Marano holds a PhD from the School of Management at RMIT University, Australia, and has an MBA and Master of Commerce from RMIT University