The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, almost 20 years after the United States deposed them, appears to symbolise the end of America’s post-Cold War dreams of rebuilding the world in its image.
In reality, its international standing had already taken a massive hit amid other missteps of the “war on terror”, the invasion of Iraq, the 2008 global financial crisis, electing Donald Trump and so on. Despite this, US President Joe Biden
began his term with the desire to reverse the trends of the previous two decades and “once more have America lead the world
However, the recent events in Afghanistan are likely to deal a powerful blow to the possibility of the United States acting on its international vision for now. This failure occurred despite huge material investments – the US has spent more on reconstructing Afghanistan than on the Marshall Plan
This year could emerge as a symbolic bookend of the end of the US-led post-Cold War era and the “war on terror”. The more intriguing question, however, is what comes next.
The US exit from Afghanistan has raised questions about what it means for the state of international politics moving forward. Some have argued that Afghanistan’s reputation as the “ graveyard of empires
” will continue as the American empire cracks in the years to come.
Others doubt the lasting influence of Afghanistan on American power. Johns Hopkins University scholar Hal Brands notes that, after Vietnam, “US recovery didn’t happen automatically … it took a concerted effort to revive American power”.
At the very least, many see a period where the US retreats from the international arena. Because of this, China’s next steps are seen as a vital aspect of the question of what happens next.
China has been busy in recent months. Even before the Taliban had taken Kabul, Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Taliban officials
in Tianjin. Since then, relations between the Taliban and China have progressed to the point where both sides use the term “ friend
”. There is even talk of Afghanistan joining the Belt and Road Initiative.
It is not just in Afghanistan that China has made progress in building friendlier relations with a nascent political movement. Beijing has also worked to improve relations in Myanmar, where a military junta took power in a coup
earlier this year. Beijing announced earlier this month that it plans to create a China-Myanmar trade corridor
to better link itself with the Southeast Asian country.
Such momentum could reinvigorate notions of there being a “ Beijing Consensus”.
China’s efforts to spread its model of development also elicit notions of authoritarian promotion
and a view of what a Chinese-centred world order might look like.
However, the commonality in Beijing’s engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the junta in Myanmar is that this is entirely pragmatic and devoid of underlying ideas or visions
about international politics.
This is partly born out of necessity. Afghanistan and Myanmar border China, and the domestic turmoil in these countries has caused concern in Beijing. It is also partly born of opportunism, as creating friendly ties with these countries allows Beijing to expand its influence.
However, there is another reason pragmatism remains front and centre in Beijing’s foreign policy: it is a legacy of how China has conducted itself internationally since the communist revolution
While Mao Zedong is best characterised as an ideologue who helped unleash internal instability on China, Zhou Enlai
– the country’s first foreign minister – was a pragmatist who sought to create a stable international environment.
Communist China was weak and internationally isolated after the civil war. Survival and recognition, not international influence, were the most crucial tasks of Zhou’s foreign policy. Deng Xiaoping later embraced Zhou’s pragmatism, and over time this became imbued in China’s foreign policymaking.
Pragmatism has its benefits for Beijing. It minimises the risks of overburden or overstretching. However, it is also a sign that China has not matured as an international actor and is not ready to exert itself internationally like a superpower.
America’s ability to influence international politics is not solely because of its military might. Its abundant softer forms of power are also important because they appeal to people across the globe. China simply does not possess this kind of soft power
at the moment.
President Xi Jinping will continue engineering a more confident and ideologically informed foreign policy in the coming years. In 2017, China’s constitution was amended to include that China’s foreign policy would serve a “shared future for mankind” – a phrase that has been regularly repeated but few appear willing to take at face value
Thus, while 2021 might be remembered as the year in which the era of US international domination came to an end, do not count on it also being remembered as the start of China’s time as a superpower.
Nicholas Ross Smith is an associate professor of international studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China