Monday, 27 September, 2021
E-paper

How Afghanistan rattled Asia and emboldened China

 

Like many across the world, millions in Asia have been shocked by the scenes of desperation coming out of Afghanistan - with some asking if America can still be trusted.

On Sunday evening - just a week after the Afghan capital Kabul fell to the Taliban - US vice-president Kamala Harris landed in Singapore for the start of a whirlwind Asian tour.

She has since sought to smooth ruffled feathers by saying the region is a "top priority" for the US.

But is it enough to reassure those concerned in Asia? And can America fend off China's attempts to seize on what some say is a golden opportunity for anti-US propaganda?

Anxious murmurings

On Monday, Singapore's prime minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that many in the region were watching how the US repositions itself in the fallout of Afghanistan.

For two of America's biggest regional allies in particular, South Korea and Japan, public confidence in the US has largely been unaffected - but there have been anxious murmurings from some quarters.

Some conservatives have called for their militaries to be beefed up, arguing that they cannot fully trust in America's promise to back them up in a conflict.

The US presently has tens of thousands of troops stationed in both countries, but former president Donald Trump's America First foreign policy had strained relationships.

In an interview with ABC News last week, US President Joe Biden insisted there was a "fundamental difference" between Afghanistan and allies like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, saying it was "not even comparable".

Experts have agreed, pointing out that Afghanistan is not the same as more developed places in Asia which have their own substantial military resources and strong governments.

As Asian democracies, they share similar values as America and have become significant trade and military partners. And with places like South Korea forming the bedrock of US military strategy in Asia, it would be unlikely that the US would pull out its troops any time soon.

'US is destructive'

But as uncertainty swirls, China has ratcheted up its rhetoric.

China's foreign Minister Wang Yi said last week that the US "hasty" pullout from Afghanistan has caused a "serious negative impact "while some hawkish government figures and state media have gone one step further.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has repeatedly compared it to the fall of Saigon, while his colleague Hua Chunying called the US "destructive", adding that "wherever the US sets foot… we see turbulence, division, broken families, deaths and other scars in the mess it has left."

Nationalist tabloid Global Times carried an editorial urging Taiwan to stop "bonding themselves to the anti-Chinese mainland chariot of the US", arguing that the US would not bother waging a costly war with China over Taiwan.

Its editor-in-chief also posted this tweet:

Taiwan, which buys weapons from the US, considers itself as an independent country, but China sees it as a renegade province that must be reclaimed even by force.

The island has fought back in recent days by repeatedly likening China to the Taliban. Premier Su Tseng-chang said last week that "foreign forces" who wanted to invade Taiwan were "deluded", while foreign minister Joseph Wu had this to say:

The situation was not helped by Mr Biden who, in his ABC interview, appeared to conflate Taiwan with South Korea and Japan, with whom the US has formal agreements to defend if war breaks out. Unlike the others, Taiwan does not have a defence treaty with the US and only an implicit security guarantee.

US officials later said their "strategic ambiguity" policy on Taiwan had not changed, but the incident only gave Chinese state media more fodder to attack the US.

The Afghanistan exit, in other words, has been a golden opportunity for China to convince the Asian public that the US cannot be trusted, say experts.

"The whole point of this propaganda is to increase public pressure on governments that have close cooperation with US, and weaken that relationship," said Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science with the National University of Singapore.

Treading a fine line

But Afghanistan has not been a total windfall for China either.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund, believes that Beijing sees the recent changes in Afghanistan as more risky than beneficial. "The Chinese are very worried about the potential for instability and Afghanistan continuing to be a haven for militants and terrorists," she said.

In a pragmatic move, China invited the Taliban over for talks last month, offering economic support for Afghanistan but also stressing that the country should not be used as a staging point for terrorists.

China has skin in the game: its companies have won multi-million dollar oil and copper mining contracts in Afghanistan.

But domestically, it has struggled to sell this cautious alliance to some parts of the Chinese public that are repulsed by the Taliban.

When the Taliban retook power last week, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China respects "the choice of Afghan people". The phrase quickly attracted backlash and accusations of whitewashing on Chinese social media.

At a time of heightened awareness of women's rights in China, many online have criticised the Taliban for their treatment of Afghan women.

There's also the fact that Beijing now has to deal with an Islamist militant group right at its doorstep, at a time when China continues to brutally crack down on its own Muslim minority in the name of combating extremism.

With the clampdown on the Uighurs, "the Chinese central government has been getting people to be wary of religious groups. So this association with the Taliban could be problematic as it's contradictory," said Dr Chong.

"What China is doing now is to garner whatever tactical advantage they can get. But what [kind of gains] it can be transformed into, is up in the air. We don't even know where Afghanistan is going right now."

All eyes on America

Some observers, like Ms Glaser, believe that the Afghan withdrawal is not "the death knell of US leadership", and that US allies will be reassured that Washington would now pay greater attention to the region and its competition with China.

In her speech on Tuesday in Singapore, Ms Harris sold a vision of American faithfulness to Asia.

She said "there should be no doubt we have enduring interests in this region and enduring commitments as well… those commitments also include security", and promised that the US would "invest our time and our energy" in strengthening relationships.

James Crabtree, executive director of think tank II-SS Asia, noted that Ms Harris' visit was one of several made to Asia in recent months by top US officials.

"The Americans have answered the first set of criticisms which is 'You've forgotten us' - now they are turning up," he said.

"Now the next question is, with all this talk of partnerships, what does this amount to in fact?"

Some believe the US will need to deliver more than just promises. Dr Chong said this may mean getting bipartisan support for US commitments, ratifying the UN's maritime law convention, and re-joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement which the US withdrew from under Donald Trump.

Said Mr Crabtree: "People are going to watch more closely what the US is going to do in Asia from now on, because Afghanistan has primed them to look for signs that they are not reliable.

The US may be more wary of people questioning their commitment and would want to demonstrate it is not the case."