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China trumpets U.S. decline, but Asia’s lessons from Afghan chaos hard to discern

  • August 17, 2021
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press
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China’s state-run media has seized on the chaos surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, trumpeting it as a signal of the beginning of the end of American power and Washington’s commitment to a string of alliances and partnerships spanning the globe — including Taiwan.


The official Xinhua News Agency has lampooned “bomb-dropping-loving Uncle Sam” for its two-decade war in the country, while the hawkish Global Times newspaper said the withdrawal “has dealt a heavy blow to the credibility and reliability of the U.S.,” adding that self-ruled Taiwan should not expect Washington to come to its aid in the event of war.


But for those attempting to divine how the Afghan crisis will affect Chinese perceptions of the United States, experts are urging caution before connecting it to any larger narrative about declining American power, especially in Asia.


The Chinese leadership is widely believed to have assessed that, in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, the U.S. is “experiencing a slow but steady deterioration of national power and international influence,” according to an open-source analysis published earlier this year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.


A similar assessment also appeared to come straight from the horse’s mouth, when Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly used a speech to tout Beijing’s growing power and Washington’s dwindling status.


“The East is rising and the West is declining,” Xi was quoted as saying earlier this year.


Richard McGregor, an expert on the ruling Chinese Communist Party and a senior fellow with Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank, said that the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the return of the Taliban to power, “dovetails perfectly with Chinese perceptions that the U.S. is in irretrievable decline, and the state media coverage naturally reflects that.”


“Nothing pleases the Chinese media more than highlighting U.S. failures,” he said.


McGregor, however, stressed that the view in Beijing’s halls of power is likely far more nuanced.


“Inside the leadership, though, I suspect their assessments will be more sober,” he said. “For sure, the withdrawal is a blow to U.S. prestige but in a broader sense, it is part of a U.S. effort to end the ‘forever wars’ in the Middle East to focus on China.”


Indeed, the White House has made China its top foreign policy priority, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling it Washington’s “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st Century.”


In a speech Monday addressing the crisis in Afghanistan, U.S. President Joe Biden touched on the issue and what keeping the U.S. focused on the country would have meant for its rivalry with China, saying that Beijing “would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.”


Biden has worked to restore faith in U.S. alliances and partnerships and counter doubts about Washington’s staying power that have lingered since the era of his predecessor, Donald Trump, whose “America First” policies left Washington’s global credibility in tatters. Still, Biden has kept much of Trump’s approach to China intact.


“Since the change in tact toward China starting from the Trump administration and now in the Biden administration, the regional environment has become much less favorable to China’s interests,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs. “Beijing needs to counter this narrative by deploying U.S.-in-decline narratives to elicit confidence in Chinese society. Afghanistan is a tool to do that.”


Meanwhile, China has also made Taiwan, which has emerged as a focal point in the Sino-U.S. rivalry, a target in its strategy of stressing that American commitments in the region have entered a precarious state.


On Tuesday, after a spate of editorials in state media comparing the withdrawal from Afghanistan to an alleged lack of American appetite to defend Taiwan — including one warning Taipei that “once a war breaks out … the U.S. military won’t come to help” — Beijing reinforced this admonition by carrying out “large-scale assault drills” off the southwest and southeast of the island.


The exercises, which involved warships and fighter jets, came in response to what the Chinese military called “external interference” and “provocations” by the U.S. and Taiwan.


Beijing views the self-ruled island as an inherent part of its territory, a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary. Washington, which switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, is Taiwan’s most important international supporter and arms supplier and considers it a crucial line of defense as the Chinese military pushes further into the western Pacific.


But while top Taiwanese officials, including its premier, dismissed the comparisons with Afghanistan on Tuesday, the topic has nonetheless generated intense discussion.


“Enough with the Taiwan comparisons. Pulling out of a war after 20 years carelessly says nothing about our intent to intervene in an armed conflict over the future of a modern democracy like Taiwan,” Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former special assistant to the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, wrote on Twitter.


But Chen Dingding, a professor of international relations at China’s Jinan University, stressed that for Taiwan the implications of the pullout from Afghanistan “are real.”


“It is not that U.S. commitment to it is now fading, it is the logic that the USA will abandon its ally WHEN its national interests are no longer served by the ally,” Chen wrote. “The real question: under what conditions would that happen?”

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