By Mohammad Mazhari

China will fill power vacuum left by U.S. in Afghanistan: researcher

October 19, 2021 - 22:6

TEHRAN - A research fellow and coordinator of the East Asia Centre at MP-IDSA in New Delhi says that Beijing has already taken steps towards engagement with the Taliban to fill the vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“China will undoubtedly look to fill the power vacuum created by the U.S. upon its withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Jagannath Panda tells the Tehran Times.

“In fact, to a large extent, Beijing has already taken steps towards this with its positive engagement with the Taliban 2.0 administration.”

Although the Taliban took over Afghanistan at lightning speed, the organization designated as a terrorist group now needs international acknowledgment and legitimacy. What makes matters worse is Afghanistan’s broken economy.

“Afghanistan’s economy is heavily dependent on international aid, which is expected to diminish as countries recalculate their Afghan engagement under the Taliban,” Panda remarks.

“Hence, Beijing will look to firmly establish itself as a critical partner for the country through the provision of essential aid (like its US$31 million grant) and expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan,” he adds.

Following is the text of the interview:

How do you see repercussions of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan for the region and Afghanistan’s neighbors?

U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which paved the way for the Taliban’s takeover of the country, will naturally have a major, long-lasting impact on the geopolitics and geostrategic calculations for the region. 

The U.S. was a major regional security provider. In its absence, the incoming of the Taliban poses a human security threat to the people of Afghanistan and the national securities of neighboring countries, including India and China. The extent of this threat will be contingent upon how the Taliban 2.0 navigates the coming times and whether it enables Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorist activities. This will also be a deterrent to Afghanistan’s ties with states in the region, its position in their foreign and economic policies, and on the international stage.

“Beijing will look to establish itself as a critical partner for Afghanistan.”What is the importance of Afghanistan for the Far Eastern countries, including Japan and South Korea? Is there any competition between these countries and China?

Although geographically separated, both Japan and South Korea have a significant stake in Afghanistan. While Japan holds massive investments in the region, South Korea has contributed over 4000 troops to the region, including a 500-strong contingent to Afghanistan in 2010. In fact, both states were involved in the evacuation process in the country after the U.S. withdrawal, with South Korea even airlifting Afghans deemed as ‘persons of special merit’ who had supported their missions in the country. 

Therefore, Japan and South Korea have an interest in Afghanistan both within and outside their security alliance partnerships with the U.S. Japan and South Korea are committed to defending democracy, human rights, and security in Asia and beyond; their interest in Afghanistan is primarily drawn on such an endeavor - and not necessarily competition with China. For Japan, however, U.S. withdrawal and China’s expanding influence in the country are no doubt a source of concern.

How do you read U.S. efforts to give Australia a significant defense upgrade within AUKUS? Isn’t it a kind of escalation with China? 

AUKUS’ initiative to support the Australian development of nuclear-powered submarines comes as a way to bolster the country’s defense capabilities. And while China may be a factor of consideration in the decision, the grouping is by no means ‘anti-China’ or aiming to escalate tensions with China. Rather, the effort comes as a progression of a long-held partnership and as a way for Washington to demonstrate that it is committed to the security of its allies and the Indo-Pacific. The strengthening of Australian military capacity is not targeted at any single country but aimed at upholding the international rules-based order and promoting a free, open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. If anything, the move is reactionary to the security threat posed by the alarming buildup of China’s naval capabilities and modernization and its treatment with smaller powers in the region, and not escalatory.

What are the achievements of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) when it comes to U.S. efforts to contain China? How can countries like India balance their participation in the QUAD and their membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?

Over the past few years, particularly under Biden in 2021, the QUAD has made significant strides with the holding of two leaders’ summits, displaying increased synergy with the release of their first joint statement, and launching a broad-based agenda covering climate change, COVID-19 vaccinations, and critical and emerging technologies. For instance, as part of their pledge to donate 1.2 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses, the QUAD has already delivered 79 million safe and quality-assured doses to Indo-Pacific states (in addition to those committed to COVAX). Such actions have helped strengthen QUAD’s influence and credibility in the region vis-a-vis China. However, the QUAD is not merely an effort to contain China; its achievements and agendas are not military-focused and do not reflect a China-containment strategy. Rather, the grouping is an association of like-minded powers to coordinate their regional agendas and drive cooperation for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. India’s balancing act is drawn in such an understanding. New Delhi does not view its engagement with the QUAD and multilateral forums alongside China (like the SCO) as mutually exclusive. It recognizes the need to continue interacting and engaging with Beijing via forums like SCO, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and so on. However, the QUAD remains an important platform for India, particularly as a way to strengthen its partnerships across the region and develop a more vocal role in the region, amidst the direct threat to its territorial integrity that it faces from China on its Line of Actual Control (LAC) border.

Do you predict China will fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal?

China will undoubtedly look to fill the power vacuum created by the U.S. upon its withdrawal from Afghanistan. In fact, to a large extent, Beijing has already taken steps towards this with its positive engagement with the Taliban 2.0 administration. Afghanistan’s economy is heavily dependent on international aid, which is expected to diminish as countries recalculate their Afghan engagement under the Taliban. Hence, Beijing will look to firmly establish itself as a critical partner for the country through the provision of essential aid (like its US$31 million grant) and expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan. Such engagement will be targeted not only at expanding China’s regional clout but also as an attempt to ensure that the Taliban does not promote terrorist activities in the region. Particularly with groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which it regards as a state enemy that could directly impact Chinese interests and spurn unrest in its Xinjiang province.
 

(The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of the Tehran Times.)

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