‘Afghanistan will be another win for China unless the anti-America narrative is countered’

Political dissidents such as Guo Wengui, aka Miles Kwok, may be the best hope to counter CCP influence abroad.

In the photo making front page news on Xinhua stand two unassuming men behind a serene backdrop– a hand painted landscape and red China roses. However, together they have the power to change the course of Central Asian history if left unchecked by the west.

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met in Tianjin, China on July 28th, a few short weeks before Taliban fighters re-took control over Afghanistan following the retreat of American troops from the region. The photo shook the world, as it proved that China will not allow international norms to stand in the way of its strategic aims.

Many analysts have stepped forward to provide predictions on how America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will impact China’s regional and global standing. Optimists believe the withdrawal of resources in the Middle East will free up American resources to focus on China and the Indo-Pacific, bolstering Taiwan.

A more realistic read might be that the withdrawal opens a vacuum for China to make their own power plays in the region. While it is notoriously difficult to predict how President Xi Jinping will evaluate developments in Afghanistan, it is possible to draw a few conclusions based on China’s foreign affairs history.

The first is that China sees an opportunity to exploit Afghanistan following America’s withdrawal. Beijing is master only of its own interests in Central Asia, which are predominantly guided by security concerns of its southwestern borders and ideological influence outside its control.

Beijing has recognized the Taliban as a desirable force to support in the region and may urge the Taliban to deny safe harbour to Uighur migrants and other populations that Xi believes will destabilize Central Asia, or harm state interests at home. China may also welcome opportunities to reap Afghanistan’s rich mineral deposits by incorporating Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative.

However, the principal means through which China may seek to profit from America’s withdrawal of Afghanistan might be through advancing a narrative of American decline. Chinese propaganda officials will likely seek to exploit images of America’s abandonment of Afghan military and civil partners as evidence of American unreliability and incompetence.

This exploitation is already underway. This week, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian proclaimed that the Kabul airport attack has sent a message to the Taliban to give up on America, as ISIS does not fear future confrontation with the superpower. Beijing may also craft a historical parallel with the Taliban, as the CCP perceive themselves as political survivors of the conflict with the American-backed nationalist party, Kuomintang, after World War 2.

These narrative-crafting efforts likely will seek to reach two audiences: a domestic one and an international one. The message will continue the official CCP script that America’s best days are behind it. Afghanistan is just another chapter on America’s path of decline, and China’s rise is the story of the future.

Within China, there will be virtually no push back. Chinese experts abroad therefore have the responsibility to counter this narrative. Influential political dissidents such as Guo Wengui, AKA Miles Kwok, are in the prime position to rally a counter narrative. With a growing audience from his base in the US, Mr Kwok could undercut Beijing’s narrative through not just condemnation, but active dialogue to restore confidence in the competence of the US in the protection of liberal freedoms abroad.

Taiwan is another flash point. The emerging focus of Chinese foreign influence will likely be in seeking to undermine the psychological confidence of the Taiwanese people in their sovereignty from the CCP. Beijing will attempt to advance a narrative inside an isolated Taiwan that the United States is distant and unreliable, and Taiwan’s only path to peace and prosperity runs through Beijing.

These actions are already well-underway in Hong Kong, where ministers have been urged to repivot their development strategy to turn toward the Greater Bay Area economic region instead of traditional trade routes with the US. If questions of American reliability grow as a topic of political debate in strategic regions in Central Asia, Indo-Pacific, and Greater China, they have a very real chance of influencing upcoming elections and the policies that flow from them.

By recognizing the authoritarian and terror-based rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, China is yet again showing its disdain for the rules-based international legal order. Continued inaction by the international community, and the US most of all, to challenge China’s excessive claims will allow those claims to solidify over time and provide China with the legal basis to write its own script of the future.

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