In the past week, the Taliban has declared China its ‘principal partner' - this will have come as no surprise anyone who has tracked developments in the region, but should concern us all.
On the one side the Taliban is desperately seeking international acknowledgement and legitimacy; on the other, China is keen to consolidate influence over Central Asia and secure a gravitational shift diplomatically from the West towards their own ‘Middle Kingdom’. I’m sure readers of the Express are aware that I don’t support the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the resulting collapse of the NATO mission there. I don’t support leaving a population to a fundamentalist regime who enslave women, murder LGBTQ+ people, have no problem feeding a global drug trade, nor with being in bed with terrorist group Al Qaeda.
The NATO coalition’s achievements in Afghanistan may have been imperfect, but they made the UK safer for 20 years: safer from terrorist groups, and safer thanks to a reduced heroin trade.
As Conservatives, we know that we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, a point sadly lost on current decision-makers in Washington.
Biden’s gravest error is his failure to recognise that peace requires enduring commitment.
It is not bought quickly and easily, and protecting a fragile peace requires long term resolve. Recent events have proven just how fragile stability is, and how easily it falls when you pull the rug out from local partners. This was not a Forever War. Troops were in Afghanistan to create a Forever Peace – as we’ve seen previously in Germany, Japan and South Korea, to name but three– some imperfect, but always a goal worth fighting for.
When the US announced their plans to withdraw, the UK led efforts to bring about a new coalition that would stay the distance. However, with the exception of Turkey, no other NATO partners would commit.
This is a fundamental misstep by our allies. We are all now less secure because of this decision.
Not just in terms of the risks that emanate from Afghanistan itself: a propaganda victory for the Taliban which will enable extremists to recruit worldwide, a drugs trade which will likely now re-emerge; but also this existential question now asked of the West.
The US decision to withdraw, and the tragic scenes that followed has fundamentally undermined the confidence of other nations in the West, and of the value of our word to any future population or organisations whom we pledge to support.
The strategic consequence of this changing American posture is a need for the UK and our allies to shift from a model of being over-reliant on the United States for international operations.
This does not in any way mean an end to the ‘special relationship’, but it does mean recognising that our critical friend and ally may no longer step into the breach, when called upon to uphold its founding values of liberty and freedom.
We must also consider the geostrategic implications of the withdrawal.
China is seeking to expand its influence in the region. It won’t be by conquest, but by influence.
The new Chinese Communist Empire is expanding into new territories.
And we should all be concerned. Its plunder diplomacy will already be well in train, and it is already using the situation to threaten Taiwan, publicly stating that the withdrawal demonstrates the United States cannot be relied upon for protection.
By recognising the Taliban, China has taken further steps towards creating an alternative international order, where countries orient themselves to Beijing.
The West, being unable or unwilling to play that role, risks losing its relevance – the implications for human rights and the hard-fought freedoms for the people of places such as Afghanistan – is a sad and likely outcome of this realignment.
President Biden has announced, in the wake of the US retreat from Afghanistan, that America is hanging up its truncheon as the world’s policeman.
In the House of Commons, I have spoken plainly, and acknowledged that without the support of the United States we need to be more strategic in where we invest our time and resources.
We cannot engage in every rescue mission, and our priorities must be the protection of our own people, but the mission in Afghanistan was one that made all of us safer. I hope that in the future, once the United States emerges from this period of internal crisis, it will once again recognise that freedom needs defending, and that it is both precious and fragile.
Alongside legitimacy through diplomatic recognition, the Taliban is desperately seeking investment, or to put it crudely: cash.
Because it is only through cash that they will survive. They recognise they must provide their citizens with enough modern infrastructure to demonstrate their competence and legitimacy to the people of Afghanistan, and the World.
The Chinese Communist Party will provide this. They will shower the Taliban with investment for roads, power stations and clean water. In return, all they will demand is complete and total submission to the Chinese Communist Party, and their usual style of plunder diplomacy: building the infrastructure to facilitate the extraction of Afghanistan’s natural resources, with the wealth repatriated to Beijing and indeed members of the Chinese Communist Party itself.
This is their playbook, and we see it again and again. Accepting Chinese gold is a finger trap. Look at Afghanistan’s neighbour Pakistan. A country that, even 20 years ago, could provide barely enough power for five days out of seven. A land with roads that were so poorly maintained that investment in Pakistan was borderline pointless.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has transformed Pakistan. $46 billion is due to be invested in fossil fuel extraction, transport and pipelines, to name just three. It’s a debt trap – and the Taliban now preside over a far less developed nation in Afghanistan. Their debt to China will be limitless.
Beyond this economic entrapment, why else might China be interested in Afghanistan? The mountain passes have long provided a suitable venue to plan and execute ‘great games’ against the often less-integrated borderlands of larger empires. Afghanistan shares a 91-mile border with Xinjiang – the home of the Uyghur, against whom the Chinese Communist Party is committing genocide. China has no interest in Muslim refugees flooding across their border.
Just as the British feared the Russians funding tribesmen in the Kyber pass over a century ago to attack India’s Northwest Frontier, the Chinese would rather keep their heavy hand on the frontier, limiting any possibility of incoming relief, and choking any prospect of escape from the terror.
China sees Afghanistan as a new satellite. Diplomatic recognition gives the Taliban the support they lacked in their last period of power. The Taliban may say that they have changed. They haven’t. Sadly with the Western withdrawal, the levers of power are now definitively ‘Made in China’.
Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of empires. Not just the British and Soviets; but the Mughals and Hotaks tried, and failed to rule the region. Now it seems China too will seek to use Afghanistan to extend its influence, however unlike previous conquest, the Chinese playbook will entrench a morally agnostic system of economic dependency which may be much harder to overthrow.
This article originally appeared in the Sunday Express on Sunday 5th September 2021