Splainer

Thursday, August 26 2021


Dive In

I never expected this from Gandhiji’s India. We are always friends with India, we have strategic relations with India, we have historic relations with India. But in this situation, they have treated a woman and a member of Parliament like this. They told me at the airport, ‘sorry, we cannot do anything for you’

That’s Rangina Kargar, a 36-year-old Afghan woman parliamentarian who was immediately deported when she landed in New Delhi on a diplomatic passport on August 20—three days after the Taliban took over Kabul and two days before India evacuated two Afghan Sikh MPs. 

 

Editor’s note: Be sure to check out the latest episode of the splainer team’s podcast ‘Press Decode’—where they talk about the Rolling Stone cover controversy and the real lives of delivery workers. Head over to the IVM website, Spotify or Apple Podcasts to hear a refreshingly different kind of news wrap show. 

 
Big Story

China’s big play for Afghanistan

The TLDR: As the United States retreats in haste and humiliation, Beijing is poised to seize a golden opportunity to fill the void—and take total control of its Central Asian backyard. But that dream could just as easily turn into a nightmare. Here’s a quick overview of the strategic stakes for China.

 

First, the big picture

The overarching principle of Chinese foreign policy is pragmatism. As long as Beijing’s interests are secure, it is entirely indifferent to what kind of government it is in bed with—be it a dictatorship or democracy:

 

“While Americans try to make other societies more like America’s, the Chinese don’t much care what kind of government another country has, or what it might be doing to its own people, as long as it’s not causing trouble for China. The Chinese viewpoint—leaving foreign peoples under brutal regimes to their fate—may seem callous. Yet the strategy has a degree of pragmatism. The Chinese simply deal with other governments as they are, not how they wish them to be. That allows Beijing to sidestep ideological hang-ups and forge ties to successive regimes—as in Myanmar, where it got on with the junta, then the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and then the junta again, without much fuss.”

 

So it is an ideal replacement for the United States—and it has no historical baggage that can get in its way, unlike Russia which has a past occupation to contend with. And the quid pro quo in a cozy relationship with Afghanistan is crystal-clear:

 

“With the U.S. withdrawal, Beijing can offer what Kabul needs most: political impartiality and economic investment. Afghanistan in turn has what China most prizes: opportunities in infrastructure and industry building — areas in which China’s capabilities are arguably unmatched — and access to $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits, including critical industrial metals such as lithium, iron, copper and cobalt.”

 

Lots of sweet talk: This explains why the two sides have been cooing at each other. Recently, when Foreign Minister Wang Yi met top Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Baradar, Yi said

 

“China, as Afghanistan’s largest neighbor, has always respected Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, adhered to non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and pursued a friendly policy toward the entire Afghan people.”

 

And Baradar responded in kind: 

 

“China has always been a reliable friend of the Afghan people and commended China’s just and positive role in Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process… The Afghan Taliban will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China.”

 

Point to note: China has not yet recognised the Taliban government, but it is expected to be among the first to do soalong with Russia.

 

The big question: Will this early romance go the distance? Here’s what China stands to lose and gain.

 

The big Beijing upside

There are three key benefits to a close relationship with a Taliban government

 

Minerals, minerals, minerals: The global economy is driven by the technology industry—which in turn relies on high-tech chips and large-capacity batteries. These require a variety of rare minerals such as lithium, rare earths and copper. These are also critical for the global switch to more green energy. Guess who is sitting on mineral deposits worth over $1 trillion—including the world’s largest lithium reserves? China, in turn, is a major buyer of the world’s industrial metals and minerals. Afghanistan offers an unparalleled opportunity to invest in the country’s mineral sector—and transport the riches back home to fuel its economic engine.

 

Road to Kabul: Beijing has invested billions of dollars into its Belt and Road Initiative—which is building overland routes for road and rail transportation that connects China to Iran and Turkey via Central Asia. Adding Afghanistan to that strategic route—which currently runs through Pakistan—would open up a shorter land route to access markets in the Middle East. A road through Afghanistan also allows China to side-step Central Asian countries closely aligned to Russia. According to India Today, Indian intelligence reports indicate that Beijing is already considering an extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with a road that connects Peshawar to Kabul.

 

Pressure on Taiwan: The United States’ ugly exit from Afghanistan is being viewed with great anxiety by its closest allies in Asia—including South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. All three rely on US military might to keep them safe from an aggressive China. And Beijing has been quick to paint the Afghan exit as evidence that America is an inherently weak and untrustworthy bada bhai. The government-run media have been quick to draw parallels to Taiwan—which China claims as part of its own territory. The Global Times editor tweeted:

 

“After the fall of the Kabul regime, the Taiwan authorities must be trembling. Don’t look forward to the US to protect them. Taipei officials need to quietly mail-order a Five-Star Red Flag from the Chinese mainland. It will be useful one day when they surrender to the PLA.”

 

As Brookings fellow Ryan Hass notes:

 

“The proximate focus of Chinese efforts will likely be in seeking to undermine the psychological confidence of the Taiwan people in their own future. Beijing would like to advance a narrative inside Taiwan that the United States is distant and unreliable, Taiwan is isolated and alone, and Taiwan’s only path to peace and prosperity runs through Beijing. Chinese propaganda outlets almost certainly will seek to use events in Afghanistan to push their preferred narrative inside Taiwan.”

 

Point to note: For all the bluster, militarily speaking, Taiwan is hardly more vulnerable to a Chinese invasion today. And according to Biden, the US retreat from Afghanistan will enable it to better fend off the threats from Russia and China. All of which points to a bigger focus on the Pacific Asian region—and therefore Taiwan. That said, Afghanistan reminded everyone that the US has cut-and-run in almost every major war since Vietnam, and its assurances will carry far less weight in the world. 

 

Beijing’s big downside

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