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How Afghanistan rattled Asia and emboldened China

Like many across the world, millions in Asia have been shocked by the scenes of desperation coming out of Afghanistan – with some asking if America can still be trusted.

On Sunday evening – just a week after the Afghan capital Kabul fell to the Taliban – US vice-president Kamala Harris landed in Singapore for the start of a whirlwind Asian tour.

She has since sought to soothe ruffled feathers by saying the region is a “top priority” for the US.

But is it enough to reassure those concerned in Asia? And can America fend off China’s attempts to seize on what some say is a golden opportunity for anti-US propaganda?

Anxious murmurings

On Monday, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that many in the region were watching how the US repositions itself in the fallout of Afghanistan.

For two of America’s biggest regional allies in particular, South Korea and Japan, public confidence in the US has largely been unaffected – but there have been anxious murmurings from some quarters.

The situation was not helped by Mr Biden who, in his ABC interview, appeared to conflate Taiwan with South Korea and Japan, with whom the US has formal agreements to defend if war breaks out. Unlike the others, Taiwan does not have a defence treaty with the US and only an implicit security guarantee.

US officials later said their “strategic ambiguity” policy on Taiwan had not changed, but the incident only gave Chinese state media more fodder.

The Afghanistan exit, in other words, has been a golden opportunity for China to convince the Asian public that the US cannot be trusted, say experts.

“The whole point of this propaganda is to increase public pressure on governments that have close cooperation with US, and weaken that relationship,” said Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science with the National University of Singapore.

Treading a fine line

But Afghanistan has not been a total windfall for China either.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund, believes that Beijing sees the recent changes in Afghanistan as more risky than beneficial. “The Chinese are very worried about the potential for instability and Afghanistan continuing to be a haven for militants and terrorists,” she said.

In a pragmatic move, China invited the Taliban over for talks last month, offering economic support for Afghanistan but also stressing that the country should not be used as a staging point for terrorists. China has skin in the game: its companies have won multi-million dollar oil and copper mining contracts in Afghanistan.

wang yi with mullah baradar
image captionChina’s foreign minister Wang Yi (right) posed for pictures with the Taliban leader Mullah Baradar (left)

But domestically, it has struggled to sell this cautious alliance to some parts of the Chinese public that are repulsed by the Taliban.

When the Taliban retook power last week, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China respects “the choice of Afghan people”. The phrase quickly attracted backlash and accusations of whitewashing on Chinese social media.

At a time of heightened awareness of women’s rights in China, many online have criticised the Taliban for their treatment of Afghan women.

There’s also the fact that Beijing now has to deal with an Islamist militant group right at its doorstep, at a time when China continues to brutally crack down on its own Muslim minority in the name of combating extremism.

With the clampdown on the Uighurs, “the Chinese central government has been getting people to be wary of religious groups. So this association with the Taliban could be problematic as it’s contradictory,” said Dr Chong.

“What China is doing now is to garner whatever tactical advantage they can get. But what [kind of gains] it can be transformed into, is up in the air. We don’t even know where Afghanistan is going right now.”

All eyes on America

Some observers, like Ms Glaser, believe that the Afghan withdrawal is not “the death knell of US leadership”, and that US allies will be reassured that Washington would now pay greater attention to the region and its competition with China.

In her speech on Tuesday in Singapore, Ms Harris sold a vision of American faithfulness to Asia.

She said “there should be no doubt we have enduring interests in this region and enduring commitments as well… those commitments also include security”, and promised that the US would “invest our time and our energy” in strengthening relationships.

Kamala Harris receiving her orchid in Singapore
image captionMs Harris in Singapore on Tuesday received an orchid that was named after her

James Crabtree, executive director of think tank II-SS Asia, noted that Ms Harris’ visit was one of several made to Asia in recent months by top US officials.

“The Americans have answered the first set of criticisms which is ‘You’ve forgotten us’ – now they are turning up,” he said.

“Now the next question is, with all this talk of partnerships, what does this amount to in fact?”

Some believe the US will need to deliver more than just promises. Dr Chong said this may mean getting bipartisan support for US commitments, ratifying the UN’s maritime law convention, and re-joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement which the US withdrew under Donald Trump.

Said Mr Crabtree: “People are going to watch more closely what the US is going to do in Asia from now on, because Afghanistan has primed them to look for signs that they are not reliable.

The US may be more wary of people questioning their commitment and would want to demonstrate it is not the case.”

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