Beijing betting on Taliban takeover
Aug 14, 2021
Beijing betting on Taliban takeover
By Lionel Te-Chen Chiou 丘德真
It seems unbelievable that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is so full of itself that it is attempting to tame the Taliban. However, it is desperate for two reasons. First, China must get ready for increasing tensions in the Indo-Pacific region. It is therefore turning to Afghanistan to secure a second focus area for its Belt and Road Initiative. Second, China urgently needs a plan B for its prolonged, but fruitless bid to annex Taiwan, and is therefore trying to ensure that any future Afghan government is pro-China. The CCP expects that matters in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea will get ugly. It needs to place a hedge on Afghanistan and Central Asia to offset a likely loss in the Indo-Pacific region. The CCP needs to fawn over the Taliban, as it is likely to return to power in Afghanistan. It needs the hedge position as the countries of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance — the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — and the first island chain countries — Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines — are encircling China in the Indo-Pacific region. A story from the 4th century BC can shed light on China’s situation. According to the Strategies of the Warring States, the state of Yiqu — at the western border of Qin, the dominant state of the period — was tipped off by strategist Gongsun Yan (公孫衍), who was plotting a joint attack by five other states at Hangu Pass at Qin’s eastern border. Gongsun Yan told Yiqu’s king that if Qin ever reached out to Yiqu, it would indicate that Qin was having trouble dealing with the five states’ joint military action. Soon afterward, Qin did reach out to Yiqu when the five states’ armies marched to Hangu Pass in 318 BC. Are China, the Taliban, the Five Eyes and the first island chain countries experiencing something similar to what happened between Qin, Yiqu and the five allied states 24 centuries ago? Whereas Qin’s motivation resembled that of China reaching out to the Taliban today, the ancient state’s calculations were different. As Yiqu was in the way of Qin’s expansionism, it appeased Yiqu to avoid being simultaneously attacked from the east and west. The CCP is looking at enlisting the Taliban to help secure a pro-Chinese Afghanistan. To maximize the Belt and Road Initiative’s prospects, China needs Taiwan and Afghanistan. The two countries are at the two wings from which the Belt and Road Initiative would extend from China to the east and west, in what Beijing calls the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” and the “Silk Road Economic Belt.”
If it turns out that Beijing cannot hit a home run and get both, it must circumscribe the loss by preserving one or the other. The CCP is hedging its bets on Taiwan and the Taliban. Although both are different cases, their similarities are what the CCP appreciates. Both control territories at strategic locations; both have the leverage to effect international orders; and, most importantly, both have been interpreted as being part of China, depending on the historical narrative that is used. It is common knowledge that the CCP likes to interfere in a neighbor’s internal affairs or even claim sovereignty over a neighbor by simply saying that a place “has been part of China since ancient times,” even when this is not true. Taiwan is one example. The CCP is following the same “China is the mother” logic and claiming its “right” to interfere in Afghanistan. Search Google for “唐朝統治阿富汗” (“Tang Dynasty ruled Afghanistan”) and tens of thousands of online articles from China will pop up, claiming that Afghanistan was a Tang territory 12 centuries ago. Because parts of modern Afghanistan were allegedly under the control of Tang’s Protectorate General to Pacify the West, according to the Old Book of Tang, it provides an opening for the CCP’s narrative manipulation. Be mindful that no historical claims can persist on the Internet in China unless they are allowed by the CCP. To claim that Afghanistan once was part of China apparently aligns with the interests of the CCP, otherwise those articles would have been deleted. Moreover, it is no coincidence that a Chinese diplomat to Afghanistan even bothered to mention the past of an ancient Afghan regime established by the descendants of immigrants from China. In an interview with an Afghan state-run newspaper in March 2018, then-Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan Liu Jinsong (劉勁松), who is now head of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ policy planning department, said: “Nomadic people of Great Rouzhi of northwestern China moved to Afghanistan and later established the Kushan Dynasty.”
When the CCP mentions the origin of a people consisting of remote descendants from China, it rings a bell. Taiwanese are used to the CCP’s threats calling on them to “remember the history of their own country or ancestors.”
The subtext is familiar — mother China should be allowed to interfere in your country. What Liu did not mention was that the Tang Dynasty had by the 8th century BC failed to tame the most well-known Great Rouzhi descendants, An Lushan (安祿山) and Shi Siming (史思明). An and Shi, among other Central Asians, joined the Tang’s military. Despite being critical in helping the empire’s security, they were embroiled in bloody power struggles within the royal family. Then, An and Shi played dirty and successively launched two military coups, which are jointly referred to as the An-Shi Rebellion. The coups created chaos, and led to the decline of the Silk Road on land and the rise of the Fanzhen system, with regional governors ruling the the Tang Empire. The story of the An-Shi Rebellion sheds light on China’s situation today. When the Tang Empire could no longer rely on the Silk Road on land, it had no choice but to explore an alternative maritime trade route. In similar fashion — although in reverse direction — when China is at a disadvantage in the Indo-Pacific region, the CCP is compelled to eye up Afghanistan, seeking to compensate for a likely loss in Taiwan and the South China Sea. Liu Zhongjing (劉仲敬), a famous Chinese writer in exile, has pointed out that the Taliban is like the modern-day An, and China’s attempt to tame the Taliban is a repeat of the same mistake that the Tang Empire made. However, the CCP might not worry about that. With Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) so called “meta-historical viewpoint,” he might have noticed that it took more than a century before the Tang Dynasty fell after the An-Shi Rebellion. As he brags about “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” he definitely believes that today’s China can do as well as, if not better than, any historical precedent. From the CCP’s viewpoint, the best way to find out whether Taiwan or the Taliban are tamable is to hedge bets and try taming both. It is a long shot, yet it is an inevitable move, particularly when China is shifting its external policy to correspond to an evolution of political rhetoric that requires the CCP to think big. In December 2017, Xi coined the phrase “profound changes unseen in a century” to describe the international order. The phrase has become a motto guiding the CCP’s foreign policy. Xi has recited it on multiple occasions and state-run media have often repeated it. Six months ago, Xi said that all CCP members should “scrutinize the patterns in history in order to lay out strategy accordingly,” to deal with the international order and pursue China’s great rejuvenation. That is to say, the CCP needs to think big by looking at China’s glorious past. To cherish the memories of the Tang Empire and to interfere in the affairs of any country that once was part of its territory might not sound as absurd to the CCP as to the rest of the world. From the CCP’s perspective, hedging its bets on the Taliban and Taiwan is a strategy that can be summed up by scrutinizing “the patterns in history,” of the rise and fall of the Silk Road on land and the ancient maritime Silk Road. The CCP needs the Taliban as a plan B for a potentially permanent failure in Taiwan. Believing that the strategy has a basis and is inspired by Xi’s “meta-historical viewpoint,” the CCP must be committed to it regardless of the ramifications. Lionel Te-Chen Chiou is a Sydney-based freelance journalist specializing in cultural affairs and focusing on the Chinese Communist Party and its narrative control. Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.