Middle East Institute, August 24, 2021
Robert R. Bianchi
Once again, turmoil in Afghanistan forces us to face the contradiction between the world we are creating and the world we want to leave our descendants. As the Great Game between the United States and China unfolds on a global scale, it seems both ironic and fitting that our attention should return to a land that has endured so many deadly dances between great powers and ruined empires. The more we ponder the Afghan tragedy, the more we see it as a metaphor for our global predicament and as a warning for the future. American and Chinese leaders have to make a choice — will they clash more openly in a struggle to dominate Afghanistan and its neighboring regions or will they rein in their ambitions and jealousies to accomplish goals that benefit themselves and many others? The answer will go a long way toward promoting war or peace not merely in Eurasia but in the Pacific and the world at large.
The current trend is not encouraging. Washington and Beijing are locked in a classic security dilemma — a self-sustaining cycle of mistrust and belligerence in which rivals cast one another as enemies who are pitted in a fight to the finish on nearly all issues and in every region. In this sense, Afghanistan is a microcosm of the Great Game writ large — a planetary duel of encirclement and counter-maneuver, with each side carving out spheres of influence and enclosing once open seas, aiming to control chokepoints that can deny access to vital routes and resources. Such unremitting brinkmanship invites miscalculation and escalation because political and military leaders consistently underestimate risk and convince one another they can control the next sequence of moves.
The outline of the script for confrontation is already taking shape before our eyes. American strategists claim that letting go of albatrosses in Afghanistan and the Middle East gives them greater freedom to block China’s assertiveness in more critical regions, particularly in South Asia and the newly-dubbed Indo-Pacific. Winding down yesterday’s wars against jihadis will pave the way for redeployment to future conflicts where even greater resources need to be concentrated with the aid of democracies in India, Australia, and Japan. At the same time, however, Chinese commentators insist that America’s credibility is so shattered that no U.S.-led coalition can appeal to Asian neighbors who value their independence and freedom of maneuver. In this view, the string of broken promises in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan will make even the Taiwanese lose faith in Washington’s staying power.
Under different circumstances, the path ahead for Afghanistan and its neighbors would seem straightforward. The country abounds in untapped resources, both natural and human, that can fuel post-war recovery while spurring development in surrounding regions and far beyond. Its vast and varied mineral wealth is a prize for any multinational mining company and a potential lifeline for battered supply chains struggling to support factories and construction sites on every continent. Along with Pakistan, Afghanistan lies at the intersection of at least two planned energy corridors that can carry oil and natural gas from Iran to China in one direction and from Turkmenistan to India in another. Transit fees from these routes alone could transform Afghanistan’s economy and society within a single generation. On top of this, there is a future role for Afghanistan as a land bridge linking the commerce of the Indian Ocean with Central Asia and, from there, to growing transcontinental railroads and highways reaching all the way to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
A New Silk Road
All of these enterprises fit perfectly with China’s ongoing efforts to build a New Silk Road, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative. Led by Chinese finance and engineering, the New Silk Road seeks to turn most of Eurasia and Africa into a single, integrated market held together with overlapping networks of infrastructure and connectivity that will span the oceans and continents. Such a vision can be both inspiring and terrifying, depending on one’s perspective. As usual, impressions in Washington and Beijing are increasingly at odds concerning the likely consequences for peace and development.
Most ordinary Americans are unfamiliar with the New Silk Road. Mass media give it scant attention and it is just beginning to register in government and business circles. So far, discussion is dominated by Beltway think tanks and consultants who specialize in pitching small ideas to cautious bureaucrats. The big picture folks concerned with geopolitics and security are divided, but largely negative in assessing the long-term impact on American interests. In a nutshell, they believe that whatever strengthens China’s influence and prestige will further undercut America’s already weakened position in world affairs. From this perspective, China’s gains are America’s losses; hence, Afghanistan’s inclusion in the New Silk Road would come at America’s expense, both materially and symbolically.
Of course, Chinese leaders are in no hurry to pour money and manpower into an active war zone. They already have their hands full in Pakistan where thousands of specially detailed troops still cannot protect Chinese workers from attacks by local terrorists and separatists. Besides, Afghanistan’s most valuable assets are mineral and geographic. They are not going anywhere and no one else is going to snatch them from Beijing’s grasp. Better to let the dust settle first and deal with whoever prevails in the ensuing power struggles between the Taliban and their rivals. In the meantime, American and Chinese leaders will be gauging one another’s strength and intentions, both globally and region by region, with the New Silk Road acquiring greater weight in everyone’s calculations.
The American response
The Biden administration’s responses to Chinese ambitions have been glib and unsubstantial. Instead of a grand vision for economic development, they are floating a public relations campaign to Build Back Better Globally (3BG for short). The core members are supposed to be the advanced industrial democracies that will also promote high standards in human rights and anti-corruption. This network is invited to partner with a new coalition of liberal democracies — the Summit for Democracy — supporting freedom and independence against authoritarian trends backed by China and Russia. The league of democracies, in turn, will overlap with an emerging naval alliance — the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — committed to preserving free and open seas in the combined waters of the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.
The anti-China tone of these initiatives is self-evident, but Joe Biden’s team has sharpened the message by adding Taiwan to the mix in ways that are bound to provoke Beijing’s anger. Washington is elevating Taiwan’s diplomatic standing, increasing arms sales, and stepping up naval and air operations around the island and in nearby zones of contested territories. Biden feels the need to display American strength and resolve in a time of diminishing confidence in Washington’s protective umbrella. But he misreads the prevailing sentiments of East Asian leaders who worry that the U.S. might be inviting a fight it cannot win unless it is willing to widen the battlefield and wage all-out war in their backyards.
The Biden administration should abandon its chosen course of confrontation, ideological posturing, and rhetorical bluster. The last thing we need is an American version of China’s wolf warrior diplomacy. Pundits may argue that the world abhors power vacuums, but, today, what it hates even more are would-be hegemons that try to exploit them. If the U.S. insists on competing with China for the title of most benevolent hegemon, both sides will fail. No nation can provide any set of public goods — economic or military — that will earn legitimacy and acquiescence from independent states or from the newly assertive movements of global civil society.
With Afghanistan or without it, the New Silk Road offers a compelling vision for cooperation and progress on a scale that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. It is utopian in the best sense of the word. It is China’s brainchild, but it is not Beijing’s puppet or Trojan horse. All the partners have wills of their own and their citizens are determined to recast the projects to suit local needs instead of foreign and elite interests. American leaders are wavering between trying to subvert the venture and mounting a rival effort on a smaller scale. Sadly, Washington is missing out on the best option of all — joining the emergent transnational community and taking its turn in steering the common enterprise in positive directions. If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em. Share in the credit, avoid being a spoiler, and don’t have sour grapes.