Afghanistan offers chance for U.S.-China collaboration

September 09, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

The crisis in Afghanistan, which exploded with the sudden collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government, left the Taliban in control, creating consternation over the possibility that the country may once again become a haven for terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, which was responsible for the 9/11 attack on the United States in 2001.

Already, an Islamic State affiliate has claimed responsibility for the August 26 Kabul bombing, which killed more than 160 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.

China, Afghanistan’s neighbor, is also apprehensive. Adjacent to Afghanistan is Xinjiang, where China is cracking down on Muslim Uighurs who supposedly pose a terrorist threat.

The sea change in Afghanistan has presented China and the United States with common concerns and a chance to work together against incipient terrorism.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken telephoned Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, several times in August to discuss Afghanistan. On August 29, he sought to secure China’s support for a U.S.-initiated Security Council resolution, which focused on counter-terrorism and humanitarian assistance. The following day, China and Russia abstained while all the 13 other members voted for the resolution.

At least China did not veto the resolution.

But China is telling Washington that it must first change its overall China policy before Beijing would cooperate.

Blinken has defined America’s China policy as “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be,” with competition characterizing the overall relationship.

But China doesn’t want the U.S. to be able to pick and choose when to cooperate and when to be adversarial.

In the phone call, Wang brought up the wider issue of China-U.S. relations, noting that the two countries had recently exchanged views on such issues as Afghanistan and climate change.

"If Washington also wants to bring the China-U.S. relationship back on track, then it should stop slandering China and undermining China's sovereignty, security and development interests," the foreign minister told Blinken.

“Dialogue is better than confrontation, and cooperation is better than conflict,” Wang said. “The Chinese side will consider how to engage with the United States based on its attitude towards China.”

So Beijing will decide whether to collaborate on Afghanistan and other issues based on America’s overall attitude toward China, even though it knows such collaboration is good for both sides and for the world at large.

John Kerry, Washington’s special envoy for climate change, received a similar message last week in China.

Foreign Minister Wang told Kerry that, in the past, the two countries had cooperated on major issues including climate change, “delivering tangible benefits to the two countries.”

The two countries, he said, “should respect each other and seek common ground while shelving differences so as to reach win-win results.”

But, he said, in recent years the bilateral relationship has taken a sharp turn for the worse, mainly because the United States has “made a strategic miscalculation” about China.

Now, he said, the United States should stop viewing China as a threat and rival, and cease “containing and suppressing China.” Instead, it should take concrete steps to improve relations and carry out coordination and cooperation at bilateral, regional and global levels.

Citing climate change, Wang said the U.S. wants cooperation on that issue to be an “oasis” of China-U.S. relations. “However,” Wang said, “if the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the ‘oasis’ will be desertified. China-U.S. cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations.”

According to the Chinese side, Kerry responded by saying that the U.S. was willing to work with China to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and also create opportunities for addressing difficulties facing U.S.-China relations. That is to say, collaboration on climate could lead to an improvement to the overall relationship.

China is adopting a curious position. After all, if as the foreign minister said cooperation is better than conflict, why spurn a chance to cooperate? And if, as the foreign minister also said, the two sides should seek common ground, why give up the common ground when it presents itself?

Beijing is leveraging its ability to withhold collaboration to pressure the U.S. to change its overall China policy. But if the U.S. doesn’t yield, China faces the likelihood that Wang’s prophecy will come true and the relationship will be transformed into a gigantic desert of competition and confrontation.

On the other hand, if China cooperates when interests overlap, the overall environment is likely to improve. Withholding cooperation has no upside, leading as it inevitably will to greater confrontation. But collaborating on issues where interests coincide will likely improve the overall atmosphere. The choice is China’s to make.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.