Ash: Does the rise of the Taliban have any implications on separatists from Xinjiang Province?
Saich: China’s main concern is with possible Taliban support or acquiescence with respect to terrorist organizations. In particular, Wang Yi called on the Taliban not to provide a safe haven to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Although there is very little evidence of continued activity from the group. However, the potential threat has been used, in part, by the Chinese authorities to engage in harsher oppression of the Uighur population in Xinjiang, including the use of internment camps (reeducation camps in Chinese parlance). Wang Yi received the promise from Baradar. To date, Muslim nations have shown little interest in criticizing China’s policies toward the Uighurs and given its need for capital, the Taliban may prove to be no different. However, the Taliban is not a centralized organization and power is fragmented. Currently, it is not clear what kind of authority the new central government will have over the various different groups spread out over the country. Monitoring the situation will be the highest priority for Beijing.
Ash: The Biden Administration has argued that withdrawing from Afghanistan would allow the U.S. to refocus on China and Russia, what the White House terms the U.S.’s biggest strategic competitors. Will the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan ultimately foil President Biden’s attempt to pivot attention to Beijing?
Saich: I am not sure that the chaotic pull-out will have a great effect on the approach of the administration to China. Other factors will be more important in impacting the way that the Biden administration can deal with China. First, while there is congressional support for the view that China presents the major threat to continued U.S. authority globally, different interests in the U.S. will make the implementation of a consistent, tough anti-China policy difficult. Allies in Europe and throughout the region are cautious about the Biden approach. Most do not want to be forced to choose. While Europeans might be willing to go along with criticism of human rights practices, they are much more careful when it comes to trade and investment. The U.S. business and financial community has a massive stake in China’s development and they will resist measures to decouple. Perhaps more importantly, the U.S. cannot achieve some of its policy goals without the active engagement of China. Climate change is the most obvious example but not the only one. While the U.S. used to want to link specific areas of work to the overall relationship, it now wants to isolate certain policy areas and it is China that wants to look at policy domains in terms of the relationship as a whole.
Ash: Has the pullout in Afghanistan undermined the credibility of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, or did allies and competitors see the ultimate collapse of the Kabul government as a foregone conclusion?
Saich: I am not convinced that it will have a long-lasting impact. While Beijing has pushed the idea that the U.S. is an unreliable ally, I do not think this will impact other countries in the region. I doubt that many did not think that Kabul would fall eventually. U.S. credibility in the region is more impacted by the divisions within the U.S. political domain. There is concern that a successor administration could swing back to the policies promoted by former President Trump. This is a more significant factor in their thinking than the mess in Afghanistan.