Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar,

BEIJING — In public, China has crowed over the U.S.’s embarrassing exit from Afghanistan, with officials saying the chaos highlighted America’s diminished standing on the world stage.

A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman cited the tragic death of Zaki Anwari, a teenage soccer star who fell to his death as he tried to cling to the landing gear of a departing American C-17.

“American myth down,” the spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said Aug. 20. “More and more people are awakening.”

In private, however, Beijing is more circumspect about its rival’s departure. While its main concern is security amid worries that Afghanistan under the Taliban will again become fertile ground for extremist groups, now Beijing may also have to face a U.S. freer to focus on its main rival: China. There is also the risk of getting sucked in.

Image: Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan’s Taliban, in Tianjin
Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of the Taliban before the movement took control of Afghanistan, on July 28.XINHUA / Reuters
“They tend to see Afghanistan as a trap and will be wary about taking on too prominent a role there,” said Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Small, who wrote “The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics,” added that the Chinese saw “the success of a radical Islamist movement in Afghanistan as inherently threatening.”

‘Its own national interest’
For much of the past two decades, Beijing was ambivalent about the massive U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Having its chief strategic rival planted in the backyard presented challenges, but China’s leaders also saw the benefit of having threats posed by extremist groups largely quelled along its western border. That the U.S. was shouldering the security burden made it, in many ways, the lesser of two evils for Beijing.

How China engages in Afghanistan will be closely watched by the U.S. and other countries. Even before Taliban fighters made their push into Kabul, the group’s senior leaders were laying diplomatic groundwork with Beijing. China was eager to oblige, hosting a delegation led by the head of the Taliban’s political office, Adbul Ghani Baradar, for talks in Tianjin in July with Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The men posed for cameras, albeit awkwardly, in a lobby adorned with red flowers (where U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had stood with Wang just two days earlier) to signal what Chinese officials called their “friendly relations.”

“China needs to develop relations with this neighbor,” said Fan Hongda, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Shanghai International Studies University. “The Taliban has become a political force that can’t be ignored in Afghanistan.”

At those meetings, the Taliban offered security assurances to Chinese officials that they would not allow their fighters to use Afghan territory as a base for attacks inside China — a version of the same promise they have made to the U.S. It speaks directly to Beijing’s fear of extremism in its western region of Xinjiang, where it has used the threat of terrorism to justify the wholesale detention of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minority groups — policies the U.S. has called “genocide.”

TOPSHOT-AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT
Even before Taliban fighters made their push into Kabul, the group’s senior leaders were laying diplomatic groundwork with Beijing. Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images
In the sort of transactional diplomacy that Chinese officials are known for, the Taliban left Tianjin with the pledge of possible backing from their richest neighbor.

“China is our most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a recent interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “It is ready to invest and rebuild our country.”

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