US-China Relations: Significant New Indicators
Brigadier (Retd.) Dr. Ahsan ur Rahman Khan
(Published on 25 September 2021)
The Already Known Aspects
About US’ anti–Russia and anti–China policies it is already known that initially, at least till 2015, US considered Russia as the main threat – as was also pronounced by US’ previous (October 2015 to September 2019) Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Francis Dunford, who “told Congress during his 2015 confirmation hearings that Russia had become the top threat to American national security”. However, subsequently “In the Trump administration, the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy focused on both Russia and China”. And, that focus underwent yet another change towards the end of year 2019 when “by the end of his four year tenure, Dunford was warning that China would soon be our top threat”. (1)
That trend of US’ overriding anti–China policies and pronounced rhetoric continued even at least till the initial period of Joe Biden’s presidency of US – as was fully evident when the first high level meeting under President Joe Biden’s presidency was held in Alaska (US) in March this year. That meeting was participated by US’ Secretary of State Antony Blinken (alongwith US’ National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan) with the high ranking Chinese politician and diplomat specialising in American affairs Yang Jiechi (alongwith Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi). Agenda for the meeting was to discuss US–China bilateral relations under the new US administration. Needless to remind, however, that the meeting ended as utterly dismal.
BBC report (2), dated 19 March 2021, succinctly brought forth many noteworthy aspects about that meeting. The tone and tenor of media speeches of both sides were too harsh and scathing to the extent that, as reported by BBC – “In a blunt opening statement before the talks in private, Mr Blinken said the US would “discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States, economic coercion of our allies”. Each of these actions threaten the rules–based order that maintains global stability,” he said.”—“In response, Mr Yang accused Washington of using its military might and financial supremacy to suppress other countries. It abuses so–called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges, and incite some countries to attack China,” he added. Mr Yang said human rights in the US were at a low point, with black Americans being “slaughtered”.”
Though CCN report mentioned that after that ‘heated’ start of the meeting, “Behind closed doors and after the public clash, a senior administration official said the first session of talks “was substantive, serious, and direct”.” (3); yet there was no sign of that meeting being productive in any way. Factually, there has been no doubt that, rather than trying to develop any thaw in the strained US–China relations, US government actually wanted to utilise that meeting to somehow browbeat Chinese government, (which is now clearly emerging as a reckonable competing global power), into political compliance if not an outright political subjugation. Many reports point to that fact – for example, London, UK–based newspaper Financial Times clearly highlighted in its report of 17 March this year, “When the US imposed sanctions on Chinese officials this week, just two days before the first meeting between the Biden administration and China, it sent a signal that the encounter in Alaska on Thursday will not result in a thaw in relations between Washington and Beijing”. (4)
Significant New Indicators
Apparently there was no let in these aspects of the strained US–China relations even during some subsequent months after the mentioned meeting in March. However, two news items published very recently by the Hong Kong–based English language newspaper South China Morning Post (SCMP), as also by other media, clearly reflected significant new indicators of the probability of evolving change (s) in the hitherto strained US–China relations.
The first SCMP report dated 28th of last month (August) was by Minnie Chan. She is masters in public affairs, and an award winning journalist specialising in reporting on defence and diplomacy in china (5). Some noteworthy excerpts of that report are (italics added for highlighting):-
- “The caption of the report was “China and US militaries resume high–level talks with Afghan crisis top of the agenda”;
- “A Chinese source says Beijing wanted to discuss its concerns about Afghanistan in Alaska in March but the US ignored it”;
- “Last week’s talks between senior military officers were the first of their kind since Joe Biden took office in January”;
- “A source close to the People’s Liberation Army told the South China Morning Poston Saturday that the Afghanistan crisis was the most urgent issue discussed in last week’s video conference between Major General Huang Xueping, deputy director for the People’s Liberation Army Office for International Military Cooperation, and his Pentagon counterpart, Michael Chase.”; and,
- “[They] utilised the US-PRC Defence Telephone Link to conduct a secure video conference,” the US official told Reuters. “Both sides agreed on the importance of maintaining open channels of communication between the two militaries”.” (6)
The second SCMP report, with additional reporting by France’ Agence France Presse (AFP), dated 10th of this month (September) brought forth a further significant development after the abovementioned high level video meeting between US and Chinese military officials; i.e. the phone call conference between US President and his Chinese counterpart. Noteworthy excerpts of that report are (italics added for highlighting):-
- The report was captioned “US–China relations: Xi Jinping and Joe Biden call aims to stop competition becoming conflict; with the sub–headings, “Candid and in–depth discussion leads to agreement to step up communications at various levels”; and, “The US president made clear the conversation was part of Washington’s efforts to ‘responsibly manage’ their competition”;
- US officials said Biden initiated the 90–minute call, which focused on the way ahead for the troubled relations between the two countries.”;
- “US President Joe Bidenand his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping spoke by phone on Friday to manage the increasing rivalry between Beijing and Washington,—“;
- “Xi and Biden had a “candid and in-depth” discussion on a wide range of issues facing their two nations and agreed to step up communications in the wake of their call”;
- “Xi told Biden that China–US relations were facing “serious difficulties” because of US policies towards China. “The world will benefit if China and the US cooperate. But the world will suffer if China and the US confront each other,” he said,—“;
- “The latest phone call between Xi and Biden came one day ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and follows the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan”. (7)
Aspects to be Pondered Upon
These already known and the recent new information about US–China relations require answers to the following three questions:-
- First Question. What was the reason for the strength of US’ confidence in continuing with its rather aggressively intimidating geopolitical efforts against China, as was displayed again as recently as in March this year in Alaska (US) conference?
- Second Question. Then what happened so suddenly by the last month (August) which caused the ‘windfall’ descent of US’ diplomacy towards China from the heights of arrogance to humility – last month (August), US’ military had to have high–level meeting with Chinese military to frame the measures for mutual cooperative consultations; and, more than that, this month (September), US’ President had to initiate the long 90 minute phone call to talk to his Chinese counterpart to develop better relations with China?
- Third Question. Can this descent from arrogance in US’ attitude towards China be considered as an indicator of an evolving change in US’ international relationing attitude?
Answers to these questions can be found by keeping following facts in view:-
Facts Related to First Question
In an effort to somehow develop a check on China’s growing geoeconomic and consequential geopolitical weightage in international arena, US had/has applied three ‘strangleholds’ encircling China. These were/are:-
- Afghanistan, which shares its borders with China, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian states, was occupied by US in 2001 on the pretext of ‘war on terror’. Factually, by keeping Afghanistan under its prolonged occupation and subsequently establishing its planted pliant government there, US designed to dominate China, Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asian States both in the geopolitical and geoeconomic spheres through various overt or covert activities – even launching elements of its/allies’ proxy terrorist groups for terrorist/destabilising activities in Pakistan and other neighbouring countries.
- US established strategic partnership with India, which shares China’s southern borders and has many territorial disputes with China.
US then gradually enhanced the scope of this partnership to the extent of including the provision of US’ nuclear cooperation with India. US did that despite the fact that under US’ Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978 US had banned sale and transfer of sensitive and dual use technologies to all countries, including India, which had not signed the Treaty on Non–Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). For that purpose, the US–India nuclear deal was signed on 18 July 2005, known as “United States–India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Nonproliferation Enhancement Act” (8). India was thus prepared by US as its strong anti–China ally.
- US became the leading member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD; generally referred to as Quad), when it was established in 2007 on the initiation of Japan’s Prime Minister and supported by US Vice President, Prime Ministers of India and Australia. “The dialogue was paralleled by joint military exercises of an unprecedented scale, titled Exercise Malabar. The diplomatic and military arrangement was widely viewed as a response to increased Chinese economic and military power”. However, Quad ceased in 2009 due to Australia’s departure from that alliance; yet again, it was revived in 2017 by US’ President Donald Trump and Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India, Shinzo Abe of Japan and Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, “in order to counter China militarily and diplomatically in the South China Sea”. (9).
It was the strength of these of its ‘strangleholds’ encircling China, alongwith its notion of being the sole super power, might of its high–tech military capability and strong economy, which had led US policy makers to that state of being ‘power–drunk’, and hence too arrogant in dealing with any country which tried to be competitive – and, China was not prepared to succumb to US’ geopolitical–geoeconomic dictates.
Facts Related to Second Question
It is worth noting that out of these three ‘strangleholds’, the one in Afghanistan was being considered to be more reliable, because: (a) so far Quad, despite much of its activities, has not been any effective in checkmating China’s enhancing influence in South China Sea region; and (b) India’s humiliating military and political defeat last year by China in Ladakh border dispute, as also India’s Airforce’ humiliating defeat by Pakistan’s Airforce the previous year, has clearly shown the strategic inability of India to exert any military/political pressure on China and Pakistan.
But in the case of Afghanistan, as a matter of fact US authorities were absolutely sure that, after US’ massive 20 years’ efforts to strengthen its planted government and the US/NATO created Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), that government could survive on its own after US/NATO withdrawal. That confidence was also reflected by US President Joe Biden in his statement even on 8 July this year – extract of his statement in the White House: “Together, with our NATO Allies and partners, we have trained and equipped over three hu- — nearly 300,000 current serving members of the military — of the Afghan National Security Force, and many beyond that who are no longer serving. Add to that, hundreds of thousands more Afghan National Defense and Security Forces trained over the last two decades. We provided our Afghan partners with all the tools — let me emphasize: all the tools, training, and equipment of any modern military. We provided advanced weaponry. And we’re going to continue to provide funding and equipment. And we’ll ensure they have the capacity to maintain their air force”. (10)
However, when the surge of Afghanistan Taliban commenced in earnest, certain US’ former/serving intelligence officials did warn that Afghanistan Taliban could takeover Kabul by (the varying estimates of) 3 to 18 months. But, US’ government’s confidence in ANSF, as also the subsequent pinions that capture of Kabul by Afghanistan Taliban could be withheld at least for 3 to 18 months by ANSF, were shockingly negated ; and the immensity of the catastrophe which actually befell US and its planted government can be gauged from the under–mentioned facts.
When the surge of Afghanistan Taliban commenced in earnest, in a matter of only about a week by 15 August Afghanistan Taliban completely took over governance and administration of 33 out of 34 provinces of Afghanistan including the capital Kabul. The 34th province (Panjshir), where US’ and India’s proxy/supported anti–Taliban militias/terrorist groups like Daesh, TTP, etc. had concentrated to resist Afghanistan Taliban, was also taken over by Afghanistan Taliban within just few days. And, most significantly, in most of these provinces the ANSF and administration of the US–planted government handed over the governance to Afghanistan Taliban either without fighting or after little resistance. Besides that, in most cases the ANSF also handed over to Afghanistan Taliban the most modern high–tech military wherewithal which US had provided to ANSF. According to published reports US had supplied tens of thousands of sophisticated arms, guns, ammunition, vehicles, as also intelligence/surveillance/ reconnaissance (ISR) equipment, etc. besides aircrafts and even Blackhawk helicopters. The US’ National Security Adviser admitted in a press conference that it was difficult to say how much of these had fallen in the hands of Afghanistan Taliban, “but certainly, a fair amount of it has fallen into the hands of Taliban” (11).
Since US withdrew its military in a hurried manner leaving Afghanistan in an ‘unmanageable’ chaotic condition, tens of thousands of US and other foreigners were left behind still panickly awaiting their US’–planned evacuation from Afghanistan, creating serious law and order situation particularly in Kabul.
On the other hand, the newly emerged Afghanistan Taliban government immediately faced extreme financial bankruptcy because: (i) the US–planted president Ashraf Ghani and the leaders of Panjshir resistance had fled the country taking along with them Afghanistan government’s tens of millions US dollars (USD) cash; (ii) US had frozen Central Bank of Afghanistan’s USD 9. 5 billion (12); and, (iii) IMF and World Bank (obviously under US’ influence) announced halting of aid to Afghanistan (13). The economic distress of Afghanistan, whose economy all through US’ 20 years occupation had remained heavily dependent on foreign aid, had therefore reached a calamitous state. That fact was amply elaborated by a UNDP report dated 9th of this month (September), highlighting “Afghanistan teeters on the brink of universal poverty. As much as 97 percent of the population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line unless a response to to the county’s political and economic crises is urgently launched according to a rapid appraisal released by the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP). ———- According to the appraisal, this combination of factors could cause the baseline poverty rate, now at 72 percent, to balloon. In addition to prolonged drought and effects of Covid–19 pandemic, Afghanistan is contending with the upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, collapsing public finances, increasing pressure on the banking system, and rising poverty”. (14)
It was obvious that any prolonging of these conditions was more likely to cause massive unrest, breakdown of law and order, and even infighting/civil war in the country; with serious consequence of massive refugee exodus; thus destabilising not only Afghanistan but the entire neighbouring region. Realising that imminent threat, the regional countries (Pakistan, Turkey, Central Asian States, Iran) and powers (China, Russia) immediately ‘came together’ to find the solution. The major immediate requirements were: (a) economic assistance and humanitarian aid for Afghans who had already been suffering from extreme poverty caused by 20 years of US occupation, and their sufferings have now been further exacerbated by freezing of Afghanistan’s assets by US and stopping of aid by IMF and WB; (b) reviving the operational status of Kabul airport to let the chaos-creating multitude of foreigners etc fly out of the country; and, (c) opening up of supply routes for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
For that purpose all regional countries and powers worked in conjunction. Turkey sent its team and revived operational status of Kabul airport. Pakistan flew its airlines (PIA) to evacuate thousands of those foreigners etc; started sending food and medical supplies to various areas of Afghanistan; and also opened up the aerial and ground routes for WHO’s humanitarian aid to reach Afghanistan. China pledged humanitarian (food and medicine) aid worth 200 million Yuan (USD 31 million) to Afghanistan Taliban government, and announced that government of China was “ready to maintain communication with the Taliban government” (15).
In that context it is also worth noting that, while China was/is in a stronger economic position and is willing to provide the much needed immediate relief as well as to provide subsequent economic assistance/investment/trade openings to Afghanistan; Afghanistan Taliban government has also shown its desire to enhance its relations with China. “Recently Afghanistan Taliban government’s spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid mentioned about China as “most important ally” which can “rebuild Afghanistan and exploit its rich copper deposits as the war–ravaged country faces widespread hunger and fears economic collapse”; and expressed support for “China’s One Belt One Road initiative that seeks to link China to link with Africa, Asia and Europe through an enormous network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks”. He also mentioned that Afghanistan Taliban “also view Russia as an important partner in the region and will maintain good relations with Moscow” (16).
Obviously, due to these undeniable ground realities, fast emerging from early August, it had dawned upon US’ authorities that: (a) the ‘coalescing’ group (China, Pakistan, Turkey, Russia, Central Asian States, Iran) – with China in the lead role – had gotten the irrevocable entry in the ‘new’ politico–economic dynamics of Afghanistan; and that (b) the chances are much higher that this ‘group’ is going to completely oust US’ role in Afghanistan. It was this realisation which caused the ‘windfall’ descent of US’ diplomacy towards China from the heights of arrogance to humility.
Facts Related to Third Question
There is no doubt that chances of US getting back any significant role in Afghanistan’s politico–economic dynamics are far too remote to be conceivable, at least in the foreseeable future. Yet still, keeping in view US policy makers’ known psyche of ‘militarism’, as also their ‘wounded’ vanity pride, it is also most probable that US’ recent descent from arrogance in its attitude towards China is only a temporary phase, and not an indicator of any evolving mellowing change in US’ general attitude in its international relationing.
Factually, it is most likely that while US will continue putting up the facade of ‘working with’ China and the ‘regional group’ for establishing law and order in Afghanistan, behind the scene it will try its utmost to destabilise the country through economic ‘strangulation’ and terrorist/sabotage activities. For that purpose, as long as possible, US will use continuation of freezing of Afghanistan’s assts, and its leverage with EU, IMF and WB for holding up aid to the country. Besides that US is also likely to employ its own and allies’ proxy terrorist groups to destabilise Afghanistan and disrupt the investment/development projects/works undertaken by China and/or other members of the ‘regional group’.
On the other hand, however, there are also at least equal chances that consensus effort of China and other members of the ‘regional group’ will ultimately succeed in the long run in assisting the Afghanistan Taliban government in remedying the economic crunch and other problems – the signs of which may start emerging after some months.