Why China is mostly unhappy with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

Foreign Affairs

After two decades, U.S. troops are finally fully leaving a country bordering China. Beijing appears to have mixed feelings about the development, taking advantage of opportunities to increase regional influence while warning about the possibility of instability.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

In the month since President Biden announced that the U.S. would withdraw its final 2,500 troops from Afghanistan between May 1 and September 11 this year, China has given conflicting signals on how it feels about the development.

On one hand, the lingering presence of American troops in a bordering country has been uncomfortable for Beijing, despite China having been “quietly supportive of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, signing on to a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and calling for a new government,” per CNN.

But within days of the troop pullout beginning, after a school bombing in Kabul on May 8 killed at least 68 and wounded more than 160, the Chinese Foreign Ministry warned (in English, Chinese) about the U.S. pullout’s impact on security:

It needs to be pointed out that the recent abrupt U.S. announcement of complete withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan has led to a succession of explosive attacks throughout the country, worsening the security situation and threatening peace and stability as well as people’s life and safety. China calls on foreign troops in Afghanistan to take into full account the security of people in the country and the region, pull out in a responsible manner and avoid inflicting more turmoil and suffering on the Afghan people.

Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, has an excellent analysis in War on the Rocks, explaining several reasons why China is mostly unhappy about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan:

  • The stability issue: Yun says that the foreign policy community in China “harbors serious concerns about the prospect of chaos and instability along its western frontier.” (Some Chinese analysts told the SCMP that China might feel the need to send a peacekeeping force to Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves.)
  • End of the “window of strategic opportunity”: During the two decades that the U.S. military was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, China saw an opportunity to “develop its strength without alarming the United States.” President Biden has “made clear he wants to recalibrate U.S. foreign policy to face bigger challenges posed by China and Russia,” per AP.
  • One fewer area of U.S.-China cooperation: Yun says that there had been an “official channel of consultation” on the issue of Afghanistan between the two nations even during the historically tense past few years, and that Beijing had hoped to expand on this. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also named Afghanistan as one potential area of cooperation two months ago, but the opportunities for this will probably decrease along with the U.S. presence in the country.