In a recent article, I used the Afghanistan evacuation crisis to show just how bad we’ve let oil lead us to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. Unfortunately, it’s not a problem we automagically solve by switching to renewable energy, as such abuses can also worm their way into clean technology supply chains. Thus, it’s something we need to always be keeping an eye out for and never allow ourselves to make excuses for.
Not long after submitting that article, I came across more information that makes it look like Trump may have engineered the Afghanistan situation to benefit his good friend, Xi Jin Ping.
Before I discuss the possible gift to China, I need to cover some background information so we can put this all in perspective. Toward the end of my other article, I went over some concerning things Chinese state-run media said after seeing the US flee Afghanistan.
#环球时报Editorial: From what happened in Afghanistan, those in Taiwan should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and US military won’t come to help. As a result, the DPP will quickly surrender. https://t.co/ZUrZmcsSWf pic.twitter.com/wFG4vrHbTo
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) August 16, 2021
China is taking the situation in Afghanistan (and prior wars that ended badly) as a sign of weakness, and feels emboldened to do whatever it wants in Asia, and that’s frightening, especially if you’ve ever been to Taiwan.
We have to be fair and spread the blame around to where it belongs, though. Let’s not make the mistake of assuming all of this falls squarely on President Biden’s shoulders. Personally, I think he could have done a lot better at managing the withdrawal, but let’s not forget that Trump put the United States on a timeline to withdraw from the country even faster, and with far less preparation for an orderly and safe evacuation. All of the hyper-partisan blamethrowing the Republicans are doing is thus both dishonest and uninformative.
This is far from the only foreign policy blunder that Trump committed the United States to. Under Trump’s leadership (I use the term “leadership” very loosely here), China basically got whatever it wanted. Trump did nothing to stop China when it violated its treaty with the United Kingdom and blatantly ignored Hong Kong’s Basic Law (a constitution-like document that was supposed to be in effect for Hong Kong until 2047). He also did basically nothing while Xi Jin Ping, China’s aspiring dictator who loosely resembles Winnie The Pooh (people pointing out this resemblance angered the guy so badly that he banned the character from being shown in the country — oh bother), did everything he could to take over the South China Sea.
This wasn’t an accident, either. According to this article, Trump saw China as a competing company whose leader needed to be a friend if Trump was going to be able to do business while in office. He also seems to have an affinity for the leaders of authoritarian countries, and goes out of his way to befriend them because he looks up to them. To get Xi Jin Ping to come visit Mar-a-Lago and stroke Trump’s ego, Trump had to concede that his early call with the Taiwanese president was wrong, and that he was committed to the “one China policy.”
In the years that followed, Xi knew that he only needed to make a phone call to get Trump to agree to almost anything, and he did this on a regular basis. Trump, the man who wanted to be able to make deals with Xi, became a friend who would do anything to preserve the relationship, no matter how bad it was for the US or allies. According to John Bolton, Trump once said, “I never want to hear from you about Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the Uyghurs,” and that was the attitude that prevailed in the Trump White House. China could do no wrong, even when Trump was aware of awful things it was doing.
When advisors and cabinet members asked Trump to stand up to China on Hong Kong’s Basic Law, because China may feel emboldened to attack Taiwan next if this went unopposed, Trump reportedly said, “Taiwan is like two feet from China. We are eight thousand miles away. If they invade, there isn’t a fucking thing we can do about it.”
You can read the whole article about this here, but it shows clearly that Trump and Xi were buddies, and that Trump was willing to give Xi anything he asked for, even if that meant abandoning positions that US conservatives had held sacred for decades.
With all of this in mind, we shouldn’t be surprised when it looks like the Afghanistan situation may have been just another gift to Winnie.
Afghanistan & Rare Earth Minerals
A recent report from CNBC shows us one of the reasons China seems eager to forge a relationship with the Taliban (assuming one doesn’t already exist). It turns out, there’s a lot of mineral wealth in Afghanistan, including up to $3 trillion worth of rare earth minerals, which are vital to renewable energy technologies.
Commentators found it odd that China’s foreign ministry announced its intention to seek a diplomatic relationship with the Taliban before they had even finished gaining control of the country. Why? Because China is still having a lot of trouble controlling what it calls the Xinjiang province, an area native ethnic groups call East Turkestan. There’s a whole independence movement, consisting of people who feel China has no business running the area. There is even a “government in exile” for the region currently based in Washington, DC that claims to speak for the region.
The situation on the ground is shaky, too. As is usual, the separatists consider themselves freedom fighters when they engage in violent attempts to drive Beijing out of the area, while Beijing considers them to be terrorists. In response, Beijing has cracked down on the region, and invited a lot of international criticism for the subsequent human rights violations. Beijing claims to be dealing with terrorists, much like the United States did, so they think their actions are justified.
It’s a big, complicated issue, but the important point is that China has a lot to lose by supporting a group like the Taliban. Xinjiang/East Turkestan is connected to Afghanistan by a narrow strip of Afghan land, and emboldening what many (including, oddly, Facebook) see as a terror group could embolden fighters within China’s claimed borders and otherwise promote instability in a region already filled with disputed Chinese borders.
Thus, China would have to have a compelling reason to befriend the Taliban, and the mineral wealth of the country may be the bulk of it.
Another clue is what China’s foreign ministry said of the Taliban’s motivations for such a relationship. They claim that the Taliban leader “looks forward to China’s participation in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development.” In other words, China is going to be on the ground in Afghanistan, and is very likely to want to mine the minerals in this neighboring country if it is going to shell out big bucks for infrastructure and public works as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
The CNBC article also points out that China considers rare earths a big bargaining chip on the world stage. The more of these minerals it controls, the more leverage China has against other countries who are trying to switch to renewables.
On top of the rare earths, having Afghanistan as an ally gives China a much better strategic footing should war ever break out with another global power. China has grown its naval forces significantly in the last few years, but it is still massively outclassed by established navies, leaving it particularly vulnerable to a naval oil blockade that could keep the country from bringing in energy from Africa and Southwest Asia. Having great influence in Afghanistan not only gives China direct access to a neighbor’s oil supplies, but helps secure vital overland routes to bring in oil and spoil the chances of such a blockade succeeding.
This relationship with Afghanistan effectively denies one of the best ways western powers would have of stopping an invasion of Taiwan (by choking off Chinese energy supplies) without opening up massive direct warfare.
Filling In The Blank Here
This could all be a massive coincidence. Trump’s ineptitude could have created such a large power vacuum that the Chinese government simply couldn’t resist stepping in and benefiting. The quick jump to recognize and work with the Taliban could have been a spur-of-the-moment decision Chinese officials made out of the goodness of their hearts and care for the people living there.
I don’t personally believe that, though. We can’t currently prove that Trump engineered this situation at Xi’s request to both do a friend a favor and make Biden look bad if Trump lost, but the motive and the opportunity are all there and it’s just too good of a win to have happened by accident. It seems very unlikely that this was a mere Trump blunder that the Chinese just happened to get lucky on.
Featured image: A map of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with a massive hole in the middle of it (Afghanistan). Image by Lommes CC-BY-SA 4.0.