For many observers, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is another vindication of China’s ‘strictly-business’ approach to diplomacy. Be they legitimately elected government ministers or mullahs who have killed their way to the top, if China can do business with them, it will. Earlier, the Chinese limited their engagement to those in power. Now they cultivate ties not just with the central governments but also all prospective claimants to the throne.
This is certainly the case in Nepal, where these days the Chinese—their recent efforts at helping build a strong ruling communist party notwithstanding—don’t just back the communists, but are as comfortable dealing with Nepali Congress or Madhesi outfits. In Afghanistan, Beijing was offering the Ashraf Ghani government plenty of bilateral aid even as it was cultivating ties with the Taliban, knowing full well that their return to power was imminent.
In Myanmar, Beijing maintained good relations with the junta, which is now back in power. But it was also a close ally of the deposed National League for Democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi. This kind of non-ideological, business-like and broad-based nurturing of relationships has some distinct benefits. Unlike the Americans, whose recent efforts at imposing democracy and human rights on countries like Afghanistan and Iraq have been disastrous failures, the Chinese don’t carry the baggage of forceful military intervention anywhere on the planet in recent memory.
In fact, while the Americans like to lecture others on democratic values, the way they have destroyed one country after another on the pretext of doing so has disillusioned even its once ardent backers. How are the human rights of common Afghans, Iraqis, and Libyans protected by destroying their homelands and then leaving them to fend for themselves? Increasingly, this kind of hypocrisy is starting to gall outside observers.
Instead of dealing with such hypocrites, who, in the name of promoting democracy and human rights, trample on the very values they champion, why not rather do business with the more straightforward Chinese? They have no truck for democratic values but then they never pretended they cared about them. The devil you seemingly know is better than the friend you don’t.
The reality is more nuanced. China is an autocracy and it too doesn’t desist from coercive action when it is displeased with other countries, as South Korea, Japan and India will attest. Yet, when contrasted with the gung-ho Americans who come with seemingly many hidden motives, the Chinese have, by and large, managed to project an image of peace-loving, non-ideological businessmen. And in diplomacy, perception is often as important as reality.
The Chinese approach has other advantages too. For instance, China is the country most likely to nudge the Taliban to, say, respect girls’ right to education. On the one hand, China has ample interest in moderating the Taliban’s extremist instincts, lest it imports Islamic extremism from across the border. On the other hand, the Taliban don’t even want to hear of an extension of the US deadline to pull out its troops beyond August 31 if the evacuation of all Americans remains incomplete by that date. No wonder that despite all the hullabaloo surrounding the ‘debt trap’ diplomacy, the Chinese stock in the region remains high. The Americans, in the aftermath of their hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, meanwhile, have never been so unpopular.
The Americans have left South Asia most vulnerable to terrorism than at any point in recent memory. Good intent counts for little if you fail to see the possible consequences of your actions. It will take a long time for America’s image in the region to recover. The American ‘value-based’ world order faces its greatest crisis in a generation, and nowhere more so than in South Asia.