by Richard Nghiem
Image: Anthony Kwan/ Bloomberg. 2017, digital image. Available from: Flickr
With the chaotic and bloody US withdrawal from Afghanistan receiving immense attention all around the world, Beijing has wasted no time in capitalizing on this unprecedented propaganda opportunity. Videos of desperate Afghans hanging onto the fuselage of a C-17 transport plane and the devastating suicide bombing outside of Hamid Karzai International Airport have been constantly broadcasted by Chinese state media to depict America as a fading global power, unable to live up to its defence treaty commitments. State news agency Xinhua, in particular, has also asserted that “the fall of Kabul marks the collapse of the international image and credibility of the US” and is only another sign of the “decay of US hegemony.” Most provocatively, the Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid, confidently declared that America’s recent actions in Afghanistan were clear evidence that it “had abandoned its allies and so-called alliances and would not come to Taiwan’s aid” in a potential conflict with China. Ultimately, Taiwan would face the “same fate as Afghanistan.”
In the minds of most security analysts, there is no doubt that strategic competitors like China benefit from such narratives, as they suggest that the US will not or cannot defend all of its allies. They sow doubt among America’s friends and undermine its global influence while promoting the idea of China’s inevitable rise. However, besides that, most defence experts and journalists would argue that these state-media written articles are nothing more than just pure propaganda or empty threats. To them, China would never consider invading Taiwan or attacking Japan as that risks going to war with the United States.
Be that as it may, the growing aggression by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the belligerent rhetoric from respected high ranking Chinese generals and admirals indicate that the Communist Party of China believes that defeating the US, or at the very least deterring American intervention, is possible. Massive PLA air and naval drills were precisely timed to accompany Beijing’s “propaganda” on Afghanistan and simulated a realistic full-scale amphibious assault on Taiwan. The exercise involved the live-firing of missiles, sortieing of dozens of fighter jets and bombers, and the deployment of several amphibious assault battle groups. Furthermore, Chinese Rear Admiral Lou Yuan publicly stated that in order for China to resolve the disputes regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea, the PLA would ‘only’ need to sink two US aircraft carriers. Several other generals also showed footage of simulated DF-21 ballistic missile attacks against mock-ups of US air bases in Okinawa and Guam to demonstrate China’s readiness for war. These provocative actions increasingly point to President Xi Jinping’s potential belief that America is weary of conflict and unwilling to get involved in another intervention like Afghanistan. To him, it is now China’s opportunity to challenge the United States militarily. However, these strategic perceptions of America’s recent actions in Afghanistan are not only completely wrong, but also dangerously misguided. Instead of receding from global affairs and its defence obligations, the United States is merely re-adjusting its strategic posture in response to the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape of the world.
When President Biden entered office earlier this year, he made it very clear to the American people that the United States was entering a new era of great power competition. Instead of counterinsurgency or nation-building, the main focus of the Biden administration would be deterring aggression by other great powers. This shift in strategic focus required President Biden to reassess America’s military footprint around the world and relocate more forces to regions that were most vital to the national interest. A prime example of this was the redeployment of US THAAD and Patriot missile defence batteries from Saudi Arabia to Guam and Okinawa. Similarly, the US military presence in Afghanistan was also deemed expendable by the President. With thousands of troops on the ground and $300 million being spent everyday for a war which not many Afghans wanted to fight, as proven by recent mass defections and negotiated surrenders by the Afghan military to the Taliban, continuing the Afghan military mission seemed pointless. Without the Afghan army’s unified will to fight for their people and their government against the Taliban, the American military mission could not succeed. The United States had already spent 20 years in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban, training and advising the Afghan military, equipping it with new weaponry, constructing Afghanistan’s own air force, and spending approximately $2.3 trillion to no avail.
Despite this, some may argue that President Biden’s withdrawal of US troops was just honouring the agreement that had already been signed by the previous administration with the Taliban. However, President Biden, as the new Commander in Chief, could have easily ripped up this deal and chosen to remain in Afghanistan. Instead, he justified the withdrawal by stating that American troops were desperately needed elsewhere around the world in a rapidly changing security environment. To him, closing the 9/11 era was imperative to achieve a goal that had eluded both President Obama and President Trump: freeing the US from its engagements in the Middle East and rebalancing its forces to the Pacific to deter an increasingly belligerent China. Therefore, while it may have been a cold, calculated strategic assessment by President Biden that continued involvement in Afghanistan was no longer in America’s national interest, the military exit from Afghanistan was not a retreat from the world stage or the beginning of a new isolationist foreign policy. It was instead a strategic decision made to free up more financial and military assets for more important regions, particularly the Indo-Pacific region.
Although not specifically highlighted in daily White House foreign policy briefings, the Biden administration has consistently emphasized its concern with China’s destabilizing behaviour and challenge to America’s established world order. From solidifying its territorial claim to the entire South China Sea, with militarized artificial islands, to conducting military incursions into the airspace and Economic Exclusive Zones of nearby ASEAN countries, China is clearly on the offensive and trying to undermine US dominance. More importantly, it is trying to test America’s resolve and commitment to its defence treaty allies. In response, President Biden has already strengthened diplomatic and economic relations with fellow democratic countries in the Pacific and authorized numerous large-scale military exercises with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), which consists of Japan, Australia, and India. Furthermore, he has recently unveiled a new plan in conjunction with the UK to help Australia acquire nuclear attack submarines, long range offensive missiles, as well as new AI and cyber capabilities. These advanced military technology transfers will undoubtedly help bolster its national defence. Not to mention, this arrangement will also entail additional American strategic bombers and fighter jets being permanently stationed in northern Australia as a clear deterrent against Sino aggression. Taking into account all these actions, there is no doubt that under President Biden, the United States is clearly focused on confronting and containing the rise of China.
Nonetheless, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has caused many American allies, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, and quasi-allies like Taiwan, to seriously question how committed the US really is to their defence. This is especially the case in Taiwan as discussions have already broken out across social media as to how the federal government would respond in the event of a Chinese invasion, and whether the US military would come to the island’s aid at all. In the eyes of Beijing, this strategic second guessing is only reaffirming its strong belief that America is indeed retreating from the world stage and that now is the time to militarily pressure the US in the West Pacific, especially regarding Taiwan. This, however, is where China’s strategic interpretation of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan goes from being merely wrong to potentially triggering a major armed conflict that it cannot win.
The idea that if Beijing can push hard enough militarily on Taiwan, America will cave like they did in Afghanistan, is a dangerous thought to have as the island-nation is the geographic key to US influence in the West Pacific. It forms the ‘first island chain’ that contains and restricts the safe naval movements of China to its coast and prevents the PLA navy from expanding into the Western Pacific. In the event of a war, Taiwan would allow the US to have the ability to operate forces from it to disrupt or deny any offensive Chinese maritime operations. However, Chinese control of the island would eliminate this strategic advantage and enable the PLA to much more easily project force against major US allies such as Japan and South Korea. Consequently, the United States, as the undisputed preeminent Pacific power for the past 75 years, will unlikely give up Taiwan without a fight. President Biden has made America’s position on this matter unmistakably clear by authorizing the largest military exercise ever undertaken in the Pacific since the end of the Cold War. In recent months, the US has surged a third of its most technologically advanced nuclear attack submarines into the Western Pacific to demonstrate its undersea dominance, deployed several aircraft carrier battle groups around China, and conducted large-scale live ship-sinking exercises. Simultaneously, Marine expeditionary maritime strike task forces, along with joint F-22, F-35 fighter squadrons and ballistic missile defence systems have been dispersed throughout the entire region while guided missile destroyers and bombers continue to patrol the Taiwan Strait. Not only that, troops and financial assets, freed up by the Afghanistan withdrawal, are being relocated to bases in Hawaii and Guam and reinvested into the development of AI-enabled command and control, advanced sensors, and autonomous unmanned air and naval weapon systems respectively. These concerted actions are an obvious attempt by the United States to ensure the credible defence of its allies against Chinese aggression.
President Biden’s commitment to America’s Pacific allies, however, has not only been in the military realm. Early on in his presidency, he dispatched an unofficial delegation to Taiwan in a show of political support for the island-nation. He then approved the creation of new guidelines for increased US government interaction and engagement with the Taiwanese government. Furthermore, his administration held several diplomatic meetings with all QUAD leaders, promising stronger defence ties, increased trade, and enhanced technological and scientific research cooperation. Most importantly, when President Biden decided to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan, he immediately sent Vice President Kamala Harris to Singapore and Vietnam to reassure ASEAN countries and the QUAD that the military exit from Afghanistan would not affect America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. During this trip, the Vice President solidified technological supply chain and cybersecurity ties with Singapore, and affirmed military and COVID vaccine support for Vietnam. Altogether, these military and diplomatic measures clearly support America’s steadfast commitment to its traditional allies and underpin President Biden’s main foreign policy goals of maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and deterring any Chinese aggression.
Lastly, but most importantly, to discredit those who may argue that America’s resolve and commitment to its major Pacific allies has never been truly tested, one may look to the Korean War for evidence. It was during this conflict that US troops came to the aid of South Korea, successfully repelling North Korean invasion forces all the way to the Yalu River. And when China intervened in the war, the United States, under President Eisenhower, was even willing to use nuclear weapons to force Beijing to the negotiating table despite the very real threat of Soviet nuclear retaliation. This unquestionably demonstrates America’s ultimate commitment to South Korea and its other allies. Not to mention, to this day, 30,000 troops still remain in the country. In terms of Japan, US commitment to their security is also indisputable as it has nearly 80,000 forward deployed troops, hundreds of fighter aircraft, and an entire naval fleet in-country. Finally, America has the Taiwan Relations Act, which has not only legally allowed it to sell tens of billion of dollars worth of defensive weapons to Taiwan and rotate troops in and out of the island-nation, but also explicitly stated that any attempt to invade or coerce Taiwan will be considered as a grave national security concern to the United States.
Overall, this op-ed is not meant to support or criticize the Biden administration’s decision to end the war in Afghanistan; rather, its purpose is to abate the grand and dangerous conclusions that many countries are drawing from that decision. Contrary to what China may think, the US withdrawal is not a sign of American decline or some omen for the fate of Taiwan or Japan. Nor does the military exit from Afghanistan nullify America’s reliability or credibility in any way. Make no mistake. The United States is still the most powerful nation on Earth whose vital interest is to deter illiberal authoritarian regimes from challenging the current world order. To try to deduce lessons from the limited case of Afghanistan in order to trumpet the overall decline of US resolve or credibility around the world is a foolish undertaking and will ultimately lead to the destruction of the nations that do. From America’s liberation of Western Europe during WWII, to its overwhelming 100 hour victory over the Iraqi military to free its ally, Kuwait, from foreign occupation, one only needs to take a quick look at its history to see that such questioning of its resolve by ambitious nations will only result in their utter defeat.