A general scan of documents and nature of the United States’ behavior in the past few years will show that the lion’s share of those documents, as well as the behavioral focus and strategic actions of Washington, have been specially related to East Asia. Moreover, the United States has announced its general strategy in Afghanistan according to which the country’s plan for the management of regional developments has become more expanded and it seems that Washington is trying to contain both China and Russia simultaneously by taking advantage of capabilities of its allies in two security environments in East and South Asia. In other words, what can be deduced from United States’ new strategy in Afghanistan is that US President Donald Trump has been trying to add an annex to US rebalancing strategy in East Asia and that annex is the country’s new strategy in Afghanistan.
Without a doubt, one can claim that as China’s power expands toward South Asia and its plan to lay siege to India nears completion through a strategic alliance with Pakistan, the United States’ balancing strategy for geopolitically surrounding China is being dealt a blow. This strategy was first presented under former U.S. president, Barack Obama. Therefore, the scope of this siege must be expanded to match the new realities. Of course, in addition to this issue, it is certain that during their secret talks with the United States, Indian officials have owned up to their inability to contain China in their western security environment. This issue justifies the United States’ new focus and its plan to help India break the siege laid to it by China.
Chinese analysts, especially professors at South Asia department of Fudan University, have made efforts to explain US strategy in Afghanistan and reasons, which have changed the decision and mentality of Donald Trump about staying in Afghanistan. As a first step, they have noted that the new strategy adopted by the United States is not a plan to solve the problem in Afghanistan, but can even face the country’s development plans and future progress with more challenges and delays. These experts maintain that since he took office, Trump has been faced with two challenges, which include terrorism and the fading image of the United States’ global leadership and management. For this reason, they argue, conceding to defeat in Afghanistan will reduce the United States’ ability for the management of regional equations before the public opinion of the world. Another important point that Chinese experts have pointed out about regional dimensions of US strategy in Afghanistan is Washington’s effort to boost its presence and geopolitical influence in the region. From the viewpoint of these analysts, Afghanistan can turn into a major hub connecting South Asia, Central Asia, East Asia and the Middle East. Naturally, in spite of its costs for the United States, presence of this country in Afghanistan can also strengthen the sense of America’s presence and geopolitical influence in the region.
Domestic differences in the United States, especially the impact of this issue on the decision-making process in this country, constitute another point on which Chinese experts have emphasized. Therefore, they consider the new strategy of the United States in Afghanistan to be, in fact, a strategy adopted by the military and security sectors of America in order to pursue their own interests. For example, Zhang Jiadong, a professor at Fudan University’s Center for American Studies, has said in this regard that domestic differences in the United States constitute another important index, which has changed Trump’s mentality with regard to Afghanistan. He believes that Steve Bannon, a former White House advisor, was among those people who defended withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan; however, he was sacked from Trump’s policymaking team before the United States’ new strategy on Afghanistan was announced. Another point raised by Zhang is about Trump’s personal weakness in decision-making. He maintains that Trump’s personal weakness in decision-making has increased the role of America’s military forces in the decision-making process. He also believes that this strategy mostly reflects the intentions of security and military sectors of the United States.
The possibility of the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, followed by the impact that this issue can have on Trump’s political image and the criticism that it can stir aimed at Trump and other Republican figures in the United States, is another one of important reasons to which Chinese experts have pointed. Some Chinese experts believe that the possibility of the fall of the government in Afghanistan as a result of the rising power of the Taliban has increased, especially since 2016. From the viewpoint of these experts, former US presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, went to great lengths in order to keep the Afghan government in place, but the increasing influence of the Taliban can lead to the collapse of the Afghan government. Such a development will increase criticism of Trump and his administration’s inability to keep the Afghan government in place and can even change his decision and mentality about further US presence in Afghanistan.
On the whole, although Chinese experts have never discussed containment of China’s power in the region as a result of the new US strategy, an important reality which must be taken into account here, is that this strategy can be also considered as a strategy aimed at containing further expansion of China’s power in the Southeast Asia region. Therefore, one can claim that this strategy will not remain limited to Afghanistan. Presence of the United States in Afghanistan and making an effort to give more strategic breathing room to India in the region are components of the next important step, which will be taken with more strength in the future. It seems that this issue has increased China’s concerns about future developments in the South Asia region.
Under these conditions, it is only natural for China to get closer to Pakistan than any time before and try to preserve the regional balance and accumulation of power, which has come about in the past five years as a result of Pakistan’s regional initiatives in favor of Beijing. In other words, it must be noted that Chinese officials are basically not willing to get back to the first square. As a first step, they have announced their official support for Pakistan and opposed the United States’ new strategy in Afghanistan. Pakistan, in return, has declared its backing for China’s policy in Tibet. In addition, China has quite recently started training Pakistani air force personnel through the exercise code-named Shaheen (Eagle)-2. Of course, the joint training program, which mainly focuses on using Chinese fighter jets, dates back to 2011, but it had been somehow slowed down in the past six years.
In addition to what was said before about the approach taken by China and its academic circles to the changing mentality of Trump and Washington’s new strategy in Afghanistan, another important point, which must be touched upon here, is that this strategy can also affect the immediate security environment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the present time, two axes have taken shape in the region. The first axis includes China, Pakistan, and to some extent Russia, while the second axis is made up of the United States, India, and Afghanistan. Presence of these two axes in the region can intensify strategic rivalries in the immediate security environment of Iran in the future and force Iran to make its own strategic choices in that environment.
© Abrar Moaser Tehran
Mohammad Zare, an expert on East Asia affairs, is the guest contributor to IRAS.
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