America invades. China trades.

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The great challenge of the 21st century is understanding China

Martin Jacques

“They’re the lucky ones.”

I switched off. The BBC presenter was talking about 3 Afghans who’d reached the UK, just before the US withdrawal.  

You escape violence, panic and chaos, leaving family and friends. You face a future in Priti Patel’s Britain, trying to get money, work and help, not knowing when you’ll be free to return to your home country.  And you’re “the lucky ones?”

The US and allies’ exit from Afghanistan, 20 years after they invaded, is a pivotal, kairotic moment. The BBC led on it for weeks, focussing almost exclusively around Kabul and the airport, on soldiers leaving and the desperate plight of those who’d helped them, trying to flee. The rest of the country and the majority of the population were all but ignored.

The portrayal of the new governing powers was rigidly hostile. Though the Taliban are a mass of conflicting forces, the T-word was used, often in the third person singular, to portray them indiscriminately as monolithic, brutal and primitive.  

Surely the people that defeated the greatest superpower on earth warranted analysis? The UK media might as well have said the Gruffalo, such was the infantile demonisation. The Taliban has terrible tusks and terrible claws. And terrible teeth in its terrible jaws. 

And terrible misogyny. The BBC presented a stark contrast: women studying, teaching and working before the withdrawal versus barbaric suppression of women’s rights after. 

[Read: The Hypocrisy of the West’s Solidarity for Afghan Women]

Dr Yvonne Ridley was imprisoned by the Taliban in 2001. In a recent Scot Goes Popcast, she says the women judges, journalists and doctors were green shoots but came from the privileged elite of Kabul and the main cities. Across the country, female illiteracy is 84%. Some places have no schools, while shiny new schools in Kandahar are devoid of teachers and pupils.

The truth is that the Taliban had greater popular support than the deeply corrupt puppet regime it replaced, which collapsed weeks after the US started to pull out.  The president fled the country before the Americans did.

Given how they worked with the Americans to smooth the evacuation, Dr Ridley believes the Taliban have changed.  And that they’ll adapt further if they are to stand a chance of governing the broken country they’ve inherited.  

There are signs, from meetings and discussions being held, that this regime will be more inclusive, not just of tribal elders but neighbouring countries, other ethnic groups and women. Ridley adds: My money’s on the women.

It’s bound to take time.  But how long and why on earth should women have to keep waiting for the opportunities, rights and equality that should be theirs already? And as for theocratic fascism – the sooner that’s consigned to the bin of history, the better!

But bombing’s not the answer. While we must object to the regressive elements of the Taliban, the more realistic path to change in Afghanistan is through engagement.

Photo by Sohaib Ghyasi on Unsplash

To be fair, the Beeb’s coverage is a bit more savvy with the return to Kabul, after 27 years, of Jeremy Bowen, Middle East editor. He has no illusions about the Taliban’s unforgiving idealogy, but he makes clear how the war undercut attempts to make Afghanistan a better place. Tellingly, he now wears a shalwar kameez to respect the local dress code. 

Overall, the BBC and the rest reflect the narrow outlook of the UK establishment. Ex-foreign secretary Raab’s grilling by MPs showed how little the government knew about what was going on: how many Afghans worked for Britain; how many have the right to settle here; which foreign ministers were contacted and why 5000 desperate emails went unread by his department.

He knew nothing.  Not even the dates of his holiday.

The chaos, divisions and instability sown by 20 years of US, the UK and allied occupation left those powers strangely ignorant of the country they invaded.

In February 2020, Trump signed the Doha deal with the Taliban, committing to the withdrawal of US and British troops by May 2021. Biden upheld the plan, amending the exit date to August. Everyone knew what was going on.  

Aren’t we supposed to have world-beating intelligence services? What did we miss and why? Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter said: “I don’t think we realised what the Taliban were up to.”

Imperial declines are unlikely to be peaceful; the US one has been especially bloody. We mourn the 3000 people killed in the New York horror that triggered the US invasion, but how do we weep for the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Afghanistan since 9/11?

[Read: The harsh truths you won’t hear about the withdrawal from Afghanistan]

The US forces’ last act was a Hellfire drone attack on a white Toyota. They thought, based on substantial intelligence, they were targeting an ISIS terrorist. Instead, 7 children were playing around the car. The drone killed them and 3 adults, one of whom worked for an American aid organisation. It was a futile, impotent response, like a microcosm of the entire Afghan war.

Tony Blair says the US departure is “tragic, dangerous, imbecilic”.  

Once he stood, in too-tight jeans, alongside George W. Bush, helping him enter Afghanistan and Iraq.  Now Tony returns, to the scene of the war crime, to tell us this wouldn’t have been the exit pursued by A. Blair.  

But we see for ourselves.  Blair’s liberal interventionism is just another brand of racism, a legacy of colonialist attitudes and systems.

When I went to Afghanistan, in the 1970s, it was neither modern nor Western, but it was safe.

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Since then, the Soviets and the US, have joined the list of invaders – stretching back to Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan – who’ve dug themselves into this graveyard of empires.

William Dalrymple’s Return of a King gives a vivid history of the first disastrous British entanglement in Afghanistan, in 1839. The British installed a deeply unpopular ruler, Shah Shuja. They thought they’d beat Russian expansion. It was all part of the Great Game, a sort of imperial pissing contest. The retreat, in 1842, saw 20,000 British troops killed.

One of the bloodiest deaths was Sir Alexander (Sikunder) Burnes. Cousin to Scotland’s bard, he was the classic example of a talented, diligent Scot trying to make the British empire function.  Forced to accept unworkable instructions from his witless, arrogant superiors, he was hacked to death in Kabul at the age of 36.

Nothing learned, there were 2 more Anglo-Afghan wars in 1878 and 1919.

Some in the West, seeking a replacement for the US, cite China as the next imperial aggressor.  More misconception.  

As Martin Jacques, author of the seminal When China Rules the World, says: “the chances of China being so stupid are zero.” 

Part of the explanation is China’s experience as the underdog, dominated by Japan and the West for a century of humiliation and – since 1949 – as a developing country.  Unlike the US and the UK, China knows how it feels to walk in the shoes of a state like Afghanistan.

Throughout its long history, China has often been a world power.  Yet, while it attaches the greatest importance to retaining (and reclaiming) lands which it regards as its own, it has little tradition of colonising foreign territories.

Instead, as it works with an ever-greater number of countries, China prioritises stability and development. In Afghanistan, this means that Beijing is likely to offer the new regime economic aid to rebuild and fight ISIS. 

Since post-Mao reforms in the late 1970s, China has focussed remorselessly on its economic strength, while improving its infrastructure, the lives of its people and its involvement with the rest of the world.

Photo by Nuno Alberto on Unsplash

In the 1980s, China’s economy was 5% of the size of America’s. By 2014, it was the same. In the 2030’s it could be twice as big as the US.

This meteoric and inexorable rise has enabled China to join the world. It became a member of the World Trade Organisation in 2001. It recently signed up to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade agreement of 15 Asia-Pacific countries (including Australia). The RCEP accounts for 30% of global GDP, and the same share of the world’s population – more than the EU and the US-Mexico-Canada pact.

The global reduction in absolute poverty is at least as much to do with internal Chinese development as western aid & trade.

Obama set up, in 2016, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, another trade deal between some of the RCEP states, plus Canada, Chile, Mexico and Peru. Within months, Trump pulled the US out. Now, China has applied to join the TPP.

Since 2013, China’s most ambitious international project is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a huge multi-continental investment, infrastructure, construction and trading project.  It now involves 139 countries. China is highly fused with the global economy.  

Italy was the first European state to commit to the BRI. Russia now sees it as an opportunity. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister says: “China is the country that came to Pakistan’s aid.” Most of China’s partners are developing countries, which now account for two-thirds of the world’s economic activity.

Meanwhile, the G7’s influence is diminishing, its market dominion a fraction of what it was. The west’s share of the world population is just 14%, compared to the developing world’s 84%. 

[Read: The G7 Summit is Boosting Cornish Nationalism. Here’s Why.]

The withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a major military humiliation. But the greatest blow to the West was economic: the 2008 financial crisis, from which it’s never recovered.

Cold war rhetoric won’t wash. The recent formation of AUKUS misreads the realities of international progress.  It’s more fantasy – the US is like a playground bully, Draco Malfoy, having just lost one massive fight, instantly picks another, egged on by hapless Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison, the Crabbe and Goyle of international diplomacy. 

At the very moment when they could seek to build bridges with China and others, the AUKUS squad choose the military route. Johnson says stocking the Indo-Pacific seas with nuclear submarines is not intended to be adversarial. Tell that to the French and other allies, who are incandescent at the move.

The crucial thing about China is its difference from the West.  It’s not like a Western nation-state. Its approach, rooted in a civilisation going back to Confucius, is shrewder, deeper, more strategic. It doesn’t indulge in Bush’s good guy versus evil simplistics. 

Huge problems lie ahead of course: environmental crises, tech wars, refugee flights, the return of Trumpism etc. A major concern is what a cowed US will do with all its weapons. Sixty years ago, Eisenhower warned against the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex. Now it’s bigger, stronger, yet aimless; how long before it concocts another casus belli, a pretext for war?  

The post-US world is not all about China vs. America, replacing one superpower with another. We’re seeing a shift away from a minority of developed countries ruling the world towards a multipolarity of developing countries.

To understand is not to condone. How can we share the values of distant civilisations? I’ve never been to China, nor can I speak a word of Mandarin, which I’d say were the least requirements to assess the rights and wrongs of what’s happening within that huge country. This article is about how to go with the grain of history and humanity, as the whole world moves forward. 

This new world order is already spreading from south-east Asia to encompass the rest of that continent, Africa and Latin America; projects like the link across the bay of Maputo, capital of Mozambique –  the longest suspension bridge in Africa.  And the joint hydropower plan is to build 2 dams in Argentina, due to generate nearly 5,000 megawatts of electricity, reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

The BRI might reach further into Europe and even the USA itself. Though China may be preeminent in this process, it’s unlikely to dominate it.

A current upside to China’s connecting with the world is the number of Covid vaccines it’s provided to over a hundred countries – 884 million, with plans to make it 2 billion by the end of 2021.  The US has delivered 160 million.

The world is changing.  Good.

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Comments (16)

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  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    an interesting and enlightening read.

    Clearly the West should have learned from history and never invaded Aghanistan. Unfortunately the US television and real life culture of solving everything with assault rifles was and remains the height of stupididity. Our “Me Too” prime ministers wouldn’t listen to the people when they said “Not in My Name” prior to the Iraq war.

    Very few of us know what the long game is with China other than what we are fed on what passes for news. Are they planning world domination or are they making a better job of expanding trade than UK did when it subjugated large areas of the planet.

  2. Mark Bevis says:

    All well and good, and I do hope the Chinese are a better neighbour to the Afghans than westerners have ever been. Although they way China is treating some of it’s Islamic and other minorities doesn’t bode well. There is a remote sliver of land bordering China and Afghanistan and the last thing China needs is the Taliban exporting Wahhabism to it’s muslim minorities. Hence the Chinese will play a deft hand in negotiating with the new Afghan regime.

    But the Belt & Roads Iniative is the most ecologically destructive force currently on the planet. In the last 30 years China has used more concrete than the US has ever in it’s entire history. The sand shortage is already leading to 3 UK off-shore permit applications for sand dredging/mining which will destroy even more local marine habitats.
    It’s world wide impact is already massive, for example: (no, it cannot)

    The latter paper says “It is finite in that the rate at which we are using it far exceeds the natural rate at which it is being replenished by the weathering of rocks by wind and water.” and yet it goes on to the usual hopium.

    BRI = colonialism without guns as far as I can see. Geo-political realities may be one thing, but if they aren’t operated through the lens of ecological limits, then disaster will ensue.
    Since 1979 Afghanistan has been in constant state of war. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the population has overshot from 12 million in 1979 to 39 million today – in a time of increasing climate damage the Taliban are going to have their work cut out just feeding everyone.

    If the Chinese middle class invests in an Afghan branch of the BRI, in some of the most challenging terrain on the planet, what resources are then denied to the Chinese people?

    And of course, the predicament is if those road and rail links are built, and new mines opened, dams raised, etc, the emissions those works create will increase the already increasing climate disasters. Where roads are built, local settlements appear and destroy local ecosystems. So the paradox is, Chinese economic colonialism, even if it is more benign than historic western racist colonialism, is ultimately speeding up the disasters that befall those same said countries, as well as others.
    In the interim all that happens is that a local minority elite benefits, and the local populace just gets involved into another form of wage slavery. The Mozambique road toll operators and Argentinian dam operating companies will become another burgeoning middle class, adding to the number of people depleting the resources of the planet through consumerism. Dams are environmentally bad news anyway, but that’s a separate issue.

    Some observers have noted that the BRI is far from benign, but simply the Chinese government looking ahead and realising it hasn’t enough resources for it’s future population, and is just in fact a foot-in-the-door to acquire those resources. And perhaps diverting the attention of the burgeoning Chinese wealthy classes.

    PS – that’s not China bashing per say, it is the same for any country. China is probably the only major power that is not functionally bankrupt at the moment, so it gets the focus of attention. If they seek revenge for the Opium Wars of the 19th Century, good look to them, it will be well deserved, but it’ll speed up the burning of the planet just another iota more.

  3. Dougie Harrison says:

    Thanks for this Paul. Like you, I’ve never been to China, and am illiterate in any of its languages. But the world has to face a new reality, horrible as it may be to the ‘west’s’ Cold Warriors. China is the biggest nation in the world in population terms, and will soon be (if it isn’t already) the biggest economy. What it does and why, is of vital importance to those on the left in Scotland. So your piece is a most welcome start to us facing up to the reality of the earth we share.

    And a reasonable approach to what’s happening in forever war-torn is just part of that.

    1. Dougie Harrison says:

      Don’t know why it wasnie included here, but the word ‘Afghanistan’ should be after ‘war-torn’ of course.

  4. Pat Walsh says:

    So you need to speak Mandarin to be able to assess the rights and wrongs of what’s happening in China? I guess you think you need to be able to speak Arabic and Hebrew to be able to assess the rights and wrongs of what’s happening in Palestine, Catalan to be able to assess the rights and wrongs of what’s happening in Catalonia etc etc. Of course it helps to be able to speak the relevant language but such a blanket statement is a recipe for total isolationism, contrary to any sense of internationalism or solidarity.

    You don’t need to speak Mandarin to understand the incarceration of thousands of Muslims, the effective destruction of independent trade unions in HK, the constant supppression of worker and peasant struggles, the nepotistic elite that rule etc etc in the PRC, any more than you need to speak English to understand the suppression of democracy, the economic chaos, the racist immigration policy, the punitive welfare policies etc in the UK.

    1. David B says:

      It’s more than thousands. 1.3 million Turkic people in internment camps according to Human Rights Watch. It’s genocide (in any language).

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Pat Walsh, if the BBC was really concerned about the plight of the Uighurs in China, why doesn’t its recent critical coverage (post-1997 as far as I can discover) highlight their exposure to radiation from the Chinese nuclear test program activity in the deserts of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region?
      Perhaps this would be too similar to the British nuclear testing carried in places like Maralinga in Australia (which featured in a recent documentary, Maralinga Tjarutja). The great powers’ around 2500 nuclear tests may have killed hundreds of thousands of people round the world, but that inconveniently implicates the UK and official allies.

      1. Pat Walsh says:

        Sleeping Dog, why do you presume that I think the BBC, or any British state institution, cares about the Uighur people or any other oppressed people. Of course they don’t.

        But I do, and I can rub my tummy and pat my head at the same time: I oppose all colonialism, all oppression, whether the source is the Chinese state, the US, Spanish state, UK etc.

        This kind of whataboutery is so pervasive now that it’s obvious that you didn’t read my full comment. Isn’t it obvious, from my comments on Palestine etc., and on the UK, that I oppose oppression/exploitation everywhere? But you just presumed that because I oppose Chinese state colonialism, that I must be soft on UK imperialism.

        I oppose all exploitation and oppression, no matter who the perpetrators.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Pat Walsh, I wasn’t contradicting you, I was expanding a point from your original comment: corporate and state media will not fill in the blanks nor join the dots for its consumers. What people generally need to understand modern conflicts and contested worldviews is historical context, which many news sources fail not only to provide, but also to reference. Once you have a fuller picture, you can ask better questions. For example, you mention trade unions in Hong Kong in passing, but what was the history of trade unionism under British rule, and how has that influenced the present? The colonial past casts a long shadow. That’s not whataboutery (although I am surprised you single out China for a nepotistic elite considering this is a UK site, and the UK leads the world in nepotistic elites).

          1. Pat Walsh says:

            To state the obvious, the article was about China, that’s why I started with a comment on China, and ended with an observation about the UK.

            Again, it’s not either or, the UK for a long time suppressed radical TUs in HK and of course refused to institute a fully democratic system of gov, which allowed the PRC to do the same when it took over. Now the PRC has effectively suppressed independent TUs in HK leaving only the state controlled front unions in place.

            I can only reiterate what I said earlier that I oppose all exploitation and oppression regardless of perpetrator. I guess its cos I’m one of those old fashioned Marxists who still believes in internationalism.

  5. Graeme Hood says:

    I find it strange that you mention William Dalrymple and his book but fail to mention Craig Murray as the author of a history of Sikunder Burnes. A very well researched and interesting history:

    1. Paul Bassett says:

      Yes, I’d love to have given a nod to Craig, a very good writer. But I haven’t read his book on Burnes.

  6. Paula Becker says:

    It’s a topsy turvy world. The Conservative Woman publishes a transcript of a talk given by Ernst Wolff!
    Has The Conservative Woman become a more radical website than Bellacaledonia?

  7. Paula Becker says:

    Welsh ‘democracy’. Yesterday the Welsh Senedd passed legislation for a vax passport by 28 votes to 27. A Tory MS was unable to vote because he had difficulties connecting to the Senedd by Zoom. If he had been able to vote he would have voted against the bill. The vote would therefore have been tied and the vax passport shelved.

  8. William Davison says:

    I presume Tibet wasn’t invaded, it was “liberated.” Just asking.

  9. J Galt says:

    There are some indications that the Chinese may already be controlling Bagram airbase – the key to Afghanistan.

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