First it was North Korea. Then came Myanmar. It is now Afghanistan. The three ongoing crises in China’s neighborhood seem to have little in common. But for Beijing, they pose the same question: how to deal with strategically important but failing states at its border, and how China’s response will define its identity as a global power.
For many years, Chinese observers in the West have sought clues as to how a rising power will exert its influence on the world stage through its involvement in Africa or its relationship with the United States. But the way China approaches the three neighboring countries can provide a clearer picture.
“Afghanistan, Myanmar and North Korea are all tests for China as a rising superpower: whether Beijing, at a time of US withdrawal, can cleverly fill the void,” Thant said. Myint-U, a well-known Burmese. historian and former presidential adviser.
“We have seen the Western approach to failed states, rooted in ideas around elections, democracy and human rights, but we don’t really know what China would do, which over the past decades has was reluctant to export its own development model. instead of.”
China’s approach so far has been cautious and conventional. Regarding Afghanistan, he urged the international community to “actively guide” the Taliban. On Myanmar, he is proposing economic development after blocking outright condemnation of the coup at the UN Security Council in March. And as for North Korea, the two countries pledged in July to strengthen their cooperation on the 60th anniversary of the signing of their treaty of friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance.
China’s influence in these three countries is very different in nature. Unlike Afghanistan, with which China shares a tiny border, the border regions with North Korea and Myanmar have a long history of interaction.
“In Myanmar, China’s main interests are to ensure a certain degree of stability and to ensure that no other great power is a best friend to whoever is in charge. Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions to make Myanmar a bridge to the Indian Ocean are secondary to its millennial practice of dealing with barbaric conflicts along its southwest border, ”said Thant Myint-U, who is also the author of Hidden History of Burma.
Yun Sun, who heads the China program at the Stimson Center think tank, agreed. She said China’s main concern was the security of its borders, followed by a potential refugee crisis. In 2009, for example, the deadly Kokang clash in Myanmar resulted in as many as 30,000 refugees flocking to China. “Beijing will follow this very closely in the coming months if the situation continues to deteriorate in these countries,” she said.
In the case of Afghanistan, Beijing is still debating the extent to which it should actively engage with the Taliban regime. “I don’t think China will establish diplomatic relations with the Taliban,” Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Afghan Research Center at Lanzhou University, said in answering a question from a Chinese netizen last month. “[At least] not in the short term, ”he added.
Critics say that as an already important power, China will sooner or later face diplomatic dilemmas with Afghanistan in the months and years to come. “China is already a big boy, and people expect her to act like a big boy. Like it or not, its economic and political weight will naturally guide management, ”said Raffaello Pantuucci, senior researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “But it looks like Beijing is continuing to hedge its bets.”
So far, there are few signs that Beijing’s approach will resemble Washington’s. This week, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he believed US troops “would return to Afghanistan” in the future. “We will have to do it, because the threat will be so great,” he told the BBC.
If that happens, it may well play a role in China’s book, said Enze Han of the University of Hong Kong, summing up Beijing’s take on Washington’s military involvement in global conflicts. “Beijing probably wants to see the United States get bogged down in Afghanistan again. And even in the worst-case scenario, Beijing is extremely unlikely to get involved in Afghanistan the way the United States has.
“In the case of Myanmar, the Covid as well as the political crises make the country more likely to look like a failed state. China believes there is little that it can do to prevent this from happening. And once that happens, it will work to find ways to turn a crisis into an opportunity. “
It is clear that Beijing’s pragmatic foreign policy doctrine will not change anytime soon, and its response to events in these failed three states will inevitably lead commentators in Western democracies to draw their own conclusions about how China will behave then. that it establishes its new identity. as a major global player.
But from Beijing’s perspective, such an approach could also be its strategic trump card, Sun said. “It’s like in Game of Thrones: regimes come and go, but China as a neighbor is here forever. If the West now wants to influence these countries, they have to go through Beijing. These are all the cards of China in this changing dynamic with the West.