Nine Taliban representatives meet with Chinese officials in Tianjin. In the center are Taliban co-founder Mullah Baladar and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Photo: Chinese Foreign Ministry

The appalling images of desperate Afghans losing their grip and falling to their death as planes take off from Kabul Airport evokes the memories of the panic evacuation from the rooftop of the American embassy in Saigon some 46 years earlier. 

This is yet another stain on America’s reputation. To lessen the trauma of the humiliating rush for the emergency exit as seen by world opinion, it will be crucial for President Joe Biden’s administration to arrange for the orderly departure of the Americans remaining in Afghanistan and not leave them stranded.

And, just as important, there are tens of thousands of Afghans who have provided loyal services to the Americans forces and have been promised visas to emigrate to the US, and are now waiting for safe passage out of Afghanistan.

Not all wishing to depart are gathered in Kabul or at the international airport. Many are simply caught unprepared by the sudden collapse of the US-backed government. Obviously, only with the consent and willing cooperation of the Taliban, now in control of the country, can the remaining Afghans and Americans be assembled and safely conveyed to departing planes.

It has been reported that US Secretary of State Tony Blinken contacted his counterparts in Russia and China as the debacle at the Kabul airport was unfolding. What Blinken said to Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and Wang Yi, foreign minister for China, has not been made public.

But if Blinken was hoping to salvage the reputation of the Biden administration, he probably would have had to swallow some of the American hubris and ask for assistance in intervening with the Taliban on America’s behalf.

China as intermediary for the US

Both China and Russia have kept open their embassies in Afghanistan and maintained diplomatic relations with the Taliban. Just recently, the Taliban even sent a delegation to Beijing to shore up their bilateral relations. The message was that the Taliban would like Afghanistan to become a part of the Belt and Road Initiative and welcome Chinese investments.

In turn, China has expressed interest in enlarging its presence but needs to see a secured country and the assurance of the safety of Chinese nationals working in Afghanistan. And, of course, the Taliban should not permit the use of Afghanistan as a staging ground for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and allow the mostly ethnic Uighur terrorists to enter China and wreak havoc there.

It’s no small irony that the world’s mightiest military power cannot exert its will on a tribal Islamic militant group and must rely on a third party to intercede on America’s behalf. Arguably, China is in the best position to persuade the Taliban to ensure safe passage for the people wishing to leave, and thus save Uncle Sam from the lingering embarrassment of a panic-stricken retreat.

The war in Afghanistan over 20 years has cost Washington the average of US$300 million per day. Perhaps China might suggest to the Biden administration that the US transfer the savings of some of that daily expenditure to the Taliban as a form of “departure head tax” to facilitate smooth exits.

Surely, Afghanistan is merely the latest evidence that the American mission of nation-building around the world and replicating democracies after its own image is nothing more than a fool’s errand and a pipe dream.

Follies of nation building

Even if the denizens inside the Washington Beltway fail to see the folly of decades of futility, the rest of world is increasingly aware of the risks of signing on to be a US ally. When Washington’s next bumbling leads to another crisis, the American assurance that Uncle Sam has their back will be shown as meaningless.  

Yet the latest US secretary of the air force, Frank Kendall, wants to refocus American weapons using advanced technology to “scare” China. Can’t even beat the Taliban but still wants to scare China. What is he smoking?

In previous commentaries in Asia Times, I have unabashedly promoted the idea that the US needs to find ways to work with China rather seeking to win the unwinnable zero-sum rivalry. Perhaps the folks in Washington are just too focused on building military might and can’t think of any other approach with China. 

First, it’s important to recognize that China does not want to compete with the US, especially in the development of weapons. Each advance the US makes, China is obliged to match and develop an effective counter. Each effective counter gives the US justification to invest in the next state-of-the-art weapon to kill and destroy. This is an endless march to disaster.

Rather than sending soldiers, China sends construction engineers to help countries on the Belt and Road build their infrastructure. The US does not have the resources to compete and should not. China makes friends with its BRI but not at the expense of America. Economic development in the countries that China assist is good for everybody.

Afghanistan is just one situation where collaboration with China is beneficial. There are many other global challenges on which the US needs to work with China such as climate change, stopping the Covid epidemic, cyber hacking, counterterrorism, drug and human trafficking and many others. Without mutual trust, the two countries cannot work effectively together.

Steps to collaboration with China

I would like to propose some sensible steps in the direction of getting along with China.

American business leaders have been clamoring for the Biden administration to restart trade negotiations with Beijing and remove the tariffs on imports from China. Biden should begin in all due haste and stop the open wound to American farmers and consumers caused by the tariff war.

The detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver has been an embarrassment for Canada and an unwarranted source of tension between China and the US along with Canada. Biden should take the initiative and promptly remove the request for extradition before the presiding Canadian judge dismisses the case. This good-faith gesture would do wonders for the relations among the three countries.

Basically, former president Donald Trump’s MAGA (Make America Great Again) foreign policy has been an unmitigated disaster to America’s credibility and prestige. Rather than blindly following the policies of his predecessor, Biden needs to order a thorough review and think deeply on what’s really good for America.

Rather than trying to persuade the rest of the world to be more like us Americans, we badly need to fix our seriously flawed democracy. We allow politicians to turn vaccinations and wearing a facial mask, which should be a public health issue, into a political issue. Some politicians, including ex-president Trump, treat the US constitution as nothing more than a doormat for their muddy shoes.

Are these characteristics of a model democracy worthy of worldwide adoration and respect?

George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield’s, a novel green building platform.