The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan made headlines around the world. Few could have predicted that the predominantly Pashtun, Islamic fundamentalist group would resuscitate their power in summer 2021, after waging a 20-year insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
In the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, the Taliban began challenging NATO and taking back vast territories in the southwest of Afghanistan after heavy regrouping in Pakistan. The signing of a withdrawal agreement with the U.S. in Doha emboldened the Taliban to press their advantage and end the 20-year-old war. Backed by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Taliban notched swift successes as the U.S. withdrew its remaining troops from Afghanistan. By August 2021, the Taliban had conquered all of Afghanistan’s major cities and ultimately Kabul. By September, they controlled the entire country after taking the mountainous Panjshir Valley, where the National Resistance Front, led by Ahmad Masoud, had vowed to continue fighting the Taliban.
Less than a month later after the fall of Kabul, U.S. President Joe Biden, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched a trilateral security partnership, called AUKUS, to counter China. The AUKUS pact will enable Australia to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, which are supposed to be built in Adelaide, making Canberra the seventh country in the world to have submarines propelled by nuclear reactors. The core goal of this trilateral pact is to contain the threat emanating from China’s increased leverage in the Indo-Pacific and its worldwide ambitions. Not surprisingly, the formation of AUKUS spilled over into intensified Indo-Pacific tensions, especially over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the East Indian Ocean.
At the first glance, it seems that the developments in Afghanistan and Australia are unrelated events. One centered in the Hindukush Mountains; the other echoed 9,500 kilometers away, in the middle of the Indo-Pacific waters. Nevertheless, within a broader context, these two events are interconnected at the heart of the China-U.S. competition, forming the bookends of a new strategy I dub “leave the Belt, press the Road.” By this, I mean that the U.S. will increasingly target China’s Maritime Silk Road, while largely abandoning the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt. Succinctly put, the major front of the Sino-American infrastructure war is the Indo-Pacific rim, while the heart of Eurasia will be left to the destabilizing forces of the region.
The establishment of AUKUS reaffirms the fact that the cornerstone of Washington’s China containment strategy is pitched in the Indo-Pacific zone. Therefore, U.S. attention to the geographical locations at the heart of Eurasia will be degraded – but this is part of the plan. The U.S. lack of will or capability to keep up its presence in Eurasia may intentionally disrupt the stability of the Belt by generating a threatening power vacuum. The U.S. swift withdrawal from Afghanistan and the following empowerment of Taliban have the potential to destabilize Chinese land-based projects in Central Asia, Pakistan, and even Xinjiang. Although the chaotic drawdown of the war in Afghanistan has taken a toll on Biden’s standing back home, the geopolitical vacuum in Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal could be utilized to counterbalance Moscow, Beijing, and even Tehran, who will now have to contend with the empowerment of Islamic extremists in Central and West Asia.
Despite the seemingly sudden developments of the last two months, this trend in the global competition is not new. After almost a ten-year hiatus, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, was formally resumed in August 2017 to contain Beijing’s maritime power projection in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Initially founded in 2007, the Quad consists of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S., heralding the possible formation of an Asian NATO to counter the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). There were even rumblings about a “Quad Plus” when South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam joined the meetings in March 2020. The Malabar exercises hosted annually by India are a major manifestation of its military component.
In a 2021 joint statement on “The Spirit of the Quad,” the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States highlighted “a shared vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP),” and a “rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas” to counter China’s maritime threat. This progress was concomitant with the EU’s increasingly strategic attention toward the Indo-Pacific zone as France, Germany, and the U.K. accelerated their cooperation with the Quad Plus dialogue. Within this context, the AUKUS pact would supplement the Quad in counterbalancing China’s increasing influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Although AUKUS and the Quad both show muscle and military technology firepower, they lack a foundational proportionality. The Belt and Road Initiative is Beijing’s major geoeconomic strategy for challenging the U.S. hegemony around the globe, while the Quad and AUKUS are geostrategic and military tools in countering China in the Indo-Pacific zone. Phrased differently, there is a strategic gap between the threatening force and the deterring counterforce. It was this proportionality gap that pushed the Biden administration to launch a specific geoeconomic counterforce against the Belt and Road: Build Back Better World, or B3W, announced in June at the G-7 summit in Cornwall, U.K.
Led by the U.S., B3W aims at countering Chinese global leverage through massive investment in the infrastructural development of the developing countries by 2035. The plan is supposed to provide around $40 trillion, mainly from the private sector, to low- and middle- income countries, from Latin America and the Caribbean to Africa and Asia. Guided by the standards and principles of the Blue Dot Network (BDN), the B3W projects vow to focus on several domains, particularly climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality. The global scope of the B3W would equip its G-7 partners with different geographic orientations to target specific low- and middle-income countries across the world. While the U.S. focuses on the Indo-Pacific, Japan and the EU will concentrate on Southeast Asia and the Balkans, respectively, all with the aim of countering Chinese global influence.
The upcoming competition between B3W, now backed by the Quad and AUKUS, and the Chinese BRI is a prelude to the China-U.S. infrastructure war. The B3W is not just a U.S. financial response to China’s economic ambitions; rather it is a strategic effort to transform the rising geopolitical arrangement of Greater Eurasia and its coastal waters by establishing a new model of development. In other words, the United States is unleashing a geoeconomic counterforce against China’s BRI to achieve its grand geopolitical goals by mobilizing its private companies and those of its allies in massive infrastructure investment to control the BRI corridors. The new infrastructure war will determine the trajectory and path of the geopolitical battle between China and the U.S. for world domination in the 21st century.
On the other side of the global power equation, China has successfully controlled Central Asian markets while pursuing its “positive balance” doctrine among all parties in West Asia, wherein expanding cooperation with Beijing may be the only point all the regional powers can agree on. China’s dramatic economic growth and internal stability have enticed non-democratic political systems in the region. Beijing has established close economic relations with the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms, Israel, Iran, and Turkey at the same time. However, Beijing’s successful policy in cementing its connection with West Asia through Central Asia may be disrupted by threats emanating from Afghanistan. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will destabilize the land-based Belt while heavy pressure by the Quad and now AUKUS will counter the maritime Road.
The world is on the verge of China-U.S. international competition. Regional developments, like AUKUS, and domestic transformations, like the Taliban takeover of Kabul, will both be crucial elements in the grand chessboard between the U.S. and China. Now that the dust has settled in Kabul, one could see how the Taliban’s rising power is concomitant with the trilateral AUKUS pact. Both are milestones for a new phase in the Sino-American competition: leave the Belt, press the Road.