Asia’s lesson in solidarity
The Taliban’s conquest over the 20-year-long American-led mission in Afghanistan has issued a loud wake-up call that is reverberating throughout Asia.
Myths have been destroyed, mindsets turned on their heads, and Asia must brace itself for a period of flux, readjustment and examination.
The harrowing scenes at Kabul airport will become a hard reminder that the wealthy and developed nation states of Europe were unable to get their people out without American help. Despite shared values and strong alliances, the US made its decisions on Afghanistan without consultation and against the will of its allies.
Asian nations, therefore, should imagine where they want to be a generation from now. How much should they rely on distant outside powers, and how much should they create firmer relationships with neighbours?
Europe has had more than 70 years since the end of the Second World War to become self-reliant. Half a century on from that, in 1995, America had to intervene to end the Yugoslav Bosnia conflict because Europe was incapable of doing so itself.
In Afghanistan, over securing an airport for humanitarian evacuation flights, Europe helplessly had to wring its hands.
Might this also be the future for Asia, whether the reliance be on the US or China? Or might there be another way? And if so, what?
Asia does not have the unity or will to build European-style institutions or set up its own NATO-esque strategic alliance –and Afghanistan has shown how dependent this can be on the will of a single government.
But it does have a powerful voice of shared interests that it now needs to use with skill and determination, drawing on lessons learned from Afghanistan.
First, in recent years, the US has constructed a careful narrative of a changing world, mainly that the War on Terror was contained and a new threat from a rising China must be addressed in full. The lethal Islamic State bomb attacks in Afghanistan, just days after the Taliban had come to power, told us bluntly that this was not the case.
While China, together with Russia, may welcome how the Taliban victory underscores the limits of US power and influence, neither wants terror-led Afghan instability.
Therefore, rather than increase tension between these powers, there is a revival of shared interests. The prospect of resurgent terror attacks, whether in Xinjiang or Texas, will focus minds as much as any tension between rival warships in the South China Sea.
Second, from the east coast of Africa to the islands of the Pacific, American reliability is now under doubt. Most importantly, for the medium to long-term, this uncertainty is likely to percolate in key Indo-Pacific trigger points, namely Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and India.
Donald Trump may have begun to fracture trust, but Joe Biden has continued it, indicating that, regardless of who is in the White House, America is undergoing fundamental change.
Third, the US intervention in Afghanistan came as a direct reaction to the 9/11 attacks and was born out of a mix of justice, revenge and moral cause. Defeat came not because the policy itself had failed, but because the measures of good governance being put in place were not given time to take hold.
Asia’s two nation-building success stories, South Korea and Taiwan, took half a century, starting from a much higher baseline and without being bedevilled by ethnic and tribal divisions. Afghanistan was given only 20 years.
And fourth, the manner in which Kabul fell bears some similarity to the way Communist forces moved into Beijing in 1949. They used what they called ‘non-peaceful measures’, whereby bribes, looming reality and a state of siege prompted enough high-level defections for the American-backed regimes in China and Afghanistan to collapse with barely a shot fired.
We must remember that Taiwan, like Afghanistan, is the remnants of an unfinished civil war. The prospect of military invasion may capture headlines, but China’s preferable approach is to use similar methods of coercion and ‘non-peaceful’ measures. Like in Afghanistan, this tactic risks blindsiding America and catching it off guard.
Many more strands will emerge in coming months. There will be no straightforward conclusions and there will be added surprises.
Asia is a very different place now than in 2001. Its wealth and buoyancy could be compared to the era of the 1920s, when Japan was rising and China had shifted from dynastic rule to a republic, a time when fresh intellectual confidence was taking root.
Those who have been on the receiving end of the West’s lectures about democracy and nation-building or, worse, its bullets and bombs, may well share some of the sentiments summed up in a powerful 1924 speech by China’s first president, Sun Yat-sen.
‘Westerners consider themselves as the only ones possessed and worthy of true culture and civilisation,’ he said. ‘Other peoples with any culture or independent ideas are considered as Barbarians in revolt against Civilisation…There is another kind of civilisation superior to the (Western) rule of Might. The fundamental characteristics of this civilisation are benevolence, justice and morality: This civilisation makes people respect, not fear, it.’
Sun’s vision was the beginning of a strain of thinking now referred to as Asian values and still not fully defined.
It was, of course, derailed by Japan’s violent expansion, just as Afghanistan underlines the unpredictability we must anticipate in the coming years.
All the more important, then, that Asian nations scrutinise the US commitment to the region and begin to forge a cohesion among themselves that will never leave them as helpless as Europe has been in the airlift from Kabul.