Stay Updated on Developing Stories

Chinese state media sets sights on Taiwan as US' Afghan retreat stokes nationalism

Editor's Note: (A version of this story appeared in CNN's Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country's rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.)

Hong Kong(CNN) The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan has presented Beijing with a propaganda boost, with Chinese state media capitalizing on the crisis to trumpet the supposed decline of America and taunt Taiwan with threats of invasion.

The jingoistic rhetoric coincided with air and naval drills launched Tuesday by the Chinese military, which sent fighter jets and warships near Taiwan in response to what it called the "repeated collusion in provocation" by Washington and Taipei.

In recent years, China's ruling Communist Party has sought to present the US as a fading global power. And now, the return of the Taliban to the streets of the Afghan capital is being touted by state media as the "death knell of US hegemony."

"The fall of Kabul marks the collapse of the international image and credibility of the US," a commentary from state news agency Xinhua said Monday.

"Following the blows of the global financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, the decay of the American hegemony has become an undisputed reality. Its failure in Afghanistan is another turning point in that spiral fall," it added.

The Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid, meanwhile, has repeatedly played up what it described as the "unreliability of US commitment to its allies," suggesting the self-governing island of Taiwan could face the same fate as Afghanistan in the event of conflict with China.

Taiwan and mainland China have been governed separately since the end of a civil war more than seven decades ago, in which the defeated Nationalists fled to Taipei. But the Chinese Communist Party views Taiwan — a democratic island of around 24 million people — as an inseparable part of its territory, despite having never controlled it.

"Once a war breaks out in the Taiwan Straits, the island's defense will collapse in hours and the US military won't come to help." the Global Times said in an editorial Monday.

Arthur Ding, an international relations professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, called Beijing's propaganda messaging on Afghanistan "cheap psychological warfare," noting it was intended to convey the US' alleged unreliability, especially to Taiwan's more receptive opposition supporters who favor closer ties with Beijing.

For decades an uneasy status quo governed cross-strait relations. But under President Xi Jinping, China has increased military activity around the island, in response to what it considers to be growing calls for formal independence.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, discussions have broken out across Taiwanese social media in recent days as to how the government in Taipei would respond in the event of a Chinese invasion, and whether the US would indeed come to the island's defense.

So much so, that on Tuesday, Taiwan's premier publicly stressed the island would not collapse like Afghanistan if invaded. In a press conference, Premier Su Tseng-chang appeared to confront the Chinese threats directly, saying Taiwan's leaders are "not afraid of being killed or imprisoned" by "powerful countries that want to swallow up Taiwan using force."

Politicians in Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) also dismissed attempts to draw parallels between Taiwan and Afghanistan, saying such comparisons are inherently fraught.

"If we're going to make Afghan comparisons, Taiwan survived that moment 40+ years ago. US troops left Taiwan in 1979 after recognizing the PRC," Wen Lii, a local ruling party official, wrote on Twitter, referring to China by abbreviation of its official name the People's Republic of China. "So no, Taiwan is not Afghanistan," he added.

Kolas Yotaka, spokesperson for Taiwan's Presidential Office, said the "lazy comparisons...ignore the realities of both countries, and show little regard for the immense human suffering facing many in Afghanistan today."

Despite formally switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, the US has remained a staunch ally of Taiwan, supplying the island with defensive weaponry under the terms of the decades-old Taiwan Relations Act, including a proposed $750 million arms sale announced earlier this month.

In April, US President Joe Biden dispatched an unofficial delegation to Taiwan in a show of support for the island, according to a senior administration official and a State Department spokesperson.

The State Department also announced in April that the agency had "issued new guidelines for US government interaction with Taiwan counterparts to encourage US government engagement with Taiwan that reflects our deepening unofficial relationship."

On Tuesday, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) conducted "joint fire assault and other drills using actual troops" off the southwest and southeast of Taiwan, according to a statement from the PLA's Eastern Theater Command.

"Recently, the US and Taiwan have repeatedly colluded in provocation and sent serious wrong signals, severely infringing upon China's sovereignty, and severely undermining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait," the statement said. "It is a solemn response to external interference and provocations by Taiwan independence forces."

Though many have speculated the abrupt announcement of the PLA drills was likely timed to accompany Beijing's propaganda messaging on Afghanistan, Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center, said the scale of the drills suggested some degree of prior planning, rather than being tied to a specific event.

CNN's Brad Lendon contributed reporting.