I have a chapter in this new Routledge book edited by Magnus Randstorp and Magnus Normark called Understanding Terrorism Innovation and Learning: Al-Qaeda and Beyond. My particular chapter focuses on ‘Innovation and Learning in British Jihad’ and draws on a lot of my research for my book. I am actually going to be presenting a version of the chapter at this forthcoming British Academy conference. I cannot simply post this here, though I am asking the publisher if they will let me. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch to hear more about it and I will try to help. This aside, I spoke to the Wall Street Journal and USA Today about the British government’s new counter-terrorism policies, the Sunday Mail about ISIS and immigration from Libya into Europe, and its daily counterpart the Daily Mail about British jihadi girls in Syria.

Understanding Terrorism Innovation and Learning: Al Qaeda and Beyond

This book examines the role of terrorist innovation and learning in theory and practice, and in the context of three specific EU case-studies.

It is often said that terrorist groups are relatively conservative in character operating in a technological vacuum – relying almost exclusively on bombs and bullets. This observation masks increasing complexity and creativity and innovation within terrorist groups and one of the most distinguishing features of al-Qaeda’s terrorist operations is its propensity for remarkable innovation. This book examines how and why terrorist groups innovate more generally and al-Qaeda-related terrorist plots in Europe more specifically. The starting point for this book was twofold. Firstly to examine the issue of innovation and learning more generically both in theory, within specific themes and within the context of al-Qaeda’s influence on this process. Secondly, this book examines the evolution of specific al-Qaeda-related plots in three specific northern EU states – the United Kingdom, Denmark and Germany – where there has been a significant volume of planned, failed and executed terrorist plots. In particular, these case studies explore signs of innovation and learning.

A new brief reaction piece for my home institute RUSI looking at some of the current trends in ISIS and jihadism. My preference is to use ISIS, but it appears as though the institutional choice is Daesh. Undoubtedly more on this topic to come. In the meantime, I have been doing book promotion events around town, thanks to those who have hosted me and am looking forward to future ones. For those interested, here is me talking to the Henry Jackson Society. I am going to be at the Bradford Literature Festival this weekend, the Hay Festival on the 31st May, and the Lewes Festival on July 18th. And hopefully more of those to come! Please also feel free to leave comments on Amazon about the book should you read it!
The Texas Attack: An Expression of Daesh’s Reach
RUSI Analysis, 11 May 2015 | By Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies
The jihadist movement known as Daesh has claimed responsibility for the aborted attack on an art contest in Texas. But other than shared motives, there are hardly anyreal  linkages. Overreaction and misreading of the threat will merely play into their hands.
Garland Shooting Perpetrators 2015

The claim by Daesh (or ISIS, as it is also known as) of some connection and responsibility for the attempted attack on Sunday 3 May 2015 in Texas is credible. While it is unlikely that the senior leadership within the group tasked the American pair or saw the event in Texas as a globally significant target, it is perfectly possible that it will emerge that the two men had at least some online connection to the group and were spurred into action by a combination of this contact and the group’s regular exhortations to its followers to launch attacks in the West.

At the same time, it is not clear that this is in any way an expression of the beginning of a campaign by the group to launch terrorist attacks outside its territory or that we need to worry about Daesh anymore now than before. Rather, Daesh continues to show itself to be an opportunistically canny organisation that is able to read global trends and stoke public debates at the right moment to maximise their apparent reach and power.

The threat picture for the immediate future is likely to be a continuing pattern of similar attacks, alongside a continuing potential menace of more classically directed terrorist cells. This seemingly enhanced threat, however, has to be kept in perspective and care needs to be paid not to overreact. A measured response will help deal with the problem in the longer term, while an exaggerated response will only fuel it.

Daesh Going Out?

Daesh remains a primarily Middle Eastern focused organisation, intent on growing and consolidating its territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, over the past few months there has been an increasing level of connectivity and interaction between its core in Mosul/Raqqa and its regional Wilayats (provincial governorates) in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen. The degree of strength of these regional connections is not always clear, though looking at the Libyan case in particular, it is clear that there is some strong link between the centre and what is happening in that country in terms of ideology, means and direction.

A series of attacks on foreign targets in Tripoli, grim beheading videos being done to a schedule dictated from Syria/Iraq and stories of fighters and money flowing from the Levant to Libya point to something more than just an ideological affiliation.

In Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen at least there is some evidence of ideological and possibly individual, but less clear is the degree to which this is a strong flow with much direction, rather than exploratory links. On the purely aspirational end of the scale, there is the link to Boko Haram – an organisation that has shown itself to be even more opportunistic than Daesh and has proclaimed links to Al-Qa’ida and others repeatedly over the years with little tangible evidence of much by way of strong connections.

In parallel to this there has been the growth in inspired and instigated attacks in the lone actor model: plots undertaken by individuals or small cells lacking any clear command and control from an outside organisation. Choosing soft targets that can broadly be captured under the aegis of the global struggle between Islam and the West, these individuals get caught up in the fervour and hysteria around Daesh and launch attacks at home in the West under their own direction.

Some cases appear to demonstrate links back to Syria (like Mehdi Nemmouche in Brussels) some may be reacting to travel restrictions (like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa), while others appear  simply to be attracted by the allure and hysteria of the group (like the spate of incidents in France late last year or Man Haroun Monis in Australia). For some of these individuals, Daesh’s narrative is simply the loudest in the public conversation for them to draw on.

Lone actor or copy-cat, whichever model it is, Daesh can subsequently claim it or praise the incident and appear as though it is somehow responsible for a global wave of terror.

Extensions of longer-term trends

In reality, both trends are extensions of what has been going on with jihadist terrorism for the past few years. Since around 2010 al Qaeda core’s capability and links globally have shrunk as the group’s ideology has increasingly found that the local causes that it would parasitically attach itself to increasingly moved towards advancing their own more local agendas rather than the group’s global directives. When launching attacks, regional affiliates would still use the jihadist rhetoric and targeting choices, but it was increasingly hard to see strong levels of command and control from the core. There were of course exceptions to this like Yemen where AQAP retains a strong core following loyal to the movement’s globalist perspective. But for the most part regional affiliate groups increasingly drifted away from the core’s orbit as Al-Qa’ida’s remnant leadership spent its time hiding from drones in Pakistan’s hinterlands.

The result has been a fracturing of the global jihadist movement operating under Al-Qa’ida’s ideological banner. As leaders have been killed, it has led to groups splintering into different factions. Furthermore, with a weakened core, regional affiliates have shifted in their targeting and intent back towards their own regions. In launching attacks they will still choose international targets as these bring attention and appear to be part of a global cause. Often, however, the degree to which they have been directed from the core is limited. Examples include the In Amenas attack in Algeria by an off-shoot of AQIM, or the al Shabaab linked attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

Into this fractured scene steps Daesh, offering a more hardline ideology, a new leader claiming to be Amir al Mu’mineen (commander of the faithful) who commands a territory he declares a Caliphate. Here is a narrative of success that stands in contrast to Al-Qa’ida’s declining fortunes. This quickly offers an appealing alternate power base that becomes the opposite pole to the current established jihadist narrative directed by Al-Qa’ida and draws in many of the disaffected and detached affiliate groups. Daesh appeal to them is not necessarily the ideology of the group, but rather the fact the group offers an alternate expression and successful banner to the status quo for them to attach themselves to.

The lone actor phenomenon is also not one that Daesh can claim stake to owning. Lone actor plots started to emerge in 2007/2008 (arguably Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed’s attempted double bombing in London and Glasgow in 2007 was an early expression demonstrating no level of direction by a group, though some connectivity to terrorist networks in Iraq), and have been an increasingly regular feature of the terrorist threat picture since then. In 2010 Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sought to try to harness the growing wave of such attacks and spur them further on through Inspire magazine and its ideology of ‘just do it’ attacks and ‘open source jihad’ that made jihadi terrorism accessible and actionable by everybody.

But there was little tangible evidence the magazine did much more than stoke fires that were already burning. The magazine became a staple feature of terrorism investigations. A growing number of plotters tried to build bombs to the magazines design and in online forums extremists increasingly talked proudly of being ‘lone wolves.’ But the trend towards this type of terrorism was underway prior to the magazine and there has been little clear evidence that the magazine can be singularly blamed for any specific plot.

Daesh has merely taken this strategy to the next level through its active promotion of the idea of such attacks through speeches, magazines and increasingly through individual fighters who connect through social media to the aspirant keyboard warriors who have not chosen to make the trip to the Levant, but seek it out instead online. By creating more noise around the idea of such attacks, they become more attractive and the group creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in its narrative.

This results in more people hearing it and more disaffected folk concluding that if they want to make themselves heard (for whatever reason) then Daesh’s ideology is the one to attach themselves to. All of this needs to be borne in mind against the backdrop that the ideology of violent Islamist inspired terrorism as one of the dominant global anti-establishment ideologies of the moment. Previously disaffected folk might be drawn to other movements, Al-Qa’ida or Daesh are now the alternative global movement. Again, rather than creating something new, Daesh (and Al-Qa’ida before it), have simply harnessed and attempted to spur on a trend that was already underway.

The Danger of Over-reaction

The importance of understanding the proper roots of these trends is to mitigate against the dangers of overreaction to them. If the Western reaction to the attack in Texas (and other future possible attacks) is to attack the organisation in a large fashion involving deployed armies and forces, this will have exactly the effect the group is likely hoping for.

An overreaction draws it into more direct conflict with the West making it both seem more powerful than it is, showing it able to stand up and fight directly with the world’s superpowers. It feeds into the group’s narrative of where it stands in the world and helps it become more important than it really is.

Instead, the focus needs to be on fixing the underlying reasons behind the contexts where the group’s ideology is able to take root. In Syria this means finding ways of bringing the brutal civil war to a close. In Iraq it involves building a participatory government so that the country’s Sunni’s do not look to groups like Daesh as defenders. In Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Egypt it involves solving local problems that will help reduce the space in which the group is able to permeate.

And in the West, it involves engaging with people who are so disaffected from societies that they feel they want to rebel violently against them. None of this is easy, and for Western government’s to succeed the reality is they need to target limited resources on specific countries abroad in a global division of labour, and at home need to find ways of developing grass roots programmes to engage with specific individuals who are drifting towards extremist ideologies. But key to making sure that we do not prolong this problem any longer than it needs to be is a clear understanding of the nature of the threat that is faced.

And another long ago written piece, that has only emerged now, this time an Occasional Paper for my home institution RUSI looking at Boko Haram and the evolution of Nigerian jihad. This was something that I did a little while back when Ansaru were a more prominent threat, and was when I was doing more direct work on the organization. This might revitalize soon given the election and the subsequent push against the group. Thanks to colleague Sasha for her help in completing it out the door, and to Sofia for helping pull it together in the first place! Somewhat related a couple of weeks ago, I spoke to NBC news on the anniversary of the Chibok girls kidnapping.

From Boko Haram to Ansaru: The Evolution of Nigerian Jihad

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As the 2015 general elections in Nigeria neared, the security situation in the country’s northeastern region became a political pawn to boost the respective party platforms. The candidates praised and criticised the national response to the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, which has grown to a transnational threat with a reputation for brutal militancy.

Download the occasional paper here (PDF)

Its orchestration of several major incidents – including the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from their school in Chibok in Borno State – has sparked national, regional and international responses. The character of these counter-operations, however, has relied overwhelmingly on a military approach unable to defeat a resilient Boko Haram. Nigeria’s forceful approach reflects rash decision-making founded neither on a considered strategy nor a thorough understanding of the target group.

Drawing on the wide-ranging body of existing literature, this report examines the evolution of Boko Haram from its inception to its modern iteration, deconstructing its supposed cohesive ideology and chain of command. Rather than a single unit, Boko Haram is best considered as falling along a spectrum, with an ideology as fluid and flexible as its relationships with similar jihadist groups, including Ansaru – a breakaway faction with perhaps a close relationship to the core. The report examines how the ideological narratives championed by the key leaders of Boko Haram have shaped the group’s present-day structure and tactics and a military approach alone is insufficient to defeat the group. With a newly-elected government, Nigeria has the opportunity to address the Boko Haram threat effectively, but true success will rely on a solid understanding and appreciation of this elusive and resilient opponent.

I have been rather delinquent in posting here, so am going to now briefly catch up on a few things. First up is a piece written for the UK Embassy Beijing’s ‘Strategic Communications Initiative’ that aims to advance a discussion between China and the UK on strategic questions. I have contributed a piece with a Chinese friend who is very active on the ground in Afghanistan working with business there offering some ideas for China’s possible role in the country. This is not my first piece for the Initiative, and I hope not the last! As ever, much more on the topic of China-Afghanistan (and more broadly China-Central and South Asia) to come.

Understanding the Cultural Fabric: The Missing Piece in China’s Outreach to Bring Peace to Afghanistan

Kane Luo, Vice President of Wakhan Abresham Consulting Service and Raffaello Pantucci, Director, International Security Studies, the Royal United Services Institute

A head of state’s first visit abroad is usually a strong indicator of that country’s future foreign policy. So when Ashraf Ghani, the newly elected President of Afghanistan chose China as the destination of his first state visit, the message from the new President of Afghanistan was clear: as we enter the year of NATO withdrawal, Afghanistan is increasingly looking East.

President Ghani certainly received a warm welcome in Beijing; President Xi Jinping showed China’s generosity promising a $330 million aid package over the next 3 years, a figure that exceeds China’s combined aid to Afghanistan for the last 14 years. China also announced a plan to help to train 3,000 Afghans in various fields, something that builds on previous promises of training, including an earlier program announced during former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang’s visit to Kabul in 2012 of 300 Afghan police. The discussion of re-opening the Wakhan Corridor, the slim mountainous borderland between Afghanistan and China that has long been a request of the Afghan government, has been restarted. Visa requirements for government officials of both countries are said to possibly be about to be scrapped. But in many ways, the most interesting outcome of Ghani’s visit to China was the revelation that China would offer itself as a host for peace discussions between the Taliban and the government in Kabul – bringing all relevant sides to the table to help broker peace in the country. Whether this approach will bear fruit is unclear, but its seeming admission and confirmation by officials highlights the fact that China is proving itself increasingly willing to accept it has an important role to play in Afghanistan’s future.

China’s motives behind her rapidly increasing efforts in Afghanistan are multiple, but the factor most often cited by Chinese experts and officials is domestic security. Violent, disenfranchised individuals from Xinjiang are becoming an increasingly deadly threat, something that has been increasing since 2008 and reached something of a crescendo in the past year. It is unclear how much manpower, resources and organizational capability Uyghur militants actually have; but their increased use of explosives, suicidal tactics and rising frequency of attacks are proof of a problem that is increasing. Angry denizens from Xinjiang have also shown a growing desire to launch attacks in not only remote areas of Xinjiang, but also in major political and population centers in eastern China as well, as the attack in October 2013 in Tiananmen Square, the March 2014 attack in Kunming and other incidents have demonstrated.

The link to these groups and Afghanistan come through Beijing’s claims that they possess evidence to prove that Uyghur militant groups are trained, financed and organized by ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)’, which is further linked with Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) in Afghan-Pakistani border area. There is some historical precedent to this link dating back to before September 11, 2001. A number sources verify the presence of Uyghurs in substantial numbers in Taliban Afghanistan with some pledging allegiance to Mullah Omar. These days it may not be the case that every terrorist attack in China is launched from caves of Waziristan (something increasingly recognized by Chinese experts); but Uyghur militants’ recent tactics indicate that they are certainly getting ideas from the global Jihadist movement, be it in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. Beijing’s concern is that if these Islamic militants are left unchecked and Afghanistan is allowed to become a source of regional instability once again, a sophisticated enough terrorist attack may finally emerge or instigate some larger incident in Xinjiang that would expand the current instability in Xinjiang further around the nation.

Another important reason behind China’s evolving Afghan policy is Beijing’s concern over her ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. The so called ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative consists principally of the ‘New Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (with side projects stretching from Kashgar to Gwadar in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh-China-Myanmar-India (BCIM) corridor), an extremely ambitious grand strategic design of President Xi Jinping’s administration. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative is meant to drastically increase the movement of capital, humans, goods, speed up cultural exchanges and even start to harmonize governmental policies across Eurasia; by constructing two separate but complementary routes that both start from China and then stretch westward. The ‘New Silk Road Economic Belt’ goes through Central Asia, Russia, Iran, and Arabia before finally reaching Europe; the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ passes through Malacca Strait, Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and ultimately reaches the Mediterranean Sea. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative includes thousands of miles of proposed high-speed railway and highway, seaports and airports, oil and gas pipelines, even nuclear power stations that will cost trillions of U.S. dollars and decades to build. It would conclude with the development of massive trade and economic corridors bringing Chinese products to the world, and opening China even further. It would also have the ancillary effect of redeveloping a large swathe of China’s immediate periphery, something that has led to some prominent Chinese commentators, like Dingding Cheng, to describe it as ‘China’s Marshall Plan,’ a reference to the post-Second World War America’s massive effort to rebuild Europe. Afghanistan plays a very dangerous potential spoiler role within this, sitting adjacent to China and in the midst of a number of these land corridors emanating from China’s western provinces. Should the country collapse into chaos and become an exporter or incubator of instability, it would likely upset this key part of this plan.

But beyond just seeing the importance of Afghanistan to China’s domestic health, Beijing policymakers also see the importance of regional relationships to ensure a stable future. However, in contrast to the United States, China has the advantage of having far less contentious relationships with a key partner for Afghanistan, Pakistan. China is well aware of its influence over Islamabad, and has long nurtured a strong bilateral relationship with the country that both cherish publicly and loudly. China has already used its influence to bring Pakistan and Afghanistan to the table, as well as initiate a number of other regional discussions involving Pakistan (or about Pakistan), the recent admission of contact with the Taliban and a willingness to use this relationship to advance reconciliation all highlight the degree to which China is showing it is willing to use its relationships in advance of greater regional stability.

This approach to bringing the Taliban to the table is not, however, without its difficulties. Taliban are likely to play some role in Afghanistan’s future; but the trouble is, the Afghan government and Taliban today are both highly fragmented entities that lack centralised authority for Beijing to effectively engage with. The Taliban’s addition into this mix will only further complicate Afghanistan’s already difficult political situation. Finally, for China to be taking such a forward role in such a sensitive aspect of Afghan affairs will make it harder for China to maintain its position of detachment from events in Afghanistan – something that has in the past given the country a certain neutral image within Afghanistan.

There are further problems with taking the role of reconciler with a group that is reviled by many Afghans (the Taliban) and country (Pakistan) that many Afghans blame for some of their security problems. Anti-Pakistani feeling is very high amongst Afghans who see their neighbours as meddlers who have supported groups that have led to many deaths. Being seen as a close ally to both the Taliban and Pakistan might not play well amongst the Afghan public. Others within Afghanistan continue to feel that the Taliban have no role to play in their country’s future, highlighting with anger the fact that the government in Kabul is being forced to reconcile with a group that has shown no remorse in butchering civilians, officials, and soldiers alike. Finally, it is not entirely clear the degree to which outside stakeholders will all welcome this mediating role – for western powers, any support in bringing stability and peace to Afghanistan is welcome, but for players like India, Iran or the Central Asian powers, they have their own regional dynamics to consider. These are all issues that Beijing needs to consider.  Beijing must have a 360 degree of vision and be mindful of a basic reality in international affairs: when a button is pressed, there will be a series of chain-reactions. Some of these reactions can be predicted, but others will require rapid appropriate policy responses, something Beijing has historically had some issues with undertaking.

This diplomatic approach aside, China has also placed significant emphasis on developing Afghanistan’s economy, something highlighted again during President Ghani’s visit to Beijing. However, bringing economic and social progress to Afghanistan often requires an acceptable level of security as a pre-condition, something highlighted by the particular problems experienced by the two biggest Chinese investors in the country: the China Metallurgical Company (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper’s investment at Mes Aynak and China National Petroleum Corp’s (CNPC) project in the Amu Darya basin near the border with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Both projects have faced numerous difficulties hindering progress, with security ranking fairly high amongst concerns. Talking to officials at both companies, they will report security as a major factor, though it is likely that it is only one of a number of problems encountered. Others include difficulties with local authorities, lack of access to raw materials and infrastructure.

For the Afghan Taliban there is a natural desire to want to try to prevent any national economic progress from taking place, as a strategy to prevent the government in Kabul gathering public support. In another words, people will not always welcome progress with open arms, and in Afghanistan there is some question of whether major projects can proceed without the support of superior firepower. Despite China’s recently increased efforts in Afghanistan’s economic sphere, if Beijing really wants to see positive results, Beijing still needs to greatly expand the security-related cooperation it is looking to undertake in Afghanistan, as well as seek out bolstering cooperative relationships with powers like India and the remaining western forces.

Finally, and in some ways most importantly, as world’s biggest economy in terms of purchasing power, China has the material resources to achieve her objectives in Afghanistan. However, the lack of human expertise on Afghanistan in particular is a substantial invisible problem that China urgently needs to overcome. Because material resources cannot correctly allocate themselves, they need people to manage them and these people need a deep understanding of their surrounding environment. In other words, China has a need to grow a pool of people who understand Afghanistan’s complex social realities, ethnic mosaics, cultural customs and fragmented history. There is a need for China to support its push into Afghanistan with people who speak fluent Farsi and Pashtun, people who understand the Islamic world, or even, are Muslims themselves. Currently, such knowledge and skills are only the privilege of a few of China’s intelligence officers, diplomats and scholars; but they should also be extended to executive managers and chief engineers in China’s state-owned corporations and the general Chinese population too. This sort of deep cultural knowledge and understanding is the only way to make sure the multi-billion dollar investments are being effective implemented, as these individuals will be able to better understand and interact with the fabric of Afghan society. This will help avoid unnecessary tensions and misunderstandings, and is as essential as the multi-billion dollar aid packages as it guarantees they will actually have impact.

Unlike Britain, the United States or other western or regional powers who have been actively engaging Afghanistan for decades, either through peaceful means or through wars; China has had little intensive engagement with Afghanistan throughout its history. China has never fought a war with Afghanistan (though it played a supporting role in the anti-Soviet jihad); many of the few Chinese intellectuals who understood Afghan Central Asia were purged during early, and at the time the role of ambassadors to the Muslim world were not seen in a positive light. Although China opened up in 1970s, letting the world gradually in again and exposing itself to the world, China was almost exclusively focused on the West and China’s Eastern Asian neighbours, a preference that has continued to this day. It is only very recently that China found itself needing to engage to a greater extent with Central Asia and Afghanistan in particular. China needs more of everything that stimulates China’s knowledge of Afghanistan, otherwise the push towards Afghanistan will find it lacks the crucial internal building blocs to ensure it has a solid foundation for the future.

Still catching up on old posting, new writing has sadly slowed of late. Busy with various projects, including promoting the UK Jihad book. Hopefully usual service will resume soon. In the meantime, the new Brill journal Central Asian Affairs published my contribution to a series of essays commissioned by the excellent Erica Marat about The Chinese Question in Central Asia:

CAA cover

Sinophobia: A Potential Knot in the Silk Road

Sitting in a café in Bishkek recently, a foreign diplomat explained the Chinese problem in Central Asia with a rather simple characterization. The issue, he said, is a “genetic one,” whereby Kyrgyz have an in-built antipathy toward Chinese. While such a simplistic explanation is one that most international relations experts would shy away from, it is one of the clearest issues to leap off the page of Marlene Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse’s excellent : , , . The biggest factor in favor of the Chinese often seems to be their very overwhelming presence and the potential that their existence just across the Tian Shan mountains poses to the Central Asian states.

On the ground in the markets at Kara Suu, Dordoi, or Barekholka, the Chinese are largely seen in a fairly passive light. Bored and griping as one would expect from workers who are earning a living grafting and selling products to poor populations, the Chinese salesmen and workers largely operate on the fringe of local societies, aware that attracting too much attention can lead to trouble. Chinese energy giants operating in the region tell of training their workers deployed in country to avoid drinking in public and to always have their documents on them, as well as a phone number, in case they get into trouble with local authorities.

And of course, there is trouble. Early 2014 in Bishkek, 16 Chinese workers beat up a policeman after he came across one of them intoxicated at their construction site. This particular attack on a policeman was novel, but clashes between Chinese workers and locals is a fairly regular occurrence in Kyrgyzstan. But what is fascinating, and in many ways a demonstration of issues China faces going out more broadly, sometimes these clashes involve Chinese workers rioting because they have not been paid by their Chinese employer. Either way they look dangerous to locals. For local Kyrgyz who see their markets full of Chinese goods and a growing presence of Chinese workers on building sites or doing jobs that they feel they could easily do, there is a certain amount of anger and bitterness. This spills fairly easily into resentment that taps into the age-old Sinophobia that Laruelle and Peyrouse attribute to a dearth of Chinese studies in the Soviet era. Where people did study China in Central Asia, it tended to be through the lens of minority populations like the Uyghurs or Dungans—the archetypal Chinese Central Asians.

Into this void fill rumor and conspiracy—concepts endemic to the Russian mindset and consequently ever present in the still predominantly Russian Central Asian region. Stories of a sweeping “yellow peril” fill conversations and discussions. As Laruelle and Peyrouse point out, “Each year the Chinese population increases by more than 15 million people, a number almost equivalent to the total population of Kazakhstan” (p. 183). Or to look at it another way, China will grow by about two Kyrgyzstans plus one Turkmenistan or by two Tajikistans every year.

Of course, these figures and comparisons are completely artificial—a relatively limited amount of this population growth actually takes place in Xinjiang, China’s domestic piece of Central Asia sitting across the border from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In fact, Xinjiang’s population is proximate to a large Central Asian nation’s: just under 25 million, spread over a geography that accounts for one-sixth of China’s landmass. But bordering the world’s largest manufacturer with a small population that is increasingly becoming dependent on China is a worrying prospect, especially when, as Laruelle and Peyrouse point out, China’s regional efforts have “profoundly changed the economic status quo in the region” (p. 45). All roads in Central Asia no longer lead to Moscow; the newly paved ones go to Urumqi or Kashgar, with new spurs and projects constantly being announced. Be they in infrastructure, like the rail tunnel in Uzbekistan, a new thermal power plant in Dushanbe, or more pipelines to get Turkmen gas back to China, Chinese firms stepping in to fill the void as Rosneft backs out of taking over Bishkek’s Manas airbase, or receiving a piece of the Kazakh supergiant field Kashagan over an Indian state-owned firm.

But while these are all signs of China’s growth in the region, the reality is that there are a number of games at play here. Since Laruelle and Peyrouse’s book was published, the parameters of a possible strategic outline for China’s push into the region have begun to emerge. Back in September 2013, in the middle of a tour of Central Asia in which he signed almost $56 billion in contracts, President Xi Jinping gave a speech at Nazarbaev University in which he referred to China seeking to create a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would connect China to Europe through Central Asia.

To take this speech as a full-on strategy, however, is apparently premature. In discussions in Beijing, Shanghai, and Urumqi (as well as across Central Asia), officials, experts, and others all continue to express a lack of certainty about what exactly this Silk Road Economic Belt means. As one prominent expert recently put it in Shanghai, “Our leadership likes to lay out visions and then leaves it to others to work out the details.” Specifically, Beijing appears to be waiting for the National Development and Reform Commission () to outline the practicalities of the vision, and then all the responsible ministries will be able to implement it. This is meant to happen later this year, and after that—by all accounts—we should start to have a clearer sense of what China’s vision for Central Asia looks like.

But as with all geopolitical puzzles, this is a fluid one, and while China seems to be clarifying its intent regarding Central Asia, Russia has upended the chessboard with its action in Ukraine, causing concern across Central Asia. The push toward a Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union stretching across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and eventually Tajikistan, as well as the Western sanctions are all having a knock-on effect in Central Asia. In Kazakhstan they are causing concern at an official level as they worry about the impact on their own relations with the West and the fact that through the Customs Union they are tied more closely to Russia’s economy. Talk to traders in Kyrgyzstan’s Dordoi or Kara Suu and they have been feeling this impact for some time; since the Customs Union came into play between Kazakhstan and Russia, re-exporting their goods across Kazakh borders is more challenging. They worry that once their country joins, the cheap Chinese products will have little reason to be re-exported through Kyrgyzstan and it will make more sense to simply go in through Kazakhstan.

And yet, in the face of this, Russia remains the clear primary partner of choice for Kyrgyzstan. Customs Union membership is on track for 2015, and the Kyrgyz still see Russia as an important partner, their primary security guarantor, and employer to the thousands of Kyrgyz who work in Moscow and elsewhere send precious remittances to support family members who stay behind. The first port of call for Kyrgyz politicians remains Moscow, rather than Beijing. Out of choice or fear, they look to Russia as a geopolitical parent even though their long-term economic future lies to the south with China, India, and the other rising powers.

Kazakhstan faces a different issue. Already caught in Russia’s embrace, they are more desperate to make their much-vaunted multivector strategy a reality. China is but one partner in this picture, and Kazakh officials and businessmen will highlight their nation’s growing links to Iran, pending membership, and the fact that they are renewing their partnership agreement with the European Union as evidence that it is alive and well. Russia is an important partner for them, but not the only one.

The key question here is what this means for the logic of China being the increasingly consequential partner for Central Asia. Is it possible that China’s influence in the region is one that is more fragile than it seems and that the underlying Sinophobia is a problem that can be stoked at will to blunt China’s push? The raw economic force behind Chinese investment would seem to belie this, especially as Russia has little chance to properly counter this strength, given a faltering economy that is already facing new burdens in Crimea and over Ukraine.

But it does raise questions about China in Central Asia. And it does cast an ever-larger light on what the meat of China’s proposed Silk Road Economic Belt will be and how they will try to counter these regional forces and the Sinophobia under it.

For the time being, three aspects would benefit from getting greater coverage:

First, what are Chinese views regarding the long-term goal? Both Laruelle and Peyrouse have long experience in China, but the text does not always address the fundamental question of what the long-term Chinese goal is. On the one hand, this is partially because a clear enunciation of it is something that we are only now starting to see with Xi Jinping’s announcement of the Silk Road Economic Belt, but it is something that Chinese strategists have been edging toward for some time.

Second is the reality of the much-vaunted “multivector” foreign policy that Central Asians so often talk about as their strategy. Talk to officials in any country and they will deny Chinese (or any other) dominance, declaring that it is something that they are ably playing one power off the other. The reality of this is often questionable, especially when one considers the irresistible economic force of China compared to all others, making one wonder to what degree the Central Asians actually are able to manipulate and control their destiny.

And finally, there is the dilemma of absorption. How much does China want responsibility or can the Central Asians avoid finding themselves increasingly looking to China to help resolve issues? Is China becoming the regional hegemon by default, with no-one having really thought through the consequences or what it means for regional stability (or who the principal provider of regional security is) in a situation where Beijing is increasingly the most consequential player on the ground that assiduously avoids conflict or becoming embroiled in resolving it? Central Asian tensions and problems will not fade as China rises, and what this means for China is an as-of-yet unanswered question.

Been quiet for a while as am getting very caught up with administrative things which are driving me a bit crazy. Have some more writing which I will publish over this week, mostly around my China looking west work, and more pieces hopefully in the pipeline, but the big push over the next few weeks is going to be my UK Jihad book. Am hoping for more reviews around that. So far, have had the Evening Standard and a very nice write-up based off the book in The Times. More hopefully en route.

This aside, have spoken in the past month to the South China Morning Post about extremists on campus in Guangzhou University and China in Central Asia, to the BBC about new government measures to handle extremist preachers, to the Daily Mail about ISIS, Voice of America about China, to the Associated Press about the attacks in Tunis, Bloomberg about China’s counter-terrorism policy going out and China getting Uighurs sent back to China, El Mundo about al Muhajiroun, and to the Times about ISIS using deaf mutes in its videos. There are also likely others, but cannot find links.

The main body of this post, however, is my submitted written testimony to the US-China Economic and Security Commission (USCC) where I had the honour to testify last month on China in Central Asia. The hearing was an excellent opportunity to hear a lot of the top experts on Central Asia in the same place at the same time. Please note that the footnotes seem not to have survived posting here, please follow this link for the full PDF.

March 18, 2015

Raffaello Pantucci

Director, International Security Studies

Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)

Testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission

Looking West: China and Central Asia

 

Background

 

In September 2013 during a visit to Astana President Xi Jinping spoke of establishing a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (SREB) that would ‘open the strategic regional thoroughfare from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, and gradually move toward the set-up of a network of transportation that connects Eastern, Western and Southern Asia.’ Made during the President’s inaugural visit to Central Asia, the speech was both an articulation of a policy in a region that had been underway for around a decade, as well as the first declaration of a foreign policy vision that has increasingly shaped China’s own projection of its approach to foreign affairs. Founded in Central Asia, the SREB and the development of trade and infrastructure corridors emanating from China that it has come to symbolize, is slowly becoming Beijing’s dominant and most vocalised foreign policy strategy and is possibly set to be the defining public narrative for Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping.

 

Xinjiang

 

To understand the SREB in its proper context, it is important to first understand Xinjiang. Xinjiang occupies approximately a sixth of China’s landmass, with around 1.5% of its population (at around 22.09 million according to the 2011 census). It is home to large oil and gas reserves (about a fifth of the national total of oil), and has about 40% of the nation’s coal reserves that are close to the surface and of good quality (coal remains one of China’s main sources of electricity generation). It also has a major agrarian industry, with 70% of China’s tomatoes grown in the province, making the region one of the world’s major sources of ketchup and tomato paste. Xinjiang is a region that is beset with tensions focused around ethnic rivalries. Home to Uighurs, a Turkic speaking people’s whose language, culture and ethnicity is closer to Uzbek or Turkish, the region has faced community tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese for decades. Uighurs were once a majority in the region. PRC census data from 1953 indicates that at the time the province was 75% Uighur and 6% Han, a figure that today stands instead at around 40+% each according to the 2011 census. There is resentment against the growing presence of Han Chinese, with the Uighur population feeling that their identity and culture is slowly being eroded down as Beijing profits from the region’s natural wealth.

 

Since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conquered Xinjiang in 1949, the region has faced tensions with angry Uighurs occasionally rising up against the state or inter-communal violence erupting between the growing Han population and the increasingly minority Uighur one. This has expressed itself in terrorist violence at home and abroad. Groups of Uighurs have travelled abroad into Central Asia or Afghanistan, where they have connected with extremist groups and created training camps to prepare to return to China and fight.

 

Most recent attention, however, was focused on July 2009 when rioting in the region’s capital led to an estimated 200 deaths as mobs of Uighurs rampaged through the city attacking, and killing, Han Chinese. The next day, counter-marches took place with angry Han taking to the streets to protest both against the Uighur-led atrocities, but also the failure of the government to protect them. The local government’s failure to quell the violence was so dramatic that President Hu Jintao had to embarrassingly leave the G8 Summit in L’Aquila to return home to manage the crisis. The result of this was a change in leadership in the region, with of the removal of a number of local figures from their positions (for example, Li Zhi, Communist Party Secretary in Urumqi, and Xinjiang Public Security Bureau head Liu Yaohua) and most dramatically, a year later, the removal of long-time regional party boss Wang Lequan.

 

At the same time as changing the regional leadership, on May 17-19, 2010, Beijing hosted a major conference on the region. The Xinjiang Work Conference was hosted in Beijing by the CCP’s central committee and the State Council, involving then President Hu Jintao and then-Premier Wen Jiabao, as well as both of their successors Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping. This was a rare but significant work conference about a specific region (a number have been done for Tibet), and it led to a number of new policy approaches to the region by Beijing. Focusing on ‘leapfrog development’ the main thrust of the conference was economic development as the key to solving the region’s problems. Amongst the raft of economic measures was the developed of a twinning policy between more affluent provinces in China and prefectures in Xinjiang. For example, Shanghai took on responsibility for parts of Kashgar – something that translated in practice to the transfer of Shanghai officials to work in the region for a year, the delegation of a portion of Shanghai’s GDP as financial support for the region, and delegation visits from Shanghai to the region to advise on developing institutions and structures that had added to Shanghai’s prosperity. State and provincial companies are actively encouraged to invest in the Xinjiang, while different provinces would attempt to teach the parts of Xinjiang that they are responsible for some of the things that helped their success. For example, Shenzhen helped Kashgar develop a Special Economic Zone. Another innovation was the transformation of the then relatively moribund Urumqi regional trade fair into a Eurasian Expo, aimed at bringing in traders, businessmen and officials from across the Eurasian landmass to Urumqi – a city described by an Urumqi official to the author as the ‘closest big Chinese city to Europe.’ Economic investors from Europe and elsewhere were actively encouraged with preferential benefits and gentle persuasion. For example, a Turkish-Chinese business park was developed just outside Urumqi to bring Turkish investment into the region. German carmaker VW was encouraged alongside its Chinese joint venture partner SAIC to build a sedan factory in the region. Central Asian businessmen and traders were actively targeted for the Eurasian Expo, and another Special Economic Zone was established at the border crossing with Kazakhstan at Khorgos. And finally, funding was allocated to develop infrastructure, roads, rail and airports across the region to enable Xinjiang to become ‘a gateway for mutually beneficial cooperation between China and other Eurasian countries’, as put by Premier Wen Jiaobao during the Second Eurasian Expo in Urumqi in September 2012.

 

China’s policy towards Xinjiang was not, of course, solely one of economic investment. Alongside this surge of inward investment (something that had been underway for some time through various ‘develop the west’ initiatives) was a growth in security spending in the region. Emphasis was placed on trying to strengthen the security forces in the region and stamp out the periodic bouts of violence that continue to plague the region. China’s approach was in essence a binary one of heavy economic investment and heavy security clampdown. The balance between these two seemed to be shifted back in favor of ‘stability’ (or security) in the wake of a second Xinjiang Work Conference under Xi Jinping’s leadership in January 2014. However, the State Council also emphasised the importance of economic investment when it announced in June 2014 that the Xinjiang government was to spend approximately $130 billion to develop the region’s infrastructure.

 

But for both the security and economic surges to work, there was clearly a need to develop stronger links to the region around Xinjiang, and it is here that Central Asia starts to play a prominent and key role. Abutting Xinjiang, Central Asia is China’s westernmost periphery. Scattered around the region are pockets of Uighur populations – with major communities found in ethnically proximate Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan in particular, Uighurs play a substantial role in the nation, with current Prime Minister Karim Massimov an ethnic Uighur. In Pakistan, relatively large Uighur communities live along Pakistan’s side of the Karakoram Highway. Within these communities and countries, China sees concern and Beijing and Urumqi security chiefs have developed strong links with their local counterparts (at a bilateral level, but also through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) to ensure that, should any dissident Uighurs flee across the border, they will be rapidly repatriated.

 

More visible than this strong security bond, however, is the huge level of economic activity and investment that is slowly spilling across the border into Central Asia from China. Something that has always happened naturally given the borders, traditionally nomadic people’s and the nature of trading across Central Asia, it has increasingly taken on a life of its own as Chinese investment has poured in to refurbish and revitalize the trade routes across the region. The logic to this growth is simple: Xinjiang is as landlocked as the Central Asian countries it abuts. If Beijing is going to ensure that the region prospers, then it will need to be better connected to the world. Given the relative land proximity to Europe, it therefore makes more sense to develop the region’s physical links into Central Asia, not necessarily for Central Asian prosperity in itself, but rather to ultimately help transport Chinese goods to Eurasian and European markets (and vice versa). Hence the need for infrastructure that helps re-connect and re-wire the Eurasian landmass from China to Europe. Ultimately, if Xinjiang is going to benefit from the push for economic investment within China, it is going to have to have somewhere to trade with and through. Logically, conduit for this has to be Central Asia.

 

China’s Economic Surge into Central Asia

 

It is in many ways the economics of China’s push into Central Asia that is the most significant external aspect of this ultimately domestic policy response. The narrative of Chinese investment into the region used to be one of mineral extraction and exploitation. A late entrant into Central Asian energy through investments in Kazakhstan, CNPC purchased aging Soviet oil fields in Aktobe, western Kazakhstan and rapidly built an oil pipeline back to China. Built with great speed and efficiency, the pipeline became the symbol of China’s relations with the region. Most perceived China as viewing Central Asia simply as a large source of fuel and minerals that it could exploit to feed the seemingly insatiable energy needs its economic development required. This view was further affirmed through CNPC’s major investments into Turkmenistan, where the country has been one of the few to successfully operate and buy Turkmen gas. CNPC has become one of the largest supporters of the Turkmen national budget, through gas purchases and the development of almost four different pipelines to transport gas back to China.

 

This superficial view of China’s growth in the region misses the reality on the ground whereby China is slowly becoming a dominant player in a vast array of different economic areas. From Kyrgyzstan, where the import and re-export of Chinese goods plays a huge role in the national economy, to Tajikistan that is increasingly becoming one of China’s biggest debtor partners. To better understand the breadth and depth of China’s economic influence in the region, it is useful to look at the extent to and manner in which China operates in the energy industry, one of the dominant industries in which China participates in Central Asia.

 

As has been mentioned, China is the major player in Turkmenistan, where it is the sole country that is able to get substantial access to Turkmen hydrocarbons. Russian volumes have shrunk and Iran has had difficulty paying in cash (offering barter instead), making China the preferred player in Ashgabat. This is a similar story in Kazakhstan, where China has not only constructed one of the quickest-built pipelines ever in the country, but it has also bought 8.33% of the supergiant oil field Kashagan, purchasing American firm ConocoPhilips’ stake. Buying into a project run by a multi-national consortium is a new endeavor for a Chinese company in Kazakhstan. It is also a major purchaser of Kazakh uranium. In 2014 Kazakhstan’s state-run nuclear energy agency Kazatomprom said that 55% of Kazakh uranium production was exported to China. In Uzbekistan, China has signed contracts to extract some gas and build a pipeline across the country from Turkmenistan. It has also aided in developing electricity re-metering , as well as helped the country to develop its solar panel production capability, and refurbish solar furnace factories.

 

Tajikistan, until relatively recently considered a very energy poor country, made discoveries of large potential gas reserves in the Bokhtar region. Chinese company CNPC partnered with Canadian Tethys and French Total to undertake further exploration. Downtown Dushanbe, once famous for its blackouts, now has a large Chinese-built thermal power plant that provides electricity to the city through the cold winter months. A major producer of hydroelectric power, Chinese firms have explored the possibility of both exporting Tajik hydroelectric power, but also building some of the infrastructure to support it. And finally, Kyrgyzstan, remaining energy poor has nonetheless benefited from Chinese attention in the energy field. While Russian firm Gazprom remains a major player in the nations energy mix, CNPC has offered to build refineries in the country, as well as helping connect the country upgrade and build power transmission lines. China is a player across Central Asia’s energy fields, not solely in extractives.

 

The funding for these projects comes in a number of different ways. In some cases, like a coal-fired plant in Dushanbe, the project was one that is offered by a Chinese firm in exchange for preferential treatment on another project. In other cases, it is funded through Chinese policy bank loans that are offered at preferential rates and stipulate that the implementing party must be Chinese. One example of this structure is the decision to build a camera monitoring system in Dushanbe to help monitor traffic in the city. Money was offered through an ExIm Bank loan, and the implementer was Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. This approach is not actually novel to the region, with both Korean and Japanese banks offering similar structures in regional contexts, but the scale and size of Chinese loans and rapid implementation is significant.

 

Increasingly one can see China assisting in the rewiring of roads, railways, pipelines and electricity grids across the region so that all lead back to China, or at least in some way benefit China’s access. All of this helps connect up what is happening in Central Asia with the all-important domestic strategy in Xinjiang. Consequently, the economic push into Central Asia by China comes from a blend of economic forces as a result of the economic investment into Xinjiang, as well as the ongoing outward push by Chinese firms and money.

 

Enunciating a strategy

 

While this is how things have been playing out on the ground for many years, prior to Xi Jinping’s SREB announcement, China’s investment strategy for Xinjiang and Central Asia was not something that had been directed or enunciated in any clear or coherent way from Beijing. The closest thing to a regional strategy document can be found in the Xinjiang Work Plan and its acknowledgement of the importance of developing markets and routes into Central Asia to improve Xinjiang’s prosperity. In 2011, Chinese academic and Dean of Beijing’s international school Wang Jisi offered some sort of academic theory to the logic of this push in his influential writing about China’s March Westward. But there was no clear policy expression or formulation offered until Xi Jinping visited Central Asia in 2013 and laid out his SREB vision, in essence symbolizing Xi Jinping’s desire to take ownership over a reality that had been going on for some time and stamping his brand and leadership on an overarching policy concept around it.

 

And since the announcement of this belt, and the later addition of the Maritime Silk Road in a speech in Indonesia in October 2013, amalgamated into the phrasing ‘one belt, one road’ there has been a further surge in development and investment to make this vision a reality. At home, the Silk Road has now become a project with huge implications across the west of the country. Maps have been issued showing the city of Xi’an as the starting point, while $79.8 billion has been announced into investment into Gansu. A further domestic fund of some $16.3 billion has been announced for supporting Silk Road projects at home. Mostly infrastructure investment projects, there have also been more specific investments emanating from provinces in Western China to Central Asian countries – like $800 million invested by Henan into Tajikistan. On the ground such investment efforts can be found in Tashkent in the form of trade fairs bringing Xinjiang traders to the region, as well as in markets across the region that are filled with low-end traders and larger property or market owners who have spent a decade or more in Central Asia building up empires of market stalls, local factories and real estate portfolios.

 

Externally, this surge of infrastructure investment is also clearly visible in the form of a growing constellation of investment banks being directed out of Beijing, as well as the expansion of the concept of the SREB. From an initial vision that seemed focused on Xinjiang development through Central Asia, it has now become something that spans the Eurasian landmass (more than 60 countries now see themselves in its route), but has also developed offshoots in the Maritime Silk Road, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Each of these is less developed compared with the SREB, but at the same time all reflect logical trade corridors that China would like to open up. China has already started to explore how to develop the necessary infrastructure in each case.

 

One of the main reasons why this push seems more credible than previous efforts is the volume of funding that China is pushing towards the projects and the array of development bank vehicles they are creating to help make it a reality. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the BRICS Bank, and the earlier discussed but never realized Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Development Bank, are all expressions of this. Whilst the AIIB and BRICS Bank are not singularly focused on Central Asia, the model of development they are focused on is one that reflects China’s experiences in Central Asia, using the lever of economic infrastructure investment to help foster trade corridors and routes that ultimately connect China to its markets. The focus on infrastructure reflects not only the reality of a region that has infrastructure huge demand for investment in this area, but also a Chinese policy outlook that is shaped by the concept of regional connectivity and development of a prosperous neighbourhood. This underlying concept is something that has been present in Xi Jinping’s foreign policy outlook from the beginning of his presidency. This is highlighted when in October 2013 he held a rare foreign policy work conference focused on ‘peripheral diplomacy’, meaning China’s relations with its proximate neighbours.

 

Regional repercussions

 

The biggest question in this Chinese push, however, is how the region is going to react to it. Looking to Central Asia in particular, China has played a very careful and sensitive game. This is most clearly exemplified in the SCO, that was first developed as the Shanghai Five, a cooperative grouping focused on delineating China’s borders with the former Soviet Union in the wake of the latter’s collapse. In 2001, Uzbekistan joined China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the SCO was formed with a Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) founded in Tashkent. From there, the organization has continued to operate, using counter-terrorism as its main rallying flag, but with little evidence of it developing too much more beyond this. Chinese thinkers and officials have tried to push the SCO in a more economic and development direction, but this has largely been met with skepticism and hesitation by regional powers, in particular Russia, who has hesitated to let the SCO develop too much more beyond its current mandate. At the same time, China’s hesitation to get involved in hard security questions regionally means that the Central Asian members of the organization continue to prioritize the security relationship with Russia over China (though there is some evidence that this is starting to change).

 

With Russia, the question of underlying tensions has remained a major issue, though whenever Chinese officials and experts talk of Russia in a Central Asian context, they go to great lengths to highlight the fact that they would do nothing that would contradict their Russian counterparts interests in Central Asia. For their part, Russian experts recognize that China is the coming force in Central Asia, but seem willing to accept it and highlight that most regional leaders see Moscow as their key international partner who is also able to play a much more decisive security role than Beijing. There have been some deals recently where Russian firms have lost contracts in favor of Chinese companies – for example, the redevelopment of the Manas Airbase in Kyrgyzstan in the wake of American withdrawal, is something that has been passed on to Chinese firms rather than Russian Rosneft who was initially believed to be taking the contract. But at a larger strategic level, both powers seem to have reached a modus vivendi in Central Asia that does not necessarily reflect the strategic balance in outsiders eyes, but that functions for them on the ground.

 

The other key regional question hanging over the region is Afghanistan (and Pakistan). For Central Asia, it is Afghanistan that is seen as the great potential destabilizer, and there is the concern that the massive investments into the SREB that have been done into Central Asia may be negatively impacted should Afghanistan become once again an exporter of instability. This is a concern that Chinese officials will express, though most often when talking about Afghanistan they will express concern that Uighur extremists might once again use the territory as a training ground to export violence back to China. China has increasingly been playing a role in Afghanistan, in particular in trying to offer itself as a broker between the Taliban and authorities in Kabul, as well as mineral extraction, economic investment, and some regional collaboration. But at the same time, it is unclear that Afghanistan necessarily features as part of the SREB, except in some of its northern regions that offer themselves as routes to Iranian and other Middle Eastern markets, in one of the routes offered in Chinese publications of where the SREB actually flows.

 

The biggest regional problem that China faces with its SREB in Central Asia, however, is the question of Sinophobia. Something that is palpable on the ground at times in the resentments that people feel towards Chinese businessmen and traders, there is a noticeable sensitivity when discussions come up about Chinese redrawing boundaries in certain parts of Central Asia. In Tajikistan, online discussions about land deals between Chinese state owned agri-businesses and Tajik authorities were blocked to reflect the perception on the ground that these deals were the government selling the nation to China. In Kazakhstan a similar deal was announced by President Nazarbayev in 2009, but the public outcry against it led to him walking back on the initial deal. Relatively small countries by population, the Central Asians fear overwhelming by China, a sentiment that can also be found in Russia’s border regions with China. This is not only about numbers of people, but also in the fact that all of the Central Asians want to become manufacturing hubs themselves, something that is going to be very difficult when they sit next to the world’s manufacturer.

 

China is not unaware of this Sinophobia, and has attempted through various means to undertake a soft power push in the region. For example, there is a growth number of Confucius Institutes in the region. They have also funded specific research projects in countries like Kazakhstan by local experts and opinion formers to help both shape the individuals views, but also to understand better the nature of the sinophobia so they can react to it. Travel to Aktobe, a city where CNPC plays a major economic role, and it is almost impossible to find a visible Chinese presence in the city. Chinese workers stay outside the city in a compound in an old sanatorium.

 

US Relations and impact

 

From a Chinese and Central Asian perspective, the US’s role is complicated. In the first instance, it is important to understand a bit more of the theory behind the policy. When Professor Wang Jisi drafted his influential work on the need for China to March Westward, his thinking was not only based in trying to get China to focus on its immediate periphery and develop its west, but also to try to get Chinese officials to refocus from their almost obsessive attention to China’s relations with the United States and maritime powers. This underlying logic highlights how to some degree China sees its push into Eurasia as something that it is doing without the United States. At the same time, China has shown itself to being increasingly willing to cooperate with the United States in Central Asia, with a willingness to undertake joint programs in Afghanistan, as well as explore discussions with American officials about what cooperation could be undertaken collaboratively in Central Asia.

 

At the same time, regionally, the United States is seen as something of an erratic actor. With the drawdown from Afghanistan, and the oscillating American attention to Central Asian powers, there is a regional perception that the United States is a fairweather friend or only focuses on the region when national interests are threatened (like in the wake of September 11, 2001). Furthermore, the United States is seen as not offering the same opportunities as China – while there was an interest in the New Silk Road highlighted by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a speech in Chennai in 2011, little has come from that beyond an expression of interest by the United States in creating a north-west corridor through Afghanistan. Projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline or CASA 1000 are slowly moving forwards, but without the financial push or heft of China behind them, progress is much slower than China’s efforts.

 

A new piece for RUSI’s in-house bi-monthly magazine Newsbrief, this time looking at China’s relations with the Taliban. I owe a lot of people thanks for talking to me about this topic, and am in the midst of a lot of work on this topic at the moment (China’s relations with Afghanistan). Somewhat related, I spoke to Reuters about the new Chinese counter-terrorism law, but the overwhelming majority of recent media conversations have been around the revelations around the identity of Jihadi John. On that, I spoke to the New York TimesWashington Post, Financial Times, CNN, Sunday TimesAustralian ABC, Daily Mail, Independent, and Voice of America amongst others. Doubtless this story is going to run a bit more and I am hoping to finally get something substantial on about his background sometime soon. Of course, my book in jihad in the UK has finally landed and is getting launched at RUSI on March 19 – so watch this space!

Will China Bring Peace to Afghanistan?

RUSI Newsbrief, 27 Feb 2015

By Raffaello Pantucci

After years of fence-sitting, Beijing appears to have finally decided to admit that it is willing to play a role in Afghanistan’s future. While the exact contours of the part it seeks to play are still uncertain, China’s willingness to be seen to be involved in brokering peace in Afghanistan is surprising for a nation that continues to profess non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs as the core of its foreign-policy credo.

It also remains unclear exactly how China can help to bring the Taliban to the peace table: while it may have the links to both the government in Kabul and the Taliban, it is uncertain that it knows how to bring them together, beyond offering a platform for talks. This activism is nonetheless likely to be welcomed by Western powers. Yet high expectations are not warranted; even if China does ultimately prove that it knows what to do with these talks, its efforts in Afghanistan will ultimately seek to advance its own interests rather than those of the West.

In February, news emerged that the Taliban were undertaking discussions in Pakistan as part of a reconciliation effort aided, in part, by China. This built on news last November that China had itself hosted a Taliban delegation in Beijing. Although this earlier revelation (confirmed during this author’s meetings in Beijing) was a surprise to many, it reflected a longstanding, behind-the-scenes understanding amongst Western policy-makers that China had direct links to the Taliban. The fact that these links became publicly known (although Chinese officials remain circumspect when discussing them in public) only suggests that China is willing to be more open about its possible role in Afghanistan – a development potentially accelerated by the formal conclusion of ISAF operations in the country.

The first public sign of Chinese mediation efforts came with the suggestion in November that China’s special envoy to Afghanistan – a career diplomat and former ambassador to India, Italy, Poland and (separately) Afghanistan – had visited Peshawar (or Doha, reports vary) to move talks with the Taliban forwards. Then came the visit of the Taliban delegation (following Beijing’s hosting of the Heart of Asia process meeting later that month), led by Qari Din Muhammad Hanif, a former minister in the Taliban government and possibly including representatives of both the Quetta and Peshawar Shuras of the Taliban, and potentially others from Pakistan. It was only in February, however, that Taliban spokesmen were willing to confirm that the meeting had taken place, with the same delegation apparently then in Pakistan continuing discussions there.

The revelation that China has maintained direct contact with the Taliban was no great surprise; these contacts predate the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. In December 2000, a Chinese delegation headed by then-Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with Mullah Omar in Kabul to lobby the Taliban authorities not to support anti-Chinese Uighur extremists based in Afghanistan, which were then a source of major consternation for Chinese security officials. China was also amongst those that lobbied, unsuccessfully, to prevent the Taliban from destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas. Nor was such contact limited to simply making demands of the Taliban, with Chinese telecommunications companies ZTE and Huawei both having signed contracts to undertake work in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

In July 2001, a delegation of Taliban-associated businessmen undertook a reciprocal visit to China, and on 11 September 2001 itself, a delegation of Chinese officials was in Kabul to sign a number of memoranda of understanding with the Taliban Ministry of Mines. Whilst these economic ties were largely voided in the wake of 9/11, they nevertheless show a credible link between the two and a longstanding Chinese interest in the Afghan economy.

Even in the wake of the US-led overthrow of the Taliban regime contact persisted, apparently directed out of China’s embassy in Islamabad, with relevant officials paying regular visits to Peshawar. Though initially largely handled through Pakistani interlocutors, it is understood that, over time, direct links between Chinese officials and the Taliban were consolidated. The exact nature of these exchanges is unclear, though for China they appear to have provided a means to enlist Taliban help in addressing the problem of Uighur extremists and in protecting their investments in Afghanistan, while also hedging against a persistent Chinese fear that permanent American bases in Afghanistan might be part of a strategy of encirclement.

Chinese concern that Uighur extremists in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s lawless areas might use these countries as a springboard to launch operations within China is not without some basis; indeed, there is recent evidence of this. In July 2011, for example, Memtieli Tiliwaldi was identified by the Chinese government as having belonged to a group that launched bomb and knife attacks in the city of Kashgar, Xinjiang. Weeks later, Uighur extremists in Pakistan, operating under the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), released a video purporting to show Tiliwaldi at a training camp run by the group. Such clear links are difficult to draw in relation to subsequent attacks, though China occasionally make claims that terrorist incidents in Xinjiang have connections – either in practical or ideological terms – to extremist groups based outside of China. More recently, Chinese security officials have begun to focus on the fact that such links also flow through Syria and Iraq (where there is evidence that ethnically Chinese and Uighur extremists are fighting) and Southeast Asia (where cells of Uighurs have been identified attempting to connect with militants in Poso, Indonesia). Alongside these emerging connections, however, the existence of links between Uighur extremists and both Afghanistan and Pakistan remains a key source of concern.

As importantly, Afghan authorities have long wished for China to play a more positive role in their country, particularly in the hope that the latter will use its historically strong links to Pakistan to persuade Islamabad to reduce its support for the Taliban. During newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s inaugural visit to Beijing last October (his first official international trip), he specifically lobbied China to use its relationship with Pakistan to help build peace in his country. At the same time, Afghan security officials have repeatedly attempted to show their Chinese counterparts that Pakistan is playing a double game with them – using intelligence to highlight occasions on which Pakistani officials appeared to be supporting (or at least turning a blind eye to) Uighur extremists. Recently, for example, Afghan officials announced that they had repatriated fifteen Uighurs discovered within their territory – three in Kabul and twelve in Kunar Province. They had apparently been trained in Pakistan’s Waziristan, though it was unclear what their ultimate goal had been.

This revelation might be part of the reason that China has chosen to play a stronger hand in Afghanistan. The news that Uighur cells could be training in Pakistan and moving across the border into Afghanistan, presumably with the ultimate aim of conducting some form of attack in China, suggests that the discreet infrastructure of contacts that China had established to defeat such networks was not, in fact, working. The reported presence of Uighurs in Kunar, in particular, suggests a failure of China’s relations with the Taliban, while the presence of individuals training in Waziristan shows a simultaneous failure by its Pakistani ally. All of this bolsters China’s perceived need to play a more prominent role in negotiations to bring the chaos in Afghanistan to a resolution.

However, while there is now an apparent correlation in the positions of China and the West in Afghanistan, Western hopes should not be excessively raised. Chinese officials admit that they are not clear on the exact nature of internal Afghan or Taliban dynamics, and remain concerned about a potential backlash against greater engagement, making them unlikely to push as hard as the West might hope. At the same time, in seeking to ensure the region’s stability (of which Afghanistan is a key part), China is primarily focused on denying Uighur extremists safe havens from which to operate, as well as developing its Silk Road Economic Belt trade corridors. It is less concerned with the Western emphasis on good governance (though there is growing discussion in Beijing about the importance of this in ensuring stability). And it is certainly not concerned about the perceived legacy of the West’s investment of over a decade’s worth of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Instead, China’s interests in Afghanistan are ultimately national, reflecting an increasing desire on the part of Beijing to enhance stability on its western periphery on its own terms.

More broadly, however, the most interesting aspect of China’s activity in Afghanistan is the fact that it has shown itself willing to play this sort of role in a foreign nation. This clearly highlights the degree to which Chinese foreign policy is evolving and opening up to the world. The danger is that China is embarking upon this role in a country that has for generations proven impervious to external activism. The larger concern must therefore be what it might mean for Chinese foreign policy should this effort fail.

Raffaello Pantucci
Director, International Security Studies, RUSI.
Twitter: @raffpantucci