With apologies for the silence, it has been a very busy and hectic time in a number of different directions. Things ramping up in many different ways for the end of the year, so am only now getting around to posting my latest journal article for my institutional home’s in-house publication the RUSI Journal. It looks at Lone Actor terrorism in the UK in the wake of the Woolwich attack, something that abruptly became very relevant again recently as a result of a number of disparate attacks in Canada and now Australia. More on this topic to come.

Over the past few weeks have also spoken to a few journalists, including the Los Angeles Times about the UK’s counter-radicalisation efforts, the Financial Times and Jewish Chronicle about the difficulties posed to counter-terrorists across Europe due to the free movement around the EU, to the Guardian about the ongoing chaos in Libya, to NBC about ISIS, and the Financial Times and Telegraph about events in Sydney and lone actors. On the other side of the docket, spoke to Bloomberg about the Silk Road Economic Belt and Li Keqiang’s visit to Kazakhstan, to Voice of America about Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive in the wake of the charging of Zhou Yongkang, and to the Associated Press and South China Morning Post about terrorism in Xinjiang. Finally, I was on the BBC’s Newsnight about the Sydney attack last night, which can be seen here for the next month.

The RUSI Journal article is freely available online here, and rather than post it on this site

A Death in Woolwich: The Lone-Actor Terrorist Threat in the UK

RUSI Journal, Oct 2014, Vol. 159, No. 5 

By Raffaello Pantucci

OBM RUSI Journal

Recent events in Syria and Iraq have shown in horrifying starkness the increased participation of British jihadists in terrorist fighting in the Middle East. In response, many have called for increased measures against home-grown radicals, to prevent them from travelling abroad to fight for the Islamist cause and, crucially, to stop them from carrying out attacks upon their return. Raffaello Pantucci analyses the difficulties of identifying potential terrorists among the many individuals who move within radical Islamist circles, and the even more challenging task of pinpointing those susceptible to self-radicalisation who could, without direct guidance, carry out dangerous acts of lone-actor terrorism.

Somewhat belated posting of a brief report I co-authored with RUSI colleague Clare Ellis looking at the threat of ISIS to the UK, and more broadly providing some comment on the threat from the group and what might be done to deal with it. Follow the links to read the whole piece. I also spoke to the Washington Post about Anjem Choudhry, Billboard about jihadi rap, the Daily Mail about the plot disrupted in London, and RIA Novosti about Syria and ISIS. Separately, I spoke to Eurasianet about the recent SCO Summit and the possibility that Pakistan might join the organization. Just finished a rather long regional trip, so more coming out on that topic soon.

The Threat of ISIS to the UK: RUSI Threat Assessment

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is well financed, well equipped and brutal. It is also a plausible threat to the UK.

Download the briefing here (PDF)

The group operates across large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, where the sustained conflicts continue to attract large numbers of foreign fighters. Official estimates suggest the total travelling to the region has now exceeded 15,000, including 500 from the UK. It is unclear what proportion has joined ISIS, though it is understood that a majority of these UK citizens have joined its ranks. This briefing argues that it is this community of foreign fighters that poses an immediate terrorist threat to the West.

As the UK joins the coalition against this increasingly dominant jihadist force, understanding the scale of the threat and the complexity of the challenge is crucial. This briefing analyses four key questions:

  • What is the group’s current narrative and interest?
  • How is this narrative being heard in the UK?
  • What would change to make ISIS refocus from its regional concentration
    to a global one?
  • How might a new ‘awakening’ movement be stimulated in Iraq?

This briefing provides an objective view on ISIS and some judgements about its current threat trajectory. It draws on a series of discussions held at RUSI, which involved internal and external expertise, to come to some key judgements on the group.

A new piece as part of a Room for Debate conversation on the New York Times opinion pages. This one looking at the phenomenon of radicalisation in the west and how to counter it. Honoured to be in the company of friends and distinguished academics on the topic. The surge in attention around Brits in Syria and Iraq has led to a spike in media requests and conversations, including the New York Times, Economist, Voice of America, Los Angeles Times, AFP, and Press Association among others. I also spoke to Voice of America about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization counter-terror ‘Peace Mission’ exercise last week as well as USA Today about the China’s attempt to use the new Silk Road Economic Belt to ameliorate the situation in Xinjiang.

There Are Ways to Address Radicalism Early

British nationals (and many from other Western countries) have been a feature of jihadist battlefields for almost two decades. Some are drawn for idealistic reasons – going to fight for a cause, defend a people, or for some religious vision. Others go for more prosaic reasons, fleeing trouble at home, or seeking redemption for a criminal past. And yet others are simply young people at a juncture in their lives where the idea of going to run around a training camp and shooting guns seems quite appealing.

Countering this complicated mix of motivations is difficult. Part of it is developing programs that give people alternatives in their lives. These are not dissimilar to programs to help dissuade people from being drawn to gang culture. Part of it is also countering the spread of ideas in communities. While the Internet and social media play a role in drawing people to think about Syria and Iraq and find ways of getting there, it is often through real-world interactions that they will meet individuals who help provide the push, contacts or motivations to actually go to fight. Communities need to reject such people, but in addition, alternative pillars within society need to be developed to provide voice to credible alternative narratives.

A great deal of pressure is often put on communities within this context – the expectation is that they will somehow police themselves and this will resolve the problem. But at the same time, the reality is that sometimes people within communities simply do not know what they are dealing with. Families find themselves dealing with children or siblings who are becoming drawn to ideas, but it is difficult to know whether they are being drawn to dangerous ideas or simply going through a phase.

A partial answer to this problem can be found in a program initially developed in Germany, now being introduced in Britain, where a special hotline is established within communities and provides people with a place to ask questions without having to resort to the authorities. Creating spaces in which people can ask about what they should do if a relation is starting to flirt with radical ideas, without actually having to report it to the police, offers a moment at which an intervention could be made. This is something that will be more appealing to people within communities who are fearful of destroying someone’s life by reporting something innocuous to the police.

Ultimately, the phenomenon of young Britons (or Westerners more generally) being drawn to Syria and Iraq is not one that is going to be resolved overnight. There will ultimately be no longterm solution to this problem until the respective civil conflicts in Syria and Iraq are drawn to some definitive conclusion. This will involve creative diplomacy and bolstering of regional allies, as well as a recrafting of the current status quo across the broader Middle East. But until this happens, the battlefields will continue to be a draw to a certain community of young Westerners seeking adventure, meaning and ideals.

A piece on kidnapping by terrorist groups for Italian magazine Panorama, a kind of more tabloidy version of the Economist. It basically makes the case for why paying is a bad idea, though I must say that I am maybe a bit more ambivalent on the topic than the article might suggest. I fully understand families and others difficulties in deciding whether to pay or not, but it is clear that paying does propagate the phenomenon. The counter-point would be if we didn’t pay, would people not get kidnapped? Maybe it simply make kidnapping an even more dangerous experience since it would in essence be a deadly journey each time. It is very difficult to know. This was actually written and published prior to the emergence of the James Foley video, and I have been doing various bits of media around that. More on that soon.

Guerra al terrore: ma è giusto pagare i riscatti?

Il rapimento delle due ragazze italiane in Siria e la decapitazione del giornalista Usa riaprono la polemica sui soldi versati agli estremisti in cambio della liberazione degli ostaggi. 
Un immenso flusso di denaro. Che va bloccato

27-08-2014

Guerra al terrore: ma è giusto pagare i riscatti?

James Foley a Idlib, in Siria, nel 2012

Credits: ANSA /EPA /Nicole Tung /Courtesy of GlobalPost

di Raffello Pantucci*

Vantandosi in una recente lettera con il collega leader di al Qaeda nel Maghreb islamico (Aqim), Nasser al Wuhayshi, numero 2 del movimento islamista nella penisola arabica (Aqap), gongolava per il fatto che «la maggior parte dei costi della battaglia erano pagati dai bottini: quasi la metà dei quali proveniente da riscatti. I rapimenti costituiscono un facile bottino, un affare vantaggioso e un tesoro prezioso». Per quanto l’affermazione di Wuhayshi possa apparire vanagloriosa, mette in evidenza le ragioni per cui il pagamento dei riscatti è qualcosa che i terroristi e i gruppi estremisti considerano un’attività fondamentale per la continuazione delle loro azioni.

Le organizzazioni terroristiche e gli insorti hanno bisogno di soldi. Operando in ambienti ostili, dove rifornimenti e fondi scarseggiano, il denaro è necessario per comprare cibo, vestiario e armi, per pagare le spese di trasporto e i combattenti, e per assicurarsi il transito in aree governate da signori della guerra e capi tribali che altrimenti potrebbero denunciare le attività sospette alle autorità. Le attività criminali come contrabbando o estorsioni consentono di incassare soltanto parte dei fondi, ma richiedono forti investimenti e un grande impiego di uomini. Mentre fare soldi con i rapimenti è decisamente più facile e veloce.

I gruppi armati sono sempre più consapevoli degli ingenti profitti che è possibile realizzare sequestrando persone di paesi noti per correre in soccorso dei propri cittadini, e puntano individui provenienti da stati più disposti a pagare per la loro liberazione. È un’operazione puramente economica, nella quale l’ideologia c’entra poco. I soldi ricevuti sono indispensabili per le attività terroristiche e si può tracciare la parabola delle varie formazioni a seconda della loro capacità di assicurarsi fonti di finanziamento. Così mentre il nodo attorno al nucleo di al Qaeda si è stretto e l’attività della rete terroristica è diminuita, quella di gruppi come al Qaeda nel Maghreb islamico, al Qaeda nella Penisola arabica, o Isis prosperano grazie alla loro abilità nell’ottenere denaro dalle attività criminali.

La situazione per coloro che sono prigionieri in Siria è sfortunatamente ancora più complicata, perché non sono chiare le motivazioni per cui i miliziani dell’Isis trattengono gli ostaggi. Stanno chiedendo soldi per rimetterli in libertà o hanno soltanto intenzione di usarli come scudi contro attacchi esterni? Ciò che è chiaro, tuttavia, è che gli ostaggi resteranno pedine dei gruppi che cercano fondi e attenzione. Il fatto che famiglie, aziende e governi alla fine decidano di pagare è solo un modo per perpetuare questo circolo vizioso, aumentando il numero di gruppi che guardano al rapimento come un’attività lucrosa.

Per interromperlo è necessario che tutti si rifiutino di pagare. È una decisione difficile da mettere in pratica, e anche difficile da fare accettare a famiglie e opinione pubblica. Ma è l’unico modo per chiudere la «fabbrica dei sequestri».

*Esperto di sicurezza e terrorismo al Royal united services institute (Rusi) di Londra

I had a feature piece in today’s Observer newspaper in the wake of the Foley murder this week. This time focusing on the online reactions amongst the jihadi twittersphere to the murder and putting it in a wider context. For some reason, the piece appeared in the Observer app and newspaper, but not online yet. However, the editors have generously allowed me to repost it here. I did a number of interviews around this as well, but many have not yet appeared online. One for the Sunday Mail has shown up and another for a Columbian magazine called Semana. More undoubtedly on this general topic to come.

Extremists preach to the converted and bid to provoke a global reaction

Observer screenshot_August 2014

“What a beautiful message to America!” said Qaqa Britani, a Mancunian jihadist fighting in Syria  in response to the videoed murder of James Foley last week. Agreeing with him, another British fighter using the twitter handle @muhajirbritanni proclaimed “Allahu akbar, the best IS video so far, a message to america, Masha Allah Allahu akbar”. While incomprehensible to most people, the justifications offered by these fighters provide a view into their thinking, one that while at odds with public opinion has a warped logic that sustains them as they fight alongside Isis.

It is not the first time that Qaqa Britani has found notoriety for posting pictures of beheadings. Earlier this month he posted a picture of someone holding up a decapitated Assad regime fighter with the declaration “another nusayri head. We strike terror into their hearts by Allah’s permission!” In a nod to the fact that he was doing this for an audience, he then offered an apology for the bad lighting, stating “sorry my camera doesn’t have a flash”.

A couple of weeks later, another British fighter, identified as former rap MC Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, posted a picture of himself in Raqqa holding up a severed head with the statement “chillin’ with my other homie, or what’s left of him”.

By highlighting that these deaths have been done in the name of their god, the men are pointing to the strength and purity of their cause. For them, the murder of James Foley was an act that taunted the world and showed their power and the relative weakness of the American government, which was unable to prevent it.

Others took a different reaction to the murder, falling back instead into spurious comparisons. One pro-Isis twitter account @abulooz22 said: “2035 Palestians killed….barely a reaction 1 American killed…..World on IS.”

A British fighter using the name Abu Abdullah Britani, who is linked to the Rayat al Tawheed cluster of Brits fighting in Syria who have been responsible for a number of gruesome videos that have attracted public attention, took a similar approach, stating: “A brother severed one body part and the world went nuts. A drone severes a body into a hundred pieces but no one says nothing. #cheapBlood.”

These kinds of comparisons are typical of extremist narratives. Seeing the world through a narrow lens of confrontation between the west and Sunni Islam, all they are interested in is supporting evidence they selectively find around them.

Most grim of the reactions found to the video of Foley’s murder was that of British extremists who revelled in pride at the fact that it appeared to be one of their number in the video. “Beheaded by a British brother! What an honour!’ declared Qaqa Britani, while Abul Muthanna, believed to be the account of one of a group from Cardiff, reacted to a question about the video saying “lol the bruddas went on a mad one here, that british brother allahumma barik alayh what a lion!”

For those fighting in Syria, the narratives they broadcast through social media are aimed at people who already agree with them, as well as provoking a reaction from the world at large. Their aim is to justify, and the more extreme the justification, the more likely it is to generate a reaction. In this way, their narrative becomes debated and increasingly brought into the public conversation. Suddenly their extreme ideas are being pulled into the mainstream.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies, Royal United Services Institute

A new piece for my institutional home RUSI, looking at the threat from ISIS in the context of the history of the group. In the wake of the brutal Foley murder, there was a spike in media interest and I spoke on related topics to the Australian, Metro, Global PostGuardian, NBCSlate, in this conversation with USA Today, they drew the conclusion I meant poverty was a driver of why people would go and join to fight in Syria/Iraq. Not quite my intention, it is more about blocked mobility sometimes providing people with an opening to radical ideas rather than deprivation driving them towards it. Were poverty a driver of terrorism, there would be many more terrorists in the world. Earlier I spoke to Channel 4 about ISIS camps in Syria/Iraq, to Voice of America about the group more broadly, about British gangsta’s going to fight to the Sunday Express, as well as to the Evening Standard about gangsta rapper MC now fighting in Syria/Iraq Abdel Bary. Beyond ISIS and Iraq/Syria, I spoke to Voice of America about Xinjiang and with the South China Morning Post about this coming week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) counter-terror drill

Is ISIS a Threat to the UK?

RUSI Analysis, 21 Aug 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The murder of American journalist James Foley brought global attention to the menace of ISIS. But what kind of a threat does the group actually post beyond the Levant?

British jihadists, Isis recruitment video

image from here

The cruel beheading by a possibly British ISIS fighter of American journalist James Foley is the latest act of brutality by a group whose willingness to use such violence continues to reach new depths.

However, in the understandable consternation around the group and its activity, care should be taken to understand better the exact nature of the threat that this group poses. ISIS is working hard to try to overturn the current Westphalian order with its repeated invocations of destroying the Sykes-Picot borders of the Middle East and has quite successfully taken over an ever-expanding chunk of the Levant. The question is whether the group remains principally a regional threat or an international one.

The best answer is to look more closely at the group’s history. ISIS (or Islamic State as they refer to themselves) is a group that has waxed and waned over the years. Borne out of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s group that he founded in Herat, Afghanistan in the late 1990s, it came to more international prominence in in August 2003 when they attacked the Jordanian Embassy and UN Headquarters in Baghdad and a Shia shrine in Najaf. In the process they killed hundreds including UN Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of the SCIRI Party and one of the leaders of Shia Iraq. In time, the group, which in 2006 changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) to make it sound more Iraqi, suffered public blowback at its unremitting and brutal violence with the Sahwa ‘awakening’ movement as Sunni’s grew tired of the unremitting murder and sectarian tensions that ISI was stirring up.

But for all its brutality within Iraq, the group did not much stretch beyond its domestic borders. Under Zarqawi’s watch in November 2005 they launched a series of three coordinated attacks on Western hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing 60 and injuring over 100. It was possibly linked to some attempts to attack Israel, but these amounted to little. This notwithstanding the fact that the group had the technical expertise, contacts, and fighters to use as tools to launch attacks against the West or elsewhere.

The Threat Today

Cut to today and we have a group that has formally severed its links with Al Qa’ida and established a dominion of sorts over chunks of Iraq and Syria. A decade on, it is still resorting to sending political messages through the brutal and public beheading of American hostages. We have yet, however, to see confirmed evidence of the group actually launching attacks outside its immediate territory (beyond possible links to incidents elsewhere in the Levant). This is not to say that we have not seen plots emanate from foreign fighter networks linked to the group. Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national, had allegedly fought alongside ISIS for some time prior to returning to Europe where he took it upon himself to murder four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels. And while his was the only successful attack, at least four other plots have been disrupted within European borders in which individuals fought in Syria (and possibly Iraq) before coming back home and undertaking plotting clearly in the direction of trying to do something within Europe rather than back in the Levant.

But absent from these reported plots is much evidence of direction by ISIS. There have been suggestions of directed plots linked to Jabhat al Nusrah, but the information around these has been sketchy. Rather, it seems as though these plots for the most part seem to be undertaken by individuals who have battlefield experience and decide to come back and do something under their own steam. In many ways, this actually reflects the historical experience with foreigners who fight or train alongside groups in Iraq: Bilal Abdulla and Taimour Abdulwahab al Abdaly both spent some time in Iraq alongside the insurgency before heading back to the UK and Sweden respectively to try to carry out attacks. In neither case was their evidence produced of direction off the battlefield, though their cases illustrate clear examples of individuals that a group like ISIS could have used had it wanted to launch attacks against Europe.

A Menace, Yes. But is ISIS a Threat to the West?

It is clear that ISIS is a menace that leaders rightly focus on. It has the potential to upend the Middle East and cause death and misery to thousands. But it is not as of yet clear that it is a group with the desire and intent to launch itself against the West and Europe in particular. It has the means at its disposal to launch such attacks and has rhetorically threatened such attacks, but so far we have not seen these clearly materialise.

This is of course not to say that they might not take place. Clearly, ISIS is a group that has evolved over time, and it might yet evolve in a strategic direction that leads to a concerted effort to launch attacks against the West. But as we can see from the fact that in a decade of unleashing brutality, its approach to attracting publicity has little changed, it is possible that its aims and goals have equally shifted little and it continues to be more interested in regional ambitions.

The significance of this distinction lies in the subsequent official reaction in Western capitals to the group. Foley’s brutal murder, like the group’s earlier gains in Iraq, were predictable, but were greeted with shock which mandated major response – a product of the relative inattention that was being paid to what was happening in Syria and Iraq. The danger is that in the absence of a clear plot linked to the group, attention might fade and the group will be seen as a regional irritation that can be managed, rather than an organisation that requires focused extrication and where possible eradication.

This difficult conclusion is one that will only be achieved over a lengthy and committed timeline involving a complicated array of bolstering local forces, cutting deals with tribes to undermine the group, as well as focused counter-terrorism efforts to eliminate leaders and cut off supply routes. More strategically, an inclusive government needs to be fostered in Iraq and the civil war in Syria needs to be brought to some resolution. None of these are easy solutions, but they are long-term solutions to what is necessary to finally bring some peace to the brutalised Levant.

A new piece for China Outlook, an excellent online magazine that I have actually written for before, but failed to post here for some reason. For my previous piece for them, please see here, it looked at foreign investment into Xinjiang and the difficulties the Chinese government was encountering in persuading people to come. This one instead draws and expands considerably on a presentation I did in Beijing. It draws on my time honoured theme of China’s push into Central Asia, and of course, much of my work on this topic can also be found on the site I co-run, China in Central Asia. Special thanks to editor Nick at China Outlook for his work on this and for allowing me to repost here and on my other site.

Related, I spoke to the Associated Press about Xinjiang and how the Chinese government tries to control the narrative, and unrelated, to NBC about the new video featuring European fighters to emerge from ISIS in Syria.

China’s inexorable drive into Central Asia

August 5, 2014

by Raffaello Pantucci

Central-Asia-270x167

Picture from China Outlook

In a speech last September at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, China’s President Xi Jinping coined a new strategic vision for his country’s relations with Central Asia, calling for the creation of a Silk Road Economic Belt. Coming at the culmination of a sweep through Central Asia during which he signed deals worth $56bn and touched down in four out of five capitals, the declaration may be something that has now received a new moniker from President Xi, but the economic and geopolitical reality that it characterizes is one that has been underway for some time.

President Xi’s declaration of the Silk Road Economic Belt needs to be understood within a wider context, particularly in his October 2013 speech at a work conference on diplomacy in which he set out his first formal statement on foreign policy. There he highlighted the priority he wanted his administration to place on border diplomacy: “We must strive to make our neighbours more friendly in politics, economically more closely tied to us, and we must have deeper security cooperation and closer people-to-people ties.”

The emphasis has continued and China has placed great store by the events it is hosting which focus on regional coordination and connectivity: the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) was elevated from being an unheard-of conference to a spectacle of international importance; whilst the Heart of Asia process (focused on re-connecting Afghanistan to its region) is being hosted in Tianjin later in August to equal fanfare. On the international stage, China has prioritized creating a new development bank to reflect both its increasing rejection of the old global financial structures, but also to increase its ability to influence growth and development in the world.

The clearest expression of the Xi administration’s newly attentive border diplomacy, however, can be found in the focus on economic corridors. The declaration of the Silk Road Economic Belt has been matched by an enhanced focus on three other major economic corridors emanating from China: the Maritime Silk Road, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor.

Talk to Chinese officials or experts and they will talk of these corridors as strings of the same instrument, highlighting the focus on economics, connectivity and the stability that flows from prosperity as the end goal of this ‘corridor’ diplomacy. Officials talk of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy that focuses in particular on the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt as the two core elements.

For President Xi’s administration, the aim is to recreate China as the heart and hub of regional politics and economics, to develop China’s poorer border regions and to provide prosperity and opportunity for Chinese firms that are increasingly being pushed to go out into the world. In diplomatic terms, it is the beginnings of a realization in Beijing that it can no longer sit by and let international affairs happen in its neighborhood without taking any role. But as with all Chinese initiatives, it starts by focusing on confidence-building measures, discussion and economics.

China’s rise in Central Asia at the expense of Russian influence and power is not new, but has been underway for almost a decade. President Xi’s visit to Astana came off the back of a number of regional visits by his predecessor President Hu where China had signed a number of huge deals and demonstrated that it was the coming power in Central Asia. As Russian influence has stagnated and infrastructure rotted, Chinese firms have moved in to secure energy fields and mining concessions, as well as rebuilding Central Asia’s physical infrastructure.

Travel along the routes from Kashgar or Urumqi in Xinjiang into Central Asia and you will find roads and rail links that have been refurbished or newly built by Chinese firms. Pipelines from Kazakhstan’s oil fields in Atyrau or Turkmenistan’s super-giant Galkynysh gas field have been built in record time to bring the fuel back to China. Mining concessions across Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been snapped up by Chinese firms, while Chinese companies burrow roads and rail links through mountains in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Visit downtown Dushanbe in Tajikistan, and you will now find a city that has had its main roads refurbished in time for a national anniversary by Chinese firms, a Presidential home and library built by Chinese companies, a CCTV traffic system paid for by a China Development Bank loan and built by Huawei, fields of cranes manned by Chinese workers erecting new buildings around the city, and all of this powered by a giant thermal electricity plant built by PowerChina that ensures that Dushanbe’s power shortages during winter are a thing of the past.

China’s relationship with Central Asia can no longer be caricatured as being built on extracting mineral wealth to feed insatiable Chinese factories. Chinese companies build infrastructure and are increasingly becoming regional energy suppliers, as well as supplying Chinese goods into Central Asian markets. From Kyrgyzstan’s southern entrepots of Kara-Suu and Osh to the Caspian Sea at Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan, Chinese goods fill the markets.

Talk to young students at the Confucius Institutes in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere and they will often speak of learning Mandarin at their parents’ demand to help them cut better deals in Chinese markets in Urumqi or Guangzhou. Language training at a more formal level extends to officialdom in Kyrgyzstan, with scholarships offered to bureaucrats in the Presidential administration, ministry of foreign affairs and ministry of the interior. Beijing, Shanghai and Urumqi universities are full of Central Asian officials’ children who are learning Mandarin. When Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov visited Beijing in November 2011 he was greeted by around 1,000 Turkmen students on scholarships at Chinese higher education establishments.

These scholarships are part of the Chinese soft power push into the region, one that is matched with strong political relations that are advanced at a bilateral basis as well as through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). And as this multifaceted push develops, its economic force and gravity becomes a draw for random Chinese traders and adventurers seeking prosperity.

One couple in Bishkek reported initially arriving as officials working for a state owned firm and as a travel agent: 15 years later, they owned stalls in Kyrgyzstan’s markets, a Chinese restaurant in Bishkek, as well as a biscuit factory outside the city. In downtown Dushanbe, a generous Chinese businessman who had been in the country for about seven years proudly showed off the factory into which he had designed purpose-built flats for Chinese workers coming into the country. His main industry was a fireworks factory and on his wall he displayed a calendar with pictures of himself with senior leaders and events at which he had supplied the fireworks.

The drive behind all this activity is both directed and haphazard. The latter is mostly the product of industrious Chinese following the economic gravity in the region. At a more directed level, however, the effort is part of a longstanding effort by the Chinese government to increase development and prosperity in the under-developed western regions. Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province that accounts for a sixth of the nation’s land mass, has an under-developed infrastructure with an angry Uighur minority who are increasingly expressing their anger through attacks against state institutions.

The Chinese government’s solution to this is a heavy-handed security response matched with focused economic investment. But for landlocked Xinjiang to be able to prosper it will require trade links through Central Asia to Russian and ultimately European markets, or through Afghanistan or Pakistan to Arab and Iranian markets or to the Indian Ocean.

The push in this direction has been in existence for some time. It was late 2011 when Peking University’s dean of international studies, Wang Jisi, first floated his ‘March Westward’ concept. And it is one that President Xi Jinping appears to have harnessed as one of the cores of his foreign policy direction as he looks out at the world.

Building on the success of this drive into Central Asia and its economic and trade push, with politics and security coming as secondary consequences, the model is now being replicated elsewhere, with the four corridors fundamentally echoing the New Silk Road that had been underway for some time.

For anyone trying to understand China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping, it is in Central Asia that the first glimmers of understanding can be found. The larger focus on border diplomacy and its short and medium-term impacts and consequences can all be found in Central Asia where China is rapidly becoming the most influential player on the ground.

The region is being re-wired so that all roads go to China, and the economics are slowly becoming increasingly dependent on China. The longer-term implications of this shift have yet to be completely understood, but they will likely strike a path that we will slowly see China following along its other economic corridors.