My regular contribution to RSIS Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) Annual Assessment issue, this time on Central Asia with the lovely Nodir.

Central Asia

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

As in the previous three years, Central Asia was free from domestic terrorist attacks in 2022. Nevertheless, the region’s security faced major instability with large-scale violence – for a variety of reasons – in all of the region’s countries except Turkmenistan. At the same time, concerns persisted over the potential for militant activities involving the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISK) in Afghanistan to spill over into the region, even as Central Asian militants on the ground have, for the most part, stayed loyal to the Taliban. Likewise, in Syria, most Central Asians continued to fight alongside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), though their focus remains regional. Similar to recent years, there was also some evidence of additional radicalisation, recruitment and fund-raising both within the region and amongst diaspora communities.

Mass Unrest

The widespread instability witnessed in Central Asia over the past year was not in fact terrorism, but rather a wave of mass unrest across the region. While each instance had its own drivers and cause the net result was a tumultuous year for Central Asia, even as terrorist threats appeared to be focused elsewhere.

2022 started with an unexpected set of clashes in Kazakhstan, where localised demonstrations in the city of Zhanaozen over a steep rise in fuel prices in early January escalated into mass riots across several cities, including the largest one, Almaty. The skirmishes led to the deaths of some 230 people, including 19 members of the security forces.1 Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev described the unrest as a “well-organised and prepared act”, suggesting – without any presented evidence at the time – that the perpetrators also included “foreign militants from Central Asia and Afghanistan as well as the Middle East”.2

In order to restore stability, and reflecting a loss of confidence in his own security forces, President Tokayev was compelled to call upon the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), to deploy just over 2,000 troops to help relieve local forces by guarding critical national infrastructure.3 Kazakh officials suggested that up to 20,000 people arrived in the country to participate in the riots, while police seized more than 2,000 illegal weapons from rioters.4 These statements were, however, disputed by various analysts.5

The more likely cause of the violence appears to have a been a mix of internal political disputes, alongside deep-seated public anger over widespread grievances such as corruption, nepotism and growing economic inequality. President Tokayev appeared to acknowledge much of this in reforms he pushed through subsequently,6 while the arrests of senior figures linked to former President Nursultan Nazarbayev highlighted the fissures exposed by the in-fighting behind some of the violence.7 Tensions linger on in the country through reports of alleged mistreatment of some of those detained during the trouble.8

These events were followed in mid-May by an outbreak of violence in the majority ethnic Pamiri Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in Tajikistan, on the country’s border with Afghanistan. On May 14, hundreds of local residents demonstrated in the region’s capital of Khorog, where the situation had been tense since November 2021, when police fatally injured a local man wanted on charges of kidnapping.9 Protesters demanded the resignation of top provincial authorities over their alleged failure to investigate the local man’s death.

After authorities refused these requests, a large group of local youth marched towards the provincial administration and clashed with security forces, who retaliated by using rubber bullets and tear gas.10 The Tajik Interior Ministry stated that a group of 200 young supporters of Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, an alleged local criminal who was subsequently killed, conducted an armed assault using guns and firebombs on the ministry’s provincial headquarters.11 The riots and clashes left 29 perpetrators and one police officer dead.12

President Emomali Rahmon later stated that it was a pre-planned event through which “internal and external stakeholders sought to destabilise the situation”, accusing his long-standing bête noire, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), of running the armed attacks and spending nearly US$2.5 million to finance the perpetrators.13 The IRPT, which is banned in Tajikistan and Russia as an extremist and terrorist organisation, has denied these allegations.14 Most non-government observers, while acknowledging the possible role of influential, informal local powerbrokers in the outbreak of violence, have also highlighted low living standards, youth unemployment, rising food prices and bad central government-community relations as underlying causes.15 The violence also pulls on a long-standing tension between Pamiri communities and the rest of the country, one of many drivers of the brutal civil war that ravaged the country in the 1990s.

Soon after the violence in GBAO, in Nukus, the capital city of Uzbekistan’s autonomous Karakalpakstan republic, large-scale protests erupted in response to proposed constitutional amendments that would limit the region’s right to secede. The leader of the protests, Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a blogger from Nukus, was detained and released promptly.16 However, crowds of people assembled in the city centre announced Tazhimuratov as the new head of the autonomous republic, while demanding the resignation of its actual head, who came to meet and negotiate with the protesters at the scene. When protesters attempted to enter and seize the parliament building, they clashed with the National Guard, leading to violence and deaths. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev responded by revoking the proposed changes, while deploying security forces and declaring a state of emergency.

The clashes led to the reported deaths of 18 and 243 injuries.17 Tazhimuratov was arrested by the police and criminal cases have been opened against him and his accomplices.18 Some of his supporters insisted that he never promoted secession, but found himself used by separatists in their propaganda.19 Local authorities in Nukus have pointed to external responsibility without revealing any further details.20 Nevertheless, in his speech on August 26, President Mirziyoyev underlined unemployment, rising prices, unsatisfactory road conditions, shortage of potable water and disruptions in electricity supply as contributing to public discontent, which local authorities had failed to address effectively despite increased investment by the central government. He also announced additional economic support for the region.21

Clashes at the Kyrgyz-Tajik Border

On September 14, a new round of armed clashes ignited between border guards at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border close to Kyrgyzstan’s Batken province, where periodic provocations and clashes have taken place over the past decade.22 Violence this time around appeared to have erupted due to clashes in the Tajik exclave of Vorukh, which sits entirely surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. The violence rapidly escalated with three-day long clashes involving tanks and armoured personnel carriers, which left 63 dead (including 13 civilians), 144 injured and more than 140,000 evacuated in Kyrgyzstan, and 41 dead and dozens injured in Tajikistan.23 Predictably, both parties blamed each other for the clashes.

Understanding responsibility and blame, however, seems particularly confusing at this time, especially as both leaders were sitting together in Uzbekistan at a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit when the clashes took place. Whatever the case, one of the most striking aspects of these clashes was Kyrgyzstan’s top security official’s insistence that they had proof that “terrorist mercenaries” fought on the side of Tajikistan forces, and officials in Kabul recognised their citizens.24 No more information was provided, and the Tajik side has rejected the claim as propaganda. While both sides have since agreed to demilitarise conflict areas along the border, the clashes highlighted the fragility of border relations between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with the bout of violence a repeat of events in 2021, though with a higher casualty count.25

More broadly, while local political in-fighting might have fuelled much of the violence and instability witnessed in the region, these are also feeding off a widespread sense of public discontent. This in turn highlights a major issue that authorities across the region are clearly struggling to handle, one which poses a potential danger in the future.

Militant Groups in Afghanistan and Syria

The Taliban’s violent takeover of Kabul in August 2021 continued to cast uncertainty on Afghanistan from a Central Asian perspective. While all of the region’s countries that share a border with Taliban ruled Afghanistan share a concern about the overspill of violence, they have – with the notable exception of Tajikistan – chosen to embrace the Taliban authorities in an attempt to bring stability to Afghanistan.

In seeking international recognition, the Taliban have repeatedly insisted that Afghanistan under their rule will be a responsible state that would not allow any terrorist group to use their territory to launch attacks against others. However, these claims are belied by action on the ground (like the revelation that slain Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was resident in Kabul) as well as the ISK’s repeated references to Central Asia as a target in its propaganda and attempted attacks. This is a source of concern across Central Asia.

On October 19, Ramazon Rahimov, Tajikistan’s Minister of Interior, claimed that the Taliban had issued Afghan passports to more than 3,000 members of terrorist groups, including some Central Asians.26 He did not provide any details to substantiate his claim.27 Another top Tajik general assessed the situation in the north-eastern Afghan provinces that share common borders with Tajikistan – especially in Badakhshan, Takhar and Balkh – to be “complicated and tense”.28

He noted that it might further deteriorate in the near term as Al-Qaeda (AQ), the Islamic State (IS) and other terror groups continue to operate about 40 training camps and bases, with large numbers of light and heavy weapons, military hardware and even drones obtained as trophies from the toppled Afghan forces. He also revealed there were about 5,000 militants originating from former Soviet countries in the ranks of groups affiliated to AQ, the Taliban and IS in Afghanistan, without breaking down the figure by each group.

Currently, four Central Asian militant units, namely the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU or IJG), the Afghanistan wing of Katibat Imam Al-Bukhari (KIB), the Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), are known to operate in Afghanistan under the protection and guidance of the Taliban. Since the Taliban prohibited foreign terrorist groups under its control from active online visibility in 2020, production and propagation of extremist propaganda in the online public domain by such groups has shrunk. The latest updates on these groups mostly come from official reports filtered through the United Nations (UN).

According to UN reporting, the Taliban takeover has granted these Central Asian groups greater freedom of movement inside Afghanistan, with several key terrorist figures recently showing up openly in Kabul.29 IJU, led by Ilimbek Mamatov, a Kyrgyz national who is also known as Khamidulla, and the group’s second-in-command, Amsattor Atabaev from Tajikistan, is active primarily in the northern provinces of Badakhshan, Baghlan and Kunduz. IJU reportedly has the strongest military preparedness among Central Asian groups fighting in Afghanistan.

KIB’s Afghan wing, led by Dilshod Dekhanov, a Tajik national who is also known as Jumaboi, operates mainly in Badghis province.30 The group has reportedly boosted its fighting force by recruiting several local Afghans. In September, Mamatov and Dekhanov visited Kabul on separate occasions, asking for the Taliban’s approval and assistance to unify Central Asian groups under their respective leadership. Taliban officials denied this request, pushing instead to make the groups part of the newly developed Taliban army. While the exact reasons and the pretext given by the two leaders for the proposed unification were unclear, they were competing to consolidate control over some Central Asian militant groups. It might also show the Taliban’s willingness to increase the size of its armed forces.

Jamaat Ansarullah, led by Sajod (the son of Amriddin Tabarov, alias Domullo Amriddin, the group’s notorious founding leader from Tajikistan who was killed in 2016 in Afghanistan), retains close ties with the Taliban and AQ. The group is also known in Afghanistan as the “Tajik Taliban”, as it unites about 300 militants in its ranks, predominantly Tajik nationals and some Afghan Tajiks. Since September 2021, Jamaat Ansarullah has assisted the Taliban force in administering some districts in Badakhshan and Kunduz, and in guarding sections of the common border with Tajikistan.31

In July, reports emerged that the leader of the group, Mohammed Sharipov, also known as Mehdi Arsalan, had broken away from Jamaat Ansarullah to create a new group called Tehreek-e-Taliban Tajikistan (TTT). However, since this declaration, there has been little change in the militants’ activities. The group appears to continue to operate alongside the Taliban in the north of Afghanistan, and the logic of re-naming itself seems unclear. It bears attention, however, as it could ultimately develop into a wider split from the Taliban, particularly given the tensions that have been visible between the Taliban and their Central Asian origin or ethnic cadres over the past year.32

ISK Boosts Propaganda Threats Against Central Asia

This tension was something noticed by the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, with the ISK throughout 2022 intensifying its propaganda campaigns against Central Asian governments. Though the group’s capability remains debatable, their interest in Central Asia is strong, and they made three failed attempts to target the region with rockets fired across the border in 2022. Reports on the first case appeared on April 19 when ISK and its networks claimed to have hit a military camp in the southern Uzbek city of Termiz.33 Authorities in Uzbekistan denied the claim, though large deployments of the Uzbek military were seen in the region. The Taliban later confirmed, without providing evidence, that ISK members had fired rockets from inside Afghanistan towards Uzbekistan, but they did not reach the Uzbek border and the perpetrators were captured.

On May 7, more rockets were launched from Afghanistan’s Takhar province into the neighbouring Panj district in Tajikistan. ISK claimed responsibility for the incident, which Tajik authorities dismissed as “bullets [that] accidentally ended up on the territory of Tajikistan” after a shootout between Taliban and ISK forces near the shared border.34 Later on July 7, five dud rockets fired from Afghanistan landed in Uzbekistan’s border town of Termez, causing no injuries but slightly damaging four houses and a football stadium.35 Soon after, the Taliban announced the killing of three and the arrest of four ISK militants in Kunduz, whom it suspected of conducting the last two rocket attacks.36

Although these attacks were an operational failure for ISK, they generated attention and served as a morale booster for the group, while undermining the credibility of the Taliban. ISK had also expanded the production, reproduction and propagation of propaganda in Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz languages through its media teams, such as Al-Azaim Foundation and Xuroson Ovozi.37 Yet this noise has not resulted in an increased threat, with some analysts suggesting the terrorist group might be in decline.38

In this respect, and notwithstanding all the attention directed towards Central Asia in their publications, ISK has yet to hit any targets (outside the failed cross-border rocket attacks and a very lightly sourced report of an attempt to target the Turkmenistan Embassy in Kabul in late August 2021).39 The attack on the Russian Embassy by ISK in September, however, also highlighted the group’s ability to strike its desired targets.40 The recent revelations that the shooter in an ISK-claimed attack at a shrine in Shiraz, Iran, was a Tajik national also underscored how ISK’s Central Asian cadres are regionally mobile.41 All this raises further questions as to why the group has not yet followed through on its Central Asian rhetoric.

HTS-Linked Groups and Individuals

In Syria, AQ-linked Central Asian combat units, such as Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) and KIB’s central core, have remained active primarily in north-western Idlib province. As in previous years, both KTJ and KIB are part of the jihadist alliance under Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), itself an evolution of AQ’s former representative on the Syrian battlefield. KTJ, led by Ilmurad Hikmatov (alias Abdul Aziz) and his deputy Akhliddin Novkatiy (Navqotiy), is assessed to have been relatively weakened by the quarrel that broke out between Hikmatov and former KTJ leader and key ideologue, Abu Saloh, after the latter’s defection to Jabhat Ansar al-Din (JAD) in June 2020.42

On September 11, Russia’s Defence Ministry reported that its air forces had killed Abu Saloh, whose real name was Sirajuddin Mukhtarov, along with several top HTS members in an airstrike in Syria.43 If confirmed, his removal would be a major blow to the group, which has been accused by the US State Department of being linked to both the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek and the 2017 Metro attack in St Petersburg.44 The group’s future trajectory remains unclear, even with the emergence of Navqotiy as its chief ideologue.45 His recent propaganda narratives have centred on the importance and legitimacy of conducting armed jihad in Syria.

KIB is led by Ramazan Nurmanov, a Tajik national whose father was reportedly a veteran jihadist militant who gained fighting experience in Afghanistan and Syria. KIB has kept its 2016 public pledge of allegiance to the Taliban, possibly facilitated by the key group leaders’ fighting background and networking in Afghanistan. Currently, KIB has a force strength of 110 fighters who operate mainly in north-western Latakia province. Online videos and photos released by KIB and KTJ indicate that both groups have played an active role in HTS-led operations against the Syrian Armed Forces and rival terrorist groups in Idlib and Latakia, and lately against the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) in Afrin in October.

Besides the two groups, there are some notorious individuals, such as Farrukh Fayzimatov, who are affiliated to HTS. As discussed in the 2021 annual report, Fayzimatov is an Idlib-based Tajik militant who goes by the nom de guerre Faruq Shami, and who allegedly had links to the perpetrator of the October 2020 Paris attack on the schoolteacher Samuel Paty. While presenting himself as an “independent blogger-reporter”, Fayzimatov in 2022 continued to produce and circulate videos in the online domain, including blogging sites, YouTube and Twitter. However, unlike in the past, recent materials did not contain words like “jihad” or scenes of fighting and training.46

Although both KTJ and KIB have confined their operational activities within Syria, they have increased online efforts to reach out to potential sympathisers, including various diaspora communities. Throughout the year, officials in both Central Asia and Russia reported arrests of suspected members or supporters of regional groups (KTJ and KIB in particular). It is difficult, however, to appreciate the nature of these links in some cases due to the paucity of publicly available information. For example, in late August, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed to have detained a Central Asian whom they stated had been radicalised in Turkey to travel to India via Moscow. The individual had planned to launch a punitive attack on IS’ behalf in response to alleged inflammatory comments made on Indian television by Nupur Sharma, a former spokesperson for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).47 Since then, nothing more has been heard about the case.

Responses

There were no major changes in the region’s responses to terrorist threats in 2022, with most authorities continuing existing policies. The biggest source of radicalisation appears to be the experience of labour migration in Russia, which continues to account for the largest portion of radicalised individuals of Central Asian origin. In the first half of the year, Uzbekistan repatriated 59 nationals who were detained abroad, including in Russia, for their alleged links to militant groups.48 Over the same period, the country disrupted several online (particularly on Telegram) recruitment and fund-raising cells linked to groups such as IS and KTJ, leading to the detention of 250 radical suspects.49

At the same time, events in Afghanistan continued to pose a major concern for security forces across the region, as highlighted above. In response, all of the region’s countries – except Tajikistan – have chosen to embrace and work closely with the Taliban authorities on the assumption that this offers the best hope for stability. And even in Tajikistan, the government has chosen to resume some border trading, suggesting they see a path of engagement as a possibility on specific issues.

The path of engagement has also faced issues – the repeated (if failed) ISK cross-border strikes into Uzbekistan caused major frictions between Kabul and Tashkent. Some in the region worry about what precedent might be set if the Taliban successfully builds an Islamic Emirate on the borders of secular Muslim-majority Central Asia. Local observers point to growing levels of public, outward religious expression, alongside larger societal tensions illustrated by the mass unrest highlighted at the beginning of this article.

There has been a growing volume of discussion by external partners about supporting counter terrorism efforts in the region, with a particular focus on Afghanistan. This has included a growing volume of visits and attention by the United States (US) to strengthen its ‘overwatch’ capability of Afghanistan from the region. In the case of Tajikistan, it is notable the degree to which the government attracted considerable external support from competing powers. The country received and hosted an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) support from Iran, China and the US, while the Russian military base there has remained, though the number of soldiers present has been depleted following their redeployment to Ukraine. This broader pattern of activity is worth keeping in view given its potential to become a focus for great power tensions and conflict.

Beyond this, the Tajik government repatriated another 146 women and children from camps in Syria.50 While exact numbers of Central Asians left in the camps in Syria remain unclear, it appears that Kyrgyzstan might undertake another repatriation exercise of children from the camps soon.51 There have currently been no reports of recidivism amongst the Central Asians who have returned, though it is unclear exactly what has happened in all cases.52

Finally, it is hard to gauge the practical impact of the decision by the US State Department to add KTJ to its list of proscribed terrorist organisations.53 However, it was notable that they chose to highlight the group’s responsibility for the 2017 St Petersburg attack and the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. The 2016 attack, for example, had previously been linked to Uyghur networks with links to Syria, though it is possible these might have had links to KTJ as well. Washington’s decision to specifically highlight the attacks on China and Russia came as relations between Washington, Beijing and Moscow continued to become more tense, suggesting a possible attempt by the US government to highlight possible counter terrorism cooperation with their otherwise adversaries. This might be an attempt by the Biden administration to counter the damage done by the previous Trump administration’s decision to de-list the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).54

Outlook

In sum, Central Asia continues to have many strands of radicalisation threatening regional security, despite the absence of attacks at home. This might be due to a highly effective local security apparatus, or a threat which has yet to materialise. Certainly, events in Afghanistan remain a concern on several fronts, and the instability seen across the region since the beginning of the year suggests high levels of disenfranchisement from which extremist groups might be able to profit, unless the authorities develop more effective mechanisms to address the socioeconomic and other grievances fuelling these tensions. This, atop the continuing war in Ukraine which is resonating across the former Soviet space, suggests a bumpy year ahead for Central Asia.

About the Authors

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst and Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. They can be reached at isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg and israffaello@ntu.edu.sg, respectively.

1 Anastasiya Lejepekova, “V Kazakhstane vo Vremya Yanvarskikh Besporyadkov Pogibli 230 Chelovek [230 People Were Killed in Kazakhstan During January Riots],” Gazeta.ru, March 14, 2022, https://www.gazeta.ru/social/news/2022/03/14/17421187.shtml.

2 “V Agressii Protiv Kazakhstana Uchastvovali Inostrannyye Boyeviki, Zayavil Tokayev [Foreign Fighters Participated in the Aggression Against Kazakhstan, Tokayev Said],” RIA Novosti, January 10, 2022, https://ria.ru/20220110/boeviki-1767209576.html.

3 The CSTO is a regional military alliance of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan.

4 Aibarshyn Akhmetkali, “Terrorism Should Be Condemned By Both Government and Civil Society Says State Secretary Erlan Karin,” The Astana Times, January 21, 2022, https://astanatimes.com/2022/01/terrorism-should-becondemned-by-both-government-and-civil-society-says-state-secretary-erlan-karin/.

5 “Kazakhstan in Crisis: Politics and Geopolitics – Three Questions to Nargis Kassenova,” Institut Montaigne, January 13, 2022, https://www.institutmontaigne.org/en/analysis/kazakhstan-crisis-politics-and-geopolitics; Claire Parker and Mary Ilyushina, “Why is Kazakhstan Claiming Foreign Links to the Unrest? Here’s What We Know,” The Washington Post, January 8, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/01/08/kazakhstan-foreign-protests/.

6 Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, “Turbulence Across Eurasia Will Not Slow Kazakhstan’s Progress,” The National Interest, April 4, 2022, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/turbulence-across-eurasia-will-not-slow-kazakhstan%E2%80%99sprogress-201591.

7 Mariya Gordeyeva and Tamara Vaal, “Ex-Security Chief Arrested as Kazakhstan Presses Crackdown on Unrest,” Reuters, January 9, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/kazakhstan-detains-ex-security-chief-crisisconvulses-nation-2022-01-08/.

8 Joanna Lillis, “Shot, Tortured, Facing Jail: Can Kazakhstan Deliver Justice After Bloody January?” Eurasianet, April 15, 2022, https://eurasianet.org/shot-tortured-facing-jail-can-kazakhstan-deliver-justice-after-bloody-january.

9 “MVD Soobshchilo Novyye Podrobnosti Sobytiy v GBAO [The Ministry of Internal Affairs Reported New Details of the Events in GBAO],” Avesta Information Agency, May 19, 2022, https://avesta.tj/2022/05/19/mvd-soobshhilo-novyepodrobnosti-sobytij-v-gbao/.

10 “Protiv Protestuyushchikh v Tadzhikistane Primenili Slezotochivyy Gaz [Tear Gas Used Against Protesters in Tajikistan],” RBC, May 17, 2022, https://www.rbc.ru/rbcfreenews/6282b2aa9a7947355fb559b4.

11 “V Khoroge Ubit Podozrevayemyy v Besporyadkakh po GBAO Mamadbokirov [Suspect in the GBAO Riots, Mamadbokirov, Killed in Khorog],” Sputnik News, May 22, 2022, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20220522/v-khoroge-ubitpodozrevaemyy-v-besporyadkakh-po-gbao-mamadbokirov-1048633581.html.

12 “Genprokuratura Soobshchila Nekotoryye Podrobnosti Mayskikh Sobytiy v GBAO [The Prosecutor General’s Office Reported Some Details of the May Events in GBAO’],” Avesta Information Agency, October 10, 2022, https://avesta.tj/2022/10/10/genprokuratura-soobshhila-nekotorye-podrobnosti-majskih-sobytij-v-gbao/.

13 “Prezident Poruchil Obespechit’ Realizatsiyu Proyektov po Razvitiyu GBAO,” Khovar, June 28, 2022, https://khovar.tj/rus/2022/06/prezident-poruchil-obespechit-realizatsiyu-proektov-po-razvitiyu-gbao-samoj-krupnoj-poterritorii-oblasti-tadzhikistana-predrekayut-burnoe-razvitie/.

14 “Emomali Rakhmon o Sobytiyakh v GBAO: ‘Drugogo Vykhoda ne Bylo’ [Emomali Rahmon on the Events in GBAO: ‘There Was No Other Way Out’],” Radio Ozodi, June 19, 2022, https://rus.ozodi.org/a/31905149.html.

15 Odil Madbekov, “What Are the Causes of Protests in Gorno-Badakhshan?” Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting (CABAR), February 28, 2022, https://cabar.asia/en/what-are-the-causes-of-protests-in-gorno-badakhshan.

16 “Qoraqalpog’istonagi Voqealar Haqida Yangi Ma’lumotlar Berdildi (+ Video) [New Details on the Events in Karakalpakstan Were Revealed (+ Video)’],” Uzbekistan National News Agency, July 7, 2022, https://uza.uz/uz/posts/qoraqalpogistondagi-voqealar-haqida-yangi-malumotlar-berildi-video_388152.

17 “Chislo Zhertv Besporyadkov v Karakalpakstane Vozroslo do 21 [The Number of Victims of Riots in Karakalpakstan Rose to 21],” Interfax, July 18, 2022, https://www.interfax.ru/world/852703.

18 “Dauletmurat Tajimuratov Arrested,” Kun.uz, July 8, 2022, https://kun.uz/en/news/2022/07/08/dauletmurattajimuratov-arrested.

19 Navbahor Imamova, “Unrest in Remote Karakalpakstan Tests Uzbekistan’s State, Society,” VoA, July 13, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/unrest-in-remote-karakalpakstan-tests-uzbekistan-s-state-and-society-/6657260.html.

20 Jokargy Kenes of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, K Sobytiyam v Karakalpakstane [On the Events in Karakalpakstan], July 2, 2022, https://joqargikenes.uz/ru/11171.html.

21 “Murat Kamalov Osvobozhden ot Dolzhnosti Predsedatelya Zhokargy Kenesa [Murat Kamalov Has Been Dismissed from the Post of Chairman of Jokargy Kenes],” Novosti Uzbekistana, August 26, 2022, https://nuz.uz/politika/1253049-murat-kamalov-osvobozhden-ot-dolzhnosti-predsedatelya-zhokargy-kenesa.html.

22 Over the past 10 years, more than 150 clashes took place between the Kyrgyz and Tajik communities and border guards over the disputed ownership of undefined territories, cross-border water streams and roads, as well as illegal crossings and livestock grazing. Before the September events, there had been at least three major outbreaks in 2022 – in January, March and June. Nazir Aliyev, “Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan Border Disputes Continue for 31 years,” September 17, 2022, Anadolu Agency, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/kyrgyzstan-tajikistan-border-disputescontinue-for-31-years/2687807#.

23 “MCHS Kirgizii Soobshchayet ob Uvelichenii Chisla Pogibshikh na Granitse s Tadzhikistanom do 63 Chelovek [The Ministry of Emergency Situations of Kyrgyzstan Reports That the Death Toll at the Border with Tajikistan Rose to 63 People],” September 28, 2022, Interfax, https://www.interfax.ru/world/865217; “MID Tadzhikistana: ‘Akt Agressii Kyrgyzstana Protiv Tadzhikistana byl Zaraneye Splanirovannoy Aktsiyey’ [Tajik Foreign Ministry: ‘The Act of Aggression of Kyrgyzstan Against Tajikistan was a Pre-Planned Action’],” ASIA-Plus, September 19, 2022, https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/20220919/mid-tadzhikistana-akt-agressii-kirgizstana-protiv-tadzhikistana-bilzaranee-splanirovannoi-aktsiei.

24 No further details were provided, though numerous officials on the ground in Central Asia report having seen a video which showed heavily bearded men saying ‘Allahu Akhbar’ and claiming to be jihadist warriors fighting on the Tajik side. “Marat Imankulov: V Boyevykh Deystviyakh na Storone RT Uchastvovali Afganskiye Nayemniki [Marat Imankulov: Afghan Mercenaries Participated in the Fighting on the Side of the Republic of Tatarstan],” 24KG, September 19, 2022, https://24.kg/vlast/245647_marat_imankulov_vboevyih_deystviyah_nastoronert_uchastvovali_afganskie_naemniki/.

25 A long-term solution to the tensions will require mutually agreed border delimitation and demarcation, although the process is complicated due to long-standing geographical and demographic complexities, and disputes over territorial and resources ownership.

26 “Tysyachi Terroristov Poluchili Afganskiye Pasporta [Thousands of Terrorists Obtained Afghan Passports],” Sputnik News, October 19, 2022, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20221019/tysyachi-terroristov-poluchili-afganskie-pasporta1052255117.html.

27 The logic from a Taliban perspective would be to both reward them for their support and gain loyalty from the Central Asian fighters, while also strengthening the Taliban narrative of no ‘foreigners’ operating from their territory.

28 “Pogransluzhba Tadzhikistana: U Terroristov v Afganistane Yest’ Mnogo Oruzhiya i BPLA [Border Service of Tajikistan: Terrorists in Afghanistan Have a Lot of Weapons and UAVs],” TASS, October 19, 2022, https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/16095199.

29 United Nations Security Council, Letter Dated 3 February 2022 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) Concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Dae’esh), Al-Qaida and Associated Individuals, Groups, Undertakings and Entities Addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2022/83, February 3, 2022, p. 16, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3957081?ln=en.

30 Ibid.

31 United Nations Security Council, Letter Dated 25 May 2022 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee Established Pursuant to Resolution 1988 (2011) Addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2022/419, May 26, 2022, p. 21, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3975071?ln=en.

32 Earlier in January 2022, the Taliban arrested an Uzbek commander named Makhdom Alim, who was reportedly involved in local criminality, in Faryab. His detention led to clashes and widespread protests amongst local Uzbeks, which in turn led to a Taliban crackdown in the region. It was ultimately not clear whether ethnicity played any role in his detention (Alim was reportedly moved to serve a different security role in Ghazni). See Ehsanullah Amiri and Saeed Shah, “Afghanistan’s Taliban Battle Rebellion by Ethnic Minority Fighters,” The Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/afghanistans-taliban-battle-rebellion-by-ethnic-minority-fighters-11642197509; “Taliban Replaces Its Acting Education Minister in Reshuffle,” Amu TV, September 21, 2022.

33 “Rakety IGIL ne Doleteli do Uzbekistana – Taliban [ISIS Missiles Did Not Reach Uzbekistan – Taliban],” Gazeta.uz, April 20, 2022, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2022/04/20/afghanistan-border/.

34 “Pogranichnyye voyska Tadzhikistana Privedeny v Sostoyaniye Polnoy Boyevoy Gotovnosti [The Border Troops of Tajikistan Are Put On Full Combat Readiness],” Avesta Information Agency, May 9,2022, https://avesta.tj/2022/05/09/pogranichnye-vojska-tadzhikistana-privedeny-v-sostoyanie-polnoj-boevoj-gotovnosti/.

35 “Na Territoriyu Uzbekistana Upali Pyat Snaryadov Predpolozhitel no so Storony Afganistana [Five Shells Allegedly from Afghanistan Fell on the Territory of Uzbekistan],” Gazeta.uz, July 5, 2022, https://www.gazeta.uz/uz/2022/08/19/termez/.

36 “Taliby Zayavili o Zaderzhanii Lits, Prichastnykh k Obstrelu Territoriy Uzbekistana i Tadzhikistana [The Taliban Announced the Detention of Persons Involved in the Shelling of the Territories of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan],” Avesta Information Agency, July 17, 2022, https://avesta.tj/2022/07/17/taliby-zayavili-o-zaderzhanii-lits-prichastnyh-kobstrelu-territorij-uzbekistana-i-tadzhikistana/.

37 Lucas Webber and Riccardo Valle, “Islamic State in Afghanistan Seeks to recruit Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz,” Eurasianet, March 17, 2022, https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-islamic-state-in-afghanistan-seeks-to-recruit-uzbekstajiks-kyrgyz.

38 Antonio Giustozzi, “The Islamic State-Khorasan Is Weaker Than It Looks,” World Politics Review, October 4, 2022, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/isis-afghanistan-islamic-state-taliban/.

39 Shishir Gupta, “14 Keralites With ISKP, Blast Outside Turkmenistan Mission Mission in Kabul Foiled,” Hindustan Times, August 28, 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/14-keralites-with-iskp-blast-outsideturkmenistan-mission-in-kabul-foiled-101630120774066.html.

40 Mohammad Yunus Yawar, “Two Russian Embassy Staff Dead, Four Others Killed in Suicide Bomb Blast in Kabul,” Reuters, September 5, 2022 https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/afghan-police-report-suicide-bomb-blastnear-russian-embassy-kabul-2022-09-05/.

41 “All of Those Involved in Shiraz Terror Attack Arrested: Iran Intelligence Ministry,” Tasnim News Agency, November 7, 2022 https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2022/11/07/2800386/all-of-those-involved-in-shiraz-terror-attackarrested-iran-intelligence-ministry.

42 UNSC, Letter Dated 3 February 2022 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) Concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Dae’esh), Al-Qaida and Associated Individuals, Groups, Undertakings and Entities Addressed to the President of the Security Council.

43 While there was some scepticism about the Russian claim, there has been nothing presented to either dispute or confirm it in the public domain. “Terrorist Group’s Leader, Native of Kyrgyzstan, Killed by Russian Forces in Syria,” AKIpress News Agency, September 11, 2022, https://akipress.com/news:678675:Terrorist_group_s_leader,_native_of_Kyrgyzstan,_killed_by_Russian_forces_in_Syria/.

44 U.S. Department of State, Terrorist Designation of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (Washington D.C.: GPO, 2022), https://www.state.gov/terrorist-designation-of-katibat-al-tawhid-wal-jihad/.

45 Currently, several public accounts on YouTube carry propaganda videos featuring Navqotiy, with the number of subscribers ranging from several dozens to hundreds, while a page attributed to him on Instagram has nearly 4,500 followers.

46 For instance, in a disclaimer on Twitter, where he has more than 10,000 followers, Fayzimatov claimed that his postings are for “informational purposes only” and “do no promote violence or terrorist organisations”. After the US Treasury Department blacklisted him in 2021 for his connections with HTS, Fayzimatov appears to have taken a more cautious approach in the online domain in an apparent attempt to present himself more positively.

47 Shishir Gupta, “IS Terrorist Arrested in Russia for Plotting Attack in India Over Prophet Remark,” Hindustan Times, August 23, 2022, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/is-terrorist-arrested-in-russia-for-plotting-to-carry-outattack-in-india-over-prophet-remark-101661190182981.html.

48 “Rost Terroristicheskoy Aktivnosti v Uzbekistane Trebuyet Kompleksnogo Podkhoda [The Growth of Terrorist Activity in Uzbekistan Requires an Integrated Approach],” Center for Studying Regional Threats (CSRT), June 28, 2022, https://crss.uz/2022/06/28/rost-terroristicheskoj-aktivnosti-v-uzbekistane-trebuet-kompleksnogo-podxoda/.

49 In July, Tajik authorities also announced it had registered 720 criminal cases related to terrorist and extremist activity in the first half of 2022, a slight increase over the same period in the year prior. See “General’nyy Prokuror Zayavil o Pugayushchey Tendentsii v Tadzhikistane [The Prosecutor General Announced a Frightening Trend in Tajikistan], Sputnik News, July 15, 2022, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20220715/tajikistan-terrorizm-ekstrimizm-rost1050026384.html.

50 “Syrian Kurds Repatriate 146 Tajik Women and Children from Camps Holding Relatives of IS Fighters,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 26, 2022, https://www.rferl.org/a/syrian-kurds-repatriate-tajik-women-children-isfighters/31959893.html.

51 “Mothers With Children Will Be Repatriated to Kyrgyzstan from Northern Syria,” AKIpress News Agency, October 30, 2022, https://akipress.com/news:684263.

52 Nurbek Bekmurzaev, “Promises and Pitfalls of Tajikistan’s Latest Repatriation Program for Islamic State Families from Syria,” Terrorism Monitor Vol. 20, No. 19, https://jamestown.org/program/promises-and-pitfalls-of-tajikistanslatest-repatriation-program-for-islamic-state-families-from-syria/; Asanbek Pazyl, “Long Way Home: Kyrgyzstan Resumed Repatriation of Citizens from Syria and Iraq,” Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting (CABAR), February 18, 2022, https://cabar.asia/en/what-are-the-causes-of-protests-in-gorno-badakhshan.

53 U.S. Department of State, Terrorist Designation of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad.

54 Asim Kashgarian, “Uighur Diaspora Hails Removal of ETIM From US Terror List,” VoA, December 25, 2020, https://www.voanews.com/a/extremism-watch_uighur-diaspora-hails-removal-etim-us-terror-list/6200004.html.

A final column for last year, this time a forward look at Central Asia in 2023 for Nikkei Asia Review, repeats the same format last year. The last one became somewhat obsolete quickly in large part because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It remains to be seen how this one will play out.

2023 outlook: Central Asia is not out of the woods yet

Spillover effects from Ukraine and Afghanistan, so far limited, still pose risk

Vladimir Putin met with other presidents at the Central Asia-Russia summit in Astana on Oct. 14: Central Asia will continue to find Moscow a complicated partner.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.”

It has been a tumultuous year for Central Asia. It started with large-scale internal violence and is ending with talk of a formal alliance between the region’s two most powerful players, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Yet uncertainty remains on the horizon for the coming year, with the potential for violence to boil over, geopolitics to come crashing down around regional states or internal pressures to escalate once again.

The biggest question that still hangs in the balance is what will happen next in fellow former Soviet republic Ukraine. With little sign of an end to its conflict with Russia in sight, Central Asia will continue to find Moscow a complicated partner with which to engage over the coming year.

So far, gloomy economic predictions offered in the immediate wake of Russia’s invasion have not played out.

Higher energy prices have meant increased revenues for energy-rich Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Rather than falling as expected, remittances from Central Asian migrant workers in Russia have risen, thanks to a surge in demand for labor, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Meanwhile, Russian and Belarusian companies seeking to get around Western sanctions have set up operations in the region, as have some Western companies exiting Russia.

These trends helped prompt the EBRD to raise its 2022 gross domestic product growth forecast for the region to 4.3% in September from just 1.1% in May. It also adjusted its 2023 outlook to 4.9% from 4.7%.

It remains to be seen whether these trends can hold.

Europe’s desire to get access to Central Asian energy was on clear display during European Council President Charles Michel’s visit to the region in October. But the same fundamental problems that have long held up trans-Caspian energy routes persist and are unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

Other world leaders are courting the region, too, with Chinese President Xi Jinping choosing Central Asia for his post-COVID return to the international stage, a stream of U.S. officials coming through and Russian President Vladimir Putin taking advantage of some of the few doors around still open to him.

Xi Jinping and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Astana on Sept. 14: The Chinese president chose Central Asia for his post-COVID return to the international stage. (Handout photo from press service of the president of Kazakhstan)   © Reuters

But despite the surge of attention and economic resilience so far, the Ukraine conflict could still carry major downsides for Central Asia.

The Russian economy could still implode, or the geopolitical balance that Central Asia has managed to strike could suddenly shift.

There has also been little international condemnation or fallout from the instability seen earlier this year in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the continuing crackdown in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region or violent border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The general attitude taken by outside powers, including the usually accusatory Western ones, is to simply move past these issues, hoping the governments will be able to handle them.

But the raft of incidents this year exposed a dangerous risk. The large-scale violence in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was a shock to most observers. While things appear to have settled down, the unrest underscored that there are potential issues bubbling under the surface, even in the region’s traditionally more stable countries, which could lead to widespread problems.

What other surprises lie beneath the surface is of course unknown. Few, for example, would confidently speculate about what exactly is going on in Turkmenistan.

A more clear and present danger can be found across the border in Afghanistan, where the Taliban continue to exert a weak grip on power. The Islamist regime may face no direct and obvious challenger, but it is clearly unable to enforce its mandate very far.

This has particular repercussions for Central Asia, due to the continuing threat of Islamic State Khorasan as it broadcasts threats in regional languages and seeks recruits from its outposts in Afghanistan.

Led mostly by Uzbekistan, Central Asia has sought to answer Afghanistan’s problems with a push for connectivity with South Asia, but the cost of realizing this dream is prohibitively high for the countries involved to absorb themselves. International finance could help, but Taliban rule continues to pose a threat to project completion.

So far, much external engagement with the region has focused on security support for mitigating potential problems from Afghanistan, rather than large-scale transformative investment.

China remains an important partner, and the end of zero COVID might bring new economic exchanges, but it is unlikely that Beijing will be willing to expend much to realize Central-South Asian connectivity dreams.

Meanwhile, although Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have started to make a show of strengthening their promising partnership, Putin’s proposal to join with the two Central Asian states in a “natural gas union” has not been flatly rejected.

There is a long history of grand Central Asian visions that have not managed to catch on, so it remains to be seen how these trends will play out.

The fallout from Ukraine has so far not been as bad as initially expected. And while Afghanistan remains a problem, the spillover has been limited so far.

Yet the downside risk in both cases for Central Asia remains high. The new year looks to be a challenging one.

My last column of last year for the Financial Times, thinking some rather unseasonal thoughts about the terrorist threat and what is happening to responses towards it. In large part draws on some very specific discussions I had in the last quarter of last year. Am always a bit concerned about sounding like a doom-monger, but at the same time the problem with these threats is they can surprise and in the absence of concerted response get worse. Yet, if there is a response then the problem never appears. Better to be Cassandra or crying wolf?

Downgrade counter-terrorism efforts at your peril

Resources are being reallocated towards state-based threats, but the risk posed by extremists is too deadly to ignore

People run away from the Twin Towers in New York on September 11 2001. Trying to divine where the next hazards may emerge requires careful attention © Suzanne Plunkett/AP

The growing consensus among the UK national security establishment is that terrorism is no longer the biggest threat. As migration, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Chinese military expansion increasingly top the list of concerns within Whitehall, terrorism has fallen out of vogue.

To some degree this is a positive thing. Al-Qaeda’s September 11 attacks warped the global security apparatus, and the exaggerated response to this event, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, created their own security problems. But it is alarming how quickly the terror threat has been downgraded: capability and resources are now being reallocated towards state-based threats. For the security agencies, China, Russia and Iran are the priorities, and more attention is being paid to them. Generally this resource is reallocated (often from counter-terrorism) rather than created.

Terrorism has been a feature of human society for generations. Back in the early 2000s, the scholar David Rapoport posited the idea of this threat operating in 40-year “waves”. He traced an “Anarchist wave” (1880s to 1920), an “Anti-Colonial wave” (1920s to early 1960s), a “New Left wave” (mid-1960s to 1990s), and the current “Religious wave” that began with the siege of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the fall of the shah of Iran and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

By his calculations, the religious wave is now receding. The UK and Australia have both recently lowered their terror threat levels. The question is where, and when, the next wave will emerge. Polarised politics, stratified societies, growing anti-establishment sentiment, public concern about climate change or other large-scale injustices and numerous global conflicts are all potential fissures.

Tracking potential new risks while keeping an eye on existing ones requires a monitoring mechanism. The signs are there if you are alert to them. Al-Qaeda loudly and repeatedly telegraphed its intention prior to its attacks in Africa, Yemen and the US. The emergence of the al-Qaeda-linked insurgency in Iraq and the consequent expansion of terrorist threats globally was clearly signalled in reporting prior to the invasion. The over-optimistic early responses to the Arab Spring masked the clear growth of threats in Africa as Libya’s weapons stockpiles were drained.

Meanwhile, the flame of conflict was ignited in Syria. The emergence of Isis on the battlefield may have been a surprise to some, but not to those who had been watching ISI, its precursor organisation in Iraq, in the wake of the 2009 US withdrawal.

Elsewhere, the growth of the extreme right in Europe was relatively predictable given the increasing disquiet about immigration and Muslim extremism. The 2011 attack in Norway by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was an early indicator which has subsequently proven to have inspired a wider neo-fascist community. Breivik’s attack was directly referenced by the 2019 Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant.

These things tend not to come out of the blue. But trying to divine where the next hazards may emerge requires careful observation, assessment and attention. While there was clearly a need to adjust the terrorist threat response given the growing state-based threats, the concern now is whether we are going too far the other way — especially when the picture is so confusing.

The UK Home Office has created a category of threat called “mixed, unstable and unclear”, referring to extremists with no clear ideology, or those citing multiple, and sometimes conflicting, influences. And while it is unlikely that another epoch-changing event on the scale of September 11 is around the corner, even smaller-scale terrorist events can prove deadly and scar societies.

Any reduction in resources, therefore, must be carefully thought through. Re-evaluating the risk is fine — forgetting it entirely is not.

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

More from late last year, this time trying to dig into the narrative that emerged of Kazakhstan in particular seeking to use China as a counter-weight to Moscow for the South China Morning Post.

Why Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan’s hopes of using China as a hedge against Russia could be doomed

  • Central Asia’s increasingly tense relations with Russia have made closer ties with China attractive, but achieving that is not without its problems.
  • Far from Beijing proving a hedge against Moscow, the opportunities on offer in Russia might simply increase the competition for China’s attention.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) walks alongside Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan on September 16. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have welcomed China’s interest in Central Asia, but that interest has been complicated by the pandemic and geopolitical concerns. Photo: EPA-EFE

Uzbekistan has in many ways always been the heart of Central Asia. It might be dwarfed in hydrocarbon wealth and physical size by Kazakhstan, but its other attributes give it influence. Yet, China does not have the same sort of commanding position within the country as it has with Kazakhstan.

There are numerous reasons for this, from local hesitance to problems in China, but collectively they illustrate the trouble Central Asia faces as it seeks to use Beijing as a hedge against Moscow, with whom relations have grown increasingly testy.

The difference in how Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan see their relationships with the two capitals was most clearly seen in the past few weeks. They both abstained from a vote against Russia on Ukraine at the United Nations, while they voted against a UN resolution seeking a debate on Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang.

Both have been appalled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While some individuals within the countries might hold some moral objections towards what China is doing in Xinjiang, they largely see this as a domestic issue within China.

There is no doubt some element of hard geopolitics has also played into their thinking. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have expressed reservations about Russia’s actions in Ukraine publicly before and are concerned about the clear evidence of Russian weakening.

They seek new partners to help stabilise their increasingly tormented neighbourhood. Their embrace of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the region in September underlines their eager eagerness for more Chinese investment. 

But at the same time, both are aware of the complications of increasing their dependence on China. This came into view during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Uzbek traders report that during the height of the pandemic, the costs of containers going through China to Uzbekistan rose by at least five times. While they have since gone down, they remain more expensive than they were pre-pandemic. The growth of traffic through the region to Russia helps keep them high alongside complications on the Chinese side.

At the same time, routes into China have only recently reopened, even though opening them was a focus of regular lobbying during the pandemic as landlocked Central Asians sought to get goods out and in.

The problems went beyond goods at borders. According to Uzbek data, the pandemic led to an abrupt drop in the number of new companies being created in Uzbekistan with Chinese investment. The numbers have started to rise again but are far below pre-pandemic levels.

China has retained its trade primacy in Uzbekistan, though the numbers are lower than before the pandemic and dipped substantially in 2020. All of this comes on top of Chinese companies in Uzbekistan being seen as behaving in ways that will keep local authorities happy but do not always actually deliver.

For example, media reports and experts on the ground suggest there has been a steady growth in recent years of Chinese companies opening factories in Uzbekistan. This is something the authorities welcome, eager to turn the country into a manufacturing hub. Yet at the same time, it is not clear how much these factories are actually manufacturing rather than serving as assembly plants. 

The reasons for this from a Chinese perspective are logical – it is often not clear the local market will be able to absorb the volume more active plants could produce. However, the consequences are a smaller level of local capacity building.

It also means it can often be quicker and cheaper to simply import the desired piece of machinery directly from China rather than purchase it from the local manufacturing plant. The factory is going to have to wait for the parts from China and then take time to assemble the product in Uzbekistan. Once you factor order book backlogs on top of this, it can become quite a long wait. These problems are not exclusive to Uzbekistan. Import-export firms across the region have noted the trade problems with China during the pandemic, and the unpredictability these have injected into an economic relationship both sides assumed would simply continue to boom. 

This reality lurks in the shadows of the push to warmly embrace Xi. Both Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made it clear they welcomed and sought a closer relationship with China. Kazakh officials behind the scenes were ecstatic about Xi’s comments about being willing to defend their national sovereignty, interpreting it as a protective clause should Moscow’s revanchist eye fall on their territory.

Yet the reality is that China is unlikely to play that role or do much to prioritise trade with the region. This reticence will emerge elsewhere as well, leading to frustration on the ground.

This might eventually turn in an even more complicated direction as Beijing leverages the surge of hydrocarbons and other opportunities that will present themselves as Moscow seeks new markets, against the same purchases and opportunities they see in Central Asia. Far from Beijing proving a hedge against Moscow, Russia might in the end simply increase the competition for China’s attention.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a senior fellow at the  S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore

Another piece from late last year, this time for RUSI looking at the threat assessment provided of the current threat picture to the UK and the work of his Service by MI5’s chief in November. It digs into what he said, and tries to draw on wider data to build up a more detailed picture of what is going on with the picture he painted.

The Evolving Terror Threat to the UK

As the government conducts a review of its counterterrorism strategy, a speech by the head of MI5 offered some pointers about the changing nature of the threat.

Main Image Credit Big picture: Director General of MI5 Ken McCallum gives a speech on threats to the UK on 16 November 2022. Image: PA / Alamy

In mid-November, MI5 Director General Ken McCallum gave his annual threat assessment speech, outlining the threats to the UK that his service was monitoring. Much of the focus of the subsequent media reporting was on the state-based threats that he covered (emanating from China, Russia and Iran), but he also highlighted that since his last presentation in July 2021 his service had disrupted eight ‘late-stage attack plots’. Only briefly mentioned was that during this same reporting period, the UK had suffered three terrorist attacks – leading to the death of one attacker and Sir David Amess MP. A close examination of all of this plotting suggests that some important tweaks are necessary to the UK’s CONTEST counterterror strategy to ensure it is able to deal with the complicated threat the UK continues to face.

In his speech, McCallum outlined that the plots the MI5 had detected emanated from ‘a mix of Islamist and extreme right-wing terrorism’ and that the ‘lines demarcating what is and is not terrorism’ were increasingly hard to draw. The focus was largely on lone actor plots (or self-initiated attackers), which his service found across ideologies. He also mentioned the continuing aspiration by groups to launch something more substantial, though this has become much harder for them. All of this may seem a fairly clear assessment, but it is in fact quite difficult to dig into in much detail given current levels of reporting around terrorist plots in the UK.

Security Service reporting around attack plots is increasingly opaque. The habit currently is to refer to disrupting ‘late-stage attack plots’, in which the investigators think that the individual was going down a path of trying to launch an attack rather than conduct some other form of terrorist activity (for example, dissemination of extremist material, radicalisation of others or fundraising in some way). Yet what exactly this looks like has not been clearly defined, and an examination of reporting around terrorism arrests in the UK since July 2021 (when he last gave the speech) reveals only six cases can in which some form of identifiable attack was reportedly being planned.

Many of these are still being managed through the courts, and consequently specific mention needs to be done carefully, but drawing on open source reporting, the following trends are visible in the caseload.

In ideological terms, half appear to have Islamic State inspiration, while the other half have elements of extreme right-wing (XRW) thinking in their make-up. In two of the XRW cases, the ultimate target was a 5G mast, suggesting the influence of conspiracy theories. Both of these cases had deep anger against the government also present in reporting, and both plots involved older individuals (38, 59 and 59). The 59-year-olds were a male and female pair who were reportedly in contact online.

All of the other cases are made up of teenagers, with two cases involving pairs (one two boys of 15 and 19, and the other a male/female 17/18-year-old pair). Of the Islamic State-inspired ones, only one case involves someone with a name of likely Muslim origin, while the others all appear to be non-Muslim origin names, with no reference to conversion in their cases. The targets are all quite general, but it appears that anger against the police or security state is high on their priority list, with two accused of conducting hostile reconnaissance of security establishments (one from each ideology).

They are scattered around the country, and were all active on various online platforms – from large established Telegram groups to gaming platforms and Discord. At least two of the younger boys are identified as being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

When held up against the three attacks that took place during the reporting period which McCallum mentioned only briefly in his speech (Sir David Amess’s murder, the Liverpool Hospital bomber and the Dover migrant centre firebomb), the most obvious similarity is the older nature of the XRW terrorist who attacked the Dover migrant centre. A 66-year-old, his profile fit that of the last four older male XRW terrorists in the UK who launched lone actor plots (Jo Cox MP’s murderer; the Finsbury Park mosque attacker; a man seeking to kill Muslims who stabbed a person in Surrey in 2019; and a Britain First supporter who drove into a curry house owner in Harrow in June 2017). The previously mentioned two disrupted cases seeking to strike 5G masts also somewhat fit this profile.

The other two do not. The ideology of the Liverpool bomber remains unclear, and while he was a younger man, neither he nor Sir David Amess’s murderer were teenagers. Sir David’s attacker appears to have a been a residual case from the cohort of young men radicalised by Islamic State who waited years to launch his attack. This stands in contrast to the confused Islamic State-inspired teenagers in the arrested cohort.

It is hard to know what to draw from this. The most obvious point is the continuation of the previously identified trend of older men (for the most part) being those interested in launching XRW attacks. The fact that 5G masts are a desirable target highlights how the conspiracy theory-driven ideologies that thrived during the pandemic have taken hold among parts of this community. It does suggest a possible new profile of offender that security forces might need to focus on (as general as it might seem). On the violent Islamist side, the Sir David Amess case highlights that there are still residual concerns around the Islamic State-linked cohort, highlighting the long tail this problem can have.

The other side to the age question is the seeming lack of attacks involving teenagers. It is clear from other reporting that the volume of teenagers being arrested is up, but not many are actually launching attacks. Among the XRW community, there have not been any teenagers involved in attacks, and one has to go back to September 2017 and the attempted bombing of an underground train at Parsons Green to find a teenager inspired by Islamic State launching an attack. This is not to discount the potential threat posed by this group, or to suggest that security forces only need to respond to the threat they observe, but it is likely worth considering the extent of the menace actually posed by this young cohort. Jonathan Hall QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism, has raised similar questions, identifying parts of this alarmingly young cohort as ‘keyboard warriors’.

It is also notable that in three of the cases, pairs of individuals were arrested, and in two others there is evidence that the individual was plotting with others online. Only one appears from reporting to be an isolated actor (though this may of course be untrue). This hammers home the oft-repeated point that lone actor terrorists are never really alone. It also raises questions around the three successful attackers – all of whom appear thus far to have been identified as isolated.

This picture is, of course, incomplete and the dataset too small to draw any scientifically satisfactory conclusions. McCallum referred to eight plots, while this author was only able to locate six. But taking this group alone, it is notable how there is a balance between the XRW and violent Islamist groups. The actual danger posed by all of them in national security strategic terms is questionable, though any threat to life clearly needs to have substantial resources dedicated towards countering it. Another aspect McCallum touched upon which is increasingly obvious in XRW plots is the desire to own or use 3D printers to manufacture weapons. Whether this is just for collection or for actual use is unclear, but it helps overcome one of the major hurdles faced by terrorist cells in the UK, which is sourcing weaponry that they can use to cause mass carnage. Guns are hard to obtain in the UK, while bombs require practice to make. Bladed weapons will always limit capability.

Bigger potential terrorist threats were hinted at in other ways. In his speech, McCallum also referred to at least 10 incidents since January of threat to life or kidnapping in the UK involving Iranian actors. This is not new behaviour for Tehran, but the volume when compared to the indigenous domestic threat is notable. It will be interesting to see how much he identifies similar threats from China and Russia, the two other adversaries highlighted, in the future – Russia of course already has form for such action in the UK – and how (or if) the counterterror strategy might seek to address this threat.

There are aspects of the threat beyond the speech which also bear noting. Earlier in November, a 20-year-old and a 17-year-old were arrested in Birmingham for planning to join Islamic State Khorasan Province. This followed earlier reporting of Taliban officials detaining a pair of Britons crossing over from Uzbekistan who were trying to join the group, and a video that emerged from Pakistan which showed an individual identifying himself as Asadullah from England calling for people to come and join the jihad in Pakistan in a strong British-sounding accent. There is a longstanding connection between the UK and jihadist groups in South Asia, and it appears to still be active.

Looking further afield, Syria continues to host a number of potentially threatening groups and UK-linked individuals in Kurdish custody, while Africa has been repeatedly identified as an area where a growing volume of terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qa’ida and Islamic State continue to gather and plot. While it is not clear how much of a threat any of this poses directly to the UK, it illustrates that the threat picture remains fairly constant across much of the globe.

But focusing back on the UK and McCallum’s speech, the most important thing is to try to unpick which aspects of the threat require additional consideration and engagement as the government goes through a review of the CONTEST counterterrorism strategy, and the long-awaited review of PREVENT is released. The threat has clearly changed; it remains to be seen in what way the response will.

A piece from late last year with the excellent Kabir for Lawfare which tries to dig into the odd question about why al Qaeda has yet to acknowledge Ayman al Zawahiri’s death and what this means more widely for the group. My current view is that the core of AQ is at this point a busted flush, but it is an interesting question to explore further is how the various still existing and strong affiliates (in particular in Africa) might grow back. The piece seems to have caught a bit of a mood with AFP writing an analytical piece drawing heavily on it which was republished in lots places, Kabir’s home institution the Observer Research Foundation and Eurasian Review site both republished it, while other researchers took us to task on Twitter. Always good to get a reaction!

Did al-Qaeda Die With Ayman al-Zawahiri?

Ayman al-Zawahiri appears in an al-Qaeda video released in April 2022. Photo credit: Al-Qaeda media.

Editor’s Note: The killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in July raised the obvious question of who would succeed him—and many months later, we still don’t know the answer. Raffaello Pantucci of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research and Kabir Taneja of the Observer Research Foundation suggest several possible explanations for al-Qaeda’s inability to put forward a new leader. Although the specific reasons remain unclear, they suggest the weakness of al-Qaeda today.

Daniel Byman

***

In May 2011, it took al-Qaeda just a few days to formally comment on Osama bin Laden’s death, and only until June for them to confirm Ayman al-Zawahiri’s ascension to the organization’s top job. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in 2019, the Islamic State was even more efficient, taking just days to both confirm his death and announce his successor. But despite the United States announcing that Zawahiri was killed at the end of July, al-Qaeda has thus far neither confirmed his death nor announced who will fill his shoes. Adding to the layers of confusion, they released a new recording by Zawahiri, though it did not contain indications of when it was made, and his image continues to be used across their publications. It is not clear what this silence means for the organization and the wider terrorist threat from al-Qaeda, but it does not seem positive for the group.

Analysts have been monitoring al-Qaeda media for indications of what the group’s future hierarchy will look like. Experts and governments do not expect the group to completely collapse or stop targeting the United States and its interests at home or abroad. In recent testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Christine Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, outlined her office’s assessment that while al-Qaeda’s capacity has diminished, the group’s North African and Somali affiliates still pose significant threats. Al-Qaeda’s behavior over the past three months reinforces this assessment: It is increasingly difficult to believe that the group can exert the same threat given its leadership depletion.

There are a number of possible reasons for al-Qaeda to remain silent about Zawahiri’s death. It could of course be the case that the United States is wrong about his death. This would seem unlikely given the confidence with which President Biden publicly spoke about the strike, the seemingly specific evidence he claimed to have seen, and the details briefed to the press by anonymous officials. The announcement, though with less fanfare, was similar to the announcement of the Abbottabad raid in Pakistan that targeted Osama bin Laden, for which the government also did not present pictorial evidence. But it would not be the first time that the U.S. government was very confident about the success of a drone strike, only to walk back much later on who was killed or what actually transpired.

It could also be that al-Qaeda is uncertain as to what has happened and whether Zawahiri is dead or not. This would seem strange given where he was located and the reported ease with which al-Qaeda figures are able to move around Afghanistan, with some even traveling to Kabul to meet with the Taliban leadership. Given such public reporting of their movements and the group’s free hand in Afghanistan, it would be odd if al-Qaeda was unable to ascertain whether its leader was deceased or not, and even more surprising that Zawahiri did not have a clear succession plan in place.

Instead, the reason for al-Qaeda’s delayed response could be that the group has failed to make contact with Zawahiri’s presumptive successor, Saif al-Adl. Widely believed to be in Iran, Adl is clearly living in a dangerous and restricted environment. Not only has Iran always had a manipulative and untrusting relationship with al-Qaeda, but the country’s porous security makes it a dangerous place for people to hide. Senior Iranian officials are killed frequently in Israeli operations. One of these Israeli operations, likely undertaken at the request of the United States, targeted Abu Muhammad al-Masri, a former senior figure in al-Qaeda also sheltering in Iran; he was gunned down in the street alongside Hamza bin Laden’s widow in the middle of Tehran.

It could well be that Adl is in contact with al-Qaeda leadership and simply hiding away, fearful of raising his head above the parapet. While lying low, he could be looking to cement internal hierarchies in al-Qaeda, or making sure his life is not offered as a bargaining chip by Tehran in its ongoing efforts to normalize ties with the United States around the negotiations to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Or al-Qaeda and Adl might simply be unable to communicate with each other and coordinate their next steps while the current risks of exposure are so high.

Or Adl might be dead. If that is the case, the organization could be playing some sort of strategic game with the United States or its own people, trying to mask the leader’s death as some internal power struggle plays out. The Taliban sat on Mullah Omar’s death for years, revealing it only when their hand was forced by the need for senior approval of international negotiations.

Though the Taliban know something about keeping mum, their silence in this case is also puzzling. The Taliban presumably picked up the pieces of Zawahiri’s corpse and likely knew he was there in the first place, considering the house targeted in the drone strike was a stone’s throw away from some embassies in central Kabul. Their decision not to comment could be part of their efforts to manage their fragile but deep relationship with al-Qaeda, while also avoiding drawing attention to the foreign terror group presence in direct contravention of their agreement with the United States.

Regardless of the reason for al-Qaeda’s silence, it seems to be indicative of an organization that is not in control of its situation. Not responding to reports of a leader’s death and instead releasing an unconvincing proof of life audiotape indicates weakness rather than studied strength. The decision by al-Qaeda’s South Asia branch, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), to support the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in its ideological and operational aims, including its opposition to the Pakistani state, might be a reflection of fragmentation resulting from this uncertainty at the top. The Taliban have been trying to act as a broker between Islamabad and the TTP, while still preserving their relationship with al-Qaeda—but AQIS’s partnership with the TTP seems to run against the strategy pursued by the Taliban and al-Qaeda’s core leadership. AQIS’s approach could be deliberate and coordinated, but more likely it indicates a lack of leadership from al-Qaeda core and possible fragmentation among its affiliates. In a recent propaganda release, AQIS reaffirmed its own legitimacy as the only “official” al-Qaeda entity in the region, potentially reflecting a level of confusion between cadre and organization since the news of Zawahiri’s death.

Assessments of al-Qaeda’s operations now often focus on groups in Africa taking on the leadership mantle of the organization. Terrorist violence has surged across much of the continent, while globally al-Qaeda is linked to an ever-shrinking number of attacks. This is an al-Qaeda that has transformed from the globe-straddling hubristic network that launched the Sept. 11 attacks to one that now plays second fiddle to the Islamic State and is unable to operationalize its own succession plans. While al-Qaeda’s African affiliates display undeniable strength and disturbing capability, they seem focused mostly on the parts of Africa in which they operate. This capacity could be turned toward external targets, but so far it has not. Though it would be foolish to entirely discount al-Qaeda, the group is no longer the menace that it once was and would struggle to return to its prior position.

The two-decade experience of trying to fight along a global frontline appears to have worn al-Qaeda down to a shadow of its former self, and the unacknowledged death of its leader in the middle of Kabul only serves to highlight this. Terrorism has not gone away, but it increasingly looks like the core of al-Qaeda has.

Longer piece in The Diplomat last month taking a wide ranging look at China’s relationship with the Taliban. Since then there have been even more developments which hopefully should be covered in coming pieces. So keep coming back for more!

Inheriting the Storm: Beijing’s Difficult new Relationship with Kabul

Far from inheriting an opportunity, China finds itself encumbered with an ever-expanding roster of problems in Afghanistan, which it is showing little interest in trying to resolve or own. 

Taliban guards stand guard in Mes Aynak valley, some 40 kilometers (25 miles), southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday 30 October, 2021. AP Photo, Ahmad Halabisaz

The Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021 left China with a dilemma. Not only did Beijing now share a border with a country ruled by a group considered a terrorist pariah by much of the world, but China was also the closest strategic ally of the Taliban’s principal supporter in the international arena, Pakistan. As the rest of the world withdrew from Afghanistan, Beijing suddenly found itself in an influential position by default, juggling a number of key relationships without having the shield of U.S. hard power to ultimately hide behind.

In many ways, the image of a sea receding from shore is a useful analogy. While the United States and its allies were present in Afghanistan bolstering the Republic government, a sea washed over Afghanistan that hid a number of issues. As the U.S. and its allies left, this tide retreated, exposing brutal realities on the ground. Among those was the fact that China has no real choice but to engage with Afghanistan given its geographical position and its security concerns on the ground.

Yet this reality has had a remarkably limited effect on China’s actual activity in Afghanistan and the wider region. In many ways, Beijing has sought to continue the relatively limited engagement efforts that were being undertaken prior to the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban. The oft quoted narrative of a Chinese surge was overplayed.

Prior to the collapse of the Republic, Beijing was a partner of the Afghan government, exploring economic opportunities as well as addressing key security concerns. They also explored working with other countries in Afghanistan (like the United States, India, or European powers), and followed through on some limited programming. China was a provider of vaccines and other COVID-19 management tools and had participated in the many different regional engagements that sought to help Afghanistan, including creating specific trilateral formats bringing together Afghan and Pakistani officials. Following the collapse of the Republic government, the level of activity at an official level has stayed similar, though changed to adapt to the new authorities in Kabul.

In security terms, China cooperated closely with the Republic on Uyghur militants Beijing saw gathering in Afghanistan. They are still trying to build this relationship with the Taliban.

The closing months of the Republic were confusing in this regard.The Republic’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) moved definitively against China by detaining a network of Chinese intelligence agents active in the capital in December 2020. Both Beijing and Kabul worked closely together to keep the story out of the public domain, with then-Vice President (and former NDS chief) Amrullah Saleh tasked to manage the relationship by President Ashraf Ghani.

By early 2021, the relationship had been built up again to the point that Saleh was attending events at the Chinese embassy and praising what China was doing in Xinjiang, while at the same time highlighting through social media the links between Uyghur militants and the Taliban (something the U.S. government had sought to break by delisting the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, ETIM, as a terrorist organization in November 2020).

But as the year went on, the relationship between Beijing and Kabul broke down, with the Afghan side refusing to turn over militant Uyghurs it had caught (as Kabul had done previously).Confirmation of this came in the news that when the Taliban swept through, releasing prisoners in Republic custody, a number of Uyghurs prisoners were among those released. Exactly what led to the rupture is unclear, with stories circulating about the proximity of the Republic government to India, unfulfilled information exchange requests, or something financial.

What exactly happened is still unclear. But as the Taliban swept across the country in 2021, China seemed to increasingly pull back from the Republic government and showed itself even more willing to engage with the Taliban. Beijing even hosted top Taliban figure Mullah Baradar and a delegation in Tianjin, where they met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in July 2021. Still, Beijing was careful to continue to maintain the appearance of good relations with the Republic. Shortly before the Taliban’s visit, Chinese leaderXi Jinping spoke by telephone with Afghan President Ghani, likely in part to smooth relations. But it was clear that by this point, relations between the Republic and China were in a difficult place.

By late summer of 2021, Beijing had read the runes and concluded that no matter what happened, the Taliban were going to take some degree of power in Kabul, and this mandated establishing closer links. That approach set a path that Beijing was able to take advantage of when the Republic government finally fell and the Taliban took over.

In the wake of the precipitous U.S. and NATO withdrawal, the public discourse around China in Afghanistan went into overdrive. The chaotic nature of the withdrawal fit with a wider narrative –fanned by Beijing (and Moscow, too) – of Western decline. China’s geographical proximity, engagement with the Taliban, as well as longstanding history of announced (if unfulfilled) investments inAfghanistan all fed a narrative of Beijing stepping in to fill a vacuum left by the United States. People saw the reports of vast untapped mineral wealth and assumed the insatiable Chinese industrial machine would be eager to consume it.

Yet in reality these narratives were vastly overblown. China had long been a frustrating partner economically for the Afghan Republic. Deals had been signed, but no progress had been made. Chinese contractors came and worked on infrastructure projects, but little of the money was actually Chinese; rather it was World Bank or other international financial institution projects with the Chinese simply serving as contractors. Trade was underwhelming, and Beijing seemed unwilling to really find ways of tyingAfghanistan into Xi’s connectivity vision, the Belt and Road Initiative. Once the pandemic broke out, China did step in and provide some medical aid, which was welcomed in the beleaguered country, but this was offset by the sudden closure of the Chinese market to Afghanistan.

On the security side, Beijing and the Republic had a fairly easy relationship. The Republic authorities were quite happy to arrest and turn over any Uyghur militants China sought, as they were for the most part fighting for, or allied with, the Taliban. At the same time, they were willing to accept the fact that China maintained a connection to the Taliban, though frustrations did seep through. Reports that the Chinese, at various points, had supplied arms to the Taliban naturally caused tensions, but the Republic government always saw a greater upside in trying to engage withChina economically than become distracted by this frustration, which was not perceived as a strategic issue.

The Republic continually sought to keep China onside. For example, the Republic did not follow the United States in denying the existence of and delisting ETIM, a closing act by the Trump administration to destabilize things with China. Instead, senior Republic officials continued to refer to the group by the name ETIM and highlighted the links between the Taliban and Uyghur militants. They also seemed willing to defend publicly China’s mass detentions and surveillance in Xinjiang, in stark contrast to the narrative Washington was pushing.

The most complicated part of the relationship was Beijing’s ties with Pakistan. Here, Kabul repeatedly hoped that China would use its influence in Islamabad to try and advance concerns they had. Yet, there was little evidence of this happening. While China did establish a trilateral foreign ministerial format between Kabul, Islamabad, and Beijing, as well as use its influence in Islamabad to bring the Taliban and Pakistanis to the table with Kabul at various moments, none of this was able to change the conflict on the ground. And notwithstanding cooperation on counterterrorism questions related to Uyghurs, there was a shadow of paranoia across China’s engagement with the Republic’s security apparatus, thanks to the latter’s deep relationship with the United States.

Afghans were often frustrated by the China-Pakistan EconomicCorridor (CPEC). They pointed out that while China talked about the Belt and Road in Afghanistan, very little was actually forthcoming, in contrast to the billions pumped into Pakistan. Trying to allay this, in 2019, China pushed the idea of encouraging greater cross-border trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan through the establishment of better facilities and refrigeration points for fruits to go back and forth across the border. This fit into a wider pattern of trying to link the CPEC to Afghanistan, an approach that usually found hostility in Islamabad alongside innumerable practical problems on the ground.

The arrival of the Taliban in Kabul changed the dynamic between Kabul and Islamabad (and Beijing), though not necessarily as much as might have been expected. Relations between the Taliban and Islamabad have proven to be as fractious as they were between the Republic and Islamabad. For China, having long cultivated a relationship with the Taliban, it was easy for Beijing to continue operating in Kabul after they took over. The Chinese embassy did not evacuate in the face of the takeover, though they warnedChinese nationals to find ways out of the country or stay in secure locations. Chinese businesspeople in the city reportedly fended for themselves, while the embassy at one point was reduced to calling on Western support to evacuate citizens as their own plans failed.

But once the hump of the takeover was done, China quickly slipped into a strong public support mode, concluding that the Republic was done and Beijing needed to rapidly establish a relationship with the new authorities. Foreign Minister Wang Yi was an active figure on the regional conference circuit, using every opportunity to push for sanctions relief for the new government while his officials regularly taunted Americans over the failure in Afghanistan.

They were also quick to rekindle the formats that Beijing had established between the Republic and Islamabad, as well as try to find ways of engaging with the Taliban through the many regional formats that have developed over the years around the country. The trilateral ministerial engagement was restarted, and Beijing has reportedly also brought together senior intelligence figures from Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss problems.

On the economic front, they restarted the “pine nut air corridor” that had been established under the Republic. The corridor sought to quickly bring Afghan pine nuts to the Chinese market, and the government helped make sure they were immediately promoted and sold on high-profile online influencer channels. Aid came in to support the ongoing fight against COVID-19. During the winter of2021, the Xinjiang regional government gave just under $50 million in supplies and aid to the authorities in the neighboring Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, and Baghlan.

By November 2022, Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan Wang Yu highlighted how his country had given “300 million RMB in emergency aid to Afghanistan and continued to complete 1 billion RMB in bilateral aid.” He also confirmed that as of December 1, zero tariffs would be levied on 98 percent of products from Afghanistan being sold to China. Afghan carpets were on display at the China International Import Expo (CIIE) this year.

But big ticket deals have moved much slower, if at all. While China National Petroleum Corporation and Metallurgical Group Corp, the two firms responsible for the biggest projects in Afghanistan – an oil concession in the Amu Darya region in the north and the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar – have re-engaged with the Taliban authorities, there is little evidence they are moving quickly forward. In an apparent demonstration of a total lack of awareness of the nature of the project (or the earlier signed contract), the Taliban authorities in early November announced that the Mes Aynak project would need more electricity. This highlighted a larger problem that Chinese operators find on the ground, which isa counterpart in the Taliban that lacks much expertise to manage large projects.

The economic problems resonate across the border in Pakistan, too. In an attempt to save money, Pakistan took advantage of the low cost of Afghan coal and the fact that Afghan coal miners lack export options and increased its purchases. But once the story got out that Pakistan was taking advantage of Afghanistan’s problems, the authorities in Kabul hiked up the price of coal. This, however, blew back on the Chinese power companies working in Pakistan, which had arrived as part of CPEC and had long purchased cheapAfghan coal. They complained to the Taliban and continue to lobby to get them to lower the prices once again. Chinese coal miner Chinalco has even started to engage with the Taliban to explore opportunities in the country to get a direct Chinese hand into the industry.

Looking beyond the economy, however, China’s biggest concern about the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan is the growing militant nexus that sees China as an important adversary. This has been seen most sharply in Pakistan, where there has been a notable expansion of groups targeting Chinese interests. From being mostly targeted by Baloch or Sindhi separatists, Chinese in Pakistan now find themselves under fire from networks linked to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as well as rumors of Uyghur militants within the country working with local partners.

The murder of the Karachi University Confucius Institute director by a female suicide bomber dispatched by the Majeed Brigade in April 2022 crossed a new Rubicon as it showed the Baloch groups were broadening out their range of targets from CPEC-specific projects to any Chinese in the country. A number of Chinese nationals evacuated Pakistan afterward.

It seems to be no coincidence that the surge in violence against Chinese nationals happened alongside the Taliban takeover (though it had already been building for some time). At a practical level, the takeover released a vast amount of weaponry left behind by the Afghan National Army and its Western allies, but it also strengthened a number of militant groups, like the TTP or Baloch organizations, that are increasingly targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan and often have bases in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) has put out far more anti-Chinese propaganda than any other organization. It dispatched a suicide bomber who claimed to be aUyghur against a Shia mosque in Kunduz in October last year. In claiming the attack, ISKP specifically referenced Beijing’s close relationship with the Taliban as a motivating factor.

All of this adds up to a deeply worrying threat picture for China. While previously Beijing could somewhat hide behind others (the United States), it is now seen as the big power in the region, and it is finding itself facing all of the problems that come with that label.

Additionally, China has not been able to establish the same sort of security relationship with the Taliban as it had with the Republic. While China has repeatedly demanded that the Taliban do something about Uyghur militants, thus far all the Taliban seem to have done is move them from one part of the country to another, from Badakhshan to provinces in Afghanistan’s interior. There have been reports that the Haqqani-linked parts of the Taliban government have worked to support Chinese aims, but there are no reports of people being captured and repatriated, as happened routinely under the Republic.

In a demonstration perhaps of how comfortable he was in Afghanistan, Abdul Haq, the leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP, the name the Uyghur militant group often referred to as ETIM gives itself) released a video of himself talking to a large crowd of followers and their children celebrating Eid 2022 in Afghanistan. As of now, it does not seem as though there is any appetite in the Taliban government to turn over their close allies.

And the reality is that Beijing is not entirely committed either. All of the big economic talk has not resulted in the investment theTaliban desperately want. Rather, there has been a surge of entrepreneurial Chinese businesspeople into Afghanistan, spotting opportunities posed by a nearby country where, broadly stated, violence suddenly diminished and where there were lots of potential mining and other opportunities. Such Chinese entrepreneurs as a group are a hardy bunch. Their risk threshold is much higher than others (witness the challenging parts of Africa where numerous Chinese firms have decided to go). None of what has been seen in Afghanistan seems to be state directed, but rather is pushed by individuals, small companies, and in some cases regional state-owned enterprises. Beijing itself is barely involved, except in allowing permission for individuals to travel and for the potential material to return home.

But even these entrepreneurs find themselves frustrated, with reports that some early investors have already decided it is impossible to do business in Afghanistan and packed up to go home, writing off their large early investments.

The Chinese embassy in Kabul has avoided these negative stories, and instead championed positive ones – like the multi-modal train and truck route that was opened up between Afghanistan and Zhejiang. Home to the massive international trading market at Yiwu, Zhejiang has long been a place where Afghan business people go. Opening up the route was entirely the product of smart Afghans and some folk in Zhejiang, rather than anything coordinated or concocted by Beijing.

This is the reality of the current relationship between China and Afghanistan. While Beijing continues to talk up its positive acts in the country, it has in fact done very little in practical terms. What Chinese activity is taking place on the ground is often driven by private enterprise, and there is a growing level of frustration in Kabul about the slow pace of bigger projects that could have a more substantial impact on the Afghan economy. On the Chinese side, there is frustration about the Taliban’s inability to deliver on outcomes and an awareness that Afghanistan’s problems are already starting to export themselves around the region.

Far from inheriting an opportunity, China finds itself encumbered with an ever expanding roster of problems in Afghanistan which it is showing little interest in trying to resolve. The Taliban remain a frustrating partner, while Pakistan continues to be a source of concern that struggles with security at home while cozying up toChina’s adversary the United States. Never comfortable in an outright leadership role, China finds itself walking a dangerous tightrope in a region where its actual leverage and capability to achieve goals is limited.

A new piece for the South China Morning Post this time exploring the fact that all of the prognostications of China, Russia and other adversary powers sweeping into Afghanistan have not come to pass. In fact, they all appear to have more complicated relations with the Taliban than the US does at this point. There is more to say on this topic, so look out for a refresh soon.

China won’t be filling the void left by the US in Afghanistan any time soon

  • Rather than being quick to gain an edge in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal, China, along with Russia and Iran, remains uneasy about security threats coming from the country
  • Meanwhile, the Taliban government is frustrated at the lack of economic support being provided by its neighbours

A Taliban fighter stands guard at Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop in Kabul on August 30, the one-year anniversary of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. A year and a half on from its withdrawal, the US has managed to establish a regional foothold which enables it to at least deal with some of its security concerns. Photo: AFP

There was a lazy narrative that emerged in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Kabul that this would be a major victory for China. The operating assumption was that Beijing would swoop in and fill the geopolitical void left by the Western withdrawal.

Underpinning this was a general sense of Western decay which “adversary” powers – China, Russia, Iran – would be able to take advantage of. Yet as we have seen ahead of this month’s meetings known as the Moscow format talks, these powers are having as many, if not more, problems with the Taliban government as the West.

The Moscow format is a Russia-initiated group that was established in 2017 to bring together Afghanistan’s neighbours. It includes Russia, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The last meeting of the group was held in October 2021 and included representatives from the Taliban, who walked away from the session feeling that there was a “positive atmosphere”. The format also agreed to treat the Taliban as the de facto authorities in Afghanistan (acknowledging without acknowledgement) and sought to put pressure on the United States to lift all sanctions against the regime.

It is consequently quite a turnaround for Russian coordinator Zamir Kabulov to announce that “the Taliban delegation will not take part [in the meeting], it is only for members of the Moscow format”. The format in his view was to focus on fostering closer cooperation among Afghanistan’s neighbours, while encouraging the Taliban to act on women’s rights and deal with terrorist threats.

Kabulov did not offer any explanation for not inviting the Taliban to the talks. It is not hard, however, to guess why.

The decision is likely linked to a growing frustration among Afghanistan’s neighbours at the Taliban’s seeming inability to deal with the security threats they are all worried about. The ISKP, an affiliate of the Islamic State militant group, has lashed out in its neighbourhood with little evidence of an effective Taliban response.

Iranian authorities have pinned the recent terrorist attack that killed 15 at a shrine in Shiraz on ISKP, while the group also claimed responsibility for the attack on the Russian embassy in Kabul in September that killed two Russian officials, among others. Rocket attacks on Central Asia that came from Afghanistan have also been claimed by the group.

China has so far been spared any direct assault, but the ISKP’s publications are full of anti-Chinese narratives. And Beijing continues to be frustrated by the Taliban’s failure to crack down on armed Uygur groups that are living in the country.

The irritation goes both ways. The Taliban have also found themselves frustrated by the level of commitment from some of Afghanistan’s neighbours. While Central Asian countries have sought a tight economic embrace to help stabilise the country, China has delivered very little.

Beijing has sent some aid, but much of the economic activity seen in Afghanistan has been driven by private enterprise. The large Chinese state-owned enterprises with interests in Afghanistan have held numerous meetings, but actual progress has been slow.

Russia has sent delegations of officials to Kabul and hosted Taliban interim Minister of Industry and Commerce Nooruddin Azizi. They have signed agreements about food, oil and aid, but investment has not been forthcoming.

This stands in contrast to the success of the United States in dealing with its direct security concerns – as exemplified by the drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The US has also provided at least US$327 million in aid, and has opened direct lines of communication with the Taliban through meetings in Kabul and Doha attended by the CIA chief and his deputy, respectively.

The US has also leaned heavily into its security cooperation with Afghanistan’s Central Asian and South Asian neighbours. At the same time, Washington has not compromised on handing over money it had frozen in the wake of the Taliban takeover, instead creating a special fund in Switzerland which will manage the money to pay for key national requirements like electricity.

This has not been seen as positive by the Taliban, who remain furious at Washington for “usurping” their money. And yet, the approach has borne some fruit for the US. The release in September of US prisoner Mark Frerichs in exchange for a Taliban warlord and drug dealer in American detention reflects an ability to strike an agreement with the Taliban that pleases both sides. And it is likely other agreements have been reached behind the scenes too.

It is not impossible that both China and Russia have sought similar arrangements, but the public optics are noticeably different. Russia failing to invite the Taliban to the Moscow format follows growing irritation in Kabul around the lack of Chinese investment, and growing concern in Iran about terrorist attacks on its territory.

A year and a half on from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, we have come full circle. The much vaunted vacuum has not been filled by regional “adversary” powers, while the United States has managed to establish a regional foothold which enables it to at least deal with some of its security concerns.

So much for the narratives of China filling the void.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore

My latest column for the Financial Times on Russia’s purported ‘counter-terrorism’ activity in Africa. Not so much CT as counter-influence operations really, none of which bodes well for the underlying problems.

Russian proxies seize the advantage in Africa’s Islamist insurgencies

As western counter-terrorism efforts flounder, Kremlin-backed militias are offering support in Mali and Burkina Faso

Supporters of Ibrahim Traoré after the coup in Burkina Faso. Russian flags were on display when the leader took over the capital Ouagadougou © Issouf Sanago/AFP/Getty Images

When Russia was widely condemned for its illegal referendums in the Donbas at a vote of the UN General Assembly last month, it was notable that a clutch of African countries chose to abstain or stay away. Many of these had benefited from Russian counter-terrorism support; Burkina Faso – still reeling from a coup sparked by the government’s failure to stem an ongoing Islamist insurgency – might be about to ask for it. As al-Qaeda affiliates and Isis representatives converge in the Sahel region and across the continent, Moscow is increasingly bending terrorism to its advantage in the pursuit of political influence.

The terrorist threat picture across Africa has always been a messy one. Most groups are active locally, and the aspiration or capability to launch attacks beyond the continent’s borders tends to be confined to Isis networks in Libya or Egypt and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Terrorist groups across the region target foreigners, with mixed motives: attacking the Westgate Mall or DusitD2 Complex in Kenya, or the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria attracts attention; kidnapping can often be as much about profit as terror.

The situation is even more complex when groups without clear affiliations declare Isis as their inspiration. Almost half the deaths attributed to Isis worldwide in 2021 took place in sub-Saharan Africa. But it can be hard to distinguish between Islamist violence and longstanding regional conflicts. The jihadifuelled insurgency in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado appears to have some international links but draws on a long history of local disenfranchisement.

Counter-terrorism support from the west has a chequered history. Former regional colonial powers like the UK and France have played a significant role in countries such as Mali, while the US has funded or trained special forces to varyincreased, degrees across the Sahel to help combat threats. Non-military aid in the region has been targeted at the underlying causes of instability.

Yet none of this has done much to suppress the overall threat and may even have been counter-productive. In September 2021, Guinean forces left their training with the US Green Berets to join the military takeover of Conakry. The 2020 coup in Mali, which led to the eventual breakdown in relations between Paris and Bamako, was led by forces built up by the French army over the previous seven years under Opération Barkhane. This project – established by the French after the near takeover of Mali by Islamist militants in 2013 – was undermined by loosely defined goals. As tensions with Bamako the Élysée finally announced in February a withdrawal of troops.

The result has been a turn by Malian authorities towards mercenaries such as the Wagner Group, which has close links to the Russian GRU intelligence agency. This is not unique to Mali: Wagner forces have also appeared in Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Mozambique. In Bamako, members of this Russian proxy militia are celebrated in the streets. In exchange for their services, Wagner appears to be receiving access to minerals while Moscow wins strategic allies, as evident in UN voting patterns.

But the signature of Wagner deployments tends to be a focus on subduing civilian populations and harshly suppressing insurgencies. While the western approach may have not been as effective as intended, it at least avoids the indiscriminate brutality exercised by Russian-backed forces.

In Burkina Faso, the latest coup leader Ibrahim Traoré seems to be playing both sides: he reportedly told US diplomats that he did not intend to call on Wagner forces, but some of his local suping porters have called for a new strategic partnership with Moscow, and Russian flags were prominently on display as he took over the capital Ouagadougou. Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin also posted his support for the takeover on Telegram, saying soldiers had done what was necessary.

Given the failure of many western counter-terrorism efforts, it is hard to see how this battle for influence can be resolved. Moscow is acting both to frustrate the west and benefit itself. It is imperative that the US, UK, France and their allies find ways to continue engaging with Sahelian countries and working to alleviate the disenfranchisement that is often a touchpaper for insurgency.

Security engagement around specific terrorist groups must continue, with better safeguards to prevent it backfiring. And crucially, these efforts must be disentangled from the wider geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the west. Otherwise, the Sahel will remain a region ripe for manipulation.

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

As usual have been delinquent in posting here. First up in my latest wave of material, a longer piece that has been in the works for a while with the wonderful Niva from the OSCE Academy in Bishkek for my old institutional publication the RUSI Journal. It explores the idea that China might be finally realizing its economic dreams for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) through the Digital Silk Road.

Paving the Digital Silk Road with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

Largely disregarded or derided in the West, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has grown since its humble beginnings into an important vehicle for Chinese digital and technology penetration in Central Asia. Raffaello Pantucci and Niva Yau show how China has managed to realise some of the economic goals that Beijing has long envisaged for the organisation, even if it has often found itself stymied by other members. In much the same way as the region has been a testbed for Chinese foreign policy approaches, the SCO now appears to have become a key locus for implementation of the Digital Silk Road.

When the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded in 2001, it was widely seen as an organisation focused on countering terrorism. Transformed from the ‘Shanghai Five’ to the SCO in 2001, and followed rapidly by the establishment of the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent, the organisation seemed of its time, reflecting the Global War on Terror launched by the US in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Yet, while counterterrorism may have been interpreted as the organisation’s initial guiding rationale, each of the members had their own reasons for joining.

While China was clearly interested in the counterterrorism goals linked to Xinjiang that the SCO helped Beijing to achieve in Central Asia, its vision for the organisation was always grander. China’s longer-term aim was to transform it into a body which would aid its own economic, social, security and political penetration across the Eurasian landmass. Through the SCO, China would normalise its role as the major player in Eurasia, something Beijing was most keen to undertake in the economic domain.

Early statements about the SCO and its predecessor, the Shanghai Five, show the importance of the organisation in Beijing’s mind as more than simply a security institution. Seen through China’s eyes, the trajectory of the Shanghai Five to the SCO was one that started with border delineation, but ended with much wider ambitions, including economic goals that extended to realising a new ‘Silk Road’.1 This built on a visit to the region by Premier Li Peng, who in 1994 laid out a vision of infrastructure and economic links tying China to its Central Asian neighbourhood.2 But China has always struggled to realise these goals outside rhetorical statements. Initially, resistance came in the form of neglect, with the others refusing to take the organisation as seriously as China did. Over time, this turned into a more active sense of concern as the other members grew fearful of Chinese dominance – something that became even more acute as the Chinese economy boomed to become the second largest on the planet.

Guests take part in a documents exchange ceremony during the Thematic Forum on the Digital Silk Road, Beijing, April 2019. Courtesy of Xinhua / Alamy

Economic relations are increasingly front and centre with Central Asia and China. The SCO continues to exist but has changed over time. Most recently, it has grown into the digital domain, through which China has managed to dramatically expand its reach. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) emerged from the same strand of Chinese policy thinking that created the SCO, and built on a history of Chinese engagement with Central Asia. Starting in Central Asia (where President Xi Jinping gave the speech which inaugurated the concept in 2013),3 the BRI has now grown into a global vision for Chinese foreign policy, which has also landed on the idea of developing a Digital Silk Road (DSR). While the many strands of the BRI continue to exist, it is the DSR which is increasingly seen as the focus of China’s global struggle.

The SCO has also been caught up in this, increasingly moving into the digital domain. As with many other global trends, the coronavirus pandemic has sped up this process. Chinese firms and institutions have increasingly developed their links, interests and influence in this space. It has also provided an interesting set of new conduits to advance China’s attempts to turn the SCO into an economic actor. Pre-pandemic, the SCO was already moving its discussions towards e-commerce and digital and tech engagement, bringing itself into one of the increasingly central spaces of modern societies. Through digital technology, the SCO is at long last appearing to live up to the economic ambitions that China has harboured for it. This article is an attempt to sketch out the evolution of the SCO’s economic role, and to show how China’s Central Asian economic dreams and goals for the SCO are being realised through the DSR.

A New Multilateral is Born

The abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 surprised leaders in Beijing, who quickly realised the need for border delineation with several newly independent neighbours. Always a contested space due to its remote and sparsely populated nature, the 3,000-km-long border China shares with the Central Asian states was of particular priority to Beijing as it defined a region, Xinjiang, with which it has a long and difficult history. In 1996, the first significant border security treaty between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was reached, a group later termed as the Shanghai Five.4 A year later, China’s concerns about potential separatism in Xinjiang were brought to life when large-scale protests broke out in Ghulja (or Yinning).5 Its proximity to the border with Kazakhstan and the ethnic and community links that spanned the Kazakh–Chinese border highlighted the risks of uncontrolled borders.

While the focus on security and borders was the principal pragmatic concern for China in the Shanghai Five process, Beijing’s long-term strategy in Central Asia was already focused on building a strong economic presence and links. Then Chinese Premier Li Peng had already promoted the idea of reviving the old Silk Road during his tour of Central Asia in April 1994, when he stopped at all the capitals except war-torn Dushanbe. Travelling with Premier Li were a number of Chinese entrepreneurs, who were being encouraged to invest and look at opportunities in the region. Among the most prominent were engineers and executives from the oil and gas sector, who initiated negotiations to develop a natural gas pipeline to bring Turkmen gas across China to Japan, something Premier Li was regularly talking to Japanese officials and executives about back in Beijing.6 The importance of this economic agenda with Central Asia was later highlighted by the announcement in 1999 of the Great Western Development Plan, which sought to develop China’s western regions and boost trade with neighbouring countries.7

In 2001, the Shanghai Five evolved into the SCO, and expanded to include Uzbekistan. Tashkent had remained an observer until that point, lacking the same border delineation logic with China that determined membership of the Shanghai Five. Uzbekistan was also among the most fiercely independent of the Central Asian states, eager to avoid joining any regional or international security institutions. However, a series of terrorist incidents in 1999 and 2000 – which included cross-border attacks by Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militants into Uzbekistan, as well as a series of bombings in downtown Tashkent8 – highlighted the regional nature of terrorist threats to Uzbekistan in particular. This helped to change leader Islam Karimov’s perspective, as well as shape the budding organisation. Initially, the newly minted SCO seemed principally focused on security affairs, with the most visible first practical step being the establishment of RATS in Tashkent in 2004 (after some initial discussion about housing it in Bishkek).9 Counterterrorism provided a useful banner for the region’s leaders to gather around.

However, from a Chinese perspective, economics was always important. Speaking at the SCO’s founding conference, then Chinese President Jiang Zemin spoke of economic and trade cooperation as an important area of activity for the newly born international organisation.10 In 2003, Premier Wen Jiabao again stressed the importance of economic and trade cooperation in the SCO region, and went even further, proposing an SCO free trade zone and various initiatives to rid the region of trade barriers.11 After identifying 127 investment projects to boost regional trade in September 2004, China also proposed financing mechanisms such as an SCO development fund and bank.12

Yet, while the security side of the SCO thrived,13 most of China’s economic initiatives failed to move forwards. Initially, Russia and Uzbekistan were wary of these Chinese projects, fearful of how they could alter regional economic and trade dynamics. Russia was worried about losing influence and markets that it had traditionally controlled, while Uzbekistan under Islam Karimov was a deeply inward-looking power, sceptical of Chinese and Russian initiatives. The other Central Asian powers engaged in the SCO were more welcoming of Chinese economic engagement – Kazakhstan embraced Chinese investment, while traditional aid recipient countries Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan saw Beijing as simply another source of much-needed aid and investment.

For Russia, resisting China’s greater economic presence meant pushing towards an integrated Eurasian economic bloc that sustained the existing regional dynamic. Initially, Moscow was resistant to such ideas in the chaotic disintegration that came after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fearful of the economic burden of carrying former Soviet states, Moscow was eager to separate itself from its former dominions in the mess that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was met with pushback from the newly liberated Central Asian countries in particular. While the western-facing part of the Soviet Union was keen to break away, the eastern-facing part was less so. For example, Kazakhstan resisted these efforts, with former Soviet-era leader and then President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposing in 1994 the establishment of a Eurasian Union to continue the economic links across the former Soviet space and avoid the complete collapse of the intra-regional economies that existed.14

A year after Premier Li’s talk of reviving the Silk Road, the first agreements on establishing a unified customs union between Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia were reached.15 However, very little progress was made after this. It took almost two decades for these early treaties to materialise into more specific action, when Moscow saw the value of revitalising them to try to stymie China’s regional economic initiatives and restore some Russian primacy in the region. The result of this belated push has been that China’s regional economic initiatives must work with the Russia-led economic bloc, leading to the cooperation agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and China in 2018.16 This was largely pushed through by Russia in direct talks between President Vladimir Putin and Xi, with no consultation from the other EAEU members.

All the Central Asian states were sceptical of China’s grand economic proposals to some degree. Kazakhstan, which over time became more confident in building its path to independence from Russia, sought to lead a Central Asian Union. China was seen as an opportunity in this regard, and Astana worked closely with Beijing to quickly finalise the Kazakhstan–China oil pipeline to secure an alternative source of income from the country’s rich energy reserves.17 However, at the same time, Kazakhstan opposed a completely open-door policy to Chinese investments. In 2003, when British Gas decided to sell its portion of the giant Kashagan oil field to CNOOC and Sinopec, KazMunaiGas (KMG), the Kazakh government’s representative in the consortium running the project, blocked the sale. It bought most of the share itself, and divided the rest among other consortium members.18 Kazakhstan has also refused repeated requests to grant Chinese nationals a visa-free regime,19 and has imposed strict employment quotas, joint venture requirements for projects and more – though some of these policies have been loosened over time.

Uzbekistan’s isolationist policy during the Karimov era stood directly against China’s regional economic initiatives, and created direct blocks on some of the proposed initiatives. For example, the Central Asia–China natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China was first proposed in 1994, and it took Uzbekistan (a transit country on the route) until April 2007 to sign up.20 By the early 2010s, Uzbekistan’s perspective was gradually changing. It sought ways to take advantage of the Chinese economic boom, while still retaining tight reins of control. This resulted in some illicit or grey trade, while the government slowly allowed China into some market sectors.21

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have always maintained a certain level of ambivalence, although they have tended more towards seeking to attract Chinese money. On the one hand, as poorer countries, they were grateful for any investment and economic attention, while on the other, they were wary of the unfettered flow of Chinese products, recognising the resultant impediments it would create to domestic economic development. Some Kyrgyz experts and officials favoured joining Russia’s economic bloc to help to better manage the flow of Chinese products, blaming it for the poorly developed Kyrgyz manufacturing industry as it encouraged unsustainable reliance on re-export revenue.22 A similar sentiment is evident in Tajikistan, where local traders and producers have been squeezed out by Chinese products and traders.23

This set of tensions prevented China’s grand regional economic initiatives from coming to life. The proposals of an SCO free trade area, an SCO development fund and bank have all largely stalled – although the development bank idea is periodically raised by the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments, as well as Beijing.24 Instead, China has been restricted to bilateral economic engagement, and the SCO economic initiatives that did take off were confined to promoting dialogue, with regular meetings between economics and trade ministers, banks and business associations through the SCO Interbank Association and SCO Business Council. What trade promoting measures the SCO was able to advance, such as the SCO ‘Agreement on Facilitation of International Road Transport’ that was signed in 2014 and entered into action in 2017, are widely unknown on the ground.25

This narrative has changed in recent years with the arrival of China’s BRI, which has increasingly subsumed and co-opted the SCO’s economic side. When talking about the transport agreement, then Secretary General Rashid Alimov stated that ‘the Agreement is the SCO’s practical contribution to the development and implementation of the Silk Road Economic Belt project’.26 This narrative, where anything economic within the context of the SCO is rephrased to include Silk Road terminology, is increasingly common and has been highlighted once again by the arrival of the DSR.

Approved in 2015 by Chinese President Xi to be part of the BRI, the DSR aims to facilitate information and commercial connectivity through optical cables, satellite passageways, hardware and software, all alongside a long-term interdependence through e-commerce, tech-enhanced security measures and more. Legislation and standards are being increasingly harmonised as the SCO slowly turns digital. Since starting the SCO e-commerce working group in 2004, China’s push for digitalisation in the region has grown in leaps and bounds. In 2009, a unified electronic signature system to ease cross-border trade was developed;27 in 2010, an SCO e-commerce online trading and investment platform was set up;28 and in November 2017, the proposal of an SCO e-commerce industry trade association was made by a delegation including several Chinese e-commerce leaders.29 A month later, for the first time, the development of a regional digital economy joined the list of important tasks identified by SCO heads of state in the joint communiqué released after the 2017 summit in Sochi, Russia.30 After three years of negotiations, cooperation in the digital economy was agreed at the 2019 summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, in the online Moscow Summit of November 2020, the heads of state grouping issued a communiqué on harmonisation and cooperation across the digital domains for commerce,31 IT security32 and counter-radicalisation.33 E-commerce had gone from being a marginal activity to the basis of a core agreement at the organisation’s most senior summit.

Digitalisation: China Builds and Builds

The SCO developed alongside the world’s digital transformation. And, like many SCO activities, security came first. After pinning the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan on an alleged US disinformation campaign,34 the SCO issued a statement during its June 2006 summit in Beijing, highlighting the role of information technology in ‘affecting all aspects of national security, including politics, economy, national defense, social culture, as well as the entire international security and stability system’.35 Specific measures were laid out in an SCO Agreement on Cooperation to Guarantee International Information Security, which was signed into action by members in 2009.36 At the same time, the RATS Center in Tashkent had sought to pioneer work on questions around online radicalisation and data protection. Data from member states on terrorist groups and threats was gathered, translated and disseminated.37 Actions included the establishment of a working group targeting cyber security and online radicalisation, which would hold conferences and training sessions, and ultimately led to the first SCO cyber-terrorism exercise in Xiamen in 2015, of which more have occurred bi-annually since.38 All of this took place at a moment when Central Asia started to take cyber security questions more seriously, with both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan drastically improving their Global Cybersecurity Index score, from 0.19 to 0.79 and 0.17 to 0.68 respectively between 2014 and 2018.39 Exactly what role the SCO played in this is unclear, but it certainly takes place in parallel.

As a landlocked region disconnected from the large international fibreoptic cables, broadband in much of Central Asia is extremely expensive. China has done a great deal to change this. Chinese tech companies are often the most affordable in the region – in part due to Chinese government subsidies to the companies back in China – and have rapidly gained a large presence in Central Asia. It should be noted they were early movers into the region, with Huawei and ZTE having been longstanding players in the region’s digital hardware. Huawei entered the region through Kazakhstan in 1998.40 In 2000, Turkmenistan used ZTE to establish its first dial-up service.41 In 2001, Kyrgyzstan was given $10-million worth of free ZTE equipment via an intergovernmental gift to install a telephone network for 10,000 subscribers in Bishkek.42 By 2002, ZTE was installing a wireless telephone system for Kazakhtelecom, while the Kazakh company chose to use Chinese cables to upgrade its Europe–China internet cabling systems.43 More awkwardly, both ZTE and Huawei signed contracts (likely as part of a wider agreement between the government and local authorities) with the Taliban government in Afghanistan in the late 1990s to establish a digital phone system in Kabul and Kandahar.44

From this early start, they have made dramatic inroads. In Turkmenistan, where there are fewer than 10 operational Chinese companies in total, Huawei has provided around 45% of the country’s telecommunications infrastructure.45 According to StatCounter, an online service that tracks internet usage, Chinese mobile phone providers have made considerable inroads into Central Asian markets. Samsung remains the dominant provider across the region, but Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi has grown to take an ever-increasing market share. In January 2020, the Chinese manufacturer overtook Samsung in Kyrgyzstan, and now controls around 45% of the local market (in comparison to 34% for Samsung, 10% for Apple and 6% for Huawei).46 In all the other markets, Samsung is dominant, with Xiaomi and Huawei together supplying between a quarter and a third of the rest of the market, while Apple and other providers tend to make up the rest.47 This metric is significant when one considers the Western push to reject all Chinese technology.

Looking to the internet and cyber storage infrastructure, companies such as Huawei and ZTE provide a growing proportion of today’s cloud and internet capacity in Central Asia. In 2014, Huawei entered into an agreement with the Karamay local government to create a cloud ‘model city’ to help establish a base for Xinjiang and Central Asian cloud services provided by the company.48 In 2021, ZTE handed a SDM (Subscriber Data Management) platform to Uzbekistan’s

Bee­line, a data centralisation tool that allows for generating analytics, data sharing with third parties, monetisation and many other cloud-based functions.49 Both firms have built large sections of the region’s new cyber infrastructure (3G, 4G and now 5G networks), including establishing factories regionally to build and sell home internet equipment.

Going beyond this, Russia and Central Asian states have in recent years welcomed China’s tech-driven approach to security by, for example, adopting ‘Smart City’ development models and projects with hundreds of cameras in their capitals.50 Some of these deploy Chinese facial and numberplate recognition technology, and all rely on Chinese software and hardware. Some projects, such as Dushanbe’s traffic system, are implemented using official Chinese loans disbursed through the SCO mechanism to purchase Chinese products.51 These local network systems are also offered in didactic institutions, with Huawei in particular offering them to schools and universities across the region.52 While tools such as these are increasingly ubiquitous in major cities around the world, the key question is where the data that is being collected is being stored and how it may be used for China’s national security purposes.

Beyond networks, China has also recognised the role of digitalisation in developing an advanced economy. China’s domestic digital economy is among the biggest in the world, with giant national firms that have increasingly moved outside China. Russia and Central Asian states have also found this increasingly attractive, and have come to favour e-commerce cooperation with China. Alibaba reached more than 20 million active buyers from SCO-participating states in 2017.53 AliExpress Russia, a joint venture between the Russian sovereign wealth fund (Russia Direct Investment Fund (RDIF)), Alibaba Group, MegaFon and Mail.Ru, was set up in October 2019 to smooth access to one another’s e-commerce markets and encourage cross-border cooperation.54 In 2019, Alibaba founder Jack Ma declared that his company planned to generate some 100 million jobs and support 10 million small companies over the next few years, with a particular focus on the SCO area.55 In 2021, a group of Chinese e-commerce experts and practitioners trained Uzbek governmental officials and businesspeople on managing the e-commerce space.56 A growing number of smaller Chinese and Central Asian traders have also gone online in the past few years. The drastically improved e-commerce infrastructure in Central Asia has resulted in a significant increase in the region’s Business-to-Consumer E-Commerce Index score between 2015 and 2019, jumping from 25 to 35 for Kyrgyzstan, 26 to 45 for Uzbekistan and 37 to 69 for Kazakhstan.57

Chinese and Central Asian companies have set up middleman websites to allow locals to purchase Chinese products more easily and cheaply online, while bilateral governmental efforts have been made to grant Central Asian products access to the Chinese market directly. This includes an official flagship store for Uzbekistan on Alibaba’s Taobao mall (also known as ‘Tmall’). With a large section of Uzbek confectionary, the store gained over 5,000 followers within a year of its opening in November 2019. According to Tmall data analysis, Russian sweets, Indian eyebrow powder, handmade dolls from Uzbekistan, dark chocolate from Kazakhstan and vodka from Kyrgyzstan are the favourite imported products for Chinese consumers.58 These products now travel on the DSR, while the traditional large in-person trading markets in Dordoi and Barakholka are slowly being replaced by online malls.

Following the inclusion of the digital economy in the SCO list of ‘important tasks’ in 2017, as well as the SCO digital economy cooperation agreement in 2019, Chinese e-commerce leaders have found themselves at meetings with senior SCO figures. Alibaba CEO Jack Ma met Vladimir Norov, SCO Secretary General, for the first time in August 2019.59 While the world was busy combating a pandemic in 2020, Norov had at least nine prominent public meetings with leaders of China’s tech world, including e-commerce giants such as Alibaba, Jingdong and Pinduoduo.60 The timing coincided with a visible SCO push into the e-commerce space. In August and November 2020, two SCO experimental policy zones were opened in China: a Cross-Border E-Commerce pilot zone in Lianyungang and the Qingdao Development Center. Exact details on both are not very clear, except that they are intended to be major boosters to commerce and trade using online technology. First announced during the SCO Summit in Qingdao in 2018, the Qingdao Development Center was opened with typical Chinese speed two years later.61 The companies Norov met with all played a constructive role in pushing the SCO’s e-commerce agenda forwards. For example, Jingdong has committed $1.5 billion to build a smart industrial park within the Qingdao Development Center using advanced cloud computing to showcase China’s first-class supply chain technologies for cross-border e-commerce.62 In 2021, Kyrgyz officials proposed to open an e-commerce experiential logistics zone at the Qingdao Development Center for the export of Kyrgyz agricultural products to China, South Korea, Japan and ASEAN.63 It is unclear what representation the other SCO member states might have at these institutions, although there was some suggestion that Kazakh companies were using the Lianyungang port already.64

Unlike many of their counterparts in traditional industries, these Chinese tech giants seem to more actively recognise the merits of engaging in soft power building abroad. This is something they have all done globally, but in particular in Central Asia and often through SCO structures. Huawei, ZTE and Weidong Cloud Education began donating information technology tools to classrooms in Central Asian high schools and universities across the region in the early 2010s. Huawei’s own overseas academy, with Huawei lecturers and its own curriculum, opened in Uzbekistan in 201665 and Kazakhstan in 2017.66 In just two years, the Kazakh branch had trained over 400 computer science students.67 Huawei’s flagship ‘Seeds for the Future’ programme, a study and work programme for foreign computer science talents to spend time in China, is one of the most attractive programmes offered to Central Asian youth. Including travel and training in China, it is seen as guaranteed to offer good employment opportunities for graduates. The programme opened in Tajikistan in 2016,68 Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in 2017,69 and Kazakhstan in 2018.70 It is not clear whether it has been established in Kyrgyzstan, although the company has had a footprint and staff there since at least 2001.71

All these initiatives are fostering the next generation of Central Asian tech experts in Chinese standards and practices, and will inevitably strengthen China’s norm-making position in the digital industry within the region. There has already been something of a push towards Chinese standards and norms through various SCO working groups and engagement structures. Previously, there has been engagement in the cyber security domain on how countries could share best practice to stop the spread of extremist ideas online. There has also been some discussion about harmonisation in the digital commerce domain, including efforts to focus on making legislation compatible and learning from one another. The training programmes offered by Huawei and others provide a further point of engagement and influence. China is not only building, but also shaping, the future of the cyber and digital world in Central Asia (and further afield).

These companies have further continued this soft power push and increased their links and visibility alongside the SCO during the coronavirus pandemic. For example, Alibaba, Weidong Cloud Education and others continued to reach out to regional youth and political leaders using the digital space, and helped to organise a number of seminars and joint online events with the SCO. For example, Alibaba set up online COVID-19 treatment courses and engagements between Chinese doctors and their Central Asian and SCO counterparts.72 Moreover, Weidong’s contribution to helping children under lockdown to continue to receive teaching received a personal ‘thank you’ from SCO Secretary General Norov.73 This work came in parallel with a substantial push by China to provide online health support and services, with doctors regularly holding online forums and videoconferences to exchange ideas and experience.74 For example, in April 2020, a telemedicine system was set up in Uzbekistan between Jiangxi and Tashkent.75

They also offered more classical forms of support. Alibaba, for instance, has been implementing further measures to help bring Central Asian products to the Chinese market.76 In the backdrop of all this activity, there were dozens of medical donations from many of the leading Chinese tech companies to the region. Jack Ma’s personal foundation, for example, sent planeloads of aid publicly to all the countries except Turkmenistan.77

What Next?

Chinese tech companies have emerged as leaders in advancing China’s goal to have the SCO become a regional economic force. From basic hardware such as fibreoptic cables and telecoms towers, to everyday smartphones and critical storage infrastructure such as cloud systems, they have made significant inroads across Central Asia, building a DSR through the region. Chinese online sales and payment platforms have followed, meaning China is building and delivering the region’s digital economic future. Throughout this process, the SCO has played an increasingly important role in facilitating and strengthening this push, finally living up to the hopes first articulated for the group by Jiang Zemin. As digitalisation proceeds with Chinese tools, Beijing is becoming a crucial player across the region’s critical sectors including security, trade and education.

Digitalisation is recognised by all member states of the SCO as an important step to development. China’s eagerness to share and sell its tech-driven practices and insights has thus been welcomed by SCO member states. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has made digitalisation one of his most urgent tasks since taking office in spring 2019,78 and he has focused on emulating the Chinese model. At a meeting on Kazakhstan’s future development, Tokayev praised China’s success. Pointing to a specific Chinese company, Hikvision, he said the company’s techniques ‘have gone far ahead, they deeply digitalized all major cities. You click on the screen, the data on the person comes out, including literally everything. When he graduated from university, where he goes in his free time, and so on … We need to go in this direction. This is a global trend. I set this task just before our capital’s leadership’.79

Digitalising economies is a top priority for SCO leaders. In January 2021, as part of a push for country-wide digitalisation, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev set a deadline: ‘by the end of this year, every industry and regional leader must make a radical turn in the digital economy’. He offered a 30% salary boost for those regional officials who improved digitalisation in their spheres of work.80 It is highly likely that he intended them to use some of the Huawei technologies he had been introduced to during his visit to the company’s innovation centre and meeting with founder Ren Zhengfei in April 2019 on the fringes of the Belt and Road Summit.81

Digitalisation in Central Asia, as in many other developing regions, is centred on adopting existing technologies rather than developing indigenous ones. While domestic firms are preferable, these take time to develop and the marketplace is increasingly full of cheap, readily available options. Since the beginning, China has offered a cheap option that is easily accessible and often provided with loans. Having established a foothold, it will continue to be a dominant supplier of both hard and soft technology in the region. This means China will also end up exporting its norms and practices that govern the digital space. Given the growing digitalisation of entire economies and societies, China will also export norms in other areas such as security and trade. In these key sectors, Central Asian countries are set on a long-term path of reliance on Chinese technologies, with limited development of local capacity. In a worst-case scenario, this reliance – combined with a lack of local capacity – exposes Central Asian countries to deep potential national security problems, with little domestic capability to manage these things themselves. For example, a global attack on Chinese tech and tools could have catastrophic consequences regionally.

The dangers go in other directions as well. The dramatic and abrupt assault on Jack Ma brought his financial technology company Ant Financial’s huge initial public offering to a grinding halt and raised questions about the company’s future.82 This was a reminder of the Chinese Communist Party’s ultimate control over the country’s private sector, and a salutary notice to economies in which these companies are deeply enmeshed. Central Asia has already watched as other Chinese companies that had invested heavily in the region suddenly fell foul of authorities at home – the case of energy firm CEFC is instructive in this regard. After a sharp ascension around the world acting as a major player along the Belt and Road, the company was brought down dramatically in 2018 through anti-corruption investigations that have swept up CEO Ye Jianming.83 Kazakhstan lost a $680-million investment, while Russia’s Rosneft lost a $9-billion investor. The Czech Republic found itself suddenly losing an investor that had purchased ‘the country’s oldest football club, Slavia Praha; a brewery; a share of the Travel Service airline group; a publishing house; a neo-renaissance building; a stake in the investment bank J&T Finance Group; and a building in the Czech capital Prague’.84 These are stark reminders that over-reliance on Chinese firms can come with deep and unpredictable political risks and real economic repercussions.

Another curious risk was raised more recently with the expulsion from China of its cryptomining firms, which led to a large number choosing to relocate to Kazakhstan. While the Kazakh government initially seemed happy with this development, it has abruptly become a huge drain on the national electricity grid and is causing all manner of problems as a result, including forcing the country to renegotiate its electricity purchases from Russia. This unintended consequence of shifting Chinese domestic digital economies is another way in which the region is finding itself tied to China.85

A further danger is posed by the global clash between the West and China, which has increasingly focused on the digital and tech sector. As the US and its Western partners push sanctions on Chinese firms, this will complicate the latter’s viability and the operating spaces they are in. It will also start to complicate relations between the West and third countries, such as those in Central Asia, where Chinese technology companies are a major provider. This is a wicked problem for some of the countries in Central Asia – while they might prefer the Western alternatives, these are simply too expensive, and they are limited in other possible options. And, at this point, they already have the Chinese hardware installed, meaning a cost should they want to completely remove it. The Chinese vendor thus becomes the most attractive, despite the potential consequences that come with it.

Russia’s tech sector lags behind China’s innovative applications. Leading Russian tech companies are confined within the post-Soviet space. Rostec, Russia’s military technology conglomerate, while underfunded, has tried to enter commercial markets where there is high Chinese competition. In June 2021, Rostec secured a deal in Uzbekistan to provide basic urban planning technologies for the advanced stages of its smart city.86 However, Rostec is unlikely to be a serious rival for Chinese tech companies without Russian subsidies and loans. Ozon, which could be seen as Russia’s Amazon or Alibaba, had a market capitalisation of $2.4 billion at the time of writing (as compared to Amazon at $1.46 trillion and Alibaba at $249.64 billion)87 and is inefficient in comparison to its international competitors that compete with it at home. The recent invasion of Ukraine has served to isolate Russia and its firms from the world, making them even less competitive in some ways.

Russia’s homemade consumer electronics have failed to penetrate even the post-Soviet market. Russian mobile telephone providers Beeline and MegaFon may be able to continue to dominate regional telecoms provider services, but their hardware is usually not Russian-made. Russian smartphone manufacturers Yota and Sitronics are almost unheard of. Furthermore, Russia’s country-wide adoption of Huawei’s 5G networks and Chinese technology more broadly will only further weaken the Russian tech sector in the years to come. India offers another possible option, but technology providers there are still very heavily focused on their own domestic market and trying to consolidate in the wake of the government’s vociferous expulsion of Chinese technology.88

Russia and India offer another potential problem in geopolitical terms for Central Asia. Both are SCO members, but they have different relationships with China. India’s approach to China has long been two-sided, where on the one hand it is facing off near conflict, while on the other it is eager to engage. At the time of writing, confrontation over technology is at the forefront of the clash between the two countries, with India banning swathes of Chinese applications and seeking to curtail investment by Chinese companies such as Alibaba, Huawei and Xiaomi.89 Russia has a warmer relationship with China, but it is one with tensions below the surface. There are, for example, growing concerns in Moscow about the country’s increasing over-reliance on Chinese investment, economic growth and technology (notwithstanding the growing push together as a result of the invasion of Ukraine). This presents Central Asia with problems in terms of potential alternative partners, as well as the SCO’s pre-eminence in this Chinese push. The potential exists for these broader geopolitical tensions to undermine the relationships built through the SCO and to create future problems for those in Central Asia that have enthusiastically embraced the organisation and the Chinese technology that comes with it.

Conclusion

As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, China activated an effort for economic, social, security and political penetration across the Eurasian landmass. These goals were products of domestic concerns and a desire to define relatively opaque borders, and were initially delivered through the first international security organisation that China helped to create. The SCO provided a vehicle through which Beijing could build its relations with its Eurasian neighbourhood, starting with a security framework, but with an underlying economic and broader intent. However, realising these broader goals has proved challenging. China’s position in the world has transformed since the early 1990s, when the country was just escaping the shadow of the Tiananmen Square massacre and its economy was opening up. At the time, the SCO region was largely uninterested. Now, China is the world’s second-largest economy and a crucial trading partner for all SCO member states. But it has struggled to translate its economic dreams within the SCO into reality.

This has now changed through the DSR. As early movers in the region and supercharged under the broader Belt and Road vision, China’s tech giants have built a strong presence in Central Asia and are now increasingly engaging with the SCO, helping it to realise China’s longer-term economic ambitions. This new approach has seemingly managed to overcome previous concerns about China-led economic initiatives, but is laying the foundations for deep Chinese influence long into the future. The SCO might finally be helping China to fulfil its economic ambitions and checkmate the activity of others in Central Asia. As with much of China’s foreign policy approach to Central Asia, what Beijing has advanced and tested in this area is likely to be exported elsewhere. Learning from how the SCO has gone digital will help to create a wider understanding of how the DSR may play out in other contexts as well.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Raffaello Pantucci

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI and author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, 2022, with Alexandros Petersen).

Niva Yau

Niva Yau is a Senior Researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek and Fellow at the Eurasia Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Notes

1. People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Zhōng, é, hā, jí, tǎ wǔ guó huìwù’ [‘China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan Five Country Meeting’], 11 November 2000, <https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/cohk//chn/topic/zgwj/wjlshk/t8984.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

2. UPI Archives, ‘Chinese Premier Wraps Up Central Asian Tour’, 27 April 1994, <https://www.upi.com/Archives/1994/04/27/Chinese-premier-wraps-up-Central-Asian-tour/1680767419200/>, accessed 14 August 2022.

3. Xi Jinping, ‘Promote Friendship Between Our People and Work Together to Build a Bright Future’, speech given at Nazarbayev University, Astana, 7 September 2013, <https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/ce/cebel/eng/zxxx/t1078088.htm>, accessed 12 September 2022.

4. People’s Republic of China, ‘Zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó hé hāsàkè sītǎn gònghéguó, jí’ěrjísī gònghéguó, èluósī liánbāng, tǎjíkè sītǎn gònghéguó guānyú zài biānjìng dìqū jiāqiáng jūnshì lǐngyù xìnrèn de xiédìng’ [‘Agreement Between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Russian Federation, and the Republic of Tajikistan on Strengthening Confidence in the Military Field in Border Areas’], 26 April 1996, <http://www.npc.gov.cn/wxzl/wxzl/2000-12/06/content_3612.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

5. Peter Irwin, ‘Remembering the Ghulja Incident: 20th Anniversary of “Uyghur Tiananmen” Passes With Little Notice’, The Diplomat, 2 March 2017, <https://thediplomat.com/2017/03/remembering-the-ghulja-incident-20th-anniversary-of-uyghur-tiananmen-passes-with-little-notice/>, accessed 14 August 2022.

6. History of the Communist Party of China, ‘Zhōng tǔ tiānránqì guǎndào gōngchéng xiàngmù guīhuà zhī chū’ [‘The Beginning of China-Turkmenistan Natural Gas Pipeline Project Planning’], 30 May 2011, <http://cpc.people.com.cn/BIG5/218984/222139/14775391.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

7. Selected works of Jiang Zemin, Vol. 2, ‘Bùshīshíjī dì shíshī xībù dà kāifā zhànlüè’ [‘Take No Time to Implement the Great Western Development Strategy’], 17 June 1999, <http://www.reformdata.org/1999/0617/5803.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022.

8. UN Security Council, United Nations sanctions list, ‘Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’, <https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sanctions/1267/aq_sanctions_list/summaries/entity/islamic-movement-of-uzbekistan>, accessed 14 August 2022.

9. Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, ‘SCO RATS’, <https://ecrats.org/en/history/>, accessed 12 September 2022.

10. People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Jiāngzémín zhǔxí zài “shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī” chénglì dàhuì shàng de jiǎnghuà’ [‘Speech by President Jiang Zemin at the Inaugural Meeting of the “Shanghai Cooperation Organisation”’], 22 June 2001, <https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/web/gjhdq_676201/gjhdqzz_681964/lhg_683094/zyjh_683104/t4637.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022.

11. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China to the Russian Federation, ‘Shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī chéngyuán guó zǒnglǐ huìwù zàijīng jǔxíng —wēnjiābǎo zǒnglǐ zhǔchí huìyì bìng jiǎnghuà’ [‘The Meeting of the Prime Ministers of the Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was Held in Beijing – Premier Wen Jiabao’s Speech’], 23 September 2003, <http://ru.china-embassy.org/chn/eyxx/zyjhhwj/t26271.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

12. People’s Republic of China Ministry of Commerce, ‘Shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī chéngyuán guó jǔxíng jīngmào bùzhǎng dì sān cì huìyì’ [‘The Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Hold the Third Meeting of Economic and Trade Ministers’], 14 September 2004, <http://www.mofcom.gov.cn/article/ae/ai/200409/20040900279537.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022.

13. RATS was accompanied by: multilateral training exercises; sharing of legal practices and rationalisation of legal norms; the establishment of shared databases of individuals and groups of concern; the development of joint training courses; and eventually the establishment of a training centre in Shanghai. See China National Institute for SCO International Exchange and Judicial Cooperation, ‘About Us’, <http://cnisco.shupl.edu.cn/en/98/listm.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

14. Nargis Kassenova, ‘Kazakhstan and Eurasian Economic Integration: Quick Start, Mixed Results and Uncertain Future’, IFRI, Russie Nei Reports, No. 14, November 2012, pp. 3–29, <https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/ifrikassenovakazandeurasianintegrationengnov2012.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

15. Eurasian Economic Commission, ‘Eurasian Economic Integration: Facts and Figures’, 2013, <http://www.eurasiancommission.org/ru/Documents/broshura26Body_ENGL_final2013_2.pdf>, accessed 12 September 2022.

16. Eurasian Economic Commission, ‘Agreement Signed on Trade and Economic Cooperation Between EAEU and PRC’, May 2018, <http://www.eurasiancommission.org/en/nae/news/Pages/17-05-2018-5.aspx>, accessed 14 August 2022.

17. Kazakhstan China Pipeline LLC, ‘History’, <https://www.kcp.kz/company/history?language=en>, accessed 14 August 2022.

18. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, ‘The Wait Goes On At Kashagan’, 11 April 2014, <https://www.rferl.org/a/oil-kazakhstan-kashagan/25329794.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

19. Kazakhstan only granted a 72-hour visa-free entry for Chinese and Indian citizens in December 2018. This was, however, suspended for Chinese nationals in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. See Republic of Kazakhstan, ‘O vnesenii izmeneniya v postanovleniye Pravitel’stva Respubliki Kazakhstan ot 21 yanvarya 2012 goda №148 “Ob utverzhdenii Pravil v’yezda i prebyvaniya immigrantov v Respublike Kazakhstan, a takzhe ikh vyyezda iz Respubliki Kazakhstan i Pravil osushchestvleniya migratsionnogo kontrolya, a takzhe ucheta inostrantsev i lits bez grazhdanstva, nezakonno peresekayushchikh Gosudarstvennuyu granitsu Respubliki Kazakhstan, nezakonno prebyvayushchikh na territorii Respubliki Kazakhstan, a takzhe lits, kotorym zapreshchen v’yezd na territoriyu Respubliki Kazakhstan”’ [‘On Amending the Resolution of the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan Dated January 21, 2012 No. 148 “On Approval of the Rules for the Entry and Stay of Immigrants in the Republic of Kazakhstan, As Well As Their Departure from the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Rules for the Implementation of Migration Control, As Well As Registration of Foreigners and Stateless Persons, Illegal Crossing the State Border of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Illegally Staying in the Territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan, As Well As Persons Who are Prohibited from Entering the Territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan”’], 6 April 2018, <http://base.spinform.ru/show_doc.fwx?rgn=105655>, accessed 14 August 2022.

20. Shamil Baigin, ‘Uzbekistan, China Sign Major Gas Pipeline Deal’, Reuters, 30 April 2007.

21. Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen, ‘Uzbekistan’s Balancing Act with China: A View From the Ground’, China Brief (Vol. 12, No. 14, July 2012).

22. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, ‘E. Omuraliyev: Kyrgyzstan dolzhen voyti v Tamozhennyy soyuz’ [‘E. Omuraliev: Kyrgyzstan Should Join the Customs Union’], 6 July 2010, <https://rus.azattyk.org/a/Kyrgyzstan_Omuraliev_WTO/3279143.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

23. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, ‘Afzoişi toçironi cinoī dar ʙozorhoi Duşanʙe’ [‘Growth of Chinese Traders in Dushanbe Markets’], 15 September 2009, <https://www.ozodi.org/a/Chinese_expansion_in_TA_markets_How_to_defend/1822797.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

24. CGTN, ‘SCO Development Bank: Prospects of the SCO Development Bank’, 6 June 2018, <https://news.cgtn.com/news/7a517a4d32454464776c6d636a4e6e62684a4856/share_p.html>, accessed 14 August 2022; Xinhua, ‘SCO Plans to Enhance Financial Cooperation, Continue Consultations on Establishing SCO Development Bank’, 1 December 2020, <http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-12/01/c_139555549.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

25. Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), ‘SCO Promotes Transport Links’, July 2017, <http://eng.sectsco.org/news/20170706/306862.html>, accessed 14 August 2022; author interview with logistics experts in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, 2019.

26. SCO, ‘SCO Promotes Transport Links’.

27. SCO, ‘Shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī mìshū zhǎng zài 2009 zhōngxī nányà qūyù jīngjì hézuò lùntán shàng de zhìcí’ [‘Speech by the Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation at the 2009 Central and Southwest Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Forum’], 4 September 2009, <http://chn.sectsco.org/news/20090904/16988.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

28. People’s Republic of China Ministry of Commerce, ‘Shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī jīngmào bùzhǎng huìyì diànzǐ shāngwù zhuānyè gōngzuò zǔ dì wǔ cì huìyì zài shāngwù bù jǔxíng’ [‘The Fifth Meeting of the E-Commerce Professional Working Group of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Economic and Trade Ministers Meeting Was Held in the Ministry of Commerce’], 11 August 2010, <http://www.mofcom.gov.cn/aarticle/jiguanzx/201008/20100807075852.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

29. Shanghai E-Commerce Association, ‘Shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī diànzǐ shāngwù zhuānyè gōngzuò zǔ dì qī cì huìyì jí zhèng qǐ duìhuà huì zàijīng jǔxíng’ [‘The Seventh Meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation E-Commerce Professional Working Group and the Government-Enterprise Dialogue Held in Beijing’], 10 November 2017, <https://www.cctce.org/core/detail/id/202.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

30. SCO, ‘Joint Communiqué Following the 16th Meeting of the SCO Heads of Government Council’, 1 December 2017, <http://eng.sectsco.org/news/20171201/361743.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

31. SCO, ‘Zayavleniye soveta glav gosudarstv-chlenov Shankhayskoy organizatsii sotrudnichestva o sotrudnichestve v oblasti tsifrovoy ekonomiki’ [‘Statement of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on Cooperation in the Field of the Digital Economy’], 10 November 2020, <https://sco-russia2020.ru/images/108/44/1084415.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

32. SCO, ‘Zayavleniye soveta glav gosudarstv-chlenov Shankhayskoy organizatsii sotrudnichestva o sotrudnichestve v oblasti obespecheniya mezhdunarodnoy informatsionnoy bezopasnosti’ [‘Statement of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on Cooperation in the Field of International Information Security’], 10 November 2020, <https://sco-russia2020.ru/images/108/46/1084605.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

33. SCO, ‘Soveta glav gosudarstv-chlenov Shankhayskoy organizatsii sotrudnichestva o protivodeystvii rasprostraneniyu terroristicheskoy, separatistskoy i ekstremistskoy ideologii, v tom chisle v seti Internet’ [‘Of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on Countering the Spread of Terrorist, Separatist and Extremist Ideology, Including on the Internet’], 10 November 2020, <https://sco-russia2020.ru/images/108/44/1084438.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

34. The Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan followed the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, in which the old governments made up of former Soviet apparatchiks were swept aside by popular uprisings. Many hardliners in the former Soviet space blamed these uprisings on US-supported, democracy-minded NGOs. Leaders across the region feared similar outcomes and saw Kyrgyzstan within the same light, although in fact subsequent research has shown it was a far more idiosyncratic uprising.

35. SCO, ‘Statement by the Heads of Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on International Information Security’, 15 June 2006, <http://eng.sectsco.org/load/197770/>, accessed 14 August 2022.

36. SCO, ‘Shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī chéngyuán guó bǎozhàng guójì xìnxī ānquán zhèngfǔ jiān hézuò xiédìng’ [‘Agreement on Cooperation Between the Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to Guarantee International Information Security’], 16 June 2009, <http://treaty.mfa.gov.cn/tykfiles/20180718/1531876097720.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

37. Author interview, RATS, 2012.

38. Xinhua, ‘Shàng hé zǔzhī shǒucì yǎnliàn wǎngluò fǎnkǒng’ [‘SCO’s First Exercise on Cyber-Terrorism’], 15 October 2015, <http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2015-10/15/c_128318903.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022; CCTV, ‘Shàng hé zǔzhī “xiàmén-2017” wǎngluò fǎnkǒng yǎnxí jīn jǔxíng’ [‘SCO “Xiamen-2017” Cyber Anti-Terrorism Exercise Held Today’], 6 December 2017, <http://m.news.cctv.com/2017/12/06/ARTIAWgbuaRbebix8FZnWO0m171206.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022; Xinhua, ‘Dì sān jiè shàng hé zǔzhī wǎngluò fǎnkǒng liánhé yǎnxí zài zhōngguó jǔxíng’ [‘The Third SCO Cyber Anti-Terrorism Joint Exercise Held in China’], 12 December 2019, <http://www.xinhuanet.com/mil/2019-12/12/c_1125340396.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

39. Dmitry Erokhin, ‘Comparative Analysis of Digital Development in Central Asian Countries’, OSCE and NUPI, Policy Briefs No. 63, September 2020, <http://www.osce-academy.net/upload/file/PB_63.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

40. Business Year, ‘TBY Talks to Hou Tao, General Director of Huawei Technologies, on the Firm’s Kazakhstani Portfolio, Promoting E-Commerce, and Future Plans in Central Asia’, 2017, <https://www.thebusinessyear.com/kazakhstan-2017/global-coverage/vip-interview>, accessed 14 August 2022.

41. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China to the Republic of Turkmenistan, ‘Tǔkùmàn sītǎn tōngxùn yè fāzhǎn xiànzhuàng jí qiánjǐng fēnxī’ [‘An Analysis of the Status Quo and Prospects of Turkmenistan’s Communication Industry’], 25 September 2008, <http://tm.mofcom.gov.cn/article/ztdy/200809/20080905798435.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022.

42. Deirdre Tynan, ‘Central Asia: Are Chinese Telecoms Acting as the Ears for Central Asian Authoritarians?’, Eurasianet, 15 February 2012, <https://eurasianet.org/central-asia-are-chinese-telecoms-acting-as-the-ears-for-central-asian-authoritarians>, accessed 14 August 2022.

43. Sébastien Peyrouse, ‘Chinese Economic Presence in Kazakhstan’, China Perspectives (Vol. 3, July 2008), pp. 34–49.

44. Michael Dwyer, ‘Beijing in Quandary Over Trade Links with Taliban’, Australian Financial Review, 25 September 2001.

45. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China to the Republic of Turkmenistan, ‘Tǔkùmàn sītǎn tōngxùn yè fāzhǎn xiànzhuàng jí qiánjǐng fēnxī’ [‘An Analysis of the Status Quo and Prospects of Turkmenistan’s Communication Industry’], 25 September 2008, <http://tm.mofcom.gov.cn/article/ztdy/200809/20080905798435.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022.

46. StatCounter, ‘Mobile Vendor Market Share Kyrgyzstan’, February 2021, <https://gs.statcounter.com/vendor-market-share/mobile/kyrgyzstan/#monthly-201501-202102>, accessed 14 August 2022.

47. StatCounter, <https://gs.statcounter.com/>, accessed 14 August 2022.

48. Huawei, ‘Lìzú quán jiāng, fúshè zhòng yà, kèlāmǎyī shì zhèngfǔ liánmèi huáwèi gòng zhù lǜsè zhī “yún”’ [‘Based in Xinjiang, Radiating Central Asia, Karamay City Government and Huawei Jointly Build a Green “Cloud”’], 15 December 2014, <http://www.dostor.com/p/35334.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

49. ZTE, ‘ZTE Teams Up with Beeline to Deploy Uzbekistan’s Largest Virtualized SDM Platform’, 15 April 2021, <https://www.zte.com.cn/global/about/news/20210415e1.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

50. Yau Tsz Yan, ‘Smart Cities or Surveillance? Huawei in Central Asia’, The Diplomat, 7 August 2019, <https://thediplomat.com/2019/08/smart-cities-or-surveillance-huawei-in-central-asia/>, accessed 14 August 2022.

51. Xinjiang Economical Information Exchanging Association for Central and West Asia, ‘“Dàolù qiān wàn tiáo ānquán dì yī tiáo” zhōng yà gèguó “ānquán chéngshì” xiàngmù láile!’ [‘“Ten Thousand Roads, the First with Safety”: The “Safe Cities” Project in Central Asian Countries is Here!’], 13 February 2019, <http://xjeieacwa.com/content?catid=2&id=5447>, accessed 14 August 2022.

52. In 2018, Huawei’s ‘Seeds for the Future’ programme launched in Kazakhstan, offering direct training for future generations of digital and tech engineers. Huawei, ‘Huawei Central Asia Innovation Day: Build Digital Silk Road Through Innovation, Openness and Win-win’, 14 November 2017, <https://www.huawei.com/en/events/huawei-central-asia-innovation-day-2017/day-of-innovation-in-centrala-asia-hw>, accessed 14 August 2022.

53. People’s Daily, ‘Shàng hé guójiā 8000 wàn yònghù kào ālǐ zhìfù pǔjīng wéi zhōngguó diàn shāng shù qǐ dà mǔzhǐ’ [‘80 Million Users in Shanghai Cooperation Countries Rely on Alibaba to Get Rich, Putin Gives Thumbs Up to Chinese E-Commerce’], 8 June 2018, <http://industry.people.com.cn/n1/2018/0608/c413883-30046542.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

54. People’s Republic of China Ministry of Commerce, ‘Ālǐ bābā jítuán zài èluósī chénglì hézī gōngsī’ [‘Alibaba Group Establishes a Joint Venture Company in Russia’], 10 October 2019, <http://www.mofcom.gov.cn/article/i/jyjl/e/201910/20191002903221.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022.

55. SCO, ‘SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov, Alibaba Group CEO Jack Ma Discuss Intra-SCO IT Cooperation’, August 2019, <http://eng.sectsco.org/news/20190829/571024.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

56. UzDaily, ‘Uzbek Exporters Learn E-Commerce Skills from Chinese Experts’, 6 September 2021, <http://uzdaily.com/en/post/65951>, accessed 14 August 2022.

57. Erokhin, ‘Comparative Analysis of Digital Development in Central Asian Countries’.

58. People’s Daily, ‘Shàng hé guójiā 8000 wàn yònghù kào ālǐ zhìfù pǔjīng wéi zhōngguó diàn shāng shù qǐ dà mǔzhǐ’ [‘80 Million Users in Shanghai Cooperation Countries Rely on Alibaba to Get Rich, Putin Gives Thumbs Up to Chinese E-Commerce’].

59. SCO, ‘SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov, Alibaba Group CEO Jack Ma Discuss Intra-SCO IT Cooperation’.

60. These are all recorded on the SCO website, <http://eng.sectsco.org/>, accessed 14 August 2022.

61. Xinhua, ‘Technology Transfer Center Opens in China’, 11 December 2020, <http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-12/11/c_139580339.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

62. qdcaijing.com, ‘Zǒng tóuzī 567 yì yuán! Shàng hé zǔzhī dìfāng jīngmào hézuò shìfàn qū zhòngdiǎn xiàngmù jízhōng kāigōng’ [‘The Total Investment is 56.7 Billion Yuan! The Key Projects of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Local Economic and Trade Cooperation Demonstration Zone Started Construction’], 20 November 2020, <http://www.qdcaijing.com/jypd/dst/chengshi/p/188822.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

63. Qingdao Caijing, ‘Zhōngguó-jí’ěrjísī sītǎn jījí tàntǎo jiànlì liǎng guó diànzǐ shāngwù píngtái wùliú zhōngxīn’ [‘China-Kyrgyzstan Actively Explores the Establishment of a Logistics Center for E-Commerce Platforms in the Two Countries’], 11 June 2021, <http://finance.eastmoney.com/a/202106111959593288.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

64. CGTN, ‘Lianyungang Port Links Kazakhstan with Pacific’, 4 June 2018, <https://news.cgtn.com/news/3d3d514d3467444f77457a6333566d54/index.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

65. UzDaily, ‘Huawei to Launch Scientific-Educational Project HAINA in Uzbekistan’, 19 September 2016, <https://www.uzdaily.uz/en/post/36935>, accessed 14 August 2022.

66. Dana Omirgazy, ‘Huawei Academy Opens in Almaty to Support Local ICT Education’, Astana Times, 3 May 2017, <https://astanatimes.com/2017/05/huawei-academy-opens-in-almaty-to-support-local-ict-education/>, accessed 14 August 2022.

67. Kazakhstan Today, ‘Huawei v ramkakh programmy HAINA obuchila poryadka 400 studentov v 2019 godu’ [‘Huawei Trained About 400 Students under the HAINA Program in 2019’], 17 April 2020, <https://www.kt.kz/rus/society/huawei_v_ramkah_programmy_haina_obuchila_poryadka_400_1377897303.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

68. Huawei, ‘Tǎjíkè sītǎn’ [‘Tajikistan’], <https://www.huawei.com/cn/sustainability/win-win-development/social-contribution/seeds-for-the-future/tajikistan>, accessed 14 August 2022.

69. Huawei, ‘Tǔkùmàn sītǎn’ [‘Turkmenistan’], <https://www.huawei.com/cn/sustainability/win-win-development/social-contribution/seeds-for-the-future/turkmenistan>, accessed 14 August 2022. Huawei, ‘Wūzībiékè sītǎn’ [‘Uzbekistan’], <https://www.huawei.com/cn/sustainability/win-win-development/social-contribution/seeds-for-the-future/uzbekistan>, accessed 14 August 2022.

70. People’s Daily, ‘Huá wéi zhōng yà chuàngxīn rì huódòng zài hāsàkè sītǎn jǔxíng’ [‘Huawei Central Asia Innovation Day Held in Kazakhstan’], 15 November 2017, <http://world.people.com.cn/n1/2017/1115/c1002-29648654.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

71. As highlighted in note 41.

72. SCO, ‘With SCO Support, the Alibaba Group Hosted a Workshop on Countering the Spread of the Novel Coronavirus Infection’, May 2020, <http://eng.sectsco.org/news/20200514/647237.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

73. SCO, ‘President of the Weidong Group Visits SCO Secretariat’, April 2020, <http://eng.sectsco.org/news/20200411/642503.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

74. Raffaello Pantucci, ‘Beijing Binds: COVID-19 and the China-Central Asia Relationship’, Central Asia Program Paper No. 232, 19 June 2020, <https://www.centralasiaprogram.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Beijing-Binds-COVID-19-and-the-China-Central-Asia-RelationshipCAP232.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

75. Xinhua, ‘China-Uzbekistan Telemedicine System Put into Operation’, 25 April 2020, <http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/asiapacific/2020-04/25/c_139007696_2.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

76. UzDaily, ‘Chinese Platform Alibaba Simplifies Registration for Uzbekistan Merchants’, 10 August 2020, <<http://uzdaily.com/en/post/60623>, accessed 14 August 2022.

77. Raffaello Pantucci, ‘Beijing Binds: COVID-19 and the China-Central Asia Relationship.

78. Republic of Kazakhstan Presidential Palace, ‘Glava gosudarstva provel soveshchaniye po realizatsii Gosudarstvennoy programmy «Tsifrovoy Kazakhstan»’ [‘The Head of State Held a Meeting on the Implementation of the State Program “Digital Kazakhstan”’], 4 March 2020.

79. Kursiv, ‘Tokayev poruchil perenyat’ u Kitaya opyt tsifrovizatsii grazhdan’ [‘Tokayev Instructed to Adopt the Experience of Digitalisation of Citizens from China’], 8 October 2019.

80. UZA, ‘Prezident: Bez tsifrovoy ekonomiki net budushchego u ekonomiki strany’ [‘President: The Country’s Economy Has No Future Without the Digital Economy’], 22 September 2020.

81. Republic of Uzbekistan Presidential Press, ‘Prezident posetil Tsentr innovatsiy kompanii «Huawei»’ [‘The President Visited the Huawei Innovation Center’], 25 April 2019.

82. Jing Yang and Serena Ng, ‘Ant’s Record IPO Suspended in Shanghai and Hong Kong Stock Exchanges’, Wall Street Journal, 3 November 2020.

83. Ji Tianqin and Han Wei, ‘In Depth: Investigation Casts Shadow on Rosneft’s China Investor CEFC’, Caixin, 1 March 2018, <https://www.caixinglobal.com/2018-03-01/investigation-casts-shadow-on-rising-oil-star-101215272.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

84. Jenni Marsh, ‘The Rise and Fall of A Belt and Road Billionaire’, CNN, 4 December 2018.

85. Paul Bartlett, ‘Kazakhstan’s Crypto Mining Boom Fizzles Over Power Supply Strain’, Nikkei Asia, 28 December 2021, <https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Cryptocurrencies/Kazakhstan-s-crypto-mining-boom-fizzles-over-power-supply-strain>, accessed 14 August 2022.

86. UzDaily, ‘Rostec to Take Part in the Project of the First “Smart City” in Uzbekistan’, 6 April 2021, <<http://uzdaily.com/en/post/64650>, accessed 14 August 2022.

87. Data from <http://finance.yahoo.com>, accessed 14 August 2022.

88. Sayan Chakraborty, ‘India’s Reliance Jio Takes Center Stage in Nation’s First 5G Auction’, Nikkei Asia, 29 July 2022, <https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Telecommunication/India-s-Reliance-Jio-takes-center-stage-in-nation-s-first-5G-auction>, accessed 14 August 2022.

89. Sahkalp Phartiyal, ‘Firms in India Downplay Chinese Links Amid Wave of Anti-China Sentiment’, Reuters, 30 June 2020.