Archive for November, 2010

A new piece for Chatham House’s magazine The World Today, drawing on a topic that has come up repeatedly during interviews with academics in China. The fact that they love British foreign policy so much. It is sometimes hard to tell whether they are simply flattering me with these sorts of statements, but I feel like there is something more to it. The UK’s approach does seem to hit a lot of buttons which, at least in my mind, make sense to the Chinese. More on this topic as my work on EU-China progresses. As usual, thoughts, comments, etc, welcome. The l

Britain and China: Being Friendly

Raffaelo Pantucci, December 2010

The World Today, Volume 66, Number 12

Adobe PDF documentDownload article here

Amongst the strangest sights of the recent Shanghai Expo was the British seed cathedral pavilion. Brilliantly simple in design, it stood out for touching on environmentalism whilst hovering architecturally like a real-life optical illusion. It was also one of the most popular pavilions, with long queues reflecting curiosity about the space, but also the positive light in which China sees Britain.

As with any bilateral relationship, the Sino-British one has gone through its awkward phases. Some in China still blame the troublesome Tibet question on Britain. And it was former Energy Minister, and now Labour leader, Ed Miliband, who was amongst the most vociferous in casting the blame on China for the inconclusive result of last year’s Copenhagen climate conference. But at the same time, this has not hurt the overall thrust of the bilateral partnership which has largely remained positive. So much so that a frequent question from Chinese academics is whether there is some way the overall European Union-China relationship can be remolded to look more like the British approach?

What China appears to like about the British way of doing things can broadly be captured around three main poles: consistency; focus on what matters: trade; and a willingness to do the diplomatic dance around face – or mutual selfrespect – to which the Chinese attach so much importance. From Beijing’s perspective, the point is a bilateral relationship founded on stability with an underlying focus on economic pragmatism.

Britain has recognized the importance of this approach to China – one of its Beijing diplomats described the principle underlying strategy as ‘no big surprises.’ And this was laid out clearly in September last year in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office strategy paper: ‘The UK and China: a framework for engagement.’ The new government shows no evidence of shifting from this. Prime Minister David Cameron was quite categorical when he said in Beijing, ‘on this vital point [the relationship with China] there is absolute continuity between my government and the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.’

Mission To Trade

Enmeshed with this consistency is the message that trade is the key element in the British-China bilateral relationship. The strategy paper is quite clear in ‘getting the best for the UK from China’s growth’ and persuading China ‘to see the UK as a global hub…boosting our business, educational, scientific and cultural gains from the bilateral relationship.’

In his preface, then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband quite baldly states: ‘there are, of course, major economic benefits from our relationship.’ On his most recent trip to China, Cameron brought with him 43 leaders of industry, four cabinet colleagues and announced before he left that ‘this is a vitally important trade mission.’

This economic focus is not something which is restricted to Britain’s approach to China, with the new administration in London giving its ambassadors ‘greater responsibilities for promoting UK business abroad’ and elevating the role of the Department for Trade and Industry in foreign posts. Something that is easily comprehensible to the gross domestic product (GDP) growth-obsessed Chinese. For them, economic growth is key to ensuring their nation’s tidy emergence on the world stage and the party’s ongoing ability to govern. It is therefore understandable and reassuring that London prioritises this equally.

Chancellor George Osbourne was the first member of the new British cabinet to visit China, declaring ‘if you’re looking to answer the big question for Britain, which is where the growth is going to come from in the next few years, I think export – and exports to an economy the size of China – is one place we should be looking.’ On the eve of Cameron’s arrival, the Chinese press was full of headlines that ‘Business draws Cameron to Beijing.’

The British press on the other hand largely focused on whether Cameron was going to raise the question of human rights and the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, highlighting the problem with the trade approach. Much to the dismay of activists, Britain has repeatedly shown itself willing to do the diplomatic dance required to pander to the Chinese diplomatic obsession with face.

This expresses itself in a number of ways. For example, while in 2008 the world watched as rioters in Lhasa were aggressively put down and protestors took to the streets around the world, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, like most European leaders,met the Dalai Lama. However, unlike President Nicolas Sarkozy of France or German Chancellor Angela Merkel who saw him in their offices, Brown talked to the exiled Tibetan leader at Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The point was to recognise his religious status rather than a political one.

Similarly, towards the end of the year, the British government clarified that it, ‘like every other EU member state, and the United States…regard[s] Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.’ The statement went on to highlight that this was not a shift, but instead a clarification as previous official language which was based on ‘the outdated concept of suzerainty.’

Apparently unprompted, the clarification was very well received in China at the end of a year in which the country had faced a lot of criticism of its Tibet policies. In both cases, the British government felt some level of domestic criticism. The public perception was that the government had capitulated on the sensitive Tibet issue to curry favour with Beijing.

Kernel of Concern

Problematically, after all these careful approaches, late last year China executed British citizen Akmal Shaikh on drugs charges following repeated official and non-official pleas to have his mental health examined more closely. Everyone up to the Prime Minister reached out to Beijing in the case and was rebuffed; something which would seem to belie any preferential relationship.

In such actions lie the kernels of concern that underlie British public wariness towards China. A recent German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trends poll showed how Britons are amongst those with the most positive attitudes towards China in Europe, but at the same time, a poll by ICM highlighted that three quarters believed that protecting human rights in Tibet was as important as maintaining trade links.

While China might appreciate the fact that the Shaikh case did not seriously damage Sino-British relations, within the issue lie the seeds that might eventually derail the positive tenor of relations.

While diplomats say they are able to discuss sensitive human rights issues in a formal setting with their Chinese counterparts and that this is an achievement and shift on he Chinese part, there is little evidence this discussion is resulting in any particular changes in Beijing.

The same can be said for non-proliferation or climate change; issues which British foreign policy supposedly places at the heart of its agenda. China has made moves, but it is unclear they are the product of British requests or necessarily in the direction it would want. Beyond trade – which China continues to do with anyone and remains imbalanced firmly in Beijing’s favor – it is unclear exactly what Britain gets for its friendly approach.

With the conclusion of the Expo, the seed cathedral has been dismantled. In a show of popularity, it took merely two minutes for eight thousand seeds to be sold at an online auction site in China. It remains to be seen whether these seeds will blossom into a more comprehensive bilateral relationship.

Raffaelo Pantucci, visiting scholar, Shanghai Acadamy of Social Sciences, working on a project on EU-China Relations as an EU STFP Fellow

A new journal article lands at last in African Security, written in conjunction with Lorenzo and Evan, looking at al Shabaab and their internationalization. The article offers something of an overview of the phenomenon with particular focus on the various nations where fighters have come from in the West. This is a topic I have written a bit about before, and about which I have more things coming. Unfortunately, it is behind a firewall, but if you drop me a note through the contact page I can probably help out. In the meantime, here is the abstract:

Bringing Global Jihad to the Horn of Africa: al Shabaab, Western Fighters, and the Sacralization of the Somali Conflict

Sacralization of conflict is the process through which religion, or, in most cases, a militant interpretation of it, evolves from being an irrelevant or secondary factor at the onset of a conflict to shaping the views, actions, and aims of one or more of the conflict’s key actors. The article outlines how this phenomenon has taken place in Somalia over the past twenty years by looking at two related phenomena: (1) the rise to prominence of al Shabaab, a group that, unlike its predecessors, follows a global jihadist ideology, and (2) the arrival of foreign fighters, particularly from Western countries, attracted more by global jihadist ideology than ethnic ties or nationalist sentiments.

Keywords: al Shabaab; Somalia; sacralization; radicalization; foreign fighters; al Qaeda; diaspora

A new blog “Whose World Order?” that I am contributing to as part of my new European organization, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). This is going to a pretty regular feature for the immediate future and will be short insights into life here in China. Any thoughts or ideas on things to look into warmly welcomed.

Shanghai View: China’s generation gap

Date: 19th November 2010  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Categories: China
Tags: Chairman MaoChinaHu Jintao

I do a bit of teaching here in Shanghai, and during a recent class a student asked whether she could tell a story to the group to hear people’s thoughts and reactions to it.

The student had seen a couple of Americans at the post office, trying to mail what looked like a large sculpture of Chairman Mao. On closer inspection she noticed that it was in fact a stool. The student’s question to the class was whether her reaction to seeing the stool was strange – she had thought it somehow inappropriate and disrespectful that the great leader’s image was being used in this way. She mentioned that the workers in the post office had found it equally disrespectful, while the American’s did not seem to notice.

The reaction in class was mixed (some were offended, others found it amusing, most didn’t care), but almost immediately came back to the conclusion that the real problem was that the younger generations – “the 80s children” as one older chap characterised it – had no sense of history. But wait, said the student who had first asked the question, “I am an 80s child!”

This highlighted an interesting contradiction that is often skipped over when talking about the next generation in China: that younger Chinese are thought to have no sense of either history or knowledge. In reality, they are often amongst the most aggressive defenders of a deep sense of Chinese nationhood. The generation gap in terms of who remembers what and how strongly they feel about it seems sometimes to be reversed here.

Of course this is not a perfect social experiment: no one was able to satisfactorily answer whether they would have reacted in the same way if it was a Chinese person who was mailing the stool. But before moving on to something else, I pried a bit more into the student’s feelings about this – specifically about whether she would have been as offended if it had been a sculpture of Hu Jintao’s head. She seemed unsure, and the rest of the class was simply amused.

A new post at Free Rad!cals in quick reaction to General Richard’s comments at the weekend about Al Qaeda being undefeatable in a traditional sort of way.

It is not Al Qaeda we need to worry about

Filed under: Terrorism

That al-Qaeda as a concept cannot be defeated is not in itself a very revealing comment. As General Richards correctly pointed out, “I don’t think you can probably defeat an idea, it’s something we need to battle back against.” But in many ways it is not the al-Qaeda ideology that should concern us, but rather what the shape of future terrorism is increasingly looking like. 

Historically the problem of terrorism is something that has been a constant problem in one form or another. To just track it through the last century, we start with Anarchists, through to left and right wing extremists who then towards the second half of the century started to transform into Middle Eastern extremists before evolving into jihadist nihilists. And all along the way, different groups of separatists have used violence to advance their causes.

Extremists using violence in pursuit of ideas is not new. It has been a constant for much of the past century and is likely to be with us for a while yet in one form or another. Jihadist nihilism is likely to eventually fade into the background while some other form of politically motivated violence will take to the fore. Society will always have its malcontents.

What should in fact be of greater concern is the fact that it has now become so much easier to wreak havoc with ever more commonly available devices. Nowadays a lone lunatic in a basement can persuade themselves to act using any of a number of widely available online ideologies and construct devices of increasingly alarming yield.

In some cases it is possible to see groups trying to hijack these lone lunatics into their ideological frame to guide them towards carrying out their actions under their name. The concept of individual jihad is one repeatedly advocated by new al-Qaeda bogeyman Anwar al-Awlaki and his ideas appear to have persuaded individuals in the West to act without seeming leadership. Roshonara Chaudhry apportioned some level of blame to her frenzied attack on Stephen Timms, MP to Awlaki’s ideas and similarly, Nidal Hassan Malik appears to have had some level of inspiration from the preacher before he launched on his shooting spree at a US military base. It is only a matter of time before some other loner attempts something more dramatic based on Awlaki’s teachings or their interpretations of them.

But beyond Awlaki, it is possible to imagine how ever-smaller groups of individuals will develop ever more extreme ideas and find the capacity to turn them into ever increasing levels of violence.

None of this is to shout wolf and cause mass alarm about a threat that cannot be eradicated, but it is important to recognize that terrorism as a problem is unlikely to go away permanently, and the focus should be on increasing our resilience when the problem strikes us in whatever form it should take. The potential overreaction to an attack by a loner from any faith who kills hundreds of people in a major city is going to be same no matter what his religious orientation.

The real point that General Richards should be advancing is not that we should resign ourselves to the fact that we are not going to be able to defeat al-Qaeda, but rather that terrorism is not something that can be defeated globally with some military deployment. A conclusion that will become increasingly accurate as we face an ever more disaggregated threat.

 

A new piece for HS Today, this one looking in some greater detail at the alleged Mumbai-style attack that had agencies in a great worry. Unsure this one is all over yet, and the information might ultimately have come out for just this reason. Am also going to try to do some more digging on the British end of it, which I think might be more precarious than this might suggest.

Europe in the Crosshairs

by Raff Pantucci

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Plots aimed at Mumbai styled assaults in Europe.

And the beat goes on…

Weeks have passed since Europe’s threat tempo was ratcheted up as security forces across the continent went into full alert in expectation of a possible terrorist attack. While nothing has actually happened from that particular threat with attention focused on the parcels out of Yemen, information has slowly started to leak out about the specific threat on the minds of security planners. Hatched in Pakistan’s badlands, the alleged plot (or plots) aimed to conduct a Mumbai-style assault on a European city (or cities) in which a team of terrorists would wage open war on the streets killing in the name of God.

It is not entirely clear where the thread that unravelled this series of plots came from – an obfuscation in part no doubt due to security concerns about terrorists figuring out how their networks have been penetrated – but it seems as though France, Germany and the UK were all being targeted. The actual potential plots appear to have been on a variety of trajectories, but most had an address which could be tracked back to Pakistan’s badlands. This came as the head of Britain’s Security Service MI5 recently highlighted that half of the plots his service was watching were “linked to Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where Al Qaeda senior leadership is still based.” While down on previous statements that stated that three quarters of the plots targeting the UK had links to Pakistan, Evans emphasized that “this does not mean that the overall threat has reduced, but that it has diversified.”

For the UK, the specifics of the latest threat appear to focus around a British-Pakistani militant from the Jhelum province of Punjab named Abdul Jabbar. Allegedly killed during a drone strike in Waziristan which also killed top Al Qaeda leader Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, Jabbar had apparently been put forwards in July as the leader of a group dubbed “Islamic Army of Great Britain” that was tasked with planning a Mumbai-style attack in the United Kingdom. While British officials were keen to downplay the state of readiness of the plot (and some Pakistani officials rubbished Jabbar’s existence), the BBC’s flagship Newsnight program claimed that “senior security sources” in Pakistan had revealed to them that Jabbar was a long-time jihadist who had featured in previous investigations.

Jabbar, according to the BBC, was named in a document provided to security sources by Mohammed Junaid Babar, the American-Pakistani “supergrass” who was arrested in April 2004 and who provided detailed testimony about a broad network of British plotters. Babar’s testimony revealed that Jabbar was from East London and that around the time of September 11, 2001, he and his brother had gone to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. Following the fall of Kabul, the two men moved to Pakistan where they connected with infamous British jihadist Omar Saeed Sheikh who helped them get to training camps in Kashmir. Sheikh is currently on Pakistani death row having been found guilty of the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Jabbar was also believed to be close to Omar Khyam, the leader of a cell of British Muslims who were convicted for plotting to carry out a large explosion using a fertilizer based bomb. This is the second time in recent months that this cell has been in the news: in July, following the discovery of an Al Qaeda connected cell in Oslo, recent passport photographs were discovered of Adam Ibrahim, the brother of another of the men convicted for the fertilizer bomb plot. Another associate of this cell, Kazi Rahman, is currently incarcerated having attempted to buy Uzi submachine guns and rocket propelled grenade launchers off undercover agents in the UK.

It is not entirely clear, however, that this is the same Jabbar. While Babar’s testimony indicates that Jabbar is from East London, reports in the Times newspaper suggested that he was in fact from northwest England. Another report from a Pakistani official cited in the Guardian newspaper suggested that Jabbar had only arrived in Waziristan in 2009 with his brother and was being monitored by British sigint intelligence agency GCHQ. Details remain unclear, but nevertheless, there has been a noticeable increase in training and preparation in the UK for the eventuality of an armed assault on a British city. British police have taken to training alongside the Special Air Service (SAS), the UK’s elite commando unit, and are being given heavier weaponry. The threat, as former Security Minister Lord West put it to the BBC, is that “these people like the Mumbai terrorists are a bit like soldiers, they do fire and support, move forward, all they want to do is kill as many people as possible.”

Britons are not the only European’s of concern who are running around Waziristan. German security services continue to monitor regular flows of individuals back and forth from Pakistan, with a recent senior security source stating that in the past 10 months some 40-50 individuals have gone to train, and overall at least 70 fighters had done this for sure. Approximately a third of this (25 or so) were currently back in Germany part of a larger pool of some 1,000 individuals of concern. The current threat appears to have emanated from a cell linked to a group of some 11 young men and women from Hamburg who used to frequent the now-closed Taiba Mosque – previously the spiritual home to some of the September 11 plotters. In early 2009, something appears to have driven the community from talk into action and in various groups they started to make their way to Waziristan.

Not all of them made it, and some were amongst the 26 “potentially violent Islamists” that German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) head Jörg Ziercke stated his forces had prevented from leaving the country to fight since early 2009. Others instead ended up being killed by Predator strikes, likely in part as a result of information obtained from captured members Rami Makanesi and Ahmed Sidiqui. A German-Syrian in his late 30s, Makanesi was captured by Pakistani forces while attempting to reach a hospital dressed in a burka. He is apparently now back in Germany providing information in exchange for a lightened sentence. Ahmed Sidiqui, a German-Afghan, was instead caught in July by American forces in Kabul who have been quizzing him in detention.

It is from these men that it is believed much of the information about the current Mumbai-style attack has come. According to reports in the press, Ahmed Sidiqui claimed that during a “fireside chat” with top Al Qaeda commander Ilyas Kashmiri, the Al Qaeda leader boasted of already having advance cells in place in Britain and Germany. Other reports suggested it was in fact al-Quso who was talking about this plot. Supplementing its own information with details garnered from the captured Germans and sigint from Britain’s GCHQ, the U.S. launched a sustained series of Predator strikes in September and early October this year which appear to have staved on any imminent attack.

British and German authorities have remained calm in reaction to this elevated threat level – something that stands in contrast to their French counterparts who have repeatedly spoken of their concerns on public airwaves. In early September both the Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux, and domestic intelligence head, Bernard Squarcini, separately spoke of the “all the red lights” flashing. The threat was believed to be coming from North Africa with intelligence passed along from Algerian sources that a female suicide bomber was apparently on her way to Paris. She never materialized, but at the same time, French forces asked their Italian counterparts to pick up Ryad Hannouni, a 28 year-old French-Algerian veteran of the Afghan conflict believed to be involved in a network sending fighters to South Asia and whom they had heard was returning to Europe via Italy.

Assessing he was not an immediate threat, Italian security followed Hannouni for a few days before arresting him in Naples on September 3rd. Once arrested, they discovered a kit to make explosives, as well as an address book and mobile phone. This wealth of information led, a month later, to a series of twelve arrests in Marseille and Avignon in France which turned up ammunition, an AK-47 machine gun and a pump action shotgun. Hannouni is currently awaiting extradition to France.

Even with these arrests, however, the immediate threat to France does not seem to have gone away. On October 18th, Interior Minister Hortefeux went on the airwaves to announce that “a few hours, a few days ago, [we received] a new message, from the Saudi [intelligence] services, indicating to us that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was certainly active.” The threat was apparently directed at “the European continent and France in particular.” It seems likely that this information came from the same source that provided the Saudi’s with detailed knowledge of the parcel bombs en route to Chicago from Yemen.

Ten days after Hortefeux launched this alert, a new recording emerged on the forums and Al Jazeera in which Osama bin Laden threatened France in particular, highlighting France’s involvement in Afghanistan and criticizing the decision to ban the veil in public places. As he put it, “If you deemed it right to ban women from wearing the hijab, then should it not be our right to expel your invading men by striking their necks?” He also seemed to provide a direct link between France’s actions and the move by North African affiliate Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to kidnap a group of French citizens in Niger. All of which highlighted the very real threat from France’s former colonial backyard that continues to be high on the list of threat for French policymakers.

The drumbeat of terror in Europe goes on: while in the United States, Ashburn, VA citizen Farooque Ahmed was casing metrorail stations in the Washington area for individuals he believed to be Al Qaeda, the actual network continues to keep Europe firmly in its crosshairs.

 

A new post for Free Rad!cals returning to the European terrorism theme. This one opening up a bit more on the threat that is apparently plaguing France at the moment. Multifaceted and complex, it will be interesting to see if it finally develops into an actual attack or not.

Filed under: Europe, Radicalisation, Terrorism

All of Europe is at an elevated terrorism alert level. Aside from ongoing separatist threats from traditional ETA and IRA groups, Greek left-wingers and various other small-time dissident groups, the biggest threat has been a spike in threats emanating from al-Qaeda or affiliated networks. Most European governments have chosen to respond to this threat with something of a moderated tone – the British government continues to quietly counter terrorism, while the Germans have admitted the problem is serious, but nonetheless have maintained a moderated tone. The exception to this would be the French, whose Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux (whose name appropriately enough contains the word “fires”) has repeatedly taken to the airwaves to shout about the imminent threat to the French mainland.

There is no doubt that the French Minister has good reason to be concerned: Osama bin Laden picked France out for particular vitriol in his last cassette; AQIM has been actively kidnapping Frenchmen wandering around North Africa; and friendly intelligence services like the Saudis and the Algerians have been passing on alarming bits of intelligence pointing to direct threats to the country.

The French have responded to this with an active clamp down on networks in their country. In September, flares went up when Algerian intelligence told them a female suicide bomber was heading their way leading to a substantial beefing up of security at major tourist attractions. In October, they asked the Italians to pick up Riad Hannouni, a returnee from the Afghan conflict who was found in Naples with bomb making information on him. Tracking phone numbers and information on his laptop, a group of 12 were arrested in Avignon, Bordeaux and Marseille. It was not clear if they all were linked to Hannouni, but among their belongings were found a pump action shotgun, an AK-47 and ammunition.

On Monday and Tuesday of this week a new group of five was picked up in central Paris and at Roissy airport. Two men were arriving from Egypt had apparently come directly from the Afghan-Pakistan region. According to a press conference given by the Interior Minister, at least one of the men (apparently a woman was also amongst those picked up) was involved in a plot to kill the head of the Paris main mosque, Dalil Boubakeur. One of them was also prepared to die in the conduct of his action.

In a hint as to why the French are quite so alarmed by this, Mr. Hortefeux said, the plot to kill the Imam was “taken all the more seriously because the wave of attacks that hit our country in 1995 began with the killing of imam Saraoui from the mosque on the rue Myrrha.”

This statement is particularly worth noting as it shows the level of concern in France remains elevated. It also suggests that their previously overconfident attitude regarding the effectiveness of their counter-terror strategy was perhaps premature.

France was known for watching networks and threatening them quietly if they stepped over the line. They would try some “Prevent” type measures, but broadly they saw that a more robust approach was the more effective answer. I recall a friend telling me about a high level French participant to a conference on Prevent sneering at the whole experience, saying something along the lines of: “Prevent is for p****s.”

The French approach has been oddly progressive and draconian in similar measure: on the one hand Sarkozy pushes affirmative action, while on the other he bans the veil. When it comes to countering terrorism, they warn people off if they think they are veering down the wrong path, presumably to save them the trouble of having to chase them later, while on the other hand they come down hard onAdelene Hicheur, the Algerian-French scientist who a year later has yet to be charged. The evidence against Hicheur was always a bit odd – he appears to have been in contact with AQIM online and may have been passing them money, but at the same time he did not seem to have actually done any terrorist planning. A year later he is still in jail under French legislation that allows judges to hold people without charges for some time, while colleagues on the outside continue to plead his innocence.

But having said all this, the French have had a very successful counter-terror experience more broadly. It has been since 1996 with the GIA campaign that they have managed to keep Islamist terrorism away from the homeland. Maybe shouting and clamping down does work.

Another post in my latest series for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, notes from my trip to China’s west. Looking at these pictures again remind me what a specular trip it was. Maybe a couple more pieces along these lines on the way.

Notes on the Silk Road: Tashkorgan

By Raffaello Pantucci – 4 November 2010 9:03AM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Photos by Sue Anne Tay, a freelance photographer in Shanghai; see more of her work at Shanghai Street Stories.

Hiring a taxi in Kashgar, we kept going first to the spectacular Karakul Lake and then on to Tashkorgan, the last city before the Pakistani border. On the Karakoram Highway, we passed through Kyrgyz villages and drove adjacent to the Tajikistan border. Tashkorgan itself is a majority Tajik city (according to 1995 figures, the latest I could find, the population is less that 30,000; 84% are Tajik) which is a very strange experience for a European in China, as the population look more Eastern European than anything else.

The city itself is little more than a town square with a few roads running off it. At the northeast corner is something called the ‘Stone Fort’, which is exactly what it sounds like (since returning, I have read that Tashkorgan is a rough approximation of the Uighur word for ‘stone fort’). The fort is mostly rubble these days, but from the ramparts you can see clearly in both directions down the pass and it is easy to appreciate how rulers of old would have appreciated its strategic value.

At the gate, a group of four Tajik girls entertained visitors and were far more interested in practicing their Mandarin with a group of Han Chinese tourists than any Westerners.

Beyond the fort, there is not much to do in the city, and it is used simply as a staging point before the taking on the final part of the Chinese side of the Karakoram Highway to the Kunjerab Pass, where the line of demarcation between China and Pakistan lies. With a spectacular view in either direction, the border is at around 4700m elevation.

Before you enter the Tashkorgan nature reserve which takes you out there, you have to report to a PLA base in Tashkorgan where you hand over travel documents and a small fee. From there it is an almost two-hour car ride across a desolate moonscape environment dotted with small communities, to the border itself.

Guarding the border was an 18-year old soldier from inner China who was desperately trying to keep the Chinese tourists from wandering too far into Pakistan. They asked to take pictures with him, reassuring him it was fine as ‘no-one was looking’. On the Pakistani side, some buildings in the distance appeared to offer signs of life, but no soldiers came out to greet or scare people away.

Aside from the spectacular views, the roads are the most interesting thing. The road across the border stops rather abruptly when it gets to the actual line of demarcation, transforming from a well-tarmaced Chinese highway into a rather grueling Pakistani version. A Pakistani businessman we met in Kashgar complained to us about the state of the roads in his home country, pointing out that recent floods had completely cut off many of the roads and one was now obliged to make part of the journey by boat. On the Chinese side, the roads are clean and new; occasional wandering herds of cattle, sheep or camels and tired truckers are the main threat.