Archive for November, 2011

An article for Prospect, a British political magazine, looking at the phenomenon of the growing diffusion of power in China. Not a subject I have done a huge amount about, and is really an off-shoot of other work, but it is a fact that I have encountered in China and that I find increasingly interesting and relevant. The picture, btw, is of Beijing and the building on the far right is the new CCTV building – CCTV being the Chinese national television channel.

Can China’s Centre Hold?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI

25th November 2011  —  Issue 189 Free entry

As regions such as Xinjiang and Guangdong get richer and more powerful, it may be harder to govern from Beijing

Next year, China’s leadership changes. But as Chinese scholars, experts and officials are constantly reminding me, we should not expect any sudden or major shift in government policy. The rigid structure of Chinese government means that policy decisions are locked into place before leaders get a chance to shape them. And former leaders retain positions of influence and power behind the scenes.

Xi Jinping will likely become the international face of the Communist party, but Hu Jintao will, like his predecessors, retain a powerful position within the Chinese system. World leaders will find themselves dealing with a new character, though, as a Shanghai-based scholar told me: “leaders are not that important in foreign policy formation.”

Beneath this smooth exterior, however, there are fierce debates within the party about new “interest groups” in the system. This is shorthand for the growing fractionalisation in Chinese policymaking, a result of an increasing diffusion of power throughout the country. On the face of it, China remains a one-party state ruled by a central Politburo Standing Committee of nine men, but in reality an increasing number of actors influence the decision-making process.

Understanding the different roles these actors play is a parlour game among China watchers, but the trend is undeniably important. In a report late last year, entitled Inside the growth engine: a guide to China’s regions, provinces and cities, British bank HSBC advised: “anyone hoping to conclude a business deal in China…don’t assume you only have to deal with decision-makers in Beijing.”

A few months after the report came out, I met a local business representative from a European company in China. He described business in Shanghai and nearby provinces where his company had operations as typically opaque: what happens on the ground often differs substantially from the official line issued in Beijing. As the old Chinese saying goes: “the hills are high and the Emperor is far away.”

The regions’ newfound power is not all that surprising. China’s growth, after all, is mostly generated in a few coastal provinces. Guangdong, the nation’s powerhouse, accounts for over ten per cent of GDP and almost 30 per cent of the country’s exports (according to 2010 and 2009 figures respectively). This gives the regional governor a certain amount of power both domestically and on the international stage.

In October last year, Guangdong Governor Huang Huahua made a trip through Egypt, Israel and India in which he signed deals worth $9.12 billion and was hosted like a visiting state leader. During the trip he met with Israeli President Shimon Peres who “spoke highly of Guangdong’s energetic economy,” according to the official press release, and the two discussed ways that Israel and Guangdong could cooperate better on high technology development.

In some cases, provinces seem to be resisting central rule. On a trip to the Xinjiang province in China’s far west last year, a local guide told me how weak the current leadership in Beijing was and how the then Xinjiang Communist Party chief Wang Lequan would refuse to pay money earned in resource-rich Xinjiang to Beijing. I have been unable to confirm the details independently, but they resonate with a strong sense of independence from the center I found in the province. In a separate instance, a foreign researcher friend told me how Beijing policymakers had taken an interest in a project they were working on, which provided insights into the regional government in Yunnan province capital Kunming—they were grateful for insights on what was happening in the southern province.

State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are also an increasingly powerful counterweight to the central government. They control about a third of total enterprise assets in China. The largest are under the direction of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC)—a body the Chinese government established in 2003 to try to rein in the SOEs, which accounted collectively for about 60 per cent of GDP in 2009. Usually run by senior Communist party members, the sheer size of the SOEs gives their leaders disproportionate importance and in some cases seems to put them beyond state control.

Liu Zhenya is a particularly well-placed SOE head: he is CEO of China’s State Grid Corporation, the world’s largest utility company, ranked 7th in Fortune’s list of the top 500 global corporations. Having worked his way up through Shandong’s electricity industry, Liu turned the power companies into conglomerates managing billions in assets. During his time as head of Shandong Electric Power, he diversified the company’s portfolio into finance and securities, IT, business travel, real estate, culture and a local football team.

When State Grid took the same approach outside China, its attempts to move into copper mining in Chile were blocked. According to company insiders quoted in the Financial Times, it was Chinese regulators who blocked the deal, saying that State Grid was not a mining company. Characterised in the Chinese press as a “Frankenstein” company, State Grid has become almost a state within a state. Fleets of limousines shuttle executives around high-end compounds where they dine at private restaurants and consider the fates of their one-and-a-half million staff.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), meanwhile, has also emerged as a strong force on the global stage. As well as rhetorical sparring with the United States, it has started to assert itself along China’s sea borders with its south east Asian neighbours, much to their and others’ concern. An academic from the Party School suggested that the PLA’s assertiveness in recent years stems from a bargain they made with political leaders under Deng Xiaoping.

According to the Party School professor, when Deng was pushing his economic reforms through in the 1980s and 1990s, he asked the military to accept tighter budgets while the party focused on the economy. Now that the economy has picked up, the PLA is having its moment in the sun and flexing its muscles. When former US defence secretary Robert Gates visited China in January this year, the PLA Air Force showed off their new stealth fighter jet, in an apparent display of one-upmanship. It put Hu Jintao in an awkward position: he was apparently as surprised as his American guests when the subject came up in a meeting.

The key lesson here is that nine men in Beijing are increasingly finding the current political system difficult to control. The booming economy has brought prosperity to China, but it has also meant that there are more powerful actors in the country than before. Without the checks and balances that a free press or a more open political system would provide, it is difficult to keep track of them. Although the internet could (and in some limited cases does) fill this gap, strict government controls mean that it is not a completely reliable watchdog. Now the Politburo Standing Committee finds itself struggling to balance an ever more complex set of power networks around the country, as it tries to keep control at the centre.

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Latest article for Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, looking at the recent banning in the UK of another of al Muhajiroun subsidiary. Goes into some detail about other recent events in Britain’s jihadist scene which of course my forthcoming book will go on about more. I should point out that in the actual publication they got my title wrong.

Muslims Against Crusades Banned in Latest Episode of the UK Jihad

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 43
November 23, 2011 02:12 PM Age: 1 days

Anjem Choudary

In a move aimed at preempting planned protests to disrupt annual Remembrance Day celebrations on November 11, British Home Secretary Theresa May proscribed the British organization Muslims Against Crusades (MAC) on November 9. Declaring that MAC was “simply another name for an organization already proscribed,” she declared that membership or support for the organization would henceforth be “a criminal offense.” [1]

Led by individuals linked to formerly banned group al-Muhajiroun and its offshoots Islam4UK, al-Ghurabaa (“The Strangers”) and The Saved Sect, MAC emerged in the wake of a decision in January 2010 to proscribe al-Muhajiroun and Islam4UK (see Terrorism Monitor, January 21, 2010). Like its predecessors, MAC established a slick English-language website and started to organize vocal and often aggressive protests. Most infamously last year during the Remembrance Day celebrations, a group of 20 members of the group gathered in central London to chant during the commemorative minute’s silence and burn poppies worn by people in the UK during the Remembrance Day period. One member of the group, Emdadur Choudhury, who burned poppies and chanted “British soldiers burn in Hell!” during the two-minutes of silence observed on November 11, was convicted and fined £50 under the Public Order Act for causing “harassment, harm or distress” (BBC, March 7). The British-born Choudhury, who collects £792 per month in state benefits, vowed not to pay the fine, announcing: “I don’t have any respect for British soldiers, and if they lose a limb or two in Afghanistan then they deserve it. You expect me to feel sorry for them? Of course I don’t” (Daily Mail, March 8).

The announcement that MAC was going to hold a similar protest this year under the banner “Hell for Heroes” was made in late October when the group requested a police permit to hold the demonstration (Daily Mail, October 31). A press release published at the time announced that the intended protest was meant to “poignantly remember the victims of [British] military intervention.” [2] In response, anti-Islamist protest groups like the English Defence League (EDL) announced competing protest marches.

All this came in the wake of a demonstration by the group against Conservative Member of Parliament Mike Freer. Prior to the event’s announcement, the group published a flyer on its website in which it threatened Mr. Freer and referred to a previous incident in which East London student Roshonara Choudhry stabbed MP Steven Timms for his support of the Iraq War after claiming to have watched videos by the late American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki (see Terrorism Monitor, December 2, 2010). While there is no public evidence that Choudhry was linked to MAC or any of the other al-Muhajiroun successors, members linked to this network have shown up at protests during her court appearances and in a letter purportedly sent from Choudhry in prison, she acknowledges their support. [3] The campaign against Freer was launched after his role in obstructing the entrance into the UK of Palestinian activist Shaykh Raed Salah earlier this year was made public. Members of the MAC followed up their online threats by making an appearance at a constituency meeting Freer was holding at the North Finchley Mosque on October 28, disrupting events and, according to Freer, calling the openly gay MP a “Jewish homosexual pig” (Press Association, October 31).

The group was unfazed by the ban, with MAC leader Anjem Choudary declaring that it was a “bid by the government to cover up the truth” (Guardian, November 10). On his twitter feed he was even more confrontational, declaring, “a ban will never stop Islam and the Muslims. We will not rest until the flag of Islam flies high over Downing Street. This is a victory for us!” [4] A day or so after the ban, Choudary’s own home was raided as part of a police operation and he declared defiantly that “there is nothing like a ban and raid from the enemies of Islam and Muslims to increase the zeal with which one works to establish the Shari’ah!” [5]

The news of the ban came a week before it was revealed that a pair of Britons linked to the network of violent extremists that has emerged from al-Muhajiroun’s broader community were killed by drone strike in Pakistan. Though they appear to have been killed some three months ago, the news of the deaths of Ibrahim Adam and Mohammed Azmir Khan was only made public now due to confirmation by the men’s families in the UK (AFP, November 18). Both men were members of families that had produced a number of radicals, including Anthony Garcia (Adam’s brother, who is in a British jail for his role in an attempt to blow up a UK shopping mall in 2004 and who attended a training camp in Waziristan alongside some of the July 7, 2005 London bombers) and Mohammed Jabar Ahmed (Mohammed Azmir Khan’s brother, killed by a drone strike on September 8 last year after allegedly claiming at a public meeting of extremists in North Waziristan that he was going to lead a strike on the UK) (Daily Telegraph, November 18). Both pairs of brothers were known to have attended some al-Muhajiroun meetings in the UK and were identified by an American informant within al-Muhajiroun’s Lahore office.

It is unlikely this ban will be the last we hear of al-Muhajiroun’s successors. In the past the organization has simply reformed under a new name, established a new website and continued as before. However, the group’s capacity to attract the same sort of attention as in the past has diminished and it is roundly condemned by all parts of British Muslim society. Its meetings are poorly attended and its public protests attract limited numbers. It has in some ways been revitalized as a number of prominent members were released from prison – as radical as when they went in and are now respected in some eyes for having been “bloodied.” Yet it is unclear whether terrorist networks based abroad rely as much on the group’s networks as they did in the past. [6] Nevertheless, the group continues to retain a hard core and continues to attract some new young followers, keeping the radical narrative in the UK alive and showing that there remains an appetite for jihadist ideas amongst some elements of British youth.


Notes:

1. http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/media-centre/news/mac-proscription.

2. The MAC website is now blocked, a copy of the statement can be found here:http://wwwbarkingspider.blogspot.com/2010/11/muslims-against-crusades-uaf-scum-plan.html

3. http://www.muslimprisoners.com/roshanarachoudhary-letter-1.html.

4. http://www.twitter.com/anjemchoudary, November 10, 2011.

5. http://www.twitter.com/anjemchoudary, November 12, 2011.

6. For a complete overview of the group’s links to terrorism, see Raffaello Pantucci, “The Tottenham Ayatollah and the Hook Handed Cleric: An examination of all their jihadi children,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 33(3), March 2010, pp. 226-245.

Another piece to emerge from our recent travels, it is primarily in response to Joshua Foust’s post that reacted to our big piece for Jamestown on Kyrgyzstan. Many thanks to Joshua for agreeing to post it on Registan.net, a good site for information and comment about Central Asia. Thanks also to the lovely Sue Anne for the picture.

Guest Post: China is the power of the future in Central AsiaPost image for Guest Post: China is the power of the future in Central Asia

by JOSHUA FOUST on 11/22/2011 · 11 COMMENTS

I’ve bee pushing back against the idea, advocated most eloquently by Alexandros Petersen and Rafaello Pantucci, that China will take over the future of Central Asia. This is a response, an argument that China really is the future of Central Asia.

***

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

China has always been a bashful power. Globally, the nation has taken on an ever more important role, but has been very careful to play its cards close to the chest. Rather than become involved in any overt power plays or geopolitical conflicts, it has chosen to quietly accumulate power and move with a view to a long-term trajectory. Typical of this trend is China’s role in Kyrgyzstan, where on our recent visit we observed a nation that while not visibly transformed into a province of China, was clearly somewhat alarmed by the growing influence that its neighbor to the east has on its economy.

This is not to say that China has somehow swept others out of the way to dominate the nation and the region completely. Clearly, Russia remains a dominant cultural force given its long history of occupation, and Russian is the natural lingua franca in Kyrgyzstan, grudgingly accepted even by more nationalist Kyrgyz in the south. However, our capacity to speak Mandarin helped us discover Kyrgyzstan’s burgeoning Chinese speaking community (government officials, businessmen, Chinese language students, Chinese exchange students and even Chinese traders) who helped shaped our understanding of the quiet but growing awareness of China amongst the Kyrgyz.

You have to know where to look.  Russian pop music still conquers the cultural landscape and American food like pizza and burgers is the cuisine of choice for the young and well-heeled in Bishkek.  But, China is increasingly influential where it counts.  Mandarin is the new popular second language: Beijing’s Confucius Institutes hold positions of primacy in some of the country’s universities.  China Aid signs are visible on public buses.  Chinese state-owned enterprises are re-paving key transport arteries across the country, investing in natural resource extraction and are building a refinery in Kara-Balta to break Kyrgyzstan’s energy dependence on Russia.

Perhaps most importantly, China dominates economically, in a way that Turkey, Central Asia’s alternative power of the 1990s never did. One former cabinet level minister called it “economic dependence”. The pending decision to join the Russian Customs Union and the subsequent negative impact this would have on Chinese imports into the country was going to “destroy” regional markets like Kara-Suu, he said. Putting this to a Mandarin-speaking foreign ministry official later in the day, he laughed and said, “what do you expect?” China is the nation’s giant and productive neighbor and it is consequently no surprise it is Kyrgyzstan’s leading trade partner. In 2010, 61% of Kyrgyzstan’s imports come from China, followed by Russia with 17.2%. Because Kyrgyzstan currently lies outside of the Customs Union, Kazakh traders, whose country is already a member, travel to Kyrgyzstan’s bazaars to procure Chinese goods, which are significantly cheaper than if directly imported from China into Kazakhstan.

And none of this is to take into account the foreign observers we met: each one spoke with alarm about rising Chinese power in Kyrgyzstan and the region. In Osh, we were treated to a lengthy exposition of China’s long-term plan to absorb Kyrgyzstan. One rumor we were told by a Kyrgyz professor in Bishkek ran that the Chinese firms that had built the roads in Kyrgyzstan had made them thick enough to be able to withstand the weight of a Chinese tank. Having no tank on hand to test this, we instead went to have a look at the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. The many-storied compound towered over the temporary, low-rise buildings that make up the US Embassy.  Insiders told us that China’s was mostly empty, standing ready for the day when Beijing decided it needed to expand its representation in the country.

China is not comparable to Turkey that shares no borders with Central Asia and many years ago blew its opportunity when it attempted to sweep in as the “agbey” (big brother) to the Turkic people’s of Central Asia. Turkish influence does clearly remain, but China has no such ambitions and is instead focused on developing Kyrgyzstan and other neighboring countries with a view to creating prosperity and stability in its traditionally restive Xinjiang province. Our numerous discussions with officials and analysts in Beijing and Shanghai confirm this focus. That China sees its future role in Central Asia as key to its own domestic development is perhaps the most striking indicator that its influence is serious and long-term, even though it may seem overly cautious to outside observers. China realizes Kyrgyzstan is important to its long-term stability and is able to play a slow game to make sure that it works out in its favor. To disregard this approach as non-existent is shortsighted and risks missing out on understanding the potentially most important recent shift in Eurasian geopolitics.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.

Image: An outpost of the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) responsible for repaving the Southern Transport Corridor highway in Kyrgyzstan from the city of Osh through Sary Tash to the Irkeshtan border with China. Photo by Sue Anne Tay.

A new post for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, touching on my new growing theme of China and her Central Asian periphery. This time a focus on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and its inelastic nature.

The Limits of Regional Cooperation in Asia

By Raffaello Pantucci  Wednesday, November 16, 2011 – 1:59 PM   Share

VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia was unsurprisingly uneventful. While not a “head of state” summit — where traditionally big announcements like the decision to allow new members in would be made — in the lead-up to the meeting there was a flurry of press about a possible enlargement of the group. But aspirant members and current observers India and Pakistan were not made into full members, and Afghanistan was once again not brought any closer into the club. Generally seen by Western observers as a less threatening entity than before, the organization’s inability to move forward on expansion highlights its immaturity and should show outsiders the likely limited role that it will be able to play in post-American Afghanistan.

Initially born as a vehicle through which to resolve long-standing border disputes in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the “Shanghai Five” as it was known (made up of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) formally changed its name in 2001 when it opened up to Uzbekistan and turned into the SCO. Over time, it developed into a forum in which regional players could forge closer links on a variety of issues, including economics, development, infrastructure projects and most recently education.

At the core of its identity, however, remained security concerns, focused on countering what the SCO members describe — in a clear emulation of the Chinese definition of a threat — as “terrorism, separatism and extremism.” Its biannual “Peace Mission” joint counter-terrorism exercises have been the most visible expressions of this focus, offering opportunities for nations to get together and practice operations usually focused on countering an assault by a small force of well-armed terrorists. In January 2004 it established the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and the next year opened its doors to the leaders of India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan, who all attended the annual summit as “observers.” Also present was Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the group agreed to establish the SCO-Afghanistan contact group, “with the purpose of elaborating proposals and recommendations on realization of cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan on issues of mutual interest.” However, since then the Contact Group has done very little, and while further countries have joined the constellation of nations interested in becoming involved in the organization (Belarus and Sri Lanka are now “Dialogue Partners” and Turkey has applied to join this club) no further tangible movement has been made.

Yet it seemed as though this might be changing. Earlier this year, the organization celebrated its ten-year anniversary, and at a high-level conference in Shanghai the question of expansion was brought up repeatedly. However, while Russian participants seemed eager for the organization to allow new members in, the Chinese side seemed hesitant, pushing to deepen the organization’s economic focus and develop its international profile through official connections with other international bodies before expanding it further. This was reflected in the public discourse ahead of the St. Petersburg Summit where Russian officials backed the Afghan bid for upgrading the nation to “observer” status and openly supported Pakistan’s bid for full-membership. Yet nothing happened, and in his official read-out to journalists on his way back from the Summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made absolutely no mention of the possibilities of expansion.

This inaction is somewhat perplexing to outside observers. The organization was fundamentally founded to clarify borders so as to counter a transnational terrorist threat that most would agree has had a regional home in Afghanistan, and yet the SCO has done surprisingly little in direct terms to help the nation. Individual members have given support and money, but the organization itself has not. The idea of membership, or at least “observer” status, would theoretically tie Afghanistan more closely to regional players and bolster the current administration in Kabul. Yet by this same token, admitting Afghanistan to the group would mean taking sides in a conflict whose outcome remains uncertain. No one yet quite understands what the American withdrawal in 2014 will actually look like, and SCO members are unsure whether they want to become too entangled in a nation that has already subdued at least one SCO member in the past (Russia). And atop all of this there is the capacity question: the SCO has no standing forces and controls few direct funds. Consequently, as a diplomat at the Secretariat in Beijing put it to me last year, “what would you have us do?”

Other potential members face different problems: unwilling to take sides, the organization would most likely have to open its doors to both India and Pakistan at the same time — something that would also have the effect of bringing into the organization all the disagreements they share. The question of upgrading Iran is one that has taken something of a back seat of late following President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s failed attempt to be admitted last year. The reason for this blockage seems to be a general desire amongst SCO members to not overtly antagonize the United States. Mongolia would seem to be a relatively natural member, but given the precedent that letting a nation in would set, it continues to be obliged to sit on the sidelines.

And so the question remains: Why, in the run-up to the St. Petersburg Summit, was there such a flurry of interest in possible expansion? One explanation is that Islamabad has for some time been trying to bolster its regional partnerships in an attempt to counter-balance American anger and perceived fickleness. Russia also appears to be behind a lot of talk of expansion. Concerned about the in-roads China is making in its Central Asian periphery, Moscow perhaps hopes that expanding the SCO, something seen as primarily a Chinese vehicle, might stretch it beyond its ability to function. While the SCO may not have done much yet, it has laid the foundations for a more weighty future — a long-term vision that accords with China’s approach to foreign policymaking.

Whatever the case, the end result is that another high-level SCO Summit passed with little tangible forward movement. Seemingly obvious achievements like upgrading Afghanistan or Turkey continue to be avoided, while outside China there is little evidence that the regional powers are willing to invest too much into the SCO. All of which is welcome news to those who worry about the organization becoming a “NATO of the East,” but less positive to those who hope it might be willing to take on a greater role in Afghanistan when the United States makes its move in 2014.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation. His writing can be found at http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.

Another piece on China-Kyrgyzstan, this time for a new outlet within Jamestown Foundation, their China Brief. Lots of on-the-ground detail from my recent trip, with even more to come in the following weeks and months.

China’s Slow Surge in Kyrgyzstan: A View from the Ground

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 21November 11, 2011 02:54 PM Age: 4 hrs
By: Raffaello Pantucci, Alexandros Petersen

Chinese Ambassador Wang Kaiwen with the Kyrgyz Premier

Kyrgyzstan’s recent peaceful presidential elections did not feature China as a campaign issue. For the most part, they focused on domestic issues and where foreign policy seeped in, it was mostly in the positive light that most Kyrgyz see Russia and separately its regional customs union, or perennial whipping boy the U.S. “transit hub” at Manas airport, outside Bishkek. Subsequent to the elections, the winner Mr. Atambaev declared: “In 2014 the United States will have to withdraw its military base from the ‘Manas’ international airport” (www.regnum.ru, November 1). China was not mentioned at all, even though a series of conversations and interviews up and down the country in the weeks prior to the election revealed a strange sense of unease about Kyrgyzstan’s growing dependence on China.

The paradoxical and unfocused nature of this concern was best exemplified in a pair of interviews conducted in Bishkek with a former cabinet-level minister and a young Kyrgyz e-businessman. The former official spoke in concerned terms of Kyrgyzstan’s “economic dependence” on China and the fact that “all small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the country had to deal with China” [1]. The businessman on the other hand saw China as a giant opportunity: one has to “just look at a map” to see how important the country is going to be for Kyrgyzstan [2]. While exact figures are hard to come by, a visit to a number of Kyrgyzstan’s large bazaars in Bishkek, Osh and Jalal-Abad all show high volumes of Chinese goods and, in some, long-term Chinese traders from as far away as Fujian province. While income from the U.S. airbase is important (according to the Congressional Research Service, accounting for some $501.5 million or 5 percent of GDP in 2010) and remittances from Kyrgyz in Russia or Kazakhstan remain a key provider of income in the country; it seems increasingly clear that China is bringing Kyrgyzstan into its economic sphere of influence [3]. The question that seems to bother some Kyrgyz is what the potential implications are in the longer term.

China has taken a three-fold approach to Kyrgyzstan, accompanied by an informal fourth pillar and the overarching umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In the first instance, it has focused on economics and facilitating trade between the two countries, including infrastructure development. Roads linking Kyrgyzstan to China are being redeveloped by Chinese state-owned enterprises like the China Road & Bridge Company (CRBC), that won the tender in 2007 to complete a project partially-funded by China to develop the road from Osh to the Irkeshtam Pass with China [4]. Due to be completed next year, a drive along it in September confirmed this schedule was being kept with the road almost completed. In other instances, the Chinese government has offered development in exchange for local mining concessions (www.24.kg, August 26). A practice emulated at a more local level by smaller Chinese mining firms south of Jalal-Abad (Reuters, September 21). The question of a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan train line continues to go unresolved, with skeptical observers interviewed in Bishkek pointing out that similar Chinese projects elsewhere overcame their difficulties rapidly, while officials tell the press that difficulties are focused on the question of how to rationalize the different gauges that would need to be deployed (AKI Press, October 12).

In parallel to this infrastructure development and trade encouragement, China has started to make a soft-power push in the region. This has come in the form of establishing a pair of Confucius Institutes in Bishkek with subsidiary branches in Osh and Jalal-Abad. Part of the international network of Confucius Institutes, they are focused on teaching Chinese language to young Kyrgyz, using Kyrgyz-Chinese text books and leveraging faculty and administrators brought in on two-year cycles from partners Xinjiang University and Xinjiang Normal University. Based on a recent count by a teacher at a university in Bishkek, the authors were told the Confucius Institutes and teaching stations had somewhere in the region of 4,000 students in total at every level across the country—a number that pales in comparison to the number of young Kyrgyz able to speak Russian or English. This large and growing figure probably reflects the opportunities that young Kyrgyz see in China or with Chinese firms in Kyrgyzstan. While the Confucian Institutes focus on language learning to prepare students to use Chinese in a business setting, teachers appear eager to stimulate their students’ interest in other aspects of China’s culture and history giving informal classes in tai chi, paper cutting and Chinese dressmaking.

There are other aspects to China’s cultural influence in the region. In early 2009, the Kyrgyz government accepted a Chinese offer of 20,000 television receivers for individual homes in the Batken Oblast in southern Kyrgyzstan. Given the mountains and distance between Bishkek and certain isolated southern areas, locals were using antiquated receivers for their televisions and consequently getting news from Uzbekistan that painted the Bishkek leadership in a bad light. According to a senior foreign ministry official spoken to in Bishkek, part of the exchange that the Chinese government extracted for the receivers was to allow CCTV Russian to be broadcast directly into the country [5]. In addition to this, however, locals in Osh report they are able to receive Xinjiang Television on their receivers without cable packages and are often surprised to find Kyrgyz language broadcasts included in the daily programming [6]. At a more practical level, the Chinese government has donated Yaxing buses and tractors for Kyrgyz farmers to use (Xinhua, July 30) [7]. In June 2011, the Chinese Ambassador announced a donation of some $14.3 million to Kyrgyzstan to fix roads, power stations, and to support the construction of the railroad in the country (AKI Press, June 20).

The third pillar of Chinese interests in the country is far more opaque: China’s security interests in Kyrgyzstan. Primarily focused on security threats directly linked with Uighur terrorist networks in China, the Chinese government has focused these relations at a very secretive and direct level and little is known publicly about how China has conducted its relations in this field. Stories and rumors abound of China seeking extradition of specific Uighurs (IRIN News, January 29, 2004). In one case recounted to the authors by a Kyrgyz official focused on religious affairs, at the Chinese government request, police in Bishkek aggressively suppressed a protest by Falun Gong supporters outside the Chinese Embassy. It was unclear if this was before or after the Kyrgyz court decision to revoke Falun Gong’s registration in the country (Associated Press, February 26, 2005).

A fourth informal pillar also exists to Chinese-Kyrgyz relations: the growing community of cross-border traders and the smaller local Chinese SMEs that are focused on developing interests in Kyrgyzstan. From a Chinese perspective, this community is one that needs to be assisted occasionally, such as when the Chinese government arranged buses and airplanes to evacuate Chinese citizens caught up during the riots in southern Kyrgyzstan last year (Xinhua, June 17, 2010). Chinese academics spoken to in Shanghai have expressed some concern about the number of Hizb ut Tahrir members amongst this community of traders, but this does not seem a live concern on the ground where there is little evidence of extreme religiosity amongst the Chinese traders found in Osh, Jalal-Abad or Kara-Suu bazaars. Chinese SMEs are focused in the mining industry and also have invested in a cement factory in Kyzyl-Kyia. In some cases, these firms have encountered local problems with accusations of poisoning and environmental despoliation, or with local groups expressing anger at outsiders coming in and taking what they see as their natural wealth. According to numerous local officials and foreign observers, however, this anger is not directed specifically at Chinese firms, but is a more general rage against all outside investors in the extractive industries [8].

Overlaying China’s bilateral relationship is its regional multilateral framework, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). For Kyrgyzstan, the SCO is primarily an international opportunity. Though almost universally regarded by ordinary Kyrgyz and foreign ministry officials alike as an exclusively Chinese vehicle, it is cautiously welcomed as a balance against Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Moscow-led regional Customs Union that is actively courting Bishkek [9]. That said, Kyrgyz spoken to are quick to note that the SCO very loudly did nothing when political violence and ethnic strife rocked their country in 2010 (Xinhua, June 21, 2010). Its supposedly bringing together of China, Russia and the Central Asian states (except for Turkmenistan) to jointly combat the “three evils” of separatism, terrorism and extremism rings hollow when residents of Osh look at their half-empty, burnt out market. In interviews, Kyrgyz inside and outside the government wondered why China does not assert itself more politically through the SCO, though few would welcome such an eventuality [10].

Perhaps most important for a small state like Kyrgyzstan is the regular opportunity the SCO provides for dialogue on a range of issues with neighboring Central Asian states, especially Uzbekistan [11]. With a closed border and the ever-present fear of perceived bullying from Tashkent, the SCO’s regular head-of-state, ministerial and expert-level meetings provide a venue in which to reduce tensions. Having been beaten by Pakistan for the rotating seat on the UN Security Council, Bishkek will welcome the international attention it receives as the SCO chair and the host of its summit in 2013 (24.kg, June 16).

The real test for the SCO will come once Western forces begin to withdraw in earnest from Afghanistan and the region. The year 2014 is bandied about in Kyrgyz political discourse as the moment that Kyrgyzstan will be abandoned to the great powers of the region or the restitution of Kyrgyz sovereignty once the United States leaves the Manas airbase (Associated Press, November 1). It is an open question what role the SCO could play in a post-Afghan withdrawal environment with officials, academics and foreign observers met in Beijing and Bishkek concluding the SCO was not going to do much [12]. Aside from Russia’s historical baggage with Afghanistan and a general lack of capacity from the Central Asian SCO members, a key reason behind this lack of action is a Chinese unwillingness to become too visibly involved in either local political disputes or larger geopolitical games.

For Kyrgyzstan, this contributes to a sense of uncertainty, bordering on foreboding, about China’s presence in the country and the region. With China on the other hand, it is not clear what the nation wants or has the capability to do in Afghanistan, though its larger regional strategy is clearer. In the medium and longer-term the priority for China in Central Asia remains ensuring stability and development—something that is going to require more effort with Kyrgyzstan specifically given the nation’s poverty and lack of natural resources. Typical of Beijing’s cautious approach to international relations globally, China probably will continue to increase its presence and influence slowly. This will help develop the region abutting China’s restive western province Xinjiang (both in economic terms locally, but also as a transit route for Chinese goods to elsewhere) and hopefully, from a Chinese perspective, increase prosperity there too. This ultimately is the key to understanding Chinese involvement in Central Asia where the priority remains developing the region with a view to helping development in Xinjiang.

For Kyrgyzstan in particular, the main threat and difficulty to China comes in the form of the nation becoming a failed state that provides a shelter for separatist and terrorist networks seeking to launch attacks within China. Currently, it seems China has established strong connections and is willing to provide funding to prevent such groups from developing much capacity in Kyrgyzstan. In terms of becoming involved in fixing ethnic tensions within Kyrgyzstan, China however has expressed little interest in becoming involved, focusing instead on providing aid and reconstruction support when it is useful or requested. Typical of China’s approach to international relations elsewhere, this is all conducted in a quiet manner, something that will likely do little to improve local confidence in Chinese aims. Kyrgyzstan will continue to seek to assert its independence in policymaking by balancing the great powers off each other, but China’s slow surge has an ever-larger impact on the policy agenda even if it is not part of the public discourse.

Notes:

[1] Authors’ interview with former cabinet level minister, Bishkek, October 19, 2011
[2] Authors’ interview, Bishkek, October 19, 2011
[3] Jim Nicols, “Kyrgyzstan: Recent Developments and U.S. Interests,” Congressional Research Service, May 11, 2011
[4] Sebastien Peyrouse, “Economic Aspects of the China-Central Asia Rapprochement,” Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Silk Road Paper, September 2007
[5] Authors’ interview, Bishkek, October 20, 2011
[6] Authors’ interview, Osh, October 25, 2011
[7] Yangzhou Yaxing Motor Coach Company Press Release, September 3, 2009, http://www.yaxingkeche.com.cn/en/News.aspx?id=9e5e7e19-76cc-47e5-8e8b-7d16ab378210
[8] Authors’ interviews, Bishkek and Osh, October 2011
[9] Authors’ interview, Bishkek, October 17, 2011
[10] Authors’ interviews, Bishkek, October 2011
[11] Authors’ interviews with foreign political observers, Bishkek and Osh, October 2011
[12] Authors’ interviews, Bishkek and Beijing, October 2011

Another article on the theme of Central Asia after my trip there. This one is for the Washington Times, a DC newspaper I used to write for relatively regularly (on Tony Blair’s election victory; Angela Merkel’s; and Gordon Brown’s takeover). Also, my most recent journal article on terrorism was used in another newspaper story, this time for Der Spiegel for those who can read German.

PANTUCCI & PETERSEN: Uncertain times for Afghan neighbors

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

OSH, KYRGYZSTAN.

There is a sense in Kyrgyzstan that the United States is on its way out. It is a worrying prospect when one considers that almost a fifth of its gross domestic product comes from the U.S. “transit hub” for Afghanistan at Manas Airport, outside the capital, Bishkek. Against this backdrop, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a visit to neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan last month to highlight how America has a strategy for the region, post-Afghanistan. Such a strategy is essential to lay out now if the United States does not want to leave a regional vacuum that allows a poor region to fall further into disaffection and economic uncertainty.

Talking with Kyrgyzs and others in Bishkek and Osh, the country’s second-largest city, reveals a strong sense that America’s interests in the region do not extend much further than the 2014 withdrawal date from Afghanistan. As a result, while the United States remains an important actor in the region, it placed third in terms of how “good” people saw relations with it among global powers, behind China and Russia, in a recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI). For Kyrgyzs, Russia is seen as the most popular outside power; residual linguistic and cultural links and a tendency for young men to seek their fortunes in Russia mean that the public is largely accepting of Moscow’s might in the region. Political leaders recognize this. They regularly make pilgrimages to Moscow before and after any election and use their links with Russia as badges of distinction.

But as it was put to us in Bishkek, Russia is an “immature” power that seems to want to simply assert its authority regionally to compensate for a lost empire. This is something that Kyrgyzs notice. They also note with concern their now almost complete economic dependency on China. Officials and analysts in Bishkek darkly allude to Beijing’s potential leverage, though none can point to many examples of it being exerted. In contrast, the United States is seen as a fickle power whose interests rotate around operations in Afghanistan and will fade rapidly once the 2014 deadline passes.

The stage is thus set for a post-withdrawal situation in which the United States leaves a poor region to fall back into instability. Russia will continue to play an important role, but it is China that will fall into the role of being the balancer. It is not a role that China seeks, but one that it will assume by default given the absence of American leadership and the continued Russian tendency to attempt to re-enact previous glories. China is already setting itself up to play this role. Recognizing the importance of having some sort of a cultural footprint, it has established Confucius institutes in four out of five Central Asian states. Its embassy in Bishkek towers over its American counterpart, sitting mostly empty as it leaves room for further expansion of its diplomatic presence.

Semi-official analysts with whom we spoke in Beijing highlighted the importance of stability and development in Central Asia in guaranteeing stability in China’s restive Xinjiang province. This is perhaps the most important signal of China’s future role in the region: If influence in Central Asia is key for Beijing’s domestic concerns, it is likely to grow.

From her visits in the region, Mrs. Clinton’s post-Afghanistan Central Asia strategy seems to be made up of three pillars: direct investment, such as a new General Motors Co. plant in Uzbekistan, regional economic integration, through a new “silk road” of transportation links to South Asia through Afghanistan, and lectures for the region’s autocrats to respect human rights. This vision is a welcome indicator of an American path, but it is one to which Washington will have to demonstrate commitment, particularly because, compared with China, the U.S. is rather thin on the ground. Unless that happens, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 could hand China the unwanted role of alternative to Russia in the region.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, and Alexandros Petersen is author of “The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West” (Praeger, 2011).

A new article on Kyrgyzstan based on my recent trip out there that was part of the bigger project I have mentioned in previous posts. I actually used to write for The National Interest more regularly (here is a previous piece on Europe), but it has been a while.

 

The National Interest

In the midst of a relatively calm election season, we have been travelling to Kyrgyzstan’s cities, villages and border posts to track the rise of China in Central Asia. The atmosphere around this election is less tense than in previous years, when governments have been ousted by street revolutions and transfers of power have yielded ethnic violence. But Kyrgyzstan’s new government will not alone decide the country’s fate.

Kyrgyzstan is a place between powers, and not just geographically. This is reflected in Jalal-Abad University, located in the country’s third-largest city, where respective wings of the central administrative buildings are run by the U.S. embassy-sponsored American Center and a Chinese government-funded Confucius Center subsidiary. In between sit Kyrgyz administrators.

The American Center provides the students with language courses, access to the Internet (only twenty-five minutes at a time) and a selection of educational movies to help with English (including Pulp Fiction, which struck us as maybe not the best English to be learning). In the Chinese wing, a pair of dedicated teachers provides various language courses for about 60 students. The best students get to go on paid trips to China. A bright display at the back of one of the classrooms shows groups of them in Xian, Shanghai and Urumqi.

Behind all this lies the reality that the lingua franca in Kyrgyzstan is Russian. The Chinese teacher used it to translate phrases. The English teacher in the American Center was Russian. Stuck between mountain ranges and great powers, Kyrgyzstan is a nation defined and dominated by what surrounds it.

This is most obvious in the economics, where the nation is now almost completely dependent on the reexport of cheap Chinese goods. A further 20 percent of GDP is generated in fees from the American “transit center” outside the capital Bishkek, with much of the rest coming from remittances from Kyrgyz men working menial jobs in Russia. Apart from charming handicrafts (and these are increasingly being replaced by Chinese-made look-alikes), the country itself produces very little.

This dependency worries the leadership. Some have proven adept at playing the great powers off each other, but others, like the former cabinet-level minister we met, are deeply concerned about where this leaves their nation. As one foreign observer based in the south of the country put it, “the country has not been allowed to develop by itself.”

But the Kyrgyzstan traveler can easily see why it has continued to be dominated by those around it. A picturesque land of nomads, it was forced through a period of industrialization by the Soviets that left them the inherited infrastructure they still depend on today. But it is falling apart, and foreign-aid agencies are only really interested in helping alleviate poverty. Into this steps China, a neighboring power eager to see the country stable and prosperous to provide knock-on stability in its underdeveloped Xinjiang province. It builds new roads, offers refining facilities to reduce dependence on foreign energy imports and is planning a railway project to connect the country to the broader region. It dispatches groups of teachers from Xinjiang universities to help teach Mandarin to young Kyrgyz and has even distributed free television receivers to homes across the south of the country.

This serves China’s interests. But it also offers opportunities for Kyrgyz who can “look at a map,” as one young Bishkek businessman put it. Being in the middle means you can serve as a transit point. This businessman coordinates shipments from Dubai and Guangzhou, bringing electronics to Bishkek for reexport to the Russian market. Like impatient businessmen everywhere, he played with his phone throughout our conversation, saying “next question” as he tired of subjects. But his success demonstrates what is possible when you are stuck in between. With an advanced degree and a smattering of Chinese and fluent English and Russian, he would have been the perfect candidate to administrate the Jalal-Abad University; instead, he focuses on profit. Once he contributed articles to English-language publications, but that policy stuff is not for him anymore, he said.

For good or ill, the future of a small Central Asian state such as Kyrgyzstan will be shaped not by government policy makers. Their power will never match the military; they will never have the economic and cultural clout of global powers with stakes in the region. But Kyrgyzstan’s businessmen, large and small, can turn what seems like dependence into opportunity. This is a lesson for many small countries stuck in between, geographically or otherwise. You may have to play the hand you’re dealt, but you can play it with clever resolve.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West (Praeger, 2011). They are conducting research for a book on China’s role in Central Asia and have a website at www.chinaincentralasia.com [4].

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