Archive for November, 2011

A new post for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog, this time based on some conversations in Beijing about China’s role in Central Asia. As I have mentioned previously, there is going to be an increasing amount on this topic here in aid of a bigger project I am doing with Alexandros. We had also set up this parallel website specific for the project that I would encourage you to visit regularly: http://www.chinaincentralasia.com. In the meantime, a few more posts along these lines in the next few days.

China hasn’t yet grown into its role

By Raffaello Pantucci & Alexandros Petersen – 7 November 2011 9:29AM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social SciencesAlexandros Petersen was a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.

It was a grim, grey Beijing morning as we fought with our taxi driver and traffic to make it to a meeting at one of China’s many official think tanks. We had set up the meeting with the intention of discussing Chinese foreign policy in her western periphery, Central Asia, but were instead asked to present on the pending Western withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Trying to shift things back in our direction, we offered a brief presentation on the view increasingly shared in Western capitals that regional powers and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (the Chinese-instigated regional grouping encompassing nearby Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia) could take on a greater role in ensuring post-withdrawal Afghan stability.

In response, we were told that our perspective was exclusively Western; we needed to see things from an Asian point of view.

According to the analysts and diplomats at the table, China’s influence is based on cooperation, development and mutual interests. China’s ‘soft power’ (a term that is not popular in Beijing) is its ability to let countries develop at their own rate. When China looks to the region, it sees nations that are beset with problems, but ones that China cannot and should not address. Instead, Beijing has constructed the SCO.

The purpose of the SCO is not to supplant the EU, US or Russia, but rather to create a mechanism. We were told our tendency to view the SCO as a ‘NATO of the East’ — a view we pointedly said we did not concur with — was merely a product of a Western bias built on the assumption that some sort of China threat lurks behind every corner. The SCO is young and regionally focused. Afghanistan, they reassured us, was something the SCO had always been concerned about and would address in the future.

So far, it has done very little. In fact, at the last summit the SCO member states were unable to agree on giving Afghanistan observer status. Instead the country continues to languish on the sidelines of an organisation nominally established with a view to stabilising a region that was menaced by trouble spilling over from Afghanistan.

This paradoxical approach seemed evident in other statements we heard about Chinese influence in Central Asia.

China is interested in countering the SCO’s stated ‘three evils’ of separatism, terrorism and extremism in Central Asia, yet it is not interested in interfering in anyone’s internal affairs. The SCO is not an economic organisation, and yet we were repeatedly told that it was focused on economics and development.

The paradox was made most clearly when someone announced to us something along the lines that ‘in the past the SCO has done nothing and in the future it will do nothing as well’.

But the reality of China’s sheer size means this approach is unsustainable. China is the world’s foremost rising power and her influence will be felt wherever she pops up. As we sat down to a sumptuous meal around a large garlanded table after our discussion, our new Chinese friends gave us no sense of having really thought through the implications of what their newfound accidental influence means.

The impression was rather that China is stumbling onto power it does not want, and with which it doesn’t know what to do.

Photo by Flickr user QUOI Media.

Slightly delayed in posting this here for a variety of reasons. Anyway, a new piece for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel looking at China’s play in Afghanistan. Re-reading my old piece in Foreign Policy on the subject, I see I am a bit more positive this time around, but still no clear signs of a Chinese shift. What I realise now that I also didn’t go into was the stories I have been hearing about the Chinese doing more proactive training efforts with Afghans. Another time maybe. Ultimately, however, the real question for this all will be what happens with the US, after that we might get a clearer sense of China’s plan. More on this topic to come.

China Passes the Buck in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci | Friday, October 28, 2011 – 4:47PM

As we pass the 10-year anniversary of the US-led war in Afghanistan, most attention has been focused on how much longer the United States intends to stay in the region. But a question that has not been addressed is who is going to be putting the pieces together afterwards. The European Union (EU) and the United States are clearly at the end of their tether, while Russia, India and other nearby powers continue to lack the capacity or means to dominate the region. Other rising regional power China may continue to be wary of becoming involved in any foreign entanglements, but as a friend put it in a meeting in Beijing the other day, China may not have broken the teapot of Afghanistan, but it is one that sits firmly on their borders.

And there is some evidence that this reality is sinking in at Zhongnanhai in Beijing. Chinese firms have made substantial investments in Afghanistan. The Aynak copper mine has been joined by an investment in oil fields in northern Afghanistan. And while Chinese firms in the end did not invest in the Bamiyan iron mines they have still cast their lot in terms of developing Afghan infrastructure – pouring money into telecoms, road-building and train lines linking Afghanistan to the rest of the region.

But this has not been supported by any large-scale investment in Afghan security. For that, China continues to look to NATO on the ground and more implicit protection from her close ally in Islamabad. As one senior Afghan put it to me, a reason that was often given for why the Chinese had gotten some of these deals was that it was known how close they were to Pakistan. The assumption was that if the deal went to China then the site would be protected in some way and the development would proceed.

While unclear to what degree this was the determining factor, the story plays into what seems to be China’s main foreign policy factor when considering Afghanistan, and that is Pakistan. The Sino-Pak relationship is one of the closest in the world, spanning trade, nuclear weapons, counter-terrorism and regional hedging against India. As both sides characterize it publicly, it is “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel, sweeter than honey, and dearer than eyesight.” And into this fits Afghanistan, a troublesome country that borders both and is the source of regional instability. China, still a hesitant foreign policy actor, is unwilling to do too much to assert her authority in the region and is more than happy to let eager Pakistan take the lead.

And this approach is something that has worked for China for many years now. Unwilling to become involved in a conflict that could force it to take sides in a conflict in which it could be painted as part of some alliance against Islam and potentially support actors who would encourage separatists in the restive Xinjiang province, China has hesitated to do much in Afghanistan in support of NATO efforts in the country. For some in China, there was a sense that NATO’s loss in Afghanistan was China’s gain and that the potential encirclement that might result from NATO success on their borders would be to China’s detriment, while for others there was a sense that this was a lost cause anyway and that Afghanistan was the “graveyard of empires.”

Instead, China focused on investing in things that seemed like a good idea. A large copper mine at Aynak sits close to China’s borders and consequently seemed a wise investment to first bid for it and then offer a whole package of deals including a local power station and train line to provide the backdrop to make the deal work for the Chinese firm. All of this would help supply China’s need for copper, as well as develop a part of the country that was close to China and would therefore potentially have a knock-on effect in improving prosperity in neighboring underdeveloped Chinese province Xinjiang. Similarly with the deal to secure the oil fields in Amu Darya – China’s unslakable thirst for hydrocarbons means it will reach out anywhere to get them, and when they are so close to home, all the better.

But while none of this disagrees with western policy in Afghanistan, there is no sense that China is willing to buy into any active policy supporting western goals in the region. China continues to be the ultimate hedging power in Afghanistan – while it seems clear that they are willing to support western aims in the country, there continues to be a lack of any clear evidence that they are as willing to expend political capital or effort to advance their goals actively in the country. This is not to say they are indolent in advancing their interests, but that they are wary of becoming entangled in a country that has repeatedly shown a capacity to reject foreign influence.

From a Chinese perspective, the answer to Afghanistan is clear. The tribes need to fight it out amongst each other – to paraphrase what one expert told me in Beijing, this is a country with “lots of big powerful men who need to be kept happy” and outsiders do not really stand much of chance moderating this. Ultimately, the country is poor, will clearly need investment going forward, and China will be there to support it. With deep pockets and no conditions, this support can be funneled to whomever is in charge and to whomever has the power of the provinces where China has direct interests. When it comes to border threats, China seems to have managed to secure strong intelligence links and is able to keep a quite firm lid on any potential threats from extremist groups with links to networks in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

China’s play in Afghanistan has been very hesitant so far. The reason for this is a lack of certainty in Beijing about what Washington’s game plan is. In the meantime, they have continued to make careful strategic investments with a view to the long game. And while from a western analysis this should mean a greater Chinese interest in stabilizing the current government, from Beijing’s perspective it is far better to let things play themselves out while focusing on specific interests. This will not necessarily help western aims to re-shape Afghanistan, but it will strengthen China’s hand when the west finally leaves.

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. He blogs athttp://www.raffaellopantucci.com.