Archive for May, 2012

More research from my recent trip to Central Asia, this time a detailed piece on China and Tajikistan’s budding relationship for Jamestown’s China Brief. Very interesting to compare Tajikistan with regards the other countries, where China clearly has more invested. Lacking a market and much connectivity into Chinese routes to Europe or to ports in Iran or Pakistan, the country is clearly a secondary priority. As ever, for more on this research, please see the site I co-edit with Alex my co-author on this piece: China in Central Asia.

Beijing Lays the Groundwork in Tajikistan: A View from the Ground

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 11

May 25, 2012 03:17 PM Age: 1 days

The Chinese and Tajik Foreign Ministers Meet in Beijing in Early May

Meeting on the fringes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Beijing on May 11, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohon Zarifi and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi made the usual affirmations of good bilateral relations (Xinhua, May 11). Part of a raft of bilateral meetings between China and Central Asian states that have taken place on the fringes of the various SCO meetings occurring in the run up to the June Summit in Beijing, the encounter is hard to distinguish from the others taking place. As the single predominantly non-Turkic state, Tajikistan however has always been an outlier in Central Asian terms. This extends to Chinese interest, although, for China, it is the absence of large volumes of natural resources and an obstructive mountain range making direct road transit difficult that make it the least interesting among the Central Asian states. While clearly key in ensuring that the entire region becomes developed, Dushanbe lacks the immediate appeal of its surrounding states to Beijing and as a result seems something of a lower priority for Chinese policymakers. Nevertheless, seen from the ground, China clearly is making a few strategic decisions that show it is committed and interested in helping Tajikistan’s development. As a foreign analyst based in Dushanbe put it to us on a recent trip, in contrast to China in the other Central Asian states, ”China’s influence in Tajikistan is delayed” [1]. Many of the long-term concerns that can be found in other Central Asian capitals towards China are reflected in Tajikistan where people are suspicious of China’s long-term ambitions.

Infrastructure and Roadways

Tajikistan’s infrastructure is in need of a massive overhaul.  The crumbling Soviet hulks of the 1980s require fixing, and the country’s transport sector barely runs on a combination of inexistent roads and non-functioning air links, interspersed with badly conceived or unfinished aid projects from the last two decades [2].  The most notorious of these is a north-south tunnel at the ShahristanPass completed by Iranian engineers in 2010 (Asia Plus, July 1, 2010). Due to its less than sterling construction, the tunnel floods periodically and these authors observed that it has collapsed in parts and has a heavily-potholed road running through it. Other more limited projects in parts of the Pamir Mountains have been sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation. The Asia Development Bank also has funded a road Dushanbe-Kurgan-Tyube-Dangara-Kulyab as well as ongoing projects “to rehabilitate the Dushanbe–Kyrgyz Border–China road corridor ($118 million in loans and grants); and a $120 million grant, approved in 2011, to upgrade a vital road linking the capital Dushanbe with the Uzbekistan border (Tursunzade)” [3].

On the ground, however, it is often Chinese firms that are actually carrying out the work. When the government wanted the prestige project of the main Rudaki Avenue in Dushanbe re-done in time for September 2011’s independence day celebrations, they turned to Chinese firms to do it rapidly [4]. This rather small project was preceded by the road linking the Tajik road network into the Kyrgyz one from Saray-Tash (the first big Chinese project in the country), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) funded road projects to link Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Dushanbe to the border through Khojand) and Dushanbe to Dungara, which is described as being the first part of the Tajikistan-China highway [5]. Undertaken by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CBRC), these projects have been proceeding at a relatively rapid pace, though it seems clear that the priority is to develop the road from Dushanbe to Uzbekistan rather than the China-Tajik connection. Managed by Innovative Road Solutions (IRS) a company housed in the British Virgin Islands, the Dushanbe-Uzbekistan road is a well-functioning toll road (the only one in the country and dogged by questions of where the money is going) with one remaining piece, the Shahriston tunnel, currently under development by CBRC [6]. Initially slated for opening in September 2011, the tunnel is now expected to open in time for National Unity Day on June 27 (Asia Plus, March 19). When seen by the authors this month, however, it did not appear to be nearing conclusion.

In contrast, the Dushanbe-Kulma Pass road, which would connect China to Tajikistan directly, was perilous and for the most parts a mud or stone track. The road immediately out of the capital (toward Dungara—President Rahmon’s home province) was well developed as was a Chinese-built portion along the Afghan border that had been funded by the Asia Development Bank (ADB), but the rest of the road was virtually impassable to all but large trucks and high performance four-wheel drive SUVs [7]. Chinese road crews were visible on the portions of road near Dushanbe—working with signs in Chinese and Russian—but for the most part, the road was destitute, highlighting its relatively low priority in Chinese terms. For China, the priority was to develop Tajikistan’s links through Garm to Saray Tash and Osh in Kyrgyzstan, tying the country’s routes to Uzbekistan (also Chinese built as previously indicated) into the road network linking Kyrgyzstan to China directly through Irkeshtam and the Torugut Pass (“China’s Slow Surge in Kyrgyzstan,” China Brief, November 11, 2011).

Tajik officials interviewed were keen to boost the profile of a potential rail connection from China through Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan to Afghanistan and eventually Indian Ocean ports—either Chinese-developed Gwadar in Pakistan or Bandar Abbas in Iran. This project however is still apparently undergoing feasibility studies and it is unclear that there is major political will behind it [8].  The economic benefits it might bring to Tajikistan are partly hostage to future developments in Afghanistan. Connecting China and Tajikistan by rail would not make economic sense in and of itself. While there are some Chinese markets in the country, they pale in comparison to the behemoths of Kyrgyzstan’s Dordoi and Kara Suu or Kazakhstan’s Barakolka. Prospective Chinese commercial interests in agriculture and electricity generation in Tajikistan are notable, but would not require the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars that would go into rail construction in the country.

Political Ties

Largely due to the country’s immense need for outside aid and investment, Tajikistan’s government generally operates an “open-door” policy in its relations with major powers. Dushanbe’s relationship with Moscow is currently strained over tough negotiations on Russian troop presence in the country, while links with the United States and Western actors are largely predicated on Afghanistan. Tajikistan’s traditional ethnic and linguistic affinity with neighboring Iran is often more rhetorical than substantive. China’s approach of offering investment with few obvious strings attached is appealing to the leadership in Dushanbe, which has received considerable sums of loans for various projects from Beijing as well as support in building a number of key landmark buildings (like the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Library and a park surrounding the world’s tallest flagpole in the middle of the city) (Reuters, March 30, 2011).

A large volume of funding has come under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—Tajikistan is the largest recipient of loans provided through the organization. Tajikistan’s policymakers are keen to support the SCO as it provides the opportunity for equal-status dialogue with more wealthy Central Asian neighbors as well as Russia and China (Xinhua, September 9, 2011). Dushanbe also is the largest beneficiary of Chinese aid through the SCO, receiving in total over $600 million [9]. Despite the SCO’s origins in the Shanghai Five border delimitation agreements, however, the ratification in 2011 of the border delineation between China and Tajikistan was decided on a bilateral basis outside SCO structures. Local authorities and analysts proudly point out that Tajikistan only gave way on 3.5 percent of China’s land demands (approximately 0.7 percent of Tajikistan’s territory) in contrast to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that ceded much larger percentages of Chinese demands.

More controversial than this agreement, however, are a pair of deals for agricultural land that were undertaken at a government-to-government level, involving, on the Chinese side, the state-owned China National Agricultural Development Group. These concern a pair of pieces of agricultural land—the first plot is about 6,000 hectares, the second plot is of unknown size—that were given over to Chinese developers. Solid information about the project is hard to find, but, according to local analysts as well as local and foreign officials interviewed, the land was reported as being heavily salinated and therefore unusable. Given China’s agricultural expertise, the government gave this to China to develop with the understanding that for the first three years all products used would be sold in Tajikistan. Local concerns however preponderate with people pointing out the numerous Chinese workers who have been sent over. Some estimates are as high as 1,500-2000 Chinese farmers coming over (“Revising the Border: China’s Inroads into Tajikistan,” China Brief, July 29, 2011). When asked, Chinese officials stated only 30 percent of the workers were Chinese and that the real controversy was a product of the fact that the Tajik side had understood that more equipment was going to be sourced locally. The success of the project currently is unclear with locals complaining it has not been performing according to plan [10].

Culture and Language Exchanges

At a public level, China is not that visible in Tajikistan. While there is evidence of Chinese businessmen and others walking around Dushanbe as well as Chinese restaurants and a Chinese hospital offering traditional Chinese remedies, the majority of the Chinese in the country are work crews. They however work on infrastructure projects and live in camps near their sites—one popular if unfounded rumor is that these work crews are made up of Chinese prison laborers. At a cultural level, however, the heart of China’s cultural and linguistic links in Tajikistan is the Confucius Institute based at Tajikistan National University.

Managed by Xinjiang Normal University with a team of some 4 teachers sent from China, the Institute estimates it has taught some 1,800 students from high school to university in the past year. This figure is an increase from the year before and continues a  steady expansion over the past four to six years. They have established a subsidiary branch in Penjikent at local request, aimed at helping local high schoolers to learn Chinese. Unlike other Confucius Institutes in Central Asia (such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), the Institute lacks many support materials. The only current Tajik-Chinese dictionary is a small one done by a Tajik who spent some time in China, and they have no direct language textbooks to help them. Instead, teachers operate using a mix of Chinese, Russian and English materials—something replicated in the classroom environment where students would flicker between all three languages. At a cultural level, the Chinese Embassy reported they held some six cultural events per year in the country bringing over dance, music and theater troupes—the most popular ones apparently were groups from Xinjiang [11].

Conclusion

Tajikistan is clearly a secondary priority for China. While groundwork has been laid that could be turned into influence down the road, Beijing’s immediate interests in the country are limited. Whether or not this changes depends very much on what happens in Afghanistan. Should China’s investments there, such as at the Aynak copper concession or the Amu Darya gas fields, see substantial development in a relatively stable Afghanistan after the 2014 Western withdrawal, then Tajikistan’s importance as a throughput between Xinjiang and Afghanistan will grow. Further deterioration in Pakistan’s domestic situation also would enhance Tajikistan’s value as a logistical pathway. This would likely bring with it more Chinese engagement and investment in Tajikistan’s isolated Gorno-Badakhshan region as well as in the more populous west of the country. This however depends on Afghanistan’s uncertain future.

It is more likely that Chinese investors will remain cautious in a highly uncertain and probably unstable Afghanistan over the next ten years. For Tajikistan, this means that it will remain one of multiple routes for Chinese interests to crisscross the Eurasian continent and reach ports in the Indian Ocean. As it is now, it will remain less important than Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in terms of the flow of Chinese goods and the direction of Chinese investments. Tajikistan also will remain behind Turkmenistan in terms of Chinese energy interests. Its importance will stem from its role as a redundant route, useful for diversity’s sake if political unrest erupts amongst its neighbors. The one project that could change this calculation would be the rail route through Tajikistan’s north from Kyrgyzstan and into Afghanistan to reach the Indian Ocean. So far, this has not gathered significant political or financial momentum, but, if it does, then Chinese exporters, investors and policymakers in Beijing probably will reassess Tajikistan’s strategic importance.

Notes:

  1. Author interviews with foreign NGO, Dushanbe April 2012.
  2. The authors traveled these routes: Dushanbe-Khorog-Murghab-Kulma Pass and Dushanbe-Sharistan-Khojand-Oybek.
  3. Aga Khan Foundation in Tajikistan 2012, Aga Khan Development Network,www.akdn.org/publications/2012_tajikistan_akf.pdf; Tajikistan Fact Sheet, Asian Development Bank, December 31, 2011, www.adb.org/sites/default/files/pub/2012/TAJ.pdf
  4. Author interviews with foreign NGOs and local analysts, Dushanbe, April 2012.
  5. Author interview with local journalists and analysts, Dushanbe, April 17, 2012; “Build a Bridge for the China-Tajikistan Friendship,” China Road and Bridge Corporation Press Release, August 29, 2011.
  6. Author interviews with local and foreign analysts, diplomats and journalists, Dushanbe, April 2012.
  7. Author interview with ADB officials, Dushanbe, April 26, 2012.
  8. Author interviews with Tajik officials, Dushanbe, April 2012, and foreign NGOs and diplomats, Kabul, May 2012.
  9. Author interviews with local analysts and official think tanks, Dushanbe, April 2012. According to reports in the press this number may be as high as $700 million (Reuters, March 30, 2011). Official sources in Dushanbe, however, stated the number was in fact $605 million.
  10. Author interviews with local journalists and analysts, foreign diplomats and official think tanks, Dushanbe, April 2012.
  11. Author interviews with Chinese officials and local academics, Dushanbe, April 2012.
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A new piece for the South China Morning Post, this one a short op-ed with Alex drawing on ideas to emerge from our Uzbekistan visit. Very interesting to see the degree to which Korea is a visible presence there, quite in contrast to any other power. At the same time, China is clearly a player, but to a lesser degree – more on this distinction in the near future. As ever for more of our work on this subject, please go to the site I help manage: http://www.chinaincentralasia.com. The picture I have included below is one from our trip taken by the lovely Sue Anne Tay.

Uzbekistan courts China on its own terms

May 26, 2012

The Uzbek-Korean air and truck port outside Navoiy.

Among the many items festooning souvenir shops in the Silk Road city of Bukhara are a set of stamps commemorating Uzbekistan’s 15th anniversary of independence. Pride of place alongside President Islam Karimov on these stamps is not a prominent Uzbek, but, rather, the then president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun. For Uzbekistan, a close embrace with Korea is a good balancer against a dominant China.

Uzbekistan is in search of a post-Soviet model for development. Initially an eager partner of the West in the wake of the September 11 attacks, it fell out of favour following a hardline government response to violence in the city of Andijan in 2005. This led the nation to look to the Asia-Pacific as a model or partner. But this has not simply meant closer ties with China.

Uzbekistan chose to court Beijing on its own terms. Cognisant of the utility of China as a balancer against Russia, Karimov has been more active in the Chinese-instigated Shanghai Co-operation Organisation than the Russian-led alternatives in the region. But, at the same time, the Uzbek government tries to limit the import of Chinese consumer goods. High tariffs generally keep foreign products out, but Chinese ones are informally targeted, according to those active in trade with China.Analysts say the government has learned a lesson from Kyrgyzstan, where the economy is now almost entirely dependent on Chinese trade; Tajikistan, which is increasingly reliant on Chinese development; and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which are increasingly dependent on China as an energy consumer. Unlike these poor or natural-resource-heavy economies, Uzbekistan prides itself on being an industrial hub.

In contrast, Uzbekistan has embraced a close relationship with South Korea. With strong ethnic links on the ground through a residual Soviet Korean population, Karimov has welcomed Korean investment. It has been far more comforting for Uzbekistan to welcome medium-sized South Korea, a manufacturing nation that has made the shift from authoritarian government to controlled free-market economy.

To what degree has this policy worked? Can Uzbekistan successfully keep the Chinese behemoth at bay? China clearly has a footprint in the country, but has so far bided its time. As Uzbekistan gradually edges its economy forwards, it may find that increasingly the scope of China’s presence will be determined in Beijing and Guangzhou.

Another piece for The National Interest, looking this time at China-Afghanistan. A topic I have covered a few times in the past, but this time based off a research trip there. We actually wrote this the day after Obama’s visit to Kabul which took place overnight. We went to bed hearing it was coming and woke up to discover it had been. As mentioned previously, go to my other site for a more focused look at my work on China in Central Asia, and keep an eye for more on this topic as we go forwards.

China Digs in to Afghanistan

May 24, 2012
Archeological excavation near a Chinese mining camp in Aynak. Picture from here.

Our recent trip to one of Kabul’s Chinese restaurants was disrupted by President Obama’s motorcade. It was May Day, and Obama said he had come to the Afghan capital to sign a strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the United States, a document that will delineate the two nations’ interactions for the next few years. The more clearly political intent of the visit, however, was to note the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death and visibly draw a line under U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. It all presaged the next two years of troop withdrawals. As Election Day in November looms, the administration is keen to demonstrate that it has brought an end to U.S. sacrifices in Afghanistan.

Our visit to Kabul, however, was part of a larger project tracking the interests and influence of a power that is digging in for the long term. As the United States and its NATO allies prepare to pack their bags, China is looking toward a long presence in Afghanistan with mining, energy and transport projects. A low-key presence on the ground, Chinese firms and diplomats are thinking and acting in terms that have a horizon beyond 2014. Beijing may not be angling to take over the country, but in contrast to the West’s increasingly unseemly rapid exit, it is setting itself up to guarantee its long-term interests.

China’s Investment in Infrastructure

The most visible evidence of this long-term approach can be seen in the two major projects Chinese firms have already won in Afghanistan. First of these is the famous Aynak copper mine in Logar province. Potentially one of the world’s largest copper sources, it is a Chinese project jointly managed by the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper with more than $3 billion worth of investment in the war-torn country. Primarily a copper mine, the project contract also was expected to help develop local infrastructure, including a train connecting the region to Kabul, local roads, local schools, hospitals and employment for local Afghans.

But the Chinese project is currently stalled. An archaeological site found atop one of the excavation points has provided the Chinese firms with a good reason to slow production, and a precarious security situation has exacerbated these considerations. The reality is the firm is in no hurry. Copper prices will only go up, and now that the Chinese firm has won the contract and already spent considerable funds (including an initial signing bonus to the Afghan Ministry of Mines of $808 million), they can happily sit on the project until the overall political situation becomes clearer.

Further evidence of China’s long-term interests in Afghanistan can be seen in the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), which won a contract in December of last year to explore oil blocs in Amu Darya, northern Afghanistan. Putting down an initial investment of some $400 million at terms that are highly favorable to the Afghan government, the assessment from analysts we spoke to in Kabul is that the contract is in fact a testing of the water for the Chinese energy giant. The actual volumes are relatively small for a company of CNPC’s size, and the belief on the ground is the Chinese company is using this to get its foot in the door. Prospectors believe the area is also rich in natural gas, which offers further potentially lucrative contracts for CNPC down the road. The firm has now opened an office in Kabul, staffing it with a mix of local and Chinese employees.

In both cases, these state-owned Chinese firms have made substantial and long-term investments in Afghanistan. In need of routes to extract the materials they mine, they are invested in ensuring that the nation gets the appropriate infrastructure, linking the natural resource projects in Afghanistan to its burgeoning transport network in Central Asia. As mentioned, the proposal for Aynak included the construction of a railroad to Kabul, which would connect to Chinese rail projects in the north of Afghanistan and onward into Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Western China. This network is also set to stretch to the Indian Ocean, the Chinese-built port at Gwadar in Pakistan and the Iranian coast.

Looking Backward

Allowing the Aynak archaeological dig to proceed without haste shows at least some level of Chinese interest in helping develop Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. Afghan and foreign archaeologists and historians repeatedly have highlighted the cross-border cultural links interspersed throughout this region, and the Buddhas at Aynak have some cultural significance to China. These sites are part of China’s history, too. As Chinese officials and analysts told us, this is China’s neighborhood, and they are committed to making sure it works out well.

In stark contrast, President Obama’s visit highlighted the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. While discussion of a New Silk Road by Secretary Clinton hearkens back to historic East-West links and suggests a long-term investment in the region, it is China’s new Eurasian land bridge that is actually being built. Linking Afghanistan to Central Asia—by developing direct land links between China, Europe and warm waters in the Gulf using a latticework of rail and road links—shows China is a serious, capable and long-term player in the region.

The West has spoken a great deal of a “regional strategy” as the key to Afghanistan’s future. But China is the one that is actually implementing such an approach, suggesting that in the future Beijing will have much more of an impact on the region than Washington.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Alexandros Petersen is author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. Their joint research is available at www.chinaincentralasia.com.

Image: jeromestarkey

I have mentioned this briefly in a previous post as it was already up in the e-magazine format, but my latest longer piece for HSToday is now live online in a more standard format and so can be easily reposted here. The piece was the cover story and explores the security questions around the London Olympics, in particular the terrorist threat. This subject is going to be getting a lot more attention as time goes on and I already have a couple of things coming together, but journalists and others interested, feel free to get in touch via the contacts page.

Keep Calm And Carry On

London prepares for the Olympic Games in the shadow of terrorism.

By: Raffaello Pantucci

05/07/2012 ( 2:39pm)

In a decision that took everyone by surprise, on July 6, 2005 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded London the 2012 Olympic Games. Camera crews at the ceremony in Singapore had to swivel their equipment to catch the English team’s response, poised, as they all were, to expect a Team Paris victory. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had taken the time prior to the G8 Summit he was hosting at Gleneagles, Scotland, to support the London presentation in Singapore, captured the nation’s jubilation when he said “it’s not often in this job that you punch the air and do a little jig and embrace the person next to you.” Revelers in Trafalgar Square in central London unfurled flags of thanks and celebrated long into the night.

This joy was not shared by a group of young men in Leeds, who were instead preparing themselves to make a quite different contribution to Britain’s history. Having trained with Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the three young British-Pakistanis and a convert friend had prepared a series of explosive devices using hydrogen peroxide with chemical detonators. Initially aiming to carry out their attack on July 6, 2005 they were delayed when the leader’s wife had difficulties that required him to postpone their attack by a day. Waking up early on the morning of July 7, they headed down to London where they were spotted, in the words of eyewitnesses, “euphorically” embracing before each headed on to different London transport lines to detonate their rucksack bombs among the morning commuters. Fifty-two people were killed, and London’s joy turned to ash as Britons realized Al Qaeda terrorism had come to their shores.

Now, almost seven years after that terrible day, London is a transformed city that has spent many millions on security, faced a series of terrorist threats both domestic and external and is gearing up to welcome some 10,500 Olympic and 4,500 Paralympic athletes alongside many millions of eager spectators—not to mention the potentially billions of television viewers. As the opening of the 2012 London Olympics approaches, how prepared is the city for the big day?

The Threat

At a Jan. 25 conference at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London examining Olympic security, Home Secretary Theresa May clarified that, “We know we face a real and enduring threat from terrorism and we know that the games—as an iconic event—will represent a target for terrorist groups.” With the official security level placed at “severe,” which means “an attack is highly likely” according to assessments by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center, the terrorist threat is diverse with many different return addresses.

Lindsay Clutterbuck was a detective chief inspector in specialist operations at New Scotland Yard and is currently a research leader at RAND Europe who worked on a project in 2007 on possible threats to Olympic security. She told Homeland Security Today the problem for British security forces is that they “cannot just focus on jihadi terrorism or the IRA [Irish Republican Army]—there is a need to look globally.” This means that, not only do they need to worry about international terrorist networks linked to Al Qaeda or affiliates, but they also need to worry about London being used as a platform by other terrorist organizations seeking to advance their cause in the glare of Olympic attention.

But what exactly does this threat look like? Clutterbuck said it is “hard to see the interest in the Olympics to the IRA as it exists today, except as an opportunity to advertise the fact that, as Gerry Adams once said of the Provisional IRA during their ceasefire from 1994, ‘They haven’t gone away, you know.’” She added that no Irish Republican group has launched a successful attack on the British mainland for nearly 10 years. When attacks did occur, they tended to be aimed at the British government rather than at a large public event like the Olympics.
Well-connected sources indicated to Homeland Security Today that a raising of the threat level in 2010 was linked to a specific threat emanating from Irish groups that had managed to send a viable explosive device to an official site in London.

The desire by Irish groups to attack the United Kingdom is longstanding. As John Bew, deputy director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation, put it to Homeland Security Today early last year, Irish groups are “trying something every day” and there was “absolutely no question” they were trying to target the British mainland. However, when asked about potential targets, Bew estimated it was likely they would aim at official or financial targets and most likely telephone in warnings.

The larger threat is perceived as emanating from Al Qaeda-inspired or linked networks. This was the sense of a conference hosted at the University of Oxford in early January aimed at helping Britain’s security forces prepare for the games. Participants discussed the threat from international terrorist networks like Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Somalia’s Al Shabaab, Nigeria’s Boko Haram or terrorist networks based in Pakistan. Primary among these is, of course, Al Qaeda, but of late, local groups like Lashkar E Taiba or Tehrik E Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have become seen as increasingly international threats. In January 2011, Britain added TTP to its list of proscribed terror groups, reflecting a sense that it was a direct threat to the United Kingdom and that its support networks existed in the UK. As Minister for Immigration Damien Green put it to Parliament, “proscribing the TTP will enable the police to carry out disruptive action more effectively against any supporters in the UK.”

Participants at the conference were particularly concerned by the potential for some sort of assault on the games by a group emulating the success of Lashkar E Taiba’s assault on Mumbai, India, in November 2008.

The threat to the UK has been somewhat persistent over the past year, though Homeland Security Today’s security sources boldly stated they saw the overall threat from international terrorism decreasing. Plots with links to Pakistan were broken up in London, Stoke and Birmingham. In the linked London-Stoke cases, the plotters were planning some sort of campaign in the UK using AQAP’s Inspire magazine as their guide, while the Stoke group was also developing a madrassa in Kashmir that it planned to turn into a terrorist training camp. The Birmingham case has yet to go to trial, though Homeland Security Today is given to understand that it involves individuals who trained in Pakistan and were prepared to be suicide bombers. What is not clear is who was telling them to do this or where they had trained.

More worrying recently has been the upsurge in British connections with Somalia. Late last year, Kenyan authorities disrupted a cell in Mombassa that included at least one Briton—a young convert named Germaine Grant. A troubled former criminal, Grant had been radicalized while serving in Feltham Young Offenders Institution—the same British prison where Richard “shoe bomber” Reid was radicalized and where Muktar Said Ibrahim, the leader of the cell that conducted a copycat attack on the London underground system on July 21, 2005, served time for petty crimes.

All of this emerged at the same time Al Shabaab officially announced its allegiance to Al Qaeda and London hosted the Somalia conference to bring worldwide attention to the country.

So far Al Shabaab has not launched any direct attacks on the United Kingdom, or anywhere outside Africa, but the group has been linked to networks and cells across Europe, Australia and North America. In particular, there have been a number of prominent Al Shabaab clerics now back in Somalia who spent considerable time in the UK and may have been British passport holders. Their support networks were most clearly seen in a case in Leicester where two men were suspected of supporting the group abroad and helping run the Al Shabaab-supportive alqimmah.net. The men were not charged, but they appeared online after they were cleared and at least one is now believed to have moved back to Somalia. The connections and networks all these individuals leave behind are unclear.

And finally there is Yemen, where AQAP continues to plot attacks abroad as it consolidates its territory on the ground. Since managing the failed but close-call attacks using Umar Farouk “underwear bomber” Abdulmutallab on a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas 2009 and the October 2010 attempt to send two bombs concealed in printers in cargo planes, the group has seemingly slowed down its international targeting. In part this is believed to be due to pressure on the ground and a number of deaths thanks to drone strikes—including one that claimed American-Yemeni preacher Anwar Al Awlaki and his Pakistani-American sidekick Samir Khan. But the group also seems to have decided to consolidate the territory it is holding on the ground. Nevertheless, master bomb maker Ibrahim Al Asiri, whose fiendishly clever devices were able to fool airport security officers at four different airports and British bomb disposal experts who went looking for them, remains at large and plotting.

The potential danger to the Olympics was brought into focus by a police and Home Office report leaked to the press in February. Addressed to the local authorities in Waltham Forest, a northeast borough of London that is home to part of the Olympic park, the report expressed concerns about “a high-level threat of Al Qaeda-inspired extremism from males aged between 20 and 38. The individuals of interest to the police are predominantly British-born second and third-generation migrants from Southeast Asia. There is also interest from a number of Middle Eastern political movements and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups from north Africa.” The report said the risk was driven by, among other things, “perceptions of inequality driven by relatively high deprivation levels, particularly within Pakistani communities.”

In an attempt to address these specific threats, the police have allocated three community engagement officers to Waltham Forest and each of the other Olympic boroughs.

But so far there have been no direct public threats to the Olympics from any of these groups. In fact, when asked, British security officials point to the potential menace from lone wolf terrorists or self-activating individuals inspired by groups’ ideology as the biggest potential threat. As Clutterbuck put it, the jihadis who are a problem “aren’t an organization.”

There is a strong sense that British security services have a very good overview of domestic groups that have made connections with Al Qaeda or affiliates abroad. But when it comes to what can loosely be termed the lone wolf threat, the picture is much less clear.

The potential danger of such individuals was brought rudely to everyone’s attention by Anders Behring Breivik’s attack in Norway that killed 77 people in a bombing and shooting rampage last July. In that case, a lone wolf terrorist was able to maintain good operational security, obtain bombs and guns, and effectively launch a large-scale terrorist attack without alerting authorities.

Beyond Terrorism

The threat to the Olympics, however, is not solely linked to terrorism. In a report published by the Home Office in January titled London 2012 Olympic Safety and Security Strategic Risk Assessment (OSSSRA) and Risk Mitigation Process, the Olympic Security Directorate laid out a five-risk matrix addressing: terrorism, serious and organized crime, domestic extremism, public disorder, major accidents and natural events.

Beyond these threats, Home Secretary May highlighted the “strong possibility” of a “threat from cyber crime [and] from so-called ‘hacktivist’ groups. These groups may attempt to target the games and may also attack the websites of high-profile sponsors associated with the games.” Of late, British police have been under particular pressure from cyber criminals and have been involved in trying to thwart the efforts of the online collective, “Anonymous.” A hijacked recording of a conference call between British police and their American counterparts that was leaked on YouTube highlighted the degree of activity that British authorities were monitoring in the United Kingdom. And since then, they have been involved in a number of arrests at home, but also investigations abroad.

While hacktivists are a risk, however, according to the Home Office, “the most likely (and current) threat is cyber-enabled ticketing fraud and e-crime carried out by organized crime groups.”

In response to questions from Homeland Security Today, Home Office spokesman Richard Worth said, “The cyber domain also provides both threats and opportunities when it comes to dealing with public disorder. Our cybersecurity work for the Olympics will take account of the implications from the recent riots in London and elsewhere in the UK.”

This was a reference to the fact that during the riots in the UK last year, Blackberry messenger and other social media tools proved to be important means for rioters to marshal and target their efforts. In response the British government jailed a number of individuals with heavy sentences for posting inflammatory messages on Facebook and looked into how the government can better monitor and control such online networks.

But the menace that would likely “wake up a chief police officer screaming in the middle of the night,” according to Clutterbuck, is the “combined threat.” In other words, a situation in which these threats converge simultaneously: a riot breaks out at one site, while a bomb goes off in another and hacktivists choose just that moment to launch an attack on communications networks or websites.

The subsequent demand on resources would be difficult to manage and might lead to the system becoming overwhelmed. And beyond the problems associated with the Olympics, there is always the danger of criminals using the elevated police attention in one place to carry out a large theft or some other operation in another. In February 1994, while much of Norway’s attention was on the opening day of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, thieves snuck into an exhibit linked to the games and stole one of Edvard Munch’s famous “Scream” paintings. Distracted by the games, police only noticed much later that the gallery had been robbed. The difficulty for London police will be to maintain normal levels of policing in the UK’s bustling capital while also raising their game to meet the enhanced needs of the Olympics.

“Forward Defensive”

On Feb. 22, London’s security apparatus launched a major two-day security exercise called “Forward Defensive.” Involving some 2,500 people, the exercise involved officials right up to the ministerial level and was intended, according to Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison, “to test how senior decision makers manage the impact of the incident, the investigation to catch those responsible and a range of issues such as travel disruption, protest and organized crime which may impact on the smooth running of the Olympic Games.” The exercise simulated an attack on London’s underground system, using an abandoned underground station in the middle of the city as the staging point. Actors playing injured citizens could be seen being marshaled by emergency services while police and ambulance services practiced how they would respond to such a scenario. During the second day, police and investigators discreetly went through the motions of how they would conduct an investigation into the incident.

The particular difficulties of responding to a terrorist attack in the underground were brought home during the July 7 bombings, and a recent coroner’s report on the incident highlighted a number of problems in the response. Seven out of nine recommendations in the report were directed at emergency responders—including calls for inter-agency training, a review of the protocols used in emergency situations, a new system to devise a common rendezvous point at an emergency scene, a review of the system to confirm the power to train lines is off during an incident, and an improvement of medical supplies available in underground trains and platforms. An additional two recommendations were directed at hospital staff, in particular asking for them to be further trained in dealing with mass casualty incidents.

Following a model of attack similar to the July 7 bombings involving a bomb in a bag left in an underground train, “Forward Defensive” tested many of these systems, and authorities seemed pleased with the results. But given the £487 million ($765 million) for additional policing and wider Olympic security that is expected to be spent during the games, and the total £582 million ($914 million) that the Home Office reports it is budgeting for the Games’ venue security, it is not surprising that they are glad the test went well. It is a substantial amount of money to spend at a time when the British government is pushing through a tough austerity package to try to help the UK out of its current financial doldrums. As Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt put it, “what we didn’t know when we won the bid in 2005 was that we would be right in the middle of the worst financial and economic crisis since the 1930s.”

In response to questions from Homeland Security Today, the Home Office reported that the money was not only covering the additional policing, but also “making venues secure, including physical security, such as fences, and search and screening equipment, and personnel security.”

What was not clear was whether this also included the substantial military deployment rallied to help at the games. In late December, it was announced that 13,500 military personnel were to deploy in support of security during the Olympic games, a figure greater than the 9,500 British troops currently serving in Afghanistan. Of these forces, 7,500 were to be used in “venue security,” a further 5,000 in support of police, while 1,000 were being kept in reserve as a contingency force. Among these forces are likely to be additional EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) units, since only the Metropolitan Police has a dedicated EOD unit, and the games and torch relay will span the country. Additional Typhoon fighter jets are to be deployed near London alongside surface-to-air missile positions. Airborne Warning and Control System planes will be in the sky, while HMS Ocean, an amphibious assault ship that is the largest in the British Navy and serves as a landing platform for helicopters, is to be stationed in the Thames.

Watching a test run of the forces in early March, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the forces would be part of an “umbrella of security” over the games.

This massive deployment was something that Homeland Security Today encountered in person when attending a conference in Oxford in early January. Officials present noted that many of them were being drafted to prepare for the games. During the conference, presentations were made about subjects as diverse as the threat from terrorist groups in South Asia, crowd psychology during a terrorist incident and how communities in the UK were working to counter the terrorist threat. Beyond the British domestic deployment, a number of national teams, like those from Israel and the United States, will likely send their own security teams to escort athletes. A report in the Guardian newspaper from November 2011 broke the story that Team USA was planning on sending an additional 1,000 agents to help with team security.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Security Minister James Brokenshire delivered the key message for the London 2012 Olympics in a comment after the Forward Defensive exercise: “We are determined to leave nothing to chance to deliver a safe and secure games that London, the UK and the world can enjoy.”

With more than 380,000 applicants for accreditation to work at the games needing vetting and the numerous sites and threats faced, the logistical challenge is considerable. But the longer-term problem is the fact that after the games there is likely to be a substantial drop in appetite to maintain the current levels of high spending on counterterrorism.

Security experts both in and out of government suggested to Homeland Security Today that the sense is that if the UK can safely get past the games, then the threat from international terrorism will continue to slowly recede. Since 2007 the UK has not faced a serious plot with external connections that was able to get to the implementation phase. Any plots since have involved lone wolves. This has fed a public perception that the threat is going down, regardless of whether that is really true. That the internal security assessment to some degree matches this perception means that it is almost certain major budget cuts to security are going to take place after the Olympics.

There are implications from this. As Tobias Feakin of the Royal United Services Institute laid out in its February 2012 report, UK Terrorism Analysis, “We currently have in the UK a generation of police officers who almost exclusively have experienced growth in their budgets, so this situation is new to them, and so are the changes that budget cuts will bring around.”

The longer-term implications of this drop still need to be considered, and of course, this trajectory may be sharply adjusted in the face of a successful attack. But what is clear is that some sort of a threat remains. It will menace the London 2012 Olympics and is likely to continue beyond the games. Threats notwithstanding, Britain wants to ensure the games go ahead without any hitch, finally redirecting the public mood that was so abruptly soured on July 7, 2005 and bringing the country some light in dark economic times.

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The site

The actual site of the Olympics is a substantial one, stretching across London and down through nearby Dorset, which will host the sailing events. The main Olympic stadium has been completed, at a cost of £486 million ($763 million). It joins a state-of-the-art aquatic center costing £269 million ($422 million), a velopark, a basketball arena, an indoor handball and fencing arena called the Copper Box, the Riverbank Arena for soccer and an Olympic Village. And of course, prior to the games, there will be a torch relay that will cover much of the country. Some 8,000 torchbearers will carry it through more than 1,000 urban areas.

It’s all a potential target set that is worryingly large, in particular since the expectation is that, if an attack were to take place, it would be more likely to happen at a low-profile site or somewhere unrelated to the Olympics. The logic, as explained to Homeland Security Today by a security official, is that the Olympic sites will be hardened and seem impregnable, so would-be terrorists will opt for others. At the same time, simply by conducting an operation in the UK during the games, or any time in the run-up, terrorists could cause an incident the international media would report as an attack on the Olympics.

Another post for the site I manage as part of my China and Central Asia work, this time looking at my experiences visiting the Irkeshtam Pass between China and Kyrgyzstan. A fascinating trip, with some of the pictures courtesy of the lovely Sue Anne Tay.

The Irkeshtam Border Pass Between China and Kyrgyzstan

By Raffaello Pantucci

The red arrow and circle indicate the Irkeshtam border pass. Picture from here.

In what can only be described as a cosmic coincidence or evidence of some deeper significant trend that I can only guess at, on either sides of the Irkeshtam Pass between China and Kyrgyzstan we found Japanese backpackers. The surprising part was that our visits to each side of the border took place some five months apart from each other. Ardent Japanese travellers aside, there were few other obvious similarities on the two sides of the border. In fact, what differences there were seemed to be weighted in favour of the Kyrgyz side, where the road was in better shape than its Chinese counterpart.

Leaving one morning from Osh with a driver a local Chinese teacher had helped us source, our trip to Irkeshtam on the Kyrgyz side was a relatively painless one. The road was for the most part tarmacked and aside from a bumpy part in the mountains, in good condition. Funded in part by the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and the Chinese government, the China Bridge and Road Corporation (CBRC) had built most of the road (often as subcontractor to the international projects) – a Chinese state owned enterprise whose management office we came across as we zoomed along on the Kyrgyz side. Wandering into the compound we found a few Chinese engineers who said that the project was due to finish in spring 2012. They worked from April to October of each year when weather conditions were bearable. An hour or so down the road, we came across their colleagues, Chinese men huddled in in heavy green military coats directing large trucks of granite as they worked to asphalt the road.

As with many borders in the region, there is a gap between the actual border and where they check passports before you get to the line of demarcation. On the Kyrgyz side, a small camouflage painted mobile home sat by the side of the road with a simple metal barrier across the road itself. The young Kyrgyz guard manning the barrier waved vigorously at us as we tried to take pictures, though he seemed a lot less threatening once we noticed that his AK-47 did not have ammunition clip.

The border itself was a dusty parking lot with giant shipping trucks with Customs (海关) emblazoned on the sides edging around each other. A lone donkey wandered through the chaos as various truckers and other loafers used facilities, shopped at the mini-mud buildings selling food, cigarettes and other provisions or had meals at the rudimentary restaurants. One Uighur-Chinese driver (who had in fact helped ferry hapless Japanese backpacker Takeshi through the pass) told us eagerly that he was on his way to Uzbekistan with a truckload of ‘stuff’ – when asked to specify he said various electronica and low-end Chinese products. He was more interested to hear about Shanghai and the business prospects there.

In contrast, the Chinese side of the border was visibly policed with more solid structures at the actual border post – a big white tiled building and men in warm uniforms guiding the truck traffic. Present in early spring (we did the trip to Kyrgyz side in October, the Chinese side in April), there was still snow on the ground and written into it in the mountain above the post was the phrase 中国民爱 (roughly translated as China loves its people). Unlike the dusty Kyrgyz side, the Chinese side was a small village of concrete buildings with a police station, Sinopec office, restaurants, hotels and grocery stores. On the road before the encampment was an odd building with a giant football on top of it. Behind it was a walled area with cameras on top that our driver informed us was some sort of military installation.

While the border itself was relatively developed, there was a dramatic contrast in the state of the roads up to it on the Chinese side. Whilst likely done by the same company as that on the Kyrgyz side, the road on the Chinese side was a potholed mess and for a substantial period we were drudging through dirt and knee-deep snow. Our driver steadily became more exasperated, chain-smoking his way through two packs of cigarettes as we battled on and his carefully cleaned car turned into a mud coloured mess with a broken bumper. Ploughing through a blizzard we saw large trucks abandoned by the side of the road, battered by the treacherous road conditions. We had been warned the ride would be difficult, though given the excellent state of the Karakoram Highway and most infrastructure in China, we figured this could not be that bad. We were wrong: it was a bumpy ride from almost the moment we left Kashgar.

The reason for this rather surprising inversion in road quality is that the road to the border on the Chinese side is in the process of being re-built, due to be finished by 2013. Something visible along the way as we saw teams digging holes and moving large pieces of concrete around to support the road. A city is being built along the way at a previously minute village called Ulugqat that currently serves as an entertainment spot for the customs officers and workers on the road and at the border – but is mostly a muddy mess with giant construction going on everywhere. The customs post before the border ‘dead-zone’ on the Chinese side was a more substantial creation, with a small soldiers’ cabin across the road from a much larger official customs building with Chinese flags and logos all over it. In contrast to their Kyrgyz counterparts, these soldiers had ammunition clips in their guns as well as new uniforms that contrasted our increasingly bedraggled appearance.

Unlike its northern counterpart the Torugut Pass, Irshketam is open most of the year. One of the key crossing points for China into Central Asia, it provides a route for Chinese products to get to Kyrgyz markets as well as travel up into Russia, across into Uzbekistan and beyond both to Europe and Iran. Much of the material brought across the border ends up in Kyrgyzstan’s crowded Osh or Kara-Suu bazaars, an arrangement in danger of being destroyed if the Kyrgyz elect to join Putin’s Eurasian Union and a subsequent tariff barrier is erected between the Kyrgyz and Chinese economies. When we put this to officials in Kyrgyzstan they told us it was potentially devastating. Chinese we asked seemed less concerned. Partially because the market loss would be negligible in terms of China’s overall trade volumes, but also since they believe that the entire Eurasian Union project is unlikely to amount to much. As a Chinese academic put it to us, the Eurasian Union will clash with Kyrgyzstan’s WTO membership and the expectation is that the Kyrgyz would rather be part of the global economy than be a pawn in Russia’s expansionist agenda. This outlook was supported by evidence on the ground where China is clearly making investments in turning this road into a major artery for its Central Asian trade.

Another ribbon in the latticework that is the New Eurasian Landbridge.

 

Another piece building on my growing body of China-Central Asia work, this time for a new outlet The Commentator, but alongside my usual co-author Alex. For a more concentrated look at my work on this topic, please check out the other site I co-edit: http://www.chinaincentralasia.com

China and Turkey Revive Silk Road

By Alexandros Petersen and Raffaello Pantucci

on 22 May 2012 at 9am

The implications of the burgeoning Sino-Turkic relationship in Central Asia remain unexplored. Washington must act to guarantee everyone’s strategic objectives in the region

URUMQI, WESTERN CHINA – The leaders of the world’s fastest growing economies in Eurasia met in Beijing last month. Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to China, coming soon after president-in-waiting Xi Jinping’s visit to Turkey might have heralded a new dawn of Sino-Turkic relations on the old Silk Road: in Central Asia.

This could be an opportunity for the United States to enlist these two dynamic economies to contribute to stability in the region once Western forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan. It could also emerge as an alternative to U.S. influence in the region. Much depends on how Washington approaches the revived relationship.

The mere fact that the visit took place in such a positive light is surprising in itself. It is just over two years ago thatErdogan used the word ‘genocide’ in comments about civil unrest here in Urumqi. Now, his first stop in China wasUrumqi. China and Turkey are now talking about cooperation at a variety of levels, from nuclear cooperation and other ‘new’ energies, increasing trade links, infrastructure projects, military cooperation and even Turkish assistance in helping develop Xinjiang. And beyond their borders, they discussed current events in Syria – in which both are playing a prominent diplomatic role – while also exploring what potential might exist for future cooperation in Central Asia.

Turkish businessmen have long had commercial links in Xinjiang due to a somewhat mutually intelligible language and the remnants of a so-called Pan-Turkism that Ankara pushed throughout Central Asia in the wake of the Cold War. These links have not extended to the rest of China. A massive trade gap exists between the two countries, with 2.5 billion USD of Turkish goods sold in China last year, compared with 21.6 billion USD of Chinese goods sold in Turkey.

In Central Asia, however, both Turkish and Chinese goods can be found at the markets. People are grateful for the cheap Chinese products, but are often willing to pay a premium for more specialized Turkish products. Wander around downtown Bishkek and you will find Turkish real-estate developers on every corner, but drive around Kyrgyzstan and you will find roads being built by Chinese state owned enterprises.

This parallelism extends into education, where Turkey has invested in large universities that offer scholarships for local students and an education focused on improving Turkic links. China has taken a more modest approach, offering language classes through Confucius Institutes that provide a labour force that can work as management for Chinese firms investing in the region and improve communication amongst the border traders going either way.

But neither power is seen as the dominant big brother in the region. Russian remains the lingua franca and visa free travel around the CIS means young Central Asians are more likely to work in Russia than elsewhere. American interests in Afghanistan mean that Washington’s focus is laser-like on security questions in the region, and Europe’s ambitious plans for engaging with the region have fallen foul of more pressing priorities. All three suffer from economies beset by domestic problems, and Central Asia is increasingly getting demoted in importance. China and Turkey, enjoying impressive growth, have clearly expressed an interest in growing their regional footprints.

As a NATO member, Turkey has served as a key provider of aid to Afghanistan, and China has investments in copper mines and natural gas fields. Their economic heft in Central Asia, in markets and with governments, could also become an important force-multiplier for U.S. efforts to facilitate a “New Silk Road” across Eurasia and through Afghanistan to provide development potential and contribute to long-term stability.

In discussions with policymakers and analysts in China and Turkey, a common refrain we have heard is that long-term stability is paramount for the growth of both countries’ investments in the region – a strategic interest they share with Washington. The U.S. State Department and CENTCOM would do well to coordinate the New Silk Road strategy with Beijing’s very similar Eurasian Land Bridge project and Turkey’s trans-continental trade networks across the Caspian.

At the moment, however, U.S. policymakers’ understandable fixation on troop withdrawals means the longer-term implications of the burgeoning Sino-Turkic relationship in Central Asia are unexplored. If the United States and its allies work in a vacuum separate from Chinese and Turkish activities, these implications could form a platform for an even more Western-sceptic sentiment than exists in the region at the moment.

Washington has already done some work to engage with both powers in the region, but more focused attention on this would help guarantee that everyone’s strategic objectives of a secure and stable region are ensured.

Alexandros Petersen is author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Their joint research is available at: www.chinaincentralasia.com

This is going to become a more regular outlet for my writing. As part of my ongoing work on China in Central Asia, I am going to be producing more content directly for the site that I help co-edit, China in Central Asia with Alex and Sue Anne. Thanks in particular to dear Sue Anne for working on this one with me. This first piece is based on an experience a week or so ago in Tashkent at a curious Expo that we came across there.

A Xinjiang Trade Fair in Tashkent

May 17, 2012

By Raffaello and Sue Anne Tay

Last week, we have been visiting Tashkent, Uzbekistan as part of our ongoing research on Chinese interests in Central Asia.

Fortunately, on the flight here from Beijing, one of us had the good fortune to be seated amidst a boisterous group of 40 Xinjiang businessmen part of a provincial business delegation attending a trade fair in Tashkent. They had been forced to fly through Beijing from Urumqi – a geographically illogical route – due to the fact that there are no direct flights between Tashkent and Urumqi.

At their invitation, we visited the trade fair earlier this week. Held in an old exhibition hall in the outskirts of Tashkent it was a no-frills affair with basic booths lined up four by four. In its fourth year, the Xinjiang Trade Expo was sponsored by the Uzbek Chamber of Commerce, the Xinjiang government, and the bingtuan (the former People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-managed state owned enterprise (SOE) responsible for much of Xinjiang’s industries).

On the Chinese side, the participants were a mix of Xinjiang companies specializing in locally produced goods like Xinjiang snacks of dabanji (the famous big plate chicken), mushrooms, culinary sauces, an array of Uighur style clothing (and some fancily called ‘Turky style’ clothing) and more generic industries like uniforms/garment manufacturing and electronic equipment.

Other key participants were Xinjiang subsidiaries of holdings companies based in Guangzhou as part of the central government’s push for increased domestic investment in China’s less-developed hinterlands. One manager highlighted that they had started this work in the province at the Guangdong provincial government’s request. They were offering potential Uzbek customers property investment opportunities in Kashgar in southern Xinjiang, Chinese electrical gadgets like smartphones and Ipad-knockoffs tailored to the Uighur market (appropriately labeled with an Android character donning a Uighur hat), lightning equipment, police and factory uniforms. Many of the samples on display were manufactured in southern China and shipped to and assembled in Xinjiang.

With the pomp of the opening ceremony behind them, the reception at the Xinjiang Trade Fair when we went was lackluster to say the least. A thin traffic of Uzbek passers-by browsed with fleeting curiosity at what they considered well made but expensive Chinese products.

“The Uzbek market is too small and low-income compared to the vast opportunities we have in Xinjiang,” a uniforms manufacturer salesman named Tan Chao complained. Two locally dressed older Uzbek women stopped by to finger the bright Gortex jackets and browse a catalogue. A listless conversation in stilted Russian began with no conclusive business made.

Like Tan Chao, many of the Xinjiang businessmen were bored by the lack of opportunities offered in the trade fair. When we spoke to a pair of salesmen from an agricultural machinery manufacturer subsidiary of AVIC (the Chinese military aviation SOE), they acknowledged their presence seemed almost futile. Neither spoke Russian nor were there any serious potential clients for the cotton-picking machines they were peddling (Uzbekistan is one of the global top five cotton-producers). They responded to inquirers by waving a sheet with the prices of their equipment carelessly scribbled. Amusingly, curious onlookers seemed more interested in purchasing the model on display rather than the actual machinery.

A manager of a Xinjiang-based electricity infrastructure developer (with affiliation to Siemens) named Liu Zhao was one of the more enthusiastic and serious participants. His company had specially shipped in a landscape model of an electricity grid made up of parts manufactured by their company. Liu spoke fluent Russian thanks to 2 years of study in Almaty, Kazakhstan and extensive experience travelling to the region for work.

Several businessmen we spoke to, including Liu, acknowledged the difficulties of doing business in Uzbekistan. The government welcomed investment but not competition with local industries. Hence, the options for Chinese businesses in Uzbekistan are in the form of trade of specialized Chinese goods to the Uzbek market, attracting Uzbek investment to China and vice versa.

The limited convertibility of the Uzbek currency – 1800 Uzbek som to 1 USD (at the official rate, we were told the unofficial rate was as high as 2800 som to the USD) – was another obstacle. It is prohibited to take earned foreign currency out of the country, meaning you cannot leave with more forex than you arrived. Thus, foreign companies are either compelled to reinvest domestically any Uzbek som profits or absorb foreign exchange losses made via the official foreign exchange centre.

Hence, the dilemma facing Duan Weiming, a Chinese producer of Western suits who had just made a modest sale of several tens of thousands in Uzbek som. He jokingly showed off his cash bundles to his friends. What is he going to do with all the cash he made? We inquired.

“Why, spend it all on dinner, drinks and karaoke!” he boomed smilingly in response. Maybe to go enjoy his new fortune, the group packed up early at four o’clock. With another day at the Xinjiang Trade Fair, the Chinese businessmen were determined to make the best of what remained a slow affair.