Archive for September, 2012

Back where this is accessible so catching up on old posting. This is a new piece based on recent travels in Kazakhstan, part of my ongoing project on China in Central Asia with Alex. On a related topic, was quoted in the UK’s Daily Telegraph about Zhou Yongkang’s visit to Afghanistan.

Chinatown, Kazakhstan?

September 20, 2012

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

Is there a Chinese restaurant in town?  The front desk clerk at our hotel answered that he knew of none in the city and could only direct us to a Japanese-Korean establishment, complete with waitresses in kimonos and chopsticks sanitized in Seoul.  While the food was good, it wasn’t what we were looking for.

Aktobe is our latest stop through the region tracking China’s influence in Central Asia.  We had heard this was the oil town where China National Petroleum Corporation runs the show and we wanted to try to get a sense of China’s role on the steppe.  Local Kazakhstani’s have nicknamed the city ‘Chinatown’ – a reflection of the size of the Chinese population. But, how could there be no Chinese restaurants in Chinatown?

The answer of course, is that there are some, though they maintain a low profile. One local Chinese worker mentioned his favorite. It’s ‘not high quality’ he said, as though our palates would only accept the most refined food. It was as we were wandering around to see Aktobe’s brand new, immaculate Russian Orthodox Church that we noticed a building with a big CNPC logo atop and the word ‘restaurant’ in Russian.  Right around the corner from our hotel, it was obviously something our concierge had never noticed. Inside a surprised waitress from Hubei pointed out the menu was only in Kazakh and Chinese. ‘没关系’ (‘never mind’) we responded with a smile to the empty dining hall.

Next door was further evidence of China: a Bank of China office. Walking in to ask whether a UnionPay card would work here, a Kazakhstani receptionist informed us in fluent Chinese that these cards could not be used here. When asked whether this was a bank only for companies, she shook her head – it was open for retail customers too, but had no capability to manage UnionPay transactions (UnionPay is the Chinese debit card system).  It was obviously a bank for local Chinese.

Chinese companies and foreign workers in Kazakhstan do not advertise their presence.  A vast country with long stretches of sparsely inhabited territory and a relatively small population, many Kazakhstani’s look warily at their overpopulated neighbor to the east.  In 2009 plans for a Chinese agricultural firm to lease parcels of land for soybean production were met with vehement nationalist protests.

Stories abound of low pay and bad working conditions at Chinese companies.  There is evidence that they import unskilled laborers from China to fill jobs that could go to locals; they even advertise for chefs that speak Chinese.  But back in Astana, Kazakhstan’s gleaming capital, energy analysts point out that nobody really knows what occurs on Chinese work sites.  Kazakhstan’s government is very strict about enforcing ‘local content’ quotas.  Local rumours may in fact be just that.

Nevertheless, in Aktobe it is quite clear that CNPC is the big player in town.  A new hotel and office complex houses a number of CNPC-AktobeMunaiGas subsidiaries, with a bustle of smart Chinese professionals coming in and out for meetings. Visitors from Beijing use the lobby bar to check emails, while colleagues take cigarette breaks in front of the building. Smaller offices can be found dotted around the city and a local sanatorium on the outskirts has apparently been turned into a rest home for the CNPC workers in from the field.

With no pagodas or chinoiserie to draw attention, relative to most American or European cities, the overt Chinese presence in Aktobe is minimal.  One has to go looking for it.  It therefore says something about the watchfulness of ordinary Kazakhstanis that Aktobe has earned its sobriquet.

Another EU-China piece to come out around the Summit this time for the Oriental Morning Post (东方早报) – as usual, published Chinese above, English submitted below. Am also going to follow up a bit on this subject, and am still awaiting for longer pieces I have written on this topic to see the light of day. In the meantime, the Summit takes place today and seems to be focusing on economic affairs.










我的观点是:欧洲对于中国至关重要,而本周的峰会将会进一步证明这点。最近所有人的目光都仅仅投射在中国对美和对其邻国的外交政策上,这不会为我们带来任何益处,只会创造更多矛盾。我们必须拥有更广阔的视野,更重视这一将给中国带来蓬勃发展的双边关系。中欧关系也许没有中美关系和中国海上关系之中那些安全因素的存在,但这应当被理解为一种优势,而非缺点。(李鸣燕 译)


Thursday marks the 15th EU-China Summit, or China’s annual meeting with its largest trading partner. And yet, it is likely that the Summit will pass without much attention with people instead focused towards America and ongoing tensions with China’s eastern neighbors. This unfortunate state of affairs highlights how a relationship with the potential to play a major role in international affairs is being left to the side while neuralgic obsessions between China and her neighbors dominate the global perception of East Asian affairs.

The EU-China relationship remains a relatively young one. While individual European member states have long and sometimes ambiguous histories with China, the European Union itself only established formal relations with China some 37 years ago, about 24 years after the foundation of a European Union and 26 years since the foundation of the People’s Republic. First established in the wake of the Second World War as a Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) between France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands the European Union was initially conceived as a way of guaranteeing that the wars that had dominated much of Europe’s history could never happen again.

Nowadays this dream has evolved further and the EU is trying to forge a common foreign and security identity to try to project itself in the world. And key amongst foreign relationships is China. Since 2004 the EU has been China’s largest trading partner and China has been the EU’s second. Currently, bilateral trade stands at a massive 428.7 billion Euros with a further 42.6 billion Euros in trade in services. The EU and China meet annually for Summit’s, have regular high level economic and strategic dialogues, and over 50 specific sectoral dialogues that meet regularly to discuss a wide variety of topics. Beyond dialogue there are a growing number of instances in which Chinese and Europeans are working together on the world stage. In the waters off Somalia, Chinese and European vessels together patrol for pirates, and earlier this year, the two announced the creation of a ‘Joint Project for Managing Disaster Risks.’ And beyond this, back and forth exchanges between European’s and Chinese are commonplace: many Chinese friends tell me of how much they enjoy going to Europe (and not just because of the weak Euro!), whilst I first came to work in China along with 30 others under the auspices of a project to improve contacts between China and Europe. And a number of us have chosen to stay on afterwards.

But for all this goodwill, the strategic relationship between China and Europe seems to constantly languish in the dark. Vastly overshadowed by the US-China relationship whose high level interactions and undertone of military hostility keep everyone imagining a new Cold War, the EU-China relationship is one that seems to slip past unobserved.

This is unfortunate, as the reality is that the EU and China are both large powers with a preference for multilateral activity on the world stage and without whom it is hard to imagine that the world will fix many of the large problems that plague it today. They do a growing amount of work together already, and the foundations are in place for more. Whilst the tendency is to dismiss Europe as a strategic power in Asia due to the absence of a large security presence, the reality is that this places it in a position where it can stand above the current tensions. In fact, in an ideal world, the EU could act as something of an honest broker between the two sides – with close links to China, Japan and the US, the EU could potentially play a role in helping calm relations. The very absence of a large European strategic security presence in Asia is something that should be seen as an asset rather than a hindrance.

The further reality is that the world is not solely dominated by security tensions. In fact, far more important to people’s daily lives are economic relations and trade – and in this aspect, the EU is as important, if not more so, than the US to China. China is in the midst of period of economic adjustment and its large economic relationship with the EU is something that is going to play an important role in laying out how this develops over time. We can already see how the downturn in Europe is having a negative effect on China. The American market has proven to be a difficult nut for Chinese firms to crack, while Europe remains far more open – something most recently seen in China Construction Bank Chairman Wang Hongzhang’s comments about seeking to invest some $15 billion in Europe.

The point is that the EU is important to China, and this week’s Summit will be further affirmation of this. Of late there has been a tendency to focus almost exclusively in the Chinese foreign policy mindset on the United States and security tensions with neighbors. This state of affairs will lead nowhere good and merely provide fodder for further tensions. A broader vision needs to be taken and one that takes into account a relationship that has brought prosperity to China. EU-China relations may lack the emotive security tensions that characterize US-China and China’s tense naval relations, but this is something that should be interpreted as an advantage rather than weakness.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) and an expert of the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN).

A new op-ed for the Global Times timed to come out alongside the EU-China Summit taking place in Brussels. The title is a bit at odds with the text I feel, but there we go. Also, their Chinese edition published my earlier article for them on EU power in Asia, for those who want to practice their Mandarin, check it out here. On another note, I have been honoured by the Diplomatic Courier magazine and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and chosen as one of their ‘Top 99 under 33 Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.’ Many thanks to them for putting me in such a distinguished group of friends and peers.

EU-China ties fall short of expectations

Global Times | 2012-9-18 20:25:03

By Raffaello Pantucci

Eight years have passed since noted sinologist David Shambaugh declared “Over time the EU-China relationship will become a new axis in world affairs.” As the 15th EU-China Summit is being held in Brussels, it is useful to pause and take stock of where the Sino-EU relations stand and to think ahead about what the relationship is likely to hold for the next administration in China. Since the giddy heights of 2004, the EU-China relationship has continued to flourish, though often its public face has been at odds with its private one.

First, the good news. Since 2004 when the EU became China’s largest trading partner and China the EU’s second, trade has continued to flourish. In 2004 total bilateral trade was 125.84 billion euros ($164.88). Nowadays, these numbers have grown to 428.7 billion euros in trade in goods, with a further 42.6 billion euros in services. And the EU clearly continues to remain a key target market for acquisitions by Chinese investors. On the eve of the summit, China Construction Bank Chairman Wang Hongzhang announced that his bank was looking to spend somewhere in the region of $15 billion on investments in “UK, Germany or France.”

Second, people-to-people exchanges continue apace. In 2010, there were some 120,000 Chinese students in Europe. That same year, some 2.5 million Chinese visited Europe in total. And coming the other way, China has long been a preferred destination of European tourists, and there are growing numbers of European students at Chinese universities, researchers at Chinese institutes, and European-owned restaurants and stores. When Chinese look to quality brands, it is luxury from Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada or Zegna they look for.

Third, China and the EU are doing increasing amounts of things together on the world stage. The most obvious example is the anti-piracy mission off Somalia where European and Chinese ships serve together to protect international shipping. Elsewhere in Africa, work is developing, but in November 2007, both sides committed to “more practical cooperation by the two sides through their respective existing cooperation mechanisms with Africa so as to contribute to Africa’s peace, stability and sustainable development.”

But it is not all wine and roses. There are tensions between the two: On Syria in particular a lack of consensus has led to blockage in the UN Security Council. While both agree climate change and environmental degradation is something they agree is negative, responses vary. And for all the trade back and forth, there remains a lack of trust between the two on certain trade matters and intellectual property rights questions.

It would also be disingenuous to not observe that the public rhetoric in the relationship has also taken a beating over the years. This got particularly bad in 2008 when protests in Europe around the Olympic torch relay resulted in a backlash against France in particular. But it is worth noting that even as the rhetoric got hot, trade between the EU and China remained strong – in fact, EU exports to China grew from 78.4 billion euros in 2008 to 82.4 billion euros in 2009.

Such tensions are normal within such a large and complex relationship. Recently, there has been a tendency to focus on the Beijing-Berlin axis as though this was the only relationship that mattered between the EU and China. The reality is that Germany is the largest economic player in the EU, a position that has been emphasized by the recent downturn that has affected others in Europe worse than Germany. So it is only natural that they should end up playing an outsized role in the EU’s relationship with one of its biggest trading partners.

As we approach the end of one chapter in EU-China relations, we have clearly not yet lived up to the high bar set by David Shambaugh in 2004. However, we have made considerable progress in a positive direction and laid strong foundations that can be built on by subsequent administrations.

The author is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and an expert of the Europe China Research and Advice Network.

Been unable to access this for a while, so catching up a bit on posting. This is a new one for an outlet I am quite pleased with, the Financial Times Beyond Brics blog. Looks at the 2nd China Eurasia Expo that I went to out in Urumqi, Xinjiang. More on that to come as part of my ongoing China in Central Asia work.

Xinjiang: Struggle to Revive Silk Road

September 4, 2012 10:41 am by beyondbrics

Picture from here

By Raffaello Pantucci

What do  you do about attracting investment if you are a remote corner of China, best-known internationally for your ethnic tensions?

If you are Xinjiang, you invest heavily in a blockbuster economic exhibition. Urumqi is this week hosting its second annual China-Eurasia Expo, opened this year by premier Wen Jiabao, a clear upgrade from last year’s star host, vice premier Li Keqiang.

Leaders and/or ministers from seven countries flew in, giving credence to Wen’s claim that the Expo aimed ‘to build a new bridge of friendship and cooperation across the Eurasian continent…and make Xinjiang a gateway.’ But it’s along way from prime ministerial declarations to the investment that Xinjiang badly needs.

The ‘China-Eurasia Expo’ with its cheery mascot – the animated horse Xinxin – is an evolution from the more cumbersomely named ‘Urumqi Foreign Economic Relations and Trade Fair’ that was held annually since September 1992. Upgraded to a more grandiose Expo as part of a raft of policies to try to help the province economically in the wake of brutal rioting in Urumqi in 2009 that claimed more than 200 lives, the event is part of a push to help build the region’s foreign trade links.

From outside China, Volkswagen has invested some €170m ($225m) into building a new production plant outside Urumqi. Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn told reporters in January that they had been approached by Beijing to develop the plant in the region alongside their local partner SAIC.

The plan is for the plant to start production in 2015 with a target output of 50,000 cars a year.

VW joins a growing list of Chinese vehicle companies that have established plants in the region. The hope for VW is to reach the growing central Asian markets as well as the domestic Xinjiang market: in Urumqi alone the numbers of cars on the road doubled from 2009 to 2011 from 200,000 to 400,000.

According to Chinese customs figures, cross-border trade in vehicles with central Asia stood at $680m in 2011 – though over 80 per cent of this was in heavy trucks.

China is also eagerly courting Turkish investment – showcased at the Expo by the appearance of economic minister Ali Babacan. Turkey’s cultural proximity to the restive Uighur Turkic minority (the languages are mutually comprehensible) has led China to encourage Turkish investment in the hope it will be seen in a less suspicious light by locals who resent the Han Chinese presence in the province.

Key to this is the establishment of a Turkish-Chinese Industrial Park in Urumqi, which was first agreed in April 2011 between Turkish and Xinjiang trade officials. Located just south of Urumqi and offering low tax rates and financial support to encourage development, the park aims to attract Turkish textiles and food producers. Babacan said in his presentation that Turkey wanted to contribute to regional development and that he hoped to see a ‘new Silk Road from Istanbul to Beijing.’

Beijing’s aim is not just to draw in investors, but also to tie Xinjiang into a broader region through a network of roads, rail links and Special Economic Zones (SEZs) aimed at increasing the volume of trade between the province and central Asia.

Established in Kashgar and Khorogos (a border post with Kazakhstan) the uncompleted SEZs are key nodes in a recently-built network of roads and rail radiating out from Kashgar to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and from Urumqi north to Kazakhstan.

Xinjiang recorded 10.7 per cent economic growth in the first half of 2012, 2.9 percentage points higher than the national growth rate, according to local officials. But it’s moving from a low base, in terms of income and investment levels.

There are limits to Expo’s ability to attract foreign investment. According to official figures $29.14bn of domestic investment was attracted through last year’s show, compared to only $5.5bn from abroad.

As well its domestic challenges, Xinjiang is hampered by the shortcomings of the generally underdeveloped countries in the surrounding region. Central Asian economies are remote and still farily poor,  while Afghanistan and Pakistan suffer from violence and instability.

Official figures for the first six months of 2012 show that Xinjiang’s foreign trade stood at $9.82 bn ($7.29 bn in exports and $2.53bn in imports), a year-on-year increase of 9.2 per cent. That was better than the national average of 7.8 per cent, but the growth rate was substantially slower than last year’s 33 per cent for the whole of 2011.

About 78 per cent of this trade was with the five central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) – meaning Xinjiang is reliant on trade growth with a region replete with serious problems. Something the fanfare of an international Expo is unlikely to change.

Raffaello Pantucci, is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS)


A short piece I wrote a little while ago for the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN), focusing on the EU and China’s diplomatic links. For more about ECRAN, please go here, while to know about this specific project, please go here. More on this topic for ECRAN to come in the next few days as we gear up for the EU-China Summit.


Diplomatic Links

Raffaello Pantucci

Current Status

There is no shortage of diplomatic relations between the EU and China. According to the EEAS count there are over 50 dialogues current running under three major pillars (strategic, economic and sectoral, and people-to-people), with the annual EU-China Summit at its apex. Additional high level conferences include senior business dialogues, a recently established minister-level energy dialogue, a party political forum between European Parliamentary parties and the Chinese Communist Party, as well as lower level interactions across the board through executive branch interactions, Track II meetings (often including think tanks), and a whole array of other forms of contact. In addition, EU- level interactions with China are further repeated at the national level as Member States maintain their bilateral relationships with China. And sitting atop this, there is the diplomatic interaction between the EU, EU Member States and China in international institutions like the United Nations, G20, or the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). This high level and regular interaction at so many levels is testament to not only a close relationship, but also to the preference both sides show for multilateralism in international affairs.

The stated EU goal of this wide array of interactions is to provide an ‘effective tool for further widening and deepening EU relations with China.’ However, it is not always clear exactly how effective they have been. European diplomats involved in this process have highlight successes in getting Chinese movement on particular issues during specific economic or trade dialogues – something independently confirmed in the statements issued after meetings. But in other exchanges, for example the human rights dialogue, it is unclear whether the Chinese side is very cooperative. There have, for example, been reports that some European NGO participants due to engage in a human rights legal seminar did not have their visas approved to enter the country. Given the depth and complexity of the relationship, issues like this are perhaps unsurprising, but there is a need to focus and move beyond this wide-ranging discussion towards a practical relationship that enables the EU and China to advance their interests in international affairs through deeper interaction.

Part of the problem with moving the relationship in this direction lies on the Chinese side where the preference is for gradual progress and rumination. China and the EU interact a great deal at a diplomatic level, but the results do not appear publicly as fruitful as the China-US relationship where the annual strategic and economic dialogue is often welcomed with international fanfare and every senior Sino-American interaction becomes a global spectacle. However, despite appearances, the reality is that neither the US nor the EU are able to get much movement out of China when it does not wish to move. While relations at a working level between the US and their Chinese counterparts may be more in-depth than those with Europe, it is rare to get China to change its ways on an issue due only to diplomatic pressure or interaction.

Why diplomatic links matter

Diplomatic relations between the China and EU – two of the largest human and trading bodies on the planet – are clearly central to international affairs. A strong and proactive bilateral EU-China relationship is something that will be central in helping the world lift itself out of the current economic crisis and handling future problems that may arise.

The thrust behind much of the EU’s diplomatic interaction with China is to advance self-interest, but also partly to buy into Robert Zoellick’s notion of China becoming a more ‘responsible stakeholder’ in global affairs. However, China is only just beginning to accept this notion and generally remains beset with domestic issues that its leadership says should take precedence over international affairs. China will only become engaged when its direct interests are affected and it feels that it can justify its actions before the Chinese public. These are not criteria that necessarily coincide with European diplomatic aims. For example, Europe is very concerned and active diplomatically with regard to the ongoing unrest in Syria and the Iranian nuclear programme. These are both issues in which China has a stake although it is not moving at the speed or in the direction that Europe would necessarily like. And when there is evidence of movement on the Chinese side, it is not at all clear whether it is European diplomacy that has directly achieved these shifts.

There is nevertheless quite a clear confluence in preferred methods of dealing with issues between the EU and China, both of whom prefer non-confrontational methods of dispute resolution and are focused on conflict prevention. While some Member States have in recent years focused on the hard end of diplomacy in international affairs, at an EU level the emphasis remains diplomacy and dialogue – something that generally accords with China’s approach.

Diplomatic relations are a key tool of statecraft, allowing states to interact at a formal level in defined ways that allow for grievances to be aired, agreements reached and positions clarified. Given the crucial importance of the bilateral EU-China economic relationship, it is vital that diplomatic interaction between these two parties continue on the right path. The specific EU-China diplomatic relationship (as opposed to individual Member State bilateral relationships) is particularly important as it provides European states with the gravitas to speak to China as a peer. A nation of Denmark’s size (5.5 million) is better able to guarantee that it will be heard if it speaks within a body representative of more than 500 million citizens (i.e. through the EU). Formal discussions in which the EU is seen as the lead actor are elevated in importance and encourage the Chinese side to be more willing to engage in a practical manner. Currently, this coherence seems insufficient, meaning that it has proved difficult to advance relations into a more practical phase.

This report has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of ECRAN and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

A short letter from the road for a new outlet, the excellent Indian magazine Caravan that I have only recently discovered. Written with Alex, it is part of our work on China in Central Asia, though focused rather more heavily on the Chinese side of the border. A lot more of this to come, including a few longer pieces that will take a bit longer to get out. The picture is courtesy the lovely Miss Tay.

Letters from: Xinjiang


Along the road to China’s closest strategic partner

by Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen | Published September 1, 2012

A Kyrgyz guide takes his horse for a drink in Lake Karakul, roughly halfway between Kashgar, in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, and the Pakistan border. By Sue Anne Tay

On paper, the Karakoram Highway stretches from Kashgar in China’s far western province of Xinjiang to Islamabad. In reality, it unfolds like a ribbon across China’s westernmost border before its tarmac comes to an abrupt halt at the Khunjerab Pass on Pakistan’s border – the highest spot on the world’s highest paved international highway. China scholars often point out that domestic concerns colour Beijing’s foreign relations, but the multifarious stops and diverse communities along the Karakoram reveal that China’s domestic concerns are anything but uniform.

Our journey starts in Ürümqi, a grubby metropolis of more than 2.3 million people that looks like many other second- or third-tier Chinese cities. Large boulevards cluttered with imposing buildings are filled with frenetic construction as the city rushes to erect more shopping malls to appease insatiable local consumers. As the capital of an autonomous region which is China’s largest political subdivision, and home to a substantial portion of China’s natural wealth, it is also a draw for poor fortune-seekers from neighbouring provinces. A taxi driver from the adjacent province of Gansu boasted how opportunities in Ürümqi are plentiful, with girlfriends to match—one for each day of the week.

The driver who picked us up in Kashgar, about 1,000 km south of Ürümqi, had a very different story to tell. A local Uyghur who had developed a substantial business in the region, he complained instead about the ineptitude of the local police as he pointed to the visibly heavy security around the airport. Kashgar distinguishes itself as majority Uyghur—the Turkic ethnic group that claims to be the original inhabitants of the territory that is Xinjiang. Traditional Uyghur culture and history is perceivable at every turn. The Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China, sits on the edge of what is left of Kashgar’s old town, a warren of mud-brick houses reminiscent of Kabul or the dusty trading centres of Central Asia.

But the Han presence in the city is becoming increasingly visible. In the wake of violent clashes between Han and Uyghur that claimed more than 200 lives in 2009, the government in Beijing called for a reordering of its strategy towards the underdeveloped region. Part of this was the designation of Kashgar as a Special Economic Zone in May 2010, and the command that more prosperous provinces in China aid in developing Xinjiang. Shanghai, for example, is responsible for four areas within Kashgar Prefecture. But the most visible aspect of this partnership can be found on the first part of the Karakoram Highway on the way out of Kashgar. Immense construction sites with names of Guangzhou (formerly Canton) companies fill either side of the road with large billboards advertising the modern wonders to come. One high-class establishment advertises a luxury experience complete with an English butler service. Another artful rendering of a shopping mecca under construction was surrounded by a list of the famous Western brands soon to be on offer.

Our Uyghur driver was a younger chap still trying to find his way in the world, preoccupied with the demographic shift likely to come with the construction. According to his figures, some 600,000 Han were expected to flood in, overwhelming the Uyghur population and changing the face of Kashgar. The reality of such numbers is impossible to confirm, but watching carts pulled by donkeys hauling farmers and their wares to and from the city in front of these billboards, there is a sense of the rapid, monumental change underway. For Han moving out here to escape poverty in China’s interior or the crowded southern provinces, this change represents a new beginning. For our Uyghur driver, it is an ominous symbol of cultural erasure.

According to Chinese officials, the end goal of this construction is far less menacing than it seems. The current policy, they say, is directed at connecting one of China’s less developed regions to the country’s regional neighbours—the hope being that trade will bring prosperity and soothe some of the tensions so often on display between the various communities in the province. This means revitalising Kashgar’s historical role as a key trade hub on the old Silk Road, 35 years after the Karakoram Highway opened up a direct route to Pakistan.

As we continued along the highway, the presence of China’s regional neighbours became more visible. Opal, a small hamlet about 60 km southwest of Kashgar, is a dusty crossroads with fruit-sellers and donkey carts whose main claim to celebrity is the mausoleum of Mahmud al-Kashgari, the Turkic languages’ own Samuel Johnson. Born in Kashgar in 1005 AD, al-Kashgari studied in Baghdad and drew up not only the first Turkic dictionary, but also the first known map of the areas inhabited by Turkic peoples. Today he rests down a beaten track off Opal’s main thoroughfare. His statue stands in front of a weather-beaten museum. The grim-faced Uyghur guard looked up from her knitting to tell us not to take pictures as we enjoyed its limited pleasures. Al-Kashgari’s mausoleum is a whitewashed 1980s renovation watching over a vast mud cemetery with the Kunlun Mountains barely visible in the distance veiled by a sudden dust storm.

Along the side of the road leaving Opal, set apart from the desolate landscape of scrub and red-clay mountains and near one of the occasional open-pit mines that reveal the natural wealth of the province, a group of coal miners watched as one of them packed up to leave. Their faces were haggard and stained with soot. One burly Qinghai-native complained about the bad working conditions as a Yunnanese family gathered their belongings for a bus ride to Kashgar and then on to Ürümqi, where they hoped better times awaited them. Our Uyghur driver, too, had thoughts of leaving. He had been trying to find a way to move to Turkey, he told us, where he hoped that the chance of a common ethnicity would help open doors for him.

About halfway between Kashgar and the Pakistan border, we came across Lake Karakul. On its banks, a hut owned by local Kyrgyz herders provided some refuge from the howling wind. Our driver had heard stories that the Kyrgyz in this area were known to have helped authorities find a group of wanted Uyghurs who sought to cross the mountainous borders that surround the lake.

Further down the road in Tashkurgan, he told us a similar story about the local Tajik community, highlighting how tense relations can be between the various ethnic groups in this part of China. On the Chinese side nearer the country’s border with Tajikistan, this Persian-Tajik community speaks a different language to their ethnic brethren across the border.

Our driver became tenser the closer we got to the border regions. The area is very ethnically diverse, and the languages used are neither Mandarin nor his native Uyghur. Security is also a more visible concern, with regular army posts visibly stamping Beijing’s dominance. The notably empty town Karasu marks the Chinese side of the Kulma Pass, the way into Tajikistan. A brand-new customs post sits awaiting business with plastic still covering most of the furniture inside the building.

At Daptar, our driver was hesitant to stop. Another Pamir village, it is home to the last civilian inhabitants on the Chinese side of the Afghan border. Off in the distance, a ‘V’ in the mountains denotes where the Wakhan Corridor runs into Afghanistan. Locals were clearly on high alert given their location and the road that leads to the border with Afghanistan is a poor brother to the spotless and new Karakoram Highway. Here the highway is festooned with cameras, tracking the progress of all non-military vehicles. In the vicinity and visible from the road, large stone writing on the sides of hills instructs in Mandarin, “Protect the border; protect the country; protect the people.”

The Chinese side of the Karakoram Highway comes to an abrupt halt at the Khunjerab Pass, at the top of a hillock, leading to a more dilapidated path on the Pakistani side. White markers define the border and an imposing arch emblazoned with the Communist Party of China symbol straddles the road. On a previous visit there, a gaggle of Chinese domestic tourists eagerly took photographs of one another. One middle-aged woman decided she wanted to explore Pakistan for herself. An agitated young private from Hubei in distant central China whom we had been chatting with frantically ordered her back. But she waved him off with “mei guanxi (no worries)”, eager to explore for herself. Having noted disappointedly that the Pakistani guards were not leaving their hut that day, she returned to Chinese soil.

The locals tell stories of those who try to cross the border permanently, how they often lose their way in the snow amongst isolated peaks. At more than 4,000 metres, the border itself seems more porous than it likely is. Long empty valleys lead to rugged, snow-capped mountains with no clear fence to demarcate one side from the other. Recently, there has been a spike in Chinese concerns about security across the border, something reflected in our Uyghur driver’s attitude as we got closer. He became quieter and more visibly tense, only really calming down when we got back to Tashkurgan and sat down to dinner. Back here at a strategic peak in the middle of a valley leading to Pakistan, it was easier to objectively consider our journey along the Karakoram Highway, through the patchwork of peoples along the route binding two close allies together. The nations it brings together may be ‘higher than the mountains’ but for those living in the valleys, the differences remain strong.