Archive for March, 2016

And now a short paper co-authored with Sarah, my co-editor on the China in Central Asia site, as part of a larger project we have been working on at our home institution of RUSI looking at China in the region. There has been an earlier report in this series, and more to come.

Security and Stability along the Silk Road

Sarah Lain and Raffaello Pantucci
RUSI Publications, 29 February 2016
Central and South Asia, International Security Studies

Proceedings of a 19 January 2016 workshop on the security context for the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) across Central Asia and the stabilising effects of investment and infrastructure development

Download the report here

On 19 January 2016, RUSI in collaboration with the University of World Economy and Diplomacy hosted a day-long workshop in Tashkent on the security context for the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) across Central Asia and the stabilising effects investment and infrastructure development could have on the region.

The workshop included a specific discussion about Uzbekistan’s role in regional security in light of the SREB initiative, as well as China’s views and approaches to security questions throughout the broader region. The event brought together participants from Uzbekistan, China and the UK, including representatives from academia and think tanks.

This workshop report summarises the discussions from the conference and offers insights into the current state of the Chinese-led project.

And now another (very short piece) for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at the implications to Russia of the opening up of Iran and what this means for the Silk Road Economic Belt vision.

China’s new silk road is designed to cut Russia out of Eurasian trade

Raffaello Pantucci says the ‘One Belt, One Road’ trade initiative is likely to sideline Moscow and give Beijing the upper hand in their awkward relationship

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 February, 2016, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 February, 2016, 2:00pm

China Tehran train

The first Chinese cargo train, following Iran-China efforts to revive the Silk Road, arrives in Tehran on February 15. The 32-container train arrived after a 14-day journey from northwestern China. Photo: EPA

President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) visit to Tehran – the first by a foreign leader since the lifting of sanctions – highlights the potential centrality of Iran to China’s broader regional foreign policy. The opening up of Iran, a country in which China has long maintained substantial interests, means Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” vision can now go cleanly across Eurasia without ever going through Russia. Moscow can be cut out.

Rouhani XJP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) shakes hands with President Xi Jinping in Tehran in January. Photo: Reuters

Visiting Tashkent, one can see the ancient routes laid out by the Timurid empire that constituted the ancient silk road. Rather than track through Russia, most would go below the Caspian and Black seas to reach Turkey and Europe. An iron silk road has been established that will track the old silk routes

Soon after Xi visited Tehran, a train laden with goods left Yiwu, Zhejiang province (浙江), headed to Tehran following this route. On February 10, it crossed the border from Turkmenistan and arrived in Iran this week. The Ukrainian minister of infrastructure announced at the same time that, by the end of the month, a direct rail line would open between Ukraine and China, cutting across Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea and Kazakhstan. An iron silk road has been established that will track the old silk routes.

Train carriage Tehran China

The first Chinese cargo train arrives in Tehran after passing through Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Photo: EPA

Moscow has long been an awkward partner for Beijing and the question of how Russia fits into the belt and road vision was always unclear. Some incorrectly saw the Eurasian Economic Union as an effort by Moscow to push back on China’s dominance in Central Asia. This misinterprets both powers’ interests: Moscow is aiming to recreate a former space of control, while China is building trade corridors. For China, the existence of a common economic space with a single tariff barrier from its borders to the edges of Europe is a benefit to trade.

Putin and XJP Sochi

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Xi Jinping meet in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. Photo: AFP

The reality is that cutting a path across Russia is a long rail route that is only going to be attractive to high-value small objects which are still fairly limited in production volume in Xinjiang – and can now instead go along the route to Ukraine. Mass-produced, high-volume goods for which China is famous are much better placed going by sea to Europe. Unless, that is, the ultimate market is in the heart of the Eurasian continent. And this is where the route across Iran is interesting – connecting China’s markets directly to the bustling bazaars of the Middle East.

In paving an iron silk road, China is gradually reducing Moscow’s importance. This will further strengthen Beijing’s hand in their bilateral relationship and reduce Russia’s power on the international stage. Isolated by the West and increasingly sidelined by China, Moscow’s decline will only be highlighted by the opening of these new routes across Eurasia.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

It has been over a month since I posted anything here, but do not worry I have not been idle. To those who receive this via email, please forgive the coming blast as I want to catch up on myself a bit. Will save all the media discussions until the last one. First up is a short blogpost for Reuters about China-India-Afghanistan, very much building on the bigger project on the subject that have been a big focus of work for some time.

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A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment shields himself from the rotor wash of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter after being dropped off for a mission with the Afghan police near Jalalabad in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan December 20, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/Files

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

Landlocked in the heart of Eurasia, Afghanistan sits in between superpowers. Previously this was Russia and the United Kingdom, using its territory as a chessboard across which they would plot intrigue against each other.

During more recent history, it became a covert battlefield between Russia and the United States as the wider ideological struggle between communism and capitalism was played out. Nowadays, however, a new momentum is building behind cooperation between two superpowers whose domestic security is linked to Afghanistan’s stability.

Beijing and Delhi’s ability to cooperate in Afghanistan is likely to be a key axis through which long-term Afghan stability will come.

Both China and India are already active players in Afghanistan. In November last year, Vice Premier Li Yuanchao visited Kabul and offered a package of $79 million for housing construction in the city. Just over a month later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the city to inaugurate the Indian built Parliament building.

China has taken an increasingly prominent role in helping broker peace talks between the warring factions in Afghanistan, while both countries have offered differing levels of support for Afghanistan’s security forces. China has provided the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) with non-lethal support while India has instead provided attack helicopters and discussed the idea of reviving arms factories with Russian support.

Both are major aid providers to Afghanistan and have played important roles in the so-called ‘Heart of Asia Process’, and while current commodity prices (and the current uncertain political and security situation) have made it less attractive at the moment, both are hosts to large state-owned extractives firms who have the capacity, scale and appetite to try to mine Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao (L) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attend a signing ceremony of mutual agreements in Kabul, Afghanistan November 3, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood/Files

Both have similar interests in Afghanistan — an eagerness for the country to have a stable heart of its region — and both have enunciated a desire for any peace process in the nation to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. Whilst they might share extremely different relationships with key outside player Pakistan, they share a surprisingly concurrent view on some of the security problems within that country.

Cooperation between them at a more strategic level has long been moving in a positive direction – President Xi Jinping has made reaching out to India a priority, while Prime Minister Modi has reciprocated through a targeted effort to connect with China. Beyond rhetoric, joint counter-terrorism training exercises, positive border dispute discussions and cooperation on the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) all show how this relationship is one that goes beyond geopolitical rhetoric.

Yet notwithstanding these similarities, cooperation and collaboration on Afghanistan has remained remarkably limited. There have been some discussions, but little action. Both have continued to undertake their efforts in parallel while they have laid out much larger visions for a broader pattern of regional engagement — China under Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision while India through the Connect Central Asia strategy. But neither has particularly addressed the question of where Afghanistan fits into this, and have in fact enunciated visions that can go around Afghanistan.

For Beijing, the ‘Belt and Road’ can flow cleanly through Central Asia, across Russia or the Caspian to Europe, or go straight from Kashgar to Gwadar, turning Pakistan in a ‘corridor’ for Chinese goods. For Delhi, the investment into the Iranian port Chabahar can be read as an attempt to create a route for Indian interests and investments to get out of Central Asia bypassing Afghanistan. In other words, both are developing regional visions that can go around Afghanistan.

But at the same time, both realize that notwithstanding their ability to develop routes around the country, an unstable Afghanistan is going to be something that could destabilize the larger visions. And this is where greater cooperation is important. Focusing on playing a complementary role in supporting Afghanistan’s security forces through providing funding and undertaking niche training rather than solely the equipment provision they are currently undertaking would address a gap that the West is eventually going to want to stop providing.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with the Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul, Afghanistan December 25, 2015. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with the Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul, Afghanistan December 25, 2015. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/Files

And this points to a larger question which China and India both seem to recognize bilaterally, but have not engaged with enough together. Both see that the West’s appetite and attention in Afghanistan is waning, and while this may irritate them and only serve to reinforce a belief in the fickle nature of Western foreign policy, it fails to resolve the fact that Afghanistan sits in their neighbourhood.

The age of competitive geopolitical games is by no means over, but in Afghanistan there are the outlines of a future cooperative relationship between two of Asia’s great emergent superpowers. Both have a key interest in Afghanistan and have a different set of relations with Kabul that if handled correctly could be complementary. Beijing and Delhi are already re-shaping the world through their sheer size and growing clout in international affairs — in their immediate neighbourhood they could direct this weight to help Afghanistan find some stability at the heart of Eurasia.