US unlikely to change minds by shouting at China’s neighbours

Posted: February 28, 2020 in Financial Times
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A new piece for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS site, looking at the wake of Secretary Pompeo’s trip to Central Asia. Covers ground that I have trodden a bit before, but also sets up some of the ideas in an upcoming much bigger book project. This aside, an earlier Foreign Policy piece on the UK’s response to the new terrorist threat was picked up in the I newspaper in the UK.

US unlikely to change minds by shouting at China’s neighbours
Washington needs more sophisticated narrative to break central Asia’s pragmatic ties to Beijing
February 24 2020

Workers outside the perimeter fence of what is officially an education centre in Xinjiang, China

Workers outside what is officially an education centre in Xinjiang, China. The plight of the Uighurs is not the only plank of Washington’s push against Beijing in the region © REUTERS

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to central Asia was the latest stop on his global push against China. It comes amid visits to Africa, Latin America and Europe where China featured high on the agenda.

As the confrontation with Beijing slowly spills into every facet of relations — from trade and technology to social media, scientific exchange and business of every sort — China has become a top talking point everywhere US officials go.

The problem is that this uniform and loud hostility will work to different degrees around the world. And nowhere is it likely to be less effective than among China’s neighbours, which are bound by geography to have a relationship with Beijing.

Mr Pompeo’s visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan followed a session on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meeting last year when he pressed those countries on their relationship with China and zeroed in on China’s mistreatment of its Uighur minority as an issue of common concern.

While the central Asians made the right noises, none of them was willing to be as forward in their criticism of China as Mr Pompeo. This was repeated on his visit to central Asia, when the secretary of state had a meeting with families of people with relations caught up in Xinjiang’s grim detention camp system. While he kept pushing for condemnation by local authorities, he was met with silence.

The plight of the Uighurs was not the only plank of Mr Pompeo’s push against China in the region. He also spoke of the dangers of Chinese investment, railing against the Belt and Road Initiative concept in particular. This is a tune which his colleague Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the region, has been pushing in south Asia, most prominently in comments before a congressional committee on Afghanistan and during a think-tank event in Washington.

Talking of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as “debt trap” diplomacy, and complaining about the lack of Chinese economic support in Afghanistan, Ms Wells has been replicating in south Asia her secretary’s push in central Asia.

Partners across China’s western flank are being told off by senior US officials for their relations with Beijing, and increasingly being pressured into confronting China more aggressively. The problem is that while these countries may respect the raw power Washington represents, they are also neighbours of China with strong economic and human ties.

These human ties are particularly relevant when it comes to what is happening in Xinjiang where there is evidence that central and south Asian family members are getting caught up in the camp system. But while countries feel some level of concern about their people, they are sensitive to the fact that this is taking place within China to Chinese nationals.

From their perspective, Beijing has not meddled in their affairs, so why should they violate this and meddle in those of Beijing? The central Asians in particular share with China a broadly similar assessment of what constitutes terrorism and extremism, and they are almost all bound together through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. They have little incentive to pick a fight with Beijing over what is happening.

In fact, the central Asia-China relationship is one with many layers. There is very little love lost between the peoples of the two regions at a public level — in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan there has been a noticeable increase in the past year of protests and clashes between Chinese populations and locals.

However, at a security level, they are getting closer. In economic terms — where almost all the attention is — their relationship is growing. The US is largely an irrelevance in trade terms for the region. Foreign direct investment is a similar story, though the US is more represented through international financial institutions. Nevertheless, none of these countries see their economic future as realistically bound up with Washington.

And the US has shown itself to be relatively uninterested in the region more generally. Mr Pompeo’s visit was the first by a senior US official since secretary of state John Kerry visited in 2015.

Aside from China (and Russia and Iran to a lesser degree), Washington’s principal preoccupation with the region appears to be to exit Afghanistan. creating a potentially major security issue on the borders of some central Asian states.

The US is also locked in an increasingly aggressive conflict with another of their neighbours, Iran, and has passed sanctions against another, Russia, as well. Living in this neighbourhood means the central Asians have to take a more pragmatic view.

The US continues to have a deep wellspring of admirers around the globe. They are increasingly finding this affection tested by the lectures about China. Nowhere is this more so than among China’s neighbours — all of whom are concerned about China’s rise but see that as an opportunity and a challenge they have to engage with rather than cut off from.

Washington needs to develop a more sophisticated and consistent narrative if it is to persuade them to work with it more closely.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think-tank

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