The West’s Missed Opportunity in Central Asia

Posted: September 6, 2022 in The Wire China
Tags: , , , ,

It has been quite a while since I posted. My new book was published and I got caught up with a number of things and frankly this fell behind. Am also in need of a bit a refresh to the site, but cannot quite figure it out. If anyone reading this has any suggestions, please do feel free to get in touch and let me know! But now to catch up on a few months worth of articles. But for the time being here is a longer interview with the excellent The Wire China inspired and promoting my new book looking at China in Central Asia, Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire. A few of these to come, as well as some extracts that were published.

The West’s Missed Opportunity in Central Asia

Raffaello Pantucci talks to Andrew Peaple about Xinjiang’s relationship to Central Asia, the BRI’s origins, and the China-Russia relationship in Central Asia.

Q & A

Raffaello Pantucci is a scholar and senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), whose research focuses on China’s relations with its western neighbors, as well as terrorism and counter-terrorism. His new book, Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, investigates China’s relations with its neighbors in Central Asia, based on extensive travel in the region and in China’s western province of Xinjiang. In the following lightly edited interview, we talked about why Central Asia is key to Beijing’s controversial policies towards Xinjiang’s Uyghur population, its economic and security relations in the region and its approach to Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal last year.


Raffaello Pantucci.
Illustration by Lauren Crow

Q: You make the argument in your new book that China’s approach to Central Asia can largely be explained by its concerns over Xinjiang. Can you explain your thinking — and to what extent do you think China’s strategy is working?

A: Xinjiang is in many ways the sixth Central Asian country, or seventh, if you include Afghanistan. It’s just an accident of history that it ended up within China’s borders; it’s always had a very strong connection to Central Asia. If you look at the populations on the ground, everyone associates the Uyghurs with Xinjiang, but there are quite substantial Uyghur diasporas in Central Asia. And if we think about Central Asian peoples, there are large Kazakh, Tajik and Kyrgyz populations in China. So the intermingling and the linkages to the region are very strong, and this goes back centuries. These are longstanding nomadic communities that were transient across the entire space, until the borders were defined at various moments.

So, Xinjiang has always been intimately tied to Central Asia. Going back to the end of the Cold War, China saw that the links that Xinjiang had with the region were very important. If we look at the mid-1990s, when [former vice premier] Li Peng did a famous tour through the region and visited four of the capitals, you can see he’s talking in these places about the problems of separatists, which was a reference to the Uyghurs, and he was talking about building new Silk Roads across this region, linking China up. So it’s always been a running theme for China.

If you take it forward to today, the important marker to look at is 2009, when there was large-scale rioting in Urumqi and Xinjiang, which led to a change in the government’s approach towards the region. And what we saw happen after that was a kind of supercharging of economic linkages between Xinjiang and Central Asia. The government decided that if it was going to fix the problems that had expressed themselves so brutally in the rioting, it needed to do two things: One was a very heavy security crackdown, which we’ve seen and also has a long history behind it. But two, it really needed to improve the economy in the region, because that would be the longer-term answer to bringing stability to Xinjiang. And if you’re going to develop this region, which is as landlocked as any of the Central Asian countries it’s next to, you’re going to have to develop its linkages and help improve its prosperity through the region it is adjacent to. I think that connection [with Central Asia] is at the core of what China sees as the longer-term answer to stability in Xinjiang.

Is it working?

It’s very challenging. After 2009, the perception from Beijing was that the violence in Xinjiang and emanating from Xinjiang was getting worse. And so what we’ve seen over the past few years is the dominance of the security approach, pushing down the economics approach. But they recognize that the economic path is the way to bring stability in the longer term.

You also argue that even though Xinjiang is central to China’s thinking on Central Asia, it still doesn’t have a really coherent strategy towards the region. There seems to be a paradox there.

We started doing the work on this book in the early 2010s. We traveled around the region and Xinjiang, and we found this clear connection, which had quite a long history and was clearly growing. And it was clear to us that there was something happening; there was a big surge into Xinjiang, which was having an overspill into Central Asia, but it was equally clear that it wasn’t all coordinated. And whenever we talked to people in Beijing or Shanghai, the big strategists, we never had a sense that there was a coherent strategy saying “Okay, so first, we’re going to do this, then we do that, and the answer will be this.”

Then in 2013, after we had done a whole bunch of this research and travel, Xi Jinping went to Astana [in Kazakhstan], and announced the Silk Road Economic Belt, and then a month later, we got the 21st century Maritime Silk Road [which together became the Belt and Road Initiative]. And of course, the year before, in 2012, [Peking University professor] Wang Jisi had given his famous treatise about China marching westward. And so suddenly, you start to see there is some clear thinking about what this is going to look like. But what we still never quite saw was actually a clear, laid out plan. In fact, what it looked like was that what had been happening in Central Asia for some time was being formalized, and then basically becoming China’s larger strategy for engaging with the world. At the same time, we still never saw a very clear and perfectly articulated strategy for Central Asia, it’s more that Central Asia becomes the first place where this approach has been tested.

Why do you think Central Asia is important? And should we in the West be paying more attention to what China is doing there?

It’s a bit of a lacuna that the Indo Pacific strategies being pushed out now [by the U.S. and EU] focus almost single-mindedly on the maritime side. They’re missing a huge story that’s happening in Eurasia. And this is important to Europe, particularly, but also more grandly, in bigger strategic terms. This is where all of these powers that at the moment the West is locked in a struggle with, have a very important stake. And so it seems odd that we’re not engaging more.

But at the same time, Central Asia is an interesting mix, if you look at the degrees of engagement. For example, the European Union is always talking about Central Asia as a place where it really wants to engage, and engage with China as well. But it’s never quite been able to pull it off, because Europe has various internal complexities that make it very difficult for them to focus on some things, when there are other priorities.

For the United States, when you had the focus on Afghanistan, the region was very interesting and appealing; whenever you don’t have that, it’s become less crucial. At the same time, the U.S. even having a small presence does have an outsized impact. What we’ve seen over the past few weeks is an attempt by Washington to engage with the region in quite an interesting way, but not to the degree that the region wants and is actually needed, it’s still not rising that high up in the rankings.

What are the implications if the West does allow China to just carry on increasing its economic, security, and even its cultural ties with Central Asia?

It’s worth remembering that we have got countries here like Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have created problems that have struck the West quite dramatically in recent times. This is not a region that is unimportant; it does have an ability to reach out and hit us.

It feels like a missed opportunity to just say that the Eurasian heartland is going to be signed over to this new axis of authoritarian powers, comprising Russia, China and Iran, and that these countries in between will just get stuck into that morass. There is a real opportunity in Central Asia where you have got some relatively young countries, that have a desire to reach westward, that have young populations that are very interesting and dynamic. And it feels like a missed opportunity to just say it’s off the beaten track, too complicated, let’s just leave it alone, when actually you’re dealing with countries that would be very keen to engage more in Western discourse, and are trying, in some cases, to move in that direction.

At the moment, they have this sort of easy fallback of Russia and China; Russia, they’re always very slightly worried about and China they’re also not totally happy with at the moment, probably a little bit more comfortable than with Russia because of current Russian activity. If we go back and look at history and geopolitics, this is the Eurasian landmass, which is the biggest single piece of territory on the planet; and for it to just be sort of controlled by these other powers misses a geopolitical beat. And just focusing on the maritime side of China misses not only a huge part of China, but also a huge part of Eurasia.

Frankly, what the region wants is options; they don’t want to be constrained. And the difficulty they have is when they don’t have any options. They would like to have Western options available to them as well. These are countries that would like to craft out a different path, they are 30 years young: It’s 30 years since they shed the Soviet yoke, they don’t really want to just fall under someone else’s. They would like to be able to craft out an individual identity.

What attitude have governments in Central Asia tended to take towards the reports of the oppression that’s taking place in Xinjiang?

There was concern and knowledge about it, it’s certainly something that did come up. But the flip to that was, I never really saw vast protests or movements to try to do something about it. There is a Uyghur diaspora in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in particular. And in the past, Kazakhstan has been a place where lots of dissidents used to gather. And in Kyrgyzstan there have been previous incidents of Chinese getting murdered there by angry Uyghur groups. So there is a history and a connection in that way. But when I would go to the region, I wouldn’t find much sympathy towards the Uyghurs. The sentiment was often “Well, they probably brought it on themselves in some way.” And at the government level, there was always a sense of ‘we don’t criticize what other governments do, in terms of handling their own internal security, because we don’t want them to criticize us’.

What about the other criticism that you sometimes hear of China’s economic diplomacy, which is that it’s forcing countries into debt in order to entrench China’s power?

There’s always that fear, but I’ve never liked the debt diplomacy, debt trap narrative, because I feel it removes agency from the host countries. We can question judgment; we can question whether a project was undertaken under corrupt practices, or whether something happened behind the scenes. But I struggle to find evidence that there’s a conscious effort by the Chinese bankers and companies to essentially entrap these countries in some way, to then reclaim something from them. In some deals, there was quite clearly an effort by the Chinese company or the bank to make sure they had a guarantee, and they will say, “We’re going to do this project, but we will need some mineral rights to ensure our returns.” The transaction was at that level, it wasn’t a forced thing, the government had the agency to make the decision or not. Now, they’re very poor countries, how many things are really off the table? You can question some of that. But I was never very convinced by the debt trap diplomacy argument, because this suggests a level of planning and antagonism from Beijing that I always struggled to find.

The impression I got from the book was that there are several projects that China is essentially extending its investment-driven model to Central Asia, to the benefit of Chinese companies. Does that bring any benefit to the local economy, though?

It’s a good question. It was one of the jokes I used to hear on these trips, people would say, “Well, you look at some of these projects. Money has moved from one building in Beijing to another building in Beijing, and a road has popped up in Tajikistan.” And there was something to that, when you looked at the way that these deals were structured.

At the same time, a road did pop up in Tajikistan. To give another example there, they had the famous “tunnel of death” that used to cut across the country, which was built by the Iranians in the late 2000s and which was a terrifying thing to go down. The Chinese built a parallel one that is much better and is safe, and you don’t have to worry about it flooding and you don’t have to worry about it possibly collapsing on you. These are real benefits — although it’s not a uniform story, there are definitely examples you can find where the net result, frankly, has been problems on the ground that have then ended up in more money having to be spent to retro-fix.

How coordinated did you find China’s investments under the BRI to be in the region?

A crucial thing to say about this is that the BRI was already happening in the region, before it was the BRI. And it got called the BRI afterwards. Everything that had been happening in the region then suddenly got rebranded as BRI and just continued on. BRI is a slogan, really. In this region, in particular, you can see that the slogan was just slapped on top of something that was already happening.

The most dynamic and potentially coordinated area I’d look at is the digital space, where there is an interesting narrative. And the mechanics of how it all ties together still need to be unpicked. Chinese telecom companies like ZTE and Huawei are responsible for the hardware in the region. They’re increasingly responsible for a growing proportion of the software as well. Alibaba has investments in the region. Alibaba’s investments in Russia and the connections that these companies all have through the SCO, and some of the legislative changes that have started happening in the region — there is something that feels a bit more coherent. If we look at the payment systems that come alongside Alibaba and Taobao, all of that does seem to be a bit more edgy. And that is interesting, because there you are seeing the kind of future market that is being both built and, increasingly, delivered by Chinese companies.

There’s also an awful lot of froth around the BRI. Whenever leaders came out to visit, they would sign multibillion dollar deals, and then you’d look in and see that this actually was a lot of deals for the past five years and the future five years, all repackaged together, stuffed into one number so that it can look bigger. In reality, the future ones might never happen, the older ones are gonna get redone. A bit of realism has probably been injected into the process. But look, BRI is not going to go away, because Xi’s written it into the constitution of the Party. So yeah, BRI forever!

The idea that most people on the outside probably have is that Central Asia is a region where Russia still supplies a lot of the security and military muscle, and China increasingly is providing economic support and growth for the region. How do the two countries interact there?

The China-Russia relationship in Central Asia is an interesting one. I often think the tension is overplayed, because I found it in fairly limited supply on the ground. There’s a degree to which you have Russian paranoia. But we tend to think of it as though Russia is worried that its sphere of influence is getting eroded in some way. What that misses is that Russia still does have a very strong influence in the region. If we think back to the beginning of the year, and the protests in Kazakhstan, or even if you go back and look at the fall of Kabul last year, it wasn’t China that countries turned to, it was Russia. It was Moscow that sent soldiers to help stabilize Kazakhstan. Russia does do military sales to a lot of the Central Asians, and did joint training exercises with the Uzbeks and the Tajiks in the wake of the fall of Kabul. So Russia is still a very important security actor in the region. It has also got an important economic connection, through the Eurasian Economic Union. Russian companies, of course, are able to operate there quite happily, and so there is a kind of strong historical connection that continues to sort of exist with Russia now.

Having said that, China is clearly the growing force and becoming probably the most consequential power in the region. What’s different is that Russia takes a more paternalistic view of the region, and China is seeing it in a much more transactional light. And so while China does engage increasingly in security matters, they engage with matters that are linked to its interests. The PAP — the People’s Armed Police, a kind of security force in China that is very closely linked to the party that usually deals with domestic security issues — is often at the front of engagement with the region, because their primary security concern with the region isn’t this abstract geopolitical fight with the Russians, it is a very specific one: militants gathering there to come and hit them back at home. China’s very focused on its own interests.

It’s the same at the economic level, these companies that are going in, they’re going in there to do deals, to do transactions; they’re not going there, for some sort of abstract, geopolitical goal. It’s driven by whatever company they’re working for. We get caught up in these geopolitical games. In reality, the Russians do see it as their kind of fiefdom. And the Chinese are just coming in and doing what they want and what they’re worried about. So those two concepts don’t necessarily need to collide. Where they do collide, the key thing we have to remember is that for both Beijing and Moscow, far more important than whatever happens in these countries, is their geopolitical alignment against the United States and the West. As long as that exists, they will overlook whatever tensions and issues you find in the countries in between.

From what you’ve seen, then, it still seems the case that China is pretty reluctant to get involved in anything that involves its own military.

We’re still a way off that, frankly. Now, this is a negative for the region in a way, because the Russians have shown themselves to be a mixed protector at best. The West has demonstrated its fleeting interest, with the coming and going in Afghanistan. And so, with China slowly becoming the most consequential economic actor in this region, you would expect it to try to play a greater role in trying to mediate some of the tensions. But I’ve seen very little appetite from Beijing to do that. A kind interpretation would say, well, where have they got the experience of doing this sort of thing successfully? And this is a very complicated region, is this really the place you want to start testing these things out? But an unkind reading would say, frankly, they just don’t care. Because they say, “It’s up to you to have your history and work things out.” And sadly, that narrative is probably the more prevailing one in Beijing.

When the U.S. and Western withdrawal from Afghanistan happened last year, there was speculation that it had been left open for the Chinese to come in and dominate. You seem relatively skeptical that that’s what’s taking place.

When we went to Afghanistan, in the early 2010s, the same deals that are being talked about now with the Chinese were being talked about then, and had actually been signed. There’s two big resource deals basically: there’s one in Mes Aynak, a copper project, and there’s one up in the north in Amu Darya, an oil and energy concession. And those two projects were ones that were signed with the Republic government, when the Americans were the dominant force there, and they didn’t go anywhere for many years, and the companies had all sorts of problems. I don’t think any of these problems have really gone away: the only one that could be said to have gone away is security, where it is now frankly, more stable than it was previously. But at the same time, the Taliban openly talked about protecting Mes Aynak; they said a number of times, we will protect this project. My point is they [the Chinese] were not able to deliver on these projects when you had in power in Kabul a more technocratic government that could manage these sorts of things. I don’t know how that becomes easier now with a government that doesn’t have that same sort of technocratic expertise, and is treated as a pariah on the world stage.

The caveat is what we have seen in recent months, which is very interesting in Afghanistan, is a growing push at a much lower level of economic engagement. We have seen a lot of low level trading going on, and an opening up of shuttle routes for pine nuts, or saffron or lapis lazuli — all products that the Afghans have that are of interest to the Chinese market. This is a positive because these are projects and commercial transactions that will benefit a larger number of Afghans, because it’s not about state-to-state deals about mineral resources, which only really benefit the central government and a few workers and don’t have a much wider impact. We have seen the Chinese try to encourage that, and that’s creating an interesting connection economically between Afghanistan and China, which actually costs the Chinese state very little. Because just making sure pine nuts can get into your country, what does that cost the Chinese state?

It remains a very live concern in Beijing that trouble in Afghanistan could overspill into Xinjiang. I think the more likely immediate source of threat probably comes from problems in Afghanistan spilling into Pakistan, and impacting Chinese projects and investments there. I think that’s of equal concern to Beijing. It’s interesting because in a way, the Chinese government had a good working relationship with the Republic government in Afghanistan, on dealing with Uyghur threats, because at the time the Republic government, of course, saw Uyghur militants, frankly, in the same light, as it saw the Taliban — they were all fighting together against them. There seems to be some evidence that towards the end of the Republic government time, there was some sort of breakdown in the relationship between the government and Beijing.

My understanding is that at the moment, there’s two tracks of thinking in the Taliban authorities: On the one hand, there are some that say, “Well, we need to cooperate with the Chinese, because they’re clearly an important economic actor for us; they’re going to be very crucial going forward. So we should think about how we resolve this Uyghur issue to their desire, so that we can overcome this hurdle and get the unfettered Chinese investment that we want.” But there’s another group that says, “Well, we’ve just won a war, a 20-year struggle against the mightiest empire on the planet, and we won fighting alongside these guys. Why should we turn these people over to another state government that wasn’t helping us previously?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s