Archive for the ‘The National Interest’ Category

New piece for an outlet to which I haven’t contributed for some time, The National Interest. This time looking at trying to explain China’s enhanced engagement and interest in Syria with Michael Clarke of Australian National University. We are hopefully working on a longer writing related project along these lines in the future, and the topic is undoubtedle one there will more on.

China Is Supporting Syria’s Regime. What Changed?

Michael Clarke | Raffaello Pantucci
Beijing’s motivations are close to home.

china_syria

On August 14, Guan Youfei, a rear admiral in China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, visited the Syrian capital of Damascus, escorted around the city under heavy guard. Guan’s visit reportedly included meetings with senior military officials and Russian officers, as well as pledges that the Chinese military would provide medical training for Syrian medical staff. The question is why China is increasing this engagement now.

Admiral Guan’s engagement contrasts with previous Chinese behavior during the Syrian crisis. While China has been one of the few powers to maintain an embassy in Damascus throughout the current crisis, Beijing’s engagements have been fairly limited, and mostly focused on attempts from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to insert itself into peace negotiations and occasional expressions of concern around individual nationals who appear on the battlefield (either as hostages or fighters). The approach has been driven by a mix of motives, including Beijing’s long-standing principle of “non-interference,” aversion to what China sees as largely Western-led regime change in the guise of humanitarian intervention and a Chinese desire to insulate its growing economic interests in the Middle East from the continuing consequences of the Arab Spring.

That dynamic may now be about to change. China has started to become a participant in the many international discussions around countering terrorism, and ISIS in particular. China has participated in the Global Counterterrorism Forum and hosted sessions about terrorists’ use of the internet, while engaging in discussions at home about contributing more to the fight against ISIS. Last year, a decision was made to alter national legislation to allow Chinese security forces to deploy abroad as part of a counterterrorism effort, and China has sought to establish overseas bases in Djibouti. In neighboring Afghanistan, it has established a new sub-regional alliance between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and China to discuss and coordinate the fight against militancy and terrorist groups in the area. All these actions highlight the degree to which China is slowly pushing its security apparatus out into the world in a more aggressive posture than before. Seen within this light, Admiral Guan’s visit to Damascus is another piece in this puzzle, and the most ambitious yet in many ways for a power that has historically preferred to play a more standoffish role in addressing hard military questions.

Looking to the Syrian context in particular, there are two major reasons for China’s apparent decision to begin playing a more forward role in engaging in Syria. One is China’s concern at the numbers and links of Uighur militants from its restive province of Xinjiang participating in the Syrian conflict. The other is its desire for geostrategic stability in the Middle East as it seeks to consummate its “One Belt, One Road” strategy.

Of particular importance on the first count is the presence of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) on the Syrian battlefield. TIP is a successor organization of sorts to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that Beijing has blamed for violence linked to Xinjiang after 9/11. Beijing has claimed that Al Qaeda directly “funded and supported” ETIM, and while the scale of Al Qaeda’s direct support of ETIM has been widely disputed, the relationship between TIP and Al Qaeda has only grown closer since, with TIP garnering more Uighur recruits from 2009 onward and Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praising Uighur contributions to the global jihad in a recent message.

Chinese suppression in Xinjiang, especially after the interethnic riots and violence in the capital, Urumqi, in July 2009, has resulted in the development of what Chinese state media has dubbed an “underground railway” of Uighurs seeking to flee the region. Some of those have ultimately found their way to Turkey and onward to Syria to fight with TIP and other jihadist groups. By 2015, TIP had established a well-documented presence on the battlefield in Syria, with the group releasing a number of videos detailing its combat role fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. (TIP does not fight alongside ISIS; its leadership has released statements in which it condemns ISIS’s activities.) TIP is increasingly showing itself to be an effective force, participating in many major fights (including the breaking of the Aleppo siege) and showing off its skill, manpower and equipment.

Historically, China has not had much economic interest in Syria, a country that prior to the civil war was more closely linked economically to its region, Iran and Russia. And more recently, China has continued to play a second-tier role. While it has had numbers of nationals join ISIS, others kidnapped and killed by the group, and the group has threatened it in some of its rhetoric, it does not appear to be much of a focus for the group. On the non-ISIS side fighting the regime, the numbers fighting alongside TIP seem to be quite substantial, whilst the group’s leadership and a core of the group continues to fight in Afghanistan. And, according to Kyrgyz authorities, this connection may have now matured into the attack that took place in late August against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.

This threat from TIP in particular is one that is therefore becoming of much greater concern for Beijing. Yet it is not clear who is focused on fighting TIP on the ground in Syria. Western powers fighting in Syria are for the most part focused on ISIS and less focused on the groups fighting against the Assad regime, like TIP. Turkey’s historical proximity to the Uighur cause has raised concerns with Beijing; Uighurs are a people whose culture and language are very close to Turkey’s, and Uighur flags and symbols are regular features during AKP rallies. Erdogan himself has expressed support for the Uighur cause, and back in 2009, in the wake of rioting in Xinjiang that led to some two hundred deaths, he referred to Chinese activity on the ground as “a sort of genocide.” Since 2012, Uighurs have been found traveling on forged Turkish passports in transit countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, raising questions of Turkish complicity. Leaked ISIS documents show a consistent flow of individuals through Kuala Lumpur, as well as other Southeast Asian routes to Turkey.

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On the second count, Beijing faces multiple challenges in the current Middle East for its “One Belt, One Road” strategy. In brief, OBOR is Beijing’s attempt to facilitate Eurasian economic connectivity through the development of a web of infrastructure and trade routes linking China with South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Key parts of this project, such as the $45 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the proposed Yiwu-Tehran high-speed rail link, according to James M. Dorsey, “illustrate the politics of its One Belt, One Road Initiative. Xi Jinping believes that he can achieve Chinese dominance through investment and interconnected infrastructure.”

The current fracturing of the Middle East as a result of the Syrian crisis, however, poses a central roadblock to China’s ability to make this vision a reality. In this context, Beijing views the United States’ approach to Syria as driven by Washington’s desire to use the civil war as a pretext to overthrow the Assad regime in order to weaken Iran’s growing power and influence in the Middle East. In contrast, Russia has been firm in its commitment to root out what it calls the “terrorist” threat there in support of the regime in Damascus, and Beijing has been impressed by the manner in which Russia’s decisive moves have had an effect that years of attrition on the battlefield failed to achieve.

So Beijing may now have arrived at the conclusion that supporting Assad and taking sides with Russia is the most viable option to effectively combat the growth of TIP. Increasing its involvement in Syria via military-to-military cooperation can also be seen in the wider context of a PLA keen to develop its overseas experience, in areas from peacekeeping to antipiracy missions to counterterrorism.

David Shambaugh eloquently argued in 2013 that China remained a “partial power” whose diplomacy “often makes it known what it is against, but rarely what it is for” and that this made its foreign policy in many regions of the world “hesitant, risk averse and narrowly self-interested.” This calculus is now changing under pressure from developments in the Middle East and Afghanistan that directly threaten core Chinese interests and are metastasizing into the very terrorist threat that China has long said it is concerned about. The response from China is relatively predictable—an outward security push. The question that remains, however, is how deeply China wishes to plunge into troubled waters to defend these interests.

Dr. Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College at Australian National University. Raffaello Pantucci is Director of the International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Image: Chinese tanks in formation at Shenyang training base in China. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

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Still catching up on old posts, this is a piece that I think is actually quite important but unfortunately appears to have broadly gotten buried. It is an article for The National Interest in which we get prominent Chinese and Indian academics to agree on paper on working together on Afghanistan’s economic future. As ever more on this subject to come, and please be sure to check out the site that I co-edit looking at China in Central Asia.

Afghanistan’s Economic Hope

The key to Afghanistan’s long-term stability is economic prosperity and development anchored in a secure and sound society. Sitting at the heart of the Eurasian continent, its prospects are important to the UK, China and India. Harnessing a common interest in Afghanistan’s economic future into an agenda could provide the foundations for a long-term solution to that nation’s intractable problems.

Fellow BRICS members China and India do not see eye to eye on a number of issues. Longstanding border disputes plague the relationship and both have different views of Islamabad as a partner. Nevertheless, both share concerns about Afghanistan’s future and recognize the importance of stability in the country for broader regional peace. As a NATO power exiting militarily alongside the United States, the United Kingdom is eager to continue its aid program and other work with regional partners to develop a stable structure that guarantees Afghanistan does not return to its former state as a haven for terrorism and extremism.

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), Afghanistan may be sitting on mineral wealth worth around $1 trillion. Its potential lithium deposits have been described as having the potential to turn the country into the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium’ while it is estimated to have some $421 billion’s worth of iron ore, and a further $273 billion in copper. In the north, Afghanistan sits atop the lower end of the hydrocarbon rich Amu Darya basin. But the ongoing security and governance problems mean that this untapped prosperity remains stuck underground.

The threat of attack and uncertainty about post-2014 have meant that companies have been hesitant to proceed with investments. Security issues aside, problems with a lack of local-government capacity and a difficult business environment mean that while it is easy to get into Afghanistan, setting up shop is only the first hurdle. The result is an Afghanistan that cries out for investment and is unable to profit from its natural wealth. It is here that China and India could play a greater role.

As regional powers with booming economies hungry for raw materials, they are exactly the consumer that would benefit from this mineral wealth. Currently, foreign direct investment into Afghanistan is dominated by Chinese and Indian state-owned enterprises (SOEs). There is MCC, Jiangxi Copper (owners of the Mes Aynak copper mine) and CNPC (responsible for an oil project in Amu Darya), all Chinese SOEs, and SAIL-AFISCO (majority owner of the Hajigak iron ore mine), an Indian firm.

As SOEs, the firms are better able to take on large projects: governments have greater ability to influence company direction and harness it for Afghanistan’s long-term benefit. The key is to get firms to invest in both the project and the country.

This can happen in a number of ways. First, there is the tool of providing jobs for locals around the sites. But projects should also aim to develop infrastructure around the site to connect the mines with the rest of the country and region, efforts that should be prioritized and coordinated in future bids. An additional benefit could be created if firms investing in the country were to assume responsibility for training local engineers and mining professionals. This training could take place at the sites or abroad. One possibility is for Chinese and Indian firms to offer scholarships to Afghan students to attend top universities in China or India to learn skills that could then be deployed on the mining sites. It is here also that the United Kingdom could play a role. British foreign policy has a long history of facilitating training programs, and some of the lessons learned may be helpful to China and India.

The capacity problem is one that exists not only at an operational level, but also at a governmental level. British, Chinese and Indian governments could offer training courses for technocrats in the Ministry of Mines and other civil servants to help them develop the skills needed to effectively manage their country’s national wealth. Investing in local capacity should not stop at training people. Given that the companies in question are state-owned entities, their home governments have greater influence to ensure standards in compliance and corporate practice.

Beijing and New Delhi should push their own SOEs to ensure that certain minimum standards of behavior are undertaken, focused on ensuring that their firms will not indulge in corrupt behavior in pursuit of contracts. A common standard of practice should be established to ensure that deals cut in Afghanistan are clean, and all sides should agree to not undercut each other. Naturally, a pragmatic approach needs to be taken but establishing good practices early will save trouble in the long run. The United Kingdom already works with the Afghan government to support the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), and the lessons being applied here could provide the foundation for a strong anticorruption program in Afghanistan.

Finally, work should be done to develop a special mineral-protection corps. Men currently employed in the security forces will find themselves unemployed as the ANSF budget is reduced, and numbers are cut to create a more professional force. With few other opportunities on offer, they could simply hire themselves out to the highest bidder—whether they are mercenary, Taliban or warlord. Offering them jobs as a civilian security corps tasked with defending mining concessions could offer one useful alternative. A special constabulary has already been established tasked with defending the Mes Aynak project. Creating similar entities in other areas might have the dual effect of creating security on the sites, while providing a good employment opportunity for otherwise unemployed armed men.

This is an admittedly optimistic agenda. But as neighboring countries (and brother BRICS countries) with a vested interest in ensuring Afghanistan’s future, Beijing and New Delhi must find ways to cooperate more effectively. As a key NATO member about to withdraw after a decade of conflict, Britain is eager to create a regional consensus that guarantees a positive legacy in the heart of Eurasia. All three need to find ways of working cooperatively with other regional actors like Pakistan, the Central Asian states and Russia on issues of access and evacuation of mineral resources. Focusing on Afghanistan’s economic future and encouraging local development is key to ensuring a peaceful transition post-2014. Afghanistan’s past has been dominated by imperial exploitation—the future need not be the same.

Brigadier (retd) Vinod Anand is based at the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF). Professor Hu Shisheng is affiliated with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). Raffaello Pantucci is a scholar at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

A longer article in the latest The National Interest journal, this one alongside Alex as part of our ongoing China in Central Asia project. Whilst the whole article is available on their site, they have asked that I only post the first few paragraphs here for the time being with the rest up later here. The article is the first that captures comprehensively the ‘inadvertent empire’ thesis that is going to be a big focus of this project.

China’s Inadvertent Empire

From the 

A Chinese road crew works in Tajikistan.

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S late 2011 announcement of his administration’s pivot to Asia marked a sea change in America’s geopolitical posture away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific Rim. Reflecting the growing strategic repercussions of China’s rise, the move presages a new era of great-power politics as the United States and China compete in Pacific waters. But is the United States looking in the right place?

A number of American strategists, Robert D. Kaplan among them, have written that a potential U.S.-Chinese cold war will be less onerous than the struggle with the Soviet Union because it will require only a naval element instead of permanent land forces stationed in allied countries to rein in a continental menace. This may be true with regard to the South China Sea, for example, or the Malacca Strait. But it misses the significance of the vast landmass of Central Asia, where China is consolidating its position into what appears to be an inadvertent empire. As General Liu Yazhou of China’s People’s Liberation Army once put it, Central Asia is “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.”

For most of its unified history, China has been an economically focused land power. In geopolitical terms today, China’s rise is manifest particularly on land in Eurasia, far from the might of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Washington’s rimland allies—and far also from the influence of other Asian powers such as India. Thus, Western policy makers should be dusting off the old works of Sir Halford Mackinder, who argued that Central Asia is the most pivotal geographic zone on the planet, rather than those of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the great U.S. strategist of sea power. Greater attention needs to be paid to China’s growing presence in Central Asia if the United States is to understand properly China’s geopolitical and strategic rise.

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A new piece with Alex for The National Interest, again looking at the SCO and Afghanistan. I feel like a more apt title might be “What the SCO will not be doing in Afghanistan.” Hope the message sinks in in Washington. As ever for more on our work on the topic of China in Central Asia please visit our co-edited site.

Afghanistan and the Eurasian Neighborhood

The big takeaway from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit held earlier this month here in Beijing is that the group is going to become more involved in Afghanistan. Western optimists seem to have concluded that this means the SCO—which includes China, Russia and all of the post-Soviet Central Asian states except for Turkmenistan—might take on the burden as the West tries to extricate itself from the war-torn country. But this expectation, while popular in Washington and Brussels, is vastly overblown.

The SCO was born out of the ashes of the Cold War and the Shanghai Five, a grouping aimed at delineating China’s border with the newly independent Central Asian states. By 2001, it had successfully resolved these questions and decided to formalize the structure into a regional organization that expanded to bring in Uzbekistan (which does not border China). Of course, that was also the year that everything changed in the world, when Osama Bin Laden finally managed to launch an attack from his Afghan base that got America’s attention. From then on, the seeming orientation of the group shifted from building greater regional coordination to a counterterrorism-oriented but still anti-Western club. When Iran tried to join in 2006–07, this narrative was somewhat confirmed in the public mind, though little attention was paid when the body rejected Iran’s application.

The SCO has potential, but its members currently treat it as an institutional tool to advance their often-competing interests. Many outsiders mistakenly conclude that it is a body capable of implementing its pronouncements.

The SCO has two centers. There is a secretariat in Beijing, while Uzbekistan’s Tashkent hosts the rather unfortunately acronymed Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure: RATS. Each of these is staffed by thirty diplomats from the member states. RATS has a database of individuals wanted in member states and is looking into coordination to shut down extremist websites. But there is no police-training component or active force ready for deployment. Even counternarcotics, an issue of great regional concern, has not been addressed in any concrete way. There is no unified military command, and unlike the Russian-led Collective Security Trade Organization (CSTO), there is little serious discussion of establishing a rapid-reaction force.

China has tried to transform the SCO into an economic body, eyeing the idea of a regional free-trade zone. This meshes with Beijing’s approach to Afghanistan: to develop the country and link its infrastructure into the broader region as a means to guarantee stability. This also concords with U.S. ambitions of a “New Silk Road.” But Afghanistan’s development, advanced through the SCO, would be stymied by the preference of the Central Asian states to work with Kabul bilaterally as well as by Russia’s very different economic imperatives in the region.

Lowering Expectations

So what exactly can we expect from the SCO summit and the previous week’s agreements with Afghanistan? The answer is best summarized by quoting an SCO official one of us spoke to on the fringes of the summit: “It is a first concrete step.” This is a political gesture of recognition that the organization should be doing more, and China’s decision to in parallel sign a “strategic agreement” with Afghanistan is reinforcement of the ambition that whatever happens with the SCO, it will make a point of being engaged in Afghanistan. This will probably mean increased training efforts by Chinese police, increased Chinese investment in natural resources and a push for regional links, such as recently announced plans for a pipeline from Turkmenistan to China through Afghanistan.

While China’s interests in developing Afghanistan to make it stable, prosperous and peaceful concord broadly with Western objectives, they do not completely align. China’s central aim in Afghanistan and broader Central Asia is to stabilize and strengthen Xinjiang, its poor and underdeveloped western province. The SCO will be helpful for Beijing as long as it contributes to this objective.

The SCO is a frequently misunderstood organization. During its decade-long history, it has been ignored, considered cause for alarm and characterized as an authoritarian club. Now, its decisions have been met with an outsized sense of optimism as the West frantically seeks an exit from Afghanistan, hoping that others might take on responsibility there. Pouring cold water on these expectations is important unless the United States and NATO want to find themselves leaving responsibility to a regional body that has none of the capacities necessary to stabilize a country as troubled as Afghanistan.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and 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.

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

A new big think piece for The National Interest that has already been re-posted on The Atlantic’s site under the title ‘The New Great Game: Development, Not Domination, in Central Asia.’ It is another piece to emerge as part of the project that I have been working on with Alex and which is primarily housed at my other site, http://www.chinaincentralasia.com. I am in the midst of a long period of travel for this project, so expect a lot more along these lines in the near future.

The Clash of Eurasian Grand Strategies

May 1, 2012

In Khorgos, on the China-Kazakhstan border, trucks laden with Chinese goods line up along the road, waiting for Chinese and then Kazakhastani customs officers to give them the go-ahead to continue their transcontinental journey across Eurasia. Many will be heading to the great markets of Central Asia, like Dordoi, Barakholka and Kara Suu, while others head all the way to Europe. Squeezing through a single lane, the trucks get stuck in lengthy backlogs as they wait in the shadow of the brand new multilane Chinese customs point that sits idle next door. This idleness is the product of conflicting strategies, emblematic of a lack of coordination that is taking place across Central Asia.

It is cliché to talk about Central Asia in great-game terms, with battling rival powers elbowing each other to assert their influence. Seeing the region as either as a buffer area to other powers or as a source of natural wealth and instability, the surrounding large powers have long treated Central Asia as little more than a chessboard on which to move pawns.

These days, however, the strategic approach taken by surrounding powers has shifted. Rather than talking about dominating the region, the discussion is focused on differing approaches to development, all of them tied to great powers’ particular interests. Lead amongst these are China, Russia and the United States—all of which have launched new initiatives intended to bring stability and security to the region.

Three Rival Strategies

The American strategic approach has been most clearly laid out by Secretary of State Clinton, who last year in Chennai, India told the audience of America’s desire to “work together to create a new Silk Road, . . . an international web and network of economic and transit connections.” While the United States is clearly eager for the entire region to be developed, later Clinton highlighted one of the U.S. key rationales for this approach: “An Afghanistan firmly embedded in the economic life of a thriving South and Central Asia would be better able to attract new sources of foreign investment, connect to markets abroad and provide people with credible alternatives to insurgency.” In other words, it is a strategy focused on tying Afghanistan economically into its neighborhood, which will help facilitate American withdrawal. An “action request” leaked soon after Clinton’s speech confirmed that this New Silk Road strategy was Clinton’s “number-one policy priority” for Central and South Asia.

For China, whose overriding priority is to develop Central Asia to help stimulate prosperity and stability in its restive Xinjiang province, the approach of tying the region together using trade and transport links is an old one. As early as 1994, then prime minister Li Peng declared in Central Asia that “it was important to open up a modern version of the Silk Road.” Years later, in a 2004 article in China Daily, the principle was expanded to include a “landbridge” between China and Europe, a network of train links that would make up a so-called Iron Silk Road and provide an alternative to lengthy and sometimes treacherous sea routes. Since then, China has moved this strategy forward, developing its own rail infrastructure at an astonishing rate, while also investing in regional train systems linking Central Asia together. While some projects such as those in Kazakhstan seem to have stalled, work is advancing on regional rail lines in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Russia, on the other hand, has taken an approach to the region that seeks to build on previous glory. Building on the already extant customs union that Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia formed in 2009, in October last year President Putin proposed a Eurasian Union that would coordinate “economic and currency policy” while also being open to new members presumably drawn from the former Soviet space. As Putin put it, “membership in the Eurasian Union, apart from direct economic benefits, will enable its members to integrate into Europe faster and from a much stronger position.”

An admirable goal maybe, but one that directly clashes with China’s aims to try to integrate the broader region. In discussions last year in Kyrgyzstan, we were told by a former cabinet-level minister that should the Eurasian Union proceed, the markets in southern Kyrgyzstan at Kara-Suu would be “decimated.” And these tensions are already visible here at Khorgos, the ambitious “trans-national free trade center” that China and Kazakhstan opened last December between their two borders. The shining new Chinese customs post is unused, and a field of construction cranes await the go-ahead to continue their work developing the rest of the special economic zone.

And it is not only the Chinese and Russian strategies that are seemingly at odds with one another. As Chinese analysts in Urumqi were quick to highlight, the American and Chinese strategies also differ: America’s aim is to tie Afghanistan into its broader region, with paths largely going north-south across the region, while China’s is a grander east-west ambition enabling direct trade with Europe. China also is developing different infrastructure plans across Afghanistan, opening up an east-west path across the country to Gwadar, the Pakistani port it has been helping develop. While not necessarily contradictory, different end goals drive the respective projects.

The result is a series of strategies for tying together Central Asia—with each focusing on priorities dictated by the varying interests of Beijing, Washington and Moscow. China is promoting its development and trade; America wants to leave a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan; and Russia wants closer ties with the former Soviet space. These are fundamentally divergent approaches that contradict each other and leave the region torn between competing capitals.

Greater coordination and discussion is needed on what is essentially redevelopment of the Silk Road. The end state desired by all is a prosperous and stable region brought about by economic development—rather than the barrel of a gun. But until there is greater coordination, the result will be a confused latticework of competing strategies that leave everyone the poorer.

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

A new article on Kyrgyzstan based on my recent trip out there that was part of the bigger project I have mentioned in previous posts. I actually used to write for The National Interest more regularly (here is a previous piece on Europe), but it has been a while.

 

The National Interest

In the midst of a relatively calm election season, we have been travelling to Kyrgyzstan’s cities, villages and border posts to track the rise of China in Central Asia. The atmosphere around this election is less tense than in previous years, when governments have been ousted by street revolutions and transfers of power have yielded ethnic violence. But Kyrgyzstan’s new government will not alone decide the country’s fate.

Kyrgyzstan is a place between powers, and not just geographically. This is reflected in Jalal-Abad University, located in the country’s third-largest city, where respective wings of the central administrative buildings are run by the U.S. embassy-sponsored American Center and a Chinese government-funded Confucius Center subsidiary. In between sit Kyrgyz administrators.

The American Center provides the students with language courses, access to the Internet (only twenty-five minutes at a time) and a selection of educational movies to help with English (including Pulp Fiction, which struck us as maybe not the best English to be learning). In the Chinese wing, a pair of dedicated teachers provides various language courses for about 60 students. The best students get to go on paid trips to China. A bright display at the back of one of the classrooms shows groups of them in Xian, Shanghai and Urumqi.

Behind all this lies the reality that the lingua franca in Kyrgyzstan is Russian. The Chinese teacher used it to translate phrases. The English teacher in the American Center was Russian. Stuck between mountain ranges and great powers, Kyrgyzstan is a nation defined and dominated by what surrounds it.

This is most obvious in the economics, where the nation is now almost completely dependent on the reexport of cheap Chinese goods. A further 20 percent of GDP is generated in fees from the American “transit center” outside the capital Bishkek, with much of the rest coming from remittances from Kyrgyz men working menial jobs in Russia. Apart from charming handicrafts (and these are increasingly being replaced by Chinese-made look-alikes), the country itself produces very little.

This dependency worries the leadership. Some have proven adept at playing the great powers off each other, but others, like the former cabinet-level minister we met, are deeply concerned about where this leaves their nation. As one foreign observer based in the south of the country put it, “the country has not been allowed to develop by itself.”

But the Kyrgyzstan traveler can easily see why it has continued to be dominated by those around it. A picturesque land of nomads, it was forced through a period of industrialization by the Soviets that left them the inherited infrastructure they still depend on today. But it is falling apart, and foreign-aid agencies are only really interested in helping alleviate poverty. Into this steps China, a neighboring power eager to see the country stable and prosperous to provide knock-on stability in its underdeveloped Xinjiang province. It builds new roads, offers refining facilities to reduce dependence on foreign energy imports and is planning a railway project to connect the country to the broader region. It dispatches groups of teachers from Xinjiang universities to help teach Mandarin to young Kyrgyz and has even distributed free television receivers to homes across the south of the country.

This serves China’s interests. But it also offers opportunities for Kyrgyz who can “look at a map,” as one young Bishkek businessman put it. Being in the middle means you can serve as a transit point. This businessman coordinates shipments from Dubai and Guangzhou, bringing electronics to Bishkek for reexport to the Russian market. Like impatient businessmen everywhere, he played with his phone throughout our conversation, saying “next question” as he tired of subjects. But his success demonstrates what is possible when you are stuck in between. With an advanced degree and a smattering of Chinese and fluent English and Russian, he would have been the perfect candidate to administrate the Jalal-Abad University; instead, he focuses on profit. Once he contributed articles to English-language publications, but that policy stuff is not for him anymore, he said.

For good or ill, the future of a small Central Asian state such as Kyrgyzstan will be shaped not by government policy makers. Their power will never match the military; they will never have the economic and cultural clout of global powers with stakes in the region. But Kyrgyzstan’s businessmen, large and small, can turn what seems like dependence into opportunity. This is a lesson for many small countries stuck in between, geographically or otherwise. You may have to play the hand you’re dealt, but you can play it with clever resolve.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West (Praeger, 2011). They are conducting research for a book on China’s role in Central Asia and have a website at www.chinaincentralasia.com [4].

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