Archive for the ‘East Asia Forum’ Category

A new post in a mini-series of sorts have been doing across platforms on China-Central Asia during COVID-19. This time for the East Asia Forum, exploring the particular problem of nationalism across China’s borders into Central Asia at this fragile time.

Rising nationalism tests China’s uneasy partnerships in Central Asia
29 May 2020
Author: Raffaello Pantucci, RUSI

Relations between Central Asian powers and China are brittle at the best of times. While at an official level both sides are eager to highlight their closeness, among the public it does not take long to find friction.

China’s President Xi Jinping and Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov attend a welcoming ceremony ahead of their talks in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 13 June 2019 (Reuters/Vladimir Pirogov).

This boils over into problems between states. The most recent manifestation of this has come via public comments by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying about a US-supported laboratory in Kazakhstan that was darkly alluded to within the context of the global health crisis, hinting it might have been part of the problem. This comes after earlier spats over nationalist online content from China and disagreements between Chinese and Kazakh doctors about how they were handling the crisis. As with many things around the world, COVID-19 has exacerbated existing issues, highlighting the tensions that bubble beneath the surface in Central Asia.

These disagreements in Kazakhstan come among other problems between the two in the region. In mid-February this year, protests against the construction of a free trade zone in At-Bashi, Kyrgyzstan led to the cancellation of the US$280 million project which was initially signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit last year. It is not clear whether the Chinese firm withdrew or the Kyrgyz government annulled the contract, but the protests crystallised the decision to stop the project.

These public protests are driven by a long-standing fear that China will overwhelm the region. In this particular case, this fear might also be undermining Kyrgyzstan’s own interests, as the At-Bashi project would have been beneficial for Kyrgyzstan’s regional trade ambitions. But, the fear is in part built off the back of a series of bad experiences with individual projects or deals which have polluted or caused other problems, failed to employ people as the public expected or were largely subsumed by corrupt local figures. There is also an undercurrent of racism and Sinophobia to this anger, which has grown among some as people learn of the mistreatment of minorities in Xinjiang and more recently around the spread of COVID-19.

But the other unspoken element is a sense of humiliation that many in the region feel, a fear that they may lose their sense of national identity to China. Central Asia is made up of five young countries that only recently started to develop the identity of a nation-state. This desire to create a national identity encompasses a perceived need for one’s own language, airline, currency, national food and history.

From this perspective, giant China is a huge concern. Already still closely linked to Russia, Central Asians have little desire to let their national identity be subsumed by China. They did not leave the Soviet Union to simply fall into the thrall of another Communist power.

All of this helps explain a recent¬†diplomatic clash¬†between Kazakhstan and China. An article published by a private Chinese online media company recently seemed to suggest that Kazakhs were keen to be reabsorbed into China. The result in Kazakhstan was swift and negative ‚ÄĒ the Chinese Embassy received a call from the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanding an explanation and the removal of the article.

The Kazakh reaction is in some ways excessive. While it is true that all media in China is to some degree state vetted, this does not necessarily mean that it is all created by the state. The article appears to be part of a series that emanated from a clickbait farm in Xi‚Äôan. It claimed that a number of countries wanted to ‚Äėreturn to China‚Äô including not only Kazakhstan, but also neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, among others. The Chinese media has claimed the article is ‚Äėfake news‚Äô generated by profit-seeking content providers.

It is hard to imagine that Beijing has much interest in stoking anger among the neighbours with whom it has a largely stable relationship. Certainly the Chinese Ambassador’s attempts to place the blame on Western media suggests the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not think the piece was a good idea. But the fact that content providers thought the article would generate positive interest within China suggests that there is a strongly nationalist domestic constituency that view China’s neighbours as lost provinces of their great country.

This sentiment arouses great concern in Central Asia, where there is palpable (if conspiratorial) fear that China’s infrastructure push is the first step towards some sort of an invasion.

But this does highlight a problem for Beijing: an elevated nationalism at home leads to problems abroad. This problem is exacerbated by the narratives that Beijing is advancing at home in response to COVID-19 ‚ÄĒ that China was not the source of the virus (and that it might be US-built laboratories in former Soviet countries like Kazakhstan), that China has defeated the virus, that China is giving medical equipment to the world, that China is only now suffering because of people from foreign countries. Given that in contrast the international media is full of accusations that Chinese labs leaked the virus, stories of faulty Chinese medical equipment and general¬†anger¬†at China‚Äôs handling of the virus, the clash between the two is clear. The result of this divergence for a domestic Chinese audience is angry nationalism.

This builds on nationalist sentiment that President Xi has been stoking since he came to power. For a Chinese audience that only hears domestic narratives, it has been a story of growth and prosperity ‚ÄĒ a China dream ‚ÄĒ that is now being stymied and attacked by outsiders. When nationalists talk of China‚Äôs neighbours wanting to be part of China, they are articulating the natural extension of this sentiment.

The Chinese government is ultimately most interested in what the Chinese people think. Stoking the fires of nationalism is an easy way to win them over ‚ÄĒ especially when painted against a historical narrative of overcoming a century of humiliation at the hands of foreigners.

Yet this nationalism will not always be directed in ways that Xi wants, particularly if it causes frictions with neighbours who are nominally friendly with China. Chinese nationalism may be a problem for the world, but if it goes too far it becomes a problem for Beijing too.

Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), London.

More delayed catch up posting, this time a short piece for an excellent website called East Asia Forum, which is a platform for a very interesting discussion about Asian affairs drawing on a wide variety of authors and topics. Some very interesting stuff covered, well worth checking. Mine draws on a well-worn topic for me which is only going to build up further as time goes on.

China’s complicated relationship with Central Asia

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Author: Raffaello Pantucci, RUSI

The closure of a mine in Kyrgyzstan, protests on the streets in Kazakhstan. The grand guignol of menacing Chinese investment into Central Asia appears to be rearing its head in public discourse. Both fearful and grateful, the region is a paradox for China at the beginning of its Belt and Road. Hardly a week goes by without a senior Chinese visitor appearing somewhere in Central Asia, revealing a long-term influence game that Beijing is winning.

But the situation in Central Asia goes beyond foreign investment. People want to connect with China. In Ashgabat, queues of eager young Turkmen wait outside the Chinese Embassy seeking visas. For the young in Dushanbe, learning Mandarin is in vogue. In Uzbekistan, Chinese investment is the talk of the town, as the city celebrates the Chinese autumn festival and the China Expo showcases Uzbekistan as key to China’s Central Asia vision. And while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan may have protests, Kazakh leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has just visited Beijing talking of strategic partnerships and Kyrgyzstan awarded Chinese President Xi Jinping their highest national award when he visited earlier in the year.

We have seen anti-Chinese protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan before. Back in 2009 and 2016 there were large-scale protests focused on reports that the government was going to allow China to rent land for agricultural purposes. In 2011, fighting broke out between oil workers and the Kazakh state in Zhanaozen leading to a number of deaths ‚ÄĒ Chinese company CITIC was among the investors and received some blame for the bad pay which appeared to underpin the protests. Smaller scale brawls between Kazakh and Chinese workers are frequent. As seen currently in Kazakhstan, protests are usually linked to bad working conditions, clashes between workers or environmental damage. There is also usually a strong undertone of local politics.

Central Asians have watched as Chinese money, workers and influence have shaped the regional economic geography with the open support of local authorities. This is a lever that political opponents can sometimes use. Building on an elemental sort of racism towards Han Chinese that can often be found in the region, the protests can actually often be complaints aimed at local authorities. People are often protesting against their own government, with China becoming a target by proxy. This confluence was most clearly on display recently in Kazakhstan where protestors’ public anger was targeted at the Chinese, but the protests were clearly instigated by governmental political opponents.

In Kyrgyzstan, paranoia towards foreign mining investors has repeatedly led to locals scaring away foreign investment. The massive Kumtor mine in Kyrgyzstan has faced environmental issues and other problems for its Canadian owner. Chinese projects are smaller, but beset with similar problems. Stories of pollution, bad pay and local corruption blend with a general fear of Chinese investment which is sometimes stirred up by local potentates seeking to extract more money or score points against political rivals.

And there have been some dramatic failures by Chinese firms in the region. In January 2018, Bishkek lost powerfrom its main power station after refurbishment by Chinese firm TBEA failed at exactly the wrong moment. There are questions surrounding corrupt and pollutive practices of Chinese companies working in the region. Chinese firms tend to lower their standards in the region, ignoring requirements they usually adhere to back home.

What is less visible are the expressions of sympathy and concern about the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang. US State Secretary Pompeo may have heard polite noises during his comments to Central Asian foreign ministers in New York but there is little public sympathy for their plight. Concerns tend to focus on co-ethnics and family members caught up in China’s camps system and fears that their governments might seek to purchase similar technology to use against them. When people do express fear about how events in Xinjiang might impact them, it is at a very personal level focussed on their own personal safety, rather than the broader cause of abuse of Muslims in China.

But very little of this matters to Beijing. Central Asian leaders remain eager for Chinese investment. The once closed Uzbekistan is the most obvious example of this, where the surge of Chinese investment is openly welcomed. Beijing is increasingly holding large portions of debt and becoming the main trading partner across the region.

China, in the meantime, is increasingly focusing on its security equities in Central Asia. Stories of Chinese private security emerging in the region sit alongside more overt displays of strength through the building of bases, the conduct of joint training exercises and the provision of equipment for Tajik forces along the Chinese border with Afghanistan. Already this year, there have been reports of joint training exercises with Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbekforces.

It would also be unfair to not point out the positive side of China‚Äôs presence in the region. In Badakhshan, Tajikistan locals may have conspiracy theories about China‚Äôs long-term intentions in the back of their minds, but they will admit that the Chinese-built roads have changed their communities for the better. Chinese companies and projects are often seen as more credible than locals ‚ÄĒ who often show up, make a lot of noise and fail to deliver. And while Confucius Institutes are regularly talked about in the public debate as centres focussed on brainwashing the young to be Xi acolytes, visit them on the ground and they are full of eager young Central Asians chasing the opportunities that China offers.

The story of China in Central Asia is a complicated and nuanced one of an emergent region which is being swallowed up by a neighbour who cares little about it, focussed instead on its geopolitical clash with Washington. Locals at an individual level do not care about these broader issues and are instead trying to navigate their way to prosperity among the economic boom they see in China. As the world watches the US‚ÄďChina confrontation play out on the international stage, few are paying attention to the heart of Eurasia where a sea change is happening. China‚Äôs natural borders mean it will always have a strategic interest in Central Asia, but helping the region develop other options should be the focus of western policymakers.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), London.