Archive for the ‘PRESS’ Category

A new column for Nikkei Asia Review looking at the China-Russia relationship. Was initially drafted ahead of Wang Yi’s visit, but then pivoted a bit to reflect it, though nothing during the visit particularly surprised. Doubtless this will be a major talking point this year.

China’s embrace of Russia is mostly for show

Rhetoric about close ties is not translating into cooperation on tangible goals

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin meet via video link on Dec. 30, 2022: The problem for Russia is that its dependence on China keeps getting deeper.   © Xinhua/AP

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.”

This week’s visit to Moscow by Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, just ahead of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, highlights the closeness of the two powers.

But grand rhetoric about the strength the relationship and revived U.S. assertions that Beijing is considering upgrading the quality of its military support to Moscow are overshadowing the day-to-day reality that China and Russia are on very different tracks.

Beijing has been coy about the invitation extended by Russian President Vladimir Putin in a year-end call with Xi Jinping for the Chinese leader to pay a visit this spring, although it was reiterated by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in late January.

While Beijing may not want to appear to commit yet as to when Xi will visit Moscow, he and Putin are due to meet midyear at a Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaders’ summit to be held in India and again in Durban, South Africa, at a BRICS summit in August.

In the meantime, China has continued to make it clear that its relationship with Russia is important. Visiting Moscow earlier this month, Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu said, “China is willing to work with Russia to implement the important consensus reached by the two heads of state and to promote new progress in bilateral relations in the new year.”

Doubtlessly, throughout the year we will continue to hear affirmations of the two nations’ friendship. This is likely to continue to be reflected in military exercises, which are increasingly held with other nations as well.

Chinese and Russian vessels are now engaged with South African counterparts in a large-scale, 10-day naval exercise off KwaZulu-Natal province that began on Friday.

Moscow and Beijing are happy to mutually antagonize others with these activities. Last December, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno expressed “severe concerns” over frequent joint air force activities by Russia and China near Japanese airspace. The two have undertaken similar exercises regularly around South Korean airspace and conducted joint exercises with Iranian forces.

Yet if one digs deeper, there is little evidence of significant cooperation that might advance more tangible goals, despite U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s claims about Chinese support for Russia’s war effort.

For example, the growing volume of Russian troops and mercenaries in Africa seems to be doing little to help protect the many Chinese businessmen who keep getting kidnapped by militant groups. In Tajikistan, both Moscow and Beijing have military posts near the Afghan frontier but they do not work together and the Russians reportedly have complained that the Chinese there do not even communicate with them.

At the same time, Russian counterintelligence continues to detain senior scientists for alleged selling sensitive technology to China. Last June, for example, physicist Dmitry Kolker was detained on charges of suspected treason involving collaboration with China.

A similar pattern can be found at an economic level.

Both sides champion the fact that bilateral trade rose 29.3% last year to reach $190 billion. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in January that Moscow is looking forward this year to finding ways of harmonizing China’s Belt and Road Initiative with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Russian central bankers are proud too of their shift away from Western currencies to the yuan.

Yet the reality is that much of the growth in trade volumes in 2022 came in crude oil and coal sales where China took advantage of discounted supplies from Russia, which has been faced with a shrinking pool of customers.

Chinese companies continue to express concern about how they can keep up purchases of Russian energy and to seek new ways to protect themselves from sanctions while also worrying about insurance coverage. And while there is growing evidence that Chinese companies are still selling high technology products like microchips to Moscow, the companies doing this are often either hiding their tracks or have publicly withdrawn from the Russia.

Lenovo and Xiaomi, which both were major players in the Russian tech market before the war, quietly scaled back operations dramatically last year. Huawei Technologies moved many staff to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan while closing some units. And Russian consumers seeking to use UnionPay cards to replace the Visa, American Express or Mastercard credit cards that no longer work increasingly find the Chinese cards do not function either.

Russian consumers seeking to use UnionPay credit cards to replace Visa or Mastercard increasingly find the Chinese cards do not function either.   © Imaginechina/AP

Of course, this does not mean that Chinese products are disappearing from Russia. In reality, Chinese products are increasingly present but often arrive indirectly which can raise costs for consumers. The trade in non-sanctioned goods is likely to increase with the opening of two new bridges across the Amur River.

The problem for Russia is that its dependence on China keeps getting deeper. For now, China may be providing a lifeline, but there is high risk to this position as well.

In trading the dollar for the yuan, the Russian central bank is binding itself to a currency which is tightly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and is answerable to its needs. Opening Russia’s markets to greater Chinese penetration is only going to emasculate the domestic economy and make it harder for local competitors to survive.

For all the lofty rhetoric, there continues to be a disparity in the China-Russia relationship. Despite frequent demonstrations of affection, there are distinct limits to this partnership.

Another piece from last month, this time for the South China Morning Post, exploring China’s continuing reticence to put itself forwards as a player in international affairs. Stands in contrast to their recent peace push on Ukraine, but then there is a difference between the surface and behind the scenes view in Beijing.

China still reluctant to use its power and influence in Eurasia, despite crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Afghanistan’s instability are blockages to Beijing’s vision for Eurasia, but it has done little to fix either
  • In the decade since the belt and road was first discussed, China has become a major player in the region, yet it appears unwilling to step in to help resolve conflicts

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Afghanistan’s instability are blockages to Beijing’s vision for Eurasia, but it has done little to fix eitherIn the decade since the belt and road was first discussed, China has become a major player in the region, yet it appears unwilling to step in to help resolve conflicts

This year marks the first decade of the Belt and Road Initiative. While the vision might have evolved from the speeches President Xi Jinping gave in Astana and Jakarta in 2013, it remains a key concept that has been enshrined in Communist Party doctrine. The territory it started marching across has changed dramatically, but what has not yet changed is China’s willingness to step into a leadership role within this space.

Most glaringly, this is visible in the two major conflicts that now dominate the Eurasian heartland where the initiative was launched. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year has upended the regional and global order, while the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in mid-2021 has left an unstable state at the heart of the Eurasian land mass.

Together, these countries and their troubles present a major strategic blockage for China’s wider vision. However, there has been little evidence of Beijing seeking to fix either.

In fact, China seems set on simply letting both clashes play themselves out while offering platitudes in public which serve to suggest Beijing might seek to do something. In both contexts, China is a logical option to play a role in trying to resolve matters, and those on the ground are keenly aware of this.

Before the Russian invasion, China was Ukraine’s most important trading partner and a growing investor. The Belt and Road Initiative swept across Eurasia and saw Ukraine as a key link between Europe and Asia. With infrastructure and raw materials, technologically savvy and an underdeveloped economy on the European Union’s borders – it was a highly attractive prospect for Chinese investors.

Russia’s war has stymied these dreams while also posing a major threat to planned investments by Chinese firms in Belarus. Chinese companies and banks had intended the country to become a way station for products coming from China into Europe’s wealthy markets. But projects now sit idle while investors try to figure out how to adapt to the new reality.

In Afghanistan, China has long been the country’s wealthiest neighbour, with both Beijing and the Taliban government eager to find ways of encouraging Chinese investment. Neither has found that easy, though the Taliban appears to be following the path of the previous government after it signed a contract with a China National Petroleum Corporation subsidiary to exploit oilfields in the north of the country earlier this month.

CNPC had previously signed an agreement with the Afghan republic government in 2012 to extract oil from the same area, but that failed to live up to expectations. Other projects remain in the discussion phase, with growing appeals from the Taliban for Chinese firms to start to deliver.

But while it remains to be seen if the project lives up to its promise, the investment has shown that China is still in a position to play an important role. This is true in other parts of Eurasia, too.

The announcement that a Chinese firm could step in to develop Tehran’s international airport follows Beijing’s willingness to purchase Russian energy. China increasingly seems willing to serve as an economic backstop to countries being sanctioned by the West, and in so doing it can strengthen its position as a critical player across Eurasia.

However, there has been little evidence of China using this influence to seek to resolve problems or step in to advise leaders. Notwithstanding the rhetoric about wanting a peaceful resolution to the war in Ukraine and statements about respecting national sovereignty, there is no evidence that Beijing has sought to restrain Moscow.

Vague comments about not wanting nuclear conflict or wider instability are hardly attempts to steer Russian President Vladimir Putin in a particular direction, but are merely statements of fact. Nevertheless, Ukraine continues to hope that Beijing might step in to mediate.

In Afghanistan, China has found it as hard as everyone else to engage the Taliban. The recent oil project was driven by the company rather than the state. In fact, not long before the contract was signed, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned nationals in the country to consider leaving given the deteriorating security situation, highlighted by an attack on a Chinese-owned hotel in Kabul.

Economic activity in Afghanistan has, for the most part, been driven by the private sector. China has provided some aid, but it has not stepped into the economic void.

This is the critical point. China is clearly viewed as a significant player, yet it remains unwilling to step into the fray. From a Chinese perspective, this is just an extension of Beijing’s principle of non-interference but, in reality, it means that one of Eurasia’s mightiest rising powers is failing to play a leadership role in its own backyard.

A decade on from the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has risen to become a major player in Eurasia. But it has yet to do much with this power and influence, choosing instead to focus on the United States and Taiwan, and simply assuming a watching brief over the growing instability. The vision of the belt and road, at least for others, was for the initiative’s sweep across Eurasia to increase China’s influence. That has yet to translate into reality.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore

A final column for last year, this time a forward look at Central Asia in 2023 for Nikkei Asia Review, repeats the same format last year. The last one became somewhat obsolete quickly in large part because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It remains to be seen how this one will play out.

2023 outlook: Central Asia is not out of the woods yet

Spillover effects from Ukraine and Afghanistan, so far limited, still pose risk

Vladimir Putin met with other presidents at the Central Asia-Russia summit in Astana on Oct. 14: Central Asia will continue to find Moscow a complicated partner.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.”

It has been a tumultuous year for Central Asia. It started with large-scale internal violence and is ending with talk of a formal alliance between the region’s two most powerful players, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Yet uncertainty remains on the horizon for the coming year, with the potential for violence to boil over, geopolitics to come crashing down around regional states or internal pressures to escalate once again.

The biggest question that still hangs in the balance is what will happen next in fellow former Soviet republic Ukraine. With little sign of an end to its conflict with Russia in sight, Central Asia will continue to find Moscow a complicated partner with which to engage over the coming year.

So far, gloomy economic predictions offered in the immediate wake of Russia’s invasion have not played out.

Higher energy prices have meant increased revenues for energy-rich Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Rather than falling as expected, remittances from Central Asian migrant workers in Russia have risen, thanks to a surge in demand for labor, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Meanwhile, Russian and Belarusian companies seeking to get around Western sanctions have set up operations in the region, as have some Western companies exiting Russia.

These trends helped prompt the EBRD to raise its 2022 gross domestic product growth forecast for the region to 4.3% in September from just 1.1% in May. It also adjusted its 2023 outlook to 4.9% from 4.7%.

It remains to be seen whether these trends can hold.

Europe’s desire to get access to Central Asian energy was on clear display during European Council President Charles Michel’s visit to the region in October. But the same fundamental problems that have long held up trans-Caspian energy routes persist and are unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

Other world leaders are courting the region, too, with Chinese President Xi Jinping choosing Central Asia for his post-COVID return to the international stage, a stream of U.S. officials coming through and Russian President Vladimir Putin taking advantage of some of the few doors around still open to him.

Xi Jinping and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Astana on Sept. 14: The Chinese president chose Central Asia for his post-COVID return to the international stage. (Handout photo from press service of the president of Kazakhstan)   © Reuters

But despite the surge of attention and economic resilience so far, the Ukraine conflict could still carry major downsides for Central Asia.

The Russian economy could still implode, or the geopolitical balance that Central Asia has managed to strike could suddenly shift.

There has also been little international condemnation or fallout from the instability seen earlier this year in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the continuing crackdown in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region or violent border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The general attitude taken by outside powers, including the usually accusatory Western ones, is to simply move past these issues, hoping the governments will be able to handle them.

But the raft of incidents this year exposed a dangerous risk. The large-scale violence in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was a shock to most observers. While things appear to have settled down, the unrest underscored that there are potential issues bubbling under the surface, even in the region’s traditionally more stable countries, which could lead to widespread problems.

What other surprises lie beneath the surface is of course unknown. Few, for example, would confidently speculate about what exactly is going on in Turkmenistan.

A more clear and present danger can be found across the border in Afghanistan, where the Taliban continue to exert a weak grip on power. The Islamist regime may face no direct and obvious challenger, but it is clearly unable to enforce its mandate very far.

This has particular repercussions for Central Asia, due to the continuing threat of Islamic State Khorasan as it broadcasts threats in regional languages and seeks recruits from its outposts in Afghanistan.

Led mostly by Uzbekistan, Central Asia has sought to answer Afghanistan’s problems with a push for connectivity with South Asia, but the cost of realizing this dream is prohibitively high for the countries involved to absorb themselves. International finance could help, but Taliban rule continues to pose a threat to project completion.

So far, much external engagement with the region has focused on security support for mitigating potential problems from Afghanistan, rather than large-scale transformative investment.

China remains an important partner, and the end of zero COVID might bring new economic exchanges, but it is unlikely that Beijing will be willing to expend much to realize Central-South Asian connectivity dreams.

Meanwhile, although Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have started to make a show of strengthening their promising partnership, Putin’s proposal to join with the two Central Asian states in a “natural gas union” has not been flatly rejected.

There is a long history of grand Central Asian visions that have not managed to catch on, so it remains to be seen how these trends will play out.

The fallout from Ukraine has so far not been as bad as initially expected. And while Afghanistan remains a problem, the spillover has been limited so far.

Yet the downside risk in both cases for Central Asia remains high. The new year looks to be a challenging one.

My last column of last year for the Financial Times, thinking some rather unseasonal thoughts about the terrorist threat and what is happening to responses towards it. In large part draws on some very specific discussions I had in the last quarter of last year. Am always a bit concerned about sounding like a doom-monger, but at the same time the problem with these threats is they can surprise and in the absence of concerted response get worse. Yet, if there is a response then the problem never appears. Better to be Cassandra or crying wolf?

Downgrade counter-terrorism efforts at your peril

Resources are being reallocated towards state-based threats, but the risk posed by extremists is too deadly to ignore

People run away from the Twin Towers in New York on September 11 2001. Trying to divine where the next hazards may emerge requires careful attention © Suzanne Plunkett/AP

The growing consensus among the UK national security establishment is that terrorism is no longer the biggest threat. As migration, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Chinese military expansion increasingly top the list of concerns within Whitehall, terrorism has fallen out of vogue.

To some degree this is a positive thing. Al-Qaeda’s September 11 attacks warped the global security apparatus, and the exaggerated response to this event, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, created their own security problems. But it is alarming how quickly the terror threat has been downgraded: capability and resources are now being reallocated towards state-based threats. For the security agencies, China, Russia and Iran are the priorities, and more attention is being paid to them. Generally this resource is reallocated (often from counter-terrorism) rather than created.

Terrorism has been a feature of human society for generations. Back in the early 2000s, the scholar David Rapoport posited the idea of this threat operating in 40-year “waves”. He traced an “Anarchist wave” (1880s to 1920), an “Anti-Colonial wave” (1920s to early 1960s), a “New Left wave” (mid-1960s to 1990s), and the current “Religious wave” that began with the siege of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the fall of the shah of Iran and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

By his calculations, the religious wave is now receding. The UK and Australia have both recently lowered their terror threat levels. The question is where, and when, the next wave will emerge. Polarised politics, stratified societies, growing anti-establishment sentiment, public concern about climate change or other large-scale injustices and numerous global conflicts are all potential fissures.

Tracking potential new risks while keeping an eye on existing ones requires a monitoring mechanism. The signs are there if you are alert to them. Al-Qaeda loudly and repeatedly telegraphed its intention prior to its attacks in Africa, Yemen and the US. The emergence of the al-Qaeda-linked insurgency in Iraq and the consequent expansion of terrorist threats globally was clearly signalled in reporting prior to the invasion. The over-optimistic early responses to the Arab Spring masked the clear growth of threats in Africa as Libya’s weapons stockpiles were drained.

Meanwhile, the flame of conflict was ignited in Syria. The emergence of Isis on the battlefield may have been a surprise to some, but not to those who had been watching ISI, its precursor organisation in Iraq, in the wake of the 2009 US withdrawal.

Elsewhere, the growth of the extreme right in Europe was relatively predictable given the increasing disquiet about immigration and Muslim extremism. The 2011 attack in Norway by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was an early indicator which has subsequently proven to have inspired a wider neo-fascist community. Breivik’s attack was directly referenced by the 2019 Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant.

These things tend not to come out of the blue. But trying to divine where the next hazards may emerge requires careful observation, assessment and attention. While there was clearly a need to adjust the terrorist threat response given the growing state-based threats, the concern now is whether we are going too far the other way — especially when the picture is so confusing.

The UK Home Office has created a category of threat called “mixed, unstable and unclear”, referring to extremists with no clear ideology, or those citing multiple, and sometimes conflicting, influences. And while it is unlikely that another epoch-changing event on the scale of September 11 is around the corner, even smaller-scale terrorist events can prove deadly and scar societies.

Any reduction in resources, therefore, must be carefully thought through. Re-evaluating the risk is fine — forgetting it entirely is not.

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

More from late last year, this time trying to dig into the narrative that emerged of Kazakhstan in particular seeking to use China as a counter-weight to Moscow for the South China Morning Post.

Why Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan’s hopes of using China as a hedge against Russia could be doomed

  • Central Asia’s increasingly tense relations with Russia have made closer ties with China attractive, but achieving that is not without its problems.
  • Far from Beijing proving a hedge against Moscow, the opportunities on offer in Russia might simply increase the competition for China’s attention.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) walks alongside Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan on September 16. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have welcomed China’s interest in Central Asia, but that interest has been complicated by the pandemic and geopolitical concerns. Photo: EPA-EFE

Uzbekistan has in many ways always been the heart of Central Asia. It might be dwarfed in hydrocarbon wealth and physical size by Kazakhstan, but its other attributes give it influence. Yet, China does not have the same sort of commanding position within the country as it has with Kazakhstan.

There are numerous reasons for this, from local hesitance to problems in China, but collectively they illustrate the trouble Central Asia faces as it seeks to use Beijing as a hedge against Moscow, with whom relations have grown increasingly testy.

The difference in how Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan see their relationships with the two capitals was most clearly seen in the past few weeks. They both abstained from a vote against Russia on Ukraine at the United Nations, while they voted against a UN resolution seeking a debate on Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang.

Both have been appalled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While some individuals within the countries might hold some moral objections towards what China is doing in Xinjiang, they largely see this as a domestic issue within China.

There is no doubt some element of hard geopolitics has also played into their thinking. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have expressed reservations about Russia’s actions in Ukraine publicly before and are concerned about the clear evidence of Russian weakening.

They seek new partners to help stabilise their increasingly tormented neighbourhood. Their embrace of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the region in September underlines their eager eagerness for more Chinese investment. 

But at the same time, both are aware of the complications of increasing their dependence on China. This came into view during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Uzbek traders report that during the height of the pandemic, the costs of containers going through China to Uzbekistan rose by at least five times. While they have since gone down, they remain more expensive than they were pre-pandemic. The growth of traffic through the region to Russia helps keep them high alongside complications on the Chinese side.

At the same time, routes into China have only recently reopened, even though opening them was a focus of regular lobbying during the pandemic as landlocked Central Asians sought to get goods out and in.

The problems went beyond goods at borders. According to Uzbek data, the pandemic led to an abrupt drop in the number of new companies being created in Uzbekistan with Chinese investment. The numbers have started to rise again but are far below pre-pandemic levels.

China has retained its trade primacy in Uzbekistan, though the numbers are lower than before the pandemic and dipped substantially in 2020. All of this comes on top of Chinese companies in Uzbekistan being seen as behaving in ways that will keep local authorities happy but do not always actually deliver.

For example, media reports and experts on the ground suggest there has been a steady growth in recent years of Chinese companies opening factories in Uzbekistan. This is something the authorities welcome, eager to turn the country into a manufacturing hub. Yet at the same time, it is not clear how much these factories are actually manufacturing rather than serving as assembly plants. 

The reasons for this from a Chinese perspective are logical – it is often not clear the local market will be able to absorb the volume more active plants could produce. However, the consequences are a smaller level of local capacity building.

It also means it can often be quicker and cheaper to simply import the desired piece of machinery directly from China rather than purchase it from the local manufacturing plant. The factory is going to have to wait for the parts from China and then take time to assemble the product in Uzbekistan. Once you factor order book backlogs on top of this, it can become quite a long wait. These problems are not exclusive to Uzbekistan. Import-export firms across the region have noted the trade problems with China during the pandemic, and the unpredictability these have injected into an economic relationship both sides assumed would simply continue to boom. 

This reality lurks in the shadows of the push to warmly embrace Xi. Both Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made it clear they welcomed and sought a closer relationship with China. Kazakh officials behind the scenes were ecstatic about Xi’s comments about being willing to defend their national sovereignty, interpreting it as a protective clause should Moscow’s revanchist eye fall on their territory.

Yet the reality is that China is unlikely to play that role or do much to prioritise trade with the region. This reticence will emerge elsewhere as well, leading to frustration on the ground.

This might eventually turn in an even more complicated direction as Beijing leverages the surge of hydrocarbons and other opportunities that will present themselves as Moscow seeks new markets, against the same purchases and opportunities they see in Central Asia. Far from Beijing proving a hedge against Moscow, Russia might in the end simply increase the competition for China’s attention.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a senior fellow at the  S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore

Longer piece in The Diplomat last month taking a wide ranging look at China’s relationship with the Taliban. Since then there have been even more developments which hopefully should be covered in coming pieces. So keep coming back for more!

Inheriting the Storm: Beijing’s Difficult new Relationship with Kabul

Far from inheriting an opportunity, China finds itself encumbered with an ever-expanding roster of problems in Afghanistan, which it is showing little interest in trying to resolve or own. 

Taliban guards stand guard in Mes Aynak valley, some 40 kilometers (25 miles), southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday 30 October, 2021. AP Photo, Ahmad Halabisaz

The Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021 left China with a dilemma. Not only did Beijing now share a border with a country ruled by a group considered a terrorist pariah by much of the world, but China was also the closest strategic ally of the Taliban’s principal supporter in the international arena, Pakistan. As the rest of the world withdrew from Afghanistan, Beijing suddenly found itself in an influential position by default, juggling a number of key relationships without having the shield of U.S. hard power to ultimately hide behind.

In many ways, the image of a sea receding from shore is a useful analogy. While the United States and its allies were present in Afghanistan bolstering the Republic government, a sea washed over Afghanistan that hid a number of issues. As the U.S. and its allies left, this tide retreated, exposing brutal realities on the ground. Among those was the fact that China has no real choice but to engage with Afghanistan given its geographical position and its security concerns on the ground.

Yet this reality has had a remarkably limited effect on China’s actual activity in Afghanistan and the wider region. In many ways, Beijing has sought to continue the relatively limited engagement efforts that were being undertaken prior to the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban. The oft quoted narrative of a Chinese surge was overplayed.

Prior to the collapse of the Republic, Beijing was a partner of the Afghan government, exploring economic opportunities as well as addressing key security concerns. They also explored working with other countries in Afghanistan (like the United States, India, or European powers), and followed through on some limited programming. China was a provider of vaccines and other COVID-19 management tools and had participated in the many different regional engagements that sought to help Afghanistan, including creating specific trilateral formats bringing together Afghan and Pakistani officials. Following the collapse of the Republic government, the level of activity at an official level has stayed similar, though changed to adapt to the new authorities in Kabul.

In security terms, China cooperated closely with the Republic on Uyghur militants Beijing saw gathering in Afghanistan. They are still trying to build this relationship with the Taliban.

The closing months of the Republic were confusing in this regard.The Republic’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) moved definitively against China by detaining a network of Chinese intelligence agents active in the capital in December 2020. Both Beijing and Kabul worked closely together to keep the story out of the public domain, with then-Vice President (and former NDS chief) Amrullah Saleh tasked to manage the relationship by President Ashraf Ghani.

By early 2021, the relationship had been built up again to the point that Saleh was attending events at the Chinese embassy and praising what China was doing in Xinjiang, while at the same time highlighting through social media the links between Uyghur militants and the Taliban (something the U.S. government had sought to break by delisting the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, ETIM, as a terrorist organization in November 2020).

But as the year went on, the relationship between Beijing and Kabul broke down, with the Afghan side refusing to turn over militant Uyghurs it had caught (as Kabul had done previously).Confirmation of this came in the news that when the Taliban swept through, releasing prisoners in Republic custody, a number of Uyghurs prisoners were among those released. Exactly what led to the rupture is unclear, with stories circulating about the proximity of the Republic government to India, unfulfilled information exchange requests, or something financial.

What exactly happened is still unclear. But as the Taliban swept across the country in 2021, China seemed to increasingly pull back from the Republic government and showed itself even more willing to engage with the Taliban. Beijing even hosted top Taliban figure Mullah Baradar and a delegation in Tianjin, where they met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in July 2021. Still, Beijing was careful to continue to maintain the appearance of good relations with the Republic. Shortly before the Taliban’s visit, Chinese leaderXi Jinping spoke by telephone with Afghan President Ghani, likely in part to smooth relations. But it was clear that by this point, relations between the Republic and China were in a difficult place.

By late summer of 2021, Beijing had read the runes and concluded that no matter what happened, the Taliban were going to take some degree of power in Kabul, and this mandated establishing closer links. That approach set a path that Beijing was able to take advantage of when the Republic government finally fell and the Taliban took over.

In the wake of the precipitous U.S. and NATO withdrawal, the public discourse around China in Afghanistan went into overdrive. The chaotic nature of the withdrawal fit with a wider narrative –fanned by Beijing (and Moscow, too) – of Western decline. China’s geographical proximity, engagement with the Taliban, as well as longstanding history of announced (if unfulfilled) investments inAfghanistan all fed a narrative of Beijing stepping in to fill a vacuum left by the United States. People saw the reports of vast untapped mineral wealth and assumed the insatiable Chinese industrial machine would be eager to consume it.

Yet in reality these narratives were vastly overblown. China had long been a frustrating partner economically for the Afghan Republic. Deals had been signed, but no progress had been made. Chinese contractors came and worked on infrastructure projects, but little of the money was actually Chinese; rather it was World Bank or other international financial institution projects with the Chinese simply serving as contractors. Trade was underwhelming, and Beijing seemed unwilling to really find ways of tyingAfghanistan into Xi’s connectivity vision, the Belt and Road Initiative. Once the pandemic broke out, China did step in and provide some medical aid, which was welcomed in the beleaguered country, but this was offset by the sudden closure of the Chinese market to Afghanistan.

On the security side, Beijing and the Republic had a fairly easy relationship. The Republic authorities were quite happy to arrest and turn over any Uyghur militants China sought, as they were for the most part fighting for, or allied with, the Taliban. At the same time, they were willing to accept the fact that China maintained a connection to the Taliban, though frustrations did seep through. Reports that the Chinese, at various points, had supplied arms to the Taliban naturally caused tensions, but the Republic government always saw a greater upside in trying to engage withChina economically than become distracted by this frustration, which was not perceived as a strategic issue.

The Republic continually sought to keep China onside. For example, the Republic did not follow the United States in denying the existence of and delisting ETIM, a closing act by the Trump administration to destabilize things with China. Instead, senior Republic officials continued to refer to the group by the name ETIM and highlighted the links between the Taliban and Uyghur militants. They also seemed willing to defend publicly China’s mass detentions and surveillance in Xinjiang, in stark contrast to the narrative Washington was pushing.

The most complicated part of the relationship was Beijing’s ties with Pakistan. Here, Kabul repeatedly hoped that China would use its influence in Islamabad to try and advance concerns they had. Yet, there was little evidence of this happening. While China did establish a trilateral foreign ministerial format between Kabul, Islamabad, and Beijing, as well as use its influence in Islamabad to bring the Taliban and Pakistanis to the table with Kabul at various moments, none of this was able to change the conflict on the ground. And notwithstanding cooperation on counterterrorism questions related to Uyghurs, there was a shadow of paranoia across China’s engagement with the Republic’s security apparatus, thanks to the latter’s deep relationship with the United States.

Afghans were often frustrated by the China-Pakistan EconomicCorridor (CPEC). They pointed out that while China talked about the Belt and Road in Afghanistan, very little was actually forthcoming, in contrast to the billions pumped into Pakistan. Trying to allay this, in 2019, China pushed the idea of encouraging greater cross-border trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan through the establishment of better facilities and refrigeration points for fruits to go back and forth across the border. This fit into a wider pattern of trying to link the CPEC to Afghanistan, an approach that usually found hostility in Islamabad alongside innumerable practical problems on the ground.

The arrival of the Taliban in Kabul changed the dynamic between Kabul and Islamabad (and Beijing), though not necessarily as much as might have been expected. Relations between the Taliban and Islamabad have proven to be as fractious as they were between the Republic and Islamabad. For China, having long cultivated a relationship with the Taliban, it was easy for Beijing to continue operating in Kabul after they took over. The Chinese embassy did not evacuate in the face of the takeover, though they warnedChinese nationals to find ways out of the country or stay in secure locations. Chinese businesspeople in the city reportedly fended for themselves, while the embassy at one point was reduced to calling on Western support to evacuate citizens as their own plans failed.

But once the hump of the takeover was done, China quickly slipped into a strong public support mode, concluding that the Republic was done and Beijing needed to rapidly establish a relationship with the new authorities. Foreign Minister Wang Yi was an active figure on the regional conference circuit, using every opportunity to push for sanctions relief for the new government while his officials regularly taunted Americans over the failure in Afghanistan.

They were also quick to rekindle the formats that Beijing had established between the Republic and Islamabad, as well as try to find ways of engaging with the Taliban through the many regional formats that have developed over the years around the country. The trilateral ministerial engagement was restarted, and Beijing has reportedly also brought together senior intelligence figures from Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss problems.

On the economic front, they restarted the “pine nut air corridor” that had been established under the Republic. The corridor sought to quickly bring Afghan pine nuts to the Chinese market, and the government helped make sure they were immediately promoted and sold on high-profile online influencer channels. Aid came in to support the ongoing fight against COVID-19. During the winter of2021, the Xinjiang regional government gave just under $50 million in supplies and aid to the authorities in the neighboring Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, and Baghlan.

By November 2022, Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan Wang Yu highlighted how his country had given “300 million RMB in emergency aid to Afghanistan and continued to complete 1 billion RMB in bilateral aid.” He also confirmed that as of December 1, zero tariffs would be levied on 98 percent of products from Afghanistan being sold to China. Afghan carpets were on display at the China International Import Expo (CIIE) this year.

But big ticket deals have moved much slower, if at all. While China National Petroleum Corporation and Metallurgical Group Corp, the two firms responsible for the biggest projects in Afghanistan – an oil concession in the Amu Darya region in the north and the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar – have re-engaged with the Taliban authorities, there is little evidence they are moving quickly forward. In an apparent demonstration of a total lack of awareness of the nature of the project (or the earlier signed contract), the Taliban authorities in early November announced that the Mes Aynak project would need more electricity. This highlighted a larger problem that Chinese operators find on the ground, which isa counterpart in the Taliban that lacks much expertise to manage large projects.

The economic problems resonate across the border in Pakistan, too. In an attempt to save money, Pakistan took advantage of the low cost of Afghan coal and the fact that Afghan coal miners lack export options and increased its purchases. But once the story got out that Pakistan was taking advantage of Afghanistan’s problems, the authorities in Kabul hiked up the price of coal. This, however, blew back on the Chinese power companies working in Pakistan, which had arrived as part of CPEC and had long purchased cheapAfghan coal. They complained to the Taliban and continue to lobby to get them to lower the prices once again. Chinese coal miner Chinalco has even started to engage with the Taliban to explore opportunities in the country to get a direct Chinese hand into the industry.

Looking beyond the economy, however, China’s biggest concern about the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan is the growing militant nexus that sees China as an important adversary. This has been seen most sharply in Pakistan, where there has been a notable expansion of groups targeting Chinese interests. From being mostly targeted by Baloch or Sindhi separatists, Chinese in Pakistan now find themselves under fire from networks linked to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as well as rumors of Uyghur militants within the country working with local partners.

The murder of the Karachi University Confucius Institute director by a female suicide bomber dispatched by the Majeed Brigade in April 2022 crossed a new Rubicon as it showed the Baloch groups were broadening out their range of targets from CPEC-specific projects to any Chinese in the country. A number of Chinese nationals evacuated Pakistan afterward.

It seems to be no coincidence that the surge in violence against Chinese nationals happened alongside the Taliban takeover (though it had already been building for some time). At a practical level, the takeover released a vast amount of weaponry left behind by the Afghan National Army and its Western allies, but it also strengthened a number of militant groups, like the TTP or Baloch organizations, that are increasingly targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan and often have bases in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) has put out far more anti-Chinese propaganda than any other organization. It dispatched a suicide bomber who claimed to be aUyghur against a Shia mosque in Kunduz in October last year. In claiming the attack, ISKP specifically referenced Beijing’s close relationship with the Taliban as a motivating factor.

All of this adds up to a deeply worrying threat picture for China. While previously Beijing could somewhat hide behind others (the United States), it is now seen as the big power in the region, and it is finding itself facing all of the problems that come with that label.

Additionally, China has not been able to establish the same sort of security relationship with the Taliban as it had with the Republic. While China has repeatedly demanded that the Taliban do something about Uyghur militants, thus far all the Taliban seem to have done is move them from one part of the country to another, from Badakhshan to provinces in Afghanistan’s interior. There have been reports that the Haqqani-linked parts of the Taliban government have worked to support Chinese aims, but there are no reports of people being captured and repatriated, as happened routinely under the Republic.

In a demonstration perhaps of how comfortable he was in Afghanistan, Abdul Haq, the leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP, the name the Uyghur militant group often referred to as ETIM gives itself) released a video of himself talking to a large crowd of followers and their children celebrating Eid 2022 in Afghanistan. As of now, it does not seem as though there is any appetite in the Taliban government to turn over their close allies.

And the reality is that Beijing is not entirely committed either. All of the big economic talk has not resulted in the investment theTaliban desperately want. Rather, there has been a surge of entrepreneurial Chinese businesspeople into Afghanistan, spotting opportunities posed by a nearby country where, broadly stated, violence suddenly diminished and where there were lots of potential mining and other opportunities. Such Chinese entrepreneurs as a group are a hardy bunch. Their risk threshold is much higher than others (witness the challenging parts of Africa where numerous Chinese firms have decided to go). None of what has been seen in Afghanistan seems to be state directed, but rather is pushed by individuals, small companies, and in some cases regional state-owned enterprises. Beijing itself is barely involved, except in allowing permission for individuals to travel and for the potential material to return home.

But even these entrepreneurs find themselves frustrated, with reports that some early investors have already decided it is impossible to do business in Afghanistan and packed up to go home, writing off their large early investments.

The Chinese embassy in Kabul has avoided these negative stories, and instead championed positive ones – like the multi-modal train and truck route that was opened up between Afghanistan and Zhejiang. Home to the massive international trading market at Yiwu, Zhejiang has long been a place where Afghan business people go. Opening up the route was entirely the product of smart Afghans and some folk in Zhejiang, rather than anything coordinated or concocted by Beijing.

This is the reality of the current relationship between China and Afghanistan. While Beijing continues to talk up its positive acts in the country, it has in fact done very little in practical terms. What Chinese activity is taking place on the ground is often driven by private enterprise, and there is a growing level of frustration in Kabul about the slow pace of bigger projects that could have a more substantial impact on the Afghan economy. On the Chinese side, there is frustration about the Taliban’s inability to deliver on outcomes and an awareness that Afghanistan’s problems are already starting to export themselves around the region.

Far from inheriting an opportunity, China finds itself encumbered with an ever expanding roster of problems in Afghanistan which it is showing little interest in trying to resolve. The Taliban remain a frustrating partner, while Pakistan continues to be a source of concern that struggles with security at home while cozying up toChina’s adversary the United States. Never comfortable in an outright leadership role, China finds itself walking a dangerous tightrope in a region where its actual leverage and capability to achieve goals is limited.

A new piece for the South China Morning Post this time exploring the fact that all of the prognostications of China, Russia and other adversary powers sweeping into Afghanistan have not come to pass. In fact, they all appear to have more complicated relations with the Taliban than the US does at this point. There is more to say on this topic, so look out for a refresh soon.

China won’t be filling the void left by the US in Afghanistan any time soon

  • Rather than being quick to gain an edge in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal, China, along with Russia and Iran, remains uneasy about security threats coming from the country
  • Meanwhile, the Taliban government is frustrated at the lack of economic support being provided by its neighbours

A Taliban fighter stands guard at Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop in Kabul on August 30, the one-year anniversary of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. A year and a half on from its withdrawal, the US has managed to establish a regional foothold which enables it to at least deal with some of its security concerns. Photo: AFP

There was a lazy narrative that emerged in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Kabul that this would be a major victory for China. The operating assumption was that Beijing would swoop in and fill the geopolitical void left by the Western withdrawal.

Underpinning this was a general sense of Western decay which “adversary” powers – China, Russia, Iran – would be able to take advantage of. Yet as we have seen ahead of this month’s meetings known as the Moscow format talks, these powers are having as many, if not more, problems with the Taliban government as the West.

The Moscow format is a Russia-initiated group that was established in 2017 to bring together Afghanistan’s neighbours. It includes Russia, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The last meeting of the group was held in October 2021 and included representatives from the Taliban, who walked away from the session feeling that there was a “positive atmosphere”. The format also agreed to treat the Taliban as the de facto authorities in Afghanistan (acknowledging without acknowledgement) and sought to put pressure on the United States to lift all sanctions against the regime.

It is consequently quite a turnaround for Russian coordinator Zamir Kabulov to announce that “the Taliban delegation will not take part [in the meeting], it is only for members of the Moscow format”. The format in his view was to focus on fostering closer cooperation among Afghanistan’s neighbours, while encouraging the Taliban to act on women’s rights and deal with terrorist threats.

Kabulov did not offer any explanation for not inviting the Taliban to the talks. It is not hard, however, to guess why.

The decision is likely linked to a growing frustration among Afghanistan’s neighbours at the Taliban’s seeming inability to deal with the security threats they are all worried about. The ISKP, an affiliate of the Islamic State militant group, has lashed out in its neighbourhood with little evidence of an effective Taliban response.

Iranian authorities have pinned the recent terrorist attack that killed 15 at a shrine in Shiraz on ISKP, while the group also claimed responsibility for the attack on the Russian embassy in Kabul in September that killed two Russian officials, among others. Rocket attacks on Central Asia that came from Afghanistan have also been claimed by the group.

China has so far been spared any direct assault, but the ISKP’s publications are full of anti-Chinese narratives. And Beijing continues to be frustrated by the Taliban’s failure to crack down on armed Uygur groups that are living in the country.

The irritation goes both ways. The Taliban have also found themselves frustrated by the level of commitment from some of Afghanistan’s neighbours. While Central Asian countries have sought a tight economic embrace to help stabilise the country, China has delivered very little.

Beijing has sent some aid, but much of the economic activity seen in Afghanistan has been driven by private enterprise. The large Chinese state-owned enterprises with interests in Afghanistan have held numerous meetings, but actual progress has been slow.

Russia has sent delegations of officials to Kabul and hosted Taliban interim Minister of Industry and Commerce Nooruddin Azizi. They have signed agreements about food, oil and aid, but investment has not been forthcoming.

This stands in contrast to the success of the United States in dealing with its direct security concerns – as exemplified by the drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The US has also provided at least US$327 million in aid, and has opened direct lines of communication with the Taliban through meetings in Kabul and Doha attended by the CIA chief and his deputy, respectively.

The US has also leaned heavily into its security cooperation with Afghanistan’s Central Asian and South Asian neighbours. At the same time, Washington has not compromised on handing over money it had frozen in the wake of the Taliban takeover, instead creating a special fund in Switzerland which will manage the money to pay for key national requirements like electricity.

This has not been seen as positive by the Taliban, who remain furious at Washington for “usurping” their money. And yet, the approach has borne some fruit for the US. The release in September of US prisoner Mark Frerichs in exchange for a Taliban warlord and drug dealer in American detention reflects an ability to strike an agreement with the Taliban that pleases both sides. And it is likely other agreements have been reached behind the scenes too.

It is not impossible that both China and Russia have sought similar arrangements, but the public optics are noticeably different. Russia failing to invite the Taliban to the Moscow format follows growing irritation in Kabul around the lack of Chinese investment, and growing concern in Iran about terrorist attacks on its territory.

A year and a half on from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, we have come full circle. The much vaunted vacuum has not been filled by regional “adversary” powers, while the United States has managed to establish a regional foothold which enables it to at least deal with some of its security concerns.

So much for the narratives of China filling the void.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore

My latest column for the Financial Times on Russia’s purported ‘counter-terrorism’ activity in Africa. Not so much CT as counter-influence operations really, none of which bodes well for the underlying problems.

Russian proxies seize the advantage in Africa’s Islamist insurgencies

As western counter-terrorism efforts flounder, Kremlin-backed militias are offering support in Mali and Burkina Faso

Supporters of Ibrahim Traoré after the coup in Burkina Faso. Russian flags were on display when the leader took over the capital Ouagadougou © Issouf Sanago/AFP/Getty Images

When Russia was widely condemned for its illegal referendums in the Donbas at a vote of the UN General Assembly last month, it was notable that a clutch of African countries chose to abstain or stay away. Many of these had benefited from Russian counter-terrorism support; Burkina Faso – still reeling from a coup sparked by the government’s failure to stem an ongoing Islamist insurgency – might be about to ask for it. As al-Qaeda affiliates and Isis representatives converge in the Sahel region and across the continent, Moscow is increasingly bending terrorism to its advantage in the pursuit of political influence.

The terrorist threat picture across Africa has always been a messy one. Most groups are active locally, and the aspiration or capability to launch attacks beyond the continent’s borders tends to be confined to Isis networks in Libya or Egypt and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Terrorist groups across the region target foreigners, with mixed motives: attacking the Westgate Mall or DusitD2 Complex in Kenya, or the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria attracts attention; kidnapping can often be as much about profit as terror.

The situation is even more complex when groups without clear affiliations declare Isis as their inspiration. Almost half the deaths attributed to Isis worldwide in 2021 took place in sub-Saharan Africa. But it can be hard to distinguish between Islamist violence and longstanding regional conflicts. The jihadifuelled insurgency in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado appears to have some international links but draws on a long history of local disenfranchisement.

Counter-terrorism support from the west has a chequered history. Former regional colonial powers like the UK and France have played a significant role in countries such as Mali, while the US has funded or trained special forces to varyincreased, degrees across the Sahel to help combat threats. Non-military aid in the region has been targeted at the underlying causes of instability.

Yet none of this has done much to suppress the overall threat and may even have been counter-productive. In September 2021, Guinean forces left their training with the US Green Berets to join the military takeover of Conakry. The 2020 coup in Mali, which led to the eventual breakdown in relations between Paris and Bamako, was led by forces built up by the French army over the previous seven years under OpĂ©ration Barkhane. This project – established by the French after the near takeover of Mali by Islamist militants in 2013 – was undermined by loosely defined goals. As tensions with Bamako the ÉlysĂ©e finally announced in February a withdrawal of troops.

The result has been a turn by Malian authorities towards mercenaries such as the Wagner Group, which has close links to the Russian GRU intelligence agency. This is not unique to Mali: Wagner forces have also appeared in Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Mozambique. In Bamako, members of this Russian proxy militia are celebrated in the streets. In exchange for their services, Wagner appears to be receiving access to minerals while Moscow wins strategic allies, as evident in UN voting patterns.

But the signature of Wagner deployments tends to be a focus on subduing civilian populations and harshly suppressing insurgencies. While the western approach may have not been as effective as intended, it at least avoids the indiscriminate brutality exercised by Russian-backed forces.

In Burkina Faso, the latest coup leader Ibrahim Traoré seems to be playing both sides: he reportedly told US diplomats that he did not intend to call on Wagner forces, but some of his local suping porters have called for a new strategic partnership with Moscow, and Russian flags were prominently on display as he took over the capital Ouagadougou. Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin also posted his support for the takeover on Telegram, saying soldiers had done what was necessary.

Given the failure of many western counter-terrorism efforts, it is hard to see how this battle for influence can be resolved. Moscow is acting both to frustrate the west and benefit itself. It is imperative that the US, UK, France and their allies find ways to continue engaging with Sahelian countries and working to alleviate the disenfranchisement that is often a touchpaper for insurgency.

Security engagement around specific terrorist groups must continue, with better safeguards to prevent it backfiring. And crucially, these efforts must be disentangled from the wider geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the west. Otherwise, the Sahel will remain a region ripe for manipulation.

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Another piece written around President Xi’s visit to Central Asia, this time for the Straits Times exploring the growing clout that China has within the region. Draws on ideas in the book of course, but also on the fact that travel is now possible once again so am able to get to the region a bit again.

China’s growing clout in Central Asia

A vacuum is developing as Russia’s war in Ukraine dismantles Moscow’s credibility and strength across the Eurasian heartland.

A broadcast of the meeting between Mr Xi Jinping and Mr Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan. PHOTO: REUTERS

President Xi Jinping’s decision to pick Central Asia for his first foreign trip since the Covid-19 pandemic began reflects Beijing’s confidence that it is now the ascendant power in the Eurasian heartland. This was clearly evident from both Mr Xi’s tour of the region and the much-watched meeting between the Chinese leader and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the fringes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last week.

The optics around Mr Xi’s visit underlined China’s rising star in the region. First, the grandiloquence was apparent in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two countries he chose to visit.

The Kazakhs were clearly very pleased that theirs was the first country Mr Xi decided to visit. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was at the airport to personally welcome the Chinese leader in fluent Mandarin and nothing was spared in the way of pomp and ceremony for the state visit, including the awarding of the Order of Altyn Kyran (Order of the Golden Eagle) to Mr Xi. The two leaders also toured a recently opened exhibit of archaeological artefacts that was displayed under the title “Kazakhstan-China: Dialogue of the Millennia”.

Not to be outdone, the authorities in Uzbekistan also put on a grandiose welcome for Mr Xi, with large groups of dancing people at the airport. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev could not match his Kazakh counterpart’s Mandarin skills, but he also awarded Mr Xi the country’s “highest friendship award”, the Order of Friendship.

The contrast could not have been more striking during Mr Mirziyoyev’s meeting with Mr Putin. Rather than the Uzbeks offering their visitor an award, it was the Russian leader who dished out a medal to his Uzbek counterpart. He awarded Mr Mirziyoyev the Order of Alexander Nevsky, which is given to foreign leaders “for major contributions to promoting friendly ties with Russia”.

The strains were also palpable during the bilateral meeting between the Chinese and Russian leaders, with Mr Putin openly acknowledging that China had expressed concerns and questions about the war in Ukraine. Mr Putin made similar comments during his separate bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was also in town for the SCO summit. Mr Putin’s comments separately to both leaders only served to emphasise the sense that neither China nor India was in fact very pleased with the Russian leader’s aggression in Ukraine.

But the differences should not be overplayed. In Beijing’s case, at least, the reality is that it has little desire to put Russia down or see Moscow lose in a conflict against the West. The net result of that would be to weaken Beijing’s support base in its larger geopolitical confrontation with the West, and would also provide more space for the West to focus more on China. The conflict in Ukraine provides a useful distraction at the moment.

China is certainly not happy with the global disruptions and costs generated by the conflict, but at the same time, it has little choice but to support Moscow as an important geopolitical partner in confronting the United States-led West.

Wider context

The wider context of the summit in the Uzbek capital was more interesting. Established in 2001 with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and China, the SCO has grown, in large part due to Chinese efforts, to become a multilateral organisation bringing together the leaders of around 40 per cent of the world’s population. It now includes India, Pakistan and Iran, with countries like Belarus and Turkey knocking at the door. An organisation often overlooked in the West (or in much strategic discourse), it is in fact emblematic of the growing influence that China has across a growing swathe of the central and eastern Eurasian heartland.

Mr Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative came from a desire to carve routes across this region, rewiring infrastructure and trading routes that used to lead to Moscow to instead be diverted to China. While the Kremlin was initially dismissive of China’s inroads into the region, Moscow now finds itself trying to co-opt or counteract Beijing by touting to the others what it can offer that China cannot.

Russia, though, is increasingly on the back foot among its neighbours, largely because of Ukraine. In the past couple of weeks, violence has erupted once again between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus. A long-running border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has also escalated again, leading to dozens of deaths as security forces on both sides shell and shoot at each other. This is occurring as trouble on the other side of Tajikistan, in the Badakhshan region, continues, and there has also been recent large-scale public unrest in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Yet, Russia has been able to offer security support only in Kazakhstan, and even then in a limited way.

It is worth noting that China has not stepped into any of these issues. Beijing has little appetite to get stuck in such messy conflicts, recognising that it will struggle to try to resolve them, and will most likely only make enemies in the process. China would rather wait it out and let history take its course. But it will be increasingly difficult to adopt this passive stance as it becomes the biggest economic power across the region.

Few in the region will deny Russia’s importance, but many have become wary of Moscow in the aftermath of Mr Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. There has been notable diplomatic pushback across Central Asia, and a growing sense of a need to develop other options, including building up ties with China.

A vacuum is developing – one which, logically, China can fill. Russia’s war in Ukraine is dismantling Moscow’s credibility and strength across the Eurasian heartland, and China is currently the most obvious beneficiary.

But Beijing has not chosen to do much with its growing clout.

Going forward, evading that responsibility might no longer be possible.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and the author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022)

Almost caught up on re-publishing my writing here after a long period of delay, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit pointing to the optics of the session as one of the key attractions to some of the members.

China and Russia to showcase alternative world order at SCO Summit

Samarkand gathering demonstrates sanctioned states still have allies of substance

Xi Jinping is set to attend as he makes his first international trip since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.   © AP

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.” (Oxford University Press)

As the West advances a world order constructed around institutional structures developed after World War II, those leading the charge against the West are embracing their own institutions to demonstrate their options.

This week, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will hold its annual heads of state summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, bringing together Russia, China, Iran and a host of other nations. The narrative these countries want to advance is that there is another order out there beyond the Western-imposed one, as thin as it often seems on closer inspection.

This year’s summit is attracting more interest than previously as Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to attend as he makes his first international trip since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. The fact that he has chosen Central Asia and an SCO heads of state summit to do this, even before confirmation of his third term as Communist Party leader at the party’s congress next month, is a reflection of the importance of the SCO to Beijing.

The exact agenda of the summit is still being set, but it is likely that Afghanistan, new members and connectivity will be key items.

Afghanistan has been a perennial issue on which the SCO has failed to deliver. With the full accession of Iran to the group next year, Afghanistan will be almost entirely engulfed geographically by full SCO members, save for uncompromisingly neutral Turkmenistan, but Iran has been joining SCO summits for a while and Turkmenistan will be there this year too.

Taliban fighters in Kabul celebrate the first anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops on Aug. 31: Afghanistan has been a perennial issue on which the SCO has failed to deliver.   © AP

Notwithstanding the bloc’s clear interest in resolving Afghanistan’s long-standing issues, the organization has done nothing to help it, nor has it come together effectively to deal with the problems emanating from the country.

It is unlikely we will see much material progress this time either amid continuing uncertainty about the longer-term viability of the Taliban authorities, as well as concerns about their mixed attempts to rein in militant groups.

The answer from Uzbekistan’s perspective has been to seek ways of trying to engage with the new Taliban authorities. It has been keen for some time to push a narrative of greater connectivity across Eurasia.

Rather than simply piggyback on China’s Belt and Road Initiative vision, Tashkent has sought to instead cultivate a vision of connectivity between Central and South Asia, to both tap markets and seek escape from the region’s landlocked nature.

But these practical issues are side stories to the main narrative that will emerge from the Samarkand summit.

Attendees are expected to include the leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Mongolia, Iran and Belarus, which are each seeking to highlight their inclusion and links to the SCO. Rumors suggest Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may appear too.

In joining with the leaders of existing members Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan and China, they will be part of a constellation of powers that for various reasons, and to different degrees, have tensions with the West.

For all of these powers, there is a pleasing visual utility to being present at a colloquium of such stature, representing at least a third of the world’s population and with no Westerners present. They can all show that notwithstanding the sanctions or sanctimony thrown at them by the West, they have allies of substance who welcome them with open arms.

There is no doubt that the SCO is nowhere near capable of competing with entities like the Group of Seven, NATO or the EU, but this is not the point. The organization is one that marches to its own beat, has only grown in its 20-plus years and continues to enlarge the volume of topics that it engages on.

It has helped normalize China’s role as a major player on the Eurasian continent while also providing an opportunity for Chinese diplomats, officials and business executives to engage regularly at multiple levels with their neighbors and a growing range of countries. Even supposed Western allies like India and Turkey see value in showing up for the meetings to soak in a non-Western-led order that they can appreciate being involved in.

There is no doubt that the members have little trust in one another, and the international order they are building is flawed. But at the same time, the interesting question is whether this matters to them.

The optics are good enough as the summitry gets positive play in other parts of the world. The event presents the impression, with some apparent foundation, that the democratic order advanced by the West is not the only achievable structure out there.