Archive for the ‘Diplomat’ Category

Another belated posting related to book promotion, this time with a lovely inversion of the book’s title in the article’s title in the excellent Diplomat. Many thanks to the wonderful Catherine Putz for doing the interview.

China’s Inadvertent Empire: Welcome to Sinostan

Containers are seen near cranes at the Khorgos Gateway, one of the world’s largest dry dock in a remote crossing along Kazakhstan’s border with China near Khorgos, on April 2, 2018.
Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

In “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire,” Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen take readers into the heart of Eurasia for insight into Beijing’s rise. Over a decade of travel, research, and writing went into the book, which charts the growth of Chinese power and presence in Central Asia. It was in Kazakhstan where, in 2013, newly minted Chinese President Xi Jinping first laid out the vision we now call the Belt and Road Initiative. And it is in examining China’s forays into Central Asia that we can truly grasp the means and motives of China’s global rise. 

Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. Petersen was an academic, writer, and geopolitical energy expert; he was tragically killed in a 2014 restaurant bombing and attack in Kabul, Afghanistan.

In the following interview, Pantucci explains the linkages between Xinjiang and Central Asia, which stand at the heart of Chinese efforts in the region, dives into the implications of China’s involvement in Eurasia for other powers, from Russia to the United States, and discusses much more.

The book starts with Chinese road workers in Kyrgyzstan in 2011. How important has physical infrastructure, like roads, been to both regional engagement with China and broader Chinese aims in the region?

Physical infrastructure has always been a core component of China’s engagement with Central Asia. Looking back at [Chinese Premier] Li Peng’s grand tour of the region in 1994 (where he visited all of the capitals except Dushanbe, which was wracked by civil war), there were two core issues that he focused on during the trip: separatists and building new silk roads. At the time, however, the routes that were being discussed flowed from Central Asia across China to Japan. More recently, these have flowed the other way, and in fact the first big infrastructure in the region were pipelines from Kazakh fields to China. Chinese firms and funding have been subsequently used to refurbish roads, build additional pipelines from Turkmenistan’s munificent gas fields to China, as well as build tunnels, rail, and roads around the region. All of this is in addition to a range of other pieces of infrastructure that have been built, like power stations, ancillary energy infrastructure, airports, buildings of all sorts and more.

This is important for broader Chinese aims as it helps connect Xinjiang to the world, one of the key interests China has in Central Asia. The region in China is infrastructure poor, and the region outside of China is equally limited, and yet if China is going to make Xinjiang prosperous (the long-term answer to the instability Beijing sees in Xinjiang), then it is going to need to be better connected. 

Ultimately, what has been happening in Central Asia for more than the past two decades is in many ways the foundational concept which has been globalized under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is no accident that President Xi first announced his lasting foreign policy idea at a speech in then-Astana in 2013 when he laid out his vision of a Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), which was then joined by the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) in a speech in Jakarta a month later, to become the wider BRI. The whole concept of infrastructure as a foundation for a vision for foreign policy comes from what was going on in Central Asia and was built on the logic that more infrastructure and connectivity meant more economic prosperity which would lead to more stability. This is a pattern which China has observed delivered success at home, and sees as the answer to issues elsewhere as well as a positive concept to use to engage with the world. 

Does China have a comprehensive strategy for Central Asia? Are its engagements just ad hoc developments in bilateral relationships?

We asked a lot of senior Chinese experts and officials about whether Beijing had a strategy for the region, and we were uniformly rebuffed and ridiculed. But then in the early years on our work on this project, President Xi went to the region and announced the creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). But while this laid out a vision, it did not specify a plan. Our conclusion was that it was not a specific strategy that was laid out saying, we need to do a, then b, then c, and then our goal will be achieved. But rather, a wider vision was laid out, and the Chinese system followed. This meant all of the institutions moved forwards in their own ways to try to articulate and play their part in the wider vision that the leader had laid out.

But it was never clear that China had a comprehensive strategy. It has a far clearer strategy for Xinjiang, and in some ways Central Asia plays out as an extension of that, but this is incidental to the core aim of the vision which is to stabilize Xinjiang. As a result much of China’s vision for the region is a series of bilateral engagements that when taken together can be described as looking like a strategy (especially as they are so similar in each case), but it is not clear that there is a comprehensive strategy for the region (except insomuch as the BRI can be described as a broader foreign policy strategy for China).

The only other thing to mention in this context is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which was born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and a grouping called the Shanghai Five which was aimed at helping delineate borders and establish security relations between China and the newly minted countries it shared borders with. This is sometimes described as something which is the vehicle for China’s strategy, but in fact it seems more like an umbrella for everything China does which runs in parallel often to China’s specific interests which are addressed at a bilateral level.  

In what ways is China’s strategy in Central Asia an extension of its strategies and policies in Xinjiang?

Beijing has long worried about stability and security in Xinjiang. Remote from the capital (two hours’ time difference, if China used regional time zones, and about five or six hours by plane), China has struggled to maintain control. At times this has spilled over into violence and even in much earlier years, instances of separatism. The most recent turning point came in July 2009 when rioting in Urumqi led to at least a couple of hundred deaths and the embarrassing specter of the leader of the country having to leave a G8 Summit in Italy to come home and stabilize the situation.

After this we see a push to change things along two axes: first, a heavy security presence, something that was imposed through “strike hard” campaigns – which had extensions into Central Asia from the reality that there have been attacks on Chinese interests and individuals there, as well as the fear that groups of dissident Uyghurs might use the region as a base to attack China. Second, was a heavy economic investment into the region which is the long-term answer from Beijing’s perspective to make Xinjiang stable.

But to make the region prosperous, you need to encourage prosperity and connectivity in its neighboring region. Xinjiang is in many ways the sixth or seventh Central Asian country (depending on if you also include Afghanistan). This is not to deny that Xinjiang is part of China, but to make the point that Xinjiang is deeply intertwined with the region – there are large ethnically Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Kazakh populations in Xinjiang, in much the same way there are Uyghur, Han, and Dungan (ethnic Hui) populations living in Central Asia. This highlights the fact that the region is tied into its neighborhood, but also that Xinjiang is as far from the coasts and global maritime trade routes as any of the Central Asian countries. 

So any economic development in Xinjiang is only going to come when you open up routes across Central Asia to Europe, Russia, and elsewhere, as well as trying to get into the opportunities and markets in Central Asia itself. And of course, finally, Central Asia’s mineral wealth is something that the insatiable Chinese economic machine will constantly need. All of this highlights the importance of the region to China, but critically to Xinjiang (in China’s conception).

What are the implications of Chinese strategies in Central Asia for Western countries, like the United States and in Europe?

The region is not a current priority for Europe or the United States. At various moments in recent times it has risen up in the rankings of priority regions for the West – for example, the U.S. used routes through the region to help supply forces in Afghanistan during their long war there, and during the evacuation last year, European powers in particular relied on regional support to get their people out. Depending on who holds the reins of power in Brussels, Europe is engaged, though overall the European Union has constantly discussed the region as one that they want to focus on but Brussels often struggles to maintain its focus. In large part focus is driven by which power is holding the rotating presidency of the Union. Separately, the U.K. has a strong footprint across the region, and interesting links to a number of countries, but the region is (sadly I might add) not a priority for London.

At the same time, all are significant players in economic and aid terms in the region. They are eager to try to coax the countries of the region into becoming more open, transparent, and accountable. But the lack of focus means this goal is followed to a limited degree by senior levels. This is in contrast to China or Russia – Moscow which takes a traditional paternalistic view to the region and has repeatedly shown itself willing to deploy forces to help deal with local security threats with President Vladimir Putin expressing himself and meeting regional leaders. And China is the coming power in economic and strategic terms in the region, but continues to pay its respects to all of the regional leaders. All of this will serve to crowd out Western interests and approach, as while the region would like to play the various sides off each other and have the West as an option, the reality is the West does not seem as engaged – or their interest is sporadic. China and Russia are constant, and China in particular ascendant through sheer economic force alone.

This means this region is increasingly going to find itself sucked into China’s thrall. This will make it harder for the U.S. or Europe to advance their goals. It also means that much of the Eurasian heartland will increasingly fall from Western influence leaving it to China and Russia. And if historical British geographer Halford Mackinder is to be believed, this means losing control of the “world island” and therefore power and influence on the planet.

How does China’s strategy in Central Asia compare with those of other major players in the region, like Russia, and those further afield with important interests, such as the United States, Turkey, Japan, etc.?

There are many similarities, in terms of seeking to offer investment and opportunity, as well as worrying about security issues through engagement with locals. But at the same time, there are some critical differences. Russia does not so much see Central Asia as a neighboring region, but more an extension of self. Not all in the same way as Russia views parts of neighboring countries with Russian populations (though of course this does apply in Kazakhstan’s case), but more in terms of how economically and socially tied Russia is still to these countries. This is not only through the web of institutions that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union – like the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), or the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – but also through the sense that the region is Russia’s soft underbelly with the potential risks and threats that emanate from Afghanistan coming through the region to threaten Moscow. This is different to Beijing’s more transactional approach which is less interested in being in control or seeing itself as responsible, but is instead focused on its own interests and how they are affected by the region.

Other powers, like Japan, Turkey, India, or South Korea, have varying degrees of interests in the region and tried slightly different things. Turkey has long called upon its Turkic heritage to develop relations across Central Asia, but these have often failed to deliver to the hoped for results. Turkey is an alternative place for migrant labor to go to from the region, there are some Turkish companies and goods that are very well received in the region, and Istanbul has actively sought to cultivate its soft power links through education and culture. But it struggles to deliver the same impact as others. Japan and South Korea have both engaged in the region, though to different degrees of attention – both use policy banks and their own firms to try to build infrastructure or access resources in the region. And both have advanced visions for engagement, but the reality of geography means this will only really work if their relations with Central Asia’s neighbors are good. 

Similarly, India has always sought to engage with the region. All of the recent Indian leaders have done big tours of Central Asia after which they have spoken of their interest and focus on the region. And India has historically had some air force footprint in Tajikistan. But this has always stumbled in the follow on – in part due to the complexity of geography (with Afghanistan and Pakistan in between, and Chabahar Port in Iran being an awkward route from Central Asia to India), but also due to strategic concerns with China, as well as the reality that India is not a command driven economy and tends to drift in its foreign policy focus (except with Pakistan). All of these contrast with China’s very focused and growing attention which geography favors and is something that they are able to do without ruffling too many Russian feathers at the moment.

Many discussions about China focus on its rise both globally and in the Indo-Pacific, with a heavy focus on the maritime space. Is landlocked Eurasia overlooked in those conversations? If so, why is it important to pay attention to China’s “inadvertent” empire in the heart of Asia?

It is a great disappointment to me that many of the Indo-Pacific strategies focus almost solely on maritime power. This misses out the vast and rich hinterland that exists in the Eurasian heartland. An area replete with opportunities, ancient civilizations and culture, but also a region which has sadly created problems for the West in the recent past. September 11, 2001 emanated from Afghanistan, and more recently we can see that this is a region of great strategic importance to both of the main Western adversary powers – China and Russia (and even Iran). By developing strategies towards Asia that almost entirely exclude the Eurasian heartland, the West is missing out on an opportunity in many ways. As mentioned before, according to Mackinder, whoever controls this region, controls the world. But stepping away from grand geopolitics, this is a region with which Europe is contiguous, meaning what happens there is likely to resonate. To simply abandon it to its fate misses a regional opportunity, but also misses out on understanding how Chinese foreign policy actually works in practice in an area which Beijing cannot simply walk away from.

A brief piece drawing on some really interesting discussions have been having with Ajmal, an old contact from Kabul who has now spread his wings further. This first piece together is an excellent snapshot of events in Afghanistan through the lens of the pine nut for the Diplomat, with more to come. The larger topic of China-Afghanistan is a focus am going to continue on and of course is a big part of the upcoming book.

Why Is Beijing Going Nuts for Afghan Pine Nuts?

The trade offers concrete and immediate benefits to both the Chinese government and the Taliban

Credit: Depositphotos

China’s exercise of economic statecraft to exert influence in pursuit of foreign policy objectives is nothing new. Nor are its security interests in Afghanistan. This combination is usually assumed to come together in the form of mineral exploitation in exchange for security guarantees. 

But it is possible that China is planning a more complicated game which reduces its exposure but benefits a larger number of Afghans. Deliveries of pine nuts to China were first formalized in 2018 under the Western-backed government in Kabul with annual exports worth up to $800 million. By end of 2019, Afghan traders had inked over $2 billion worth of contracts with China for exporting pine nuts over a period of five years. Unlike the large and complicated mineral deals whose stories fill the press, the export of agricultural products like pine nuts is a way to immediately reach a large community of Afghan farmers, something the Taliban are very happy about and Beijing can commit to at little cost.

The China-Afghan pine nut story is a complicated one. While it can be simply explained as the law of supply and demand (with an almost bottomless consumer market in China that can absorb almost anything), a question not being asked is why China picked pine nuts among many other high-quality Afghan cash crops on which it could focus its attention. 

A key reason is location. Pine nuts are naturally grown in the wild in Laghman, Kunar, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces. These areas have long been hotbeds of insurgent activity from the Haqqani network, in Khost, Paktia, and Paktika, to the Islamic State (ISK), in Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman. These are also the areas where China feels it faces greater security threats from groups like the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). This could explain why China suddenly developed a taste for Afghan pine nuts.

While China’s facilitation of output-type contacts (whereby the buyer guarantees purchase levels as long as quality is maintained) and removal of logistical barriers have lifted thousands of pine nut growers out of poverty, it has also made these pine nut growing areas export-dependent on China. This gives China an interesting form of leverage and economic influence over the inhabitants of this region regardless of which government rules in Kabul. 

Chinese purchasers of pine nuts for export were always keener to be in direct touch with the farmers than to use middle men. The result of this link might be seen in an espionage case that blew up in Kabul in December 2020, when the old local intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), rolled up a cell of 10 Chinese citizens on accusations of espionage. According to stories that later emerged, one of the purported spies was allegedly involved in pine nut export, and the network was reported to have been building links to the Haqqani Network. 

Whatever the details of this case, pine nuts remain at the top of China’s Afghan agenda. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to Doha to meet Taliban officials at the end of October coincided with the harvest season for pine nuts. With air corridors closed and all financial transactions with Afghanistan disrupted, the pressure was building on the Taliban to re-establish international trade. The Afghanistan Pine Nuts Union issued a statement calling on the Taliban administration to ban the smuggling of pine nuts and resume air corridors to facilitate exports to China. 

In the staged portion of Wang’s visit to Doha a short video was released of Taliban Foreign Minister designate Amir Khan Muttaqi handing over an elaborate box of pine nuts. The topic was not reported as coming up during Wang’s meeting with Taliban Deputy Prime Minister designate Abdul Ghani Baradar, where instead he was reported as focusing on China’s security concerns, stating “China hopes and believes that the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with the ETIM and other terrorist organizations, and take effective measures to resolutely crack down on them.”

While it is believed that China discussed a whole host of economic and state building opportunities, re-establishing the pine nuts air bridge was the most practical and easy solution with immediate wins for both sides. And China was able to show results very quickly. On November 1, the first flight of the restarted air corridor went to Shanghai, bringing with it 45 tonnes of pine nuts. A week later, online superstar salesman Li “lipstick king” Jiaqi and CCTV news anchor Wang Bingbing showcased cans of Afghan pine nuts on their online shopping show, shifting 120,000 cans with the support of Chen Zhong, a Chinese Pashto speaker and expert on Afghanistan. 

This rapid market to cash transaction highlights part of the way out of Afghanistan’s current liquidity crisis to the Taliban, while also giving China an easy way of supporting the Afghan economy at little cost to itself. It also gave the Taliban a way of showing their positive capability as export promoters to a part of the country where dangerous groups thrive.

Of course, both China and the Taliban recognize that the long-term answer to Afghanistan’s economic stagnation does not lie in pine nuts. According to reliable sources at the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, samples of rare earths from Helmand’s Khanneshin district were handed to a Chinese delegation that met the Taliban acting minister of mines shortly after Wang’s visit to Doha. A delegation of Chinese company representatives were issued special visas and were reported to have visited Kabul in early November to conduct site inspections of sites of potential lithium mines, though their official read-out was very wary of committing to anything specific.

China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has restarted exploring opportunities in the Amu Darya field it had been thrown out from under the former government. Production from 11 wells at Angot and Kashkari blocks can start fairly quickly and without any large upfront investment because much of the existing infrastructure and wells were rehabilitated when CNPC took over the operations 10 years ago. 

With global oil prices above $80 a barrel for the first time in three years, and a severe winter ahead of a cash-strapped Afghan population, resuming production from Amu Darya could provide another “win-win” opportunity for China and the Taliban government. There are also reports that MCC, the firm that won the tender to mine the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar, have sent teams to discuss restarting with the Taliban – though they state they remain highly concerned about the security situation. 

But all of these projects are longer-term and far more expensive. It will require considerable outlay on the Chinese side for a project which may or may not work, and will take a long time to deliver cash to the government and people. Pine nuts in contrast offer a quick turnaround which both helps get currency into the hands of farmers and the laborers they need to harvest the nuts, and requires little major commitment by China except easing access to the Chinese consumer market. They also provide an interesting possible avenue for Chinese intelligence to gain direct contact in areas of concern. 

All in all, it is a win-win that both the Taliban and Beijing can sign off on with little cost, but lots of positive imagery on all sides. Crucially, it allows China to play an economic role and deal with security issues, all without feeling like it is being dragged too far into the Afghan quagmire.

Guest Authors

Ajmal Waziri is an international development advisor with a research interest in the political economy of natural resources.

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

Not quite finished in a busy week of China-Afghanistan writing, and one more to come after this. This one for the Diplomat touches on the very challenging question of how this is going to change China’s relationship with Central Asia. Big thanks to the wonderful Niva for getting this idea going. We have some more in the pipeline together, looking forward to seeing them go live.

China’s Afghanistan Challenge and the Central Asian Dilemma

None expect China to replace the United States in military terms, but Central Asia may hope Beijing plays a more substantial role in Afghanistan.

Credit: Kyrgyz MFA: https://twitter.com/MFA_Kyrgyzstan/status/1392445892930715648

The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is underway and is due to be completed by September 11, 2021. In the early days of the War on Terror, U.S. military bases in Central Asia were central to mobilization in Afghanistan, but regional pressure led to their closure. While a narrative persists in the press that the United States will want to keep some substantial presence in the region after the drawdown, it is unclear that anyone in Central Asia has actually been asked.

Russia is unlikely to step forward very far to fill this vacuum, instead preferring to continue to play a supportive role where it serves its interests. To the extent that the United States does appear to want to stay engaged, it seems to be focused on reviving the New Silk Road concept that connects Central Asia to South Asia through Afghanistan, alongside positioning some over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities.

The key uncertainty is whether China is going to finally step forward to take up some mantle of responsibility toward Afghanistan and follow through on its repeated security promises.

Central Asian politics have changed since the United States vacated the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan in 2014. At the time the overriding discourse was how Moscow was going to fill the ensuing security vacuum. Yet, the narrative of the intervening seven years has not been of Russian dominance, but of Chinese expansion. From politics to security, language and economics, China is the rising power in Central Asia.

On May 12, China hosted the second China plus Central Asia (C5+1) Foreign Ministerial talks in Xi’an. The five Central Asian foreign ministers were the first group of foreign officials invited to China since the start of the pandemic. Political ties between China and the Central Asian states have grown exponentially in the past decade. 

Afghanistan was an obvious topic of discussion. Central Asian states fear the potential spillover of conflict and are looking for a security guarantee from within Afghanistan, as well as the other major powers in the region. While urging the U.S. troop withdrawal to “proceed in an orderly and responsible manner to avoid a resurgence of terrorist forces,” China (like Russia) has no desire to see the return of U.S. bases in Central Asia. Yet, at the same time, Beijing has failed to deliver tangible security plans to support its neighbors on the western periphery in the event of an escalation of instability in Afghanistan. The joint statement on Afghanistan released at the end of the Chinese C5+1 meeting was thin on details.

In the past few years, China has emerged as an active player in Afghanistan. China has opened a number of multilateral diplomacy channels around Afghanistan, participated in regional talks, worked with the United States and Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, and repeatedly pushed (albeit to no avail) to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to do more about Afghanistan. China has offered some limited support to Afghan, Tajik, and Pakistani border forces, and reportedly built its own base in Tajikistan. But these efforts are single-mindedly focused on Chinese border concerns.

The story has been similar on the economic side. China has expanded measures to induce economic incentives for peace in Afghanistan, something that Chinese policymakers have put forward as the most appropriate contribution China can make. A bilateral economics and trade committee was set up in 2015. Direct cargo flights between Afghanistan and China opened in late 2018. After building the Mazar-i-Sharif to Hairatan train line, a cargo train corridor between China and Afghanistan was inaugurated in summer 2019, via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Bilateral trade between China and Afghanistan doubled from $338 million in 2013 to $629 million in 2019, according to data from Chinese customs. And Beijing has repeatedly spoken about bringing Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative foreign policy vision – increasing Afghan connectivity with Central Asia, China, and Pakistan.

In reality Beijing has achieved little. China’s most recent promises include reported security contributions to help with counterterrorism efforts, but it is not clear what these will look like. Economically, China’s stake in Afghanistan has grown, but it has failed to deliver on the massive extractive project in Mes Aynak its firms signed contracts for in 2007, and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) project in northern Afghanistan has also been suspended. Beijing has not lived up to its economic potential in the country yet.

None of this is going to get any easier in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. With the possible outcome that the Taliban will regain control of a greater part of Afghanistan, rule by Islamist ideology may then become an inevitability and that will have consequences for China. While Beijing has clearly been bolstering its relations with factions in the government in Afghanistan, its analysts are equally certain that some Taliban return to power is likely. This confusion in part reflects the baffling complexity of the Afghan battlefield, but it also highlights a dissonance within current planning.

It also illustrates where China’s post-American Afghan strategy likely falls down. With Washington present in force, Beijing can largely apportion blame and responsibility to the U.S. for anything that happens. Once the U.S. is gone, this excuse may still have some rhetorical currency, but it will lack tangible use on the ground. And while China may be able to ensure that its security concerns are addressed, its neighbors in Central Asia will expect it to use its weight and gravitas to play a more substantial role in stabilizing the situation. None expect China to replace the United States in military terms, but Central Asia may hope Beijing will play a more forward and substantial role in Afghanistan — a role that actually helps stabilize and calm the situation — rather than hedge and watch while it collapses in on itself.

The wonderful Katie Putz of the Diplomat was kind enough to invite me to do an interview with her excellent publication – covering a wide range of China in South and Central Asia questions, though mostly looking southward with a bit of a focus on Afghanistan. Have not posted it all here as behind a firewall at the moment, but will hope to later. Am posting after it a podcast recording that I did with Suzanne Raine of Cambridge University (and formerly of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office) looking at how terrorist threats are evolving.

Raffaello Pantucci on China’s Presence in South Asia

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights the importance of South and Central Asia to China.

Pakistan and Chinese soldiers take part in a joint exercise in Jhelum, Pakistan Thursday, Nov 24, 2011.
Credit: AP Photo/B.K.Bangash

As the United States embarks on its withdrawal from Afghanistan, some wonder what China will do given the country’s critical interests in South and Central Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is merely the latest articulation of a strategic narrative that imbues the South and Central Asian region with critical importance to China. As Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), explains in the following interview, China has long-running interests in the wider region. While Beijing is not poised to follow the Soviet Union and now, the United States, into the “graveyard of empires,” those interests remain important to China.

What interests in the wider South and Central Asia region most draw Beijing’s attention?

China is most worried about security problems it perceives as being based in South and Central Asia which might threaten domestic stability. Principal amongst these is a fear that the region might become a staging ground for Uyghur dissidents or militants to create instability in Xinjiang. A secondary group of concerns emanates from a fear of threats to Chinese economic investments and interests in the region. In Beijing’s conception these investments are also linked to Xinjiang as well, as their success is in part linked to prosperity and growth in Xinjiang, which China sees as the key to longer-term stability within its borders.

At a wider strategic level, China is worried that the region could be used by adversary powers, like the United States, as a place from which to foment instability within China. This has most recently been tied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly to Afghanistan, but is a persistent fear that has always lurked in the back of Chinese minds. From their perspective, the region is their backyard and directly linked to some of the most sensitive parts of their country.

Finally, this region is the cradle of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy vision, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The concept was launched in the Kazakh capital, then-Astana (now Nur-Sultan), and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is called the keynote project of the vision. This gives it a particular importance conceptually to Beijing as failure here would be tantamount to failure of his vision. The economic interests that are linked to BRI in the region are important to China, but are often overstated as the priorities for Beijing’s concerns. The economic interests are important to the specific firms involved; the strategic aspect comes in terms of the impact they might have on domestic growth and stability, in particular in Xinjiang.

Read more here.

Also, am posting the podcast discussion with Suzanne Raine for the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University.

Have some catch up posting to do, starting with a piece for the Diplomat magazine that draws on a bigger project we have been doing at my institutional home, RUSI, looking at radicalisation amongst Central Asian labour migrants in Russia. The project has been quite a complicated one, and many excellent colleagues have played a role, with Mo in particular playing an important driving role on the methodology and co-authoring this piece. This piece draws out that methodology in some greater detail and the longer report should be out soon. Given it is behind a paywall, I cannot just post it all here, but get in touch if you are interested, and I can see what I can do help.

Explaining the Radicalization of Central Asian Migrants

Explaining the Radicalization of Central Asian Migrants
Image Credit: Associated Press, Ivan Sekretarev

Radicalization in Central Asia has been a long-standing concern. Yet, historically, violence from the region has been relatively rare. While the immediate post-Soviet period was marked by internal conflict, including the civil war in Tajikistan, these conflicts largely remained local.

This appears to be changing. The past couple of years have been marked by a noticeable increase in instances of international terrorism linked to Central Asians. A further number have shown up as foreign terrorist fighters. The New York City truck attack, the attack on a nightclub in Istanbul, a vehicle attack in Stockholm, and the bombing of the St. Petersburg metro system were all linked to Central Asians. While the exact reasons for this pattern are still being uncovered by investigators, one feature that appears common among Central Asians who end up in Syria and Iraq, at least, is a history of working as labor migrants in Russia. This provokes the following question: why do a minority of labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan leave Russia (a second country) to take part in somebody else’s violent conflict (a third country)?

In order to try to address this lacuna in understanding, the authors worked with a group of researchers from Central Asia and Russia to try to understand this phenomenon through a data-rich approach driven by interviews of Central Asians working in Russia.

Read the full story here, in The Diplomat

Catching up on some old posting again, combination of being busy and some technical difficulties causing issues with updating. This is a piece for The Diplomat in the wake of the SCO Summit in Tashkent which passed with very little attention.

Is SCO Expansion a Good Thing?

Whilst the brotherhood of European Union countries has shrunk by one, the community of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) states grew by two. Whilst it is by no means confirmed that India and Pakistan are full members of the regional security organization, their membership is all but assured as long as they are able to ratify the relevant documents through their national processes. The more existential question is whether this membership is going to transform the SCO in the same way that British exit from the EU is likely to transform the EU. As with the EU referendum, no one really knows, but it seems equally likely that the end result will be negative.

SCO expansion has been a source of great trepidation for member states for some time. Previous efforts at expansion had stalled for various reasons. Iran was kept out both for practical reasons: it was under UN sanction in contravention to the rules. But realpolitik also played a role: the larger member states did not want to so openly join former President Ahmadinejad’s aggressive anti-Western alliance. Afghanistan was always kept at near arms length, reflecting some member states’ desires to bring the state in, whilst others preferred to maintain their relations at a bilateral level. And the question of India and Pakistan always seemed to be balanced by the two big powers (China and Russia) who each wanted one of the two in, whilst the Chinese generally grew concerned that an expanded group would lose coherence.

In the end, China appears to have lost this struggle, obliged to both accept its close ally Pakistan as well as expanding a regional organization whose utility it was already questioning. Whilst to outside observers, the SCO was the primary vehicle of regional engagement, in reality, Beijing was undertaking a consistent level of bilateral engagement on the sidelines of SCO meetings. Every SCO Summit was accompanied by bilateral engagements, and by all accounts, it was at these engagements that all serious business was done. Previous Chinese efforts to push the SCO in new directions stalled, including Beijing-led efforts to create an SCO Development Bank, an SCO free trade area, or other economic initiatives.

Most recently, China had shown the degree to which it was losing interest in the SCO as a vehicle for regional multilateral security engagement when PLA Chief of Staff Fang Fenghui raised the notion of a regional sub-grouping of China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan as a vehicle for engagement on regional security questions. Whilst it is not clear that this proposal was a new regional concept as opposed to a potential relevant meeting grouping, its expression reflects a Chinese willingness to look beyond the SCO to resolve regional security questions and highlighting their skepticism toward the organization.

This is in many ways a shame. The SCO, for all its failings, is an organization that might offer some solutions for a fractured region. Central Asia is a part of the world that is beset with border disputes at a very senior level that impede the most basic cross-border trade. The SCO is one of the few organizations that guarantees relevant leaders are obliged to meet with their counterparts on a regular basis on neutral ground. The hope for some was that by bringing Pakistan and India into this format, it would similarly force them to engage in another forum on a regular basis.

In reality, however, SCO expansion is likely to produce little such impact. But it has potentially highlighted a reality in international affairs. Whilst people are keen to leave multilateral organizations in the first world, they appear keen to continue to join them in the developing world. Notwithstanding protestations of national strength and independence by SCO member states, the reality is that they are all 25 years young this year and keen members of an organization that they may not adore, but one in which they have had a resonant voice from the beginning. From an outsider perspective, some of the practices that are advanced through the SCO are questionable at best, but seen from inside they are comprehensible measures that address fundamental questions of national security. This clarity of purpose is what gives the organization its attractiveness, cutting through the nebulous normative concepts that drive European security projects.

But as the EU has learned to its detriment, expansion and new members do not always lead to a positive outcome. It can also lead to a context in which individual member states dictate agendas and steer narratives away from hoped for goals. And it is here that sentiment for expansion for the SCO lies: somewhere between timid optimism and catastrophic exuberant expansionism. The SCO was already having difficulty crafting an identity and practical ideology with six member states, let alone with eight. Going forwards it is likely to continue to drift onward, meandering through the seas of time with no clear port in sight.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

A new piece with a Chinese friend looking again at China-Afghanistan relations and trying to establish how Beijing might play a more positive role in the country. Something that looks increasingly complicated nowadays with the current chaos, but I think still remains an important project for Beijing to undertake. Much more on this topic to come as ever.

As is usual, however, most discussions with the media were terrorism related, including conversations with AFP, Radio France International and France 24 about the Thalys incident, and separately the New York Times about the death of British jihadi hacker Junaid Hussain and the Independent on Sunday about British women taking their children to join ISIS.

Can China Assert Itself in Afghanistan?

Beijing needs to play a stronger leadership role in Afghanistan.

By Raffaello Pantucci and Kane Luo for The Diplomat

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Confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death has confused an already difficult picture in Afghanistan. Precarious relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been pushed even closer to breaking point, and the one bright spot, that of increased regional support, seems to have slipped onto the back burner. Beijing in particular needs to wake up and play a stronger leadership role in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Ufa with high hopes of again bringing the support of regional powers to bear on helping resolve his country’s ongoing civil war and the growing emergence of ISIS related terrorism within his country. On the face of it, the SCO would appear to be a very promising lead. Now expanding to include both India and Pakistan, the multilateral organization is one that manages to bring together almost all of the regional elements that are likely to be needed if we are to see a genuine local push to resolve Afghanistan’s problems. Its security architecture further offers a set of existing regional structures to discuss and implement some sort of regional response to Afghanistan’s perennial security threats. But thus far the organization has singularly failed to deliver much in terms of action on Afghanistan. The reality is that the real driver of a regional shift on Afghanistan is going to come from Beijing.

Looking solely within an SCO context, Afghanistan has only ever really been a focus under Chinese leadership. It was under Chinese stewardship that the SCO-Afghanistan contact group was created – when Beijing held the chairmanship in 2006. Six years later, it was at the 2012 Summit in Beijing at which the country was more formally accorded ‘Observer’ status. But very little activity has flowed from these shifts, and where we have seen action on Afghanistan from SCO members it largely appears to be at a bilateral level.

This includes China, which while it continues to act in Afghanistan through multilateral formats (for instance, through hosting of the trilateral discussions with Afghan and Pakistani officials), expends most of its attention on bilateral efforts. Yet these efforts have still not crossed the threshold to be decisive, and China still appears to be playing a hedging role in the country. Even in the peace talks that China is currently supporting (although the nature of its role in the wake of the Mullah Omar announcement seems unclear), it seems as though China remains an observer rather than a decisive actor.

Key to advancing China’s potential as a positive force in Afghanistan is to push the current slate of economic projects forward, as well as finding ways to ensure that the peace talks move towards some sort of resolution. Both are clearly difficult, but the first is far easier for the Chinese government move forward.

In late May the Afghan government revealed that Ghani had held talks with a Chinese construction firm to advance construction of the Jalalabad-Kabul road. The Chinese worries about the project were, understandably, primarily focused around security concerns, something that they saw as the remit of the Afghan authorities. This may indeed be the case, but the Chinese government could play a greater role in trying to offer training to Afghan forces to help improve their capacity to protect the Chinese project. Currently, China plays a somewhat marginal role in Afghan security, offering training to a few hundred police over many years, whilst also contributing some equipment to the ANSF. Whilst there are undoubtedly some logistical issues around training (linguistic differences for example), China could step up its equipment and financial support rather than only offering limited amounts of in-kind support.

More substantially in some ways than this, however, is the potential game changer that China could play in Afghanistan’s economy were some of the larger economic projects to come to fruition. At the moment, China is one of the biggest players with unrealized potential in Afghanistan. While CNPC has had some success in developing its field in the north, the Mes Aynak copper project continues to fester unfinished. During Xi Jinping’s head of state encounter with Ghani, discussion was made of the establishment of an intergovernmental committee to help the project move forwards. But there has been little movement since then, and it is unclear that we are going to see anything more in the near term future. This is hugely problematic as the project sits in a region that would benefit enormously from the investment.

At a more geostrategic level, Afghanistan also does not quite see where it fits into Xi Jinping’s great regional vision the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). Repeated conversations with Afghans have underscored that they have not understood where they fit into this grand vision for regional connectivity. The discussion around Afghanistan’s involvement appears to focus on how it might develop into an extension or part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – the strategy for Pakistan to essentially become a corridor for goods going from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar Port in Baluchistan. Looking towards Central Asia, there has been discussion of some connections from Tajikistan extending into Afghanistan, but it is unclear that these are much of a focus for Chinese strategists and builders who are much more focused on developing routes through Central Asia to Russian and European markets. China needs to tell Afghanistan how it fits into the SREB.

China has set itself up to be a major player in Afghanistan’s future and expectations are being raised. It now needs to find ways of asserting itself both politically and economically to play the role that increasingly is being expected of it. Beijing may still shy from such ambitious aims, but at the same time, it is now too late to back away from them. China needs to find its feet and move forward in a more certain manner in Afghanistan.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Kane Luo is Vice President of Wakhan Abresham Consulting Service.

 

A pair of articles in the English and Chinese language press focused on a subject I am doing a growing amount of work on China and India in Afghanistan post-2014. It is part of a bigger stream of work focused on China in Central Asia that I am doing with Alex, but has a particular focus on trying to understand how the great adjacent powers will take Afghanistan in their stride.

A version of this in Chinese was published by 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) that can be found here. An english version featured in the Diplomat and is re-posted below.

China and India: Time to Cooperate on Afghanistan

By  Raffaello Pantucci
October 26, 2013

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Two Asian giants met in Beijing this week, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making a reciprocal visit to Beijing. The focus of the trip was economic cooperation and plans to get China-India trade to $100 billion by 2015, although it was the border disputes – and in particular the signing of a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement designed to defuse tensions – that captured the public attention.

What was missing from the agenda, however, was Afghanistan, a country in which Beijing and Delhi both have substantial mutual interests and where the two Asian giants could demonstrate their ability to responsibly manage the regional order.

Next year has the potential to be an inflection point in Afghanistan’s modern history. The Western withdrawal of combat troops from the nation after more than a decade of conflict will leave the freshly constructed administration to find its own feet. While a residual Western force will remain, it will be focused on training and counter-terrorism efforts. The emphasis from Western capitals will more than ever be on the administration in Kabul tending to its own affairs, looking to regional partners to help provide support and assistance. Whether they like it or not, local powers like China and India will be at the forefront of this effort, something already clear from the fact that the two nations are responsible for the largest economic investments in the country, in Hajigak and Mes Aynak.

Yet while both China and India are significant players in the country, there has been little evidence of direct cooperation or much forward planning in considering what is going to happen post-2014. This is unfortunate, as both nations are underestimating the degree to which they will find themselves having to seek cooperation with each other to guarantee a positive outcome in Afghanistan. Neither may want to shoulder the burden of a weak state pressured by a strong insurgency, but they will quickly find themselves as the powers with the greatest capacity to exert influence in an Afghanistan that continues to have the potential to be a regional spoiler. The best solution for all stakeholders is for China and India to work together to ensure a smooth transition to some semblance of stability.

Cooperation should focus on three pillars: economics, regional balancing and security assistance. All three will be key to guaranteeing Afghanistan’s future. Whichever government takes power in Kabul after President Hamid Karzai will find itself seeking support in each of these domains.

The economic sphere holds the most obvious potential for cooperation between Delhi and Beijing. Both may be fundamental competitors in the long run for Afghanistan’s natural resources, but both face substantial short and medium-term problems in securing access to them. Practical considerations like cost, government cooperation or security and, in India’s case, an inability to directly access Afghan territory, mean companies from both countries have made huge investments in the country with little evidence of tangible outputs in the near-term horizon. Still, Afghanistan’s touted $1 trillion worth of natural resources promises a welcome treasure for Chinese and Indian economies needing raw materials to fuel growth. At this early stage of Afghanistan’s opening, cooperating to ensure a level playing field will guarantee smooth access later on and provide both Chinese and Indian firms with a less complicated operating environment.

In practice, this means getting Chinese and Indian state-owned enterprises, those making the largest investments in Afghanistan, to ensure that their practices adhere to rigorous and ethical guidelines that are supervised by their respective central governments. When competing, they should both make sure they play by the same rules and therefore set themselves up for fair competition. Moreover, exploring ways in which to jointly develop infrastructure and coordinate projects will help all stakeholders profit from Afghanistan’s mineral boom.

Regional balancing complicates bilateral cooperation between India and China. It requires that China find a way to persuade Pakistan to accept a greater Indian role in Afghanistan, with India in return demonstrating a greater willingness to accept Pakistan’s inability to manage its domestic problems and to refrain from inflaming those problems.

The key here is regional dialogue and discussion, with forums like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation better empowered to discuss the regional dynamics around Afghanistan post-2014. One positive move would be for Chinese and Indian research institutions to co-host a pair of conferences at which they bring together regional thinkers to discuss the post-2014 regional order. Providing policy leaders with a forum in which they can sensibly think through the future regional dynamics surrounding Afghanistan could open some avenues for discussion.

The final element of security is in many ways the toughest one, and yet the one without which neither of the other two pillars can stand. Without a secure environment in Afghanistan, economic investment will be impossible and regional dynamics will be irrelevant in the face of internal chaos. A strong Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) needs to be built and the onus is on everyone to find a way of supporting it until it is able to stand up on its own. Until now this has rightly been a Western responsibility – in the wake of the U.S. and NATO invasion – but now others must contribute.

The U.S. and NATO will of course continue to provide support, but China and India need to find ways to increase their own contributions. For China, a paltry 300 police being trained is an unworthy sum compared to the economic investments China’s firms have made in Afghanistan – these investments will struggle to produce a return if insecurity prevails. India does offer some military training, but it is understandably restrained given Pakistani paranoia of Indian domination in Afghanistan. The answer is a joint effort whereby Chinese and Indian forces find some way to offer cooperative training missions, or at the very least parallel ones. This will both assuage Pakistani concerns (given its proximity to China), but also double the support that the ANSF is getting from outside powers. One possible focus could be an expansion of the security forces that are being developed to specifically protect mineral extraction at Mes Aynak. The development of a national natural resource protection unit, dedicated to providing security at extractive industries sites, might both offer a local employment vehicle while help develop security for Chinese and Indian investments.

China and India are two rising Asian giants. Both have already demonstrated a willingness to talk about Afghanistan in multilateral forums and at a bilateral level. The time is right to strike and lay out a joint agenda for Afghanistan’s future post-2014.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

Another piece for The Diplomat, this time with Alex (my co-editor at China in Central Asia), focusing on Xinjiang and how this fits into China’s Central Asian strategy. Very much the theme of our bigger project that we are working on at the moment. So much more on this subject soon!

Tightening the Silk Road Belt
By  Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

September 18, 2013

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As Chinese President Xi Jinping headed to Central Asia last week, Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang in the northwest of China, hosted the 3rd annual China Eurasia Expo. While maybe not intentionally choreographed to take place at the same time, the two events have a significant parallelism to them, reflecting the importance of Xinjiang to China’s Central Asian policy. For China, the “Silk Road Economic Belt” that Xi spoke of in Kazakhstan starts in Xinjiang, acting as the connective tissue that binds China’s crowded and prosperous eastern seaboard with Eurasia, Europe and the Middle East.

China’s interest in Central Asia is primarily a selfish one. This is not unusual in national interests: foreign policy is naturally focused on self-interest. But with China in Central Asia, the key role of Xinjiang distinguishes it from China’s relations with other parts of the world. For Beijing, Central Asian policy aims at both increasing China’s connectivity to Europe and the Middle East as well as reaping the benefits of the region’s rich natural resources, but also about helping foster development and therefore long-term stability in Xinjiang. A province periodically wracked by internal violence and instability, Beijing has quite clearly made the calculation that to stabilize the province, more economic development should be encouraged.

The result is a surge in internal investment in the province, most recently typified by the figures to emerge from the China Eurasia Expo, where some $121 billion worth of domestic deals were announced. German-Chinese joint venture company VW-SAIC is opening a car factory outside Urumqi, a Sino-Turkish investment park is being opened on the other side of the city, while companies from across China are being actively encouraged to invest in the province. And across Xinjiang new infrastructure is being built – from the refurbishment of the Karakoram Highway, to a new airport in Urumqi, to new roads to connect Kashgar to nearby border posts with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, all of which aims to transform the province into the “gateway to Eurasia” as former leader Wen Jiabao put it during his speech to the Expo last year.

But for this approach to work, it is essential that Xinjiang have a prosperous region around it to trade with – hence the heavy focus during Premier Xi’s visit on economic development and links. And it is important to note that it is not only a region to trade with, but also a region to trade through. Ultimately, Central Asian markets are quite limited and still relatively underdeveloped and poor. The real goal is to reach through Central Asia, into Russia and ultimately Europe. This is the Silk Road Economic Belt that Xi is talking about, and it is one that ends in the first instance at the new city being built with Chinese support outside Minsk in Belarus and similar developments near Tbilisi in Georgia, but really ends in the homes of European consumers.

An ambitious goal for sure, but from Beijing’s perspective, it is a means of re-connecting China to its Eurasian heritage, while also helping develop a province that has proven a difficult issue to resolve. It also provides China with a further avenue to markets that is not reliant on sea routes, as well as opening up links to a part of the world rich in natural resources.

The vision is good, but is it actually being realized? This year, cumulative deaths in Xinjiang are approaching 200, the result of a number of incidents. Almost three years on from the re-branded strategy and the “Develop the West” push, it is not clear that this approach is working. In fact, given that it increasingly seems as though incidents in Xinjiang are not the product of external direction, but rather internal anger, one could say that the problems are getting more intense.

So if the strategy is not quite working, what does China need to do to change it? What is missing, it seems, is an overarching vision that seeks to reach beyond simply making everyone wealthy, but also tries to address some of the fundamental underlying social and ethnic tensions that boil beneath the surface. Xinjiang-ren, or those who consider themselves natives of the province, will clearly not be happy just to be given jobs, trade prospects and prosperity. A larger, more holistic picture must be painted and one that is not solely reliant on trade or an iron fist. This must be the legacy of the New Silk Road: reconnecting Xinjiang and opening up the province in every way to enable it to prosper once again.

China is Central Asia’s most consequential power, a consequence of the intense focus on the region through Xinjiang. If Beijing really wants this policy to work, then it will need greater nuance and focus to transform it from a money-driven theory to one that better reflects local realities.

Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Dr. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.

And another piece, this time for The Diplomat, linked to Xi’s visit through Central Asia, this time focusing on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit now happening in Bishkek with my friend and co-author Li Lifan. I have also been doing various media bits around this trip, including an interview with RFE/RL among others.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Not Quite the New Silk Road

By  Raffaello Pantucci and Li Lifan

September 12, 2013

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Presaging his stopover in Kyrgyzstan, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in Kazakhstan in which he spoke of establishing a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would bind China to its Eurasian neighborhood. A trip so far focused largely on Afghanistan and trade, the stopover in Bishkek for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO) summit is the capstone to what has been a successful trip, tidily wrapping the two subjects up in a bow largely of China’s making.

Of course, there are numerous other topics on the table at the summit beyond Afghanistan. Expanding membership looks like it is going to remain unresolved again – India and Pakistan continue to knock loudly on the door. Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani has announced he will attend, possibly highlighting the new regime’s diplomatic approach (although it is unclear what the SCO means within this context), and it seems likely that further agreements about closer cooperation and discussion are likely to be held. Beijing will undoubtedly push an economic agenda – though this will find hostility from the other member states fearful of dominance. The question over the SCO development bank will remain unresolved.

Inevitably, Afghanistan will feature as a major topic of conversation. Just prior to the delegates meeting in Bishkek, units from SCO member states will have just completed a training exercise near Lake Issyk-Kul in the northeast of Kyrgyzstan. This comes after an earlier SCO flagged exercise, in which Chinese and Kyrgyz troops trained in their border areas, and a larger “Peace Mission” exercise involving Chinese and Russian formations. All of these training missions are described as being focused on countering terrorism: large-scale military activity that in fact seems more aimed at border protection and countering insurgent groups rather than urban terrorists. Useful skills if you are worried about overspill from Afghanistan.

The reality, however, is that the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is still largely considered the main regional security player by most Central Asians, backed as it is by Russian guarantees and equipment. The Chinese-led SCO still plays a second fiddle to the Russian endeavor, though the SCO has spoken at length about counter-narcotics, countering the “Three Evils” of “extremism, separatism and terrorism,” and now has a Chinese head of its security structure in Tashkent – the unfortunately namedRATS center (Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure).

The problem for the SCO is that it remains an organization lacking a clear sense of its role in the world. This is a problem that is fundamentally about the very divergent views among the member state capitals (all of whom have equal weighting within the institution’s decision-making processes), and in particular Beijing’s desire to create a positive umbrella under which to shelter its efforts in Central Asia, even as other members worry about Chinese dominance.

The result is a half-baked multilateral vehicle that focuses on arcane discussions about membership with no conclusion, and holds military exercises aimed at unspecified enemies. On the one hand, this helps develop relations and bonds in a region rife with internal tensions, but on the other it fails to deliver much in the way of practical progress. The real progress during Xi’s trip has already been made. The SCO summit merely provides a tidy bookend.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the co-editor ofChina in Central AsiaLi Lifan is secretary general of the Centre for SCO Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.