Archive for the ‘Diplomat’ Category

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.

A new piece with Alex for The Diplomat, an excellent online magazine focused on mostly Asian affairs and strategy. This one looks particularly at Turkey’s recent public dalliance with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and highlights some of the problems inherent in that organization. Turkey’s role in Central Asia writ large is a fascinating one and the topic of much more research – more hopefully to come! In the meantime, I was quoted in this piece for another online magazine The International on China’s role in ‘New Iron Silk Road’ and Afghanistan. As ever, for more of mine and Alex’s work on the broader themes in these pieces, please see our co-authored blog: http://www.chinaincentralasia.com

Turkey: Abandoning the EU for the SCO?

February 15, 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

Recent moves suggest Turkey could make a bid for entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It would be a mistake.

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The European Union is in a rut. Its once-vaunted economy and “ever closer” integration is facing the tough challenges of a dogged recession and anti-EU sentiment in some of its most powerful member states. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that some EU aspirants appear lukewarm about their prospects and continued desire to join the club. For Turkey, probably the most unfairly spurned EU aspirant, it makes a lot of sense to at least explore alternatives.

After all, Turkey’s economy is booming – leaping from $614.6 billion in 2009 to $775 billion in 2011 (in current U.S. dollars) according to World Bank figures. Reflecting the country’s position at the global cross-roads, Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport international traffic more than doubled between the years 2006 and 2011. Last year alone its passenger volume increased by 20%, making it Europe’s 6th busiest airport. The country’s regional and global profile has grown since it first evinced a desire to join the EU. European leaders should only be surprised that Turkey has maintained its interest in the EU for so long.

However, even as it makes sense to decision-makers in Ankara to reconsider their relationship with the EU, it is not a strategically sound choice for Turkey to consider membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an alternative. Already a ”dialogue partner” with the SCO, late last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he had made an overture to Russian President Vladimir Putin about joining the SCO, stating “If we get into the SCO, we will say good-bye to the European Union. The Shanghai Five [former name of the SCO] is better — much more powerful.” Erdogan also noted that Turkey has more “common values” with the SCO member states.

The issue, however, is that the SCO remains a nascent organization that is still in the process of defining itself. Absorbing new members, or figuring out the protocols for new members to be formally acceded, is merely one of the many problems the SCO faces. The Organization’s security structures, including the unfortunate-acronym RATS Center [Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure], have yet to fully flesh out their purpose in advancing regional security in a very militarily tense region. Meanwhile, China continues to dominate the SCO’s economic agenda, including negotiations to establish an SCO Free Trade Area (FTA), an SCO Development Bank, and Beijing offering $10 billion in loans for member states. All of this alarms Russian strategists who see China encroaching on Moscow’s Central Asian interests. Nonetheless, all of this results in a minimal concrete presence, something we found first-hand as we travelled around Central Asia over the past year, finding little tangible evidence of the Organization’s footprint on the ground.

Further complicating matters, Turkey is not the only country that has expressed an interest in becoming a full member. In fact, Pakistani and Indian officials both said their countries were interested in becoming full-fledge members at the Prime Minister’s Summit in Bishkek last December. Iran too has expressed an interest in joining the organization, although Moscow recently said this would not be possible so long as Tehran remains under UN sanctions. All three countries currently languish as “observers,“ a status that Pakistan and India have held since 2005 and one that is considered superior to the ‘dialogue partnership’ that Turkey was only accorded last June. Still, both Pakistan and India – strategically important allies for China and Russia respectively – would undoubtedly feel put out were Turkey allowed to jump the queue.

None of this is to say that Turkey does not have a key role to play in Central Asia, the SCO’s primary area of operations. Waiting for visas in Bishkek, we found ourselves jostling with Turkish truckers getting visas to Kazakhstan, whilst in the city’s downtown, eager students at the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University told us how exciting it would be to visit Turkey. In neighboring Uzbekistan, our driver told us how he preferred to fly Turkish airlines and how convenient the country was linguistically. This ethnic proximity is something that China in particular has sought to cultivate – in April last year, Erdogan broke protocol when he started his Chinese trip with a stopover in Urumqi, capital of historically Turkic Uighur Xinjiang.

Eager to attract outside investment to encourage prosperity as a salve for ethnic tensions between Uighur and Han Chinese and historical underdevelopment, the Urumqi government has established a Turkish-Chinese trade park outside the city, offering Turkish investors favorable rates and support to develop businesses in the province. Turkey is clearly a significant regional player and its SCO “dialogue partner” status reflects this. But full membership is a step too far and one that seems out of whack with the Organization’s current trajectory.

Far more likely, Erdogan is hinting at a shift in orientation in frustration at the West’s relationship with his country. Europe has repeatedly proven an awkward partner and the United States has demonstrated little appetite to get overly involved in the problems that sit right on Turkey’s border. Aware of his nation’s geopolitical location at a global crossroads, Erdogan is highlighting that he has options.

Still, the reality is that joining the SCO would not heighten Turkey’s global stature or teach the West a lesson. U.S. and NATO policymakers keep an eye on the SCO, but none seriously view it as a strategic counterweight. In some respects, Western strategists have been far more eager than their Chinese counterparts about the possibility of an SCO role in stabilizing Afghanistan after Western combat forces depart in 2014. In the past year, the Organization has expressed some interest in doing more in Afghanistan, but it remains light years away from replacing NATO as a security guarantor.

As an ascendant power in Eurasia, Turkey may find it useful to keep in a toe in the SCO.  However, full membership is not in the offing.  And even if it were, Turkey’s decision-makers would quickly find that China’s multilateral cover for its bilateral engagement in Central Asia is still an empty shell.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).  Dr. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West and an Associate Professor at the American University of Central Asia.  Their joint research is available at www.chinaincentralasia.com.

A new piece for a new outlet, The Diplomat which is an excellent magazine and site that covers Asia-Pacific affairs. This one focuses on China-Pakistan relations, a fascinating subject that plays quite a bit into considerations on the other subject I have been looking at in some detail, China-Afghanistan. I also want to use this opportunity to highlight some media stuff I have done. I did an interview for Voice of America ahead of the SCO Summit and what it means for SCO involvement in Afghanistan, as well as an interview for the Christian Science Monitor on China-Afghanistan.

Break Up Time for Pakistan, China?

Chinese and Pakistani officials often talk in lofty terms about the proximity of their relationship. “Higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, sweeter than honey, stronger than steel and dearer than eyesight” is the official characterization, and Chinese or Pakistani researchers will often say how they are welcomed like brothers when they visit their respective countries.

A story last week in the Pakistani press, however, seemed to belie this, stating that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had declined to move a meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to Karachi, forcing the president to rapidly reschedule his trip to be in Islamabad to meet with Yang. Whatever the accuracy of this specific story, there has been a noticeable tenseness in relations between Beijing and Islamabad, indicating that things may not be as rosy as they are sometimes portrayed.

At an official level, it seems clear that both sides are eager to maintain a visible proximity. In the wake ofZardari’s visit to India earlier this year, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told the press that it was “our best friend China….[who] advised us to promote trade relations with India.” And from a Chinese perspective, during a visit last December on behalf of President Hu Jintao during a ceremony to mark 60 years of “China-Pakistan Friendship” State Councilor Dai Bingguo declared: “It is believed that happiness, when shared by two, will be doubles, suffering, when shared by two, will be halved…[Pakistan is] an iron core” friend of China.

Yang added to this recently when he stated: “the China-Pakistan strategic partnership of cooperation, marked by all-weather friendship and all-round cooperation, has become an example for harmonious coexistence and friendly cooperation.”

But beneath the rhetoric, there have been a number of divergences from the official line. Back in August of last year, after an incident in Kashgar in which six people were killed, the local government issued a statement in which they said that an “initial probe” indicated that the leader of the plot had been trained in Pakistan. This was seemingly confirmed a month later when the Turkestan Islamic Movement (TIP) released a video showing the alleged leader, Memtieli Tiliwaldi, training at a camp they claimed was in Waziristan.

A subsequent investigation cleared Pakistan of responsibility, but the impression of Chinese concern over its South Asian neighbor was emphasized again when in early March, Xinjiang Chairman Nur Bekri highlighted the “countless” links between terrorists in the province and “neighboring country” Pakistan. This came after more than a dozen people were killed in another stabbing spree in Yecheng County, just south of Kashgar. And then in April, the Public Security Ministry released a wanted notice for six individuals who it referred to as having links to “a South Asian” country and being members of “East Turkestan groups.”

While the statements from the Xinjiang government likely reflected anger at a local level in the province, the statement from a central government ministry was a different thing, showing that this concern was something that extended beyond Xinjiang security officials. Xinjiang’s proximity to Pakistan and its restive Uighur Muslim population make it a prime candidate for links to extremists in Pakistan – stories in the Chinese press about the Yecheng incident emphasized the cities’ proximity to Pakistan – but usually the central government is wary of pointing fingers directly at Pakistan.

But beyond Xinjiang, we have also seen a retraction from Pakistan of Chinese official business interests. Back in September last year, Chinese coal mining company Kingho withdrew from bidding for a development in Thar, Pakistan. What was most striking was that when the firm talked to the press subsequent to the decision, the Wall Street Journal reported a company official openly stating that it was a result of the negative security situation.

Then, in March, the state owned Chinese bank ICBC withdrew its support from financing a gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan. It did not specify why. And while China recently announced that it would buy out all other stakeholders in ownership of the Gwadar Port, it’s still unclear when the port is going to gain tractions. Completed in 2007 with largely Chinese funding, the port is advertised as a sign of Sino-Pakistan friendship, but languishes unused as other regional ports are moving to overtake it as potential seaports for Central Asia’s rich resources.

All of which paints a very different picture of the public face that China and Pakistan like to project about their friendship and alliance. Both governments clearly want to keep up good appearances.  It is, however, increasingly clear that there is a high level of concern in China about Pakistan. In Xinjiang in particular they seem to have lost patience at Pakistani capacity to contain Uighur extremists travelling to train in Pakistan and then coming back.

Pakistan, for its part, is clearly aware of these problems. In the wake of incidents last year, Zardari visited Urumqi for the first China-Eurasia Expo. Preceding him was ISI head Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha who visited Beijing, presumably to discuss, amongst other things, problems in Xinjiang.

Whether this kind of contact will be enough, though, is unclear. Beijing may be Pakistan’s best friend, but even best friends can eventually lose their patience with each other.

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