Archive for the ‘PRESS’ Category

Another interview with La Repubblica, this time focused on my most recent book Sinostan and looking at Chinese foreign policy more broadly. Again in Italian so you will have to learn the beautiful language (or use Google Translate…).

Raffaello Pantucci: “La Cina? Un impero in espansione, ma senza una chiara strategia. E questo è un problema”

di Enrico Franceschini

Parla l’esperto di sicurezza internazionale per il Royal United Services Institute di Londra (Rusi): “Pechino sta diventando un impero accidentale che minaccia di estendersi in tutta l’Eurasia, ma senza una visione su cosa fare e come affrontarne i problemi. Una prospettiva che, a partire dalla tensione di questi giorni intorno a Taiwan, è molto pericolosa per gli equilibri internazionali”

“La Cina sta diventando un impero accidentale che minaccia di estendersi in tutta l’Eurasia, ma senza una chiara strategia su cosa fare e come affrontarne i problemi. Una prospettiva che, a partire dalla tensione di questi giorni intorno a Taiwan, è molto pericolosa per gli equilibri internazionali”. È il monito che Raffaello Pantucci, esperto di sicurezza internazionale per il Royal United Services Institute di Londra (Rusi), lancia dalle pagine di Sinostan, il libro che ha da poco pubblicato in Inghilterra con la Oxford University Press, frutto di tre anni di studi sul campo in Estremo Oriente.

La tesi del suo saggio è che sta per nascere un impero cinese, Pantucci?
“La Cina sta diventando la potenza più influente in Asia centrale e in gran parte dell’Eurasia: una vasta zona del mondo, piena di problemi, su cui tuttavia Pechino non sembra avere una chiara strategia. È la potenza che cresce di più in quell’area, ma non si capisce che intenzioni abbia”.

Per questo lo definisce un impero “accidentale”?
“Sì, perché la Cina è diventata una potenza economica regionale e anzi continentale, ma senza una vera strategia, bensì con tanti piccoli progetti. Naturalmente in quella zona si muove anche la Russia, ma Mosca ha bisogno di Pechino per contrastare l’Occidente e dunque la chiave della situazione ce l’hanno in mano i cinesi”.

Le esercitazioni militari cinesi davanti a Taiwan sono la prova generale di un’espansione militare in tutto il continente?
“La situazione è diversa rispetto all’Asia centrale, perché Pechino considera Taiwan parte del proprio territorio. Ma paradossalmente su Taiwan esiste un equilibrio strategico, mantenuto finora dal confronto fra Cina e Stati Uniti, mentre in Asia centrale e in Eurasia questo equilibrio non c’è: la Cina è praticamente sola o comunque in grado di condizionare l’altra potenza regionale, la Russia, che ha bisogno del sostegno di Pechino. Dunque in un certo senso è una zona ancora più pericolosa”.

Secondo lei la leader del Congresso americano Nancy Pelosi ha fatto bene o male a visitare Taiwan?
“Non ho una risposta sicura a questa domanda. Da un lato non capisco le tempistiche di una visita simile, in un momento così delicato. Dall’altro però credo anch’io che l’autonomia e la democrazia di Taiwan vadano protette con fermezza”.

Il ventunesimo secolo sarà il secolo cinese, come il ventesimo è stato il secolo americano e il diciannovesimo quello britannico?
“Nonostante le apparenze, non credo che sarà il secolo cinese in modo analogo a come il secolo scorso è stato dominato dall’America e quello precedente dall’Impero britannico. Penso che sarà un secolo di potenze multilaterali in competizione tra loro: la Cina e la Russia da una parte, l’America e l’Europa dall’altra. E mi auguro che questa competizione produca stabilità anziché conflitti”.

Come dovrebbe reagire l’Occidente democratico all’espansionismo cinese?
“Secondo me l’Occidente dovrebbe aiutare i Paesi presi nel mezzo a non sentirsi costretti a scegliere con chi schierarsi. Dovrebbe aiutarli a crescere economicamente, a consolidarsi, mantenendo una propria libertà di scelta sul cammino da fare. O noi o loro può diventare un aut aut controproducente dal punto di vista occidentale”.

Quanto è serio il rischio di un conflitto militare tra Pechino e Washington, o addirittura di una Terza guerra mondiale che cominci proprio dalle tensioni su Taiwan?
“Per ora non sembra che nessuno dei due voglia veramente la guerra. Ma il punto preoccupante è che il presidente cinese Xi ha detto di volere risolvere la questione di Taiwan nell’arco del proprio periodo al potere, quindi nei prossimi cinque anni o entro i cinque successivi se verrà riconfermato nell’incarico. Abbiamo dunque una sorta di conto alla rovescia”.

Perché Taiwan è così importante per la Cina?
“Perché i cinesi considerano l’isola parte della Cina, ma anche per un’altra ragione: riprendere Taiwan è una dimostrazione di forza per Pechino. Se Taiwan diventasse più indipendente, altre regioni della Cina potrebbero spingere per fare altrettanto e l’intero paese rischierebbe di andare in pezzi, senza contare che la popolazione potrebbe concludere che il partito comunista ha mancato i suoi obiettivi”.

Una teoria di alcuni anni or sono era che la Cina, con la crescita del benessere economico e di una classe media, avrebbe imboccato gradualmente la via della democrazia: crede possibile che questo prima o poi avverrà?
“Penso che non si possa escludere una evoluzione positiva, una Cina più aperta nei rapporti con il resto del mondo e più tollerante sul fronte domestico, ma credo che sarebbe comunque una forma di democrazia diversa dalla nostra almeno per ancora molto tempo”.

More catch up on previous events, this time an interview with La Repubblica in the wake of the death of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.

Al Zawahiri, Pantucci: “La leadership di al Qaeda è stata completamente decimata”

di Enrico Franceschini

“Un successo dell’intelligence Usa. La minaccia del terrorismo non scompare ma il gruppo dirigente responsabile dell’attentato dell’11 settembre è stato eliminato”, dice l’esperto di terorrismo del Royal United Services Institute

Al Zawahiri, Pantucci: "La leadership di al Qaeda è stata completamente decimata"

Eliminare al Zawahiri chiude un capitolo nella storia di al Qaeda, anche se il libro del terrorismo rimane aperto”. È il giudizio di Raffaello Pantucci, esperto del Royal United Services Institute, il più antico think tank per i problemi della sicurezza, autore del saggio We love death as you love life (Noi amiamo la morte come voi amate la vita), un’inchiesta sui terroristi della porta accanto in Gran Bretagna, e uno dei massimi specialisti in materia. “Ora la leadership di al Qaeda è stata completamente decimata”, dice in questa intervista a Repubblica.

Come giudica l’operazione annunciata dalla Casa Bianca, Pantucci?
“È chiaramente un successo dal punto di vista americano. Dimostra la capacità di eliminare un capo terrorista in un luogo ostile in un momento scelto da Washington con la garanzia di poter ricorrere ai droni, quindi con la certezza di colpire la persona giusta. Per Osama bin Laden, l’America dovette mandare i commandos delle forze speciali, perché non era sicura della propria intelligence. Stavolta invece sì, significa che l’intelligence è migliorata”. 

Che conseguenze avrà nella lotta al terrorismo?
“A mio parere chiude un capitolo su al Qaeda. La minaccia del terrorismo non scompare e può sempre riemergere in qualche modo, la rabbia contro l’Occidente rimane, però il gruppo dirigente responsabile dell’attentato dell’11 settembre e di tanti altri ha perso il suo centro, è stato decimato. Il libro del terrore è ancora aperto, ma un capitolo sembra chiuso”.

Recentemente Al Qaeda aveva rialzato la testa?
“Non in termini di attentati specifici, ma negli ultimi tempi era cresciuta la retorica, Zawahiri lanciava minacce all’India e ad altri paesi, incitava a continuare la lotta, sostenendo che il ritorno al potere dei talebani in Afghanistan dimostrava che si poteva sconfiggere l’Occidente”.

Zawahiri aveva appunto ottenuto rifugio a Kabul, proprio come bin Laden: in Afghanistan allora dal 2001 a oggi non è cambiato niente?
“Sembrerebbe proprio così, purtroppo, ma la presenza di Zawahiri era già stata segnalata in luglio da un rapporto dell’Onu, il che vuol dire due cose: o la sua presenza non era un segreto ben tenuto o tra i talebani c’era chi aveva interessa a rivelarla. L’impressione è che i talebani di oggi siano più divisi, e con più problemi al proprio interno, rispetto a quelli andati al potere vent’anni fa: questo è cambiato”. 

Le uccisioni mirate, da parte americana e non solo, suscitano critiche: sono un’opzione valida nella lotta al terrorismo?
“Io sono del parere che in assoluto sarebbe meglio catturare i terroristi e processarli. Ma stiamo parlando di gente che vive in nazioni ostili, aiutati o protetti dal governo locale e talvolta sarebbe impossibile catturarli. Nel caso di Zawahiri, inoltre, non sembrano esserci stati danni collaterali. Nell’agosto di un anno fa, l’America rispose al grande attentato all’aeroporto di Kabul con un attacco che doveva eliminarne gli autori ma, come si è poi saputo, colpì e uccise per errore una famiglia innocente. Stavolta gli Usa erano sicuri di non sbagliare”. 

Si dice che morto un capo se ne fa un altro, ma eliminarli ha anche un valore deterrente?
“Sospetto di no, come deterrenza non funziona se ci sono militanti altrettanto fanatici. Ma funziona nel danneggiare un gruppo terroristico: un leader ha conoscenza e carisma. Una volta eliminato il capo, non è facile trovarne un altro con le stesse capacità”. 

Azioni del genere fanno alzare i consensi verso il leader che le ordina, almeno per un po’: il presidente Biden avrà agito anche con un occhio al voto di mid-term?
“Non credo. Certo, esiste sempre l’idea che, se un leader ha problemi interni, un’azione in politica estera può distrarre l’opinione pubblica e rilanciare un politico facendolo apparire forte e determinato. Ma a parte che le elezioni di mid-term sono ancora lontane, operazioni di questo tipo richiedono una lunga preparazione e coinvolgono forze speciali e intelligence. Sono questi ultimi a dire al presidente quando è arrivato il momento di agire, non il contrario”.

In generale a che punto è la minaccia del terrorismo islamico ?
“Dipende dove sei. In Africa la minaccia è piuttosto acuta. In Medio Oriente e in Asia esiste ancora, particolarmente in Siria, in minor misura in Iraq, in Pakistan. In Europa è per lo più rappresentata dal fenomeno dei lupi solitari, alcuni ispirati dalle idee di organizzazioni come l’Isis e al Qaeda ma spinti ad agire anche per altri problemi che hanno nella vita, per attirare attenzione su sé stessi. E negli Usa la più grande minaccia ora è il terrorismo domestico, le stragi e le sparatorie compiute da fanatici di estrema destra”.
 

Visto che Zawahiri era il capo di al Qaeda, quanto è serio il rischio di un attacco di grandi proporzioni come quello dell’11 settembre 2001?
“Non è del tutto impossibile, però oggi è molto più difficile che in passato. Al Qaeda è seguita e scrutinata intensamente dai servizi di intelligence e antiterrorismo. Altri gruppi puntano i loro attacchi su obiettivi più regionali, in Africa o in Medio Oriente. Organizzare un attentato contro l’Occidente sulla scala dell’11 settembre richiede un livello di preparazione che adesso sarebbe molto difficile da nascondere. Ciò non esclude che qualcuno ci provi o speri di provarci, per cui la guardia va tenuta sempre alta”.

More belated commentary, this time for the Straits Times exploring the range of trouble spots in Central Asia that have not gotten much smaller since I wrote this.

Trouble brews in Central Asia

A mix of geopolitics and domestic turmoil is stirring unrest in all but one country in the region, which serves as an important land bridge between Europe and Asia.

The most recent bout of trouble in the region emerged in Uzbekistan last month with unrest in Karakalpakstan. PHOTO: REUTERS

The world has a collective habit of forgetting Central Asia. Rich in natural resources, the region sits at the heart of what British geographer Halford Mackinder described as the geopolitical pivot of the world – serving as an important land bridge between Europe and Asia. Key overland routes – like the Silk Road of yore – cut across the region connecting Europe directly to China.

The past year has been a tumultuous one for the region. A mix of geopolitics and domestic turmoil has created a dangerous brew in all but one of the five countries making up the region – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Only Turkmenistan, which has just seen a power transition from a tried and tested leader to his young son, appears unaffected. There is no evidence of instability in the country at the moment, although it is impossible to know what is really going on because of the lack of information. Food prices are reportedly high, inflation has long been a problem, while the population is still struggling amid a Covid-19 crisis.

REINVIGORATED MOTOR AND BULWARK

The most recent bout of trouble in the region emerged in Uzbekistan last month with unrest in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the north-eastern region of the country. An attempt to redraft the nation’s Constitution led to anger as locals felt their special status was being taken away without their consent. At least 18 people were killed.

The violence in Uzbekistan had followed unrest in Kazakhstan, the wealthiest and most influential Central Asian power which had thus far been regarded as the bulwark of regional stability. Both countries were widely seen as former Soviet bloc countries seemingly on the path of reform.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev turned the country around when he took over in 2016 following the death of founding president Islam Karimov. Moving to rapidly open up the previously reclusive regime, the government in Tashkent was viewed elsewhere in Central Asia as a reinvigorated motor to the region.

When Kazakhstan’s founding leader and president Nursultan Nazarbayev handed over power peacefully in 2019 he seemed to set the tone for how such power transitions could be handled elsewhere. But, in January last year, a fuel tax hike led to mass protests that were quickly overtaken by a political dispute. The violence rapidly spiralled out of control, leading President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to call on Russia to deploy its forces under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to help stabilise the country. Reports suggest that over 200 people were killed in the unrest.

The authorities in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are still counting the costs of the unrest, including the geopolitical and political consequences of what occurred. President Tokayev’s decision to bring in Russian forces was highly sensitive politically in a country where the government has long been pushing an increasingly nationalist narrative.

In Tajikistan, the trouble centres on the Pamiri community living along the country’s border with Afghanistan with many people angry at their treatment by the central government. The Pamiri people, who are ethnically and linguistically different from the Tajiks, have historically been locked in conflict with the rulers in Dushanbe. Last November, a young local man was tortured and killed by the authorities. This led to protests and repression which, in turn, erupted into much larger violence in May this year. The government is still suppressing the violence and has only recently reopened communications lines from the region.

Afghanistan has been a source of concern for Central Asia. As majority Muslim countries ruled by secular authoritarian or semi-authoritarian leaders, they fear the rise of Muslim fundamentalists in their region. The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban put everyone on edge. As the militant group swept into Kabul, Russia rapidly dispatched aid to Central Asia in the form of joint training exercises and speeded up arms sales to the region. China, another regional power, contributed less, though it stepped into an active diplomatic role and bolstered its forces in Tajikistan along the Afghan-Tajik border.

Border disputes remain an obstacle to better ties in the region and the problem is particularly complicated in the volatile Ferghana Valley, where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan meet. Almost half of the 970km Kyrgyz-Tajik border has yet to be demarcated and this has led to repeated tensions between the two countries. In April last year, more than 40 people were killed as Tajik and Kyrgyz troops clashed over their disputed frontier and access to water. Tensions have since remained high with a Tajik border guard killed just a month ago.

SHADOW OF UKRAINE

All of these developments have taken place in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has a particular resonance in the case of Kazakhstan, which has a large ethnic Russian population in its north along the border with Russia. Kazakhstan has been pushing Kazakh nationalism in an effort to craft a stronger sense of independent national identity, to the detriment of Russians. This has stirred anger in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other prominent commentators questioning Kazakh national identity as a concept. The similarity with Ukraine is not lost on seasoned observers.

Nestled between China, Russia and Iran, Central Asia is isolated from the West and yet wishes it was part of it. The United States and Europe have made efforts to connect with the region, but distance, prioritisation and local governance issues have often meant that it has ended up being nothing more than a distracted partner. Instead, Central Asia has found itself stuck with regional superpowers which are locked in a geopolitical struggle with the West, and tend to see the world in entirely transactional terms.

These regional powers are also not interested in trying to manage the problems in Central Asia. Moscow continues to take a paternalistic attitude towards the region, while China is an entirely disinterested regional hegemon – increasingly the most consequential economic and political partner – but only willing to just watch as problems play themselves out. Iran is preoccupied with too many domestic problems.

The result is a Eurasian heartland in turmoil. This has consequences for energy prices – Turkmenistan is home to the world’s second largest natural gas field, and Kazakhstan is a key regional oil and gas producer. The country is also a major wheat exporter, at a time when the war in Ukraine has impacted two of the world’s largest exporters (Russia and Ukraine). The instability also has potential consequences for China’s Belt and Road visions across Eurasia, as most of the key land routes cut through this region on their way to Europe.

In his 1904 paper, The Geographical Pivot Of History, Sir Halford identified the Eurasian heartland as the key territory to control the planet. Recently it has seemed as though Russia is relinquishing its control of the region and China is assuming it, the more accurate recent narrative is that everyone is watching as it becomes unstable. The question the world needs to pay attention to is what happens if this same pivot falls off its hinges. An unstable heartland is as dangerous as a dominated one.

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

Side box

Nestled between China, Russia and Iran, Central Asia is isolated from the West and yet wishes it was part of it. The United States and Europe have made efforts to connect with the region, but distance, prioritisation and local governance issues have often meant that it has ended up being nothing more than a distracted partner.

Instead, Central Asia has found itself stuck with regional superpowers which are locked in a geopolitical struggle with the West, and tend to see the world in entirely transactional terms.

Causes for strife

BORDER DISPUTES

When the region’s borders were defined during the Soviet period, Central Asia was carved up in such a way as to ensure that its patchwork of ethnicities would remain in conflict with one another and, therefore, no threat to Moscow. The result has been a series of ill-defined borders that still cause trouble to this day. This is most apparent between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where each country has communities living in exclaves entirely surrounded by the other.

Waterways, roads and food supplies have regularly been a source of conflict, most recently in border shootings that erupted into conflict in April last year.

ETHNIC DIVISIONS

In Tajikistan, the region called the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) is home to the Pamiri people, who have historically been locked in conflict with the rulers in Dushanbe, the capital. In the 1990s, the country was wracked by a brutal civil war which led to tens of thousands of deaths. The civil war ended in 1997 with an internationally mediated accord.

In November last year, the death of a young Pamiri man in custody led to renewed tensions and fighting as the government sought to crush the Pamiri protests.

In Uzbekistan, as part of a broader drive to reform the country and potentially extend his rule, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev sought to redraft the national Constitution – including changing the status of Karakalpakstan. Physically the largest of the country’s 14 regions, Karakalpakstan has been an “autonomous republic” since the establishment of modern Uzbekistan in 1991. People in the area have always cherished their special status which gave them particular power and status within the country. Last month violent protests occurred in the regional capital, Nukus, which left 18 people dead.

ECONOMIC WOES

The apparent trigger for trouble in Kazakhstan came from a fuel tax hike at the beginning of the year. Already suffering from a domestic economic contraction, the public expressed anger at the visible economic inequalities in a resource-rich country.

The apparently organic protests were quickly overtaken by a larger power struggle as factions close to former long-time founding leader Nursultan Nazarbayev sought to undermine President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev using the cover of the protests.

Part of the problem was that many in the security forces remained loyal to the former leader, leading President Tokayev to make the politically risky decision to seek Russian forces to help stabilise the situation.

His gamble worked, and the trouble was contained, but it highlighted the deep political tensions in the country overshadowed by the apparently peaceful transition of power in 2019.

More delayed posting, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review which seeks to tie together some of the strands of trouble that have been brewing in Central Asia since the beginning of the year.

The Perils of Ignoring Eurasian Instability

Volatile region has historically caused problems for the rest of the world

A Kyrgyz policeman looks at a burnt armored personnel carrier outside the village of Kok-Tash near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border in southwestern Kyrgyzstan in May 2021: Exchanges of fire continue to take place with casualties on both sides.   © AP

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

As the world focuses on a possible clash between China and the West over Taiwan and war in Europe on the other, the parts in between are going up in flames.

In the past, Russia or the United States could be relied upon to step in and settle the situation, but both are now otherwise engaged. With Beijing showing a reluctance about stepping into the role, this leaves a region that has historically caused problems for the rest of the world without a security blanket.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year marked a turning point.

While Afghanistan itself has seen violence go down, tensions have moved north into Central Asia, with the Islamic State in Khorasan Province launching several rocket attacks into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as increasing the propaganda it publishes in Central Asian languages.

In Pakistan, Balochi separatist groups have continued to grow the volume and ambition of their attacks, as has the Tehreek-E-Taliban Pakistan. Worryingly for Islamabad, there are signs that Balochi and Islamist groups are cooperating.

In Afghanistan, while the Taliban has repeatedly stated that it will not lets its territory be used to plot terrorism against others, it has done little to stop it. In one recent and particularly galling display, the previously reported dead leader of the Uighur militant group Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) released a video showing him celebrating Eid al-Fitr festival this year in Afghanistan.

This is despite repeated calls by China for the Taliban to not allow Uighur militants to use Afghanistan as a base. Left-behind American weapons have already appeared in attacks in Pakistan and even as far away as their border with India.

Looking beyond Afghanistan, the situation in Central Asia has become markedly more violent over the past year.

There has been trouble in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region as locals push back against Dushanbe in clashes that recall the country’s brutal Civil War from the 1990s. An attempt to re-write the constitution in Uzbekistan led to large-scale violence in Karakalpakstan whose costs are still being counted. On Tajikistan’s messy border with Kyrgyzstan, exchanges of fire continue to take place, with casualties on both sides.

Add to that the chaos in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year, which led many to question their assumptions about the stability of Central Asia.

Long Seen As Central Asia’s Wealthy Bulwark, The Instability In Kazakhstan Has Been Driven By A Combination Of Unhappiness With The Government Of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev And An Internal Power Struggle That Has Shown How Fragile The Country Actually Is. And If Seemingly Stable Kazakhstan Can Unravel So Quickly, What Is Really Going On Elsewhere In The Region? Recent Events In Uzbekistan Serve To Only Strengthen This Narrative.

Long seen as Central Asia’s wealthy bulwark, the instability in Kazakhstan has been driven by a combination of unhappiness with the government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and an internal power struggle that has shown how fragile the country actually is. And if seemingly stable Kazakhstan can unravel so quickly, what is really going on elsewhere in the region? Recent events in Uzbekistan only serve to strengthen this narrative.

President Tokayev’s decision in January to call for help from Russia and the other four members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization highlighted Moscow’s continuing role as a security guarantor in the region.

At the same time, Russia’s subsequent decision to invade Ukraine has resonated across Central Asia, in part over concerns that President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist fantasies might swing in Central Asia’s direction.

Kazakhstan, in particular, continues to find itself targeted by Russian Nationalists, and there is a wider concern about the knock-on damage that each country is likely to feel from the crashing Russian economy and the degree to which Moscow might be able to continue to play a stabilising role.

President Putin’s visit to Tajikistan this past week was a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder or Moscow’s importance. His visit focused attention on Russian forces in Tajikistan and their supposed focus in Afghanistan, but aside from likely celebrating the fact that they have not been sent to Ukraine, it is not clear what they are doing there.

Vladimir Putin listens to Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon during a meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on June 28: a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder of Moscow’s importance.   © Reuters

While Washington stepped back from the region following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it has recently taken quiet steps back into Central Asia with a focus on shoring up regional security.

The region doubtless welcomes this attention, but given prior American fickleness and the light touch being applied, it remains to be seen how far the US will, or can, go when it comes to security. Central Asia is ultimately bordered by powers with which the US is locked in geopolitical struggle, while Washington’s relations with Islamabad continue to be complicated.

Throughout all of this, Beijing has taken a watching brief. In Afghanistan, this has taken the odd form of China being the most prominent external interlocutor on the ground with the Taliban government while still hedging its bets.

Beijing’s anger at Pakistan has grown as the violence being directed at Chinese nationals there continues to get worse. There are persistent rumours of Chinese involvement in helping Tajik authorities stabilize the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, but the details are unclear.

There is a narrative in some western capitals suggesting that none of this really matters because the Eurasian heartland is far away and more likely to cause trouble for its neighbours than the west. But this neglects the fact trouble in this region has a tendency to spread.

South Asia has human connections around the world, as well as three nuclear powers will ill-defined borders and histories of enmity, while Central Asian militants have been showing up increasingly further afield.

Afghanistan has long been a major source of narcotics, and it is always useful to remember that this is the battlefield that forged Al Qaida and from which the Sept. 11 attacks were launched.

It may seem unlikely that such a terrorist catastrophe could happen again, but this remains a region that has the ability to shock the world. Failing to take note of instability there could prove very costly for us all.

Back to more book promotion for Sinostan, this time an edited extract that was published by Prospect magazine, focusing in particular on the China-Russia dynamics articulated in the book.

The rising tension between China and Russia

The war in Ukraine and Beijing’s growing military assertiveness are testing relations with Moscow

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen 

June 24, 2022

Tensions: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with President of China Xi Jinping at the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Credit: Alamy

Tensions: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with President of China Xi Jinping at the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Credit: Alamy

The war in Ukraine has brought the China-Russia relationship into sharp relief. China’s seeming willingness to tolerate behaviour which directly contradicts a series of principles that Beijing has sought to advance in international relations has left everyone scratching their heads about the nature of the partnership. The old assumption, often described as playing out in Central Asia, was that China was doing the economics and Russia the security. Yet, travelling around Central Asia my co-author and I Alexandros Petersen found that the dynamic is far more complicated, with Beijing increasingly making its presence felt in the security domain while continuing to value the geostrategic relationship it has with Moscow. The relationship is one that defies the simple narrative often painted in the west, and we found this repeatedly on the ground in the Eurasian heartland that binds the two powers together.

A trip from Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek to Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2013 illustrated the reality of this dynamic vividly. We had noticed the Chinese businessman in the queue for the plane. Stuck in Bishkek’s underwhelming waiting lounge with little else to do, we wandered over to strike up a conversation. Intrigued to find a foreigner who spoke some Mandarin, he told us about his work as a manager/engineer for the China Rail company. While he was vague about exactly what project he was working on, he was very keen to impress us with how well connected he was where we were going in Dushanbe. He showed us pictures on his phone in which he was standing next to a tall and severe-looking Tajik security official in his full dress uniform. Then a young Kyrgyz man in army fatigues came over and started speaking Chinese, saying he appreciated the opportunity to practice. He told us he recognised the severe-looking officer in the pictures.

The Kyrgyz officer had learned his atonal but fluent Mandarin on an 11-month training course in Nanjing. He was particularly keen to tell us about the brothels and night markets he had found. He had been sent on the course along with several mid-ranking officers in his border guard unit—the whole programme was sponsored by the Chinese government. The Chinese businessman chuckled at this strange encounter with all these Mandarin-speaking foreigners, and we separated to board the plane, though of course not before the obligatory selfies were taken.

The encounter was one of our earliest insights into the depth and complexity of China’s security relationship with Central Asia. When we started researching the country’s role in Central Asia, the abiding narrative (that has only recently started to change) was that the Chinese were all about economics and trade. With the advent of the Belt and Road Initiative, this was redefined as being principally about infrastructure and extractives—getting the region’s rich hydrocarbon and other resources back to China. But at no point did we get much of a sense that security was a part of the story. Rather, most analysis pointed to a bargain—unspoken or not—between Beijing and Moscow whereby China did the economics and Russia the security. But this seemed an odd conclusion. In the first instance, our entire sense of why China was interested in Central Asia was predicated on a domestic security concern. China wanted Central Asia to be secure, open, connected and prosperous, so that its own part of Central Asia, Xinjiang, would also be prosperous and therefore stable. Ultimately, China’s thinking about Central Asia was based on the goal of security at home.

There was also a very hard edge to this concern. China is concerned about militancy, both within Xinjiang and across the border in Central Asia. Chinese diplomats, businesspeople, and visiting dignitaries had been targeted over the years in Kyrgyzstan by groups it assessed—in some cases correctly—as being linked to militant Uyghurs. In 2016 the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was targeted by a car bomb. The subsequent investigation revealed a network with links to Uyghur groups in Syria. When we pressed Kyrgyz security officials for answers about the attack, they dismissed it as not having links to international terrorism, pointing to it as an instance of local “political” violence linked to a specific grievance against the Chinese rather than anything else (earlier this year, the US government linked it to a larger Central Asian militant group with a footprint in both Afghanistan and Syria).

While there was little evidence back then of similar networks in other countries, China was nevertheless concerned about the possibility of such threats as well as about other groups that might emanate from Central Asia to threaten Xinjiang or China directly. In the wake of the attack, there was considerable concern from the security community in China around the potential for similar incidents in Tajikistan as they surveyed the security environment in Central Asia, both from the perspective of threats as well as local capability to manage them.

Second, as we uncovered the deep levels of distrust that existed between China and Russia in Central Asia in particular, it seemed very unlikely that Beijing would simply abrogate its security interests in Central Asia to Moscow. The Chinese officials and experts we met repeatedly expressed their disdain for Russia, while at the same time maintaining a convivial public demeanour. Moscow’s management of the post-Cold War collapse of the Soviet Union was treated in Beijing as a textbook case of how not to manage such a change. In Moscow we looked on as, at a prominent event in 2017, one of China’s top Russia watchers wowed an audience of cynical Muscovites with his fluent Russian, peppered with humour and Dostoevsky quotes, as he talked about the relations between the two great powers.

Over lunch afterwards, a Russian friend praised the Chinese academic’s linguistic skills, joking it was better than theirs. Yet, a short year later we saw the same academic in Beijing before an audience of European experts in which he lambasted Russia and complained about how difficult they were to work with. He said China felt forced into a relationship with Russia because it was rejected by the west. Beijing would far prefer to be close to Europe. We heard the converse repeatedly in Moscow over the years. Both were clearly playing to their audiences, but it nevertheless highlighted a deep underlying mistrust.

The Sino-Russian relationship may be strategically important to both, and it has grown closer in recent years through collective confrontation against the west, but they do not trust each other. The Sino-Soviet split in earlier times casts a long shadow. “Frenemies” is the best characterisation we were able to come up with at the time (though it still feels unsatisfactory), where the two see themselves as important strategic allies, but fundamentally worry things may one day turn adversarial. This was repeatedly reflected in discussions we had where it did not take long, in any bilateral engagement, to find that the counterpart in front of us would complain about the other who was not present. Russians were always quick to complain about the Chinese, and after a little prodding the Chinese would reciprocate.

This tension was visible in our various engagements as well as publicly. Discussions around bilateral deals were always contentious and occasional spy dramas would play out in the press. In 2020, a story emerged of the Russian FSB arresting prominent academic Professor Valery Mitko, president of St Petersburg Arctic Social Science Academy. A former navy captain, he was accused of selling secrets about Russia’s submarine fleet to Beijing. A year or so earlier, a similar story had played out in Kazakhstan, where a prominent academic sinologist who had advised the new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in his dealings with China was arrested for selling state secrets to Beijing. A former KGB officer, Konstantin Syroyezhkin was given a ten-year sentence and stripped of his citizenship, meaning he faces deportation to Russia upon completion of his time in prison. All this merely serves to illustrate once again the close relationship that Russia has with the region, and how this competition can sometimes hit up against China.

The debate about Huawei and whether Russia should use the company in the construction of its own 5G network was a good articulation of the tension at the heart of the relationship for Moscow. On the one hand, Russia (and its intelligence agencies) feared letting China into their digital and tech infrastructure, but on the other hand, they felt somewhat limited in their options. As we were told in Moscow, “look who is actually sanctioning us.” They might not trust the Chinese, but they recognized at a strategic level that they are on the same page as Beijing rather than the western capitals producing the alternatives to Huawei, meaning Moscow would have to go with the Chinese option.

It seems illogical that Beijing would, in turn, rely on Moscow to guarantee the security of its growing assets and interests in Central Asia. Given Beijing’s particular concerns around Xinjiang and the importance of this to the Chinese Communist Party and their control over China, this logic seems even more flawed, illustrating why the simplistic assumption that China does economics while Russia does security does not work. Nor is it visible on the ground in Central Asia. The reality was articulated perfectly to us during a visit to Bishkek where, as we were doing the rounds of the think tanks and ministries, we were repeatedly given the line that China did the economics while Russia did security, only for an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to turn to us and say, “well, in fact, the Chinese did just build a new headquarters for our border guards.”

It has been fascinating to watch Chinese assertiveness, particularly in the military domain, grow over time. From a power that was largely passive in security matters, it became a power increasingly flexing its muscles, developing a security footprint that not only served to advance China’s direct and narrow interests but increasingly seemed to be aimed at embedding China within the region’s security apparatus in the long run. What officials in Moscow had assumed was solely theirs has been eroded over time. Afghanistan notably lurks like a menacing shadow for Beijing in the background of their concerns about Central Asian stability. From providing border support and equipment, to language training and Covid-19 aid—China’s military relationship with Central Asia is as ascendant as in every other area. The old implicit bargains between Beijing and Moscow are increasingly being tested, with events in Ukraine likely placing even greater pressure on them.

Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen are the authors of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (OUP)

Still catching up, this time a short piece for Nikkei Asian Review in the wake of the attack in Karachi by Balochi separatists which murdered the Confucius Institute director and some of his staff.

Karachi terror attack strains Pakistan’s ties with China

New government needs to listen to the concerns of Balochi separatists

Police officers and a crime scene unit gather near a passenger van after a blast at the entrance of Karachi University’s Confucius Institute on April 26: The attack crossed many red lines.   © Reuters


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

While Beijing would never admit it, the rise of Shehbaz Sharif as Pakistan’s new prime minister is a welcome development.

Sharif’s early and positive comments toward China, the fact his new Finance Minister Miftah Ismail made meeting officials from the Chinese Embassy his first formal encounter and the appointment of Ahsan Iqbal as minister responsible for the managing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor were all clear signals that the new government wants a cooperative relationship with Beijing.

That chummy mood was shattered by a brutal suicide bombing on April 26 that was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army at Karachi University and which killed the director of the Confucius Institute, Beijing’s cultural promotion organization, as well as two Chinese staff and their Pakistani driver.

The suicide bombing was the latest in a series of attacks by separatists who are now targeting China because of Beijing’s heavy investment in Balochistan, which includes the much discussed Gwadar Port.

Balochi separatists have a history of targeting Chinese nationals in Pakistan, launching a number of dramatic attacks over the years that include targeting the Chinese consulate in Karachi, the Chinese-built Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar and the Karachi stock exchange.

Shehbaz Sharif meets with Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy of China Pang Chunxue to offer condolences for the victims in Islamabad on April 26: The chummy mood was shattered. (Handout photo from Pakistani Prime Minister’s Office)   © Reuters

In 2018, then-Balochi leader Aslam Baloch dispatched his eldest son as a suicide bomber to blow up a busload of Chinese engineers going to work in Balochistan. No one aside from the bomber was killed, but that attack kicked off a violent campaign that has now taken another dark twist.

The latest attack on the Confucius Institute, a soft but prominent target, crossed many red lines, the most conspicuous of which was the unprecedented use of a female suicide bomber. The fact she appears to have been a well-educated, middle-class woman who leaves behind two young children suggests how broad and attractive the Balochi narrative has now become.

Amid the scramble to better understand precisely who was behind the attack, there are hints that other militant groups may have played some sort of support role. And as is usually the case in this troubled region, many are looking for signs that outside powers might be manipulating the Balochi cause for their own ends.

The usual suspects for those conspiracy minded are India and the United States. Afghanistan used to be the third, but this is less likely given the Taliban government’s crackdowns on Balochi groups based in Afghanistan, groups the former Western-backed government seemed to tolerate, a major source of discord between Islamabad and Kabul.

The bigger point is that the Balochi separatist cause is continuing to gain traction inside Pakistan and is only getting worse, with militants getting more and more ambitious, and seemingly able to strike at will.

In January, a bomb was detonated at a crowded market in Lahore, killing three, and in February, a large detachment of militants took on two bases belonging to the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force charged with maintaining law and order in Balochistan.

At least 20 militants and nine Pakistani soldiers were killed in fighting that went on for many hours, although Balochi groups said the casualty rates were much higher, claiming that nearly 200 Pakistanis were killed, with only 16 of theirs dead.

By targeting the Confucius Institute, Balochi militants are sending a clear signal to the many thousands of Chinese who live and work in Pakistan.

Because not all Chinese living and working in the region are linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, many of them live beyond the security perimeter that has been put around official CPEC projects. These people are now all clearly targets too, vastly expanding the number of people Pakistani authorities need to worry about protecting.

It is not clear what Beijing’s answer to all this will be. One option would be to deploy a Chinese military detachment. More likely is that China will step up military and intelligence aid, as well as increase their discrete security presence on the ground. Chinese private security contractors will doubtless start to appear more frequently.

But this is only a stopgap answer. China is clearly unhappy, and while they might be willing to absolve the new government for responsibility for this latest attack, the underlying problem is that Pakistan seems unable to bring the separatists under control.

If we continue to see attacks like this on Chinese nationals, it will become increasingly difficult for Beijing to send its people to work in the country. More importantly, the repeated targeting of Chinese nationals undermines the myth that Chinese investment in Pakistan is seen as benign on the ground. A much wider and more dangerous narrative that Beijing has little desire to take hold.

The truth is that across this wider region, China is increasingly becoming the most consequential player on the ground. This attracts allies and enemies alike and is a role that has responsibilities, as much as Beijing might want to shy away from them.

Islamabad clearly needs to take a different tack in Balochistan. Locals feel persecuted and see little opportunity in modern Pakistan. Stories of extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture are common. Nor do locals see much direct benefit from Chinese investment.

Greater transparency and engagement are needed. Otherwise, the conflict will continue to metastasize and create problems with one of Islamabad’s most important partners on the world stage.

Still catching up on myself, this time a longer piece for the Straits Times about the how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is seen in parts of its former Soviet dominions. Varied and worried views.

Living Dangerously in Russia’s backyard

From the Baltics to countries in Central Asia, the war in Ukraine is a reminder of their precarious position amid questions about how far Putin will go in pursuit of his revanchist dreams.

Russian troops stand guard at the entrance to the village of Varnita, in Transnistria, a breakaway region in eastern Moldova, on March 4, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

There are many unanswered questions to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Key among them is whether Ukraine is the extent of President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, or part of a longer and more ambitious path towards European dominance.

Or, placing this within a wider context, is Russian activity abroad all about meddling for the sake of continued relevance or aimed at some actual imperial gain.

This is a difficult question to entirely answer, as ultimately the only person who knows is President Vladimir Putin and he is keeping the answer to himself. But in reading his actions and how they are seen in the former Soviet space, a part of the world that has long had to live with Russia, it is possible to start to divine something of an answer.

It is worth starting by looking back at when Mr Putin came to power. When he was appointed as president of the Russian Federation in 2000, he inherited a mess from an often inebriated Boris Yeltsin, who oversaw the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia – the heart of the once mighty USSR-was plundered by gangsters and oligarchs while ravaged by Chechen terrorists.

Mr Putin set about undoing much of the damage left by Mr Yeltsin. The terrorism menace in the North Caucasus was quelled, the treasury put in order, and the military rebuilt. The stabilising of the country in the early part of his two decades in power was popular among Russians who remember the 1990s when the country tried Western liberal economic approaches and was rewarded with penury and oligarchs.

But that was not the end of it for Mr Putin. Having turned it around, he then went on to start to “grow” the country he inherited, with territory “liberated” from Georgia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region, as well as the full seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region have joined Abkhazia and South Ossetia as vassal statelets dependent (and loyal) to Moscow. Belarus is a vassal state in all but name, while the Eurasian Economic Union gives Russia a say in the economic affairs of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

The old idea of revanchist Russian nationalism is a key driver of this expansion. The notion of Mother Russia as the home of all of the Slavic peoples is something that has long been seen as a goal by successive leaders in Russia. Russian nationalism, however, is something that those living in the states adjacent to Russia have also long worried about.

THE VIEW FROM CENTRAL ASIA

Its resurgence has stirred unease not only in the Baltic states and Russia’s central European neighbours but also in Central Asia.

In the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, an old video popped up on Uzbek social media. In it, first president (and former Soviet apparatchik) Islam Karimov spoke of his concerns about Russian nationalism, suggesting it was a greater threat than whatever might emerge from Afghanistan. The interview was from the late 1990s, a moment when the former Soviet space was wracked by various conflicts. But Mr Karimov was particularly worried about what might emerge from Moscow, something contemporary Uzbeks saw now rearing its head in Ukraine.

But while Uzbekistan has always had a somewhat prickly relationship with Moscow, it is Kazakhstan that has been particularly fearful of revanchist Russian nationalism.

Northern Kazakhstan is home to an ethnic Russian community that makes up around a fifth of the country’s population. In the past few years, the government in Kazakhstan has sought to encourage greater Kazakh national identity, rejecting Cyrillic script and encouraging more use of Kazakh language rather than Russian.

If Russia’s actions in Ukraine were not bad enough, comments by Russian nationalists have added to Kazakhstan’s fears. For instance, Mr Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the United Russia party in the Duma, once raised doubts about Kazakhstan’s sovereign status on the grounds that the “territory of Kazakhstan was a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union”. His remarks prompted other like minded politicians to call for the return of parts of northern Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation.

Worryingly for Kazakhs, a few years ago, Mr Putin made similar comments in public which appeared to question Kazakh statehood. He praised the then Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev for building something out of nothing. Praise on the one hand, but also undermining the logic of an independent Kazakh state, one with a history and existence not contingent on Russia.

The parallels with Russia’s dismissal of Ukrainian statehood are inescapable to Kazakhs who worry about Moscow’s revanchist intentions.

Tellingly, even though Kazakhstan abstained on the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it would not recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk or Luhansk. The authorities also turned a blind eye to some public rallies supporting Ukraine.

However, for all their fears of Russian nationalism, the Central Asia states still look up to Russia as their ultimate security guarantor. As the Taliban surged in Afghanistan last year, it was Moscow that dispatched forces to undertake border training exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as rushing through arms sales across the region. Similarly, when Kazakhstan was wracked with domestic strife earlier this year, it was Moscow that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turned to to help restore order.

Kyrgyzstan, the most democratic of the five states in the region, has also been the most unstable. Internal tensions are often fanned by Russian media or stoked by Moscow. Russia is able to make its displeasure known and continues to exert influence when it needs to – through powerful oligarchs close to Mr Putin or hard military power or its intelligence services. The Central Asians all recognise this, and are fearful of the mighty Russian bear turning on them.

At the same time, they are certainly not happy about the pattern of Moscow’s behaviour. They condemned the assault on Georgia in 2008, expressed concern about the 2014 incursions into Ukraine and have shown their unwillingness to completely toe Moscow’s line in the wake of this year’s invasion.

But there is a limit to their push back against Russia, given the precarious position they are in.

OTHER NEIGHBOURS

The Baltic and eastern European countries are in a far more secure position, given their membership in institutions like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, with its pledge of collective defence. It offers them a level of deterrence against Russian aggression that is also not available to Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova.

Moldova, nestled between Ukraine and Romania, sits on just the other side of the EU’s outer border and has a small ethnic Russian enclave in Transnistria, complete with Russian soldiers. Recent comments by Russian General Rustam Minnekayev that Moscow’s goal was to secure a corridor across Ukraine connecting to the enclave, as well as explosions targeting infrastructure in the region, has set alarm bells off in Chisinau.

While Mr Putin may no longer have sway over the Baltics and their ethnic Russian populations, he does have other cards to play, such as Kaliningrad, an isolated Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania. Largely known for smuggling, it is a Russian foothold which Mr Putin’s administration have threatened to use as a base for nuclear weapons should Nato expand further.

All of this adds up to a Russia which is basically interested in maintaining influence in what it perceives as its backyard, with the option of claiming them back if the context permits (or is fabricated).

From Mr Putin’s perspective, the countries of the former Soviet Union are only permitted to be independent states insomuch as he allows it. And where he has grey lines or borders, he has a space in which he can operate.

While it remains to be seen whether he is eager to court the danger that would follow invading an EU or Nato country, he certainly sees no issue in stirring trouble in any of the other countries in this space. And every so often, lash out violently to remind them about staying in line.

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

Still catching up on myself after my extended delinquency, here posting something about Pakistan in the wake of Shabhaz Sharif’s rise to power in the South China Morning Post. Think it still holds water reasonably well now, though I am not sure I quite see China seeing a field of friends across its border any more. Suspect it is more complicated than that, but then it always is. This coming week and the SCO Summit and President Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is going to be a really interesting attempt to connect with something. Be interesting to see how it plays out.

How Pakistan’s new prime minister completes a favourable picture for China in the region

– Shehbaz Sharif’s rise to power in Pakistan puts China in an advantageous position as its western neighbours all have governments friendly to Beijing.

– This also means China has a stake in the many problems that emanate from this region, though, and will be forced to take a more active role.

Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

The election of Shahbaz Sharif as prime minister of Pakistan by legislators completes a series of events which place China in a favourable place in its Eurasian neighbourhood. Beijing now has a leader in Islamabad with whom it has had a successful relationship in the past.

China is also increasingly presenting itself as the closest partner to the new Taliban government in Kabul, and in Central Asia it faces a region where Russia – the other major power – is distracted by a disastrous war of its own choosing in Ukraine. China’s march of influence westward is continuing, but Beijing has still made no clear decision about what it will do with this influence.

When Nawaz Sharif – Shahbaz Sharif’s brother – was prime minister, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was jokingly called the “China-Punjab Economic Corridor” because many of the largest, juiciest investments appeared to be going to Nawaz Sharif’s home province of Punjab. At the time, the chief minister of Punjab was Shahbaz Sharif.

The reality is that the economic ­corridor’s investment has been fairly spread out around Pakistan, though completion rates seem better in Punjab and Sindh. However, it is worth noting that Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous region, so perhaps the focus of Chinese investment there is hardly surprising. 

The tilt towards Punjab also reflected the fact that Beijing liked Shahbaz Sharif and found him a competent leader to engage with. Pakistan has a challenging political and economic environment, and in Punjab China found someone who could deliver. 

Now Sharif has ascended to power after the tumultuous reign of former cricket star Imran Khan. While Beijing has been careful to avoid expressing a preference for one leader over another, China likes having decisive and effective leaders in charge.

Khan was acceptable because he was seen as being the military’s man initially. He was also happy to be outspoken in his support for Beijing while China came under fire for what is happening in Xinjiang. But China has faced growing problems in Pakistan in the past few years as its interests and nationals are increasingly targeted by militants. 

China has always been happy dealing with military men because of their ability to deliver on outcomes. Beijing was in many ways most content when former general Pervez Musharraf was in charge in Islamabad. A former commando, he tended to tackle problems headfirst and actively sought to make sure China was happy even when this caused him problems at home. 

But Sharif is an excellent alternative from Beijing’s perspective. This completes a picture for Beijing where it is dealing with authorities across its western borders with whom it seems satisfied. In Kabul, Beijing has shown itself to be a powerful player in tightly embracing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan government.

In Central Asia, China has a series of leaders who are either willing to quietly engage to advance whatever goals it wants or are actively eager to cultivate a positive economic relationship. In Kazakhstan, it has a leader who studied and worked in China and speaks Mandarin. This is a highly advantageous environment for Beijing. 

However, Central Asia is also a highly troubled region, as we have seen in the past 12 months with the collapse of the Republic of Afghanistan and the chaos in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year. Also, non-state groups in the region increasingly see China as an adversary they are eager to focus on.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor continues to be a narrative focus for Balochistan separatists in Pakistan, while Islamic State Khorasan has referred to China as an adversary in its literature and deployed a suicide bomber last October in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province. At a less violent level, nationalists in Kyrgyzstan have expressed anger towards China and attacked Chinese nationals, while public polling across Central Asia often places China in a negative light.

Beijing thus faces a major dilemma on a shortening horizon. It can no longer claim to have only passive influence across its Eurasian borders or face hostile authorities in power. It now has governments in power across the board that seem eager to actively please China. This also means China increasingly has a stake in the many  problems that emanate from this region.

As the power closest to the governments in both Kabul and Islamabad, China now has little excuse for not trying to mediate the tense relations that continue to exist between the two capitals. As one of the largest investors in and increasingly the largest trading partner with both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, it will start to look odd if Beijing does not try to help the two smooth over their occasionally violent border relations.

Should further trouble erupt and Moscow is too preoccupied elsewhere to do something about it, Beijing will have to think about how it will manage the  situation. Its currently passive approach might not always work out.

China is increasingly the most  consequential actor in Eurasia, and it now has governments in power across the region who actively recognise that fact and are eager to please Beijing.

This both puts Beijing in a position of power but also one of great responsibility. It remains to be seen how China will rise to this challenge.

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

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.

More book promotion stuff, this time a short article for the wonderfully entitled Splash, a trade publication about global shipping industry. It just felt too perfect to write about landlocked Central Asia in such an outlet. Huge thanks to editor Sam for the kind invitation.

China’s transport links with Central Asia in the spotlight

Raffaello Pantucci, the co-author of the just published Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, a book studying the People’s Republic’s growing influence in Central Asia, writes for Splash today.

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative vision is to open up markets and enhance connectivity around the world, ultimately transforming China into the heart of a global web of trade routes and goods flows. But in many contexts, it is as much about connectivity more broadly than solely links back to China. In landlocked Central Asia, Beijing’s vision has helped the region develop multiple links to the seas.

The most prominent example of this is Lianyungang Port in Jiangsu province which has offered itself as a staging point for Central Asian goods to get to international markets, and goods to get to the region. In late 2019, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Chinese instigated regional organization involving all of the Central Asians minus Turkmenistan, but also including Russia, India and Pakistan, held a meeting for logistics firms in the city, part of a broader engagement effort. Kazakh firms have invested heavily into the Port, and established numerous strong connections. Links which have unfortunately suffered during COVID as Chinese border restrictions have tightened considerably leaving Central Asians struggling to get goods in or out.

Another more subversive example is the Chabahar Port in Iran, which has long been seen primarily as an Indian-Iranian project which would enable Indian firms to reach Central Asian markets. Something they struggled to do when trying to reach directly through adversary Pakistan and war-torn Afghanistan (though this has started to change recently changed with some limited direct routes opening). But long-standing Indian prevarication over Chabahar – something Delhi has been discussing working on for over a decade – has meant that Iran has solicited China to help the development of the port, with mention of it included amongst the many documents circulating around the 25-year strategic deal signed between China and Iran in 2021. China is helping take over this route too.

The final more complicated example can be found in Pakistan, where the recent Taliban take-over in Kabul has seemed to breathe life – at least from Beijing’s perspective – into a longstanding Chinese desire to connect up their BRI vision in Pakistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), with Afghanistan. The idea is one Beijing has been pushing for some time, but has largely floundered under the Republic government in Kabul due to tensions between Islamabad and Kabul. The advent of a theoretically more friendly government in Kabul, and China’s warm embrace of the newly minted Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), suggests this idea might be on the table once again. Should this connection realize, it will help give Afghanistan (and Central Asia) its quickest possible route to seas, through the Chinese developed port of Gwadar in Baluchistan. It will also quite firmly anchor Afghanistan in China’s wider BRI vision, something that has been missing in any practically meaningful way outside rhetoric.

Whether any of this is practicable of course is a different matter altogether. While relations are changed, tensions clearly still remain between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Similarly, Chabahar is a growing port, it equally remains to be seen how useful it really is as an alternative to the existing ports that access the markets that are already operational. And a key lesson many Central Asian export/importers will have learned during the pandemic was that Chinese controlled routes are not entirely reliable. It is only now, two years on, that some of the border posts between China and Central Asia are opening up once again.

Beijing might have helped connect landlocked Central Asia to the seas, but it is not clear that it is going to be entirely smooth sailing from now on.