Archive for the ‘South China Morning Post’ Category

Late posting of a new piece for the South China Morning Post, looking at foreign fighters from Syria heading back to China.

China should beware of ‘returning radicals’ whether they come home or not

The goal of the Turkestan Islamic Party is to punish China for what has been happening in Xinjiang, and it will do so wherever it can

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 10:01pm

The threat of returnees from Syria and Iraq is the threat that has not yet barked in the way that was expected.

While thousands of radicalised individuals from around the world streamed to fight in Syria, we have not yet seen the same outflow of individuals off the battlefield with direction to launch attacks back in their home countries. There have been some incidents, but it is still unclear whether this threat will express itself in the same way as the flow the other way.

When it does, however, China is one of the countries that should be particularly concerned by what happens to this flow.

In research undertaken in 2015, prominent terrorism researcher Thomas Hegghammer showed how terrorist plots featuring returnee foreign fighters were among the most lethal. Using a data set focused mostly on foreign fighters from the West, the research highlighted how individuals who had received some form of training or experience on the battlefield, tended to be more able to launch effective terrorist plots back home.

There is a logic to this: those who are experienced on the field are more likely to have training to make bombs or use other weapons (and therefore be more effective), they will be more desensitised to violence and therefore more willing to kill, and they are more likely to have the necessary contacts with terrorist networks and leadership.

But at the same time, being a foreign fighter does not necessarily equate to becoming a terrorist at home. Many foreign fighters are motivated by idealistic goals, seeking the thrill of fighting in foreign fields to protect communities of brother Muslims. Their initial intent is not to launch terrorist attacks at home, and while some (London’s July 2005 bombers are a good example of this) are re-directed on the battlefield by senior figures to launch attacks back home, the overwhelming majority do not have this in the forefront of their minds when they travel in the first place.

This stands in contrast to what we see in those who have gone from China to fight in Syria and Iraq. Watch the videos or statements from the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) in Syria and you can see messaging that is quite clearly aimed at persuading people to come and fight in Syria to ultimately prepare to return home to China. Videos show the oppressive situation in Xinjiang and call for people to come to Syria to a better life to prepare to rectify the situation.

Islamic State messaging to Uygurs has been more limited, though we have seen the group issue direct threats to China from its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as through its Uygur warriors who have published magazines and videos threatening China.

In its first message in Uygur in March this year, IS threatened to “shed blood like rivers” in China and against Chinese interests. While on the one hand this can be dismissed to some degree as fairly standard threatening by these groups against anyone that they see lined up against them, when looking to China in particular the threat takes a different dimension.

TIP’s goal (and Islamic State’s in some ways) is to forge an army that will be able to return to punish China for what has been happening in Xinjiang. And there is already some evidence that they have tried to do this – the attack last year against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, may have been a failure, but it showed a growing ambition by Uygur extremists to target China. And while returning home to China may prove to be too difficult, launching attacks on Chinese interests around the world may prove easier.

This is important for China to note. While in many other countries, the radical impulse that motivates people to go and become foreign fighters may have in part been addressed by the experience in Syria and Iraq, for those who have come from China, it appears as though the experience was merely preparation for what is to come later. And while this is not to reduce the potential threat that foreign fighters pose around the world, the overarching dynamic of the community is likely to be different for those coming from China versus other places.

For most Uygur fighters, they are going away to train and prepare to ultimately return and punish China for years of perceived oppression. Given the numbers and training they will have received, this is something which is going to trouble Chinese security officials for some time to come.

On the one hand, there is a clear need to find a way to address the causes of grievance that can be found in Xinjiang. The current hard line approach needs some moderating to try to assuage people’s concerns rather than exacerbate anger. But at the same time, Beijing needs to think about the growing impact of this group of radicalised and battle-hardened individuals around the world.

As China has increasingly gone out into the world, its human footprint has increased, producing numerous potential targets. If its warriors off the battlefield in Syria and Iraq are unable to return home, they are likely to find ways of striking China elsewhere.

This is likely to produce a network and threat that China will be addressing for years to come. Beijing needs to both solve its problems at home, as well as find a way of protecting itself abroad.

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Catching up posting as ever, this another piece for South China Morning Post looking at China’s problems along the Belt and Road with reference to current tensions with India potentially being an indicator of what could happen more substantially.

China must get along with regional powers to make its New Silk Road plan work

Raffaello Pantucci writes that Beijing is seeking to increase its presence in regions where it is going to need more friends than enemies, including India

Geopolitics matters. As we move deeper into a multipolar world, the importance of grand strategy will only grow. Relations between states at a strategic, economic and even emotional level will all intertwine to create a complicated web that will require sophisticated diplomacy to navigate. For China this is a particularly important lesson to learn, given its keynote “Belt and Road Initiative” that requires an acquiescent and peaceful world to deliver on its promise of building a web of trade and economic corridors emanating from China and tying the Middle Kingdom to the world. China’s current stand-off with India highlights exactly how geopolitics can disrupt Xi Jinping’s foreign policy legacy initiative.

The details of the specific transgression within this context are not entirely important. China is asserting itself in its border regions and changing facts on the ground to solidify claims. Indian push-back is based on strategic relations with Bhutan that go back a long way and a concern about how this changes Indian capabilities on the ground.

It comes at a time when relations between China and India are particularly low, with suspicion on both sides. Most analysts do not seem to think we are going to end up with conflict, but it is not clear at the moment what the off-ramp looks like. But whatever this exit looks like, we are undoubtedly going to see China finding it tougher to advance its Belt and Road Initiative through India’s perceived or real spheres of influence in South Asia.

This is something which is already visible in the broader tensions between China and India over Pakistan. China has focused on the country as a major ally that it is supporting to develop its domestic economy and improve its strategic capacity for a variety of reasons. Yet this approach directly undermines Pakistan’s perennial adversary India’s current approach of isolating Islamabad on the international stage as punishment for cross-border terrorism.

Further, the CPEC route’s cutting through disputed territories in Kashmir provides a further spur to Indian concerns. At a more tactical level, China’s refusal to allow Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar to be included on the list of proscribed terrorists, and its blockage of Indian entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, all point to a relationship with which Beijing is clearly playing an aggressive hand. India has also shown itself to be a hardball player in this regard, making public shows of proximity to the Dalai Lama, a source of major concern to China.

Of course, such a posture is either capital’s prerogative. Past relations between China and India have been fraught. The two countries have fought wars against each other. Yet at the same time, the overall tenor between the two is often in a different direction: both are proud members of the BRICS grouping (arguably the two leaders of it), and both have embraced the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. India is keen to gain a slice of the outbound Chinese investment, while China is keen to access India’s markets. Both see the opportunities and recognise that as Asian giants they have an upward trajectory over the next few decades. Together they will undoubtedly be stronger than alone.

But this positive message is thoroughly buried under the negative news around the border spat in Bhutan. Rather than being able to build a productive relationship, the two countries now find themselves at loggerheads. This is a problem for both, but has an important lesson within it for China as it seeks to advance its Belt and Road Initiative globally.

To be able to credibly realise the Belt and Road Initiative, China is going to need to have positive relations with partners on the ground, in particular major regional powers. With plans to build infrastructure, expand investments and grow physical footprints on the ground, Beijing is seeking to substantially increase its presence in regions where it is going to need more friends than enemies. When looking across South Asia, this means having a productive relationship with India. Without this, Delhi will find ways of complicating China’s approach or, more bluntly, obstructing it. Given the importance of some of the South Asian routes to the development of some of China’s poorest regions, it is important for Beijing to make sure that these corridors related to the Belt and Road plan live up to their promise.

And this lesson is one that will be relevant outside a South Asian context. For Beijing to be able to deliver on the promise of the Belt and Road Initiative, it is going to need to watch the geopolitics. Similar problems may eventually materialise with Russia, or on the seas as Beijing seeks to turn the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road into a reality.

Without friends along these routes, China is going to find it very difficult to make these visions work no matter how much money they try to throw at the problem. With nationals, companies and interests broadening and deepening, China needs an acquiescent environment and countries that are eager to work with it. Geopolitics is a chess game of many different levels, and as power becomes more diffuse on our planet, Beijing is going to have to learn how to play these games if it wants to deliver on the promise of its grand visions.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: It’ll be tough going without friends on the New Silk Road

More late posting, this time on China’s posture with regard to international terrorism for the South China Morning Post. Am also catching up on some media appearances over the past couple of months. Spoke to the LA Times, AFP, and Washington Post about the Finsbury Park attack. To the  New York TimesNewsweek, Financial Times, Guardian, and Ireland Herald about the London Bridge attack. To the New York Times about ISIS long distance direction. On the broader question of the current threat picture and UK history with The TimesObserverBloomberg, the Australian, and Newsweek. And finally, on the difficulties countering online terror and European sharing with the Washington Post and US News Report. More on this final topic to come in an interesting new format soon. And absolutely finally, on the other side of the coin, about the Belt and Road causing frictions between China and Russia for RFE/RL. As ever a lot more on this to come soon as well (including a very substantial couple of new pieces).

‘Why China must do more to fight international terrorism’

China is increasingly becoming a target for militant groups, but by cooperating more with other countries Beijing can help combat the threat, writes Raffaello Pantucci

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2017, 2:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 2:49am

A darker side to China’s Belt and Road Initiative is starting to reveal itself.

As China’s profile rises and its investments and interests globally grow, China is finding itself in the terrorists’ cross hairs. This means Beijing needs a more considered counterterrorism policy with greater international cooperation.

Back in July 2015, the Islamist militant group al-Shabab launched an attack on the Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia. Apparently revenge for an assault by Ethiopian soldiers that killed civilians, the attack also happened to hit the Chinese embassy in the building, killing a security guard.

Al-Shabab was reminded of the impact of its action in a message from the Turkestan Islamic Party, a Uygur jihadi group that China has blamed for a series of attacks in its western region of Xinjiang. It sent a message saying: “We the mujahideen in the Turkestan Islamic Party congratulate the Islamic Ummah for this blessed operation, we endorse it and we encourage the Shabab al-Mujahideen Movement in Somalia to carry out more such jihadi operations.”

But there was little evidence that the group had meant to target the Chinese embassy.

Just over a year later, another Chinese embassy was hit by a terrorist attack. This time a suicide car bomber crashed through the gates of the embassy compound in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, before detonating explosives in the vehicle. The damage was limited, although local employees were hurt. But the attack this time was far more targeted. Nobody claimed responsibility, but reports strongly suggest the attack was linked to an Islamist militant group operating in Syria. What was not in doubt was it clearly targeted China.

This shift comes after a period when China could relax as a second-order priority for international terrorist groups. While al-Qaeda and others would occasionally issue threats to China, it was not clear that they were dedicating material resources to target Beijing or its interests. The principal link China had to international jihadist networks was the militant Uygur community angry at Beijing’s domination of Xinjiang. Some were connected with international jihadi networks. Yet this group was largely seen as weak and not one that could command much more from the international jihadist community beyond rhetorical statements.

Turn to today, and as China reaches out to the world through President Xi Jinping’s belt and road plan, Beijing is becoming more of a terrorist target.

Many of these forces intersect in Pakistan, where large-scale infrastructure investment into the conflict-prone country is directly exposing Chinese interests and citizens to the dangers of armed groups. In part, this is a product of China’s support for the Pakistani state – the main target of many Pakistan-based groups. But it is also a result of China’s ongoing problems in Xinjiang and an angry Uygur minority who are finding more active support in the international jihadist milieu. Recent statements by Islamic State and other militant groups in Pakistan link strikes and anger against China to their treatment of Uygurs.

But what can China do about this? In the first instance, Beijing needs to find some way to resolve its problems in Xinjiang – letting the situation fester there is not going to improve China’s standing in the eyes of the international jihadist community. Looking abroad, Beijing still officially stands behind its sacred principle of non-interference but it is clearly starting to build a legislative framework to provide a mandate for its forces to go out into the world and protect its national interests. This can be seen in new counterterrorism and intelligence legislation. It is also apparent in the People’s Liberation Army’s growing assertiveness and international presence – be it more aggressive peacekeeping mandates, overseas bases, or growing direct military support for countries dealing with militant groups at home.

Yet there is more that can be done. China continues to be a hesitant player in international cooperation. This is in part the product of a lack of trust and different views on the root causes of terrorist problems, but there are a number of places around the world where China and the West share a common threat.

Sharing assessments and specific intelligence linked to respective national interests is one cooperative way forwards, but these both need to be two-way streets. Historically, China has acted in a more passive manner in such engagements, taking information without giving much in return. More could also be done to think through the impact of support for government forces on the ground – in particular to make sure there is a greater level of common effort in this direction.

For example, coordinating support to the Philippines as it deal with its growing problem with militants. Currently, numerous powers – both Western and Asian – provide support for the Philippine government. Making sure this support is complementary and that both sides are highlighting the same problems to the Philippine government is key in establishing long-term stability in the country.

International terrorism is a common problem facing the world. While there are always going to be disagreements and difficulties in countering these threats, there are some things which can be done together.

China can no longer hide in the shade of terrorist groups’ desire to strike primarily at the West. As it expands its international footprint, it is going to be increasingly exposed and will need to build relations with friends around the world to manage this growing menace effectively.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

Slightly belated posting of a piece for the South China Morning Post looking at how Eurasia may lose out from a US-China falling out. Been very busy with a variety of projects which will produce some interesting outputs in the near-term future. The image is not the one used in the article, but one I found on ChinaMil about the same US-China HADR engagement, as I could not seem to download the one from the SCMP.

Why Eurasia will suffer if Donald Trump makes an enemy of China

Raffaello Pantucci says the US president’s hostile stance not only puts at risk overall ties with Beijing, but could also deprive Eurasia of the cooperation it needs to advance, and a counterweight to China’s potentially overbearing sway

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There is a dichotomy at the heart of US-China relations that is best captured by the term “frenemies”. The relationship is both contentious and competitive, while also intertwined and interdependent. The economic side of this discussion is well-worn, but the security one is often overlooked, with a simplistic view concluding that interactions are constructed on an interdependent economic relationship and a tense security one.

This misses recent developments that may exacerbate the potential for a tense bilateral relationship under US President Donald Trump.

There is no denying the tense security relationship between Washington and Beijing in the Pacific and the seas off mainland China. A complicated weave of treaties and relationships gives the US a strong security footprint in an area which China claims as its own.

Yet, look over land and a very different perspective emerges. In Afghanistan, China and the US have cooperated for years in trying to bring the Taliban to peace talks, and undertaken joint training missions to build up Afghanistan’s own security capacity. In Central Asia, the two have discussed how to cooperate, though so far there is limited evidence of progress.

In Pakistan, China has played a positive role – with US support – in ensuring the relationship between Pakistan and India does not boil over into conflict. And the US has occasionally eliminated militant Uygurs of concern to Beijing in drone strikes in Afghanistan or Syria – in a reflection of how much China and the US face a joint threat of terrorism.

And there have been some direct joint operations and cooperative efforts. In November, US and Chinese forces practised a humanitarian disaster relief exercise in Yunnan. The concept was that, in the event of a natural disaster, American and Chinese forces might be able to play a role in mitigating the fallout together.

All of these positive moves may now be under threat as both sides ratchet up tensions in the wake of Trump’s aggressive arrival in office. If the US president lives up to his promises of demanding a shift in the Sino-US economic relationship and a more confrontational approach over Taiwan aimed at further advancing this, it is perfectly possible that we may see China choosing to act in a more transactional manner over its links to the US in Eurasia.

If the relationship becomes too poisoned over the seas, Beijing may choose to refuse to play a productive role over land. China is still trying to work out what role it will play in Eurasia, and how it will enforce its will.

If it sees the US in a more competitive light, it is possible Beijing will start to conclude that it no longer wants to play a cooperative role with Washington. Rather, it will look to others, and start to strengthen its relations in a way to cut the US out of the region.

The potential loser in all of this is Eurasia – a region that needs greater cooperation from all sides if it is to realise the potential of the various proposed Silk Road and connectivity routes across the continent. The long-fallow US “New Silk Road” initiative to help Afghanistan reconnect to its region will dissolve further into irrelevance and American interests in Eurasia will be further reduced.

Currently, the region is dominated by Beijing’s economic push, but it requires greater investment and cooperation from a wider range of actors if it is to truly succeed. This includes both China and the US, which have different and important roles to play, and are both sought after by countries across the continent. If the two powers start to develop a more confrontational approach, it will limit connectivity but also deprive Eurasian powers of a key alternative to China’s potentially overbearing power across the continent.

The US and China have developed habits of close cooperation across Eurasia that have helped open up new markets and opportunities, and reconnect the world as never before. It has also shown how the US and China are able to play a productive and cooperative role together. If Trump forces a more confrontational and transactional relationship, it is likely that China will continue on its path across Eurasia alone or with other partners – a net loss for American power across the region.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

And now another (very short piece) for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at the implications to Russia of the opening up of Iran and what this means for the Silk Road Economic Belt vision.

China’s new silk road is designed to cut Russia out of Eurasian trade

Raffaello Pantucci says the ‘One Belt, One Road’ trade initiative is likely to sideline Moscow and give Beijing the upper hand in their awkward relationship

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 February, 2016, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 February, 2016, 2:00pm

China Tehran train

The first Chinese cargo train, following Iran-China efforts to revive the Silk Road, arrives in Tehran on February 15. The 32-container train arrived after a 14-day journey from northwestern China. Photo: EPA

President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) visit to Tehran – the first by a foreign leader since the lifting of sanctions – highlights the potential centrality of Iran to China’s broader regional foreign policy. The opening up of Iran, a country in which China has long maintained substantial interests, means Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” vision can now go cleanly across Eurasia without ever going through Russia. Moscow can be cut out.

Rouhani XJP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) shakes hands with President Xi Jinping in Tehran in January. Photo: Reuters

Visiting Tashkent, one can see the ancient routes laid out by the Timurid empire that constituted the ancient silk road. Rather than track through Russia, most would go below the Caspian and Black seas to reach Turkey and Europe. An iron silk road has been established that will track the old silk routes

Soon after Xi visited Tehran, a train laden with goods left Yiwu, Zhejiang province (浙江), headed to Tehran following this route. On February 10, it crossed the border from Turkmenistan and arrived in Iran this week. The Ukrainian minister of infrastructure announced at the same time that, by the end of the month, a direct rail line would open between Ukraine and China, cutting across Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea and Kazakhstan. An iron silk road has been established that will track the old silk routes.

Train carriage Tehran China

The first Chinese cargo train arrives in Tehran after passing through Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Photo: EPA

Moscow has long been an awkward partner for Beijing and the question of how Russia fits into the belt and road vision was always unclear. Some incorrectly saw the Eurasian Economic Union as an effort by Moscow to push back on China’s dominance in Central Asia. This misinterprets both powers’ interests: Moscow is aiming to recreate a former space of control, while China is building trade corridors. For China, the existence of a common economic space with a single tariff barrier from its borders to the edges of Europe is a benefit to trade.

Putin and XJP Sochi

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Xi Jinping meet in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. Photo: AFP

The reality is that cutting a path across Russia is a long rail route that is only going to be attractive to high-value small objects which are still fairly limited in production volume in Xinjiang – and can now instead go along the route to Ukraine. Mass-produced, high-volume goods for which China is famous are much better placed going by sea to Europe. Unless, that is, the ultimate market is in the heart of the Eurasian continent. And this is where the route across Iran is interesting – connecting China’s markets directly to the bustling bazaars of the Middle East.

In paving an iron silk road, China is gradually reducing Moscow’s importance. This will further strengthen Beijing’s hand in their bilateral relationship and reduce Russia’s power on the international stage. Isolated by the West and increasingly sidelined by China, Moscow’s decline will only be highlighted by the opening of these new routes across Eurasia.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

Finally posting my second piece from last week around the SCO Summit, this time for the South China Morning Post. Focuses more on the China-Russia side of things. Beyond this, spoke to the Independent about the elusive Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, the Daily Mail about ISIS and women, and Reuters about Chinese intelligence dealing with the counter-terrorism questions outside the country.

Russia holds the door to Central Asia open for China

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Raffaello Pantucci says to a region in need, the Chinese offer of funds and expertise is too attractive to resist, as agreements at the Moscow-hosted BRICS and SCO meetings show

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 12:05pm

Late last week, the leaders of almost half the world’s population gathered in Ufa, Russia. The collision of the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summits was orchestrated by Russia to guarantee exposure and attention, and highlight to the world how many friends Russia has. Dig below the shallow surface, however, and the links between the countries of the two international organisations are barely skin deep, with everyone attending for their own reasons.

For China, the two summits provide another opportunity for global engagement, as well as helping Beijing advance two international financial institutions. A timid player in many ways on the international stage, Beijing has found that its capital is one lever that it can use without raising too many hackles, and the meetings in Ufa gave it another opportunity to flex these financial muscles.

Fixating on the slow path to SCO membership for India and Pakistan, the world largely missed the key takeaway from the summits: China’s growing financial domination of Russia and its immediate backyard.

In the wake of the first Ufa summit, greater clarity was cast around the BRICS development bank, a new financial entity to emerge from the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, with an initial market capitalisation of US$50 billion. The leaders also created a US$100 billion currency exchange reserve, of which US$41 billion was offered by China, while Russia, Brazil and India each gave US$18 billion, and South Africa contributed US$5 billion.

A day or so later, the SCO members agreed once again to try to advance the concept of an SCO development bank or at least a joint fund.

China has been pushing the idea of an SCO financial institution for some time.

Seeing economic engagement as its major advantage in Central Asia, many years passed before Chinese interlocutors first presented the idea of an SCO development bank.

However, the idea has never quite taken off, with Russia in particular concerned that the vehicle would simply leave the door to Central Asia wide open for Beijing.

We live now, however, in different times, and, rather than be concerned, Russia has opened the door to Beijing. Indeed, Moscow appears to be helping to hold the doors open as China uses its lever in Russia’s backyard. Already endowed with the Silk Road Fund (focused on China’s western partners in Central and South Asia) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s external constellation of economic firepower has been further enhanced by Ufa.

Russia itself has further opened up its own economy to Chinese investment, offering Chinese state-owned firms majority stakes in its oil and gas fields.

Eager for foreign investment and unable to look west anymore, Moscow is reaching east and apparently willing to throw open not only its backyard, but also Central Asia’s.

The result is a further strengthening of China’s hand in Central Asia, as the country pours finance and infrastructure into a part of the world that is crying out for it.

While in the short term there is little to worry about this investment (these are infrastructure-poor countries that will benefit from China’s appealing combination of low-cost construction firms and cheap loans), over the longer term, Chinese leverage will certainly offer Beijing a grip over the region. The lesson from Ufa is that the region’s one great resistor, Russia, has largely lifted its objections and is now welcoming all the Chinese investment it can attract.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Russia holding the door to Central Asia open for China

A new op-ed in the South China Morning Post with Lifan looking at China and Russia’s relationship and China’s foreign policy more grandly as part of the discussion around the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) currently going on in Shanghai. I also spoke to Agence France Presse about the meeting.

China relishes its new role fostering regional cooperation

Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci study China’s rising profile as a big power

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 9:12pm

UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 4:02am

The Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, which begins today in Shanghai, largely passes unnoticed most years. But this year it is being touted as a major global event, largely due to Russia’s current awkward relationships elsewhere and China’s growing global profile.

It also offers a window into President Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s foreign policy.

First proposed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan in 1992, it took 10 years for the conference to hold its first summit in Almaty. Now with 24 members, nine observer states and four observer organisations, the conference offers an interesting forum where countries with difficult relations can interact.

This year, there are high expectations of what it might mean for regional engagement in Afghanistan in the post-drawdown world.

The group’s first summit in 2002 was held in the shadow of the September 11 attacks and concluded with a declaration on eliminating terrorism. Non-traditional security threats have always been high on the agenda; in the current environment, they remain a priority.

But in many ways, this year’s event will be overshadowed by the interaction between Russia and the various members.

Both China and Russia have already hinted that this is finally the year when they will resolve their long-standing gas pricing dispute, and both have indicated they will have substantial bilateral interactions, including military exercises near the time of the conference.

The benefits for Russia are obvious. At a time when its relations with Europe and the US are soured over Ukraine, this is an opportunity to interact with a friendly community of nations and show how Russia has other geopolitical options.

One has to take a step back, however, to appreciate the benefits for China. For China, the conference is an opportunity to showcase itself as a major power at the heart of a number of different international forums (China is host this year), as well as a moment where Xi can offer a glimpse into his vision for China’s foreign policy.

This vision needs to be understood in the context of Chinese strategic considerations. One is the four trade corridors: the Silk Road economic belt (through Central Asia); the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation; and the maritime Silk Road. These are really four strings of the same instrument – one that flows from Xi’s comments about the importance of China’s border relationships late last year.

Foreign policy under Xi is one in which China will play an increasingly proactive role, founded on practical economic relationships, but also one that is heavily focused on multilateral cooperation. Xi wants his foreign policy to be seen as all about regional cooperation and integration.

For China, the meeting is in many ways an expression of this. Bringing together contentious partners and old friends alike, it highlights China as a major power that can convene important conferences with all sorts of actors around the table. Its concepts of “peaceful development” and “new great power relations” are both captured within this bigger vision.

The reality, of course, is that this is the natural state of international relations between states, where contentious relations sit alongside necessary cooperation. But it is significant that Xi has seen it as such a critical concept.

Li Lifan is secretary general of the Centre for SCO Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Raffaello Pantucci is senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.