Archive for the ‘South China Morning Post’ Category

Posting my latest piece for the South China Morning Post which seeks to push back on some of the latest narratives to emerge about the end or collapse of the Belt and Road Initiative. Am skeptical we have seen the end of it for various reasons. Am not very convinced by the title or image chosen by the editors to be honest, but cannot complain as the piece got some attention online and always enjoy publishing with the SCMP. A longer piece on BRI is coming out next month for those keen, and next year is going to be full of China-Central Asia material in the build up to the book coming out. As ever, welcome thoughts back.

As the face of China’s foreign policy, the belt and road will survive debt and coronavirus

An exhibitor sells goods at the “Belt and Road” exhibition area of the 17th China-Asean Expo in Nanning, Guangxi, on November 27. The belt and road is an idea rather than a project, and lends its name to multiple projects and events, even theme songs, cartoons, courses and think tanks. Photo: Xinhua

Having had such a catastrophic year, the world seems eager to turn the page and jettison what went before. Among the many victims of this purge appears to be the Belt and Road Initiative, which after some seven years of existence is reportedly winding down.

This premature dismissal is based on an interpretation of a vision as a project, and misses how embedded the belt and road is in Chinese foreign-policy thinking.

The belt and road draws on a long tradition of Silk Road conceptions linked to China. Clichés abound when one thinks back to Marco Polo, Matteo Ricci, the epic Battle of Talas in 751 or Ferdinand von Richthofen, who in 1877 coined the Silk Road phrasing after his travels through Asia.In contemporary Chinese parlance, the idea first came into focus under premier Li Peng, who in 1994 embarked on a tour of Central Asia in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s historic “Southern Tour” that started China on its communist-capitalist path.

Li’s trip was intended to take place in 1993, though he was reportedly delayed by ill health. Also, the visit did not stop in every Central Asian capital: Tajikistan, in the midst of its brutal civil war, was given a miss. Security was a key aspect of Li’s trip, and requests for support in suppressing militant Uygur networks were made at most stops.But the visit was also framed around trade and connectivity, and reopening the Silk Road across the Eurasian continent to China.

Following the trip, Li hosted a conference in Beijing where he called for rail connectivity across the region. Around that time, Chinese officials also held discussions with Japanese officials and investors about building pipelines from Turkmenistan, across China, to the eastern seaboard from where the hydrocarbons could help fuel Japan’s booming economic growth.

The Silk Road routes at the time went across China, rather than from it. Looking in the other direction, premier Li also travelled to Europe seeking business links.

So when President Xi Jinping announced his own interpretation of the Silk Road in 2013, under the framing of the Belt and Road Initiative, he was treading on familiar territory – both practically, but also conceptually. It was about building links around the world, and reaching European markets.

But ultimately, the belt and road as articulated by Xi is to provide a vision for Chinese foreign policy. There are undoubtedly many individual projects under the broader umbrella, but they are specific items rather than a connected infrastructure plan.

When Xi announced the idea, it was not meant to be the inauguration of a single large infrastructure project, but rather to provide the great machine of China’s external-facing apparatus with a new driving vision. The idea was that, from now on, China would articulate its foreign policy identity on the world stage as one built around building things, connecting with people and countries, and together fostering prosperity.

That’s a fairly anodyne and positive foreign policy vision, and one that resonates with anyone who has listened to Chinese officials’ endless win-win rhetoric.

It built on the earlier steps that Xi and his predecessors had laid, not only in terms of using Silk Road terminology, but also in focusing first on China’s immediate periphery and helping focus domestic efforts of spreading prosperity to China’s historically poorer inner territories.

Jiang Zemin had his Great Western Development strategy, and Xi built on Peking University professor Wang Jisi’s call to “March West”. All of these are tied together and projected forward with the grandeur now appropriate for a China that was on its way to being the world’s second-largest economy. Thus was born the Belt and Road Initiative.

But the key is that this was an idea rather than a project. Many infrastructure projects and corridors were immediately attributed to it, but so were innumerable non-infrastructure-related projects. Theme songs, cartoons, cultural shows, think tanks, courses and more were thrown into the mix (alongside many non-infrastructure-related economic projects).There was a moment when you could not avoid the framing in every conversation you had in China. It was also enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s charter. Belt and road became a way of thought.

This is not only about Xi imprinting his ideas onto the nation’s history, but also creating a vision that is the central organising concept which will dominate Chinese foreign-policy thinking in the near and possibly far future.This is also why it is not something that can fail, end or be drawn to a close. Quite aside from it being linked to a supreme leader who will not brook failure, the vision has largely artificial and unclear deadlines. While China has put a date of 2049 on achieving the belt and road, what needs to be done by then is not specified.

And even if it was, it would be in typically vague terms, meaning that whatever result has been achieved could simply be drafted into whatever the new interpretation of the Belt and Road Initiative was. Goalposts on ideas can move if they are set loosely enough.

The belt and road as a foreign policy idea is unlikely to end as long as the current leader is in power. And if it looks like it is slowing down, the vision could be reinterpreted to suit. It was never about pure aid, and it was never a single project.

It is simply Xi’s vision for how China should talk about going out into the world. Phrased like this, it has no reason to ever be completed or resolved. Unlikely to die, it will simply continue to evolve.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

A short piece for the South China Morning Post which did not quite land as was intended. Oh well. More to come on China in Eurasia – book now going through second round of edits.

Why China playing bystander to the trouble in Eurasia is not ideal

  • Beijing’s reluctance to get involved in the unrest in Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan is in line with its traditional attitude towards conflicts that do not impinge on its own security
  • However, given Beijing’s growing global influence, its disinterested posture muddies the waters for others trying to resolve unrest

Beijing has yet to articulate much by way of major policy initiatives on the trouble in its Eurasian backyard – in BelarusNagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan. Is China’s decision to wait and watch as the chaos unfolds a conscious reflection of the power it wants to be, or acknowledgement of the fact that it has little to offer and no idea what to do?

The question of whether China should have a view on all of this instability is a reflection of its place in the world today.

On the face of it, the question seems to be merely a banal reflection of the China hysteria that has engulfed the world. However, given that China is the world’s second-largest economy and is vying for a place at the top table, the question is increasingly relevant, especially since the affected countries have often expressed a desire to engage with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In reality, China’s trade with these countries is quite limited. While Beijing is often the fastest-growing trade partner or investor, the money involved is fairly small. Of all of the countries in trouble in Eurasia, Kyrgyzstan is of greatest concern to Beijing. But this is not particularly because of trade or investment, but rather because it sits on China’s border, has a substantial Chinese diaspora and an ethnic Uygur population.

All of the countries in question are former members of the Soviet Union. Perhaps China sees this as a Russian problem, up to Moscow to manage through the sphere of influence it inherited and continues to exert influence over. Yet, China has not always appreciated how Russia has handled such problems in the past.

While with both Georgia and Ukraine, Beijing – like Moscow – was worried about the spread of “colour revolutions”, China was not happy with how the situations ultimately played out, perturbed by Russia’s redrawing of international borders and using minority populations as an excuse for interference.

Yet, Beijing did not articulate its concerns loudly, instead letting Moscow have its way. While this could be what we are seeing play out once again here, it goes against the vision of China as an increasingly influential power on the world stage, something Xi has sought to foster.

The truth is that China is a disinterested international power. Its interests outside are only relevant insomuch as they impact China directly, and more specifically, the Communist Party’s rule. Consequently, countries of marginal economic interest and little geostrategic importance can be left to their own devices, or to others. When China does have a direct interest in parts of Eurasia, it can and does focus its efforts.

For example, Beijing has helped Tajikistan strengthen its borders with Afghanistan, and also developed strong assets and links to the security forces in Kyrgyzstan. This was done, not as part of a geostrategic competition with Russia, but rather to address a security issue of direct interest to China.

It is also not clear that China would know what to do even if it could. Beijing has a limited track record of bringing warring factions to the table or of getting political factions within a country to stand down. China prefers the stability offered by strongman leaders, preferably ones in uniform, but will just as happily work with whoever comes to power.

The case of Egypt is instructive – China seamlessly maintained links through the collapse of the Mubarak and Mursi governments, and still maintains good relations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Kyrgyzstan, witnessing its third chaotic transfer of power in 15 years, is a textbook case for Chinese strategists of the dangers of letting democracy run wild.

Non-interference plays into China’s persistent foreign policy credo. In refusing to get involved, but offering a hand of engagement to whoever comes out on top, China’s message is that it is letting each country have its own history and is not meddling, in contrast to the American-led West.

But this posture is at odds with China’s growing investments and economic footprint globally. Conflicts are infrequently bound by borders. While China may sit loftily above conflict, others do not, all of which creates instability and economic damage.

While an overly activist Beijing is a source of concern, China the disinterested superpower is not necessarily a good thing. Given China’s position on the world stage and economic clout, it is carving out a position for itself in most capitals. When chaos breaks out, people look to understand Beijing’s view and need to keep it in mind when making decisions. If China is inactive, it leaves a potential spoiler which could stymie efforts by others to bring resolution.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

As ever, have let a lot of time pass since my last posting, but have not been delinquent in my writing. Am struggling with some longer pieces, this time of enforced immobility has been of mixed usefulness in being productive in this regard. In any case, first up another short piece for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at the China-India clash which has not resolved itself but seems to be settling in to a higher level of tensions as the norm.

Crumbling China-India relations suggests escalation will continue

China has never taken India seriously, while New Delhi has never made a clear choice about what it wants from relations with Beijing. The possibility of miscalculation is growing

China and India continue to talk past each other. China still does not regard India as a serious power, while New Delhi is prodding Beijing in areas of great sensitivity.

Security planners on both sides appear willing to accept higher tensions in their bilateral relationship, but the clash in the Galwan Valley shows this can get out of hand. The space between escalation and miscalculation is closing, and a dangerous new normal is establishing itself across the Himalayas.

China has never taken India seriously. This irritates New Delhi, which can feel Beijing’s condescension. China has also increased activity around India without considering what that looks like to its neighbour. With growing Chinese economic and security activities in almost every country around India, it is no wonder New Delhi sees what looks like encirclement.

India, on the other hand, has continually hedged and never defined what it wants from its relationship with China. In some contexts, its choices speak to a desire for close engagement – from entering the BRICS bloc, the Russian-India-China grouping or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s love-in meetings with President Xi Jinping.

At an economic level, Delhi has welcomed some Chinese investment. It tried to engage with parts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative it liked, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

At the same time, India has bristled at China’s close relationship with Pakistan, sought a closer strategic relationship with the United States and other Chinese adversaries and tried to limit some Chinese investment in the country. The global backlash against TikTok first emerged in India, which accounts for a huge part of the application’s users.

The two Asian giants bump into each other across the Himalayas, where they share an unclear border. Both claim they want to resolve this, yet little movement has been achieved. This border has become the focus of the current clash in which soldiers on both sides have died and no clear resolution appears likely any time soon.

Rather, the discussion now appears to be an acceptance of higher tensions across this disputed border, with both finding ways of strengthening their position and jostling against the other. The tensions have moved into every other part of their bilateral relationship.

The result has been a confused emboldening by Delhi. Planners talk about how things cannot go back to normal with Beijing, but it is not always clear where they want them to go. Economic resistance to China is tempered by reality, while there is a clear limit Delhi sets to the other alliances it wants to forge against China. It wants confrontation with Beijing, but maybe not as aggressively as Washington is pushing.

Worryingly, Delhi has injected Tibet into the narrative. The press is full of stories of Tibetan soldiers in the Indian armed forces. The death of one Special Frontier Force officer, Tenzin Nyima, in an explosion near Pangong Tso turned into a major news story following leaks in the Indian press about the unit. A political leader in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Ram Madhav, attended and tweeted about the funeral.

All of this led to more posturing by Beijing. Official media reports ever grander military statements and exercises in the region near the border with India. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespeople continue to reject any Indian claims while calling their own bellicose posturing merely routine behaviour.

From Beijing’s perspective, the confrontation with India is being manipulated by Washington. Rather than treat Delhi as a direct competitor with agency, it sees India being pushed towards such action by the United States.

The result is a repeat of a continued Chinese position on India – one of faint derision. Beijing does not take India seriously but rather sees it as acting at others’ behest.

This means Beijing does not seriously engage with Indian concerns while overlooking the provenance of potential threats. Now that Beijing has created a new context of tension on its border with India, it will not back down – especially as it does not think India is doing this on its own behalf.

It seems unlikely tensions will escalate into nuclear conflict. However, India playing the Tibet card prods Beijing in a very sensitive place. Meanwhile, China’s refusal to take India seriously exacerbates Delhi’s sense of needing to do more to get China’s attention.

The space for miscalculation is growing, and both are increasingly doing things to the other in a way in which they are more likely to misjudge reactions. This fisticuffs over the Himalayas has the potential to escalate further.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

Next a piece for the South China Morning Post looking at what’s happening to China in its immediate neighbourhood.

Why China is becoming the bogeyman in its border lands

Chinese people, embassies and projects are increasingly the target of separatist and terrorist violence as protests against Uygur treatment grow

As a big player, China’s mere presence and support for the authorities in the region makes it a target for local anger

Raffaello Pantucci

New piece for the South China Morning Post, exploring the shifting Eurasian dynamics around China. My manuscript looking at China across this space is now with the publisher, so should be landing sometime in the near future.

There is no new cold war, the West is just losing influence in Eurasia

Is there a new axis between China, Russia and Iran against the West? Not quite. Beneath the surface of the anti-US alliance, there are undercurrents of hostility and scepticism. Across Eurasia, there is also a reluctance to take sides

Raffaello Pantucci

Published: 1:00am, 31 Jul, 2020

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A global conflict like the Cold War needs two sides. To the West, a new axis between Beijing, Moscow and Tehran appears to be taking shape. Drawing on the common thread of anti-Americanism, this alignment strengthens the sphere of influence that China has been building across Eurasia.

But in these very places where China has been most actively cultivating allies, underlying fears and concerns consistently undermine Beijing’s approach. Still, the arc of these relationships continues to bend in Beijing’s favour, and little the West offers by way of confrontation has been able to entirely break it. We are seeing less a new bifurcation than a gradual freezing out of Western influence.

The China-Iran-Russia coalition has been a long time in the making. Most recently, it has been expressed in attempts by Moscow and Beijing to protect Tehran from American sanctions. Bilaterally, China and Iran are in the process of signing a 25-year strategic agreement, while China and Russia are parroting each other’s narratives of the United States and advancing similar conspiracy theories about the source of Covid-19.

The three recently established, with Pakistan, a new grouping to focus on Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops. None of this is especially new, as it builds on a long history of cooperation between the three. According to some reports, they may have shared intelligence to take down US intelligence networks within their countries; late last year they held joint naval exercises.

Military sales between the three are substantial, and they have cooperated diplomatically at the UN to stymie Western goals. Yet this coalition masks deep tensions at the official and public levels. Chinese companies may seem willing to step into contracts abandoned by European firms in Iran, but until recently they were more fearful of US secondary sanctions than the importance of China’s relationship with Iran.

As for Russia, its detention of a prominent Arctic academic on accusations of spying for China hints at an undercurrent of hostility in the countries’ hard-power relations.

Iranian officials have complained publicly about China’s Covid-19 information, while Russian officials have targeted ethnic Chinese for racial profiling amid coronavirus fears. And while Russia and Iran might be fighting on the same side in Syria, neither trusts the other’s long-term intentions in the Middle East.

At the public level, scepticism about China is prevalent in both Russia and Iran. With conspiratorially minded audiences, it does not take long to find voices wary of Chinese economic influence. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is trying to ride this wave, ahead of next year’s presidential election.

This translates more widely into other geopolitical relationships that cut across the loose coalition. Both Moscow and Beijing have close relationships with Saudi Arabia, which theoretically contradict their alliance with Tehran. And both Moscow and Tehran have close relationships with India, China’s foil in Asia with whom it is currently locked in an aggressive land confrontation.

But there is a ruthless pragmatism at work across the three countries and the broader region. The heart of Eurasia is increasingly a Chinese-dominated space in which the cold logic of realism reigns supreme. The idealism advanced by liberal Western democratic powers is being crowded out by China’s pursuit of economic prosperity above all else.

And it is striking to see how this logic applies even to relationships in which China seems more bent on confrontation. In Kazakhstan, there appears to be a low-level information war with China, with instances of nationalistic Chinese reporting on Kazakhstan causing friction at an official level. Yet, the two countries continue to want to work closely together.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi still seems uncertain as to how far he can push tensions with China. His decision to ban Chinese mobile apps seems toothless at best, even as his officials continue to actively participate alongside Beijing in multilateral forums like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the Russia-India-China grouping.

And while he may have rhetorically moved towards the so-called Quad and Washington, his long-term future remains bound to Beijing, a reality he can hardly change, notwithstanding the current Indian media narrative.

And even if India did shift dramatically and aggressively against China, it is not clear that this would create a Western democratic bulwark within the region. Quite aside from India’s historical hedging strategy with regard to the West, Russia and China, there are concerns about India’s treatment of its Muslim minorities.

Some of India’s Muslim-majority neighbours have escalated these concerns, though they have a habit of doing so only when it suits their interests – much like how the issue of Xinjiang is raised selectively.

This is the reality of the situation in the heart of Eurasia – a complicated mess where idealism is in the rear-view mirror. There is a continuing narrative of a new cold war, but this time, the non-Western bloc is not a clearly unified structure.

Although Russia and Iran are close enough to be willing to overlook their differences in favour of China, theirs remains a skin-deep alliance. In the region, even among the like-minded powers that would more naturally fall on the American-led side, there is a confused picture – and no one really wants bifurcation.

We are not entering a new cold war, just seeing the gradual freezing out of the West in the Eurasian heartland.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

A new piece in the South China Morning Post which seems to have elicited anger and positivity from both sides in equal measure. Part of a broader theme around some of my writing of late which is taking quite a negative turn. Hard to be hugely positive given the current state of the world.

Beyond this, media appearances have been more limited, but did feature in BBC Radio 4’s Briefing Room series about China’s relations with the world. And two of the recent Webinars that I did are now available on YouTube. Watch here to see me talking about Mapping the Pandemic and the implications to UK-China relations courtesy of RUSI with Veerle, Steve and Jonathan moderating, and here talking about Kabir’s excellently readable book on ISIS in South Asia hosted by Maya and ORF with Indrani Bagchi as a fellow discussant.

Beijing faces a perfect storm as the world turns against its narrative amid rising nationalism, leaving it no room for compromise

In the face of growing global criticism, Beijing may be painting itself into a corner with its narratives, which are fuelling an increasingly angry nativism in China, forcing it to take the dangerous path of doubling down on confrontations

Raffaello Pantucci
Published: 10:45am, 16 May, 2020

People wave Chinese flags as they gather for a flag-raising ceremony to mark the New Year in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

People wave Chinese flags as they gather for a flag-raising ceremony to mark the New Year in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

China is heading into a perfect storm on the world stage. While the Communist Party habit is to double down when confronted, others are showing a willingness to match, and top, anything China does. The Covid-19 crisis has provided the perfect cover with China already painted by some as the instigator, something its conspiratorial rhetoric has only exacerbated.

The most obvious problem China faces is its confrontation with the US. Already bad before this crisis, relations have only worsened. But President Donald Trump is not the problem; without him at the helm, the situation might be even worse for China. Without his confusing and contradictory noise, the US might be able to mount a coherent and consistent strategy with allies against China.

Beijing is out of supporters in Washington. Sinophiles are appalled at the negative human rights news. The harassment of journalists based in Beijing has hardened the foreign press corps against the party. The think tank community is concerned about the continued detention of the two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

And the business community has realised the limits of the economic opportunities in China. Even fewer will want to champion Beijing, as the narrative of China as an adversary takes off in the public imagination.

Beyond Washington, the grand Western alliance is turning against China. Beijing may be able to persuade some European powers to side with it, but the underlying orientation within Europe will still be towards a transatlantic partnership.

Serbia, for example, is not going to turn its back on Europe or European Union membership in favour of Beijing. Nor are Hungary, Italy or any other powers where senior political figures say positive things about China.

These are internal dynamics at play. Serbia has long had a resentful relationship with Brussels – China offers an opportunity to poke it in the eye. But should Brussels suddenly change its passive approach and start imposing a cost on Serbia, the country’s Sinophilia would quickly melt away.

European powers will not reject the US at a strategic level in favour of China. There are issues where the US and Europe diverge but, at a fundamental strategic level, European powers still operate under an American security umbrella

There are frictions and resentments, but these are disputes within a long-standing marriage, rather than early signals of a divorce. The transatlantic alliance is a fundamental part of European strategic thinking and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Tensions also extend to Beijing’s supposed allies. Russia and Iran may see themselves as close to China at a strategic level, but it takes very little to get beneath the surface to find unhappiness towards Beijing.

Very public spats over Covid-19 between senior officials in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran are just one articulation of this. While at the official level, they continue to hold together against the common enemy of an American-led democratising West, this is a thin alliance.

There is also growing anger against China because of how high it has risen and how it acts in parts of the developing world. While China used to be able to hide behind the mask of being a developing country, this is no longer the case. China’s development may be uneven, but this is not what people see. China’s grandstanding on the world stage shows it to be a big power.

But once you ascend to this position, global expectations are raised. And when they are not met, people feel more able to say something and be angry. As a major power, you are supposed to be able to take such criticism. The global order is changing, but this comes with responsibilities and resentment.

And atop this, China’s domestic behaviour is viewed negatively elsewhere. Beijing may dismiss this as foreign interference, but it does not change perceptions about the treatment of Uygurs, Taiwan, Hong Kong or growing encroachment in the South China Sea. Given such domestic circumstances, few believe Beijing will be more magnanimous internationally.

How China deals with these issues is the final problem for Beijing: that of angry nationalism at home. China’s nativists are increasingly emboldened. They see their country rising and confronting the world superpower, the US. And they see no reason to back down. They have been told they are living the Chinese dream, with everyone eager to connect through the belt and road and have access to their success and wealth.

From their perspective, these ungrateful countries want to rip China apart. Any ceding of China’s position on core issues would be an admission of defeat, and would raise questions about the legitimacy of the party’s rule.
This means Beijing cannot back down, and must weather the coming economic storm while doubling down on any confrontation.

This is the quandary Beijing has got itself into. It can rail against the US and complain about double standards, but its narrative is only hardening opposition.

The world is becoming more restive. Everyone needs to think about what the future could look like if we continue along this dangerous path.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

And now finally up to date with my latest piece for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at some of the geopolitical questions flowing around China, broader geopolitics and the COVID-19 mess. Covers ground not dissimilar to my earlier piece for the Telegraph though focused in a different direction. Has already received some anger online and was reproduced in a Singaporean local Today. In other media work, earlier piece for ORF on Kashmir and the UK and my last RSIS piece on the Maldives were both picked up and reproduced by Eurasia Review, while spoke to the Independent about recent UK terrorism numbers release and last interview in CTC Sentinel with Lord Evans was written up by the paper.

How China’s coronavirus medical diplomacy is failing to win over the world

Forget Pax Sinica, China’s medical outreach is struggling to attract new friends. And even though Russia and Iran, its closest allies, may be on the same page, underlying tensions remain. There is a global leadership gap but Beijing is not filling it

Raffaello Pantucci

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The world is grasping for an understanding of how the geopolitics of the coronavirus will play out. One dominant theme is that China is mendaciously riding the media waves to paint itself as a saviour dispensing medical equipment.

Yet, it is hard to see how Beijing is benefiting from its medical diplomacy, with opprobrium from every direction. Even given China’s close alliances with Iran and Russia, it is possible to see tensions emerging.

It is not at all clear that China will come out of the virus crisis as the rhetoric winner, notwithstanding the frantic narrative seeking to paint it that way.

Given the energy that China appears to be putting into promoting and pushing its medical diplomacy, it is surprisingly hard to uncover much evidence of a positive reception. While news stories speak of Chinese doctors and equipment arriving in stricken European states, it is difficult to find many news stories trumpeting China’s magnanimity.

Those who do speak of it positively tend to be the ones who already hold a positive view of China. The bigger narrative that seems to have caught on of late, however, is that much of the Chinese equipment appears to be faulty. It certainly does not seem that China is winning many new friends with its medical diplomacy.

Where China is finding resonance is in the predictable places, but even this is with caveats. The almost comical conspiracy theory that Covid-19 was a US military weapon has, unsurprisingly, found resonance in both Tehran and Moscow.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to the theory on his Twitter feed, while Russia’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, defended China’s work on the virus and helped to propagate narratives espoused by Beijing.

Yet, singing from the same hymn sheet about the virus has not swept away the underlying tensions. For example, Sinochem is refusing to buy oil from Russia’s Rosneft after the US warned of sanctions if it did so.

At the same time, Chinese purchasers have bought record volumes of Russian oil from other suppliers, taking advantage of record low prices to fill strategic reserves.

Iran may still be supplying energy to China, but some calculations have concluded that Tehran is doing this for zero income, given that it is paying off earlier Chinese investments. This is hardly magnanimous action on Beijing’s part to strategic allies in difficult positions.

The coronavirus has caused tensions between the three nations. Russia was one of the first countries to close its borders to China (doing so at the same time as Italy and before the United States), while reports from Iran suggest that its outbreak, which started in Qom, may have come either from businessmen travelling back from China or Chinese workers.

In Russia, there have been reports of East Asians being attacked, while Moscow bus drivers were told to report it to the police if they found a Chinese person on board.

We are seeing a classic dance play out here, with all three powers playing the same game of rhetoric (deriding Europe and attacking America), while the realist dynamics churn on relentlessly below the surface.

There is little evidence that the coronavirus has changed the dynamics between the three, nor that it has bolstered China and its axis of convenience on the world stage.

Some fear that in some ways Beijing’s displays of medical diplomacy will permanently reshape the international order. Yet, the reality is that the most damaging impact to the international order comes from the absence of leadership in Washington.

Some European capitals have been slow to respond to the pandemic and walked when they should have run, but the truth is that few expected the European Union to lead the world in responding to this crisis. The EU remains confounded by its fundamental governance contradictions.

But none of this means that China can credibly fill the vacuum. Rather, a vacuum continues to exist, and is only being made larger by the fumbling response from US President Donald Trump and his administration. This is the acceleration that is happening in international geopolitics. Power is ebbing away while others desperately thrash around for influence.

Yet no one is able to fill it, creating a confusing order where rules and behaviour are increasingly incomprehensible, where state leaders and their spokespeople lie, and we refuse to acknowledge goodwill and impressive gestures for what they are. The cynicism is obvious, but the absence of something better means such narratives are gaining greater attention.

China has undoubtedly used its medical aid politically, but ultimately this is not going to shape the new world order. We may not be seeing an end to an American-led order in favour of Pax Sinica, but we are witnessing a rebalancing of the two.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

Up next another China piece, this time for the South China Morning Post looking at the Belt and Road in the wake of Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar.

Is China getting real with its grandiose visions for the belt and road?

  • Beijing is toning down its rhetoric for the grand plan and rethinking its massive international infrastructure programme, Raffaello Pantucci writes
  • Signs of a more modest approach from Xi Jinping’s trip to Myanmar when there was little official mention of an economic corridor involving the two countries
Topic |   Belt and Road Initiative

Absent from almost all of the official coverage around Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Myanmar was any mention of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC).

A belt and road route before the Belt and Road Initiative existed, the corridor was a concept first mooted in the late 1990s but has largely gone nowhere. The bigger question this poses is whether this is a harbinger of China shedding its grander overambitious belt and road visions over the next decade for a more focused and logical set of bilateral engagements.

Certainly there has been a toning down of rhetoric around the belt and road, an infrastructure vision to link economies into a China-centred trading network. While it remains a hot topic in Beijing and a sure-fire way for leaders of other countries to be seen to be aligning themselves with China, its scattered record of success has meant there has been rethinking about how this grand concept will continue to fit into Beijing’s foreign policy repertoire. It continues to be a convenient tag for Chinese diplomats to use given its broad and positive conceptual basis but, it is not clear that China wants to continue to talk in the expansive corridor terms that it used to.

The result has been that while the initiative continues to feature in the public discourse, there has been a refocusing of attention around it. Rather than talk in terms that are almost impossible to deliver to or fail to deliver with the rapidity that might be hoped, the focus of the next stage of the narrative around belt and road will be to focus on the bilateral. Rather than China painting itself as the global regional connector, Beijing will scale back its ambition to focus on delivering direct connectivity to China in the first instance, with everything else coming in the future.

The logic of this from Beijing’s perspective makes sense: why go to the expense and effort of pushing your resources in directions whose direct benefit to China is limited or on a very long time horizon? Better instead to focus on things that are tangible and immediate and provide China with clear connectivity that it can show results at home for.

It will also help address some of the belt and road pushback that Beijing has faced globally, where the initiative is referred to as “debt trap” diplomacy, and an attempt by China to reshape global economic geography around its interests while creating a list of client states.

Not only has the volume of recipient countries complaining been growing, but foreign companies are calling out the win-win rhetoric as they grow frustrated at their inability to benefit from this push of external Chinese capital. Most recently, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China published a report in which its members complained about a lack of transparency in belt and road projects and irritation that the benefits they had seen from the initiative were “quite insignificant”.

On a visit to Pakistan last year, I met a wave of Pakistani businessmen frustrated at their inability to tap the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor money they heard reported flooding into their country. Beijing is not unaware of these concerns. The Belt and Road Summit in Beijing last year was largely a story of China trying to address global concerns around the initiative, focusing on making it more inclusive, ensuring more local benefit and making a greater effort on environmental concerns.

From this perspective, the dropping of BCIM-EC from Xi’s visit to Myanmar might be a first sign of how Beijing wants to drive the initiative forward. The BCIM-EC was always an awkward corridor to fit into the belt and road given Indian hesitation around it more generally. We saw little public reference to it during the meeting between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, and then again during Xi’s visit to Myanmar.

Instead, we see China focusing on the bilateral, delivering what has already been discussed, and avoiding too much grandiloquence which will ultimately be hard to live up to. Beijing’s track record in Myanmar is a patchy one, and recent reporting has shown how China’s efforts to support peace processes in the country have also failed to deliver.

Ultimately, Beijing will be an important partner for Myanmar. Geographic proximity assures this. The questions are how high a bar does China want to set for this relationship and how much does Beijing want to become the responsible stakeholder it was setting itself up to be?

This might be the key lesson to draw from this visit for the broader belt and road. From a half decade of ever growing grandeur, the next half decade of the initiative will be a more realistic tone and narrative focusing on ensuring China gets what it needs from these bilateral relationships rather than the overblown – and expensive – rhetoric that dominated the first half decade.

And in many ways this is a reflection of the reality of the first intended aim of the initiative, which evolved from Xi’s call for a focus on periphery diplomacy, then developed into a call for greater infrastructure and economic connectivity, and then grew into the globe spanning beast that stretched from Asia to Latin America via Africa and Europe and back. In many ways it could be that this is going to be a period of the belt and road returning to its roots. A moving of the goalposts that will allow for a shift in belt and road rhetoric without having to completely walk away from it and the loss of face that would follow.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

And finally in this catch-up blast, a longer op-ed for the South China Morning Post looking at some of the recent machinations between China and Iran. Had a few comments back that this was an obvious point to make, but it feels like it needs to be all considered against the broader backdrop of China’s growing influence and power in its own backyard. More on this topic to come.

All of these posts aside, spoke to the Sunday Times about Chinese investment and influence in Ireland, spoke to CNBC about China-Russia (which was translated into Hungarian), The National about the far right in Germany, to Samaa TV about ISIS in Khorasan, to The National again about bounties being put on ISIS leaders heads, an old interview was used again in this fantastic Portuguese piece in Sabato by Nuno Tiago Pinto about important Portuguese foreign fighter Nero Saraiva who lived for a while in the UK, an earlier comment to the Telegraph about Hamza bin Laden’s death was picked up again, and another earlier piece in the Sunday Times was picked up by VoA.

Why Iran has got China wrong: Beijing will follow its own playbook in countering the US-led West

  • While regional players like Iran seek to bring China into the conversation as an ally, Beijing continues to rely on the rhetoric of non-interference
  • China is focused single-mindedly on its own interests and set to get stronger as a result

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The first-ever Chinese goods train to Iran arrives in Tehran on February 15, 2016, after a 14-day journey hailed as a revival of the Silk Raod under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China is emerging as the central power in its immediate and expanding neighbourhood, while the West tears at itself and old alliances. Photo: EPA

Buried among last week’s news of confrontation with Iran was a story that China was on the cusp of investing US$400 billion into the country’s hydrocarbon industry. This was followed late in the week by the news that Iran was going to be joining China and Russia in new naval exercises, an announcement that came a week after the Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, visited a naval base in Shanghai.

The clear suggestion was that Iran was showing it had a strong ally in Beijing. The axis of convenience against the West was bringing Tehran firmly into its bosom.

Yet, in the face of all of this noise from Iran, Beijing was largely silent. A foreign ministry spokesman denied any knowledge when confronted with a question about the investment during a regular press briefing. The Chinese commentariat seemed mostly focused on downplaying Iran’s role in the strike on the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities in Saudi Arabia, and President Xi Jinping had a phone call with King Salman.

Reported in similar terms by both the Saudi and Chinese state media (the Belt and Road was only mentioned in Xinhua’s read-out and the Saudi statement was far more aggressive), the phone call was a decorative effort highlighting the importance of the bilateral relationship and China’s desire for events not to escalate.

And, while Beijing seemed eager to not engage, Iranian sources appeared to deny the existence of the supersized investment. On Friday, an interview emerged with the head of money and capital markets at the Tehran Chamber of Commerce stating that he had not heard anything about it.

Furthermore, Iran’s oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh denied the rumours, bluntly saying, “I have not heard such a thing.” In fact, the discussion in Tehran at the moment around China is about how long the Bank of Kunlun will be able to continue to be a lifeline of sorts for the country.

Owned mostly by the China National Petroleum Corporation, the bank is a Xinjiang institution that has long served as a conduit for financial relations between China and Iran. As the rest of the world severed its links to Tehran, Kunlun has kept a connection going. The bank has faced some pressure, falling into the US Treasury Department’s sights, leading the bank to try to downplay its relations for fear of damaging repercussions for parent institution CNPC.

The result has been a paring back of financial relations between the bank and Iran, with the maintenance of only a few lines of credit focused specifically on non-sanctioned goods.

Rather, the Iranian announcements have the ring of similarity to previous announcements to have emerged from Moscow, as its relations with the West went downhill.

Back in 2014, as the West’s condemnation of Russia’s redrawing of Ukraine’s borders reached fever pitch, President Vladimir Putin headed to Shanghai where he oversaw the signing alongside President Xi of a US$400 billion energy deal between China and Russia. The deal was one which had been announced and signed a few times before, but it landed in Shanghai at a convenient moment for the Russian leader.

Again, this was not a moment without some irritation for Beijing. While China never condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, it was not best pleased, keeping its comments sparse. China is not keen on major disruptions to international affairs, like the attack in Saudi Arabia, especially ones which might have repercussions for Beijing.

The precedent that Russia set in redrawing borders in Ukraine was not one that China wanted widely adopted –
fearing the loss of its own restive regions. And disruptions to international energy supplies result in higher prices, something China could do without.

The question, then, is whether China is hostage to disruptive powers like Iran and Russia, or whether Beijing is, in fact, gaining the upper hand.

To better understand this, it is important to note another event over the weekend that ties the three countries together – the Taliban negotiating team’s visit to Beijing after stops in Moscow and Tehran.

Organised after the dramatic failure of the American-led talks, the whistle-stop regional tour appears to be an effort by the Taliban to understand better where things now stand. With Afghan elections around the corner and the conflict showing little evidence of concluding, all three surrounding powers have begun to worry about how they will manage the long-term instability with which Afghanistan seems cursed.

From China’s perspective, however, this is all reflective of the fact that everyone appears to want to show that Beijing is on their side. In each of these situations, the regional players have all sought to bring China into the conversation and show that Beijing is backing them.

China is judicious in avoiding apportioning blame, and at best uses the opportunity to make digs at the United States. The net result is that China emerges as the central power in its immediate and expanding neighbourhood, while the West tears at itself and old alliances.

For Beijing, there is some danger in assuming this position. First, it reinforces the image of China as the central power in a new axis of convenience against the US-led West. And second, it places China in a position of potential responsibility between some of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

Yet, it is equally possible that Beijing has factored both of these realities in and is actually happy to bolster alliances against the US.

In terms of China’s unavoidable responsibilities, this is something that has been on the cards for some time, and yet Beijing has yet to really demonstrate a requirement to have to step in.

Instead, China continues to call on the rhetoric of non-interference to simply let things play themselves out, focused single-mindedly on its own interests. Rather than taking on the activist West at its own game, China appears to be crafting its own playbook.

And while Tehran may think that it is hustling Beijing into showing its hand in its favour, the reality is that it is China that is most likely to emerge strengthened from this geopolitical dance.

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

A new article for the South China Morning Post which seeks to offer a broader lens with which to consider the recent spate of terrorist incidents in South Asia. There is an interesting running theme of them all having global consequences, something that has now been made even more relevant by the death of Zakir Musa (AQIS head) and ISIS’s announcements of affiliates in Pakistan and India. Related to this story, spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the Sri Lanka attacks.

Time for South Asia to more closely monitor regional terrorism with global reach

  • Raffaello Pantucci writes that growing regional anger must be kept from spiralling out of control and creating broader havoc
  • Recent terror attacks in Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Gwadar have worrisome implications for global security
Topic |   Pakistan