Archive for the ‘South China Morning Post’ Category

More catching up from what has been a busy period for short pieces. There are some longer ones in the pipeline which will eventually land as well as the book early next week. This was for the South China Morning Post exploring the missed opportunities of China’s engagement with Afghanistan.

Time for China to stop hedging its bets in Afghanistan

  • The flak Beijing has drawn for its Taliban engagement is not just unfair but also misses the point. If China’s Afghan strategy is to be faulted, it’s for doing too little
  • China has the influence and tools – not to mention incentive, as Afghanistan’s neighbour – to take a leading role in fostering peace
Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

Now that Kabul has fallen, there is a growing narrative about Afghanistan that China is siding with the Taliban in some sort of nightmarish new alignment. The truth is that Beijing has been engaging with the Taliban in the same way that everyone has.

It is difficult to understand why we should condemn China for meeting publicly a group that the United States had earlier bolstered with meetings and a formal agreement in Doha. And it is not the only one.

Where China could be accused of failing Afghanistan is in not stepping forward to take a more proactive role in fostering an agreement, rather than simply waiting for some resolution to work itself out through bloodshed. As it turns out, this is also an echo of the approach Washington has decided to take.

China’s engagement in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood is not new. It has existed since before the September 11 attacks, growing in fits and starts.

The exaggerated narratives around Chinese potential economic plundering of Afghanistan have not played out as predicted. This, it should be noted, is much to the chagrin of the former government in Kabul, which would have loved to get the tax and investment benefits from the exploitation of the country’s natural wealth.

The Belt and Road Initiative is still a concept in Afghanistan, rather than something tangible. China has strategic and economic investments in almost all surrounding countries, but surprisingly limited investment in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, China has largely hedged. It developed relations with the Afghan government and various factions and groups on the ground. It has strengthened its direct contacts with the Taliban rather than relying solely on Pakistan to provide the connections. And it has strengthened its direct and indirect borders with Afghanistan to create a security buffer around the Wakhan Corridor.

All of this is a reflection that Beijing does not trust the Taliban any more than the US or anyone else does.

In direct security terms, Beijing has provided some military aid and support, but not much and largely non-lethal. Chinese views on the US presence have oscillated between a sense of concern that the US had active military bases on its borders to a secret sense of gratitude that the US was fighting a conflict it did not have to worry about.

The one constant in Chinese engagement has been a focus on Uygur militancy, and fears that Afghanistan could be used as a base to strike within Xinjiang. While Beijing’s views about who is supporting these Uygur fighters seem to have shifted over time, and there are questions about the scale and scope of the actual threat, it is an undeniably constant concern that China articulates at every juncture.

This is often its main point of discussion when it focuses on Afghanistan. And it is likely to be the primary concern that Beijing worries about now it has new interlocutors in Kabul.

Beijing has also engaged in multilateral diplomacy of all kinds. It has played a limited role in some of the larger international engagements around Afghanistan, offering some support and money during international donor aid rounds.

It has fostered regional multilateral engagements, and has used Afghanistan as a point of engagement with its adversaries – both Washington and New Delhi, for example, have run training programmes for Afghan officials jointly with Beijing.

And, outside direct engagement, China has tried to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to play a more substantial role in Afghanistan. It helped bring the country in as an observer member and fostered the creation of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group. What this SCO action might look like in practice is unclear, but it is something that China has continually pushed.

But this also highlights the real failure of Chinese engagement in Afghanistan. Beijing has, sadly, not stepped in to take a more prominent and leadership role when it could have tried and clearly has all the links and tools in place to do so.

Beijing is ultimately going to be Afghanistan’s most powerful and influential neighbour. Pakistan may have deeper ties on the ground, but Islamabad is highly dependent on Beijing and likely to be even more so going forward.

Iran and Central Asia have also made large bets on Chinese economic partnership. China is now going to be seen as the major power across a wide swathe of the Eurasian heartland.

With all these connections, power and influence, China should logically have been a greater leader in Kabul. Admittedly, Afghanistan is a difficult country and China has little experience in conflict resolution of this sort, but it could have been hoped that it would have taken a more proactive role in a country with which it shares a border.

There will doubtless be a certain amount of joy in Beijing as the narrative is advanced that Washington is leaving from China’s neighbourhood with its tail between its legs.

And Chinese officials will seek to play up the idea that this is the end of Pax Americana and a further demonstration of American fecklessness, something they will use in their larger narratives of confrontation with the US. But the US and the West were at least trying to bolster Afghanistan and help it transform.

Pre-eminent in Beijing’s concerns should have been the realisation that, while America may have played a role in making this mess, it is China that will have to live next to it at the end of the day.

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

Have now come to the end (I think) of the current China-Eurasia writing spell. Next few will likely go back looking at terrorism. The past burst was in part inspired by events (the US withdrawal announcement of Afghanistan as well as the SCO’s 20th birthday) and by the fact that I was doing some revisions on my upcoming book on the topic. This particular piece is for the South China Morning Post, and explores the fact that China has really not stepped into its possible role in Afghanistan. To those who have read other work I have done (everyone of course!), they will know I think this is a role China should be taking and have pushed a number of projects, papers and ideas that try to help this thinking along. Notwithstanding broader concerns around China, it seems to me they should be playing a more positive role in Afghanistan and it is huge loss to the region and Afghans in particular that they do not.

Have not done a media catch up for a while, so here’s a quick sweep. On the China side, spoke to the Guardian about NATO’s China push, to the Straits Times about China-Russia, RFE/RL’s China in Eurasia Briefing picked up my Oxus piece about the SCO’s 20th birthday, The National picked up my comments during the launch of the NATO Defence College paper on Afghanistan and regional powers, and on the terrorism side, spoke to the excellent Lizzie Dearden at the Independent at the end of the Fishmonger’s Hall inquest about ISIS claims, my comments on Maajid’s LBC show were picked up by the Daily Express, and spoke to The National about the big Global Counter-ISIS Coalition meeting taking place in Rome this past week.

Why China cannot afford to take a passive role in post-US Afghanistan

  • There appears to be little evidence supporting Taliban assurances that trouble will not spill over onto Chinese soil
  • China has spent many years hedging on Afghanistan but it needs to take steps to support the government in Kabul and visibly deploy more resources
Afghan militia members join Afghan defence and security forces during a gathering in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 23. Photo: AP

China appears remarkably sanguine about the growing trouble in Afghanistan. The assumption that a government led or dominated by the Taliban will be a reliable partner is something Beijing has regretted in the past, and could end up ruing again. 

There is some consistency in China’s relations with Afghanistan. Beijing has been unwilling to commit to much, yet has sought to do a lot. Its economic projects have never quite got off the ground, while political mediation efforts have at best added to the noise.

There is no denying the effort, but it would be better if China actually followed through on all its promises with action. Instead, Beijing seems willing to let fate take its course and watch the Taliban come to power.

Media reports have indicated China has received assurances that a Taliban government would be sure to insulate Beijing from problems that might emanate from Afghan territory. China has also made a display of showing support for the administration of President Ashraf Ghani and significant factions within it.

These assurances have been backstopped by an increased security buffer around the Wakhan Corridor, as well as Pakistani assurances of being able to rein in any potential trouble.

Yet, what evidence is there that such assurances have worked in the past? Previously, in 2000, a Chinese delegation visiting Afghanistan, then under Taliban rule, and discovered a large contingent of Uygurs in Jalalabad. They were said to be linked to separatists seeking to strike inside China.

While the delegation appealed to the Taliban authorities to expel them, there is no clear evidence that this happened. Those particular groups may have been moved, but repeated independent reports from other foreign fighters who attended al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan later on highlighted the presence of Uygurs. 

When presenting its case for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to be proscribed as a terrorist organisation linked to al-Qaeda in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Chinese government pointed to the fact the group had launched attacks against China from Afghan bases. 

Since then, al-Qaeda has begun to champion a narrative of targeting China. It has praised Uygur militants for their battlefield actions and sought to harness some of the global anger against China for its treatment of Uygur minorities at home.

This might seem unsurprising, but it is an about-turn for al-Qaeda. In the late 1990s, it refused to even accept there were Uygur militants at its training camps and openly speculated that China might be an ally in its global struggle against the United States. 

There appears to be little evidence of a focus of violence towards China, but this is mainly because there are more attractive targets in the West. Above all, Beijing should be aware that there is little to show the Taliban has recanted or rejected al-Qaeda, or that al-Qaeda has been expelled from its territory.

While the US might be willing to accept Taliban assurances about ensuring violence does not reach American soil or that of its allies, the US intelligence community has also concluded al-Qaeda is no longer a direct threat. Afghanistan is far away, in any case, but China is next door and has a very different stake in this game. 

The current narrative from Beijing seems to be one of accepting the inevitable and blaming everything on America. The US might not have handled the situation entirely successfully but, for two decades, it has invested billions of dollars and used its hard and soft power to improve Afghanistan, something Beijing has profited from.

To simply point to American failings and apportion blame fits a tidy narrative. However, by not offering an alternative, China is failing in its duty as a rising power and also doing little to address its security issues. 

In contrast to 2012, when the US announced a major withdrawal from Afghanistan, it hasn’t engaged with China as much this time. This path was somewhat determined by former president Donald Trump’s administration when he pushed through a decision to remove ETIM from the list of proscribed terrorist organisations.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has followed through on this and, to China’s chagrin, has moved ahead without engaging Beijing on its decisions about Afghanistan. 

So, tensions are understandable, but this should not be the context in which Beijing makes its plans. Rather, China should consider that it now faces an unstable country on its border, which will pose a risk to many of its neighbours.

China has shown an interest in playing a role but never really stepped into it. Milquetoast promises are not going to suffice at this point. China should take on a more proactive role in supporting the government in Kabul and visibly deploy more resources to help out.

China has spent many years hedging on Afghanistan. The time has come to make a play and ensure the long-term stability of one of its most troubled neighbours.

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

Been working on a few too many different projects of late: some large, some small, some with some really excellent co-authors (whom I beg forgiveness for being slow at the moment). As I chug along, penned a short article for the South China Morning Post which tries to set out some ideas on how (and if) the west should respond to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Not vastly new ideas, but the topic is going to get a lot of airtime during the upcoming G7 session so it seemed the right moment to put the ideas out there.

How the West can best respond to China’s belt and road

  • Competing with China dollar for dollar is pointless as Chinese banks and state-owned firms are driven by different concerns than their Western peers
  • Building up governance capacity in developing countries will help them better manage and push back when Chinese firms step over the line
Illustration: Craig Stephens for South China Morning Post

In a barely veiled reference to the Belt and Road Initiative, the recent Group of 7 Foreign Ministers final communique called on China to end its “coercive economic policies and practices”.

It is not the first time the G7 and its individual members have targeted the initiative, but it is unclear what they would offer instead. Rather, the project has become a whipping boy in the broader geopolitical confrontation with China.

The first thing the West should remember when responding to China’s strategy is that it is not seen the same way globally. While Western countries might view Beijing’s investments in developing countries as exploitative, coercive and attempts to entrap nations in debt, they are sometimes simply the latest round of funding from a wealthy foreign power to come knocking with their own list of requirements.

Some will take China’s strategy at face value and do not care much about the requirements that follow, interpreting them as equal to Western nations’ requirements.

This is a crucial point to consider; while Western powers might attach a certain set of values to Chinese investments, this is not necessarily how they are seen. Most developing countries will accept investment wherever it comes from, and have such deep needs that they will take what appears to be the best value.

That is why competing with China dollar for dollar is pointless.

Part of the reason concerns the institutions involved. Chinese state banks and state-owned firms, often the main implementers of belt and road projects, are driven by a different logic than their Western counterparts. Their considerations centre around activity, employment and continuity rather than short-term profit.

This is not to say they want to lose money, but they are willing to look at projects with a different timeline. They will also, in some contexts, take on a project because the state wants them to. This is not the same for most Western companies, which answer to shareholders.

State-run institutions in China must also take account of the fact the Belt and Road Initiative is a main part of President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy vision and has been enshrined in the constitution. Thus, implementation of the vision is likely to be put above other considerations.

This is also different from in the West, where institutions may have political links, and Western banks might prefer to work with national firms, but there is little binding companies to specific national foreign policies. Rather, most try to avoid overt political links, knowing it can spell trouble.

This highlights a difficult policy area for Western governments. If they want to compete effectively, they have to start considering policies which would clash with the liberal market principles they claim to advocate.

This already happens, but it is often done quietly. Western capitals might need to start being more explicit about it.

One answer is to offer alternatives to critical decisions or infrastructure being targeted as belt and road projects. This is likely to differ from case to case, but the key will be to cooperate with like-minded allies to focus on specific projects.

One idea could be to develop a list of specific areas – no doubt technology would be top. But there is a danger such a list could become unwieldy, especially considering how many areas of society have some technological component. Embassies on the ground could be encouraged to work together, but this would be a complicated process.

A more effective strategy would be to focus on building up the governance capacity in developing countries. This is the real route to success in managing Chinese investment.

For example, rules in contracts for belt and road projects are not always followed or the contracts themselves have exemptions built in.

Chinese companies can fail to perform or implement feasibility studies, find ways around contractual obligations and are sometimes in a hurry to get things done, tending to operate as they are used to doing at home. This can create problems for host countries, which are left to clean up afterwards.

The best way for Western countries to tackle such issues is not by complaining but, rather, to build up local capacity to hold Chinese firms to account. In everything from infrastructure and technical standards to data storage, if the local authorities have stronger powers and capabilities, they will be able to better manage and resist when Chinese firms step over the line.

This recognises what seems the biggest gap in Western thinking. It is true that corruption can sometimes tip the scales, but the answer to that is not more investment, a bidding war or threats about taking Chinese money. Rather, it is empower locals to deal with corruption and ensure local governance can better manage investment.

None of this easy. Many investors, aid agencies and international financial institutions have been trying to do as much for years, which highlights another issue worth remembering.

That is, China does not have a magic wand to make all these problems go away. Arguably, in the belt and road, it has created a tool that could exacerbate issues. So, while China might be able to keep its projects on course for now, that may not be the case indefinitely.

As China becomes more embroiled in problems around the world, it will find itself hitting many of the brick walls that Western powers have experienced over time.

All this highlights why the West should worry less about belt and road projects per se and focus more on strengthening developing countries so they are able to manage whatever investments come their way.

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

Some more late posting on a subject been doing a lot of work on this year China in Afghanistan, this time for the South China Morning Post. Have a longer paper on this landing soon, and there is a whole chapter in my upcoming book which draws on some time I spent there a while ago. This is going to be an important year for Afghanistan, let us hope things go well for everybody there.

How US withdrawal from Afghanistan offers promise and peril for China

  • The balance in Afghanistan seems weighted more towards opportunity than challenge for China as the geopolitical equation changes
  • Beijing might believe it knows how to avoid pitfalls, but history is littered with powers that were confident they had sway over the Eurasian heartland
US Marines patrol as they clear improvised explosive devices in Trikh Nawar on the outskirts of Marjah, Afghanistan, on February 21, 2010. Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden’s decision for the US to leave Afghanistan is both a challenge and an opportunity for China. On the opportunity side, China rids itself of worrying US military bases near its border. On the challenge side, it leaves open the question of who will deal with the instability that might grow in Afghanistan.

China still lacks the hard power to do this itself, and it is unclear whether Afghan forces can deliver such security assurances. None of this is new for Beijing, but the balance now seems weighted more towards opportunity than challenge.

China has long worried about instability from Afghanistan, but more indirectly than directly. This is based on an understanding of the region – the Taliban has not been known to attack north into Central Asia and are wary about irritating supporters in Pakistan – as well as the fact that Afghanistan’s border with China is remote and fairly firmly secured.

There is always the fear that Afghanistan could be a base from which trouble can brew, though. Militants who want to launch attacks elsewhere might see Afghanistan as a convenient home from which to operate. We have seen this play out with al-Qaeda and are seeing hints of it with Islamic State forces. China is worried Afghanistan might become a staging point for Uygur militants.

Since President Xi Jinping’s visit to Xinjiang in 2014, there has been an increase in Chinese security attention on the border with Afghanistan to mitigate this risk. This was in part driven by the declaration that the US was leaving Afghanistan.

Beijing has supported border forces in Tajikistan and Pakistan, and it has worked with Afghan security forces to strengthen their side of the Wakhan Corridor. It has developed deeper relations with Afghanistan’s security apparatus, strengthening political links and providing support to build bases.

From Beijing’s perspective, this is a relatively small and tight seal at the moment, though complacency in these cases is lethal.

Afghan security officials appear conscious of these concerns. They continue to refer to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a potential danger, to soothe Chinese worries and as a snub to the US, which has removed the ETIM from its list of terrorist organisations.

In other words, Afghan leaders are referring to a specific threat the US says does not exist. Additionally, the Taliban has shown itself willing to engage with Beijing and mentioned a willingness to provide protection for infrastructure being built in Afghanistan.

Having covered security up to a point, China has the opportunity side to consider. The often overplayed economic opportunities are not the biggest prize, as basic economic geography dictates that China will be a major beneficiary of Afghanistan’s resources. Their slow uptake so far is a reflection of Afghanistan’s complexities rather than Chinese appetite.

From Beijing’s perspective, the removal of a US military base from its backyard as relations with the US become testier is a relief. There was always secret gratitude that the US was in Afghanistan, dealing with the Taliban and other worrying groups, but this was balanced by Beijing’s principal adversary operating in its backyard.

Now that this is gone, China has a clear sweep across the Eurasian heartland. With Iran and Russia as anti-American brackets on the other side of Central Asia, Beijing has geopolitical sway over the entire region. With India and Pakistan growing closer and New Delhi willing to step back from the brink along the Sino-Indian border, China finds itself comfortably placed in Eurasia.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes these countries as members or observers, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The SCO has been derided as a do-nothing entity, but the American withdrawal leaves a hole the China-led grouping is well-placed to fill.

This is not to say the SCO will deploy in force. Instead, it provides China with an existing framework to play a role in determining the region’s future.

The problem for Beijing is this role comes with responsibilities and issues that China has repeatedly failed to figure out how to address. The Taliban is not a responsible player and, like everyone else, Beijing will be sceptical about any assurances it receives.

At the same time, none of the other SCO members are enamoured by Chinese power or aspire to it; rather, they fear it. Governance by fear might be effective, but it leaves you exposed if those powers are presented with other options. Russia and Iran, for example, would probably turn on China if the West abruptly shifted its posture towards them. 

None of this appears to unduly concern China. It is focused on highlighting American behaviour and spreading conspiratorial narratives about the US using Afghanistan as a base to mobilise Uygurs to attack China.

It is going to get dragged into regional geopolitics in the longer term, though, and while China has managed to avoid such clashes so far, it will eventually have to make some hard choices.

Beijing might believe it knows how to avoid such forks in the road, but history is littered with powers that were confident they had sway over the Eurasian heartland. China might enjoy the American withdrawal from Afghanistan but, in the longer term, the scales might tip more towards challenge than opportunity.

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

Have not been posting for a while, need to catch up. Been very busy with some longer projects some of which will eventually emerge. But for the time being, enjoy this comment for the South China Morning Post on Wang Yi’s Middle East tour following the blow-out in Anchorage.

How China’s Middle East charm offensive succeeded despite affecting little change

  • What Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to the region may lack in material achievements, it makes up for in good optics. China is a major player in the region
  • In highlighting this, Wang has undermined the Western-driven condemnation of the week before and achieved China’s foreign policy goals
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after a document-signing ceremony in Tehran on March 27. Photo: EPA-EFE
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after a document-signing ceremony in Tehran on March 27. Photo: EPA-EFE

US-China tensions have continued seamlessly into the Biden administration. Beijing’s desire for a reset was bluntly rebuffed in Alaska, however China is trying to spin that story now. The sanctions dispute over Xinjiang will only further strengthen a transatlantic desire to confront China. 

Sensing this, Beijing has launched a diplomatic offensive, first hosting its traditional ally, Russia, followed by a Middle East roadshow by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

But while the Middle East visit was largely a repeat of what we have heard before and showed the limits of China’s ability to change the region, it did highlight again the world’s desire to not get caught in the middle of a spat between Beijing and Washington – an outlook that strengthens China’s hand.

The one place in which change was delivered was Iran, a country that is struggling for options at the moment in the grip of Western sanctions. For Tehran, the relationship with Beijing is a window onto the world and an opportunity when it is running out of options.

But the 25-year cooperation agreement the two sides signed is not a cheque for US$400 billion as was widely reported but rather a list of areas in which China will engage with Iran during the next two decades.

Given China’s and Iran’s generally negative image and collective confrontation with the United States, there is clear utility to the imagery of striking a loud public deal like this for both countries. It does change Iran’s calculus and position, but the biggest benefits are likely to accrue to China, whose companies will be able to pick and choose the opportunities they want at prices they like, given Tehran’s lack of alternatives at the moment.

The other new – and very contemporary – aspect to this visit was the push on medical or vaccine diplomacy. While in the UAE, Wang oversaw the launch of a joint project between Sinopharm and local firm G42 Medications Trading in the Khalifa Industrial Zone of Abu Dhabi.

Intended to open later this year, the project aims to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines to help the region inoculate against the virus. The project builds on earlier engagement by the Chinese firm in the UAE, which hosted phase 3 trials of the vaccine last year. It is undoubtedly positive that more people will get access to the vaccine as a result.

But much of the rest of Wang’s visit was a repeat of what we have heard before. The overall five-point structure he proposed, advocating mutual respect, upholding equality and justice,  non-proliferation, fostering collective security and accelerating development cooperation are a fairly predictable roster of declarations by a Chinese leader. They are not anything one can disagree with, but it is difficult to see China achieving some of those goals in the region.

Wang proposed China would try to help broker peace between Palestine and Israel. Beijing has declared this goal before and it has always been warmly welcomed, but it seems unlikely that China will be able to deliver. The offer to host another meeting between the two sides is unlikely to break that deadlock.

Additionally, China said it was going to work with Russia to unlock the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. This is not going to move ahead unless the Western partners are all on board.

The more interesting chasm which Beijing instead managed to navigate is the clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Wang did not offer any new ideas here, but more intriguing is that both countries were equally eager to engage notwithstanding the tensions they share.

This is the confusing magic of China’s Middle Eastern relations – its ability to float between adversaries in ways which others cannot.

The extent of Wang’s demands on the visit appeared to be having good optics and statements supporting China’s treatment of its own people at home. Even during his stop in Turkey, where he was confronted with protesting Uygurs, the Turkish government offered no strong criticism and instead, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised the Sinovac vaccine his country has received.

Little materially changed in the region as a result of the visit, and it is unlikely anyone expected much to. Even so, the world was reminded once again that China is a major player and has the red carpet rolled out for it wherever it goes.

Wang also sought to ensure that the visit focused on positive aspects – connecting national development strategies, taking advantage of the region’s natural resources and helping the region develop new health care industries. While there was some discussion about Xinjiang, it was largely kept to Chinese talking points and controlled protests in Turkey, a contrast to the sanctions and tone coming out of Western capitals.

The difficulty for Western countries is not so much that China is displacing the United States – it still lacks the means, experience or interest to try to untangle the tangled complexities of the Middle East – or that anyone in the region changed their strategic positions towards the West. Instead, the visit reflects a region that follows China’s brutally realist view of the world, where values come second to interests. In highlighting this, Wang has undermined the Western-driven condemnation of the week before and achieved his foreign policy goals.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London

The first in a pair of articles for Asian papers looking at China’s relations with Central Asia through the current COVID-19 disaster. This first one for the South China Morning Post, exploring the reality of how trade is being impacted during this time. In many ways what has been happening is not that surprising, but at the same time it seemed quite dissonant from Wang Yi’s comments during the 两会.

Belt and Road Initiative: China’s rosy picture is at odds with realities on the ground during Covid-19

  • Foreign Minister Wang Yi and others have sung the praises of the initiative and promoted its goal of improving cross-border flows of people and goods
  • The reality during the pandemic has been different, though, with China’s neighbours and partners frustrated by border closures, and goods facing lengthy delays
Foreign Minister Wang Yi (second right) attends a virtual ceremony with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to formally commence the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries in Beijing on March 2. Photo: Xinhua

Foreign Minister Wang Yi (second right) attends a virtual ceremony with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to formally commence the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries in Beijing on March 2. Photo: Xinhua

There is no pause button for the Belt and Road Initiative, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during his expansive news conference on Chinese diplomacy during the annual Two Sessions summit in Beijing. Yet, look around China’s neighbours in Central and South Asia and the story looks very different. Closed or only partially opened borders, alongside stories of Chinese frustration at local partners, suggest at the very least a slow-motion button has been hit in several areas.

While the initiative as articulated by Wang is focused on infrastructure development, China has repeatedly highlighted how infrastructure is only the first pillar of the broader vision. Longer-term, the strategy is intended to be a vision for trade and economic flows around the world.

During a “high-level video conference on belt and road cooperation”, held last June, Wang spoke of a desire to “discuss the establishment of fast-track lanes for cross-border flows of people and goods with belt and road partners”.

Talk to haulers or traders in Central Asia, though, and the picture during the past year has been very different. Last December, the bottlenecks at Kazakh-Chinese rail borders became so bad that a reported 7,000 containers were stuck waiting to cross, with delays stretching to more than a month because of restrictions on the Chinese side.In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the border posts have remained closed at China’s request, with only very limited traffic being reported as passing through.

In his meeting last week with Chinese Ambassador to Bishkek Du Dewen, Kyrgyzstan Prime Minister Ulukbek Maripov made the latest official plea for China to open its border. Du has held numerous meetings with various Kyrgyz officials since the new government came in, and the question of reopening and speeding up border crossings has been repeatedly brought up, to no avail.

Traders using the Kulma Pass between China and Tajikistan have faced a closed border since October, and reportedly the Chinese side is using the opportunity to increase their own market share and squeeze out Tajik traders. One spoken to by the local press reported how winter clothes he had ordered from Kashgar last year were still stuck on the Chinese side and were now useless to him as winter had largely passed.

A Tajik official said in February that only 25 Tajik trucks had been allowed through the pass since the beginning of the year, and there was a 260-truck backlog. Meanwhile, the queue at Erkeshtam on the China-Kyrgyzstan border is four days, and only seven to eight trucks are able to cross daily as opposed to 50 to 60 that used to do so.

This has had a knock-on effect on transport costs. Uzbek markets report that the costs of taking a truckload of tangerines from China in 2019 was US$4,000 to US$5,000 per truck. In 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the cost per truck increased to US$25,000 to US$26,000.Trucking goods from China to Europe used to take 16 to 18 days, but the border restrictions by China mean a vehicle can find itself waiting 15 to 20 days just to cross the China-Kazakh border.

The blame for many of these blockages is on the Chinese side, where restrictions blamed on Covid-19 are stopping transit trade. In fact, according to Chinese trade data, flows between China and all Central Asian countries with the exception of Kazakhstan have slumped in the past year. They range from an almost 50 per cent drop year on year with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to a 30 per cent fall with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Kazakhstan has seen a 5 per cent year-on-year increase, though this is down on 9 per cent the year before and 34 per cent the year before that. So much for trade and connectivity flows being boosted during Covid-19. 

At the same time, China’s perennially complicated relationship with Pakistan continues to stumble on. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is inching forwards, although Chinese irritation is increasingly visible.

The 10th meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee for CPEC, the central organising body which includes senior figures from China’s National Development and Reform Commission and Pakistan’s Ministry of Planning Development and Special Initiatives, has yet to take place. The ninth session was held in November 2019.Repeated delays blamed on Covid-19 and other complications have held things up, leading to suspicions something else might be at play. Covid-19 was, for example, not enough to stop Defence Minister Wei Fenghe visiting Pakistan in December 2020 to sign a new Memorandum of Understanding to bolster the already strong China-Pakistan military relationship.

The problems around CPEC have been obvious for some time. The increasing Pakistani military presence and involvement with CPEC decision-making highlights Beijing’s frustration, given that it has always favoured decisive military men over Pakistan’s politicians, and Chinese and Pakistani officials see military relations as the backbone of bilateral relations.This comes alongside the appointment of Nong Rong, a trade specialist from Guangxi, as ambassador to Pakistan in contrast to the usual foreign ministry cadre and South Asia hand who would usually be appointed, showing a desire by the Communist Party to further strengthen its hand.

None of these problems are that new or surprising, and China is perfectly entitled to strengthen its border controls to control the spread of Covid-19. However, it seems somewhat dissonant with the rosy picture painted by Wang.

Officials all over the world are prone to positive interpretations of events, but to offer something so discordant with what is happening on the ground suggests a larger problem. China has placed downward pressure on the Belt and Road Initiative, notwithstanding a clear desire by neighbours for things to get going again.

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

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