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More on the topic of China-Afghanistan with Alex, this time for the Washington Times. I did a few media things around the time of Zhou Yongkang’s visit, including a long interview for the Daily Telegraph and Formiche (in Italian). More on this subject coming soon, including some longer pieces as part of the ongoing China in Central Asia project.

China in Afghanistan

Pantucci and Petersen
Expect stronger presence after U.S. 2014 withdrawal

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On Sept. 23, a top Chinese security official and Politburo member, Zhou Yongkang, made a surprise four-hour visit to Kabul during which time he reportedly met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. This was the first high-level visit by a Chinese official to Afghanistan in half a century — a clear signal of a policy shift on Beijing’s part and probably the harbinger of further engagement to come.

Until now, China’s approach to its Eurasian neighbors, including Afghanistan, has been “soft,” primarily based on investment, infrastructure projects, promoting Chinese language and the multilateral body of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Beijing has stayed away from difficult political issues — so much so that U.S. diplomats have actively courted China to become more involved in ensuring Afghanistan’s stability after the 2014 withdrawal of Western combat forces. The accusation against the Chinese government and Chinese state-owned enterprises has been that by investing in Afghan natural resources such as copper and oil, they are reaping the benefits of American efforts without expending any political capital. As the 2014 deadline approaches, however, this is quickly changing.

Mr. Zhou’s visit was presaged by two important events. In June, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Beijing, Mr. Karzai and Chinese outgoing President Hu Jintao agreed to “upgrade” their countries’ relations to a “strategic partnership.” Much of the summit’s discussions centered around the future of Afghanistan. Chinese officials beseeched the organization’s independently minded Central Asian members, including Russia, to coordinate their disparate policies toward the stability and development of their volatile southern neighbor.

That China’s focus would begin to incorporate security concerns as well as economic investment was made clear by Guo Boxiong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, when he met in July with Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim WardakMr. Guo publicly called for enhanced military ties, including regular communication and cooperation between the security forces of both countries.

Through the Shanghai Cooperation OrganizationChina organizes military exercises known as “peace missions,” which it undertakes together with RussiaKazakhstanKyrgyzstanTajikistan and Uzbekistan. These are the only security maneuvers that Tashkent endorses in the region, to the detriment of Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization. The organization also funds the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure center in Tashkent. The center coordinates information-sharing on security threats among the member states. On a recent visit there, we were told that the center maintains a database of undesirables to be extradited to various member states. This is one of the ways that China deals with its perceived threat from Uighur separatists, seeking to destabilize its far western province of Xinjiang. It will also be a useful tool for tracking potential spillover threats from Afghanistan should the situation there become more volatile in the coming years. Afghan security structures may well be asked to contribute to the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure in the future.

On the ground in the country, China is already involved in low-profile training of Afghan diplomats and security officials. So far, this has not amounted to much. The number trained have been in the dozens, but Chinese officials have coordinated their efforts with U.S. diplomats. Together with China’s overall policy of development to achieve stability — Chinese state-owned enterprises purportedly plan for not just resource extraction, but road, rail and power plant projects in Afghanistan — this could be a sign of Beijing taking the responsibility U.S. officials have been asking for.

More likely, however, it is Beijing’s effort to make sure that future instability in Afghanistan does not affect restive Xinjiang. Although it could provide a strategic thoroughfare for Chinese goods, the 46-mile border between China and Afghanistan remains tightly shut by a major military presence on the Chinese side. When we visited the Chinese side of the border earlier this year, we were told that local shepherds and camel herders have been deputized by the government to report suspicious activity.

In a discussion we held at an official Beijing think tank last year, we described Afghanistan as a broken tea pot. The Chinese might claim the United States broke it, but the teapot is nonetheless on China’s table. The response we received from a set of former Chinese diplomats and security personnel was incredulity. After some debate, however, they accepted the analogy. It seems that Beijing has come to realize it may want to put the teapot back together again, but mainly to ensure that the mess does not spread across its table.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Alexandros Petersen is author of “The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West” (Praeger, 2011).

Read more: PANTUCCI AND PETERSEN: China in Afghanistan – Washington Times

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Another article on the theme of Central Asia after my trip there. This one is for the Washington Times, a DC newspaper I used to write for relatively regularly (on Tony Blair’s election victory; Angela Merkel’s; and Gordon Brown’s takeover). Also, my most recent journal article on terrorism was used in another newspaper story, this time for Der Spiegel for those who can read German.

PANTUCCI & PETERSEN: Uncertain times for Afghan neighbors

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

OSH, KYRGYZSTAN.

There is a sense in Kyrgyzstan that the United States is on its way out. It is a worrying prospect when one considers that almost a fifth of its gross domestic product comes from the U.S. “transit hub” for Afghanistan at Manas Airport, outside the capital, Bishkek. Against this backdrop, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a visit to neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan last month to highlight how America has a strategy for the region, post-Afghanistan. Such a strategy is essential to lay out now if the United States does not want to leave a regional vacuum that allows a poor region to fall further into disaffection and economic uncertainty.

Talking with Kyrgyzs and others in Bishkek and Osh, the country’s second-largest city, reveals a strong sense that America’s interests in the region do not extend much further than the 2014 withdrawal date from Afghanistan. As a result, while the United States remains an important actor in the region, it placed third in terms of how “good” people saw relations with it among global powers, behind China and Russia, in a recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI). For Kyrgyzs, Russia is seen as the most popular outside power; residual linguistic and cultural links and a tendency for young men to seek their fortunes in Russia mean that the public is largely accepting of Moscow’s might in the region. Political leaders recognize this. They regularly make pilgrimages to Moscow before and after any election and use their links with Russia as badges of distinction.

But as it was put to us in Bishkek, Russia is an “immature” power that seems to want to simply assert its authority regionally to compensate for a lost empire. This is something that Kyrgyzs notice. They also note with concern their now almost complete economic dependency on China. Officials and analysts in Bishkek darkly allude to Beijing’s potential leverage, though none can point to many examples of it being exerted. In contrast, the United States is seen as a fickle power whose interests rotate around operations in Afghanistan and will fade rapidly once the 2014 deadline passes.

The stage is thus set for a post-withdrawal situation in which the United States leaves a poor region to fall back into instability. Russia will continue to play an important role, but it is China that will fall into the role of being the balancer. It is not a role that China seeks, but one that it will assume by default given the absence of American leadership and the continued Russian tendency to attempt to re-enact previous glories. China is already setting itself up to play this role. Recognizing the importance of having some sort of a cultural footprint, it has established Confucius institutes in four out of five Central Asian states. Its embassy in Bishkek towers over its American counterpart, sitting mostly empty as it leaves room for further expansion of its diplomatic presence.

Semi-official analysts with whom we spoke in Beijing highlighted the importance of stability and development in Central Asia in guaranteeing stability in China’s restive Xinjiang province. This is perhaps the most important signal of China’s future role in the region: If influence in Central Asia is key for Beijing’s domestic concerns, it is likely to grow.

From her visits in the region, Mrs. Clinton’s post-Afghanistan Central Asia strategy seems to be made up of three pillars: direct investment, such as a new General Motors Co. plant in Uzbekistan, regional economic integration, through a new “silk road” of transportation links to South Asia through Afghanistan, and lectures for the region’s autocrats to respect human rights. This vision is a welcome indicator of an American path, but it is one to which Washington will have to demonstrate commitment, particularly because, compared with China, the U.S. is rather thin on the ground. Unless that happens, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 could hand China the unwanted role of alternative to Russia in the region.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, and Alexandros Petersen is author of “The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West” (Praeger, 2011).