Archive for the ‘Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’ Category

A new post for Carnegie, this time the kind invitation to contribute came from the brilliant Sasha in their Moscow office to write about a subject that I continue to write a lot about and have a book landing soon about, China in Central Asia. This time it looks again at the question of Chinese security presence in the region, a topic that I have touched on before and have at least one chapter on in the book. It all is part of a much bigger project Carnegie Moscow are running called Pax Sinica, which is well worth checking out.

Not-So-Hidden Dragon: China Reveals Its Claws in Central Asian Security

China sees security issues in Central Asia as inextricably tied to its own domestic security concerns, and is rapidly establishing a footprint that will allow it to deal with matters as it sees fit in the region.

There has long been a fallacy at the heart of much analysis of Chinese security policy in Central Asia that China is focused on economics in the region, and Russia on security. This is built on the odd assumption that Beijing is willing to simply delegate its security concerns to others: something that clashes with the increasingly strong China that President Xi Jinping has been projecting. In fact, China has long had a security footprint in Central Asia. What is new, however, is Beijing’s increased willingness to demonstratively flex its muscle in the region.

The most obvious recent example of this and the problems it can generate occurred in December last year in Kabul, when it was reported by Indian media that Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, had arrested a cell of about ten Chinese nationals at various locations in the Afghan capital. While the exact details of what took place have not been confirmed, the principal Afghan accusation appears to have been that the cell was establishing contacts with extremist networks and trying to build an artificial Uighur cell to draw in militant Uighurs of concern to China in Afghanistan.

The incident was cause for great awkwardness on both sides, and concluded with the reported repatriation of the Chinese agents on a private jet back to Beijing. The story was only covered by Indian media, through leaks clearly calculated to embarrass Beijing and highlight nefarious Chinese activity in Afghanistan. The Chinese government did not comment, while the Afghan authorities publicly claimed nothing had happened. Yet if the contours of the reported story are accurate, then the plans by the network had a level of ambition that is novel for Chinese security services. It was also an odd plot to hatch in a country which has been broadly supportive of Chinese goals and which sees itself as fighting the same Uighur networks, given their proximity to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Until now, Chinese security activity in Afghanistan was largely thought to be limited to sealing off China from security threats that might emanate from the country. Investment focused on helping to build and strengthen Tajikistan’s border posts with Afghanistan, increasing the capability of Gilgit-Baltistani security forces in Pakistan, and building a base for Afghan mountain forces in Badakhshan, near the mouth of the Wakhan Corridor that connects China to Afghanistan. China’s People’s Armed Police even went so far as to establish their own dedicated counterterrorism base in Tajikistan, and there are rumors of an additional Chinese base in Afghanistan. Yet none of this activity was aggressive, and rather seemed focused on cauterizing the dangers that might flow from the physical links between Afghanistan and China.

The incident in Kabul, however, shows a new level of Chinese activity that suggests a desire to tackle security issues head on. It comes amid the growing presence of Chinese private security firms in Central Asia, as well as growing pressure on local authorities to accept their presence, in contravention of local legislation. This pushiness has encroached further into the public domain in other ways, too. Du Dewen, the Chinese ambassador to Bishkek, made boosting the security of Chinese nationals and companies a priority issue during her inaugural meeting with new Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev late last year. The usually staid transcript from the meeting released by the embassy highlighted both ambassador Du’s complaint and the emphatic and acquiescent response from the minister.

The other notable point about China’s security engagement with the region is that it is done for the most part by People’s Armed Police (PAP) forces, rather than the People’s Liberation Army. PAP is reportedly responsible for shoring up the border posts in Tajikistan and performing joint patrols with Afghan and Tajik forces. It has also signed agreements and carried out patrols with its counterparts in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. In December 2018, a female cadre of elite PAP Falcon Commandos provided training for their Uzbek counterparts, while in August 2019, they hosted their Kyrgyz counterparts for counterterrorism exercises in Urumqi, Xinjiang.

The appearance of PAP at the forefront of engagement with Central Asia highlights the degree to which China sees the security issues in those countries as inextricably tied to domestic security concerns. As a gendarmerie force whose primary responsibility is domestic, the PAP’s growing presence on China’s periphery raises questions about Chinese thinking on how to manage security problems in its neighborhood.

Central Asia has also become a conduit through which China has increasingly sought to target its perceived dissident Uighur community. Reports emerged in 2019 of Uighurs being arrested in Turkey, given Tajik travel documents, and placed on planes to Dushanbe, from where they were immediately flown back to China. Central Asian complicity is further suggested by the Kazakh authorities’ decision to clamp down on anti-China protesters within their own country.

In some ways, none of this is particularly new. Uighurs in Central Asia have long been a major Chinese concern. When it was officially inaugurated in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization used fighting the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism as its foundational credo. During his famous tour of the region in 1994, which laid the groundwork for the current Silk Road visions across the region, then premier Li Peng highlighted concerns about Uighurs at every stop. Over subsequent years, rumors circulated about the Chinese pursuing Uighurs across Central Asian borders, while any dissident networks that existed in Central Asia were clamped down upon. Occasional attacks against Chinese businessmen or officials in Bishkek served as a reminder of the dangers that existed in the region, but the Chinese response largely involved pressuring local officials to do more to protect their people and go after people they did not like.

Now, however, China appears to be starting to change tack. Rather than relying on local law enforcement agencies or passing on responsibility for security to Russia, China is stepping forward with its own forces to deal with its own concerns. Locals are still expected to do their bit, but China is now establishing a footprint that will allow it to deal with matters as it would like fit in Central Asia. The fact that a growing number of regional security forces are buying high-end technical equipment from China—while their cyber infrastructure is increasingly built using Chinese hardware—gives Beijing growing leverage.

Beijing’s rise as a security actor in Central Asia is not aimed at displacing Russia from its perceived sphere of influence in some contemporary replay of the Great Game, but rather at guaranteeing Chinese interests. In many ways, it’s not a surprising move: what country is not interested in securing its own interests? It is, however, a change in China’s external behavior, which has traditionally been to pay lip service to local autonomy and Chinese non-interference. China is getting involved, and stepping ever further into the breach.

A new article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank with offices around the globe. It focuses on China in Afghanistan and is part of a series being directed out of their Beijing office looking at giving China advice for the coming year in foreign policy. The piece has already been re-printed in the Diplomat and I believe may be being re-published on East Asia Forum. I also want to use this opportunity to highlight this piece in the Russian Penza news which I did an interview for, here it is in English and Russian. For more of my work on this part of the world, check out China in Central Asia that I co-edit with Alex.

China’s Leadership Opportunity in Afghanistan

The 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is fast approaching. China has just over a year before Afghanistan fades from the West’s radar and Western attention toward the country shrinks substantially. However, it is not clear that Beijing has properly considered what it is going to do once NATO forces leave and pass the responsibility for Afghan stability and security to local forces.

And more crucially, it is not clear that China has thought about what it can do with the significant economic leverage it wields in the region. Afghanistan offers China the opportunity to show the world it is a responsible global leader that is not wholly reliant on others to assure its regional interests.

Traditionally, Chinese thinkers have considered Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires.” They chuckle at the ill-advised American-led NATO effort and point to British and Soviet experiences fighting wars in Afghanistan.

But in reality, the presence of NATO forces provided China with a sense of stability. Beijing correctly assumed that NATO’s presence in Afghanistan would mean regional terrorist networks would remain focused on attacking Alliance forces rather than stirring up trouble in neighboring countries like China. NATO’s targeting of Islamist groups also had the effect of striking anti-Chinese Uighur groups that had sought refuge in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. These Uighur groups would otherwise have focused their attention on targeting China.

Yet as the date of American withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, this security dynamic is changing. While China does worry about the threat of Islamist Uighur groups striking from their Afghan bases, this concern is relatively marginal. The bigger problem is the potentially negative repercussions for the rising number of investments from China’s private sector in Afghanistan and its surrounding region. These investments are part of a broader push into Central Asia that flows from an effort to develop China’s historically underdeveloped province of Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan.

The prospect of an Afghanistan returning to chaos is, therefore, not appealing to policymakers and businesspeople in Beijing. This scenario would bring instability directly to China’s doorstep, and this instability could potentially expand northward into Central Asia or southward into Pakistan. China would suffer from further chaos in either direction.

The solution to this problem is complex. China is not necessarily expected to invest heavily in security efforts and rebuilding Afghanistan’s security apparatus, though some more substantial contribution in this direction than the offer to train a nominal 300 policemen that China made last year in Kabul would be helpful. Rather, China could focus on what it is able to do best: invest in Afghanistan and develop its abundant natural resources.

Chinese state-owned firms have already invested in oil fields in Amu Darya in northern Afghanistan and a copper mine in Mes Aynak, southeast of Kabul. These investments have had mixed success.

Amu Darya has produced for the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), though its current status is unknown. Problems and uncertainty with China’s investments in Central Asia are reflected in the difficulties of two other Chinese companies—the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper—in the south.

In part this is because companies operating in the south face understandable security concerns that range from locals angry because they feel they were not justly compensated for their land that was affected by the mine to Taliban-affiliated groups eager to punish the central government by undermining efforts to develop the country.

But these companies also often find they lack a full understanding of the environment in which they are trying to invest. Orchestrators of projects that begin with the best of intentions and large investments, like the Mes Aynak mine, find themselves burdened with a local government response that is confused. Confusion turns to anger when these projects fail to deliver elements that were supposedly included in the original contract. For example, the local Afghan government initially believed that MCC and Jiangxi Copper would build a train line in the south. But the companies claim the contract only stipulated it would conduct a feasibility study. They also claim that the security situation has driven Chinese workers to refuse to work on the site, though reports about whether these stoppages are actually occurring are unclear.

The difficulty of this deal contrasts with the rapidity with which Chinese energy giant CNPC was able to bring online the oil field in Amu Darya. Political complications with the local Afghan strongman Rashid Dostum have held up work, and it is not clear that they have been completely resolved. The field has produced some oil that was transported across the border by truck into Turkmenistan, where it is refined at a separate CNPC site. The company has also said that it is going to develop a refinery in Afghanistan to help facilitate Afghan energy independence.

These two projects show the potential benefits and downsides to investing in Afghanistan. Large mining projects like these have the potential to be help rebuild parts of Afghanistan and transform the economy from one that is reliant on the drug trade and foreign aid to self-reliance.

Even if they were all successful, Chinese investments alone would not transform Afghanistan into a stable and prosperous state. China also needs to leverage its power within the region and persuade other countries to engage in Afghanistan in order to complete this transformation. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional entity led by China, has done very little in Afghanistan due to a lack of agreement among members about what exactly actions to take. China believes the SCO should do more, but other member countries believe a bilateral approach is better that a multilateral one and that focusing on building individual relationships in Afghanistan will help strengthen their particular interests. This is unfortunate as the SCO could be a useful vehicle through which China and other regional actors could undertake efforts to counter the narcotics trade in the region and strengthen border controls.

China has growing influence in the Asian Development Bank, which has already invested heavily in Afghanistan. China could continue its support for these projects to help connect Afghanistan to the broader region and reintegrate the nation into the global community, thus fostering stability. This approach complements China’s broader regional strategy to develop Xinjiang into the “gateway for Eurasia” as Premier Wen Jiabao put it during the China-Eurasia Expo in September last year.

And at the social level, China needs to foster person-to-person contact with Afghanistan. Last year during a visit to Kabul, the most striking characteristic of Kabul University’s Confucius Institute—one of the Beijing-backed centers that promote Chinese language and culture across the world—was the absence of Chinese teachers and Afghan students. This stood in contrast to other Confucius Institutes in Central Asia with dozens of students crowding around excited teachers. The security situation undoubtedly complicates things in Kabul, but there are safer parts of the country in which to operate. To further encourage societal ties, Beijing could try to entice more Afghans to study and work in China through scholarships and study grants.

China has an opportunity in the next year to assert some leadership in helping steer Afghanistan in a more positive direction. A stable Afghanistan is in China’s national interest, and taking the lead on this regional issue of international importance could help bolster Beijing’s global position. The West may have made mistakes in Afghanistan’s past, and making up for them will undoubtedly take time. But the Afghanistan problem is one that remains on China’s borders and has the potential to result in even more regional instability. Investing in Afghanistan now will save years of trouble later.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the co-editor of