More very late posting, this time from January for the Straits Times looking at how China was impacted by events in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year. Seems a world away from what we are facing now, though there is clearly a link that runs through Moscow.

China’s Kazakh Concerns

China is going to find that Kazakhstan is not the secure and predictable neighbour that it was, says the writer. PHOTO: REUTERS

When Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) vision in 2013, he started it with a speech in Astana, as the capital of Kazakhstan was then called.

In an expansive speech, Mr Xi articulated the importance of Kazakhstan within his broader vision of Chinese policy across the Eurasian landmass.

The Kazakh government appreciated the speech and the wider concept, so much so that a year later then President Nursultan Nazarbayev articulated his own national economic strategy called Nurly Zhol (bright path), which built on the Chinese ideas and projects. 

China and Kazakhstan would grow and prosper together. The Kazakhs benefited from Chinese trade and investment while Beijing appreciated having a stable “soft authoritarian” success story on its border. This intertwining highlights the importance of Kazakhstan to China, and explains the consequent horror with which Beijing watched the chaotic way in which the country welcomed in the new year. 

Chinese strategists were not alone in being shocked at the chaotic scenes that have played out over the past couple of weeks. Central Asia watchers both within the region and beyond were equally surprised by the turn of events, which began as demonstrations against a fuel price hike and escalated into violent clashes with hundreds reported dead and injured.

STABILITY AND PROSPERITY

Most used to see Kazakhstan as the most stable and prosperous country in what is still described as the post-Soviet belt that surrounds Russia. The government was an almost perfect articulation of the concept of “soft authoritarianism”, in which a strong authority dominated the country but left a certain space for political discourse, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a free (but controlled) media. 

The main reason it was able to do this was the massive wealth accumulated by the government, thanks to its large mineral and hydrocarbon reserves. 

These were exploited by numerous foreign companies, including Western ones.  Chinese firms have long looked at Kazakhstan as an important opportunity. Soon after the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) stepped in to exploit oil fields in Atyrau on the shores of the Caspian Sea.  In order to get the oil back to China, it built China’s first direct oil pipeline which stretched from Atyrau back to China covering more than 2,300km of the empty Central Asian steppe. This was only the first of numerous hydrocarbon projects. 

And it was not only a story of oil and gas. Mining company Kazakhmys, which dominates Kazakhstan’s rich copper reserves, received loans of around US$4.2 billion (S$5.7 billion) from the China Development Bank. The company would regularly take some parts of its loan facilities in yuan, something the Chinese bank appreciated as it helped with its wider strategy of trying to get the Chinese currency in wider global circulation, as well as ensuring that Chinese firms were used as contractors. 

Kazakhstan is one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, and in November last year started a joint venture with Chinese firms to produce nuclear fuel – a key part of China’s national energy strategy to reduce their carbon footprint. Kazakhstan is also a major target for Chinese agribusiness eager to take advantage of the vast underpopulated territory. 

According to Kazakh Invest data, there are some 20 million hectares of arable land (roughly the size of the United Kingdom) and another 180 million ha of meadows and pastures. This is very attractive to a country like China, with its booming population of middle class consumers looking for bountiful cheaper food options. 

Shortly before the Covid-19 outbreak, Kazakhstan opened a new market in Wuhan, where its products were sold. This became an early victim of the pandemic.  Kazakhstan was also a crucial first way station in the BRI. As mentioned, this was the country where Mr Xi first articulated his vision, even though elements of his ambitious trans-continental network were in existence long before the concept was announced. 

Kazakhstan had long sought to develop its rail and road links to China, eager to access its markets.  In the early 1990s, then President Nazarbayev had encouraged opening up his markets and rail routes to China, keenly sending his representatives to a Eurasian rail connectivity conference hosted in Beijing by then Premier Li Peng in 1996. 

For China, the Kazakh connection was useful more as a path on the way to more prosperous and populated markets in Russia and Europe. Either way, the two countries saw mutual advantage, with the Kazakhs getting infrastructure and transit fees, while China had a smooth path across the Eurasian heartland. 

Yet all this was thrown into question these past couple of weeks. The unexpected chaos in Kazakhstan caused concern among investors around the world. 

Western consultancies with large offices in big cities Nur-Sultan (Astana’s current name) and Almaty (the biggest city in the country) suddenly lost communications with them during the Internet outages amid the protests. Chinese firms were slightly more insulated from these disruptions, as most of their in-country staff were based at remote locations near oil fields or mining concessions.

PASSIVE BUT POINTED RESPONSE

While the riots look to have been put down, questions remain over stability in Kazakhstan and how China will manage this relationship going forward. At the moment, the response has been fairly passive, though pointed.  In a message to Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in the wake of the violence, Mr Xi talked about “colour revolutions”, highlighting the degree to which China was concerned about the instability in the country. 

This was an allusion to Western interference, referring back to the series of government overthrows seen in the former Soviet space in 2004, when Ukraine underwent a so-called “Orange Revolution”, Georgia a “Rose Revolution” and Kyrgyzstan a “Tulip Revolution”. For the Russians and the Chinese, these uprisings were widely seen as being linked to American-sponsored NGOs. 

For Beijing, the “colour revolutions” as well as the “Arab Spring” are like deadly viruses – something to be kept out lest the “bug” of public uprising catches on in China too. 

Yet, notwithstanding these concerns, China has done little in trying to help stabilise the situation. Instead, it has sat back and applauded as the Kazakhs called on Russia to step in and help bring stability under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-led alliance of six former Soviet states. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did offer “law enforcement and security cooperation” to help the country oppose interference by “external forces” – a narrative which echoed the explanations offered by the Kazakh government for the unrest. But these are likely just words. There is little to suggest the Kazakhs would take the Chinese up on the offer. 

This is in part because it is not clear what China would really be able to contribute that would be needed by the Kazakhs. There are also sensitivities at a public level about the relationship with Beijing. China has always struggled with an underlying sense of Sinophobia in the country. 

Earlier attempts by Chinese agribusiness to rent land in Kazakhstan had led to protests against the government for selling the people’s national patrimony to foreigners. Back in 2010, protests and violence erupted in Zhanaozen over a dispute between workers and a local CNPC affiliate, leading to at least 14 deaths. There have also been repeated lower-level clashes in the country between Chinese workers and locals. 

More recently, Covid-19 has made things even more awkward. While the Kazakhs have been keen to keep the borders and trading going, the Chinese have made entry to China very difficult. Although goods were coming out of China, they were not going back into the country. 

This had led to problems in Kazakhstan, in terms of sellers struggling not only to get their goods to China but also through it to other markets. Lianyungang, a city in Shandong, is heavily used by Kazakh sellers eager to gain access from their landlocked country to global markets. The Kazakh economy, already suffering from the effects of Covid-19, now found that the BRI, which was supposed to be about free-flowing connectivity, suddenly went only one way.

WORRIES AHEAD

All of this sets the context for how China is going to have to manage future relations with Kazakhstan. It is clearly happy that Russia had stepped in to help stabilise the situation, but the Kazakh government still has a lot of work to do in resolving bigger entrenched problems such as a glaring income divide, corruption and elite power contests. 

China is unfortunately a part contributor to these issues. Its investments have tended to engage with the elites, with locals feeling cut out. While Mr Tokayev will undoubtedly want to maintain the strong economic relationship with China, it will now have an added layer of concern to it from the Chinese perspective, and he will have to juggle his desire to keep Beijing happy while finding himself needing to answer to his local population in a more timely manner than before. All of which is likely to mean China is going to find that Kazakhstan is not the entirely secure and predictable neighbour that it was. 

The bigger problem for China is that if this is the case in Kazakhstan – the starting point of the Belt and Road chosen in large part for its stability – where else might their current assumptions be wrong

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, and the author of the forthcoming Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Finally, my last catch-up post from last year’s annual threat assessment for Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA), the RSIS in-house journal, this time looking at the extreme right wing threat over the past year. As with last year’s this one was with wonderful Kyler.

Extreme Right-Wing Violence in the West: In Remission?

Against the backdrop of persistent political and societal polarisation, particularly in the West, violence linked to the extreme right has declined, or at least remained static, during the past year. Since the events in Washington DC on 6 January, there were no major large-scale acts of violence linked exclusively to the extreme right compared to the previous year. However, smaller scale violence has manifested in other forms, e.g. clashes between law enforcement and COVID-19 protestors, anti-immigrant groups across Europe in particular, and occasional disrupted plots. There continues to be an ideological fluidity within some of these events, driven by an overriding anti-establishment sentiment, with the extreme right often one of a number of the ideas along the spectrum articulated through a particular incident. This was most apparent during former US President Donald Trump’s failed reelection bid, which played against the backdrop of COVID-19 measures globally, and generated a confusing new set of conspiracy theories. Finally, the continuing discovery of extreme right-linked radicalisation within security forces globally, while not a new phenomenon, continues to pose a substantial risk.

Threat Landscape Prior to 2021

There has been a degree of constancy and, in some instances, change regarding the extreme right terror threat in the last two years. This is both in terms of the scale and frequency of violence and the ideological inspirations behind the violence. In terms of the global picture, 2019 marked an apex of extreme right-wing violence, with the deadly Christchurch mosques attack in New Zealand marking a particularly heinous high point. In 2020, violence continued globally to less dramatic effect (one study showed only two incidents in western Europe,819 though EUROPOL’s data during the same period showed only one incident), in part, possibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions which impacted terrorist capability across the board.820

However, 2020 was also the apex of several ideological trends which played out against the backdrop of the world trying to grapple with the new reality of COVID-19 (that echoed across ideological spectrums), the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement (which provided an angry counter-point for the extreme right to react to), and the highly-charged US presidential election that polarised the US society (but also further afield) along nationalistic lines, fostering a “militia-sphere” with international links. This attention seemed to push the American “militia-sphere” in particular into a series of incidents of violence and plots in the US.821 This was echoed in Europe, particularly Germany, which recorded the highest levels of extreme right crime in 20 years.822 It also appeared to resonate, though to a lesser degree, in other parts of the world due to the sheer volume of noise generated by the increasingly polarised American political discourse.

2021 Threat Landscape

Decline in Terrorist Incidents

Apart from the 6 January Capitol Hill riot in Washington, DC, that saw some 800 people, among whom an unclear number were identifiably right-wing extremists, storm the US Capitol in support of former president Donald Trump following his failure to get re-elected, large-scale acts of violence emanating exclusively from the extreme right were limited in 2021.823 Arrests of individuals suspected of terrorism offences linked to right-wing extremism continued primarily in the US, Europe, and Asia-Pacific (mostly Australia with sporadic and random cases elsewhere). Much of the violence in the last year was in the form of clashes between law enforcement officials and COVID-19 protesters against government lockdown measures and, more recently, against the implementation of vaccination mandates and “vaccine passports.”824

In Europe, ongoing police disruptions and protests continue to point to a diffused problem. There have been reports of violent groups in Germany targeting migrants825 and synagogues.826 Continuing disruptions in the UK’s Midlands region are also linked to extreme right-wing plotting.827 A particularly disturbing disruption in France involved a 26-year-old who was arrested for making pipe bombs with uranium dust.828 A rare plot in Poland saw two individuals charged for planning to attack a mosque.829 A plot disrupted in Italy saw a network of 12 arrested for reportedly planning to attack a NATO base.830 As disturbing as these disruptions and incidents were, there was no major extreme right-wing terror attack, and it is unclear how linked (if at all) any of these incidents were. It was also not clear from available data that there had been a surge in detentions worldwide, with the various plots disrupted seeming to be part of a broader trend than a spike.

The reasons behind this are unclear at this stage. It is likely to some degree that the heavy COVID-19 restrictions imposed across Europe have made the operating environment harder. At the same time, the push online that has taken place during this period has theoretically provided a ripe environment for ideologies to spread. It has certainly helped develop the problem of very young people being drawn towards extremist plotting, with MI5 Chief Ken McCallum reporting his service had investigated a 13-year-old who later pled guilty.831 The anonymity of the online world has lowered the threshold for youth involvement. But while reporting on the very young being involved in plotting has continued, it has not translated into actual violent actions, suggesting other factors may be at play.832 Finally, it may be that increased security force attention that has followed the surge in focus on the extreme right in the past few years may be yielding results. This increasing attention was highlighted in Australia, where the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) reported that almost half of its “onshore priority counterterrorism caseload” involved “ideologically motivated violent extremists, such as racist and nationalist violent extremists.”833 This was an increase from the previous year, where the agency reported that the extreme right accounted for around 40 per cent of its workload.834 In the US, security officials made public pronouncements about the escalating nature of the domestic, extreme right-leaning terrorist threat and its focus by security forces.835

A further explanation might be found in the end of the Trump presidency. The administration’s rhetoric had previously allowed right-wing extremism to thrive. In this respect, Trump’s refusal to condemn the far right when called to, and seeming support for extremist groups with right-wing leanings such as the Proud Boys or conspiracy movements such as QAnon, arguably gave them a boost. This in turn resonated globally.836 However, the Proud Boys and QAnon have since suffered internal fractures following the election of Joe Biden. The former group feels betrayed by Trump’s denouncement of the 6 January riot (which they claimed was incited by him). The latter is increasingly disillusioned by the “storm” that never came. This conspiracy has served as the ultimate linchpin to QAnon’s core belief that Trump will eventually bring down the shadowy cabal,837 leading to a few disillusioned QAnon supporters no longer “trust(ing) the plan.”838 Trump’s removal and increasing de-platforming from both mainstream media outlets and social media have reduced his reach outside his core audience, somewhat turning down the heat on the anger and polarisation he stirred.

That is not to say that the highly-charged nationalism powered by anti-immigrant sentiments and white supremacism is no longer a threat. On the contrary, according to the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research’s (ICPVTR) monitoring of social media accounts of right-wing extremist channels and groups, violent rhetoric against immigrants in the Western hemisphere remains rife. A case in point is the May 2021 border crisis between Spain and Morocco, which saw some 8,000 African migrants crossing into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which share a border with Morocco.

This episode garnered widespread attention on Spanish social media, as Spaniards blame the government for the “invasion,” call for the deaths of immigrants, and cast accusations on African immigrants, particularly Moroccans, for any criminal acts by foreigners with darker skin tone reported in mainstream media. While chatter as such may be regarded as harmless white noise – habitual of the extreme right’s empty threats that often dominate its online platforms and discourse – it points to an underlying seething anger of government betrayal based around xenophobic and racist sentiments towards immigrants that provide a ripe environment for extreme right groups to thrive. While there has been less evidence of actual attacks, the extreme right’s agitational rhetoric persists.

Ideological Confluence

An additional element that has exacerbated the extreme right has been its ability as an ideology to appropriate and repurpose the language of others. This includes initially antagonistic ideologies which are co-opted to fit the extreme right worldview, justify their extremist actions, and exploit anger, distrust, and alienation to converge on a mutual enemy. All of this is done to galvanise extremist behaviour and sometimes violence.

In some instances, this confluence can play out in organised actions, like during the 6 January Capitol Hill riot or in various protests against COVID-19 measures worldwide. In both cases, strands of the extreme right as well as other ideologies can be found. The anti-vaccine movement has provided fertile ground for extreme right conspiracy theories to thrive. Some segments have reacted negatively to COVID-19 restrictions, including some on the left, leading to odd fusions with left-wing countercultures.839 In Australia, but also elsewhere, recent mob action in September against the trade union’s decision to mandate vaccination for workers in the construction industry led to protests involving a wide gamut of far-right nationalists, anti-vaxxers, libertarians, and trade unionists to the most obscure conspiracy theorists.840 Across Europe, COVID-19 demonstrations were often an amalgamation of different movements motivated by different ideologies. Whereas some movements merely seek increased individual autonomy on medical freedom, others are fueled by more extreme left and right-wing elements. But it is often the right leaning element that appears dominant in the violence. A shared sense of anti establishmentarianism often drives such groups, with the left-right element sometimes getting lost in between.

Web 2.0 has also made it easier for the flow of Western extreme right rhetoric to other parts of the world where such a narrative typically does not have traction. While still very uncommon, Western extreme right ideologies and conspiracy theories have been seeded in parts of Asia, where selective beliefs are being repurposed to fit local contexts. In Singapore, for instance, the arrest of a 16-year-old led to the disruption of an attempted copycat attack of the Christchurch terrorist attack by Brenton Tarrant. The boy reportedly planned to attack Muslims at two local mosques on the second anniversary of the March 2019 Christchurch mosques shooting.841

Lastly, the 2020 CTTA Annual Threat Assessment had highlighted the uptick in violence by men with incel-leaning ideology since 2018 and the connection of this misogynistic subculture within the tapestry of the extreme right.842 This confluence was particularly visible in the case of Tobias Rathjen, who carried out a mass shooting in January 2020 in Hanau, Germany, against the minority community. While his motivation can be pegged as a blend of white supremacism and antiimmigrant nativism, there was clear evidence of his espousal of antigovernment QAnon and incel thinking in videos and messages he published around the attack.843

The occasional violence that has emerged out of this largely benign and non-violent movement mimics the traditional terrorist modus operandi, making a case for its inclusion within terrorist studies.844 In August 2021, Jake Davison went on a shooting rampage killing five people in Plymouth, UK.845 While not much is known of his exact motive, there are clear hints of his incel thinking and right-wing libertarian tendencies, including his pro-Trumpism and gun-right advocacy.846 However, it is also notable how this case was exceptional with few other overt incel cases reported during 2021, feeding into the overall analysis that the violent expression of the threat picture is reduced (or at least static) in 2021.

Conspiracies Chasing Meanings

The extreme right has once again proven their adeptness at adjusting their narrative and conspiracy theories to fit new realities and sustain their worldview. For example, following the failure of Trump’s re-election campaign, the QAnon movement’s credibility among its adherents was dealt a blow, as the prediction that Trump would prevail and continue to bring the “cabal” down was quashed. Instead, new theories emerged to explain Trump’s defeat, claiming that “[s]ometimes you must walk through the darkness before you see the light.”847 In a bid to sustain support and boost morale, QAnon members online have been observed to continue to reshare prior mysterious and interpretative “drops” published by Q.848 QAnon members treat the “drops” like prophetic gospels to explain obscure new happenings that tie them to the QAnon’s overarching belief that the plan is still in place and that the “Storm” and “Day of Reckoning” when the cabal will be defeated will eventually arrive.

Likewise, COVID-19 conspiracy theories promulgated by the extreme right have also changed, as a shift in strategy was warranted when governments moved from lockdown restrictions to implementing vaccination requirements affecting the dayto-day lives of the people. At the start of the pandemic, conspiracies were focused on peddling the virus as either fake, a biological weapon, or a form of population control through measures including nationwide lockdowns. By the second half of 2021, there was a proliferation of anti vaccination conspiracies taking centre stage. Regardless of the shift, what was retained is a deep strain of anti-Semitism that advances the extreme right agenda that a Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG) is colluding with Western governments for world domination.849

Disturbingly, however, cases have demonstrated deep roots behind them, with the case of anti-vaxx conspiracy theorist and soldier Jurgen Conings revealed to be the tip of a larger extreme right conspiracy in Belgium. His case also illustrated the danger from the extreme right in infiltrating western security forces. There was a considerable security force (current or former) present during the 6 January Capitol riot, with senior figures of the Proud Boys also members of security forces.850 The recent sentencing of two members of the neo-Nazi white nationalist group, the Base, also revealed the involvement of former military servicemen.851 The insider threat picture since 2020 from former (or serving) military personnel amongst the extreme right has not changed.852

In Europe, the issue remains a major problem, especially in Germany, which saw the disbandment of an elite wing of the armed forces in 2020 due to its extreme right connections. Last year, a battalion of the military’s honour guard was suspended for a similar association.853 Whilst not exactly the same, a similar degree of tension between civilians and soldiers was apparent in France, where open letters from allegedly semi-retired and active French soldiers warned of a civil war due to the government’s “concession” to Islamism. 854 Recently, a former local politician and far-right conspiracy theorist in France was also charged, amongst other terrorist acts, for plotting a coup against the government and recruiting soldiers to facilitate the act.855 Such open rebellion highlights a significant homegrown problem that Western nations have faced over the last decade following the migrant crisis in Europe.

Outlook

As nations emerge from COVID-19 lockdowns and establish a new normal, ongoing COVID-19 mandates are likely to provide more ammunition to the extreme right and its anti-establishment narratives. The underlying and omnipresent issues of racism and nativism that have provided the extreme right with great sustenance have calmed down but not gone away. As Western nations continue to grapple with the political polarisation of sensitive issues such as immigration, the “us versus them” partisanship will continue to wedge an ever-wider gap between the extremes and unravel already fragile social fabrics. Those that fall in between will feel the exponential push and pull force from either side, aided by Web 2.0 as a content sharing vehicle. Complicating the extreme right threat picture further will be how effective the governments are in stemming the influence of extreme right ideology in youth and the security forces, in particular. Governments in the West are increasingly putting their security forces under the microscope, making arrests and disbanding segments tainted by right-wing extremism. A proactive approach of weeding out extremists during the recruitment process,856 however, should also be thrown into the mix.

About the Authors

Kyler Ong was formerly an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. She can be reached at iskylerong@ntu.edu.sg.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

819 Madeleine Thorstensen and Jacob Aasland Ravndal, “Stable Trends in Unstable Times: Right-Wing Terrorism and Violence in Western Europe in 2020,” Center for Research on Extremism, September 31, 2021, https://www.sv.uio.no/c-rex/english/news-andevents/right-now/2021/stable-trends-in-unstabletimes-right-wing-violenc.html.

820 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Persistence of Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the West,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 13, no. 1 (January 2021): 118, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wpcontent/uploads/2021/01/CTTA-January2021.pdf.

821 Ibid., 119.

822 Laurenz Gehrke, “Germany Records Highest Level of Right-Wing Extremist Crime in 20 Years,” Politico, May 4, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-records-highest-level-of-right-wing-extremist-crimes-in-20-years/.

823 Apart from the case of Nathaniel Veltman, who rammed into a Muslim family in London, Ontario, Canada. Veltman has been discovered to be a follower of Brenton Tarrant, the right-wing extremist gunman responsible for the 2019 Christchurch mosques shootings. See Andrew Russell, Stewart Bell and Mercedes Stephenson, “EXCLUSIVE: London Attack Suspect Was Inspired by New Zealand Mosque Shooter, Sources Say,” Global News, November 10, 2021, https://globalnewsca.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/globalnews.ca/news/8361038/london-attack-suspect-inspired-newzealand-mosque-shooter/amp/.

824 Even so, it is imperative to highlight that both the January 6 Capitol riot and the COVID-19 protests run the gamut of all sides when it comes to the ideological adherence of those involved. See Robert A. Pape and Keven Ruby, “The Capitol Rioters Aren’t Like Other Extremists,” The Atlantic, February 2, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/02/the-capitol-rioters-arent-like-otherextremists/617895/; “‘It’s Almost Like Grooming’: How Anti-Vaxxers, Conspiracy Theorists, and the Far-Right Came Together Over COVID,” The Conversation, September 21, 2021, https://theconversation.com/its-almost-likegrooming-how-anti-vaxxers-conspiracy-theoristsand-the-far-right-came-together-over-covid168383.

825 “Germany to Increase Controls as Far-Right Activists Target Polish Border,” France 24, October 24, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/livenews/20211024-germany-to-increase-controlsas-far-right-activists-target-polish-border.

826 Oliver Towfigh Nia, “Germany Arrests 4 for Alleged Terror Attack Plot on Synagogue,” Anadolu Agency, September 16, 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/germanyarrests-4-for-alleged-terror-attack-plot-onsynagogue/2366479.

827 “Three People From Keighley Charged With Right Wing Terrorism Offences,” ITV News, May 14, 2021, https://www.itv.com/news/calendar/2021-05-14/three-people-from-keighley-charged-with-rightwing-terrorism-offences; “South Yorkshire Man Charged With Terrorism and Drugs Offences,” Counter Terrorism Policing, April 24, 2021, https://www.counterterrorism.police.uk/southyorkshire-man-charged-with-terrorism-and-drugsoffences/.

828 Mitchell Prothero, “Neo-Nazi and KKK Fanboy Built Pipe Bombs With Uranium From eBay,” Vice, September 13, 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/xgxjxd/neo-naziand-kkk-fanboy-built-pipe-bombs-with-uraniumfrom-ebay.

829 “Polish Far-Right Extremists Charged Over Terror Plot on Mosque,” Kafkadesk, January 8, 2021, https://kafkadesk.org/2021/01/08/polish-farright-extremists-charged-over-terror-plot-onmosque/.

830 Hannah Roberts, “Italian Neo-Nazis Were Plotting to Bomb NATO Base, Police Say,” Politico, June 7, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/italian-neo-naziswere-plotting-to-bomb-nato-base-police-say/.

831 Dan Sabbagh, “MI5 Investigated Far-Right Terror Suspect Who Was 13 Years Old,” The Guardian, July 14, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/jul/14/mi5-investigated-rightwing-terror-suspect-whowas-13-years-old.

832 For example, rather than actual extremist ideology-inspired terrorism, the very young could simply be playacting online lives. But further research is still required to conclusively assess the factors underpinning the involvement of the very young.

833 “ASIO Annual Report 2020-21,” Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, 2021, 4, https://www.asio.gov.au/sites/default/files/Annual%20Report%202020-21%20WEB.pdf.

834 Paul Karp, “Asio Reveals Up to 40% of Its Counter-Terrorism Cases Involve Far-Right Violent Extremism,” The Guardian, September 22, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australianews/2020/sep/22/asio-reveals-up-to-40-of-itscounter-terrorism-cases-involve-far-right-violentextremism.

835 Mark Hosenball, “White Supremacist Groups Pose Rising U.S. Threat, Garland Says,” Reuters, May 12, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/whitesupremacist-groups-pose-rising-us-threatgarland-says-2021-05-12/.

836 “Germany Shooting: What We Know About the Hanau Attack,” BBC News, February 20, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe51571649.

837 Camila Domonoske, “The QAnon ‘Storm’ Never Struck. Some Supporters Are Wavering, Others Steadfast,” National Public Radio, January 20, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/inauguration-daylive-updates/2021/01/20/958907699/the-qanonstorm-never-struck-some-supporters-arewavering-others-steadfast.

838 QAnon adherents generally believe that there is a plan to bring down the shadowy cabal ruled by a Jewish-dominated world government and elites, and that Donald Trump himself is executing this plan. Based on ICPVTR’s monitoring of QAnon social media channels and groups, hints of disillusionment have emerged in the QAnon camp and some members are increasingly frustrated that nothing has come to fruition to rescue the people from Covid-19 restrictions.

839 George Monbiot, “It’s Shocking to See So Many Leftwingers Lured to the Far Right by Conspiracy Theories,” The Guardian, September 22, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/sep/22/leftwingers-far-right-conspiracy-theoriesanti-vaxxers-power.

840 Josh Roose, “‘It’s Almost Like Grooming’: How Anti-Vaxxers, Conspiracy Theorists and the Far Right Came Together Over COVID,” ABC News, September 22, 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-22/howantivaxxers-conspiracy-theorists-far-rightmelbourne-protest/100481874.

841 Koh, “Teen Detained for Planning.”

842 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Persistence of Right-Wing Extremism,” 121.

843 Ibid.

844 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Incels and Terrorism: Sexual Deprivation as Security Threat,” RSIS Commentary, October 6, 2020, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wpcontent/uploads/2020/10/CO20176.pdf.

845 Matthew Weaver and Steven Morris, “Plymouth Gunman: A Hate-Filled Misogynist and ‘Incel’,” The Guardian, August 13, 2021, https://amp.theguardian.com/uknews/2021/aug/13/plymouth-shooting-suspectwhat-we-know-jake-davison.

846 “Plymouth Shooting Suspect Jake Davison Who Killed Five Was A ‘Loner’ and Had Gun Permit,” Agence France-Presse, August 13, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/world/europe/article/3144873/plymouth-shooting-6-dead-includinggunman-who-opened-fire.

847 Laurence Arnold and Daniel Zuidijk, “What’s Become of QAnon Since Trump’s Defeat?” Bloomberg, June 14, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-14/what-s-become-of-qanon-since-trump-sdefeat-quicktake.

848 “Intelligence Drops,” https://qalerts.app/.

849 “ZOG,” Anti-Defamation League, https://www.adl.org/education/references/hatesymbols/zog.

850 Sarah Sidner and Marshall Cohen, “Disproportionate Number of Current and Former Military Personnel Arrested in Capitol Attack, CNN Analysis Shows,” CNN, February 4, 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/31/us/capitol-riotarrests-active-military-veterans-soh/index.html.

851 “Two US Neo-Nazis From ‘The Base’ Jailed For Terrorist Plot,” BBC News, October 29, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada59085935.

852 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Persistence of Right-Wing Extremism,” 124-125.

853 “Germany Suspends Soldiers in Military Guard Over Far-Right Allegations,” Deutsche Welle, October 8, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/germany-suspendssoldiers-in-military-guard-over-far-rightallegations/a-59451421.

854 “French Soldiers Warn of Civil War in New Letter,” BBC News, May 10, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe57055154.

855 “Rémy Daillet: Conspiracist Charged Over Alleged French Coup Plot,” BBC News, October 28, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/worldeurope-59075902.

856 “ASIO Annual Report 2020-21,” 38.

Another belated post from the last annual RSIS Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) overview of the threats over the previous year, this time looking at China, again with Nodir.

China

Xinjiang Province

For the fifth year in a row, China’s Xinjiang province was free from acts of reportedly politically motivated violence in 2021. Authorities asserted that this cessation in violence has been a product of enhanced security measures implemented in combination with re-education and labour transfer policies. In the jihadist sphere, the threat of Uyghur militancy continues to draw attention. Mainly, this stems from the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which still maintains ties to varying degrees with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria. The Afghanistan connection in particular has grown in salience since the Taliban takeover in Kabul, and will be Beijing’s main point of focus with the new government for the immediate future.

Trends

It has been just under five years since there were any reported cases of politically motivated violence involving Uyghurs in China. The last reported incident was in February 2017, when three Uyghur assailants undertook a series of knife stabbings in Hotan Prefecture in Xinjiang, an event which was followed by large displays of security presence across the region. According to Chinese counterterrorism authorities, Xinjiang has stabilised following the launch of the “special campaign against violence and terror” in 2014, which has led to crackdowns on more than 1,900 violent and terrorist gangs, the arrest of over 14,000 suspects, and the confiscation of more than 2,000 explosive devices so far.688 While it is difficult to assess these figures, it seems clear that China is keen to demonstrate it has a substantial threat it is fighting to keep under control. This crackdown builds on previous crackdowns which were conducted under the rubric of “Strike Hard” campaigns.689

The reasons for this cessation in violence in Xinjiang are hard to objectively analyse, but seem due in large part to the increasingly pervasive security blanket that exists across the region. This has two sides to it – on the one hand, a heavy security presence; on the other, widespread use of “re-education centres” and labour transfer policies within Xinjiang and other parts of China. While the implementation of the mass re-education programmes has been reportedly wound down, labour transfer policies appear to continue unabated.690 For instance, by March 2021, 250,000 Uyghur and other minority workers from Xinjiang’s Hotan Prefecture had reportedly resettled in other provinces under the ongoing state-run labour transfer scheme. Western governments and scholars have criticised this scheme as being a “system of coercion” that would ultimately aim to “thin out minority populations” in Xinjiang.691 In response, Chinese authorities and researchers have denied allegations of forced labour transfers, insisting that such programmes are a voluntary element of the state’s poverty alleviation strategy in Xinjiang.692

There is also little evidence that the security blanket has been much lowered, especially with the recent appointment of Lieutenant General Wang Haijiang to take over as PLA commander in Xinjiang. Formerly in charge of Tibet, the implication was that his approach to suppressing minorities might be the reason for his move to Xinjiang (following a pattern set by current Xinjiang Party Chief Chen Quanguo who had previously served in Tibet and brought many of his policies with him). It is likelier, however, that General Wang was picked due to his experience managing volatile borders. Ultimately, it is not PLA forces that are responsible for internal security in China.

The need for a military commander with experience in managing potentially volatile borders that China shares was illustrated by the change in government in neighbouring Afghanistan, where Beijing continues to be concerned about the potential overspill of violence. This potential threat emanates both from across the small direct border China shares with Afghanistan, the parts of Tajikistan or Pakistan that are close to China which also share a border with Afghanistan, and most substantially, from Uyghur militant groups who might use Afghanistan as a base to attack China or its interests at home or in the region. These concerns have escalated since the arrival of the Taliban-led government into Kabul.

Uyghur Groups in Afghanistan and Syria

Afghanistan and Syria continue to shelter a large number of Uyghur jihadist fighters from Xinjiang. The vast majority are known to be fighting under the most prominent Uyghur militant group, TIP. TIP retains fighting units in both theatres of conflict. Since the very early days of its participation in the Syrian conflict, the Syria-based TIP has introduced itself as the “Turkistan Islamic Party’s branch in Sham [Syria],” while indicating Abdulhaq Damullam (or Abdul Haq al-Turkistani), the long-standing leader of the Afghanistan-based TIP, as their “bash emir,” or supreme (overall) leader.693 United Nations reporting confirms that the two groups maintain direct, albeit limited, ties due to geographic distance and the difficulty of guaranteeing secure communication.694

In Afghanistan, TIP has been one of the Taliban’s closest foreign jihadist allies for nearly 25 years. Before the former’s capture of Kabul in August 2021, TIP had approximately 400 Uyghur fighters, gathered primarily in the Jurm district of the country’s north-eastern Badakhshan province, which shares a small border with Xinjiang via the mountainous Wakhan Corridor.695 Before the fall of the Westernbacked Afghan government, a contingent of 1,000 fighters, including Uyghur militants, was under the command of TIP’s deputy commander Hajji Furqan, or Qari Furqan, who has reportedly also served as a deputy commander in Al-Qaeda (AQ).696 TIP fighters participated in several Talibanrun offensives and were reported by local officials as being highly effective fighters.697 According to various reports, the group also facilitated the transit of fighters from Syria, along various routes, including via Vietnam and Pakistan toward Afghanistan.698

A potential resurgence of TIP, which China blames for many attacks at home, has been the latter’s overriding security concern. Beijing has repeatedly urged the Taliban to sever its ties with the group. In response, the Taliban leadership has reassured that nobody would be allowed to use Afghan soil as a launchpad to carry out attacks against other countries. In September, the Taliban’s spokesperson claimed that many TIP members had left Afghanistan after having been asked by the movement to do so.699 Reports, however, surfaced in October alleging that the Taliban relocated the Uyghur fighters from Badakhshan to other areas, including in the eastern Nangarhar province, suggesting that they are still residing in Afghanistan.700 Various unverified reports suggest the Uyghur presence remains a point of tension between the Taliban and China.701

In Afghanistan, TIP is not the only terrorist group of concern to China. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), that is reported to have bases in Afghanistan from which it launches campaigns in Pakistan, are both organisations that have recently been linked to incidents involving China. Until now, ISKP has not much discussed China and the Uyghur cause.702 This changed, however, on 8 October 2021, when ISKP claimed responsibility for an attack on a Shia mosque in Kunduz that killed nearly 50 and injured dozens. In its claim of responsibility, ISKP identified the suicide attacker as “Muhammad al Uyghuri” without providing any details about his nationality.703

Rumours have circulated about his possible Turkish background and experience in Syria.704 ISKP’s use of the kunya “Al-Uyghuri” in reference to the attacker is also notable, given most Uyghur militants are usually identified as “AlTurkistani.” According to ISKP’s statement, the attack targeted “both Shias and the Taliban for their purported willingness to expel Uyghurs [from Afghanistan] to meet demands from China.”705 This explicit threat to China is something new from the group.

TTP is a more established group in some ways, though its attention has remained on Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. Recently, the group has shown an increasing interest in targeting Chinese personnel and officials.706 A suicide bombing by the TTP in April targeted the Serena Hotel in the Pakistani city of Quetta, barely missing China’s ambassador to Pakistan. Later in July, a car laden with explosives killed 12 Chinese engineers going to the Dasu hydroelectric power project in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Chinese and Pakistani officials claimed TTP and TIP to be behind the attack, though no official claim of responsibility was issued.707

In Syria, TIP remains one of the most powerful, well-organised and well-trained foreign units fighting under the umbrella of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), AQ’s former Syrian ally. TIP commands between 1,500 and 3,000 fighters in the northwestern Idlib province. In line with its apparent attempt to pivot away from the global jihadist agenda and transition into a locally-oriented revolutionary insurgency, HTS has been pressuring militant outfits under its control, including TIP, to deprioritise or give up their external agendas and links especially with internationally designated terrorist groups such as AQ. This has apparently led to internal strife within TIP, particularly between lesser extreme (pragmatic) and hard-line elements. As a result, approximately 30 per cent of the group’s fighters defected to Hurras al-Din (HAD), a faction established by veteran AQ loyalists as a counter to HTS in Syria, after the former started to distance itself from AQ.708

Amidst such developments, Ibrahim Mansur, who rose to become the leader of TIP’s Syrian branch five years ago, defected from the group. Some extremist websites in Turkish claimed in September 2021 that Mansur was captured by police officers while applying for Turkish citizenship with a fake identity in Izmir. The website accused Mansur of committing a series of crimes (murder, robbery and others) in Turkey through TIP’s hidden cells when he was leading the group. While it is unclear exactly why and how he stepped down as the group’s leader, he might have been the target of HTS’ pressuring campaign to subdue rivals and solidify its dominance.709 According to TIP videos, “Abu Umar,” also known by the moniker “Kawsar aka” (Kawsar brother), has replaced Mansur as the group’s leader.710

TIP has a very strong online presence. During the period under review (January to December 2021), it produced more than 60 extremist propaganda videos and 280 audios and released them on its Uyghur language website, which serves as a primary distribution platform of its productions to other platforms such as Telegram and Flickr. However, the coverage of Afghanistan consists only a small percentage of the overall material on the website.

The Taliban’s capture of Kabul has been an iconic moment for TIP and many other jihadist groups across the world. A few days after the fall of the Afghan government, TIP issued a statement lauding the Taliban’s “victory” and the “restoration of the Islamic Emirate.” In a video released in September, TIP’s military commander Abu Muhammad (Zahid) was shown in a video talking to a group of about 50 Uyghur teenagers studying in a madrasa (Islamic school). He claimed that the “discipline, unity, patience to struggle and investment in education” have been key for the Taliban’s “achievement of victory.” He also explained that “an independent Islamic state in their homeland” could be achieved only through “armed struggle,” while framing TIP’s involvement in the Syrian war as a necessary military preparation for its fighters.

Dozens of audio materials released by the group contain translations of the work of Abu Musab Suri, a notorious AQ-linked jihadist ideologue, and Abu al-Hasan Rashid al-Bulaydi, the slain head of the Sharia Committee of AQ in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This illustrates TIP’s continued subscription to the AQ ideology, despite HTS’ public commitment to pivot away from its AQ past. At the same time, the presence of Abu Al Harith Al Masri, an influential jihadist ideologue within HTS, in several TIP videos, shows that HTS continues to see TIP as an important partner. Overall, TIP has been more visible in Syria than in Afghanistan, assisting HTS to run checkpoints, police some villages and conduct offensives against Syrian armed forces. It remains to be seen how the fracturing witnessed within the group will play out in the longer term, or how this will affect fighter transfers from Syria to Afghanistan.711 What is clear, however, is that TIP continues to be an active force amongst the roster of international jihadist groups.

Responses

It appears unlikely that China will seek to lighten its security presence or approach in Xinjiang. From Beijing’s perspective, this process is working, and has helped ensure that there is no violence being reported in the region. Few in China seem publicly unhappy about the approach that is being taken, with most Han Chinese, the ethnic majority, appearing to be largely willing to accept the authority’s narrative of counter extremism being the primary motivation for the crackdown in the region. However, there is evidence that the Han Chinese in Xinjiang find the policies as oppressive as the Uyghurs (though it is not targeting them) and the overall environment in Xinjiang is reported as being highly oppressive for everyone.712 While some people in China have started to express anxiety about certain developments within their country,713 this is not a widespread sentiment, and the authorities in Beijing are unlikely to change paths. The external pressure brought by international sanctions and condemnation only appears to feed a nationalist sentiment around the policies, even further reducing the desire by Beijing to change course.

Separately, there appears to be some Chinese trepidation about the potential for trouble from Afghanistan to impact the threat picture in China. This has been expressed in a number of different ways. In the first instance, there has been a more visible presence of Chinese intelligence within Afghanistan, reportedly focusing on trying to proactively disrupt perceived Uyghur threats in the country. This was sharply brought into focus in December 2020, when a network of Chinese intelligence agents was reportedly disrupted and ejected from the country.714

There was also an increase in commentary by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggesting that the US might be seeking to use Uyghur groups in Afghanistan to try to destabilise China.715 And finally, the Chinese government sought to engage all sides in talks and highlighted concerns about militant Uyghurs in every format. This included meetings with security officials with the old government in Kabul,716 as well as with the Taliban.717 Though, as reports in October uncovered, there were some 35 Uyghur militants in Afghan detention, when the former government fell, who were freed, illustrating Chinese problems with both the old government and the Taliban.718 On their part, the Chinese press and expert community continue to publicly express concern about the potential for militant Uyghurs to use Afghanistan as a base of operations.719

Outlook

TIP’s (or other Uyghurs) fate in Afghanistan will depend on the Taliban’s political will and ability to balance complex internal and external challenges. The current Taliban government in Afghanistan is highly focused on trying to gain international legitimacy, and so is incentivised to instruct militant groups in the country to not use it as a base to launch attacks elsewhere. However, the Taliban are also ideologically motivated and likely feel a certain degree of loyalty to TIP (amongst others), who have been fighting alongside them for over two decades. According to jihadi precepts, any unreasonable disavowal of existing oaths of allegiance would be viewed as a serious offence. The Taliban may therefore choose to settle the issue through informal but non-aggressive methods – moving militants around as has already been suggested, ask individuals to leave or disarm them. Whether this will work, and how far they will go to enforce this is unclear. Any violent suppression may turn some TIP militants against the Taliban, or even lead them to join ISKP. The problem is that it is equally unclear whether a path of compromise will be adequate for outside powers like China that the Taliban are keen to cultivate to help gain greater international acceptance.

By claiming publicly to have mobilised a Uyghur fighter to launch its Kunduz mosque bombing and by portraying the attack as a retaliation for the Taliban’s ostensible cooperation with China against Uyghurs, ISKP is giving a clear signal that it will have a more hands-on stance towards China. This is a direct challenge to evolving Taliban-China relations and helps bolster ISKP’s narrative of being the leading anti-Taliban organisation in Afghanistan. In using this messaging, the group may be willing to position itself as a new protector of the Uyghurs after the Taliban’s stated incentive to curb its ties with Uyghurs, so that it could recruit disaffected TIP militants and others to swell its ranks. In Syria, more pragmatic and less extreme members of TIP remain aligned with HTS, assisting this alliance to consolidate its local control. Although HAD, with its more global and extreme outlook, may keep attracting hardline Uyghurs, it will likely continue to focus on local priorities given pressure coming from both HTS and the Syrian government.

Overall, however, there remains little evidence that any of the many Uyghur factions has developed a capability to strike within China, though an increase in the targeting of Chinese nationals and messaging focusing on China going forward is likely, involving an ever-wider range of militant organisations.

About the Authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg.

688 “ETIM Is a Big Threat as It Keeps Sending Members to China to Plot Terrorist Attacks: Ministry of Public Security,” Global Times, July 16, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202107/1228823.shtml.

689 This is a term used by the Chinese government to characterise the ‘harder’ side of their response to dealing with instability and terrorism in Xinjiang. The term has been used a number of times over the years, but most recently in 2014 in the wake of a visit to the region by President Xi Jinping. See “‘Strike Hard’ Campaign Aims to Restore Harmony in Xinjiang,” Global Times, July 7, 2014 https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/869084.shtml.

690 John Sudworth, “‘If the Others Go I’ll Go’: Inside China’s Scheme to Transfer Uighurs Into Work,” BBC News, March 2, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china56250915. There is also some dispute on whether the Xinjiang government is actually winding down its re-education camps.

691 Ibid.

692 Xie Wenting and Fan Lingzhi, “Xinjiang Workers Enjoy Full Freedom and Benefits Working in Guangdong, Academics Find Through 9-Month-Long Field Study,” Global Times, March 23, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202103/1219241.shtml.

693 It should be noted that some sources including the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) refer to the TIP’s Afghanistan-based core as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). ETIM continues to be designated by the UNSC and several countries as an international terrorist organisation. However, the U.S. Department of State and some scholars insist that the ETIM is not a real organisation, but just a mislabel used to describe Uyghur jihadists who fought in Afghanistan. As TIP’s Syrian branch and its core in Afghanistan currently identify themselves only as TIP, the authors use TIP in this article to refer to both branches.

694 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (July 21, 2021), 11, https://undocs.org/S/2021/655.

695 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 19-20, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486; “Chinese Uighur Militants Operating Under Taliban Umbrella in Badakhshan,” KabulNow, March 1, 2021, https://kabulnow.com/2021/03/chinese-uighurmilitants-operating-under-taliban-umbrella-inbadakhshan/.

696 Ibid., 20.

697 Tamim Asey, “China’s Borderland Relations: Afghanistan,” Young China Watchers Online Discussion, September 2021, https://www.youngchinawatchers.com/chinasborderland-relations-afghanistan-with-tamimasey/.

698 Ibid. Asev clearly made reference to the Vietnam/Pakistan route. The transit has been reported in the UN Monitoring Group’s reporting, though there are also some dissenting views from Turkey suggesting this transit may not be taking place to the scale suggested. See “From Myth to Reality: A Look at the Flow of Fighters From Idlib To Afghanistan,” Independent Turkce, October 9, 2021, https://www.indyturk.com/node/421701/t%C3%BCrki%CC%87yeden-sesler/efsanedenger%C3%A7ekli%C4%9Fe-i%CC%87dlibtenafganistana-sava%C5%9F%C3%A7%C4%B1-ak%C4%B1%C5%9F%C4%B1-iddialar%C4%B1na.

699 Wen Ting Xie and Yun Yi Bai, “Exclusive: New Afghan Govt Eyes Exchanging Visits With China; ETIM Has No Place in Afghanistan: Taliban Spokesperson,” Global Times, September 9, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1233876.shtml.

700 Reid Standish, “Taliban ‘Removing’ Uyghur Militants From Afghanistan’s Border With China,” RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, October 5, 2021, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/taliban-uyghurmilitants-afghan-china/31494094.html.

701 “China’s Intelligence Chief Mounts Pressure on Sirajuddin Haqqani to Extradite Uyghur Militants From Afghanistan,” Sify.com, October 9, 2021, https://www.sify.com/news/chinasintelligence-chief-mounts-pressure-on-sirajuddinhaqqani-to-extradite-uyghur-militants-fromafghanistan-news-national-vkjjktfjhbehf.html.

702 Elliot Stewart, “The Islamic State Stopped Talking About China,” War on the Rocks, January 19, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/01/theislamic-state-stopped-talking-about-uighurs/.

703 Although the bomber’s nom de guerre (“Al Uighuri”) suggests that he could be an ethnic Uyghur, it does not mean that he was necessarily from Xinjiang. Despite the fact that a majority of ethnic Uyghurs reside in Xinjiang, there are Uyghur immigrant communities in many foreign countries including Afghanistan.

704 Saleem Mehsud, “Some interesting details about ISIS-K Kunduz suicide bomb Muhammed al Uyghuri-was Boxer; former solider of Turkish Army; migrated to Khorasan with his elder brother to join ISKP etc; his elder brother killed in classes with Taliban in Khogyani district of Nangrahar, Afghanistan,” Twitter, October 8, 2021, https://twitter.com/saleemmehsud/status/1446762669713895428?s=12.

705 “Afghanistan: Dozens Killed in Suicide Bombing at Kunduz Mosque,” Al Jazeera, October 8, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/8/blasthits-a-mosque-in-afghanistans-kunduz-duringfriday-prayers.

706 Xin Liu, Hui Zhang and Yun Yi Bai, “TTP’s Enmity Toward Pakistan Creates Risk for Chinese Projects: Analysts,” Global Times, September 18, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1234606.shtml.

707 “Truth on Dasu Terror Attack Surfaces Amid Unanswered Questions, As China And Pakistan Step Up Security For Chinese,” Global Times, August 13, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202108/1231423.shtml.

708 United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (July 21, 2021), 11, https://undocs.org/S/2021/655.

709 HTS has a record of removing non-abiding commanders with corruption and criminality charges (framed or actual).

710 UN reports identify him as “Kaiwusair.”

711 “From Myth to Reality: A Look at the Flow of Fighters From Idlib to Afghanistan,” Independent Turkce, October 9, 2021, https://www.indyturk.com/node/421701/t%C3%BCrki%CC%87yeden-sesler/efsaneden-ger%C3%A7ekli%C4%9Fe-i%CC%87dlibtenafganistana-sava%C5%9F%C3%A7%C4%B1-ak%C4%B1%C5%9F%C4%B1-iddialar%C4%B1na.

712 “’The Atmosphere Has Become Abnormal’: Han Chinese Views From Xinjiang,” SupChina, November 4, 2020, https://supchina.com/2020/11/04/han-chineseviews-from-xinjiang/.

713 Darren Byler, “‘Truth and reconciliation’: Excerpts From the Xinjiang Clubhouse,” SupChina, March 3, 2021, https://supchina.com/2021/03/03/truth-andreconciliation-excerpts-from-the-xinjiangclubhouse/.

714 “10 Chinese Spies Caught in Kabul Get a Quiet Pardon, Fly Home in Chartered Aircraft,” Hindustan Times, January 4, 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/10-chinese-spies-caught-in-kabul-get-a-quietpardon-fly-home-in-chartered-aircraft/storyYhNI0zjmClMcj6T7TCCwVM.html.

715 “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on March 26, 2021,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, March 27, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1864659.shtml.

716 “Zhu afuhan dashi wang yi huijian a di yi fu zongtong sa li he pibo mei ‘she jiang shengming’,” February 3, 2021, http://af.chinaembassy.org/chn/sgxw/t1850986.htm.

717 “Wang Yi Meets With Head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, July 28, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1895950.shtml

718 “Exclusive: Uyghur Jailbreak Complicates Taliban’s Ties With China,” The Telegraph, October 16, 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/worldnews/2021/10/16/exclusive-uyghur-jailbreakcomplicates-talibans-ties-china/.

719 “Will Afghan Taliban Honor Its Promise to China to Make a Clean Break With ETIM,” Global Times, September 16, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1234477.shtml.

Have been very slow in posting of late for a wide and varied set of reasons – stuff at home, lots of work and generally chaotic start to the year. Made all the worse by current events which seem to continue to trump themselves in misery. Anyway, first up, one of three contributions to this year’s Annual Assessment Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) for my Singaporean host institution the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). This ones provides an overview of events last year in relation to extremism and terrorism linked to Central Asia – either in the region or beyond. As ever, enjoyed doing this with Nodir.

Central Asia

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

Despite the absence of recorded terrorist attacks over the last two years, countering terrorism and extremism remained a security priority for the five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in 2021. This is primarily accrued to potential risks arising from the presence and activities of Central Asian jihadist groups in Syria and neighbouring Afghanistan, where the radical Taliban movement took power in August. In both theatres of conflict, Central Asian fighters continue to fight under the protection and control of bigger militant groups such as the Taliban, Hay ’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Islamic State (IS). Another ongoing challenge is the exploitation by regional groups of online tools to radicalise, recruit and fund-raise both within the region and amongst diaspora communities scattered around Europe, Russia and beyond.

Militant Groups in Afghanistan

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has left Central Asia with a complex security dilemma along its border. While Afghanistan’s strategic landscape may differ from the five Central Asian states in a number of ways, the presence of interlinked cross-border communities, as well as relatively porous borders and linked economies, also binds them together. The overriding regional security concern is Central Asian militant groups that had been fighting alongside the Taliban will take advantage of the situation to regroup and refocus their attention towards Central Asia, using Afghanistan as a springboard. This, alongside the possibility that the wider militancy in Afghanistan might lead once again to an unstable state whose violence might overspill in other ways into the region, has put Central Asian authorities on alert.

For more than two decades, Afghanistan has sheltered various Central Asian militant groups. Currently, four Central Asian militant units, namely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Jamaat Ansarullah (JA), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU or IJG) and the Afghanistan wing of Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) are known to be active there. All four groups operate under the protection and control of the Taliban and retain some ties among themselves. From the late 1990s to early 2010s, IMU, JA, IJU and two other Central Asian groups, Jund Al Khilafah and Jaysh Al Mahdi, which might not be active presently, had carried out some significant attacks in Central Asia from their bases in Afghanistan-Pakistan, while maintaining close links with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda (AQ).

Over the past decade, the aforementioned Taliban-linked groups have not carried out an attack in Central Asia. Nor have there been many large-scale plots disrupted by local governments that were planned by them.651 While this could partly be explained by the Central Asian states’ increased capacity to prevent attacks, another significant factor could be the Taliban’s prohibition of its foreign units to involve themselves in external operations or their sustained focus on fighting the Afghan National Army and western forces.652 While there has not been much public reporting around this, as the Taliban had been in protracted negotiations with the US government in recent years, they did start to issue edicts aimed at their foreign militant allies. For instance, in September 2020, the Taliban reportedly ordered the foreign groups operating from their territory to halt unauthorised travel and recruitment.653 Other leaked messages from the Taliban to their commanders and other groups had contained instructions to refrain from using Afghan territory to plan or execute external attacks, while some also detailed punishments if these groups worked with foreigners without special permission from the central leadership.654

Before capturing Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban used these foreign fighters as foot soldiers in their offensives against the Afghan forces, the US-led coalition and jihadist rivals. This generated a lot of video and other visual content which the groups would actively promote to highlight their activities, further recruit, fund-raise and radicalise. However, since 2020, the Taliban has prohibited Central Asian groups from publishing online photo and video materials of their activities in Afghanistan.655 As a result, their release of online propaganda materials has dropped precipitously. It is unclear how much this correlates with a cessation of activities, but it is likely part of an attempt by the Taliban to hide the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan.

Before the Taliban takeover, the IMU, with less than 700 fighters and their family members, were residing in the Afghan provinces of Faryab, Sar-e Pol and Jowzjan.656 The group was reportedly experiencing financial difficulties after the Taliban reduced financial support to them in the wake of their former leader Usman Ghazi’s defection to IS in 2015. Ghazi was killed by the Taliban as punishment in late 2015. The result of this clash was that the IMU would splinter into two factions: one comprising predominantly ethnic Uzbek militants (led by Jafar Yuldash, the son of Takhir Yuldash, the notorious founding leader of the group who was killed in 2009) and the other with mainly ethnic Tajiks (led by “Ilhom” alias “Usmoni Khon,” Yuldash’s former deputy). IMU has been significantly weakened in recent years by the loss of key leadership, the Taliban’s pressure and ongoing internal fissures within the group. It remains unclear how close the respective factions are with the Taliban, though their continual presence in Taliban controlled areas in Afghanistan shows they are clearly still dependent on their support to some degree.

Unlike the IMU, JA remains a reliable partner of the Taliban. Made up mainly of ethnic Tajiks, the group is known as “the Tajik Taliban” in Afghanistan. Its leader, Muhammad Sharifov (alias “Mahdi Arsalan”), who is originally from Tajikistan’s eastern Rasht Valley, is said to have at least 200 fighters under his command.657 In July and August 2021, the Taliban relied on JA when it captured the northern Afghan provinces. including Badakhshan, which shares a common border with Tajikistan. The Taliban have placed Mahdi and his militants in charge of several districts in the northern region, and armed them with new military vehicles (including Humvees), weaponry and other equipment seized from the toppled Afghan civilian government. While expressing doubts over the seriousness of the threat these groups pose across the border, Tajik authorities have heightened security along their own borders. The Taliban has denied that the militants were planning to infiltrate Tajikistan.658

Separately, the KIB’s Afghan wing, with about 25 to 150 fighters, was based mostly in Badghis. The group had reportedly received funding from its central core in Idlib through hawala methods to increase its operational capability.659 KIB’s leader Dilshod Dekhanov (alias “Jumaboi”) has encouraged the Taliban leadership to bring together all Central Asian militant groups in Afghanistan under his command. Some factions, however, instead proposed the IJU’s current leader, Ilimbek Mamatov (a Kyrgyz national who is also known as Khamidulla), as the overarching commander.660 Overall, the fate of Central Asian groups in Afghanistan, and their potential unification prospects remains unclear since the Taliban returned to power.

Militant Groups in Syria

In Syria, AQ-linked Central Asian combat units such as Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) and KIB’s central core have remained active. As in previous years, both KTJ and KIB are part of the jihadist alliance of HTS, itself an evolution of AQ’s former representative on the Syrian battlefield. There are no official updated numbers on the force strength of KTJ and KIB in 2021. However, relevant reports from 2020 and recent online propaganda videos featuring militant training sessions suggest both remain among the most prominent foreign militant groups in Syria, commanding hundreds of fighters.661

KTJ is still led by Khikmatov (alias “Abdul Aziz”) and Akhliddin Novkatiy (Navqotiy), who serves as his deputy. Like KTJ’s former leader, both figures are hardline Salafi-jihadist ideologues who constantly preach before KTJ fighters and their families and release recorded videos online. Mainly, their propaganda appears designed to emphasise the importance and legitimacy of conducting armed jihad in Syria.

In this light, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan represents an iconic moment for Central Asian groups. In August, KTJ posted a video on its Telegram channel congratulating the Taliban on its “victory,” which it claimed “was achieved through a sustained patience and determined struggle.” In a recent video, Khikmatov also claimed that “the fate of the state built by Morsi” in Egypt was a “reminder of realities that it would be impossible to build an Islamic state through political methods.” For its part, KIB still operates under the command of “Abu Yusuf Muhajir,” who also actively engages in jihadi preaching activities.

Amidst their ongoing dispute for supremacy in Idlib, HTS and Hurras ad-Din (HAD), AQ’s current affiliate in Syria, had also jostled for control over the Central Asian fighters operating in the territory. As discussed in the previous year’s reporting, this had ended with the arrest of KTJ’s former leader, Abu Saloh, by HTS for attempting to defect to HAD. There has been some speculation about his subsequent fate. According to the United Nations’ (UN) reporting, Abu Saloh was given the choice of declaring his affiliation to HTS or being convicted of theft.662 Others speculated that HTS had considered deporting him to Russia, where he is suspected of masterminding the 2017 metro bombing in Saint Petersburg, if it could receive a substantive bounty in exchange.663 Currently, his status is unknown.

Nearly three years after IS’ territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq, Central Asian fighters have become nearly invisible. Whilst many detained IS women and children have been repatriated by their respective governments, the remaining IS fighters from the region have either gone into hiding or are scattered across ungoverned parts of Syria and Iraq and continued fighting. Some of those still at large have also opted to leave the battlefield to return home or relocate elsewhere. For instance in February 2021, Turkish security agencies in the city of Kilis detained Amanbek Samat, a former IS militant from Kazakhstan’s Atyrau region as he attempted to cross the border from Syria.664 Kazakh authorities worked closely with their Turkish counterparts to extradite Amanbek, who was on Kazakhstan’s most wanted terror suspect list.665

Internal Challenges

In 2021, Central Asian countries continued to foil attack plots and arrest suspected terrorists and self radicalised individuals. In the first half of the year, Kazakhstan had recorded 139 criminal cases related to terrorism and extremism, largely involving online radicalisation and the propagation of violence.666 This marked a twenty percent increase over the same period in 2020. Most cases were observed in the southern provinces of Turkistan and Jambyl as well as Shymkent city. In January 2021 in Kyrgyzstan, security agencies arrested a Kyrgyz national for planning to attack a local military unit under the instruction of an unnamed international terrorist group, of which he was suspected of being a member.667 Later in July, a Kyrgyz citizen who returned home from Afghanistan allegedly on the pretext of carrying out an attack was also detained.668 Details around this case were not released, making it hard to assess any potential links to Afghan jihadist groups. However, reflecting local officials’ concerns around the cross-border links of radicalised Kyrgyz, two individuals were arrested in October for their involvement in fund-raising believed to be linked to the January 2017 IS-linked shooting at an Istanbul nightclub.669

In August in Tajikistan, the Minister for Internal Affairs revealed the authorities had thwarted three attacks in the first six months of 2021 in Farkhor, Isfara and Vahdat districts. The foiled attacks were reportedly planned by members of IS and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The latter is banned in Tajikistan and designated an extremist and terrorist organisation.670 The country also arrested 143 suspected members and supporters of other banned terrorist and extremist organisations, including IS, AQ, JA and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Uzbekistan in April, security authorities revealed they had thwarted two attacks in 2020, without providing further details.671 Further rounds of arrests were also conducted across the country throughout 2021, disrupting several online recruitment and fund-raising cells particularly linked to KTJ.672 In June, Uzbek authorities detained members of two separate support cells in Jizzakh and Samarkand for trying to travel to Syria to join KTJ and propagating extremism among residents in these provinces.673 In the same month, police also held another 20 individuals from Sirdaryo on suspicion of distributing ‘extremist materials’, while seizing extremist literature, a laptop, pistol, and sniper rifle.674 As in previous years, no reporting was available from Turkmenistan.

Diaspora Radicalisation

The networking of Central Asian and Russian-speaking fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the ability of such networks to reach out and radicalise some segments of Central Asian and Russian diaspora communities abroad, particularly in Europe and Russia, remains a security concern. In March 2021, investigators in France revealed that Abdoullakh Anzorov, a Chechen immigrant who murdered the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb, was in direct contact in October 2020 with Farrukh Fayzimatov, an Idlib-based Tajik militant, through Instagram right before the murder. Fayzimatov is an active member of HTS who goes by the nom de guerre “Faruq Shami,”675

While it remains unknown what role (if any) Fayzimatov might have played in Paty’s murder, Anzorov reportedly had regular discussions with him about jihadi topics. It also should be noted that Paty’s murder came a month after Fayzimatov called for an attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s offices, while expressing his own readiness to take part in it, in response to the republication of the controversial cartoon of Prophet Muhammad.676 An HTS spokesperson claimed that they did not know Anzorov, but stopped short of condemning the murder.677

Despite allegations that Fayzimatov might have been killed in Idlib, recent videos discussing battleground events in Syria indicate that he is still alive and continues working for HTS as an important virtual jihadist propagandist and fund-raiser. Since 2016, Fayzimatov has produced hundreds of audio and video propaganda materials in Russian and Tajik. In July 2021, the US Treasury Department blacklisted Fayzimatov for providing financial and material support to HTS.678 Through various online crowdfunding campaigns, Fayzimatov has apparently collected several thousand dollars in Bitcoin (BTC) and other cryptocurrencies transferred from multiple US, Russian, Asian and European exchanges.679

Like in recent years, Russian authorities in 2021 continued to investigate and arrest Central Asian migrants suspected of having links to terrorist or extremist groups. Most arrests involved cases of terrorism financing and recruitment as well as attack plots linked to members and supporters of KTJ in particular. For instance in August 2021, Russian security services rounded up 31 suspected members of KTJ in a coordinated operation across Moscow, Yakutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk.680 According to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the detainees were part of an “interprovincial structure of terrorists” that had transferred funds and recruits to Syria and called for committing terrorist crimes in Russia. However, it did not reveal how many of those detainees were from Central Asia.

Similar but smaller scale arrests of Central Asians in Russia with links to KTJ took place in February in Novosibirsk and Tomsk, in May in Kaliningrad, and in October in Moscow and Vladimir. Other frequent arrests involved members and supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) within this migrant community. HT is a transnational pan-Islamist and neo-fundamentalist revolutionary group, which has been banned in Russia and all Central Asian countries and designated an extremist and terrorist organisation. Similar arrests involving HT-linked individuals are conducted regularly in Central Asia, particularly in Kyrgyzstan.

In previous years, concerns had been raised about a segment of the Central Asian diaspora networks in Europe having possible links to terrorist networks in the Syrian and Afghan conflict zones. In 2021, however, there were no major disruptions from this community. Previous cases, however, continue to work their way through the system, with police in Germany finally incarcerating a member of a Tajik cell detained in April 2020 for planning attacks on US military facilities, while posting charges against five of his associates.681 In January, a Greek court also refused an extradition request by Tajikistan against a 27-year-old individual accused of being an IS member. According to reports, the Tajik national, who was initially arrested in Tripoli in November 2020, had claimed the extradition request was politically motivated as he was the persecuted brother-in-law of an IRPT member.682

The case reflects an ongoing issue between Europe and Central Asia involving aspects of cooperation on counterterrorism, where European courts continue to accuse some countries in the region of alleged human rights abuses, which the latter have often refuted Still in other areas, it is notable that Central Asian states are providing some European powers, Germany and France in particular, a great deal of support, including supporting their evacuation of nationals and others stranded in Afghanistan. Beyond Europe, countries in the region have developed bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation, including the extradition of terrorist suspects, with countries such as Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Responses

Broadly, state responses in Central Asia for managing extremism and radicalisation have stayed fairly constant. Governments maintain heightened security measures, while also working through international partnerships to disrupt militant networks. Concurrently, community-level programmes have been rolled out to counter-radicalisation. A major effort deployed (to varying degrees of success and commitment) across the region is the deradicalisation and reintegration of those repatriated from Syria.683 While no independent evaluations of these programmes exist, it is notable that no plot involving returnees has been publicly highlighted yet.

Over the past year, the major shift in the threat picture has been prompted by developments in Afghanistan. Despite shared concerns, the five Central Asian republics have adopted differing responses to the ground situation and the Taliban’s return. Most in the region have viewed the Taliban’s capture of power in Afghanistan as a new reality to contend with, and sought to develop pragmatic but cautious relations with the new authority in Kabul. For now, this pragmatic relationship has been confined to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, re-establishment of mutual trade and discussions on important security issues, including the Taliban’s future relationship with Central Asian militants in territory under its control.

Beyond this, it will likely extend to an establishment of diplomatic relations only after international recognition of the Taliban-led government is attained. Ashgabat was one of the first capitals to engage with the new Taliban government, publicly meeting with them repeatedly long before Kabul fell. During the closing weeks of the Republic government, Turkmenistan faced clashes directly on its borders; as soon as the Taliban took over, they rapidly re-engaged and commenced talks about restarting major infrastructure projects connecting Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

Tashkent sees shutting off economic and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan as something which will only risk greater instability.684 The bigger question for Uzbekistan is the degree to which they will engage a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan into their vision for a greater Central Asia, which includes Afghanistan. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has placed great emphasis on his regional foreign policy initiative and, shortly before the fall of Kabul, hosted a large conference focused on Central and South Asian connectivity, with Afghanistan sitting at its core.

In contrast, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon has chosen to turn his country into the main home for opposition figures to the Taliban, hosting numerous elements from the Northern Alliance faction that used to dominate Kabul. Shortly after the Taliban’s takeover, President Rahmon signed a decree which posthumously awarded the country’s third highest honour, the Order of Ismoili Somoni, to Ahmed Shah Masood and Burhanuddin Rabbani, two dead leaders of the Northern Alliance who had fought against the Taliban and also played a role in Afghanistan’s brutal civil war.685 The awards have been followed by open and loud condemnation of the Taliban and a continuing willingness to back opposition groups.

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have taken a more circumspect approach. While Kyrgyzstan in particular had suffered in the late 1990s from numerous large assaults by militants in the south with links to groups in Afghanistan, both countries have now established direct contact with the Taliban and largely accepted them as a new reality.686 Additionally, they seem keen to work both bilaterally and through regional structures like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to manage their responses.

Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan’s responses have also been bolstered by external military support, including from Russia. In the weeks before Kabul fell, Moscow held joint military exercises near both countries’ borders with Afghanistan. Russia has also sped up military sales, and sent military aid to the region. Mirroring its particular concerns, China undertook some limited joint exercises with Tajik Interior Ministry forces, and offered more support for Tajik border forces. China has also increased its diplomatic activity in Central Asia, though this reflects a wider range of concerns beyond just terrorism and extremism.

Outlook

The fate of Central Asian militants in Afghanistan will largely depend on the commitment, ability, and approach taken by the Taliban in dealing with foreign militants in the country. So far, the discussion around foreign militants has focused on western fears about AQ’s revival, the potential for the Taliban’s implacable adversary, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), to export terrorist violence or how the Taliban are managing the Uyghur contingent wanted by Beijing, believed to be in Afghanistan. Whilst historically, the Uyghur group has been close to the Central Asian militants fighting alongside the Taliban, the latter could now seek to decouple them, reflecting very different concerns in Beijing vis-a-vis Central Asia.687

In Syria, Central Asian fighters continue to play an active part in ongoing fighting, though it is not clear that their trajectory varies from that of HTS or the other remnant IS fighters on the ground. While the Central Asian governments continue to express a high degree of concern about the potential for terrorist violence to affect them, attacks are rare, and few indicators point to this changing soon. As in elsewhere, the spectre of foreign fighters returning home to launch terrorist attacks has not yet materialised, though they remain a concern for regional governments for the near to medium term.

The other key element involves the instances of Central Asians appearing in terrorist networks outside their region. While still an occasional occurrence, that Central Asian jihadist groups and ideologues continue to exploit – to varying degrees – online platforms, such as Telegram, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to post and disseminate their extremist materials underscores their connection with the increasingly diffused diaspora. Sometimes, this has manifested in attacks around the world, though the degree of direction involved is not always clear (for example, the Samuel Paty murder). Instead, the continuing presence and spread of extremist materials, inspiring segments of the Central Asian diaspora, provide another reason for security officials to be concerned about them.

About the Authors

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

651 Attacks which have taken place have been linked elsewhere (for example, the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was linked to Central Asian and Uyghur militants in Syria).

652 Further, it should be noted that sustained kinetic operations by the US-led international coalition has been another important factor in the decline of the militant threat in Afghanistan in the last decade as they had restrained the organisational capability of Central Asian groups, in addition to killing or capturing key jihadist leaders.

653 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 18, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486.

654 Rahmatullah Amiri and Ashley Jackson, “Taliban Narratives on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” Centre for the Study of Armed Groups Working Paper, September 2021, https://cdn.odi.org/media/documents/Taliban_narratives___13_Sept.pdf.

655 “Sovet Bezopasnosti OON: Taliban prodolzhayet pokrovitel’stvovat’ tsentral’noaziatskim dzhikhadistam,” The Center for Studying Regional Threats, March 19, 2021, https://crss.uz/2021/03/19/sovet-bezopasnostioon-taliban-prodolzhaet-pokrovitelstvovatcentralnoaziatskim-dzhixadistam/.

656 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 20.

657 “Commander of Jamaat Ansarullah Radical Group Declares His Readiness to Invade Into Tajikistan,” Asia-Plus, October 7, 2021, https://asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/security/20211007/commander-of-jamaat-ansarullah-radical-group-declares-his-readiness-to-invadeinto-tajikistan.

658 “Tajikistan Concerned About Taliban Plots to Infiltrate From Afghanistan,” RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, September 25, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-concernedtaliban-plots/31477716.html.

659 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 20.

660 Prior to the Taliban takeover, the IJU had about 100 fighters active in Faryab and Kunduz provinces. See “2002 god. Prednovogodniy terakt,” AKIpress, December 27, 2017, https://kg.akipress.org/news:628918.

661 HTS has involved these groups mainly in frontline duties, running checkpoints and offensives against the Syrian army.

662 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (February 3, 2021), 16, https://undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/68.

663 Charles Lister, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Fight for Supremacy in Northwest Syria and the Implications for Global Jihad,” CTC Sentinel 14, no. 7 (September 2021): 1-105, https://ctc.usma.edu/twenty-years-after-9-11-thefight-for-supremacy-in-northwest-syria-and-theimplications-for-global-jihad/.

664 “Zaderzhan kazakhstanets, kotorogo nazvali odnim iz samykh razyskivayemykh terroristov,” Tengrinews, February 20, 2021, https://tengrinews.kz/world_news/zaderjankazahstanets-kotorogo-nazvali-odnim-samyih429572/.

665 “KNB raskryl lichnost’ samogo razyskivayemogo kazakhstantsa,” Sputnik, March 2, 2021, https://ru.sputnik.kz/society/20210302/16427658/KNB-raskryl-lichnost-samogo-razyskivaemogokazakhstantsa.html.

666 “Chislo svyazannykh s ekstremizmom i terrorizmom prestupleniy vyroslo v Kazakhstane,” Tengrinews, September 3, 2021, https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/chislosvyazannyih-ekstremizmom-terrorizmomprestupleniy-447516/.

667 “V Kyrgyzstane predotvratili terakt v voyskovoy chasti — GKNB,” Sputnik, January 2, 2021, https://ru.sputnik.kg/incidents/20210102/1050972720/kyrgyzstan-gknb-terakt-predotvraschenieterrorizm.html.

668 “V Kyrgyzstane zaderzhan boyevik, planirovavshiy sovershit’ terakt,” 24kg, July 16, 2021, https://24.kg/obschestvo/201365_vkyirgyizstane_zaderjan_boevik_planirovavshiy_sovershit_terakt/.

669 https://svodka.akipress.org/news:1736685

670 “MVD: v Tadzhikistane udalos’ predotvratit’ triterakta,” Sputnik, August 4, 2021, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20210804/mvd-tajikistanterakt-1041398103.html.

671 “SGB predotvratila 2 terakta v Uzbekistane v 2020 godu,” Gazeta, April 5, 2021, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2021/04/05/securityservice/.

672 “V Syrdar’ye zaderzhany chleny terroristicheskoy gruppirovki “Katiba Taukhid val’-Dzhikhad,”” Podrobno, July 20, 2021, https://podrobno.uz/cat/obchestvo/v-syrdarezaderzhany-chleny-terroristicheskoy-gruppirovkikatiba-taukhid-val-dzhikhad-/.

673 “Zaderzhany 14 chelovek, podozrevayemykh v popytke primknut’ k boyevikam v Sirii,” Gazeta, June 11, 2021, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2021/06/11/terrorism/; “Jizzaxda Suriyadagi terrorchilik tashkiloti tarkibiga kirmoqchi bo’lgan shaxslar qo’lga olindi,” Daryo, June 15, 2021, https://daryo.uz/k/2021/06/15/jizzaxda-suriyadagiterrorchilik-tashkiloti-tarkibiga-kirmoqchi-bolganshaxslar-qolga-olindi/.

674 “20 chelovek, podozrevayemykh v ekstremizme, zaderzhano v Syrdar’ye,” Gazeta, June 17, 2021, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2021/06/17/extremists/.

675 Thomas Chammah, “Assassinat de Samuel Paty : le dernier contact du tueur identifie en Syrie,” CNews, March 10, 2021, https://www.cnews.fr/videos/france/2021-03-09/assassinat-de-samuel-paty-le-dernier-contactdu-tueur-identifie-en-syrie; “Posobnikom ubiytsy uchitelya vo Frantsii okazalsya urozhenets Tadzhikistana,” Sputnik Tajikistan, March 9, 2021, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20210309/urozhenetstajikistan-soobschnik-terrorista-france1032967527.html.

676 “Kak spetssluzhby Ukrainy formiruyut rusofobskuyu povestku v siriyskom Idlibe,” RIA FAN, December 3, 2020, https://riafan.ru/1345935-kak-specsluzhbyukrainy-formiruyut-rusofobskuyu-povestku-vsiriiskom-idlibe. This came after a separate attempt in France by a young radicalized Pakistani who tried to kill two journalists outside Charlie Hebdo’s old offices.

677 Luc Mathieu, “Le Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, parrain syrien d’Anzorov?” Libération, October 23, 2020, https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:6147-P9D1-JBW3-818W-00000-00&context=1516831. It is worth noting that in other contexts, HTS has been linked to attacks which it has kept silent about – like the 2017 metro bombing in St Petersburg which Russian investigators had linked to the group.

678 “Counter Terrorism Designations; Syria and Syria-Related Designations and Designations Updates,” July 28, 2021, https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financialsanctions/recent-actions/20210728.

679 “OFAC Sanctions Syrian-Based Terrorist Financier and Associated Bitcoin Address,” TRM Labs, July 28, 2021, https://www.trmlabs.com/post/ofac-sanctionssyrian-based-hayet-tahrir-al-sham-terroristfinancier.

680 Roman Shimaev, “«Osushchestvlyali perepravku rekrutov v zony boyevykh deystviy»: FSB zaderzhala boleye 30 terroristov v chetyrokh regionakh Rossii,” Russia Today, August 25, 2021, https://russian.rt.com/russia/article/899393-fsb-zaderzhanie-terrorizm-yacheiki-regiony.

681 “Germany Charges Five Tajiks Over Islamic State Membership,” RFE/RL Tajik Service, February 15, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/germany-charges-fivetajiks-over-is-membership/31104482.html.

682 Yannis Souliotis, “Court Rejects Tajikistan’s Extradition Request for Alleged Jihadist,” Ekatheimerini, January 1, 2021 https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/261187/court-rejects-tajikistan-s-extradition-request-foralleged-jihadist/.

683 Kanymgul Elkeeva and Farangis Najibullah, “Central Asia Struggles to Reintegrate Islamic State Returnees,” RFE/RL, November 6, 2021 https://www.rferl.org/a/central-asia-islamic-staterepatriation/31548973.html.

684 Kamran Bokhari, “The Friend America Needs in Afghanistan,” The Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-friend-americaneeds-in-afghanistan-taliban-aid-diplomacyuzbekistan-11635708869.

685 “Tajikistan Posthumously Awards Afghans Masud, Rabbani With One of Country’s Highest Honors,” RFE/RL Tajik Service, September 2, 2021 https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-masudrabbani-awards/31440569.html.

686 Bruce Pannier, “Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Open Channels With the Taliban,” Qishloq Ovozi, October 1, 2021 https://www.rferl.org/a/kazakhstan-kyrgyzstantaliban/31487684.html.

687 So far, it is hard to gauge the Taliban’s actions in this regard. Having won the war fighting alongside these militant groups, it may see little reason to betray them. There is also a danger in rejecting one group, as the others will immediately fear a similar betrayal in future, potentially stirring tensions within Taliban ranks.

Been very busy with other things of late and have entirely failed to post. As a result a short backlog has accumulated, while some bigger projects and issues elsewhere have kept me rather busy. Anyway: catching up now starting off with a piece for the South China Morning Post on China-Russia relations over events in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year. Crazy to think how far we have come now with everyone’s attention firmly on Ukraine.

Why China won’t lose sleep over Russian troops in Kazakhstan

Suggestions of China-Russia rivalry for power in Central Asia miss the mark. In reality, while both are active in the region, their roles are more complementary than competitive

Russia is the de factor provider of security guarantees, while China is the economic opportunity everyone wants to tap

The outbreak of violence in Kazakhstan has awakened the question of Sino-Russian competition in Central Asia. The assertion of Russian hard power is interpreted as being an example of Moscow getting the upper hand, to Beijing’s detriment.

Yet this analytical framework is unhelpful in really understanding the situation or the nature of the current China-Russia relationship. Beijing and Moscow have no reason to clash with each other over Kazakhstan. Rather, they will play the situation to their advantage and further freeze out the West from the Eurasian heartland.

China and Russia’s broad interests in Kazakhstan are the same. Both want a stable country that is in their collective economic and military thrall, and ideally with looser ties to the West.

China has the upper hand in economic terms, but this is partially because Kazakhstan is rich in the raw materials needed for the Chinese economy. In contrast, Russian firms see Kazakhstan as a state in which they can ply their trade, and to which they have easier access thanks to the Eurasian Economic Union.

Russian service members disembark from a military aircraft as part of a peacekeeping mission from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation amid mass protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, at an airfield in Kazakhstan. This still image is from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry on January 8. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Russian service members disembark from a military aircraft as part of a peacekeeping mission from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation amid mass protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, at an airfield in Kazakhstan. This still image is from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry on January 8. Photo: Handout via Reuters

In strategic security terms, Russia has long had bases in Kazakhstan. The arrival of Russian forces under a Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) banner is new – both in terms of Russian deployments in Kazakhstan and in a first for the CSTO. But it is not clear how or why this might be a challenge to China.

Beijing has not expressed an interest in deploying its forces in Kazakhstan. China and Kazakhstan have done training exercises together, but these have been limited and done either bilaterally (mostly on counterterrorism questions) or under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), of which Russia is also a member.

Beijing has pressured the Kazakh government to do something about dissident networks of Uygurs, and it has in the past sought to get permission for its private security companies to operate in the country. While the Kazakh government was willing to accede to the first request, they were unwilling to let Chinese private security firms in.

None of China’s activity has been about competing with Russia. China is consistently focused on its specific interests in Kazakhstan.

Containers are loaded onto a train to Kazakhstan in the China-Kazakhstan Logistic Base in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, on September 17 last year. The base is an important seaport for Kazakhstan export and provides efficient transit for cargo and consumer goods from the Central Asian country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Containers are loaded onto a train to Kazakhstan in the China-Kazakhstan Logistic Base in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, on September 17 last year. The base is an important seaport for Kazakhstan export and provides efficient transit for cargo and consumer goods from the Central Asian country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Where there was a possible overlap in competition with Russia was on military sales, with Chinese firms having sold high-end weapons to the Kazakh government, like drones, some air and missile systems, as well as technological surveillance and communications tools. It is, of course, possible that these arms sales are depriving Russian companies of contracts, but Kazakh purchasing is done on the basis of quality and price, rather than Beijing trying to edge Moscow out of Kazakhstan.

In fact, China is happiest when someone else is dealing with Central Asian security questions. In the immediate fallout from the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, it was not Chinese soldiers or weapons that were rushed to Central Asian borders, but Russian ones.

On the economic side, Russian companies are active in Central Asia, but cannot compete with their Chinese counterparts, whose appetites are on a different scale.

Similarly, the almost bottomless Chinese consumer market is something that Central Asian producers are increasingly keen to have access to. The entire economic geography of this region is being pulled towards China not because of geopolitics, but because of its sheer economic weight.

The “Silk Road economic belt” strand of the Belt and Road Initiative, which cuts through Central Asia, also ties Russia into China’s wider vision of global prosperity. Consequently, Moscow has little interest in complicating it; rather, it is focused on ensuring it benefits as well.

The point being, this is not a competitive relationship. Beijing and Moscow are both active in Central Asia, but are different actors on the ground. Russia is the de facto provider of security guarantees, while China is the economic opportunity everyone (including Russia) wants to tap.

Seeing this through the lens of competition suggests that Beijing would rather be the one who is stepping in to provide security guarantees, and that Moscow is somehow going to push China out economically. There is little evidence in either capital that this goal is in play. Rather, they both seem happy to operate in parallel, playing a supportive rhetorical role and staying out of each other’s way.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on December 15 last year. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on December 15 last year. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The question is in the medium to longer term – when China starts to worry about being dependent on Russian security guarantees.

At the moment, Beijing seems comfortable. But, at some point, this thinking may change. In many other places, China has increasingly started to try to provide its own security guarantees, and there is no reason to think this might not also take place in Central Asia.

On the other side of the coin, the tipping point for Russia is likely to be when Chinese economic investment into Central Asia starts to turn into unfettered Chinese economic influence and power in Russia directly.

But this concern appears to be receding, as Moscow seems to increasingly welcome and open up its economy to Chinese investment and connections – in large part due to tensions with the West.

But none of this is about Kazakhstan. Rather, this is about China and Russia’s larger posturing and view of their respective roles in the world. Within this context, Beijing is happy if Moscow is going to play a role in tidying up what looks like an increasingly messy bout of political infighting in Kazakhstan, while Moscow is pleased to be seen as the regional security guarantor.

In contrast to many other situations involving China, this is a win-win for them both.

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

With this piece I finally catch up to current events in my writing on Central Asia. I realize have been writing a lot about it late last year, and thus far don’t think events have vastly disproved what I wrote. Certainly, did not predict things, but then no-one really did. This short piece for my UK institutional home RUSI in the wake of events in Kazakhstan has I think stood reasonably well so far, but it remains still to be seen what the longer-term impact of events in Kazakhstan at the end of the year might be.

Kazakhstan in Crisis: It’s About the Country, Not Big Power Politics

The true significance of current events in Central Asia’s biggest country remains domestic.

Protests in the Kazakh city of Aktobe, 4 January 2022. Courtesy of Esetok / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The sudden and chaotic start to the year in Kazakhstan has taken even the most seasoned Central Asia watchers by surprise. The extreme and widespread violence and protests have been made even more shocking by the extraordinary decision of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to request the deployment of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help bring stability back to the country. Given wider global tensions with Russia, the prospect of a Russian-led military deployment in the country has been interpreted through the lens of Russian geopolitics and President Vladimir Putin’s aspirations, but this misses the degree to which this is about events in Kazakhstan.

Well-Concealed Cracks

For years, Kazakhstan has been considered among the most stable and prosperous of the belt of countries surrounding modern Russia. Endowed with enormous mineral wealth, the country seemed to be tacking a very different path. Autocratic and ruled largely by the same group who had been in power at the end of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s elites had also used their wealth to foster a growing middle class, which included large numbers of smart young Kazakhs whose education was paid for to help the country develop. Glittering events and buildings showcased the country to the world as a very different sort of post-Soviet state.

Yet, cracks existed beneath this façade. The ruling class was dogged by tales of massive corruption. Protests would periodically emerge, a sign of deep unhappiness in parts of the country that had not benefitted in the same way as the capital city. But the country was also home to a thriving NGO community and an active (if controlled) media, and was considered a place where a certain degree of openness was permitted. The government would tolerate some dissent, but would ensure that it never challenged its authority.

This generally positive trajectory clearly masked a more brittle structure than was generally thought. While regional watchers were unsurprised by the violence that marred Kyrgyzstan’s elections in October 2020 – the latest in a sadly long history of such violence – the sudden and widespread protests and subsequent violence in Kazakhstan have come as a shock. While it remains to be seen how organised any of it has been, there seems little doubt that underpinning it all is a deep well of local anger.

Botched Handling of Crisis

Part of this can be seen in the government’s initial reaction. Recognising what was happening needed a dramatic response. President Tokayev initially responded by removing from power the cadre of officials linked to the country’s founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev who were blamed for much of the corruption and inequality in the country. The father of the nation who had shepherded his country out of the Russian-Soviet yoke, Nazarbayev had formally stepped down as president in January 2019, handing over the reins of power to Tokayev – a longstanding member of his close cabinet. President Nazarbayev retained his influence, however, including as Chairman of the powerful National Security Council. His family and allies continued to control key parts of the country’s wealth and hold great power. The smooth transfer to Tokayev, however, was praised, although it was never entirely clear how much had actually changed.

Yet Tokayev’s sop to the protestors did not work. Pictures emerged from around the country of police putting down their weapons and joining the protestors. The decision to remove Karim Massimov, a close ally of Nazarbayev, from his role as head of the National Security Council showed how little faith Tokayev had in his own security forces, while also firmly cementing the removal of Nazarbayev’s cadre from the central leadership.

Pulling Out All the Stops

Hence, the decision to call in the CSTO. Fearing that the chaos in the country was escalating out of control and that his own security forces would not hold muster, it is clear that Tokayev felt he needed an external hand to help steady the ship. Russia initially seemed to dismiss the issues in Kazakhstan, with presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling the media ‘we are convinced that our Kazakh friends can independently solve their internal problems’. The Kremlin also warned others not to interfere in Kazakhstan, while various Russian commentators took this one step further and accused the US of being involved in instigating the trouble in Kazakhstan.

While the subsequent Russian action in sending its forces into Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO mission seems to entirely contradict these Kremlin statements, it is a response to events on the ground and requests from Kazakh authorities. This is not an informal invasion, or a way for Russia to firmly embed itself in Kazakhstan to draw the country back under Moscow’s sway. The truth is that Kazakhstan will always likely be tied to Moscow, no matter who is in charge. The country is bound through treaties, geography, infrastructure and population to Russia. Whoever is in power in Nursultan will have to have a good working relationship with Moscow. And while there has undoubtedly been a growth in anti-Russian sentiment in the country over the past few years as the government has sought to develop its own national identity and pride, Moscow is still an important partner (and locals tend to be even more sceptical of other partners like the US or China).

And even if Kazakhstan were to choose a different path, it would likely be towards China. In fact, both Nazarbayev and Tokayev have sought instead to strike a path between Russia and China, leveraging Kazakhstan’s natural wealth to foster an independent, ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy which attempts to stay somewhere in between the two (and even close to the West, where possible – Europe and the US are important economic partners for Kazakhstan).

Implications

Clearly, the credibility of this narrative is now in question. But this should not be interpreted as the success of Russian adventurism. Rather, it should be seen as a reflection of realities on the ground in a country whose government clearly did not appreciate the depth of its people’s unhappiness, which was playing out some complicated internal politics and which was always likely to rely on its traditional security partner, Russia, to play a supportive role in extremis.

The world should not be confused by the tweeting of Russian commentators in the West and meddlesome pro-Kremlin commentators in Moscow – echoed by parts of the Chinese state media – who suggest a larger plot which encompasses Ukraine and Belarus and falls into the geopolitical confrontation between Russia/China and the West. These events are about Kazakhstan.

This is not mere sophistry. For, if the events are seen only through the lens of confrontation between the West and Russia, then current developments could lead Kazakhstan to turn away from the Western direction it has kept trying to steer itself towards. If, however, the emphasis is placed on the issues underpinning the violence in the first place and efforts are focused on persuading the government to try to actually address those problems, it is possible that a better outcome can be found.

Of course, this will be hugely complicated by the presence of Russian forces under the CSTO banner. And it is possible that we will discover the levels of violence that took place over the past few days will fundamentally change things on the ground. But Kazakhstan is a country whose natural wealth and confidence does give it options – even if, at least for the moment, it seems to have taken the wrong ones.

More catch up posting from last month, this time again a look forwards on what the year holds for Afghanistan and Central Asia for Nikkei Asian Review. Wasn’t expecting the chaos in Kazakhstan that followed, but I think the broader trends pointed to will hold and the trouble in Kazakhstan will play into it as well.

2022 look ahead: Central Asia will cement its turn against the West

Expect China and Russia to step in and take advantage

U.S. Marines are on guard during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 20: policymakers in Washington have decided to leave the morass of middle Eurasia to others. (Handout photo from U.S. Marine Corps)   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).”

While this year may have appeared momentous, the truth is that we have not yet seen the full effect of the Taliban taking over in Kabul. This will only emerge as potential opposition forces organize themselves, the regional geopolitics fall into place and the unfolding economic catastrophe starts to bite.

At a wider level, the impact of the American withdrawal from the region will also be felt as the region is pushed closer toward Russia, Iran and China as those three powers continue to square off in an anti-Western geopolitical alignment.

One result of today’s intense and never-ending media cycle is the difficulty to judge the gap between cause and effect. If a particular outcome has not occurred within a day or so, the issue slips from the news pages and we forget about it, only to find ourselves shocked when it later reemerges.

After Afghanistan did not slip back into the brutal civil war that many expected, much of the world’s attention moved elsewhere. Instead, a slow-moving economic crisis has created a catastrophe largely taking place out of our field of vision. But the ramifications of this crisis will emerge.

First, the parlous economic situation will drive many people to seek a life outside Afghanistan. While most will head south to Pakistan or over the border into Iran and even onward to Europe, a growing number of Afghans will flee into the Central Asian region, most likely Tajikistan.

People from Afghanistan cross into the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman, Pakistan, on Sept. 7: the parlous economic situation will drive many people to seek a life outside Afghanistan.   © Reuters

Second, the Taliban is unlikely to feel the need to contain the country’s narcotics industry, whether by design or lack of capability. Given its status as a high-value cash crop, we can expect more Afghans to turn toward narcotics production, with consequences for criminal networks and corruption across Central Asia, as well as greater fragmentation within Afghanistan.

Third, we can expect some sort of opposition to the Taliban to materialize beyond Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has so far been the only group to consistently target the new government.

While there is some truth to rumors of former regime soldiers and other disaffected groups joining ISKP, the group is unlikely to garner much in the way of international support.

This suggests a vacuum that will eventually be filled by a constellation of the various factions who were ejected from Kabul in August. Currently, the most likely candidates appear to be gathering in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, although a credible and effective leader has yet to emerge.

But the problems inside Afghanistan will pale in comparison with the larger geostrategic shifts taking place in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.

While many in Washington were at pains to deny it, there was little hiding the fact that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was more about enabling the U.S. to focus more attention on the Indo-Pacific. It seems clear that policymakers in Washington have decided to leave the morass of middle Eurasia to others.

This does not mean that the West has completely withdrawn from the region. The U.S. and Europe will continue to be major investors and providers of aid and other forms of support across the region. But it does mean that Central Asia will receive less attention from Washington and Brussels.

Expect China and Russia to step in and take active advantage to affirm their increasing control of the Eurasian heartland.

Bordered by China, Russia, Iran, all of which suffer varying degrees of Western sanctions, Afghanistan and Central Asia will be almost entirely surrounded by countries whose relations with Washington are hostile.

That will likely result in a very hard-nosed form of geopolitics dominating regional discourse. Relationships will be entirely transactional and based around ensuring stability at whatever cost.

At the same time, we are likely to see a fairly cynical approach as to how this is achieved, with China and Russia increasingly refusing to go against each other. Unlike in the past, the confrontation with the West has escalated to the point that Moscow and Beijing see a greater strategic utility in keeping differences — Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia, for example — out of public view.

The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are scheduled to meet early next year, the first such in-person summit for President Xi in almost two years, is a reflection of how close the relationship has become.

At an economic level too, the continued economic tightening resulting from COVID-19 is likely to strengthen Beijing’s hand in Central Asia, where many regional economies are already bound to China through investment and trade links.

The current COVID-related stasis favors Chinese trade, which is increasingly delivered through online platforms that are becoming ubiquitous across the Eurasian space and can be delivered along rail and road routes that extend outward from China.

In contrast, shipping goods into China is becoming ever harder, though raw materials seem able to continue to flow without too much difficulty.

The net result is an increasingly one-way Belt and Road Initiative, which will only serve to strengthen China’s economic ties across the region and make countries more dependent on Beijing in ways that will ultimately not help their own economies to diversify.

This is likely to be the story of 2022 for Afghanistan and Central Asia: a potentially unstable Afghanistan alongside a strengthening of Beijing and Moscow’s hands across the region. That is when the gradual freezing of the West from the Eurasian heartland will really start to harden.

Another piece on China and Central Asia from late last year, something that in fact was published in late November but I missed when it first came up. This time an invited longer feature article courtesy of Svante at the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Joint Programme in Washington, DC. An excellent source for information and expertize on Central Asia and the Caucasus. This particular paper is part of a larger series they were doing looking at the region’s relations with outside powers 30 years since independence.

A Steadily Tightening Embrace: China’s Ascent in Central Asia and the Caucasus

Raffaello Pantucci

Chinese engagement with Central Asia and the Caucasus has been on a steady ascent. China accords considerably more importance to Central Asia than to the Caucasus, and the absolutely central aspect of Chinese engagement is Xinjiang. Still, the economic push into Central Asia has continued, in spite of a slowdown in investment lately. Among outside powers, Russia is the only power that Beijing considers a genuine competitor, and even then that relationship is seen through the lens of cooperation at the larger, strategic level. China does faces challenges in Central Asia: one is the refocusing by various militant groups that now treat China as an adversary. Another is the risk that Beijing may inadvertently clash with Moscow’s interests in the region.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at the China plus
Central Asia (C+C5) foreign ministers’ meeting in Xi’an, May 12, 2021

he narrative of China’s engagement with Central Asia and the Caucasus has been one of steady ascension and embrace. There is a clear difference between the two regions from Beijing’s perspective, with Central Asia a region which is intimately tied to China, while the Caucasus remains at one remove. The Central Asian relationship was initially marked by concerns and instability, it has over time developed into an increasingly close relationship. As time has passed, Central Asia has also played an interesting role in Chinese foreign policy thinking, providing an environment in which Beijing can test out new foreign and security policy approaches in a relatively pliant environment. For example, the first international security organization outside UN structures that China was instrumental in creating, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), was focused on Central Asia. And even more importantly, President Xi Jinping chose to inaugurate his keynote foreign policy concept, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in then-Astana (now Nursultan), Kazakhstan.

The Caucasus occupies a very different role in Chinese foreign policy thinking, something more prominently defined by the fact that the region does not share a direct border with China. As a result, it is largely treated as a potential foreign market, and with the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative, largely treated as a region which sits at the heart of the network of infrastructure and trade connectivity that BRI represents across the Eurasian heartland.

Reflecting this distinction, this paper will linger more on the Central Asian relationships, given their higher significance to China. Though it is worth noting that the relationship with the Caucasus is one that is transforming, in large part due to the growing Chinese push in Central Asia which has helped provide an outline of what potential BRI investment can look like, something the countries of the Caucasus are keen to attract.

The structure of Chinese engagement with Central Asia can be broken down into four broad areas: economic, cultural, political and security. In fact, the political aspect touches on all of the other three, but is worth highlighting separately as there is a quite specific level of engagement at a political level that China has undertaken with the region which is worth noting on its own. However, the absolutely central aspect of Chinese engagement with Central Asia which cuts across everything is the importance of Xinjiang in Chinese considerations towards Central Asia. In many ways the sixth Central Asian country (if one places Afghanistan in South Asia), Xinjiang is the primary lens through which China looks at Central Asia and has been regularly at the heart of its engagement and considerations with the region.

Recent Shifts

This focus on Xinjiang is something that has only become more acute in recent times. While Xinjiang has always been a key part of Chinese thinking towards Central Asia, recent difficulties with the region have sharpened Beijing’s focus. In contemporary terms, a turning point in Beijing’s relations with Xinjiang came in 2009 in the wake of widespread disorder in Urumqi which led to a re-evaluation of policy towards the region. But the policy shifts that followed did not resolve the problems. Violence seemed to escalate over the following years and even spread beyond the region. In 2014, Xi Jinping visited the region, on a tour seemingly focused on bolstering local security efforts, a narrative that was undermined by the detonation of a suicide bomber at Urumqi train station during his visit.

This appears to have provided a green light for China to escalate its security focused approach towards the region. This ratcheted up further in 2016 with the appointment of Chen Quanguo to the role of Party Secretary for Xinjiang. Coming from Tibet, Chen had a reputation as a man who could quell minorities, and he brought with him many of the policies he had developed in Tibet. The result was a widespread escalation of the already pervasive police state throughout Xinjiang. This echoed in Central Asia as some from the co-ethnic communities were caught up in the crackdown, leading to protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in particular. It has led to some tensions at a political level, though for the most part Central Asian governments are cautious to avoid condemning Chinese action at home.

Beijing has also found its security concerns have started to grow regionally in Central Asia as well. In late August 2016, the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was targeted by a suicide bomber in a plot that was reportedly directed (or at the very least linked) to Uyghur networks in Syria. While this incident was not repeated (and it was not the first time Chinese officials have been targeted in Kyrgyzstan), it did bring together a number of strands of Chinese concerns. Many of these appear to have focused on Afghanistan in particular, with growing anxiety about Tajikistan in particular being a weak link in the region.

While discussions were likely already underway, by autumn 2016 China formalised an agreement with the Tajik authorities that they would build or refurbish up to 30 or 40 border posts along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan. In August 2016, China hosted the first session of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) an entity that brought together the Chiefs of Defence Staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan, the grouping that surrounds the Wakhan Corridor, China’s physical link to Afghanistan. Reportedly focused on counter-terrorism and border security, the QCCM was in many ways a rebuke of the SCO, but also an effort to formalise the PLA’s role in the region. In October, this was reaffirmed with a large joint counter-terrorism exercise between Chinese and Tajik forces in Gorno-Badakhshan. Sometime during the year, Tajik officials claim the decision to establish a Chinese base in Tajikistan was also formalised, though the existence of the base is something that is still treated in a somewhat opaque manner by both Chinese and Tajik officials. Its existence is beyond dispute at this point, though it appears to be a People’s Armed Police (PAP) base rather than a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base, and it reflects a desire by China to not rely entirely on locals to guarantee its security interests in the region. This has even extended to a growing push by Chinese private security firms in the region more widely, though for the most part this seems to be focused on Kyrgyzstan where there is a greater degree of concern about personal and business security.

But while China has been more focused on security in recent years (something accentuated in the wake of the Taliban takeover in Kabul), the economic push into Central Asia has continued. From Beijing’s perspective, this is in fact an extension of the security approach. China’s ultimate interest is in Xinjiang stability, and they recognize that while a strong security hand can deliver this in the short-term, the longer-term answer is only going to come through economic development and prosperity. Given Xinjiang’s landlocked nature, this means a prosperous neighbourhood in Central Asia is important as well. Furthermore, interest in the rich natural resource opportunities on offer in the region made China an active player in Central Asia – something that was encouraged by the local governments who sought more investment.

However, recent years have seen a slowdown in investment. While China has steadily risen in the rankings as a trading partner for all of the Central Asian countries, investment from China has in fact slowed down. In part this is in response to broader trends in Chinese outward investment where there has been a push by Beijing to try to ensure greater focus on return on investment and therefore more emphasis on secure projects, it is also a reflection on local tensions and problems that have been generated by key projects. Still, there clearly remains a Chinese appetite for gaining economic benefits from the region. The recent opening of two more wells in Turkmenistan to help grow the volume of natural gas the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) buys from the country is one example at a state-driven level, while the constant level of low-level Chinese private sector investment in Kyrgyzstan reflects an appetite by Chinese investors to still have a go. That said, the level of investment is generally down. The exception to this is Uzbekistan, where there has been a notable push since the passing of former leader Islam Karimov to try to open the country to more Chinese investment.

A final key change in China’s economic relations with Central Asia is the growing prominence of Chinese online commerce. Chinese technology has long been widely used in the region, including in the building of key infrastructure. But in recent years there has been a notable increase in Chinese online commerce platforms. They have been both growing their presence in the local market, but also increasingly offering Central Asian firms opportunities to sell directly to Chinese consumers. It has also helped displace some of the traditional markets in the region which used to rely on the import and resale of Chinese goods. Alibaba in particular has followed up on this surge with growing investment in technology and digital platforms in both Central Asia and Russia, including signing multi-billion-dollar investment agreements.

But the key lesson of recent times is that while China still sees economic opportunities from Central Asia as important, it prioritises its security concerns in Xinjiang and as a result lets the relationship be heavily influenced by Urumqi or defines things along the lines of how they will impact Xinjiang. This low prioritization by Beijing in its broader strategic thinking is not unique to Central Asia – Zhongnanhai largely focuses almost single-mindedly on the relationship with the United States as the priority. But the general hesitation is something that was highlighted again recently in discussions over Afghanistan. While Beijing spent time visiting all of the relevant Central Asian players, it does not seem to have stepped forward to provide much by way of leadership and only limited economic and humanitarian support. Rather, Beijing has focused on its own particular interests in Afghanistan, hedging in its relationships with the new authorities and emphasized blaming the U.S. for what has taken place. While this narrative is not new, its particular sharpness emphasises the degree to which China has increasingly decided to see everything through the lens of its great power competition with the United States. For Central Asia, however, it is frustrating to have Beijing – Afghanistan’s wealthiest and most influential neighbour – continue to hedge in a situation where they are clearly concerned about what the future holds.

Looking across the Caspian, in the Caucasus, there is a very limited security relationship to speak of with the countries and little evidence of Beijing pushing to get involved. China for the most part wants to avoid entanglements or trying to act as a broker in clashes between the various regional powers. The economic motivation to engage in the Caucasus is there, and Georgia in particular has warmly embraced the BRI concept, going so far as to sign a Free Trade Agreement with Beijing in 2016. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia are also willing partners in the BRI, but the overall size of the region and its resources is relatively limited and does not have the same physical links to China, or Uyghur related security concerns that justify an enhanced attention. As a result, what engagement there has been has tended to be at a lower level, with Chinese regions (like Xinjiang) leading in relations, and specific companies pushing in to reap opportunities they see. The degree of state coordination and direction behind all of this is unclear.

China’s Views on Central Asia and the Caucasus

Traditionally, Beijing has seen Central Asia and the Caucasus through a Russian lens. Chinese experts looking at the region tend to speak Russian, and constantly refer to the fact that Beijing would not do anything in the region without consulting their Russian partners. Broadly speaking, China sees the region as part of a wider former Soviet belt, though there is a clear distinction in interest and attention with regards to Central Asia as opposed to the Caucasus or Central and Eastern Europe. While in diplomatic staffing terms, it seems as though China treats the region as a single space (diplomats are shuffled between posts) this is likely a reflection of linguistic requirements more than anything else. Central Asia does seem to register as a higher priority than the other areas – though Central and Eastern Europe has developed as a point of interest for Beijing given its role in China-Europe relations, and their close link to the U.S.

In practical terms, China has distinct approaches to each country in Central Asia and is able to impose its views to varying degrees. In Turkmenistan, the opaque nature of the country is something that confuses China as much as anyone else, though it is clear that given the importance of Chinese energy-related income, Ashgabat treats Beijing as a closer partner than others. Beijing does not appear very preoccupied with the closed nature of the country as it has continued to deliver on the energy requirements China wants, though even CNPC has struggled to manage the Turkmen banking system, a reality that illustrates the difficulty of operating within the country. China sees Turkmenistan largely as an opportunity, a perspective that does not appear to have changed much over the past decades, though it has not been without frustrations for Beijing along the way. The Turkmen in turn are not thrilled at being reliant on China as their main customer and have sought (and thus far for the most part failed) to diversify. This is something Beijing has observed passively.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are seen by Beijing as significant enough players that Beijing is willing to accord them with considerable respect and appear to engage them on the terms they want to be engaged. Beijing views Uzbekistan as a potential opportunity, and China recognizes both the economic opportunity and the relevance of Tashkent as a regional power broker and player. In Kazakhstan, China long played to Nursultan Nazarbayev’s sense of power and influence, though it has also on occasion sought to push its interests in more strident terms behind closed doors. China and Kazakhstan have managed, however, to keep these tensions out of the headlines, though the bubbling Sinophobia that is visible in the country is often used by political players to cause trouble and has placed practical difficulties on companies operating in the country. This in addition to the fact that some of the angriest expressions regionally towards China’s crackdown in Xinjiang can be found in Kazakhstan have created some tensions. However, both governments seem keen to try to keep them under control.

Finally, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are seen in a similar basket by Beijing as powers that are largely demandeurs in their relationship with Beijing. China is rapidly becoming their most significant economic partner, and Beijing has little sense of confidence in their ability to deliver on security outcomes within their borders which address Chinese concerns. This is reflected in a growing bilateral security relationship, as well as a willingness by Chinese officials to throw their weight around in bilateral engagements. At the same time, Beijing is unable to control local sentiment which is increasingly anti-Chinese in both countries, something that has caused some friction for Chinese investors – in particular in Kyrgyzstan.

This state of relations is largely reflective of the broader trajectory over time of China’s relations with the region. They have stayed fairly static, with the most significant changes coming in the relationship with Uzbekistan which went from being completely closed to entirely open. In all of the other cases, the current approach is largely an extension of how China has seen the country for the past few years, with growing Chinese confidence and wealth often being the main change. The key external issue for Beijing with the region, however, is not really within the region, but rather with Moscow, where China’s growing influence in Central Asia has over time created a greater sense of tension. While it is clear that Russia still has some very strong levers of influence that surpass China’s, there is an awareness in Beijing that there is some sensitivity here with regards Moscow. And Russia in turn appears to have a sense of concern that the region could become an entry point for unfettered Chinese investment and influence into their domestic economy. At the same time, this awareness and sensitivity has not slowed any Chinese initiatives.

Overall, however, Central Asia does not register very high in Beijing’s broader considerations. This was most clearly shown recently in the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s willingness during the pandemic to amplify rumours started by Russian authorities about bioweapons labs that had been given US government support in the post-Soviet space, including some in Kazakhstan, might be the source of COVID-19. This alongside a series of articles that were widely disseminated in the Chinese media in 2020 which appeared to suggest that Central Asian countries were not in fact independent countries, but rather provinces of China, all served to highlight the reality that Beijing spends very little time thinking in much of a considered way about how Central Asia sees China. The assumption from Beijing is that these powers will always want and need a relationship with China, meaning Beijing can largely proceed as it wants.

China’s priority with Central Asia is Xinjiang. This is the case in terms of the region’s potential as a place where dissidents can gather to threaten China, or in terms of the region causing problems for China’s domestic security and economic stability approach. Within this context, the two priority countries are Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which share borders with China and also have substantial Uyghur diaspora, in addition to the ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz communities in Xinjiang. Kazakhstan also has the distinction of being an important source of imported natural resources, both in hydrocarbon as well as mineral terms. It is also the main conduit for the major transport routes from China to Europe along the Belt and Road. This elevates the country to some degree above the others.

In the Caucasus, the calculation is different. In many ways, the Caucasus is simply another foreign region with which it needs to engage and consequently it is treated as thus. The BRI is a major consideration with the region, given its location at the heart of where many of the routes across the Eurasian landmass would flow. In dealing with the countries, China is always conscious of the Russian relationship, and is more likely to defer to Moscow than it necessarily would in Central Asia. The region has tried to use China as a card to play in its wider geopolitical struggles with Russia, or the west. But Beijing has little interest in getting dragged into these clashes, and consequently engages at a utilitarian level.

Russia is the only power that Beijing considers a genuine competitor in Central Asia. And even there, it is largely seen through the lens of cooperation at a more strategic level, where Beijing is more focused on its larger relationship with Moscow than its more limited relations with the Central Asian capitals. With the Caucasus the calculation is even stronger, with even fewer reasons for China to not defer to Russian concerns. The only interesting wrinkle to this is the Russian war with Georgia in 2008 which was an act which Beijing was not happy about – suggesting as it did a world order in which neighbours could recognize minority communities and then them use as a context to invade. The precedent set by Moscow was one Beijing did not appreciate, and expressed displeasure about in closer doors, though stopped short of open condemnation of Moscow. This event, however, did not change Beijing’s broader strategic calculus towards the region though it did emphasize the broader awkwardness of the relationship with Moscow.

When looking to other capitals, it has entertained opportunities for cooperation with Europe (through joint projects between Chinese entities and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and broader discussions about possible Belt and Road cooperation) and its energy firms have entered into large-scale consortia with other international energy companies in the region. China has cooperated in the past with both India and the United States bilaterally in Afghanistan, but there has been little evidence of much desire to expand such cooperation in Central Asia. There has been some cooperation with Turkish intelligence in the region, though this has been on narrow concerns. At a strategic level, it is not clear how much Beijing focuses on Turkey, Iran or individual European actors within the region.

China has also played a role in advancing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a major regional institution in which all of the Central Asian powers, except Turkmenistan, have membership and extra-regional powers India, Pakistan and Russia are members, with others like Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus, Mongolia or Sri Lanka have some stake. Yet, China’s treatment of the SCO is in some ways exemplary of its broader willingness to work with others in Central Asia. Beijing never seems to reject engagement, but this is not always followed by action. This is a reflection of China’s sense of confidence in the region, where Beijing for the most part seems to assume a level unassailable importance which is ultimately going to trump all others. The one power they see as a potential competitor is Moscow, but there China recognizes that the overall geostrategic relationship is more significant than Central Asia meaning that for the time being, it will not entirely disregard Russia’s wishes and Moscow is similarly unlikely to cause too much of a fuss.

The Future

China’s influence and engagement with Central Asia and the Caucasus is likely to continue on an upward trajectory over the next five years. While events in Afghanistan have created a new level of potential uncertainty, China’s unwillingness to step forward into a role of responsibility or leadership highlights the likelihood that Beijing will simply continue to hedge in Afghanistan going forwards. Even in the event of eventual recognition of the Taliban government, it is unlikely that China will pour in vast sums of investment or strengthen its security presence, but rather it will seek to continue to invest in securing its secondary borders with the country – principally in Tajikistan and Pakistan. This might extend to Uzbekistan (though likely unnecessary) and possibly Turkmenistan (though Ashgabat is likely to continue to be highly reticent in this regard).

The dilemma, however, will be if Uyghur networks are able to reestablish themselves in any great strength in Afghanistan either under Taliban protection or take advantage of an unstable environment in the country. Beyond this as well, there has been a notable refocusing by various militant groups across the region towards treating China as an adversary. The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) recently launched an attack in which they specifically menaced China’s cooperation with the Taliban government. This comes atop an increasing rate of attacks against Chinese nationals by separatists and jihadists in Pakistan. All of this might force Beijing’s hand, though it is still not clear that China would abandon its current view of Afghanistan as a “Graveyard of Empires.” Rather, it is likely that Beijing would find other local actors to engage with to manage its problems. These could come from within the various factions in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Central Asia.

The relationships with the Caucasus are likely to going to continue to grow, and it is the one with Georgia that probably bears closest watching. The country has made itself the most welcoming towards Chinese investment, something that has been done to specifically help Tbilisi hedge against western abandonment and Russian incursion. It will be an interesting strategic question to see how Beijing comes out should Moscow try something again, and the relationship might become an interesting bellwether of the broader China-Russia relationship. In that, should Moscow start to do something in Georgia which damages Chinese firms, endangers nationals, or again sets a new norm in international behavior Beijing is not happy with, it will interesting to see how the two manage the situation.

With regards Central Asia, the greatest potential risk to Beijing’s future in the region is that it lets its growing hubris get ahead of itself to the point that it entirely overlooks Moscow’s concerns in particular. While until now Russia has seemed willing to simply let China sweep in, events in Afghanistan have highlighted to Moscow once again the need to have direct presence and influence in the region. And this needs to be done with effective coordination with Beijing. Should Beijing continue to expand its influence unabated in Central Asia and start to use the region as a staging point for greater economic penetration into Russia that starts to look like it might be undermining Moscow’s control, it is possible that a clash could take place. While at the moment the geopolitical sands are aligned towards Beijing and Moscow staying in lockstep in confrontation with the west, the question for the future will be whether China starts to take this for granted or its hubris gets the best of calculations that recognize Russia’s contribution to its interests in the region. Whatever the case, Beijing will be a significant (if not the most significant) actor in Central Asia, but it will be a much more complicated ascent if it is done in an antagonistic manner with Moscow.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). He is the author of the forthcoming Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022.

It is a new year and there is a lot going on, something that I mean in every way. A lot of big projects landing this year, as well as various substantial papers. That on top of stuff in life in general means it is going to be very busy, and it seems as though posting material on here has already fallen foul of my scheduling! Am going to try to catch up slowly on myself, but have quite a few bits to do. Am also going to try to get back to posting my media comment highlights as well, but that is going to be an adventure for another day. First of all, a piece for the ever wonderful Nikkei Asian Review which ran back in early December before the current chaos in Kazakhstan. I have a lot more on those events which will come in due course, and of course all of this China-Central Asia writing is hopefully whetting your appetite for the forthcoming book, Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, which should be landing in April this year (and if you are so minded, can be pre-ordered here). A lot more on this to come as you can imagine.

Ties that bind Kazakhstan to China are starting to unravel

Frustrations with Beijing are becoming increasingly visible

Nursultan Nazarbayev, right, and Xi Jinping attend a news briefing after signing bilateral documents in Astana in September 2013: Kazakhstan’s view on its connections to China is not as rosy as they once were.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).”

When President Xi Jinping launched China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, he chose to do it in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana, where the concept of connectivity with China has been playing out for years.

Since then, Astana has changed its name to Nursultan, and Kazakhstan’s view on its connections to China is not as rosy as they were when the Silk Road Economic Belt was launched.

Among the countries that most warmly welcomed the Belt and Road Initiative, Kazakhstan had already been embracing Chinese investment for some time. A year after Xi’s speech, then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev inaugurated his own national vision Nurly Zhol, or Bright Path, which consciously sought to build on what was then called the Silk Road Economic Belt that President Xi had announced in Astana. Kazakhstan predicated its national development on China’s new foreign policy vision.

Yet, nearly a decade later, Kazakhstan is finding binding itself tightly to Beijing comes with as many problems as benefits.

Some of these issues are long-standing. In mid-November, Kazakh authorities reported that the water level in Lake Balkhash will fall to a critical point by 2040 unless something urgent is done, in particular at the consumer end of the river Ile in China. Kazakh authorities are developing plans, but most of them involve requiring China to curb its water consumption. Shrinking aquifers are not a new problem, but it has a growing urgency.

This is not the only waterway that Kazakhstan has problems with. Its shared rivers with Russia and Uzbekistan also suffer from similar problems, but the Chinese water consumption is causing the drying up of a critical lake.

But while too much Kazakh water is flowing into China, not enough Kazakh goods are. According to Kazakh data, between January and September 2021, food exports to China dropped 78%.

By March, a bottleneck of some 12,000 railcars had accumulated, and long queues of trucks were stopped at the border as stringent Chinese COVID-19 regulations prevented Kazakh products from getting in at the same rate as they were before.

Trains loaded with containers at the Altynkol railway station near the border with China in Kazakhstan, pictured on Oct. 26: stringent Chinese COVID-19 regulations prevented Kazakh products from getting in.   © Reuters

To the extreme irritation of Kazakh producers, transit traffic passing through Kazakhstan to and from China is facing no such delays. In fact, transit traffic has increased. This would seem to violate a key Belt and Road concept, which is supposed to be all about improving trade and connectivity among China’s neighbors first and foremost.

Another aspect of the Belt and Road idea that Central Asian nations have always liked is the idea that as manufacturing got priced out of China, production would move into their countries.

While Kazakhstan was never going to be that attractive for low-end manufacturers, the country did hope to reap some benefit from China’s economic boom, not just in terms of trade but helping its economy advance, and succeed in attracting some Chinese companies across the border.

Beijing’s decision to crack down on cryptocurrency mining has offered an unexpected opportunity for this transfer. Since China moved to shut down bitcoin mining in May, a substantial number of Chinese companies migrated to Kazakhstan, attracted by the country’s tech-friendly policies and cheap electricity.

However, these miners’ electricity consumption was too much for the Kazakh national grid to bear, forcing them to request more electricity from neighboring Russia that has created a new set of tensions with Moscow. This unexpected surge in demand for electricity is not the sort of technology transfer Kazakhstan was hoping for.

There is an element to which blaming all of these problems on the BRI is unfair. Geography can often be seen as the root issue. Similar issues are less relevant in more distant BRI countries. But at the same time, it does show the dangers of being overdependent on China, and how abrupt changes within China can have destabilizing consequences on countries that are heavily dependent. It also quite clearly undermines the win-win narrative often painted at the heart of BRI.

While Beijing continues to show a positive face with Kazakhstan, they have also let the country fall foul of the narratives stirred up during the pandemic. When Moscow started to spread stories that COVID-19 may have emerged from laboratories in Kazakhstan that the U.S. had supported after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Beijing fanned the flames.

And when a series of articles emerged in the Chinese media suggesting Kazakhstan was, in fact, a historical part of China, leading to an uproar on Kazakh social media, the Chinese embassy in Nursultan did not apologize and instead blamed it all on the West.

All of this for the country where President Xi launched his keynote foreign policy initiative and which has eagerly embraced China as an economic, security and cultural partner.

In some ways, Kazakhstan had no choice, forced by geography to be bound to China. But it is slowly finding that the ties that BRI fosters are not necessarily ones that deliver as you expect.

A brief piece drawing on some really interesting discussions have been having with Ajmal, an old contact from Kabul who has now spread his wings further. This first piece together is an excellent snapshot of events in Afghanistan through the lens of the pine nut for the Diplomat, with more to come. The larger topic of China-Afghanistan is a focus am going to continue on and of course is a big part of the upcoming book.

Why Is Beijing Going Nuts for Afghan Pine Nuts?

The trade offers concrete and immediate benefits to both the Chinese government and the Taliban

Credit: Depositphotos

China’s exercise of economic statecraft to exert influence in pursuit of foreign policy objectives is nothing new. Nor are its security interests in Afghanistan. This combination is usually assumed to come together in the form of mineral exploitation in exchange for security guarantees. 

But it is possible that China is planning a more complicated game which reduces its exposure but benefits a larger number of Afghans. Deliveries of pine nuts to China were first formalized in 2018 under the Western-backed government in Kabul with annual exports worth up to $800 million. By end of 2019, Afghan traders had inked over $2 billion worth of contracts with China for exporting pine nuts over a period of five years. Unlike the large and complicated mineral deals whose stories fill the press, the export of agricultural products like pine nuts is a way to immediately reach a large community of Afghan farmers, something the Taliban are very happy about and Beijing can commit to at little cost.

The China-Afghan pine nut story is a complicated one. While it can be simply explained as the law of supply and demand (with an almost bottomless consumer market in China that can absorb almost anything), a question not being asked is why China picked pine nuts among many other high-quality Afghan cash crops on which it could focus its attention. 

A key reason is location. Pine nuts are naturally grown in the wild in Laghman, Kunar, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces. These areas have long been hotbeds of insurgent activity from the Haqqani network, in Khost, Paktia, and Paktika, to the Islamic State (ISK), in Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman. These are also the areas where China feels it faces greater security threats from groups like the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). This could explain why China suddenly developed a taste for Afghan pine nuts.

While China’s facilitation of output-type contacts (whereby the buyer guarantees purchase levels as long as quality is maintained) and removal of logistical barriers have lifted thousands of pine nut growers out of poverty, it has also made these pine nut growing areas export-dependent on China. This gives China an interesting form of leverage and economic influence over the inhabitants of this region regardless of which government rules in Kabul. 

Chinese purchasers of pine nuts for export were always keener to be in direct touch with the farmers than to use middle men. The result of this link might be seen in an espionage case that blew up in Kabul in December 2020, when the old local intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), rolled up a cell of 10 Chinese citizens on accusations of espionage. According to stories that later emerged, one of the purported spies was allegedly involved in pine nut export, and the network was reported to have been building links to the Haqqani Network. 

Whatever the details of this case, pine nuts remain at the top of China’s Afghan agenda. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to Doha to meet Taliban officials at the end of October coincided with the harvest season for pine nuts. With air corridors closed and all financial transactions with Afghanistan disrupted, the pressure was building on the Taliban to re-establish international trade. The Afghanistan Pine Nuts Union issued a statement calling on the Taliban administration to ban the smuggling of pine nuts and resume air corridors to facilitate exports to China. 

In the staged portion of Wang’s visit to Doha a short video was released of Taliban Foreign Minister designate Amir Khan Muttaqi handing over an elaborate box of pine nuts. The topic was not reported as coming up during Wang’s meeting with Taliban Deputy Prime Minister designate Abdul Ghani Baradar, where instead he was reported as focusing on China’s security concerns, stating “China hopes and believes that the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with the ETIM and other terrorist organizations, and take effective measures to resolutely crack down on them.”

While it is believed that China discussed a whole host of economic and state building opportunities, re-establishing the pine nuts air bridge was the most practical and easy solution with immediate wins for both sides. And China was able to show results very quickly. On November 1, the first flight of the restarted air corridor went to Shanghai, bringing with it 45 tonnes of pine nuts. A week later, online superstar salesman Li “lipstick king” Jiaqi and CCTV news anchor Wang Bingbing showcased cans of Afghan pine nuts on their online shopping show, shifting 120,000 cans with the support of Chen Zhong, a Chinese Pashto speaker and expert on Afghanistan. 

This rapid market to cash transaction highlights part of the way out of Afghanistan’s current liquidity crisis to the Taliban, while also giving China an easy way of supporting the Afghan economy at little cost to itself. It also gave the Taliban a way of showing their positive capability as export promoters to a part of the country where dangerous groups thrive.

Of course, both China and the Taliban recognize that the long-term answer to Afghanistan’s economic stagnation does not lie in pine nuts. According to reliable sources at the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, samples of rare earths from Helmand’s Khanneshin district were handed to a Chinese delegation that met the Taliban acting minister of mines shortly after Wang’s visit to Doha. A delegation of Chinese company representatives were issued special visas and were reported to have visited Kabul in early November to conduct site inspections of sites of potential lithium mines, though their official read-out was very wary of committing to anything specific.

China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has restarted exploring opportunities in the Amu Darya field it had been thrown out from under the former government. Production from 11 wells at Angot and Kashkari blocks can start fairly quickly and without any large upfront investment because much of the existing infrastructure and wells were rehabilitated when CNPC took over the operations 10 years ago. 

With global oil prices above $80 a barrel for the first time in three years, and a severe winter ahead of a cash-strapped Afghan population, resuming production from Amu Darya could provide another “win-win” opportunity for China and the Taliban government. There are also reports that MCC, the firm that won the tender to mine the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar, have sent teams to discuss restarting with the Taliban – though they state they remain highly concerned about the security situation. 

But all of these projects are longer-term and far more expensive. It will require considerable outlay on the Chinese side for a project which may or may not work, and will take a long time to deliver cash to the government and people. Pine nuts in contrast offer a quick turnaround which both helps get currency into the hands of farmers and the laborers they need to harvest the nuts, and requires little major commitment by China except easing access to the Chinese consumer market. They also provide an interesting possible avenue for Chinese intelligence to gain direct contact in areas of concern. 

All in all, it is a win-win that both the Taliban and Beijing can sign off on with little cost, but lots of positive imagery on all sides. Crucially, it allows China to play an economic role and deal with security issues, all without feeling like it is being dragged too far into the Afghan quagmire.

Guest Authors

Ajmal Waziri is an international development advisor with a research interest in the political economy of natural resources.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and the author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” (Oxford University Press, 2022).