Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Almost caught up on re-publishing my writing here after a long period of delay, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit pointing to the optics of the session as one of the key attractions to some of the members.

China and Russia to showcase alternative world order at SCO Summit

Samarkand gathering demonstrates sanctioned states still have allies of substance

Xi Jinping is set to attend as he makes his first international trip since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.   © AP

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

As the West advances a world order constructed around institutional structures developed after World War II, those leading the charge against the West are embracing their own institutions to demonstrate their options.

This week, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will hold its annual heads of state summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, bringing together Russia, China, Iran and a host of other nations. The narrative these countries want to advance is that there is another order out there beyond the Western-imposed one, as thin as it often seems on closer inspection.

This year’s summit is attracting more interest than previously as Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to attend as he makes his first international trip since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. The fact that he has chosen Central Asia and an SCO heads of state summit to do this, even before confirmation of his third term as Communist Party leader at the party’s congress next month, is a reflection of the importance of the SCO to Beijing.

The exact agenda of the summit is still being set, but it is likely that Afghanistan, new members and connectivity will be key items.

Afghanistan has been a perennial issue on which the SCO has failed to deliver. With the full accession of Iran to the group next year, Afghanistan will be almost entirely engulfed geographically by full SCO members, save for uncompromisingly neutral Turkmenistan, but Iran has been joining SCO summits for a while and Turkmenistan will be there this year too.

Taliban fighters in Kabul celebrate the first anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops on Aug. 31: Afghanistan has been a perennial issue on which the SCO has failed to deliver.   © AP

Notwithstanding the bloc’s clear interest in resolving Afghanistan’s long-standing issues, the organization has done nothing to help it, nor has it come together effectively to deal with the problems emanating from the country.

It is unlikely we will see much material progress this time either amid continuing uncertainty about the longer-term viability of the Taliban authorities, as well as concerns about their mixed attempts to rein in militant groups.

The answer from Uzbekistan’s perspective has been to seek ways of trying to engage with the new Taliban authorities. It has been keen for some time to push a narrative of greater connectivity across Eurasia.

Rather than simply piggyback on China’s Belt and Road Initiative vision, Tashkent has sought to instead cultivate a vision of connectivity between Central and South Asia, to both tap markets and seek escape from the region’s landlocked nature.

But these practical issues are side stories to the main narrative that will emerge from the Samarkand summit.

Attendees are expected to include the leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Mongolia, Iran and Belarus, which are each seeking to highlight their inclusion and links to the SCO. Rumors suggest Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may appear too.

In joining with the leaders of existing members Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan and China, they will be part of a constellation of powers that for various reasons, and to different degrees, have tensions with the West.

For all of these powers, there is a pleasing visual utility to being present at a colloquium of such stature, representing at least a third of the world’s population and with no Westerners present. They can all show that notwithstanding the sanctions or sanctimony thrown at them by the West, they have allies of substance who welcome them with open arms.

There is no doubt that the SCO is nowhere near capable of competing with entities like the Group of Seven, NATO or the EU, but this is not the point. The organization is one that marches to its own beat, has only grown in its 20-plus years and continues to enlarge the volume of topics that it engages on.

It has helped normalize China’s role as a major player on the Eurasian continent while also providing an opportunity for Chinese diplomats, officials and business executives to engage regularly at multiple levels with their neighbors and a growing range of countries. Even supposed Western allies like India and Turkey see value in showing up for the meetings to soak in a non-Western-led order that they can appreciate being involved in.

There is no doubt that the members have little trust in one another, and the international order they are building is flawed. But at the same time, the interesting question is whether this matters to them.

The optics are good enough as the summitry gets positive play in other parts of the world. The event presents the impression, with some apparent foundation, that the democratic order advanced by the West is not the only achievable structure out there.

As the anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Kabul took place, did a bunch of work around what China has been doing and achieved during this first year. This first piece is for Nikkei, with a few more coming.

Afghanistan shows the limits of China’s Belt and Road

Despite its engagement with the Taliban, Beijing is unable to reach its goals

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, stands next to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, acting deputy prime minister of the Afghan Taliban’s caretaker government, in Kabul on Mar. 24: There is little trust in China on the Taliban side.   © Xinhua/AP

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

A decade ago, Peking University international studies professor Wang Jisi set the conceptual foundation for what would become the Belt and Road Initiative with an essay called “Marching Westwards.”

In it, Wang decried the excessive focus of Chinese foreign policy on Washington and the Asia-Pacific region, highlighting instead the opportunities and threats along China’s western land borders.

Billions of dollars of BRI plans and projects later, though, China remains as obsessed with Washington and the Asia-Pacific as ever. At the same time, the limits of its foreign policy capabilities are coming into stark relief in Afghanistan.

Among Afghanistan’s neighbors, none have engaged more visibly with the Taliban regime that took power a year ago than China.

Its Kabul embassy has led Beijing’s diplomatic push, which has helped get Taliban officials included in various regional forums. Chinese institutions have extended millions of dollars in aid while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing has been a leading voice in calling for Washington to release $7 billion in frozen Afghan central bank funds. In general, Beijing rarely wastes an opportunity to condemn the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces last year and contrast it with China’s own contributions.

Yet all of this positive engagement has not advanced the goals Beijing actually wants to achieve.

Beijing hoped that the Taliban would form a broad-based government whose inclusiveness would support regime stability, but instead a single faction dominates the new administration.

The Taliban has failed to hand over Uyghur fighters as Beijing wanted or apparently even to curtail their activity within the country. Efforts to rein in militant groups seeking to undermine the Pakistani government, such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, have been limited. Indeed, the TTP appears to have offered training to Balochi separatists and other militants who are targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan. On top of that, the Taliban has confounded expectations by actively courting New Delhi.

The one lever Beijing has to play in Afghanistan is economic investment, but so far, it is not clear that it quite knows how to use that to advance its goals. There has been a surge of Chinese businessmen and traders going into Afghanistan, but this is most likely simply the result of entrepreneurs sensing an opportunity amid the decline in violence since the Taliban ousted the previous U.S.-backed government.

Growth in direct trade has been limited so far, and China’s big state-owned enterprises are treading carefully. The complete lack of infrastructure or managerial capability on the Afghan side limits their ambition, alongside concerns about what they might be getting themselves into.

In fact, economic activity may prove to be a millstone for Beijing. China could end up finding that the perceived economic engagement that it could offer Afghanistan will be seen as a silver-bullet solution to the country’s problems, raising expectations of what China can offer the country beyond what is actually possible.

The Belt and Road Initiative was always an ill-fit for Afghanistan. Most BRI maps showed routes running westward from China going around the country.

What BRI activity in Afghanistan could look like now is even harder to imagine at a moment when the wider narrative around the program is turning to ensuring returns on investment and focusing on viable opportunities. The most obvious link would be to build connections between the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Afghanistan, but this would require better relations between Kabul and Islamabad.

It is also clear that there is little trust in China on the Taliban side. Some Taliban factions are resisting any moves to curtail Uyghur militants who have given the movement support. Some are concerned about Beijing’s closeness to Islamabad. Incoming Chinese traders are often seen in a suspicious light too.

There may be a lot of noise around the potential opportunities China offers, but this is likely increasingly matched by skepticism about how much might actually materialize.

All of this is quite a turnaround for Beijing. Prior to the Taliban takeover, China enjoyed a far more propitious environment and government in Kabul.

While it was clear that trust levels were low and declining in the months before the government’s fall, there was at least a counterparty Beijing could deal with which would target militants it did not like.

Afghanistan used to be a place where China could run joint projects with India, the U.S. and others. Now instead, Afghanistan is increasingly seen through the light of great power competition as merely another place where Washington and its proxies might undermine Chinese interests.

The poor hand China has to play was most vividly articulated recently by the U.S. drone strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri. To some degree, China had previously been able to count on Washington acting as a backstop for problems in Afghanistan, with U.S. forces even launching airstrikes on the Taliban’s Uyghur allies as a common enemy.

The U.S. still has enemies in Afghanistan and, as was seen with the death of al-Zawahri, the capability to do something about them, even in Beijing’s backyard, while China lacks these same kinetic tools and capabilities to go after its adversaries.

A decade on from the birth of the BRI concept, Afghanistan highlights Beijing’s difficulty in using its development model as a foreign policy concept to be replicated around the world. It also illustrates the limits of Chinese power projection and its ability to generate change on the ground abroad.

Still working through the backlog, this time a piece for the excellent Italian think tank ISPI on the anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul looking at the China-Afghanistan relationship. Lots more on this topic to come.

China in Afghanistan: The Year of Moving Gradually

Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 created a problem for China on the border of one of its most volatile regions in Xinjiang. While Beijing was not always entirely enthusiastic about a US military presence on its border, it could see the benefits of having someone else take on the security burden. It even went so far as to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan – something which stood in stark contrast to the rest of its relationship with the US. The Taliban takeover forced some re-calculations, and while Beijing has visibly leaned into its relationship with the new rulers in Kabul, the thrust of the engagement has remained not dissimilar to how Beijing was engaging with the Republic.

China’s primary preoccupation with Afghanistan has always been security. Beijing’s enduring fear is that the country becomes a base from which its enemies can plot against them. This has tended to focus on fears of Uyghur militants using the country to create instability in Xinjiang, a concern that persists, but has now been joined by a growing fear that other adversaries might seek to use Afghanistan as a base to target China or its interests in the wider region.

Under the Republic government, Beijing was relatively content with the security relationship it had in this regard. From the Republic government’s perspective, the Uyghur militants fighting alongside the Taliban were no allies of theirs and they were happy to hunt them down. Even the United States targeted them alongside the Taliban.

The Taliban takeover in Kabul has complicated this picture for Beijing. In the early days, the Taliban seem to have failed to keep control of a group of some 30 Uyghur militants the Republic was holding in prison who were freed when the Taliban emptied the prisons they found. While the Taliban have continued to say they will not let their country be used as a base for militant activities against others, it is clear that Uyghur militants under the banner of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) continue to gather there. In the most recent display, leader Abdul Haq showed himself celebrating Eid in the country alongside a few dozen allies and their family members. A report from the UN Monitoring Group in February highlighted member state reporting that there were some 200-700 fighters associated with TIP in Afghanistan. The report suggested that they had been moved from Badakhshan to Baghlan, a decision that was in other reporting meant to have been stimulated by Chinese sensitivities.

The most recent Monitoring report from July, however, suggested elements close the group had already disregarded this Taliban request and re-established a footprint in Badakhshan, including strengthening relationships with Tajikistan focused group Jamaat Ansarullah as well as the Pakistani focused Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This last element is particularly worrying for China as it illustrates a larger problem for China that has sharpened in the past year – the growing targeting of China by an ever-widening range of militant groups in the region.

Pakistan is the biggest locus of this threat, with the threat picture towards China widening from mostly separatist groups (Balochi and Sindhi’s) to now TTP and the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) seeming to target China. In October 2021, ISKP deployed a Uyghur bomber to target a Shia Mosque in Kunduz, making specific reference to the Taliban’s cooperation with China in their claim of responsibility. ISKP’s propaganda has continued to highlight China as an enemy. July’s UN Monitoring report highlighted one member state reporting that some 50 Uyghurs had reportedly defected from TIP to join ISKP.

All of this serves to highlight the very different security support that China gets from the new leadership in Kabul. While there have been persistent rumours of China seeking to develop security relations with the Taliban – including being involved in meetings between Chinese, Pakistani and Taliban intelligence – very little public evidence has emerged of security contacts. It is also notable that while China is seemingly of greater interest to apparently much freer militant groups in Afghanistan, we have not seen reports of Chinese interests or nationals being directly targeted in the country.

This comes at the same time as China’s visible presence in Afghanistan has increased. Since the Taliban takeover, China has sent vaccine aid, earthquake relief, food aid (around the country, from the central government in Beijing, regional governments and companies). Chinese companies have returned to discuss possible projects, as well as explore new ones. This has come in the form of large state-owned enterprises that have long engaged in the country, as well as new ones exploring opportunities. Very little of this has so far actually moved forwards, though there has been a notable surge in low level Chinese entrepreneurs and businessmen exploring opportunities in the country.

At a more tactical level, the government has supported the re-establishment of a pine nut air corridor to enable Afghan farmers to sell their products directly to the Chinese consumer market. They have also talked about finding ways of encouraging greater volume of sales of Afghan gemstones, saffron, almonds, fruits and other products. They have said they would drop tariffs on goods to zero, and re-started visas for Afghans eager to travel to China. They have spoken of linking Afghanistan up to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and of finding ways of integrating the country into the wider regional connectivity boom.

But while all of this is very positive, very little of it is entirely new. And it is unclear how quickly the big-ticket state-owned enterprise led projects will take to get going. All of these other pieces of the economic pie are positive, but ultimately quite limited: the long-term answer to stability in the Afghan economic situation comes from large-scale investment. And so far, it is not clear that China is pushing this that rapidly ahead. Whilst the Tunxi Initiative that Beijing pushed out (as part of a much wider set of regional engagements which built on the web of minilateral institutions that China has fostered across Eurasia) was high on positive sentiment towards engagement and encouraging regional connectivity with Afghanistan, it is not clear what metrics were established to move things forwards.

China’s increased activity in many ways is a reflection of the fact that China is one of the few big players still visibly present in Afghanistan. The western withdrawal left a gap which has highlighted more clearly China’s activity (in the absence of everything else). But it is not clear how much it has materially changed or increased to the level the Taliban government want. They continue to court multiple actors, and are eager to get projects going, but with the Chinese ones at least, still finding many of the same problems that the Republic government encountered. It is not impossible that the problems will eventually become unblocked, but it is clear that at the moment, there is still a sense of hesitation and uncertainty about what is actually going to happen on the ground and how much the Taliban are really in control of the entire country.

Where China has been far happier is in terms of using Afghanistan as a stick with which to rhetorically beat the Americans on the world stage. Highlighting the fact that their planes are bringing aid to Afghanistan, while the US is bringing more weapons to Ukraine. They continue to advocate for the US to unblock the Afghan government money which is tied up abroad, and call for the US to step back to fix the situation on the ground, blaming them for everything that has happened. While this is not an entirely surprising narrative given the global context, it is in fact a true shame for Afghanistan, which used to shine as a beacon of cooperation between the US and China. Great power conflict has quite clearly been brought back to the country.

Another book edited extract published a little while ago, this time in Foreign Policy drawing on the chapter on Afghanistan.

China Is Doomed to Play a Significant Role in Afghanistan

Beijing is desperate to avoid being trapped in Kabul’s politics.

For decades, Beijing has worried about security in Afghanistan. During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, Beijing worried about the possibility of Uyghur militants using camps in Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against China. Then, in the early 2000s, Chinese workers were killed and kidnapped in the country. China also shares a remote but direct border with Afghanistan, and even before the Taliban takeover, increasing violence in the wider region gave China good reason to worry.

Despite this, China’s approach to its neighbor for a long time was, as prominent Central Asia analyst Zhao Huasheng1 aptly characterized it, essentially to act as an observer, leaving security questions to the United States and its allies. That changed in 2012, after then-U.S. President Barack Obama signaled he wanted to get Washington out of the conflict he had inherited. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal came into sharper relief, Beijing realized that it would have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. Even then—and even after security concerns rose once again after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021—China never fully came to assume that role.

The Taliban takeover in 2021 came after we had concluded writing our book Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire. But many of the trends and patterns we observed continued to hold. Although China has undeniably stepped into a far more prominent role than ever before, it has continued to hedge its bets and refused to take on a leadership role in the country. China’s unwillingness to take on that role, even though it is increasingly being thrust into it, serves as a perfect example of the central concept our book: China is doomed to play a significant role in the country, but is studiously avoiding it.

China’s clear, yet gradual, shift from cultivated disinterest to growing engagement in Afghanistan took place over the past decade.

The most visible and significant element of China’s newfound attention on Afghanistan was Politburo member and security supremo Zhou Yongkang’s visit2 to Kabul in September 2012—the first visit by a Politburo-level Chinese official to Afghanistan since 1966.

But even earlier that year, when we visited Afghanistan, China was seeking to advance diplomacy with Afghanistan and Pakistan. In February 2012, Beijing hosted3 the first Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral dialogue. Then, in May 2012, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department initiated a joint training program for Afghan diplomats. The group of a dozen young diplomats would get a 15-day experience in Beijing, followed by another 15 days in Washington.

That June, as China was hosting the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Beijing, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a bilateral ‘strategic and cooperative partnership’ agreement with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai and welcomed the country as an official SCO observer state. Just over a month later, then-Chinese Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Gen. Guo Boxiong met with then-Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak to ‘enhance strategic communication and strengthen pragmatic cooperation in order to contribute to bilateral strategic cooperation.’

The signaling was clear. As Washington approached a drawdown, China was going to have to step in more, though the extent of it was unclear. Yet there were clearly dissenters in Beijing, and many of the security-focused Chinese officials and experts we met were quite clear that this was a problem of Washington’s making that China wanted little to do with.

All of this change in Chinese activity was, however, undermined by the fact that Washington did not leave. In the end, Obama did not withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Although its presence shrunk considerably, the United States retained a capability to launch attacks and kept bases in the country.

Meanwhile, within China, security concerns increased. In April 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang. This came after a tumultuous period where incidents linked to Xinjiang spread across the country—including a car and incendiary device attack on Tiananmen Square, a mass stabbing incident in Kunming, and escalating violence in Xinjiang itself. Just as Xi was leaving Xinjiang, attackers launched a knife and bomb attack4 on the train station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital.

In his speeches about the threat in 2014, Xi made a clear link between what was going on in Afghanistan and Xinjiang. Beijing’s answer to this concern appears to have been to push a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Beijing escalated its engagement with the Afghan authorities, building on what was already being done to create a wave of bilateral and multilateral formats with other partners in Afghanistan. On the other hand, it strengthened its contacts with the Taliban, making sure it was covering its bases for all eventualities. It seemed as though China was going to take on a more active role in the country, aware of the fact that no matter whether the United States stayed or left, it was likely to be an erratic partner Beijing could not rely on.

In July 2014, China appointed Sun Yuxi,5 a popular former ambassador to Kabul, as its first special envoy for Afghanistan. His role was to serve as a point of contact and a coordinator for China’s engagement with the Taliban, and after his arrival, there was a noticeable uptick in public engagement among China, the Taliban, and the Afghan government.

When Ashraf Ghani became Afghanistan’s president that September, he immediately signaled the importance he placed on the relationship with China by making Beijing the first capital he visited in his first formal trip abroad. During this visit, he laid the groundwork for formal peace talk negotiations with the Taliban at a meeting hosted by the Chinese government.

By early 2015, stories emerged that China was playing a more forward role in brokering peace talks and in conversations; officials we spoke to in Beijing said they were willing to act as hosts for any future peace talks.By May 2015, senior Taliban figures were meeting6 with representatives from the Afghan High Peace Council in Urumqi. In July, another round of talks was held in Pakistan, at which Chinese participants also played a role.This was followed by more multilateral engagements.

The Chinese-supported peace track seemed to be bearing fruit, until abruptly, in late July 2015, news leaked that Taliban leader Mullah Omar7 had died back in 2013. This declaration scuttled the discussions and set the Taliban in disarray as an internal leadership struggle surfaced over his successor. It also complicated China’s role, since it was not clear whom Beijing would engage with on the Taliban side.

Accusations of blame were passed between Islamabad and Kabul, but the net result was an uptick in violence that made it harder for the Afghan government to negotiate with full confidence or for Beijing to feel like it could do much. Chinese officials we spoke to at the time almost immediately fell back into stating that it was up to the United States to step up and support the Afghan government and its national security forces. They further noted that until there was greater clarity about who the main Taliban negotiator was, talks were unlikely to bear much fruit.

But it seemed that China maintained its contacts with the Taliban. In fact, Beijing has had a long history of contacts with the Taliban, dating to when the group was in power in Kabul before September 2001. At the time, China was one of the few countries that engaged with them, though this was largely through China’s contacts in Islamabad.

 Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque. Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, on July 31, 2014, as China increased security in many parts of the province.Getty Images 

In the early days, Beijing seemed to focus its discussions on ensuring that any trouble in Afghanistan did not spill into China and that the Taliban maintained control over Uyghur groups. Some Chinese experts who visited Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s told us they were surprised during their visit to learn of large numbers of Uyghur militants in the country. Taliban authorities reportedly sought to reassure Beijing that they would stop these individuals from launching attacks against China, though it was never clear whether the Uyghur groups adhered to this and did not launch attacks or use the territory to plot against China. We later met individuals who had been to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and al Qaeda-managed camps who told us stories—corroborated by others—of Uyghurs in the camps in large numbers.

In 2015, it seemed as though China decided to use its contacts with the Taliban to help protect its longer-term interests in the country. Aside from seeking to broker greater discussions among the Taliban, Pakistan, and the government in Kabul, China also sought to bring the United States into the discussions. Around this time, Beijing was engaged in numerous bilateral, multilateral, and minilateral engagements concerning Afghanistan.

One senior Afghan diplomat told us during a session in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, that he was exhausted from running between these different events, though it was not clear to him how useful they were. Other Afghans we spoke to were far more scathing about Beijing’s engagement behind closed doors. One former senior defense official told us that they had been forced to dispose of most of the equipment that China had handed over, claiming ‘it was full of bugs.’ Others said they had evidence that Beijing was paying off and providing military equipment to the Taliban to develop contacts and maintain influence, something that was partially confirmed to us by a Chinese contact who mentioned in passing being involved in handing over bags of money to Taliban contacts. We were never able to independently confirm this, but it did speak to a greater sense of confidence in Beijing about what China was doing in Afghanistan.

In March 2016, then-Chinese People’s Liberation Army Chief of Joint Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui visited Kabul, seemingly to help start a new minilateral regional organization. That organization, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM), brought together the chiefs of army staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan ‘to coordinate with and support each other in a range of areas, including study and judgment of counter terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training,’ according to a statement8 by the Chinese defense ministry.

By bringing together senior security officials with all the countries that had a presence around the Wakhan Corridor, China was helping secure its own border and creating a format through which it could monitor it. The structure also formalized the People’s Liberation Army’s responsibilities in Afghanistan.

Alongside the creation of the QCCM, China started to make its security contributions to the other members of the group more public. In Afghanistan, Beijing revealed it had helped build a base and was providing funding for a mountain security force in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. Locals reported seeing Chinese soldiers patrolling the region. Other reports highlighted how Afghan forces were being trained in China. In Tajikistan, China built around a dozen border posts for Tajik border guards as well as a base for its own forces in the country’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. China was, in essence, creating a security buffer to seal itself off from direct threats from its border regions with Afghanistan.

Although the China-Afghanistan relationship continued to stay relatively strong over the next few years, in the dying days of Afghanistan’s government under Ghani, there was growing turmoil between the two countries. The first loud signal of trouble was the U.S. decision in November 2020 to de-list the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement9 from its list of terrorist organizations. It was a decision Kabul reportedly did not agree with and one that caused friction with China.

Then, in December 2020, a spy scandal erupted with the Afghan National Directorate of Security detaining a network of 10 Chinese nationals who, it claimed, were spies undertaking covert activities against the government in Kabul. The Afghan and Chinese governments worked to keep the story out of the media and rushed to get the spies out on a private jet back to China, denying everything, though the story was leaked in considerable detail to the Indian media.

But the Afghan government was very careful about how it handled the scandal. Unlike the United States that was now heading for the door, Kabul recognized that it needed to maintain a working relationship with Beijing.

It was later revealed that their counterterrorism relationship had also come under strain, with Kabul apparently stopping its regular repatriation of Uyghur militants it caught on the battlefield. This was made public when in the wake of Kabul’s fall, news emerged that some 30 or so Uyghurs who had been in custody were released when the Taliban emptied the country’s prisons.

But this revelation cut both ways: On the one hand, it showed how the relationship between Kabul and Beijing had broken down, but it was also an early indication of the Taliban’s lack of capability or interest in managing the problem of militant Uyghurs in Afghanistan to Beijing’s desires (highlighted by the fact that they freed them).

In current Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, there is no denying that China is more prominent. The Chinese Embassy was one of the few that stayed during the Taliban takeover. A number of Chinese businessmen are reportedly showing up to try their fortune. China has engaged with, participated in, and hosted numerous regional formats on Afghanistan. It has also sponsored some limited bilateral trade efforts and provided aid of some substance across the country, and Chinese state-owned enterprises have started to talk about restarting their projects with Taliban authorities. China has done everything except formally acknowledge the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan—a step it is unlikely to take until it sees others in the international community do so first.

But talk to Chinese experts, and the picture is more circumspect. They hold little hope for the Taliban to create an inclusive government, see instability on the horizon, and worry about the worsening security situation in the broader region.

Although China has spoken of Afghanistan as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and some recent trade has started, in reality, the tangible economic links between China and Afghanistan amount to the export of Afghan pine nuts to China and the construction of a fiberoptic cable down the Wakhan Corridor to help Afghanistan get on the internet. Talk about the BRI in Kabul, and people will say good things and hope for greater engagement, but they are still waiting for it to materialize. Afghan businessmen still find it difficult to get visas into China, flights are irregular, and COVID-19 continues to make travel to China difficult.

China is still concerned about its security interests in Afghanistan, but, as in the past, its answer has been to largely seal itself off, hardening its own and nearby borders. Through a web of multilateral engagements, China has offered itself as a host and discussant but never a moderator—in other words, China is willing to be involved but does not want to take the key role of confronting actors and forcing them to resolve their issues. Beijing is certainly doing more than it did before, but it is clear that it is not going to step into a leadership role. China has all the trappings and potential to be a dominant player but has made a strategic decision to continue to watch from the sidelines.  

[1]: https://www.csis.org/analysis/china-and-afghanistan

[2]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-china/top-china-official-visits-afghanistan-signs-security-deal-idUSBRE88M02C20120923

[3]: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceus/eng/zgyw/t910391.htm#:~:text=From%20February%2028%20to%2029,Foreign%20Affairs%20chaired%20the%20dialogue.

[4]: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-27225308

[5]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-afghanistan/china-appoints-special-envoy-for-afghanistan-idUSKBN0FN11Z20140718

[6]: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/world/asia/taliban-and-afghan-peace-officials-have-secret-talks-in-china.html

[7]: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33703097

[8]: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/07/31/sinostan-china-afghanistan-relations-taliban-history/including%20study%20and%20judgment%20of%20the%20counter%20terrorism%20situation

[9]: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/11/05/2020-24620/in-the-matter-of-the-designation-of-the-eastern-turkistan-islamic-movement-also-known-as-etim-as-a

More delayed posting, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review which seeks to tie together some of the strands of trouble that have been brewing in Central Asia since the beginning of the year.

The Perils of Ignoring Eurasian Instability

Volatile region has historically caused problems for the rest of the world

A Kyrgyz policeman looks at a burnt armored personnel carrier outside the village of Kok-Tash near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border in southwestern Kyrgyzstan in May 2021: Exchanges of fire continue to take place with casualties on both sides.   © AP

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

As the world focuses on a possible clash between China and the West over Taiwan and war in Europe on the other, the parts in between are going up in flames.

In the past, Russia or the United States could be relied upon to step in and settle the situation, but both are now otherwise engaged. With Beijing showing a reluctance about stepping into the role, this leaves a region that has historically caused problems for the rest of the world without a security blanket.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year marked a turning point.

While Afghanistan itself has seen violence go down, tensions have moved north into Central Asia, with the Islamic State in Khorasan Province launching several rocket attacks into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as increasing the propaganda it publishes in Central Asian languages.

In Pakistan, Balochi separatist groups have continued to grow the volume and ambition of their attacks, as has the Tehreek-E-Taliban Pakistan. Worryingly for Islamabad, there are signs that Balochi and Islamist groups are cooperating.

In Afghanistan, while the Taliban has repeatedly stated that it will not lets its territory be used to plot terrorism against others, it has done little to stop it. In one recent and particularly galling display, the previously reported dead leader of the Uighur militant group Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) released a video showing him celebrating Eid al-Fitr festival this year in Afghanistan.

This is despite repeated calls by China for the Taliban to not allow Uighur militants to use Afghanistan as a base. Left-behind American weapons have already appeared in attacks in Pakistan and even as far away as their border with India.

Looking beyond Afghanistan, the situation in Central Asia has become markedly more violent over the past year.

There has been trouble in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region as locals push back against Dushanbe in clashes that recall the country’s brutal Civil War from the 1990s. An attempt to re-write the constitution in Uzbekistan led to large-scale violence in Karakalpakstan whose costs are still being counted. On Tajikistan’s messy border with Kyrgyzstan, exchanges of fire continue to take place, with casualties on both sides.

Add to that the chaos in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year, which led many to question their assumptions about the stability of Central Asia.

Long Seen As Central Asia’s Wealthy Bulwark, The Instability In Kazakhstan Has Been Driven By A Combination Of Unhappiness With The Government Of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev And An Internal Power Struggle That Has Shown How Fragile The Country Actually Is. And If Seemingly Stable Kazakhstan Can Unravel So Quickly, What Is Really Going On Elsewhere In The Region? Recent Events In Uzbekistan Serve To Only Strengthen This Narrative.

Long seen as Central Asia’s wealthy bulwark, the instability in Kazakhstan has been driven by a combination of unhappiness with the government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and an internal power struggle that has shown how fragile the country actually is. And if seemingly stable Kazakhstan can unravel so quickly, what is really going on elsewhere in the region? Recent events in Uzbekistan only serve to strengthen this narrative.

President Tokayev’s decision in January to call for help from Russia and the other four members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization highlighted Moscow’s continuing role as a security guarantor in the region.

At the same time, Russia’s subsequent decision to invade Ukraine has resonated across Central Asia, in part over concerns that President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist fantasies might swing in Central Asia’s direction.

Kazakhstan, in particular, continues to find itself targeted by Russian Nationalists, and there is a wider concern about the knock-on damage that each country is likely to feel from the crashing Russian economy and the degree to which Moscow might be able to continue to play a stabilising role.

President Putin’s visit to Tajikistan this past week was a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder or Moscow’s importance. His visit focused attention on Russian forces in Tajikistan and their supposed focus in Afghanistan, but aside from likely celebrating the fact that they have not been sent to Ukraine, it is not clear what they are doing there.

Vladimir Putin listens to Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon during a meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on June 28: a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder of Moscow’s importance.   © Reuters

While Washington stepped back from the region following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it has recently taken quiet steps back into Central Asia with a focus on shoring up regional security.

The region doubtless welcomes this attention, but given prior American fickleness and the light touch being applied, it remains to be seen how far the US will, or can, go when it comes to security. Central Asia is ultimately bordered by powers with which the US is locked in geopolitical struggle, while Washington’s relations with Islamabad continue to be complicated.

Throughout all of this, Beijing has taken a watching brief. In Afghanistan, this has taken the odd form of China being the most prominent external interlocutor on the ground with the Taliban government while still hedging its bets.

Beijing’s anger at Pakistan has grown as the violence being directed at Chinese nationals there continues to get worse. There are persistent rumours of Chinese involvement in helping Tajik authorities stabilize the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, but the details are unclear.

There is a narrative in some western capitals suggesting that none of this really matters because the Eurasian heartland is far away and more likely to cause trouble for its neighbours than the west. But this neglects the fact trouble in this region has a tendency to spread.

South Asia has human connections around the world, as well as three nuclear powers will ill-defined borders and histories of enmity, while Central Asian militants have been showing up increasingly further afield.

Afghanistan has long been a major source of narcotics, and it is always useful to remember that this is the battlefield that forged Al Qaida and from which the Sept. 11 attacks were launched.

It may seem unlikely that such a terrorist catastrophe could happen again, but this remains a region that has the ability to shock the world. Failing to take note of instability there could prove very costly for us all.

Back in May, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing looking at “China’s Activities and Influence in South and Central Asia”. I was invited to testify, and though I could not sadly go and join in Washington, I was able to do it remotely. The entire hearing can be found here (including a complete video, as well as all of the other excellent experts testimony). My own testimony is pasted below.

China’s Current Security Approaches and Interests in Afghanistan

Testimony Before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, May 12, 2022

Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore

China’s security interests and approaches to Afghanistan and its environs are shaped by a concern that threats from this region might ultimately come back to hurt China. This is either from Uyghur separatists which Beijing fears are hiding in the region, or increasingly the growing number of regional groups that have identified China as an adversary. This shapes China’s security responses in the region. But underpinning the direct security responses that China undertakes is a vision for economic prosperity and development across the region which Beijing believes will ultimately stabilize the region and deliver long-term security guarantees.

1. In what ways does China hedge its relationship with the Taliban through bilateral and multilateral security initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the quadrilateral counter-terrorism cooperation mechanism (QCCM) with China, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan? Does China use these organizations primarily for security cooperation and training or to establish blocks of political influence? Has China’s investment in these organizations, either in manpower or money, changed since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

China has always sought to hedge its security concerns with Afghanistan through multiple avenues of engagement. Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, China has largely sought to continue its regional activities as before. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has continued to hold a number of meetings and engagements, including a heads of state hybrid summit held in Dushanbe in September 2021. China participated in this and other SCO sessions in much the same way it has before, seeking to engage through the format, but not appearing to force through anything new. President Xi in his remarks during the summit focused heavily on Afghanistan and spoke of China’s goals as being: “One, the peaceful transfer of power to Afghanistan. Second, contact and communicate with Afghanistan. Third, provide humanitarian and anti-epidemic assistance to the Afghan people.”[1] He also called on the United States to play a greater role in providing funding to stabilize the country, releasing funds being held up by Washington, and help Afghanistan out of its economic funk. The major achievement of the Summit was the admission of Iran into the organization, and while Afghanistan hung heavy over the discussions – it was likely too close to the fall of Kabul to be able to properly adjust and respond. There was some discussion about how the Taliban should be engaged with now it was the de facto government of Afghanistan, but it was not something that Beijing expressed a view on.[2] This attitude is likely to persist with the SCO, with China continuing to highlight Afghanistan as an issue within the organization, and repeating these talking points, but unlikely to be actively pushing towards the SCO doing much more – in particular as there does not seem to be a consensus amongst members about exactly how to handle Taliban-led Afghanistan.

Looking to the Quadrilateral Cooperation Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) – this was an institution that was developed in large part as a result of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeking to play a greater role in Afghanistan. When it was established in 2016, it came as part of a larger effort where China was seeking to strengthen its direct border relations with Afghanistan – there was discussion about undertaking more training and even potentially building a base with the Afghans in Badakhshan. It was also the moment around which the discussion of the Chinese base in Tajikistan became more publicly acknowledged. After this initial appearance by the QCCM, it went quiet, though it continued to provide a convening function for China to engage with its regional partners on border security questions in particular. Afghan officials acknowledged its utility in particular in trying to manage complex security questions in remote Badakhshan. Given the official partner in the engagement would have to be government of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence, it would require formal recognition of the Islamic Emirate government for it to be formally included and revived, meaning its revivification is something which would only be possible in the wake of formal recognition of the authority in Kabul – a step Beijing is unlikely to take first.

At the same time, in many ways, China has already recognized the Islamic Emirate government. Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted his Pakistani counterpart Qureshi and Amir Muttaqi in April 2022 on the fringes of the larger regional meeting hosted by China at Tunxi.[3] This format replicates an earlier multilateral engagement that China used to host which brought together senior foreign ministry officials between the three countries. In June 2021, two months before the collapse of the Republic government, Wang Yi hosted a virtual engagement involving Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi and then-Foreign Minister Atmar.[4] This highlights China’s desire to attempt to re-engage with the Islamic Emirate government in the same way that it was engaging with the Republic beforehand, restoring the same structures. Given the fact this has now happened with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it would not be impossible for a similar event to be held between Defence Ministries of the three powers. It is worth noting though that the QCCM is a structure theoretically represented by the Chiefs of Defence Staff which would be a different form of engagement to political ministries.

There have also been reports that China has helped facilitate engagements between the Islamic Emirate security authorities and the Pakistani intelligence services, in an attempt to help get them to resolve some of their differences.[5] Issues that have become more acute in the recent past as Tehrek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have increased the tempo of their attacks in Pakistan, and in return Pakistani authorities have launched cross-border strikes alongside violent border clashes between Afghan and Pakistani fighters.[6] If confirmed, China’s attempt to step into the middle of this divide suggests a recognition by China of the role it can play in trying to stabilize the relationship between the two countries, leveraging the relationships that it has developed. Within these contexts, China appears to be trying to improve relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, while also building up its on bilateral links to both. The aim ultimately is to enable China to have good security relations, establish influence and place China in a significant role across the wider region.

It is difficult to discern at the moment the degree to which China has actually increased its engagement or activity within these structures since the takeover, though there are persistent rumours of increased Chinese security engagement with the Taliban. The exact nature of these contacts is unknown. Whatever the case, the key driver of Chinese engagement is recognition that the Islamic Emirate authority appears like the most stable governance structure in Afghanistan for the immediate future and therefore an entity that Beijing will have to engage with if it wants to ensure its security interests in Afghanistan. While in the early days, much of the noise around China’s security concerns was focused on the potential for Uyghur militants to establish themselves, it appears as though the Islamic Emirate’s decision to move what Uyghur networks were present to locations far from Afghanistan’s regions closest to China has to some degree soothed Chinese concerns.[7] The more likely concern at the moment is the growing violence in Pakistan which as has been seen in a number of recent attacks has led to the deaths of Chinese nationals.[8]

While China is still reticent to transfer all its former engagements with Kabul to the new government, it is clear that Beijing is increasingly moving in this direction. The ultimate goal will be not only to help strengthen China’s relations and influence, but more specifically to ensure security guarantees from potential threats that may develop. It is worth remembering that from China’s perspective, in many ways, the earlier relationship with the Republic government was one that Beijing appreciated as the Republic authorities for the most part shared their assessment about Uyghur militants being a group that needed clamping down on. While there was some evidence that this relationship had started to sour in the final months of the Republic government, there was also evidence that this had also created some tension with the incoming government which failed to monitor the escape of a number of Uyghur’s in detention when they took over the country.[9]

This aspect is significant as it shows the levels of mistrust that China still needs to overcome in terms of its security relationships with Kabul, meaning Beijing will continue to seek to hedge rather than put all its eggs in one basket. This is likely to be a key aspect of the engagements China undertakes, with no single avenue being used, but instead a web of connections both with the Islamic Emirate authorities, regional powers, as well as long-established and more recently developed regional formats. Alongside this, China will continue its policy of strengthening its security relations with Tajikistan and Pakistan – with a particular emphasis on border security – to ultimately provide a hard security guarantee to accompany the multiplicity of political engagements. This hedging approach is a continuation of the approach that China has been taking with Afghanistan since at least 2014.

2. Please describe China’s security presence in neighboring countries aimed at reducing extremist threats. What Chinese organizations are present (e.g., Peoples Armed Police, Ministry of State Security, private security companies), and how do they cooperate with host governments? Is their focus stopping flows into Xinjiang, or has it moved toward creating stability in the the region? What changes, if any, has China made to their security presence in Tajikistan and neighboring countries in the last year, including any use of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units, increased militia presence, or additional training exercises outside of China’s borders?

The primary goal of China’s security actors in neighbouring countries is to provide guarantees for China, as well as eyes and ears onto possible security threats from the region which might come back to China. Within the context of Pakistan and Afghanistan, this extends to worrying about the threats exacerbating tensions around the region, as well as threatening Chinese nationals or interests in the region. However, this latter concern is a secondary one, with the primary concern being domestic security. Thus far, there is confirmed presence of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) in Tajikistan,[10] as well as reports they have in the past undertaken joint patrols with Republic forces in Afghanistan.[11] The principal aim of these security forces has been to help China have an ability to have a direct reach into local security forces, to enable them to have a greater sense of control over the potential threats that might emerge. There is also a history of China providing security support through equipment to Pakistani forces in Gilgit Baltistan, strengthening the other indirect border China shares with Afghanistan.

It is difficult to trace the movements of the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The most visible appearance of MSS operatives in Afghanistan took place in late 2020, when the Republic authorities disrupted a spy network in Kabul which they accused of collusion with anti-government factions on the ground. Their ejection was rapid and kept relatively discrete by the Afghan and Chinese authorities, as the Republic government had little incentive at that stage to entirely sabotage its relationship with Beijing. However, it was notable that reporting indicated that at least one of the men who had been ejected had been masquerading as a pine nut trader – a trade that Beijing has been encouraging between China and Afghanistan, but which also provides China with a good reason to engage with farmers in parts of Afghanistan where Uyghur militant groups have been active.[12]

This economic engagement has also been seen in other contexts, where China has used direct aid to the regions in Afghanistan near to its borders to try to develop links and contacts on the ground.[13] While there is a logic to cultivating these relationships due to their border proximity and the humanitarian needs on the ground, it also provides a good opportunity for intelligence gathering and an excuse for China to maintain eyes on the ground.

The final element which is difficult to further quantify is the presence of Chinese private security companies. While they have been seen in Kyrgyzstan, and are believed to be present in Tajikistan, it is difficult to pin down their activities in other places.[14] Reports from the ground suggest that some have started to emerge in Afghanistan, and since the recent attacks on Chinese nationals in nearby Pakistan, it is likely the presence of private Chinese security firms will increase there as well.

Whatever its scale and vector, the decision to assert some security presence is reflection of a sense of trepidation, and a continued fear that the situation in Kabul might abruptly destabilize. What remains constant, is China’s single-minded focus on its own interests, rather than trying to bring regional stability. Quite aside from not having any experience in bringing peace brokering initiatives to life, China is also disinterested in engaging in regional issues between powers as this will force China to take sides, something which will only weaken Beijing’s hand before some of the parties. By maintaining its objective view, this enables China to continue to cultivate all sides.

3. What lessons or assessments can be drawn from China’s undeclared persistent security force presence in Tajikistan?  How might the presence of armed forces from China in Tajikistan be indicative of future armed force projection (whether People’s Armed Police, PLA, contract, or based on other military or paramilitary forces)? To what extent is that presence indicative of China’s leadership expanding their definition of China’s “border region” in their security interests? What opportunities or burdens does China perceive in its growing security presence in and around Afghanistan?

The deployment of a Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) base in Tajikistan has been overread as evidence of Chinese security stretch into Central Asia. China has long been providing military support for Tajikistan to strengthen its borders with Afghanistan, recognizing that the long and porous border between the two countries represented a weak point in the region.[15] This mirror’s Russia’s own continued to provide military support in Tajikistan and continued to maintain its largest military base outside its own borders in Tajikistan, the 201st Military Base which is divided between Dushanbe and Bokhtar, done under agreement with the Tajiks until 2042.[16] The aim of this Russian presence is to help monitor and address potential threats that might emanate from Afghanistan through Tajikistan and ultimately threaten Russia. The Russian base has continued to be active, undertaking regular training exercises,[17] including a surge of effort around the time of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.[18]

While the Chinese presence is more limited than the Russian one, and with a very different history, the ultimate goals are similar. Beijing, like Moscow, is concerned about potential threats from Afghanistan spilling into Tajikistan, and recognizes that the border regions which China has with Tajikistan are adjacent to the border regions Tajikistan shares with Afghanistan. Remote and rugged, these are regions which are hard to entirely monitor and there is little faith in Tajik capabilities to ensure security coverage. As a result, Beijing has on the one hand provided regular military support to the Tajiks, but it has also chosen to ensure it has some of its own eyes on the potential threats and problems that might emerge. This is the fundamental reason for the Chinese presence. It is additionally significant to note that the security force that is being used is the People’s Armed Police (PAP), an extension of a domestic security agency. This is the same force that has played an important role in building bilateral engagements with Uzbek, Kazakh and Kyrgyz security forces, reflecting the fact that China sees security threats in Central Asia as ones that have the potential to be linked directly to domestic security threats.

While China continues to refuse to entirely admit to the basing, when pressed, Chinese experts compare the engagements in Tajikistan to what Chinese security forces have done in the Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia with which China shares borders. In the wake of the brutal kidnap and massacre of Chinese sailors in October 2011,[19] China started to undertake joint patrols with Laotian, Thai, Myanmar and Cambodian forces to try to ensure better security in the region.[20] In some cases, the Chinese provided equipment, and have now started to explore basing in the region.[21] This is similar to the context in Tajikistan, where there is a live security concern that Beijing is worried about in a neighbour where Beijing obviously has little faith in their capabilities to provide security assurances. The result has been to increase its direct security equity to be able to provide and ensure for its concerns – something articulated through equipment and funding support, the establishment of forward bases, and the creation of overlapping multilateral and minilateral institutions that provide opportunities for engagement.

The aim here is not to provide regional stability, but rather to ensure Chinese security concerns. There has been little evidence of China wanting to take a wider security leadership role, instead, China has retained a narrow focus on its own interests. The useful contrast is to examine Russian security engagement which while also fundamentally about Russian concerns about instability in the region impacting Russia directly, is interpreted in a far more expansive fashion whereby Russia sees itself as an ultimate security guarantor across the region. Witness the surge of Russian security engagement and activity at around the time of the fall of Kabul, and the Russian willingness to deploy to support the Kazakh government in the wake of violent protests in January 2022. Neither of these are roles that China sees for itself, where instead there was a limited increase in Chinese engagement with Tajikistan during the summer of 2022, but this was simply building on what China was already doing, rather than expanding it.

In terms of lessons that can be drawn from this, it is that China remains a fundamentally solipsistic regional security actor, focused single-mindedly on its concerns which it interprets through a fairly narrow lens. What is interesting is the fact that it appeared in the early days of China’s deployment of forces and base establishment in Tajikistan, it appeared to be something that was not done in consultation with Moscow, with reports from the ground suggesting Russia was surprised by the reports of the base’s establishment. This illustrates a tension between Beijing and Moscow which is worth considering, though not overstating, as it is clear that both countries have been able to move beyond these initial tensions. It is also notable, however, that they have not actually done anything to undertake cooperation in Tajikistan on security questions notwithstanding a presence that is near to each other on the ground. The key point is that while they are willing to work side by side, when it comes to hard security concerns on the ground, both clearly want to have their own eyes on problems, rather than relying on each other. And even more crucially, this does not seem a competitive relationship, but rather one that functions in parallel.

The overarching take-away from this deployment is that China is still not interested in taking a utopian approach to regional security, but is focused on its own security concerns. It will focus on these interests through multiple and overlapping approaches which will collectively provide China with enough assurance to be content. In the case of Afghanistan, this includes regional engagement as well as engagement with the Taliban with the two parts of the piece providing assurance to each other. It is questionable whether this model is one that China would offer in other contexts as well, outside direct border regions, as the fundamental driver to China’s concerns in Tajikistan and Afghanistan are ultimately the potential impact this could have back to China directly.

4. Is there risk of actors being drawn into or choosing to engage in proxy wars through unattributable support to militant groups in and around Afghanistan? How does any potentially increased risk emanating from Afghanistan impact existing internal security concerns in Tajikistan, Pakistan, or for others in the region?  What might this look like, and how might it affect U.S. interests in the region?

There has been a clear and growing problem of terrorist groups using Afghanistan once again as a base to launch attacks on neighbours. At the moment, the problem is most acute with Pakistan where the TTP in particular has increased its presence and violence within Pakistan from bases in Afghanistan, but it is notable that Balochi militancy has also been increasing as a problem for the past few years with a sharpening focus on China. The recent attack at Karachi University which led to the death of the Confucius Institute Director, two of his Chinese staff and their driver, was conducted by the Majeed Brigade of the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), a unit that has undertaken repeated lethal attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan. In Central Asia, Chinese interests have not recently been targeted in the same way – but the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was an illustration of the dangers that exist for China in the region.[22] The recent cross border shootings and growing rhetorical effort being undertaken by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province’s (ISKP) to garner support and threaten Central Asia are illustrations of how problems in Afghanistan are reaching across borders north into Central Asia as well as south into Pakistan.[23] The fact ISKP has also made specific threats towards China further sharpens this concern towards Beijing.[24]

This violence has already created some problems for regional relations. Pakistani forces have launched cross-border incursions into Afghanistan to address with threats they observe from there. There has also been a notable number of violent deaths of TTP leaders in Afghanistan since attempted peace talks between the TTP and government in Pakistan dissolved late in 2021. To the north, the Uzbek airforce has launched strikes into Afghanistan in response to concerns about ISKP threats from there. And there have been border clashes between IEA forces and their counterparts on Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan and Iran.

Underpinning all of this violence is a fear of groups being manipulated by outside forces. Pakistan, for example, has long accused Balochi groups of being in the pay of India – a paranoia which is sometimes echoed in Chinese statements around attacks.[25] The evidence base for this is difficult to ascertain in the public domain. In some cases, Chinese paranoia takes this one step further and point to the United States as a possible outside actor manipulating forces. An early narrative that was advanced in the immediate wake of the collapse of the Republic government (which is heard less now) was that the United States was seeking to manipulate Uyghur groups in the region to threaten China.[26] The decision in late 2020 by the Trump administration to remove the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from its list of proscribed terror organizations was seen by China as a prelude to a move by Washington to engage with the group as a proxy against China.[27]

More recently, Chinese officials have stopped making such references publicly, though it remains to be seen if this is because of a lack of concern or simply a decision to not antagonise the relationship with Washington. The recent decision by the US government to include the Central Asian group Katibat Tawheed wal Jihad (KTJ) on its list of proscribed organizations specifically referring to the group as being responsible for the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek might have been an attempt to mend this fence by Washington.[28] But until a decision is made to return Uyghur militants to the list of proscribed organziations, there will continue to be paranoia in China. Beijing continues to worry about the manipulation of groups in the region in advance of larger geopolitical interests, be this directed by Delhi, Washington, or others.

It is possible that China might seek to undertake similar manipulations itself. There have been reports of efforts by Chinese security and intelligence to develop contacts with potential proxies in border regions with India in Myanmar or Bangladesh to undermine Indian security.[29] But in the Afghan and Pakistani context, most of these stories have instead pointed to China seeking to develop connections with groups with the idea in mind of trying to get them to stop attacking Chinese interests.[30] It would presumably not be impossible for China to seek to manipulate groups to attack western or other adversary interests, but at the same time, Beijing does not have much form in successfully doing this. And for most of the violent groups in the region, there is a growing interest in targeting China recognizing as they do Beijing’s growing influence and power across the region. Manipulations could easily backfire.

The primary danger to US interests lies in the broader violent trends in the region which could develop into threats which start to reach out beyond the region. There is also the potential danger to the US presence in the region – for example, diplomatic staff, businessmen, or travellers. If violence in Pakistan continues to escalate, it would be likely that US or allied interests might come into the cross-hairs of violent groups. The danger of proxy warfare through such groups in the region is another possible threat vector, but the risk comes more from the US being seen as being linked to such manipulations or India being discovered as being linked to violence. Both of these would escalate violence in the region, and increase the threat from groups which might even start to stretch beyond the region.

Finally, by increasing its security connections across the region, China is embedding itself further into the region. This could in the longer-term translate into influence which further locks the United States out of the region – part of a much bigger trend which has been visible across the wider region. While the US remains a significant player, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, worsening relations with Pakistan and worsening relations with Iran, Russia and China all mean this is a part of the world where the US is increasingly seen in an adversarial light. As Chinese influence increases, and as long as US-China relations remain tense, this is likely to harden further.

5. The Commission is mandated to make policy recommendations to Congress based on its hearings and other research. What are your recommendations for Congressional action related to your testimony?

It is difficult to make recommendations without knowing more about what current action is already being taken, so these suggestions are simply ideas or areas in which the United States could explore taking steps forwards in the near term future in the region.

First – the US should try to avoid seeing the region through the lens of big power politics. Afghanistan has in the recent past been a place where the US and China have been able to cooperate to address mutual threats and concerns. Such cooperation might be impossible at the moment, but avoiding going too far in the other direction will enable the US to continue to try to address the humanitarian questions that exist across the region while also making overwatch of potential security threats that might emerge from militant groups more possible.

Second – the US should explore reversing the decision to remove ETIM from the proscribed terror list. While re-listing may be complicated, recognizing that there are some Uyghur groups that have made connections to violent jihadist groups is an important element to restore faith in US focus on genuine terror threats as opposed to political games being played through such proxies.

Third – unblock funding which could be used to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans. This will be difficult as the IEA government has shown repeatedly it is disinterested in meeting western demands around women’s rights, but those who suffer are the Afghan people and finding ways of reaching out positively to them is important. It will remove a plank of China’s narratives in Afghanistan.

Fourth – increase direct support for border security forces in Central Asia. The United States already has strong links and has provided support across the region. Continuing and exploring expanding this support is an important signal to the region as well as a way of building US ability to mitigate risks and maintain security overwatch in the region.

Fifth – work to encourage Pakistan to try improve the security situation in Balochistan through negotiations. The situation in Balochistan is worsening at the moment and it is possible Pakistan will react to it with a harder crackdown. Engaging with the new government in Islamabad to take a new approach might enable a new dynamic in the region which would strengthen the US hand in the region.


[1] http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/ctenglish/2018/commentaries/202109/t20210926_800259123.html

[2] https://eurasianet.org/csto-sco-summits-presage-policy-of-wary-tolerance-of-taliban-regime-in-afghanistan

[3] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202203/t20220331_10658064.html

[4] https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceuk/eng/zgyw/t1881345.htm

[5] https://www.intelligenceonline.com/government-intelligence/2022/04/14/guoanbu-calls-on-isi-to-cooperate-with-taliban-secret-services,109767975-art

[6] https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/05/pakistans-twin-taliban-problem

[7] https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-taliban-uyghurs-china/31494226.html

[8] https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/Karachi-terror-attack-strains-Pakistan-s-ties-with-China

[9] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2021/10/16/exclusive-uyghur-jailbreak-complicates-talibans-ties-china/

[10] https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/central-asia/tajikistan/b87-rivals-authority-tajikistans-gorno-badakhshan

[11] https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2017/03/05/chinese-troops-appear-to-be-operating-in-afghanistan-and-the-pentagon-is-ok-with-it/

[12] https://thediplomat.com/2021/02/did-china-build-a-spy-network-in-kabul/

[13] https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202112/1243022.shtml

[14] https://oxussociety.org/the-growth-adaptation-and-limitations-of-chinese-private-security-companies-in-central-asia/

[15] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tajikistan-china-border-idUSKCN11W0T1

[16] https://tass.com/defense/1394749

[17] https://interfax.com/newsroom/top-stories/76143/

[18] https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-military-drills-near-afghan-border-deliver-warning-to-extremists-11635188626

[19] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/10/chinese-sailors-killed-mekong-river

[20] https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-southeastasia-drugs-mekong-idUKKCN0WH2ZW

[21] https://www.voanews.com/a/us-says-cambodia-not-transparent-about-chinese-role-in-naval-base-construction-/6272820.html

[22] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kyrgyzstan-blast-china-idUSKCN11C1DK

[23] https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/05/05/islamic-state-uzbekistan/

[24] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3151791/why-did-isis-k-say-its-suicide-bomber-was-uygur

[25] https://www.firstpost.com/world/china-warns-india-says-it-will-intervene-if-new-delhi-foments-trouble-in-balochistan-2980404.html

[26] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/202103/t20210327_9170714.html

[27] https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-irate-after-u-s-removes-terrorist-label-from-separatist-group-11604661868

[28] https://www.state.gov/terrorist-designation-of-katibat-al-tawhid-wal-jihad/

[29] https://www.asiasentinel.com/p/beijing-said-to-fund-separatist-india?s=r

[30] https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/pakistan-balochistan-china-seperatists-talks/29055188.html

Still catching up, here a longer piece for Foreign Policy with my excellent new partner in writing Ajmal. We are brewing up a few more projects, lots of interesting stuff happening in the China-Afghanistan space.

China Wants Its Investments in Afghanistan to Be Safer Than in Pakistan

Beijing could profit handsomely from Afghan resources and exports, but new ventures risk exposing Chinese nationals to violence

Afghan worker works on the site of an ancient monastery discovered in Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar on November 23, 2010. The archaeological dig is located at the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine. The Chinese government-backed mining company, China Metallurgical Group Corp., which won the contract to exploit the site, has given archaeologists three years to finish the excavations. Archaeologists fear that the 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery will probably be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP via Getty Images)

On April 26, a suicide bomber killed Huang Guiping, the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi, as well as two Chinese teachers and a Pakistani driver. The attack, claimed by Baloch separatists, highlighted the tensions that China has stirred up with its massive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor investments in Pakistan—a lesson Beijing has learned and is keen not to repeat in Afghanistan. But China will struggle to entirely sidestep these problems, especially because the answer it often reaches for in these situations is economic investment—something that inevitably expands exposure on the ground.

The most prominent example of this tension can be found at the Mes Aynak copper mining project in Afghanistan. For years, the project was a byword for broken Chinese dreams. The Taliban, now returned to power in Afghanistan, have revived the project and are more generally trying to take advantage of the nation’s proximity to China. And Beijing seems willing to reciprocate.

The recent Tunxi Initiative endorsed by President Xi Jinping referenced the project, and Chinese executives have visited Kabul to discuss the project. Yet the problems they appear to be discussing are the same ones that were being raised under the old government. And the mining executives seem far less sure-footed than their colleagues at China National Petroleum Corp., which is seeking to restart oil production at its concession in northern Afghanistan under a new deal.

It is doubtful either of these projects will move quickly. And ordinary Afghans won’t see the benefits for years in any case, no doubt stirring resentment toward China. It is lower-level activities such as artisanal mining and exports of gemstones, pine nuts, and saffron that could take off much more quickly. They could also have a real impact on the lives of ordinary Afghans, but they will also make China far more exposed to security risks.

Kabul is awash with Chinese businessmen. Walk out of Kabul International Airport, and you are greeted by a big billboard advertising Chinatown, a housing and business compound in the city that offers a range of services for Chinese (and other) entrepreneurs interested in taking advantage of Afghanistan’s opportunities. So many businessmen and random curiosity-seekers have been showing up that the Chinese Embassy has had to issue repeated warnings telling their citizens to report to the mission and not take unnecessary risks. The fear is that these Chinese nationals could become targets like the Confucius Institute director and his team in Pakistan.

Whereas in Pakistan China feels as if it has a reasonably stable counterpart to deal with, one of Beijing’s major concerns about Afghanistan is that the Taliban government might collapse. Beijing had hoped that the Taliban would bring in an inclusive government, which would help bring some stability to Kabul and unity to the country. In the absence of an inclusive government or much evidence the Taliban is planning to create one, Beijing has concluded that the only answer is to support the government and ensure it does not collapse chaotically. However, the challenge China faces is how to do this without assuming responsibility for everything that happens in Afghanistan.

While Afghanistan’s mineral potential is of significant interest to China in terms of its proximity, scale, and strategic importance to regional infrastructure development, Chinese firms are also aware of the complications that come with trying to exploit it. The Tunxi meeting and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s subsequent speech and visit to Kabul are clear signals to any Chinese majors that are interested in exploiting Afghanistan that the political support is now there but it’s not yet clear how much these state owned enterprises will engage.

Economics plays an important part in Chinese considerations. When it comes to rare-earth minerals, China is already a market leader. It provides more than 85 percent of the world’s rare earths, and it is home to about 30 percent of the world’s total rare-earth reserves. China is not in a hurry to secure additional supplies, particularly when the value of worldwide rare-earth imports stood just at $8 billion in 2018—a fraction of the more than $1 trillion in global oil imports.

While dependence on rare earths enables China to leverage influence on the world stage, it is something that Beijing has in the past discovered limited utility in trying to exert. Following an attempt by China to choke Japan’s supply after a political dispute, Tokyo found alternative supplies and reduced its dependency on Beijing.

Similarly, according to reports from last November, Chinese miners were in talks to access Afghanistan’s vast lithium reserves. But big firms see little reason to endure the complexities of Afghanistan. Some opportunist mineral ore brokers may step in, including small-scale operations run by individuals or small companies that will use pumps and excavators to get at the brine lithium that can be found under dried salt lakes.

This requires none of the heavy industrial machinery or effort of a large firm, just access to the site, something that is now possible given the relative stability the Taliban government has brought to Afghanistan. There is evidence from contacts on the ground (and videos on Chinese social media) that Chinese prospectors are already exploring these opportunities.

But while lithium and rare earths may make catchy news headlines, politically overlooked but economically significant commodities are more likely to be of interest to China. Afghanistan has world-class deposits of iron ore. The Hajigak iron ore deposit, situated in the central province of Bamyan, is one of the several prospecting sites a Chinese delegation visited in November. It was previously won by an Indian consortium that decided not to proceed with the project for political and commercial reasons.

According to old Soviet and U.S. surveys, the deposit contains approximately 1.8 billion metric tons of ore at a concentration of 62 percent iron, which makes it the region’s largest known direct shipping ore deposit—the stuff that you can just dig up and ship. High-grade iron ore supply is already struggling to meet demand as China’s decarbonization efforts have boosted demand.

The S&P Global Platts index for 62 percent iron ore fines reached a record $233.1 per metric ton on May 12, 2021, driven by a resurgence in global demand and tightening supply. Although this has slightly eased, China’s increasingly ambitious emission reduction schemes; its efforts to diversify away from Australian supply in the wake of recent political disputes between Beijing and Canberra, which accounted for 61 percent of Chinese iron ore imports in 2020; and a COVID-induced shuttered capacity in Brazil will mean demand for alternative high-grade iron ore will remain robust. This is not to say Afghanistan is not a risky prospect, but it gives China an alternative option much closer to home.

By focusing on Afghanistan’s iron ore deposits, China can achieve several key objectives. First, it can secure access to an alternative high-grade iron ore deposit critical for the production of low-carbon steel. Second, with the current favorable market prices, it is economically viable to mine and ship the ore via Karachi without the need for investing in transport infrastructure. Third, it will demonstrate a quick win by generating the much-needed cash flow for the Taliban regime. Fourth, in the past 10 years, many small-scale steel mills, including ones run by Chinese companies, have popped up around Afghanistan, relying for the most part on a dwindling supply of scrap metals for the production of their steel products.

Unlike many other minerals for which no domestic consumption capacity exists in Afghanistan, iron ore can immediately utilize domestic steel industry capacity, perhaps with some help from China to improve quality and efficiency.

The other advantage provided by Afghanistan is an abundant supply of coal. This is crucial in the smelting process, which requires power that can be generated by coal to process the steel from the iron. Chinese producers have a long history of undertaking such projects regionally. In fact, those who designed the initial Mes Aynak copper project had intended to build a coal-fired power plant to help supply both the mining site and smelting plant, as well as the local region.

This model was one that had been proposed to the republic government before the fall of Kabul, when a Chinese delegation met former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with a proposal to commission a 300-megawatt coal-fired power station at an approximate cost of $400 million just northeast of Kabul, where the Pul-e-Charkhi Industrial Park and most of the steel plants are located. Ghani had approved the proposal in principle and had given instructions to the relevant authorities to facilitate and expedite the project. This project is one that the Taliban is simply waiting to approve and could provide an easy win for the new authorities in Kabul.

The crucial question is the degree to which Beijing is going to orchestrate such projects in Afghanistan or allow enterprising entrepreneurs to go ahead and launch the projects with its tacit support. Industrial-scale lithium, rare earths, and copper mining require large outlays and substantial infrastructure as well as end users who tend to be important state-linked actors. Iron ore is easier to manage discretely and already has a substantial Chinese infrastructure under the surface in Afghanistan.

There is also substantial demand for iron ore around China and the wider region, which makes it an easy commodity to exploit without drawing too much attention. (Conveniently, this also means the polluting part of the process is shifted offshore, helping China with its climate-related goals as well.) In reaching out to China’s limitless consumer market, it could be similar to the pine nut exports that China has encouraged and that has seen around 40 planeloads of Afghan pine nuts go to China to be rapidly sold for a tidy sum online as a luxury product.

Iron ore and pine nuts (and similar products) offer China a way of engaging in Afghanistan with little direct state commitment. Getting big state-owned enterprises engaged is full of political and security risks and could lead to targeting of Chinese nationals working for these firms, as happened in Pakistan. This has knock-on effects in terms of getting the local authorities to provide protection and generates tensions at a state level. Focusing on smaller-scale projects and miners while allowing small traders and hardy entrepreneurs to try their hand costs Beijing little and has far less risk attached to it. And what risks are attached tend to be linked to the individuals rather than the Chinese state.

The lesson learned from Pakistan seems to be: engage—but at a lower level that commits you to less and therefore exposes you to less risk. Yet the web of economic activity that is spun is potentially just as substantial and might actually benefit a wider range of Afghans. By linking the Afghan economy to China’s at a lower level, Beijing would help support stability in Afghanistan at little cost to itself.

But as much as China might hope to avoid the same problems it is encountering in Pakistan, as the world’s second-largest economy that shares a direct border with both countries, it seems unlikely that China can do so without playing a role in resolving regional problems. Beijing’s longer-term goal is to ensure Afghanistan does not destabilize the wider region or cause problems for itself. Taking a lower-profile approach to economic engagement will help China achieve this goal without attracting the same high-profile problems it is finding in Pakistan. But economic opportunity does not always translate into stability. Beijing need only look at what it has been trying to do in parts of the Pakistani region of Balochistan to see the anger it can provoke, with tragic consequences.

Still catching up on myself after my extended delinquency, here posting something about Pakistan in the wake of Shabhaz Sharif’s rise to power in the South China Morning Post. Think it still holds water reasonably well now, though I am not sure I quite see China seeing a field of friends across its border any more. Suspect it is more complicated than that, but then it always is. This coming week and the SCO Summit and President Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is going to be a really interesting attempt to connect with something. Be interesting to see how it plays out.

How Pakistan’s new prime minister completes a favourable picture for China in the region

– Shehbaz Sharif’s rise to power in Pakistan puts China in an advantageous position as its western neighbours all have governments friendly to Beijing.

– This also means China has a stake in the many problems that emanate from this region, though, and will be forced to take a more active role.

Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

The election of Shahbaz Sharif as prime minister of Pakistan by legislators completes a series of events which place China in a favourable place in its Eurasian neighbourhood. Beijing now has a leader in Islamabad with whom it has had a successful relationship in the past.

China is also increasingly presenting itself as the closest partner to the new Taliban government in Kabul, and in Central Asia it faces a region where Russia – the other major power – is distracted by a disastrous war of its own choosing in Ukraine. China’s march of influence westward is continuing, but Beijing has still made no clear decision about what it will do with this influence.

When Nawaz Sharif – Shahbaz Sharif’s brother – was prime minister, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was jokingly called the “China-Punjab Economic Corridor” because many of the largest, juiciest investments appeared to be going to Nawaz Sharif’s home province of Punjab. At the time, the chief minister of Punjab was Shahbaz Sharif.

The reality is that the economic ­corridor’s investment has been fairly spread out around Pakistan, though completion rates seem better in Punjab and Sindh. However, it is worth noting that Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous region, so perhaps the focus of Chinese investment there is hardly surprising. 

The tilt towards Punjab also reflected the fact that Beijing liked Shahbaz Sharif and found him a competent leader to engage with. Pakistan has a challenging political and economic environment, and in Punjab China found someone who could deliver. 

Now Sharif has ascended to power after the tumultuous reign of former cricket star Imran Khan. While Beijing has been careful to avoid expressing a preference for one leader over another, China likes having decisive and effective leaders in charge.

Khan was acceptable because he was seen as being the military’s man initially. He was also happy to be outspoken in his support for Beijing while China came under fire for what is happening in Xinjiang. But China has faced growing problems in Pakistan in the past few years as its interests and nationals are increasingly targeted by militants. 

China has always been happy dealing with military men because of their ability to deliver on outcomes. Beijing was in many ways most content when former general Pervez Musharraf was in charge in Islamabad. A former commando, he tended to tackle problems headfirst and actively sought to make sure China was happy even when this caused him problems at home. 

But Sharif is an excellent alternative from Beijing’s perspective. This completes a picture for Beijing where it is dealing with authorities across its western borders with whom it seems satisfied. In Kabul, Beijing has shown itself to be a powerful player in tightly embracing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan government.

In Central Asia, China has a series of leaders who are either willing to quietly engage to advance whatever goals it wants or are actively eager to cultivate a positive economic relationship. In Kazakhstan, it has a leader who studied and worked in China and speaks Mandarin. This is a highly advantageous environment for Beijing. 

However, Central Asia is also a highly troubled region, as we have seen in the past 12 months with the collapse of the Republic of Afghanistan and the chaos in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year. Also, non-state groups in the region increasingly see China as an adversary they are eager to focus on.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor continues to be a narrative focus for Balochistan separatists in Pakistan, while Islamic State Khorasan has referred to China as an adversary in its literature and deployed a suicide bomber last October in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province. At a less violent level, nationalists in Kyrgyzstan have expressed anger towards China and attacked Chinese nationals, while public polling across Central Asia often places China in a negative light.

Beijing thus faces a major dilemma on a shortening horizon. It can no longer claim to have only passive influence across its Eurasian borders or face hostile authorities in power. It now has governments in power across the board that seem eager to actively please China. This also means China increasingly has a stake in the many  problems that emanate from this region.

As the power closest to the governments in both Kabul and Islamabad, China now has little excuse for not trying to mediate the tense relations that continue to exist between the two capitals. As one of the largest investors in and increasingly the largest trading partner with both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, it will start to look odd if Beijing does not try to help the two smooth over their occasionally violent border relations.

Should further trouble erupt and Moscow is too preoccupied elsewhere to do something about it, Beijing will have to think about how it will manage the  situation. Its currently passive approach might not always work out.

China is increasingly the most  consequential actor in Eurasia, and it now has governments in power across the region who actively recognise that fact and are eager to please Beijing.

This both puts Beijing in a position of power but also one of great responsibility. It remains to be seen how China will rise to this challenge.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate  fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at  the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

It has been quite a while since I posted. My new book was published and I got caught up with a number of things and frankly this fell behind. Am also in need of a bit a refresh to the site, but cannot quite figure it out. If anyone reading this has any suggestions, please do feel free to get in touch and let me know! But now to catch up on a few months worth of articles. But for the time being here is a longer interview with the excellent The Wire China inspired and promoting my new book looking at China in Central Asia, Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire. A few of these to come, as well as some extracts that were published.

The West’s Missed Opportunity in Central Asia

Raffaello Pantucci talks to Andrew Peaple about Xinjiang’s relationship to Central Asia, the BRI’s origins, and the China-Russia relationship in Central Asia.

Q & A

Raffaello Pantucci is a scholar and senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), whose research focuses on China’s relations with its western neighbors, as well as terrorism and counter-terrorism. His new book, Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, investigates China’s relations with its neighbors in Central Asia, based on extensive travel in the region and in China’s western province of Xinjiang. In the following lightly edited interview, we talked about why Central Asia is key to Beijing’s controversial policies towards Xinjiang’s Uyghur population, its economic and security relations in the region and its approach to Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal last year.


Raffaello Pantucci.
Illustration by Lauren Crow

Q: You make the argument in your new book that China’s approach to Central Asia can largely be explained by its concerns over Xinjiang. Can you explain your thinking — and to what extent do you think China’s strategy is working?

A: Xinjiang is in many ways the sixth Central Asian country, or seventh, if you include Afghanistan. It’s just an accident of history that it ended up within China’s borders; it’s always had a very strong connection to Central Asia. If you look at the populations on the ground, everyone associates the Uyghurs with Xinjiang, but there are quite substantial Uyghur diasporas in Central Asia. And if we think about Central Asian peoples, there are large Kazakh, Tajik and Kyrgyz populations in China. So the intermingling and the linkages to the region are very strong, and this goes back centuries. These are longstanding nomadic communities that were transient across the entire space, until the borders were defined at various moments.

So, Xinjiang has always been intimately tied to Central Asia. Going back to the end of the Cold War, China saw that the links that Xinjiang had with the region were very important. If we look at the mid-1990s, when [former vice premier] Li Peng did a famous tour through the region and visited four of the capitals, you can see he’s talking in these places about the problems of separatists, which was a reference to the Uyghurs, and he was talking about building new Silk Roads across this region, linking China up. So it’s always been a running theme for China.

If you take it forward to today, the important marker to look at is 2009, when there was large-scale rioting in Urumqi and Xinjiang, which led to a change in the government’s approach towards the region. And what we saw happen after that was a kind of supercharging of economic linkages between Xinjiang and Central Asia. The government decided that if it was going to fix the problems that had expressed themselves so brutally in the rioting, it needed to do two things: One was a very heavy security crackdown, which we’ve seen and also has a long history behind it. But two, it really needed to improve the economy in the region, because that would be the longer-term answer to bringing stability to Xinjiang. And if you’re going to develop this region, which is as landlocked as any of the Central Asian countries it’s next to, you’re going to have to develop its linkages and help improve its prosperity through the region it is adjacent to. I think that connection [with Central Asia] is at the core of what China sees as the longer-term answer to stability in Xinjiang.

Is it working?

It’s very challenging. After 2009, the perception from Beijing was that the violence in Xinjiang and emanating from Xinjiang was getting worse. And so what we’ve seen over the past few years is the dominance of the security approach, pushing down the economics approach. But they recognize that the economic path is the way to bring stability in the longer term.

You also argue that even though Xinjiang is central to China’s thinking on Central Asia, it still doesn’t have a really coherent strategy towards the region. There seems to be a paradox there.

We started doing the work on this book in the early 2010s. We traveled around the region and Xinjiang, and we found this clear connection, which had quite a long history and was clearly growing. And it was clear to us that there was something happening; there was a big surge into Xinjiang, which was having an overspill into Central Asia, but it was equally clear that it wasn’t all coordinated. And whenever we talked to people in Beijing or Shanghai, the big strategists, we never had a sense that there was a coherent strategy saying “Okay, so first, we’re going to do this, then we do that, and the answer will be this.”

Then in 2013, after we had done a whole bunch of this research and travel, Xi Jinping went to Astana [in Kazakhstan], and announced the Silk Road Economic Belt, and then a month later, we got the 21st century Maritime Silk Road [which together became the Belt and Road Initiative]. And of course, the year before, in 2012, [Peking University professor] Wang Jisi had given his famous treatise about China marching westward. And so suddenly, you start to see there is some clear thinking about what this is going to look like. But what we still never quite saw was actually a clear, laid out plan. In fact, what it looked like was that what had been happening in Central Asia for some time was being formalized, and then basically becoming China’s larger strategy for engaging with the world. At the same time, we still never saw a very clear and perfectly articulated strategy for Central Asia, it’s more that Central Asia becomes the first place where this approach has been tested.

Why do you think Central Asia is important? And should we in the West be paying more attention to what China is doing there?

It’s a bit of a lacuna that the Indo Pacific strategies being pushed out now [by the U.S. and EU] focus almost single-mindedly on the maritime side. They’re missing a huge story that’s happening in Eurasia. And this is important to Europe, particularly, but also more grandly, in bigger strategic terms. This is where all of these powers that at the moment the West is locked in a struggle with, have a very important stake. And so it seems odd that we’re not engaging more.

But at the same time, Central Asia is an interesting mix, if you look at the degrees of engagement. For example, the European Union is always talking about Central Asia as a place where it really wants to engage, and engage with China as well. But it’s never quite been able to pull it off, because Europe has various internal complexities that make it very difficult for them to focus on some things, when there are other priorities.

For the United States, when you had the focus on Afghanistan, the region was very interesting and appealing; whenever you don’t have that, it’s become less crucial. At the same time, the U.S. even having a small presence does have an outsized impact. What we’ve seen over the past few weeks is an attempt by Washington to engage with the region in quite an interesting way, but not to the degree that the region wants and is actually needed, it’s still not rising that high up in the rankings.

What are the implications if the West does allow China to just carry on increasing its economic, security, and even its cultural ties with Central Asia?

It’s worth remembering that we have got countries here like Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have created problems that have struck the West quite dramatically in recent times. This is not a region that is unimportant; it does have an ability to reach out and hit us.

It feels like a missed opportunity to just say that the Eurasian heartland is going to be signed over to this new axis of authoritarian powers, comprising Russia, China and Iran, and that these countries in between will just get stuck into that morass. There is a real opportunity in Central Asia where you have got some relatively young countries, that have a desire to reach westward, that have young populations that are very interesting and dynamic. And it feels like a missed opportunity to just say it’s off the beaten track, too complicated, let’s just leave it alone, when actually you’re dealing with countries that would be very keen to engage more in Western discourse, and are trying, in some cases, to move in that direction.

At the moment, they have this sort of easy fallback of Russia and China; Russia, they’re always very slightly worried about and China they’re also not totally happy with at the moment, probably a little bit more comfortable than with Russia because of current Russian activity. If we go back and look at history and geopolitics, this is the Eurasian landmass, which is the biggest single piece of territory on the planet; and for it to just be sort of controlled by these other powers misses a geopolitical beat. And just focusing on the maritime side of China misses not only a huge part of China, but also a huge part of Eurasia.

Frankly, what the region wants is options; they don’t want to be constrained. And the difficulty they have is when they don’t have any options. They would like to have Western options available to them as well. These are countries that would like to craft out a different path, they are 30 years young: It’s 30 years since they shed the Soviet yoke, they don’t really want to just fall under someone else’s. They would like to be able to craft out an individual identity.

What attitude have governments in Central Asia tended to take towards the reports of the oppression that’s taking place in Xinjiang?

There was concern and knowledge about it, it’s certainly something that did come up. But the flip to that was, I never really saw vast protests or movements to try to do something about it. There is a Uyghur diaspora in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in particular. And in the past, Kazakhstan has been a place where lots of dissidents used to gather. And in Kyrgyzstan there have been previous incidents of Chinese getting murdered there by angry Uyghur groups. So there is a history and a connection in that way. But when I would go to the region, I wouldn’t find much sympathy towards the Uyghurs. The sentiment was often “Well, they probably brought it on themselves in some way.” And at the government level, there was always a sense of ‘we don’t criticize what other governments do, in terms of handling their own internal security, because we don’t want them to criticize us’.

What about the other criticism that you sometimes hear of China’s economic diplomacy, which is that it’s forcing countries into debt in order to entrench China’s power?

There’s always that fear, but I’ve never liked the debt diplomacy, debt trap narrative, because I feel it removes agency from the host countries. We can question judgment; we can question whether a project was undertaken under corrupt practices, or whether something happened behind the scenes. But I struggle to find evidence that there’s a conscious effort by the Chinese bankers and companies to essentially entrap these countries in some way, to then reclaim something from them. In some deals, there was quite clearly an effort by the Chinese company or the bank to make sure they had a guarantee, and they will say, “We’re going to do this project, but we will need some mineral rights to ensure our returns.” The transaction was at that level, it wasn’t a forced thing, the government had the agency to make the decision or not. Now, they’re very poor countries, how many things are really off the table? You can question some of that. But I was never very convinced by the debt trap diplomacy argument, because this suggests a level of planning and antagonism from Beijing that I always struggled to find.

The impression I got from the book was that there are several projects that China is essentially extending its investment-driven model to Central Asia, to the benefit of Chinese companies. Does that bring any benefit to the local economy, though?

It’s a good question. It was one of the jokes I used to hear on these trips, people would say, “Well, you look at some of these projects. Money has moved from one building in Beijing to another building in Beijing, and a road has popped up in Tajikistan.” And there was something to that, when you looked at the way that these deals were structured.

At the same time, a road did pop up in Tajikistan. To give another example there, they had the famous “tunnel of death” that used to cut across the country, which was built by the Iranians in the late 2000s and which was a terrifying thing to go down. The Chinese built a parallel one that is much better and is safe, and you don’t have to worry about it flooding and you don’t have to worry about it possibly collapsing on you. These are real benefits — although it’s not a uniform story, there are definitely examples you can find where the net result, frankly, has been problems on the ground that have then ended up in more money having to be spent to retro-fix.

How coordinated did you find China’s investments under the BRI to be in the region?

A crucial thing to say about this is that the BRI was already happening in the region, before it was the BRI. And it got called the BRI afterwards. Everything that had been happening in the region then suddenly got rebranded as BRI and just continued on. BRI is a slogan, really. In this region, in particular, you can see that the slogan was just slapped on top of something that was already happening.

The most dynamic and potentially coordinated area I’d look at is the digital space, where there is an interesting narrative. And the mechanics of how it all ties together still need to be unpicked. Chinese telecom companies like ZTE and Huawei are responsible for the hardware in the region. They’re increasingly responsible for a growing proportion of the software as well. Alibaba has investments in the region. Alibaba’s investments in Russia and the connections that these companies all have through the SCO, and some of the legislative changes that have started happening in the region — there is something that feels a bit more coherent. If we look at the payment systems that come alongside Alibaba and Taobao, all of that does seem to be a bit more edgy. And that is interesting, because there you are seeing the kind of future market that is being both built and, increasingly, delivered by Chinese companies.

There’s also an awful lot of froth around the BRI. Whenever leaders came out to visit, they would sign multibillion dollar deals, and then you’d look in and see that this actually was a lot of deals for the past five years and the future five years, all repackaged together, stuffed into one number so that it can look bigger. In reality, the future ones might never happen, the older ones are gonna get redone. A bit of realism has probably been injected into the process. But look, BRI is not going to go away, because Xi’s written it into the constitution of the Party. So yeah, BRI forever!

The idea that most people on the outside probably have is that Central Asia is a region where Russia still supplies a lot of the security and military muscle, and China increasingly is providing economic support and growth for the region. How do the two countries interact there?

The China-Russia relationship in Central Asia is an interesting one. I often think the tension is overplayed, because I found it in fairly limited supply on the ground. There’s a degree to which you have Russian paranoia. But we tend to think of it as though Russia is worried that its sphere of influence is getting eroded in some way. What that misses is that Russia still does have a very strong influence in the region. If we think back to the beginning of the year, and the protests in Kazakhstan, or even if you go back and look at the fall of Kabul last year, it wasn’t China that countries turned to, it was Russia. It was Moscow that sent soldiers to help stabilize Kazakhstan. Russia does do military sales to a lot of the Central Asians, and did joint training exercises with the Uzbeks and the Tajiks in the wake of the fall of Kabul. So Russia is still a very important security actor in the region. It has also got an important economic connection, through the Eurasian Economic Union. Russian companies, of course, are able to operate there quite happily, and so there is a kind of strong historical connection that continues to sort of exist with Russia now.

Having said that, China is clearly the growing force and becoming probably the most consequential power in the region. What’s different is that Russia takes a more paternalistic view of the region, and China is seeing it in a much more transactional light. And so while China does engage increasingly in security matters, they engage with matters that are linked to its interests. The PAP — the People’s Armed Police, a kind of security force in China that is very closely linked to the party that usually deals with domestic security issues — is often at the front of engagement with the region, because their primary security concern with the region isn’t this abstract geopolitical fight with the Russians, it is a very specific one: militants gathering there to come and hit them back at home. China’s very focused on its own interests.

It’s the same at the economic level, these companies that are going in, they’re going in there to do deals, to do transactions; they’re not going there, for some sort of abstract, geopolitical goal. It’s driven by whatever company they’re working for. We get caught up in these geopolitical games. In reality, the Russians do see it as their kind of fiefdom. And the Chinese are just coming in and doing what they want and what they’re worried about. So those two concepts don’t necessarily need to collide. Where they do collide, the key thing we have to remember is that for both Beijing and Moscow, far more important than whatever happens in these countries, is their geopolitical alignment against the United States and the West. As long as that exists, they will overlook whatever tensions and issues you find in the countries in between.

From what you’ve seen, then, it still seems the case that China is pretty reluctant to get involved in anything that involves its own military.

We’re still a way off that, frankly. Now, this is a negative for the region in a way, because the Russians have shown themselves to be a mixed protector at best. The West has demonstrated its fleeting interest, with the coming and going in Afghanistan. And so, with China slowly becoming the most consequential economic actor in this region, you would expect it to try to play a greater role in trying to mediate some of the tensions. But I’ve seen very little appetite from Beijing to do that. A kind interpretation would say, well, where have they got the experience of doing this sort of thing successfully? And this is a very complicated region, is this really the place you want to start testing these things out? But an unkind reading would say, frankly, they just don’t care. Because they say, “It’s up to you to have your history and work things out.” And sadly, that narrative is probably the more prevailing one in Beijing.

When the U.S. and Western withdrawal from Afghanistan happened last year, there was speculation that it had been left open for the Chinese to come in and dominate. You seem relatively skeptical that that’s what’s taking place.

When we went to Afghanistan, in the early 2010s, the same deals that are being talked about now with the Chinese were being talked about then, and had actually been signed. There’s two big resource deals basically: there’s one in Mes Aynak, a copper project, and there’s one up in the north in Amu Darya, an oil and energy concession. And those two projects were ones that were signed with the Republic government, when the Americans were the dominant force there, and they didn’t go anywhere for many years, and the companies had all sorts of problems. I don’t think any of these problems have really gone away: the only one that could be said to have gone away is security, where it is now frankly, more stable than it was previously. But at the same time, the Taliban openly talked about protecting Mes Aynak; they said a number of times, we will protect this project. My point is they [the Chinese] were not able to deliver on these projects when you had in power in Kabul a more technocratic government that could manage these sorts of things. I don’t know how that becomes easier now with a government that doesn’t have that same sort of technocratic expertise, and is treated as a pariah on the world stage.

The caveat is what we have seen in recent months, which is very interesting in Afghanistan, is a growing push at a much lower level of economic engagement. We have seen a lot of low level trading going on, and an opening up of shuttle routes for pine nuts, or saffron or lapis lazuli — all products that the Afghans have that are of interest to the Chinese market. This is a positive because these are projects and commercial transactions that will benefit a larger number of Afghans, because it’s not about state-to-state deals about mineral resources, which only really benefit the central government and a few workers and don’t have a much wider impact. We have seen the Chinese try to encourage that, and that’s creating an interesting connection economically between Afghanistan and China, which actually costs the Chinese state very little. Because just making sure pine nuts can get into your country, what does that cost the Chinese state?

It remains a very live concern in Beijing that trouble in Afghanistan could overspill into Xinjiang. I think the more likely immediate source of threat probably comes from problems in Afghanistan spilling into Pakistan, and impacting Chinese projects and investments there. I think that’s of equal concern to Beijing. It’s interesting because in a way, the Chinese government had a good working relationship with the Republic government in Afghanistan, on dealing with Uyghur threats, because at the time the Republic government, of course, saw Uyghur militants, frankly, in the same light, as it saw the Taliban — they were all fighting together against them. There seems to be some evidence that towards the end of the Republic government time, there was some sort of breakdown in the relationship between the government and Beijing.

My understanding is that at the moment, there’s two tracks of thinking in the Taliban authorities: On the one hand, there are some that say, “Well, we need to cooperate with the Chinese, because they’re clearly an important economic actor for us; they’re going to be very crucial going forward. So we should think about how we resolve this Uyghur issue to their desire, so that we can overcome this hurdle and get the unfettered Chinese investment that we want.” But there’s another group that says, “Well, we’ve just won a war, a 20-year struggle against the mightiest empire on the planet, and we won fighting alongside these guys. Why should we turn these people over to another state government that wasn’t helping us previously?”

More updating from last month, this time a piece for the South China Morning Post which attracted a certain ire online at the time looking at China’s broadly passive approach to all of the trouble on its periphery of late. My point was maybe not as strongly put as the headline, but as ever headline writers are focused on clarity and not subtlety.

Eurasia in turmoil: how China’s passivity foments the chaos

  • From Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and now Ukraine, the Eurasian heartland has fallen prey to three forces: authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity
  • Beijing may be happy to sit out the chaos for now but it will ultimately spill over and create problems it cannot ignore
A sign outside the the Canadian embassy in Beijing on March 3 in support of Ukraine. Photo: AFP

It has been a tumultuous six months for Eurasia. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last August was followed by widespread civil unrest in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year and now a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While Russia has had a prominent role in each context, it is China’s perspective that people most frequently ask about. Yet Beijing has stayed broadly passive, highlighting the role that China sees for itself in the world.

China may be the new superpower on the international stage, but it appears to have little interest in committing itself to resolving any problems that emerge in its neighbourhood or beyond.

The attention on China can sometimes seem exaggerated. We look for Beijing’s view on everything nowadays, sometimes where it is unlikely to be relevant. Yet the truth is that Beijing is a significant actor in all three Eurasian contexts.

China remains the putative largest single external investor in Afghanistan, is Kazakhstan’s second-largest trading partner (and fastest-growing investor), and since 2019 has been Ukraine’s largest trading partner.

China has undertaken or signed contracts for large-scale investments in all three countries, is an important trading partner and (in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan) has a particular interest given the shared borders.

So it is not entirely surprising that people look for China’s views in these contexts, and expect Beijing to want to step in when things turn bad. Yet, in each situation, China has instead stood by to let others try to fix the problems.

A similar playbook can be observed in all three cases. In the first instance, Beijing apportions blame – often finding the United States culpable for the situation.

In Afghanistan, the American withdrawal precipitated the Taliban takeover, making it an easy connection. In Kazakhstan, mutterings of “colour revolutions” started in Moscow and Nur-Sultan, giving Beijing ample fuel to point towards the US. And in Ukraine, China has continued to point to US-driven Nato expansion as a key underlying reason for the conflict.

Having blamed the US, the next step is to try to embrace tightly. In Afghanistan, this has led to a surge in Chinese activity on the ground, regular aid, close engagement with the Taliban authorities, regular championing of their interests at the United Nations and the constant promise (that has yet to materialise) of larger-scale investment.

In Kazakhstan, Beijing picked up seamlessly from where it left off before the trouble in January, while in Ukraine it is trying to sell itself as an impartial supporter of both sides.

Yet in all of this, Beijing commits very little. The constant presentation of multiple-point plans to resolve situations are largely empty declarations which appear well meaning but are not followed by any real evidence of effort to resolve the situations. Instead, they largely state the obvious and seem to suggest that Beijing is somewhat above the situation as a benign observer.

There is no doubt some element of Beijing’s stasis is not really knowing what to do. China’s offers to act as a peace broker have tended to be hollow, usually offering a table around which the various parties can sit.

While this is a useful role, a proper negotiator will need to work the various groups, understand their interests and force heads together. This is also likely to mean telling people what they do not want to hear, something Beijing is never very interested in doing as it potentially creates adversaries.

But so far, by sitting and watching, Beijing has not done itself much ill. While its international standing may be damaged among those who would like to see it take a more active role, by not doing so, China is leaving itself in a position where it can continue its relations with whichever party comes out on top.

And given Beijing’s strong economic interests in every situation, all the parties involved will usually have a strong incentive to continue to engage with Beijing after the chaos subsides.

But there is a longer-term problem here, which may eventually cause China some regret. The result of this passivity has been a Eurasia increasingly in tumult.

As Washington leads the West in a mostly seaborne crusade in the Indo-Pacific against China, we see the Eurasian heartland fall prey to three forces. Authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity. The result has been large-scale loss of life, and growing constraints on people’s liberties.

This is the net result of a Eurasian heartland abandoned to local forces, and increasingly overseen by superpowers who see value only in shaping history when they deem it important to their grandeur, and otherwise seem content to simply let things play out, no matter the consequences on the ground.

For now, China might be happy to watch things play out. But, unfettered, these forces are likely to create nothing but misery and a Eurasian backyard in which China will find itself the dominant power watching over chaos.

And while in the short term it might be possible to find some benefit from this situation, in the longer term, it will spill over and ultimately create problems that Beijing cannot just watch from the sidelines.

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