Posts Tagged ‘BRI’

More delayed catch up posting, this time a short piece for an excellent website called East Asia Forum, which is a platform for a very interesting discussion about Asian affairs drawing on a wide variety of authors and topics. Some very interesting stuff covered, well worth checking. Mine draws on a well-worn topic for me which is only going to build up further as time goes on.

China’s complicated relationship with Central Asia

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Author: Raffaello Pantucci, RUSI

The closure of a mine in Kyrgyzstan, protests on the streets in Kazakhstan. The grand guignol of menacing Chinese investment into Central Asia appears to be rearing its head in public discourse. Both fearful and grateful, the region is a paradox for China at the beginning of its Belt and Road. Hardly a week goes by without a senior Chinese visitor appearing somewhere in Central Asia, revealing a long-term influence game that Beijing is winning.

But the situation in Central Asia goes beyond foreign investment. People want to connect with China. In Ashgabat, queues of eager young Turkmen wait outside the Chinese Embassy seeking visas. For the young in Dushanbe, learning Mandarin is in vogue. In Uzbekistan, Chinese investment is the talk of the town, as the city celebrates the Chinese autumn festival and the China Expo showcases Uzbekistan as key to China’s Central Asia vision. And while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan may have protests, Kazakh leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has just visited Beijing talking of strategic partnerships and Kyrgyzstan awarded Chinese President Xi Jinping their highest national award when he visited earlier in the year.

We have seen anti-Chinese protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan before. Back in 2009 and 2016 there were large-scale protests focused on reports that the government was going to allow China to rent land for agricultural purposes. In 2011, fighting broke out between oil workers and the Kazakh state in Zhanaozen leading to a number of deaths — Chinese company CITIC was among the investors and received some blame for the bad pay which appeared to underpin the protests. Smaller scale brawls between Kazakh and Chinese workers are frequent. As seen currently in Kazakhstan, protests are usually linked to bad working conditions, clashes between workers or environmental damage. There is also usually a strong undertone of local politics.

Central Asians have watched as Chinese money, workers and influence have shaped the regional economic geography with the open support of local authorities. This is a lever that political opponents can sometimes use. Building on an elemental sort of racism towards Han Chinese that can often be found in the region, the protests can actually often be complaints aimed at local authorities. People are often protesting against their own government, with China becoming a target by proxy. This confluence was most clearly on display recently in Kazakhstan where protestors’ public anger was targeted at the Chinese, but the protests were clearly instigated by governmental political opponents.

In Kyrgyzstan, paranoia towards foreign mining investors has repeatedly led to locals scaring away foreign investment. The massive Kumtor mine in Kyrgyzstan has faced environmental issues and other problems for its Canadian owner. Chinese projects are smaller, but beset with similar problems. Stories of pollution, bad pay and local corruption blend with a general fear of Chinese investment which is sometimes stirred up by local potentates seeking to extract more money or score points against political rivals.

And there have been some dramatic failures by Chinese firms in the region. In January 2018, Bishkek lost powerfrom its main power station after refurbishment by Chinese firm TBEA failed at exactly the wrong moment. There are questions surrounding corrupt and pollutive practices of Chinese companies working in the region. Chinese firms tend to lower their standards in the region, ignoring requirements they usually adhere to back home.

What is less visible are the expressions of sympathy and concern about the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang. US State Secretary Pompeo may have heard polite noises during his comments to Central Asian foreign ministers in New York but there is little public sympathy for their plight. Concerns tend to focus on co-ethnics and family members caught up in China’s camps system and fears that their governments might seek to purchase similar technology to use against them. When people do express fear about how events in Xinjiang might impact them, it is at a very personal level focussed on their own personal safety, rather than the broader cause of abuse of Muslims in China.

But very little of this matters to Beijing. Central Asian leaders remain eager for Chinese investment. The once closed Uzbekistan is the most obvious example of this, where the surge of Chinese investment is openly welcomed. Beijing is increasingly holding large portions of debt and becoming the main trading partner across the region.

China, in the meantime, is increasingly focusing on its security equities in Central Asia. Stories of Chinese private security emerging in the region sit alongside more overt displays of strength through the building of bases, the conduct of joint training exercises and the provision of equipment for Tajik forces along the Chinese border with Afghanistan. Already this year, there have been reports of joint training exercises with Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbekforces.

It would also be unfair to not point out the positive side of China’s presence in the region. In Badakhshan, Tajikistan locals may have conspiracy theories about China’s long-term intentions in the back of their minds, but they will admit that the Chinese-built roads have changed their communities for the better. Chinese companies and projects are often seen as more credible than locals — who often show up, make a lot of noise and fail to deliver. And while Confucius Institutes are regularly talked about in the public debate as centres focussed on brainwashing the young to be Xi acolytes, visit them on the ground and they are full of eager young Central Asians chasing the opportunities that China offers.

The story of China in Central Asia is a complicated and nuanced one of an emergent region which is being swallowed up by a neighbour who cares little about it, focussed instead on its geopolitical clash with Washington. Locals at an individual level do not care about these broader issues and are instead trying to navigate their way to prosperity among the economic boom they see in China. As the world watches the US–China confrontation play out on the international stage, few are paying attention to the heart of Eurasia where a sea change is happening. China’s natural borders mean it will always have a strategic interest in Central Asia, but helping the region develop other options should be the focus of western policymakers.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), London.

Finally doing some catch up posting as have let things slip for a while. Been somewhat preoccupied with some real-world issues which am still working through. Likely going to see some workflow changes in the future, so watch this space!

But back to the matter at hand, back in early September this chapter emerged at last as part of an NBR publication. The paper was the product of an excellent workshop in Washington that Nadege, Brian, Ed and their colleagues had invited me to last year. The final report is a very interesting one featuring a selection of colleagues and experts writing about China’s growing security efforts along the Belt and Road.

I have reposted the executive summary here, but the whole paper is available to easily download from the NBR website. More on this topic more generally in the pipeline over the next period.

Essay from NBR Special Report no. 80

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The Dragon’s Cuddle
China’s Security Power Projection into Central Asia and Lessons for the Belt and Road Initiative
by Raffaello Pantucci
September 3, 2019

This essay examines how China’s growing security engagement with Central Asia provides a blueprint for how China might engage with countries through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in a similar fashion.

Executive Summary

Main Argument

Xi Jinping’s decision to deliver one of the speeches announcing BRI in Kazakhstan was not incidental. It highlighted the centrality of Central Asia in Beijing’s thinking about the initiative. Consequently, it is useful to examine China’s behavior in Central Asia in some detail to understand better the longer-term consequences of Chinese influence and investment in regional countries under BRI. In the security space, Central Asia has been traditionally considered an area of Russian influence, but over time China has gradually increased its interests using five pillars for engagement: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), training and joint exercises, military aid, military sales, and private security companies (PSCs). Given the analysis of PSCs elsewhere in this report, this essay will focus on the first four pillars in order to better understand the long-term consequences of China’s security engagement in Central Asia and survey options for policymakers seeking to address China’s growing influence.

Policy Implications

  • Chinese security engagement in BRI countries should be understood in a broader context than military sales. Instead, a continuum of security activity should be considered, encompassing training and multilateral engagement as well as military sales. External powers seeking to understand or counter Chinese influence in this space need to engage in a range of security actions.
  • China is investing considerable resources into educating and developing the next generation of security leaders in Central Asia. The longer-term consequences of these efforts may take decades to play out but will likely require a more sophisticated level of engagement from outside powers.
  • The SCO is often considered an impotent institution that has failed to deliver any clear action. However, China and other members appreciate the consistent forum for engagement that the SCO provides, and the forum offers China opportunities to influence the normative space.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.

Have a bit of catch up posting to do, and have quite a few longer pieces that are in production at the moment. Some big personal news on the horizon too, feel free to get in touch if you want to hear more (or do some digging online). My personal hope is that the upside is more time to write. A perennial complaint, lets see how it pans out.

But onto the present. First of all a longer article in Asian Affairs journal as part of series they published after this conference in London during which you can see me present the ideas laid out in the piece. Some other excellent pieces by smart colleagues in the special edition of the journal which would highly recommend. The piece might be behind a firewall for you, and feel free to get in touch if you are having issues. In the meantime, am posting the abstract below and you might be able to find the piece here.

China in Central Asia: The First Strand of the Silk Road Economic Belt

Publication Cover

In starting his announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative in Astana, Kazakhstan, President Xi Jinping was very consciously making the point that the broader vision of BRI was something that drew out of an approach that had been long developing between China and Central Asia. Focused on trying to improve prosperity at home through development and prosperity in adjacent regions, China’s relationship with Central Asia was one which provided a model that Xi saw as a positive way to articulate China’s foreign policy more broadly. Consequently, however, China’s relationship with Central Asia provides a useful window into understanding China’s broader Belt and Road Initiative. In the article, the author lays out a short history of China’s relations with Central Asia, illustrates their current status, before offering seven broader lessons and issues to be found which can provide a useful prism through which to consider the longer-term impact of the Belt and Road Initiative around the world.

A couple of quick posts begin the year of separate pieces that emerged towards the end of last year. On a more geopolitical bent than some of my previous work, but reflects a broader trend in my work. First up is an interview that I did with the magazine Fortune in India about India’s views and response to the Belt and Road.

‘To suggest that India rejects the Belt and Road Initiative in its entirety would be wrong’

Raffaello Pantucci from the London-based think tank The Royal United Services Institute explains what India has got right and what it has got wrong about the initiative.

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China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has created a stir around the world. Will this multi-country infrastructure and investment project, which conservative estimates put at around $1 trillion, transform the global power structure or will it trap numerous countries in debt leading to chaos? And what does it mean for India? In London, Hindol Sengupta spoke to Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at The Royal United Services Institute, for some answers. Edited excerpts:

What do you think most people are getting wrong about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?

What’s most missing in the discourse is often perspective from these countries (the countries through which the project runs) and which reflects their interests. We should be wary of superimposing our external interpretation or perception on them. For instance, this entire point about debt traps. Now there are issues about debt, but it is not really about China trying to trap these countries into debt. It is more about the capacities and issues within these countries. Two problems happen while analysing the BRI: one, people tend to think of it as one grand strategy as opposed to lots of things happening in diverse ways in lots of places; and [two], try to superimpose that view or superimpose the view of the bigger U.S.-China clash that is happening now onto this. But both are not quite correct. There are many nuances that get lost when we cut in that way.

What are the most interesting nuances in the Indian subcontinent that are being missed out in the BRI analysis?

On the India side, there is a tendency to think that India does see this as a big, hostile thing [in] its entirety, whereas I would say that the reality is in fact India can never sign up to the BRI project in its entirety because the China-Pakistan corridor cuts through disputed territory [Pakistan-held Kashmir]. But there are other elements in the vision like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), like investment into third locations, and like Chinese investment into India that the Indian government quite likes and would like to foster. In Pakistan, once again we talk about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as one overarching thing whereas, in reality, these are a number of smaller projects. And even the loans are of various kinds—some are loans given by Chinese banks to Chinese companies to complete projects, others are loans given to the Pakistani government as a concessionary rate, and then the Pakistani state hires companies on projects. We have a habit of treating these as one big block whereas actually these are a bunch of different projects being handled in different ways and with different kinds of reactions on the ground in Pakistan. In some regions, you see some tensions and local pushbacks on the ground in Pakistan like in parts of Balochistan; in some others, like in parts of Punjab, people are quite happy about these projects.

In this scenario, how do you look at the insurgent attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi (in November 2018) for which Pakistan blamed India?

That incident did not surprise me in the least. If you track recent incidents in Pakistan, there have been more and more direct attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan by militant groups. We recently had an incident where a bomber of the BLA (Balochistan Liberation Army) targeted a busload of Chinese engineers. The BLA has been very clear that they are targeting Chinese interests in the country. The accusations against India have a long history. The thing that worries me is that while it is impossible to say whether there is any merit to these accusations, what is certainly true is that there is a lot of anger in Balochistan, which has been there for a long time. What they have now realised is that attacking the Pakistani state hasn’t really delivered any results. They have realised that if we attack the foreigners we will get more attention internationally, and we are attacking the Pakistani state’s biggest ally; and that in itself might deliver some results for us. It is erroneous to blame this on India or Afghanistan, and it is impossible to know for sure if there are any elements from these countries lurking in the background, but what we can say for certain is that there is real anger in Balochistan, and it has now decided that targeting the Chinese gets some sort of a reaction.

If this flares up, what does it mean for CPEC?

The underlying logic of CPEC would remain and this will remain an irritant to that. If the Chinese put more pressure on the Pakistanis to stop this kind of attacks, you will see a much stronger crackdown on the Balochi groups by the Pakistani forces. CPEC remains important and within Pakistan, CPEC has become kind of synonymous with Pakistani national economic rejuvenation, and that’s important for the whole region. Chinese companies will have much greater security around their assets and they might struggle on sending large numbers of engineers to Pakistan if these sorts of attacks escalate. But China is big; they will still find some people to send and its unlikely that these kinds of attacks would bring some sort of a grinding halt to the CPEC. A major attack might mean that the Chinese might [have] some of their security forces on the ground, but largely they would want the Pakistanis to solve this.

What ramifications does China’s stringent actions on the Uighur Muslims—including ‘re-education camps’—in the Xinjiang region have on its ties with Central Asian countries, Pakistan and the BRI?

What has been depressing is the lack of response from the Muslim world on this issue. Whatever comments there have been has largely come from Western capitals, and some from Malaysia. This is mainly because those countries do not want to upset China. But there have been some tensions in Central Asian countries some of whose citizens live in China and who are getting caught up in these issues in the Xinjiang region. What we have seen is concern, for instance, in Kazakhstan, where people are worried about these measures in China making their influence felt in their own country. There is pressure from the people in some of these countries for their governments to bring up these issues with China. This is not what the governments want to do because they want economic ties with China. This friction will grow.

How will the BRI project impact India’s future relations with China and Pakistan?

Clearly, in the Indian strategy vision, China is the biggest threat they look out and see. You see this in all kinds of things, in the strategic military purchases of India, in the so-called ‘necklace of diamonds’, in its relationship with Japan and the U.S. But notwithstanding all of this, we still see India hesitate to let the relationship with the Chinese to blow up into a full-fledged confrontation. That’s why we haven’t seen the Quad [Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; the strategic coming together of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia] really live up to its expectations. This is because none of the countries want this to become very confrontational and seem like a great front against China. Because they realise that they have other business with China. The U.S. has been trying to push things towards a confrontational direction, but the other countries realise that they must engage with China, its rise is happening around their borders. It is a very complicated picture. The real question going forward is how India will accommodate China’s rise, but also that China must learn to handle India’s rise and take its concerns more seriously. They have historically really looked down on India and treated India in a really disparaging fashion. This has led to angry confrontations and a sense in India that it just not taken seriously enough. I think there is a rebalancing that will happen [between the two]. And if that happens successfully, it could be massively beneficial to both. But at the moment it seems to be that national pride in both countries means that they are butting against one another but if these two great powers can figure out a way to work together and how, their growth models would intertwine with another.

What is the low-hanging fruit that India and China can pick off to better their relationship?

The low-hanging fruit could be Afghanistan. If India and China could agree that they would partner in Afghanistan, you could see a real game changer on the ground in that country with hugely positive effects. The other is why does India and China have to see projects in the surrounding island countries as threats? Why not jointly build infrastructure projects using the AIIB or the BRICS Bank, which could again lead to cooperation.

Finally, a short post for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS blog, trying to challenge some of the narrative that we see around the Belt and Road pushback that has become the dominant feature of the public conversation. It is happening, but being mischaracterised at the moment. To also separately catch up on media, spoke to NBC about the US-China clash and to Reuters about the recent attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by the Baluchistan Liberation Army (which was picked up a few places including in 普通话 for VOA Cantonese).

China’s Belt and Road hits problems but is still popular

US should not oppose the projects but offer alternative solutions
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Chinese construction project in Sri Lanka: countries that criticise the Belt and Road Initiative overlook the real need in developing nations for foreign investment © Bloomberg

There is a narrative of pushback against the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s programme to finance and build infrastructure in about 88 countries around the world. Coming against the backdrop of US-China confrontation, this evidence of pushback is being read as a collective response to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s overarching foreign policy concept.

But this misses the detail of several deals in which the context is more one of renegotiation than cancellation. The fundamental logic of many of the BRI in developing countries neighbouring China remains intact. Such is the need for investment in these countries that Chinese proposals for new bridges, highways, railways, power stations and other crucial infrastructure remain alluring.

It is five years since Mr Xi’s pair of speeches in Astana and Jakarta launched the BRI. Since then, much of what China does outside China has become associated with the BRI. At one stage, this was true of much within China as well, where almost every region and institution sought to associate themselves to the leader’s big initiative.

Five years later, it can come as no surprise therefore that some of the projects that were brought under the broader BRI umbrella have encountered issues. One consultancy, the Washington-based RWR Advisory Group, has estimated this number to be around 14 per cent. This number does not seem too high when one considers the surge in project announcements that followed Mr Xi’s speeches in 2013.

It is also useful to dig into the detail of the projects that are being repeatedly highlighted as problematic. Three prominent cases are in Pakistan, Malaysia and Myanmar. But rather than revealing consistent flaws in the BRI’s design, each of these cases derive in part from a push by local governments to renegotiate some BRI projects.

With both Pakistan and Malaysia, an election appears to have precipitated the change. The election of Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister in Malaysia led to dramatic changes within the country, including a general re-accounting of some of the deals that had been signed under the former government with China.

The most prominent were a series of pipelines and the East Coast Rail Line. After a visit to Beijing, Mr Mahathir seemed to cancel them all, but subsequently, it has emerged that while the pipelines were put on hold until the country was able to deal with the “internal fiscal problems” he had inherited, the ECRL has instead entered a period of re-negotiation as both sides seek to keep the project moving.

Mr Mahathir’s public rhetoric has expressed concern about China, but he has also repeatedly stressed the importance of Chinese investment into Malaysia.

The case is similar with Pakistan, where the election of Imran Khan as prime minister led to a change in public rhetoric in Islamabad. Specifically, it has helped crystallise a series of complaints about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that had been rattling around the Pakistan government.

This was given a boost through public statements by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, and a bipartisan letter from the US recommending confronting China over the BRI in general and CPEC in particular.

Yet, the reality is that this has not resulted in massive changes to CPEC. Pakistan’s balance of payments crisis has prompted a push by the new government to seek new loans or debt rescheduling between Saudi Arabia and China. Following his inaugural visit to Beijing, Mr Khan agreed to a joint statement in which the two countries “dismissed the growing negative propaganda against CPEC”.

They also announced the creation of a new working group “on social-economic development to assist with livelihood projects in Pakistan”.

In fact, the active pushback on CPEC projects took place before Mr Khan’s election, with the decision to reject a proposal to build the Diamer-Bhasha Dam taking place when Nawaz Sharif was still in power. This was widely touted as evidence that Pakistan was not simply going to take every infrastructure project that China wanted to do in the country.

Finally, there is the case of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, a massive port project that is in some ways one of the precursors to the BRI, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar BCIM Economic Corridor. Seeing how the international mood was shifting against Chinese investments, Naypyidaw appears to have taken advantage of the situation to renegotiate the port deal.

Part of a much bigger Chinese investment that includes Special Economic Zones and pipelines, the project is one that is clearly important to China. The re-negotiation ended up with the size of the project being cut back considerably (reportedly from $7.2bn to $1.3bn), with Chinese investor CITIC still the biggest single partner on the project holding a 70 per cent stake.

Reflecting the positive tenor of this negotiation, Myanmar officials in September signed an agreement in Beijing to create a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. While this may appear to dilute the importance of a pre-existing Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor, it certainly does not suggest that Myanmar is vociferously turning against the BRI.

Doubtless, some of this re-negotiating is a product of each other. The press coverage to emerge from Hambantota in Sri Lanka and the reports that the country ultimately signed over a 99-year lease on the port to a Chinese firm, have all become something of a byword for BRI concerns. Leaders in capitals like Islamabad, Kuala Lumpur and Naypyidaw all saw an opportunity to push back on terms themselves.

It provided easy domestic wins, while also being something that they knew they were likely to win given China’s need for the BRI to be seen to be continuing to move forwards. For both the idea of scrapping BRI within their countries was never really on the table. The underlying logic and general trend of Chinese investment in these countries continues to hold.

What has accentuated the negative narrative in the public discourse has been Washington’s attempt to harness this pushback into its broader conflict with China. Donald Trump’s administration has led an increasingly aggressive bipartisan push against China in numerous different fields.

Yet fought on these terms, this is a losing battle for Washington. In many cases the countries in question are developing countries that need investment. As Chinese neighbours, there is a natural logic in them trying to tap the Chinese economic boom, and improving their regional connectivity.

A far more productive response can be found in Washington’s decision to super-charge the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, offering a funding boost for e-infrastructure investment in south-east Asia while encouraging other regional powers like Australia and Japan to focus their efforts on specific projects in developing countries currently considering BRI investment.

This is the sensible response to BRI, as it both understands the logic of the projects in these developing countries and offers a logical alternative that they can choose. This is a response that far more effectively captures the broader logic of re-negotiation that is visible across BRI countries.

Five years since the announcement of BRI, it has grown to become a synonym for China’s outward investment strategy and broader foreign policy. As is natural with any major effort like this in foreign policy by a big power, it is raising concerns in countries impacted along the way.

What is essential to understand is the logic of this pushback which is not part of a broader conspiracy, but rather a set of individual reactions that are taking place at the same time. Keeping this understanding in mind will enable the world to better respond to the BRI and China more generally, while also remembering that the broader vision is one that is appreciated in some parts of the world as much as it is feared in others.

The writer is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

A piece from late last week as part of a short dossier ahead of the Afghan election done for a new outlet of an excellent Italian think tank called Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI). My contribution focused on China’s role in Afghanistan, a common theme which there should be more work on later in the year.

In addition, spoke to Norwegian paper Morgenbladet about Anjem Choudary’s release and the Sun about ISIS in Syria.

18 October 2018

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Afghanistan remains an awkward fit within China’s Belt and Road Initiative concept. Look at most maps of Xi Jinping’s keynote foreign policy concept cutting a route across Eurasia, and they tend to go tidily around Afghanistan. But this masks China’s genuine stake in the country, the gradual shift that is visible in Beijing’s activity and finally, the potential importance of the country to China’s broader push across Eurasia.

Starting with national security, China has increasingly sought to harden its security presence in Afghanistan. But this has been focused for the most part on Chinese national interests, rather than providing broader security support to the country. Beijing has provided funding, equipment and training for Afghan forces in Badakhshan, in Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan, and helped build border bases for Tajik forces on their side of the border in Badakhshan. At a strategic level, China has fostered the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism(QCCM) which brings together the Chiefs of Army Staff for China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. The focus of the grouping the border region around the Wakhan Corridor which all three of them share.

The key to understand this is that China is not seeking to displace the United States or NATO as a key security provider for Afghanistan’s armed forces. The country is focusing on bolstering its links and the capability of the various armed forces that touch upon its border with AfghanistanThis posture focused on Chinese national security concerns can be seen in China’s previous security engagements with Afghanistan which have for the most part focused on building relations with local groups to ensure that China’s security equities – either its nationals and investments or its concerns about Uighur militants using the territory to plan attacks in China – are covered. 

Having said this, there is an equally noticeable gradual increase in China’s activity in Afghanistan. From largely seeing the country as a graveyard of Empires from which it prefers to keep a discrete distance, China has increasingly stepped forwards to play a role in the country. Chinese firms have won some large extractive projects – in the north CNPC won an oil concession in Amu Darya, while MCC and Jiangxi Copper famously won the Mes Aynak Copper mine in Logar. Construction firms like Xinjiang Beixin, CBRC and Gezhouba have all worked on major infrastructure projects in the country. And at the smaller end of the scale, Chinese traders have sought to exploit the gemstones in Afghanistan, while Afghan shuttle traders are a feature of the thriving community of developing world merchants in Yiwu.

And Beijing has actively sought tomend the previous omission of Afghanistan from the broader Belt and Road, hosting conferences in Kabul and Beijing on the topic. At the same time, China has used a multiplicity of regional groupings to bring different regional configurations together on Afghanistan. Large multilaterals like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), and the Heart of Asia (or Istanbul) Process have all seen Chinese leadership try to push different parts of them towards playing a role in Afghanistan. At a mini-lateral level, Beijing has brought together the Afghan and Pakistani Foreign Ministers, and engaged, separately, with the US, India, UK and Germany on Afghanistan.

All of this is a step change from earlier years when Beijing largely kept on the sidelines of any discussion around Afghanistan. To some degree this was part of a general reticence by Beijing to become too involved in any major international entanglements, but it was also a product of China’s habit of abrogating its Afghanistan policy to Islamabad. While Beijing continues to be responsive to Pakistan’s concerns in Afghanistan, it has increasingly struck out its own path. The key turning point can likely be seen in 2014 when Beijing realized that American-led NATO efforts in Afghanistan had a shelf life and were not likely to result in a tidy resolution in Kabul. And while Islamabad could provide some support to advance Beijing’s goals, it did not have total control. The United States instead, was not a continental power. It could eventually up and leave – as a physical neighbour, Beijing was a hostage of geography.

At the same time, the main running narrative from Beijing was one of Belt and Road. There was a gradual build up to this through Xi Jinping’s early years – with a major foreign policy work conference on peripheral diplomacy, a refocusing on Xinjiang and China’s border regions, some major foreign travel to South Asia by leadership figures (including in May 2013 the signing of the MoU that laid the foundation for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor), and finally in September and October 2013 the respective announcements of the Silk Road Economic Belt (in Astana, Kazakhstan) and the 21stCentury Maritime Silk Road (in Jakarta, Indonesia). In 2014, China decided to create a position of Special Envoy for Afghan Affairs, appointing seasoned diplomat and Afghanistan watcher Sun Yuxi to the role.

Yet while the appointment was a clear signal of focus by Beijing, it was made in a manner which seemed to suggest it was adjacent to the broader Belt and Road Initiative. At the time, the concept was still working itself out, so in some ways this was not surprising, but the net result was to create a sense of BRI not necessarily being something which encompassed Afghanistan.

The appointment of Ambassador Sun, however, did demonstrate a level of seriousness by Beijing in terms of trying to understand how to engage with Afghanistan at a more sophisticated level than just engaging with Kabul. The difficulty with a country like Afghanistan for a power like China which is still developing its civil service cadre, is to find individuals who are able to understand countries from the inside and figure out which levers deliver results. In a tribal country like Afghanistan, this problem is multiplied, with local power brokers as significant to guarantee success of projects as the central government. As an Ambassador who had served in the country for some time, Ambassador Sun had a good understanding of these dynamics and good relations across the board on the ground. He was also instrumental in getting Beijing’s efforts are helping try to broker negotiations between the Taliban, Islamabad and Kabul together – playing an important role in the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) bringing together China, USA, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This was not unfortunately always the case with Chinese investments in the country. When CNPC embarked on its project in the Amu Darya region, they did it with a company which was not linked to the local power brokers, causing issues when their engineers deployed into the region to deliver the actual project. 

Over time, Beijing has learned these lessons, and is increasingly seeking opportunities to engage with Afghanistan in new formats and play a slightly more forward role. It has ensured that it has developed a range of relationships within the country amongst all the different factions, but at the same time ensured that it has prioritized strengthening its specific border with Afghanistan to make sure China is protected from overspill of security problems. Currently the focus is largely on bolstering capacity in neighbouring weaker countries (in Central Asia, or parts of Pakistan), while also continuing to show a willingness to talk about playing a positive role in Afghanistan. Beijing’s broader caution, however, remains and the country continues to refuse to take a clear leadership role with Kabul. A posture which is likely to continue until China sees with greater clarity what exact role the United States sees for itself in the longer run.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)

And another piece, this time a more recent one for the South China Morning Post exploring reactions to the Belt and Road once again.

Unbuckling China’s belt and road plan will not be easy for Western powers

While the major powers are offering alternatives to infrastructure funding, developing countries are trying to play a stronger hand in negotiating with the Chinese

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 7:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 7:32pm