Posts Tagged ‘BRI’

A week and a bit later, finally posting my most recent piece for local paper Straits Times. This one explores the Digital Silk Road, something I have been looking at a growing amount for this larger RUSI project I have been working on which has a specific cyber and digital strand to it. In other words more on this to come, though more likely from the policy angle than the technical one which I am continually learning about.

Bumps on the Digital Silk Road

Chinese tech giants are superb builders but feared for their prowess and government links. But what if the greater risk lies in these firms themselves?

A potentially bigger problem the Digital Silk Road faces comes from within China.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

At the height of the Sino-Indian Himalayan border clash last year, New Delhi suddenly slapped a ban on dozens of Chinese mobile phone apps on security grounds. Most prominent among them was TikTok, the video-sharing app which has taken the world’s teenagers by storm.

The Indian ban came amid a wider wave of pushback against China’s digital and technology companies, led by the United States but taking effect globally in different ways, creating bumps in the building of China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR).

India has always been a major point of interest for Chinese technology firms. With a market size potentially the same as China’s, it offers an opportunity for exponential growth right next door. For TikTok, before the abrupt cut-off, India was its biggest market outside China with some 200 million people on its platform and proof that a Chinese company could take on America’s Big Tech in new markets.

Hardware companies such as Xiaomi and Huawei have long listed India as a major source of growth. In 2018, Huawei announced an “India first” policy and started to establish a growing volume of its manufacturing for the market in the country itself. In 2017, Xiaomi’s sales in India topped US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion), while in the first quarter of this year (notwithstanding political tensions and Covid-19 economic slowdowns) it shipped some 38 million units to Indian customers, accounting for 26 per cent of the smartphone market with an impressive 23 per cent year-on-year growth.

On the software side, Bytedance (TikTok’s parent company) had bet heavily on India prior to the banning, hoping to grow its user base with a local team of around 2,000 staff. Mr Jack Ma’s Alibaba is reported to have invested some US$2 billion in the Indian market since 2015.

This push into India was the realisation of the vision of the DSR, a concept first laid out by Beijing in a 2015 White Paper. At the time, the DSR was somewhat ignored except in specialist circles as it seemed to be the latest variant of the Silk Road nomenclature in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s 2013 Belt and Road speeches in Astana and Jakarta.

Yet this rather dismissive view belies the potential impact of the expansion of the DSR, which sees China, through its technology firms and state loans, helping recipient countries build their telco networks, e-commerce, mobile payment, smart city and other high-tech infrastructure. Chinese technology companies are paving parts of the world’s digital future.

In the global market, China’s technology firms are more than holding their own. Huawei and Xiaomi phones are affordable and of good quality. Huawei is increasingly the only firm that is manufacturing the infrastructure needed by countries to upgrade their next-generation Internet network. Huawei and ZTE are among the dominant providers of telecoms hardware in the countries surrounding China, while firms like Hikvision or Dahua are offering new technologies at accessible rates.

Chinese online payment applications and fintech are at the cutting edge, while across growing swathes of Asia, Alibaba, Taobao and JD.com online sales platforms are competing robustly against Amazon and other online marketplaces. The easy access to cheap Chinese products makes them very attractive.

An entire sub-economy has emerged of local entrepreneurs in countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Indonesia who create websites in local languages that provide people with access to the Chinese platforms. Across Asia (and more widely), these online middlemen set themselves up as interpreters of Chinese platforms to those who are unfamiliar with the language but want access to the bountiful and cheap products on offer.

In some ways, this is a classic win-win. The countries get affordable technology, investment and access to the Chinese market.

DATA SECURITY CONCERNS

Yet there is another side to it which India was trying to address with its abrupt closure of a whole raft of Chinese apps. Part punitive and part defensive, India’s pushback was amongst the sharpest that China had yet encountered as it paved its Digital Silk Road.

Concerns about privacy, access to data and espionage have increasingly dogged Chinese technology firms. Former president Donald Trump’s White House was aggressive in calling out the dangers of Chinese technology, though his scattershot approach did not always deliver the impact that was intended. Chinese firms and the government have repeatedly denied the accusations levelled against them.

Notwithstanding the Chinese denials, there are areas of concern. In 2017, Huawei removed a Wi-Fi module in a surveillance system sold to police in Lahore when it was discovered by locals. The discovery of the module, which provided an option for remote control that the company had not advertised, caused consternation in Islamabad. Not enough, however, to stop the Huawei chief executive from meeting Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2019 and signing a memorandum of understanding for the company to build a giant cloud data centre in Pakistan. And there have been repeated reports that Chinese-installed technology in the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa have been used to send information back to China.

Separately, TikTok has come under fire in various jurisdictions for censoring data, in part to adhere to Chinese government concerns. In Europe, the Italian government is suing the company for not having adequate protection for children’s data.

The biggest fear at the moment, however, is data collection and access. Driving this is the fear that the Chinese government could in theory demand that any Chinese company hand over whatever data it might have on foreign nationals using its application.

The reality, however, is far more complicated than this. In response to different data protection requirements of the countries they operate in, Chinese tech companies have built data centres around the world to store client information. Singapore, for example, is a particular beneficiary of this trend in Asia, offering a secure location outside China in the heart of Asia. Such centres should be beyond the Chinese government’s reach, though, of course, it can be difficult to monitor this.

But this is not the most interesting aspect of this data collection. Far more important is the volume of information this provides Chinese firms to hone their technical capabilities.

The current rush in new technology is to develop new artificial intelligence tools. In order to train these tools, you need massive amounts of data for them to learn from – something these Chinese behemoths are increasingly gathering in vast volume from around the world and particularly in Asia.

For countries leery of China’s ambitions, this advantage makes the growth of Chinese tech companies not only a potential national security threat, but also an economic threat that could stymie if not kill off rival plans to develop similar tools.

Given all of these concerns, it is not surprising that India decided to block Chinese penetration of its market. For India and others, the worry is not just the DSR burrowing too deeply into their local economies but also the longer-term risk of taking over their digital futures and exposing them to unknown future problems.

VULNERABLE GIANTS

For all that, a less discussed but potentially bigger problem the Digital Silk Road faces comes from within China. The abrupt defenestration of China’s most famous tech entrepreneur, Mr Ma, after he had carried Beijing’s flag for tech growth and innovation around the world, highlighted how vulnerable Chinese private companies really are. Not even China’s biggest tech company, Alibaba, is immune to political censure and punishment.

So far, it appears a chastened Mr Ma is having his wings clipped for challenging China’s domestic lenders too brazenly. His future remains unclear, but the slapdown halted what would have been the world’s largest-ever initial public offering of Alibaba’s payments off-shoot, Ant Financial.

While the scenarios are speculative at this stage, some questions about the relationship between the central government and Chinese tech companies need looking at. What are the implications for contracts or activities run by these companies should they fall foul of the government? What if the Chinese government was to abruptly nationalise or take over parts of Alibaba’s global empire? Countries could find themselves suddenly facing a situation where their entire online payments system was in fact owned by a foreign government.

In other words, the Digital Silk Road’s greatest dangers may not necessarily lie in the possibility of Chinese firms secretly accessing private data or the Chinese state using the infrastructure to hack people around the world, but the political vulnerabilities these firms face back home. If they are less stable than they appear and given the world’s growing reliance on digital economies and infrastructure, the unravelling of key parts of this silk road is a far graver threat than meets the eye.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

The first in a pair of articles for Asian papers looking at China’s relations with Central Asia through the current COVID-19 disaster. This first one for the South China Morning Post, exploring the reality of how trade is being impacted during this time. In many ways what has been happening is not that surprising, but at the same time it seemed quite dissonant from Wang Yi’s comments during the 两会.

Belt and Road Initiative: China’s rosy picture is at odds with realities on the ground during Covid-19

  • Foreign Minister Wang Yi and others have sung the praises of the initiative and promoted its goal of improving cross-border flows of people and goods
  • The reality during the pandemic has been different, though, with China’s neighbours and partners frustrated by border closures, and goods facing lengthy delays
Foreign Minister Wang Yi (second right) attends a virtual ceremony with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to formally commence the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries in Beijing on March 2. Photo: Xinhua

Foreign Minister Wang Yi (second right) attends a virtual ceremony with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to formally commence the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries in Beijing on March 2. Photo: Xinhua

There is no pause button for the Belt and Road Initiative, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during his expansive news conference on Chinese diplomacy during the annual Two Sessions summit in Beijing. Yet, look around China’s neighbours in Central and South Asia and the story looks very different. Closed or only partially opened borders, alongside stories of Chinese frustration at local partners, suggest at the very least a slow-motion button has been hit in several areas.

While the initiative as articulated by Wang is focused on infrastructure development, China has repeatedly highlighted how infrastructure is only the first pillar of the broader vision. Longer-term, the strategy is intended to be a vision for trade and economic flows around the world.

During a “high-level video conference on belt and road cooperation”, held last June, Wang spoke of a desire to “discuss the establishment of fast-track lanes for cross-border flows of people and goods with belt and road partners”.

Talk to haulers or traders in Central Asia, though, and the picture during the past year has been very different. Last December, the bottlenecks at Kazakh-Chinese rail borders became so bad that a reported 7,000 containers were stuck waiting to cross, with delays stretching to more than a month because of restrictions on the Chinese side.In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the border posts have remained closed at China’s request, with only very limited traffic being reported as passing through.

In his meeting last week with Chinese Ambassador to Bishkek Du Dewen, Kyrgyzstan Prime Minister Ulukbek Maripov made the latest official plea for China to open its border. Du has held numerous meetings with various Kyrgyz officials since the new government came in, and the question of reopening and speeding up border crossings has been repeatedly brought up, to no avail.

Traders using the Kulma Pass between China and Tajikistan have faced a closed border since October, and reportedly the Chinese side is using the opportunity to increase their own market share and squeeze out Tajik traders. One spoken to by the local press reported how winter clothes he had ordered from Kashgar last year were still stuck on the Chinese side and were now useless to him as winter had largely passed.

A Tajik official said in February that only 25 Tajik trucks had been allowed through the pass since the beginning of the year, and there was a 260-truck backlog. Meanwhile, the queue at Erkeshtam on the China-Kyrgyzstan border is four days, and only seven to eight trucks are able to cross daily as opposed to 50 to 60 that used to do so.

This has had a knock-on effect on transport costs. Uzbek markets report that the costs of taking a truckload of tangerines from China in 2019 was US$4,000 to US$5,000 per truck. In 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the cost per truck increased to US$25,000 to US$26,000.Trucking goods from China to Europe used to take 16 to 18 days, but the border restrictions by China mean a vehicle can find itself waiting 15 to 20 days just to cross the China-Kazakh border.

The blame for many of these blockages is on the Chinese side, where restrictions blamed on Covid-19 are stopping transit trade. In fact, according to Chinese trade data, flows between China and all Central Asian countries with the exception of Kazakhstan have slumped in the past year. They range from an almost 50 per cent drop year on year with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to a 30 per cent fall with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Kazakhstan has seen a 5 per cent year-on-year increase, though this is down on 9 per cent the year before and 34 per cent the year before that. So much for trade and connectivity flows being boosted during Covid-19. 

At the same time, China’s perennially complicated relationship with Pakistan continues to stumble on. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is inching forwards, although Chinese irritation is increasingly visible.

The 10th meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee for CPEC, the central organising body which includes senior figures from China’s National Development and Reform Commission and Pakistan’s Ministry of Planning Development and Special Initiatives, has yet to take place. The ninth session was held in November 2019.Repeated delays blamed on Covid-19 and other complications have held things up, leading to suspicions something else might be at play. Covid-19 was, for example, not enough to stop Defence Minister Wei Fenghe visiting Pakistan in December 2020 to sign a new Memorandum of Understanding to bolster the already strong China-Pakistan military relationship.

The problems around CPEC have been obvious for some time. The increasing Pakistani military presence and involvement with CPEC decision-making highlights Beijing’s frustration, given that it has always favoured decisive military men over Pakistan’s politicians, and Chinese and Pakistani officials see military relations as the backbone of bilateral relations.This comes alongside the appointment of Nong Rong, a trade specialist from Guangxi, as ambassador to Pakistan in contrast to the usual foreign ministry cadre and South Asia hand who would usually be appointed, showing a desire by the Communist Party to further strengthen its hand.

None of these problems are that new or surprising, and China is perfectly entitled to strengthen its border controls to control the spread of Covid-19. However, it seems somewhat dissonant with the rosy picture painted by Wang.

Officials all over the world are prone to positive interpretations of events, but to offer something so discordant with what is happening on the ground suggests a larger problem. China has placed downward pressure on the Belt and Road Initiative, notwithstanding a clear desire by neighbours for things to get going again.

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

A longer piece for an outlet I have written for a few times before, the world’s oldest journal dedicated solely to international affairs, Current History. Am again here looking at China through the lens of the Belt and Road Initiative (previous pieces have looked at Central Asia and South Asia), this time looking at how it impacts and influences beyond infrastructure. It is currently free to access on their site, so please download directly, but have also provided some links at the bottom of this post.

“The BRI is creating a web of links around the world that will guarantee some form of pervasive Chinese influence for generations to come.”

The Many Faces of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Global Trends: January 2021

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is best known as a massive set of infrastructure projects stretching from Asia to Europe. But more than that, it is a sweeping foreign policy vision that provides China with opportunities for deep engagement with virtually every aspect of state and society in its partner countries. Many developing countries welcome the investments and opportunities for trade linked to the initiative, but some of the projects have sparked local resistance over fears of unfair terms or potential opportunities for Chinese intelligence penetration.

The emergence of COVID-19 initially loomed as a catastrophe for the leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although Beijing later tried to change the narrative of the pandemic’s origins, the first major outbreak of the novel coronavirus occurred in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and the largest city in central China. Early in 2020, the PRC leadership faced a domestic crisis as people in the afflicted region panicked and accusations flew over mismanagement of the outbreak. President Xi Jinping, seemingly worried that his reputation might be affected by association with the disaster, dispatched Prime Minister Li Keqiang to serve as the face of the official response. The time-worn strategy of blaming local leaders was deployed; a range of Wuhan officials was condemned and punished in quick succession. All the while, Beijing stayed above the fray, seeking to absolve itself of responsibility.

As time passed, and as health authorities in Wuhan (and around China) brought the outbreak under control, Beijing switched its approach. The leadership had come to see COVID-19, which by then had become a global pandemic, as an opportunity for China to show a positive face to the world. Having quietly accepted aid from other countries in the early days of the outbreak (privately requesting that European powers refrain from publicizing the assistance they provided), China decided to champion the aid it had begun to distribute around the world.

China’s “medical diplomacy” (sometimes called “mask diplomacy”) focused on sharing expertise and sending doctors and medical equipment to countries that were struggling to control the virus. This was all wrapped together and labeled a “Health Silk Road.” Beijing was relying on the diplomatic playbook that had come to typify the Xi era. Almost everything China does outside its borders increasingly is incorporated into a Silk Road narrative.

By doing so, Beijing is associating a variety of policies with its overarching vision for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is a foreign policy framework that Xi first articulated in 2013, when he spoke of creating a Silk Road Economic Belt across Central Asia. Soon after that, he called for creating a twenty-first century Maritime Silk Road. The two schemes together make up the foundation of the BRI.

For more, go either to Current History or get in touch or download it here.

Posting my latest piece for the South China Morning Post which seeks to push back on some of the latest narratives to emerge about the end or collapse of the Belt and Road Initiative. Am skeptical we have seen the end of it for various reasons. Am not very convinced by the title or image chosen by the editors to be honest, but cannot complain as the piece got some attention online and always enjoy publishing with the SCMP. A longer piece on BRI is coming out next month for those keen, and next year is going to be full of China-Central Asia material in the build up to the book coming out. As ever, welcome thoughts back.

As the face of China’s foreign policy, the belt and road will survive debt and coronavirus

An exhibitor sells goods at the “Belt and Road” exhibition area of the 17th China-Asean Expo in Nanning, Guangxi, on November 27. The belt and road is an idea rather than a project, and lends its name to multiple projects and events, even theme songs, cartoons, courses and think tanks. Photo: Xinhua

Having had such a catastrophic year, the world seems eager to turn the page and jettison what went before. Among the many victims of this purge appears to be the Belt and Road Initiative, which after some seven years of existence is reportedly winding down.

This premature dismissal is based on an interpretation of a vision as a project, and misses how embedded the belt and road is in Chinese foreign-policy thinking.

The belt and road draws on a long tradition of Silk Road conceptions linked to China. Clichés abound when one thinks back to Marco Polo, Matteo Ricci, the epic Battle of Talas in 751 or Ferdinand von Richthofen, who in 1877 coined the Silk Road phrasing after his travels through Asia.In contemporary Chinese parlance, the idea first came into focus under premier Li Peng, who in 1994 embarked on a tour of Central Asia in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s historic “Southern Tour” that started China on its communist-capitalist path.

Li’s trip was intended to take place in 1993, though he was reportedly delayed by ill health. Also, the visit did not stop in every Central Asian capital: Tajikistan, in the midst of its brutal civil war, was given a miss. Security was a key aspect of Li’s trip, and requests for support in suppressing militant Uygur networks were made at most stops.But the visit was also framed around trade and connectivity, and reopening the Silk Road across the Eurasian continent to China.

Following the trip, Li hosted a conference in Beijing where he called for rail connectivity across the region. Around that time, Chinese officials also held discussions with Japanese officials and investors about building pipelines from Turkmenistan, across China, to the eastern seaboard from where the hydrocarbons could help fuel Japan’s booming economic growth.

The Silk Road routes at the time went across China, rather than from it. Looking in the other direction, premier Li also travelled to Europe seeking business links.

So when President Xi Jinping announced his own interpretation of the Silk Road in 2013, under the framing of the Belt and Road Initiative, he was treading on familiar territory – both practically, but also conceptually. It was about building links around the world, and reaching European markets.

But ultimately, the belt and road as articulated by Xi is to provide a vision for Chinese foreign policy. There are undoubtedly many individual projects under the broader umbrella, but they are specific items rather than a connected infrastructure plan.

When Xi announced the idea, it was not meant to be the inauguration of a single large infrastructure project, but rather to provide the great machine of China’s external-facing apparatus with a new driving vision. The idea was that, from now on, China would articulate its foreign policy identity on the world stage as one built around building things, connecting with people and countries, and together fostering prosperity.

That’s a fairly anodyne and positive foreign policy vision, and one that resonates with anyone who has listened to Chinese officials’ endless win-win rhetoric.

It built on the earlier steps that Xi and his predecessors had laid, not only in terms of using Silk Road terminology, but also in focusing first on China’s immediate periphery and helping focus domestic efforts of spreading prosperity to China’s historically poorer inner territories.

Jiang Zemin had his Great Western Development strategy, and Xi built on Peking University professor Wang Jisi’s call to “March West”. All of these are tied together and projected forward with the grandeur now appropriate for a China that was on its way to being the world’s second-largest economy. Thus was born the Belt and Road Initiative.

But the key is that this was an idea rather than a project. Many infrastructure projects and corridors were immediately attributed to it, but so were innumerable non-infrastructure-related projects. Theme songs, cartoons, cultural shows, think tanks, courses and more were thrown into the mix (alongside many non-infrastructure-related economic projects).There was a moment when you could not avoid the framing in every conversation you had in China. It was also enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s charter. Belt and road became a way of thought.

This is not only about Xi imprinting his ideas onto the nation’s history, but also creating a vision that is the central organising concept which will dominate Chinese foreign-policy thinking in the near and possibly far future.This is also why it is not something that can fail, end or be drawn to a close. Quite aside from it being linked to a supreme leader who will not brook failure, the vision has largely artificial and unclear deadlines. While China has put a date of 2049 on achieving the belt and road, what needs to be done by then is not specified.

And even if it was, it would be in typically vague terms, meaning that whatever result has been achieved could simply be drafted into whatever the new interpretation of the Belt and Road Initiative was. Goalposts on ideas can move if they are set loosely enough.

The belt and road as a foreign policy idea is unlikely to end as long as the current leader is in power. And if it looks like it is slowing down, the vision could be reinterpreted to suit. It was never about pure aid, and it was never a single project.

It is simply Xi’s vision for how China should talk about going out into the world. Phrased like this, it has no reason to ever be completed or resolved. Unlikely to die, it will simply continue to evolve.

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

As ever, have let a lot of time pass since my last posting, but have not been delinquent in my writing. Am struggling with some longer pieces, this time of enforced immobility has been of mixed usefulness in being productive in this regard. In any case, first up another short piece for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at the China-India clash which has not resolved itself but seems to be settling in to a higher level of tensions as the norm.

Crumbling China-India relations suggests escalation will continue

China has never taken India seriously, while New Delhi has never made a clear choice about what it wants from relations with Beijing. The possibility of miscalculation is growing

China and India continue to talk past each other. China still does not regard India as a serious power, while New Delhi is prodding Beijing in areas of great sensitivity.

Security planners on both sides appear willing to accept higher tensions in their bilateral relationship, but the clash in the Galwan Valley shows this can get out of hand. The space between escalation and miscalculation is closing, and a dangerous new normal is establishing itself across the Himalayas.

China has never taken India seriously. This irritates New Delhi, which can feel Beijing’s condescension. China has also increased activity around India without considering what that looks like to its neighbour. With growing Chinese economic and security activities in almost every country around India, it is no wonder New Delhi sees what looks like encirclement.

India, on the other hand, has continually hedged and never defined what it wants from its relationship with China. In some contexts, its choices speak to a desire for close engagement – from entering the BRICS bloc, the Russian-India-China grouping or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s love-in meetings with President Xi Jinping.

At an economic level, Delhi has welcomed some Chinese investment. It tried to engage with parts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative it liked, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

At the same time, India has bristled at China’s close relationship with Pakistan, sought a closer strategic relationship with the United States and other Chinese adversaries and tried to limit some Chinese investment in the country. The global backlash against TikTok first emerged in India, which accounts for a huge part of the application’s users.

The two Asian giants bump into each other across the Himalayas, where they share an unclear border. Both claim they want to resolve this, yet little movement has been achieved. This border has become the focus of the current clash in which soldiers on both sides have died and no clear resolution appears likely any time soon.

Rather, the discussion now appears to be an acceptance of higher tensions across this disputed border, with both finding ways of strengthening their position and jostling against the other. The tensions have moved into every other part of their bilateral relationship.

The result has been a confused emboldening by Delhi. Planners talk about how things cannot go back to normal with Beijing, but it is not always clear where they want them to go. Economic resistance to China is tempered by reality, while there is a clear limit Delhi sets to the other alliances it wants to forge against China. It wants confrontation with Beijing, but maybe not as aggressively as Washington is pushing.

Worryingly, Delhi has injected Tibet into the narrative. The press is full of stories of Tibetan soldiers in the Indian armed forces. The death of one Special Frontier Force officer, Tenzin Nyima, in an explosion near Pangong Tso turned into a major news story following leaks in the Indian press about the unit. A political leader in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Ram Madhav, attended and tweeted about the funeral.

All of this led to more posturing by Beijing. Official media reports ever grander military statements and exercises in the region near the border with India. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespeople continue to reject any Indian claims while calling their own bellicose posturing merely routine behaviour.

From Beijing’s perspective, the confrontation with India is being manipulated by Washington. Rather than treat Delhi as a direct competitor with agency, it sees India being pushed towards such action by the United States.

The result is a repeat of a continued Chinese position on India – one of faint derision. Beijing does not take India seriously but rather sees it as acting at others’ behest.

This means Beijing does not seriously engage with Indian concerns while overlooking the provenance of potential threats. Now that Beijing has created a new context of tension on its border with India, it will not back down – especially as it does not think India is doing this on its own behalf.

It seems unlikely tensions will escalate into nuclear conflict. However, India playing the Tibet card prods Beijing in a very sensitive place. Meanwhile, China’s refusal to take India seriously exacerbates Delhi’s sense of needing to do more to get China’s attention.

The space for miscalculation is growing, and both are increasingly doing things to the other in a way in which they are more likely to misjudge reactions. This fisticuffs over the Himalayas has the potential to escalate further.

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

More on China in Central Asia, this time looking for the Lowy’s Interpreter, a site I have not contributed to for some time, looking at how the region is quite excited about trying to get the Belt and Road Initiative going once again to help save their economies. Been working on a few much bigger projects on the topic of China’s relations with Central Asia which will be landing over the next year or so, and need to revive the China in Central Asia site which has unfortunately been hijacked. If anybody knows how to help me get it back, please get in touch! Otherwise, will have to recreate it somewhere else.

This aside, been speaking to media about China, including to the National Public Radio and Nikkei Asian Review about the UK-China relationship, while excellent RSIS colleague James Dorsey was kind enough to mention my recent NBR paper in his regular column.

Central Asian nations want to kick-start the BRI – and China is happy

Raffaello Pantucci

Covid-19 has spurred rumours and local tensions, but economic fortunes of the region are increasingly bound to Beijing.

The fire service sprays disinfectant in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan last month during the Covid-19 lockdown (Turar Kazangapov/Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

The fire service sprays disinfectant in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan last month during the Covid-19 lockdown (Turar Kazangapov/Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

For China, the Covid-19 question is answered by more Belt and Road. As Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it at a press conference during the 13th National People’s Congress in Beijing last weekend:

The impact of Covid-19 on the Belt and Road cooperation is temporary and limited. The Covid-19 will only strengthen and re-energize Belt and Road cooperation and open up new possibilities.

Given the bad press China has been generating, it might be hard to see how Beijing can pull this off. But in places such as Central Asia, such promises resonate.

Central Asian countries have been making all the right noises about wanting to get Belt and Road Initiative–type projects and ideas moving once again. In some ways, they are already proving to be one of the first stepping stones of the Health Silk Road – the articulation of Covid-19 response under the BRI’s expansive umbrella. Having sent aid to China as the virus first emerged in Wuhan, the Central Asians are all now beneficiaries of Chinese aid, which has come in the form of repeated shipments of PPE, doctors, video conferences, aid to military and more. Conveniently, the Health Silk Road was first publicly mentioned by Xi Jinping during a 2016 speech in Uzbekistan.

Of course, China is not universally popular. While medical diplomacy has dominated, there have been considerable tensions, too. Ethnically Chinese people have been harassed in markets in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, with a Kyrgyz MP making a call in parliament for their isolation and for them to wear masks in public. In mid-February, relations in Kyrgyzstan boiled over to the point that a planned $280 million Chinese-built logistics centre project had to be suspended. In Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hauled in the local ambassador after an article appeared in the Chinese media saying that Kazakhstan wanted to return to China.

And last month, Chinese MFA spokesman Hua Chunying piled into a Russian-initiated conspiracy theory about how American funded bio-labs built to help former Soviet states manage their dangerous weapons after the collapse of the USSR were in fact the potential source of Covid-19. Kazakhstan hosts a number that were specifically name-checked in both Moscow and Beijing. The net result was articles in the Kazakh press saying that as far they were concerned, both the US and China should leave their country. Independent polling appeared to support this.

An art installation in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan during the Covid-19 lockdown (Turar Kazangapov/ Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

But what the Central Asians really want is for the Chinese economic monster to get moving once again. Wedged between China and Russia, the Central Asians have suffered the triple whack of a slump in commodities prices, a drop in remittances from migrant labourers usually in Russia (which is also suffering a major Covid-19 outbreak as well as slump in oil prices) and the economic slowdown in China. These are countries whose economic future is inevitably tied to China in some way. The tyranny of geography guarantees this no matter how hesitant they might sometimes feel.

The result has been a fertile terrain for seeking more BRI. At the front of the queue are the Kyrgyz whose leader President Jeenbekov has already reached out to Xi Jinping to seek to renegotiate their debt burden with China (amongst other international debtors) – debts that have been accumulated under the rubric of the BRI. He also sought to reopen Kyrgyzstan’s land borders with China as soon as possible to get trade moving once again. Irkeshtam and Torugart were closed in late January, and it is not yet clear they have been reopened.

Uzbekistan has also been eager to make things happen. During a conference call meeting on 19 May that the Uzbeks convened with Kyrgyz and Chinese counterparts, they sought to hurry the construction of a rail link connecting them all. From the Uzbek perspective, while understandable restrictions were placed on road transport during the Covid-19 crisis, this meant that “railway remains the safest and most reliable mode of transport.” It was also announced in May that China Development Bank was approving a loan of $309 million to allow Uzbekistan Airlines to purchase three Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners.

But the Central Asians are most keen on getting more income now. And while commodities prices may have slumped alongside demand, China has continued to increase its purchases of oil from Kazakhstan. Chinese purchasers also made a collective request to the Uzbek, Kazakh and Turkmen energy companies to collectively reduce their gas sales to China. While such a joint request is necessary to reflect the nature of regional infrastructure, it also highlighted how China’s infrastructure projects have bound the region together both in Beijing’s considerations and local economic fortunes.

This means more BRI is the answer to the downturn. An echo which resonates through the halls of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

Up next another China piece, this time for the South China Morning Post looking at the Belt and Road in the wake of Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar.

Is China getting real with its grandiose visions for the belt and road?

  • Beijing is toning down its rhetoric for the grand plan and rethinking its massive international infrastructure programme, Raffaello Pantucci writes
  • Signs of a more modest approach from Xi Jinping’s trip to Myanmar when there was little official mention of an economic corridor involving the two countries
Topic |   Belt and Road Initiative

Absent from almost all of the official coverage around Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Myanmar was any mention of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC).

A belt and road route before the Belt and Road Initiative existed, the corridor was a concept first mooted in the late 1990s but has largely gone nowhere. The bigger question this poses is whether this is a harbinger of China shedding its grander overambitious belt and road visions over the next decade for a more focused and logical set of bilateral engagements.

Certainly there has been a toning down of rhetoric around the belt and road, an infrastructure vision to link economies into a China-centred trading network. While it remains a hot topic in Beijing and a sure-fire way for leaders of other countries to be seen to be aligning themselves with China, its scattered record of success has meant there has been rethinking about how this grand concept will continue to fit into Beijing’s foreign policy repertoire. It continues to be a convenient tag for Chinese diplomats to use given its broad and positive conceptual basis but, it is not clear that China wants to continue to talk in the expansive corridor terms that it used to.

The result has been that while the initiative continues to feature in the public discourse, there has been a refocusing of attention around it. Rather than talk in terms that are almost impossible to deliver to or fail to deliver with the rapidity that might be hoped, the focus of the next stage of the narrative around belt and road will be to focus on the bilateral. Rather than China painting itself as the global regional connector, Beijing will scale back its ambition to focus on delivering direct connectivity to China in the first instance, with everything else coming in the future.

The logic of this from Beijing’s perspective makes sense: why go to the expense and effort of pushing your resources in directions whose direct benefit to China is limited or on a very long time horizon? Better instead to focus on things that are tangible and immediate and provide China with clear connectivity that it can show results at home for.

It will also help address some of the belt and road pushback that Beijing has faced globally, where the initiative is referred to as “debt trap” diplomacy, and an attempt by China to reshape global economic geography around its interests while creating a list of client states.

Not only has the volume of recipient countries complaining been growing, but foreign companies are calling out the win-win rhetoric as they grow frustrated at their inability to benefit from this push of external Chinese capital. Most recently, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China published a report in which its members complained about a lack of transparency in belt and road projects and irritation that the benefits they had seen from the initiative were “quite insignificant”.

On a visit to Pakistan last year, I met a wave of Pakistani businessmen frustrated at their inability to tap the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor money they heard reported flooding into their country. Beijing is not unaware of these concerns. The Belt and Road Summit in Beijing last year was largely a story of China trying to address global concerns around the initiative, focusing on making it more inclusive, ensuring more local benefit and making a greater effort on environmental concerns.

From this perspective, the dropping of BCIM-EC from Xi’s visit to Myanmar might be a first sign of how Beijing wants to drive the initiative forward. The BCIM-EC was always an awkward corridor to fit into the belt and road given Indian hesitation around it more generally. We saw little public reference to it during the meeting between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, and then again during Xi’s visit to Myanmar.

Instead, we see China focusing on the bilateral, delivering what has already been discussed, and avoiding too much grandiloquence which will ultimately be hard to live up to. Beijing’s track record in Myanmar is a patchy one, and recent reporting has shown how China’s efforts to support peace processes in the country have also failed to deliver.

Ultimately, Beijing will be an important partner for Myanmar. Geographic proximity assures this. The questions are how high a bar does China want to set for this relationship and how much does Beijing want to become the responsible stakeholder it was setting itself up to be?

This might be the key lesson to draw from this visit for the broader belt and road. From a half decade of ever growing grandeur, the next half decade of the initiative will be a more realistic tone and narrative focusing on ensuring China gets what it needs from these bilateral relationships rather than the overblown – and expensive – rhetoric that dominated the first half decade.

And in many ways this is a reflection of the reality of the first intended aim of the initiative, which evolved from Xi’s call for a focus on periphery diplomacy, then developed into a call for greater infrastructure and economic connectivity, and then grew into the globe spanning beast that stretched from Asia to Latin America via Africa and Europe and back. In many ways it could be that this is going to be a period of the belt and road returning to its roots. A moving of the goalposts that will allow for a shift in belt and road rhetoric without having to completely walk away from it and the loss of face that would follow.

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

Next up, a report for RUSI with Veerle which captures the findings from a project looking at UK-China cooperation in Afghanistan. A theme that we have been working on for some time, and will likely continue to work on going forwards in one way shape or form. The full paper is available here, and the online intro is posted below.

An Outline for UK–China Cooperation on Afghanistan

Veerle Nouwens and Raffaello Pantucci
Conference Reports, 18 December 2019
China, Afghanistan, International Security Studies, UK

On 29 April 2019, representatives from the UK, the People’s Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan held a seminar in Beijing to discuss cooperation on development in Afghanistan. Initially conceived as a trilateral format (between the UK, China and Afghanistan), the addition of participants from Pakistan and Uzbekistan expanded the format to help adequately address some of the regional connectivity questions.

The event was co-hosted by RUSI and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and was attended by representatives from the UK embassies in Kabul and Beijing, representatives of the governments of China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, as well as representatives from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Aga Khan Foundation. The seminar focused on five key questions:

• How can the UK and China best prioritise areas of cooperation in Afghanistan?
• What are Afghanistan’s rail infrastructure needs?
• What is the connectivity landscape between Central and South Asia, and what role might Afghanistan play as a bridge between the two regions?
• How can Afghanistan engage with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)?
• How can the UK and China cooperate in the space of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan or other third countries?

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Asian Development Bank/Wikimedia Commons

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.