Posts Tagged ‘Central Asia’

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

China and Russia to showcase alternative world order at SCO Summit

Samarkand gathering demonstrates sanctioned states still have allies of substance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More belated commentary, this time for the Straits Times exploring the range of trouble spots in Central Asia that have not gotten much smaller since I wrote this.

Trouble brews in Central Asia

A mix of geopolitics and domestic turmoil is stirring unrest in all but one country in the region, which serves as an important land bridge between Europe and Asia.

The most recent bout of trouble in the region emerged in Uzbekistan last month with unrest in Karakalpakstan. PHOTO: REUTERS

The world has a collective habit of forgetting Central Asia. Rich in natural resources, the region sits at the heart of what British geographer Halford Mackinder described as the geopolitical pivot of the world – serving as an important land bridge between Europe and Asia. Key overland routes – like the Silk Road of yore – cut across the region connecting Europe directly to China.

The past year has been a tumultuous one for the region. A mix of geopolitics and domestic turmoil has created a dangerous brew in all but one of the five countries making up the region – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Only Turkmenistan, which has just seen a power transition from a tried and tested leader to his young son, appears unaffected. There is no evidence of instability in the country at the moment, although it is impossible to know what is really going on because of the lack of information. Food prices are reportedly high, inflation has long been a problem, while the population is still struggling amid a Covid-19 crisis.

REINVIGORATED MOTOR AND BULWARK

The most recent bout of trouble in the region emerged in Uzbekistan last month with unrest in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the north-eastern region of the country. An attempt to redraft the nation’s Constitution led to anger as locals felt their special status was being taken away without their consent. At least 18 people were killed.

The violence in Uzbekistan had followed unrest in Kazakhstan, the wealthiest and most influential Central Asian power which had thus far been regarded as the bulwark of regional stability. Both countries were widely seen as former Soviet bloc countries seemingly on the path of reform.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev turned the country around when he took over in 2016 following the death of founding president Islam Karimov. Moving to rapidly open up the previously reclusive regime, the government in Tashkent was viewed elsewhere in Central Asia as a reinvigorated motor to the region.

When Kazakhstan’s founding leader and president Nursultan Nazarbayev handed over power peacefully in 2019 he seemed to set the tone for how such power transitions could be handled elsewhere. But, in January last year, a fuel tax hike led to mass protests that were quickly overtaken by a political dispute. The violence rapidly spiralled out of control, leading President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to call on Russia to deploy its forces under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to help stabilise the country. Reports suggest that over 200 people were killed in the unrest.

The authorities in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are still counting the costs of the unrest, including the geopolitical and political consequences of what occurred. President Tokayev’s decision to bring in Russian forces was highly sensitive politically in a country where the government has long been pushing an increasingly nationalist narrative.

In Tajikistan, the trouble centres on the Pamiri community living along the country’s border with Afghanistan with many people angry at their treatment by the central government. The Pamiri people, who are ethnically and linguistically different from the Tajiks, have historically been locked in conflict with the rulers in Dushanbe. Last November, a young local man was tortured and killed by the authorities. This led to protests and repression which, in turn, erupted into much larger violence in May this year. The government is still suppressing the violence and has only recently reopened communications lines from the region.

Afghanistan has been a source of concern for Central Asia. As majority Muslim countries ruled by secular authoritarian or semi-authoritarian leaders, they fear the rise of Muslim fundamentalists in their region. The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban put everyone on edge. As the militant group swept into Kabul, Russia rapidly dispatched aid to Central Asia in the form of joint training exercises and speeded up arms sales to the region. China, another regional power, contributed less, though it stepped into an active diplomatic role and bolstered its forces in Tajikistan along the Afghan-Tajik border.

Border disputes remain an obstacle to better ties in the region and the problem is particularly complicated in the volatile Ferghana Valley, where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan meet. Almost half of the 970km Kyrgyz-Tajik border has yet to be demarcated and this has led to repeated tensions between the two countries. In April last year, more than 40 people were killed as Tajik and Kyrgyz troops clashed over their disputed frontier and access to water. Tensions have since remained high with a Tajik border guard killed just a month ago.

SHADOW OF UKRAINE

All of these developments have taken place in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has a particular resonance in the case of Kazakhstan, which has a large ethnic Russian population in its north along the border with Russia. Kazakhstan has been pushing Kazakh nationalism in an effort to craft a stronger sense of independent national identity, to the detriment of Russians. This has stirred anger in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other prominent commentators questioning Kazakh national identity as a concept. The similarity with Ukraine is not lost on seasoned observers.

Nestled between China, Russia and Iran, Central Asia is isolated from the West and yet wishes it was part of it. The United States and Europe have made efforts to connect with the region, but distance, prioritisation and local governance issues have often meant that it has ended up being nothing more than a distracted partner. Instead, Central Asia has found itself stuck with regional superpowers which are locked in a geopolitical struggle with the West, and tend to see the world in entirely transactional terms.

These regional powers are also not interested in trying to manage the problems in Central Asia. Moscow continues to take a paternalistic attitude towards the region, while China is an entirely disinterested regional hegemon – increasingly the most consequential economic and political partner – but only willing to just watch as problems play themselves out. Iran is preoccupied with too many domestic problems.

The result is a Eurasian heartland in turmoil. This has consequences for energy prices – Turkmenistan is home to the world’s second largest natural gas field, and Kazakhstan is a key regional oil and gas producer. The country is also a major wheat exporter, at a time when the war in Ukraine has impacted two of the world’s largest exporters (Russia and Ukraine). The instability also has potential consequences for China’s Belt and Road visions across Eurasia, as most of the key land routes cut through this region on their way to Europe.

In his 1904 paper, The Geographical Pivot Of History, Sir Halford identified the Eurasian heartland as the key territory to control the planet. Recently it has seemed as though Russia is relinquishing its control of the region and China is assuming it, the more accurate recent narrative is that everyone is watching as it becomes unstable. The question the world needs to pay attention to is what happens if this same pivot falls off its hinges. An unstable heartland is as dangerous as a dominated one.

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

Side box

Nestled between China, Russia and Iran, Central Asia is isolated from the West and yet wishes it was part of it. The United States and Europe have made efforts to connect with the region, but distance, prioritisation and local governance issues have often meant that it has ended up being nothing more than a distracted partner.

Instead, Central Asia has found itself stuck with regional superpowers which are locked in a geopolitical struggle with the West, and tend to see the world in entirely transactional terms.

Causes for strife

BORDER DISPUTES

When the region’s borders were defined during the Soviet period, Central Asia was carved up in such a way as to ensure that its patchwork of ethnicities would remain in conflict with one another and, therefore, no threat to Moscow. The result has been a series of ill-defined borders that still cause trouble to this day. This is most apparent between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where each country has communities living in exclaves entirely surrounded by the other.

Waterways, roads and food supplies have regularly been a source of conflict, most recently in border shootings that erupted into conflict in April last year.

ETHNIC DIVISIONS

In Tajikistan, the region called the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) is home to the Pamiri people, who have historically been locked in conflict with the rulers in Dushanbe, the capital. In the 1990s, the country was wracked by a brutal civil war which led to tens of thousands of deaths. The civil war ended in 1997 with an internationally mediated accord.

In November last year, the death of a young Pamiri man in custody led to renewed tensions and fighting as the government sought to crush the Pamiri protests.

In Uzbekistan, as part of a broader drive to reform the country and potentially extend his rule, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev sought to redraft the national Constitution – including changing the status of Karakalpakstan. Physically the largest of the country’s 14 regions, Karakalpakstan has been an “autonomous republic” since the establishment of modern Uzbekistan in 1991. People in the area have always cherished their special status which gave them particular power and status within the country. Last month violent protests occurred in the regional capital, Nukus, which left 18 people dead.

ECONOMIC WOES

The apparent trigger for trouble in Kazakhstan came from a fuel tax hike at the beginning of the year. Already suffering from a domestic economic contraction, the public expressed anger at the visible economic inequalities in a resource-rich country.

The apparently organic protests were quickly overtaken by a larger power struggle as factions close to former long-time founding leader Nursultan Nazarbayev sought to undermine President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev using the cover of the protests.

Part of the problem was that many in the security forces remained loyal to the former leader, leading President Tokayev to make the politically risky decision to seek Russian forces to help stabilise the situation.

His gamble worked, and the trouble was contained, but it highlighted the deep political tensions in the country overshadowed by the apparently peaceful transition of power in 2019.

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

The Perils of Ignoring Eurasian Instability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to more book promotion for Sinostan, this time an edited extract that was published by Prospect magazine, focusing in particular on the China-Russia dynamics articulated in the book.

The rising tension between China and Russia

The war in Ukraine and Beijing’s growing military assertiveness are testing relations with Moscow

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen 

June 24, 2022

Tensions: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with President of China Xi Jinping at the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Credit: Alamy

Tensions: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with President of China Xi Jinping at the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Credit: Alamy

The war in Ukraine has brought the China-Russia relationship into sharp relief. China’s seeming willingness to tolerate behaviour which directly contradicts a series of principles that Beijing has sought to advance in international relations has left everyone scratching their heads about the nature of the partnership. The old assumption, often described as playing out in Central Asia, was that China was doing the economics and Russia the security. Yet, travelling around Central Asia my co-author and I Alexandros Petersen found that the dynamic is far more complicated, with Beijing increasingly making its presence felt in the security domain while continuing to value the geostrategic relationship it has with Moscow. The relationship is one that defies the simple narrative often painted in the west, and we found this repeatedly on the ground in the Eurasian heartland that binds the two powers together.

A trip from Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek to Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2013 illustrated the reality of this dynamic vividly. We had noticed the Chinese businessman in the queue for the plane. Stuck in Bishkek’s underwhelming waiting lounge with little else to do, we wandered over to strike up a conversation. Intrigued to find a foreigner who spoke some Mandarin, he told us about his work as a manager/engineer for the China Rail company. While he was vague about exactly what project he was working on, he was very keen to impress us with how well connected he was where we were going in Dushanbe. He showed us pictures on his phone in which he was standing next to a tall and severe-looking Tajik security official in his full dress uniform. Then a young Kyrgyz man in army fatigues came over and started speaking Chinese, saying he appreciated the opportunity to practice. He told us he recognised the severe-looking officer in the pictures.

The Kyrgyz officer had learned his atonal but fluent Mandarin on an 11-month training course in Nanjing. He was particularly keen to tell us about the brothels and night markets he had found. He had been sent on the course along with several mid-ranking officers in his border guard unit—the whole programme was sponsored by the Chinese government. The Chinese businessman chuckled at this strange encounter with all these Mandarin-speaking foreigners, and we separated to board the plane, though of course not before the obligatory selfies were taken.

The encounter was one of our earliest insights into the depth and complexity of China’s security relationship with Central Asia. When we started researching the country’s role in Central Asia, the abiding narrative (that has only recently started to change) was that the Chinese were all about economics and trade. With the advent of the Belt and Road Initiative, this was redefined as being principally about infrastructure and extractives—getting the region’s rich hydrocarbon and other resources back to China. But at no point did we get much of a sense that security was a part of the story. Rather, most analysis pointed to a bargain—unspoken or not—between Beijing and Moscow whereby China did the economics and Russia the security. But this seemed an odd conclusion. In the first instance, our entire sense of why China was interested in Central Asia was predicated on a domestic security concern. China wanted Central Asia to be secure, open, connected and prosperous, so that its own part of Central Asia, Xinjiang, would also be prosperous and therefore stable. Ultimately, China’s thinking about Central Asia was based on the goal of security at home.

There was also a very hard edge to this concern. China is concerned about militancy, both within Xinjiang and across the border in Central Asia. Chinese diplomats, businesspeople, and visiting dignitaries had been targeted over the years in Kyrgyzstan by groups it assessed—in some cases correctly—as being linked to militant Uyghurs. In 2016 the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was targeted by a car bomb. The subsequent investigation revealed a network with links to Uyghur groups in Syria. When we pressed Kyrgyz security officials for answers about the attack, they dismissed it as not having links to international terrorism, pointing to it as an instance of local “political” violence linked to a specific grievance against the Chinese rather than anything else (earlier this year, the US government linked it to a larger Central Asian militant group with a footprint in both Afghanistan and Syria).

While there was little evidence back then of similar networks in other countries, China was nevertheless concerned about the possibility of such threats as well as about other groups that might emanate from Central Asia to threaten Xinjiang or China directly. In the wake of the attack, there was considerable concern from the security community in China around the potential for similar incidents in Tajikistan as they surveyed the security environment in Central Asia, both from the perspective of threats as well as local capability to manage them.

Second, as we uncovered the deep levels of distrust that existed between China and Russia in Central Asia in particular, it seemed very unlikely that Beijing would simply abrogate its security interests in Central Asia to Moscow. The Chinese officials and experts we met repeatedly expressed their disdain for Russia, while at the same time maintaining a convivial public demeanour. Moscow’s management of the post-Cold War collapse of the Soviet Union was treated in Beijing as a textbook case of how not to manage such a change. In Moscow we looked on as, at a prominent event in 2017, one of China’s top Russia watchers wowed an audience of cynical Muscovites with his fluent Russian, peppered with humour and Dostoevsky quotes, as he talked about the relations between the two great powers.

Over lunch afterwards, a Russian friend praised the Chinese academic’s linguistic skills, joking it was better than theirs. Yet, a short year later we saw the same academic in Beijing before an audience of European experts in which he lambasted Russia and complained about how difficult they were to work with. He said China felt forced into a relationship with Russia because it was rejected by the west. Beijing would far prefer to be close to Europe. We heard the converse repeatedly in Moscow over the years. Both were clearly playing to their audiences, but it nevertheless highlighted a deep underlying mistrust.

The Sino-Russian relationship may be strategically important to both, and it has grown closer in recent years through collective confrontation against the west, but they do not trust each other. The Sino-Soviet split in earlier times casts a long shadow. “Frenemies” is the best characterisation we were able to come up with at the time (though it still feels unsatisfactory), where the two see themselves as important strategic allies, but fundamentally worry things may one day turn adversarial. This was repeatedly reflected in discussions we had where it did not take long, in any bilateral engagement, to find that the counterpart in front of us would complain about the other who was not present. Russians were always quick to complain about the Chinese, and after a little prodding the Chinese would reciprocate.

This tension was visible in our various engagements as well as publicly. Discussions around bilateral deals were always contentious and occasional spy dramas would play out in the press. In 2020, a story emerged of the Russian FSB arresting prominent academic Professor Valery Mitko, president of St Petersburg Arctic Social Science Academy. A former navy captain, he was accused of selling secrets about Russia’s submarine fleet to Beijing. A year or so earlier, a similar story had played out in Kazakhstan, where a prominent academic sinologist who had advised the new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in his dealings with China was arrested for selling state secrets to Beijing. A former KGB officer, Konstantin Syroyezhkin was given a ten-year sentence and stripped of his citizenship, meaning he faces deportation to Russia upon completion of his time in prison. All this merely serves to illustrate once again the close relationship that Russia has with the region, and how this competition can sometimes hit up against China.

The debate about Huawei and whether Russia should use the company in the construction of its own 5G network was a good articulation of the tension at the heart of the relationship for Moscow. On the one hand, Russia (and its intelligence agencies) feared letting China into their digital and tech infrastructure, but on the other hand, they felt somewhat limited in their options. As we were told in Moscow, “look who is actually sanctioning us.” They might not trust the Chinese, but they recognized at a strategic level that they are on the same page as Beijing rather than the western capitals producing the alternatives to Huawei, meaning Moscow would have to go with the Chinese option.

It seems illogical that Beijing would, in turn, rely on Moscow to guarantee the security of its growing assets and interests in Central Asia. Given Beijing’s particular concerns around Xinjiang and the importance of this to the Chinese Communist Party and their control over China, this logic seems even more flawed, illustrating why the simplistic assumption that China does economics while Russia does security does not work. Nor is it visible on the ground in Central Asia. The reality was articulated perfectly to us during a visit to Bishkek where, as we were doing the rounds of the think tanks and ministries, we were repeatedly given the line that China did the economics while Russia did security, only for an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to turn to us and say, “well, in fact, the Chinese did just build a new headquarters for our border guards.”

It has been fascinating to watch Chinese assertiveness, particularly in the military domain, grow over time. From a power that was largely passive in security matters, it became a power increasingly flexing its muscles, developing a security footprint that not only served to advance China’s direct and narrow interests but increasingly seemed to be aimed at embedding China within the region’s security apparatus in the long run. What officials in Moscow had assumed was solely theirs has been eroded over time. Afghanistan notably lurks like a menacing shadow for Beijing in the background of their concerns about Central Asian stability. From providing border support and equipment, to language training and Covid-19 aid—China’s military relationship with Central Asia is as ascendant as in every other area. The old implicit bargains between Beijing and Moscow are increasingly being tested, with events in Ukraine likely placing even greater pressure on them.

Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen are the authors of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (OUP)

Posting another interview promoting the book, this time with the excellent Central Asian site Central Asian Analytical Network and the wonderful Ruslan who very kindly took time to do this interview and a podcast separately. Am posting it here in Russian as it ran.

этом эпизоде Руслан Изимов и его гость – Рафаэлло Пантуччи обсуждают, почему Китай непреднамеренно становится империей в Центральной Азии? Как будет меняться подход Пекина по продвижению инициативы Пояс и путь? Как война в Украине меняет видение Китая своей роли в Евразии? Смогут ли Москва и Пекин сохранять баланс интересов в Центральной Азии? И наконец, как странам Центральной Азии продолжать сохранять многовекторный внешнеполитический курс?

Рафаэлло Пантуччи является старшим научным сотрудником RUSI и ранее был директором по исследованиям в области международной безопасности. Он является старшим научным сотрудником Школы международных исследований им. С. Раджаратнама, Сингапур. Его исследования сосредоточены на терроризме и борьбе с терроризмом, а также на отношениях Китая с его западными соседями. В настоящее время он проводит свое время между Лондоном и Сингапуром. Дополнительную информацию о работе Рафаэлло можно найти на сайте:  http://www.raffaellopantucci.com,  а о его работе по Китаю и Центральной Азии:  http://www.chinaincentralasia.com.

Совсем недавно была опубликована новая книга Sinostan. China’s Inadvertent Empire («Синостан: непреднамеренная империя Китая»), в которой авторы рассказывают о подъеме Китая в качестве империи на примере стратегии Пекина в Центральной Азии.

Книга является результатом 10 лет работы двух авторов: Рафаэлло Пантуччи, старшего научного сотрудника Школы международных исследований им. С. Раджаратнама (RSIS) в Сингапуре и эксперта Королевского института объединенных служб (RUSI) в Лондоне, а также Александроса Петерсена, академика, писателя и эксперта по геополитической энергетике, который трагически погиб в Кабуле в 2014 году.

Авторы книги главным образом показывают, насколько важна Центральная Азия для Китая в контексте как внутренней политики Пекина, так и его глобальных амбиций. Так, красной нитью через всю работу проходит мысль о том, что стабильная и процветающая Центральная Азия является одним из ключевых условий долгосрочной стабильности в самом беспокойном регионе Китая – Синьцзян-Уйгурском автономном районе (СУАР).

Авторы задаются вопросом – есть ли у Китая комплексная стратегия в Центральной Азии? На основе анализа они приходят к выводу о том, что Пекин имеет четкое видение и стратегию в СУАР, а политика в Центральной Азии скорее является ее логическим и географическим продолжением. Именно поэтому китайские власти вкладывают многомиллиардные инвестиции в Центральную Азию, развивают инфраструктуру, транспорт и культурно-гуманитарные связи.

Такая активная деятельность Китая в Центральной Азии, по мнению авторов книги, уже приводит к значительному изменению баланса сил в регионе. Например, ЕС и США не рассматривают Центральную Азию в качестве приоритета, и влияние Запада здесь неуклонно снижается. Особенно явным это снижение стало после вывода войск США из Афганистана.

Но влияние России и Китая в регионе, наоборот, продолжает расширяться. При этом, в отличие от России, Пекин обладает широкими финансовыми возможностями, и китайское руководство этим пользуется для того, чтобы еще больше увеличить зависимость молодых республик от Китая.

Для наращивания своего влияния в регионе Китай в равной степени использует различные механизмы, а также многосторонние и двусторонние форматы. Тем самым Пекин стремится держать под контролем процесс региональной кооперации в Центральной Азии, а также, что немаловажно, иметь возможность противодействовать устремлениям других держав в регионе. В конечном счете именно Центральная Азия становится ярким индикатором возросших глобальных амбиций Китая.

Почему Китай непреднамеренно становится империей в Центральной Азии? Как будет меняться подход Пекина по продвижению инициативы “Пояс и путь”? Как война в Украине меняет видение Китая своей роли в Евразии? Смогут ли Москва и Пекин сохранять баланс интересов в Центральной Азии или они превратятся в открытых конкурентов? И наконец, как странам Центральной Азии продолжать сохранять многовекторный внешнеполитический курс?

Эти вопросы мы обсуждаем с автором книги Рафаэлло Пантуччи.

Рафаэлло Пантуччи

Cначала позвольте мне поблагодарить вас – Руслан и Лидия – за ваше приглашение принять участие в этой беседе. Всегда приятно читать ваши материалы. Для меня это большая честь. Меня зовут Рафаэло Пантуччи. Я старший научный сотрудник аналитического центра S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) в Сингапуре и старший научный сотрудник Королевского института объединенных служб (RUSI) в Лондоне. Я сейчас нахожусь в Сингапуре.

Ваша книга называется “Синостан – непреднамеренная империя Китая”. Вы могли бы вкратце привести свои аргументы нашим слушателям, почему Китай непреднамеренно становится империей, по крайней мере, в Центральной Азии?

Да, предпосылка книги, которая базируется на большом объеме исследований, проведенных в Центральной Азии и Китае, а также в регионе в целом за последнее десятилетие, заключается в том, что Центральная Азия – это та часть мира, где Китай все больше становится самым значимым актором. И это происходит из-за определенной комбинации естественных и политических факторов, то есть это не обязательно результат намеренных действий Китая. Но следствием этого является то, что Китай становится очень влиятельным актором на местах. Очень важным. Но это актор, который в некотором роде не заинтересован в том, чтобы взять на себя эту роль и эту ответственность. То есть, если мы посмотрим на регион, мы увидим, что весь регион Центральной Азии все чаще сам рассматривает Китай как источник экономических возможностей. Даже как источник некоторых ограниченных решений безопасности. Как важного партнера на мировой арене. Но в то же время Китай на самом деле не очень заинтересован в том, чтобы пытаться решать какие-либо вопросы на местах внутри региона, будь то в Афганистане, будь то в Центральной Азии или в более широком регионе. То есть Центральная Азия это часть мира, где присутствует все более влиятельная сила, которая имеет очень сильное присутствие и очень важна для всех действующих лиц на местах, но это сила, которая не обязательно заинтересована в этом или намерена сознательно вовлечься в реальное решение проблем на местах, или взять на себя ответственность, связанную с тем, чтобы стать своего рода крупным экономическим партнером для большинства стран региона.

В определенной степени именно Центральная Азия является ярким индикатором возросших глобальных амбиций Китая. Как мы помним, именно здесь в Центральной Азии, в столице Казахстана в 2013 году Си Цзиньпин предложил инициативу Один пояс один путь. За прошедшие 9 лет инициатива прошла большой путь. В том числе, если брать регион Центральной Азии, то здесь “Один пояс – один путь из простой инициативы переросла в действенный инфраструктурный проект. Особенно в 2015-2019 годы. Но сейчас об этой инициативе говорят не так много. С чем это связано? Это только пандемия или проблемы долговых ловушек и другие уязвимые точки инициативы влияют?

Да, спасибо. Я думаю, вы знаете, что Центральная Азия имеет решающее значение для инициативы «Пояс и путь» во многих отношениях, потому что есть причина, почему Си Цзиньпин озвучил ее в ходе своей речи в бывшей Астане и Назарбаев университете. Это было потому, что во многом то, что он описывал, когда он описывал Экономический пояс Шелкового пути, по сути, уже существовало. То есть он давал название тому, что уже происходило в Центральной Азии и Китае в течение некоторого времени. И это было своего рода признанием того, что такой подход, такого рода идея создания инфраструктуры, предоставления кредитов, попытки открыть рынки, попытки улучшить связь, на самом деле были довольно позитивным внешнеполитическим видением, которое нужно продвигать в мире. То есть, я думаю, вы видите, что Китай и Си Цзиньпин в частности, решают превратить это в свою ключевую внешнеполитическую идею.

И это своего рода глобализация подхода, который происходил в Центральной Азии, я бы сказал, уже на протяжении десятилетия. Таким образом, Центральная Азия стала тестовой площадкой для инициативы, которая затем стала глобальной. И это было своего рода видением «Пояса и пути». Но важно понимать, что «Пояс и путь» —это не столько конкретный проект, сколько общее видение. Это большая внешнеполитическая идея Си Цзиньпина. Он толкает ее в мир. И он во многих отношениях институционализировал ее как свою внешнеполитическую идею. Если вы посмотрите на конституцию китайской коммунистической партии, они теперь вставили в нее “ Пояс и путь”, а это означает, что пока он у власти, “Пояс и путь” всегда будет актуальной и никогда не исчезнет.

Но, с другой стороны, многие уже отмечают и очень правильно указывают на недавнее замедление некоторых из этих инвестиций. И я думаю, это действительно стало результатом некоторых процессов. Во-первых, пандемия явно замедлила ход событий за последние несколько лет. Вы знаете, блокировки Китая, как мы видим сейчас, очень драматичны и очень масштабны и действительно вызывают проблемы, с точки зрения попыток торговать со страной. Но на самом деле проблемы были и до этого. И проблемы на самом деле стали возникать, если вы посмотрите на годы бума инициативы «Пояс и путь», которые приходятся на 2013 по 2015 или 2016 год, когда деньги уходили во всех направлениях, компании везде инвестировали, новые проекты объявлялись повсюду. Были потрачены миллиарды и миллиарды. Но было неясно, эффективно ли они расходуются и в правильных ли направлениях.

Были вопросы – а вдруг некоторые из этих проектов будут неудачными, потеряют деньги. И когда наступил экономический спад, произошло небольшое сокращение, когда в основном китайские банки, китайские компании приостановились – или им было сказано притормозить, проверить, что они делают, убедиться, в том, что они делают проекты, которые на самом деле знают. Потому что никогда не предполагалось, что “Пояс и путь” станет грандиозным проектом международной помощи. Никогда не предполагалось, что Китай просто раздаст деньги. На самом деле речь шла о том, чтобы вывести китайские компании в мир, наладить торговые связи через внешнеполитическое видение и делать соответствующие инвестиции, чтобы способствовать этому и строить разные проекты. Но речь не шла о том, чтобы просто раздавать деньги. Вы знаете, поэтому я думаю, произошло своего рода сокращение, и я думаю, именно поэтому мы наблюдаем небольшое замедление.

И я думаю, дискуссия вокруг инициативы также утихла отчасти потому, что, знаете ли, было много шума, даже перегрева, некоторого избыточного энтузиазма. Но ключевой момент, который я бы отметил, это то, что инициатива никуда не делась. Просто до этого мы видели последовательные усилия по реализации, а сейчас Китай начал немного переформатировать ее. И теперь мы видим, как Китай говорит об инициативе глобального развития, которая, по сути, является своего рода новой артикуляцией того же самого. Но, по сути, концепция “Пояс и путь” и то видение, которое за ней стоит, я не думаю, что они исчезнут. Я думаю, что активность некоторых проектов немного замедлилась, потому что для Пекина было важным убедиться, что все это работает, а не просто разбрасываться деньгами.

Спасибо. Сейчас про инициативу Пояс и путь есть разные мнения. Даже есть такие оценки, что Китай может отказаться от нее. Но есть и противоположное мнение, что Пояс и путь — это брендовый проект самого Си Цзиньпина, и китайская сторона вряд ли откажется от него пока Си находится у власти. Как уже отметили, с одной стороны, слишком быстро она развивалась и за достаточно короткое время, последние 5-6 лет, охватила огромное количество стран Евразии ив целом, в мире. Но если посмотреть на эту инициативу, с точки зрения последних событий, в частности война в Украине показала, что для Евразии необходима сеть альтернативных и разнообразных маршрутов. Как повлияли эти оба события на видение Китая своей роли на континенте?

Да, я думаю, что события в Украине важны для Китая. Вся концепция «Пояса и пути» заключается в нацеленности на достижение тесных связей, открытости, открытых границ, простоте ведения торговли, перемещения товаров. И тут внезапно огромная страна между Китаем и Европой – Россия – попадает под очень жесткие санкции Запада. До такой степени, что товарам становится трудно осуществлять этот транзит. Так что возникли всевозможные вопросы. С другой стороны, Украина была страной, которая на самом деле была в некотором смысле главной целью «Пояса и пути», и это была цель не только с точки зрения китайских инвестиций, во многих других областях, и Китай был крупнейшим торговым партнером Украины до конфликта. Я не знаю, каковы нынешние торговые показатели. Это страна, которая была очень важна во многих отношениях, и внезапно появился этот гигантский барьер на евразийском массиве суши. Понятно, что это вызовет проблемы для транзита, но это практические проблемы, и они преодолимы, потому что даже если транзит через Россию будет трудным, есть другие маршруты, и я думаю, они будут пробоваться. Поэтому я думаю, что хотя это проблема, но в каком-то смысле это не обязательно непреодолимый вопрос. С точки зрения Китая, более серьезный вопрос, возникающий в связи с конфликтом на Украине, — это отношения с Россией. И в некотором смысле конфликт действительно обострил ту грань отношений, где Китай и Россия считают себя союзниками в конфликте против Запада. Теперь идут реальные и ожесточенные боевые действия. И они разделяют мир на непримиримые линии – мир все больше делится на тех, кто с одной стороны, и тех, кто с другой. В части Юго-Восточной Азии, где я сейчас нахожусь, люди сильно запутаны. Возможно, есть люди, которые находятся где-то посередине, и они все еще пытаются это решить. Но когда мы смотрим на Европу, и особенно на Центральную Азию, которая окружена Китаем и Россией, то это регион, который по умолчанию ощутит на себе последствия своего рода вырезания России из западной экономической системы и последствия того, к чему это приведет в Китае. И это немного усложнит попытки Центральной Азии, давние попытки попытаться наладить связи с Западом, чтобы попытаться открыться в этом направлении. Так что я думаю, что для инициативы “Пояс и путь” все очень усложнится и придется искать обходные пути. Я думаю, одна из умных вещей в инициативе “Пояс и путь”, это то, что она никогда не была ограничена конкретными странами, она всегда оставалась совершенно открытой. И как совершенно открытая идея, она способна гибко измениться. Нет какого-то предела, за которым последует остановка или провал. Нет, она всегда может изменить курс и направление. И я думаю, что это будет именно так происходить. Но я думаю, более серьезная проблема для Центральной Азии заключается в том, что есть риск стать привязанной к региону, который все больше подвергается остракизму со стороны Запада. И надо выходить из этого и продолжать строить отношения с Западом, которые, я знаю, Центральная Азия очень хочет иметь.

Каким Вы видите будущий формат отношений между Китаем и Россией в Центральной Азии? До настоящего момента Москве и Пекину удавалось найти компромиссный вариант. Теперь ситуация в мире меняется. Россия неизбежно слабеет как экономически, так и политически. В этой ситуации будет ли Китай пытаться как-то решительно изменить статус-кво в Центральной Азии?

Я думаю, что это действительно интересный и сложный вопрос, потому что правда в том, что Китай будет продолжать двигаться в том же направлении, в котором он шел. Я думаю, в Центральной Азии Китай, по существу, ориентирован на свои собственные интересы. Я думаю, разница в некотором смысле между взглядами Китая и России на Центральную Азию, и я слышал от многих китайских экспертов, что это формулировалось на протяжении многих лет, заключается в том, что Китай смотрит на регион и видит в нем транзакционный потенциал – то есть делать что-то в обмен на что-то. Это пять стран, с которыми у Китая разные отношения по разным причинам. Есть особый угол безопасности в отношениях, потому что эти страны имеют прямую границу, потому что они беспокоятся о потенциальной оппозиции, где уйгуры вдруг будут замышлять нападение на Китай из Центральной Азии. Но в основном для Китая это всегда сделка и Россия имеет гораздо более патерналистский взгляд на регион. Она рассматривает это как регион, который был частью Советского Союза, который в некотором смысле является частью их территории. Я прекрасно понимаю, что это очень деликатный вопрос в Центральной Азии, но я боюсь, Москва, вероятно, так это и видит. То есть эти две страны относятся к региону немного по-разному. И, вы знаете, я думаю, лучший способ взглянуть на это, подумать об этом, — это посмотреть на реакцию на основные проблемы безопасности, которые имели место, и которую мы видели за последний год.. Если мы вспомним падение Кабула в середине прошлого года, вы знаете, это были не китайские силы, которые вдруг поспешили провести учения на границах Таджикистана и Узбекистана с Афганистаном. Не Китай начал торопиться с продажей оружия в регион. Вы знаете, это была Россия, это был ОДКБ. Именно Россия действительно вмешалась в ситуацию. И я думаю, это очень важно. Китай не очень заинтересован в этом. Китай, по сути, делал то, что ему нужно. Он будет строить отношения, продвигать свои интересы, но я не думаю, что он заинтересован в заполнении этой пустоты, потому что в некотором смысле я думаю, они вполне счастливы работать параллельно и вполне удовлетворены тем, чтобы просто сосредоточиться на своих конкретных интересах, а не конфликтовать с Россией. Я думаю, другой, последний элемент, который важен, с точки зрения Центральной Азии, заключается в том, что, в конце концов, и Китай, и Россия считают свой геополитический альянс более важным, чем любой другой вопрос в Центральной Азии. А это значит, что они не собираются доводить себя до столкновения в Центральной Азии, потому что не хотят подрывать глобальный Альянс, что очень важно в плане противостояния США и Западу.

В целом, долгосрочная стратегия Китая в Центральной Азии приобретает новые формы и содержание. На мой взгляд, подходы Пекина в нашем регионе менялись несколько раз, хотя цели и устремления во многом оставались прежними. Так, условно говоря, в 90-е гг. Пекин стремился обеспечить в ЦА стабильность, чтобы с ее территории не было угроз безопасности СУАР. В 2000-х основной упор китайской политики в регионе делался на использовании формата ШОС и расширении энергетического присутствия в ЦА. Позднее, в 2010-х гг., ШОС стала исчерпывать свой потенциал. К тому же наметились определенные противоречия между Китаем и Россией, поскольку Москва активизировала в регионе собственные интеграционные структуры (Таможенный союз, ЕАЭС). Все это не давало в рамках того же ШОС реализовывать новые проекты. Как следствие в 2013 г. появилась инициатива “Пояс и путь”. Она давала возможность перевести отношения со странами ЦА с многостороннего на двусторонний формат. Однако позднее на фоне катастрофических последствий пандемии коронавируса “Пояс и путь” стал терять свои конкурентные преимущества. Но Пекин пока не готов отказаться от Пояса и пути и даже ШОС, считая их собственными имиджевыми проектами. В то же время Китай сегодня активно использует региональный формат С+С5 (Китай + Центральная Азия). Тем самым Пекин стремится держать под контролем процесс региональной кооперации в Центральной Азии, а также, что немаловажно, иметь возможность противодействовать устремлениям других держав в регионе. Как Вы считаете, как будет меняться политика Китая в регионе в краткосрочной перспективе? В чем интересы Китая в Центральной Азии касательно ее интеграции?

Для начала я хотел бы отметить такой интересный факт. Если вы вернетесь и посмотрите на 1994 год, когда Ли Пэн совершил свой первый грандиозный тур по региону, он посетил все столицы, кроме Душанбе. Потому что там, конечно, в то время шла гражданская война, и это было довольно опасно. Но он побывал во всех других столицах. Что интересно, его визит тогда включал такие пункты, как беспокойство об угрозах безопасности со стороны уйгурских диссидентов, которых они тогда называли сепаратистами, и строительство нового Шелкового пути, и налаживание связей региона с остальным миром. На самом деле речь шла об импорте энергетических ресурсов региона в Китай и даже о доставке энергоресурсов по всему Китаю. Но это в основном в 1994 году: двумя главными пунктами были осуществление нового Шелкового пути и проблема безопасности. До сих пор эти два пункта являются главенствующими. Но что изменилось, так это точная артикуляция вокруг них в рамках Шанхайской организации сотрудничества и более позднего формата C5+1 и многими другими структурами. То есть ключевой момент, который я хотел бы отметить, это то, что Китай никогда не делал что-то многосторонним способом. Так что я думаю, опасно думать, что Китай имеет и применяет какой-то региональный подход. Правда состоит в том, что это не так. Они действуют на всех фронтах одновременно. Если мы посмотрим на встречи ШОС, когда бы они ни происходили, как правило, есть большая встреча, на которой встречаются лидеры или министры иностранных дел, или кто-то еще, в своего рода большом многостороннем формате. Но также они всегда имеют ряд двусторонних встреч после этого саммита или в то же время. И я часто слышал, что именно на двусторонних встречах совершалось много сделок. То есть Китай действует на всех уровнях одновременно. И я думаю, они продолжат это делать, поскольку китайская система довольно громоздкая. И я думаю, подход будет заключаться в том, чтобы продолжать взаимодействовать по всем направлениям. Я думаю, формат «пять плюс один» — это интересный формат, на котором стоит сосредоточиться, потому что он явно направлен на противодействие Соединенным Штатам. На самом деле, я думаю, китайцев не очень беспокоит российское влияние в регионе, потому что вообще говоря, я думаю, китайцы и русские имеют взаимное согласие по тому, чего они хотят от Центральной Азии, которая, по сути, является регионом, который не экспортирует им проблемы, который стабилен и с которым они могут торговать. И это в основном то, что они хотят. Пока Центральная Азия не создаст им проблем, их это, в принципе, устраивает. И, вы знаете, я думаю, российский подход к этому гораздо более, как я уже сказал, направленный вперед, контролирующий, в то время как китайский подход немного ограничен и даже ситуативен – давайте просто будем заниматься и делать что-то. Но в основном эти подходы не расходятся. Так что на самом деле, нет, я не думаю, что вижу большую конкуренцию между ними двумя, но я вижу конкуренцию с Соединенными Штатами. И я думаю, что формат «пять плюс один» был очень четким эхом американского формата «пять плюс один» и попыткой Китая показать, что мы взаимодействуем с регионом так же, как и они. И это, я думаю, говорит о большой проблеме, которую мы увидим в дальнейшем в китайской политике в отношении Центральной Азии. В частности, я думаю, вы будете продолжать видеть постепенную попытку, по сути, продолжать ограничивать роль США в регионе. И я думаю, что это будет своего рода движущей силой. Другими целями будет постоянное стремление к тому, чтобы регион оставался стабильным, хорошим торговым партнером, в частности, хорошим экономическим партнером для Синьцзяна. Кроме того, я думаю, они будут продолжать беспокоиться об угрозах безопасности и угрозах безопасности со стороны уйгуров-диссидентов, уйгурских боевиков, которые могут организовать заговор в регионе, чтобы напасть на Китай. То есть они все больше беспокоятся о безопасности, потому что в регионе растет число негосударственных групп или националистов. И это, я думаю, распространяется на Пакистан, Афганистан, но также и на Центральную Азию. Они все чаще рассматривают Китай как большую имперскую державу, которой они не очень довольны, и протестуют против нее, и которые начинают выражать себя с помощью насилия. Поэтому я думаю, изменения, которые вы увидите в политике Китая в будущем, связаны с растущим желанием попытаться заморозить активность Соединенных Штатов в регионе. Я думаю, вы увидите растущую озабоченность нетрадиционными угрозами безопасности, связанными с уйгурскими боевиками. Эта застарелая проблема. И конечно, Китай будет стараться способствовать экономическому процветанию с целью стабилизировать регион, но также стабилизировать и сделать процветающим Синьцзян.

Спасибо. Если мы продолжаем Вашу мысль о том, что главным противником в Центральной Азии Китай видит США, при этом все еще находит какие-то компромиссные модели сосуществования и сотрудничества с Россией, то как быть нам, странам Центрлаьной Азии? Для нас, например, те же США – это один из важнейших балансиров для того, чтобы сохранить мультивекторную внешнюю политику. Но с каждым годом сохранять этот баланс становится все сложнее, потому что, с одной стороны, у нас есть многосторонние структуры, о которых мы сегодня упоминали, – это и ЕАЭС, ШОС, ОДКБ, несколько форматов 5+1. Они помогают нам воплощать многовекторный курс. Но, с другой стороны, эти структуры все сильнее тянут нас в противоположные стороны. Как Вы думаете в качестве специалиста, который находится за пределами региона, как странам Центральной Азии дальше проводить внешнеполитический курс? То есть какой могла бы быть оптимальная внешнеполитическая стратегия стран ЦА?

Я думаю, это действительно трудная проблема, потому что Центральная Азия фактически оказалась в тупике. География говорит, что Центральная Азия находится между всеми этими странами и как бы в центре политики великих держав. И, вы знаете, две великие державы, расположенные по обе стороны от Центральной Азии – Россия и Китай – как вы правильно заметили, в некотором роде находятся в согласии друг с другом и, в основном, сосредоточены на своем конфликте с Западом. И многовекторный подход, который Центральная Азия пытается использовать или использует, очень трудно реализовать в этом контексте. Но я думаю, интересно посмотреть, как Центральная Азия реагирует на то, что происходит с Россией в Украине. Понятно, что есть определенное недовольство, и это было сформулировано некоторыми довольно высокопоставленными чиновниками и было очевидно в некоторых сигналах. Отрадно было увидеть гуманитарную помощь, которую люди в регионе посылали украинцам, и некоторое осуждение того, что сделали русские. Это очень позитивно, и это действительно видят, я думаю, в Вашингтоне и в некоторых частях Европы. И я думаю, в некотором смысле, главное, что нужно сделать, — это продолжать демонстрировать этот уровень независимости и продолжать формулировать это, несмотря на существующее давление. Думаю, никто на Западе не ожидает, что регион должен прекратить отношения с Китаем и Россией. Понятно, что это невозможно. Только общая география связывает вас с регионом, и это нормально. Но речь идет о том, как вы прокладываете для себя своего рода независимый путь. И я думаю, что регион Центральной Азии в состоянии сделать это и сформулировать свои опасения, например, в отношении России и Китая. И конкретно в случае с Китаем, я думаю, если страны региона могли бы немного больше говорить о том, что происходит в Синьцзяне, пытаясь сделать немного больше, может быть, чтобы помочь людям в Синьцзяне или, по крайней мере, выразить обеспокоенность этим китайскому правительству, это было бы воспринято очень позитивно сейчас. Это позволило бы осуществлять такую многовекторность гораздо более гладко. И Запад может попытаться теснее взаимодействовать с регионом и помочь ему реализовать многовекторный подход. Вы знаете, я думаю, на западе есть люди, которые признают, что это происходит. Я думаю, Соединенные Штаты, в частности, в последнее время пытались что-то сделать, и это довольно интересно. Но в некотором смысле действительно важно, чтобы регион продолжал демонстрировать свою независимость в некотором роде. И при этом, как я уже сказал, не должно быть конфликта с Россией или Китаем. Но формулируя независимость, регион может осуществлять многовекторность так, чтобы иметь крепкие отношения, в принципе, не только со всеми региональными державами, но и с внешними, что опять-таки будет укреплять позиции и внутри региона.

Спасибо большое за беседу.

С нами был Рафаэлло Пантуччи, старший научный сотрудник Школы международных исследований им. С. Раджаратнама (RSIS) в Сингапуре и эксперт Королевского института объединенных служб (RUSI) в Лондоне.

Still catching up on myself, this time a longer piece for the Straits Times about the how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is seen in parts of its former Soviet dominions. Varied and worried views.

Living Dangerously in Russia’s backyard

From the Baltics to countries in Central Asia, the war in Ukraine is a reminder of their precarious position amid questions about how far Putin will go in pursuit of his revanchist dreams.

Russian troops stand guard at the entrance to the village of Varnita, in Transnistria, a breakaway region in eastern Moldova, on March 4, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

There are many unanswered questions to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Key among them is whether Ukraine is the extent of President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, or part of a longer and more ambitious path towards European dominance.

Or, placing this within a wider context, is Russian activity abroad all about meddling for the sake of continued relevance or aimed at some actual imperial gain.

This is a difficult question to entirely answer, as ultimately the only person who knows is President Vladimir Putin and he is keeping the answer to himself. But in reading his actions and how they are seen in the former Soviet space, a part of the world that has long had to live with Russia, it is possible to start to divine something of an answer.

It is worth starting by looking back at when Mr Putin came to power. When he was appointed as president of the Russian Federation in 2000, he inherited a mess from an often inebriated Boris Yeltsin, who oversaw the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia – the heart of the once mighty USSR-was plundered by gangsters and oligarchs while ravaged by Chechen terrorists.

Mr Putin set about undoing much of the damage left by Mr Yeltsin. The terrorism menace in the North Caucasus was quelled, the treasury put in order, and the military rebuilt. The stabilising of the country in the early part of his two decades in power was popular among Russians who remember the 1990s when the country tried Western liberal economic approaches and was rewarded with penury and oligarchs.

But that was not the end of it for Mr Putin. Having turned it around, he then went on to start to “grow” the country he inherited, with territory “liberated” from Georgia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region, as well as the full seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region have joined Abkhazia and South Ossetia as vassal statelets dependent (and loyal) to Moscow. Belarus is a vassal state in all but name, while the Eurasian Economic Union gives Russia a say in the economic affairs of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

The old idea of revanchist Russian nationalism is a key driver of this expansion. The notion of Mother Russia as the home of all of the Slavic peoples is something that has long been seen as a goal by successive leaders in Russia. Russian nationalism, however, is something that those living in the states adjacent to Russia have also long worried about.

THE VIEW FROM CENTRAL ASIA

Its resurgence has stirred unease not only in the Baltic states and Russia’s central European neighbours but also in Central Asia.

In the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, an old video popped up on Uzbek social media. In it, first president (and former Soviet apparatchik) Islam Karimov spoke of his concerns about Russian nationalism, suggesting it was a greater threat than whatever might emerge from Afghanistan. The interview was from the late 1990s, a moment when the former Soviet space was wracked by various conflicts. But Mr Karimov was particularly worried about what might emerge from Moscow, something contemporary Uzbeks saw now rearing its head in Ukraine.

But while Uzbekistan has always had a somewhat prickly relationship with Moscow, it is Kazakhstan that has been particularly fearful of revanchist Russian nationalism.

Northern Kazakhstan is home to an ethnic Russian community that makes up around a fifth of the country’s population. In the past few years, the government in Kazakhstan has sought to encourage greater Kazakh national identity, rejecting Cyrillic script and encouraging more use of Kazakh language rather than Russian.

If Russia’s actions in Ukraine were not bad enough, comments by Russian nationalists have added to Kazakhstan’s fears. For instance, Mr Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the United Russia party in the Duma, once raised doubts about Kazakhstan’s sovereign status on the grounds that the “territory of Kazakhstan was a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union”. His remarks prompted other like minded politicians to call for the return of parts of northern Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation.

Worryingly for Kazakhs, a few years ago, Mr Putin made similar comments in public which appeared to question Kazakh statehood. He praised the then Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev for building something out of nothing. Praise on the one hand, but also undermining the logic of an independent Kazakh state, one with a history and existence not contingent on Russia.

The parallels with Russia’s dismissal of Ukrainian statehood are inescapable to Kazakhs who worry about Moscow’s revanchist intentions.

Tellingly, even though Kazakhstan abstained on the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it would not recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk or Luhansk. The authorities also turned a blind eye to some public rallies supporting Ukraine.

However, for all their fears of Russian nationalism, the Central Asia states still look up to Russia as their ultimate security guarantor. As the Taliban surged in Afghanistan last year, it was Moscow that dispatched forces to undertake border training exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as rushing through arms sales across the region. Similarly, when Kazakhstan was wracked with domestic strife earlier this year, it was Moscow that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turned to to help restore order.

Kyrgyzstan, the most democratic of the five states in the region, has also been the most unstable. Internal tensions are often fanned by Russian media or stoked by Moscow. Russia is able to make its displeasure known and continues to exert influence when it needs to – through powerful oligarchs close to Mr Putin or hard military power or its intelligence services. The Central Asians all recognise this, and are fearful of the mighty Russian bear turning on them.

At the same time, they are certainly not happy about the pattern of Moscow’s behaviour. They condemned the assault on Georgia in 2008, expressed concern about the 2014 incursions into Ukraine and have shown their unwillingness to completely toe Moscow’s line in the wake of this year’s invasion.

But there is a limit to their push back against Russia, given the precarious position they are in.

OTHER NEIGHBOURS

The Baltic and eastern European countries are in a far more secure position, given their membership in institutions like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, with its pledge of collective defence. It offers them a level of deterrence against Russian aggression that is also not available to Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova.

Moldova, nestled between Ukraine and Romania, sits on just the other side of the EU’s outer border and has a small ethnic Russian enclave in Transnistria, complete with Russian soldiers. Recent comments by Russian General Rustam Minnekayev that Moscow’s goal was to secure a corridor across Ukraine connecting to the enclave, as well as explosions targeting infrastructure in the region, has set alarm bells off in Chisinau.

While Mr Putin may no longer have sway over the Baltics and their ethnic Russian populations, he does have other cards to play, such as Kaliningrad, an isolated Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania. Largely known for smuggling, it is a Russian foothold which Mr Putin’s administration have threatened to use as a base for nuclear weapons should Nato expand further.

All of this adds up to a Russia which is basically interested in maintaining influence in what it perceives as its backyard, with the option of claiming them back if the context permits (or is fabricated).

From Mr Putin’s perspective, the countries of the former Soviet Union are only permitted to be independent states insomuch as he allows it. And where he has grey lines or borders, he has a space in which he can operate.

While it remains to be seen whether he is eager to court the danger that would follow invading an EU or Nato country, he certainly sees no issue in stirring trouble in any of the other countries in this space. And every so often, lash out violently to remind them about staying in line.

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another belated posting related to book promotion, this time with a lovely inversion of the book’s title in the article’s title in the excellent Diplomat. Many thanks to the wonderful Catherine Putz for doing the interview.

China’s Inadvertent Empire: Welcome to Sinostan

Containers are seen near cranes at the Khorgos Gateway, one of the world’s largest dry dock in a remote crossing along Kazakhstan’s border with China near Khorgos, on April 2, 2018.
Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

In “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire,” Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen take readers into the heart of Eurasia for insight into Beijing’s rise. Over a decade of travel, research, and writing went into the book, which charts the growth of Chinese power and presence in Central Asia. It was in Kazakhstan where, in 2013, newly minted Chinese President Xi Jinping first laid out the vision we now call the Belt and Road Initiative. And it is in examining China’s forays into Central Asia that we can truly grasp the means and motives of China’s global rise. 

Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. Petersen was an academic, writer, and geopolitical energy expert; he was tragically killed in a 2014 restaurant bombing and attack in Kabul, Afghanistan.

In the following interview, Pantucci explains the linkages between Xinjiang and Central Asia, which stand at the heart of Chinese efforts in the region, dives into the implications of China’s involvement in Eurasia for other powers, from Russia to the United States, and discusses much more.

The book starts with Chinese road workers in Kyrgyzstan in 2011. How important has physical infrastructure, like roads, been to both regional engagement with China and broader Chinese aims in the region?

Physical infrastructure has always been a core component of China’s engagement with Central Asia. Looking back at [Chinese Premier] Li Peng’s grand tour of the region in 1994 (where he visited all of the capitals except Dushanbe, which was wracked by civil war), there were two core issues that he focused on during the trip: separatists and building new silk roads. At the time, however, the routes that were being discussed flowed from Central Asia across China to Japan. More recently, these have flowed the other way, and in fact the first big infrastructure in the region were pipelines from Kazakh fields to China. Chinese firms and funding have been subsequently used to refurbish roads, build additional pipelines from Turkmenistan’s munificent gas fields to China, as well as build tunnels, rail, and roads around the region. All of this is in addition to a range of other pieces of infrastructure that have been built, like power stations, ancillary energy infrastructure, airports, buildings of all sorts and more.

This is important for broader Chinese aims as it helps connect Xinjiang to the world, one of the key interests China has in Central Asia. The region in China is infrastructure poor, and the region outside of China is equally limited, and yet if China is going to make Xinjiang prosperous (the long-term answer to the instability Beijing sees in Xinjiang), then it is going to need to be better connected. 

Ultimately, what has been happening in Central Asia for more than the past two decades is in many ways the foundational concept which has been globalized under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is no accident that President Xi first announced his lasting foreign policy idea at a speech in then-Astana in 2013 when he laid out his vision of a Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), which was then joined by the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) in a speech in Jakarta a month later, to become the wider BRI. The whole concept of infrastructure as a foundation for a vision for foreign policy comes from what was going on in Central Asia and was built on the logic that more infrastructure and connectivity meant more economic prosperity which would lead to more stability. This is a pattern which China has observed delivered success at home, and sees as the answer to issues elsewhere as well as a positive concept to use to engage with the world. 

Does China have a comprehensive strategy for Central Asia? Are its engagements just ad hoc developments in bilateral relationships?

We asked a lot of senior Chinese experts and officials about whether Beijing had a strategy for the region, and we were uniformly rebuffed and ridiculed. But then in the early years on our work on this project, President Xi went to the region and announced the creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). But while this laid out a vision, it did not specify a plan. Our conclusion was that it was not a specific strategy that was laid out saying, we need to do a, then b, then c, and then our goal will be achieved. But rather, a wider vision was laid out, and the Chinese system followed. This meant all of the institutions moved forwards in their own ways to try to articulate and play their part in the wider vision that the leader had laid out.

But it was never clear that China had a comprehensive strategy. It has a far clearer strategy for Xinjiang, and in some ways Central Asia plays out as an extension of that, but this is incidental to the core aim of the vision which is to stabilize Xinjiang. As a result much of China’s vision for the region is a series of bilateral engagements that when taken together can be described as looking like a strategy (especially as they are so similar in each case), but it is not clear that there is a comprehensive strategy for the region (except insomuch as the BRI can be described as a broader foreign policy strategy for China).

The only other thing to mention in this context is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which was born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and a grouping called the Shanghai Five which was aimed at helping delineate borders and establish security relations between China and the newly minted countries it shared borders with. This is sometimes described as something which is the vehicle for China’s strategy, but in fact it seems more like an umbrella for everything China does which runs in parallel often to China’s specific interests which are addressed at a bilateral level.  

In what ways is China’s strategy in Central Asia an extension of its strategies and policies in Xinjiang?

Beijing has long worried about stability and security in Xinjiang. Remote from the capital (two hours’ time difference, if China used regional time zones, and about five or six hours by plane), China has struggled to maintain control. At times this has spilled over into violence and even in much earlier years, instances of separatism. The most recent turning point came in July 2009 when rioting in Urumqi led to at least a couple of hundred deaths and the embarrassing specter of the leader of the country having to leave a G8 Summit in Italy to come home and stabilize the situation.

After this we see a push to change things along two axes: first, a heavy security presence, something that was imposed through “strike hard” campaigns – which had extensions into Central Asia from the reality that there have been attacks on Chinese interests and individuals there, as well as the fear that groups of dissident Uyghurs might use the region as a base to attack China. Second, was a heavy economic investment into the region which is the long-term answer from Beijing’s perspective to make Xinjiang stable.

But to make the region prosperous, you need to encourage prosperity and connectivity in its neighboring region. Xinjiang is in many ways the sixth or seventh Central Asian country (depending on if you also include Afghanistan). This is not to deny that Xinjiang is part of China, but to make the point that Xinjiang is deeply intertwined with the region – there are large ethnically Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Kazakh populations in Xinjiang, in much the same way there are Uyghur, Han, and Dungan (ethnic Hui) populations living in Central Asia. This highlights the fact that the region is tied into its neighborhood, but also that Xinjiang is as far from the coasts and global maritime trade routes as any of the Central Asian countries. 

So any economic development in Xinjiang is only going to come when you open up routes across Central Asia to Europe, Russia, and elsewhere, as well as trying to get into the opportunities and markets in Central Asia itself. And of course, finally, Central Asia’s mineral wealth is something that the insatiable Chinese economic machine will constantly need. All of this highlights the importance of the region to China, but critically to Xinjiang (in China’s conception).

What are the implications of Chinese strategies in Central Asia for Western countries, like the United States and in Europe?

The region is not a current priority for Europe or the United States. At various moments in recent times it has risen up in the rankings of priority regions for the West – for example, the U.S. used routes through the region to help supply forces in Afghanistan during their long war there, and during the evacuation last year, European powers in particular relied on regional support to get their people out. Depending on who holds the reins of power in Brussels, Europe is engaged, though overall the European Union has constantly discussed the region as one that they want to focus on but Brussels often struggles to maintain its focus. In large part focus is driven by which power is holding the rotating presidency of the Union. Separately, the U.K. has a strong footprint across the region, and interesting links to a number of countries, but the region is (sadly I might add) not a priority for London.

At the same time, all are significant players in economic and aid terms in the region. They are eager to try to coax the countries of the region into becoming more open, transparent, and accountable. But the lack of focus means this goal is followed to a limited degree by senior levels. This is in contrast to China or Russia – Moscow which takes a traditional paternalistic view to the region and has repeatedly shown itself willing to deploy forces to help deal with local security threats with President Vladimir Putin expressing himself and meeting regional leaders. And China is the coming power in economic and strategic terms in the region, but continues to pay its respects to all of the regional leaders. All of this will serve to crowd out Western interests and approach, as while the region would like to play the various sides off each other and have the West as an option, the reality is the West does not seem as engaged – or their interest is sporadic. China and Russia are constant, and China in particular ascendant through sheer economic force alone.

This means this region is increasingly going to find itself sucked into China’s thrall. This will make it harder for the U.S. or Europe to advance their goals. It also means that much of the Eurasian heartland will increasingly fall from Western influence leaving it to China and Russia. And if historical British geographer Halford Mackinder is to be believed, this means losing control of the “world island” and therefore power and influence on the planet.

How does China’s strategy in Central Asia compare with those of other major players in the region, like Russia, and those further afield with important interests, such as the United States, Turkey, Japan, etc.?

There are many similarities, in terms of seeking to offer investment and opportunity, as well as worrying about security issues through engagement with locals. But at the same time, there are some critical differences. Russia does not so much see Central Asia as a neighboring region, but more an extension of self. Not all in the same way as Russia views parts of neighboring countries with Russian populations (though of course this does apply in Kazakhstan’s case), but more in terms of how economically and socially tied Russia is still to these countries. This is not only through the web of institutions that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union – like the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), or the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – but also through the sense that the region is Russia’s soft underbelly with the potential risks and threats that emanate from Afghanistan coming through the region to threaten Moscow. This is different to Beijing’s more transactional approach which is less interested in being in control or seeing itself as responsible, but is instead focused on its own interests and how they are affected by the region.

Other powers, like Japan, Turkey, India, or South Korea, have varying degrees of interests in the region and tried slightly different things. Turkey has long called upon its Turkic heritage to develop relations across Central Asia, but these have often failed to deliver to the hoped for results. Turkey is an alternative place for migrant labor to go to from the region, there are some Turkish companies and goods that are very well received in the region, and Istanbul has actively sought to cultivate its soft power links through education and culture. But it struggles to deliver the same impact as others. Japan and South Korea have both engaged in the region, though to different degrees of attention – both use policy banks and their own firms to try to build infrastructure or access resources in the region. And both have advanced visions for engagement, but the reality of geography means this will only really work if their relations with Central Asia’s neighbors are good. 

Similarly, India has always sought to engage with the region. All of the recent Indian leaders have done big tours of Central Asia after which they have spoken of their interest and focus on the region. And India has historically had some air force footprint in Tajikistan. But this has always stumbled in the follow on – in part due to the complexity of geography (with Afghanistan and Pakistan in between, and Chabahar Port in Iran being an awkward route from Central Asia to India), but also due to strategic concerns with China, as well as the reality that India is not a command driven economy and tends to drift in its foreign policy focus (except with Pakistan). All of these contrast with China’s very focused and growing attention which geography favors and is something that they are able to do without ruffling too many Russian feathers at the moment.

Many discussions about China focus on its rise both globally and in the Indo-Pacific, with a heavy focus on the maritime space. Is landlocked Eurasia overlooked in those conversations? If so, why is it important to pay attention to China’s “inadvertent” empire in the heart of Asia?

It is a great disappointment to me that many of the Indo-Pacific strategies focus almost solely on maritime power. This misses out the vast and rich hinterland that exists in the Eurasian heartland. An area replete with opportunities, ancient civilizations and culture, but also a region which has sadly created problems for the West in the recent past. September 11, 2001 emanated from Afghanistan, and more recently we can see that this is a region of great strategic importance to both of the main Western adversary powers – China and Russia (and even Iran). By developing strategies towards Asia that almost entirely exclude the Eurasian heartland, the West is missing out on an opportunity in many ways. As mentioned before, according to Mackinder, whoever controls this region, controls the world. But stepping away from grand geopolitics, this is a region with which Europe is contiguous, meaning what happens there is likely to resonate. To simply abandon it to its fate misses a regional opportunity, but also misses out on understanding how Chinese foreign policy actually works in practice in an area which Beijing cannot simply walk away from.

More book promotion stuff, this time a short article for the wonderfully entitled Splash, a trade publication about global shipping industry. It just felt too perfect to write about landlocked Central Asia in such an outlet. Huge thanks to editor Sam for the kind invitation.

China’s transport links with Central Asia in the spotlight

Raffaello Pantucci, the co-author of the just published Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, a book studying the People’s Republic’s growing influence in Central Asia, writes for Splash today.

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative vision is to open up markets and enhance connectivity around the world, ultimately transforming China into the heart of a global web of trade routes and goods flows. But in many contexts, it is as much about connectivity more broadly than solely links back to China. In landlocked Central Asia, Beijing’s vision has helped the region develop multiple links to the seas.

The most prominent example of this is Lianyungang Port in Jiangsu province which has offered itself as a staging point for Central Asian goods to get to international markets, and goods to get to the region. In late 2019, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Chinese instigated regional organization involving all of the Central Asians minus Turkmenistan, but also including Russia, India and Pakistan, held a meeting for logistics firms in the city, part of a broader engagement effort. Kazakh firms have invested heavily into the Port, and established numerous strong connections. Links which have unfortunately suffered during COVID as Chinese border restrictions have tightened considerably leaving Central Asians struggling to get goods in or out.

Another more subversive example is the Chabahar Port in Iran, which has long been seen primarily as an Indian-Iranian project which would enable Indian firms to reach Central Asian markets. Something they struggled to do when trying to reach directly through adversary Pakistan and war-torn Afghanistan (though this has started to change recently changed with some limited direct routes opening). But long-standing Indian prevarication over Chabahar – something Delhi has been discussing working on for over a decade – has meant that Iran has solicited China to help the development of the port, with mention of it included amongst the many documents circulating around the 25-year strategic deal signed between China and Iran in 2021. China is helping take over this route too.

The final more complicated example can be found in Pakistan, where the recent Taliban take-over in Kabul has seemed to breathe life – at least from Beijing’s perspective – into a longstanding Chinese desire to connect up their BRI vision in Pakistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), with Afghanistan. The idea is one Beijing has been pushing for some time, but has largely floundered under the Republic government in Kabul due to tensions between Islamabad and Kabul. The advent of a theoretically more friendly government in Kabul, and China’s warm embrace of the newly minted Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), suggests this idea might be on the table once again. Should this connection realize, it will help give Afghanistan (and Central Asia) its quickest possible route to seas, through the Chinese developed port of Gwadar in Baluchistan. It will also quite firmly anchor Afghanistan in China’s wider BRI vision, something that has been missing in any practically meaningful way outside rhetoric.

Whether any of this is practicable of course is a different matter altogether. While relations are changed, tensions clearly still remain between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Similarly, Chabahar is a growing port, it equally remains to be seen how useful it really is as an alternative to the existing ports that access the markets that are already operational. And a key lesson many Central Asian export/importers will have learned during the pandemic was that Chinese controlled routes are not entirely reliable. It is only now, two years on, that some of the border posts between China and Central Asia are opening up once again.

Beijing might have helped connect landlocked Central Asia to the seas, but it is not clear that it is going to be entirely smooth sailing from now on.

More catch up posting with another interview in the wake of Sinostan’s publication. This one for the excellent Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting (CABAR). Many thanks to the wonderful Ruslan for sorting it out!

How Does the War in Ukraine Affect Central Asia? An Interview with Raffaello Pantucci

Analytical platform CABAR.asia spoke with Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), about Central Asian countries in the light of confrontation between Russia and the West, the indirect impact of sanctions on the region, the role of China and the potential of the EAEU and the CSTO.


Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) in London. His work focuses on China’s relations with its western neighbours, Central Asia, and terrorism and counter-terrorism. His most recent book is Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022, with Alexandros Petersen). Much of his work can be found at: http://www.raffaellopantucci.com


CABAR.asia: The Central Asian states are in a difficult position because of Russia’s military action in Ukraine – on the one hand, there is no opportunity to speak out openly against the Kremlin’s military action because of the economic and political dependence of the countries in the region on Russia. On the other hand, there is the possibility of falling under Western sanctions alongside with Russia. In the light of these developments, what action should be taken by the Central Asian countries?

I think that Central Asia is in a very hard place in this context, because of all the reasons you outlined, but also because I think no matter what happens, the sanctions are going to hit Central Asia due to the nature of the connection that the region has with Russia in particular. It is almost impossible that it is not going to be affected. If we just look at labor migration, which is a really important part of the connection for the region, maybe less so for Kazakhstan, but for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan this is a critical part of their economy. That is just going to plummet suddenly in volume and going to have a huge effect and mass potential unemployment for a lot of people. So the impact is unfortunately unavoidable for the region because no matter what there is going to be an echo.

But what is interesting is the fact that the leaderships have all taken slightly different approaches to responding to what Russia has done. So as far as I can tell the Turkmen and the Tajiks have not said much. The leadership in those two countries has said relatively quiet on the conflict in Ukraine so far avoiding criticizing either on Russia or on Ukraine. The Kazakhs have done a very interesting job of actually trying to be quite proactive where on the one hand there have been some attempts to drag them into the debate, in particular from some sort of Russian media sources, but still the Kazakhs they’ve tried to step back from this.

There’s been some public protesting Kazakhstan, which the government has let happen. So obviously that shows a certain level of tacit support for the Ukrainian side. The government has sent humanitarian aid Ukrainian side as well. In addition, they’ve already shown some effects of the sanctions by stopping Air Astana from flying to Russia, which is a massive deal. But they have also engaged with Russia and abstained in UNGA votes. So the Kazakhs have tried to strike a balance, where on the one hand they’ve continued to have a relationship with Russia, but on the other hand, they’ve tried to demonstrate that they are trying to reach out to both sides. The most recent statements by Deputy Foreign Minister Vassilenko about not wanting the country to be stuck behind a new iron curtain with Russia and remain open to the west is the clearest articulation in some ways yet of the fears in Central Asia about being closed off with Russia while at the same time trying to be pragmatic and take advantage of the situation. The Uzbeks are trying something similar, but doing it more subtly. Foreign Minister Kamilov was clear about drawing the lines of where the country would not support Russia in refusing to recognize the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lughansk (a view shared in Nur-Sultan). As far as I can tell the Kyrgyz appear to be the ones who more are leaning into the relationship with Moscow, though even this is a bit clouded by some of the protests we have seen and a sense that the government is being pushed into this position. Though Kyrgyzstan has always been quite close to Moscow. In some ways, this probably reflects the overriding sentiment that exists in most of these countries towards Russia, which is one kind of concern, but at the same time, a recognition of the importance of the relationship that they do have with Moscow.

To be honest, at the moment that’s probably the best that we can expect because they are all in a very difficult position. I would like to see them more leaning into the relationship with Ukraine, because these are all countries that in many ways have suffered under Russia in similar ways, they’re all bound to Russia in similar ways and Ukraine is an important partner for lots of Central Asian countries. But at the same time, it’s clear that the leaderships across the region are different. So from my perspective, the way the Kazakhs are handling it at the moment would probably be seen as the most positive (especially given events at the beginning of the year in which they leaned on Moscow to help them resolve their domestic problems), with the Uzbeks shadowing them. But it’s still would be nice to see more frankly of them trying to show solidarity and support to the Ukrainians because at the end of the day they’re all in a very similar boat.

How would you describe the mood of the political elites in Central Asia regarding the recent events in Ukraine? How would you assess the statements of the Central Asian authorities on this issue and how the region is now perceived in the international arena?

Broadly speaking, there seems to be quite a high level of concern in Central Asia amongst the elites in so much as it’s possible to discern about what’s happened and what is of concern. In particular,  in Kazakhstan there is an underlying fear that the same that has been done to Ukraine might be visited upon them. But at the same time, they recognize the importance of the relationship with Russia. There does seem to be a level of desire to try to make sure that they don’t let this spillover too much because they do still want to have a working relationship with Russia. It’s important for them to do that. So they want to kind of find a way of striking a balance, but my sense is broadly speaking one of concern. It is, however, challenging trying to figure out what this means in practical terms going forwards.

In terms of how Central Asia is perceived in the international political arena, so far I have seen fairly limited comments about Central Asia in the international sphere within this context. I think the United States appears to be trying to reach out to Central Asia, which I think is quite positive, but I think it reflects an approach from the State Department at the moment of trying to outreach to Central Asia and trying to strengthen that relationship. So we’ve had Secretary Blinken do the C5+1 meetings. We’ve seen them condemn when they’ve been worried about what’s happening, a lot of condemnation about the rioting that we saw happening in Kazakhstan, but at the same time, a desire to reach out, that seems to be where they’re going.

We haven’t seen the Turkmen or the Tajik presidents say anything. We’ve seen the Kyrgyz president quite openly talk about leaning into the relationship with Moscow. But when we look at Tashkent and we look at Nur-Sultan, these two countries seem to be trying to strike a balance. It’s reflected also in the UN voting, where all of the Central Asian countries all seem to be trying to vote in terms of showing some sort of support for Ukraine, even if they do this in a very tempered way and try to abstain from votes rather than necessarily vote in support of Ukrainian positions.

As we know from the events in Georgia in 2008 and the current events in Ukraine, we can observe Russia’s strong measures towards countries conducting a pro-Western policy. Is there any chance that Russia might do the same with Central Asian countries? Which Central Asian country is the least dependent on Russia and can pursue a multivector foreign policy?

The difficulty that Central Asia always has with this multi-vector foreign policy concept is that for it to really work in a transformative way it would require them to change quite a lot in a more Western direction, which they are doing gradually. A greater push westward would be needed for it to work in that direction, otherwise the multi-vector diplomacy is a case of juggling between China in Russia, two powers that are always frankly going to more agree with each other than they are going to pick a side with countries in between.

The multivector foreign policy notion is one that is most credible with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

At the moment the one that everyone used to look to is the one that was doing it most effectively was Kazakhstan because the Kazakhs had more money, more power and more resource to be able to kind of strike an independent view. But what we saw after the rioting at the beginning of the year was that they leaned very heavily on Moscow. That has kind of demonstrated that at the end of the day, when the region worries about security issues, and there are a lot of security issues in the wider region, they still look to Moscow as the kind of father protector rather than Western powers or China. Something that we also saw during the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. So in some ways, the whole narrative of multi-vector diplomacy has changed now from what it used to be and its credibility is diluted. This has been further complicated by events in Ukraine of course which has cast Russian power in a very menacing light once again.

If we look at what Russia is doing, I think the country that’s most understandably concerned is Kazakhstan. Because of all of the kind of underlying issues and motivations which Russia cited as reasons for its military actions in Georgia and Ukraine, you could find in Kazakhstan: there is a population of Russian ethnic communities living in the north, predominantly along the border with Russia who still speak Russian. There has been a campaign in Kazakhstan trying to de-Russify to some degree, though they put it more in light of trying to Kazakh everything – using more the Kazakh language, pushing less use of the Cyrillic script. This could be interpreted by Moscow as a policy of de-Russification (or persecution of Russian minorities), which is exactly the reason why Russia has just given for why it’s gone into Ukraine.

There has been a concern about this in the past and even if we look at what President Putin has said in some of his comments where he’s referred to Kazakhstan, as not being a country, about President Nazarbayev building something interesting out of nothing. You could take these words and interpret them in the same way that we’ve just seen them interpret their justification for going into dismember Ukraine. So within that context, Kazakhstan is the one that’s got to be most concerned about this, but at the same time, one of the key lessons I’ve taken away from what happened at the beginning of the year in Kazakhstan was that the Russians did come in and they left. They came in, they played a stabilizing role and they left.

In some ways, I think what that showed to the Russians and the Kazakhs were that Russia could still be an important security stabilizer and that was ultimately appreciated by the local government. That means that the government there is still one that Moscow would look at as relatively pliant, unlike president Zelenskiy in Ukraine or the leadership in Georgia. I think that that’s why, one of my key takeaways from the beginning of the year was that Kazakhstan is an important country for Russia in the region, but the relationship is different to that with Ukraine. I’m sure the Kazakhs are still worried about the parallels, but at the same time, the lessons from what we saw happening at the beginning of the year were that their relationship with Moscow is still one that Moscow obviously feels quite confident in and still feels that it has an upper hand on. That suggests that they’re less likely to create these kinds of aggressive Novorossiya visions into Kazakhstan than they are in Ukraine as there is less need for it.

Central Asian countries have already felt the effects of the sanctions against Russia: national currencies are devaluing, there are shortages of goods and remittances are shrinking. How do you think the economic crisis will affect the lives of ordinary citizens in the region? Could the economic and financial crisis affect the anti-Russian sentiments of the Central Asian populations, for example, by demanding withdrawal from such organizations as the EAEU or the CSTO?

I think it will impact people as you’ve already described. It’s clear that there’s already a direct impact and it will get worse because remittances will stay low and people will not be able to get jobs. It will become harder because presumably, the economic constriction in Russia will mean fewer jobs and so less need for Central Asian workers to come in. So it is a double-whammy in collapsing national currencies and lack of opportunities.

On the interesting side, some countries are still very dependent on energy and oil and gas and presumably with those prices going up, countries like Kazakhstan should benefit. The problem is that that doesn’t necessarily trickle down into everyone’s wallet. It’s really about how the governments manage that. But I could see people across the region suffering from the drop in remittances and the general constriction of the Russian economy whose close ties to the region make it hard to avoid repercussions.

Will that then lead to more anti-Russian sentiment? I’m not sure. Because I have a sense that I don’t know that people would make the direct connection in a way. It’s more a case that people will blame the sanctions rather than the Russian action that triggered the sanctions. I think anti-Russian sentiment will probably increase amongst a certain segment of the community anyway because people will be worried about what Russia might do. But I’m not sure that the economic constriction will necessarily track into that. I think it will cause more problems to local governments as they struggle to manage the fall-out.

Will it lead to withdrawal from EAEU or CSTO? I don’t think so on those either. Because I think leaving an institution like the EAEU for Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan now when the economy is bad is probably the worst time to do it. Because pulling apart something like that will be so complicated and will lead to more economic blockages that they don’t want. So I think, no, it won’t trigger that. The CSTO it’s a different organization, I’m not sure people directly make that kind of connection. If the CSTO was called to fight in Ukraine, maybe we could see people talking about that, but I have a feeling people wouldn’t leave the organization. What would happen is they would just refuse to send soldiers, as has reportedly already been the case in Kazakhstan.

Against the backdrop of a weakening Russian position, what role will China play vis-à-vis the Central Asian states? Will it undertake any measures to strengthen its position? What is the overall impact of the war on China and its foreign policy?

Within the Central Asian context, I think Central Asians will want to encourage more Chinese investment because suddenly their major economic partner is going to go through an economic recession. So for them to avoid that as well, they will want to bring something in. At the same time, it is going to be very difficult because Chinese companies will be careful about sanctions. Chinese companies will come and while they do employ some people, they’re not going to employ enough people to replace all of the jobs that could be lost from the loss of jobs as migrant labor in Russia.

There will be a desire for more China to come in, but China will only come in in the ways that it wants, which is mostly its companies focused on their investments, focused on projects that they want to do, and economic opportunities that they see. Something which does not always equate with what the local governments or populations necessarily want on the ground. China will not want to provide lots of its aid to help bail the region out. It will do what it wants to do rather than what the region would necessarily want to do. But with the crashing economies, I imagine that means certain assets will become cheaper. So you might see Chinese companies wanting to come and do projects now, which will be cheaper than if they did them before.

I think there will be an interesting question about energy because China is very interested in energy from the region and presumably those prices are going to shoot up and China will want to lobby for them to go back down again. That’ll be an interesting dynamic to watch play out.

So I think China will ultimately try to come in, try to do more, but it will do it on its terms rather than on Central Asia’s terms. That will be something that Central Asians will be frustrated by because they will want more and probably not get exactly what they want or to the level that they want, but they will be much more dependent now than they were before.

Recently there has been some talk in the West of imposing sanctions against other EAEU member states because they can almost freely import and export goods within the union to circumvent anti-Russian sanctions. How true do you think this statement is? What would be the consequences of this?

I’m not entirely clear how this necessarily plays out. I hope people don’t go down the path of sanctioning EEAU countries as well because I think then other countries will be suffering. I don’t think the Western governments would go that far. What you might see them trying to do is maybe target specific companies that are maybe using Kazakhstan as a way or using Kyrgyzstan as a way of sneaking into the Russian market. You could see that happening or sort of targeted sanctions, but I don’t think you’d see a blanket sanctioning of the whole institution because I think that from a Western perspective would look very unfair. Ultimately the West would want to help these countries and them to turn on Russia rather than push them towards Russia. That’s the more likely thing that we are going to see happen.

Could it be a kind of transit point? I think it could be potentially because I think you could see people bringing goods there and then taking advantage of repackaging, relabeling, and then selling into Russia. You could see that happening, you saw happen in the past. On the banking side, I don’t think it could quite work because, from my understanding of how the banking system works, I think the regional banks, except for Kazakhstan, probably wouldn’t be able to support a useful level of financial trade and flows. I think the Kazakh ones people will be watching them to not facilitate this stuff. So it’ll be quite difficult to see that happening.

Is there a possibility that Western international finance and institutions will pay more attention to Central Asia because of the possibility of a Ukrainian scenario? 

There have been hints from Washington at least that they are trying to pursue this kind of strategy. But I don’t know the energy that’s being put behind it and whether this will mean a kind of flow of investments into alternative projects, that is something we will have to probably wait and see. At the moment there was a lot of desire to support Central Asia post Afghanistan. I think what we saw happening in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year complicated things somewhat because it upended the order regionally a bit and made people worry about stability in the region. If those sorts of protests and violence could happen in Kazakhstan, which everyone thought was so stable, what could be happening elsewhere that we do not know about? So that will have have confused approaches to engage with the region. But I would hope that Western countries will lean into Central Asia rather than lean away as a result of what happens in Ukraine.

What forecast can you give for the next year (short term) and the next 5 years? How will Russia emerge from the sanctions, and what awaits the rest of the Central Asian region?

I think Russia is going to come out of these sanctions with a very much weaker economy than it was before. You are going to see a lot of secondary damage which Moscow is not thinking about now, but will have an impact far beyond Russian borders and in particular in places like Central Asia. And you are going to see an erosion of Russian power to some degree as well. Because I don’t think the war in Ukraine’s going to be over quickly and the more it drags out, the more damage Russia suffers. Russia will find its security forces are stretched and that will have an effect on the vision of Russian power, which taken alongside an economy which is going to constrict points to a power which seems less than it currently is. Russia will doubtless continue  to act very loud, but I think its tools will be reduced substantially.

You will see a much stronger China – Russia relationship going forwards.

You will see that showing up in a more complicated context than we have seen until now. All of that has consequences for Central Asia and could lead to a situation where Central Asians find themselves in a very trapped space because the region is essentially surrounded now by countries that are targets of Western sanctions. Admittedly the level of sanctions is different: Russia, Iran – very hard, China – not that hard, but probably going to get harder as time goes on. So, Central Asia going to find itself increasingly struggling to project out of the region and that’s going to complicate things for them.

How can Central Asia maintain a compromise approach, being a welcoming place for Western countries, without becoming trapped in the encirclement of Russia and China?

That’s going to be the real challenge for Central Asia going forward. Because if we look now we’ve had two major crises in the region in the past six months: the fall of the Republic of Afghanistan and the chaos in Kazakhstan. And of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the two earlier events reflect an instability that still exists in the region that could spark off in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Who knows what is happening in Turkmenistan – the economy has had difficulties and we are now seeing a leadership transition take place which as we have seen in Kazakhstan can have unpredictable consequences. Tajikistan will probably be going to have a leadership transition fairly soon as well. How will that play out? I would suspect we might see some more violence in the region. There have been shootings on the borders between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan again. You worry that in a region where there is all this kindling, you’re now going to have essentially China and Russia as the two powers that are kind of watching over. Russia has shown that it is not very interested in stepping into fix problems unless it’s actively asked like it did in Kazakhstan and it requires a relatively low commitment. The support they provided in the wake of the fall of Kabul was really about Moscow strengthening its extended borders rather than trying to bring stability to the region. And China has repeatedly shown how it’s not interested in committing to anything and happy to watch things play out.

All of this paints a difficult picture for the region. Economically the region is going to suffer going forwards. It’s going to be a very tough few years for Central Asia and its desire to project itself as a region that is not bound by geographical realities but can reach far beyond with its strategic vision and multi-vector diplomacy with the west is going to come under an ever tougher challenge.