Posts Tagged ‘Central Asia’

A final column for last year, this time a forward look at Central Asia in 2023 for Nikkei Asia Review, repeats the same format last year. The last one became somewhat obsolete quickly in large part because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It remains to be seen how this one will play out.

2023 outlook: Central Asia is not out of the woods yet

Spillover effects from Ukraine and Afghanistan, so far limited, still pose risk

Vladimir Putin met with other presidents at the Central Asia-Russia summit in Astana on Oct. 14: Central Asia will continue to find Moscow a complicated partner.   © Reuters

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

It has been a tumultuous year for Central Asia. It started with large-scale internal violence and is ending with talk of a formal alliance between the region’s two most powerful players, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Yet uncertainty remains on the horizon for the coming year, with the potential for violence to boil over, geopolitics to come crashing down around regional states or internal pressures to escalate once again.

The biggest question that still hangs in the balance is what will happen next in fellow former Soviet republic Ukraine. With little sign of an end to its conflict with Russia in sight, Central Asia will continue to find Moscow a complicated partner with which to engage over the coming year.

So far, gloomy economic predictions offered in the immediate wake of Russia’s invasion have not played out.

Higher energy prices have meant increased revenues for energy-rich Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Rather than falling as expected, remittances from Central Asian migrant workers in Russia have risen, thanks to a surge in demand for labor, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Meanwhile, Russian and Belarusian companies seeking to get around Western sanctions have set up operations in the region, as have some Western companies exiting Russia.

These trends helped prompt the EBRD to raise its 2022 gross domestic product growth forecast for the region to 4.3% in September from just 1.1% in May. It also adjusted its 2023 outlook to 4.9% from 4.7%.

It remains to be seen whether these trends can hold.

Europe’s desire to get access to Central Asian energy was on clear display during European Council President Charles Michel’s visit to the region in October. But the same fundamental problems that have long held up trans-Caspian energy routes persist and are unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

Other world leaders are courting the region, too, with Chinese President Xi Jinping choosing Central Asia for his post-COVID return to the international stage, a stream of U.S. officials coming through and Russian President Vladimir Putin taking advantage of some of the few doors around still open to him.

Xi Jinping and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Astana on Sept. 14: The Chinese president chose Central Asia for his post-COVID return to the international stage. (Handout photo from press service of the president of Kazakhstan)   © Reuters

But despite the surge of attention and economic resilience so far, the Ukraine conflict could still carry major downsides for Central Asia.

The Russian economy could still implode, or the geopolitical balance that Central Asia has managed to strike could suddenly shift.

There has also been little international condemnation or fallout from the instability seen earlier this year in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the continuing crackdown in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region or violent border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The general attitude taken by outside powers, including the usually accusatory Western ones, is to simply move past these issues, hoping the governments will be able to handle them.

But the raft of incidents this year exposed a dangerous risk. The large-scale violence in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was a shock to most observers. While things appear to have settled down, the unrest underscored that there are potential issues bubbling under the surface, even in the region’s traditionally more stable countries, which could lead to widespread problems.

What other surprises lie beneath the surface is of course unknown. Few, for example, would confidently speculate about what exactly is going on in Turkmenistan.

A more clear and present danger can be found across the border in Afghanistan, where the Taliban continue to exert a weak grip on power. The Islamist regime may face no direct and obvious challenger, but it is clearly unable to enforce its mandate very far.

This has particular repercussions for Central Asia, due to the continuing threat of Islamic State Khorasan as it broadcasts threats in regional languages and seeks recruits from its outposts in Afghanistan.

Led mostly by Uzbekistan, Central Asia has sought to answer Afghanistan’s problems with a push for connectivity with South Asia, but the cost of realizing this dream is prohibitively high for the countries involved to absorb themselves. International finance could help, but Taliban rule continues to pose a threat to project completion.

So far, much external engagement with the region has focused on security support for mitigating potential problems from Afghanistan, rather than large-scale transformative investment.

China remains an important partner, and the end of zero COVID might bring new economic exchanges, but it is unlikely that Beijing will be willing to expend much to realize Central-South Asian connectivity dreams.

Meanwhile, although Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have started to make a show of strengthening their promising partnership, Putin’s proposal to join with the two Central Asian states in a “natural gas union” has not been flatly rejected.

There is a long history of grand Central Asian visions that have not managed to catch on, so it remains to be seen how these trends will play out.

The fallout from Ukraine has so far not been as bad as initially expected. And while Afghanistan remains a problem, the spillover has been limited so far.

Yet the downside risk in both cases for Central Asia remains high. The new year looks to be a challenging one.

More from late last year, this time trying to dig into the narrative that emerged of Kazakhstan in particular seeking to use China as a counter-weight to Moscow for the South China Morning Post.

Why Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan’s hopes of using China as a hedge against Russia could be doomed

  • Central Asia’s increasingly tense relations with Russia have made closer ties with China attractive, but achieving that is not without its problems.
  • Far from Beijing proving a hedge against Moscow, the opportunities on offer in Russia might simply increase the competition for China’s attention.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) walks alongside Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan on September 16. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have welcomed China’s interest in Central Asia, but that interest has been complicated by the pandemic and geopolitical concerns. Photo: EPA-EFE

Uzbekistan has in many ways always been the heart of Central Asia. It might be dwarfed in hydrocarbon wealth and physical size by Kazakhstan, but its other attributes give it influence. Yet, China does not have the same sort of commanding position within the country as it has with Kazakhstan.

There are numerous reasons for this, from local hesitance to problems in China, but collectively they illustrate the trouble Central Asia faces as it seeks to use Beijing as a hedge against Moscow, with whom relations have grown increasingly testy.

The difference in how Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan see their relationships with the two capitals was most clearly seen in the past few weeks. They both abstained from a vote against Russia on Ukraine at the United Nations, while they voted against a UN resolution seeking a debate on Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang.

Both have been appalled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While some individuals within the countries might hold some moral objections towards what China is doing in Xinjiang, they largely see this as a domestic issue within China.

There is no doubt some element of hard geopolitics has also played into their thinking. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have expressed reservations about Russia’s actions in Ukraine publicly before and are concerned about the clear evidence of Russian weakening.

They seek new partners to help stabilise their increasingly tormented neighbourhood. Their embrace of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the region in September underlines their eager eagerness for more Chinese investment. 

But at the same time, both are aware of the complications of increasing their dependence on China. This came into view during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Uzbek traders report that during the height of the pandemic, the costs of containers going through China to Uzbekistan rose by at least five times. While they have since gone down, they remain more expensive than they were pre-pandemic. The growth of traffic through the region to Russia helps keep them high alongside complications on the Chinese side.

At the same time, routes into China have only recently reopened, even though opening them was a focus of regular lobbying during the pandemic as landlocked Central Asians sought to get goods out and in.

The problems went beyond goods at borders. According to Uzbek data, the pandemic led to an abrupt drop in the number of new companies being created in Uzbekistan with Chinese investment. The numbers have started to rise again but are far below pre-pandemic levels.

China has retained its trade primacy in Uzbekistan, though the numbers are lower than before the pandemic and dipped substantially in 2020. All of this comes on top of Chinese companies in Uzbekistan being seen as behaving in ways that will keep local authorities happy but do not always actually deliver.

For example, media reports and experts on the ground suggest there has been a steady growth in recent years of Chinese companies opening factories in Uzbekistan. This is something the authorities welcome, eager to turn the country into a manufacturing hub. Yet at the same time, it is not clear how much these factories are actually manufacturing rather than serving as assembly plants. 

The reasons for this from a Chinese perspective are logical – it is often not clear the local market will be able to absorb the volume more active plants could produce. However, the consequences are a smaller level of local capacity building.

It also means it can often be quicker and cheaper to simply import the desired piece of machinery directly from China rather than purchase it from the local manufacturing plant. The factory is going to have to wait for the parts from China and then take time to assemble the product in Uzbekistan. Once you factor order book backlogs on top of this, it can become quite a long wait. These problems are not exclusive to Uzbekistan. Import-export firms across the region have noted the trade problems with China during the pandemic, and the unpredictability these have injected into an economic relationship both sides assumed would simply continue to boom. 

This reality lurks in the shadows of the push to warmly embrace Xi. Both Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made it clear they welcomed and sought a closer relationship with China. Kazakh officials behind the scenes were ecstatic about Xi’s comments about being willing to defend their national sovereignty, interpreting it as a protective clause should Moscow’s revanchist eye fall on their territory.

Yet the reality is that China is unlikely to play that role or do much to prioritise trade with the region. This reticence will emerge elsewhere as well, leading to frustration on the ground.

This might eventually turn in an even more complicated direction as Beijing leverages the surge of hydrocarbons and other opportunities that will present themselves as Moscow seeks new markets, against the same purchases and opportunities they see in Central Asia. Far from Beijing proving a hedge against Moscow, Russia might in the end simply increase the competition for China’s attention.

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

As usual have been delinquent in posting here. First up in my latest wave of material, a longer piece that has been in the works for a while with the wonderful Niva from the OSCE Academy in Bishkek for my old institutional publication the RUSI Journal. It explores the idea that China might be finally realizing its economic dreams for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) through the Digital Silk Road.

Paving the Digital Silk Road with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

Largely disregarded or derided in the West, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has grown since its humble beginnings into an important vehicle for Chinese digital and technology penetration in Central Asia. Raffaello Pantucci and Niva Yau show how China has managed to realise some of the economic goals that Beijing has long envisaged for the organisation, even if it has often found itself stymied by other members. In much the same way as the region has been a testbed for Chinese foreign policy approaches, the SCO now appears to have become a key locus for implementation of the Digital Silk Road.

When the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded in 2001, it was widely seen as an organisation focused on countering terrorism. Transformed from the ‘Shanghai Five’ to the SCO in 2001, and followed rapidly by the establishment of the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent, the organisation seemed of its time, reflecting the Global War on Terror launched by the US in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Yet, while counterterrorism may have been interpreted as the organisation’s initial guiding rationale, each of the members had their own reasons for joining.

While China was clearly interested in the counterterrorism goals linked to Xinjiang that the SCO helped Beijing to achieve in Central Asia, its vision for the organisation was always grander. China’s longer-term aim was to transform it into a body which would aid its own economic, social, security and political penetration across the Eurasian landmass. Through the SCO, China would normalise its role as the major player in Eurasia, something Beijing was most keen to undertake in the economic domain.

Early statements about the SCO and its predecessor, the Shanghai Five, show the importance of the organisation in Beijing’s mind as more than simply a security institution. Seen through China’s eyes, the trajectory of the Shanghai Five to the SCO was one that started with border delineation, but ended with much wider ambitions, including economic goals that extended to realising a new ‘Silk Road’.1 This built on a visit to the region by Premier Li Peng, who in 1994 laid out a vision of infrastructure and economic links tying China to its Central Asian neighbourhood.2 But China has always struggled to realise these goals outside rhetorical statements. Initially, resistance came in the form of neglect, with the others refusing to take the organisation as seriously as China did. Over time, this turned into a more active sense of concern as the other members grew fearful of Chinese dominance – something that became even more acute as the Chinese economy boomed to become the second largest on the planet.

Guests take part in a documents exchange ceremony during the Thematic Forum on the Digital Silk Road, Beijing, April 2019. Courtesy of Xinhua / Alamy

Economic relations are increasingly front and centre with Central Asia and China. The SCO continues to exist but has changed over time. Most recently, it has grown into the digital domain, through which China has managed to dramatically expand its reach. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) emerged from the same strand of Chinese policy thinking that created the SCO, and built on a history of Chinese engagement with Central Asia. Starting in Central Asia (where President Xi Jinping gave the speech which inaugurated the concept in 2013),3 the BRI has now grown into a global vision for Chinese foreign policy, which has also landed on the idea of developing a Digital Silk Road (DSR). While the many strands of the BRI continue to exist, it is the DSR which is increasingly seen as the focus of China’s global struggle.

The SCO has also been caught up in this, increasingly moving into the digital domain. As with many other global trends, the coronavirus pandemic has sped up this process. Chinese firms and institutions have increasingly developed their links, interests and influence in this space. It has also provided an interesting set of new conduits to advance China’s attempts to turn the SCO into an economic actor. Pre-pandemic, the SCO was already moving its discussions towards e-commerce and digital and tech engagement, bringing itself into one of the increasingly central spaces of modern societies. Through digital technology, the SCO is at long last appearing to live up to the economic ambitions that China has harboured for it. This article is an attempt to sketch out the evolution of the SCO’s economic role, and to show how China’s Central Asian economic dreams and goals for the SCO are being realised through the DSR.

A New Multilateral is Born

The abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 surprised leaders in Beijing, who quickly realised the need for border delineation with several newly independent neighbours. Always a contested space due to its remote and sparsely populated nature, the 3,000-km-long border China shares with the Central Asian states was of particular priority to Beijing as it defined a region, Xinjiang, with which it has a long and difficult history. In 1996, the first significant border security treaty between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was reached, a group later termed as the Shanghai Five.4 A year later, China’s concerns about potential separatism in Xinjiang were brought to life when large-scale protests broke out in Ghulja (or Yinning).5 Its proximity to the border with Kazakhstan and the ethnic and community links that spanned the Kazakh–Chinese border highlighted the risks of uncontrolled borders.

While the focus on security and borders was the principal pragmatic concern for China in the Shanghai Five process, Beijing’s long-term strategy in Central Asia was already focused on building a strong economic presence and links. Then Chinese Premier Li Peng had already promoted the idea of reviving the old Silk Road during his tour of Central Asia in April 1994, when he stopped at all the capitals except war-torn Dushanbe. Travelling with Premier Li were a number of Chinese entrepreneurs, who were being encouraged to invest and look at opportunities in the region. Among the most prominent were engineers and executives from the oil and gas sector, who initiated negotiations to develop a natural gas pipeline to bring Turkmen gas across China to Japan, something Premier Li was regularly talking to Japanese officials and executives about back in Beijing.6 The importance of this economic agenda with Central Asia was later highlighted by the announcement in 1999 of the Great Western Development Plan, which sought to develop China’s western regions and boost trade with neighbouring countries.7

In 2001, the Shanghai Five evolved into the SCO, and expanded to include Uzbekistan. Tashkent had remained an observer until that point, lacking the same border delineation logic with China that determined membership of the Shanghai Five. Uzbekistan was also among the most fiercely independent of the Central Asian states, eager to avoid joining any regional or international security institutions. However, a series of terrorist incidents in 1999 and 2000 – which included cross-border attacks by Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militants into Uzbekistan, as well as a series of bombings in downtown Tashkent8 – highlighted the regional nature of terrorist threats to Uzbekistan in particular. This helped to change leader Islam Karimov’s perspective, as well as shape the budding organisation. Initially, the newly minted SCO seemed principally focused on security affairs, with the most visible first practical step being the establishment of RATS in Tashkent in 2004 (after some initial discussion about housing it in Bishkek).9 Counterterrorism provided a useful banner for the region’s leaders to gather around.

However, from a Chinese perspective, economics was always important. Speaking at the SCO’s founding conference, then Chinese President Jiang Zemin spoke of economic and trade cooperation as an important area of activity for the newly born international organisation.10 In 2003, Premier Wen Jiabao again stressed the importance of economic and trade cooperation in the SCO region, and went even further, proposing an SCO free trade zone and various initiatives to rid the region of trade barriers.11 After identifying 127 investment projects to boost regional trade in September 2004, China also proposed financing mechanisms such as an SCO development fund and bank.12

Yet, while the security side of the SCO thrived,13 most of China’s economic initiatives failed to move forwards. Initially, Russia and Uzbekistan were wary of these Chinese projects, fearful of how they could alter regional economic and trade dynamics. Russia was worried about losing influence and markets that it had traditionally controlled, while Uzbekistan under Islam Karimov was a deeply inward-looking power, sceptical of Chinese and Russian initiatives. The other Central Asian powers engaged in the SCO were more welcoming of Chinese economic engagement – Kazakhstan embraced Chinese investment, while traditional aid recipient countries Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan saw Beijing as simply another source of much-needed aid and investment.

For Russia, resisting China’s greater economic presence meant pushing towards an integrated Eurasian economic bloc that sustained the existing regional dynamic. Initially, Moscow was resistant to such ideas in the chaotic disintegration that came after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fearful of the economic burden of carrying former Soviet states, Moscow was eager to separate itself from its former dominions in the mess that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was met with pushback from the newly liberated Central Asian countries in particular. While the western-facing part of the Soviet Union was keen to break away, the eastern-facing part was less so. For example, Kazakhstan resisted these efforts, with former Soviet-era leader and then President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposing in 1994 the establishment of a Eurasian Union to continue the economic links across the former Soviet space and avoid the complete collapse of the intra-regional economies that existed.14

A year after Premier Li’s talk of reviving the Silk Road, the first agreements on establishing a unified customs union between Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia were reached.15 However, very little progress was made after this. It took almost two decades for these early treaties to materialise into more specific action, when Moscow saw the value of revitalising them to try to stymie China’s regional economic initiatives and restore some Russian primacy in the region. The result of this belated push has been that China’s regional economic initiatives must work with the Russia-led economic bloc, leading to the cooperation agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and China in 2018.16 This was largely pushed through by Russia in direct talks between President Vladimir Putin and Xi, with no consultation from the other EAEU members.

All the Central Asian states were sceptical of China’s grand economic proposals to some degree. Kazakhstan, which over time became more confident in building its path to independence from Russia, sought to lead a Central Asian Union. China was seen as an opportunity in this regard, and Astana worked closely with Beijing to quickly finalise the Kazakhstan–China oil pipeline to secure an alternative source of income from the country’s rich energy reserves.17 However, at the same time, Kazakhstan opposed a completely open-door policy to Chinese investments. In 2003, when British Gas decided to sell its portion of the giant Kashagan oil field to CNOOC and Sinopec, KazMunaiGas (KMG), the Kazakh government’s representative in the consortium running the project, blocked the sale. It bought most of the share itself, and divided the rest among other consortium members.18 Kazakhstan has also refused repeated requests to grant Chinese nationals a visa-free regime,19 and has imposed strict employment quotas, joint venture requirements for projects and more – though some of these policies have been loosened over time.

Uzbekistan’s isolationist policy during the Karimov era stood directly against China’s regional economic initiatives, and created direct blocks on some of the proposed initiatives. For example, the Central Asia–China natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China was first proposed in 1994, and it took Uzbekistan (a transit country on the route) until April 2007 to sign up.20 By the early 2010s, Uzbekistan’s perspective was gradually changing. It sought ways to take advantage of the Chinese economic boom, while still retaining tight reins of control. This resulted in some illicit or grey trade, while the government slowly allowed China into some market sectors.21

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have always maintained a certain level of ambivalence, although they have tended more towards seeking to attract Chinese money. On the one hand, as poorer countries, they were grateful for any investment and economic attention, while on the other, they were wary of the unfettered flow of Chinese products, recognising the resultant impediments it would create to domestic economic development. Some Kyrgyz experts and officials favoured joining Russia’s economic bloc to help to better manage the flow of Chinese products, blaming it for the poorly developed Kyrgyz manufacturing industry as it encouraged unsustainable reliance on re-export revenue.22 A similar sentiment is evident in Tajikistan, where local traders and producers have been squeezed out by Chinese products and traders.23

This set of tensions prevented China’s grand regional economic initiatives from coming to life. The proposals of an SCO free trade area, an SCO development fund and bank have all largely stalled – although the development bank idea is periodically raised by the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments, as well as Beijing.24 Instead, China has been restricted to bilateral economic engagement, and the SCO economic initiatives that did take off were confined to promoting dialogue, with regular meetings between economics and trade ministers, banks and business associations through the SCO Interbank Association and SCO Business Council. What trade promoting measures the SCO was able to advance, such as the SCO ‘Agreement on Facilitation of International Road Transport’ that was signed in 2014 and entered into action in 2017, are widely unknown on the ground.25

This narrative has changed in recent years with the arrival of China’s BRI, which has increasingly subsumed and co-opted the SCO’s economic side. When talking about the transport agreement, then Secretary General Rashid Alimov stated that ‘the Agreement is the SCO’s practical contribution to the development and implementation of the Silk Road Economic Belt project’.26 This narrative, where anything economic within the context of the SCO is rephrased to include Silk Road terminology, is increasingly common and has been highlighted once again by the arrival of the DSR.

Approved in 2015 by Chinese President Xi to be part of the BRI, the DSR aims to facilitate information and commercial connectivity through optical cables, satellite passageways, hardware and software, all alongside a long-term interdependence through e-commerce, tech-enhanced security measures and more. Legislation and standards are being increasingly harmonised as the SCO slowly turns digital. Since starting the SCO e-commerce working group in 2004, China’s push for digitalisation in the region has grown in leaps and bounds. In 2009, a unified electronic signature system to ease cross-border trade was developed;27 in 2010, an SCO e-commerce online trading and investment platform was set up;28 and in November 2017, the proposal of an SCO e-commerce industry trade association was made by a delegation including several Chinese e-commerce leaders.29 A month later, for the first time, the development of a regional digital economy joined the list of important tasks identified by SCO heads of state in the joint communiqué released after the 2017 summit in Sochi, Russia.30 After three years of negotiations, cooperation in the digital economy was agreed at the 2019 summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, in the online Moscow Summit of November 2020, the heads of state grouping issued a communiqué on harmonisation and cooperation across the digital domains for commerce,31 IT security32 and counter-radicalisation.33 E-commerce had gone from being a marginal activity to the basis of a core agreement at the organisation’s most senior summit.

Digitalisation: China Builds and Builds

The SCO developed alongside the world’s digital transformation. And, like many SCO activities, security came first. After pinning the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan on an alleged US disinformation campaign,34 the SCO issued a statement during its June 2006 summit in Beijing, highlighting the role of information technology in ‘affecting all aspects of national security, including politics, economy, national defense, social culture, as well as the entire international security and stability system’.35 Specific measures were laid out in an SCO Agreement on Cooperation to Guarantee International Information Security, which was signed into action by members in 2009.36 At the same time, the RATS Center in Tashkent had sought to pioneer work on questions around online radicalisation and data protection. Data from member states on terrorist groups and threats was gathered, translated and disseminated.37 Actions included the establishment of a working group targeting cyber security and online radicalisation, which would hold conferences and training sessions, and ultimately led to the first SCO cyber-terrorism exercise in Xiamen in 2015, of which more have occurred bi-annually since.38 All of this took place at a moment when Central Asia started to take cyber security questions more seriously, with both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan drastically improving their Global Cybersecurity Index score, from 0.19 to 0.79 and 0.17 to 0.68 respectively between 2014 and 2018.39 Exactly what role the SCO played in this is unclear, but it certainly takes place in parallel.

As a landlocked region disconnected from the large international fibreoptic cables, broadband in much of Central Asia is extremely expensive. China has done a great deal to change this. Chinese tech companies are often the most affordable in the region – in part due to Chinese government subsidies to the companies back in China – and have rapidly gained a large presence in Central Asia. It should be noted they were early movers into the region, with Huawei and ZTE having been longstanding players in the region’s digital hardware. Huawei entered the region through Kazakhstan in 1998.40 In 2000, Turkmenistan used ZTE to establish its first dial-up service.41 In 2001, Kyrgyzstan was given $10-million worth of free ZTE equipment via an intergovernmental gift to install a telephone network for 10,000 subscribers in Bishkek.42 By 2002, ZTE was installing a wireless telephone system for Kazakhtelecom, while the Kazakh company chose to use Chinese cables to upgrade its Europe–China internet cabling systems.43 More awkwardly, both ZTE and Huawei signed contracts (likely as part of a wider agreement between the government and local authorities) with the Taliban government in Afghanistan in the late 1990s to establish a digital phone system in Kabul and Kandahar.44

From this early start, they have made dramatic inroads. In Turkmenistan, where there are fewer than 10 operational Chinese companies in total, Huawei has provided around 45% of the country’s telecommunications infrastructure.45 According to StatCounter, an online service that tracks internet usage, Chinese mobile phone providers have made considerable inroads into Central Asian markets. Samsung remains the dominant provider across the region, but Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi has grown to take an ever-increasing market share. In January 2020, the Chinese manufacturer overtook Samsung in Kyrgyzstan, and now controls around 45% of the local market (in comparison to 34% for Samsung, 10% for Apple and 6% for Huawei).46 In all the other markets, Samsung is dominant, with Xiaomi and Huawei together supplying between a quarter and a third of the rest of the market, while Apple and other providers tend to make up the rest.47 This metric is significant when one considers the Western push to reject all Chinese technology.

Looking to the internet and cyber storage infrastructure, companies such as Huawei and ZTE provide a growing proportion of today’s cloud and internet capacity in Central Asia. In 2014, Huawei entered into an agreement with the Karamay local government to create a cloud ‘model city’ to help establish a base for Xinjiang and Central Asian cloud services provided by the company.48 In 2021, ZTE handed a SDM (Subscriber Data Management) platform to Uzbekistan’s

Bee­line, a data centralisation tool that allows for generating analytics, data sharing with third parties, monetisation and many other cloud-based functions.49 Both firms have built large sections of the region’s new cyber infrastructure (3G, 4G and now 5G networks), including establishing factories regionally to build and sell home internet equipment.

Going beyond this, Russia and Central Asian states have in recent years welcomed China’s tech-driven approach to security by, for example, adopting ‘Smart City’ development models and projects with hundreds of cameras in their capitals.50 Some of these deploy Chinese facial and numberplate recognition technology, and all rely on Chinese software and hardware. Some projects, such as Dushanbe’s traffic system, are implemented using official Chinese loans disbursed through the SCO mechanism to purchase Chinese products.51 These local network systems are also offered in didactic institutions, with Huawei in particular offering them to schools and universities across the region.52 While tools such as these are increasingly ubiquitous in major cities around the world, the key question is where the data that is being collected is being stored and how it may be used for China’s national security purposes.

Beyond networks, China has also recognised the role of digitalisation in developing an advanced economy. China’s domestic digital economy is among the biggest in the world, with giant national firms that have increasingly moved outside China. Russia and Central Asian states have also found this increasingly attractive, and have come to favour e-commerce cooperation with China. Alibaba reached more than 20 million active buyers from SCO-participating states in 2017.53 AliExpress Russia, a joint venture between the Russian sovereign wealth fund (Russia Direct Investment Fund (RDIF)), Alibaba Group, MegaFon and Mail.Ru, was set up in October 2019 to smooth access to one another’s e-commerce markets and encourage cross-border cooperation.54 In 2019, Alibaba founder Jack Ma declared that his company planned to generate some 100 million jobs and support 10 million small companies over the next few years, with a particular focus on the SCO area.55 In 2021, a group of Chinese e-commerce experts and practitioners trained Uzbek governmental officials and businesspeople on managing the e-commerce space.56 A growing number of smaller Chinese and Central Asian traders have also gone online in the past few years. The drastically improved e-commerce infrastructure in Central Asia has resulted in a significant increase in the region’s Business-to-Consumer E-Commerce Index score between 2015 and 2019, jumping from 25 to 35 for Kyrgyzstan, 26 to 45 for Uzbekistan and 37 to 69 for Kazakhstan.57

Chinese and Central Asian companies have set up middleman websites to allow locals to purchase Chinese products more easily and cheaply online, while bilateral governmental efforts have been made to grant Central Asian products access to the Chinese market directly. This includes an official flagship store for Uzbekistan on Alibaba’s Taobao mall (also known as ‘Tmall’). With a large section of Uzbek confectionary, the store gained over 5,000 followers within a year of its opening in November 2019. According to Tmall data analysis, Russian sweets, Indian eyebrow powder, handmade dolls from Uzbekistan, dark chocolate from Kazakhstan and vodka from Kyrgyzstan are the favourite imported products for Chinese consumers.58 These products now travel on the DSR, while the traditional large in-person trading markets in Dordoi and Barakholka are slowly being replaced by online malls.

Following the inclusion of the digital economy in the SCO list of ‘important tasks’ in 2017, as well as the SCO digital economy cooperation agreement in 2019, Chinese e-commerce leaders have found themselves at meetings with senior SCO figures. Alibaba CEO Jack Ma met Vladimir Norov, SCO Secretary General, for the first time in August 2019.59 While the world was busy combating a pandemic in 2020, Norov had at least nine prominent public meetings with leaders of China’s tech world, including e-commerce giants such as Alibaba, Jingdong and Pinduoduo.60 The timing coincided with a visible SCO push into the e-commerce space. In August and November 2020, two SCO experimental policy zones were opened in China: a Cross-Border E-Commerce pilot zone in Lianyungang and the Qingdao Development Center. Exact details on both are not very clear, except that they are intended to be major boosters to commerce and trade using online technology. First announced during the SCO Summit in Qingdao in 2018, the Qingdao Development Center was opened with typical Chinese speed two years later.61 The companies Norov met with all played a constructive role in pushing the SCO’s e-commerce agenda forwards. For example, Jingdong has committed $1.5 billion to build a smart industrial park within the Qingdao Development Center using advanced cloud computing to showcase China’s first-class supply chain technologies for cross-border e-commerce.62 In 2021, Kyrgyz officials proposed to open an e-commerce experiential logistics zone at the Qingdao Development Center for the export of Kyrgyz agricultural products to China, South Korea, Japan and ASEAN.63 It is unclear what representation the other SCO member states might have at these institutions, although there was some suggestion that Kazakh companies were using the Lianyungang port already.64

Unlike many of their counterparts in traditional industries, these Chinese tech giants seem to more actively recognise the merits of engaging in soft power building abroad. This is something they have all done globally, but in particular in Central Asia and often through SCO structures. Huawei, ZTE and Weidong Cloud Education began donating information technology tools to classrooms in Central Asian high schools and universities across the region in the early 2010s. Huawei’s own overseas academy, with Huawei lecturers and its own curriculum, opened in Uzbekistan in 201665 and Kazakhstan in 2017.66 In just two years, the Kazakh branch had trained over 400 computer science students.67 Huawei’s flagship ‘Seeds for the Future’ programme, a study and work programme for foreign computer science talents to spend time in China, is one of the most attractive programmes offered to Central Asian youth. Including travel and training in China, it is seen as guaranteed to offer good employment opportunities for graduates. The programme opened in Tajikistan in 2016,68 Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in 2017,69 and Kazakhstan in 2018.70 It is not clear whether it has been established in Kyrgyzstan, although the company has had a footprint and staff there since at least 2001.71

All these initiatives are fostering the next generation of Central Asian tech experts in Chinese standards and practices, and will inevitably strengthen China’s norm-making position in the digital industry within the region. There has already been something of a push towards Chinese standards and norms through various SCO working groups and engagement structures. Previously, there has been engagement in the cyber security domain on how countries could share best practice to stop the spread of extremist ideas online. There has also been some discussion about harmonisation in the digital commerce domain, including efforts to focus on making legislation compatible and learning from one another. The training programmes offered by Huawei and others provide a further point of engagement and influence. China is not only building, but also shaping, the future of the cyber and digital world in Central Asia (and further afield).

These companies have further continued this soft power push and increased their links and visibility alongside the SCO during the coronavirus pandemic. For example, Alibaba, Weidong Cloud Education and others continued to reach out to regional youth and political leaders using the digital space, and helped to organise a number of seminars and joint online events with the SCO. For example, Alibaba set up online COVID-19 treatment courses and engagements between Chinese doctors and their Central Asian and SCO counterparts.72 Moreover, Weidong’s contribution to helping children under lockdown to continue to receive teaching received a personal ‘thank you’ from SCO Secretary General Norov.73 This work came in parallel with a substantial push by China to provide online health support and services, with doctors regularly holding online forums and videoconferences to exchange ideas and experience.74 For example, in April 2020, a telemedicine system was set up in Uzbekistan between Jiangxi and Tashkent.75

They also offered more classical forms of support. Alibaba, for instance, has been implementing further measures to help bring Central Asian products to the Chinese market.76 In the backdrop of all this activity, there were dozens of medical donations from many of the leading Chinese tech companies to the region. Jack Ma’s personal foundation, for example, sent planeloads of aid publicly to all the countries except Turkmenistan.77

What Next?

Chinese tech companies have emerged as leaders in advancing China’s goal to have the SCO become a regional economic force. From basic hardware such as fibreoptic cables and telecoms towers, to everyday smartphones and critical storage infrastructure such as cloud systems, they have made significant inroads across Central Asia, building a DSR through the region. Chinese online sales and payment platforms have followed, meaning China is building and delivering the region’s digital economic future. Throughout this process, the SCO has played an increasingly important role in facilitating and strengthening this push, finally living up to the hopes first articulated for the group by Jiang Zemin. As digitalisation proceeds with Chinese tools, Beijing is becoming a crucial player across the region’s critical sectors including security, trade and education.

Digitalisation is recognised by all member states of the SCO as an important step to development. China’s eagerness to share and sell its tech-driven practices and insights has thus been welcomed by SCO member states. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has made digitalisation one of his most urgent tasks since taking office in spring 2019,78 and he has focused on emulating the Chinese model. At a meeting on Kazakhstan’s future development, Tokayev praised China’s success. Pointing to a specific Chinese company, Hikvision, he said the company’s techniques ‘have gone far ahead, they deeply digitalized all major cities. You click on the screen, the data on the person comes out, including literally everything. When he graduated from university, where he goes in his free time, and so on … We need to go in this direction. This is a global trend. I set this task just before our capital’s leadership’.79

Digitalising economies is a top priority for SCO leaders. In January 2021, as part of a push for country-wide digitalisation, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev set a deadline: ‘by the end of this year, every industry and regional leader must make a radical turn in the digital economy’. He offered a 30% salary boost for those regional officials who improved digitalisation in their spheres of work.80 It is highly likely that he intended them to use some of the Huawei technologies he had been introduced to during his visit to the company’s innovation centre and meeting with founder Ren Zhengfei in April 2019 on the fringes of the Belt and Road Summit.81

Digitalisation in Central Asia, as in many other developing regions, is centred on adopting existing technologies rather than developing indigenous ones. While domestic firms are preferable, these take time to develop and the marketplace is increasingly full of cheap, readily available options. Since the beginning, China has offered a cheap option that is easily accessible and often provided with loans. Having established a foothold, it will continue to be a dominant supplier of both hard and soft technology in the region. This means China will also end up exporting its norms and practices that govern the digital space. Given the growing digitalisation of entire economies and societies, China will also export norms in other areas such as security and trade. In these key sectors, Central Asian countries are set on a long-term path of reliance on Chinese technologies, with limited development of local capacity. In a worst-case scenario, this reliance – combined with a lack of local capacity – exposes Central Asian countries to deep potential national security problems, with little domestic capability to manage these things themselves. For example, a global attack on Chinese tech and tools could have catastrophic consequences regionally.

The dangers go in other directions as well. The dramatic and abrupt assault on Jack Ma brought his financial technology company Ant Financial’s huge initial public offering to a grinding halt and raised questions about the company’s future.82 This was a reminder of the Chinese Communist Party’s ultimate control over the country’s private sector, and a salutary notice to economies in which these companies are deeply enmeshed. Central Asia has already watched as other Chinese companies that had invested heavily in the region suddenly fell foul of authorities at home – the case of energy firm CEFC is instructive in this regard. After a sharp ascension around the world acting as a major player along the Belt and Road, the company was brought down dramatically in 2018 through anti-corruption investigations that have swept up CEO Ye Jianming.83 Kazakhstan lost a $680-million investment, while Russia’s Rosneft lost a $9-billion investor. The Czech Republic found itself suddenly losing an investor that had purchased ‘the country’s oldest football club, Slavia Praha; a brewery; a share of the Travel Service airline group; a publishing house; a neo-renaissance building; a stake in the investment bank J&T Finance Group; and a building in the Czech capital Prague’.84 These are stark reminders that over-reliance on Chinese firms can come with deep and unpredictable political risks and real economic repercussions.

Another curious risk was raised more recently with the expulsion from China of its cryptomining firms, which led to a large number choosing to relocate to Kazakhstan. While the Kazakh government initially seemed happy with this development, it has abruptly become a huge drain on the national electricity grid and is causing all manner of problems as a result, including forcing the country to renegotiate its electricity purchases from Russia. This unintended consequence of shifting Chinese domestic digital economies is another way in which the region is finding itself tied to China.85

A further danger is posed by the global clash between the West and China, which has increasingly focused on the digital and tech sector. As the US and its Western partners push sanctions on Chinese firms, this will complicate the latter’s viability and the operating spaces they are in. It will also start to complicate relations between the West and third countries, such as those in Central Asia, where Chinese technology companies are a major provider. This is a wicked problem for some of the countries in Central Asia – while they might prefer the Western alternatives, these are simply too expensive, and they are limited in other possible options. And, at this point, they already have the Chinese hardware installed, meaning a cost should they want to completely remove it. The Chinese vendor thus becomes the most attractive, despite the potential consequences that come with it.

Russia’s tech sector lags behind China’s innovative applications. Leading Russian tech companies are confined within the post-Soviet space. Rostec, Russia’s military technology conglomerate, while underfunded, has tried to enter commercial markets where there is high Chinese competition. In June 2021, Rostec secured a deal in Uzbekistan to provide basic urban planning technologies for the advanced stages of its smart city.86 However, Rostec is unlikely to be a serious rival for Chinese tech companies without Russian subsidies and loans. Ozon, which could be seen as Russia’s Amazon or Alibaba, had a market capitalisation of $2.4 billion at the time of writing (as compared to Amazon at $1.46 trillion and Alibaba at $249.64 billion)87 and is inefficient in comparison to its international competitors that compete with it at home. The recent invasion of Ukraine has served to isolate Russia and its firms from the world, making them even less competitive in some ways.

Russia’s homemade consumer electronics have failed to penetrate even the post-Soviet market. Russian mobile telephone providers Beeline and MegaFon may be able to continue to dominate regional telecoms provider services, but their hardware is usually not Russian-made. Russian smartphone manufacturers Yota and Sitronics are almost unheard of. Furthermore, Russia’s country-wide adoption of Huawei’s 5G networks and Chinese technology more broadly will only further weaken the Russian tech sector in the years to come. India offers another possible option, but technology providers there are still very heavily focused on their own domestic market and trying to consolidate in the wake of the government’s vociferous expulsion of Chinese technology.88

Russia and India offer another potential problem in geopolitical terms for Central Asia. Both are SCO members, but they have different relationships with China. India’s approach to China has long been two-sided, where on the one hand it is facing off near conflict, while on the other it is eager to engage. At the time of writing, confrontation over technology is at the forefront of the clash between the two countries, with India banning swathes of Chinese applications and seeking to curtail investment by Chinese companies such as Alibaba, Huawei and Xiaomi.89 Russia has a warmer relationship with China, but it is one with tensions below the surface. There are, for example, growing concerns in Moscow about the country’s increasing over-reliance on Chinese investment, economic growth and technology (notwithstanding the growing push together as a result of the invasion of Ukraine). This presents Central Asia with problems in terms of potential alternative partners, as well as the SCO’s pre-eminence in this Chinese push. The potential exists for these broader geopolitical tensions to undermine the relationships built through the SCO and to create future problems for those in Central Asia that have enthusiastically embraced the organisation and the Chinese technology that comes with it.

Conclusion

As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, China activated an effort for economic, social, security and political penetration across the Eurasian landmass. These goals were products of domestic concerns and a desire to define relatively opaque borders, and were initially delivered through the first international security organisation that China helped to create. The SCO provided a vehicle through which Beijing could build its relations with its Eurasian neighbourhood, starting with a security framework, but with an underlying economic and broader intent. However, realising these broader goals has proved challenging. China’s position in the world has transformed since the early 1990s, when the country was just escaping the shadow of the Tiananmen Square massacre and its economy was opening up. At the time, the SCO region was largely uninterested. Now, China is the world’s second-largest economy and a crucial trading partner for all SCO member states. But it has struggled to translate its economic dreams within the SCO into reality.

This has now changed through the DSR. As early movers in the region and supercharged under the broader Belt and Road vision, China’s tech giants have built a strong presence in Central Asia and are now increasingly engaging with the SCO, helping it to realise China’s longer-term economic ambitions. This new approach has seemingly managed to overcome previous concerns about China-led economic initiatives, but is laying the foundations for deep Chinese influence long into the future. The SCO might finally be helping China to fulfil its economic ambitions and checkmate the activity of others in Central Asia. As with much of China’s foreign policy approach to Central Asia, what Beijing has advanced and tested in this area is likely to be exported elsewhere. Learning from how the SCO has gone digital will help to create a wider understanding of how the DSR may play out in other contexts as well.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Raffaello Pantucci

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI and author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, 2022, with Alexandros Petersen).

Niva Yau

Niva Yau is a Senior Researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek and Fellow at the Eurasia Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Notes

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3. Xi Jinping, ‘Promote Friendship Between Our People and Work Together to Build a Bright Future’, speech given at Nazarbayev University, Astana, 7 September 2013, <https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/ce/cebel/eng/zxxx/t1078088.htm>, accessed 12 September 2022.

4. People’s Republic of China, ‘Zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó hé hāsàkè sītǎn gònghéguó, jí’ěrjísī gònghéguó, èluósī liánbāng, tǎjíkè sītǎn gònghéguó guānyú zài biānjìng dìqū jiāqiáng jūnshì lǐngyù xìnrèn de xiédìng’ [‘Agreement Between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Russian Federation, and the Republic of Tajikistan on Strengthening Confidence in the Military Field in Border Areas’], 26 April 1996, <http://www.npc.gov.cn/wxzl/wxzl/2000-12/06/content_3612.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

5. Peter Irwin, ‘Remembering the Ghulja Incident: 20th Anniversary of “Uyghur Tiananmen” Passes With Little Notice’, The Diplomat, 2 March 2017, <https://thediplomat.com/2017/03/remembering-the-ghulja-incident-20th-anniversary-of-uyghur-tiananmen-passes-with-little-notice/>, accessed 14 August 2022.

6. History of the Communist Party of China, ‘Zhōng tǔ tiānránqì guǎndào gōngchéng xiàngmù guīhuà zhī chū’ [‘The Beginning of China-Turkmenistan Natural Gas Pipeline Project Planning’], 30 May 2011, <http://cpc.people.com.cn/BIG5/218984/222139/14775391.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

7. Selected works of Jiang Zemin, Vol. 2, ‘Bùshīshíjī dì shíshī xībù dà kāifā zhànlüè’ [‘Take No Time to Implement the Great Western Development Strategy’], 17 June 1999, <http://www.reformdata.org/1999/0617/5803.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022.

8. UN Security Council, United Nations sanctions list, ‘Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’, <https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sanctions/1267/aq_sanctions_list/summaries/entity/islamic-movement-of-uzbekistan>, accessed 14 August 2022.

9. Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, ‘SCO RATS’, <https://ecrats.org/en/history/>, accessed 12 September 2022.

10. People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Jiāngzémín zhǔxí zài “shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī” chénglì dàhuì shàng de jiǎnghuà’ [‘Speech by President Jiang Zemin at the Inaugural Meeting of the “Shanghai Cooperation Organisation”’], 22 June 2001, <https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/web/gjhdq_676201/gjhdqzz_681964/lhg_683094/zyjh_683104/t4637.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022.

11. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China to the Russian Federation, ‘Shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī chéngyuán guó zǒnglǐ huìwù zàijīng jǔxíng —wēnjiābǎo zǒnglǐ zhǔchí huìyì bìng jiǎnghuà’ [‘The Meeting of the Prime Ministers of the Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was Held in Beijing – Premier Wen Jiabao’s Speech’], 23 September 2003, <http://ru.china-embassy.org/chn/eyxx/zyjhhwj/t26271.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

12. People’s Republic of China Ministry of Commerce, ‘Shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī chéngyuán guó jǔxíng jīngmào bùzhǎng dì sān cì huìyì’ [‘The Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Hold the Third Meeting of Economic and Trade Ministers’], 14 September 2004, <http://www.mofcom.gov.cn/article/ae/ai/200409/20040900279537.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022.

13. RATS was accompanied by: multilateral training exercises; sharing of legal practices and rationalisation of legal norms; the establishment of shared databases of individuals and groups of concern; the development of joint training courses; and eventually the establishment of a training centre in Shanghai. See China National Institute for SCO International Exchange and Judicial Cooperation, ‘About Us’, <http://cnisco.shupl.edu.cn/en/98/listm.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

14. Nargis Kassenova, ‘Kazakhstan and Eurasian Economic Integration: Quick Start, Mixed Results and Uncertain Future’, IFRI, Russie Nei Reports, No. 14, November 2012, pp. 3–29, <https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/ifrikassenovakazandeurasianintegrationengnov2012.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

15. Eurasian Economic Commission, ‘Eurasian Economic Integration: Facts and Figures’, 2013, <http://www.eurasiancommission.org/ru/Documents/broshura26Body_ENGL_final2013_2.pdf>, accessed 12 September 2022.

16. Eurasian Economic Commission, ‘Agreement Signed on Trade and Economic Cooperation Between EAEU and PRC’, May 2018, <http://www.eurasiancommission.org/en/nae/news/Pages/17-05-2018-5.aspx>, accessed 14 August 2022.

17. Kazakhstan China Pipeline LLC, ‘History’, <https://www.kcp.kz/company/history?language=en>, accessed 14 August 2022.

18. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, ‘The Wait Goes On At Kashagan’, 11 April 2014, <https://www.rferl.org/a/oil-kazakhstan-kashagan/25329794.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

19. Kazakhstan only granted a 72-hour visa-free entry for Chinese and Indian citizens in December 2018. This was, however, suspended for Chinese nationals in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. See Republic of Kazakhstan, ‘O vnesenii izmeneniya v postanovleniye Pravitel’stva Respubliki Kazakhstan ot 21 yanvarya 2012 goda №148 “Ob utverzhdenii Pravil v’yezda i prebyvaniya immigrantov v Respublike Kazakhstan, a takzhe ikh vyyezda iz Respubliki Kazakhstan i Pravil osushchestvleniya migratsionnogo kontrolya, a takzhe ucheta inostrantsev i lits bez grazhdanstva, nezakonno peresekayushchikh Gosudarstvennuyu granitsu Respubliki Kazakhstan, nezakonno prebyvayushchikh na territorii Respubliki Kazakhstan, a takzhe lits, kotorym zapreshchen v’yezd na territoriyu Respubliki Kazakhstan”’ [‘On Amending the Resolution of the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan Dated January 21, 2012 No. 148 “On Approval of the Rules for the Entry and Stay of Immigrants in the Republic of Kazakhstan, As Well As Their Departure from the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Rules for the Implementation of Migration Control, As Well As Registration of Foreigners and Stateless Persons, Illegal Crossing the State Border of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Illegally Staying in the Territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan, As Well As Persons Who are Prohibited from Entering the Territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan”’], 6 April 2018, <http://base.spinform.ru/show_doc.fwx?rgn=105655>, accessed 14 August 2022.

20. Shamil Baigin, ‘Uzbekistan, China Sign Major Gas Pipeline Deal’, Reuters, 30 April 2007.

21. Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen, ‘Uzbekistan’s Balancing Act with China: A View From the Ground’, China Brief (Vol. 12, No. 14, July 2012).

22. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, ‘E. Omuraliyev: Kyrgyzstan dolzhen voyti v Tamozhennyy soyuz’ [‘E. Omuraliev: Kyrgyzstan Should Join the Customs Union’], 6 July 2010, <https://rus.azattyk.org/a/Kyrgyzstan_Omuraliev_WTO/3279143.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

23. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, ‘Afzoişi toçironi cinoī dar ʙozorhoi Duşanʙe’ [‘Growth of Chinese Traders in Dushanbe Markets’], 15 September 2009, <https://www.ozodi.org/a/Chinese_expansion_in_TA_markets_How_to_defend/1822797.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

24. CGTN, ‘SCO Development Bank: Prospects of the SCO Development Bank’, 6 June 2018, <https://news.cgtn.com/news/7a517a4d32454464776c6d636a4e6e62684a4856/share_p.html>, accessed 14 August 2022; Xinhua, ‘SCO Plans to Enhance Financial Cooperation, Continue Consultations on Establishing SCO Development Bank’, 1 December 2020, <http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-12/01/c_139555549.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

25. Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), ‘SCO Promotes Transport Links’, July 2017, <http://eng.sectsco.org/news/20170706/306862.html>, accessed 14 August 2022; author interview with logistics experts in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, 2019.

26. SCO, ‘SCO Promotes Transport Links’.

27. SCO, ‘Shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī mìshū zhǎng zài 2009 zhōngxī nányà qūyù jīngjì hézuò lùntán shàng de zhìcí’ [‘Speech by the Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation at the 2009 Central and Southwest Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Forum’], 4 September 2009, <http://chn.sectsco.org/news/20090904/16988.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

28. People’s Republic of China Ministry of Commerce, ‘Shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī jīngmào bùzhǎng huìyì diànzǐ shāngwù zhuānyè gōngzuò zǔ dì wǔ cì huìyì zài shāngwù bù jǔxíng’ [‘The Fifth Meeting of the E-Commerce Professional Working Group of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Economic and Trade Ministers Meeting Was Held in the Ministry of Commerce’], 11 August 2010, <http://www.mofcom.gov.cn/aarticle/jiguanzx/201008/20100807075852.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

29. Shanghai E-Commerce Association, ‘Shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī diànzǐ shāngwù zhuānyè gōngzuò zǔ dì qī cì huìyì jí zhèng qǐ duìhuà huì zàijīng jǔxíng’ [‘The Seventh Meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation E-Commerce Professional Working Group and the Government-Enterprise Dialogue Held in Beijing’], 10 November 2017, <https://www.cctce.org/core/detail/id/202.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

30. SCO, ‘Joint Communiqué Following the 16th Meeting of the SCO Heads of Government Council’, 1 December 2017, <http://eng.sectsco.org/news/20171201/361743.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

31. SCO, ‘Zayavleniye soveta glav gosudarstv-chlenov Shankhayskoy organizatsii sotrudnichestva o sotrudnichestve v oblasti tsifrovoy ekonomiki’ [‘Statement of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on Cooperation in the Field of the Digital Economy’], 10 November 2020, <https://sco-russia2020.ru/images/108/44/1084415.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

32. SCO, ‘Zayavleniye soveta glav gosudarstv-chlenov Shankhayskoy organizatsii sotrudnichestva o sotrudnichestve v oblasti obespecheniya mezhdunarodnoy informatsionnoy bezopasnosti’ [‘Statement of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on Cooperation in the Field of International Information Security’], 10 November 2020, <https://sco-russia2020.ru/images/108/46/1084605.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

33. SCO, ‘Soveta glav gosudarstv-chlenov Shankhayskoy organizatsii sotrudnichestva o protivodeystvii rasprostraneniyu terroristicheskoy, separatistskoy i ekstremistskoy ideologii, v tom chisle v seti Internet’ [‘Of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on Countering the Spread of Terrorist, Separatist and Extremist Ideology, Including on the Internet’], 10 November 2020, <https://sco-russia2020.ru/images/108/44/1084438.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

34. The Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan followed the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, in which the old governments made up of former Soviet apparatchiks were swept aside by popular uprisings. Many hardliners in the former Soviet space blamed these uprisings on US-supported, democracy-minded NGOs. Leaders across the region feared similar outcomes and saw Kyrgyzstan within the same light, although in fact subsequent research has shown it was a far more idiosyncratic uprising.

35. SCO, ‘Statement by the Heads of Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on International Information Security’, 15 June 2006, <http://eng.sectsco.org/load/197770/>, accessed 14 August 2022.

36. SCO, ‘Shànghǎi hézuò zǔzhī chéngyuán guó bǎozhàng guójì xìnxī ānquán zhèngfǔ jiān hézuò xiédìng’ [‘Agreement on Cooperation Between the Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to Guarantee International Information Security’], 16 June 2009, <http://treaty.mfa.gov.cn/tykfiles/20180718/1531876097720.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

37. Author interview, RATS, 2012.

38. Xinhua, ‘Shàng hé zǔzhī shǒucì yǎnliàn wǎngluò fǎnkǒng’ [‘SCO’s First Exercise on Cyber-Terrorism’], 15 October 2015, <http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2015-10/15/c_128318903.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022; CCTV, ‘Shàng hé zǔzhī “xiàmén-2017” wǎngluò fǎnkǒng yǎnxí jīn jǔxíng’ [‘SCO “Xiamen-2017” Cyber Anti-Terrorism Exercise Held Today’], 6 December 2017, <http://m.news.cctv.com/2017/12/06/ARTIAWgbuaRbebix8FZnWO0m171206.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022; Xinhua, ‘Dì sān jiè shàng hé zǔzhī wǎngluò fǎnkǒng liánhé yǎnxí zài zhōngguó jǔxíng’ [‘The Third SCO Cyber Anti-Terrorism Joint Exercise Held in China’], 12 December 2019, <http://www.xinhuanet.com/mil/2019-12/12/c_1125340396.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

39. Dmitry Erokhin, ‘Comparative Analysis of Digital Development in Central Asian Countries’, OSCE and NUPI, Policy Briefs No. 63, September 2020, <http://www.osce-academy.net/upload/file/PB_63.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

40. Business Year, ‘TBY Talks to Hou Tao, General Director of Huawei Technologies, on the Firm’s Kazakhstani Portfolio, Promoting E-Commerce, and Future Plans in Central Asia’, 2017, <https://www.thebusinessyear.com/kazakhstan-2017/global-coverage/vip-interview>, accessed 14 August 2022.

41. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China to the Republic of Turkmenistan, ‘Tǔkùmàn sītǎn tōngxùn yè fāzhǎn xiànzhuàng jí qiánjǐng fēnxī’ [‘An Analysis of the Status Quo and Prospects of Turkmenistan’s Communication Industry’], 25 September 2008, <http://tm.mofcom.gov.cn/article/ztdy/200809/20080905798435.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022.

42. Deirdre Tynan, ‘Central Asia: Are Chinese Telecoms Acting as the Ears for Central Asian Authoritarians?’, Eurasianet, 15 February 2012, <https://eurasianet.org/central-asia-are-chinese-telecoms-acting-as-the-ears-for-central-asian-authoritarians>, accessed 14 August 2022.

43. Sébastien Peyrouse, ‘Chinese Economic Presence in Kazakhstan’, China Perspectives (Vol. 3, July 2008), pp. 34–49.

44. Michael Dwyer, ‘Beijing in Quandary Over Trade Links with Taliban’, Australian Financial Review, 25 September 2001.

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49. ZTE, ‘ZTE Teams Up with Beeline to Deploy Uzbekistan’s Largest Virtualized SDM Platform’, 15 April 2021, <https://www.zte.com.cn/global/about/news/20210415e1.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

50. Yau Tsz Yan, ‘Smart Cities or Surveillance? Huawei in Central Asia’, The Diplomat, 7 August 2019, <https://thediplomat.com/2019/08/smart-cities-or-surveillance-huawei-in-central-asia/>, accessed 14 August 2022.

51. Xinjiang Economical Information Exchanging Association for Central and West Asia, ‘“Dàolù qiān wàn tiáo ānquán dì yī tiáo” zhōng yà gèguó “ānquán chéngshì” xiàngmù láile!’ [‘“Ten Thousand Roads, the First with Safety”: The “Safe Cities” Project in Central Asian Countries is Here!’], 13 February 2019, <http://xjeieacwa.com/content?catid=2&id=5447>, accessed 14 August 2022.

52. In 2018, Huawei’s ‘Seeds for the Future’ programme launched in Kazakhstan, offering direct training for future generations of digital and tech engineers. Huawei, ‘Huawei Central Asia Innovation Day: Build Digital Silk Road Through Innovation, Openness and Win-win’, 14 November 2017, <https://www.huawei.com/en/events/huawei-central-asia-innovation-day-2017/day-of-innovation-in-centrala-asia-hw>, accessed 14 August 2022.

53. People’s Daily, ‘Shàng hé guójiā 8000 wàn yònghù kào ālǐ zhìfù pǔjīng wéi zhōngguó diàn shāng shù qǐ dà mǔzhǐ’ [‘80 Million Users in Shanghai Cooperation Countries Rely on Alibaba to Get Rich, Putin Gives Thumbs Up to Chinese E-Commerce’], 8 June 2018, <http://industry.people.com.cn/n1/2018/0608/c413883-30046542.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

54. People’s Republic of China Ministry of Commerce, ‘Ālǐ bābā jítuán zài èluósī chénglì hézī gōngsī’ [‘Alibaba Group Establishes a Joint Venture Company in Russia’], 10 October 2019, <http://www.mofcom.gov.cn/article/i/jyjl/e/201910/20191002903221.shtml>, accessed 14 August 2022.

55. SCO, ‘SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov, Alibaba Group CEO Jack Ma Discuss Intra-SCO IT Cooperation’, August 2019, <http://eng.sectsco.org/news/20190829/571024.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

56. UzDaily, ‘Uzbek Exporters Learn E-Commerce Skills from Chinese Experts’, 6 September 2021, <http://uzdaily.com/en/post/65951>, accessed 14 August 2022.

57. Erokhin, ‘Comparative Analysis of Digital Development in Central Asian Countries’.

58. People’s Daily, ‘Shàng hé guójiā 8000 wàn yònghù kào ālǐ zhìfù pǔjīng wéi zhōngguó diàn shāng shù qǐ dà mǔzhǐ’ [‘80 Million Users in Shanghai Cooperation Countries Rely on Alibaba to Get Rich, Putin Gives Thumbs Up to Chinese E-Commerce’].

59. SCO, ‘SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov, Alibaba Group CEO Jack Ma Discuss Intra-SCO IT Cooperation’.

60. These are all recorded on the SCO website, <http://eng.sectsco.org/>, accessed 14 August 2022.

61. Xinhua, ‘Technology Transfer Center Opens in China’, 11 December 2020, <http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-12/11/c_139580339.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

62. qdcaijing.com, ‘Zǒng tóuzī 567 yì yuán! Shàng hé zǔzhī dìfāng jīngmào hézuò shìfàn qū zhòngdiǎn xiàngmù jízhōng kāigōng’ [‘The Total Investment is 56.7 Billion Yuan! The Key Projects of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Local Economic and Trade Cooperation Demonstration Zone Started Construction’], 20 November 2020, <http://www.qdcaijing.com/jypd/dst/chengshi/p/188822.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

63. Qingdao Caijing, ‘Zhōngguó-jí’ěrjísī sītǎn jījí tàntǎo jiànlì liǎng guó diànzǐ shāngwù píngtái wùliú zhōngxīn’ [‘China-Kyrgyzstan Actively Explores the Establishment of a Logistics Center for E-Commerce Platforms in the Two Countries’], 11 June 2021, <http://finance.eastmoney.com/a/202106111959593288.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

64. CGTN, ‘Lianyungang Port Links Kazakhstan with Pacific’, 4 June 2018, <https://news.cgtn.com/news/3d3d514d3467444f77457a6333566d54/index.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

65. UzDaily, ‘Huawei to Launch Scientific-Educational Project HAINA in Uzbekistan’, 19 September 2016, <https://www.uzdaily.uz/en/post/36935>, accessed 14 August 2022.

66. Dana Omirgazy, ‘Huawei Academy Opens in Almaty to Support Local ICT Education’, Astana Times, 3 May 2017, <https://astanatimes.com/2017/05/huawei-academy-opens-in-almaty-to-support-local-ict-education/>, accessed 14 August 2022.

67. Kazakhstan Today, ‘Huawei v ramkakh programmy HAINA obuchila poryadka 400 studentov v 2019 godu’ [‘Huawei Trained About 400 Students under the HAINA Program in 2019’], 17 April 2020, <https://www.kt.kz/rus/society/huawei_v_ramkah_programmy_haina_obuchila_poryadka_400_1377897303.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

68. Huawei, ‘Tǎjíkè sītǎn’ [‘Tajikistan’], <https://www.huawei.com/cn/sustainability/win-win-development/social-contribution/seeds-for-the-future/tajikistan>, accessed 14 August 2022.

69. Huawei, ‘Tǔkùmàn sītǎn’ [‘Turkmenistan’], <https://www.huawei.com/cn/sustainability/win-win-development/social-contribution/seeds-for-the-future/turkmenistan>, accessed 14 August 2022. Huawei, ‘Wūzībiékè sītǎn’ [‘Uzbekistan’], <https://www.huawei.com/cn/sustainability/win-win-development/social-contribution/seeds-for-the-future/uzbekistan>, accessed 14 August 2022.

70. People’s Daily, ‘Huá wéi zhōng yà chuàngxīn rì huódòng zài hāsàkè sītǎn jǔxíng’ [‘Huawei Central Asia Innovation Day Held in Kazakhstan’], 15 November 2017, <http://world.people.com.cn/n1/2017/1115/c1002-29648654.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

71. As highlighted in note 41.

72. SCO, ‘With SCO Support, the Alibaba Group Hosted a Workshop on Countering the Spread of the Novel Coronavirus Infection’, May 2020, <http://eng.sectsco.org/news/20200514/647237.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

73. SCO, ‘President of the Weidong Group Visits SCO Secretariat’, April 2020, <http://eng.sectsco.org/news/20200411/642503.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

74. Raffaello Pantucci, ‘Beijing Binds: COVID-19 and the China-Central Asia Relationship’, Central Asia Program Paper No. 232, 19 June 2020, <https://www.centralasiaprogram.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Beijing-Binds-COVID-19-and-the-China-Central-Asia-RelationshipCAP232.pdf>, accessed 14 August 2022.

75. Xinhua, ‘China-Uzbekistan Telemedicine System Put into Operation’, 25 April 2020, <http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/asiapacific/2020-04/25/c_139007696_2.htm>, accessed 14 August 2022.

76. UzDaily, ‘Chinese Platform Alibaba Simplifies Registration for Uzbekistan Merchants’, 10 August 2020, <<http://uzdaily.com/en/post/60623>, accessed 14 August 2022.

77. Raffaello Pantucci, ‘Beijing Binds: COVID-19 and the China-Central Asia Relationship.

78. Republic of Kazakhstan Presidential Palace, ‘Glava gosudarstva provel soveshchaniye po realizatsii Gosudarstvennoy programmy «Tsifrovoy Kazakhstan»’ [‘The Head of State Held a Meeting on the Implementation of the State Program “Digital Kazakhstan”’], 4 March 2020.

79. Kursiv, ‘Tokayev poruchil perenyat’ u Kitaya opyt tsifrovizatsii grazhdan’ [‘Tokayev Instructed to Adopt the Experience of Digitalisation of Citizens from China’], 8 October 2019.

80. UZA, ‘Prezident: Bez tsifrovoy ekonomiki net budushchego u ekonomiki strany’ [‘President: The Country’s Economy Has No Future Without the Digital Economy’], 22 September 2020.

81. Republic of Uzbekistan Presidential Press, ‘Prezident posetil Tsentr innovatsiy kompanii «Huawei»’ [‘The President Visited the Huawei Innovation Center’], 25 April 2019.

82. Jing Yang and Serena Ng, ‘Ant’s Record IPO Suspended in Shanghai and Hong Kong Stock Exchanges’, Wall Street Journal, 3 November 2020.

83. Ji Tianqin and Han Wei, ‘In Depth: Investigation Casts Shadow on Rosneft’s China Investor CEFC’, Caixin, 1 March 2018, <https://www.caixinglobal.com/2018-03-01/investigation-casts-shadow-on-rising-oil-star-101215272.html>, accessed 14 August 2022.

84. Jenni Marsh, ‘The Rise and Fall of A Belt and Road Billionaire’, CNN, 4 December 2018.

85. Paul Bartlett, ‘Kazakhstan’s Crypto Mining Boom Fizzles Over Power Supply Strain’, Nikkei Asia, 28 December 2021, <https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Cryptocurrencies/Kazakhstan-s-crypto-mining-boom-fizzles-over-power-supply-strain>, accessed 14 August 2022.

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87. Data from <http://finance.yahoo.com>, accessed 14 August 2022.

88. Sayan Chakraborty, ‘India’s Reliance Jio Takes Center Stage in Nation’s First 5G Auction’, Nikkei Asia, 29 July 2022, <https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Telecommunication/India-s-Reliance-Jio-takes-center-stage-in-nation-s-first-5G-auction>, accessed 14 August 2022.

89. Sahkalp Phartiyal, ‘Firms in India Downplay Chinese Links Amid Wave of Anti-China Sentiment’, Reuters, 30 June 2020.

Another piece written around President Xi’s visit to Central Asia, this time for the Straits Times exploring the growing clout that China has within the region. Draws on ideas in the book of course, but also on the fact that travel is now possible once again so am able to get to the region a bit again.

China’s growing clout in Central Asia

A vacuum is developing as Russia’s war in Ukraine dismantles Moscow’s credibility and strength across the Eurasian heartland.

A broadcast of the meeting between Mr Xi Jinping and Mr Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan. PHOTO: REUTERS

President Xi Jinping’s decision to pick Central Asia for his first foreign trip since the Covid-19 pandemic began reflects Beijing’s confidence that it is now the ascendant power in the Eurasian heartland. This was clearly evident from both Mr Xi’s tour of the region and the much-watched meeting between the Chinese leader and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the fringes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last week.

The optics around Mr Xi’s visit underlined China’s rising star in the region. First, the grandiloquence was apparent in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two countries he chose to visit.

The Kazakhs were clearly very pleased that theirs was the first country Mr Xi decided to visit. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was at the airport to personally welcome the Chinese leader in fluent Mandarin and nothing was spared in the way of pomp and ceremony for the state visit, including the awarding of the Order of Altyn Kyran (Order of the Golden Eagle) to Mr Xi. The two leaders also toured a recently opened exhibit of archaeological artefacts that was displayed under the title “Kazakhstan-China: Dialogue of the Millennia”.

Not to be outdone, the authorities in Uzbekistan also put on a grandiose welcome for Mr Xi, with large groups of dancing people at the airport. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev could not match his Kazakh counterpart’s Mandarin skills, but he also awarded Mr Xi the country’s “highest friendship award”, the Order of Friendship.

The contrast could not have been more striking during Mr Mirziyoyev’s meeting with Mr Putin. Rather than the Uzbeks offering their visitor an award, it was the Russian leader who dished out a medal to his Uzbek counterpart. He awarded Mr Mirziyoyev the Order of Alexander Nevsky, which is given to foreign leaders “for major contributions to promoting friendly ties with Russia”.

The strains were also palpable during the bilateral meeting between the Chinese and Russian leaders, with Mr Putin openly acknowledging that China had expressed concerns and questions about the war in Ukraine. Mr Putin made similar comments during his separate bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was also in town for the SCO summit. Mr Putin’s comments separately to both leaders only served to emphasise the sense that neither China nor India was in fact very pleased with the Russian leader’s aggression in Ukraine.

But the differences should not be overplayed. In Beijing’s case, at least, the reality is that it has little desire to put Russia down or see Moscow lose in a conflict against the West. The net result of that would be to weaken Beijing’s support base in its larger geopolitical confrontation with the West, and would also provide more space for the West to focus more on China. The conflict in Ukraine provides a useful distraction at the moment.

China is certainly not happy with the global disruptions and costs generated by the conflict, but at the same time, it has little choice but to support Moscow as an important geopolitical partner in confronting the United States-led West.

Wider context

The wider context of the summit in the Uzbek capital was more interesting. Established in 2001 with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and China, the SCO has grown, in large part due to Chinese efforts, to become a multilateral organisation bringing together the leaders of around 40 per cent of the world’s population. It now includes India, Pakistan and Iran, with countries like Belarus and Turkey knocking at the door. An organisation often overlooked in the West (or in much strategic discourse), it is in fact emblematic of the growing influence that China has across a growing swathe of the central and eastern Eurasian heartland.

Mr Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative came from a desire to carve routes across this region, rewiring infrastructure and trading routes that used to lead to Moscow to instead be diverted to China. While the Kremlin was initially dismissive of China’s inroads into the region, Moscow now finds itself trying to co-opt or counteract Beijing by touting to the others what it can offer that China cannot.

Russia, though, is increasingly on the back foot among its neighbours, largely because of Ukraine. In the past couple of weeks, violence has erupted once again between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus. A long-running border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has also escalated again, leading to dozens of deaths as security forces on both sides shell and shoot at each other. This is occurring as trouble on the other side of Tajikistan, in the Badakhshan region, continues, and there has also been recent large-scale public unrest in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Yet, Russia has been able to offer security support only in Kazakhstan, and even then in a limited way.

It is worth noting that China has not stepped into any of these issues. Beijing has little appetite to get stuck in such messy conflicts, recognising that it will struggle to try to resolve them, and will most likely only make enemies in the process. China would rather wait it out and let history take its course. But it will be increasingly difficult to adopt this passive stance as it becomes the biggest economic power across the region.

Few in the region will deny Russia’s importance, but many have become wary of Moscow in the aftermath of Mr Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. There has been notable diplomatic pushback across Central Asia, and a growing sense of a need to develop other options, including building up ties with China.

A vacuum is developing – one which, logically, China can fill. Russia’s war in Ukraine is dismantling Moscow’s credibility and strength across the Eurasian heartland, and China is currently the most obvious beneficiary.

But Beijing has not chosen to do much with its growing clout.

Going forward, evading that responsibility might no longer be possible.

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)

Almost up to date, now a piece for Foreign Policy about the importance of Central Asia in Chinese foreign policy in the wake of his tour to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Why Xi Jinping Chose Central Asia for His First Post-COVID-19 Trip

The region has long served as a testing ground for Beijing’s economic and foreign-policy ambitions and is becoming increasingly close to China.

China’s President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and other participants attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders’ summit in Samarkand on September 16, 2022. (Photo by Sergei BOBYLYOV / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI BOBYLYOV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to make Central Asia the site of his first foreign visit since the coronavirus pandemic began is an unsurprising one. The region is one where China can claim lots of foreign-policy successes and is full of countries that will not publicly criticize Beijing. As then-Lt. Gen. Liu Yazhou [1] put it in 2010, Central Asia ‘is a rich piece of cake given to today’s Chinese people by Heaven.’

Modern China’s relationship with Central Asia goes back to the end of the Soviet Union. Beijing inherited a number of things from the collapse of Moscow’s empire. One was a lesson on how not to dismantle a communist ruling governance structure; the other was a messy border adjacent to one of Beijing’s most sensitive regions. The second became the foundational issue for China’s relations with Central Asia.

For China, the end of the Soviet Union meant that it suddenly found itself bordering four new countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also emerged, but they did not share borders with China.) The Soviet-Chinese frontier had always been remote and ill-defined, and with the emergence of these new states, there was a need to establish relations, define borders, and attempt to demilitarize what was a messy and ill-defined space. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to make Central Asia the site of his first foreign visit since the coronavirus pandemic began is an unsurprising one. The region is one where China can claim lots of foreign-policy successes and is full of countries that will not publicly criticize Beijing. As then-Lt. Gen. Liu Yazhou[1] put it in 2010, Central Asia ‘is a rich piece of cake given to today’s Chinese people by Heaven.’

Modern China’s relationship with Central Asia goes back to the end of the Soviet Union. Beijing inherited a number of things from the collapse of Moscow’s empire. One was a lesson on how not to dismantle a communist ruling governance structure; the other was a messy border adjacent to one of Beijing’s most sensitive regions. The second became the foundational issue for China’s relations with Central Asia.

For China, the end of the Soviet Union meant that it suddenly found itself bordering four new countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also emerged, but they did not share borders with China.) The Soviet-Chinese frontier had always been remote and ill-defined, and with the emergence of these new states, there was a need to establish relations, define borders, and attempt to demilitarize what was a messy and ill-defined space.

This led to the creation of the Shanghai Five grouping, bringing together the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia to help define borders, establish what military presence would exist, what cross-border trade would look like, and how the relationships between China and these new states could develop.

But the entity grew far beyond its initial mandate, and it was so successful (at least from a Chinese perspective) that Uzbekistan was encouraged to join. With Tashkent’s ascension, the name changed and in 2001, it evolved into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Each member joined for their differing reasons. Beijing was always interested in the organization developing a strong economic aspect, something the others were more skeptical of. Ultimately, they all agreed to let it develop as a security grouping focused on terrorism, and it became the first international, security-focused, multilateral organization that China created.

This was a major step forward at a moment when China was still a relatively timid actor on the world stage. Here the country was trying to build something, when in many other contexts it appeared to be trying to still live by the maxim of ‘hide and bide your time.’ But within Central Asia, it was actually not surprising.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has sought to rekindle the idea of Silk Roads through Central Asia. At the time, the focus was to build pipelines and rail links from the region across China to the eastern seaboard to reach the booming Japanese market that was keen for Central Asian hydrocarbons. However, this rapidly shifted as China’s economy took off and needed more of these resources itself and people saw growing markets they wanted to connect with.

Beijing signed contracts in 1997 and was soon building pipelines in Kazakhstan to get its oil back to China (agreements were signed even earlier with Turkmenistan to access its rich gas supplies, but took much longer to actually implement). In the wake of his 1994 tour of the region, Chinese Premier Li Peng hosted meetings of Eurasian rail ministers to help develop links across the region and open up routes from China. This was a first for Chinese energy firms. Central Asia was a region where China was willing to try out new things.

As well as get access to the region’s rich resources, China’s ultimate goal in Central Asia was to help stabilize Xinjiang province. Beijing was worried about violence in the region, which had links across the border. Militant Islamists were a feature of the scenery in both the region and China—though the degree to which they were motivated by religion or their ethnic identity was difficult to determine. Large-scale violence took place in Central Asia as well as China throughout the late 1990s. China wanted cooperation and support from Central Asian governments to deal with this. As a result, strong and sensitive security links were developed.

But the longer-term answer to these problems, in Beijing’s analysis, was always going to be economic. A benefit of the collapse of the Soviet Union to Xinjiang in particular was a sudden opening up of what had been a landlocked region that had faced sealed borders. Chinese leaders at the time pushed the region to exploit these opportunities. As then-Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen put it (as reported by Xinhua News Agency in March 1993), ‘the foreign minister urged all border regions [Xinjiang] to further improve their infrastructure and basic industries such as transport, energy and telecommunications to meet challenges they will face in years to come. Border trade must develop into mutual economic cooperation.’

This order was followed, and over the next few years, Xinjiang gradually increased its trading activity of goods with Central Asia. Products from across China would increasingly move through Xinjiang to Central Asia while raw materials and some agricultural products, in particular, would go into China. Much of this was via routes built by Chinese firms, often with Chinese bank loans supporting them.

This was something that was carried forward into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s time, when he decided in September 2013 to make Kazakhstan the site of his first speech laying out his big foreign-policy concept: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In doing this, he was building off earlier visits by Li and later declarations by leaders like former Chinese President Jiang Zemin or former Chinese leader Wen Jiabao, who in 2012 declared Urumqi the ‘gateway to Eurasia.'[2]

Central Asia had always held an important place in Chinese thinking, and Xi decided to stamp his imprimatur on it and take it one step further by globalizing the entire concept. But the broader vision of the BRI was something that China had been talking about and doing in Central Asia since the late 1990s.

There was an additional hard security agenda at play as well. Although strong contacts and focus had helped manage the violent threat that China perceived from angry Uyghurs, there were still risks. In the wake of rioting in Xinjiang in 2009, violence seemed to escalate, coming to an embarrassing head in 2013 when an attack was perpetrated in Tiananmen Square and then a year later when Xi visited Xinjiang in 2014, only to be met by an attempted suicide bombing at Urumqi’s train station. In their wake, an already tight security vice clamped down further, and there was an increasing push by China to establish clearer visibility on security threats in the region.

This led to the creation of a People’s Armed Police (PAP) permanent presence being established in Tajikistan along the top of the Wakhan Corridor—the thin strip of Afghanistan which reaches out and touches China, separating Tajikistan from Pakistan. (It was initially developed as a border between the rival Russian and British empires). This was China’s first-known military base outside its borders; it has since more publicly established a naval base in Djibouti and is currently exploring opportunities in other places as well.

The exact dates of the establishment of the base are unclear. From my own research around the region, I started to hear rumors as early as 2012, though it was unclear whether this was just Chinese soldiers patrolling, people misinterpreting what they thought they had seen, or something else. What is clear is that as word of it started to spread in the mid-2010s, Russia started to become agitated. But its public anger was directed more toward Tajikistan than China—bristling at the fact that a Collective Security Treaty Organization partner would allow a foreign base on its territory without informing its partners.

The Tajikistan episode highlights a long-standing, simplistic analysis that is often thrown around regarding this region. There are always dark rumors that Beijing is trying to oust Moscow from the region and that heated competition behind the scenes could escalate. There is doubtless some displacement happening, but the truth is that for both of them, competition over this region is far less relevant than the important geostrategic support they provide each other in their collective confrontation with the United States. Russia has noted it is losing ground and seeking to strengthen its position in creative ways by demonstrating what it can offer, but it is unlikely to do this in a way that would be interpreted as running counter to Chinese interests.

The region is a propitious one for Xi to make his first foreign foray in over two years. He is visiting a region where China has consistently tested out new foreign-policy ideas, where the local governments will go to great lengths to ensure the visit goes smoothly, and where there is an appetite for economic cooperation on all sides.

From a domestic Chinese perspective, it means Xi has had an easy visit where he rubs shoulders with some of the world’s largest powers (like Russia and India), can showcase his foreign-policy vision (the Belt and Road Initiative), and celebrate China’s contribution to the world of international multilateral organizations (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

Although the SCO is widely derided in the West, it has only grown and expanded in remit during its 21-year existence, and it now encompasses almost 40 percent of the world’s population. It is an organization that has important Western allies (like India) as members, reflecting its appeal beyond the club for anti-western authoritarians that it is sometimes described as. For many of its members, the SCO is an expression of the ‘more just’ international order that senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi[3] described to the Russian ambassador to Moscow. It is showing the world that there are options out there beyond the western-dominated order that was created in the wake of World War II.

Central Asia has always held an important place in Chinese strategic thinking. It is a space where China has consistently tested out new ideas and has a web of relations and interests that are tied to some of its most sensitive domestic national security concerns. It is now also giving Xi the final step of his victory lap ahead of his likely third-term coronation at the 20th National Party Congress.

[1]: https://www3.nd.edu/~pmoody/Text%20Pages%20-%20Peter%20Moody%20Webpage/AdvanceTowardWest.pdf

[2]: http://english.mofcom.gov.cn/article/newsrelease/significantnews/201209/20120908320465.shtml

[3]: https://www.theepochtimes.com/mkt_app/china-and-russia-vow-more-just-international-order-ahead-of-putin-xi-meeting-top-ccp-diplomat_4727591.html

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.