Posts Tagged ‘Central Asia’

Almost caught up on myself now, this time a short piece for wonderful Indian think tank the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) looking at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Dushanbe. There is a whole chapter on the organization in my upcoming book whose cover has now been released. Will get around to a long delayed media update soon, though have a few other longer papers that need pushing out the door.

Afghanistan crisis lingers over the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit

Looking beyond the SCO’s inability to come to a consensus on Afghanistan to the normalising of Beijing’s influence in Eurasia

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, SCO, Afghanistan, NATO, ASEAN, Eurasian heartland, China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, counterterrorism, US, SCO-Afghanistan, Taliban, Ajit Doval, Moeed Yusuf,
Wikimedia Commons (By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0)

If there was ever an organisation that on paper would look like it was suited to focus on Afghanistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) would be it. Yet, as Dushanbe hosts the 20th anniversary Heads of Government session this week, there is little evidence that the organisation is going to take advantage of this moment to step forward and present a unified vision for how to deal with Afghanistan, a nation that sits literally at its geographic core. This spatial reality will only be highlighted once again with the beginning of Iran’s full accession process into the Organisation, leaving aggressively neutral Turkmenistan as the only Afghan neighbour that is not a full member.

The Summit is instead likely to reflect a generally fractured regional view of how to handle the new Taliban authorities in Afghanistan and escalating regional tensions. Where outside powers need to be careful, however, is in concluding that this is a demonstration of organisational weakness and irrelevance. It may be the case the SCO is not on its way to create some sort of regional NATO or ASEAN. Rather, it helps clarify the very different views that exist regionally about what role the SCO plays in the Eurasian heartland. Primary amongst these is China, who continues to see the entity as a useful tool to help normalise Chinese preeminence in the Eurasian heartland.

Founded in 2001 in the months before the September 11 attacks, the SCO was initially born out of a structure that developed in the post-Cold War period to help China define its borders with the former Soviet Union. By the time of the formal founding, with the joining of Uzbekistan to the previous Shanghai Five made up of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, it was clear that all the powers had slightly different interpretations about what purpose it would serve going forward and their degree of interest in it. Yet one thing they all seemed to agree on was counterterrorism. To some degree this was normative. As authoritarian powers preoccupied with staying in power, they all saw threats to their authority as political violence (i.e., terrorism); hence it was something they could all agree on as being a major concern. But they also all realised that they sat next to Afghanistan, a country that had produced numerous regional problems in the decade between the end of the Soviet Union and SCO founding.

SCO and Afghanistan

So much was Afghanistan on people’s minds that during the June 2001 founding ceremony in Shanghai that President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan highlighted the country as “the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism” in his opening remarks, tying the country to the “three evils” that sit at the heart of SCO counter-terrorism thinking. In comments to Xinhua on the fringes of the inaugural Summit, President Rahmon of Tajikistan (this year’s host) “called for a common stance and unified actions in solving the Afghanistan issue through peaceful means.” In his comments during the main session, then-President of Kyrgyzstan Akayev “expressed the hope that SCO member countries will work together to alleviate the Afghan situation which has become a serious threat to countries in the region.” All of the countries involved in founding the SCO had faced violent Islamist terrorism of one sort or another in the years leading up to the Summit with links to Afghanistan identifiable in most cases.

Yet, notwithstanding all this consternation, the Organisation has done almost nothing about Afghanistan since its founding. To some degree, this was a product of external factors. Soon after the 2001 inaugural Summit in Shanghai, the September 11 attacks against the United States precipitated an American-led invasion of the country and the toppling of the Taliban regime. This deprived the Organisation of a need to actually do anything. The US had arrived with great bellicosity and seemed determined to clean shop in Kabul, effectively dealing with a problem they had all worried about. There was a part of them that was worried about long-term US military presence in their neighbourhood, but this balanced against the direct security concerns in Afghanistan that were now being dealt with.

This tension with the US was fairly constant, and, in 2005, it came into sharp relief as the democratising flame of ‘Colour Revolutions’ reached the region. The so-called Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in Spring 2005 was followed by the May massacre in Andijian, Uzbekistan. These two events were applauded and condemned by the west to horror across the region. Yet, they did not appear to impact the SCO much, which was unhappy about the instability and stood behind its members. At the same time, people continued to go in different ways on Afghanistan. In 2008/09, the US established the Northern Distribution Network to get supplies into Afghanistan via overland routes from Europe, across Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan. While condemnation of Andijian led to US ejection from a key airbase in Kashi Khanabad in Uzbekistan, it led to the expansion of the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

China has been quite heavily involved in pushing for the organisation to do more in Afghanistan. Beijing supported and encouraged the establishment of the SCO Contact Group in 2005, and during the 2012 Beijing Summit shepherded the country in as an official Observer member. Yet, notwithstanding Beijing’s diplomatic energy, very little has happened, and even China appears to accept its limitations, focusing its engagement with Afghanistan through bilateral and other regional multilateral structures. And none of the other members ever really seemed to really push for Afghanistan to become a key focus. In recent times, Moscow seemed to awaken to the idea of trying to revive the SCO-Afghanistan Contact group in some substantial way, but it did not result in anything new. Russia now seems to have fallen back into focusing on its direct security concerns through bolstering Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, while continuing to tentatively engage with the Taliban.

And this has largely been the reaction of most of the other powers as well. India and Pakistan each have their own particular relations with Afghanistan, which are largely predicated on conflict with each other. The Central Asians are wary, though the Uzbeks have seemed to lean in towards engaging with the new Taliban government while the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs appear to be in a wait-and-see mode. The Tajiks have taken an entirely contrary view, openly supporting the Northern Alliance resistance, and staking out a position as the most antagonistic power towards the new authority in Kabul. Potential new member Iran is unlikely to decide that the SCO is going to be best forum for its future engagement, while other Observers (like Mongolia) or Dialogue Partners (like Sri Lanka or Belarus) are likely going to be eager to step into the mess.

The SCO Summit on 17 September 2021

In fact, this Summit is going to be a tale of internal tensions and blandness. Central Asians may have resolved a lot of their disputes, but until April this year, Kyrgyz and Tajiks were killing each other across their borders. Pakistan and India are usually able to leave their bilateral problems at the door, but last September, during a virtual SCO National Security Advisers Summit, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval dropped out when Pakistani National Security Adviser, Moeed Yusuf, presented a map that showed borders clashing with Delhi’s view. And while the organisation will likely seek to focus on the harmony implicit with Iran joining, the reality is that more members are only likely to create more problems.

But at the same time, it is true that the Organisation does not shrink or go away, but rather continues to grow. And in doing this, it is invariably expanding Chinese influence in subtle ways across the wider Eurasian heartland. While the rest of the world tends to focus on the optics of authoritarian gathering and the seeming lack of action on critical security questions which should logically be top of the list, we miss the vast number of sectoral dialogues, people-to-people engagements, and new institutions that China, in particular, has encouraged through the Organisation. This has helped advance Chinese interests, links and norms across the entire region. And while none of these are transformational by themselves, cumulatively they are setting in stone a reality.

It is clear there is no agreement whatsoever amongst SCO members about how to proceed on Afghanistan, and no institutional capacity within the SCO itself to do anything. Yet, in entirely focusing on this side of the Summit, the rest of the world is missing the wider normative foundations that the SCO is laying across the wider Eurasian heartland. The region is already bracketed in amongst powers that are heavily sanctioned by the US, through the SCO, Beijing is creating a structure which can increasingly normalise Chinese influence and dominance.

Still catching up on posting from the past few weeks, this one for my local paper here in Singapore the Straits Times, looking at what has been happening in Afghanistan through its regional lens. Given my interests in Central Asia and China’s impact across its western borders, this question is likely to be one that will bounce back again and again.

Taleban’s triumph rattles the neighbourhood

Afghanistan’s neighbours in Central Asia and Pakistan will be the first to be hit by the fallout but geography may also temper the Taleban’s radical ambitions

Taleban fighters patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Aug 17, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

We tend to view the arc of history through the lens of great power politics. This and the chaos of the humanitarian catastrophe taking place in Kabul have dominated the international conversation around Afghanistan. Almost entirely missed is the impact on the country’s immediate neighbours in Central Asia as well as Pakistan.

Refugee flows into Iran and Pakistan have started to grow once again, while in Uzbekistan a new tent city has appeared near the border. In recent weeks, both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have had Afghan soldiers (and in Uzbekistan’s case pilots of military airplanes) cross into their territory seeking sanctuary from the Taleban. In Turkmenistan, the shelling across its border got to the point that the country had to send in negotiators to talk to the Taleban to ask it to restrain itself.

What happens in Afghanistan is first and foremost going to affect its immediate neighbours. While China’s presence within this group tends to draw the focus of the Taleban triumph into the wider debate about the implications of the Sino-US clash, this slightly irrelevant focus misses the more significant immediate fallout on the country’s front-line neighbours.

The global lens is understandable. The initial American decision to go into Afghanistan was a response to the terrorist atrocities of Sept 11, 2001, directed by Al-Qaeda from camps in Taleban-controlled territory. As a result, one of the primary concerns people are now worried about is the possibility that this could happen again despite the Taleban’s assurances about not exporting terrorism.

BROKEN PROMISES

There are good reasons for this trepidation. The Taleban made similar promises pre-Sept 11, 2001. China, in particular, through its Pakistani allies, reached out to the Taleban government asking it to do something about groups of Uighur militants that were using bases in Afghanistan to plan attacks against China. While it is not clear how many attacks actually resulted from these camps, there is little evidence that the Taleban actually did much about trying to move the Uighur militants gathered there. Similarly, the Taleban was said to have told Al-Qaeda to refrain from causing trouble – a message that was clearly not heeded.

Second, the logic behind this concern about the gap between the Taleban’s words and actions is fairly clear – from the Taleban’s perspective, groups like Al-Qaeda are fellow ideological travellers. While their specific goals may sometimes vary, they are all fighting for what they believe to be God’s greater glory and a similarly warped interpretation of their religion. Not only is it difficult to imagine the Taleban turning on fellow believers, but it is also even harder to imagine it will do so after it has fought alongside them for 20 years in a war that culminated in a glorious victory against the world’s main superpower.

However, the US pullout does not mean that Muslim radical groups would immediately launch attacks in the West. While there is no doubt that a warm wind of victory is blowing through the global militant movement – as seen, for example, in videos of Hayat Tahrir al Sham fighters in Syria giving out sweets to celebrate the Taleban victory – the most immediate impact is likely to happen in Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood. These two regions north and south of Afghanistan are the ones that have most substantially suffered from terrorist activities emanating from the country in the past.

MILITANT MOVEMENTS

In the decade prior to Sept 11, 2001, Tajikistan had faced a brutal civil war which involved cross-border insurgent groups using Afghanistan as a base. In the summers of 1999 and 2000, southern Kyrgyzstan was invaded by groups of militants with links and bases in Afghanistan. And in February 1999, a series of bombs went off in downtown Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, that were linked to terrorist networks operating from Afghanistan.

While accurate information is hard to come by, there are reports that Tajik militants have been seen taking over border posts or establishing encampments across the Tajikistan border in Badakhshan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has long fought alongside the Taleban and is believed to be re-grouping in the north.

The Taleban and Al-Qaeda United Nations Monitoring Group reports suggest that there has been a flow of Central Asian militants from Syria back to Afghanistan. And Kyrgyz security officials have voiced concern about the return home of nationals who once fought in Afghanistan.

It is also notable that some elements of the former Afghan government have moved to Central Asia. The Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan appears to have decided to resist the Taleban takeover by declaring a former first vice-president the country’s new president. It is also trying to issue an Interpol Red Notice for former president Ashraf Ghani, now in the United Arab Emirates, for stealing from the Treasury.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that northern Afghan warlords Rashid Dostum and Muhammad Atta Noor have both fled into Uzbekistan. Central Asia is increasingly looking like a haven for deposed Afghan officials and leaders, a development that could lead to future friction with the new leadership in Kabul.

Even more grim is the roster of incidents that have taken place in Pakistan. As violence and militancy in Afghanistan have escalated, we have seen similar growth in Pakistan. Militant groups like the Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) with links across the border have emerged in Pakistan, fighting against the state. In December 2014, heavily armed TTP fighters stormed a Pakistan army-run school in Peshawar, killing 150 people, most of them schoolchildren.

Groups that have traditionally had links to the Pakistani state, like Lashkar-e-Toiba (infamous for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai) or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a brutal sectarian organisation, have long had bases in Afghanistan, fighting alongside the Taleban. While elements in the Pakistan security establishment have developed links with these groups to provide them with “strategic depth” against India, they have also been linked to attacks within Pakistan. It is never entirely clear how much Islamabad or Rawalpindi, where Pakistan’s army is centred, actually control these groups.

Shia Iran too has cause for concern. In the late 1990s, the Taleban was responsible for the massacre of a group of Iranian diplomats that it captured.

REASON FOR MODERATION

But in much the same way that it is in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood that we are most likely to see trouble, it is from these countries that the longer-term answer to Afghanistan’s instability is going to come. An entirely landlocked state, Afghanistan is reliant on roads, rail and routes through its neighbours to get to international markets. And broadly speaking, the neighbourhood recognises that it offers the best chance for Afghanistan’s future development.

Uzbekistan has taken the lead in trying to bring Afghanistan into the Central Asian space, hosting most recently a large conference in Tashkent, shortly before the collapse of the Ghani government, which brought together officials from around the world to discuss South and Central Asian connectivity.

Afghanistan is clearly the lynchpin that ties this all together. This is an idea that the United States and international financial institutions like the World Bank have long championed. In 2011, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even spoke of establishing a New Silk Road linking Afghanistan to its neighbours. Beijing blanched at the American use of the name but little resource was put behind the idea which largely withered on the vine.

The World Bank and Asian Development Bank have invested vast amounts in regional connectivity, with large parts of it focused on tying historically underdeveloped Afghanistan back into its neighbourhood.

Projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and the CASA1000 scheme to bring Tajik hydropower to electricity-poor Afghanistan and Pakistan have started though progress has been slow.

And the most practical move to advance China’s Belt and Road Initiative push with Afghanistan is not going to come through mining concessions, but from linking Chinese investments in Pakistan, being done under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, to Afghanistan. As the communities and local economies across that border are already deeply interlinked, it would make sense for the infrastructure to catch up.

None of the Central Asians (or Chinese) are entirely happy with the Taleban takeover. They have seen trouble emanate from this kind of regime before, and are always fearful of the inspiration (and physical succour in the form of training camps) it might provide extremists within their own communities.

Pakistan may appear happier about the Taleban’s return to power, believing it controls the situation through its longstanding links to the Taleban, but the Pakistanis have a habit of miscalculating their level of control. The TTP is a perfect example of this, and even the militants in Pakistan that the government does have some sway over have little long-term affection for the corrupt and ideologically corrupt institutions they engage with in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Iran has made no pretence of being happy that a violent Sunni organisation has taken power in Kabul. But crucially, all of these neighbours have accepted the reality of the situation and all will have to live with the consequences. We should not mistake engagement for happiness. It is purely pragmatic.

With the Americans out of the picture, the geopolitical conversation around Afghanistan takes on a different perspective. It is its immediate neighbourhood that is going to feel the most dramatic fallout, and it is similarly from there that the long-term answer to Afghanistan’s stability will come, with or without the Taleban in power.

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

Another piece on Afghanistan, this time for RUSI looking through the lens of Central Asia to understand better how the region is worrying about what is going on and trying to engage with major powers to mitigate its risks. Been doing quite a bit on Afghanistan in its region of late, and a few more short pieces to come, as well as (hopefully!) some longer ones. All of this of course helps tee things up for the book early next year. As ever, comments, thoughts, criticisms, and more welcome!

Central Asia and Afghanistan: Old Fears, Old Actors, New Games

The countries of Central Asia have reason to be concerned about Afghanistan in the wake of the Western withdrawal. Yet it remains unclear how they will mitigate the security risks, and what major power support to do this might look like.

Leaders attending the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Qingdao, China in June 2018 pose for a group photo. Courtesy of Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo


Just over 20 years ago, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded, with mitigating risks from Afghanistan as one of its key objectives. In his opening comments at the first session, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan characterised the country as ‘the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism’. Two decades later, security concerns around Afghanistan remain alive and well in Central Asia. This was evident recently in Tashkent, as Uzbekistan hosted a major summit focused on Central and South Asian connectivity. One of the first large-scale international events since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, much of its focus was on Afghanistan, a country which ties the two regions together.

Traditionally, international attention towards Afghanistan has tended to focus on its southern border, given the Taliban’s deep links with Pakistan, as well as the Pashtun communities that tie the two countries together across the still ill-defined border. The attacks of 11 September 2001 brought the focus of international terrorism concerns to Afghanistan. Yet long before 2001, Central Asia had many reasons to worry about security threats emanating from Afghanistan.

The five-year Tajik Civil War which raged during the 1990s was in part fuelled by groups operating out of bases in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan was invaded by militants linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the summer of 1999 and 2000. And in February 1999, a series of six car bombs in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent killed 13 people. All of the networks and groups behind these incidents had links to Afghanistan, highlighting President Nazarbayev’s concern over the country, and providing an animating issue for the SCO to group around.

Yet, despite the SCO being created as a vehicle which could – among other things – help coordinate a response to the problems emanating from Afghanistan, the organisation did nothing. In fact, following the September 11 attacks and the abrupt US return to the region, the Central Asian members quite rapidly pivoted to support the renewed US push into Afghanistan. US bases were welcomed into the region, to veiled scepticism in Beijing and Moscow. And for two decades, the SCO did very little practically in support of Afghanistan.

China’s Stake

This was not for want of China trying. Beijing sought to push the SCO to do more in Afghanistan, bringing the country into the organisation as an observer member and fostering the creation of an SCO–Afghanistan Contact Group. But these efforts achieved little. Ultimately, Beijing lost its patience and ended up doing more bilaterally with various partners around Afghanistan than through the SCO.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent tour of the region again served to highlight this approach. He attended an SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, stopped off in Tashkent for a regional security conference organised by the Uzbeks, and completed his tour in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. At each stop he held high-level bilateral engagements and talked about working together on Afghanistan in vague terms, focusing on border security, cooperation and working towards an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned solution. No clear or new answers were proffered within or outside the SCO format.

US Involvement

At the same time, the US has participated in a series of engagements in the region. On the fringes of the Tashkent conference, the US held the latest C5+1 format session, bringing together the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries and the senior US representative attending the conference. The final statement emerging from the meeting focused heavily on Afghanistan, highlighting a desire to encourage trade links, improve regional connectivity with Afghanistan, and ensure that the country would not be a threat to the C5+1 or others.

Eager to highlight its particular brand of diplomatic nous, Uzbekistan also managed to work with the US to establish a new regional Quad grouping of Afghanistan–Pakistan–US–Uzbekistan to support an ‘Afghanistan-Peace Process and Post Settlement’. What this all means in practical terms, however, remains unclear, with many of the statements repeating what has been seen and heard before. The US is a major investor in Central Asia, but it demonstrates little committed strategic attention in a region where high-level geopolitics is the order of the day.

… And Russia

Not to be left behind, Russia has also stepped into the game, generously offering to let the US have access to its bases in the region – a move that highlights Moscow’s habit of forgetting that the Central Asian states are now independent. But at the same time, Russia announced military drills with Uzbek and Tajik forces near the two states’ respective borders with Afghanistan, something the Central Asians have welcomed. They have deep historical links to Russian security forces, and Tajikistan hosts a base, Kyrgyzstan an airfield and Kyrgyzstan a missile testing range used by Russian forces. In the wake of the recent escalation in fighting in Afghanistan, Tajikistan called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Russian construct which seeks to retain some of the security links that existed during Soviet times – to come to its aid. While it is not clear whether the entity itself will respond, Moscow has demonstrated a willingness to come to Dushanbe’s aid, boosting its capabilities in particular at its military base in the country near the border with Afghanistan.

Rising Concerns

As the fighting in Afghanistan gradually moves closer to its neighbours’ borders, Central Asian concerns are increasing. In early July, hundreds of Afghan soldiers and some civilians fled across the border into Tajikistan. The Tajiks let them in, though they ultimately repatriated some of them. In Uzbekistan a similar scene played out, though the Uzbeks were much faster in turning border-crossers around. In Turkmenistan, fighting at the border became so bad that shells started to land in Turkmen territory, leading senior Turkmen officials to reach out to the Taliban to try to bring an end to the fighting.

Prior to this, the region had been somewhat unclear in its response to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. It had sought to engage with both the Taliban and the government in Kabul, though with varying degrees of publicity. The Tajik government has played a major diplomatic role this past year, hosting high-level sessions of the SCO, the CSTO and the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process – a Turkish-Afghan initiative seeking to focus on Afghanistan’s regional connections as the answer to its long-term problems. Meanwhile, the recent summit in Tashkent is the latest effort by the new government in Uzbekistan to try to tie Afghanistan closer to Central Asia, and Kazakhstan has sought to initiate other regional diplomatic engagements as well. But through all of this, it is not clear that the region has developed a firm plan for how it will manage the potential chaos in Afghanistan in the future.

While all the Central Asian countries now seem to agree that Afghanistan is a key part of their region, they do not seem quite as clear on how to deal with it collectively. Their continuing need and desire to engage with large outside powers as part of their response, however, highlights a concern about being left to cope with this responsibility alone. What is striking is that among the big powers, Russia remains the only one that continues to offer practical answers to the problems Afghanistan might present to Central Asia.

While China has been far more active in its engagement recently across the board in Afghanistan, it is still not clear that Beijing has much intention of stepping in to fill the vacuum left by the US. Rather, it seems that Beijing is eager to soothe regional concerns, while Washington is merely talking about them; only Moscow is stepping in to actually do something. The key unanswerable question at this stage is the degree to which Beijing and Moscow are coordinating their activities, and whether this is the solution that Central Asia actually wants. It is, however, likely to be what it will get.

I seem to be on a particular China over its western borders scribbling jag at the moment. Here is my latest, again circling around the twentieth birthday of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), this time for the Straits Times. Have another piece on a related topic which has just landed and will post later, but for the time being enjoy this. For those more interested in terrorism, there are a few bigger pieces on that topic lined up, just been focused quite a bit on China of late as the book goes through another wave of effort ahead of publication next year.

What does China see in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?

Nato soldiers conducting an inspection near the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, in March last year. PHOTO: REUTERS

While the world’s attention was on the G-7, Nato and Europe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) turned 20 last week. Bringing together China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan, and built around counter-terrorism cooperation, the SCO is sometimes described as Nato of the East.

But this misses the bigger impact it has had in terms of providing China a vehicle through which to shape the Eurasian heartland.

As it quietly breaches its second decade, the SCO has given China an ever-deepening foothold in the heart of the planet’s super continent.

We mostly think of Chinese connectivity through the lens of belts and roads. Since President Xi Jinping’s pair of speeches in 2013 that launched his foreign policy vision that has now been enshrined in Chinese Communist Party doctrine, we tend to see that as the starting point for China’s concepts of connectivity.

But contemporary Chinese thinking on these issues goes back further than this.

The roots can be found in the end of the Cold War as China suddenly found itself having to abruptly adjust to the reality of going from having a single neighbour (the Soviet Union), to four new countries with which it shared borders and communities.

Out at Xinjiang’s northern and western borders, the concept of nationhood is still developing.

Central Asian communities – from Uighurs, to Kyrgyzs, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Dungans and more – are all now bound in national borders, but have familial links back and forth across the region.

This reality made it important for China to establish strong connections there early to be able to manage its own communities and security concerns, as well as to try to help Xinjiang develop.

This is the starting point for China’s interest in fostering greater webs of connectivity around it.

THE LINKS WITH THE BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE

In 1994, then Premier Li Peng carved a path in trying to establish these links across China’s western border. On a visit to all of the Central Asian capitals except Tajikistan (which was in the midst of a grim civil war), he championed the idea of a new Silk Road across the region.

In 1996, then President Jiang Zemin created the Shanghai Five grouping, bringing together the leaders of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to discuss border delineation and demilitarisation.

When in 2001 they welcomed Uzbekistan into this group and transformed it into the SCO, they married up these two strands on security and prosperity, describing it as the “Shanghai Spirit”. The idea was that they would all peacefully move forward and engage without treading on one another’s toes – an articulation which is an echo of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is about using connectivity with the world through economic engagement on the premise of joint prosperity.

The resonance is important as it helps us understand better China’s longer-term vision through the SCO, and more generally its aims for the Eurasian heartland.

For China, the SCO is a vehicle to strengthen bonds and normalise its position as the pre-eminent power. The SCO has developed from a high-level organisation into an institution that has annual meetings of ministers from the member states. It has created a post-graduate university exchange scheme which offers opportunities for students from member states to do a year at a school in another member state.

It has working groups that bring together officials, businessmen and institutions at every level.

It has a secretariat in Beijing, a counter-terrorism centre in Tashkent, an interior and border ministry training centre in Shanghai, and an economic development centre in Qingdao.

It has helped harmonise security approaches, legislation and standards across the region – mostly in a Chinese direction.

A recent report by the United States think-tank, the Rand Corporation, concluded that China’s international leadership would be focused on “exercising a partial global hegemony centred principally on Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa”. Such leadership would be characterised by “a reliance on finance, diplomatic engagement and security assistance to exercise influence while maintaining a modest overseas military presence”.

The SCO is the perfect vehicle to achieve this, offering a broad range of links which fit as a tidy parallel to the more specific projects offered under the BRI.

But at their core, both of these are interwoven into the broader goal of placing China as an ever more significant actor across the Eurasian landmass.

THE AFGHAN PROBLEM

China’s dilemma with this, however, is that with great influence comes great responsibility. And it is assuming leadership in an unstable neighbourhood.

As the SCO turned 20, Nato was discussing its plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan, a country sitting on China’s border where it increasingly looks likely that a government controlled or heavily influenced by the Taleban is going to take over.

While Beijing seems surprisingly comfortable with this outcome, some of Afghanistan’s other neighbours are less so.

Shi’ite Iran is worried about the prospect of a return of Sunni hardliners to Kabul. Under the previous Taleban administration, Iran saw its diplomats murdered and religious minorities targeted. The likely waves of poor migrants that are also likely to cross into Iran will put a strain on the already fragile Iranian economy.

Prior to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan suffered a number of large-scale border incursions with links to Afghanistan, while Uzbekistan saw a series of massive car bomb attacks in its capital.

The Tajik civil war of the mid-1990s was fuelled by camps in Afghanistan. And even Pakistan with its strong connections to militant groups in Afghanistan is concerned about a too-powerful Taleban taking control of the country, worrying about the consequences for the violent Islamist groups within its borders (and the potential exodus of migrants).

The one thing that all of these border countries with Afghanistan share is a link (through membership or participation) to the SCO, suggesting that it might be a good vehicle to try to bring some resolution to the country’s longer-term problems. And yet, much like China, the SCO has done nothing to really advance peace and stability in Afghanistan.

This is not for want of trying. Chinese leaders repeatedly try to get the SCO to do something about Afghanistan. This was hammered home again recently at a summit meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his five Central Asian counterparts. A key takeaway from the summit (the first China has hosted since the pandemic) was that they would do something on Afghanistan.

Yet, few hold much hope for that happening, with the statements of intent joining a long list of such declarations over the past years.

But this is the central problem for the SCO which China is going to have to address at some point. Not only the realities of having a Taleban-dominated leadership in Kabul at the heart of the SCO’s territory, but also the fact that Beijing has been building all of this influence and connectivity with little evidence of wanting to step in to fill the security vacuums that are likely to emerge as the West withdraws from this region.

The famous British geographer Halford Mackinder once described Central Asia as the geographical pivot of what he termed the “world island”, comprising the Eurasian landmass. As he put it, “who rules the heartland commands the world-island; who rules the world-island commands the world”. Through the SCO, Beijing can make a compelling case of laying the foundations to trying to control the “world island”; the dilemma China has yet to come to grips with is to acknowledge the responsibilities that are likely to go alongside this influence.

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

Not quite finished in a busy week of China-Afghanistan writing, and one more to come after this. This one for the Diplomat touches on the very challenging question of how this is going to change China’s relationship with Central Asia. Big thanks to the wonderful Niva for getting this idea going. We have some more in the pipeline together, looking forward to seeing them go live.

China’s Afghanistan Challenge and the Central Asian Dilemma

None expect China to replace the United States in military terms, but Central Asia may hope Beijing plays a more substantial role in Afghanistan.

Credit: Kyrgyz MFA: https://twitter.com/MFA_Kyrgyzstan/status/1392445892930715648

The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is underway and is due to be completed by September 11, 2021. In the early days of the War on Terror, U.S. military bases in Central Asia were central to mobilization in Afghanistan, but regional pressure led to their closure. While a narrative persists in the press that the United States will want to keep some substantial presence in the region after the drawdown, it is unclear that anyone in Central Asia has actually been asked.

Russia is unlikely to step forward very far to fill this vacuum, instead preferring to continue to play a supportive role where it serves its interests. To the extent that the United States does appear to want to stay engaged, it seems to be focused on reviving the New Silk Road concept that connects Central Asia to South Asia through Afghanistan, alongside positioning some over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities.

The key uncertainty is whether China is going to finally step forward to take up some mantle of responsibility toward Afghanistan and follow through on its repeated security promises.

Central Asian politics have changed since the United States vacated the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan in 2014. At the time the overriding discourse was how Moscow was going to fill the ensuing security vacuum. Yet, the narrative of the intervening seven years has not been of Russian dominance, but of Chinese expansion. From politics to security, language and economics, China is the rising power in Central Asia.

On May 12, China hosted the second China plus Central Asia (C5+1) Foreign Ministerial talks in Xi’an. The five Central Asian foreign ministers were the first group of foreign officials invited to China since the start of the pandemic. Political ties between China and the Central Asian states have grown exponentially in the past decade. 

Afghanistan was an obvious topic of discussion. Central Asian states fear the potential spillover of conflict and are looking for a security guarantee from within Afghanistan, as well as the other major powers in the region. While urging the U.S. troop withdrawal to “proceed in an orderly and responsible manner to avoid a resurgence of terrorist forces,” China (like Russia) has no desire to see the return of U.S. bases in Central Asia. Yet, at the same time, Beijing has failed to deliver tangible security plans to support its neighbors on the western periphery in the event of an escalation of instability in Afghanistan. The joint statement on Afghanistan released at the end of the Chinese C5+1 meeting was thin on details.

In the past few years, China has emerged as an active player in Afghanistan. China has opened a number of multilateral diplomacy channels around Afghanistan, participated in regional talks, worked with the United States and Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, and repeatedly pushed (albeit to no avail) to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to do more about Afghanistan. China has offered some limited support to Afghan, Tajik, and Pakistani border forces, and reportedly built its own base in Tajikistan. But these efforts are single-mindedly focused on Chinese border concerns.

The story has been similar on the economic side. China has expanded measures to induce economic incentives for peace in Afghanistan, something that Chinese policymakers have put forward as the most appropriate contribution China can make. A bilateral economics and trade committee was set up in 2015. Direct cargo flights between Afghanistan and China opened in late 2018. After building the Mazar-i-Sharif to Hairatan train line, a cargo train corridor between China and Afghanistan was inaugurated in summer 2019, via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Bilateral trade between China and Afghanistan doubled from $338 million in 2013 to $629 million in 2019, according to data from Chinese customs. And Beijing has repeatedly spoken about bringing Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative foreign policy vision – increasing Afghan connectivity with Central Asia, China, and Pakistan.

In reality Beijing has achieved little. China’s most recent promises include reported security contributions to help with counterterrorism efforts, but it is not clear what these will look like. Economically, China’s stake in Afghanistan has grown, but it has failed to deliver on the massive extractive project in Mes Aynak its firms signed contracts for in 2007, and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) project in northern Afghanistan has also been suspended. Beijing has not lived up to its economic potential in the country yet.

None of this is going to get any easier in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. With the possible outcome that the Taliban will regain control of a greater part of Afghanistan, rule by Islamist ideology may then become an inevitability and that will have consequences for China. While Beijing has clearly been bolstering its relations with factions in the government in Afghanistan, its analysts are equally certain that some Taliban return to power is likely. This confusion in part reflects the baffling complexity of the Afghan battlefield, but it also highlights a dissonance within current planning.

It also illustrates where China’s post-American Afghan strategy likely falls down. With Washington present in force, Beijing can largely apportion blame and responsibility to the U.S. for anything that happens. Once the U.S. is gone, this excuse may still have some rhetorical currency, but it will lack tangible use on the ground. And while China may be able to ensure that its security concerns are addressed, its neighbors in Central Asia will expect it to use its weight and gravitas to play a more substantial role in stabilizing the situation. None expect China to replace the United States in military terms, but Central Asia may hope Beijing will play a more forward and substantial role in Afghanistan — a role that actually helps stabilize and calm the situation — rather than hedge and watch while it collapses in on itself.

Its been a busy week on various fronts, but in particular in work on China-Afghanistan. But it seems apt given the SCO celebrated its second decade. Have a couple more pieces to post from the week, but for the time being here is a piece for the excellent Oxus Society (established by Edward to whom I am very grateful for publishing this) which draws on my various experiences meeting with the Organization over the years. You will find a lot more of this coming in the book which is due out early next year, but for the time being enjoy. As ever comments, criticisms, corrections welcome.

The SCO Turns Twenty

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was born almost exactly two decades ago, on June 15, 2001 at a glittering event overlooking the Huangpu River in Shanghai. Celebrating the birth, President Jiang Zemin articulated a vision for the organization that spanned everything from counter-terrorism, regional trade agreements, to pragmatism, solidarity, a pioneering spirit and openness. The last was delivered without a sense of irony to a room of leaders who (for the most part) had taken power with little public ratification. The key, President Jiang said, was to maintain the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ that had brought them all to where they were today.

This was very different to the birth story I was told almost exactly a decade later sitting in the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We were told that the SCO was “a baby that was born of a time.” It was an “illegally born child” to its parents China and Russia who could not agree on a way forward, hence they decided to form a family called the SCO. But like any family, our Kyrgyz interlocutor informed us, there were “certain frictions” usually involving money, and over time there was “psychological exhaustion by the parents.” A more cynical view that over time I discovered was more typical from the region to what I would hear in Beijing.

A year later, I had my first physical encounter with the organization. After chasing various contacts and colleagues in Shanghai, I fixed a meeting at the Organization’s headquarters in Beijing with a fellow researcher. We had aimed to meet with the Secretary General, but ended up getting passed along to some lower-level diplomats. A Kazakh and a Russian official who were posted to the Organization from their respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs. The more elderly Russian was in a playful mood and clearly enjoying what he saw as a sinecure role. 

Sat in a grand and slightly dusty meeting room which had a cabinet full of football trophies in the corner, we listened as he expounded about the organization’s processes and procedures downplaying any of the more menacing aspects. Projects were nascent and slow moving, he told us. Everything was done by consensus. Terrorism – something he described using the Chinese phrasing of the Three Evils (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) – was a major concern. Economic aspects were still under discussion. The overriding message we got from them was nothing to see here, move along, move along.

The overriding question from all of these encounters was what really was the point and aim of this organization? Western diplomats we met in Beijing or Central Asian capitals would largely rubbish the organization as a large talking shop. Chinese officials we spoke to, however, would talk about it as a foundational element in their vision for Eurasia and the world. Westerners, they would tell us, missed the gentle consensus building that the SCO brought to the table. As a Chinese expert at one of the more influential think tanks in Beijing told me when I asked what the SCO had achieved “to not do anything is to do everything.”

The initial seed of the SCO was planted in the wake of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union fell apart, there was an imperative for China to clarify its western borders. China had shared a long, porous and remote border with the Soviet Union. Once China was suddenly confronted with three new border countries, this vagueness no longer worked. From this was born the idea of establishing a grouping to discuss de-militarization and border delineation between China and the new states of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Meeting first in Shanghai in 1996, the grouping was imaginatively called the Shanghai Five, upgraded later to the SCO when Uzbekistan joined at the glittering event in Shanghai.

China’s vision was larger, however, than just borders and security. It was about economic connectivity and prosperity across the entire region. The larger concept could be found in a visit in 1994 by then-Premier Li Peng to Central Asia, when he swept through all of the capitals except Tajikistan. China was opening itself up after the setback of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres and Premier Li had been at the forefront of promoting the new China, taking groups of businessmen around with him and trying to encourage western firms to come and invest. Central Asia was critical both in terms of being a border region to China, but also given the deep cross-border security concerns that existed with Beijing worried about Uyghur dissidents using the region as a base to launch attacks within China. 

This blend of security and prosperity is what has been at the heart of Chinese interests in the SCO. Focusing on terrorist threats in particular is something that all of the member states find themselves agreeing on, and economic prosperity is always appreciated. Counter-terrorism in particular developed its own home. 

The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS), first announced in 2001, and then formally opened in Tashkent in 2004 was established as a hub for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism activity. When I visited in 2012, I found a sleepy institution in a bright pink building where the Chinese officials refused to speak Mandarin to me, while their bosses told me about the meetings and conferences their institution hosted and some of them fell asleep during our meeting. This dozy welcome, however, masked the institution’s role in creating a common roster of enemies and the growing legal harmonization in counter-terrorism and countering online extremism that RATS helped foster. 

Counter-terrorism has also provided China with a way into other forms of engagement. China pushed forwards the development of a training center in Shanghai which offered courses for Interior and Border Guard forces across the region – providing an opportunity to develop relationships at multiple levels in local security forces. Through the SCO it has hosted and partnered with numerous regional partner forces on joint military exercises. The regular large-scale military exercises provide not only an opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations, but also for Chinese forces to practice with the vastly more experienced Russian forces. It has also increasingly given China an opportunity to show-case some of their military hardware – in particular drones – to potential customers. 

But the organization has over time developed a much wider range of activities beyond this, creating an entire cultural roster of actions and events to encourage what they describe as the ‘Shanghai Spirit.’ A whole series of cultural activities bringing SCO nationals together. A marathon, a film festival, young businessmen forums, a traveling festival of culture which I once came across by chance in Tashkent which included exhibitions from key cities in each member state, a university exchange program which allows for post-graduate students to spend a year at a university in another member state university offer a sense of the SCO’s broader activities. 

Not everything Beijing wanted to achieve has succeeded. Notwithstanding putting almost one billion dollars on offer, the idea of an SCO Development Bank or Fund has never taken off. Repeated efforts to establish an SCO Free Trade Area have gone nowhere. And after having tried to get the Organization to do something specific about Afghanistan rather than just host meetings, China seemed to accept it was too complicated. In 2016, China established a new mini-lateral entity called the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brought together the Chiefs of Army Staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Notwithstanding continued Chinese efforts, they realized nothing was moving forwards within the SCO on Afghanistan and so they built a parallel entity to handle their direct security concerns. This is not to say that China has not continued to push the idea of the SCO doing more in Afghanistan forwards – most recently, after meeting with his Central Asian counterparts in May 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi once again hammered home the point that the Organization needed to do something about Afghanistan. Everyone agreed, though it is still not clear anything will happen.

But China’s relentless persistence with the Organization has paid dividends. And the Organization has only continued to grow over time, now also encompassing Pakistan and India, with Iran a regular courter. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are official Observer states, while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are Dialogue Partners. The Organization is growing and at current count claims to be the largest regional organization by population and geographical coverage – representing about half of the world’s population. Whatever Jiang Zemin released in Shanghai in 2001 has proven to be attractive. 

Beijing has also shown itself to be highly dynamic through the Organization, echoing in many ways their global growth in other areas as well. When one path is blocked they seem to find another. Having been repeatedly stymied in their grand economic goals, China has now managed to start to advance them through its tech and digital giants who have started to work with the SCO to advance China’s Digital Silk Road. Chinese applications, Chinese online markets, Chinese online health and educational platforms, have all become increasingly dominant within the SCO. Central Asians working with the Organization tell me working with Chinese tech is one of their biggest tasks. The capstone of all of this activity was laid in November 2020 with the establishment of the China-SCO Development Zone in Qingdao, which was inaugurated with $8.6 billion worth of projects focusing on China’s digital and tech sector.

China’s SCO partners were not very visible during the event, however, but had supported its establishment during an earlier Summit in Qingdao in 2018. They have continued to attend, participate and host, even as other tensions have developed between them. Notwithstanding the violent border clashes and technological tensions between Delhi and Beijing last year, Prime Minister Modi attended the SCO leaders Summit and paid respect to the Organization, while his country has taken the lead in establishing a working group looking at digital commerce and start-ups ahead of this year’s twentieth anniversary. China and India may be at knifepoint at the border, but Delhi still sees great value in participating in the SCO.

And this is the ultimate goal of this now two-decade old entity. To create an Organization in China’s image that has captivated the Eurasian heartland with its non-judgmental appeal. The constant meetings, conferences and encounters have developed a web of relationships across the Eurasian heartland that are all fostered around a vision of the world articulated by China. The world may be obsessed with what China is doing in the seas, but it is through the SCO and over land that the longer-term play can be seen. It is here that the real impact and effect of China’s webs of connectivity can be found, and a vision of what China’s new world order might look like.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. His work focuses on terrorism, counter-terrorism and China’s Eurasian relations.

The wonderful Katie Putz of the Diplomat was kind enough to invite me to do an interview with her excellent publication – covering a wide range of China in South and Central Asia questions, though mostly looking southward with a bit of a focus on Afghanistan. Have not posted it all here as behind a firewall at the moment, but will hope to later. Am posting after it a podcast recording that I did with Suzanne Raine of Cambridge University (and formerly of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office) looking at how terrorist threats are evolving.

Raffaello Pantucci on China’s Presence in South Asia

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights the importance of South and Central Asia to China.

Pakistan and Chinese soldiers take part in a joint exercise in Jhelum, Pakistan Thursday, Nov 24, 2011.
Credit: AP Photo/B.K.Bangash

As the United States embarks on its withdrawal from Afghanistan, some wonder what China will do given the country’s critical interests in South and Central Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is merely the latest articulation of a strategic narrative that imbues the South and Central Asian region with critical importance to China. As Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), explains in the following interview, China has long-running interests in the wider region. While Beijing is not poised to follow the Soviet Union and now, the United States, into the “graveyard of empires,” those interests remain important to China.

What interests in the wider South and Central Asia region most draw Beijing’s attention?

China is most worried about security problems it perceives as being based in South and Central Asia which might threaten domestic stability. Principal amongst these is a fear that the region might become a staging ground for Uyghur dissidents or militants to create instability in Xinjiang. A secondary group of concerns emanates from a fear of threats to Chinese economic investments and interests in the region. In Beijing’s conception these investments are also linked to Xinjiang as well, as their success is in part linked to prosperity and growth in Xinjiang, which China sees as the key to longer-term stability within its borders.

At a wider strategic level, China is worried that the region could be used by adversary powers, like the United States, as a place from which to foment instability within China. This has most recently been tied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly to Afghanistan, but is a persistent fear that has always lurked in the back of Chinese minds. From their perspective, the region is their backyard and directly linked to some of the most sensitive parts of their country.

Finally, this region is the cradle of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy vision, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The concept was launched in the Kazakh capital, then-Astana (now Nur-Sultan), and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is called the keynote project of the vision. This gives it a particular importance conceptually to Beijing as failure here would be tantamount to failure of his vision. The economic interests that are linked to BRI in the region are important to China, but are often overstated as the priorities for Beijing’s concerns. The economic interests are important to the specific firms involved; the strategic aspect comes in terms of the impact they might have on domestic growth and stability, in particular in Xinjiang.

Read more here.

Also, am posting the podcast discussion with Suzanne Raine for the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University.

Another piece on China in Central Asia, this time for the Straits Times looking at the question of competitive vaccine diplomacy in competition with Russia. All of this is teeing up the book, and a few more bigger pieces due out at some point during the year. Am also maybe hoping to revive the website, though that is going to take some work.

Wooing Central Asia, over Covid

Russia deployed vaccine diplomacy. China brought in not just vaccines, but equipment and medical aid. Who won?

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Trapped between China and Russia, Central Asia has always found itself stuck between empires. In earlier times, it was conquerors from the region such as Tamerlane who built Eurasian empires, but increasingly the countries find themselves trying to thread a diplomatic needle between competing external powers.

Currently, it is medicine that is defining the struggle in the region, as both China and Russia compete for influence through their medical diplomacy.

While Beijing appears to have the upper hand in terms of volume, it is Moscow that appears to be winning over the hearts and minds.

As Kazakhstan embarks on a vaccination drive using Sputnik V, China could ask itself why its medical diplomacy in Central Asia has not worked as it hoped it might. Rather than turn the region towards Beijing, it appears to have simply exacerbated existing tensions and suspicions towards China. The region has benefited from China’s support and largess, but Central Asians still tend primarily towards Moscow.

First, a bit of history: Russian strategists tend to see the world through spheres of influence. From their view, Central Asia is seen as “theirs”. From before the Soviet Union, the nations of Central Asia were part of the wider Russian Empire. During the 1800s, Imperial Russia expanded up to Afghanistan, and the original Great Game was born between the competing English and Russian empires as they sought to keep each other at bay in distant Asia.

At the time, China was an inward-looking power. The Qing Dynasty was fighting wars against encroaching European empires, and Chinese Imperial expansion into Central Asia had stopped far earlier, after the Battle of Talas in 751AD. Xinjiang under the Qing was a far-flung corner of China which was far from the Emperor’s attentions.

BALANCING ACT CONTINUES

Today, the countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are independent states with their own governments and agency. This year, they celebrate their 30th independence anniversaries from under the Soviet yoke. But they remain landlocked and bound to their neighbours, stuck in an awkward balancing act between China and Russia.

Moscow is keen to stay influential. There is an economic and security interest. Human connections persist with millions of Central Asians working as low-wage labourers or workers in Russia. The remittances generated provide huge inflows of currency to Central Asian economies, while Russia gets the benefits of a cheap workforce. The region is also attractive to Russian companies that see opportunity in a region where they share a language and many cultural practices.

At the same time, Moscow also sees the region as a buffer from the violence and drugs that emanate from Afghanistan, investing considerable amounts in supporting security institutions across the region.

And Russia has sought to strengthen this connection through a constellation of post-Soviet multilateral institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called part of an attempt to re-Sovietise the region, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Commonwealth of Independent States. (The former grew out of the framework of the latter.)

Not all Central Asians are willing participants, though in the case of the EAEU, it was an idea which was proposed by Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

CHINA’S FOCUS: STABILITY

Modern China wants to expand into the region to protect itself from any threats that might emerge, as well as profit from the potential it offers.

Since then Premier Li Peng’s foundation-laying tour of the region in 1994 – which established the contours of the area’s contemporary relationship with China – the focus has been on economic links and trade corridors articulated under the phrasing of silk roads. This has sat alongside a persistent fear that Uighur groups might use the region to foment trouble within Xinjiang.

The answer, from China’s perspective, is a growing security footprint focused on its own interests and concerns, alongside a surge in economic links and investment which ultimately seek to improve stability and security in the region and Xinjiang. China is not really interested in conquering the region or creating a sphere of influence like Moscow, but rather it wants guarantees and stability to ultimately help foster stability and security at home.

And so far, China is playing a winning game. It is now the main trading partner with all the Central Asian powers, and has been increasing its investment.

Traditionally perceived as being focused on natural resources such as metals, oil and gas, Chinese companies are, in fact, increasingly present across Central Asian economies – from online traders like Alibaba or Taobao, to agriculture and food products, and infrastructure construction of every sort – from roads, rail, telecoms and more.

This flow of investment and trade is followed by a soft-power push in education and training, which is increasingly normalising China’s presence in and links with the region.

RUSSIA’S FOCUS: INFLUENCE

Russia continues to keep its hand active, though. China may be rewiring the region, literally as well as metaphorically, so all paths lead back to Beijing, but Moscow continues to be the first capital politicians will visit. And Russia remains the pre-eminent security partner in training, military sales and security ventures.

Technology is the one space where it is hard to see Russia competing with China, but Moscow has sought to find other ways of maintaining a significant role, including through influencing legislation.

But there is a tension between the two powers. Russia can see it is losing ground, but feels it is unable to do too much because it lacks China’s resources. It also prioritises a geostrategic relationship with Beijing over whatever happens in Central Asia.

There is little appetite in Russia for Central Asia to become an impediment or complicating factor to its relationship with China. Ultimately, Moscow is more interested in ensuring Beijing is onside in its greater confrontation with the West than the concerns Russia might have with Chinese encroachment into Central Asia. But there is a growing concern in Moscow that they might find Central Asia becoming the soft underbelly through which China can undermine Russia.

MEDICAL DIPLOMACY

This leads to pushback, the most recent expression of which can be seen in the vaccine diplomacy being deployed across the region.

Central Asia’s response to Covid-19 was spasmodic at best. Turkmenistan, for instance, has yet to admit it has suffered any cases, though foreign diplomats have perished from Covid-like diseases and the country has ordered vaccines. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have all suffered cases, but the numbers have been relatively low. At this point, the region does seem to have turned a corner in dealing with the coronavirus, in part due to the interventions from its two giant neighbours.

In the Russian case, it has been through the Sputnik V vaccine, while China has provided protective equipment, medical training courses and webinars as well as planeloads of aid from Chinese companies, regions and institutions. Additionally, Chinese vaccine producers have used Uzbekistan as a site for phase three testing, while deliveries of their vaccines have started to arrive in the region.

But this Chinese dominance has not translated into popularity. According to data from the Central Asian Barometer, when asked which country would be most likely to help them manage Covid-19, 52 per cent of Kazakhs, 58 per cent of Uzbeks and 76 per cent of Kyrgyz surveyed said Russia was most likely to be able to help. Only 20 per cent of Kazakhs, 14 per cent of Uzbeks and 8 per cent of Kyrgyz believed the same of China.

These numbers echo surveys done pre-Covid-19 which showed that across the region Russia was most popular, with China and the United States competing for second place.

For all its efforts, China’s medical diplomacy and growing investments do not appear to have delivered popular success in the heartland of Eurasia.

Bound still by linguistic, cultural and economic links, and a media which has great penetration throughout the region, Russia remains the more dominant actor within Central Asia. The region’s population still looks primarily towards Russia for its external support, something left over in part from history, but also out of a growing sense of concern about the meteoric rise of China around the world and in their immediate neighbourhood.

This will ultimately be reassuring to Moscow, as it realises it has a few cards that it can play against Beijing. For now, medical diplomacy is one of those cards as clearly Central Asians look more favourably on medical care from a bear than a dragon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new post for Carnegie, this time the kind invitation to contribute came from the brilliant Sasha in their Moscow office to write about a subject that I continue to write a lot about and have a book landing soon about, China in Central Asia. This time it looks again at the question of Chinese security presence in the region, a topic that I have touched on before and have at least one chapter on in the book. It all is part of a much bigger project Carnegie Moscow are running called Pax Sinica, which is well worth checking out.

Not-So-Hidden Dragon: China Reveals Its Claws in Central Asian Security

China sees security issues in Central Asia as inextricably tied to its own domestic security concerns, and is rapidly establishing a footprint that will allow it to deal with matters as it sees fit in the region.

There has long been a fallacy at the heart of much analysis of Chinese security policy in Central Asia that China is focused on economics in the region, and Russia on security. This is built on the odd assumption that Beijing is willing to simply delegate its security concerns to others: something that clashes with the increasingly strong China that President Xi Jinping has been projecting. In fact, China has long had a security footprint in Central Asia. What is new, however, is Beijing’s increased willingness to demonstratively flex its muscle in the region.

The most obvious recent example of this and the problems it can generate occurred in December last year in Kabul, when it was reported by Indian media that Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, had arrested a cell of about ten Chinese nationals at various locations in the Afghan capital. While the exact details of what took place have not been confirmed, the principal Afghan accusation appears to have been that the cell was establishing contacts with extremist networks and trying to build an artificial Uighur cell to draw in militant Uighurs of concern to China in Afghanistan.

The incident was cause for great awkwardness on both sides, and concluded with the reported repatriation of the Chinese agents on a private jet back to Beijing. The story was only covered by Indian media, through leaks clearly calculated to embarrass Beijing and highlight nefarious Chinese activity in Afghanistan. The Chinese government did not comment, while the Afghan authorities publicly claimed nothing had happened. Yet if the contours of the reported story are accurate, then the plans by the network had a level of ambition that is novel for Chinese security services. It was also an odd plot to hatch in a country which has been broadly supportive of Chinese goals and which sees itself as fighting the same Uighur networks, given their proximity to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Until now, Chinese security activity in Afghanistan was largely thought to be limited to sealing off China from security threats that might emanate from the country. Investment focused on helping to build and strengthen Tajikistan’s border posts with Afghanistan, increasing the capability of Gilgit-Baltistani security forces in Pakistan, and building a base for Afghan mountain forces in Badakhshan, near the mouth of the Wakhan Corridor that connects China to Afghanistan. China’s People’s Armed Police even went so far as to establish their own dedicated counterterrorism base in Tajikistan, and there are rumors of an additional Chinese base in Afghanistan. Yet none of this activity was aggressive, and rather seemed focused on cauterizing the dangers that might flow from the physical links between Afghanistan and China.

The incident in Kabul, however, shows a new level of Chinese activity that suggests a desire to tackle security issues head on. It comes amid the growing presence of Chinese private security firms in Central Asia, as well as growing pressure on local authorities to accept their presence, in contravention of local legislation. This pushiness has encroached further into the public domain in other ways, too. Du Dewen, the Chinese ambassador to Bishkek, made boosting the security of Chinese nationals and companies a priority issue during her inaugural meeting with new Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev late last year. The usually staid transcript from the meeting released by the embassy highlighted both ambassador Du’s complaint and the emphatic and acquiescent response from the minister.

The other notable point about China’s security engagement with the region is that it is done for the most part by People’s Armed Police (PAP) forces, rather than the People’s Liberation Army. PAP is reportedly responsible for shoring up the border posts in Tajikistan and performing joint patrols with Afghan and Tajik forces. It has also signed agreements and carried out patrols with its counterparts in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. In December 2018, a female cadre of elite PAP Falcon Commandos provided training for their Uzbek counterparts, while in August 2019, they hosted their Kyrgyz counterparts for counterterrorism exercises in Urumqi, Xinjiang.

The appearance of PAP at the forefront of engagement with Central Asia highlights the degree to which China sees the security issues in those countries as inextricably tied to domestic security concerns. As a gendarmerie force whose primary responsibility is domestic, the PAP’s growing presence on China’s periphery raises questions about Chinese thinking on how to manage security problems in its neighborhood.

Central Asia has also become a conduit through which China has increasingly sought to target its perceived dissident Uighur community. Reports emerged in 2019 of Uighurs being arrested in Turkey, given Tajik travel documents, and placed on planes to Dushanbe, from where they were immediately flown back to China. Central Asian complicity is further suggested by the Kazakh authorities’ decision to clamp down on anti-China protesters within their own country.

In some ways, none of this is particularly new. Uighurs in Central Asia have long been a major Chinese concern. When it was officially inaugurated in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization used fighting the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism as its foundational credo. During his famous tour of the region in 1994, which laid the groundwork for the current Silk Road visions across the region, then premier Li Peng highlighted concerns about Uighurs at every stop. Over subsequent years, rumors circulated about the Chinese pursuing Uighurs across Central Asian borders, while any dissident networks that existed in Central Asia were clamped down upon. Occasional attacks against Chinese businessmen or officials in Bishkek served as a reminder of the dangers that existed in the region, but the Chinese response largely involved pressuring local officials to do more to protect their people and go after people they did not like.

Now, however, China appears to be starting to change tack. Rather than relying on local law enforcement agencies or passing on responsibility for security to Russia, China is stepping forward with its own forces to deal with its own concerns. Locals are still expected to do their bit, but China is now establishing a footprint that will allow it to deal with matters as it would like fit in Central Asia. The fact that a growing number of regional security forces are buying high-end technical equipment from China—while their cyber infrastructure is increasingly built using Chinese hardware—gives Beijing growing leverage.

Beijing’s rise as a security actor in Central Asia is not aimed at displacing Russia from its perceived sphere of influence in some contemporary replay of the Great Game, but rather at guaranteeing Chinese interests. In many ways, it’s not a surprising move: what country is not interested in securing its own interests? It is, however, a change in China’s external behavior, which has traditionally been to pay lip service to local autonomy and Chinese non-interference. China is getting involved, and stepping ever further into the breach.