Posts Tagged ‘Central Asia’

Another piece for the Telegraph after the St Petersburg terrorist attack, though the title is rather deceptive as the piece is mostly about the phenomenon of radicalisation amongst Central Asians, a topic that appears sadly relevant again after the incident Friday in Stockholm.

The Saint Petersburg attack is a reminder that sophisticated terror plots are still a real threat

A victim is carried in a soft stretcher

The Metro attack was the worst terror attack in Russia for several years CREDIT: ANTON VAGANOV/EPA

The attack on St Petersburg in some ways resembles a throwback to an earlier time. With the recent spate of low-tech incidents involving knife-wielding and car driving extremists, the perception was that the nature of the terrorist threat had evolved. The as of yet unclaimed atrocity in St Petersburg is a reminder of how terrorists continue to deploy explosives to advance their causes, and how Russia remains a priority target for international terrorist networks.

It is not yet clear who is responsible for the attack in Russia, though initial indicators suggest that it was by an individual of Central Asian origin who may have previously been radicalised. This comes after an arrest earlier in March at Moscow airport of a Tajik citizen who had reportedly been sent by Isil to launch an attack in Russia. According to reports in the Russian press, the Tajik had been deployed to connect with networks already in the country who were to supply him with equipment to launch a terrorist strike. Central Asians were also implicated in the attacks late last year on the Ataturk Airport and Reina nightclubs in Istanbul, and in an attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek last August.

None of this may appear surprising to the lay observer. Central Asia has long been perceived as a hotbed of radicalisation. And yet in reality, it is a threat that has never quite expressed itself. Central Asian warriors have been a feature of the conflict in Afghanistan and more recently Syria and Iraq, but they have not been responsible for many attacks beyond these battlefields. Increasingly this appears to have changed.

It is something that is of particular concern to Russia, which has deep human, economic and security links with Central Asia. In part through the large community of labour migrants working in Russia from the region, but also directly with the countries of the region. Reflecting this, the new President of Uzbekistan is paying his first formal visit to Moscow this week, an event that has been eagerly anticipated since his election as leader in December 2017. Undoubtedly security questions will now feature as a larger part of the conversation.

From Moscow’s perspective, the menace of international terrorism is something that has been a persistent concern for some time. Of late, it appeared as though Russian security forces had been able to, for the most part, keep a lid on the problem. The attack on the Metrojet plane flying from Sharm el Sheikh was something that was beyond their control in Egypt, and at home the last major attack was in 2013 at Volgograd in the run up to the Winter Olympic games in Sochi. But the attack on St Petersburg shows the threat that Russia faces persists, and it is one that is likely to continue to become more acute as the battlefield in Syria and Iraq shrinks and groups seek to apportion blame and punish the outside powers who are perceived to be fighting against them.

There is a further danger within Russia that this growing narrative of Central Asians being seen as responsible for the incidents will strengthen suspicion among the Russian public towards the hundreds of thousands of migrants from the area. This community provides a huge service to Russia in the form of essential labour, while also providing a huge economic boost back home in remittances. The perception of threat from this community may be high, but the reality of it is actually small, a balance that Moscow needs to manage very carefully.

Finally, this attack highlights once again how terrorism is a multifaceted and complex threat that will continually find ways to penetrate security and murder civilians in advance of a political message. In the wake of incidents in Europe including the Westminster attack, the sense was we were moving towards a threat which was more focused on low tech attacks involving weapons easily available in our everyday lives. The reality is that terrorist groups retain the intent and capacity to launch more sophisticated assaults. The recent threat against aviation and the ban on large electronic items on certain routes is a reflection of the continuing threat of highly sophisticated plots; the St Petersburg attack shows how bombs in bags are still an equally effective vehicle through which to murder and attract attention to your cause.

Security agencies around the world will continue to need to pay attention to a wide range of potential threats, expressed in a variety of forms, in many different locations. The threat may yet become more acute as Isil faces defeat in its homeland.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

Going to catch up on a batch of belated posting today, starting with a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) annual counter-terrorism yearbook looking in particular at what China has been up to in 2016.

China’s Terrorism Threat and Response in 2016

Raffaello Pantucci

Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

In August 2016, China experienced what appears to have been the first targeted terrorist attack against one of its embassies.1 A Uygur suicide bomber drove a car into China’s diplomatic compound in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, exploding it outside the ambassador’s residence; the attacker was the only fatality, but three Kyrgyz employees were injured. While Kyrgyz authorities were quick to link the attack to a Syrian-based network—although publicly available evidence to date has been limited—for Beijing the attack was the manifestation of an increased threat from Uygur groups, which had now spread beyond China to threaten Chinese interests abroad. Clear and substantial connections between Uygur groups and international terrorist networks were also confirmed in 2016.

During the year, China increased its external security presence to mitigate these threats, while attempting to balance this against its longstanding practice of non-interference. At home, it has continued a hardline approach to managing the Uygur issue in Xinjiang, and 2016 marked a new level of regional control in the region, including an almost complete halt to media reporting of security-related incidents.

China’s terrorist threat comes primarily from the divisions in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang, where a Uygur minority resents rule from Beijing.2 That resentment has expressed itself through social tensions, an exodus of Uygurs from the country and violence against the state. Beijing has taken a two-pronged approach to dealing with the problem. In the rst instance, it has invested heavily in the region economically (including the‘Silk Road Economic Belt’, which has opened Xinjiang to regional trading markets), but at the same time launching regular ‘strike hard’ campaigns deploying heavy security measures to control the region and enacting new regional and national CT legislation.

Beijing’s focus on terrorism is primarily concerned with Chinese Uygurs, something that has attracted some international and human rights concern as potentially unfairly dealing with its own minority citizens.3 The national CT legislation has similarly attracted criticism for not balancing strong CT measures with transparent and fair judicial process, as well as for a broad de nition of terrorism that may be at odds with international law standards for free speech, freedom of religion and peaceful protest.

Reported terrorist incidents within China decreased in 2016, and then-regional Communist Party chief Zhang Chunxian stated in March that ‘violent terrorist incidents have dropped signi cantly.’4 Indeed, only one incident was reported: an attack on 29 December in Moyu (or Karakax) County in southern Xinjiang, where a group drove explosive-laden cars into a local Communist Party office. Reporting on casualties was mixed, although o cial sources reported that three attackers, one security official and one bystander were killed.5 The explosives, while rudimentary, appeared to demonstrate an increased level of sophistication for attacks in the region.

While this incident capped an otherwise quiet year, non-state sources suggest that more was going on but not being publicly reported. The day after the incident in Moyu/Karakax County, a report published by the Hong Kong-based advocacy group, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, claimed that more than 1,000 violent incidents in Xinjiang in the past year weren’t reported in the press.6 The precipitous drop in reported incidents is indeed surprising, given previous levels of violence, which had been variously estimated at between a few hundred and 2,000 fatalities per year since 2013, but is difficult to evaluate due to the difficulties of undertaking independent research in the region.7

The reported decrease in incidents may be a product of a more aggressive government security posture in the region. In August, the regional government passed CT legislation supplementing national legislation passed earlier in the year. The local legislation was seen as far more wide-ranging than the national laws, focusing in particular on recruitment and radicalisation, the dissemination of extremist material (the definition of which was also expanded) and the deradicalisation of prisoners.8 Soon after its passage, a large CT exercise was undertaken in southern Xinjiang—the part of the region that remains majority Uygur—involving around 3,000 personnel and testing 21 new types of ‘high-tech equipment, including drones, assault rotorcraft and all-terrain assault vehicles’.9

The security approach was further sharpened during the year through changes to the regional party leadership. Leader Zhang Chunxian was moved to the post of Deputy Leader of the Leading Group for Party Building and replaced by Chen Quanguo, the former party chief in Tibet. Upon arriving in the region, Chen immediately introduced hardline policies re ecting those used in Tibet, including establishing a region-wide network of ‘convenience’ police stations, providing increased state presence and surveillance. Recruiting drives for security officers were launched in Xinjiang and neighbouring regions to increase the number available for deployment.10 The importance Chen attaches to shows of strength was demonstrated in the wake of the Moyu/Karakax County attack, when he hosted a large public oath-taking ceremony and CT exercise in Urumqi.11 Nevertheless, this heavy approach to security appears to be unable to completely address the region’s problems, and the attack at the end of the year showed that local anger can still erupt into violence that gets to public attention despite the government crackdown.

Outside China, Beijing has also faced an increasingly worrying threat picture. The August attack in Bishkek followed a growing number of worrying indicators that Uygur militant groups outside the country were gaining strength.

The Syria and Iraq battlefields have also provided opportunities for anti-Chinese groups to link with Islamist terrorist groups. The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is the main Uygur terrorist group.

TIP’s close link with al-Qaeda was confirmed earlier in the year through a series of videos released by the two groups. In May, the leader of TIP, Abdul Haq, who had previously been believed killed, re-emerged and released an audio message in which he attacked ISIS, praised al-Qaeda, and highlighted TIP’s proximity to the latter.12 In July, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video as part of a bigger series called ‘Islamic Spring’ in which he specifically praised the Uygur contribution to the jihad in Afghanistan and beyond and elevated leaders from the group into the pantheon of senior jihadi leaders.13 Both videos carried threats for China, but in many ways the most worrying aspect for Beijing was the clearly warm and public embrace shared by the two groups.

Al-Qaeda has historically had close links with Uygur militants (Abdul Haq was identified as a member of al-Qaeda’s shura, or leadership council, as early as 2005 14) but has shown little interest in dedicating resources to the Uygur cause. The videos suggested the possibility of a change.

In Syria, TIP ghts mainly alongside Jabhat al-Nusrah / Jabhat Fateh al-Sham groups and regularly publishes videos showing large numbers of well-armed ghters engaged in combat across Syria, as well as releasing messages condemning Islamic State (IS) activity. While the main body of TIP fighters is engaged in ghting in Syria, Beijing considers that Abdul Haq is hiding in northern Afghanistan. The South Asian wing of the group appears to have moved into Afghanistan in response to the Pakistani Government’s Zarb-e-Azb push that ejected them from their previous base in Pakistan’s badlands.

Evidence from the Middle East shows that a substantial number of Uygurs have joined IS. Leaked IS documents indicate between 118 and 167 IS ghters are identifiably Chinese or Uygur. Additionally, Uygurs appear to have been picked up by Turkish authorities as part of the investigation into the New Year’s Eve attack in Istanbul. Yet while IS has added China to its list of enemies, it hasn’t dedicated many resources to attacking it.

The patterns of TIP and other militant Uygur activity in Afghanistan and Syria go some way to explaining increased Chinese security activity in both countries. On 14 August, People’s Liberation Army Navy Rear Admiral Guan Youfei met Russian and Syrian security o cials in Damascus, where he pledged China’s training support to Syrian medical staff.15 In Afghanistan, building on a long history of engagement, China sought to establish a new regional security subgrouping, bringing together the army chiefs of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China to discuss border security and regional terrorist groups. Tajikistan has additionally publicly confirmed that China is helping to construct border posts between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.16

Beyond warzones, Uygur militants have demonstrated increased contact with Southeast Asian terrorist groups. In August 2016, Indonesian authorities shot and killed a Uygur linked to the East Indonesia Mujahidin, one of the main terrorist groups in Indonesia, led by Santoso.17 This was the tenth Uygur killed alongside the group. The Uygur group was allegedly seeking training with the East Indonesia Mujahidin before returning to China. In November, Nur Muhammet Abdullah al Faris was jailed in Indonesia for his involvement with a network planning a series of terrorist attacks in the region. The network was also reportedly involved in people smuggling to help Uygurs flee China and in some cases receive terrorist training. Some reports indicate that the group received money from TIP (or, as it was identified in the reports, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement), which it was using to advance its own goals as well as to support terrorist training for Uygurs.18

These developments indicate increasingly deep and substantial connections between militant Uygur groups and international terrorist networks. This menacing picture for China underscores the increased need for China to act against the networks externally. The 2016 national CT law recognised this, providing a broader mandate for Chinese security forces to act outside national territory to disrupt terrorist networks. And, as discussed above, China is also increasing the substance and visibility of its security forces beyond its national territory.

The question that remains, however, is the extent to which China’s actions may be exacerbating the very threat that it seeks to mitigate. China’s Uygurs see themselves as a persecuted minority that’s subject to restrictive legislation not imposed on any other groups in China, including other Muslim minorities.19 While there’s been substantial economic investment into Xinjiang, it’s unclear whether the benefits are filtering down to the Uygur community or remaining primarily with the politically and economically dominant Han community. And the lack of information coming out of the region means that it’s impossible to independently evaluate whether the ‘strike hard’ campaign has delivered results.

Certainly, the move of Zhang Chunxian from Xinjiang to Beijing and his replacement by former Tibet party leader Chen Quanguo suggests that the central leadership had mixed feelings about Zhang’s tenure in the region, although it’s hard to discern whether his move was related to failed policies in Xinjiang or his factional connections. Within Xinjiang, it appears that a hard line is taken against officials for failure in areas where attacks occur. A recent report indicated that the party chief in Moyu/Karakax County and the party secretary of Hotan Prefecture (where Moyu/Karakax is located) were both under investigation by the Discipline Inspection Committee for corruption and dereliction of duty, seemingly linking these investigations to the security failures associated with the 29 December incident.20

China’s terrorist problem continues to grow. Last year marked a new point with the attack on the Bishkek Embassy, and the broader threat indicators are not positive. As China continues to advance its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, its nationals and companies are increasingly going to dangerous countries and potentially finding themselves in the cross-hairs of terrorist groups.21 Also, whereas previously China was able to shield itself from attack somewhat because terrorist groups saw the US and the broader West as their targets, this will change as Uygurs rise up the ranks of international terrorist networks and China assumes a more prominent role in international affairs.

Another side to China’s growing outward push reflects the country’s increasing desire to assert itself internationally and become a more normalised security actor in international affairs. While this is reflected in continuing assertiveness in China’s maritime relationships, on land it’s often seen through the lens of CT, on which China finds a more accommodating international consensus. For Beijing, CT offers a more acceptable way to test the limits of its ability to assert its security interests abroad. But the complicated domestic nature of China’s Uygur issue has led to some calls of concern from members of the international community. At the same time, however, Beijing finds an increasingly worrying international terrorism threat picture connected with its domestic concerns, requiring a more assertive posture. In future, it’s likely that these trends mean that Beijing will continue to crack down at home while expanding its efforts abroad.

Notes

  1. Chinese compounds have previously been struck by terrorist or insurgent networks, but the strikes have typically been incidental to being in a warzone and not speci cally targeted, or have been small-scale individual attacks, as seen in Bishkek in 2009.
  2. China has also faced a number of other incidents that have a terroristic aspect to them, including mass stabbings, occasional bombings and shootings, although for the most part those incidents have tended to be linked to individuals’ complaints against the state.
  3. See, for example, Javier C Hernandez, ‘China says 5 killed in attack on Communist Party o ce in Xinjiang’, New York Times, 29 December 2016, online.
  4. ‘“Violent terrorism” in China’s Xinjiang has dropped: party official’, Reuters, 8 March 2016.
  5. Cui Jia, ‘Terrorists strike, but progress made,’ China Daily, 30 December 2016.
  6. Kenji Kawase, ‘More than 1,000 violent clashes in restive Xinjiang this year’, Nikkei Asian Review, 30 December 2016.
  7. See, for example, reporting in Richard Finney: ‘As many as 700 died in Xinjiang violence in last two years, rights group says,’ Radio Free Asia, 3 March 2015, online and ‘“At least 2,000 Uyghurs killed” in Yarkand violence: exile leader’, Radio Free Asia, 5 August 2014.
  8. Chong Koh Ping, ‘Xinjiang gets tough on terrorism’, Straits Times, 5 August 2016; ‘Xinjiang issues China’s rst local counterterrorism law’, Xinhua, 5 August 2016.
  9. ‘China’s armed police hold anti-terror exercise in Xinjiang’, Xinhua, 15 August 2016.
  10. James Leibold, Adrian Zenz, ‘Beijing’s eyes and ears grow sharper in Xinjiang’, Foreign A airs, 23 December 2016.
  11. Eva Li, ‘Show of force in Xinjiang sends hardline message’, South China Morning Post, 3 January 2017.
  12. Thomas Joscelyn, Bill Roggio, ‘Turkistan Islamic Party leader criticizes the Islamic State’s “illegitimate” caliphate’, Long War Journal, 11 June 2016.
  13. Thomas Joscelyn, ‘Zawahiri praises Uighur jihadists in ninth episode of “Islamic Spring” series’, Long War Journal, 7 July 2016.
  14. UN Security Council Subsidiary Organs,‘QDi.268 Abdul Haq, reasons for listing’, UN Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 1267 (1999) 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) Concerning ISIL (Da’esh) Al-Qaida and Associated Individuals Groups Undertakings and Entities, summary published 13 August 2009, online.
  15. Christopher Bodeen, ‘Chinese admiral visits Syria in show of support’, Associated Press, 18 August 2016.
  16. ‘China to build outposts for Tajik guards on Tajikistan–Afghanistan border,’ Reuters, 26 September 2016.
  17. Ruslan Sangadji, ‘Last Uighur of MIT shot dead’, Jakarta Post, 18 August 2016.
  18. Nivell Rayda, ‘Uighur terrorists sent funds to Indonesia,’ The Australian, 6 September 2016.
  19. Alice Su, ‘China doesn’t mind Islamic extremists’, Foreign Policy, 16 December 2016.
  20. Jun Mai, ‘China probes senior Xinjiang party o cials days after deadly bomb attack’, South China Morning Post, 5 January 2017.
  21. The Belt and Road Initiative, also called ‘One Belt, One Road’, is China’s broad-ranging economic development and trade initiative, aiming to increase prosperity through developing land and maritime trading links. A feature of the initiative relevant to terrorism and CT is infrastructure development across areas in China and neighbouring Central Asia.

Slightly belated posting of a piece for the South China Morning Post looking at how Eurasia may lose out from a US-China falling out. Been very busy with a variety of projects which will produce some interesting outputs in the near-term future. The image is not the one used in the article, but one I found on ChinaMil about the same US-China HADR engagement, as I could not seem to download the one from the SCMP.

Why Eurasia will suffer if Donald Trump makes an enemy of China

Raffaello Pantucci says the US president’s hostile stance not only puts at risk overall ties with Beijing, but could also deprive Eurasia of the cooperation it needs to advance, and a counterweight to China’s potentially overbearing sway

chinaus-hadr

There is a dichotomy at the heart of US-China relations that is best captured by the term “frenemies”. The relationship is both contentious and competitive, while also intertwined and interdependent. The economic side of this discussion is well-worn, but the security one is often overlooked, with a simplistic view concluding that interactions are constructed on an interdependent economic relationship and a tense security one.

This misses recent developments that may exacerbate the potential for a tense bilateral relationship under US President Donald Trump.

There is no denying the tense security relationship between Washington and Beijing in the Pacific and the seas off mainland China. A complicated weave of treaties and relationships gives the US a strong security footprint in an area which China claims as its own.

Yet, look over land and a very different perspective emerges. In Afghanistan, China and the US have cooperated for years in trying to bring the Taliban to peace talks, and undertaken joint training missions to build up Afghanistan’s own security capacity. In Central Asia, the two have discussed how to cooperate, though so far there is limited evidence of progress.

In Pakistan, China has played a positive role – with US support – in ensuring the relationship between Pakistan and India does not boil over into conflict. And the US has occasionally eliminated militant Uygurs of concern to Beijing in drone strikes in Afghanistan or Syria – in a reflection of how much China and the US face a joint threat of terrorism.

And there have been some direct joint operations and cooperative efforts. In November, US and Chinese forces practised a humanitarian disaster relief exercise in Yunnan. The concept was that, in the event of a natural disaster, American and Chinese forces might be able to play a role in mitigating the fallout together.

All of these positive moves may now be under threat as both sides ratchet up tensions in the wake of Trump’s aggressive arrival in office. If the US president lives up to his promises of demanding a shift in the Sino-US economic relationship and a more confrontational approach over Taiwan aimed at further advancing this, it is perfectly possible that we may see China choosing to act in a more transactional manner over its links to the US in Eurasia.

If the relationship becomes too poisoned over the seas, Beijing may choose to refuse to play a productive role over land. China is still trying to work out what role it will play in Eurasia, and how it will enforce its will.

If it sees the US in a more competitive light, it is possible Beijing will start to conclude that it no longer wants to play a cooperative role with Washington. Rather, it will look to others, and start to strengthen its relations in a way to cut the US out of the region.

The potential loser in all of this is Eurasia – a region that needs greater cooperation from all sides if it is to realise the potential of the various proposed Silk Road and connectivity routes across the continent. The long-fallow US “New Silk Road” initiative to help Afghanistan reconnect to its region will dissolve further into irrelevance and American interests in Eurasia will be further reduced.

Currently, the region is dominated by Beijing’s economic push, but it requires greater investment and cooperation from a wider range of actors if it is to truly succeed. This includes both China and the US, which have different and important roles to play, and are both sought after by countries across the continent. If the two powers start to develop a more confrontational approach, it will limit connectivity but also deprive Eurasian powers of a key alternative to China’s potentially overbearing power across the continent.

The US and China have developed habits of close cooperation across Eurasia that have helped open up new markets and opportunities, and reconnect the world as never before. It has also shown how the US and China are able to play a productive and cooperative role together. If Trump forces a more confrontational and transactional relationship, it is likely that China will continue on its path across Eurasia alone or with other partners – a net loss for American power across the region.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

Catching up on some old posting again, combination of being busy and some technical difficulties causing issues with updating. This is a piece for The Diplomat in the wake of the SCO Summit in Tashkent which passed with very little attention.

Is SCO Expansion a Good Thing?

Whilst the brotherhood of European Union countries has shrunk by one, the community of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) states grew by two. Whilst it is by no means confirmed that India and Pakistan are full members of the regional security organization, their membership is all but assured as long as they are able to ratify the relevant documents through their national processes. The more existential question is whether this membership is going to transform the SCO in the same way that British exit from the EU is likely to transform the EU. As with the EU referendum, no one really knows, but it seems equally likely that the end result will be negative.

SCO expansion has been a source of great trepidation for member states for some time. Previous efforts at expansion had stalled for various reasons. Iran was kept out both for practical reasons: it was under UN sanction in contravention to the rules. But realpolitik also played a role: the larger member states did not want to so openly join former President Ahmadinejad’s aggressive anti-Western alliance. Afghanistan was always kept at near arms length, reflecting some member states’ desires to bring the state in, whilst others preferred to maintain their relations at a bilateral level. And the question of India and Pakistan always seemed to be balanced by the two big powers (China and Russia) who each wanted one of the two in, whilst the Chinese generally grew concerned that an expanded group would lose coherence.

In the end, China appears to have lost this struggle, obliged to both accept its close ally Pakistan as well as expanding a regional organization whose utility it was already questioning. Whilst to outside observers, the SCO was the primary vehicle of regional engagement, in reality, Beijing was undertaking a consistent level of bilateral engagement on the sidelines of SCO meetings. Every SCO Summit was accompanied by bilateral engagements, and by all accounts, it was at these engagements that all serious business was done. Previous Chinese efforts to push the SCO in new directions stalled, including Beijing-led efforts to create an SCO Development Bank, an SCO free trade area, or other economic initiatives.

Most recently, China had shown the degree to which it was losing interest in the SCO as a vehicle for regional multilateral security engagement when PLA Chief of Staff Fang Fenghui raised the notion of a regional sub-grouping of China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan as a vehicle for engagement on regional security questions. Whilst it is not clear that this proposal was a new regional concept as opposed to a potential relevant meeting grouping, its expression reflects a Chinese willingness to look beyond the SCO to resolve regional security questions and highlighting their skepticism toward the organization.

This is in many ways a shame. The SCO, for all its failings, is an organization that might offer some solutions for a fractured region. Central Asia is a part of the world that is beset with border disputes at a very senior level that impede the most basic cross-border trade. The SCO is one of the few organizations that guarantees relevant leaders are obliged to meet with their counterparts on a regular basis on neutral ground. The hope for some was that by bringing Pakistan and India into this format, it would similarly force them to engage in another forum on a regular basis.

In reality, however, SCO expansion is likely to produce little such impact. But it has potentially highlighted a reality in international affairs. Whilst people are keen to leave multilateral organizations in the first world, they appear keen to continue to join them in the developing world. Notwithstanding protestations of national strength and independence by SCO member states, the reality is that they are all 25 years young this year and keen members of an organization that they may not adore, but one in which they have had a resonant voice from the beginning. From an outsider perspective, some of the practices that are advanced through the SCO are questionable at best, but seen from inside they are comprehensible measures that address fundamental questions of national security. This clarity of purpose is what gives the organization its attractiveness, cutting through the nebulous normative concepts that drive European security projects.

But as the EU has learned to its detriment, expansion and new members do not always lead to a positive outcome. It can also lead to a context in which individual member states dictate agendas and steer narratives away from hoped for goals. And it is here that sentiment for expansion for the SCO lies: somewhere between timid optimism and catastrophic exuberant expansionism. The SCO was already having difficulty crafting an identity and practical ideology with six member states, let alone with eight. Going forwards it is likely to continue to drift onward, meandering through the seas of time with no clear port in sight.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

A new piece for an excellent source on all things on Eurasia, appropriately enough called Eurasianet. It is part of a series they have been running this week looking at China in the region, and have run a number of other excellent pieces after this. More on this topic as ever soon, and be sure to check out China in Central Asia for the bigger projects I continue to do on China’s push into Eurasia.

China’s Place in Central Asia

Xi Nazarbayev

First of a Five-Part Series

EurasiaNet is running a series this week looking at the state of relations between China and the five nations of former Soviet Central Asia. China expert Raffaello Pantucci opens the series with a survey of China’s role in the region. 

China’s rise in Central Asia marks one of the most consequential changes in regional geopolitics since the turn of the century.

China announced that it intended to be a major player in Central Asia back in September 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech in Astana that inaugurated the “Belt and Road” vision — the most dominant expression of Chinese foreign policy from his administration. Yet this declaration notwithstanding, it remains unclear whether Beijing has a coherent vision for Central Asia. Instead, Beijing continues to grow into a role of regional prominence without a clear plan to manage the ramifications of its growing role.

The narrative of spreading Chinese influence throughout the region is not new. Indicators of China’s influence are plentiful. Markets are full of Chinese products, infrastructure is heavily built by Chinese firms with Chinese loans, leadership visits — either Chinese to the region or regional to China — are followed by announcements of massive deals being signed, and increasingly China is playing a more prominent role in regional security questions. Even so, China remains a hesitant regional actor, and is keen to continue casting itself as subordinate to Russia. Beijing is also eager to avoid becoming embroiled in inevitable regional economic and political complications.

Most recently, these complications have manifested themselves as protests in Kazakhstan, where locals have expressed anger at the government’s decision to change legislation governing foreigners’ ability to rent land for lengthy periods of time. Public anger is rooted mostly in concerns that Chinese firms will exploit this legislation to slowly lease ever larger tracts of Kazakhstani land. Such problems have arisen in the past. In 2009, for example, when President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced a leasing arrangement, Chinese and Tajik censors blocked references in the media to a similar deal in Tajikistan in 2011.

In other contexts, China finds itself embroiled in corruption scandals. The recently deposed prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, Temir Sariyev, departed under a cloud of bribery accusations connected mostly to a road-building contract won by Chinese firm Longhai. Similar suspicions are often voiced in other countries, though details tend to be elusive. And finally, China continues to be concerned about security threats connected to the region. Lower level criminality affects Chinese entrepreneurs in the region who are sometimes seen as a soft touch by local criminals, while the government continues to express concern about terrorist groups and networks that are believed to be active in the region.

On more strategic level, a major challenge for Chinese officials is related to perception. There is a persistent sense among experts and officials in Central Asia that China’s interests and investment in the region mask some sort of hidden agenda. Such wariness is often exacerbated by a belief that China is only interested in the region’s natural resources, or sees Central Asia merely as a conduit to more lucrative markets elsewhere.

Aware of the perception issue, China has sought to address it. During Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Kyrgyzstan in May, he spoke to his counterpart Erlan Abdyldayev about the possibility of relocating Chinese factories to the country. In Uzbekistan, telecoms companies Huawei and ZTE have already realized the importance of this and established assembly plants there, while the Xuzhou Construction Machinery Group (XCMG) has sought to piggyback on the external construction push under the Belt and Road by building a factory in the country. In Kazakhstan, meanwhile, the government continues to hold out hope that the Special Economic Zones being developed at the Khorgos border crossing and elsewhere will turn into manufacturing hubs rather than just transit points for Chinese goods.

On the extractives front, China continues to be a major importer, though as Turkmenistan has discovered in the past year, China’s appetite for gas has its limits. While all the talk publicly has been about the pending realization of the trans-Afghan TAPI pipeline, signals are increasingly visible of further strings to the China-Central Asia pipeline being put on ice for the time being. And from the regional perspective, Central Asian capitals are growing as concerned about becoming reliant on the China market as they are about the steep drop in Russia’s economy.

The biggest driver of Chinese thinking towards Central Asia remains the Belt and Road. Highlighting the degree to which this is the lens through which Beijing views the region, Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his recent visit to Bishkek spoke of how China wanted to view the “SCO as a platform to speed up the docking of the Silk Road Economic Belt with the construction of the Eurasian Economic Union.” The local branch of the Belt and Road, the Silk Road Economic Belt, is an all-encompassing concept that at its heart is about improved connectivity, regional development and investment. It increasingly seems as though it is going to become the overarching umbrella through which China will engage with the region.

This is a mixed blessing for the region. Given the centrality of the Belt and Road and Silk Road Economic Belt to Xi Jinping personally, it is clear that Central Asia will continue to benefit from this attention going forward. But there remains a question about how the region will be able to capture some local benefit beyond simply transit fees. It is clear that China feels like it has a voice that it wants to express sometimes — most recently in the form of an angry outburst from the Chinese Ambassador to Kazakhstan about the difficulty his co-nationals have had in obtaining visas — but it remains uncertain what Beijing’s long-term vision for the region is.

The question for the Central Asian capitals is the degree to which they can shape China’s approach in a way that maximizes the benefits that they seek. Central Asian leaders also want China to take a greater degree of responsibility for some regional security questions. As the first stop on the ideologically central Silk Road Economic Belt, Central Asia will be a consistent point in Chinese foreign policy in the coming years. What the long-term ramifications of this are, however, remains to be seen.

Editor’s note: Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute and the co-editor of China in Central Asia

A new post this time on the other topic that occupies a lot of time, looking at China and Russia’s relations with Central Asia. It is in essence the transcript of a presentation Sarah and me did in Washington at the kind invitation of the fantastic Marlene Laruelle of George Washington University and Director of their Central Asia Program. As ever, more on this topic to come, more stuff can always be found on China in Central Asia.

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China and Russia in Central Asia: Cooperation and Conflict

Despite the significant rise of China’s economic influence in the region, Russia continues to maintain its political leverage in Central Asia. In contrast to China, it explicitly states its intention to keep its grip on this influence, as highlighted by Medvedev’s speech in 2008. This declared commitment to preserving Russia’s ‘spheres of privileged influence’ certainly includes Central Asia. The key aim for Russia is to ensure, at least in theory, loyalty to the Russian government, seeking countries it can depend on for support. The various alliances Russia plays a crucial role in alongside the Central Asian states, such as the EEU, SCO, CSTO and CIS, also have a utility of legitimizing Russia’s position in a visibly multipolar world. Indeed, the SCO is a platform shared with China, but they all act as a way of overtly demonstrating structural equivalents of Western-dominated organizations such as the EU and NATO.

The Ukraine crisis has undermined Russia’s legitimacy by raising suspicions for both Central Asia and China about Russian intentions in the region. The prevention of color revolutions, which was enshrined in the recently updated version of Russia’s Military Doctrine, has potential implications across the former Soviet space. Indeed, Russia’s commitment to protect Russian- speakers and ethnic Russians abroad causes concern for Central Asians. Although Russia has almost exclusively acted on this in the more Western-leaning post-Soviet countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia, a speech by Putin that addressed Kazakhstan was provocative in light of events in Ukraine. Not only did Putin praise Nazarbayev, but he also highlighted that Kazakhs realized the value of being part of the “greater Russian world,” which raised alarm bells in Astana. Russia has proven it has no issues in leveraging its position over former Soviet states for certain self-interested strategic purposes.
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It is worth noting that, despite this political leverage Russia has over its former empire, the Central Asian states are by no means passive in their relationship with Russia. Independence of action varies between the five states, but it has expressed itself in subtle ways. For example, in the UN vote on Crimea, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan abstained from voting. Although potentially more symbolic than reflecting real intention, Nazarbayev has made statements in which he says Kazakhstan will leave the EEU if it ceases to be in Kazakhstan’s economic or political interests to be a member.

An area of general agreement between Russia and Central Asia, however, is the definition of and desire for political stability in the region. Although there are certainly concerns around how Tajikistan is currently handling its fragile political situation, the Central Asian states are as averse to abrupt regime changes or color revolutions threatening the status quo as Russia. This allows for a consensus between Russia and Central Asia towards political and governance norms.

China is certainly engaging in a different way politically with Central Asia compared to Russia. China’s political role in the region could be described as latent but one that has not yet manifested itself so overtly. It is certainly a more subtle political actor than Russia. However, there are indications that Central Asia plays the role of testing ground for Chinese foreign policy efforts, meaning Central Asia forms what could be described as China’s “inadvertent empire.” The belt and road vision is a prime example of this. It was significant that Xi Jinping announced the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) at Nazarbayev University in 2013. This represented a vision that built on something that had already been happening for years in Central Asia. China had long been building infrastructure using linked loans, which allowed domestic companies to “go out” and build in Central Asia. The announcement showed Xi Jinping stamping his name and authority onto a coherent foreign policy that was based on existing activities. China’s “testing ground” has also manifested itself in other formats, particularly those that are multilateral. The SCO is the best example of a structure through which China can test its security policy in the region.

Moreover, a contrast between Russian and Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia is that China’s policy is closely linked to addressing domestic concerns. For China, it is much more about ensuring stability and development in Xinjiang. Central Asia is an important trade link to ensure access and opportunities for Xinjiang back home. Thus, it is much less about spheres of influence for China. Rather than ensure explicit political loyalty to China within Central Asian governments, which features more importantly in Russia’s foreign policy, China strives more towards developing good economic ties. Of course, political allegiance and support assists doing business in the region, but the ultimate aim is economic utility for China.

One question, the answer to which is not yet clear, is when does this economic power express itself politically? There are a few examples of how this might express itself. For example, in Kyrgyzstan there have been cases of Chinese businessmen facing serious trouble with local corrupt officials when they have failed to pay off the right people, often ending in violence. The Chinese Embassy in certain cases has expressed anger directly to the government of Kyrgyzstan, demanding for an apology. For the most part, however, China’s political role has continued to be consistent with non-interference. China is happy to be the largest investment partner to the region, but does not wish to own the political and security problems of Central Asia in the same way Russia is prepared to do.

Therefore, in the security sphere, Russia still seems to be the dominant player. The Chinese have been active in terms of border security, military aid and some arms deals. It has conducted training with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in particular, which it views as weak links from a Chinese security perspective. Again, engagement primarily reflects China’s domestic security concerns rather than a willingness to project itself as a security power in the region. China still appears content deferring to Russia on this broader security agenda.

A good example of this reluctance to intervene in domestic issues can be seen in Pakistan. Some of the recent issues around the China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC) illustrate this. China’s priority is to build a corridor from Kashgar that ends in either Karachi or Gwadar, gaining sea access. However, it appears China was not quite prepared for Pakistan’s internal disputes over the route and is not clear on how to mediate this discussion. The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad was forced to issue a statement on this, essentially sending the message that CPEC is a project that should benefit the entire country. It is up to Pakistan to handle the local politics. Looking back to Central Asia, tensions in regional politics certainly present challenges to China’s intended implementation of the SREB. These are challenges that China will be reluctant to mediate directly.

Both Russia and China clearly provide economic incentives for the Central Asians to cooperate with them. It seems that Russia is much more willing to leverage these incentives, and indeed pressure Central Asian states economically when useful, particularly to extract political gains. A prime example of this pertains to the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan. When Kyrgyzstan was discussing closing access to the base for the US in 2009, Russia offered a huge aid package to Kyrgyzstan as an incentive to terminate the US contract. When Bakiyev went back on this deal, Russia used its soft power as a tool to pressure Kyrgyzstan to reconsider, particularly pushing stories of Bakiyev’s involvement in corruption as a way of de-legitimizing the leader. This demonstrates Russia’s approach of rewarding, but also punishing, the Central Asian states to act in a way that benefits Russia. Another example of an economic pressure point is migrant workers. In January 2015 new rules came into force that made it more difficult for migrant workers to work legally in Russia, such as mandatory Russian language tests and increased costs for documentation. This in particular affected Tajik workers, which led many to believe this was Russia’s way of pressuring Tajikistan to join the EEU.

It is easy to interpret every policy Russia has towards Central Asia as a form of leverage. This is not only an over-simplification but also may be unfair to Russia. However, some of the pressure points Russia can exploit are vulnerable, indicating that the Central Asian states are by no means inevitably tied to Russian foreign policy. For example, given the economic situation in Russia, remittances are dropping. These constitute an economic life-line to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in particular, and if they drop there is less incentive for these countries to respond to some of Russia’s more political demands. Russia has had to cancel hydropower projects in Kyrgyzstan, which it had pledged to fund, not only showing Russia as unreliable but simultaneously reinforcing the perception that China is the real economic player. Although in the long-term it is unlikely that Central Asia-Russia economic ties can be severed, it still shows that some of Russia’s points of leverage are far from guaranteed.

The EEU is Russia’s big economic draw, and tool, for the region. Although in principle it could be positive in furthering economic integration, it so far has shown many negatives. For example, in the first three months of 2015, inter-member trade actually dropped. The fact that Ukraine is unlikely to join unless there is another domestic political pivot means there are huge limitations to the benefits that the Central Asian members can reap from the union given the over- dominance of the Russian economy. Moreover, given the rhetoric from Nazarbayev on the EEU, there are also clearly fears that it is used by Russia as a political tool.

The failures of this Union have manifested themselves in the protectionist measures initiated by member states. For example, Kazakhstan has implemented oil embargoes against Russia. There are complaints from Kyrgyzstan regarding the lack of benefits the EEU brings the country, whilst highlighting that it had no choice in joining. Obviously this also plays into Kyrgyzstan’s interests of extracting more economic incentives from Russia. But fundamentally there are question marks as how political, rather than economic, the strategy is behind the implementation of this project.

China in contrast is investing in Central Asia at a rate that Russia knows it cannot compete with. China is now the biggest trading partner of the Central Asia region, having displaced Russia. There are also risks for Russia that at least symbolically Central Asia becomes a Chinese foreign policy project. Having been very cautious about endorsing the SREB, Russia supported the project by agreeing to find ways to integrate the SREB with the EEU. The practicalities of such integration are unclear given the difference in structure of each strategy. However, it is likely instead that the EEU will be subsumed rhetorically by the SREB project, i.e. that the EEU becomes a part of the bigger Chinese project. This signifies a loss of prestige for Russia.

One unknown for the Belt and Road project is how the economic slowdown in China might affect the project’s implementation. There have already been some frustrations voiced in Central Asia on this front. For example, Nazarbayev noted that Kazakhstan is being affected negatively not only by the economic slowdown in Russia, but also by that which is occurring in China. Turkmenistan is struggling to find consistent gas demand in China, and subsequent pricing, as planned. The enthusiastic push to making TAPI a reality speaks to the urgency of Turkmenistan’s need to find new gas markets. There have also been challenges in Xinjiang’s own domestic build-up, the powerhouse of the SREB policy. The planned robust economic development there does not seem to have taken off at the speed required. This will have knock- on effects across the border. On the other hand, the Belt and Road presents a potential outlet for the challenges causing the slowdown in China. If the infrastructure construction market is slowing down at home, and there is excess capacity in companies and materials at home, exporting it abroad is a strategy for, at least in the short-term, ameliorating this.

Another challenge in the Belt and Road discourse pertains to the huge loans that China is dispensing to the Central Asian states, with little confidence that they will be paid back. Although economically this may not make sense, it does speak to the longer-term perspective that China takes with such loans. They are much more patient about such debts. Moreover, the way these deals are structured has an added benefit to China. For example, China’s Eximbank will grant a significant loan to the Tajik government to implement a series of projects on the condition that a Chinese company will implement it. Often this means that the money never really leaves Beijing – it is simply shifted from one Chinese state bank account to another.

Thus, in conclusions, there is always potential for conflict between two great powers such as China and Russia in Central Asia, but currently there seems to be a useful division of labor between the two. There are overriding geopolitical dynamics between Russia and China that mean they gain more from avoiding confrontation. China does not seem perturbed by Russia’s desire to maintain its neo-imperial approach to the region, as long as it does not conflict directly with China’s economic interest. Russia is aware it cannot compete with China in terms of economic investment but knows that it can maintain the security mandate in the region. This creates a genuine mutual respect between the two in Central Asia. Moreover, there is an informal consensus on the need for political stability between Russia, China and the Central Asian states. That is not to say that tensions are absent. People we have spoken to in Beijing hint that the Russians are difficult to work with. People we have spoken to in Moscow are innately suspicious of Chinese geopolitical intentions in the region. So far, however, it is difficult to see where full-blown conflict between the two might occur.

And now a short paper co-authored with Sarah, my co-editor on the China in Central Asia site, as part of a larger project we have been working on at our home institution of RUSI looking at China in the region. There has been an earlier report in this series, and more to come.

Security and Stability along the Silk Road

Sarah Lain and Raffaello Pantucci
RUSI Publications, 29 February 2016
Central and South Asia, International Security Studies

Proceedings of a 19 January 2016 workshop on the security context for the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) across Central Asia and the stabilising effects of investment and infrastructure development

Download the report here

On 19 January 2016, RUSI in collaboration with the University of World Economy and Diplomacy hosted a day-long workshop in Tashkent on the security context for the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) across Central Asia and the stabilising effects investment and infrastructure development could have on the region.

The workshop included a specific discussion about Uzbekistan’s role in regional security in light of the SREB initiative, as well as China’s views and approaches to security questions throughout the broader region. The event brought together participants from Uzbekistan, China and the UK, including representatives from academia and think tanks.

This workshop report summarises the discussions from the conference and offers insights into the current state of the Chinese-led project.