Posts Tagged ‘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.

Two more longer pieces to get the year going, this time part of my new institutional home ICPVTR at RSIS‘s annual Counter-Terrorist Trends and Analysis (CTTA) which provides an overview of the threat picture in a series of jurisdictions over the past year with some brief thoughts about where things might go. I worked with colleagues Nodir and Kyler separately on two of the pieces, looking at Central Asia and the Extreme Right Wing respectively. Will post both, but would encourage people to read the whole document as it provides a useful overview of threats around the region. First up, however, the Central Asia paper with Nodir.

Central Asia

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

There were no reported terror attacks in Central Asia (referring to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) in 2020, although the threat of terrorism and radicalisation persisted in the region. The current jihadist threat to Central Asia can be categorised in three ways: i) threats associated with Central Asian nationals fighting in the Afghan and Syrian conflicts and the security implications posed by their potential return home or move to a third country to continue engaging in violent activities; ii) prospective attacks orchestrated by self-radicalised individuals or cells of supporters within Central Asia; and iii) radicalisation of members of Central Asian diaspora communities and their involvement in terror plots.

Central Asian fighters in Syria and Afghanistan

Official estimates indicate that up to 5,650 individuals from the region – 2,000 Tajik, 2,000 Uzbek, 850 Kyrgyz and 800 Kazakh nationals respectively – have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside jihadist groups to date.698 Some foreign newspapers and international organisations have also alluded to the potential presence of fighters from Turkmenistan in the Syrian conflict, although officials in Ashgabat have refrained thus far from publicly addressing the issue.699

Based on observations of online materials released by Central Asian jihadists based in Syria and Iraq, it appears that large segments of Kazakh and Tajik operatives are fighting alongside IS, while Kyrgyz and Uzbek nationals appear to have mostly aligned themselves with Al Qaeda-linked groups.700 To date, an estimated 1,633 (29 percent) of the reported Central Asian nationals have been killed in battle, while another 1,715 (30 percent) individuals, comprising mostly women and children, have been captured (or surrendered) and placed in detention facilities across Syria and Iraq.701 As far as is known, the remaining IS fighters from the region have either gone into hiding or are scattered across ungoverned parts of Syria and Iraq continuing fighting. Others have relocated to conflict zones elsewhere. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda-linked Central Asian groups remain active in the north of Syria.

In Afghanistan, Central Asian fighters continue to appear occasionally, with local authorities regularly referencing their presence. For example, in a November 2020 address at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Leaders’ Summit, Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) Director Jumakhon Giyosov informed that his organisation, a permanent body within the SCO that focuses on terrorist issues, had received intelligence of growing numbers of Central Asian fighters in northern Afghanistan.702 A threat appeared to materialise just over a week later, when a Tajik-led Taliban cell in Badakhshan attacked a police station near the Tajik border, killing 19 Afghan policemen. Following the attack, the cell’s leader made threatening comments in a propaganda video towards Tajikistan, suggesting the group may seek to launch attacks there too.703 Additional threats from Tajik fighters affiliated to the Taliban were also visible elsewhere in Afghanistan, with media reports in August identifying four Tajik nationals as members of a cell involved in an IS-claimed attack on a prison in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.704

IS’ External Operations Arm Has Weakened

IS-linked Central Asian nationals presently detained in Kurdish prisons include prominent Tajik members of the “Amniyat alKharji” (or “Emni”) – IS’ external operations arm dedicated to organising terrorist attacks outside of Syria and Iraq. In January 2020, Tajik prosecutors revealed that two highranking Tajik IS militants, Parviz Saidrakhmonov (“Abu Dovud”) and Tojiddin Nazarov (“Abu Osama Noraki”), were being held in Syrian prisons, along with several other Tajik IS militants, following capture by Kurdish forces.705 The duo were wanted in Russia and Tajikistan respectively for their alleged links to a number of terror plots in both countries. Swedish authorities claimed the two militants are also part of a Syriabased IS attack network reported to be behind the 2017 Stockholm truck attack.706 Their extradition is still being sought.

There have also been conflicting reports on the fate of Gulmurod Khalimov, Tajikistan‘s former police special operations colonel, who defected to IS in May 2015, and was later promoted as the group‘s ‘War Minister’ in Syria.707 In August 2020, Tajikistan’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Ramazon Rahimzoda Hamro, stated that some IS Tajik fighters who had returned home from Syria testified that Khalimov and his family had been killed in an air strike in Syria.708 However, the minister highlighted that without hard evidence, such testimonies were insufficient to officially declare Khalimov as dead. Tajik authorities had earlier alleged that Khalimov and some of his associates could have relocated to the northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan.709 In October 2020, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) announced the inclusion of Khalimov in its updated sanctions list, suggesting that official confirmation of his death remains elusive.710

The possible loss of senior figures such as Saidrakhmanov, Nazarov and Khalimov highlights the degree to which IS’ core cadre of Tajik operatives appears to have been weakened. Nonetheless, the recent detention of Tajik nationals over IS-linked terror plots in countries such as Germany and Albania has shown that IS remains connected to its Tajik support base, and is still able to direct supporters to carry out attacks, including, for example by providing them with the necessary operational guidance through dedicated online tutorials or communications via encrypted Internet applications. Throughout the year, the group also continued to produce propaganda material aimed at its Central Asian constituency.

KTJ Stuck in a Rivalry Between HTS and HAD

Al-Qaeda-linked Central Asian combat units such as Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) and Katibat Imam Al Bukhari (KIB) have remained active in Syria. Both groups, operating under the umbrella of the Al Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist alliance, are predominantly made up of ethnic Uzbek fighters from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In 2020, both KTJ and KTB were caught in the middle of escalating tensions between HTS, the dominant Islamist militant group in Idlib, and Hurras ad-Din (HAD), one of several other jihadist factions operating in the area. HAD is currently Al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria. In June 2020, KTJ’s founder and former leader, “Abu Saloh”, along with two accomplices, defected to Jabhat Ansar al-Din (JAD), a newly-formed jihadist faction closely aligned with HAD.711 Prior to 2016, when it formally severed ties with the global jihadist group, HTS’ predecessor al Nusra Front had been regarded as the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, and they had fought together under the same umbrella. HAD and HTS have since fallen out.

Since HAD’s inception, hardline elements have criticised HTS, arguing it had abandoned the Al Qaeda agenda, and was alienating itself further by showing a willingness to endorse the ceasefire agreements over Idlib put forward by Turkey and Russia. HAD and other Al Qaeda-linked factions have rejected the Idlib agreement, which they view as “a conspiracy of the occupiers”.712 The accusation, it appears, has undermined HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani’s authority and inspired some of the more hardline factions within HTS to break away from the group.713

Abu Saloh’s defection to JAD triggered a larger migration of fighters. Following in his stead, around 50 KTJ members defected to JAD.714 Al-Julani would later respond to these defections by launching a manhunt for Abu Saloh and other defectors. Soon after, Abu Saloh and the other dissenting fighters were arrested and jailed by HTS in Idlib. Some media reports have speculated that Abu Saloh’s defection might have occurred after the KTJ’s new leadership accused him of stealing a significant amount of money from the baytumal (common budget) of the group.715 Regardless of the true motive, Abu Saloh’s arrest was a significant coup for al Julani. Had he gone unpunished, it could have inspired more defections from KTJ as well as possibly precipitated a fracturing of HTS. Later, al-Julani announced that Abu Saloh and his accomplices could be released, on condition they agreed to return to the HTS fold. Failing this, the HTS leader threatened to charge and punish Abu Saloh for a series of crimes, including embezzlement of group funds and property as well as apostasy.716 His ultimate fate remains unknown.

Abu Saloh’s arrest came as he was stepping back from a leadership role in KTJ. In April 2019, he announced his resignation as leader of the group “to focus on recruitment and fundraising following an injury in a terrorist operation”.717 At the same time, he has maintained a high degree of visibility online, continuing his radical preaching activities under KTJ’s banner and endorsing Al Qaeda’s ideology. Despite his present troubles, some of Abu Saloh’s audio and video preaching materials still exist on the KTJ’s website.

Following its recent leadership reshuffle, some new figures have emerged within KTJ’s upper echelon. The group’s online propaganda materials have introduced “Abdul Aziz” as a successor to Abu Saloh. While referencing his family name as “Khikmatov”, a UN report disclosed that he had fought alongside the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), the Al Qaeda-linked Central Asian group fighting in Afghanistan, for close to two decades prior to joining KTJ in Syria.718 It was later reported that Abu Saloh’s role as the group’s key ideologue was taken over by Akhliddin Novkatiy (Navqotiy), who reportedly arrived from Turkey at the personal invitation of Abdul Aziz.719 The “Navqotiy” name is synonymous with the southern Kyrgyz town of Novqat (or Nookat), hinting it could be his original birthplace. As the new ideological leader of the group, Navqotiy has appeared in a series of audio and video propaganda lectures.

KIB and Other Central Asian Groups in Syria/Afghanistan

KIB is assessed in UN reporting to have a total of 220 fighters in Syria, while about 70 fighters from its military wing are active in Afghanistan.720 In Syria, KIB together with other groups such as KTJ and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) have played a crucial role in defending HTS’ territorial positions in Idlib from the Syrian government’s offensives. KIB’s Afghan wing, while known to operate under the umbrella of the Taliban, has maintained close contact with its central core in Syria.721 It conducts militant operations against Afghan government forces in Faryab and Jowzjan provinces, where ethnic Uzbeks constitute a large portion of the indigenous population. According to data from the United Nations Monitoring Team, KIB’s Afghan wing leader Jumaboi is reported to receive funding from the group’s cell in Istanbul, Turkey via the hawala system.722

In July 2020, KIB released photos on its Telegram channel in which it claimed to have undertaken a joint operation with the Taliban that led to the capture of several Afghan government soldiers.723 Soon after, however, this claim was disputed by the Taliban’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who countered that the footage circulated by KIB had been stolen from the Taliban’s archive and falsified by “anti-peace elements for
propaganda”.724 It is difficult to interpret this divergence in claims. Notwithstanding KIB overall leader Abu Yusuf Muhajir’s welcoming of the Taliban’s peace agreement with the United States, which he described as “the great victory of the Islamic Ummah”, some elements within KIB clearly oppose the pact.725 Other Central Asian groups based in Afghanistan include the IJU, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Jamaat Ansarullah (JA). These groups continue operating under the banner of the Taliban, while receiving sanctuary, protection, and training from the movement in return. Their status, however, could be thrown into doubt if the Taliban follows through on its agreement to stop foreign groups from using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks.

Terrorist Developments Within Central Asia

Despite the global shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorist activities have persisted in many parts of the world, including Central Asia. In 2020, Central Asian countries continued to foil attack plots and arrest several suspected jihadists. In October, Kazakh authorities revealed they had thwarted five terrorist attacks since the beginning of the year, resulting in the arrest of ten suspects.726 The foiled attacks included a reported plot by an IS supporter planning to target mass gatherings with grenades during the Navruz spring festival in Almaty. Another reported plot involved an IS supporter planning to detonate an explosive device in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan. Both plots were thwarted in March 2020.727

Uzbekistan saw a relative increase in arrests for terrorist recruitment and funding compared to 2019. Uzbek authorities in June 2020 arrested 15 residents in Surkhandarya province, who were reportedly part of an extremist recruitment and fundraising cell linked to KTJ.728 The cell’s ringleader was reportedly radicalised while working as a seasonal worker in Russia, and later recruited members from among his compatriots. While in Russia, the cell members regularly met up to listen to and discuss online audio and video propaganda preached by extremist ideologues such as Abu Saloh, Abdulloh Zufar, and Sodiq Samarqandiy. The suspects, all of whom were reportedly detained upon their return home, were allegedly planning to travel to Syria and had also sent money there to finance KTJ’s activities.729

A similar case emerged in the Uzbek province of Jizzakh, where counterterrorism agencies arrested a group of 23 young men reportedly part of a virtual extremist cell linked to KTJ. The leader of the cell had reportedly been radicalised by extremist ideologies in Turkey and, in turn, began recruiting via the Odnoklassniki and Telegram social networks.730 Later, during two rounds of additional arrests conducted in Tashkent city and Tashkent Province, the police arrested a further 36 men, also with links to KTJ. They had reportedly planned to travel to Syria to fight for the group.731

In August 2020, Tajik authorities revealed that in the first half of the year, the country’s counterterrorism agencies had thwarted two terrorist plots by IS followers targeting police officers in the Rasht and Shakhrinav provinces.732 Authorities used the opportunity of the announcement of the two plots to declare that over the year they had detained 274 people and detected around 900 extremism-related crimes.733

While similar cumulative data is hard to come by in the context of Kyrgyzstan, there was a steady patter of terrorist related activity reported in the country throughout 2020. In February, authorities detained a 23-year-old Kyrgyz citizen who had returned home from abroad intent on recruiting others. The individual had allegedly failed previously to travel to Syria via an unnamed foreign country.734 In October, a foreign individual was arrested, having entered the country also reportedly with the intent to partake in radicalisation activities. He had previously served time for terrorism offences in another Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) country.735 Two others detained in the same month had reportedly undertaken robberies in the southwestern Jalal-Abad Province on behalf of an unnamed militant group. Both had previously fought in Syria for the same group, before returning to Kyrgyzstan.736

Overall, security risks to Central Asia persist, with authorities continuing to report detentions. While the full scope and nature of the terror networks and plots disrupted are rarely made public, strands of reporting repeatedly point to radicalisation taking place in Russia, the significance of social media and regular efforts to send money to Syria.

Central Asia Diaspora Radicalisation Abroad

There continue to be worrying signals of the expansion of a threat from Central Asians outside their home region. More particularly, Central Asian migrant and diaspora communities based in the Republic of Korea, Russia, Turkey, and other parts of Europe, continue to be a target for online jihadi propaganda and recruitment737. In the past year, plots featuring Central Asians were uncovered by authorities in parts of Europe and Russia.

In mid-April 2020, German authorities detained four Tajik nationals over an IS linked terror plot to attack US military facilities and personnel stationed in the country.738 According to the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, the detainees and their ringleader, who has been in pre-trial custody since his arrest in March 2019, were in a regular contact with two senior IS militants in Syria and Afghanistan, from whom they had reportedly received instructions. While the attacks were not planned for the immediate term, the cell members had already ordered bomb parts online and were stocking up on firearms and ammunition in preparation.739 The reported plan was to target the US air base in Spangdahlem and the NATO AWACS air base near Geilenkirchen, potentially using remote-controlled drones or paragliders armed with explosives.740 Reports also suggested that the individuals had initially sought to return to Tajikistan to launch attacks, but had been re-directed to Europe by their external handlers.741

The detainees were also accused of raising and channeling funds for IS’ core operations in Syria. As part of these fundraising missions, they had reportedly partaken in a murder-for-hire operation in Albania and collected money from Chechens from France who were working on a construction site in Germany. The team deployed for the attempted contract killing operation in Albania had included two Russian-born Chechens from Austria.

All the suspects involved in the plot to attack the US air bases were Tajik citizens residing in Germany as migrants, although much remains unclear about their exact path towards radicalisation. It is believed that none had previously travelled to jihadist conflict zones. The said plot was announced shortly before authorities in Poland detained another group of four Tajiks, reportedly also connected to IS. Along with a fifth individual, who was detained later, they were deported to Tajikistan in September.742 The details of this group’s suspected activities remain sketchy, though they were reportedly accused of recruiting others and potentially being linked to another extremist arrested by Polish authorities in December 2019.743 In October, an IS-linked Tajik national who had been granted asylum in Greece was arrested following an international search operation.744

As in recent years, Russia in 2020 saw a regular diet of arrests involving Central Asians reportedly plotting terrorist activity in the country. In October, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) disrupted a cell reportedly linked to KTJ which was planning terrorist attacks in Volgograd. The cell members, alleged to be in contact with others in Syria, were seeking to attack government buildings, military personnel residences, enterprises and a famous Motherland Calls statue, possibly using firearms and an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). According to the FSB, two members of the cell, who were migrants from an unnamed Central Asian country, were killed at the scene as they resisted surrender. FSB later arrested the other cell members in operations across Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ufa and Maikop, but did not disclose their nationalities.745 Earlier in July, an IS-linked cell that reportedly included Central Asians was disrupted in Rostov-on-Don. The cell leader was killed in a shoot-out with authorities, with narcotics reported subsequently found alongside weapons.746

Most other arrests during the year were, however, of a smaller scale involving isolated individuals. For example, in October, the FSB in Moscow arrested a Central Asian planning an explosion in the city.747 Three months earlier, another individual was shot when he opened fire on officers trying to arrest him. He was reportedly planning a mass shooting in Moscow.748 These arrests, in addition to other arrests and attack plots foiled over the past year, reflect a persistent level of concern by Russian authorities of potential threats from radicalised members of the substantial Central Asian diaspora living within the country.

Responses

On 8 December, Uzbek authorities announced that they brought back 25 women and 73 children from Syria in the latest round of the “Mehr” (‘Kindness’) humanitarian rescue operation.749 However, other countries with similar plans have had to hold back such plans, largely owing to the global pandemic. For example, Tajikistan halted plans to repatriate a group of women and children (about 300) from Syria due to the ongoing lockdowns and other challenges in dealing with the health crisis.750 In spite of this, the relevant governmental and nongovernmental organisations in the three Central Asian states, namely Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, that in recent years have conducted large-scale repatriations, continued to offer the necessary material and social support for the repatriated women and children, to facilitate their reintegration into their respective communities. However, such efforts remain a work in progress given, as various experts have pointed out, transforming the extreme beliefs of some ideologically hardened repatriates has been notoriously slow.

Responses to terrorism have increasingly incorporated soft measures. Governments are tapping on civil society institutions as part of efforts to bolster their populations’ resistance against extremism. For instance, Kazakhstan announced increased funding for projects aimed at preventing online extremism,751 while the government also announced that 13,000 pieces of material propagating extremism and terrorism had been blocked online.752 In Uzbekistan, a police department in Tashkent launched a consultative centre in 2020 as a pilot project. Staffed with experienced religious clerics and theologians, the centre can anonymously arrange consultations for people who find themselves confused about specific religious doctrines – such as jihad – that are often misinterpreted and distorted by extremist groups.753

Regional governments also increasingly sought international collaborations in countering terrorism. During the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) meetings, terrorism was mentioned as a source of mutual concern and, throughout the year, various UN bodies hosted workshops focused on the Central Asian experience. The Uzbek government is planning to host a large conference in 2021 reflecting on the experience of cooperating on a joint regional action plan for countering terrorism. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and UNDP have also collaborated with various youth organisations and civil society institutions around the region on training programmes, reflecting a desire among regional authorities to continue promoting their work related to Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Central Asian governments have also conducted bilateral exchanges with numerous western states throughout the year, with many championing the region’s particular approach to the repatriation of foreign fighters in Syria as a model to emulate.

However, varying perceptions in the west of the human rights records of some Central Asian states could complicate potential cooperation between the latter and the EU in particular. In Europe, the September repatriation of a group of Tajik nationals accused by Poland of involvement in terrorist activity followed attempts by lawyers to block the repatriations on the basis of human rights concerns that were upheld for some time. Earlier attempts by Sweden to deport Uzbeks who had served time for terrorism offences failed on this same count, suggesting a potential impediment in smooth EU-Central Asia cooperation in particular counterterrorism objectives. All of these issues may become more significant going forward, given the numbers of Central Asians arrested in Europe linked to alleged terrorist activity and the need for greater regional cooperation to effectively manage such threats.

Outlook

The worrying prominence of Central Asian jihadists on the international jihadist scene will persist. While the biggest contingents of Central Asian fighters remain on battlefields in Syria and Afghanistan, the recent disruptions of terror plots and arrests in Europe, in particular, point to a rapidly evolving and expanding threat landscape. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this problem will be difficult to track, given the lack of access to real-time intelligence and data, although the common history of migrant labour that many of the radicalised Central Asians share, and the likely setbacks this workforce will experience in COVID-blighted economies, could exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. In the near term, Central Asian nationals are likely to remain a significant component of the global jihadist milieu, highlighting the importance of buttressing domestic responses and greater international cooperation in the regional security sphere.

About The Authors

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

698 i) Tokhir Safar and Mumin Ahmadi, “Istochniki: v Sirii arestovany tadzhikskiye «dzhikhadisty» Abu Dovud i Abu Usama Noraki,” Radio Ozodi – RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, 19 December 2019, https://rus.ozodi.org/a/30332766.html; ii) The figure on Uzbek fighters, was revealed by a counterterrorism officer from Uzbekistan during an Interpol regional experts meeting held in Tbilisi, Georgia in September 2018. The stated figure constitutes the total number of Uzbek militants fighting in armed conflicts abroad, including the Iraqi-Syrian and Afghanistan theatres; iii) “Nuzhno li vozvrashat kyrgyzstantsev iz Sirii. Chto dumayut MID i eksperti?” (‘Is it necessary to repatriate Kyrgyz militants from Syria. What do the Foreign Ministry and experts think?’), Kaktus Media, 1 June 2019, https://kaktus.media/doc/392271_nyjno_li_vozvrash_at_kyrgyzstancev_iz_sirii._chto_dymaut_mid_i_eksperty.h tml; and iv) “Za rubezh vyiekhalo svyishe 800 kazakhstantsev – posledovateley destruktivnykh ideologiy” (‘Over 800 Kazakhstanis – followers of destructive ideologies traveled abroad’), Khabar 24, 6 November 2019, https://24.kz/ru/news/social/item/352893-za-rubezhvyekhalo-svyshe-800-kazakhstantsevposledovatelej-destruktivnykh-ideologij.

699 There have also been occasional references to Turkmenistani fighters in other contexts – for example, Cypriot authorities reported to the UN they had captured a Turkmenistani national amongst a group of individuals “linked to either ISIL-or Al-Qaidaaffiliated groups”. See: “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council, p.15, 23 July 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/717.

700 This conclusion has been drawn by the first author based on his systematic monitoring and analysis of online extremist content in Central Asian languages.

701 These figures have been compiled by the first author based on local newspaper reports. The data also shows that since 2019, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have separately repatriated a total of 1,003 of their detained citizens from Syria and Iraq. According to news reports a substantial number of these repatriated citizens were associated with IS.

702 He spoke at the SCO Heads of State Summit held online on November 10, livestream recorded here: https://eng.scorussia2020.ru/video/20201110/1080285/Livestreaming-of-the-SCO-Heads-of-State-CouncilMeeting.html (he spoke at 2: 01).

703 “Afghan Taliban said planning to attack Tajikistan,” BBC Monitoring, 11 December 2020; Andrey Serenko, “Tadzhikskiye taliby anonsirovali perenos dzhikhada iz Afganistana na rodinu” (‘The Tajik Taliban have announced the transfer of jihad from Afghanistan to their homeland’), Nezavisimaya gazeta, 11 December 2020, https://www.ng.ru/world/2020-12-11/100_afgan111220.html.

704 “Indian doctor suspected of having been Jalalabad prison car bomber,” Ariana News, 5 August 2020, https://ariananews.af/indian-doctorsuspected-of-having-been-jalalabad-prison-carbomber/.

705 “Genprokuratura: iz tyurem Sirii v Tadzhikistan ekstradiruyut terroristov-verbovshchikov” (‘Prosecutor General’s Office: terrorist recruiters to be extradited from prisons in Syria to Tajikistan’), Sputnik Tochikiston/Tajiki, 28 January 2020, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/country/20200128/1030615883/tajikistan-syria-ekstradiciya-terroristy.html.

706 Sirojiddin Islom, “Ozodlik tekshiruvi xulosalari Shved matbuotining bosh xabariga aylandi” (‘The findings of an investigation conducted by Ozodlik grabs the headlines of the Swedish press’), Ozodlik Radiosi, 10 February 2018, https://www.ozodlik.org/a/29032493.html.

707 Amir Abdallah, “Former Tajikistan police chief appointed ISIS minister of war,” Iraqi News, 5 September 2016, https://www.iraqinews.com/iraqwar/former-tajikistan-police-chief-appointed-isisminister-war/.

708 Avaz Yuldashev, “Glava MVD Tadzhikistana: Gibel’ eks-komandira OMON ostayetsya na urovne slukhov” (‘Tajik Interior Minister: The death of the exOMON commander remains at the level of rumors’), Asia-Plus, 4 August 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/security/20200804/glava-mvd-gibel-eks-komandira-omonostaetsya-na-urovne-sluhov.

709 “Tadzhikskiy «igilovets» Gulmurod Khalimov zainteresovalsya situatsiyey v Gornom Badakhshane” (‘Tajik IS militant Gulmurod Khalimov became interested in the situation in Gorno-Badakhshan’), Fergana, 11 January 2019, https://fergana.agency/news/104222/.

710 Bakhmaner Nadirov, “Zhiv ili net? Sovbez OON prodlil sanktsii v otnoshenii Gulmuroda Khalimova” (‘Alive or not? UN Security Council extended sanctions against Gulmurod Halimov’), ASIA-Plus, 22 October 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/security/20201022/zhiv-ili-net-sovbez-oon-prodlil-sanktsii-votnoshenii-gulmuroda-halimova.

711 Abu Saloh is the nom de guerre of Sirojiddin Mukhtarov, a Kyrgyzstan-born ethnic Uzbek.

712 Sirwan Kajjo, “Jihadists in Syria’s Idlib Form New ‘Operations Room’,” The Voice of America, 15 June 2020, https://www.voanews.com/extremismwatch/jihadists-syrias-idlib-form-new-operationsroom.

713 Rami Jameel, “HTS Leader al-Julani’s New Strategy in Northwestern Syria,” Terrorism Monitor, 13 October 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/hts-leader-al-julanisnew-strategy-in-northwestern-syria/.

714 “Tahrir al-Sham arrests a leader of the Ansar alDin Front. Who is Abu Salah the Uzbek,” Step News Agency, 18 June 2020, https://stepagencysy.net/2020/06/18/%d9%85%d9%86-%d9%87%d9%88-%d8%a3%d8%a8%d9%88-%d8%b5%d9%84%d8%a7%d8%ad-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a3%d9%88%d8%b2%d8%a8%d9%83%d9%8a/.

715 Viktor Mikhaylov, “V Siriyskom Idlibe arestovan odin iz liderov boyevikov iz TSA – Abu-Salokha” (‘In the Syrian Idlib, one of the leaders of the militants from Central Asia, Abu Saloh, was arrested’), Novosti Uzbenistana, 23 June 2020, https://nuz.uz/antiterror/1157170-v-sirijskom-idlibe-arestovan-odin-iz-liderov-boevikov-iz-cza-abusaloha.html.

716 “Siriya novosti 7 iyulya 22.30: predotvrashchen terakt v Afrine, Dzhulani ozvuchil svoi usloviya dlya osvobozhdeniya Abu Salakha Al’-Uzbeki” (‘News from Syria, July 7 22.30: terrorist attack in Afrin prevented, Giulani announced his conditions for the release of Abu Salah al-Uzbeki’), RIA FAN, 7 July 2020, https://riafan.ru/1291658-siriya-novosti-7-iyulya-22-30-predotvrashen-terakt-v-afrine-dzhulaniozvuchil-svoi-usloviya-dlya-osvobozhdeniya-abusalakha-al-uzbeki.

717 “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council, p.15, 20 January 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/53.

718 Ibid.

719 Viktor Mikhaylov, “Idlibskiy peredel ili kak grazhdane Kyrgyzstana i Uzbekistan raskololi v Sirii mezhdunarodnuyu terroristicheskuyu organizatsiyu” (‘Idlib redistribution or how citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan split an international terrorist organization in Syria’), 31 March 2020, CSRT, https://crss.uz/2020/03/31/idlibskij-peredel-ili-kakgrazhdane-kyrgyzstana-i-uzbekistan-raskololi-v-siriimezhdunarodnuyu-terroristicheskuyu-organizaciyu/.

720 “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council,
p.15, 20 January 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/53.

721 Ibid.

722 Ibid.

723 Viktor Mikhaylov, “Ozhidayemyye provaly v uzbekskikh etnicheskikh terroristicheskikh gruppirovkakh” (‘Expected failures in Uzbek ethnic terrorist groups’), Novosti Uzbekistana, 24 July 2020, https://nuz.uz/antiterror/1160924-ozhidaemye-provaly-v-uzbekskih-etnicheskihterroristicheskih-gruppirovkah.html.

724 Gulabudin Ghubar, “Uzbek Militant Group Claims it Conducted Operation with Taliban,” TOLOnews,
9 July 2020, https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/uzbek-militantgroup-claims-it-conducted-operation-taliban.

725 “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council,
p.15, 23 July 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/717.

726 “V Kazakhstane soobshchili o predotvrashchenii pyati teraktov s nachala goda” (‘Kazakhstan reported on the prevention of five terrorist attacks since the beginning of the year’), RT, 16 October 2020, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/793267-kazahstan-predotvraschenie-terakty.

727 i) “Spetssluzhby Kazakhstana predotvratili terakt v Nur-Sultane” (‘Kazakhstan’s special services prevent terrorist attack in Nur-Sultan’), RT, 26 March 2020, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/732030-kazahstanzaderzhanie-terrorizm; ii) “V Kazakhstane spetssluzhby zaderzhali podozrevayemogo v podgotovke terakta” (‘In Kazakhstan, special services detained a suspect preparing a terrorist attack’), RT, 14 March 2020, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/728393-kazahstanzaderzhanie-terakt.

728 “Surkhondaryo va Jizzakh viloyatlarida noqonuniy guruhlar faoliyatiga chek qo’yildi” (“The activity of illegal groups have been eliminated in Surkhandarya and Jizzakh provinces”), Xalq so’zi, 9 July 2020, http://xs.uz/uzkr/post/surkhondaryo-vazhizzakh-viloyatlarida-noqonunij-guruhlarfaoliyatiga-chek-qojildi.

729 Ibid.

730 Ibid.

731 “V Tashkente presekli deyatel’nost’ 11 uchastnikov terroristicheskoy gruppy” (‘The activity of 11 members of a terrorist group has been crashed in Tashkent’), RIA Novosti, 30 June 2020, https://ria.ru/20200630/1573707230.html.

732 “V Tadzhikistane predotvratili dva terakta” (‘Two terrorist attacks were prevented in Tajikistan’), Sputnik Tochikiston/Tajiki, 3 August 2020, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/country/20200803/1031674398/tajikistan-predotvratili-dva-terakta-2020.html.

733 “V Tadzhikistane za posledniye polgoda predotvratili dva terakta” (‘Two terrorist attacks were prevented in Tajikistan over the past six months’), Mir24.TV, http://tj.mir24.tv/news/103295.

734 Mokrenko, Anastasia, “Propagandista terrorizma zaderzhali v Kyrgyzstane” (‘A terrorist propagandist was detained in Kyrgyzstan’), 24.KG, 5 February 2020, https://24.kg/proisshestvija/142685_propagandista_terrorizma_zaderjali_vkyirgyizstane_/.

735 “Zaderzhan inostrannyy verbovshchik v ryady terroristov” (‘A foreign terrorist recruiter was arrested’), Kabar, 3 October 2020, http://kabar.kg/news/gknb-zaderzhan-inostrannyiverbovshchik-v-riady-terroristov/.

736 “Zaderzhany chleny terroristicheskoy organizatsii – GKNB KR. Chto u nikh nashli” (‘Members of a terrorist organisation were detained – the SCNS of the Kyrgyz Republic. What they found’), Sputnik Kyrgyzstan, 29 October 2020, https://ru.sputnik.kg/society/20201020/1050127498/kyrgyzstan-mto-terrorizm-zaderzhanie.html.

737 The precise targeting of foreign diaspora in jihadist material is hard to trace. But it is clear that some members of the Central Asian diaspora are consumers of extremist material given the growing volume of overall arrests from these communities outside Central Asia. Security services have reported finding volumes of extremist material on their personal electronic devices.

738 “Festnahme fünf mutmaßlicher Mitglieder einer Terrorzelle der ausländischen terroristischen Vereinigung „Islamischer Staat (IS)“,” An arrest warrant, the Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor, 15 April 2020, https://www.generalbundesanwalt.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/aktuelle/Pressemitteilungvom-15-04-2020.html.

739 “Festnahme fünf mutmaßlicher Mitglieder einer Terrorzelle der ausländischen terroristischen Vereinigung „Islamischer Staat (IS)“,” An arrest warrant, the Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor, 15 April 2020, https://www.generalbundesanwalt.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/aktuelle/Pressemitteilungvom-15-04-2020.html.

740 i) Axel Spilcker, “Zugriff nach Hinweis vom FBI,” Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, 08 September 2020, https://advance.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1516831&crid=e182b99c-42e8-46c0-92abab1ea56e4a06&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fnews%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A60SSJCH1-JBR8-40RX-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=360784&pdteaserkey=sr0&pditab=allpods&ecomp=tzg2k&earg=sr0&prid=568b144a-b4d0-4fe1-977a-907dc44a0d5a; ii) Matthias Gebauer, “Traum vom Fliegen,” Der Spiegel, 18 April 2020, https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:5YPB-8SG1-DYJRP2HN-00000-00&context=1516831.

741 “Germany arrests IS suspects plotting attacks on US bases,” Deutsche Welle, 15 April 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/germany-arrests-is-suspects-plotting-attacks-on-us-bases/a-53129563

742 i) “Four Tajik Nationals Detained For Alleged Militant Recruitment In Poland,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 11 May 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/four-tajik-nationals-detainedfor-alleged-militant-recruitment-inpoland/30605951.html; ii) “Poland Deports Five Tajiks Suspected Of Terrorism,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 29 September 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/poland-deports-five-tajikssuspected-of-terrorism/30863940.html.

743 Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, “Deporting Muslim Immigrants Won’t Make Poland Safer,” Foreign Policy, 19 October 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/10/19/deport-muslimimmigrants-poland-counterterrorism-pis-islamistradicalization/.

744 Paul Antonopoulos, “Leading member of ISIS that was granted asylum status has been arrested
in Greece,” Greek City Times, 5 October 2020, https://greekcitytimes.com/2020/11/05/isis-asylumgreece/.

745 “Boyeviki pokushalis’ na «Rodinu-mat’»: FSB predotvratila terakt” (‘Militants attempted to destroy the Motherland Calls statue: FSB prevented the attack’) Gazeta, 15 October 2020, https://www.gazeta.ru/army/2020/10/15/13320667.shtml.

746 Vusala Abbasova, “Russian Security Service Detains IS Cell In Rostov Region,” Caspian News, 14 July 2020, https://caspiannews.com/newsdetail/russian-security-service-detains-is-cell-inrostov-region-2020-7-13-15/.

747 “Terrorist attack reportedly thwarted in Moscow region as FSB arrests suspect & seizes ISIS flag (VIDEO),” 22 October 2020, RT, https://www.rt.com/russia/504264-terrorist-attackthwarted-moscow-region/.

748 “Russia says it has foiled a militant attack in Moscow,” Deutsche Welle, 27 July 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/russia-says-it-has-foiled-amilitant-attack-in-moscow/a-54331742.

749 ““Mehr-3″ operaciyasi doirasida Suriyadan 25 nafar ayollar va 73 nafar bolalar yurtimizga olib kelindi” (‘As part of the “Mehr-3” operation, 25 women and 73 men were brought back to our homeland’), Xalq so’zi, 8 December 2020, http://xs.uz/uzkr/post/mehr-3-operatsiyasi-doirasidasuriyadan-25-nafar-ayollar-va-73-nafar-bolalaryurtimizga-olib-kelindi

750 “Nearly 300 Tajik women and children ready to return home from Syria,” Asia-Plus, 28 July 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/society/20200728/nearly-300-tajik-women-and-children-readyto-return-home-from-syria.

751 Asel Sultan, “Countering Extremism in Kazakhstan: Where Do They Waste Millions?” CABAR.asia, 16 January 2020, https://cabar.asia/en/countering-extremism-inkazakhstan-where-do-they-waste-millions.

752 Torgyn Nurseitova, “Boleye tysyachi kazakhstantsev poluchili tyuremnyy srok za terrorizm i ekstremizm” (‘More than 1,000 Kazakhstanis received prison sentences for terrorism and extremism’), Zakon, 30 November 2020, https://www.zakon.kz/5049486-boleetysyachi-kazahstantsev-poluchili.html

753 Navruz Melibaev, “Policy of Countering Terrorism and Extremism in Uzbekistan: How Did It Change Over the Past Few Years?” CABAR.asia, 4 May 2020, https://cabar.asia/en/policy-ofcountering-terrorism-and-extremism-in-uzbekistanhow-did-it-change-over-the-past-few-years.

Returning to a topic that has been on the agenda for years, this time for a brand new outlet, the Oxus Society, a wonderful new Central Asia focused organization based in Washington founded by old friend and excellent Central Asianist Edward Lemon. Looking forward to cooperating with them a lot going forwards.

Before posting, time for a quick media catch up. In the wake of the spate of terrorist attacks in Europe spoke to Dutch NRC, Voice of America (which was also translated into Spanish), the Financial Times, and on the other side of the coin spoke to the South China Morning Post about the recent SCO Heads of State Summit, the US de-listing of ETIM, and the impact to China of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

China’s Non-Intervention in Afghanistan

As the current stage of conflict in Afghanistan works its way towards a conclusion, China needs to decide its role in the country’s future. Within Afghanistan there is growing frustration about China’s hedging, while across the neighborhood there is a growing sense of concern about China’s more aggressive posture. This will likely have a knock-on effect within Afghanistan and ultimately create blockages to stability within the country. This is a loss for everyone. 

Kabul is losing out on support from its biggest and most powerful neighbor, while Beijing is missing an opportunity to showcase its potentially positive influence to the world with a country desperately in need of it. 

Beijing has for the most part been a quiet actor in Afghanistan. It has played a role in most aspects of the country’s development in the past decades – from helping host negotiations, offering economic investment (including what on paper is the country’s biggest ever single investment in Mes Aynak), aid, military capacity building in the form of light weapons, base construction and training, and even working with strategic rivals like the United States to achieve stability in the country. In addition, China has engaged with a number of multilateral configurations around Afghanistan, and spoken repeatedly of bringing the country into Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Kabul and others have welcomed this activity, with the Afghan government ensuring that it does all that it can to keep Beijing happy, eager to get it to follow through on its promises.  

Yet, notwithstanding consistent activity, Beijing has never lived up to its promise. As Afghanistan’s richest and most influential neighbor, there was an underlying expectation that China would be able to play a more significant role in the country. But this has never quite materialized as was hoped. Instead, China has studiously hedged, continuing to offer the potential for engagement but never quite following through.

In economic terms, Chinese companies’ investments into the country are the biggest that Afghanistan has ever seen. The much discussed Mes Aynak copper mine was awarded to a Chinese consortium of MCC and Jiangxi Copper in 2007 with an initial price tag of $3 billion attached to it, while CNPC won a tender to develop oil fields in Amu Darya in 2011 with the promise of $400 million in investment. The companies drove the investments, but were strongly supported by Beijing as they were seen in part to reflect a sense of China doing its bit for Afghanistan. At the time, voices in the U.S. expressed anger that China was once again taking advantage of the mineral opportunities created in the wake of American-led invasions (a similar story played out in Iraq with CNPC winning oil tenders in that country), but this was balanced by a sense in Washington that it was not a bad thing for China to step into a more stabilizing role in a country from which the U.S. wanted an exit strategy.

The projects, however, have made little further forward progress. Repeated issues have been thrown up around Mes Aynak, including security concerns, an archaeological dig atop the site, problems with locals complaining about land compensation, access to appropriate chemicals, and a persistent effort by the company to redefine the terms of the project that they had initially signed up to. In March 2016,  the lead Chinese state owned enterprise working on the project, MCC, announced the decision to reallocate funds that had been raised to support the project elsewhere in the company.

In the north of Afghanistan, a similar story has played out. In 2011, Chinese energy giant CNPC signed a contract in conjunction with the Watan Group, a local Afghan firm, to exploit an oil field in Amu Darya in the north of the country. The project was one that was spotted by the company’s engineers in Turkmenistan working on the same oil field on that side of the border. Yet, since the agreement, the project has also been beset with problems. Disputes between the Watan Group and CNPC, between both companies and the Afghan government, and most dramatically between the company’s engineers and local potentates who reportedly deployed armed men to threaten the engineers when they had not received what they felt was their adequate compensation. Additionally, there has been little evidence of progress in the construction of a refinery which was initially discussed when the company won the concession. The entire project has also now reportedly been put into deeper suspension as the Afghan government has sought to strip the Chinese firm of its contract and run the project itself. 

Beyond this, China has talked repeatedly about including Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative, though this has also failed to move forwards. There has been discussion of linking Afghanistan to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), though this seems to have met with resistance in Islamabad. A fiber optic cable link has been mooted from China to Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor. A survey was launched in 2018 by the Afghan government, but the project appears to be slow in moving forwards. The project is part of a broader World Bank regional CASA digital initiative, reducing Beijing’s commitment to the project. Reflecting the low connectivity, according to a 2019 UNCTED report, China was the only border country with which Afghanistan did not have a terrestrial fibre optic cable link.

None of this ultimately reflects the real opportunity that China could offer Afghanistan. Look at neighboring Pakistan, Central Asia or Iran where Chinese firms are active across the economy and the government regularly touts massive deals. Not all come through, but enough that the economic geography of all of Afghanistan’s neighbors is increasingly turning towards Beijing. 

In political and military terms – China has played a role in negotiations, but never chosen to step into a forward role to force parties to the table. Discussion of China acting as a ‘security guarantor’ to any agreement has not generated concrete outcomes, and most Chinese security activity in Afghanistan has been focused on securing the small part of the country that touches China. Beijing has strong links to Islamabad, the Taliban and the Afghan government – yet, has not ultimately done much with these connections to generate actual outcomes in Afghanistan. 

Instead, all evidence points to China strengthening and sealing off its direct and near borders with Afghanistan. It has provided military support to strengthen Tajik border posts and built its own base for its own forces there, equipment to Pakistani forces in Gilgit-Baltistan, and even reportedly helped develop a mountain base for Afghan forces in Badakhshan. The establishment of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) which brings together the chiefs of military staff of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China to focus on their shared border area, is the institutionalization of this approach. 

The net result is that the actor with the widest range of potential positive links in the country, a relatively neutral history, and the greatest potential economic opportunity has not come forward to help Afghanistan in the way that it could. Rather, Beijing has sat back and watched. The narrative from many prominent Chinese experts remains one of Afghanistan being a” graveyard of empires.” 

Yet now the conflict appears to be winding towards some sort of conclusion, the time would be ripe for China to finally step forwards and take a stronger and more positive role in the country. At a moment when Chinese international diplomacy is under assault, a good news story in Afghanistan might help with Beijing’s global image. 

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this will happen. While Beijing may simply be waiting out the result of the current negotiations, and hope that the subsequent likely coalition government may provide an effective partner to work with, the most likely outcome from the current negotiations will be messy and inconclusive. Violent actors are not going to go away, nor is a single faction going to be able to take control. NATO will continue its gradual withdrawal, while regional powers will focus on their individual border regions and interests. A vacuum will be left with various factions in Kabul struggling over their stakes. 

The result is a loss for all concerned, with Afghanistan losing the most. And in a worst case scenario, the country could become a further location for conflict between China and its many adversaries in a new proxy war.

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.