Posts Tagged ‘Central Asia’

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

Is SCO Expansion a Good Thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Place in Central Asia

Xi Nazarbayev

First of a Five-Part Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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China and Russia in Central Asia: Cooperation and Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Security and Stability along the Silk Road

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

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

Download the report here

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

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

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

This is a slightly longer freeflowing piece for an old site I used to contribute to fairly regularly called The Interpreter, the blog for a great Australian think tank called the Lowy Institute. Was based off some reflections from some recent travel I got to do to China, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. I’ve been lucky with the piece getting some traction, including some nice tweets, Casey Michel quoting it in his piece about China’s energy relations with the region and the Australian Business Spectator magazine republishing it. Thanks Sam for publishing it, and goes without saying a lot more on this theme and style to come!

Catching up on a lot of old posting, here is a report for my home institute RUSI that has been the culmination of a lot of work with Chinese and Indian researchers and RUSI colleagues (Emily and Edward) looking at the potential for Chinese and Indian cooperation in Afghanistan.

Communication, Co-operation and Challenges: A Roadmap for Sino-Indian Engagement in Afghanistan

by Shisheng Hu, Raffaello Pantucci, Ravi Sawhney and Emily Winterbotham

The politics of Afghanistan remain precarious. But if undertaken correctly, regional engagement by China and India can play a positive role in consolidating security and the economy

afghanistan-india-pakistan-map

Communication, Co-operation and Challenges: A Roadmap for Sino–Indian Engagement in Afghanistan  concludes a research project which brought together influential thinkers and experts from China, India, Pakistan, the UK and Afghanistan in a number of workshops in London, Beijing, New Delhi and Qatar, and outlines areas of common interest between China and India in Afghanistan. The project spanned several years, starting in 2012. While participants’ opinions and responses were therefore likely influenced by developments in Afghanistan at the time the workshops were held it is, however, still possible to draw out the key commonalities and divergences between each country’s participants to map out policy ideas for co-operation and ‘burden-sharing’ between India and China in Afghanistan.

Both China and India have unique and strong relationships with Afghanistan and, in addition to co-operative efforts, both countries can play a number of bilateral roles. This paper presents some ideas for thinkers and strategists in Kabul, Beijing and New Delhi on how to help Afghanistan move forward and achieve stability.

Catching up on some old posting again now that we are closing in on Christmas, and first up is a short report with Sarah from a workshop we did in Almaty looking at the Silk Road Economic Belt’s economic dimension. Part of a bigger project we are working on at RUSI which is going to be a major priority in the coming year.

The Economics of the Silk Road Economic Belt

On 20 October 2015, RUSI held a day-long workshop in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in collaboration with KIMEP University and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). The focus of the workshop was the economics behind the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and its impact in Central Asia. The key areas of discussion examined the potential benefits that the SREB could bring to participating countries, the integration of the SREB with other economic projects and the various funding mechanisms through which the SREB will be financed. The workshop brought together participants from Almaty, Astana, London, Beijing, Shanghai, New Delhi and Russia, including representatives from academia, the private sector and think tanks.

The first session discussed the real benefits of the SREB to both China and participating countries along the road. There is a risk that the SREB will simply turn Eurasia into a set of transport routes emanating from China, aimed at increasing the volume of Chinese goods going to Europe. Other than transit fees, China has not made it explicitly clear as to what other value participating in the SREB can add to economic development. Special economic and free-trade zones are one opportunity, such as that of Khorgos on the border of Kazakhstan and China, or those planned for Pakistan. However, the extent to which these are benefitting Central Asia is still unclear, and those for Pakistan are still under discussion. Kazakhstan’s side of this free-trade zone is noticeably less developed than that of China’s, highlighting that not all of these projects are implemented to meet maximum potential.

Furthermore, China’s emphasis on connectivity as a key goal of the SREB runs the risk of over-emphasising railway development as an end goal, since not all goods are cost-effective to transport by rail. High-value goods are the ideal product: one participant from Kazakhstan noted that Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, the national railway operator, had begun transporting Apple products from China, cutting down delivery time from sixty days (by sea) to eighteen days (by rail). For the SREB project to be successful, therefore, both Xinjiang, the northwestern Chinese province, and the countries along the Silk Road route need to increase their high-tech manufacturing capacity to produce these high-value goods for transport, neither of which are currently visible.

Understanding  of  the  project  has  been  limited  by  Beijing’s  vagueness  on  practical implementation. The Chinese government’s ‘Visions and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ strategy paper, published by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), emphasises the objectives of the SREB, such as connectivity and greater financial integration. However, it does not give practical detail on how this will be achieved. This approach of laying out a grand vision without detail is typical of the Chinese government. So far there is not even a formally government-endorsed map of the exact routes of the SREB.

The workshop discussion highlighted a potential explanation for this. China’s goal may not be to unpack the details itself but instead to seek ideas and engagement from SREB countries to determine where participation can provide most benefit to them. China does not want to limit its options or jeopardise the project’s ‘inclusivity’ by over-defining its approach. There is an opportunity, therefore, for countries along the SREB to provide proposals back to China. However, there are some practical questions that China will need to address. Although its open-
ended encouragement of connectivity is central to the SREB, certain political and geographical difficulties in implementing this are so far unresolved. Anyone who has travelled within Central Asia knows the difficulty of flying direct between most regional capitals, while land travel between the countries in the region is hindered by longstanding border disputes.

Although the SREB has broadly been received with enthusiasm by Central and South Asia, the lack of clarity around its planned implementation has led to some suspicion. India stands out as  the country in the region most apprehensive of China’s plans. As one workshop participant said, ‘there is no Indian perspective at the moment’, in part due to a perceived lack of information from Beijing. The suspicions relate to whether there is a broader Chinese geopolitical strategy behind the SREB and whether political strings will become attached to China’s infrastructure investment.

India’s concerns over a geopolitical strategy are mainly due to the maritime element of the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’, which runs through the Indian Ocean. It covers ports in countries located around India, such as Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan, but not India itself. This has raised alarm bells in New Delhi, who perceive China as encroaching on India’s waterways. China’s investment into the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which cuts through the disputed areas of Kashmir as well as highlighting China’s strong connection with Pakistan, is also a challenge for India. There are areas where India and China can co-operate on this SREB project, such as the Bangladesh–China–India–Burma corridor or areas where both have interests, like Iran. However, India requires more detail and reassurances regarding China’s intentions.

A large part of the day’s discussion focused on the issue of integrating the SREB with other economic projects. Russia has recently voiced its desire to integrate the SREB with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Kazakhstan has proposed something similar with its ‘Bright Road’ (Nurly Zhol) policy. Although the Bright Road policy, which focuses on infrastructure development, is consistent with the aims of the Chinese project, SREB integration with the EEU is somewhat more complex. As one workshop participant pointed out, the EEU is an organisation with an institutional and regulatory framework, whereas the SREB is more of a ‘vision’ covering a variety of concrete projects. ‘Integrating’ these in practice may be difficult. A special economic zone may once again be an answer to this, and the EEU and China are currently exploring this idea. The EEU’s external tariffs may present an immediate barrier to increased trade with China, although one benefit is that once this barrier is overcome countries gain access to a significant economic space consisting of five countries. However, to facilitate trade, China and Russia will need to address a number of bilateral trade issues. For example, the Russian–Chinese border currently suffers from excessive bureaucracy that, in particular, prevents cross-border travel and trade.

The third key aspect of the discussions examined the means by which the SREB will be funded. A major tool will be multilateral and national institutions driven by Beijing. China has allocated $29.8 billion to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s (AIIB) overall $100 billion capitalisation and $40 billion to the national Silk Road Fund. Furthermore, the China Development Bank (CDB) is the lead financial body for the SREB, investing $890 billion into over 900 projects. There are also bilateral funding relations between SREB countries and Chinese provinces. For example, the recent Tbilisi Silk Road Forum held in Georgia was the first event on the SREB co-sponsored by the Chinese state held outside of China. The principals on the Chinese side were the provincial governments of Xinjiang and Shaanxi. On top of this, China is seeking to stimulate public–private partnerships to help progress the project finance, as well as exploring opportunities of collaboration with other international financial institutions like the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB).

Most participants agreed, however, that the predominant mechanism for SREB co-operation will continue to be bilateral agreements. As one workshop participant mentioned, China recently pledged $46 billion for the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor alone, a number that puts China’s commitment into context when it is compared to the total $100 billion capitalisation of the AIIB. This highlights the degree to which China is likely to continue to prioritise bilateral agreements over its multilateral financial vehicles. A note of caution was made regarding the enormity of some of the SREB deals announced. As one participant pointed out, it seems in reality that the CPEC deal included a repackaging – or at least a reinvigoration – of some historical agreements between China and Pakistan, such as the development of Gwadar port and the Karakorum Highway, projects that have been underway for years. This demonstrates a lack of clarity in the detail behind some of these enormous declarations of financial support.

A repeated theme that came up during this discussion related to the broader transparency and governance of the SREB, particularly in participating countries outside of China. One workshop participant highlighted the need for SREB countries to ensure necessary reforms are conducted in the domestic markets to provide a degree of security and flexibility and to avoid an over-reliance on Chinese investment. The slow-down in the Chinese economy may produce constraints on China’s ability to meet its ambitious investment programme. A lack of transparency as regards the relevant information has led to questions over China’s asset quality. One workshop participant stated that a ‘sudden large injection of external cash could exacerbate existing problems [in the domestic economy] rather than help’. Thus, SREB participants should ensure they protect and reform their own markets in preparation for any large investments from China to maximise returns and protect against a lack of transparency in the deals.

Another question mark surrounding China’s funding of the SREB projects is the value this produces for China itself. The divestment opportunities or returns China makes on its infrastructure development projects in, for example, Central Asia, remain unclear. Much of the historical bilateral projects have been funded through linked loans, where China provides the funding through loans that have stipulations attached to them, such as the requirement that Chinese companies implement the projects on the ground. In other cases where China’s Eximbank or CDB has provided loans to fund projects, it is unclear whether there are any short- or medium-term returns or even security on the investment. One workshop participant pointed out that given the dominance of the state in China’s economic policy and the government’s long-term vision of investments, China can afford more time to sit on these investments without requiring immediate returns. Moreover, another participant noted that some projects, such as when Eximbank loaned the money for the high-voltage power line recently unveiled in Kyrgyzstan, provide the Chinese government with foreign investment legitimacy and thus material return is not necessarily the priority.

It is clear that no one wants to be left out of China’s SREB initiative. However, questions remain over the implementation plan of the project. For some SREB countries, there are significant concerns over the project’s ultimate geostrategic goal as well as the detail of the various routes, both of which need more clarification from Beijing. However, it is clear that while China has ideas for how the SREB should develop, it is also seeking proposals from other countries about its development. This presents an opportunity for SREB countries to take ownership over the direction of their participation and to determine how best to maximise the benefits nationally.

Sarah Lain is a Research Fellow at RUSI. Sarah Lain’s research looks at Russia and the former Soviet states. In particular, she focuses on China and Russia’s relations with the five Central Asian states.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow and Director of International Security Studies at RUSI. His research focuses on counter-terrorism as well as China’s relations with its western neighbours.

Things are slowing down a bit now in the wake of the Paris atrocity, though unfortunately am sad to say the story is likely to not go away. Still some interest around the topic though, and spoke to the Sunday Times about the noisy Sally Jones, to the Huffington Post about how ISIS compares to historical threats, as well as the South China Morning Post about China’s view on the downing of the Russian plane and the Straits Times about what China might do to contribute to the anti-ISIS coalition. More on all of this am sure as ever. In the meantime, a new piece which was acually published prior to the Paris atrocity about China-Russia relations globally for the China Economic Quarterly. Huge thanks to the editors for their patience and invitation to do this. Greatly appreciated and definitely a subject that will be returned to.

China And Russia: Locked In Reluctant Embrace

china russia image

The dynamic of the Sino-Russian relationship is one that has long perplexed Western decision makers and thinkers. At a geopolitical level they appear in lockstep in an anti-western front, but below the surface they seem willing to engage with the west against each other’s interests while also sharing some fundamental disagreements. The reality is that Moscow and Beijing have a sophisticated modus vivendi that both allows for a clear disparity in the relationship in Beijing’s favor, while at the same time retaining an equal sense of importance of the broader strategic relationship. The overriding priority for both remains to ensure that they have an ally against the West and as long as this need remains the axis of authoritarianism will persist.

The archetypal space to explore this complex divergence is Central Asia. On the one hand it is a region where China has gradually increased its footprint to become the most consequential actor on the ground, while on the other it remains linked inextricably to Russia through multilateral vehicles and long-standing ties. And while in other parts of Eastern Europe or the Caucasus Russia has reacted negatively to encroaching external influences with armed conflict (like Georgia or Ukraine), in Central Asia the slow creep of Beijing’s influence has happened largely with Moscow’s acquiescence, though not without some counter-reaction.

China’s interest in Central Asia stems from a desire to improve the economic situation in Xinjiang. Seeing economic development as the answer to ethnic tensions between Han and Uighur in the region, Beijing has embarked on numerous large-scale economic projects to develop the western region of Xinjiang. However, for effective economic development to take place in Xinjiang there is a need for the region to have greater connectivity outwards. A fivehour flight from Beijing, Urumqi is as landlocked as the Central Asian countries it is near, and for it to prosper adequately, it needs to develop routes and roads into the region and ultimately to European markets. Consequently, as Beijing has poured money into the region, there has been an ancillary push into Central Asia with policy banks, state owned enterprises and private citizens all seeing the opportunity and need that lies in developing routes and markets into the Russian space.

Chinese cash displaces Russia in Central Asia…

The consequence of this has been a steady growth of economic influence across the region as Chinese capital and companies move into the region to repave, rebuild and open up Central Asian markets while also taking advantage of the region’s natural wealth to feed the Chinese economic machine. Previously a region largely the domain of Russian extractives firms, and, in the post-Cold War period, large Western players, Central Asia has seen CNPC and other Chinese energy firms moved in to stake claims. But significantly, Chinese firms have not stopped at only extracting energy, with firms showing up re-metering national gas infrastructure, re-developing solar furnaces, and building new power plants, refineries, and transmission lines across the region. The most rapid global pipeline growth of the past decade can be seen in the region, as Chinese firms plan, fund and built in quick succession a series of pipelines bringing hydrocarbons back to China from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

All of this has largely been done to the detriment of Russian firms, who retain key stakes in most regional energy efforts but find themselves unable to compete with China’s easy funding and rapid construction. The American evacuation of the Manas airbase is a case in point. Initially awarded to a Russian firm linked to Rosneft, the company had to withdraw due to lack of funding, leaving a Chinese firm to step in and take over the contract. In Turkmenistan, a longstanding animosity between Moscow and Ashgabat culminated with the main pipeline to Russia blowing up and not being rebuilt. Instead, Chinese pipelines appeared and China is now the nation’s key partner—so much so that Turkmenistan might question the wisdom of its almost complete dependence on China.

…but Russian weapons are still welcome

Despite China’s economic incursions, Russia remains the most credible security provider. Untested by conflict outside its borders, China’s military is still a relatively timid force that is wary of launching direct confrontations or placing themselves in situations that would lead to such conflict. Whenever there is security trouble in the region, the powers look more to Russia to provide them with support – in particular in the more unstable nations of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of whom have looked to Russia to help provide some stability in the wake of interethnic violence (Kyrgyzstan) and to strengthen their border with Afghanistan (Tajikistan).

Moscow has also made better use of regional organizations than has Beijing. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), sponsored jointly by China and Russia, is in the most externally observed, but least effective regional multilateral vehicle. The Moscow-driven Common Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) are all more active in changing the context on the ground. The EEU in particular is seen as an attempt to recreate the Soviet space and is driven by Moscow as a specific attempt to reclaim the economic dominance and influence it used to hold. Encompassing Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan the latest joiners, the EEU gives Moscow the power to dictate border tariffs and standards across the entire region.

In Central Asia the EEU is seen as direct push-back to Beijing’s growing influence. Yet the reality is that the EEU can do little to stem the rising influence of Chinese cash. And for Beijing’s traders keen to take advantage of Xi Jinping’s vision to create a New Silk Road Economic Belt through the region to European markets, the existence of a single tariff zone from Kazakhstan to Belarus will save them money and time in getting goods from China to Europe. Direct trade with Central Asia may be down, but, as traders in Kyrgyz markets at Kara Suu and outside Bishkek pointed out during a visit in early 2015, these markets had been shrinking for years due to closed local borders and weakening local economies. The addition of a failing Russian economy only further softened local currencies and further reduced remittances from Central Asian laborers in Russia, which in the case of Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan account for almost a third of GDP.

On the whole, Beijing policymakers seem to view the EEU as complementary to their Belt-and-Road strategy; and even if they did not, they have reason to be skeptical of the EEU’s longevity. Belarus and Kazakhstan have already blocked some trade across their borders, and it remains unclear how Kyrgyzstan is going to be able to effectively integrate and thrive in an economic union where it has few advantages.

China has the upper hand in bilateral affairs

All of this takes place against a backdrop of a failing Russian economy that is increasingly looking to Beijing for growth. Whilst previously resistant to letting Chinese firms invest in upstream energy assets, Moscow allowed the Chinese Silk Road Fund to invest in the Yamal gas field. In a sharp turnaround from previous paranoia of Chinese expansion into Russia’s east, Moscow has actively encouraged cross-border trade between Heilongjiang and the Amur region, with the governor of the region going so far as to say that he would welcome Chinese workers coming into the region to help repopulate it. The Russian press is increasingly full of stories of actively encouraging trade across the border, something that stands in stark contrast to speeches by President Putin in 2000 about losing Russia’s East to Asia.

In all this investment, China clearly retains the upper hand. The Power of Siberia pipeline remains a project largely on paper as CNPC lobbies aggressively to get the deal finalized on its terms. And although the large gas deal signed between Russia and China was supposedly resolved earlier in the year after almost 15 years of haggling, the reality is that the agreement was largely cosmetic. It came at a moment when President Putin wanted to be able to show the world that he had strong allies in the face of a growing animosity between Moscow and the west over Ukraine. Within hours of the deal being signed, stories surfaced of re-negotiations taking place and a continuing lack of agreement over the pricing structure of the deal.

At a geostrategic level there are further tensions between the two great powers. Vietnam is a long-time client state to Russia that depends on Moscow for military equipment, including naval assets that Vietnam feels it needs to bolster its claims to islands in the South China sea that it disputes with China. India is another long-term Russian ally that has border disputes with China and a long-standing inferiority complex to its neighboring Asian giant.

It is also clear—despite its lack of public criticism—that China is displeased by Russia’s adventures in Ukraine and Georgia, as it worried about the precedent of annexing parts of neighboring countries and recognizing break-away provinces. Nor is it enthusiastic about Russian intervention in Syria where it seems unlikely that more combatants on the field will resolve the situation. As a status quo power that sees the future as firmly within its grasp under the current world order, Beijing disapproves of Russia’s efforts to undermine current structures.

The SCO was supposed to be a vehicle for joint maneuver in Central Asia, but has bogged down in disagreements. Beijing’s interest in having it focus more on economic issues has been blocked by Moscow. And in turn Moscow has promoted a rapid expansion of the group, against China’s wishes. Unwilling to directly confront and exclude others, China has found itself forced to bow to external pressure in letting the organization expand against its better judgment.

Authoritarian birds flock together

Notwithstanding these tensions, the two powers retain a tactical geopolitical alignment. Partially this is for the purpose of mutual support in the UN Security Council. As two of the permanent five members, knowing that they will consistently support each other (by either veto or abstention), means that they need never feel isolated in the body.

Shared political insecurity also draws them together. Both governments are equally paranoid about the overthrow of authoritarian regimes. Both speak equally acerbically about the negative influence of democracy and the wave of color revolutions that swept through the former Soviet space in the mid-2000s and the subsequent ‘Arab Spring.’ Watching as chaos came in the wake of the civilian overthrow of regimes from Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and then later Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, both ascribe these incidents to a missionary foreign policy advocated by western capitals. Fearing that ultimately this wave of civilian insurrection ends up with regime overthrow in Beijing and Moscow, both see each other as fundamental allies in a world divided between western democratic zealots riven with uncertainty and stable one-party states ruled by strongmen and parties.

These underlying geopolitical realities outline why this axis of authoritarianism continues to function as a genuine alliance of sorts despite fundamental differences and an ever-growing imbalance in power between the two. Russia may increasingly be selling itself to China in a manner that will become irreversible, but it is doing this to a power that it fundamentally sees itself locked in step with. It was President Putin who first enunciated in 2000 the fear that Russia would lose its east to Asian influences, but it is also President Putin under whose reign China has become the Russia’s biggest geopolitical friend.

More catch-up, this time a longer magazine sized piece for the excellent current affairs journal Current History. This explores the China-Russia relationship with a particular focus on Central Asia sitting in between them. Clearly more on this topic to come – including a piece soon focused a bit more on the econ and geopolitical equation more broadly. I have pasted the first paragraph below to give you a flavour, but the whole thing is available as PDF below as well.

China and Russia’s Soft Competition in Central Asia

China and Russia have a long history of conflict and competition in Central Asia. Sitting between the two great superpowers, the landlocked Central Asian nations appear to have little choice or control over their destiny, and are often considered to be pawns in a perpetual great game. Yet this narrow view misses the broader picture of the Sino-Russian relationship. It is undeniable that the region has been slipping out of Russia’s immediate economic sphere of influence for some time, but China has been making inroads with Russia’s full acquiescence. For Moscow and Beijing, Central Asia is increasingly a region of soft competition where they are very aware of and attentive to each other’s interests, rather than a source of conflict and tension.

Overriding any differences concerning the steppe are the larger realities of the Sino-Russian strategic relationship on the international stage, where the two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council continue to support each other’s refusal to bow to a Western-dominated global order. Russia may appear to be the loser in Central Asia, but the two powers have established a modus vivendi that suits the interests of both. The real geopolitical losers are likely to be the Central Asians, slowly slipping from Russia’s orbit into China’s.

Please follow for entire article

 

And more catch up posting, this time in Italian for the excellent think tank Twai’s publication Orizzonte Cina. This one was actually initially written a bit in English and a bit in Italian (thanks to Giovanni for commissioning and Simone for editing and translating!), so am not going to re-print here completely in English, but am sure people can figure this out or it gives you an opportunity to learn a beautiful language.

“Una cintura e una via”: il modello dell’Asia centrale

OC Oct 2015

Annunciata in due fasi dal presidente Xi Jinping e dal premier Li Keqiang, la strategia “Una cintura e una via” è il nuovo orientamento della politica estera di Pechino su cui oggi sembrano concentrarsi quasi tutte le discussioni tra esperti d’Asia. Presentata al mondo prima nel settembre del 2013 ad Astana come “Cintura economica della via della seta”, e poi mesi dopo in Indonesia come “Via della seta marittima del XXI secolo”, le finalità di questa nuova strategia non sono sempre ben definite. Per capire meglio l’indirizzo che la Cina sta prendendo bisogna guardare a ciò che Pechino sta facendo in Asia centrale: è l’Asia centrale, infatti, la pista di lancio di questa nuova iniziativa.

Xinjiang: l’Asia centrale cinese

Descritta dal geografo inglese Halford Mackinder come “il fulcro dell’Eurasia”, l’Asia centrale è al centro del pensiero strategico da secoli. Per la Cina essa ha un’importanza anche maggiore per via della sua vicinanza allo Xinjiang – a tutti gli effetti una parte di Asia centrale dentro ai confini della Cina. È una regione ricca di risorse naturali ma popolata da una minoranza uigura profondamente scontenta del governo di Pechino. Una rabbia che si è intensificata fino al punto di scatenare ripetuti episodi di violenza, con apice nel luglio del 2009, quando gruppi di uiguri ad Urumqi (la capitale regionale) aggredirono cinesi han. In seguito alle violenze, che sono durate un paio di giorni, il governo di Pechino ha dato attuazione a una strategia volta a migliorare la situazione regionale con un enorme investimento economico. Pechino scommette sul fatto che la promozione del benessere economico sia sufficiente a mitigare il malcontento sociale e a soddisfare le rivendicazioni della popolazione.

Il risultato è una corsa allo Xinjiang: altre province si sono date l’obiettivo di investire in aree dello Xinjiang, inviando funzionari del Partito a lavorare a fianco delle autorità locali per trasmettere le ricette applicate con successo nel resto del paese. Una percentuale del Pil di ogni provincia cinese viene dirottata verso lo Xinjiang e le grandi imprese statali che investono nella regione sono tenute a lasciarvi una quota dei loro profitti maggiore della norma. Questo sul fronte interno; le imprese straniere, a loro volta, sono incentivate ad aprire stabilimenti nella regione attraverso sostanziosi benefici e agevolazioni.

Il problema, però, è che – come il resto dell’Asia centrale – lo Xinjiang è lontano dalle rotte oceaniche e dalle vie commerciali tradizionali. Per rendere profittevoli gli investimenti nella regione la Cina deve perciò puntare sull’apertura dei mercati limitrofi tra I paesi dell’Asia centrale e costruire una nuova rete infrastrutturale che li colleghi tra loro. Il risultato è un’enorme spinta allo sviluppo regionale con le grandi banche statli cinesi (come la Exim Bank o la China Development Bank) pronte ad offrire ai governi dell’Asia centrale prestiti a tasso agevolato, a condizione che i progetti su cui vengono investiti vengano realizzati da aziende cinesi – generalmente con manodopera cinese e utilizzando prodotti cinesi.

Per i paesi dell’Asia centrale si tratta di proposte attraenti: la Cina rappresenta una fonte d’investimento più solida della Russia, più generosa di altri paesi asiatici come il Giappone e la Corea del Sud, e più affidabile dei paesi europei e degli Stati Uniti. È una dinamica in atto da più di un decennio: la Cina sta diventando la potenza che persegue con più efficacia i propri obiettivi in Asia centrale, mentre – poco per volta – le strade e le infrastrutture della regione si riorientano da Mosca verso Pechino, via Urumqi.

Il sogno cinese di Xi Jinping

È questa la situazione che la nuova amministrazione di Xi Jinping ha ereditato quando è andata al potere nel novembre del 2012: una relazione con l’Asia centrale costruita su finanziamenti e imprese cinesi, di cui entrambe le parti sono soddisfatte. I paesi della regione sono infatti favorevoli a questa nuova fonte di investimenti, con disponibilità economiche apparentemente illimitate e scevra dalle aspettative di dominazione politica che accompagnano invece gli investimenti russi, nonché dalle condizioni politiche poste da Europa e Stati Uniti. L’esperienza centrasiatica ha insegnato a Pechino quali siano le leve più efficaci per affermare gli interessi nazionali cinesi sulla scena internazionale. A Pechino prevale ancora un approccio incentrato sul principio di non interferenza negli affari altrui, che consente di operare all’estero senza crearsi nemici.

Vi è anche una spinta a riprodurre globalmente il modello sperimentato in Asia centrale: dalla “Cintura economica della via della seta” annunciata ad Astana alla “Via della seta marittima del XXI secolo”, al “Corridoio Bangladesh-Cina-India-Myanmar”, al “Corridoio economico Cina-Pakistan” e a una serie di proposte per altre vie che si sviluppano a partire dalla Cina. Nel loro insieme, questi progetti costituiscono l’iniziative ‘Una cintura e una via’, che mira a ridare alla Cina centralita nella rete internazionale di vie commerciali, aprendo nuovi mercati e riorientando le vie commerciali della regione per rafforzare il ruolo di pivot del paese.

Sin dall’inizio del suo mandato, Xi Jinping ha sottolineato l’importanza della diplomazia economica. Nel gennaio del 2013, in un discorso all’Ufficio politico del Comitato centrale, Xi ha sostenuto che la Cina non avrebbe “mai perseguito l’obiettivo del proprio sviluppo al costo di sacrificare gli interessi di altri paesi”. Questa dichiarazione evidenziava l’importanza degli interessi reciproci come nucleo centrale della strategia cinese verso l’esterno. Lo stesso aspetto veniva evidenziato in settembre ad Astana all’interno del famoso discorso sulla ‘Cintura economica della via della seta’ pronunciato da Xi all’Universita Nazarbayev, nel quale il presidente cinese auspicava che “la Cina e l’Asia centrale [unissero] i propri sforzi per costruire una cintura economica della via della seta che [rafforzasse] la cooperazione”. Lo stesso punto veniva nuovamente ribadito nell’ottobre di quello stesso anno, durante la Conferenza sul lavoro diplomatico nella regione, laddove Xi delineava una lista di priorità in politica estera verso l’“obiettivo di realizzare la grande rinascita della nazione cinese; sviluppare complessivamente le relazioni con i paesi della regione; consolidare l’amicizia con i vicini; approfondire forme di cooperazione reciprocamente vantaggiosa; preservare e impiegare al meglio l’importante periodo di opportunità strategica per lo sviluppo della Cina; preservare la sovranità nazionale, la sicurezza e gli interessi dello sviluppo; impegnarsi per migliorare la relazione politica della Cina con I paesi della regione; consolidare i legami economici, approfondire la cooperazione di sicurezza e intensificare gli scambi culturali tra la Cina e i paesi della regione”.

Le leve economiche del progetto

L’attrattiva di un simile modello è facile da comprendere, da un punto di vista cinese. La combinazione di vie commerciali, investimenti nelle infrastrutture, prestiti agevolati e mercati aperti fa leva su una serie di strumenti che I policy-maker cinesi conoscono bene. Si tratta di strumenti che corrispondono alla nozione cinese di benefici armoniosi e di vantaggi condivisi, e che mirano a ricollocare la Cina al centro della struttura economica globale. Sono strumenti che I policy-maker cinesi sanno come utilizzare: prestiti agevolati e finanziamenti vengono forniti attraverso banche quali la China Development Bank o la ExIm Bank, mentre l’attuazione dei progetti è affidata a imprese di Stato cinesi che hanno esperienza nella realizzazione di grandi progetti infrastrutturali in contesti difficili.

Nel quadro dell’iniziativa “Una cintura e una via”, ciò si è concretizzato in una forte proiezione finanziaria cinese. Sia la China Development Bank che la ExIm Bank hanno articolato una propria strategia per “Una cintura e una via”, ma – accanto a questi veicoli tradizionali – la Cina ha iniziato a promuovere la creazione di nuove partnership bilaterali. Non solo: oltre all’approccio bilaterale Pechino ha promosso un’intera rete di nuove istituzioni internazionali, costitute appositamente per finanziare la nuova iniziativa. Queste istituzioni assumono tre diverse forme. Alcune sono create su proposta e sotto la guida cinese; la più significativa è la Banca asiatica d’investimento per le infrastrutture (Aiib), con un capitale di 100 miliardi di dollari. Altre sono create con il sostegno di Pechino, come la Banca di sviluppo dei Brics (pure dotata di un capitale di 100 miliardi di dollari) e la Banca di sviluppo dell’Organizzazione per la cooperazione di Shanghai, ancora in attesa del varo; infine, crescono a ritmo sostenuto gli accordi bilaterali in materia commerciale e di investimento che la Cina sta concludendo con i suoi vicini – ad esempio l’accordo per l’investimento di 46 miliardi di dollari per il Corridoio economico Cina-Pakistan, annunciato da Xi Jinping durante la sua visita di quest’anno a Islamabad. In aggiunta, la Cina ha annunciato la creazione di un Fondo per la via della seta del valore di 40 miliardi di dollari con un board of advisors che include esperti della Urumqi Central Bank.

È attraverso questa rete di istituzioni finanziarie che viene fornita la liquidità necessaria a finanziare l’iniziativa “Una cintura e una via”. Destinatari dei finanziamenti sono i paesi vicini: per esempio, il progetto di Corridoio economico Cina-Pakistan, in particolare alcuni progetti “early harvest” nel settore dell’energia in Pakistan, saranno i primi beneficiari di finanziamenti dal Fondo della via della seta. Ma i finanziamenti finiscono per la maggior parte a imprese di Stato cinesi impegnate a dar sostanza alla retorica dei leader. Per avere un’idea di quali imprese il governo cinese intenda sostenere con l’iniziativa “Una cintura e una via” basta del resto guardare al progetto di China securities index e Shanghai stock exchange per la creazione di un “indice congiunto che rilevi le performance delle azioni che ricadono entro l’iniziativa ‘Una cintura e una via’”. Composta da 52 imprese attive nei settori di “costruzione di infrastrutture, trasporti, produzione di energia e comunicazioni”, la lista offre una chiara indicazione di quali siano – nelle aspettative di Pechino – i beneficiari dell’iniziativa.

La strategia potrà avere successo?

Ma quante concrete possibilità di successo ha questa ambiziosa strategia? Secondo il Ministero del commercio della Repubblica popolare cinese, nella prima metà del 2015 le imprese cinesi hanno investito circa 7,05 miliardi di dollari in 48 paesi collocate entro il perimetro dell’iniziativa. Ma ciò non elimina del tutto i dubbi sulla concreta realizzabilità della strategia. In Asia centrale, in particolare, ha colto alcuni successi, ma ha anche incontrato ostacoli destinati a manifestarsi altrove.

La logica sottesa alla strategia può apparire benevola. L’apertura di corridoi commerciali, con grandi investimenti e con il coinvolgimento di imprese in grado di realizzare i progetti, garantirà vantaggi in termini di nuove reti infrastrutturali ad alcuni dei paesi più poveri della regione. Ma vi sono dubbi sui vantaggi che questi paesi potranno trarre al di là del mero investimento in infrastrutture. Per i paesi dell’Asia centrale, per esempio, non è chiaro quanto la visione di nuovi corridoi commerciali che li attraversano possa realmente aiutarli nello sviluppo delle proprie economie nazionali. Questi paesi puntano a sviluppare industrie nazionali – ma se si parla con uomini d’affari e commercianti della regione, tutti esprimono la preoccupazione di essere espulsi dal mercato dall’arrivo delle più competitive imprese cinesi.

Un ulteriore dubbio è se i paesi della regione siano nelle condizioni di beneficiare realmente dell’iniziativa. L’apertura di corridoi commerciali è finalizzata a creare nuove vie di trasporto per i prodotti, ma nulla garantisce che ne derivino automaticamente vantaggi anche per i cittadini dei paesi di transito. In Pakistan si è cercato di ovviare a questo rischio attraverso l’istituzione di zone economiche lungo il Corridoio economico Cina-Pakistan, ma sarà necessario del tempo prima che queste decollino.

Infine, tutto ciò non risolve i problemi di sicurezza che avranno con ogni probabilità un impatto su molte delle vie di comunicazione create sotto l’egida di “Una cintura e una via”. In aggiunta alle tensioni nelle relazioni tra la Cina e buona parte dei suoi vicini marittimi (che in teoria dovrebbero cooperare nel progetto della Via marittima della seta), vi sono i problemi di sicurezza di Asia centrale e meridionale: instabilità in Belucistan e in Myanmar, gruppi terroristici attivi in Afghanistan e capaci di espandersi in altri paesi dell’Asia centrale. Alcuni di essi hanno contatti con gruppi dissidenti uiguri, il che rinvia a quelle stesse minacce che la Cina cerca di attenuare attraverso la propria strategia di investimenti in Asia centrale. Queste sono parti del mondo in cui è difficile per chiunque investire, non solo a causa della mancanza di infrastrutture ma anche per i diffusi problem di corruzione e per i gravi deficit di governance.

Nonostante ciò, la visione di “Una cintura e una via” è destinata a diventare la fondamentale direttrice della politica estera di Xi Jinping. Delineata in termini sempre più chiari, e sostenuta dai necessari finanziamenti, essa sta ora muovendo dall’elaborazione retorica all’azione. È presto per dire se sarà coronata da successo, ma la rotta è tracciata ed è già stata sperimentata in Asia centrale. Xi Jinping e la sua cerchia hanno certo letto Mackinder: l’Occidente farebbe bene a concentrarsi su come rispondere al meglio all’agenda di politica estera che la Cina sta articolando.