Posts Tagged ‘China-Afghanistan’

Catching up on some old posting, going to put out a few things at the same time. All looking at China in Eurasia, a topic that continues to be a major focus. Of course, all of my work on this is stored on the China in Central Asia site, and this particular piece is something that was undertaken with my excellent RUSI colleague Sarah Lain.
Proceedings of a workshop held in New Delhi in March 2016 to explore the challenges that China’s strategic Belt and Road vision to connect Central Asia hopes to address.

In March 2016, RUSI, in collaboration with the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) hosted a workshop in New Delhi to discuss the challenges of connectivity facing China’s strategic Belt and Road vision, which aims to connect Central Asia  and develop strategic economic corridors across the region.

The workshop covered the different economic corridor concepts initiated by China and India and their aim of enhanced connectivity in Central and South Asia, how such visions will be realised and how they could enhance the security and economic development of the region.

The report summarises these discussions and provides insights into co-operation between China and its regional partners.

Re-publishing a paper from a little back that I did for the new Durham Global Security Institute looking at China-Afghanistan relations. It builds on a presentation on the topic, focusing mostly on the fact that China continues to play a fairly noncommittal game in the country. A topic which there is more to come and about which much more can be found on my co-edited site China in Central Asia. Beyond regional geopolitics, spoke to the Daily Mail about the threat from terrorists and weapons from Libya, NBC about threats to the Tour de France, and my book was quoted in the Independent.

Karzai-Yuanchao

China’s Big Hedge

In November of last year, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao visited Kabul to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and China.[1] The most senior level visit to Kabul by a Chinese official since the now-defenestrated former Politburo member and security minister Zhou Yongkang visited in 2012[2] the visit showed China’s continuing commitment to Afghanistan, whilst also highlighting its limits. Sitting awkwardly in President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision, Afghanistan remains a foreign policy conundrum to China who continues to see the potential risks from the neighbouring country, but that Beijing understands it has a particularly central potential role to play and whose proximity negates a completely detached approach. The result has been a hedging policy in which China continues to show some level of commitment towards Afghanistan whilst not going so far as to taking on the mantle of leadership.

The Belt and Road

One of the central topics of conversation during Vice President Li’s visit to Kabul was the ‘Belt and Road’ concept. In official read-outs from the meetings, both sides agreed to work on cooperatively to help develop Afghanistan’s role in the vision and thereby deepen the link between China and Afghanistan.[3] ‘Belt and Road’ is the term used to describe the vision laid out by President Xi Jinping that is on its way to becoming his defining foreign policy legacy. First publicly raised during a visit to Astana, Kazakhstan in September 2013 when President Xi coined the term ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ to describe the trade, infrastructure and economic corridor emanating from China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang through Central Asia ultimately to European markets.[4] The next month during a speech at the Indonesian Parliament he built on this characterization to announce the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road that recreated the land model advanced across Eurasia out from China’s ports to the seas.[5] Over the next few months these trade corridors proliferated as a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, China-Mongolia-Russia corridor and a New Eurasian Landbridge were all increasingly discussed. In fact, the Pakistan corridor was one that had been agreed prior to the September speech and had been raised during a visit by Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Pakistan in May 2013 and signed in MoU form on a return visit by President Nawaz Sharif in July 2013.[6] But the corridor was only later identified and absorbed under the logic of the grander vision. The logic of these various routes was largely the same and drew from the same structure as the Silk Road Economic Belt laid out in Astana, but over time was increasingly all captured under the rubric of the ‘One Belt and One Road’ (OBOR) and is now abbreviated to the ‘Belt and Road.’

By announcing the initiative in Central Asia President Xi was adding his stamp onto something that had in fact been taking place for over a decade.[7] Since 2001 and the formal founding of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) China has increasingly been developing its presence in Central Asia, something that was spurred on even further in the wake of riots in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang in July 2009.[8] The rioting took place as a result of deep tensions between the minority Uighur population (a community that is close in language, culture and ethnicity to the Turkic speaking populations of Central Asia) in the region and the growing Han Chinese population who have moved west over the past century. These two populations have lived uncomfortably next to each other for some time, with Uighurs increasingly feeling alienated from their own country. This has led to a push back which has expressed itself in a number of forms: people lashing out against the state in anger for real or perceived individual slights or in more organized fashion through terrorist groups and plots. In the first instance much of the violence was isolated in Xinjiang, and in particular in the southern predominantly Uighur corridor. But over time, it has increasingly spread around the country with violent incidents in Kunming and Beijing, an attack outside the country in Bangkok, Thailand and a persistent minority of Uighurs leaving China to seek to connect with extremist groups in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Southeast Asia.[9]

For China, the key to ameliorating the situation in Xinjiang is an economic solution.[10] Seeing economic development as the answer to these problems means a great deal of internal investment, but for this investment to work, Xinjiang needs to have trading partners. Sitting in landlocked Xinjiang, it is easier to look across the Eurasian landmass to Europe and see a quicker route to markets than going to China’s eastern seaboard ports. Consequently, this investment has to spill into Central Asia where Chinese infrastructure companies, banks, and traders have all worked to develop trade corridors to open up Central Asian markets and routes to Xinjiang and Chinese traders. This has happened at every level with small time shuttle traders going back and forth with bags of goods, as well as more entrepreneurial individuals establishing brands and opening factories. Over time, this has led to a steady increase in Chinese presence in the region which has led to not only a re-wiring of the regions infrastructure so that all roads lead to Urumqi (Xinjiang’s capital), but also meant that increasingly China has displaced Russia to become the most consequential actor on the ground.

But all of this has been taking place now for over a decade. Meaning that the nomenclature of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) is a case of President Xi placing his stamp of authority on something that was already underway – the development of an economic and trade corridor sweeping out from China’s west through Central Asia, ultimately to European markets. Seeing it as a successful model deploying foreign policy tools that Beijing could understand how to control (the deployment of capital through linked loans for Chinese firms to go forth and implement infrastructure projects), and based on some theoretical assumptions that are comprehensible. It also has the effect of helping keep the Chinese economy moving as the domestic economy slows down.[11]

But the important thing to remember about the SREB is that it is not a single path, but rather a latticework of routes out of China across Eurasia. There are roads going from Urumqi through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and onwards through other Central Asian countries, across the Caspian, Russia or Iran to Europe. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) essentially turns Pakistan into a corridor for goods to travel through Pakistan from the ports of Gwadar and Karachi to Kashgar, Xinjiang.[12] Whilst identified under a slightly different nomenclature, the CPEC is very much considered a part of the SREB vision, something exemplified by the fact that one of the first projects taken on by the specially created $40 billion Silk Road Fund established by Beijing was an energy project associated with the CPEC vision.[13] In total, billions have been promised and poured into these two routes (the SREB and CPEC) – with Pakistan alone attracting promises of around $46 billion over a number of years,[14] while President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan announced some $23 billion worth of deals during his last visit to Beijing in September 2015.[15]

Afghanistan in the middle

Problematically for Afghanistan, however, it is not entirely clear how the country fits into these ‘Belt and Road’ visions for the Eurasian continent. Whilst the central planning authority of China, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), has not actually published a formal route for the ‘Belt and Road’ vision, numerous maps have been printed in the Chinese state press. One thing that is common to most of these is that when they show routes emanating from China going westwards into Central or South Asia, they tend to go around Afghanistan. The SREB and the CPEC are clear corridors of investment and potential trade that China is pushing but they do not need in their current incarnations to necessarily touch down in Afghanistan. In fact, they can for the most part quite comfortably go around the country, following the natural regional geography that favours such routes. From Kashgar through Tashkurgan, down the Khunjerab Pass through Pakistan to Gwadar or Karachi ports, or through the Irkeshtam or Torugart crossings into Kyrgyzstan or the Dzungarian Pass or Khorogos into Kazakhstan and onto Central Asia. Sitting at the end of the Wakhan Corridor, the China-Afghan border is small and surrounded by mountainous areas meaning that the direct link to the ‘Belt and Road’s is not going to be the same as the one in neighbouring Central and South Asia, unless a very specific corridor is developed.

And while this navigation around Afghanistan has not been acknowledged by Beijing – and in some ways is contradicted by the repeated references to the ‘Belt and Road’ during VP Li and other formal China-Afghan interactions – it is visible in the on-the-ground investments and projects undertaken by China in Afghanistan. Currently, China’s projects in Afghanistan are dominated by a series of aid contributions, like the $79 million that VP Li offered during his visit to Afghanistan to build housing in the capital,[16] some similar contributions to Afghanistan’s security through equipment and training (most recently in declarations during a visit by Fang Fenghui, PLA Chief of General Staff [17]), and a few state owned enterprise (SOE) projects. Some smaller Chinese enterprises have sought to invest in the country, but find themselves hamstrung by a hesitant government and a difficult operating environment.

At the SOE level, the two main extractive projects being undertaken by Chinese firms are the exploitation of copper mines at Mes Aynak in Logar province and CNPC’s oil extraction project in Amu Darya.[18] The Mes Aynak project in particular is one that has become something of an epigram for Chinese efforts in Afghanistan – with a pair of Chinese companies, MCC and Jiangxi Copper, outbidding a number of others to win the contract in 2007, only for them to then sit on the project since then. Underestimating the security costs and overpromising in terms of additional infrastructure that they would produce around the site, the mine has been left unexploited and the company is now attempting to renegotiate the contract as well as backing away from some of the earlier promised infrastructure (that made the bid so attractive to Kabul in the first place[19]). The company head has met with senior Afghan officials and have been reported as complaining to others that it was pressured into undertaking the project by the central authorities in Beijing. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the security situation around the area of the mine has gotten worse over time (and global copper prices have dropped), the project has nevertheless become hugely symbolic to many Afghans showing the high levels of Chinese promises that have gone unfulfilled.

The project in Amu Darya has faced fewer difficulties and actually been able to extract some hydrocarbons from the ground, though by choosing a partner in the Watan Group, CNPC failed to engage with the proper local actors when they invested in the project. This led to some difficulties with other power brokers in the north, and led to the project’s delay. Beyond this, CNPC had promised to build a refinery in the north of the country, but this has not been undertaken yet and it remains unclear to what degree the project has actually managed to move forwards.[20] Always seen as a relatively small investment for the company, the belief was that CNPC’s greater interest was to establish a foothold in the north of Afghanistan so that when future fields in the region were to open up they would be in an optimal position to win the contracts. CNPC is particularly bullish about these prospects given its substantial investment across the border in Turkmenistan in what is the same hydrocarbon basin.

Looking beyond extractives, Chinese firms have also bid and won contracts to undertake infrastructure development in Afghanistan. In particular, Xinjiang Beixin won a contract from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to undertake the rehabilitation of a part of the road from Kabul to Jalalabad. However, the company has encountered difficulties in doing the project and it is unclear at what stage they are at the moment. The company is one that is active across the region implementing ADB projects in difficult environments, but it is unclear they still have an appetite to complete the Afghan project.[21] Atop all of these difficulties at a state owned enterprise level, smaller traders and businessmen spoken to speak of lower level issues, from problems around visa issuances to Afghan businessmen wanting to travel to China, to standards imposed by China to the exports of Afghan goods, to a reticence by China to actively support its traders to go to Afghanistan. And none of this is to speak of the security situation in the country which intimidates even the most fearless Chinese traders.

China the Peacebroker

Amid much fanfare in July 2014 China created its first Special Envoy for Afghanistan appointing a prominent and popular former Ambassador to Kabul, Sun Yuxi, to the role.[22] Coming at a time when the west was clarifying its decreasing role in Afghanistan, the appointment was one that reflected an effort by Beijing to show its commitment to the country. As time progressed, it also became clear that one of Ambassador Sun’s key roles was to help facilitate a ramping up of China’s efforts to act as a peacebroker between the Taliban and the government in Kabul. With the election of President Ghani in October 2014, he immediately signalled the importance he placed on the relationship with China by making Beijing the first capital he visited in his new role on a formal trip.[23] During this visit he not only attended the ‘Heart of Asia’ process meeting hosted by China, but also laid the groundwork for the formal peace talk negotiations with the Taliban at a behind closed doors meeting hosted by the Chinese government.

By early the next year stories emerged that China was playing a more forward role in brokering peace talks and in conversations in Beijing, and officials spoken to at the time highlighted that they were willing to act as hosts for any future peace talks.[24] By May 2015, senior Taliban figures were meeting with representatives from the Afghan High Peace Council in Urumqi.[25] In July another round of talks was held in Pakistan at which Chinese participants also played a role.[26] A further mulitlaterla track two engagement took place in Norway in which both Afghan representatives and Taliban counterparts attended.[27]

In sum, it appeared as though the Chinese supported peace track was one that was bearing fruit, until abruptly in late July 2015 the news was leaked that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar had in fact died back in 2013. This action immediately scuttled the discussions as it set the Taliban in disarray as an internal leadership struggle surfaced as to who would be Mullah Omar’s successor. It also complicated China’s contribution as it abruptly meant it was not clear who exactly the relevant partner to engage with on the Taliban side would be and so therefore where China could play a role. Accusations of blame were passed between Islamabad and Kabul, but the net result was an uptick in violence that made it harder for the Afghan official side to negotiate in full confidence.

Chinese experts and officials spoken to at this time almost immediately fell back into pointing that it was up to the United States to step up and play a stronger role in supporting the Afghan government and national security forces.[28] They further pointed to the fact that until there was greater clarity on the Taliban side about who was being negotiated with, it was unlikely that talks were going to bear immediate fruit. This did not stop Chinese efforts, and while Special Envoy Sun Yuxi stepped down from his role, he was replaced by the recent former Ambassador to Kabul Deng Xijun who seemed set to continue to play a key supporting role in any peace talks.

Keeping Options Open

Beijing has managed to continue to play this role by maintaining contacts with all sides. Its longstanding contact with the Taliban are believed to continue behind closed doors, while Vice President Li’s public calls in Kabul on President Ghani, Chief Executive Office Abdullah and former President Karzai show that they are eager to maintain links to all of the key official players in Afghanistan’s future. This is further reflected on the international stage where China has not only engaged with Afghanistan on a bilateral basis, but also through multilateral vehicles like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (where China has played a championing role for the country. It was during Chinese Presidency’s that the Afghan contact group was created and later the country was made into an Observer), as well as through multilateral formats like an India-China bilateral where Afghanistan is discussed, an Afghan-Pakistan-China trilateral, and a willingness to engage with the United States to undertake joint training projects in Afghanistan. Most recently, during PLA Chief Fang Fenghui’s visit to Kabul, he spoke about the creation of a sub-regional security discussion between China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan to create a regional alliance against terrorism.[29]

China is choosing not to take sides and using this as a way to guarantee its interests. While it is not clear that Afghanistan needs to fit into the ‘Belt and Road’ vision, it is also equally clear that an unstable Afghanistan has the potential to be a major spoiler for the routes through Central Asia and Pakistan. Instability in Afghanistan is likely to have an impact and cause trouble across the border in both directions and this will have a clearer impact on China’s larger project, and ultimately on Xinjiang. Consequently, China has an interest in stability in Afghanistan and this helps explain its substantial and multifaceted approach towards the country.

In many ways, this is reflective of China’s broader approach in the ‘Belt and Road’ vision where as a result of the increased external economic push Beijing is finding itself playing an ever more influential role in its immediate neighbourhood. Yet Beijing policymakers have not yet apparently entirely understood what exactly what this means for their larger political role in these countries. Nowhere is this more than in Afghanistan where they are finding themselves drawn into an ever more significant role, but are instead electing to hedge. President Ghani’s open lobbying of Beijing from early in his administration shows Kabul’s eagerness to engage with Beijing, something that is being done with Western agreement and support (the US has undertaken joint training programmes with China in Afghanistan, and European capitals are working to engage with China to encourage greater efforts in Afghanistan). But while Beijing is continuing to play a positive role, it is not demonstrating a willingness to step into a strong leadership role, choosing to instead play a significant support role.

This is ultimately unfortunate for Kabul as China has many significant cards to play in Afghanistan – be this in terms of their strong relationship with Islamabad, the massive investment they could pour in and the industry they could mobilize to rebuild the country, or the potential opening up of Iran that they could take advantage of across Afghanistan. Whilst security remains something that China is not able to provide in adequate measure outside its borders, across Central Asia, China’s security presence and efforts are growing highlighting that this is an evolving reaction from Beijing. China’s recently passed counter-terrorism legislation offers a formal framework for Chinese security forces to go deploy outside the country to counter terrorist threats. But Beijing remains a hesitant player in Afghanistan, willing to play a significant role, but continuing to make sure that it has kept its cards close to its chest and left itself a deniable exit in the case of things going in a negative direction. China continues to be Kabul’s closest hesitant friend.

[1] ‘Li Yuanchao Attends Reception for the 60th Anniversary of China-Afghanistan Diplomatic Ties,’ Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 4, 2015 http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1311792.shtml ; ‘China promises to continue to playing constructive role in Afghan peace process,’ Xinhua, November 4, 2015 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-11/04/c_134780948.htm

[2] ‘Top Chinese security official makes surprise visit to Afghanistan,’ Xinhua, September 23, 2012 http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2012-09/23/content_15776032.htm ; Rob Taylor, ‘Top Official visits Afghanistan, signs security deal,’ Reuters, September 23, 2012 http://in.reuters.com/article/afghanistan-china-idINDEE88M03620120923

[3] ‘Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with Li Yuanchao,’ Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 4, 2015 http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1311790.shtml

[4] ‘Chinese President delivers speech at Nazarbayev University,’ Xinhua, September 8, 2013 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/photo/2013-09/08/c_132701546.htm

[5] ‘Speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Indonesian Parliament,’ October 3, 2015 http://www.asean-china-center.org/english/2013-10/03/c_133062675.htm

[6] ‘Chinese premier raises five-point proposal for boosting cooperation with Pakistan,’ Xinhua, May 23, 2013 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-05/23/c_124750134.htm ; ‘Pakistan, China sign eight agreements, MoUs,’ The News, July 6, 2013 http://www.awaztoday.tv/News_Pakistan-China-sign-eight-agreements-MoUs_1_34980_Political-News.aspx

[7] For a good book summarizing the history of China’s relations with Central Asia, please see Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse The Chinese Question in Central Asia: Domestic Order, Social Change, and the Chinese Factor, (UK: Hurst, October 2012; US: Oxford University Press, December 2012)

[8] Edward Wong, ‘Riots in Western China amid ethnic tension,’ New York Times, July 5, 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/06/world/asia/06china.html?_r=0

[9] It is worth also pointing out that a great deal more Uighurs leave the country in unhappiness at their situation there. Seeking a better life abroad, they are economic migrants or people fleeing persecution who are simply trying to build new lives outside China. The majority appear to gravitate towards Turkey, with substantial diaspora communities also found in parts of Europe, as well as across Central Asia. The point being not every Uighur who leaves China unhappy becomes involved in terrorist activity. According to one prominent Chinese expert spoken to in early 2016, about 9 out of 10 Uighurs who left were seeking better lives. Author interview Beijing, January 2016.

[10] Most clearly laid out in 2010 at a work conference held in the wake of the riots. ‘Chinese central authorities outline roadmap for Xinjiang’s leapfrog development, lasting stability,’ Xinhua, May 20, 2010 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2010-05/20/c_13306534.htm

[11] ‘China eyes ‘Belt and Road’ to reverse trade slowdown,’ Global Times, May 28, 2015 http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/924034.shtml

[12] For the most recent maps showing the ambition and routes of the CPEC, please see the Pakistani Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms dedicated webpage: http://www.pc.gov.pk/?page_id=2731

[13] ‘Silk Road Fund’s debut investment in $1.65b Pakistan power project,’ People’s Bank of China press release, April 21, 2015 http://www.pbc.gov.cn/english/130721/2811777/index.html

[14] ‘China’s Xi Jinping agrees $46bn superhighway to Pakistan,’ BBC News, April 20, 2015 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-32377088

[15] ‘Kazakh leader says $23 billion in economic deals agreed with China,’ Reuters, September 1, 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/kazakhstan-china-idUSL5N1172H620150901

[16] Michael Martina and Mirwais Harooni, ‘China’s vice president pledges support in rare Afghanistan visit,’ November 3, 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-china-idUSKCN0SS1MN20151103

[17] ‘Afghanistan to give China military equipment wish list,’ Khaaama News, March 4, 2016 https://www.khaama.com/afghanistan-to-give-china-military-equipment-wish-list-0241

[18] Raffaello Pantucci, ‘Guest Post: China in Afghanistan: A Tale of Two Mines,’ Financial Times Beyond BRICS, December 4, 2012 http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/12/04/guest-post-china-in-afghanistan-a-tale-of-two-mines/

[19] There have also been rumours of corruption around the deal that have not been publicly verified.

[20] The most recently publicly accessible report from July 2014 indicated the project was suspended. Jessica Donati, ‘From New York heroin dealer to Afghanistan’s biggest oil man,’ Reuters, July 9, 2014 http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-07-09/news/sns-rt-us-afghanistan-energy-20140707_1_cnpc-security-firm-afghanistan

[21] Michael Martina and Mirwais Harooni, ‘Slow road from Kabul highlights China’s challenge in Afghanistan,’ Reuters, November 22, 2015 http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-afghanistan-china-road-idUKKBN0TB0X720151122

[22] ‘Ministry appoints special envoy for Afghan affairs,’ Xinhua, July 18, 2014 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-07/18/c_133494661.htm

[23] ‘Afghanistan’s new president starts landmark China visit,’ BBC News, October 28, 2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-29803768

[24] Nathan Hodge, Habib Khan Totakhil & Josh Chin, ‘China Creates New Avenue for Afghan Peace Talks,’ Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2015 http://www.wsj.com/articles/china-creates-new-avenue-for-afghan-peace-talks-1420564492 ; further confirmed by author interviews in Beijing. ‘China favours role in Afghan peace talks, appreciates Pakistan’s efforts,’ Dawn, August 15, 2015 http://www.dawn.com/news/1200627

[25] Edward Wong and Mujib Mashal, ‘Taliban and Afghan Peace Officials Have Secret Talks in China,’ New York Times, May 25, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/world/asia/taliban-and-afghan-peace-officials-have-secret-talks-in-china.html

[26] Jon Boone, ‘Afghanistan and Taliban peace talks end with promise to meet again,’ Guardian, July 8, 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/08/afghanistan-and-taliban-peace-talks-end-with-promise-to-meet-again

[27] ‘Afghan, Taliban delegates attend Oslo talks on ending conflicts,’ Reuters, June 16, 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-norway-afghanistan-idUSKBN0OW17B20150616

[28] Author interview in Beijing, July 2015

[29] Ibrahim Nasar and Jafar Haand, ‘Afghanistan welcomes Chinese anti-terror proposal,’ Voice of America, March 1, 2016 http://www.voanews.com/content/afghanistan-welcomes-chinese-anti-terror-proposal/3215160.html

It has been over a month since I posted anything here, but do not worry I have not been idle. To those who receive this via email, please forgive the coming blast as I want to catch up on myself a bit. Will save all the media discussions until the last one. First up is a short blogpost for Reuters about China-India-Afghanistan, very much building on the bigger project on the subject that have been a big focus of work for some time.

Tags:

A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment shields himself from the rotor wash of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter after being dropped off for a mission with the Afghan police near Jalalabad in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan December 20, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/Files

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

Landlocked in the heart of Eurasia, Afghanistan sits in between superpowers. Previously this was Russia and the United Kingdom, using its territory as a chessboard across which they would plot intrigue against each other.

During more recent history, it became a covert battlefield between Russia and the United States as the wider ideological struggle between communism and capitalism was played out. Nowadays, however, a new momentum is building behind cooperation between two superpowers whose domestic security is linked to Afghanistan’s stability.

Beijing and Delhi’s ability to cooperate in Afghanistan is likely to be a key axis through which long-term Afghan stability will come.

Both China and India are already active players in Afghanistan. In November last year, Vice Premier Li Yuanchao visited Kabul and offered a package of $79 million for housing construction in the city. Just over a month later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the city to inaugurate the Indian built Parliament building.

China has taken an increasingly prominent role in helping broker peace talks between the warring factions in Afghanistan, while both countries have offered differing levels of support for Afghanistan’s security forces. China has provided the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) with non-lethal support while India has instead provided attack helicopters and discussed the idea of reviving arms factories with Russian support.

Both are major aid providers to Afghanistan and have played important roles in the so-called ‘Heart of Asia Process’, and while current commodity prices (and the current uncertain political and security situation) have made it less attractive at the moment, both are hosts to large state-owned extractives firms who have the capacity, scale and appetite to try to mine Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao (L) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attend a signing ceremony of mutual agreements in Kabul, Afghanistan November 3, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood/Files

Both have similar interests in Afghanistan — an eagerness for the country to have a stable heart of its region — and both have enunciated a desire for any peace process in the nation to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. Whilst they might share extremely different relationships with key outside player Pakistan, they share a surprisingly concurrent view on some of the security problems within that country.

Cooperation between them at a more strategic level has long been moving in a positive direction – President Xi Jinping has made reaching out to India a priority, while Prime Minister Modi has reciprocated through a targeted effort to connect with China. Beyond rhetoric, joint counter-terrorism training exercises, positive border dispute discussions and cooperation on the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) all show how this relationship is one that goes beyond geopolitical rhetoric.

Yet notwithstanding these similarities, cooperation and collaboration on Afghanistan has remained remarkably limited. There have been some discussions, but little action. Both have continued to undertake their efforts in parallel while they have laid out much larger visions for a broader pattern of regional engagement — China under Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision while India through the Connect Central Asia strategy. But neither has particularly addressed the question of where Afghanistan fits into this, and have in fact enunciated visions that can go around Afghanistan.

For Beijing, the ‘Belt and Road’ can flow cleanly through Central Asia, across Russia or the Caspian to Europe, or go straight from Kashgar to Gwadar, turning Pakistan in a ‘corridor’ for Chinese goods. For Delhi, the investment into the Iranian port Chabahar can be read as an attempt to create a route for Indian interests and investments to get out of Central Asia bypassing Afghanistan. In other words, both are developing regional visions that can go around Afghanistan.

But at the same time, both realize that notwithstanding their ability to develop routes around the country, an unstable Afghanistan is going to be something that could destabilize the larger visions. And this is where greater cooperation is important. Focusing on playing a complementary role in supporting Afghanistan’s security forces through providing funding and undertaking niche training rather than solely the equipment provision they are currently undertaking would address a gap that the West is eventually going to want to stop providing.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with the Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul, Afghanistan December 25, 2015. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with the Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul, Afghanistan December 25, 2015. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/Files

And this points to a larger question which China and India both seem to recognize bilaterally, but have not engaged with enough together. Both see that the West’s appetite and attention in Afghanistan is waning, and while this may irritate them and only serve to reinforce a belief in the fickle nature of Western foreign policy, it fails to resolve the fact that Afghanistan sits in their neighbourhood.

The age of competitive geopolitical games is by no means over, but in Afghanistan there are the outlines of a future cooperative relationship between two of Asia’s great emergent superpowers. Both have a key interest in Afghanistan and have a different set of relations with Kabul that if handled correctly could be complementary. Beijing and Delhi are already re-shaping the world through their sheer size and growing clout in international affairs — in their immediate neighbourhood they could direct this weight to help Afghanistan find some stability at the heart of Eurasia.

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 for the week, first up a short piece for my home institution RUSI’s website. Was initially meant to go up a little bit earlier around the time of the talks themselves, but got a bit delayed. Also meant to tee up a bit some of the findings of a longer piece that will go up here soon and is up on the RUSI site already.

This aside, spoke to the South China Morning Post on the topic during the Afghan foreign minister’s visit to Beijing, as well as Reuters about ISIS online activity.

How China’s Power Runs Through a Peaceful Afghanistan

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 2 February 2016

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China is playing a positive role in Afghanistan, but needs to take a greater ownership and direction of the potential peace process. As a partner with positive relations in both Kabul and Islamabad, Beijing is well placed to play this role.

The latest round of the Quadrilateral Group (Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the USA) is being held in Islamabad this week. This round builds on an effort instigated by Beijing earlier in 2015 and has been one of the hallmarks of Afghan President Ghani’s presidency. The question, however, is whether China has the power to be a decisive player in Afghanistan that it has been increasingly hinting at with its role in these talks.

China has long been playing a productive role in the country. Whilst Beijing maintains awkward relations with Washington across the Pacific Ocean, on land, it is undertaking joint training programmes with the United States for Afghan diplomats and officials. It has helped facilitate discussions between Afghanistan and Pakistan and has helped soothe relations between Islamabad and Delhi. Most significant, however, has been the official diplomatic track that it has helped open between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. Though unofficial contacts existed previously, President Ghani’s ascent to power in September 2014 gave the relationship renewed impetus. This included a focus on a key role for China in the Afghan peace process, a point highlighted by Ghani’s first formal overseas trip being to Beijing.

This was not the first time discussions between the government in Kabul and the Taliban had been mooted. Previous dialogue tracks through institutes like Pugwash, in Chantilly, France or through the Taliban Doha office had not appeared move very far forwards with little evidence that the Taliban were taking the negotiations seriously. In contrast, the track opened with Beijing’s support appeared to draw its influence directly from the heart of the Taliban in Pakistan. Consequently, there appeared to be greater confidence that those talking were able to deliver what they were discussing. This was a key aspect to make the talks genuinely useful.

Beijing’s particular role in this was in ensuring that Pakistan did all that it could to facilitate the discussions. ‘All weather’ friends whose relationship is the source of much hyperbolic rhetoric, China and Pakistan have long been attached at the hip. More recently, China has focused its economic firepower on Islamabad with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in 2013 to develop the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in essence a trade and infrastructure corridor stretching from Kashgar in China to the newly built Gwadar Port.

Swept into the broader Belt and Road initiative that is the keynote foreign policy initiative of the Xi Jinping administration, CPEC was grandiloquently allocated $46 billion in investment when President Xi visited in 2014. Whilst there is some creative accounting going on with the exact numbers, the injection into Pakistan’s faltering economy is nonetheless massive. But while it showed the world that Pakistan had other options beyond the West, it also substantially strengthened Beijing’s hand in Islamabad.

This shift of influence towards Beijing is not something that is only observed in Pakistan. Across the Eurasian continent, Beijing’s growing weight and economic power projection is visible. From President Xi’s recent visit to Tehran, to the growing list of economic officials meeting with the heads of the specially created $40 billion Silk Road Fund, to the roads, rail and pipeline being laid across Central Asia, China is the coming power. But sitting at the centre of this larger Belt and Road vision is Afghanistan, a country that has historically stymied outside powers influence and continues to face a brutal civil war at home. Talking to experts sitting in Beijing, they will point to Afghanistan as a potential spoiler in the larger Silk Road Economic Belt (the ‘Belt’ of the ‘Belt and Road’), worrying about its instability radiating out to disrupt the trade and economic corridors being built out from China’s western regions.

This in part helps explain China’s interest in Afghanistan – quite aside from the obvious fact of sharing a direct border with the country and the fact that historically Uighur militants angry at Beijing’s dominance of Xinjiang (China’s westernmost region) have used Afghanistan as a staging point for camps to train.

But while China’s interest in Afghanistan is clear – its commitment to playing a forward role in stabilising the country has been less clear until now. By stepping forwards to support the peace talks, China is finally making a move towards playing the role that is clearly commensurate to its regional position and power. Unfortunately, however, this is unlikely to be enough. If China truly wants to help stabilise Afghanistan it must not only continue to support the peace talks, but also explore a greater role in providing support for the ANSF (not only through non-lethal aid, but also financial support), find ways of investing in Afghanistan’s small to medium enterprises (as well as bring some resolution to the larger stalled mineral projects undertaken by Chinese enterprises), clarify how Afghanistan fits into the ‘Belt and Road’ and finally continue to act a regional mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

None of these are quick fixes. But for China the option of backing out is limited. Unlike far away Western powers, Beijing will share a border with Afghanistan come what may, meaning China’s stake in the country is an immoveable one. In the short term, President Ghani’s window of opportunity is closing rapidly and he will be unable to effect some influential change before prospects of peace conclude with the start of the fighting season. If Beijing is to capitalise on its current advantageous position in Afghanistan, it needs to start to push forwards on all fronts to help move the talks from discussions about roadmaps between Afghanistan and Pakistan to talks and then a dialogue between Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. This is the only way Afghanistan will be able to bring its lengthy conflict to a close.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of RUSI’s International Security research group

A new piece with a Chinese friend looking again at China-Afghanistan relations and trying to establish how Beijing might play a more positive role in the country. Something that looks increasingly complicated nowadays with the current chaos, but I think still remains an important project for Beijing to undertake. Much more on this topic to come as ever.

As is usual, however, most discussions with the media were terrorism related, including conversations with AFP, Radio France International and France 24 about the Thalys incident, and separately the New York Times about the death of British jihadi hacker Junaid Hussain and the Independent on Sunday about British women taking their children to join ISIS.

Can China Assert Itself in Afghanistan?

Beijing needs to play a stronger leadership role in Afghanistan.

By Raffaello Pantucci and Kane Luo for The Diplomat

Ghani Xi signing

Confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death has confused an already difficult picture in Afghanistan. Precarious relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been pushed even closer to breaking point, and the one bright spot, that of increased regional support, seems to have slipped onto the back burner. Beijing in particular needs to wake up and play a stronger leadership role in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Ufa with high hopes of again bringing the support of regional powers to bear on helping resolve his country’s ongoing civil war and the growing emergence of ISIS related terrorism within his country. On the face of it, the SCO would appear to be a very promising lead. Now expanding to include both India and Pakistan, the multilateral organization is one that manages to bring together almost all of the regional elements that are likely to be needed if we are to see a genuine local push to resolve Afghanistan’s problems. Its security architecture further offers a set of existing regional structures to discuss and implement some sort of regional response to Afghanistan’s perennial security threats. But thus far the organization has singularly failed to deliver much in terms of action on Afghanistan. The reality is that the real driver of a regional shift on Afghanistan is going to come from Beijing.

Looking solely within an SCO context, Afghanistan has only ever really been a focus under Chinese leadership. It was under Chinese stewardship that the SCO-Afghanistan contact group was created – when Beijing held the chairmanship in 2006. Six years later, it was at the 2012 Summit in Beijing at which the country was more formally accorded ‘Observer’ status. But very little activity has flowed from these shifts, and where we have seen action on Afghanistan from SCO members it largely appears to be at a bilateral level.

This includes China, which while it continues to act in Afghanistan through multilateral formats (for instance, through hosting of the trilateral discussions with Afghan and Pakistani officials), expends most of its attention on bilateral efforts. Yet these efforts have still not crossed the threshold to be decisive, and China still appears to be playing a hedging role in the country. Even in the peace talks that China is currently supporting (although the nature of its role in the wake of the Mullah Omar announcement seems unclear), it seems as though China remains an observer rather than a decisive actor.

Key to advancing China’s potential as a positive force in Afghanistan is to push the current slate of economic projects forward, as well as finding ways to ensure that the peace talks move towards some sort of resolution. Both are clearly difficult, but the first is far easier for the Chinese government move forward.

In late May the Afghan government revealed that Ghani had held talks with a Chinese construction firm to advance construction of the Jalalabad-Kabul road. The Chinese worries about the project were, understandably, primarily focused around security concerns, something that they saw as the remit of the Afghan authorities. This may indeed be the case, but the Chinese government could play a greater role in trying to offer training to Afghan forces to help improve their capacity to protect the Chinese project. Currently, China plays a somewhat marginal role in Afghan security, offering training to a few hundred police over many years, whilst also contributing some equipment to the ANSF. Whilst there are undoubtedly some logistical issues around training (linguistic differences for example), China could step up its equipment and financial support rather than only offering limited amounts of in-kind support.

More substantially in some ways than this, however, is the potential game changer that China could play in Afghanistan’s economy were some of the larger economic projects to come to fruition. At the moment, China is one of the biggest players with unrealized potential in Afghanistan. While CNPC has had some success in developing its field in the north, the Mes Aynak copper project continues to fester unfinished. During Xi Jinping’s head of state encounter with Ghani, discussion was made of the establishment of an intergovernmental committee to help the project move forwards. But there has been little movement since then, and it is unclear that we are going to see anything more in the near term future. This is hugely problematic as the project sits in a region that would benefit enormously from the investment.

At a more geostrategic level, Afghanistan also does not quite see where it fits into Xi Jinping’s great regional vision the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). Repeated conversations with Afghans have underscored that they have not understood where they fit into this grand vision for regional connectivity. The discussion around Afghanistan’s involvement appears to focus on how it might develop into an extension or part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – the strategy for Pakistan to essentially become a corridor for goods going from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar Port in Baluchistan. Looking towards Central Asia, there has been discussion of some connections from Tajikistan extending into Afghanistan, but it is unclear that these are much of a focus for Chinese strategists and builders who are much more focused on developing routes through Central Asia to Russian and European markets. China needs to tell Afghanistan how it fits into the SREB.

China has set itself up to be a major player in Afghanistan’s future and expectations are being raised. It now needs to find ways of asserting itself both politically and economically to play the role that increasingly is being expected of it. Beijing may still shy from such ambitious aims, but at the same time, it is now too late to back away from them. China needs to find its feet and move forward in a more certain manner in Afghanistan.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Kane Luo is Vice President of Wakhan Abresham Consulting Service.

 

I have been rather delinquent in posting here, so am going to now briefly catch up on a few things. First up is a piece written for the UK Embassy Beijing’s ‘Strategic Communications Initiative’ that aims to advance a discussion between China and the UK on strategic questions. I have contributed a piece with a Chinese friend who is very active on the ground in Afghanistan working with business there offering some ideas for China’s possible role in the country. This is not my first piece for the Initiative, and I hope not the last! As ever, much more on the topic of China-Afghanistan (and more broadly China-Central and South Asia) to come.

Understanding the Cultural Fabric: The Missing Piece in China’s Outreach to Bring Peace to Afghanistan

Kane Luo, Vice President of Wakhan Abresham Consulting Service and Raffaello Pantucci, Director, International Security Studies, the Royal United Services Institute

A head of state’s first visit abroad is usually a strong indicator of that country’s future foreign policy. So when Ashraf Ghani, the newly elected President of Afghanistan chose China as the destination of his first state visit, the message from the new President of Afghanistan was clear: as we enter the year of NATO withdrawal, Afghanistan is increasingly looking East.

President Ghani certainly received a warm welcome in Beijing; President Xi Jinping showed China’s generosity promising a $330 million aid package over the next 3 years, a figure that exceeds China’s combined aid to Afghanistan for the last 14 years. China also announced a plan to help to train 3,000 Afghans in various fields, something that builds on previous promises of training, including an earlier program announced during former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang’s visit to Kabul in 2012 of 300 Afghan police. The discussion of re-opening the Wakhan Corridor, the slim mountainous borderland between Afghanistan and China that has long been a request of the Afghan government, has been restarted. Visa requirements for government officials of both countries are said to possibly be about to be scrapped. But in many ways, the most interesting outcome of Ghani’s visit to China was the revelation that China would offer itself as a host for peace discussions between the Taliban and the government in Kabul – bringing all relevant sides to the table to help broker peace in the country. Whether this approach will bear fruit is unclear, but its seeming admission and confirmation by officials highlights the fact that China is proving itself increasingly willing to accept it has an important role to play in Afghanistan’s future.

China’s motives behind her rapidly increasing efforts in Afghanistan are multiple, but the factor most often cited by Chinese experts and officials is domestic security. Violent, disenfranchised individuals from Xinjiang are becoming an increasingly deadly threat, something that has been increasing since 2008 and reached something of a crescendo in the past year. It is unclear how much manpower, resources and organizational capability Uyghur militants actually have; but their increased use of explosives, suicidal tactics and rising frequency of attacks are proof of a problem that is increasing. Angry denizens from Xinjiang have also shown a growing desire to launch attacks in not only remote areas of Xinjiang, but also in major political and population centers in eastern China as well, as the attack in October 2013 in Tiananmen Square, the March 2014 attack in Kunming and other incidents have demonstrated.

The link to these groups and Afghanistan come through Beijing’s claims that they possess evidence to prove that Uyghur militant groups are trained, financed and organized by ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)’, which is further linked with Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) in Afghan-Pakistani border area. There is some historical precedent to this link dating back to before September 11, 2001. A number sources verify the presence of Uyghurs in substantial numbers in Taliban Afghanistan with some pledging allegiance to Mullah Omar. These days it may not be the case that every terrorist attack in China is launched from caves of Waziristan (something increasingly recognized by Chinese experts); but Uyghur militants’ recent tactics indicate that they are certainly getting ideas from the global Jihadist movement, be it in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. Beijing’s concern is that if these Islamic militants are left unchecked and Afghanistan is allowed to become a source of regional instability once again, a sophisticated enough terrorist attack may finally emerge or instigate some larger incident in Xinjiang that would expand the current instability in Xinjiang further around the nation.

Another important reason behind China’s evolving Afghan policy is Beijing’s concern over her ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. The so called ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative consists principally of the ‘New Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (with side projects stretching from Kashgar to Gwadar in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh-China-Myanmar-India (BCIM) corridor), an extremely ambitious grand strategic design of President Xi Jinping’s administration. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative is meant to drastically increase the movement of capital, humans, goods, speed up cultural exchanges and even start to harmonize governmental policies across Eurasia; by constructing two separate but complementary routes that both start from China and then stretch westward. The ‘New Silk Road Economic Belt’ goes through Central Asia, Russia, Iran, and Arabia before finally reaching Europe; the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ passes through Malacca Strait, Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and ultimately reaches the Mediterranean Sea. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative includes thousands of miles of proposed high-speed railway and highway, seaports and airports, oil and gas pipelines, even nuclear power stations that will cost trillions of U.S. dollars and decades to build. It would conclude with the development of massive trade and economic corridors bringing Chinese products to the world, and opening China even further. It would also have the ancillary effect of redeveloping a large swathe of China’s immediate periphery, something that has led to some prominent Chinese commentators, like Dingding Cheng, to describe it as ‘China’s Marshall Plan,’ a reference to the post-Second World War America’s massive effort to rebuild Europe. Afghanistan plays a very dangerous potential spoiler role within this, sitting adjacent to China and in the midst of a number of these land corridors emanating from China’s western provinces. Should the country collapse into chaos and become an exporter or incubator of instability, it would likely upset this key part of this plan.

But beyond just seeing the importance of Afghanistan to China’s domestic health, Beijing policymakers also see the importance of regional relationships to ensure a stable future. However, in contrast to the United States, China has the advantage of having far less contentious relationships with a key partner for Afghanistan, Pakistan. China is well aware of its influence over Islamabad, and has long nurtured a strong bilateral relationship with the country that both cherish publicly and loudly. China has already used its influence to bring Pakistan and Afghanistan to the table, as well as initiate a number of other regional discussions involving Pakistan (or about Pakistan), the recent admission of contact with the Taliban and a willingness to use this relationship to advance reconciliation all highlight the degree to which China is showing it is willing to use its relationships in advance of greater regional stability.

This approach to bringing the Taliban to the table is not, however, without its difficulties. Taliban are likely to play some role in Afghanistan’s future; but the trouble is, the Afghan government and Taliban today are both highly fragmented entities that lack centralised authority for Beijing to effectively engage with. The Taliban’s addition into this mix will only further complicate Afghanistan’s already difficult political situation. Finally, for China to be taking such a forward role in such a sensitive aspect of Afghan affairs will make it harder for China to maintain its position of detachment from events in Afghanistan – something that has in the past given the country a certain neutral image within Afghanistan.

There are further problems with taking the role of reconciler with a group that is reviled by many Afghans (the Taliban) and country (Pakistan) that many Afghans blame for some of their security problems. Anti-Pakistani feeling is very high amongst Afghans who see their neighbours as meddlers who have supported groups that have led to many deaths. Being seen as a close ally to both the Taliban and Pakistan might not play well amongst the Afghan public. Others within Afghanistan continue to feel that the Taliban have no role to play in their country’s future, highlighting with anger the fact that the government in Kabul is being forced to reconcile with a group that has shown no remorse in butchering civilians, officials, and soldiers alike. Finally, it is not entirely clear the degree to which outside stakeholders will all welcome this mediating role – for western powers, any support in bringing stability and peace to Afghanistan is welcome, but for players like India, Iran or the Central Asian powers, they have their own regional dynamics to consider. These are all issues that Beijing needs to consider.  Beijing must have a 360 degree of vision and be mindful of a basic reality in international affairs: when a button is pressed, there will be a series of chain-reactions. Some of these reactions can be predicted, but others will require rapid appropriate policy responses, something Beijing has historically had some issues with undertaking.

This diplomatic approach aside, China has also placed significant emphasis on developing Afghanistan’s economy, something highlighted again during President Ghani’s visit to Beijing. However, bringing economic and social progress to Afghanistan often requires an acceptable level of security as a pre-condition, something highlighted by the particular problems experienced by the two biggest Chinese investors in the country: the China Metallurgical Company (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper’s investment at Mes Aynak and China National Petroleum Corp’s (CNPC) project in the Amu Darya basin near the border with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Both projects have faced numerous difficulties hindering progress, with security ranking fairly high amongst concerns. Talking to officials at both companies, they will report security as a major factor, though it is likely that it is only one of a number of problems encountered. Others include difficulties with local authorities, lack of access to raw materials and infrastructure.

For the Afghan Taliban there is a natural desire to want to try to prevent any national economic progress from taking place, as a strategy to prevent the government in Kabul gathering public support. In another words, people will not always welcome progress with open arms, and in Afghanistan there is some question of whether major projects can proceed without the support of superior firepower. Despite China’s recently increased efforts in Afghanistan’s economic sphere, if Beijing really wants to see positive results, Beijing still needs to greatly expand the security-related cooperation it is looking to undertake in Afghanistan, as well as seek out bolstering cooperative relationships with powers like India and the remaining western forces.

Finally, and in some ways most importantly, as world’s biggest economy in terms of purchasing power, China has the material resources to achieve her objectives in Afghanistan. However, the lack of human expertise on Afghanistan in particular is a substantial invisible problem that China urgently needs to overcome. Because material resources cannot correctly allocate themselves, they need people to manage them and these people need a deep understanding of their surrounding environment. In other words, China has a need to grow a pool of people who understand Afghanistan’s complex social realities, ethnic mosaics, cultural customs and fragmented history. There is a need for China to support its push into Afghanistan with people who speak fluent Farsi and Pashtun, people who understand the Islamic world, or even, are Muslims themselves. Currently, such knowledge and skills are only the privilege of a few of China’s intelligence officers, diplomats and scholars; but they should also be extended to executive managers and chief engineers in China’s state-owned corporations and the general Chinese population too. This sort of deep cultural knowledge and understanding is the only way to make sure the multi-billion dollar investments are being effective implemented, as these individuals will be able to better understand and interact with the fabric of Afghan society. This will help avoid unnecessary tensions and misunderstandings, and is as essential as the multi-billion dollar aid packages as it guarantees they will actually have impact.

Unlike Britain, the United States or other western or regional powers who have been actively engaging Afghanistan for decades, either through peaceful means or through wars; China has had little intensive engagement with Afghanistan throughout its history. China has never fought a war with Afghanistan (though it played a supporting role in the anti-Soviet jihad); many of the few Chinese intellectuals who understood Afghan Central Asia were purged during early, and at the time the role of ambassadors to the Muslim world were not seen in a positive light. Although China opened up in 1970s, letting the world gradually in again and exposing itself to the world, China was almost exclusively focused on the West and China’s Eastern Asian neighbours, a preference that has continued to this day. It is only very recently that China found itself needing to engage to a greater extent with Central Asia and Afghanistan in particular. China needs more of everything that stimulates China’s knowledge of Afghanistan, otherwise the push towards Afghanistan will find it lacks the crucial internal building blocs to ensure it has a solid foundation for the future.

Been quiet for a while as am getting very caught up with administrative things which are driving me a bit crazy. Have some more writing which I will publish over this week, mostly around my China looking west work, and more pieces hopefully in the pipeline, but the big push over the next few weeks is going to be my UK Jihad book. Am hoping for more reviews around that. So far, have had the Evening Standard and a very nice write-up based off the book in The Times. More hopefully en route.

This aside, have spoken in the past month to the South China Morning Post about extremists on campus in Guangzhou University and China in Central Asia, to the BBC about new government measures to handle extremist preachers, to the Daily Mail about ISIS, Voice of America about China, to the Associated Press about the attacks in Tunis, Bloomberg about China’s counter-terrorism policy going out and China getting Uighurs sent back to China, El Mundo about al Muhajiroun, and to the Times about ISIS using deaf mutes in its videos. There are also likely others, but cannot find links.

The main body of this post, however, is my submitted written testimony to the US-China Economic and Security Commission (USCC) where I had the honour to testify last month on China in Central Asia. The hearing was an excellent opportunity to hear a lot of the top experts on Central Asia in the same place at the same time. Please note that the footnotes seem not to have survived posting here, please follow this link for the full PDF.

March 18, 2015

Raffaello Pantucci

Director, International Security Studies

Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)

Testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission

Looking West: China and Central Asia

 

Background

 

In September 2013 during a visit to Astana President Xi Jinping spoke of establishing a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (SREB) that would ‘open the strategic regional thoroughfare from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, and gradually move toward the set-up of a network of transportation that connects Eastern, Western and Southern Asia.’ Made during the President’s inaugural visit to Central Asia, the speech was both an articulation of a policy in a region that had been underway for around a decade, as well as the first declaration of a foreign policy vision that has increasingly shaped China’s own projection of its approach to foreign affairs. Founded in Central Asia, the SREB and the development of trade and infrastructure corridors emanating from China that it has come to symbolize, is slowly becoming Beijing’s dominant and most vocalised foreign policy strategy and is possibly set to be the defining public narrative for Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping.

 

Xinjiang

 

To understand the SREB in its proper context, it is important to first understand Xinjiang. Xinjiang occupies approximately a sixth of China’s landmass, with around 1.5% of its population (at around 22.09 million according to the 2011 census). It is home to large oil and gas reserves (about a fifth of the national total of oil), and has about 40% of the nation’s coal reserves that are close to the surface and of good quality (coal remains one of China’s main sources of electricity generation). It also has a major agrarian industry, with 70% of China’s tomatoes grown in the province, making the region one of the world’s major sources of ketchup and tomato paste. Xinjiang is a region that is beset with tensions focused around ethnic rivalries. Home to Uighurs, a Turkic speaking people’s whose language, culture and ethnicity is closer to Uzbek or Turkish, the region has faced community tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese for decades. Uighurs were once a majority in the region. PRC census data from 1953 indicates that at the time the province was 75% Uighur and 6% Han, a figure that today stands instead at around 40+% each according to the 2011 census. There is resentment against the growing presence of Han Chinese, with the Uighur population feeling that their identity and culture is slowly being eroded down as Beijing profits from the region’s natural wealth.

 

Since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conquered Xinjiang in 1949, the region has faced tensions with angry Uighurs occasionally rising up against the state or inter-communal violence erupting between the growing Han population and the increasingly minority Uighur one. This has expressed itself in terrorist violence at home and abroad. Groups of Uighurs have travelled abroad into Central Asia or Afghanistan, where they have connected with extremist groups and created training camps to prepare to return to China and fight.

 

Most recent attention, however, was focused on July 2009 when rioting in the region’s capital led to an estimated 200 deaths as mobs of Uighurs rampaged through the city attacking, and killing, Han Chinese. The next day, counter-marches took place with angry Han taking to the streets to protest both against the Uighur-led atrocities, but also the failure of the government to protect them. The local government’s failure to quell the violence was so dramatic that President Hu Jintao had to embarrassingly leave the G8 Summit in L’Aquila to return home to manage the crisis. The result of this was a change in leadership in the region, with of the removal of a number of local figures from their positions (for example, Li Zhi, Communist Party Secretary in Urumqi, and Xinjiang Public Security Bureau head Liu Yaohua) and most dramatically, a year later, the removal of long-time regional party boss Wang Lequan.

 

At the same time as changing the regional leadership, on May 17-19, 2010, Beijing hosted a major conference on the region. The Xinjiang Work Conference was hosted in Beijing by the CCP’s central committee and the State Council, involving then President Hu Jintao and then-Premier Wen Jiabao, as well as both of their successors Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping. This was a rare but significant work conference about a specific region (a number have been done for Tibet), and it led to a number of new policy approaches to the region by Beijing. Focusing on ‘leapfrog development’ the main thrust of the conference was economic development as the key to solving the region’s problems. Amongst the raft of economic measures was the developed of a twinning policy between more affluent provinces in China and prefectures in Xinjiang. For example, Shanghai took on responsibility for parts of Kashgar – something that translated in practice to the transfer of Shanghai officials to work in the region for a year, the delegation of a portion of Shanghai’s GDP as financial support for the region, and delegation visits from Shanghai to the region to advise on developing institutions and structures that had added to Shanghai’s prosperity. State and provincial companies are actively encouraged to invest in the Xinjiang, while different provinces would attempt to teach the parts of Xinjiang that they are responsible for some of the things that helped their success. For example, Shenzhen helped Kashgar develop a Special Economic Zone. Another innovation was the transformation of the then relatively moribund Urumqi regional trade fair into a Eurasian Expo, aimed at bringing in traders, businessmen and officials from across the Eurasian landmass to Urumqi – a city described by an Urumqi official to the author as the ‘closest big Chinese city to Europe.’ Economic investors from Europe and elsewhere were actively encouraged with preferential benefits and gentle persuasion. For example, a Turkish-Chinese business park was developed just outside Urumqi to bring Turkish investment into the region. German carmaker VW was encouraged alongside its Chinese joint venture partner SAIC to build a sedan factory in the region. Central Asian businessmen and traders were actively targeted for the Eurasian Expo, and another Special Economic Zone was established at the border crossing with Kazakhstan at Khorgos. And finally, funding was allocated to develop infrastructure, roads, rail and airports across the region to enable Xinjiang to become ‘a gateway for mutually beneficial cooperation between China and other Eurasian countries’, as put by Premier Wen Jiaobao during the Second Eurasian Expo in Urumqi in September 2012.

 

China’s policy towards Xinjiang was not, of course, solely one of economic investment. Alongside this surge of inward investment (something that had been underway for some time through various ‘develop the west’ initiatives) was a growth in security spending in the region. Emphasis was placed on trying to strengthen the security forces in the region and stamp out the periodic bouts of violence that continue to plague the region. China’s approach was in essence a binary one of heavy economic investment and heavy security clampdown. The balance between these two seemed to be shifted back in favor of ‘stability’ (or security) in the wake of a second Xinjiang Work Conference under Xi Jinping’s leadership in January 2014. However, the State Council also emphasised the importance of economic investment when it announced in June 2014 that the Xinjiang government was to spend approximately $130 billion to develop the region’s infrastructure.

 

But for both the security and economic surges to work, there was clearly a need to develop stronger links to the region around Xinjiang, and it is here that Central Asia starts to play a prominent and key role. Abutting Xinjiang, Central Asia is China’s westernmost periphery. Scattered around the region are pockets of Uighur populations – with major communities found in ethnically proximate Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan in particular, Uighurs play a substantial role in the nation, with current Prime Minister Karim Massimov an ethnic Uighur. In Pakistan, relatively large Uighur communities live along Pakistan’s side of the Karakoram Highway. Within these communities and countries, China sees concern and Beijing and Urumqi security chiefs have developed strong links with their local counterparts (at a bilateral level, but also through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) to ensure that, should any dissident Uighurs flee across the border, they will be rapidly repatriated.

 

More visible than this strong security bond, however, is the huge level of economic activity and investment that is slowly spilling across the border into Central Asia from China. Something that has always happened naturally given the borders, traditionally nomadic people’s and the nature of trading across Central Asia, it has increasingly taken on a life of its own as Chinese investment has poured in to refurbish and revitalize the trade routes across the region. The logic to this growth is simple: Xinjiang is as landlocked as the Central Asian countries it abuts. If Beijing is going to ensure that the region prospers, then it will need to be better connected to the world. Given the relative land proximity to Europe, it therefore makes more sense to develop the region’s physical links into Central Asia, not necessarily for Central Asian prosperity in itself, but rather to ultimately help transport Chinese goods to Eurasian and European markets (and vice versa). Hence the need for infrastructure that helps re-connect and re-wire the Eurasian landmass from China to Europe. Ultimately, if Xinjiang is going to benefit from the push for economic investment within China, it is going to have to have somewhere to trade with and through. Logically, conduit for this has to be Central Asia.

 

China’s Economic Surge into Central Asia

 

It is in many ways the economics of China’s push into Central Asia that is the most significant external aspect of this ultimately domestic policy response. The narrative of Chinese investment into the region used to be one of mineral extraction and exploitation. A late entrant into Central Asian energy through investments in Kazakhstan, CNPC purchased aging Soviet oil fields in Aktobe, western Kazakhstan and rapidly built an oil pipeline back to China. Built with great speed and efficiency, the pipeline became the symbol of China’s relations with the region. Most perceived China as viewing Central Asia simply as a large source of fuel and minerals that it could exploit to feed the seemingly insatiable energy needs its economic development required. This view was further affirmed through CNPC’s major investments into Turkmenistan, where the country has been one of the few to successfully operate and buy Turkmen gas. CNPC has become one of the largest supporters of the Turkmen national budget, through gas purchases and the development of almost four different pipelines to transport gas back to China.

 

This superficial view of China’s growth in the region misses the reality on the ground whereby China is slowly becoming a dominant player in a vast array of different economic areas. From Kyrgyzstan, where the import and re-export of Chinese goods plays a huge role in the national economy, to Tajikistan that is increasingly becoming one of China’s biggest debtor partners. To better understand the breadth and depth of China’s economic influence in the region, it is useful to look at the extent to and manner in which China operates in the energy industry, one of the dominant industries in which China participates in Central Asia.

 

As has been mentioned, China is the major player in Turkmenistan, where it is the sole country that is able to get substantial access to Turkmen hydrocarbons. Russian volumes have shrunk and Iran has had difficulty paying in cash (offering barter instead), making China the preferred player in Ashgabat. This is a similar story in Kazakhstan, where China has not only constructed one of the quickest-built pipelines ever in the country, but it has also bought 8.33% of the supergiant oil field Kashagan, purchasing American firm ConocoPhilips’ stake. Buying into a project run by a multi-national consortium is a new endeavor for a Chinese company in Kazakhstan. It is also a major purchaser of Kazakh uranium. In 2014 Kazakhstan’s state-run nuclear energy agency Kazatomprom said that 55% of Kazakh uranium production was exported to China. In Uzbekistan, China has signed contracts to extract some gas and build a pipeline across the country from Turkmenistan. It has also aided in developing electricity re-metering , as well as helped the country to develop its solar panel production capability, and refurbish solar furnace factories.

 

Tajikistan, until relatively recently considered a very energy poor country, made discoveries of large potential gas reserves in the Bokhtar region. Chinese company CNPC partnered with Canadian Tethys and French Total to undertake further exploration. Downtown Dushanbe, once famous for its blackouts, now has a large Chinese-built thermal power plant that provides electricity to the city through the cold winter months. A major producer of hydroelectric power, Chinese firms have explored the possibility of both exporting Tajik hydroelectric power, but also building some of the infrastructure to support it. And finally, Kyrgyzstan, remaining energy poor has nonetheless benefited from Chinese attention in the energy field. While Russian firm Gazprom remains a major player in the nations energy mix, CNPC has offered to build refineries in the country, as well as helping connect the country upgrade and build power transmission lines. China is a player across Central Asia’s energy fields, not solely in extractives.

 

The funding for these projects comes in a number of different ways. In some cases, like a coal-fired plant in Dushanbe, the project was one that is offered by a Chinese firm in exchange for preferential treatment on another project. In other cases, it is funded through Chinese policy bank loans that are offered at preferential rates and stipulate that the implementing party must be Chinese. One example of this structure is the decision to build a camera monitoring system in Dushanbe to help monitor traffic in the city. Money was offered through an ExIm Bank loan, and the implementer was Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. This approach is not actually novel to the region, with both Korean and Japanese banks offering similar structures in regional contexts, but the scale and size of Chinese loans and rapid implementation is significant.

 

Increasingly one can see China assisting in the rewiring of roads, railways, pipelines and electricity grids across the region so that all lead back to China, or at least in some way benefit China’s access. All of this helps connect up what is happening in Central Asia with the all-important domestic strategy in Xinjiang. Consequently, the economic push into Central Asia by China comes from a blend of economic forces as a result of the economic investment into Xinjiang, as well as the ongoing outward push by Chinese firms and money.

 

Enunciating a strategy

 

While this is how things have been playing out on the ground for many years, prior to Xi Jinping’s SREB announcement, China’s investment strategy for Xinjiang and Central Asia was not something that had been directed or enunciated in any clear or coherent way from Beijing. The closest thing to a regional strategy document can be found in the Xinjiang Work Plan and its acknowledgement of the importance of developing markets and routes into Central Asia to improve Xinjiang’s prosperity. In 2011, Chinese academic and Dean of Beijing’s international school Wang Jisi offered some sort of academic theory to the logic of this push in his influential writing about China’s March Westward. But there was no clear policy expression or formulation offered until Xi Jinping visited Central Asia in 2013 and laid out his SREB vision, in essence symbolizing Xi Jinping’s desire to take ownership over a reality that had been going on for some time and stamping his brand and leadership on an overarching policy concept around it.

 

And since the announcement of this belt, and the later addition of the Maritime Silk Road in a speech in Indonesia in October 2013, amalgamated into the phrasing ‘one belt, one road’ there has been a further surge in development and investment to make this vision a reality. At home, the Silk Road has now become a project with huge implications across the west of the country. Maps have been issued showing the city of Xi’an as the starting point, while $79.8 billion has been announced into investment into Gansu. A further domestic fund of some $16.3 billion has been announced for supporting Silk Road projects at home. Mostly infrastructure investment projects, there have also been more specific investments emanating from provinces in Western China to Central Asian countries – like $800 million invested by Henan into Tajikistan. On the ground such investment efforts can be found in Tashkent in the form of trade fairs bringing Xinjiang traders to the region, as well as in markets across the region that are filled with low-end traders and larger property or market owners who have spent a decade or more in Central Asia building up empires of market stalls, local factories and real estate portfolios.

 

Externally, this surge of infrastructure investment is also clearly visible in the form of a growing constellation of investment banks being directed out of Beijing, as well as the expansion of the concept of the SREB. From an initial vision that seemed focused on Xinjiang development through Central Asia, it has now become something that spans the Eurasian landmass (more than 60 countries now see themselves in its route), but has also developed offshoots in the Maritime Silk Road, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Each of these is less developed compared with the SREB, but at the same time all reflect logical trade corridors that China would like to open up. China has already started to explore how to develop the necessary infrastructure in each case.

 

One of the main reasons why this push seems more credible than previous efforts is the volume of funding that China is pushing towards the projects and the array of development bank vehicles they are creating to help make it a reality. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the BRICS Bank, and the earlier discussed but never realized Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Development Bank, are all expressions of this. Whilst the AIIB and BRICS Bank are not singularly focused on Central Asia, the model of development they are focused on is one that reflects China’s experiences in Central Asia, using the lever of economic infrastructure investment to help foster trade corridors and routes that ultimately connect China to its markets. The focus on infrastructure reflects not only the reality of a region that has infrastructure huge demand for investment in this area, but also a Chinese policy outlook that is shaped by the concept of regional connectivity and development of a prosperous neighbourhood. This underlying concept is something that has been present in Xi Jinping’s foreign policy outlook from the beginning of his presidency. This is highlighted when in October 2013 he held a rare foreign policy work conference focused on ‘peripheral diplomacy’, meaning China’s relations with its proximate neighbours.

 

Regional repercussions

 

The biggest question in this Chinese push, however, is how the region is going to react to it. Looking to Central Asia in particular, China has played a very careful and sensitive game. This is most clearly exemplified in the SCO, that was first developed as the Shanghai Five, a cooperative grouping focused on delineating China’s borders with the former Soviet Union in the wake of the latter’s collapse. In 2001, Uzbekistan joined China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the SCO was formed with a Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) founded in Tashkent. From there, the organization has continued to operate, using counter-terrorism as its main rallying flag, but with little evidence of it developing too much more beyond this. Chinese thinkers and officials have tried to push the SCO in a more economic and development direction, but this has largely been met with skepticism and hesitation by regional powers, in particular Russia, who has hesitated to let the SCO develop too much more beyond its current mandate. At the same time, China’s hesitation to get involved in hard security questions regionally means that the Central Asian members of the organization continue to prioritize the security relationship with Russia over China (though there is some evidence that this is starting to change).

 

With Russia, the question of underlying tensions has remained a major issue, though whenever Chinese officials and experts talk of Russia in a Central Asian context, they go to great lengths to highlight the fact that they would do nothing that would contradict their Russian counterparts interests in Central Asia. For their part, Russian experts recognize that China is the coming force in Central Asia, but seem willing to accept it and highlight that most regional leaders see Moscow as their key international partner who is also able to play a much more decisive security role than Beijing. There have been some deals recently where Russian firms have lost contracts in favor of Chinese companies – for example, the redevelopment of the Manas Airbase in Kyrgyzstan in the wake of American withdrawal, is something that has been passed on to Chinese firms rather than Russian Rosneft who was initially believed to be taking the contract. But at a larger strategic level, both powers seem to have reached a modus vivendi in Central Asia that does not necessarily reflect the strategic balance in outsiders eyes, but that functions for them on the ground.

 

The other key regional question hanging over the region is Afghanistan (and Pakistan). For Central Asia, it is Afghanistan that is seen as the great potential destabilizer, and there is the concern that the massive investments into the SREB that have been done into Central Asia may be negatively impacted should Afghanistan become once again an exporter of instability. This is a concern that Chinese officials will express, though most often when talking about Afghanistan they will express concern that Uighur extremists might once again use the territory as a training ground to export violence back to China. China has increasingly been playing a role in Afghanistan, in particular in trying to offer itself as a broker between the Taliban and authorities in Kabul, as well as mineral extraction, economic investment, and some regional collaboration. But at the same time, it is unclear that Afghanistan necessarily features as part of the SREB, except in some of its northern regions that offer themselves as routes to Iranian and other Middle Eastern markets, in one of the routes offered in Chinese publications of where the SREB actually flows.

 

The biggest regional problem that China faces with its SREB in Central Asia, however, is the question of Sinophobia. Something that is palpable on the ground at times in the resentments that people feel towards Chinese businessmen and traders, there is a noticeable sensitivity when discussions come up about Chinese redrawing boundaries in certain parts of Central Asia. In Tajikistan, online discussions about land deals between Chinese state owned agri-businesses and Tajik authorities were blocked to reflect the perception on the ground that these deals were the government selling the nation to China. In Kazakhstan a similar deal was announced by President Nazarbayev in 2009, but the public outcry against it led to him walking back on the initial deal. Relatively small countries by population, the Central Asians fear overwhelming by China, a sentiment that can also be found in Russia’s border regions with China. This is not only about numbers of people, but also in the fact that all of the Central Asians want to become manufacturing hubs themselves, something that is going to be very difficult when they sit next to the world’s manufacturer.

 

China is not unaware of this Sinophobia, and has attempted through various means to undertake a soft power push in the region. For example, there is a growth number of Confucius Institutes in the region. They have also funded specific research projects in countries like Kazakhstan by local experts and opinion formers to help both shape the individuals views, but also to understand better the nature of the sinophobia so they can react to it. Travel to Aktobe, a city where CNPC plays a major economic role, and it is almost impossible to find a visible Chinese presence in the city. Chinese workers stay outside the city in a compound in an old sanatorium.

 

US Relations and impact

 

From a Chinese and Central Asian perspective, the US’s role is complicated. In the first instance, it is important to understand a bit more of the theory behind the policy. When Professor Wang Jisi drafted his influential work on the need for China to March Westward, his thinking was not only based in trying to get China to focus on its immediate periphery and develop its west, but also to try to get Chinese officials to refocus from their almost obsessive attention to China’s relations with the United States and maritime powers. This underlying logic highlights how to some degree China sees its push into Eurasia as something that it is doing without the United States. At the same time, China has shown itself to being increasingly willing to cooperate with the United States in Central Asia, with a willingness to undertake joint programs in Afghanistan, as well as explore discussions with American officials about what cooperation could be undertaken collaboratively in Central Asia.

 

At the same time, regionally, the United States is seen as something of an erratic actor. With the drawdown from Afghanistan, and the oscillating American attention to Central Asian powers, there is a regional perception that the United States is a fairweather friend or only focuses on the region when national interests are threatened (like in the wake of September 11, 2001). Furthermore, the United States is seen as not offering the same opportunities as China – while there was an interest in the New Silk Road highlighted by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a speech in Chennai in 2011, little has come from that beyond an expression of interest by the United States in creating a north-west corridor through Afghanistan. Projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline or CASA 1000 are slowly moving forwards, but without the financial push or heft of China behind them, progress is much slower than China’s efforts.

 

A new piece for RUSI’s in-house bi-monthly magazine Newsbrief, this time looking at China’s relations with the Taliban. I owe a lot of people thanks for talking to me about this topic, and am in the midst of a lot of work on this topic at the moment (China’s relations with Afghanistan). Somewhat related, I spoke to Reuters about the new Chinese counter-terrorism law, but the overwhelming majority of recent media conversations have been around the revelations around the identity of Jihadi John. On that, I spoke to the New York TimesWashington Post, Financial Times, CNN, Sunday TimesAustralian ABC, Daily Mail, Independent, and Voice of America amongst others. Doubtless this story is going to run a bit more and I am hoping to finally get something substantial on about his background sometime soon. Of course, my book in jihad in the UK has finally landed and is getting launched at RUSI on March 19 – so watch this space!

Will China Bring Peace to Afghanistan?

RUSI Newsbrief, 27 Feb 2015

By Raffaello Pantucci

After years of fence-sitting, Beijing appears to have finally decided to admit that it is willing to play a role in Afghanistan’s future. While the exact contours of the part it seeks to play are still uncertain, China’s willingness to be seen to be involved in brokering peace in Afghanistan is surprising for a nation that continues to profess non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs as the core of its foreign-policy credo.

It also remains unclear exactly how China can help to bring the Taliban to the peace table: while it may have the links to both the government in Kabul and the Taliban, it is uncertain that it knows how to bring them together, beyond offering a platform for talks. This activism is nonetheless likely to be welcomed by Western powers. Yet high expectations are not warranted; even if China does ultimately prove that it knows what to do with these talks, its efforts in Afghanistan will ultimately seek to advance its own interests rather than those of the West.

In February, news emerged that the Taliban were undertaking discussions in Pakistan as part of a reconciliation effort aided, in part, by China. This built on news last November that China had itself hosted a Taliban delegation in Beijing. Although this earlier revelation (confirmed during this author’s meetings in Beijing) was a surprise to many, it reflected a longstanding, behind-the-scenes understanding amongst Western policy-makers that China had direct links to the Taliban. The fact that these links became publicly known (although Chinese officials remain circumspect when discussing them in public) only suggests that China is willing to be more open about its possible role in Afghanistan – a development potentially accelerated by the formal conclusion of ISAF operations in the country.

The first public sign of Chinese mediation efforts came with the suggestion in November that China’s special envoy to Afghanistan – a career diplomat and former ambassador to India, Italy, Poland and (separately) Afghanistan – had visited Peshawar (or Doha, reports vary) to move talks with the Taliban forwards. Then came the visit of the Taliban delegation (following Beijing’s hosting of the Heart of Asia process meeting later that month), led by Qari Din Muhammad Hanif, a former minister in the Taliban government and possibly including representatives of both the Quetta and Peshawar Shuras of the Taliban, and potentially others from Pakistan. It was only in February, however, that Taliban spokesmen were willing to confirm that the meeting had taken place, with the same delegation apparently then in Pakistan continuing discussions there.

The revelation that China has maintained direct contact with the Taliban was no great surprise; these contacts predate the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. In December 2000, a Chinese delegation headed by then-Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with Mullah Omar in Kabul to lobby the Taliban authorities not to support anti-Chinese Uighur extremists based in Afghanistan, which were then a source of major consternation for Chinese security officials. China was also amongst those that lobbied, unsuccessfully, to prevent the Taliban from destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas. Nor was such contact limited to simply making demands of the Taliban, with Chinese telecommunications companies ZTE and Huawei both having signed contracts to undertake work in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

In July 2001, a delegation of Taliban-associated businessmen undertook a reciprocal visit to China, and on 11 September 2001 itself, a delegation of Chinese officials was in Kabul to sign a number of memoranda of understanding with the Taliban Ministry of Mines. Whilst these economic ties were largely voided in the wake of 9/11, they nevertheless show a credible link between the two and a longstanding Chinese interest in the Afghan economy.

Even in the wake of the US-led overthrow of the Taliban regime contact persisted, apparently directed out of China’s embassy in Islamabad, with relevant officials paying regular visits to Peshawar. Though initially largely handled through Pakistani interlocutors, it is understood that, over time, direct links between Chinese officials and the Taliban were consolidated. The exact nature of these exchanges is unclear, though for China they appear to have provided a means to enlist Taliban help in addressing the problem of Uighur extremists and in protecting their investments in Afghanistan, while also hedging against a persistent Chinese fear that permanent American bases in Afghanistan might be part of a strategy of encirclement.

Chinese concern that Uighur extremists in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s lawless areas might use these countries as a springboard to launch operations within China is not without some basis; indeed, there is recent evidence of this. In July 2011, for example, Memtieli Tiliwaldi was identified by the Chinese government as having belonged to a group that launched bomb and knife attacks in the city of Kashgar, Xinjiang. Weeks later, Uighur extremists in Pakistan, operating under the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), released a video purporting to show Tiliwaldi at a training camp run by the group. Such clear links are difficult to draw in relation to subsequent attacks, though China occasionally make claims that terrorist incidents in Xinjiang have connections – either in practical or ideological terms – to extremist groups based outside of China. More recently, Chinese security officials have begun to focus on the fact that such links also flow through Syria and Iraq (where there is evidence that ethnically Chinese and Uighur extremists are fighting) and Southeast Asia (where cells of Uighurs have been identified attempting to connect with militants in Poso, Indonesia). Alongside these emerging connections, however, the existence of links between Uighur extremists and both Afghanistan and Pakistan remains a key source of concern.

As importantly, Afghan authorities have long wished for China to play a more positive role in their country, particularly in the hope that the latter will use its historically strong links to Pakistan to persuade Islamabad to reduce its support for the Taliban. During newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s inaugural visit to Beijing last October (his first official international trip), he specifically lobbied China to use its relationship with Pakistan to help build peace in his country. At the same time, Afghan security officials have repeatedly attempted to show their Chinese counterparts that Pakistan is playing a double game with them – using intelligence to highlight occasions on which Pakistani officials appeared to be supporting (or at least turning a blind eye to) Uighur extremists. Recently, for example, Afghan officials announced that they had repatriated fifteen Uighurs discovered within their territory – three in Kabul and twelve in Kunar Province. They had apparently been trained in Pakistan’s Waziristan, though it was unclear what their ultimate goal had been.

This revelation might be part of the reason that China has chosen to play a stronger hand in Afghanistan. The news that Uighur cells could be training in Pakistan and moving across the border into Afghanistan, presumably with the ultimate aim of conducting some form of attack in China, suggests that the discreet infrastructure of contacts that China had established to defeat such networks was not, in fact, working. The reported presence of Uighurs in Kunar, in particular, suggests a failure of China’s relations with the Taliban, while the presence of individuals training in Waziristan shows a simultaneous failure by its Pakistani ally. All of this bolsters China’s perceived need to play a more prominent role in negotiations to bring the chaos in Afghanistan to a resolution.

However, while there is now an apparent correlation in the positions of China and the West in Afghanistan, Western hopes should not be excessively raised. Chinese officials admit that they are not clear on the exact nature of internal Afghan or Taliban dynamics, and remain concerned about a potential backlash against greater engagement, making them unlikely to push as hard as the West might hope. At the same time, in seeking to ensure the region’s stability (of which Afghanistan is a key part), China is primarily focused on denying Uighur extremists safe havens from which to operate, as well as developing its Silk Road Economic Belt trade corridors. It is less concerned with the Western emphasis on good governance (though there is growing discussion in Beijing about the importance of this in ensuring stability). And it is certainly not concerned about the perceived legacy of the West’s investment of over a decade’s worth of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Instead, China’s interests in Afghanistan are ultimately national, reflecting an increasing desire on the part of Beijing to enhance stability on its western periphery on its own terms.

More broadly, however, the most interesting aspect of China’s activity in Afghanistan is the fact that it has shown itself willing to play this sort of role in a foreign nation. This clearly highlights the degree to which Chinese foreign policy is evolving and opening up to the world. The danger is that China is embarking upon this role in a country that has for generations proven impervious to external activism. The larger concern must therefore be what it might mean for Chinese foreign policy should this effort fail.

Raffaello Pantucci
Director, International Security Studies, RUSI.
Twitter: @raffpantucci

 

A short piece for Reuters and their rather wonderfully named ‘Expert Zone’ looking at Sino-Indian relations in Afghanistan. Builds on the earlier paper published on this topic through RUSI and part of an ongoing project.

Afghanistan a building block for China-India ties

By Raffaello Pantucci

JULY 30, 2014

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters, images used in the piece can be found here)

The appointment of a former ambassador to Kabul and New Delhi by China to the role of Special Envoy for Afghanistan highlights China’s thinking of what it can do in Afghanistan.

China is not seeking a leadership role in the country, but is rather looking for regional partners to support its efforts. A key partner is being sought in New Delhi where the Narendra Modi administration has welcomed Xi Jinping’s early overtures for a closer broader relationship. The opportunity presents itself that Afghanistan’s two largest Asian neighbours might be on the cusp of closer cooperation to help the nation onto a more stable footing.

It is clear that there are issues with Sino-Indian collaboration on Afghanistan. First among these are differing perceptions on Pakistan and its responsibility and role in Afghanistan’s current predicament. For China, Pakistani security forces are trying to deal with a monster within their country with links across the border. For Indian authorities, it remains a Frankenstein’s monster of Pakistani construction that is, therefore, fundamentally theirs to address. China’s particularly close relationship with Pakistan plays into this divide, raising concerns in New Delhi as well as complicating China’s approaches to Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, all three sides (China, India and Pakistan) seem to have found some way of working through these concerns, as there has been considerable movement and public discussion (including this project the author has been working on) between China and India in particular about their future collaborations in Afghanistan.

All of this highlights how divergent views on Pakistan aside there remains substantial scope for cooperation between the two in Afghanistan. In particular, both sides agree that terrorism in Afghanistan is a problem that needs to be addressed and a part of this is through the strengthening of Afghanistan’s security forces. Neither power is going to send forces, but there does seem to be the possibility of some agreement to increase their security training contribution. While this has to be managed carefully, it is clear that there is a need to do something to support the Afghan National Security Forces post-2014, and in particular with the more than 100,000 men under arms who will become unemployed in line with the Chicago declarations of shrinking the ANSF from 350,000 to around 228,500.

One idea would be that China and India step in to find a way to support the transformation of some of these men into a ‘mineral protection corps’ or some other paramilitary role that means they will continue to retain jobs rather than becoming unemployed men with arms and military training. This is a logical lead for China and India given it is most likely to be their national firms that are coming in to rebuild Afghanistan and profit from its mineral wealth.

Beyond this, the most obvious strand of cooperation between the two in Afghanistan lies in focusing on developing the country’s economy and building the nation’s technocratic infrastructure. This works through governments ensuring their state-owned firms (those most likely to be investing substantially in Afghanistan’s economy in the future given their higher risk threshold and capacity to make major infrastructure investments adjacent to mineral extraction projects) maintain a certain level of coordination when building infrastructure and that they agree to not go below certain thresholds of corruption when entering into deals within the country.

Given it is state-owned firms that make the most investments in Afghanistan, it is more likely that governments in either country will be able to drive policies forwards in this direction. They can further consolidate this with support to Afghanistan’s bureaucratic future through the creation of a large pool of scholarships at their technical universities for young Afghans. This will have the effect of building a soft link between the nations as well as provide Afghanistan with the needed technocratic capability that will help it build institutions to confidently rebuild the country.

The net result of these efforts is likely to be incremental. Neither China nor India are going to take the lead in Afghanistan having watched the West flounder for the past decade. At the same time, both have an interest in rebuilding Afghanistan and have many of the necessary levers of power to make a difference. The longer-term benefit of this cooperation is a tangible result for the increasingly warming Sino-Indian relationship — something that will only strengthen the hands of both powers in Asian affairs. Afghanistan could become the starting point of a new Asian order, increasingly led by billion-person giants China and India.