Posts Tagged ‘China and the world’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A longer piece for an outlet I have written for a few times before, the world’s oldest journal dedicated solely to international affairs, Current History. Am again here looking at China through the lens of the Belt and Road Initiative (previous pieces have looked at Central Asia and South Asia), this time looking at how it impacts and influences beyond infrastructure. It is currently free to access on their site, so please download directly, but have also provided some links at the bottom of this post.

“The BRI is creating a web of links around the world that will guarantee some form of pervasive Chinese influence for generations to come.”

The Many Faces of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Global Trends: January 2021

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is best known as a massive set of infrastructure projects stretching from Asia to Europe. But more than that, it is a sweeping foreign policy vision that provides China with opportunities for deep engagement with virtually every aspect of state and society in its partner countries. Many developing countries welcome the investments and opportunities for trade linked to the initiative, but some of the projects have sparked local resistance over fears of unfair terms or potential opportunities for Chinese intelligence penetration.

The emergence of COVID-19 initially loomed as a catastrophe for the leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although Beijing later tried to change the narrative of the pandemic’s origins, the first major outbreak of the novel coronavirus occurred in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and the largest city in central China. Early in 2020, the PRC leadership faced a domestic crisis as people in the afflicted region panicked and accusations flew over mismanagement of the outbreak. President Xi Jinping, seemingly worried that his reputation might be affected by association with the disaster, dispatched Prime Minister Li Keqiang to serve as the face of the official response. The time-worn strategy of blaming local leaders was deployed; a range of Wuhan officials was condemned and punished in quick succession. All the while, Beijing stayed above the fray, seeking to absolve itself of responsibility.

As time passed, and as health authorities in Wuhan (and around China) brought the outbreak under control, Beijing switched its approach. The leadership had come to see COVID-19, which by then had become a global pandemic, as an opportunity for China to show a positive face to the world. Having quietly accepted aid from other countries in the early days of the outbreak (privately requesting that European powers refrain from publicizing the assistance they provided), China decided to champion the aid it had begun to distribute around the world.

China’s “medical diplomacy” (sometimes called “mask diplomacy”) focused on sharing expertise and sending doctors and medical equipment to countries that were struggling to control the virus. This was all wrapped together and labeled a “Health Silk Road.” Beijing was relying on the diplomatic playbook that had come to typify the Xi era. Almost everything China does outside its borders increasingly is incorporated into a Silk Road narrative.

By doing so, Beijing is associating a variety of policies with its overarching vision for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is a foreign policy framework that Xi first articulated in 2013, when he spoke of creating a Silk Road Economic Belt across Central Asia. Soon after that, he called for creating a twenty-first century Maritime Silk Road. The two schemes together make up the foundation of the BRI.

For more, go either to Current History or get in touch or download it here.

Posting my latest piece for the South China Morning Post which seeks to push back on some of the latest narratives to emerge about the end or collapse of the Belt and Road Initiative. Am skeptical we have seen the end of it for various reasons. Am not very convinced by the title or image chosen by the editors to be honest, but cannot complain as the piece got some attention online and always enjoy publishing with the SCMP. A longer piece on BRI is coming out next month for those keen, and next year is going to be full of China-Central Asia material in the build up to the book coming out. As ever, welcome thoughts back.

As the face of China’s foreign policy, the belt and road will survive debt and coronavirus

An exhibitor sells goods at the “Belt and Road” exhibition area of the 17th China-Asean Expo in Nanning, Guangxi, on November 27. The belt and road is an idea rather than a project, and lends its name to multiple projects and events, even theme songs, cartoons, courses and think tanks. Photo: Xinhua

Having had such a catastrophic year, the world seems eager to turn the page and jettison what went before. Among the many victims of this purge appears to be the Belt and Road Initiative, which after some seven years of existence is reportedly winding down.

This premature dismissal is based on an interpretation of a vision as a project, and misses how embedded the belt and road is in Chinese foreign-policy thinking.

The belt and road draws on a long tradition of Silk Road conceptions linked to China. Clichés abound when one thinks back to Marco Polo, Matteo Ricci, the epic Battle of Talas in 751 or Ferdinand von Richthofen, who in 1877 coined the Silk Road phrasing after his travels through Asia.In contemporary Chinese parlance, the idea first came into focus under premier Li Peng, who in 1994 embarked on a tour of Central Asia in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s historic “Southern Tour” that started China on its communist-capitalist path.

Li’s trip was intended to take place in 1993, though he was reportedly delayed by ill health. Also, the visit did not stop in every Central Asian capital: Tajikistan, in the midst of its brutal civil war, was given a miss. Security was a key aspect of Li’s trip, and requests for support in suppressing militant Uygur networks were made at most stops.But the visit was also framed around trade and connectivity, and reopening the Silk Road across the Eurasian continent to China.

Following the trip, Li hosted a conference in Beijing where he called for rail connectivity across the region. Around that time, Chinese officials also held discussions with Japanese officials and investors about building pipelines from Turkmenistan, across China, to the eastern seaboard from where the hydrocarbons could help fuel Japan’s booming economic growth.

The Silk Road routes at the time went across China, rather than from it. Looking in the other direction, premier Li also travelled to Europe seeking business links.

So when President Xi Jinping announced his own interpretation of the Silk Road in 2013, under the framing of the Belt and Road Initiative, he was treading on familiar territory – both practically, but also conceptually. It was about building links around the world, and reaching European markets.

But ultimately, the belt and road as articulated by Xi is to provide a vision for Chinese foreign policy. There are undoubtedly many individual projects under the broader umbrella, but they are specific items rather than a connected infrastructure plan.

When Xi announced the idea, it was not meant to be the inauguration of a single large infrastructure project, but rather to provide the great machine of China’s external-facing apparatus with a new driving vision. The idea was that, from now on, China would articulate its foreign policy identity on the world stage as one built around building things, connecting with people and countries, and together fostering prosperity.

That’s a fairly anodyne and positive foreign policy vision, and one that resonates with anyone who has listened to Chinese officials’ endless win-win rhetoric.

It built on the earlier steps that Xi and his predecessors had laid, not only in terms of using Silk Road terminology, but also in focusing first on China’s immediate periphery and helping focus domestic efforts of spreading prosperity to China’s historically poorer inner territories.

Jiang Zemin had his Great Western Development strategy, and Xi built on Peking University professor Wang Jisi’s call to “March West”. All of these are tied together and projected forward with the grandeur now appropriate for a China that was on its way to being the world’s second-largest economy. Thus was born the Belt and Road Initiative.

But the key is that this was an idea rather than a project. Many infrastructure projects and corridors were immediately attributed to it, but so were innumerable non-infrastructure-related projects. Theme songs, cartoons, cultural shows, think tanks, courses and more were thrown into the mix (alongside many non-infrastructure-related economic projects).There was a moment when you could not avoid the framing in every conversation you had in China. It was also enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s charter. Belt and road became a way of thought.

This is not only about Xi imprinting his ideas onto the nation’s history, but also creating a vision that is the central organising concept which will dominate Chinese foreign-policy thinking in the near and possibly far future.This is also why it is not something that can fail, end or be drawn to a close. Quite aside from it being linked to a supreme leader who will not brook failure, the vision has largely artificial and unclear deadlines. While China has put a date of 2049 on achieving the belt and road, what needs to be done by then is not specified.

And even if it was, it would be in typically vague terms, meaning that whatever result has been achieved could simply be drafted into whatever the new interpretation of the Belt and Road Initiative was. Goalposts on ideas can move if they are set loosely enough.

The belt and road as a foreign policy idea is unlikely to end as long as the current leader is in power. And if it looks like it is slowing down, the vision could be reinterpreted to suit. It was never about pure aid, and it was never a single project.

It is simply Xi’s vision for how China should talk about going out into the world. Phrased like this, it has no reason to ever be completed or resolved. Unlikely to die, it will simply continue to evolve.

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

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

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

China’s Non-Intervention in Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A short piece for the South China Morning Post which did not quite land as was intended. Oh well. More to come on China in Eurasia – book now going through second round of edits.

Why China playing bystander to the trouble in Eurasia is not ideal

  • Beijing’s reluctance to get involved in the unrest in Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan is in line with its traditional attitude towards conflicts that do not impinge on its own security
  • However, given Beijing’s growing global influence, its disinterested posture muddies the waters for others trying to resolve unrest

Beijing has yet to articulate much by way of major policy initiatives on the trouble in its Eurasian backyard – in BelarusNagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan. Is China’s decision to wait and watch as the chaos unfolds a conscious reflection of the power it wants to be, or acknowledgement of the fact that it has little to offer and no idea what to do?

The question of whether China should have a view on all of this instability is a reflection of its place in the world today.

On the face of it, the question seems to be merely a banal reflection of the China hysteria that has engulfed the world. However, given that China is the world’s second-largest economy and is vying for a place at the top table, the question is increasingly relevant, especially since the affected countries have often expressed a desire to engage with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In reality, China’s trade with these countries is quite limited. While Beijing is often the fastest-growing trade partner or investor, the money involved is fairly small. Of all of the countries in trouble in Eurasia, Kyrgyzstan is of greatest concern to Beijing. But this is not particularly because of trade or investment, but rather because it sits on China’s border, has a substantial Chinese diaspora and an ethnic Uygur population.

All of the countries in question are former members of the Soviet Union. Perhaps China sees this as a Russian problem, up to Moscow to manage through the sphere of influence it inherited and continues to exert influence over. Yet, China has not always appreciated how Russia has handled such problems in the past.

While with both Georgia and Ukraine, Beijing – like Moscow – was worried about the spread of “colour revolutions”, China was not happy with how the situations ultimately played out, perturbed by Russia’s redrawing of international borders and using minority populations as an excuse for interference.

Yet, Beijing did not articulate its concerns loudly, instead letting Moscow have its way. While this could be what we are seeing play out once again here, it goes against the vision of China as an increasingly influential power on the world stage, something Xi has sought to foster.

The truth is that China is a disinterested international power. Its interests outside are only relevant insomuch as they impact China directly, and more specifically, the Communist Party’s rule. Consequently, countries of marginal economic interest and little geostrategic importance can be left to their own devices, or to others. When China does have a direct interest in parts of Eurasia, it can and does focus its efforts.

For example, Beijing has helped Tajikistan strengthen its borders with Afghanistan, and also developed strong assets and links to the security forces in Kyrgyzstan. This was done, not as part of a geostrategic competition with Russia, but rather to address a security issue of direct interest to China.

It is also not clear that China would know what to do even if it could. Beijing has a limited track record of bringing warring factions to the table or of getting political factions within a country to stand down. China prefers the stability offered by strongman leaders, preferably ones in uniform, but will just as happily work with whoever comes to power.

The case of Egypt is instructive – China seamlessly maintained links through the collapse of the Mubarak and Mursi governments, and still maintains good relations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Kyrgyzstan, witnessing its third chaotic transfer of power in 15 years, is a textbook case for Chinese strategists of the dangers of letting democracy run wild.

Non-interference plays into China’s persistent foreign policy credo. In refusing to get involved, but offering a hand of engagement to whoever comes out on top, China’s message is that it is letting each country have its own history and is not meddling, in contrast to the American-led West.

But this posture is at odds with China’s growing investments and economic footprint globally. Conflicts are infrequently bound by borders. While China may sit loftily above conflict, others do not, all of which creates instability and economic damage.

While an overly activist Beijing is a source of concern, China the disinterested superpower is not necessarily a good thing. Given China’s position on the world stage and economic clout, it is carving out a position for itself in most capitals. When chaos breaks out, people look to understand Beijing’s view and need to keep it in mind when making decisions. If China is inactive, it leaves a potential spoiler which could stymie efforts by others to bring resolution.

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

New piece for the South China Morning Post, exploring the shifting Eurasian dynamics around China. My manuscript looking at China across this space is now with the publisher, so should be landing sometime in the near future.

There is no new cold war, the West is just losing influence in Eurasia

Is there a new axis between China, Russia and Iran against the West? Not quite. Beneath the surface of the anti-US alliance, there are undercurrents of hostility and scepticism. Across Eurasia, there is also a reluctance to take sides

Raffaello Pantucci

Published: 1:00am, 31 Jul, 2020

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A global conflict like the Cold War needs two sides. To the West, a new axis between Beijing, Moscow and Tehran appears to be taking shape. Drawing on the common thread of anti-Americanism, this alignment strengthens the sphere of influence that China has been building across Eurasia.

But in these very places where China has been most actively cultivating allies, underlying fears and concerns consistently undermine Beijing’s approach. Still, the arc of these relationships continues to bend in Beijing’s favour, and little the West offers by way of confrontation has been able to entirely break it. We are seeing less a new bifurcation than a gradual freezing out of Western influence.

The China-Iran-Russia coalition has been a long time in the making. Most recently, it has been expressed in attempts by Moscow and Beijing to protect Tehran from American sanctions. Bilaterally, China and Iran are in the process of signing a 25-year strategic agreement, while China and Russia are parroting each other’s narratives of the United States and advancing similar conspiracy theories about the source of Covid-19.

The three recently established, with Pakistan, a new grouping to focus on Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops. None of this is especially new, as it builds on a long history of cooperation between the three. According to some reports, they may have shared intelligence to take down US intelligence networks within their countries; late last year they held joint naval exercises.

Military sales between the three are substantial, and they have cooperated diplomatically at the UN to stymie Western goals. Yet this coalition masks deep tensions at the official and public levels. Chinese companies may seem willing to step into contracts abandoned by European firms in Iran, but until recently they were more fearful of US secondary sanctions than the importance of China’s relationship with Iran.

As for Russia, its detention of a prominent Arctic academic on accusations of spying for China hints at an undercurrent of hostility in the countries’ hard-power relations.

Iranian officials have complained publicly about China’s Covid-19 information, while Russian officials have targeted ethnic Chinese for racial profiling amid coronavirus fears. And while Russia and Iran might be fighting on the same side in Syria, neither trusts the other’s long-term intentions in the Middle East.

At the public level, scepticism about China is prevalent in both Russia and Iran. With conspiratorially minded audiences, it does not take long to find voices wary of Chinese economic influence. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is trying to ride this wave, ahead of next year’s presidential election.

This translates more widely into other geopolitical relationships that cut across the loose coalition. Both Moscow and Beijing have close relationships with Saudi Arabia, which theoretically contradict their alliance with Tehran. And both Moscow and Tehran have close relationships with India, China’s foil in Asia with whom it is currently locked in an aggressive land confrontation.

But there is a ruthless pragmatism at work across the three countries and the broader region. The heart of Eurasia is increasingly a Chinese-dominated space in which the cold logic of realism reigns supreme. The idealism advanced by liberal Western democratic powers is being crowded out by China’s pursuit of economic prosperity above all else.

And it is striking to see how this logic applies even to relationships in which China seems more bent on confrontation. In Kazakhstan, there appears to be a low-level information war with China, with instances of nationalistic Chinese reporting on Kazakhstan causing friction at an official level. Yet, the two countries continue to want to work closely together.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi still seems uncertain as to how far he can push tensions with China. His decision to ban Chinese mobile apps seems toothless at best, even as his officials continue to actively participate alongside Beijing in multilateral forums like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the Russia-India-China grouping.

And while he may have rhetorically moved towards the so-called Quad and Washington, his long-term future remains bound to Beijing, a reality he can hardly change, notwithstanding the current Indian media narrative.

And even if India did shift dramatically and aggressively against China, it is not clear that this would create a Western democratic bulwark within the region. Quite aside from India’s historical hedging strategy with regard to the West, Russia and China, there are concerns about India’s treatment of its Muslim minorities.

Some of India’s Muslim-majority neighbours have escalated these concerns, though they have a habit of doing so only when it suits their interests – much like how the issue of Xinjiang is raised selectively.

This is the reality of the situation in the heart of Eurasia – a complicated mess where idealism is in the rear-view mirror. There is a continuing narrative of a new cold war, but this time, the non-Western bloc is not a clearly unified structure.

Although Russia and Iran are close enough to be willing to overlook their differences in favour of China, theirs remains a skin-deep alliance. In the region, even among the like-minded powers that would more naturally fall on the American-led side, there is a confused picture – and no one really wants bifurcation.

We are not entering a new cold war, just seeing the gradual freezing out of the West in the Eurasian heartland.

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

As usual late posting, this time a piece for my London institutional home RUSI with the wonderful Veerle Nouwens looking at the UK’s strategy towards China in the wake of the latest Huawei decision. Things definitely heating up in this space and we are working together on another pair of China projects and papers which should be due out later in the year. In the meantime, you can enjoy this and an interview panel for Al Jazeera English’s Inside Story programme that I did on China posted below, and follow this link for a conversation with the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE) on UK engagement with China.

 

Huawei is No Way for British Strategy on China
Veerle Nouwens and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary17 July 2020
ChinaInternational Security StudiesUKTechnology

The UK may escape serious Chinese retaliation for its decision to bar Huawei’s equipment. But that is no substitute for the elaboration of a coherent UK strategy towards China.

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It may be too early to predict China’s reaction to the UK’s decision to bar the Huawei telecommunications company from supplying equipment to the UK’s 5G infrastructure. Beijing’s bark may yet prove worse than its bite. However, the issue has highlighted a far bigger problem for the UK. London needs a more sophisticated debate, vision and plan for managing its relationship with China.

Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming has claimed to be ‘disheartened’ by the decision, alleging that it reduces trust between the two countries, and asserting that the UK has now sent a signal to foreign companies that it is not open to their business. Chinese media outlets have largely reacted by blaming the US for the UK’s decision. Repercussions pointed out in Chinese media overwhelmingly revolve around the substandard 5G network that the UK will have without the inclusion of Huawei.

The discussion in China beyond this has largely been muted. Given the volume of noise that the debate had previously attracted, it would be surprising if there were no reaction from Beijing. China might choose to find a way of swiping at London that does not link necessarily to the Huawei decision itself, but paints it against a series of issues it is displeased with, such as the UK’s reaction to Hong Kong, re-examination of Chinese investment in the UK and declarations about the need to uphold freedom of navigation in Asian waters. The UK’s commercial relationship is a likely target. At a political level, a cooling of bilateral ties likewise would be unsurprising.

However, Beijing has not yet entirely written off the UK relationship, judging by media coverage which appeared to leave scope for future links. For, as was stated in an article published in the Global Times – the English-language tabloid of the official party People’s Daily – the UK should ‘stop moving in the wrong direction so that damaged bilateral ties can recover’. And another article in the same media outlet noted that while Beijing must respond in order to show it cannot be bullied, it is unnecessary to turn this into a China–UK confrontation.

The UK still represents an important market for potential flagship Chinese projects in Europe, whether in nuclear energy or high-speed rail. The all-important financial sector is one that Beijing would struggle to effectively target with sanctions. And, as the City of London is the leading hub (outside Greater China) for the Chinese renminbi, it would not be in Beijing’s interest to do so. Moreover, there are many other investments and commercial links between the UK and China beyond Huawei, and the biggest British champions in the financial sector have already gone on record to support China’s positions.

While Beijing may expect the upcoming investment-screening measures to more heavily scrutinise Chinese foreign direct investment into the UK’s critical national infrastructure, it will do itself few favours by tightening the screws on London. China-sceptic voices calling for a hardened approach will be amplified in Westminster and reverberate across Europe and other like-minded partners. The threat of an alliance against Chinese 5G tech dominance looms on the horizon. Europe does not just serve as a market for Chinese infrastructure investments, but also remains key in China’s access to technology for its own development. Unless Beijing would like to see more doors close – particularly as it remains on the road to post-pandemic economic recovery – it would be unwise to lash out too severely.

It is also worth remembering that while China has recently reacted with sanctions against some who have attracted its ire, these have been fairly toothless. Sanctioning Lockheed Martin for US military sales to Taiwan does little damage to the firm’s bottom line. Targeting US senators unlikely to travel or do business in China is not going to change their lives. And it has let the Huawei decision pass by in other cases. To little fanfare two weeks ago, Singapore’s two biggest telecommunications providers made the decision to not use Huawei in their 5G roll-out. The damage to Singapore–China relations was so limited that earlier this week President Xi called newly elected Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to congratulate him on his election victory. Japan made the decision against Huawei back in late 2018, and President Xi was still eager to travel to the country on a state visit earlier this year (the trip was only postponed because of the global pandemic). So, the current showdown with the UK does not need to be an unnecessarily politicised issue. Indeed, the same Global Times noted that the UK is not the US, Australia or Canada, a statement which is perhaps intended as a put-down, but may also indicate a differentiated reaction.

BUT THE FUTURE?

The question is what this means for the future of UK–China relations. The issue of Huawei seems to have been decided, but it is just a single point in a much larger picture. The UK has now been to-ing and fro-ing on Huawei for years, transforming what is a technical issue into a proxy for the UK’s debate about how to engage with China. This political conversation about Chinese investment in the UK’s national critical infrastructure is important, but there is a need for a clearer articulation of the UK relationship towards China.

To be sure, there are significant challenges in the relationship. Beijing has done little to endear itself of late. Its aggressive behaviour in every direction has been exacerbated by a hectoring tone from its diplomats who appear to be trying to outdo each other in their demonstrations of indignation and anger. China continues to detain Canadian researchers Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on spurious charges as ransom for the detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou who is facing extradition proceedings in Canada. Atop this, while Beijing may believe that what it does to its own people is nobody else’s business, this goes against a fundamental belief in universal human rights to which many countries ascribe. It is also unclear why Beijing appears unable to understand, or unwilling to care, that people outside of China will interpret how it treats its own people as how it might ultimately treat them.

Yet not everything that China does has been disastrous. Putting aside the many questions that remain over coronavirus, Beijing has managed to by and large contain the situation within its own borders. Its economy is starting to pick up – though underlying structural problems still exist. And looking beyond the virus, whatever happens, China is still going to be there. With almost one sixth of the world’s population living within its borders, China will be a force on the planet (much like India will). Issues such as climate change will not get resolved by Western European powers alone. Future pandemics will not respect the artificial boundaries of alliances that we create. A globalised economy so bifurcated that the UK does not touch China in some way is likely impossible – or so expensive that it is unattainable.

The UK government may disagree and dislike the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but the CCP shows little evidence of collapsing in the short or medium term (nor can we be certain we will like what might come in its wake). We must deal with the government we face, not the one we wish it to be. London and its partners are quickly catching up in bettering their understanding of Beijing. This knowledge should aid Whitehall in devising a comprehensive China strategy – one that identifies UK priorities, including human rights, the rule of law and the plight of those in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as the Canadians who remain imprisoned in China.

This does not mean that the UK’s bilateral relationship with Beijing must be fundamentally antagonistic. China is an important partner in some of the biggest issues of our time. These are not yes or no questions, unlike the Huawei decision. And of course, Beijing must reciprocate engagement. Nevertheless, a UK strategy on China must remain firm on matters of UK core interests, but be prepared to cooperate effectively in others. This is a phrase that will ring familiar in Beijing.

Have been delinquent again in posting, but been very busy with a big deadline that is now upon me. In the meantime, have had a few pieces emerge in various places. Will post here as soon as find time. Wanted to flag one up sooner rather than later though as am doing a webinar today about it. It is a short paper for the wonderful Central Asia Program at George Washington University, run by the excellent Dr Marlene Laruelle. Many thanks to her and Jennet for all their work on this paper. It tries to look at how China’s relationship with Central Asia has developed in light of COVID-19, and offers some thoughts on the longer-term impact. The webinar is taking place at 9PM Washington, DC time today, and am sure late signer-uppers can still sneak in – follow this link to get to it.

Beijing Binds: COVID-19 and the China-Central Asia Relationship

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Washington’s intensely negative perspective on China has obscured the ability to look in detail at what is going on around the world. While it is true that many are concerned about China’s assertive rise and how COVID-19 has been handled, the story is not universally negative. In Central Asia, where countries are increasingly dependent on China economically and are likely to become more so in a post-COVID-19 world, the narrative is a complicated one. Previous tensions have been exacerbated by the virus, while at the same time China has strengthened its presence and relationships. The net result is likely to be an even closer binding between China and Central Asia, notwithstanding the persistent tensions that exist between them.

Patient Zero and Sinophobia

Given their physical proximity, it is interesting to note that none of the Central Asian powers have pointed to China as the source of their initial infections. The one that comes closest to pointing an accusing finger is Turkmenistan, which on February 1 saw a flight from Beijing to Ashgabat redirected to Turkmenabat after a woman on board was taken sick. She was discharged from the plane and placed in quarantine in a tuberculosis sanatorium. However, Turkmenistan has not yet had any officially confirmed cases (and this story was not reported in official media).1 In contrast, Kazakhstan identified their first cases as coming from Germany on March 9 and 12,2 Kyrgyzstan from Saudi Arabia entering on March 123 and Uzbekistan from France on March 15.4 Tajikistan only admitted official cases in late April after there had been repeated reports of people falling sick from pneumonia type diseases, making public tracing of patient zero within the country impossible.5 Rumours had circulated for some time prior to these official confirmations about cases, and it is interesting that all appear to have announced their first cases at around the same time.

This relatively late link did not, however, stop a wave of Sinophobia sweeping through the region in January and February as people went down the route of attacking ethnic Chinese they saw in the markets. Whilst early rumours that violence in early February in Masanchi, south Kazakhstan between Dungan (ethnically Han but religiously Sunni peoples who have lived in the region for over a hundred years) and Kazakhs was related to COVID19 inspired Sinophobia proved false,6 there were reports of violence against Chinese in markets in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan7 and Tajikistan.8 In Bishkek, Parliamentary Deputy Kamchybek Zholdoshbaev made a speech in Parliament about how Kyrgyz should avoid contact with Chinese citizens and all those in the country should be forced to wear masks.9 On January 29, a train in the south of Kazakhstan was stopped and two Chinese nationals on board booted off when a panic set in that they might have the virus. They tested negative.10

Reflecting a broader anger against China in the country, in mid-February the announcement was made to cancel the At-Bashi logistics center in Kyrgyzstan. The US$280 million project was signed during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping the year before and had faced massive protests.11 It was not entirely clear from reporting whether the Kyrgyz government or company withdrew the project, but it was obvious that it was the volume of local protestors that drove the decision. Described as an articulation of fear of Chinese landgrab, the project’s collapse is a net loss to Kyrgyzstan as it would have helped restore some of the country’s role as a regional trade hub. There is no evident link between the project’s cancellation and COVID-19, but doubtless it played into the background of protestors views.

Medical Aid Flows Both Ways

Sinophobia was not, however, the pervasive view amongst government across the region, with the Uzbek,12 Kazakh13 and Kyrgyz14 governments all sending various volumes of medical aid to China during the first half of February. The Turkmen government sold one million masks to China at around the same time.15 In late January early February, they all gradually severed their physical connections with China, closing direct borders, air routes and setting bans on arrivals from China. These measures were imposed as much of the world was severing its contacts with the Middle Kingdom as the full measure of the COVID-19 outbreak across China became clear.

It did not take very long for the tables to turn. By mid-March, the Central Asians were facing their own outbreaks and started to seek support and aid from China. The Kyrgyz Security Council met and decided to request support from Beijing.16 Beijing quickly reciprocated the donations, with aid starting to arrive by the end of the month. In the first instance it was mostly to Kazakhstan17, Kyrgyzstan18 and Uzbekistan19 (the three countries that had admitted they were suffering from the disease), but testing kits and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were also handed over on March 30 (a full month before Dushanbe reported cases) by Chinese officials to their Tajik counterparts at the Karasu (or Kulma) border post.20 Turkmenistan remains a black hole of information.

And this munificence has continued, with repeated flights of aid from both regional authorities across China (Xinjiang seems a natural leader, but lots of other regions have provided support as well) as well as the business community. The Jack Ma foundation followed up on an earlier promise of support to Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members by sending planeloads of aid to all Central Asian members.21 Companies with large footprints in the region like Huaxin, Sany, Sinopec, China Construction, China Road and Bridge Company (CRBC) and many more, provided money or PPE (often through the local embassy). One shipment to Uzbekistan was sent by a group of mostly Chinese defence companies using Uzbek military aircraft to distribute PPE to security officials and front line medical staff.22 In late April, the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek handed over PPE and medical aid to the State Border Guard Service.23 By mid-May, the PLA got into the action, sending supplies to their counterparts in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.24 The Uzbek colonel receiving the aid in Tashkent noted that this was the first medical aid from abroad that the Uzbek Armed Forces had received.25

Even before the aid (some of which was sold rather than gifted, though from open reporting more seems given than purchased), Chinese doctors were heading to the region or providing regular video conferences with their local counterparts to share their experiences. For example, a group from Xinjiang did a 15-day tour of Kazakhstan in early April.26 The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) representative in Tashkent met with his local counterparts to discuss how China had implemented its lockdowns.27 The China Petroleum University, who is responsible for the Confucius Institute in Khujand, Tajikistan, launched the translation in Russian of a manual to help deal with COVID-19.28 In Uzbekistan, a telemedicine system was set up between Jiangxi and Tashkent to help provide sharing of experiences.29 Similar exchange structures have been suggested in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The SCO has also played a growing role, interestingly beyond the security space with which it is most commonly associated. On March 22, SCO Secretary General Vladimir Norov wrote an effusive letter to remote learning firm Weidong Cloud Education. A company with a strong footprint through MoUs already around the region, Norov praised the firm’s contribution to member states’ ability to respond to COVID-19.30 In mid-May, the SCO co-hosted a seminar with Alibaba to connect Chinese doctors from the First Affiliated Hospital of Wenzhou Medical University with their SCO counterparts. Potentially reflecting language preferences, the session did not include Indian and Pakistani experts, but did include Observer member Belarus and Dialogue Partner Azerbaijan.31

Persistent Tensions

But all good news must come to an end, and amidst this flood of support and aid there has been a consistent pattern of bad news stories towards China as well. An early one relating directly to the virus was a diplomatic spat at Dushanbe airport in early February when Chinese diplomats returning to the country refused to be placed in mandatory quarantine.32 But most of the reported stories have focused on Kazakhstan, where the government has had to manage anger around an article that emerged mid-April in China which seemed to suggest that Kazakhstan wanted to “return” to China.33 Emanating from a clickbait farm in Xi’an, the article was one of many that were published written for a nationalist domestic audience in mind which suggested that most of China’s neighbours were eager to “come back” to China.34 Unsurprisingly, this was not well-received (though curiously did not attract the same sort of attention in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan about which similar articles were also written35), and led to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to haul the Ambassador in for a dressing down.36

The Embassy sought to dismiss the story as a Western concoction,37 but in early May the Ministry in Beijing caused the Ambassador a further headache when they launched a coordinated rhetorical attack with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a series of U.S. supported biolabs across the former Soviet space.38 Established in the wake of the Cold War, the biolabs were part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) initiative which sought to decommission safely the many weapons of mass destruction left over from the Soviet Army. The story that circulated was that in 2017 an American team working out of one of these labs in Kazakhstan was studying Coronavirus in bats as part of a U.S. Department of Defence funded programme.39 It takes little imagination to draw a conspiratorial line to the current day.

None of this played well in Kazakhstan, leading to news commentaries which in essence called a plague on both houses – saying Kazakhstan was unhappy with both China and the United States.40 This confirmed polling undertaken by a NSF-funded collaborative research project on “The Geopolitical Orientations of People in Borderland States,” which suggested that both the US and China are held in low regard, with Russia only slightly higher as a primus inter pares amongst big powers in the region as far as Kazakhs were concerned.41 It seems as though some of this tension also spilled over into the medical diplomacy China was providing, with Chinese and Kazakh doctors arguing over the amount of PPE they were using in hospital. The Chinese doctors thought all the staff at hospital should be using high levels of PPE for every patient they were handling, while the Kazakhs responded saying they were following World Health Organization’s guidelines which pointed to its use only in intensive care or patients known or suspected to be infected.42

Get Central Asia Moving Again

Tensions aside, the Central Asians are getting quite keen to get their economies moving once again. The Kyrgyz have asked to open their border posts with China,43 something which must have now happened given the fanfare that was attached to the announcement of a shipload of goods heading from Gansu to Tashkent via Irkeshtam in Kyrgyzstan.44 There is further evidence of Chinese agricultural products entering the region.45 The Kyrgyz have taken things even further, and sought to renegotiate their debt load with China – as part of a bigger push to re-negotiate their entire foreign debt burden. President Jeenbekov made a direct plea to Xi about this in a phone call.46 It is not clear that the Chinese have signed off on this, but given the general trend globally (and China’s statements through the G20 about debt relief47), it would be likely that China will extend the repayment schedule at the very least. Presumably, a similar discussion is ongoing with Tajikistan at the very least, though it has not been publicly reported.

The Uzbeks have taken a more pragmatic approach, and instead spoken about speeding up construction of the long-delayed train line between Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China. The Kyrgyz section has held things up, but the Uzbeks now consider it essential to help create a safe corridor for transport in a time of COVID-19.48 Reflecting the possibility that the Kyrgyz obstacle might still be in place, and showing further use of COVID-19 rhetoric for potentially political reasons, the Kyrgyz MP Kenjebek Bokoev said that the virus is a major obstacle to completing the line.49 He appears to have been overruled, however, as the Gansu train is reportedly travelling as far as Kashgar on rail, before shifting over to vehicles before picking up a train again at Osh. This demonstration is presumably a push to try to force the conclusion of the discussion with the Kyrgyz side.

A central dilemma to this problem, however, is who is going to do this construction. Many of the Chinese engineers who were working in the region had gone home for holidays before the virus took off, and simply never returned. In early March, officials in Kyrgyzstan were already expressing concern about who was going to complete various road projects around the country,50 while the Chinese Ambassador in Dushanbe pointed out that there might need to be delays to ongoing projects given absent staff.51

For Chinese workers that have stayed in the region the situation is not always a positive one. Chinese workers in Tajikistan lost their temper at local authorities, rioting at their mining site near the northern city of Khujand. Local authorities claimed it was a protest about the fact that they had not been paid in some time, but it seems more likely the men were fearful of their environment and demanding repatriation.52 As has been pointed out, it is possible that all of these stories are true as the experience of Chinese workers in Central Asia is a tough one in general,53 and shortly before the fight the Chinese Embassy had reported that the first Chinese national in the country had succumbed to COVID-19.54 Long before the government in Dushanbe had accepted its first COVID-19 cases, Chinese contacts in Tajikistan were reporting concerns about the spread of the disease within the country. All of which suggests likely local tensions.

The Central Asian economies had been suffering even before the virus hit them full bore. The crash in remittances from migrant labor in Russia has kicked out a major pillar of many of their economies, while the collapse in commodities prices has knocked out another. China made a coordinated request to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan that they all lower the volume of gas that they are sending, part of a broader slowdown in the Chinese economy.55 It is also true that China appears to have increased its oil purchases from Kazakhstan (potentially taking advantage of low prices to fill strategic reserves – something that has been seen in their purchases from Russia as well56), this is one of few bright economic lights in the region.57 Chinese projects that had been suspended appear to be starting up again and reports are starting to trickle in of Chinese workers returning to complete projects across the region. No one in the region will be looking to Moscow to resolve the economic dilemma that COVID-19 has created, especially given Russia’s own difficult situation with the virus at home, as well as the continuing hit from rock bottom oil prices. Rather, the current situation and its fall-out is likely to push the Central Asians into even deeper economic binding with China, and in increasingly innovative ways.

Towards a Chinese e-future

Alibaba (Chinese Amazon.com equivalent) founder Jack Ma’s aid towards the region comes after a meeting mid-last year with SCO Secretary General Norov and other Central Asian leaders.58 Alibaba’s sites are amongst the most commonly used across the SCO space, with a majority of packages travelling into Central Asia and Russia from China emanating from the company in some way. In his meeting with Norov, Jack Ma spoke of creating some 100 million jobs in the next decade and many of these would be in SCO member states.59 They have also discussed using the platform’s payment tools like AliPay to help facilitate payments across the entire region, as well as finding ways of using the platform to open up Southeast Asian markets to Central Asian and Russian consumers.60

While this ambitious talk may be just that, it is in many ways the realization of something that Beijing has long sought to push through the SCO. Over the years, Chinese experts have repeatedly advanced ideas of creating an SCO Free Trade Area, an SCO Development Bank or other financial institutions. Beijing’s stated aim with the SCO was consistently to make it an economic structure rather than a security one. Yet they were consistently stymied by other members. Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan was particularly recalcitrant, and until relatively recently so was Moscow. Through Alibaba and the COVID-19 disaster, China might have found a vehicle to finally advance this goal.

And this is in many ways the story of China’s COVID19 experience in Central Asia. As with much of the world, the narrative is one of acceleration as a result of the virus and its fall-out. Existing trends supercharged as the world spirals into disorder and confrontation. China has long been re-wiring Central Asia into its own orbit. The virus has merely opened up new opportunities, or at least strengthened ones that were already moving in a certain direction. Economic dependence is becoming ever more real, while the underlying cultural tensions remain strong. China continues to have soft power problems in the region, but these are being subsumed by a web of economic and other links increasingly intertwining the region to China. Taking the example of how China’s response to COVID-19 has played out in cyber-space with links in e-medicine, e-commerce, e-payments, elearning and doubtless more shows how wideranging China’s contributions and links to the region are. In many cases, it might be building on efforts that existed pre-virus, but COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to show how helpful these can also be to the region and increase their uptake. Of course, Russia is still a dominant player (for example agreements across the region through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and common Russian telcos bound by SORM legislation at home means Moscow has great access to Central Asian data61), but the foundations are being deepened into Chinese digital technologies in a wide-ranging manner across society.

Central Asians of course see this with some concern, and would clearly be interested in diversifying their options. But in the absence of serious commitments which cover the broad gamut of their interests, they will find China an irresistible force. While Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in early February as the drawbridges were being pulled up with China was actually quite comprehensive in the range of issues that was covered,62 all of the media attention pushed by the State Department was about confronting China.63 This push to get the region to more actively fight back against China is a losing battle given physical proximity and economic realities on the ground. Something especially the case when US engagement is done in such a spasmodic and occasional manner. And it has to be said that to some degree there is nothing wrong with the region having a strong relationship with China. It would be strange for the Central Asian powers to not have a relationship with such a powerful and rich neighbour. But the perennial problem is that the scales of control are not tipped in the region’s favour, and judging by how the COVID-19 crisis has played out so far, this is unlikely to change going forwards. Beijing will doubtless emerge from the current disaster with stronger links to the region as the Central Asians get sucked inexorably deeper into China’s orbit.

1“Passazhirku reĭsa, sledovavshego iz Pekina, pomestili v karantin v Turkmenabate,” hronikaturkmenistana.com, February 2, 2020.
2 “Dva sluchaia zarazheniia koronavirusom podtverzhdeny v Kazakhstane” Fergana.news, March 13, 2020.
3“V Kyrgyzstane zaregistrirovan pervyĭ sluchaĭ koronavirusa,” kabar.kg, March 18, 2020. 4“U grazhdanina Uzbekistana, vernuvshegosia iz Frantsii, vyiavlen koronavirus” kun.uz, March 15, 2020.
5“Tadzhikistan ofitsialno priznal nalichie koronavirusa covid-19 v strane” avesta.tj, April 30, 2020. 6“Death Toll In Ethnic Clashes In Kazakhstan’s South Rises To 11,” rferl.org, February 13, 2020. 7 “Call Tsenter: Na rynke djynhay prodavcy vygnali kitaycev iz ih konteynerov,” kaktus.media, March 2, 2020.
8 “Chem Torguyut v Kitaiskih Produktovih Magazinah Dushanbe,” asiaplustj.info, March 2, 2020. 9 “Kamchybek joldoshbaev o koronaviryse: nyjno izbegat kontakta s grajdanami kitaia” kaktus.media, January 29, 2020.
10“Dvuh grajdan kitaya podozreniem koronavirus snyali poezda,” Tengrinews.kz, January 29, 2020.
11 “China-led $280 Million Kyrgyzstan Project Abandoned After Protests,” Reuters.com, February 18, 2020.
12 “Uzbekistan Sending Medical Supplies to Virus-hit China,” rferl.org, February 12, 2020.
13 “Mid knr poblagodaril kazahstan za gumanitarnuyu pomosch v bor be s koronavirusom,” lenta.inform.kz, February 3, 2020.
14 “MCHS Kyrgyzstana peredalo 7 tonn gympomoshi Kitau,” kaktus.media, February 19, 2020.
15 “Kitaĭ zakupil v Turkmenistane 1 million zashchitnykh meditsinskikh masok”, turkmenistan.ru, February 16, 2020.
16 “Sovbez rekomendoval provesti peregovory y Kitaia poprosiat pomosh dlia Kyrgyzstana,” kaktus.media, March 16, 2020.
17 “Pervyy gumanitarnyy grus iz Kitaya pribyl v Almaty,” inform.kz, April 2, 2020.
18 “Dostavlena gympomosh ot Kitaia dlia medrabotnikov,” kaktus.media, March 26, 2020.
19 “Istinnoĭ druzhbe rasstoianie ne pomekha,” Uzdaily.uz, March 30, 2020.
20“Kitaj predostavil tadzhikistanu sredstva profilaktiki koronavirusa” avesta.tj, March 30, 2020.
21 Uzbekistan: “V Tashkent pribyl ocherednoĭ gumanitarnyĭ gruz, predostavlennyĭ kitaĭskimi partnerami,” uzdaily.uz, April 10, 2020;Kazakhstan: “Dzhek ma napravil v Kazakstan medicinskie sredstva zaschity,” lenta.inform.kz, April 11, 2020.; Kyrgyzstan: “V Kyrygyzstan pri byla pervaia partiia gryza predostavlennogo osno vatelem alibaba djekom ma,” kaktus.media, April 10, 2020.; Tajikistan– it is not clear from public reporting that any has been sent to Tajikistan, but it seems likely that some will have been sent.
22 “V Uzbekistan pribyl gumanitarnyĭ gruz iz Kitaia,” uzdaily.uz, March 30, 2020.
23 “Chinese Embassy hands over PPE to Kyrgyz Border Gaurds,” en.kabar.kg, April 24, 2020.
24 “Chinese PLA sends epidemic prevention supplies to militaries of 12 countries,” english.chinamil.com, May 17, 2020.
25 “Uzbekistan I kitay klyuchi ot budushchego/narodno osvoboditelnaya armiya kitaya peredala gumanitarnyy gruz dlya borby s koronavirusom vooruzhe”, podrobno.uz, May 13, 2020.
26“Pribyvshie v stolicu kitayskie vrachi posetili nacional nyy nauchnyy kardiohirurgicheskiy centr,” lenta.inform.kz, April 11, 2020.
27 “V GUVD g. Tashkenta obsudili opyt politsii Kitaia v period borʹby s pandemieĭ koronavirusa,” uzdaily.uz, April 6, 2020. 28 “Chinese universities compile the first new crown prevention manual for Tajikistan,” news.sciencenet.cn, April 15, 2020.
29 “China-Uzbekistan telemedicine system put into operation,” xinhuanet.com, April 25, 2020.
30 “Weidong Cloud Education together with SCO to fight COVID-19”,” wdecloud.com, March 27, 2020.
31 “With SCO support, the Alibaba Group hosted a workshop on countering the spread of the novel coronavirus infection,” eng.sectsco.org, May 14, 2020.
32 “Mocharoi Diplomati bo Diplomatchoi Chin Furudgochi Dushanbe,” akhbor.com, February 9, 2020.
33 “Kazakhstan summons Chinese ambassador in protest over article ,” reuters.com, April 14, 2020.
34 “Rising Nationalism Tests China’s uneasy partnerships in Central Asia,” eastasiaforum.org, May 29, 2020.
35 “WeChat responds to the article “Multi-country eager to return to China”: delete 227 articles, 153 titles,” thepaper.cn, April 16, 2020.
36 “Kazakhstan summons Chinese ambassador in protest over article ,” reuters.com, April 14, 2020.
37 “ChinaAmbassadorKazakhstan – Post April 17” Facebook.com, April 17, 2020.
38 “China, Russia can initiate probe of US bio-labs,” globaltimes.cn, May 14, 2020.
39 “Pentagon okruzhil rossiyu poyasom sekretnykh biolaboratoriy,” mk.ru, May 5, 2020.
40 “Kazakhstan okazalsya mezhdu molotom I nakovalnej v konflikte SSHA I Kitaya o voenno biologicheskih laboratoriyah,” ehonews.kz, May 12, 2020.
41“Kazakhs are wary neighbours bearing gifts,” opendemocracy.net, April 30, 2020.
42 “Almatinskie vrachi otvetili na kritiku kolleg iz Kitaya,” ehonews.kz, April 17, 2020.
43 “Kyrgyz, Chinese FMs discuss opening of border checkpoints,” akipress.com, May 27, 2020.
44 “Uzbekistan I Kitay klyuchi ot budushchego Kitay otkryl novyy transportnyy koridor v Uzbekistan v obkhod Kazakhstana,” podrobno.uz, June 6, 2020.
45 “Chinese business briefing working overtime,” Eurasianet.org, June 4, 2020. 46“Jeenbekov predlojil predsedatelu knr oblegchit ysloviia po vneshnemy dolgy,” kaktus.media, April 14, 2020.
47“China suspends debt repayment for 77 developing nations, regions,” globaltimes.cn, June 7, 2020.
48 “Uzbekistan I Kitay klyuchi ot budushchego, Uzbekistan predlozhil uskorit stroitelstvo zh d Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan I Kitay eto samyy bezopasnyy put’ v uslovnikh pandemii,” akipress.com, May 20, 2020.
49 “Coronavirus has become a big obstacle for China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad project: PM,” akipress.com, May 12, 2020. 50 “Premer:grajdane Kitaia pokidaut Kyrgyzstan. Kto teper bidet stroit dorogi,” kaktus.media, March 4, 2020.
51 “Kitaj Pobezhdaet koronavirus I gotov okazat pomoshh mirovomu soobshhestvu,” avesta.tj, March 20, 2020. 52 “Strel’ba v Zarnisore: Pochemu omon podavil protest Kitaiskiv rabochix?” akhbor.rus.com, May 21, 2020.
53 “Chinese business briefing working overtime,” Eurasianet.org, June 4, 2020. 54 “Notify the first case of new coronary pneumonia among Chinese citizens in Tajikistan,” Chineseembassy.org, May 10, 2020.
55 “Central Asian countries discussing shared cut in gas supplies to China Uzbekneftgaz,” spglobal.com, May 5, 2020.
56 “China buys record volume of Russian oil as European demand dives traders,” reuters.com, March 25, 2020.
57 “Kazakhstan to resume exports of its oil to China in March,” reuters.com, February 26, 2020.
58 “SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov, Alibaba Group CEO Jack Ma discuss intra-SCO IT cooperation,” eng.sectsco.org, August 29, 2019.
59 “Alibaba to create 100 million jobs, most of which in SCO countries,” marketscreener.com, August 30, 2020.
60 “China-Russia bilateral trade expand. Alibaba Russia e-commerce,” silkroadbriefing.com, October 9, 2019.
61 “Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia,” privacyinternational.org, November 12, 2020.
62 “Secretary Pompeo’s Visit to Kazakhstan,” state.gov, February 1, 2020.; “Secretary Pompeo’s Visit to Uzbekistan,” state.gov, February 2, 2020.
63 “Pompeo, in Central Asia, Seeks to Counter China,” voanews.com, February 3, 2020.

A new piece in the South China Morning Post which seems to have elicited anger and positivity from both sides in equal measure. Part of a broader theme around some of my writing of late which is taking quite a negative turn. Hard to be hugely positive given the current state of the world.

Beyond this, media appearances have been more limited, but did feature in BBC Radio 4’s Briefing Room series about China’s relations with the world. And two of the recent Webinars that I did are now available on YouTube. Watch here to see me talking about Mapping the Pandemic and the implications to UK-China relations courtesy of RUSI with Veerle, Steve and Jonathan moderating, and here talking about Kabir’s excellently readable book on ISIS in South Asia hosted by Maya and ORF with Indrani Bagchi as a fellow discussant.

Beijing faces a perfect storm as the world turns against its narrative amid rising nationalism, leaving it no room for compromise

In the face of growing global criticism, Beijing may be painting itself into a corner with its narratives, which are fuelling an increasingly angry nativism in China, forcing it to take the dangerous path of doubling down on confrontations

Raffaello Pantucci
Published: 10:45am, 16 May, 2020

People wave Chinese flags as they gather for a flag-raising ceremony to mark the New Year in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

People wave Chinese flags as they gather for a flag-raising ceremony to mark the New Year in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

China is heading into a perfect storm on the world stage. While the Communist Party habit is to double down when confronted, others are showing a willingness to match, and top, anything China does. The Covid-19 crisis has provided the perfect cover with China already painted by some as the instigator, something its conspiratorial rhetoric has only exacerbated.

The most obvious problem China faces is its confrontation with the US. Already bad before this crisis, relations have only worsened. But President Donald Trump is not the problem; without him at the helm, the situation might be even worse for China. Without his confusing and contradictory noise, the US might be able to mount a coherent and consistent strategy with allies against China.

Beijing is out of supporters in Washington. Sinophiles are appalled at the negative human rights news. The harassment of journalists based in Beijing has hardened the foreign press corps against the party. The think tank community is concerned about the continued detention of the two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

And the business community has realised the limits of the economic opportunities in China. Even fewer will want to champion Beijing, as the narrative of China as an adversary takes off in the public imagination.

Beyond Washington, the grand Western alliance is turning against China. Beijing may be able to persuade some European powers to side with it, but the underlying orientation within Europe will still be towards a transatlantic partnership.

Serbia, for example, is not going to turn its back on Europe or European Union membership in favour of Beijing. Nor are Hungary, Italy or any other powers where senior political figures say positive things about China.

These are internal dynamics at play. Serbia has long had a resentful relationship with Brussels – China offers an opportunity to poke it in the eye. But should Brussels suddenly change its passive approach and start imposing a cost on Serbia, the country’s Sinophilia would quickly melt away.

European powers will not reject the US at a strategic level in favour of China. There are issues where the US and Europe diverge but, at a fundamental strategic level, European powers still operate under an American security umbrella

There are frictions and resentments, but these are disputes within a long-standing marriage, rather than early signals of a divorce. The transatlantic alliance is a fundamental part of European strategic thinking and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Tensions also extend to Beijing’s supposed allies. Russia and Iran may see themselves as close to China at a strategic level, but it takes very little to get beneath the surface to find unhappiness towards Beijing.

Very public spats over Covid-19 between senior officials in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran are just one articulation of this. While at the official level, they continue to hold together against the common enemy of an American-led democratising West, this is a thin alliance.

There is also growing anger against China because of how high it has risen and how it acts in parts of the developing world. While China used to be able to hide behind the mask of being a developing country, this is no longer the case. China’s development may be uneven, but this is not what people see. China’s grandstanding on the world stage shows it to be a big power.

But once you ascend to this position, global expectations are raised. And when they are not met, people feel more able to say something and be angry. As a major power, you are supposed to be able to take such criticism. The global order is changing, but this comes with responsibilities and resentment.

And atop this, China’s domestic behaviour is viewed negatively elsewhere. Beijing may dismiss this as foreign interference, but it does not change perceptions about the treatment of Uygurs, Taiwan, Hong Kong or growing encroachment in the South China Sea. Given such domestic circumstances, few believe Beijing will be more magnanimous internationally.

How China deals with these issues is the final problem for Beijing: that of angry nationalism at home. China’s nativists are increasingly emboldened. They see their country rising and confronting the world superpower, the US. And they see no reason to back down. They have been told they are living the Chinese dream, with everyone eager to connect through the belt and road and have access to their success and wealth.

From their perspective, these ungrateful countries want to rip China apart. Any ceding of China’s position on core issues would be an admission of defeat, and would raise questions about the legitimacy of the party’s rule.
This means Beijing cannot back down, and must weather the coming economic storm while doubling down on any confrontation.

This is the quandary Beijing has got itself into. It can rail against the US and complain about double standards, but its narrative is only hardening opposition.

The world is becoming more restive. Everyone needs to think about what the future could look like if we continue along this dangerous path.

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

And now finally up to date with my latest piece for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at some of the geopolitical questions flowing around China, broader geopolitics and the COVID-19 mess. Covers ground not dissimilar to my earlier piece for the Telegraph though focused in a different direction. Has already received some anger online and was reproduced in a Singaporean local Today. In other media work, earlier piece for ORF on Kashmir and the UK and my last RSIS piece on the Maldives were both picked up and reproduced by Eurasia Review, while spoke to the Independent about recent UK terrorism numbers release and last interview in CTC Sentinel with Lord Evans was written up by the paper.

How China’s coronavirus medical diplomacy is failing to win over the world

Forget Pax Sinica, China’s medical outreach is struggling to attract new friends. And even though Russia and Iran, its closest allies, may be on the same page, underlying tensions remain. There is a global leadership gap but Beijing is not filling it

Raffaello Pantucci

Screen Shot 2020-04-09 at 02.32.01

The world is grasping for an understanding of how the geopolitics of the coronavirus will play out. One dominant theme is that China is mendaciously riding the media waves to paint itself as a saviour dispensing medical equipment.

Yet, it is hard to see how Beijing is benefiting from its medical diplomacy, with opprobrium from every direction. Even given China’s close alliances with Iran and Russia, it is possible to see tensions emerging.

It is not at all clear that China will come out of the virus crisis as the rhetoric winner, notwithstanding the frantic narrative seeking to paint it that way.

Given the energy that China appears to be putting into promoting and pushing its medical diplomacy, it is surprisingly hard to uncover much evidence of a positive reception. While news stories speak of Chinese doctors and equipment arriving in stricken European states, it is difficult to find many news stories trumpeting China’s magnanimity.

Those who do speak of it positively tend to be the ones who already hold a positive view of China. The bigger narrative that seems to have caught on of late, however, is that much of the Chinese equipment appears to be faulty. It certainly does not seem that China is winning many new friends with its medical diplomacy.

Where China is finding resonance is in the predictable places, but even this is with caveats. The almost comical conspiracy theory that Covid-19 was a US military weapon has, unsurprisingly, found resonance in both Tehran and Moscow.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to the theory on his Twitter feed, while Russia’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, defended China’s work on the virus and helped to propagate narratives espoused by Beijing.

Yet, singing from the same hymn sheet about the virus has not swept away the underlying tensions. For example, Sinochem is refusing to buy oil from Russia’s Rosneft after the US warned of sanctions if it did so.

At the same time, Chinese purchasers have bought record volumes of Russian oil from other suppliers, taking advantage of record low prices to fill strategic reserves.

Iran may still be supplying energy to China, but some calculations have concluded that Tehran is doing this for zero income, given that it is paying off earlier Chinese investments. This is hardly magnanimous action on Beijing’s part to strategic allies in difficult positions.

The coronavirus has caused tensions between the three nations. Russia was one of the first countries to close its borders to China (doing so at the same time as Italy and before the United States), while reports from Iran suggest that its outbreak, which started in Qom, may have come either from businessmen travelling back from China or Chinese workers.

In Russia, there have been reports of East Asians being attacked, while Moscow bus drivers were told to report it to the police if they found a Chinese person on board.

We are seeing a classic dance play out here, with all three powers playing the same game of rhetoric (deriding Europe and attacking America), while the realist dynamics churn on relentlessly below the surface.

There is little evidence that the coronavirus has changed the dynamics between the three, nor that it has bolstered China and its axis of convenience on the world stage.

Some fear that in some ways Beijing’s displays of medical diplomacy will permanently reshape the international order. Yet, the reality is that the most damaging impact to the international order comes from the absence of leadership in Washington.

Some European capitals have been slow to respond to the pandemic and walked when they should have run, but the truth is that few expected the European Union to lead the world in responding to this crisis. The EU remains confounded by its fundamental governance contradictions.

But none of this means that China can credibly fill the vacuum. Rather, a vacuum continues to exist, and is only being made larger by the fumbling response from US President Donald Trump and his administration. This is the acceleration that is happening in international geopolitics. Power is ebbing away while others desperately thrash around for influence.

Yet no one is able to fill it, creating a confusing order where rules and behaviour are increasingly incomprehensible, where state leaders and their spokespeople lie, and we refuse to acknowledge goodwill and impressive gestures for what they are. The cynicism is obvious, but the absence of something better means such narratives are gaining greater attention.

China has undoubtedly used its medical aid politically, but ultimately this is not going to shape the new world order. We may not be seeing an end to an American-led order in favour of Pax Sinica, but we are witnessing a rebalancing of the two.

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