Posts Tagged ‘China and the world’

A new piece in a different language appealing to the other half of my national identity, so maybe restricting in who can read it. But at the same time, machine translation these days is very effective I find, so I am sure to those committed (and who cannot read Italian!) will find a way. In any case, many thanks to ISPI for commissioning this, more on this topic to come for certain.

I dilemmi della Cina sull’Afghanistan

Come molti dei vicini dell’Afghanistan, la Cina ha adottato un approccio pragmatico nelle relazioni con i Talebani. Riconoscendo che sono la nuova forza a Kabul e che per il momento sembrano capaci di rimanere al potere, Pechino ha stabilito contatti diretti per agire in un Paese con il quale condivide una frontiera diretta. La Cina ha una lunga storia di contatti con i Talebani sulla quale può contare. Ma la Cina oggi è una potenza globale e questa realtà cambia la lente con cui gli altri poteri regionali guardano la Cina, e cambia le dinamiche regionali. Da un potere che poteva nascondersi fra altri, la Cina adesso è un Paese chiave per il futuro del Afghanistan.

contatti fra la Cina e i Talebani risalgono a prima dell’11 settembre 2001, tramite il Pakistan. Lo scopo era gestire i rischi che potevano emergere dai gruppi di militanti uiguri che operavano in Afghanistan. Pechino voleva influenzare i Talebani anche in altri modi, incoraggiando le sue aziende telefoniche (Huawei e ZTE in particolare) a contribuire alle infrastrutture. In aggiunta, le aziende estrattive cinesi avevano avviato discussioni con il governo talebano. Pechino aveva provato a persuadere il governo a non distruggere le famose statue di Buddha di Bamiyan, una spinta diplomatica che non ha avuto successo e che però dimostra la capacità di avanzare richieste difficili.

L’invasione statunitense dopo l’11 settembre ha trasformato la relazione. Pechino si è rapidamente volta in direzione di Washington, dopo aver ricevuto l’assicurazione dagli Stati Uniti che avrebbero appoggiato la lotta cinese contro i militanti uiguri del Movimento Islamico dell’Est Turkestan (ETIM), mettendoli sulla lista dei gruppi terroristici. Negli anni successivi la relazione fra i Talebani e i cinesi si è congelata. Solo dopo il 2007, quando sono aumentati i problemi in Pakistan e la situazione in Afghanistan è cominciata a peggiorare, hanno provato a riaprire il canale.

Il ristabilimento di contatti è avvenuto tramite il Pakistan, ma con il passare del tempo la Cina ha preferito contatti diretti, divenuti poi di dominio pubblico. La Cina ha offerto ospitalità, incontri regolari e la creazione di un nuovo consesso che facesse incontrare gli Stati Uniti, la Cina, il Pakistan, il governo afghano e i Talebani. Questo consesso non è servito a molto, ma ha dimostrato i contatti della Cina, sempre più pubblici fino a quando gli americani hanno segnalato il ritiro finale firmando l’accordo con i Talebani nel febbraio 2020 a Doha.

Per la Cina, il più alto incontro diplomatico è stato quello tra il ministro degli Esteri Wang Yi e Mullah Baradar a Tianjin nel tardo luglio 2021. Poche settimane dopo, i Talebani hanno preso il potere a Kabul. Poco prima dell’incontro a Tianjin, il Presidente Xi aveva parlato con il presidente Ashraf Ghani, al quale aveva dichiarato che Pechino non era sicura di chi avrebbe vinto a Kabul. Se con il nuovo governo talebano i cinesi all’inizio hanno continuato a usare il canale pachistano, adesso possono contare su forti contatti diretti. Il dilemma per la Cina è però quanto sia affidabile questo governo.

La Cina ha tre grandi preoccupazioni. La prima è che l’Afghanistan diventi un rifugio dal quale gruppi di uiguri possano complottare e creare problemi nel Xinjiang. La seconda è che l’instabilità afghana possa essere esportata nella regione. L’Asia Centrale e il Pakistan sono legati alla Cina e se la regione brucia ne soffre anche Pechino. La terza è che il Paese possa diventare un luogo in cui potenze come gli Stati Uniti o l’India creano problemi per la Cina (non a caso crescono le voci cinesi secondi cui gli statunitensi starebbero aiutando i gruppi uiguri).

Per risolvere tutti questi problemi, è necessario avere un governo stabile a Kabul, capace di mantenere la sicurezza. Pechino, come la maggior parte dei governi regionali, vorrebbe che i Talebani creassero un governo d’unità, che comprendesse tutte le varie fazioni afghane. Ma nell’assenza d’unità, vorrebberro che i Talebani dimostrassero almeno potenza, dipendenza e controllo del territorio. Ed è questa la preoccupazione principale che al momento ha la Cina – il fatto che non sia chiaro quanto unito sia il governo dei Talebani o se siano capaci di controllare il territorio. Il modo in cui le fazioni Haqqani hanno preso il controllo marginalizzando Mullah Baradar è una lente sui problemi interni.

I Talebani hanno parlato regolarmente del fatto che non daranno appoggio a gruppi anti-cinesi e non commenteranno le vicende del Xinjiang. Inoltre ci sono rapporti dal nord del Paese secondo cui starebbero trasferendo gruppi uiguri che erano lì. Tutto ciò è però complicato dalla rivendicazione dello Stato Islamico in Afghanistan (ISKP): il massacro a Kunduz di pochi giorni fa sarebbe stato commesso da uno uiguro, anche contro i Talebani, per il loro appoggio ai cinesi. Un rischio contro il quale Pechino deve trovare protezione.

La risposta cinese sarà, come sempre, di provare a trovare qualcuno nel Paese che possa risolvere il problema. In questo caso, i Talebani. Ma al momento la Cina ha raggiunto il limite del suo sostegno ai Talebani. Probabilmente sarebbe disposta a riconoscerne ufficialmente il governo, ma senza essere la prima o l’unica a farlo. I funzionari cinesi dietro le quinte stanno provando a capire chi altro nella regione sarebbe disposto e sperano che i russi decidano di farlo per primi.

Non sarà facile. La decisione di creare un governo unitario talebano ha irritato i russi che speravano in qualcosa di diverso. Per Mosca, l’Afghanistan è una fonte di vari potenziali problemi, a casa propria e nelle sue zone limitrofe, in Asia Centrale o nel Caucaso. La Russia continua a considerare il gruppo talebano ufficialmente terroristico, anche se mantiene contatti (e pianifica di ospitarli a Mosca fra poco). Questo doppio atteggiamento riflette le preoccupazioni del presidente Putin e non cambierà velocemente.

Tutto questo lascia Pechino in una situazione complicata. Da un lato, vorrebbe riconoscere il governo talebano, dargli appoggio ufficiale, chiedere risposte sulle proprie preoccupazioni. Ma al momento non è sicura che i Talebani siano nella posizione di offrire rassicurazioni. A causa della geografia, Pechino è comunque costretta a continuare a lavorare con loro.

Ma la Cina non è la potenza che era l’ultima volta che i Talebani erano a Kabul. Adesso è la seconda economia del mondo ed è la potenza più grande, ricca e influente vicina all’Afghanistan. Qualunque sua decisione cambierà la dinamica regionale. Una situazione difficile per i leader a Zhongnanhai che faticano a capire come usare queste leve per ottenere i propri obiettivi. Una realtà ancor più complicata dal fatto che da sempre le grandi menti strategiche cinesi ritengono che l’Afghanistan sia un cimitero imperiale. Ma Pechino si è messa in una situazione tale per cui, per evitare che il prossimo Impero a cadere nella trappola sia quello cinese, deve fare affidamento proprio sui Talebani.

Almost caught up on myself now, this time a short piece for wonderful Indian think tank the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) looking at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Dushanbe. There is a whole chapter on the organization in my upcoming book whose cover has now been released. Will get around to a long delayed media update soon, though have a few other longer papers that need pushing out the door.

Afghanistan crisis lingers over the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit

Looking beyond the SCO’s inability to come to a consensus on Afghanistan to the normalising of Beijing’s influence in Eurasia

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, SCO, Afghanistan, NATO, ASEAN, Eurasian heartland, China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, counterterrorism, US, SCO-Afghanistan, Taliban, Ajit Doval, Moeed Yusuf,
Wikimedia Commons (By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0)

If there was ever an organisation that on paper would look like it was suited to focus on Afghanistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) would be it. Yet, as Dushanbe hosts the 20th anniversary Heads of Government session this week, there is little evidence that the organisation is going to take advantage of this moment to step forward and present a unified vision for how to deal with Afghanistan, a nation that sits literally at its geographic core. This spatial reality will only be highlighted once again with the beginning of Iran’s full accession process into the Organisation, leaving aggressively neutral Turkmenistan as the only Afghan neighbour that is not a full member.

The Summit is instead likely to reflect a generally fractured regional view of how to handle the new Taliban authorities in Afghanistan and escalating regional tensions. Where outside powers need to be careful, however, is in concluding that this is a demonstration of organisational weakness and irrelevance. It may be the case the SCO is not on its way to create some sort of regional NATO or ASEAN. Rather, it helps clarify the very different views that exist regionally about what role the SCO plays in the Eurasian heartland. Primary amongst these is China, who continues to see the entity as a useful tool to help normalise Chinese preeminence in the Eurasian heartland.

Founded in 2001 in the months before the September 11 attacks, the SCO was initially born out of a structure that developed in the post-Cold War period to help China define its borders with the former Soviet Union. By the time of the formal founding, with the joining of Uzbekistan to the previous Shanghai Five made up of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, it was clear that all the powers had slightly different interpretations about what purpose it would serve going forward and their degree of interest in it. Yet one thing they all seemed to agree on was counterterrorism. To some degree this was normative. As authoritarian powers preoccupied with staying in power, they all saw threats to their authority as political violence (i.e., terrorism); hence it was something they could all agree on as being a major concern. But they also all realised that they sat next to Afghanistan, a country that had produced numerous regional problems in the decade between the end of the Soviet Union and SCO founding.

SCO and Afghanistan

So much was Afghanistan on people’s minds that during the June 2001 founding ceremony in Shanghai that President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan highlighted the country as “the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism” in his opening remarks, tying the country to the “three evils” that sit at the heart of SCO counter-terrorism thinking. In comments to Xinhua on the fringes of the inaugural Summit, President Rahmon of Tajikistan (this year’s host) “called for a common stance and unified actions in solving the Afghanistan issue through peaceful means.” In his comments during the main session, then-President of Kyrgyzstan Akayev “expressed the hope that SCO member countries will work together to alleviate the Afghan situation which has become a serious threat to countries in the region.” All of the countries involved in founding the SCO had faced violent Islamist terrorism of one sort or another in the years leading up to the Summit with links to Afghanistan identifiable in most cases.

Yet, notwithstanding all this consternation, the Organisation has done almost nothing about Afghanistan since its founding. To some degree, this was a product of external factors. Soon after the 2001 inaugural Summit in Shanghai, the September 11 attacks against the United States precipitated an American-led invasion of the country and the toppling of the Taliban regime. This deprived the Organisation of a need to actually do anything. The US had arrived with great bellicosity and seemed determined to clean shop in Kabul, effectively dealing with a problem they had all worried about. There was a part of them that was worried about long-term US military presence in their neighbourhood, but this balanced against the direct security concerns in Afghanistan that were now being dealt with.

This tension with the US was fairly constant, and, in 2005, it came into sharp relief as the democratising flame of ‘Colour Revolutions’ reached the region. The so-called Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in Spring 2005 was followed by the May massacre in Andijian, Uzbekistan. These two events were applauded and condemned by the west to horror across the region. Yet, they did not appear to impact the SCO much, which was unhappy about the instability and stood behind its members. At the same time, people continued to go in different ways on Afghanistan. In 2008/09, the US established the Northern Distribution Network to get supplies into Afghanistan via overland routes from Europe, across Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan. While condemnation of Andijian led to US ejection from a key airbase in Kashi Khanabad in Uzbekistan, it led to the expansion of the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

China has been quite heavily involved in pushing for the organisation to do more in Afghanistan. Beijing supported and encouraged the establishment of the SCO Contact Group in 2005, and during the 2012 Beijing Summit shepherded the country in as an official Observer member. Yet, notwithstanding Beijing’s diplomatic energy, very little has happened, and even China appears to accept its limitations, focusing its engagement with Afghanistan through bilateral and other regional multilateral structures. And none of the other members ever really seemed to really push for Afghanistan to become a key focus. In recent times, Moscow seemed to awaken to the idea of trying to revive the SCO-Afghanistan Contact group in some substantial way, but it did not result in anything new. Russia now seems to have fallen back into focusing on its direct security concerns through bolstering Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, while continuing to tentatively engage with the Taliban.

And this has largely been the reaction of most of the other powers as well. India and Pakistan each have their own particular relations with Afghanistan, which are largely predicated on conflict with each other. The Central Asians are wary, though the Uzbeks have seemed to lean in towards engaging with the new Taliban government while the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs appear to be in a wait-and-see mode. The Tajiks have taken an entirely contrary view, openly supporting the Northern Alliance resistance, and staking out a position as the most antagonistic power towards the new authority in Kabul. Potential new member Iran is unlikely to decide that the SCO is going to be best forum for its future engagement, while other Observers (like Mongolia) or Dialogue Partners (like Sri Lanka or Belarus) are likely going to be eager to step into the mess.

The SCO Summit on 17 September 2021

In fact, this Summit is going to be a tale of internal tensions and blandness. Central Asians may have resolved a lot of their disputes, but until April this year, Kyrgyz and Tajiks were killing each other across their borders. Pakistan and India are usually able to leave their bilateral problems at the door, but last September, during a virtual SCO National Security Advisers Summit, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval dropped out when Pakistani National Security Adviser, Moeed Yusuf, presented a map that showed borders clashing with Delhi’s view. And while the organisation will likely seek to focus on the harmony implicit with Iran joining, the reality is that more members are only likely to create more problems.

But at the same time, it is true that the Organisation does not shrink or go away, but rather continues to grow. And in doing this, it is invariably expanding Chinese influence in subtle ways across the wider Eurasian heartland. While the rest of the world tends to focus on the optics of authoritarian gathering and the seeming lack of action on critical security questions which should logically be top of the list, we miss the vast number of sectoral dialogues, people-to-people engagements, and new institutions that China, in particular, has encouraged through the Organisation. This has helped advance Chinese interests, links and norms across the entire region. And while none of these are transformational by themselves, cumulatively they are setting in stone a reality.

It is clear there is no agreement whatsoever amongst SCO members about how to proceed on Afghanistan, and no institutional capacity within the SCO itself to do anything. Yet, in entirely focusing on this side of the Summit, the rest of the world is missing the wider normative foundations that the SCO is laying across the wider Eurasian heartland. The region is already bracketed in amongst powers that are heavily sanctioned by the US, through the SCO, Beijing is creating a structure which can increasingly normalise Chinese influence and dominance.

A new outlet for a well-trodden topic. Exploring the China-Pakistan relationship for Nikkei Asian Review, using the recent terrorist atrocity in Pakistan against a busload of Chinese engineers as the way into the topic and the tensions around it between Beijing and Islamabad. It has generated some chatter online which is always good to see, at least someone is reading! Undoubtedly more on this topic to come.

China is a habit that Pakistan cannot break

Ties with Washington further strained by the need to declare fealty to Beijing

Imran Khan, pictured in Beijing in November 2018: the Pakistani Prime Minister is increasingly China’s staunchest defender on the international stage.   © Reuters

An attack on a busload of Chinese workers en route to the Dasu Hydropower plant in Pakistan has once again highlighted the complex precariousness of the relationship between Beijing and Islamabad.

The rapid comment by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs citing terrorism as the reason, while their Pakistani counterparts suggested an accident of some sort, did little for the dead Chinese engineers and their Pakistani guards. But it did reveal the evident tension between the two powers, in stark contrast to the public rhetoric surrounding their relationship. Rust, it seems, is weakening the bond between these iron brothers.

The most curious aspect of the tension is paradoxically visible in the public displays of fealty from Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is increasingly China’s staunchest defender on the international stage. While it is not surprising that he would agree with his most important ally’s perspective, it seems odd that he feels the need to do so repeatedly in such an ostentatious way.

Many other countries that enjoy strong ties with China have successfully avoided situations requiring them to make such displays.

While the declarations may win favor in Beijing, they are undoubtedly going down badly in Washington. Since U.S. President Joe Biden was sworn in, he has not engaged with his Pakistani counterpart in any public way. The only high-level in-person engagement has been between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Pakistani counterpart Moeed Yusuf.

At the same time, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has visited Delhi, and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has hosted India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in Washington. When Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi visited New York in May, he was able to meet with members of the Senate and Congress, but, publicly at least, there were no meetings with administration officials.

Biden himself has long-held concerns about Pakistan. As vice president in Feb. 2010, Biden told CNN that Pakistan was a large country with a “significant minority” that was radicalized and was not “a completely functional democracy in the sense we think about it,” adding that its status as a nuclear power was his biggest “foreign policy concern.”

As Washington pivots from the war on terrorism to confrontation with Beijing, Islamabad risks being left stranded in the middle. Always an awkward U.S. partner in Afghanistan, the U.S. withdrawal means this is no longer a primary consideration for Washington.

In the years ahead, Washington is likely to look at Islamabad through the lens of its growing tensions with Beijing, with Pakistan seen to be sitting firmly on China’s side.

All of this comes as Islamabad has been trying to signal, often through U.K. contacts, that it is eager to find ways of building a more constructive relationship with Washington. The problem is that Pakistan is no longer as important to Washington as it once was, especially as it is seen as being unlikely to do much to support attempts to contain China.

Islamabad has, however, been playing fast and loose when it comes to its relationship with Beijing. Articles in the Pakistan media discussing the China-Pakistan relationship are often peppered with off-the-record dissenting government voices hinting that significant parts of the Pakistani establishment feel they are locked in a bad relationship. Perhaps this explains why Beijing saw the need to send a new ambassador with strong party links, rather than the traditional South Asia expert.

People wheel a gurney towards an ambulance outside a hospital in Dasu after a bus with Chinese nationals on board plunged into a ravine following a blast on July 14.   © Reuters

Irritations are also building on the security front with the attack on the busload of engineers in Dasu coming after a separate incident in Quetta which came close to hitting the Chinese Ambassador, as well as earlier targeted attacks by Baluchi and Sindhi separatists on Chinese nationals and projects. Beijing is doubtless not shocked by these, but the loss of life in the Dasu incident was a step too far.

Signs that Beijing is losing patience include thunderous Global Times editorials warning Pakistan to get its house in order or China will explore deploying forces. Officially deploying a team of investigators immediately to look into the attack and being quicker than Pakistan to blame terrorists for the Dasu attack all illustrate a willingness by Beijing to start assuming the worst. The decision to cancel the next meeting of the Ministerial Joint Coordination Committee of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is the clearest signal Beijing can send about its displeasure.

This hardly speaks to a relationship that is “higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans” as diplomats on both sides like to sing. It speaks instead of a relationship where Beijing is increasingly frustrated with a partner that has failed to deliver and appears preoccupied with mending fences with China’s principal adversary.

The bigger problem for Islamabad, however, is that their attempts to get Washington’s attention are not getting through, putting them in the position of having to continually emphasize their fealty to Beijing. Unfortunately for Pakistan, such behavior will only further deepen the rupture with Washington.

Islamabad has backed itself into a complicated position that it will struggle to extricate itself from anytime soon.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Another piece from a busy week, this time in the Spectator looking at China and Russia’s growing possible cooperation on the world stage. Not a title I would have chosen to be honest, as the article is more about cooperation than competition, but there we go. The trigger is Belarus in particular, but there is growing evidence that Beijing and Moscow are working in growing confluence. It is very hard to tell what cooperation actually looks like, and there are a few projects I am working on at the moment which explore this question in various different contexts.

Before posting that, however, am also adding a link to a really interesting discussion I participated in with RFE/RL’s excellent Majlis podcast on the impact to Central Asia of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan with host Muhammad Tahir, his excellent colleagues Salimjon Aioubov and Bruce Pannier, and the always impressive Alex Cooley.

Why Russia and China are competing to woo Belarus

Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin (Getty images)

Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko has been roundly condemned following the arrest of Roman Protasevich, but he still has one ally. Lukashenko spent the weekend at Sochi, on the Black Sea, where he was hosted on president Vladimir Putin’s yacht. The two leaders greeted each other with a hug. After dolphin spotting, the pair wrapped up a deal on the release of a $500 million (£350m) loan to Belarus which will help blunt the effect of fresh western sanctions. The announcement followed a celebration in Minsk earlier in the week for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist party, where ambassador Xie Xiaoyong lauded the bilateral relationship between China and Belarus. 

As ever, Beijing and Moscow are stepping in to support a regime falling foul of the west. China and Russia have long acted in a sort of harmony together on the world stage. They back each other up in the UN Security Council, and have a similar outlook on the world, fearing messy democratisation driven by western governments and NGOs. 

But underlying this is a tension; the two countries have a common aim, yet they still distrust each other. Russia, in particular, fears the way the scales in their relationship have increasingly tipped in Beijing’s favour. Beijing, in turn, worries about Moscow’s reliability, fearing it might abruptly turn westward. 

There are also tensions in China and Russia’s choice of allies. Russia has long been an arms supplier to countries like Vietnam and India who both have contentious relationships with China. Beijing has increasingly developed relationships with numerous former Soviet states, slowly winning over their economic favour to Moscow’s detriment. But both China and Russia are increasingly lining up together behind powers that are falling into conflict with the west.

Belarus is the latest example of this. As the UK, EU and US all pile in with sanctions, Moscow speeds up loans and Beijing emphasises its Belt and Road investment. Another recent example can be found in Myanmar. In the wake of the military junta’s coup in February and the subsequent crackdown, the EU, UK and US weighed in with sanctions. China’s response was to lobby regional bodies like ASEAN to not condemn the coup, demand that their companies operating in Myanmar be protected from assault and get approval for a $2.5bn (£1.8bn) natural gas project. Russia followed with more focused military support; Russian generals were among the few foreigners attending the national military day parade soon after the takeover, while Russian deputy defense minister was the first senior foreign official to visit the country in the wake of the coup. 

Other autocratic countries like Iran have long been supported by both China and Russia. While it is a remarkably delicate economic dance (all are ultimately, to varying degrees, fearful of the secondary impact of the aggressive US sanctions on Tehran), the security politics and dynamics have always worked closely together. The three have cooperated closely in intelligence terms, sharing experiences and information about their common foe: the Americans. Iran, Russia and China have held military exercises together in the waters of the Gulf; all three are ardent supporters of Syria’s despotic president Bashar al-Assad.

As for their responses to Covid-19, Russia and China have also been quick to co-ordinate their messaging. Both have highlighted western failings and made great hay of their collective push to offer their vaccines around the world. 

Their messaging more generally is also increasingly similar to each other’s. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long perfected the art of dissimulation and a nudge-nudge, wink-wink approach when commenting on international affairs. Deny everything and accept nothing is the usual approach. This is a playbook increasingly emulated by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose so-called ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy is, in fact, a carbon copy of Kremlin megaphone diplomacy. Broadcasting marginal western voices as though they are reflective of the mainstream, pushing back on every assertion made that can appear derogatory and denying verifiable facts vehemently are also useful tools. All of these rhetorical methods are ones that used to be alien to the traditionally staid and bland Chinese MFA, but are now a regular feature of their repertoire. 

This growing coordination is new and is reflective of a relationship that is getting closer. While previously, it was possible to find and pick at fissures in the Sino-Russian relationship, these gaps are closing and the more salient question now is the degree to which they might be coordinating their actions. 

Their goal seems not only to bolster each other, but also to gradually strengthen a network of strategic alliances around the world which will support them in their broader confrontation with the west. Once a leader falls foul of the western alliance for whatever reason, Beijing and Moscow quickly step right in to fill the vacuum. While this might seem to be bringing them more unreliable and expensive allies than useful support, it is, in fact, strengthening their hand by giving them more cards to play and expanding the network of nations that stand behind them rather than the west. This means more votes in the UN and other international institutions, and validating their strongman approach to governance on the world stage. 

Beijing and Moscow are no longer simply an axis of convenience. Increasingly they are developing an alliance of autocracy whose sole purpose is to challenge the western order.

Been working on a few too many different projects of late: some large, some small, some with some really excellent co-authors (whom I beg forgiveness for being slow at the moment). As I chug along, penned a short article for the South China Morning Post which tries to set out some ideas on how (and if) the west should respond to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Not vastly new ideas, but the topic is going to get a lot of airtime during the upcoming G7 session so it seemed the right moment to put the ideas out there.

How the West can best respond to China’s belt and road

  • Competing with China dollar for dollar is pointless as Chinese banks and state-owned firms are driven by different concerns than their Western peers
  • Building up governance capacity in developing countries will help them better manage and push back when Chinese firms step over the line
Illustration: Craig Stephens for South China Morning Post

In a barely veiled reference to the Belt and Road Initiative, the recent Group of 7 Foreign Ministers final communique called on China to end its “coercive economic policies and practices”.

It is not the first time the G7 and its individual members have targeted the initiative, but it is unclear what they would offer instead. Rather, the project has become a whipping boy in the broader geopolitical confrontation with China.

The first thing the West should remember when responding to China’s strategy is that it is not seen the same way globally. While Western countries might view Beijing’s investments in developing countries as exploitative, coercive and attempts to entrap nations in debt, they are sometimes simply the latest round of funding from a wealthy foreign power to come knocking with their own list of requirements.

Some will take China’s strategy at face value and do not care much about the requirements that follow, interpreting them as equal to Western nations’ requirements.

This is a crucial point to consider; while Western powers might attach a certain set of values to Chinese investments, this is not necessarily how they are seen. Most developing countries will accept investment wherever it comes from, and have such deep needs that they will take what appears to be the best value.

That is why competing with China dollar for dollar is pointless.

Part of the reason concerns the institutions involved. Chinese state banks and state-owned firms, often the main implementers of belt and road projects, are driven by a different logic than their Western counterparts. Their considerations centre around activity, employment and continuity rather than short-term profit.

This is not to say they want to lose money, but they are willing to look at projects with a different timeline. They will also, in some contexts, take on a project because the state wants them to. This is not the same for most Western companies, which answer to shareholders.

State-run institutions in China must also take account of the fact the Belt and Road Initiative is a main part of President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy vision and has been enshrined in the constitution. Thus, implementation of the vision is likely to be put above other considerations.

This is also different from in the West, where institutions may have political links, and Western banks might prefer to work with national firms, but there is little binding companies to specific national foreign policies. Rather, most try to avoid overt political links, knowing it can spell trouble.

This highlights a difficult policy area for Western governments. If they want to compete effectively, they have to start considering policies which would clash with the liberal market principles they claim to advocate.

This already happens, but it is often done quietly. Western capitals might need to start being more explicit about it.

One answer is to offer alternatives to critical decisions or infrastructure being targeted as belt and road projects. This is likely to differ from case to case, but the key will be to cooperate with like-minded allies to focus on specific projects.

One idea could be to develop a list of specific areas – no doubt technology would be top. But there is a danger such a list could become unwieldy, especially considering how many areas of society have some technological component. Embassies on the ground could be encouraged to work together, but this would be a complicated process.

A more effective strategy would be to focus on building up the governance capacity in developing countries. This is the real route to success in managing Chinese investment.

For example, rules in contracts for belt and road projects are not always followed or the contracts themselves have exemptions built in.

Chinese companies can fail to perform or implement feasibility studies, find ways around contractual obligations and are sometimes in a hurry to get things done, tending to operate as they are used to doing at home. This can create problems for host countries, which are left to clean up afterwards.

The best way for Western countries to tackle such issues is not by complaining but, rather, to build up local capacity to hold Chinese firms to account. In everything from infrastructure and technical standards to data storage, if the local authorities have stronger powers and capabilities, they will be able to better manage and resist when Chinese firms step over the line.

This recognises what seems the biggest gap in Western thinking. It is true that corruption can sometimes tip the scales, but the answer to that is not more investment, a bidding war or threats about taking Chinese money. Rather, it is empower locals to deal with corruption and ensure local governance can better manage investment.

None of this easy. Many investors, aid agencies and international financial institutions have been trying to do as much for years, which highlights another issue worth remembering.

That is, China does not have a magic wand to make all these problems go away. Arguably, in the belt and road, it has created a tool that could exacerbate issues. So, while China might be able to keep its projects on course for now, that may not be the case indefinitely.

As China becomes more embroiled in problems around the world, it will find itself hitting many of the brick walls that Western powers have experienced over time.

All this highlights why the West should worry less about belt and road projects per se and focus more on strengthening developing countries so they are able to manage whatever investments come their way.

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

A week and a bit later, finally posting my most recent piece for local paper Straits Times. This one explores the Digital Silk Road, something I have been looking at a growing amount for this larger RUSI project I have been working on which has a specific cyber and digital strand to it. In other words more on this to come, though more likely from the policy angle than the technical one which I am continually learning about.

Bumps on the Digital Silk Road

Chinese tech giants are superb builders but feared for their prowess and government links. But what if the greater risk lies in these firms themselves?

A potentially bigger problem the Digital Silk Road faces comes from within China.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

At the height of the Sino-Indian Himalayan border clash last year, New Delhi suddenly slapped a ban on dozens of Chinese mobile phone apps on security grounds. Most prominent among them was TikTok, the video-sharing app which has taken the world’s teenagers by storm.

The Indian ban came amid a wider wave of pushback against China’s digital and technology companies, led by the United States but taking effect globally in different ways, creating bumps in the building of China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR).

India has always been a major point of interest for Chinese technology firms. With a market size potentially the same as China’s, it offers an opportunity for exponential growth right next door. For TikTok, before the abrupt cut-off, India was its biggest market outside China with some 200 million people on its platform and proof that a Chinese company could take on America’s Big Tech in new markets.

Hardware companies such as Xiaomi and Huawei have long listed India as a major source of growth. In 2018, Huawei announced an “India first” policy and started to establish a growing volume of its manufacturing for the market in the country itself. In 2017, Xiaomi’s sales in India topped US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion), while in the first quarter of this year (notwithstanding political tensions and Covid-19 economic slowdowns) it shipped some 38 million units to Indian customers, accounting for 26 per cent of the smartphone market with an impressive 23 per cent year-on-year growth.

On the software side, Bytedance (TikTok’s parent company) had bet heavily on India prior to the banning, hoping to grow its user base with a local team of around 2,000 staff. Mr Jack Ma’s Alibaba is reported to have invested some US$2 billion in the Indian market since 2015.

This push into India was the realisation of the vision of the DSR, a concept first laid out by Beijing in a 2015 White Paper. At the time, the DSR was somewhat ignored except in specialist circles as it seemed to be the latest variant of the Silk Road nomenclature in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s 2013 Belt and Road speeches in Astana and Jakarta.

Yet this rather dismissive view belies the potential impact of the expansion of the DSR, which sees China, through its technology firms and state loans, helping recipient countries build their telco networks, e-commerce, mobile payment, smart city and other high-tech infrastructure. Chinese technology companies are paving parts of the world’s digital future.

In the global market, China’s technology firms are more than holding their own. Huawei and Xiaomi phones are affordable and of good quality. Huawei is increasingly the only firm that is manufacturing the infrastructure needed by countries to upgrade their next-generation Internet network. Huawei and ZTE are among the dominant providers of telecoms hardware in the countries surrounding China, while firms like Hikvision or Dahua are offering new technologies at accessible rates.

Chinese online payment applications and fintech are at the cutting edge, while across growing swathes of Asia, Alibaba, Taobao and JD.com online sales platforms are competing robustly against Amazon and other online marketplaces. The easy access to cheap Chinese products makes them very attractive.

An entire sub-economy has emerged of local entrepreneurs in countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Indonesia who create websites in local languages that provide people with access to the Chinese platforms. Across Asia (and more widely), these online middlemen set themselves up as interpreters of Chinese platforms to those who are unfamiliar with the language but want access to the bountiful and cheap products on offer.

In some ways, this is a classic win-win. The countries get affordable technology, investment and access to the Chinese market.

DATA SECURITY CONCERNS

Yet there is another side to it which India was trying to address with its abrupt closure of a whole raft of Chinese apps. Part punitive and part defensive, India’s pushback was amongst the sharpest that China had yet encountered as it paved its Digital Silk Road.

Concerns about privacy, access to data and espionage have increasingly dogged Chinese technology firms. Former president Donald Trump’s White House was aggressive in calling out the dangers of Chinese technology, though his scattershot approach did not always deliver the impact that was intended. Chinese firms and the government have repeatedly denied the accusations levelled against them.

Notwithstanding the Chinese denials, there are areas of concern. In 2017, Huawei removed a Wi-Fi module in a surveillance system sold to police in Lahore when it was discovered by locals. The discovery of the module, which provided an option for remote control that the company had not advertised, caused consternation in Islamabad. Not enough, however, to stop the Huawei chief executive from meeting Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2019 and signing a memorandum of understanding for the company to build a giant cloud data centre in Pakistan. And there have been repeated reports that Chinese-installed technology in the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa have been used to send information back to China.

Separately, TikTok has come under fire in various jurisdictions for censoring data, in part to adhere to Chinese government concerns. In Europe, the Italian government is suing the company for not having adequate protection for children’s data.

The biggest fear at the moment, however, is data collection and access. Driving this is the fear that the Chinese government could in theory demand that any Chinese company hand over whatever data it might have on foreign nationals using its application.

The reality, however, is far more complicated than this. In response to different data protection requirements of the countries they operate in, Chinese tech companies have built data centres around the world to store client information. Singapore, for example, is a particular beneficiary of this trend in Asia, offering a secure location outside China in the heart of Asia. Such centres should be beyond the Chinese government’s reach, though, of course, it can be difficult to monitor this.

But this is not the most interesting aspect of this data collection. Far more important is the volume of information this provides Chinese firms to hone their technical capabilities.

The current rush in new technology is to develop new artificial intelligence tools. In order to train these tools, you need massive amounts of data for them to learn from – something these Chinese behemoths are increasingly gathering in vast volume from around the world and particularly in Asia.

For countries leery of China’s ambitions, this advantage makes the growth of Chinese tech companies not only a potential national security threat, but also an economic threat that could stymie if not kill off rival plans to develop similar tools.

Given all of these concerns, it is not surprising that India decided to block Chinese penetration of its market. For India and others, the worry is not just the DSR burrowing too deeply into their local economies but also the longer-term risk of taking over their digital futures and exposing them to unknown future problems.

VULNERABLE GIANTS

For all that, a less discussed but potentially bigger problem the Digital Silk Road faces comes from within China. The abrupt defenestration of China’s most famous tech entrepreneur, Mr Ma, after he had carried Beijing’s flag for tech growth and innovation around the world, highlighted how vulnerable Chinese private companies really are. Not even China’s biggest tech company, Alibaba, is immune to political censure and punishment.

So far, it appears a chastened Mr Ma is having his wings clipped for challenging China’s domestic lenders too brazenly. His future remains unclear, but the slapdown halted what would have been the world’s largest-ever initial public offering of Alibaba’s payments off-shoot, Ant Financial.

While the scenarios are speculative at this stage, some questions about the relationship between the central government and Chinese tech companies need looking at. What are the implications for contracts or activities run by these companies should they fall foul of the government? What if the Chinese government was to abruptly nationalise or take over parts of Alibaba’s global empire? Countries could find themselves suddenly facing a situation where their entire online payments system was in fact owned by a foreign government.

In other words, the Digital Silk Road’s greatest dangers may not necessarily lie in the possibility of Chinese firms secretly accessing private data or the Chinese state using the infrastructure to hack people around the world, but the political vulnerabilities these firms face back home. If they are less stable than they appear and given the world’s growing reliance on digital economies and infrastructure, the unravelling of key parts of this silk road is a far graver threat than meets the eye.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

The wonderful Katie Putz of the Diplomat was kind enough to invite me to do an interview with her excellent publication – covering a wide range of China in South and Central Asia questions, though mostly looking southward with a bit of a focus on Afghanistan. Have not posted it all here as behind a firewall at the moment, but will hope to later. Am posting after it a podcast recording that I did with Suzanne Raine of Cambridge University (and formerly of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office) looking at how terrorist threats are evolving.

Raffaello Pantucci on China’s Presence in South Asia

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights the importance of South and Central Asia to China.

Pakistan and Chinese soldiers take part in a joint exercise in Jhelum, Pakistan Thursday, Nov 24, 2011.
Credit: AP Photo/B.K.Bangash

As the United States embarks on its withdrawal from Afghanistan, some wonder what China will do given the country’s critical interests in South and Central Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is merely the latest articulation of a strategic narrative that imbues the South and Central Asian region with critical importance to China. As Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), explains in the following interview, China has long-running interests in the wider region. While Beijing is not poised to follow the Soviet Union and now, the United States, into the “graveyard of empires,” those interests remain important to China.

What interests in the wider South and Central Asia region most draw Beijing’s attention?

China is most worried about security problems it perceives as being based in South and Central Asia which might threaten domestic stability. Principal amongst these is a fear that the region might become a staging ground for Uyghur dissidents or militants to create instability in Xinjiang. A secondary group of concerns emanates from a fear of threats to Chinese economic investments and interests in the region. In Beijing’s conception these investments are also linked to Xinjiang as well, as their success is in part linked to prosperity and growth in Xinjiang, which China sees as the key to longer-term stability within its borders.

At a wider strategic level, China is worried that the region could be used by adversary powers, like the United States, as a place from which to foment instability within China. This has most recently been tied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly to Afghanistan, but is a persistent fear that has always lurked in the back of Chinese minds. From their perspective, the region is their backyard and directly linked to some of the most sensitive parts of their country.

Finally, this region is the cradle of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy vision, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The concept was launched in the Kazakh capital, then-Astana (now Nur-Sultan), and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is called the keynote project of the vision. This gives it a particular importance conceptually to Beijing as failure here would be tantamount to failure of his vision. The economic interests that are linked to BRI in the region are important to China, but are often overstated as the priorities for Beijing’s concerns. The economic interests are important to the specific firms involved; the strategic aspect comes in terms of the impact they might have on domestic growth and stability, in particular in Xinjiang.

Read more here.

Also, am posting the podcast discussion with Suzanne Raine for the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University.

Some more late posting on a subject been doing a lot of work on this year China in Afghanistan, this time for the South China Morning Post. Have a longer paper on this landing soon, and there is a whole chapter in my upcoming book which draws on some time I spent there a while ago. This is going to be an important year for Afghanistan, let us hope things go well for everybody there.

How US withdrawal from Afghanistan offers promise and peril for China

  • The balance in Afghanistan seems weighted more towards opportunity than challenge for China as the geopolitical equation changes
  • Beijing might believe it knows how to avoid pitfalls, but history is littered with powers that were confident they had sway over the Eurasian heartland
US Marines patrol as they clear improvised explosive devices in Trikh Nawar on the outskirts of Marjah, Afghanistan, on February 21, 2010. Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden’s decision for the US to leave Afghanistan is both a challenge and an opportunity for China. On the opportunity side, China rids itself of worrying US military bases near its border. On the challenge side, it leaves open the question of who will deal with the instability that might grow in Afghanistan.

China still lacks the hard power to do this itself, and it is unclear whether Afghan forces can deliver such security assurances. None of this is new for Beijing, but the balance now seems weighted more towards opportunity than challenge.

China has long worried about instability from Afghanistan, but more indirectly than directly. This is based on an understanding of the region – the Taliban has not been known to attack north into Central Asia and are wary about irritating supporters in Pakistan – as well as the fact that Afghanistan’s border with China is remote and fairly firmly secured.

There is always the fear that Afghanistan could be a base from which trouble can brew, though. Militants who want to launch attacks elsewhere might see Afghanistan as a convenient home from which to operate. We have seen this play out with al-Qaeda and are seeing hints of it with Islamic State forces. China is worried Afghanistan might become a staging point for Uygur militants.

Since President Xi Jinping’s visit to Xinjiang in 2014, there has been an increase in Chinese security attention on the border with Afghanistan to mitigate this risk. This was in part driven by the declaration that the US was leaving Afghanistan.

Beijing has supported border forces in Tajikistan and Pakistan, and it has worked with Afghan security forces to strengthen their side of the Wakhan Corridor. It has developed deeper relations with Afghanistan’s security apparatus, strengthening political links and providing support to build bases.

From Beijing’s perspective, this is a relatively small and tight seal at the moment, though complacency in these cases is lethal.

Afghan security officials appear conscious of these concerns. They continue to refer to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a potential danger, to soothe Chinese worries and as a snub to the US, which has removed the ETIM from its list of terrorist organisations.

In other words, Afghan leaders are referring to a specific threat the US says does not exist. Additionally, the Taliban has shown itself willing to engage with Beijing and mentioned a willingness to provide protection for infrastructure being built in Afghanistan.

Having covered security up to a point, China has the opportunity side to consider. The often overplayed economic opportunities are not the biggest prize, as basic economic geography dictates that China will be a major beneficiary of Afghanistan’s resources. Their slow uptake so far is a reflection of Afghanistan’s complexities rather than Chinese appetite.

From Beijing’s perspective, the removal of a US military base from its backyard as relations with the US become testier is a relief. There was always secret gratitude that the US was in Afghanistan, dealing with the Taliban and other worrying groups, but this was balanced by Beijing’s principal adversary operating in its backyard.

Now that this is gone, China has a clear sweep across the Eurasian heartland. With Iran and Russia as anti-American brackets on the other side of Central Asia, Beijing has geopolitical sway over the entire region. With India and Pakistan growing closer and New Delhi willing to step back from the brink along the Sino-Indian border, China finds itself comfortably placed in Eurasia.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes these countries as members or observers, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The SCO has been derided as a do-nothing entity, but the American withdrawal leaves a hole the China-led grouping is well-placed to fill.

This is not to say the SCO will deploy in force. Instead, it provides China with an existing framework to play a role in determining the region’s future.

The problem for Beijing is this role comes with responsibilities and issues that China has repeatedly failed to figure out how to address. The Taliban is not a responsible player and, like everyone else, Beijing will be sceptical about any assurances it receives.

At the same time, none of the other SCO members are enamoured by Chinese power or aspire to it; rather, they fear it. Governance by fear might be effective, but it leaves you exposed if those powers are presented with other options. Russia and Iran, for example, would probably turn on China if the West abruptly shifted its posture towards them. 

None of this appears to unduly concern China. It is focused on highlighting American behaviour and spreading conspiratorial narratives about the US using Afghanistan as a base to mobilise Uygurs to attack China.

It is going to get dragged into regional geopolitics in the longer term, though, and while China has managed to avoid such clashes so far, it will eventually have to make some hard choices.

Beijing might believe it knows how to avoid such forks in the road, but history is littered with powers that were confident they had sway over the Eurasian heartland. China might enjoy the American withdrawal from Afghanistan but, in the longer term, the scales might tip more towards challenge than opportunity.

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

Into a new month, and a few things left over from the last one to publish. First up a short letter for the Financial Times which got a surprising amount of resonance, which reflects the fact that size is not everything I suppose!

Am also using this moment to do a media catch up which I have not done in a while. At the bottom of this post am putting a podcast I did with Veerle as part of a project I have been working on with RUSI (and partnering with Chatham House) which looks at trying to develop an agenda for a Transatlantic Dialogue on China.

This aside, spoke to RFE/RL about China in Afghanistan and separately about the Belt and Road; to the South China Morning Post about what the withdrawal from Afghanistan means to China, how China characterises its counter-terrorism program in Xinjiang, why ISIS has not talked much about China, what China is doing in Afghanistan, and China-Japan; to CNN about the China policy that Biden inherited; to the Mail on Sunday about Jack Ma; and on the other side of my work, to the Telegraph about 10 years on since bin Laden’s death; to The National about UK air strikes on ISIS in Syria; and, finally, to Australian ABC about the excellent work of the Unity Initiative.

Letter: West needs ‘grey zones’ not red lines in Ukraine and Taiwan

From Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute, London SW1, UK

A Russian navy ship is seen during navy drills in the Black Sea on April 14, 2021. © AP

Gideon Rachman (“Why China and Russia will now test Biden”, Opinion, April 20) is right to identify Taiwan and Ukraine as places where the US (and its allies) will find themselves tested by China and Russia.

Setting red lines, however, is not necessarily the answer. It might instead create a series of tests which Beijing and Moscow feel compelled to probe in creative ways.

The challenge of setting red lines is that people will tend to run towards them. Knowing exactly where the lines in the sand are drawn provides adversaries with a target. And once they have reached the line, they explore ways in which they can softly undermine it — using the very “grey zone tactics” that Rachman identifies as being key weapons in Beijing and Moscow’s toolboxes.

The net result is further confusion. If they have not clearly crossed the line by using deniable cyber tactics or proxies, what is to be done?

It may take time to clarify. But for the moment, the discussion will be about whether they crossed the line or not — with the mere debate about it suggesting they did and the west did nothing about it. No good comes of this beyond seeming to undermine western commitments.

The question is not are China and Russia adversaries in these situations. They clearly see themselves as such and continue to act as though they are. Rather it is a question of whether the west is committed to helping Ukraine and Taiwan. So far, the west has remained resolute in its support for both countries — President Joe Biden is sending delegations of close allies to Taipei while his most recent round of sanctions suggests a willingness to confront Russian behaviour. Both countries continue to be recipients of US military aid.

The only additional benefit a clear red line would contribute would be to suggest the throwing down of a gauntlet after which presumably the west will have to reply with harder force.

Far better to keep a deniable grey zone on the west’s side as well, which keeps adversaries wondering how we might respond and how far they can go. A jockeying may seem to leave things open for miscalculation, but is also likely to be the best we can hope for, short of open warfare in a geopolitical context of great power conflict.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Associate Fellow
Royal United Services Institute

And now for some links to other media outputs which are online that have popped up in the past period. First up is the podcast referenced above which is part of the bigger Transatlantic Dialogue on China project Veerle and myself are working on at RUSI.

Next up a panel discussion with Turkish TRT Television looking at what Biden’s pledges towards NATO mean for Europe and international security in particular, with former NATO policy planner Dr Jamie Shea CMG and Dr Thomas Sutton from Baldwin College.

And finally, another panel with TRT, this time looking at what the UK’s new Integrated Review means with the Evening Standard’s Defence correspondent Robert Fox and former Foreign Office Permanent Under Secretary Sir Simon Fraser.

Have not been posting for a while, need to catch up. Been very busy with some longer projects some of which will eventually emerge. But for the time being, enjoy this comment for the South China Morning Post on Wang Yi’s Middle East tour following the blow-out in Anchorage.

How China’s Middle East charm offensive succeeded despite affecting little change

  • What Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to the region may lack in material achievements, it makes up for in good optics. China is a major player in the region
  • In highlighting this, Wang has undermined the Western-driven condemnation of the week before and achieved China’s foreign policy goals
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after a document-signing ceremony in Tehran on March 27. Photo: EPA-EFE
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after a document-signing ceremony in Tehran on March 27. Photo: EPA-EFE

US-China tensions have continued seamlessly into the Biden administration. Beijing’s desire for a reset was bluntly rebuffed in Alaska, however China is trying to spin that story now. The sanctions dispute over Xinjiang will only further strengthen a transatlantic desire to confront China. 

Sensing this, Beijing has launched a diplomatic offensive, first hosting its traditional ally, Russia, followed by a Middle East roadshow by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

But while the Middle East visit was largely a repeat of what we have heard before and showed the limits of China’s ability to change the region, it did highlight again the world’s desire to not get caught in the middle of a spat between Beijing and Washington – an outlook that strengthens China’s hand.

The one place in which change was delivered was Iran, a country that is struggling for options at the moment in the grip of Western sanctions. For Tehran, the relationship with Beijing is a window onto the world and an opportunity when it is running out of options.

But the 25-year cooperation agreement the two sides signed is not a cheque for US$400 billion as was widely reported but rather a list of areas in which China will engage with Iran during the next two decades.

Given China’s and Iran’s generally negative image and collective confrontation with the United States, there is clear utility to the imagery of striking a loud public deal like this for both countries. It does change Iran’s calculus and position, but the biggest benefits are likely to accrue to China, whose companies will be able to pick and choose the opportunities they want at prices they like, given Tehran’s lack of alternatives at the moment.

The other new – and very contemporary – aspect to this visit was the push on medical or vaccine diplomacy. While in the UAE, Wang oversaw the launch of a joint project between Sinopharm and local firm G42 Medications Trading in the Khalifa Industrial Zone of Abu Dhabi.

Intended to open later this year, the project aims to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines to help the region inoculate against the virus. The project builds on earlier engagement by the Chinese firm in the UAE, which hosted phase 3 trials of the vaccine last year. It is undoubtedly positive that more people will get access to the vaccine as a result.

But much of the rest of Wang’s visit was a repeat of what we have heard before. The overall five-point structure he proposed, advocating mutual respect, upholding equality and justice,  non-proliferation, fostering collective security and accelerating development cooperation are a fairly predictable roster of declarations by a Chinese leader. They are not anything one can disagree with, but it is difficult to see China achieving some of those goals in the region.

Wang proposed China would try to help broker peace between Palestine and Israel. Beijing has declared this goal before and it has always been warmly welcomed, but it seems unlikely that China will be able to deliver. The offer to host another meeting between the two sides is unlikely to break that deadlock.

Additionally, China said it was going to work with Russia to unlock the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. This is not going to move ahead unless the Western partners are all on board.

The more interesting chasm which Beijing instead managed to navigate is the clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Wang did not offer any new ideas here, but more intriguing is that both countries were equally eager to engage notwithstanding the tensions they share.

This is the confusing magic of China’s Middle Eastern relations – its ability to float between adversaries in ways which others cannot.

The extent of Wang’s demands on the visit appeared to be having good optics and statements supporting China’s treatment of its own people at home. Even during his stop in Turkey, where he was confronted with protesting Uygurs, the Turkish government offered no strong criticism and instead, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised the Sinovac vaccine his country has received.

Little materially changed in the region as a result of the visit, and it is unlikely anyone expected much to. Even so, the world was reminded once again that China is a major player and has the red carpet rolled out for it wherever it goes.

Wang also sought to ensure that the visit focused on positive aspects – connecting national development strategies, taking advantage of the region’s natural resources and helping the region develop new health care industries. While there was some discussion about Xinjiang, it was largely kept to Chinese talking points and controlled protests in Turkey, a contrast to the sanctions and tone coming out of Western capitals.

The difficulty for Western countries is not so much that China is displacing the United States – it still lacks the means, experience or interest to try to untangle the tangled complexities of the Middle East – or that anyone in the region changed their strategic positions towards the West. Instead, the visit reflects a region that follows China’s brutally realist view of the world, where values come second to interests. In highlighting this, Wang has undermined the Western-driven condemnation of the week before and achieved his foreign policy goals.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London