Posts Tagged ‘China-Central Asia’

Another piece on Afghanistan, this time for RUSI looking through the lens of Central Asia to understand better how the region is worrying about what is going on and trying to engage with major powers to mitigate its risks. Been doing quite a bit on Afghanistan in its region of late, and a few more short pieces to come, as well as (hopefully!) some longer ones. All of this of course helps tee things up for the book early next year. As ever, comments, thoughts, criticisms, and more welcome!

Central Asia and Afghanistan: Old Fears, Old Actors, New Games

The countries of Central Asia have reason to be concerned about Afghanistan in the wake of the Western withdrawal. Yet it remains unclear how they will mitigate the security risks, and what major power support to do this might look like.

Leaders attending the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Qingdao, China in June 2018 pose for a group photo. Courtesy of Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo


Just over 20 years ago, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded, with mitigating risks from Afghanistan as one of its key objectives. In his opening comments at the first session, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan characterised the country as ‘the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism’. Two decades later, security concerns around Afghanistan remain alive and well in Central Asia. This was evident recently in Tashkent, as Uzbekistan hosted a major summit focused on Central and South Asian connectivity. One of the first large-scale international events since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, much of its focus was on Afghanistan, a country which ties the two regions together.

Traditionally, international attention towards Afghanistan has tended to focus on its southern border, given the Taliban’s deep links with Pakistan, as well as the Pashtun communities that tie the two countries together across the still ill-defined border. The attacks of 11 September 2001 brought the focus of international terrorism concerns to Afghanistan. Yet long before 2001, Central Asia had many reasons to worry about security threats emanating from Afghanistan.

The five-year Tajik Civil War which raged during the 1990s was in part fuelled by groups operating out of bases in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan was invaded by militants linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the summer of 1999 and 2000. And in February 1999, a series of six car bombs in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent killed 13 people. All of the networks and groups behind these incidents had links to Afghanistan, highlighting President Nazarbayev’s concern over the country, and providing an animating issue for the SCO to group around.

Yet, despite the SCO being created as a vehicle which could – among other things – help coordinate a response to the problems emanating from Afghanistan, the organisation did nothing. In fact, following the September 11 attacks and the abrupt US return to the region, the Central Asian members quite rapidly pivoted to support the renewed US push into Afghanistan. US bases were welcomed into the region, to veiled scepticism in Beijing and Moscow. And for two decades, the SCO did very little practically in support of Afghanistan.

China’s Stake

This was not for want of China trying. Beijing sought to push the SCO to do more in Afghanistan, bringing the country into the organisation as an observer member and fostering the creation of an SCO–Afghanistan Contact Group. But these efforts achieved little. Ultimately, Beijing lost its patience and ended up doing more bilaterally with various partners around Afghanistan than through the SCO.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent tour of the region again served to highlight this approach. He attended an SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, stopped off in Tashkent for a regional security conference organised by the Uzbeks, and completed his tour in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. At each stop he held high-level bilateral engagements and talked about working together on Afghanistan in vague terms, focusing on border security, cooperation and working towards an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned solution. No clear or new answers were proffered within or outside the SCO format.

US Involvement

At the same time, the US has participated in a series of engagements in the region. On the fringes of the Tashkent conference, the US held the latest C5+1 format session, bringing together the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries and the senior US representative attending the conference. The final statement emerging from the meeting focused heavily on Afghanistan, highlighting a desire to encourage trade links, improve regional connectivity with Afghanistan, and ensure that the country would not be a threat to the C5+1 or others.

Eager to highlight its particular brand of diplomatic nous, Uzbekistan also managed to work with the US to establish a new regional Quad grouping of Afghanistan–Pakistan–US–Uzbekistan to support an ‘Afghanistan-Peace Process and Post Settlement’. What this all means in practical terms, however, remains unclear, with many of the statements repeating what has been seen and heard before. The US is a major investor in Central Asia, but it demonstrates little committed strategic attention in a region where high-level geopolitics is the order of the day.

… And Russia

Not to be left behind, Russia has also stepped into the game, generously offering to let the US have access to its bases in the region – a move that highlights Moscow’s habit of forgetting that the Central Asian states are now independent. But at the same time, Russia announced military drills with Uzbek and Tajik forces near the two states’ respective borders with Afghanistan, something the Central Asians have welcomed. They have deep historical links to Russian security forces, and Tajikistan hosts a base, Kyrgyzstan an airfield and Kyrgyzstan a missile testing range used by Russian forces. In the wake of the recent escalation in fighting in Afghanistan, Tajikistan called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Russian construct which seeks to retain some of the security links that existed during Soviet times – to come to its aid. While it is not clear whether the entity itself will respond, Moscow has demonstrated a willingness to come to Dushanbe’s aid, boosting its capabilities in particular at its military base in the country near the border with Afghanistan.

Rising Concerns

As the fighting in Afghanistan gradually moves closer to its neighbours’ borders, Central Asian concerns are increasing. In early July, hundreds of Afghan soldiers and some civilians fled across the border into Tajikistan. The Tajiks let them in, though they ultimately repatriated some of them. In Uzbekistan a similar scene played out, though the Uzbeks were much faster in turning border-crossers around. In Turkmenistan, fighting at the border became so bad that shells started to land in Turkmen territory, leading senior Turkmen officials to reach out to the Taliban to try to bring an end to the fighting.

Prior to this, the region had been somewhat unclear in its response to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. It had sought to engage with both the Taliban and the government in Kabul, though with varying degrees of publicity. The Tajik government has played a major diplomatic role this past year, hosting high-level sessions of the SCO, the CSTO and the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process – a Turkish-Afghan initiative seeking to focus on Afghanistan’s regional connections as the answer to its long-term problems. Meanwhile, the recent summit in Tashkent is the latest effort by the new government in Uzbekistan to try to tie Afghanistan closer to Central Asia, and Kazakhstan has sought to initiate other regional diplomatic engagements as well. But through all of this, it is not clear that the region has developed a firm plan for how it will manage the potential chaos in Afghanistan in the future.

While all the Central Asian countries now seem to agree that Afghanistan is a key part of their region, they do not seem quite as clear on how to deal with it collectively. Their continuing need and desire to engage with large outside powers as part of their response, however, highlights a concern about being left to cope with this responsibility alone. What is striking is that among the big powers, Russia remains the only one that continues to offer practical answers to the problems Afghanistan might present to Central Asia.

While China has been far more active in its engagement recently across the board in Afghanistan, it is still not clear that Beijing has much intention of stepping in to fill the vacuum left by the US. Rather, it seems that Beijing is eager to soothe regional concerns, while Washington is merely talking about them; only Moscow is stepping in to actually do something. The key unanswerable question at this stage is the degree to which Beijing and Moscow are coordinating their activities, and whether this is the solution that Central Asia actually wants. It is, however, likely to be what it will get.

I seem to be on a particular China over its western borders scribbling jag at the moment. Here is my latest, again circling around the twentieth birthday of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), this time for the Straits Times. Have another piece on a related topic which has just landed and will post later, but for the time being enjoy this. For those more interested in terrorism, there are a few bigger pieces on that topic lined up, just been focused quite a bit on China of late as the book goes through another wave of effort ahead of publication next year.

What does China see in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?

Nato soldiers conducting an inspection near the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, in March last year. PHOTO: REUTERS

While the world’s attention was on the G-7, Nato and Europe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) turned 20 last week. Bringing together China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan, and built around counter-terrorism cooperation, the SCO is sometimes described as Nato of the East.

But this misses the bigger impact it has had in terms of providing China a vehicle through which to shape the Eurasian heartland.

As it quietly breaches its second decade, the SCO has given China an ever-deepening foothold in the heart of the planet’s super continent.

We mostly think of Chinese connectivity through the lens of belts and roads. Since President Xi Jinping’s pair of speeches in 2013 that launched his foreign policy vision that has now been enshrined in Chinese Communist Party doctrine, we tend to see that as the starting point for China’s concepts of connectivity.

But contemporary Chinese thinking on these issues goes back further than this.

The roots can be found in the end of the Cold War as China suddenly found itself having to abruptly adjust to the reality of going from having a single neighbour (the Soviet Union), to four new countries with which it shared borders and communities.

Out at Xinjiang’s northern and western borders, the concept of nationhood is still developing.

Central Asian communities – from Uighurs, to Kyrgyzs, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Dungans and more – are all now bound in national borders, but have familial links back and forth across the region.

This reality made it important for China to establish strong connections there early to be able to manage its own communities and security concerns, as well as to try to help Xinjiang develop.

This is the starting point for China’s interest in fostering greater webs of connectivity around it.

THE LINKS WITH THE BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE

In 1994, then Premier Li Peng carved a path in trying to establish these links across China’s western border. On a visit to all of the Central Asian capitals except Tajikistan (which was in the midst of a grim civil war), he championed the idea of a new Silk Road across the region.

In 1996, then President Jiang Zemin created the Shanghai Five grouping, bringing together the leaders of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to discuss border delineation and demilitarisation.

When in 2001 they welcomed Uzbekistan into this group and transformed it into the SCO, they married up these two strands on security and prosperity, describing it as the “Shanghai Spirit”. The idea was that they would all peacefully move forward and engage without treading on one another’s toes – an articulation which is an echo of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is about using connectivity with the world through economic engagement on the premise of joint prosperity.

The resonance is important as it helps us understand better China’s longer-term vision through the SCO, and more generally its aims for the Eurasian heartland.

For China, the SCO is a vehicle to strengthen bonds and normalise its position as the pre-eminent power. The SCO has developed from a high-level organisation into an institution that has annual meetings of ministers from the member states. It has created a post-graduate university exchange scheme which offers opportunities for students from member states to do a year at a school in another member state.

It has working groups that bring together officials, businessmen and institutions at every level.

It has a secretariat in Beijing, a counter-terrorism centre in Tashkent, an interior and border ministry training centre in Shanghai, and an economic development centre in Qingdao.

It has helped harmonise security approaches, legislation and standards across the region – mostly in a Chinese direction.

A recent report by the United States think-tank, the Rand Corporation, concluded that China’s international leadership would be focused on “exercising a partial global hegemony centred principally on Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa”. Such leadership would be characterised by “a reliance on finance, diplomatic engagement and security assistance to exercise influence while maintaining a modest overseas military presence”.

The SCO is the perfect vehicle to achieve this, offering a broad range of links which fit as a tidy parallel to the more specific projects offered under the BRI.

But at their core, both of these are interwoven into the broader goal of placing China as an ever more significant actor across the Eurasian landmass.

THE AFGHAN PROBLEM

China’s dilemma with this, however, is that with great influence comes great responsibility. And it is assuming leadership in an unstable neighbourhood.

As the SCO turned 20, Nato was discussing its plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan, a country sitting on China’s border where it increasingly looks likely that a government controlled or heavily influenced by the Taleban is going to take over.

While Beijing seems surprisingly comfortable with this outcome, some of Afghanistan’s other neighbours are less so.

Shi’ite Iran is worried about the prospect of a return of Sunni hardliners to Kabul. Under the previous Taleban administration, Iran saw its diplomats murdered and religious minorities targeted. The likely waves of poor migrants that are also likely to cross into Iran will put a strain on the already fragile Iranian economy.

Prior to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan suffered a number of large-scale border incursions with links to Afghanistan, while Uzbekistan saw a series of massive car bomb attacks in its capital.

The Tajik civil war of the mid-1990s was fuelled by camps in Afghanistan. And even Pakistan with its strong connections to militant groups in Afghanistan is concerned about a too-powerful Taleban taking control of the country, worrying about the consequences for the violent Islamist groups within its borders (and the potential exodus of migrants).

The one thing that all of these border countries with Afghanistan share is a link (through membership or participation) to the SCO, suggesting that it might be a good vehicle to try to bring some resolution to the country’s longer-term problems. And yet, much like China, the SCO has done nothing to really advance peace and stability in Afghanistan.

This is not for want of trying. Chinese leaders repeatedly try to get the SCO to do something about Afghanistan. This was hammered home again recently at a summit meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his five Central Asian counterparts. A key takeaway from the summit (the first China has hosted since the pandemic) was that they would do something on Afghanistan.

Yet, few hold much hope for that happening, with the statements of intent joining a long list of such declarations over the past years.

But this is the central problem for the SCO which China is going to have to address at some point. Not only the realities of having a Taleban-dominated leadership in Kabul at the heart of the SCO’s territory, but also the fact that Beijing has been building all of this influence and connectivity with little evidence of wanting to step in to fill the security vacuums that are likely to emerge as the West withdraws from this region.

The famous British geographer Halford Mackinder once described Central Asia as the geographical pivot of what he termed the “world island”, comprising the Eurasian landmass. As he put it, “who rules the heartland commands the world-island; who rules the world-island commands the world”. Through the SCO, Beijing can make a compelling case of laying the foundations to trying to control the “world island”; the dilemma China has yet to come to grips with is to acknowledge the responsibilities that are likely to go alongside this influence.

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

Not quite finished in a busy week of China-Afghanistan writing, and one more to come after this. This one for the Diplomat touches on the very challenging question of how this is going to change China’s relationship with Central Asia. Big thanks to the wonderful Niva for getting this idea going. We have some more in the pipeline together, looking forward to seeing them go live.

China’s Afghanistan Challenge and the Central Asian Dilemma

None expect China to replace the United States in military terms, but Central Asia may hope Beijing plays a more substantial role in Afghanistan.

Credit: Kyrgyz MFA: https://twitter.com/MFA_Kyrgyzstan/status/1392445892930715648

The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is underway and is due to be completed by September 11, 2021. In the early days of the War on Terror, U.S. military bases in Central Asia were central to mobilization in Afghanistan, but regional pressure led to their closure. While a narrative persists in the press that the United States will want to keep some substantial presence in the region after the drawdown, it is unclear that anyone in Central Asia has actually been asked.

Russia is unlikely to step forward very far to fill this vacuum, instead preferring to continue to play a supportive role where it serves its interests. To the extent that the United States does appear to want to stay engaged, it seems to be focused on reviving the New Silk Road concept that connects Central Asia to South Asia through Afghanistan, alongside positioning some over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities.

The key uncertainty is whether China is going to finally step forward to take up some mantle of responsibility toward Afghanistan and follow through on its repeated security promises.

Central Asian politics have changed since the United States vacated the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan in 2014. At the time the overriding discourse was how Moscow was going to fill the ensuing security vacuum. Yet, the narrative of the intervening seven years has not been of Russian dominance, but of Chinese expansion. From politics to security, language and economics, China is the rising power in Central Asia.

On May 12, China hosted the second China plus Central Asia (C5+1) Foreign Ministerial talks in Xi’an. The five Central Asian foreign ministers were the first group of foreign officials invited to China since the start of the pandemic. Political ties between China and the Central Asian states have grown exponentially in the past decade. 

Afghanistan was an obvious topic of discussion. Central Asian states fear the potential spillover of conflict and are looking for a security guarantee from within Afghanistan, as well as the other major powers in the region. While urging the U.S. troop withdrawal to “proceed in an orderly and responsible manner to avoid a resurgence of terrorist forces,” China (like Russia) has no desire to see the return of U.S. bases in Central Asia. Yet, at the same time, Beijing has failed to deliver tangible security plans to support its neighbors on the western periphery in the event of an escalation of instability in Afghanistan. The joint statement on Afghanistan released at the end of the Chinese C5+1 meeting was thin on details.

In the past few years, China has emerged as an active player in Afghanistan. China has opened a number of multilateral diplomacy channels around Afghanistan, participated in regional talks, worked with the United States and Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, and repeatedly pushed (albeit to no avail) to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to do more about Afghanistan. China has offered some limited support to Afghan, Tajik, and Pakistani border forces, and reportedly built its own base in Tajikistan. But these efforts are single-mindedly focused on Chinese border concerns.

The story has been similar on the economic side. China has expanded measures to induce economic incentives for peace in Afghanistan, something that Chinese policymakers have put forward as the most appropriate contribution China can make. A bilateral economics and trade committee was set up in 2015. Direct cargo flights between Afghanistan and China opened in late 2018. After building the Mazar-i-Sharif to Hairatan train line, a cargo train corridor between China and Afghanistan was inaugurated in summer 2019, via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Bilateral trade between China and Afghanistan doubled from $338 million in 2013 to $629 million in 2019, according to data from Chinese customs. And Beijing has repeatedly spoken about bringing Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative foreign policy vision – increasing Afghan connectivity with Central Asia, China, and Pakistan.

In reality Beijing has achieved little. China’s most recent promises include reported security contributions to help with counterterrorism efforts, but it is not clear what these will look like. Economically, China’s stake in Afghanistan has grown, but it has failed to deliver on the massive extractive project in Mes Aynak its firms signed contracts for in 2007, and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) project in northern Afghanistan has also been suspended. Beijing has not lived up to its economic potential in the country yet.

None of this is going to get any easier in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. With the possible outcome that the Taliban will regain control of a greater part of Afghanistan, rule by Islamist ideology may then become an inevitability and that will have consequences for China. While Beijing has clearly been bolstering its relations with factions in the government in Afghanistan, its analysts are equally certain that some Taliban return to power is likely. This confusion in part reflects the baffling complexity of the Afghan battlefield, but it also highlights a dissonance within current planning.

It also illustrates where China’s post-American Afghan strategy likely falls down. With Washington present in force, Beijing can largely apportion blame and responsibility to the U.S. for anything that happens. Once the U.S. is gone, this excuse may still have some rhetorical currency, but it will lack tangible use on the ground. And while China may be able to ensure that its security concerns are addressed, its neighbors in Central Asia will expect it to use its weight and gravitas to play a more substantial role in stabilizing the situation. None expect China to replace the United States in military terms, but Central Asia may hope Beijing will play a more forward and substantial role in Afghanistan — a role that actually helps stabilize and calm the situation — rather than hedge and watch while it collapses in on itself.

Its been a busy week on various fronts, but in particular in work on China-Afghanistan. But it seems apt given the SCO celebrated its second decade. Have a couple more pieces to post from the week, but for the time being here is a piece for the excellent Oxus Society (established by Edward to whom I am very grateful for publishing this) which draws on my various experiences meeting with the Organization over the years. You will find a lot more of this coming in the book which is due out early next year, but for the time being enjoy. As ever comments, criticisms, corrections welcome.

The SCO Turns Twenty

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was born almost exactly two decades ago, on June 15, 2001 at a glittering event overlooking the Huangpu River in Shanghai. Celebrating the birth, President Jiang Zemin articulated a vision for the organization that spanned everything from counter-terrorism, regional trade agreements, to pragmatism, solidarity, a pioneering spirit and openness. The last was delivered without a sense of irony to a room of leaders who (for the most part) had taken power with little public ratification. The key, President Jiang said, was to maintain the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ that had brought them all to where they were today.

This was very different to the birth story I was told almost exactly a decade later sitting in the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We were told that the SCO was “a baby that was born of a time.” It was an “illegally born child” to its parents China and Russia who could not agree on a way forward, hence they decided to form a family called the SCO. But like any family, our Kyrgyz interlocutor informed us, there were “certain frictions” usually involving money, and over time there was “psychological exhaustion by the parents.” A more cynical view that over time I discovered was more typical from the region to what I would hear in Beijing.

A year later, I had my first physical encounter with the organization. After chasing various contacts and colleagues in Shanghai, I fixed a meeting at the Organization’s headquarters in Beijing with a fellow researcher. We had aimed to meet with the Secretary General, but ended up getting passed along to some lower-level diplomats. A Kazakh and a Russian official who were posted to the Organization from their respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs. The more elderly Russian was in a playful mood and clearly enjoying what he saw as a sinecure role. 

Sat in a grand and slightly dusty meeting room which had a cabinet full of football trophies in the corner, we listened as he expounded about the organization’s processes and procedures downplaying any of the more menacing aspects. Projects were nascent and slow moving, he told us. Everything was done by consensus. Terrorism – something he described using the Chinese phrasing of the Three Evils (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) – was a major concern. Economic aspects were still under discussion. The overriding message we got from them was nothing to see here, move along, move along.

The overriding question from all of these encounters was what really was the point and aim of this organization? Western diplomats we met in Beijing or Central Asian capitals would largely rubbish the organization as a large talking shop. Chinese officials we spoke to, however, would talk about it as a foundational element in their vision for Eurasia and the world. Westerners, they would tell us, missed the gentle consensus building that the SCO brought to the table. As a Chinese expert at one of the more influential think tanks in Beijing told me when I asked what the SCO had achieved “to not do anything is to do everything.”

The initial seed of the SCO was planted in the wake of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union fell apart, there was an imperative for China to clarify its western borders. China had shared a long, porous and remote border with the Soviet Union. Once China was suddenly confronted with three new border countries, this vagueness no longer worked. From this was born the idea of establishing a grouping to discuss de-militarization and border delineation between China and the new states of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Meeting first in Shanghai in 1996, the grouping was imaginatively called the Shanghai Five, upgraded later to the SCO when Uzbekistan joined at the glittering event in Shanghai.

China’s vision was larger, however, than just borders and security. It was about economic connectivity and prosperity across the entire region. The larger concept could be found in a visit in 1994 by then-Premier Li Peng to Central Asia, when he swept through all of the capitals except Tajikistan. China was opening itself up after the setback of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres and Premier Li had been at the forefront of promoting the new China, taking groups of businessmen around with him and trying to encourage western firms to come and invest. Central Asia was critical both in terms of being a border region to China, but also given the deep cross-border security concerns that existed with Beijing worried about Uyghur dissidents using the region as a base to launch attacks within China. 

This blend of security and prosperity is what has been at the heart of Chinese interests in the SCO. Focusing on terrorist threats in particular is something that all of the member states find themselves agreeing on, and economic prosperity is always appreciated. Counter-terrorism in particular developed its own home. 

The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS), first announced in 2001, and then formally opened in Tashkent in 2004 was established as a hub for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism activity. When I visited in 2012, I found a sleepy institution in a bright pink building where the Chinese officials refused to speak Mandarin to me, while their bosses told me about the meetings and conferences their institution hosted and some of them fell asleep during our meeting. This dozy welcome, however, masked the institution’s role in creating a common roster of enemies and the growing legal harmonization in counter-terrorism and countering online extremism that RATS helped foster. 

Counter-terrorism has also provided China with a way into other forms of engagement. China pushed forwards the development of a training center in Shanghai which offered courses for Interior and Border Guard forces across the region – providing an opportunity to develop relationships at multiple levels in local security forces. Through the SCO it has hosted and partnered with numerous regional partner forces on joint military exercises. The regular large-scale military exercises provide not only an opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations, but also for Chinese forces to practice with the vastly more experienced Russian forces. It has also increasingly given China an opportunity to show-case some of their military hardware – in particular drones – to potential customers. 

But the organization has over time developed a much wider range of activities beyond this, creating an entire cultural roster of actions and events to encourage what they describe as the ‘Shanghai Spirit.’ A whole series of cultural activities bringing SCO nationals together. A marathon, a film festival, young businessmen forums, a traveling festival of culture which I once came across by chance in Tashkent which included exhibitions from key cities in each member state, a university exchange program which allows for post-graduate students to spend a year at a university in another member state university offer a sense of the SCO’s broader activities. 

Not everything Beijing wanted to achieve has succeeded. Notwithstanding putting almost one billion dollars on offer, the idea of an SCO Development Bank or Fund has never taken off. Repeated efforts to establish an SCO Free Trade Area have gone nowhere. And after having tried to get the Organization to do something specific about Afghanistan rather than just host meetings, China seemed to accept it was too complicated. In 2016, China established a new mini-lateral entity called the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brought together the Chiefs of Army Staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Notwithstanding continued Chinese efforts, they realized nothing was moving forwards within the SCO on Afghanistan and so they built a parallel entity to handle their direct security concerns. This is not to say that China has not continued to push the idea of the SCO doing more in Afghanistan forwards – most recently, after meeting with his Central Asian counterparts in May 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi once again hammered home the point that the Organization needed to do something about Afghanistan. Everyone agreed, though it is still not clear anything will happen.

But China’s relentless persistence with the Organization has paid dividends. And the Organization has only continued to grow over time, now also encompassing Pakistan and India, with Iran a regular courter. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are official Observer states, while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are Dialogue Partners. The Organization is growing and at current count claims to be the largest regional organization by population and geographical coverage – representing about half of the world’s population. Whatever Jiang Zemin released in Shanghai in 2001 has proven to be attractive. 

Beijing has also shown itself to be highly dynamic through the Organization, echoing in many ways their global growth in other areas as well. When one path is blocked they seem to find another. Having been repeatedly stymied in their grand economic goals, China has now managed to start to advance them through its tech and digital giants who have started to work with the SCO to advance China’s Digital Silk Road. Chinese applications, Chinese online markets, Chinese online health and educational platforms, have all become increasingly dominant within the SCO. Central Asians working with the Organization tell me working with Chinese tech is one of their biggest tasks. The capstone of all of this activity was laid in November 2020 with the establishment of the China-SCO Development Zone in Qingdao, which was inaugurated with $8.6 billion worth of projects focusing on China’s digital and tech sector.

China’s SCO partners were not very visible during the event, however, but had supported its establishment during an earlier Summit in Qingdao in 2018. They have continued to attend, participate and host, even as other tensions have developed between them. Notwithstanding the violent border clashes and technological tensions between Delhi and Beijing last year, Prime Minister Modi attended the SCO leaders Summit and paid respect to the Organization, while his country has taken the lead in establishing a working group looking at digital commerce and start-ups ahead of this year’s twentieth anniversary. China and India may be at knifepoint at the border, but Delhi still sees great value in participating in the SCO.

And this is the ultimate goal of this now two-decade old entity. To create an Organization in China’s image that has captivated the Eurasian heartland with its non-judgmental appeal. The constant meetings, conferences and encounters have developed a web of relationships across the Eurasian heartland that are all fostered around a vision of the world articulated by China. The world may be obsessed with what China is doing in the seas, but it is through the SCO and over land that the longer-term play can be seen. It is here that the real impact and effect of China’s webs of connectivity can be found, and a vision of what China’s new world order might look like.

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

Another piece on China in Central Asia, this time for the Straits Times looking at the question of competitive vaccine diplomacy in competition with Russia. All of this is teeing up the book, and a few more bigger pieces due out at some point during the year. Am also maybe hoping to revive the website, though that is going to take some work.

Wooing Central Asia, over Covid

Russia deployed vaccine diplomacy. China brought in not just vaccines, but equipment and medical aid. Who won?

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Trapped between China and Russia, Central Asia has always found itself stuck between empires. In earlier times, it was conquerors from the region such as Tamerlane who built Eurasian empires, but increasingly the countries find themselves trying to thread a diplomatic needle between competing external powers.

Currently, it is medicine that is defining the struggle in the region, as both China and Russia compete for influence through their medical diplomacy.

While Beijing appears to have the upper hand in terms of volume, it is Moscow that appears to be winning over the hearts and minds.

As Kazakhstan embarks on a vaccination drive using Sputnik V, China could ask itself why its medical diplomacy in Central Asia has not worked as it hoped it might. Rather than turn the region towards Beijing, it appears to have simply exacerbated existing tensions and suspicions towards China. The region has benefited from China’s support and largess, but Central Asians still tend primarily towards Moscow.

First, a bit of history: Russian strategists tend to see the world through spheres of influence. From their view, Central Asia is seen as “theirs”. From before the Soviet Union, the nations of Central Asia were part of the wider Russian Empire. During the 1800s, Imperial Russia expanded up to Afghanistan, and the original Great Game was born between the competing English and Russian empires as they sought to keep each other at bay in distant Asia.

At the time, China was an inward-looking power. The Qing Dynasty was fighting wars against encroaching European empires, and Chinese Imperial expansion into Central Asia had stopped far earlier, after the Battle of Talas in 751AD. Xinjiang under the Qing was a far-flung corner of China which was far from the Emperor’s attentions.

BALANCING ACT CONTINUES

Today, the countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are independent states with their own governments and agency. This year, they celebrate their 30th independence anniversaries from under the Soviet yoke. But they remain landlocked and bound to their neighbours, stuck in an awkward balancing act between China and Russia.

Moscow is keen to stay influential. There is an economic and security interest. Human connections persist with millions of Central Asians working as low-wage labourers or workers in Russia. The remittances generated provide huge inflows of currency to Central Asian economies, while Russia gets the benefits of a cheap workforce. The region is also attractive to Russian companies that see opportunity in a region where they share a language and many cultural practices.

At the same time, Moscow also sees the region as a buffer from the violence and drugs that emanate from Afghanistan, investing considerable amounts in supporting security institutions across the region.

And Russia has sought to strengthen this connection through a constellation of post-Soviet multilateral institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called part of an attempt to re-Sovietise the region, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Commonwealth of Independent States. (The former grew out of the framework of the latter.)

Not all Central Asians are willing participants, though in the case of the EAEU, it was an idea which was proposed by Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

CHINA’S FOCUS: STABILITY

Modern China wants to expand into the region to protect itself from any threats that might emerge, as well as profit from the potential it offers.

Since then Premier Li Peng’s foundation-laying tour of the region in 1994 – which established the contours of the area’s contemporary relationship with China – the focus has been on economic links and trade corridors articulated under the phrasing of silk roads. This has sat alongside a persistent fear that Uighur groups might use the region to foment trouble within Xinjiang.

The answer, from China’s perspective, is a growing security footprint focused on its own interests and concerns, alongside a surge in economic links and investment which ultimately seek to improve stability and security in the region and Xinjiang. China is not really interested in conquering the region or creating a sphere of influence like Moscow, but rather it wants guarantees and stability to ultimately help foster stability and security at home.

And so far, China is playing a winning game. It is now the main trading partner with all the Central Asian powers, and has been increasing its investment.

Traditionally perceived as being focused on natural resources such as metals, oil and gas, Chinese companies are, in fact, increasingly present across Central Asian economies – from online traders like Alibaba or Taobao, to agriculture and food products, and infrastructure construction of every sort – from roads, rail, telecoms and more.

This flow of investment and trade is followed by a soft-power push in education and training, which is increasingly normalising China’s presence in and links with the region.

RUSSIA’S FOCUS: INFLUENCE

Russia continues to keep its hand active, though. China may be rewiring the region, literally as well as metaphorically, so all paths lead back to Beijing, but Moscow continues to be the first capital politicians will visit. And Russia remains the pre-eminent security partner in training, military sales and security ventures.

Technology is the one space where it is hard to see Russia competing with China, but Moscow has sought to find other ways of maintaining a significant role, including through influencing legislation.

But there is a tension between the two powers. Russia can see it is losing ground, but feels it is unable to do too much because it lacks China’s resources. It also prioritises a geostrategic relationship with Beijing over whatever happens in Central Asia.

There is little appetite in Russia for Central Asia to become an impediment or complicating factor to its relationship with China. Ultimately, Moscow is more interested in ensuring Beijing is onside in its greater confrontation with the West than the concerns Russia might have with Chinese encroachment into Central Asia. But there is a growing concern in Moscow that they might find Central Asia becoming the soft underbelly through which China can undermine Russia.

MEDICAL DIPLOMACY

This leads to pushback, the most recent expression of which can be seen in the vaccine diplomacy being deployed across the region.

Central Asia’s response to Covid-19 was spasmodic at best. Turkmenistan, for instance, has yet to admit it has suffered any cases, though foreign diplomats have perished from Covid-like diseases and the country has ordered vaccines. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have all suffered cases, but the numbers have been relatively low. At this point, the region does seem to have turned a corner in dealing with the coronavirus, in part due to the interventions from its two giant neighbours.

In the Russian case, it has been through the Sputnik V vaccine, while China has provided protective equipment, medical training courses and webinars as well as planeloads of aid from Chinese companies, regions and institutions. Additionally, Chinese vaccine producers have used Uzbekistan as a site for phase three testing, while deliveries of their vaccines have started to arrive in the region.

But this Chinese dominance has not translated into popularity. According to data from the Central Asian Barometer, when asked which country would be most likely to help them manage Covid-19, 52 per cent of Kazakhs, 58 per cent of Uzbeks and 76 per cent of Kyrgyz surveyed said Russia was most likely to be able to help. Only 20 per cent of Kazakhs, 14 per cent of Uzbeks and 8 per cent of Kyrgyz believed the same of China.

These numbers echo surveys done pre-Covid-19 which showed that across the region Russia was most popular, with China and the United States competing for second place.

For all its efforts, China’s medical diplomacy and growing investments do not appear to have delivered popular success in the heartland of Eurasia.

Bound still by linguistic, cultural and economic links, and a media which has great penetration throughout the region, Russia remains the more dominant actor within Central Asia. The region’s population still looks primarily towards Russia for its external support, something left over in part from history, but also out of a growing sense of concern about the meteoric rise of China around the world and in their immediate neighbourhood.

This will ultimately be reassuring to Moscow, as it realises it has a few cards that it can play against Beijing. For now, medical diplomacy is one of those cards as clearly Central Asians look more favourably on medical care from a bear than a dragon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new post for Carnegie, this time the kind invitation to contribute came from the brilliant Sasha in their Moscow office to write about a subject that I continue to write a lot about and have a book landing soon about, China in Central Asia. This time it looks again at the question of Chinese security presence in the region, a topic that I have touched on before and have at least one chapter on in the book. It all is part of a much bigger project Carnegie Moscow are running called Pax Sinica, which is well worth checking out.

Not-So-Hidden Dragon: China Reveals Its Claws in Central Asian Security

China sees security issues in Central Asia as inextricably tied to its own domestic security concerns, and is rapidly establishing a footprint that will allow it to deal with matters as it sees fit in the region.

There has long been a fallacy at the heart of much analysis of Chinese security policy in Central Asia that China is focused on economics in the region, and Russia on security. This is built on the odd assumption that Beijing is willing to simply delegate its security concerns to others: something that clashes with the increasingly strong China that President Xi Jinping has been projecting. In fact, China has long had a security footprint in Central Asia. What is new, however, is Beijing’s increased willingness to demonstratively flex its muscle in the region.

The most obvious recent example of this and the problems it can generate occurred in December last year in Kabul, when it was reported by Indian media that Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, had arrested a cell of about ten Chinese nationals at various locations in the Afghan capital. While the exact details of what took place have not been confirmed, the principal Afghan accusation appears to have been that the cell was establishing contacts with extremist networks and trying to build an artificial Uighur cell to draw in militant Uighurs of concern to China in Afghanistan.

The incident was cause for great awkwardness on both sides, and concluded with the reported repatriation of the Chinese agents on a private jet back to Beijing. The story was only covered by Indian media, through leaks clearly calculated to embarrass Beijing and highlight nefarious Chinese activity in Afghanistan. The Chinese government did not comment, while the Afghan authorities publicly claimed nothing had happened. Yet if the contours of the reported story are accurate, then the plans by the network had a level of ambition that is novel for Chinese security services. It was also an odd plot to hatch in a country which has been broadly supportive of Chinese goals and which sees itself as fighting the same Uighur networks, given their proximity to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Until now, Chinese security activity in Afghanistan was largely thought to be limited to sealing off China from security threats that might emanate from the country. Investment focused on helping to build and strengthen Tajikistan’s border posts with Afghanistan, increasing the capability of Gilgit-Baltistani security forces in Pakistan, and building a base for Afghan mountain forces in Badakhshan, near the mouth of the Wakhan Corridor that connects China to Afghanistan. China’s People’s Armed Police even went so far as to establish their own dedicated counterterrorism base in Tajikistan, and there are rumors of an additional Chinese base in Afghanistan. Yet none of this activity was aggressive, and rather seemed focused on cauterizing the dangers that might flow from the physical links between Afghanistan and China.

The incident in Kabul, however, shows a new level of Chinese activity that suggests a desire to tackle security issues head on. It comes amid the growing presence of Chinese private security firms in Central Asia, as well as growing pressure on local authorities to accept their presence, in contravention of local legislation. This pushiness has encroached further into the public domain in other ways, too. Du Dewen, the Chinese ambassador to Bishkek, made boosting the security of Chinese nationals and companies a priority issue during her inaugural meeting with new Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev late last year. The usually staid transcript from the meeting released by the embassy highlighted both ambassador Du’s complaint and the emphatic and acquiescent response from the minister.

The other notable point about China’s security engagement with the region is that it is done for the most part by People’s Armed Police (PAP) forces, rather than the People’s Liberation Army. PAP is reportedly responsible for shoring up the border posts in Tajikistan and performing joint patrols with Afghan and Tajik forces. It has also signed agreements and carried out patrols with its counterparts in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. In December 2018, a female cadre of elite PAP Falcon Commandos provided training for their Uzbek counterparts, while in August 2019, they hosted their Kyrgyz counterparts for counterterrorism exercises in Urumqi, Xinjiang.

The appearance of PAP at the forefront of engagement with Central Asia highlights the degree to which China sees the security issues in those countries as inextricably tied to domestic security concerns. As a gendarmerie force whose primary responsibility is domestic, the PAP’s growing presence on China’s periphery raises questions about Chinese thinking on how to manage security problems in its neighborhood.

Central Asia has also become a conduit through which China has increasingly sought to target its perceived dissident Uighur community. Reports emerged in 2019 of Uighurs being arrested in Turkey, given Tajik travel documents, and placed on planes to Dushanbe, from where they were immediately flown back to China. Central Asian complicity is further suggested by the Kazakh authorities’ decision to clamp down on anti-China protesters within their own country.

In some ways, none of this is particularly new. Uighurs in Central Asia have long been a major Chinese concern. When it was officially inaugurated in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization used fighting the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism as its foundational credo. During his famous tour of the region in 1994, which laid the groundwork for the current Silk Road visions across the region, then premier Li Peng highlighted concerns about Uighurs at every stop. Over subsequent years, rumors circulated about the Chinese pursuing Uighurs across Central Asian borders, while any dissident networks that existed in Central Asia were clamped down upon. Occasional attacks against Chinese businessmen or officials in Bishkek served as a reminder of the dangers that existed in the region, but the Chinese response largely involved pressuring local officials to do more to protect their people and go after people they did not like.

Now, however, China appears to be starting to change tack. Rather than relying on local law enforcement agencies or passing on responsibility for security to Russia, China is stepping forward with its own forces to deal with its own concerns. Locals are still expected to do their bit, but China is now establishing a footprint that will allow it to deal with matters as it would like fit in Central Asia. The fact that a growing number of regional security forces are buying high-end technical equipment from China—while their cyber infrastructure is increasingly built using Chinese hardware—gives Beijing growing leverage.

Beijing’s rise as a security actor in Central Asia is not aimed at displacing Russia from its perceived sphere of influence in some contemporary replay of the Great Game, but rather at guaranteeing Chinese interests. In many ways, it’s not a surprising move: what country is not interested in securing its own interests? It is, however, a change in China’s external behavior, which has traditionally been to pay lip service to local autonomy and Chinese non-interference. China is getting involved, and stepping ever further into the breach.

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

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.

More on China in Central Asia, this time looking for the Lowy’s Interpreter, a site I have not contributed to for some time, looking at how the region is quite excited about trying to get the Belt and Road Initiative going once again to help save their economies. Been working on a few much bigger projects on the topic of China’s relations with Central Asia which will be landing over the next year or so, and need to revive the China in Central Asia site which has unfortunately been hijacked. If anybody knows how to help me get it back, please get in touch! Otherwise, will have to recreate it somewhere else.

This aside, been speaking to media about China, including to the National Public Radio and Nikkei Asian Review about the UK-China relationship, while excellent RSIS colleague James Dorsey was kind enough to mention my recent NBR paper in his regular column.

Central Asian nations want to kick-start the BRI – and China is happy

Raffaello Pantucci

Covid-19 has spurred rumours and local tensions, but economic fortunes of the region are increasingly bound to Beijing.

The fire service sprays disinfectant in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan last month during the Covid-19 lockdown (Turar Kazangapov/Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

The fire service sprays disinfectant in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan last month during the Covid-19 lockdown (Turar Kazangapov/Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

For China, the Covid-19 question is answered by more Belt and Road. As Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it at a press conference during the 13th National People’s Congress in Beijing last weekend:

The impact of Covid-19 on the Belt and Road cooperation is temporary and limited. The Covid-19 will only strengthen and re-energize Belt and Road cooperation and open up new possibilities.

Given the bad press China has been generating, it might be hard to see how Beijing can pull this off. But in places such as Central Asia, such promises resonate.

Central Asian countries have been making all the right noises about wanting to get Belt and Road Initiative–type projects and ideas moving once again. In some ways, they are already proving to be one of the first stepping stones of the Health Silk Road – the articulation of Covid-19 response under the BRI’s expansive umbrella. Having sent aid to China as the virus first emerged in Wuhan, the Central Asians are all now beneficiaries of Chinese aid, which has come in the form of repeated shipments of PPE, doctors, video conferences, aid to military and more. Conveniently, the Health Silk Road was first publicly mentioned by Xi Jinping during a 2016 speech in Uzbekistan.

Of course, China is not universally popular. While medical diplomacy has dominated, there have been considerable tensions, too. Ethnically Chinese people have been harassed in markets in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, with a Kyrgyz MP making a call in parliament for their isolation and for them to wear masks in public. In mid-February, relations in Kyrgyzstan boiled over to the point that a planned $280 million Chinese-built logistics centre project had to be suspended. In Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hauled in the local ambassador after an article appeared in the Chinese media saying that Kazakhstan wanted to return to China.

And last month, Chinese MFA spokesman Hua Chunying piled into a Russian-initiated conspiracy theory about how American funded bio-labs built to help former Soviet states manage their dangerous weapons after the collapse of the USSR were in fact the potential source of Covid-19. Kazakhstan hosts a number that were specifically name-checked in both Moscow and Beijing. The net result was articles in the Kazakh press saying that as far they were concerned, both the US and China should leave their country. Independent polling appeared to support this.

An art installation in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan during the Covid-19 lockdown (Turar Kazangapov/ Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

But what the Central Asians really want is for the Chinese economic monster to get moving once again. Wedged between China and Russia, the Central Asians have suffered the triple whack of a slump in commodities prices, a drop in remittances from migrant labourers usually in Russia (which is also suffering a major Covid-19 outbreak as well as slump in oil prices) and the economic slowdown in China. These are countries whose economic future is inevitably tied to China in some way. The tyranny of geography guarantees this no matter how hesitant they might sometimes feel.

The result has been a fertile terrain for seeking more BRI. At the front of the queue are the Kyrgyz whose leader President Jeenbekov has already reached out to Xi Jinping to seek to renegotiate their debt burden with China (amongst other international debtors) – debts that have been accumulated under the rubric of the BRI. He also sought to reopen Kyrgyzstan’s land borders with China as soon as possible to get trade moving once again. Irkeshtam and Torugart were closed in late January, and it is not yet clear they have been reopened.

Uzbekistan has also been eager to make things happen. During a conference call meeting on 19 May that the Uzbeks convened with Kyrgyz and Chinese counterparts, they sought to hurry the construction of a rail link connecting them all. From the Uzbek perspective, while understandable restrictions were placed on road transport during the Covid-19 crisis, this meant that “railway remains the safest and most reliable mode of transport.” It was also announced in May that China Development Bank was approving a loan of $309 million to allow Uzbekistan Airlines to purchase three Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners.

But the Central Asians are most keen on getting more income now. And while commodities prices may have slumped alongside demand, China has continued to increase its purchases of oil from Kazakhstan. Chinese purchasers also made a collective request to the Uzbek, Kazakh and Turkmen energy companies to collectively reduce their gas sales to China. While such a joint request is necessary to reflect the nature of regional infrastructure, it also highlighted how China’s infrastructure projects have bound the region together both in Beijing’s considerations and local economic fortunes.

This means more BRI is the answer to the downturn. An echo which resonates through the halls of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.