Posts Tagged ‘China-Central Asia’

A short commentary piece for Reuters on what China is doing in Afghanistan. Been doing a lot of work on related topics which will eventually land. Also spoke to the Guardian about the deaths of a pair of British medical students who were killed alongside ISIS in Iraq, to AFP about a new ISIS video featuring a group of Uighurs in Iraq, to Sky News about a British ISIS suicide bomber in Iraq, and finally an interview on the radio for TalkRadio about his death.

Commentary: China’s expanding security role in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci

Stories have emerged once again of China’s military presence in Afghanistan. These reports come after China thwarted India’s attempt to get Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar added to the U.N. list of proscribed terrorist individuals, and China appeared to christen a new regional grouping after a meeting in Moscow with Pakistan and Russian officials to discuss the future of Afghanistan.

Seen from New Delhi, the picture could be interpreted as one of growing Chinese alignment towards Pakistan. In reality, these shifts mark the growth of China as a regional security actor whose views are not entirely dissimilar to India’s.

The main characterization of Beijing’s efforts in Afghanistan remains hedging. China continues to engage through multiple regional and international formats. Either through international multilateral vehicles like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the ‘Heart of Asia’ or ‘Istanbul Process’, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA); or through sub-regional groupings like hosting Pakistan-Afghanistan-China trilateral, bilateral engagements with India, Russia, the UK, Germany, the U.S. or Pakistan focused on Afghanistan (some including specific projects – like the American joint training programmes); or finally through Chinese instigated mechanisms focused on Afghanistan like the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, U.S. and China) or the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM, made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China).

Of this wide range of engagements, the final one is the most significant to note recently as it can be interpreted as a rejection of the SCO, a regional organization which was constructed to deal with regional security concerns around Afghanistan, but appears to have not delivered enough.

As a result in the wake of Military Chief of Staff Fang Fenghui’s visit to Kabul in March 2016, Beijing established a new regional sub-grouping to focus attention on Afghanistan’s security problems. It has met once at a senior level, and at least once at a more junior level since its establishment — reflecting a fairly high intensity engagement that until now has been held publicly in China.

This new regional sub-grouping is a reflection of a number of things. On the one hand, it is about China’s military becoming more engaged in a country that until now they have largely played a secondary role to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs lead. It is also a reflection of a growing concern in Beijing about the shift of Uighur militants to Badakhshan in northern Afghanistan from their previous Pakistani hideaways. This in turn helps explain China’s presence on the ground in Afghanistan as well as their desire to bolster Tajikistan’s capacity to defend its own border with Afghanistan.

The other side to China’s regional engagement is its economic investment — something that comes under the auspices of the Silk Road Economic Belt (through Central Asia and across Eurasia ultimately to Europe) and down the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan has always sat awkwardly in between, but recently there has been a particular effort by Beijing to tie Afghanistan into the vision.

In Nov. 2016, Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Kabul warmly welcoming Afghanistan into the vision and specifically suggested that Afghanistan consider train lines between Quetta and Kabul, and Peshawar and Kabul. It is not clear how these will happen, though soon afterwards the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) won a $205m contract, issued by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to build a 178 km road connecting northern Mazar-i-Sharif city to Yakawlang.

For Beijing, a stable and secure Afghanistan is both key to domestic security as well as its growing investments in Pakistan. And it is not always clear that Beijing finds operating in Pakistan easy. There have been stories of lawsuits, a local population who feel they are not being included in the process as well as human casualties as CPEC tries to bring development to Pakistan’s more isolated regions. China is discovering building CPEC is not a smooth ride.

But Beijing still prizes its relationship with Pakistan, aware that an unstable and paranoid Islamabad is worse than what they have at the moment. Consequently, Beijing will continue to support Pakistan vociferously and publicly – including in defending it from being publicly named and shamed as a ‘state sponsor’ of terrorism in the U.N.

Among the most persuasive reasons for China’s refusal to support the listing of Masood Azhar was the view that Beijing saw him as merely another in a long list of individuals that India sought listing. Given the lack of much impact around the listing of Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed, listing Azhar seemed a pointless enterprise for Beijing that would do little except make Islamabad feel cornered.

The lesson here is an important one for India to note. Beijing is not doing this as part of an anti-Indian alignment. It is rather out of national interest which seen from Beijing is about managing Pakistan and stabilizing it. This is a reflection of what China is already trying at home where the maxim that prosperity equals stability is a central driving concept, and is the ideological cornerstone of CPEC.

China is acting as a growing regional power with security interests it wants to deal with itself rather than abrogating such responsibility to others. It has tried repeated multilateral formats, peace talks, and now it is recognizing the need for greater security engagement.

New Delhi should seize this moment to enhance its engagement with Beijing on Afghanistan, using its long history of experience and contacts to find a way to help Afghanistan stabilize alongside China. Both countries are already major economic players in Afghanistan, and India has already contributed substantially in military terms.

About the Author

Raffaello Pantucci is Director, International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. He is currently working on a number of projects looking at Chinese influence and interests in South and Central Asia.

New piece for the Lowy Institute of Australia’s Interpreter blog, drawing on a batch of Eurasian travel from the end of the year.

Central Asian connectivity: Going beyond China

Central Asia is experiencing a connectivity boom, with China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ the most dominant vision for the region. Yet this dominance has started to worry Central Asian powers, leading to the emergence of a new narrative – that of diversification. With China becoming the region’s most influential economic actor, steadily increasing its role in local security and politics, Central Asian powers are seeking to broaden their engagement and bring to life a long-advocated ‘multi-vector’ diplomatic approach.

I was fortunate enough to spend the end of last year travelling the Eurasian heartland, with stops in Ashgabat, Astana, Beijing and Islamabad. It was a variety of different trips, covering different projects, but one overriding message about China shone through at every stop: the expansion of Chinese investment into its immediate neighbourhood is having a game-changing impact on the ground. This is positive, but it is also worrying those on the ground and is changing the way that Beijing is thinking about its external investments.

Talk to any Central Asian foreign policy planner and you will almost invariably hear about a ‘multi-vector’ approach to foreign relations. Sitting at the centre of Halford Mackinder’s ‘World-Island’, Central Asians envisage themselves as commanding vast power from the heart of the Silk Road. Yet it’s not always clear the degree to which they actually control the options on the table before them, or whether these great powers move around them to their own tune. Nowhere is this balance highlighted more acutely than in regards to foreign investment. Ideally, Central Asian states would want a multitude of options on the table before them, but while their FDI figures are more diverse than is sometimes given credit for, it is clear that Chinese money is increasingly the principal source.

This is increasingly the story across Eurasia, where everyone is both clamouring for Chinese investment and finding themselves uncertain about relying too heavily on a single investor. In Beijing, officials at state policy banks and private companies worry about the countries they are investing in and the fact they do not know the environments, yet at the same time find themselves under great pressure to deliver on Xi Jinping’s vaunted ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ through commercially viable projects. This leads them to trying to puzzle out how to deliver these projects effectively and seek partners to share the burden.

For landlocked Central Asians, however, the story is a different one. Trapped by geography between a sanctioned Russia, a still-recovering Iran and the disputed Caspian, they are only able to find China as a substantial and long-term investor and partner. India has tried and thus far not delivered, and while they discuss with Pakistan, Europe, Korea and Japan, projects as big as China’s have been slow in arriving. In contrast, Beijing signs contracts and infrastructure appears.

But all are aware of the dangers of having a single customer. In Ashgabat, they link Turkmenistan’s most recent push on breaking ground with the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and alternate energy partners to a sharp slowdown in Chinese interest in their gas, as China’s economy slowed down. In Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbayev links Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol (Shining Road) economic vision to the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt, in that the local strategy is intended to build on the Chinese infrastructure, showing how they are making the Chinese investment work for them.

But they also discuss the many other partnerships they are developing. Kazakhstan is planning a consulate in Bandar Abbas, the Iranian port city that provides Central Asia a different route to international markets. This was reinforced in Astana, where senior officials spoke of ‘connectivity being the number one point for Kazakhstan’ and that the country ‘will look in any direction with no discrimination’. At the same time, according to the Kaznex Invest Chairman Borisbiy Zhangurazov, China is set to undertake around 50 investment projects in Kazakhstan worth more than $24 billion, an amount almost equal ($26 billion) to all US investment in the country in the past 10 years.

In Pakistan, people worry about the degree to which they are becoming dependent on Chinese loans. Figures published earlier this year indicate that in Q1 FY17, net loan and FDI inflows from China were $1.1 billion (of which $700 million was a loan). Total FDI inflow is down from $192 million a year ago to $91 million this year. Trends that worry people who on the ground express a high level of concern about the transparency of the projects being undertaken as part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the excessive reliance on Chinese investment.

What is interesting about Pakistan, however, is that it is clear that China is finding itself mired in as many problems as others have previously experienced in the country. As a Dawn editorial flagged at the start of this year, ‘for China, the year 2016 was when the country began to discover the complexities of doing business in Pakistan’. Beijing’s answer is to encourage others to become involved to share the burden. Russia is seeking a role. The UK is interested (an idea my institute is currently working on). Other parts of the Belt and Road, such as Kazakhstan, are equally keen. During my recent visit to Astana, senior figures intimated they were contemplating even going so far as opening a consulate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s crown jewel, the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan.

Connectivity remains the keyword in Eurasian geopolitics. Talk of Silk Roads continue to dominate regional conversations. Yet diversification will be essential to realise the visions that are being advanced. It will only work if it is a collective project, something even Beijing appears to be beginning to consider as well.

A brief post in the wake of Islam Karimov’s death in Beijing for the site I post everything China-Central Asia related. As ever, this is something I have a few bigger things in the pipeline about. Somewhat related, spoke to the Associated Press about the attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, the Wall Street Journal about Anjem’s jailing, the Telegraph about the numbers of children being referred to Channel and Times about a new ISIS magazine.

Karimov’s Death Seen From Beijing

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Islam Karimov’s death is the realisation of a regional concern that many have long worried about: succession amongst leaders of the Central Asian states. The question of who comes next has been a persistent concern, particularly in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Beijing is not immune to these worrries. On every visit to Beijing in which Central Asia has been a focus of discussions, there have been inevitable conversations with Chinese Central Asia analysts who have been particularly perplexed about what might happen in a post-Karimov Uzbekistan. Yet, now that this scenario has arrived, China seems unperturbed and experts spoken to seem equally unconcerned. Seen from Beijing, Uzbekistan post-Karimov is a case of business as usual.

The biggest indicator of China’s reaction to Islam Karimov’s death is how the leadership responded to the news of his demise. It came at an awkward time for China, with Beijing policymakers and planners consumed with the preparations and meetings around the G20 Summit in Hangzhou. Consequently, the best that Xi Jinping could muster was a formal note through the MFA to acting President Nigmatilla Yuldoshev praising Karimov as ‘true friend’ to China. He later dispatched Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli to the funeral as his special envoy, while Prime Minister Li Keqiang paid his respects at the Uzbek Embassy in Beijing.


This set of moves could be read as dismissive, especially given the importance of respect in the Asian context. Zhang Gaoli is ultimately the seventh ranked member of seven within the Politburo Standing Committee. Therefore, in some ways, he was the most junior senior person Beijing could send. In contrast Tajik leader Rahmon, Afghan leader Ghani and Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev attended. If Beijing was to punch at this weight, then presumably Prime Minister Li Keqiang should have attended.

But at the same time, there are no other state funerals that China has reacted to in this way. The most recent possible comparison that comes to mind was the passing of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, a leader who commanded such respect in life that he was able to muster meetings of the Politburo outside Beijing when he visited China. Yet when he passed away, Beijing sent Li Yuanchao. Like Zhang, Li Yuanchao was a Vice Premier, but only a member of the Politburo – a second tier of senior leadership made up of 25 of the most senior members of the Party. While important, Li is definitely junior to Zhang, a Standing Committee Politburo member – ie, one of Beijing’s most inner circle of seven who rule the country. Li, it is worth mentioning, appears to also have been Beijing’s representative at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, suggesting that he may be the unofficial Chinese representative to international state funerals.

Admittedly, this is a lot of ‘Pekinology’ tea-leaf reading. However, it does seem that Beijing’s leadership made some effort to show their respect to Uzbekistan in the wake of President Karimov’s passing, notwithstanding the fact that they were otherwise preoccupied with the world’s heads of state descending on Hangzhou for the G20 meeting.

Looking beyond this speculative analysis, there is further substance to Zhang Gaoli as the representative of China to Karimov’s funeral. As well as his role on the Standing Committee, Zhang is also head of the Leading Group for Advancing the Development of One Belt One Road, a group established in February 2015 which has been tasked with steering Xi Jinping’s great initiative across the Eurasian continent. Considering the importance of Uzbekistan within this context, it is possible that Zhang is in fact one of the more appropriate members to attend the funeral given the opportunity it also presented to interact with Uzbekistan’s likely new leadership. During his visit he – like the other eminent visitors who came to pay their respects – secured an audience with Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev in which they spoke about continuing ‘to promote the Belt and Road initiative, and enrich the connotations of their all-round strategic partnership by prioritizing economy, trade, energy, production capacity, traffic and security in bilateral cooperation.’

Interested to hear more about the broader context of Uzbek-China relations, I reached out to contacts in China working in the think tank and corporate sector about what they thought of Karimov’s passing. Professor Zhao Huasheng of Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the eminent dons of Central Asia research in China told me ‘I think it [Karimov’s passing] will have no significant impact on China-Uzbekistan relations, because there are no serious problems in bilateral relations. And there is no reason for the new leader not to maintain good relations with China. A peaceful and smooth transition of power is critical for stability in the country and for security in the region.’ The biggest prerequisite and issue on the table for Professor Zhao was that the country had a ‘peaceful and smooth transition of power.’ This view was confirmed by a couple of other Chinese experts spoken to, all of whom pointed to the fact that China’s pre-eminent concern was that Uzbekistan stayed on a stable trajectory. This in fact may have been the concern that had been expressed previously – with people worried that Karimov was the lid on a cauldron that might boil over without him, rather than the leader himself being the key lynchpin in the relationship.

There are in fact no indicators at the moment to suggest that the transition of power should be anything other than smooth, or that there will be an upending of Beijing and Tashkent’s warming relationship. While there has been some speculation that the likely successor (and now interim leader), PM Shavkat Mirziyoyev, may have an openness to a more productive and close relationship with Moscow than his predecessor, it is not clear this will come to China’s detriment. Mr Miriziyoyev has already established a relationship of sorts with President Xi as the individual who personally escorted President Xi Jinping to the airport when he visited Tashkent in June 2016, a visit during which President Xi was the first ever foreign leader to give a speech in the Oliy Majlis and the two leaders (President’s Xi and Karimov) together opened a railway line that China had helped build in the country.

Suffice to say all the indicators in China-Uzbek relations are positive (notwithstanding underlying concerns that are fairly common across the region towards the potentially overbearing nature of large Chinese investments), and it would be surprising if the new leader broke away from, or reversed, this relationship. Uzbekistan continues to want foreign investment, and China has proven a fairly reliable actor in this regard. While Moscow appears to be quite actively courting Tashkent in the wake of President Karimov’s death, Beijing is the one with the relationship on a steady upward trajectory. For Beijing, the priority remains that Uzbekistan stays stable and finds ways of incorporating and building into the ‘Belt and Road’ vision. Seen from Tashkent, there is no clear reason why this wouldn’t be a possibility.

More catch-up posting this time for the Telegraph in the wake of the suicide bombing on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. Also spoke to Voice of America, Financial Times, Guardian and BBC Chinese on the topic.

Now China, too, is in Isil’s firing line

chinese-emb-bishkek

A suicide attack on China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan will have little registered on most British radars. Yet, it marks a significant moment for China, as one of the first times that China has come so directly into the crosshairs of terrorists outside its borders.

Details may be scant at the moment, but it appears to mark the first time a Chinese diplomatic compound has been hit in such a way. It is also the latest marker in a gradual escalation of a terrorist threat that China is finding itself facing and points to an interesting marker in the growing normalization of China’s global role.

At the moment, it is unclear who is responsible for the attack. Early reporting seems to indicate Uighur extremists, and the targeting of the Chinese Embassy is a clear message.

Uighurs are a minority community resident mostly in China’s westernmost region (Xinjiang, that is adjacent to Kyrgyzstan), who have long chafed under Beijing’s rule.

This anger has expressed itself in large-scale riots between communities in China, a growing emigration of unhappy Uighurs from China, terrorist incidents within the country, and increasingly now violence outside the country.

The incident in Bishkek is not the first time that Uighurs have come under blame for attacks against Chinese officials in Kyrgyzstan, and it is not the first time that Uighurs have been linked to attacks against Chinese targets outside the country. A group is currently under trial in Thailand for their responsibility in a bombing of a shrine popular with Chinese tourists in Bangkok in August of last year.

But the targeting of the Embassy like this shows the degree to which China’s terrorist problem is one that has metastasized.

China has growing numbers of Uighurs and other nationals fighting in Afghanistan and Syria – both with Isil (the various leaks of Isil documents show almost 200 records that show links to China), whilst those fighting with other groups under the banner of a group called the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) alongside other jihadi groups fighting against the Assad regime number possibly into the high hundreds.

Both groups have threatened attacks against China, though it is not clear that they have actually allocated many resources towards trying to achieve this.

Where China has usually faced the menace of international terrorism, it is more usually in an incidental fashion with nationals in the wrong place at the right time. And whilse groups have sometimes claimed to have been aiming for China – like in July last year when Somali group al Shabaab struck the Jazeera hotel in Mogadishu killing 12, including a guard at the Chinese Embassy which was operating out of the building, and later released a message saying the attack was in solidarity for Uighurs’ treatment in China – there has been little evidence that they were really the intended target.

In fact, in its early days, al Qaeda did not appear to really engage much with the Uighurs’ cause or see China as a natural enemy.

In an interview in 1999 Osama bin Laden denied all knowledge of Uighurs saying: “I often hear about Chinese Muslims, but since we have no direct connection with people in China and no member of our organization comes from China, I don’t have any detailed knowledge about them.” And other al Qaeda ideologues at the time spoke of the alignment of Chinese and al Qaeda’s interests in fighting the United States.

Fast forward to today and current al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has loudly praised Uighur extremist leaders in some of his recent speeches. At the same time, Isil leader al Baghdadi has specifically threatened China in speeches and his group has ransomed and been responsible for the deaths of Chinese hostages.

An almost complete turnaround for China, and something that highlights the degree to which China has ascended to being a front line power with all the problems and responsibilities that are associated with that.

The full contours of what has taken place in Bishkek are still unclear. It may yet prove to be something with deeper local links and causes, but it comes against a broader trajectory of China increasingly finding itself in terrorist cross-hairs around the world. This is the darker side of global power and projection, and something China is going to have to get used to.

 

Catching up on another late post, this time for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS blog looking in some detail at the question of how the ‘Belt and Road’ has had an impact on Xinjiang-Central Asia trade. Trying to look at this as a case study for the bigger question lots are asking. Am immensely grateful to the excellent Anna Sophia for doing some excellent digging to get the numbers for this. As ever a topic that will get more coverage as we go forwards, and check out China in Central Asia for more on this larger topic.

Xinjiang trade raises doubts over China’s ‘Belt and Road’ plan

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The vast Chinese northwestern frontier region of Xinjiang may serve as a useful early indicator of how Beijing’s much-touted “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) is supposed to work – and how successful it may become.

The region, which is home to several muslim minority peoples, has been wracked by ethnic turmoil for decades, prompting Beijing to seek to nurture social stability by driving economic development through hefty investments.

But for this strategy to gain traction, Beijing realised that it needed to boost development in the region around Xinjiang by building commercial corridors to neighbouring Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Thus, Xinjiang was key motivator behind the BRI concept.

But so far the results have been underwhelming. In the three years since the forerunner of the BRI was launched, Xinjiang’s trade volume has not increased and it still constitutes an unchanging portion of total Chinese trade with Central Asia (see chart). This discrepancy between action and results raises questions about whether the BRI is a turning point in Chinese economic policy or simply old wine in a new bottle.

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region government is an active player in the BRI. Under its auspices, Xinjiang’s major energy companies are expanding Chinese energy trade with Central Asia.

Following its promotion as one of seven national centers for the development of Chinese wind power in 2014, the Xinjiang-based wind turbine company Goldwind won contracts to build plants throughout Central Asia in 2015. In addition, the Tebian Electric Apparatus Stock Company, one of China’s major power transformer companies located in Xinjiang, announced in 2015 plans to build a power transformation line in Kyrgyzstan and a power station in Tajikistan.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, called the power station in Tajikistan a symbol of the growing “friendship” between China and Tajikistan, highlighting Xinjiang’s importance to the political and economic objectives of the BRI.

In addition to this corporate activity, the Xinjiang Communist party leadership has represented Beijing in Central Asia. Zhang Chunxian, Communist Party Secretary in Xnjiang, has formalised trade partnerships initiated by Mr Xi with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. These include deals on agriculture, infrastructure and trade with Tajikistan after Mr Xi’s 2013 visit and a $2bn trade deal with Kazakhstan. Thus, Xinjiang is serving to implement the leader’s vision.

These BRI deals, however, do not in fact represent a departure from Xinjiang’s trade history. Special trade relationships with Central Asian states existed before the initiative was announced, and energy and commodities were already important in its regional trade.

The Kashgar Special Economic Zone was established in 2010 and is intended to deal primarily in regional commodities exports. Likewise, plans for the Kazakhstan Khorgos Border Cooperation Center, where duty-free trade between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang could occur, were already announced in 2011, though construction did not begin until 2014. The point being that many of the projects now tagged as BRI are in fact pre-existing projects that are being re-branded.

The lack of change in Xinjiang’s trade volume since the BRI was announced calls the connection between the broader vision and the deals into question. In 2015, Xinjiang’s trade volume with Central Asia declined more rapidly than the national volume, while experiencing a reduction in trade with every Central Asian country aside from Turkmenistan, which was involved in building a new pipeline to the region.

Xinjiang’s textile exports have increased in 2016, according to the Global Trade Review. However, textiles were already a significant part of Xinjiang’s trade to Central Asia, so the rebound may merely be the result of a weak 2015 base.

The discrepancy between Xinjiang’s visibility in the BRI and its steady proportion of China’s total trade with Central Asia suggests that – so far – the initiative is simply publicising trade relations that existed before, instead of changing China’s trade patterns.

If this pattern holds, it will be important for countries that deal with China to look beyond the visionary rhetoric of the BRI and engage instead with concrete and bankable projects. This requires a focus on what made sense before the BRI was announced.

Raffaelo Pantucci is director of international security studies and Anna Sophia Young is a research intern at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think tank based in London.

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

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

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

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

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

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China and Russia in Central Asia: Cooperation and Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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