Posts Tagged ‘China-Central Asia’

With this piece I finally catch up to current events in my writing on Central Asia. I realize have been writing a lot about it late last year, and thus far don’t think events have vastly disproved what I wrote. Certainly, did not predict things, but then no-one really did. This short piece for my UK institutional home RUSI in the wake of events in Kazakhstan has I think stood reasonably well so far, but it remains still to be seen what the longer-term impact of events in Kazakhstan at the end of the year might be.

Kazakhstan in Crisis: It’s About the Country, Not Big Power Politics

The true significance of current events in Central Asia’s biggest country remains domestic.

Protests in the Kazakh city of Aktobe, 4 January 2022. Courtesy of Esetok / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The sudden and chaotic start to the year in Kazakhstan has taken even the most seasoned Central Asia watchers by surprise. The extreme and widespread violence and protests have been made even more shocking by the extraordinary decision of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to request the deployment of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help bring stability back to the country. Given wider global tensions with Russia, the prospect of a Russian-led military deployment in the country has been interpreted through the lens of Russian geopolitics and President Vladimir Putin’s aspirations, but this misses the degree to which this is about events in Kazakhstan.

Well-Concealed Cracks

For years, Kazakhstan has been considered among the most stable and prosperous of the belt of countries surrounding modern Russia. Endowed with enormous mineral wealth, the country seemed to be tacking a very different path. Autocratic and ruled largely by the same group who had been in power at the end of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s elites had also used their wealth to foster a growing middle class, which included large numbers of smart young Kazakhs whose education was paid for to help the country develop. Glittering events and buildings showcased the country to the world as a very different sort of post-Soviet state.

Yet, cracks existed beneath this façade. The ruling class was dogged by tales of massive corruption. Protests would periodically emerge, a sign of deep unhappiness in parts of the country that had not benefitted in the same way as the capital city. But the country was also home to a thriving NGO community and an active (if controlled) media, and was considered a place where a certain degree of openness was permitted. The government would tolerate some dissent, but would ensure that it never challenged its authority.

This generally positive trajectory clearly masked a more brittle structure than was generally thought. While regional watchers were unsurprised by the violence that marred Kyrgyzstan’s elections in October 2020 – the latest in a sadly long history of such violence – the sudden and widespread protests and subsequent violence in Kazakhstan have come as a shock. While it remains to be seen how organised any of it has been, there seems little doubt that underpinning it all is a deep well of local anger.

Botched Handling of Crisis

Part of this can be seen in the government’s initial reaction. Recognising what was happening needed a dramatic response. President Tokayev initially responded by removing from power the cadre of officials linked to the country’s founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev who were blamed for much of the corruption and inequality in the country. The father of the nation who had shepherded his country out of the Russian-Soviet yoke, Nazarbayev had formally stepped down as president in January 2019, handing over the reins of power to Tokayev – a longstanding member of his close cabinet. President Nazarbayev retained his influence, however, including as Chairman of the powerful National Security Council. His family and allies continued to control key parts of the country’s wealth and hold great power. The smooth transfer to Tokayev, however, was praised, although it was never entirely clear how much had actually changed.

Yet Tokayev’s sop to the protestors did not work. Pictures emerged from around the country of police putting down their weapons and joining the protestors. The decision to remove Karim Massimov, a close ally of Nazarbayev, from his role as head of the National Security Council showed how little faith Tokayev had in his own security forces, while also firmly cementing the removal of Nazarbayev’s cadre from the central leadership.

Pulling Out All the Stops

Hence, the decision to call in the CSTO. Fearing that the chaos in the country was escalating out of control and that his own security forces would not hold muster, it is clear that Tokayev felt he needed an external hand to help steady the ship. Russia initially seemed to dismiss the issues in Kazakhstan, with presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling the media ‘we are convinced that our Kazakh friends can independently solve their internal problems’. The Kremlin also warned others not to interfere in Kazakhstan, while various Russian commentators took this one step further and accused the US of being involved in instigating the trouble in Kazakhstan.

While the subsequent Russian action in sending its forces into Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO mission seems to entirely contradict these Kremlin statements, it is a response to events on the ground and requests from Kazakh authorities. This is not an informal invasion, or a way for Russia to firmly embed itself in Kazakhstan to draw the country back under Moscow’s sway. The truth is that Kazakhstan will always likely be tied to Moscow, no matter who is in charge. The country is bound through treaties, geography, infrastructure and population to Russia. Whoever is in power in Nursultan will have to have a good working relationship with Moscow. And while there has undoubtedly been a growth in anti-Russian sentiment in the country over the past few years as the government has sought to develop its own national identity and pride, Moscow is still an important partner (and locals tend to be even more sceptical of other partners like the US or China).

And even if Kazakhstan were to choose a different path, it would likely be towards China. In fact, both Nazarbayev and Tokayev have sought instead to strike a path between Russia and China, leveraging Kazakhstan’s natural wealth to foster an independent, ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy which attempts to stay somewhere in between the two (and even close to the West, where possible – Europe and the US are important economic partners for Kazakhstan).

Implications

Clearly, the credibility of this narrative is now in question. But this should not be interpreted as the success of Russian adventurism. Rather, it should be seen as a reflection of realities on the ground in a country whose government clearly did not appreciate the depth of its people’s unhappiness, which was playing out some complicated internal politics and which was always likely to rely on its traditional security partner, Russia, to play a supportive role in extremis.

The world should not be confused by the tweeting of Russian commentators in the West and meddlesome pro-Kremlin commentators in Moscow – echoed by parts of the Chinese state media – who suggest a larger plot which encompasses Ukraine and Belarus and falls into the geopolitical confrontation between Russia/China and the West. These events are about Kazakhstan.

This is not mere sophistry. For, if the events are seen only through the lens of confrontation between the West and Russia, then current developments could lead Kazakhstan to turn away from the Western direction it has kept trying to steer itself towards. If, however, the emphasis is placed on the issues underpinning the violence in the first place and efforts are focused on persuading the government to try to actually address those problems, it is possible that a better outcome can be found.

Of course, this will be hugely complicated by the presence of Russian forces under the CSTO banner. And it is possible that we will discover the levels of violence that took place over the past few days will fundamentally change things on the ground. But Kazakhstan is a country whose natural wealth and confidence does give it options – even if, at least for the moment, it seems to have taken the wrong ones.

More catch up posting from last month, this time again a look forwards on what the year holds for Afghanistan and Central Asia for Nikkei Asian Review. Wasn’t expecting the chaos in Kazakhstan that followed, but I think the broader trends pointed to will hold and the trouble in Kazakhstan will play into it as well.

2022 look ahead: Central Asia will cement its turn against the West

Expect China and Russia to step in and take advantage

U.S. Marines are on guard during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 20: policymakers in Washington have decided to leave the morass of middle Eurasia to others. (Handout photo from U.S. Marine Corps)   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).”

While this year may have appeared momentous, the truth is that we have not yet seen the full effect of the Taliban taking over in Kabul. This will only emerge as potential opposition forces organize themselves, the regional geopolitics fall into place and the unfolding economic catastrophe starts to bite.

At a wider level, the impact of the American withdrawal from the region will also be felt as the region is pushed closer toward Russia, Iran and China as those three powers continue to square off in an anti-Western geopolitical alignment.

One result of today’s intense and never-ending media cycle is the difficulty to judge the gap between cause and effect. If a particular outcome has not occurred within a day or so, the issue slips from the news pages and we forget about it, only to find ourselves shocked when it later reemerges.

After Afghanistan did not slip back into the brutal civil war that many expected, much of the world’s attention moved elsewhere. Instead, a slow-moving economic crisis has created a catastrophe largely taking place out of our field of vision. But the ramifications of this crisis will emerge.

First, the parlous economic situation will drive many people to seek a life outside Afghanistan. While most will head south to Pakistan or over the border into Iran and even onward to Europe, a growing number of Afghans will flee into the Central Asian region, most likely Tajikistan.

People from Afghanistan cross into the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman, Pakistan, on Sept. 7: the parlous economic situation will drive many people to seek a life outside Afghanistan.   © Reuters

Second, the Taliban is unlikely to feel the need to contain the country’s narcotics industry, whether by design or lack of capability. Given its status as a high-value cash crop, we can expect more Afghans to turn toward narcotics production, with consequences for criminal networks and corruption across Central Asia, as well as greater fragmentation within Afghanistan.

Third, we can expect some sort of opposition to the Taliban to materialize beyond Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has so far been the only group to consistently target the new government.

While there is some truth to rumors of former regime soldiers and other disaffected groups joining ISKP, the group is unlikely to garner much in the way of international support.

This suggests a vacuum that will eventually be filled by a constellation of the various factions who were ejected from Kabul in August. Currently, the most likely candidates appear to be gathering in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, although a credible and effective leader has yet to emerge.

But the problems inside Afghanistan will pale in comparison with the larger geostrategic shifts taking place in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.

While many in Washington were at pains to deny it, there was little hiding the fact that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was more about enabling the U.S. to focus more attention on the Indo-Pacific. It seems clear that policymakers in Washington have decided to leave the morass of middle Eurasia to others.

This does not mean that the West has completely withdrawn from the region. The U.S. and Europe will continue to be major investors and providers of aid and other forms of support across the region. But it does mean that Central Asia will receive less attention from Washington and Brussels.

Expect China and Russia to step in and take active advantage to affirm their increasing control of the Eurasian heartland.

Bordered by China, Russia, Iran, all of which suffer varying degrees of Western sanctions, Afghanistan and Central Asia will be almost entirely surrounded by countries whose relations with Washington are hostile.

That will likely result in a very hard-nosed form of geopolitics dominating regional discourse. Relationships will be entirely transactional and based around ensuring stability at whatever cost.

At the same time, we are likely to see a fairly cynical approach as to how this is achieved, with China and Russia increasingly refusing to go against each other. Unlike in the past, the confrontation with the West has escalated to the point that Moscow and Beijing see a greater strategic utility in keeping differences — Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia, for example — out of public view.

The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are scheduled to meet early next year, the first such in-person summit for President Xi in almost two years, is a reflection of how close the relationship has become.

At an economic level too, the continued economic tightening resulting from COVID-19 is likely to strengthen Beijing’s hand in Central Asia, where many regional economies are already bound to China through investment and trade links.

The current COVID-related stasis favors Chinese trade, which is increasingly delivered through online platforms that are becoming ubiquitous across the Eurasian space and can be delivered along rail and road routes that extend outward from China.

In contrast, shipping goods into China is becoming ever harder, though raw materials seem able to continue to flow without too much difficulty.

The net result is an increasingly one-way Belt and Road Initiative, which will only serve to strengthen China’s economic ties across the region and make countries more dependent on Beijing in ways that will ultimately not help their own economies to diversify.

This is likely to be the story of 2022 for Afghanistan and Central Asia: a potentially unstable Afghanistan alongside a strengthening of Beijing and Moscow’s hands across the region. That is when the gradual freezing of the West from the Eurasian heartland will really start to harden.

Another piece on China and Central Asia from late last year, something that in fact was published in late November but I missed when it first came up. This time an invited longer feature article courtesy of Svante at the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Joint Programme in Washington, DC. An excellent source for information and expertize on Central Asia and the Caucasus. This particular paper is part of a larger series they were doing looking at the region’s relations with outside powers 30 years since independence.

A Steadily Tightening Embrace: China’s Ascent in Central Asia and the Caucasus

Raffaello Pantucci

Chinese engagement with Central Asia and the Caucasus has been on a steady ascent. China accords considerably more importance to Central Asia than to the Caucasus, and the absolutely central aspect of Chinese engagement is Xinjiang. Still, the economic push into Central Asia has continued, in spite of a slowdown in investment lately. Among outside powers, Russia is the only power that Beijing considers a genuine competitor, and even then that relationship is seen through the lens of cooperation at the larger, strategic level. China does faces challenges in Central Asia: one is the refocusing by various militant groups that now treat China as an adversary. Another is the risk that Beijing may inadvertently clash with Moscow’s interests in the region.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at the China plus
Central Asia (C+C5) foreign ministers’ meeting in Xi’an, May 12, 2021

he narrative of China’s engagement with Central Asia and the Caucasus has been one of steady ascension and embrace. There is a clear difference between the two regions from Beijing’s perspective, with Central Asia a region which is intimately tied to China, while the Caucasus remains at one remove. The Central Asian relationship was initially marked by concerns and instability, it has over time developed into an increasingly close relationship. As time has passed, Central Asia has also played an interesting role in Chinese foreign policy thinking, providing an environment in which Beijing can test out new foreign and security policy approaches in a relatively pliant environment. For example, the first international security organization outside UN structures that China was instrumental in creating, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), was focused on Central Asia. And even more importantly, President Xi Jinping chose to inaugurate his keynote foreign policy concept, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in then-Astana (now Nursultan), Kazakhstan.

The Caucasus occupies a very different role in Chinese foreign policy thinking, something more prominently defined by the fact that the region does not share a direct border with China. As a result, it is largely treated as a potential foreign market, and with the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative, largely treated as a region which sits at the heart of the network of infrastructure and trade connectivity that BRI represents across the Eurasian heartland.

Reflecting this distinction, this paper will linger more on the Central Asian relationships, given their higher significance to China. Though it is worth noting that the relationship with the Caucasus is one that is transforming, in large part due to the growing Chinese push in Central Asia which has helped provide an outline of what potential BRI investment can look like, something the countries of the Caucasus are keen to attract.

The structure of Chinese engagement with Central Asia can be broken down into four broad areas: economic, cultural, political and security. In fact, the political aspect touches on all of the other three, but is worth highlighting separately as there is a quite specific level of engagement at a political level that China has undertaken with the region which is worth noting on its own. However, the absolutely central aspect of Chinese engagement with Central Asia which cuts across everything is the importance of Xinjiang in Chinese considerations towards Central Asia. In many ways the sixth Central Asian country (if one places Afghanistan in South Asia), Xinjiang is the primary lens through which China looks at Central Asia and has been regularly at the heart of its engagement and considerations with the region.

Recent Shifts

This focus on Xinjiang is something that has only become more acute in recent times. While Xinjiang has always been a key part of Chinese thinking towards Central Asia, recent difficulties with the region have sharpened Beijing’s focus. In contemporary terms, a turning point in Beijing’s relations with Xinjiang came in 2009 in the wake of widespread disorder in Urumqi which led to a re-evaluation of policy towards the region. But the policy shifts that followed did not resolve the problems. Violence seemed to escalate over the following years and even spread beyond the region. In 2014, Xi Jinping visited the region, on a tour seemingly focused on bolstering local security efforts, a narrative that was undermined by the detonation of a suicide bomber at Urumqi train station during his visit.

This appears to have provided a green light for China to escalate its security focused approach towards the region. This ratcheted up further in 2016 with the appointment of Chen Quanguo to the role of Party Secretary for Xinjiang. Coming from Tibet, Chen had a reputation as a man who could quell minorities, and he brought with him many of the policies he had developed in Tibet. The result was a widespread escalation of the already pervasive police state throughout Xinjiang. This echoed in Central Asia as some from the co-ethnic communities were caught up in the crackdown, leading to protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in particular. It has led to some tensions at a political level, though for the most part Central Asian governments are cautious to avoid condemning Chinese action at home.

Beijing has also found its security concerns have started to grow regionally in Central Asia as well. In late August 2016, the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was targeted by a suicide bomber in a plot that was reportedly directed (or at the very least linked) to Uyghur networks in Syria. While this incident was not repeated (and it was not the first time Chinese officials have been targeted in Kyrgyzstan), it did bring together a number of strands of Chinese concerns. Many of these appear to have focused on Afghanistan in particular, with growing anxiety about Tajikistan in particular being a weak link in the region.

While discussions were likely already underway, by autumn 2016 China formalised an agreement with the Tajik authorities that they would build or refurbish up to 30 or 40 border posts along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan. In August 2016, China hosted the first session of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) an entity that brought together the Chiefs of Defence Staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan, the grouping that surrounds the Wakhan Corridor, China’s physical link to Afghanistan. Reportedly focused on counter-terrorism and border security, the QCCM was in many ways a rebuke of the SCO, but also an effort to formalise the PLA’s role in the region. In October, this was reaffirmed with a large joint counter-terrorism exercise between Chinese and Tajik forces in Gorno-Badakhshan. Sometime during the year, Tajik officials claim the decision to establish a Chinese base in Tajikistan was also formalised, though the existence of the base is something that is still treated in a somewhat opaque manner by both Chinese and Tajik officials. Its existence is beyond dispute at this point, though it appears to be a People’s Armed Police (PAP) base rather than a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base, and it reflects a desire by China to not rely entirely on locals to guarantee its security interests in the region. This has even extended to a growing push by Chinese private security firms in the region more widely, though for the most part this seems to be focused on Kyrgyzstan where there is a greater degree of concern about personal and business security.

But while China has been more focused on security in recent years (something accentuated in the wake of the Taliban takeover in Kabul), the economic push into Central Asia has continued. From Beijing’s perspective, this is in fact an extension of the security approach. China’s ultimate interest is in Xinjiang stability, and they recognize that while a strong security hand can deliver this in the short-term, the longer-term answer is only going to come through economic development and prosperity. Given Xinjiang’s landlocked nature, this means a prosperous neighbourhood in Central Asia is important as well. Furthermore, interest in the rich natural resource opportunities on offer in the region made China an active player in Central Asia – something that was encouraged by the local governments who sought more investment.

However, recent years have seen a slowdown in investment. While China has steadily risen in the rankings as a trading partner for all of the Central Asian countries, investment from China has in fact slowed down. In part this is in response to broader trends in Chinese outward investment where there has been a push by Beijing to try to ensure greater focus on return on investment and therefore more emphasis on secure projects, it is also a reflection on local tensions and problems that have been generated by key projects. Still, there clearly remains a Chinese appetite for gaining economic benefits from the region. The recent opening of two more wells in Turkmenistan to help grow the volume of natural gas the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) buys from the country is one example at a state-driven level, while the constant level of low-level Chinese private sector investment in Kyrgyzstan reflects an appetite by Chinese investors to still have a go. That said, the level of investment is generally down. The exception to this is Uzbekistan, where there has been a notable push since the passing of former leader Islam Karimov to try to open the country to more Chinese investment.

A final key change in China’s economic relations with Central Asia is the growing prominence of Chinese online commerce. Chinese technology has long been widely used in the region, including in the building of key infrastructure. But in recent years there has been a notable increase in Chinese online commerce platforms. They have been both growing their presence in the local market, but also increasingly offering Central Asian firms opportunities to sell directly to Chinese consumers. It has also helped displace some of the traditional markets in the region which used to rely on the import and resale of Chinese goods. Alibaba in particular has followed up on this surge with growing investment in technology and digital platforms in both Central Asia and Russia, including signing multi-billion-dollar investment agreements.

But the key lesson of recent times is that while China still sees economic opportunities from Central Asia as important, it prioritises its security concerns in Xinjiang and as a result lets the relationship be heavily influenced by Urumqi or defines things along the lines of how they will impact Xinjiang. This low prioritization by Beijing in its broader strategic thinking is not unique to Central Asia – Zhongnanhai largely focuses almost single-mindedly on the relationship with the United States as the priority. But the general hesitation is something that was highlighted again recently in discussions over Afghanistan. While Beijing spent time visiting all of the relevant Central Asian players, it does not seem to have stepped forward to provide much by way of leadership and only limited economic and humanitarian support. Rather, Beijing has focused on its own particular interests in Afghanistan, hedging in its relationships with the new authorities and emphasized blaming the U.S. for what has taken place. While this narrative is not new, its particular sharpness emphasises the degree to which China has increasingly decided to see everything through the lens of its great power competition with the United States. For Central Asia, however, it is frustrating to have Beijing – Afghanistan’s wealthiest and most influential neighbour – continue to hedge in a situation where they are clearly concerned about what the future holds.

Looking across the Caspian, in the Caucasus, there is a very limited security relationship to speak of with the countries and little evidence of Beijing pushing to get involved. China for the most part wants to avoid entanglements or trying to act as a broker in clashes between the various regional powers. The economic motivation to engage in the Caucasus is there, and Georgia in particular has warmly embraced the BRI concept, going so far as to sign a Free Trade Agreement with Beijing in 2016. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia are also willing partners in the BRI, but the overall size of the region and its resources is relatively limited and does not have the same physical links to China, or Uyghur related security concerns that justify an enhanced attention. As a result, what engagement there has been has tended to be at a lower level, with Chinese regions (like Xinjiang) leading in relations, and specific companies pushing in to reap opportunities they see. The degree of state coordination and direction behind all of this is unclear.

China’s Views on Central Asia and the Caucasus

Traditionally, Beijing has seen Central Asia and the Caucasus through a Russian lens. Chinese experts looking at the region tend to speak Russian, and constantly refer to the fact that Beijing would not do anything in the region without consulting their Russian partners. Broadly speaking, China sees the region as part of a wider former Soviet belt, though there is a clear distinction in interest and attention with regards to Central Asia as opposed to the Caucasus or Central and Eastern Europe. While in diplomatic staffing terms, it seems as though China treats the region as a single space (diplomats are shuffled between posts) this is likely a reflection of linguistic requirements more than anything else. Central Asia does seem to register as a higher priority than the other areas – though Central and Eastern Europe has developed as a point of interest for Beijing given its role in China-Europe relations, and their close link to the U.S.

In practical terms, China has distinct approaches to each country in Central Asia and is able to impose its views to varying degrees. In Turkmenistan, the opaque nature of the country is something that confuses China as much as anyone else, though it is clear that given the importance of Chinese energy-related income, Ashgabat treats Beijing as a closer partner than others. Beijing does not appear very preoccupied with the closed nature of the country as it has continued to deliver on the energy requirements China wants, though even CNPC has struggled to manage the Turkmen banking system, a reality that illustrates the difficulty of operating within the country. China sees Turkmenistan largely as an opportunity, a perspective that does not appear to have changed much over the past decades, though it has not been without frustrations for Beijing along the way. The Turkmen in turn are not thrilled at being reliant on China as their main customer and have sought (and thus far for the most part failed) to diversify. This is something Beijing has observed passively.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are seen by Beijing as significant enough players that Beijing is willing to accord them with considerable respect and appear to engage them on the terms they want to be engaged. Beijing views Uzbekistan as a potential opportunity, and China recognizes both the economic opportunity and the relevance of Tashkent as a regional power broker and player. In Kazakhstan, China long played to Nursultan Nazarbayev’s sense of power and influence, though it has also on occasion sought to push its interests in more strident terms behind closed doors. China and Kazakhstan have managed, however, to keep these tensions out of the headlines, though the bubbling Sinophobia that is visible in the country is often used by political players to cause trouble and has placed practical difficulties on companies operating in the country. This in addition to the fact that some of the angriest expressions regionally towards China’s crackdown in Xinjiang can be found in Kazakhstan have created some tensions. However, both governments seem keen to try to keep them under control.

Finally, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are seen in a similar basket by Beijing as powers that are largely demandeurs in their relationship with Beijing. China is rapidly becoming their most significant economic partner, and Beijing has little sense of confidence in their ability to deliver on security outcomes within their borders which address Chinese concerns. This is reflected in a growing bilateral security relationship, as well as a willingness by Chinese officials to throw their weight around in bilateral engagements. At the same time, Beijing is unable to control local sentiment which is increasingly anti-Chinese in both countries, something that has caused some friction for Chinese investors – in particular in Kyrgyzstan.

This state of relations is largely reflective of the broader trajectory over time of China’s relations with the region. They have stayed fairly static, with the most significant changes coming in the relationship with Uzbekistan which went from being completely closed to entirely open. In all of the other cases, the current approach is largely an extension of how China has seen the country for the past few years, with growing Chinese confidence and wealth often being the main change. The key external issue for Beijing with the region, however, is not really within the region, but rather with Moscow, where China’s growing influence in Central Asia has over time created a greater sense of tension. While it is clear that Russia still has some very strong levers of influence that surpass China’s, there is an awareness in Beijing that there is some sensitivity here with regards Moscow. And Russia in turn appears to have a sense of concern that the region could become an entry point for unfettered Chinese investment and influence into their domestic economy. At the same time, this awareness and sensitivity has not slowed any Chinese initiatives.

Overall, however, Central Asia does not register very high in Beijing’s broader considerations. This was most clearly shown recently in the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s willingness during the pandemic to amplify rumours started by Russian authorities about bioweapons labs that had been given US government support in the post-Soviet space, including some in Kazakhstan, might be the source of COVID-19. This alongside a series of articles that were widely disseminated in the Chinese media in 2020 which appeared to suggest that Central Asian countries were not in fact independent countries, but rather provinces of China, all served to highlight the reality that Beijing spends very little time thinking in much of a considered way about how Central Asia sees China. The assumption from Beijing is that these powers will always want and need a relationship with China, meaning Beijing can largely proceed as it wants.

China’s priority with Central Asia is Xinjiang. This is the case in terms of the region’s potential as a place where dissidents can gather to threaten China, or in terms of the region causing problems for China’s domestic security and economic stability approach. Within this context, the two priority countries are Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which share borders with China and also have substantial Uyghur diaspora, in addition to the ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz communities in Xinjiang. Kazakhstan also has the distinction of being an important source of imported natural resources, both in hydrocarbon as well as mineral terms. It is also the main conduit for the major transport routes from China to Europe along the Belt and Road. This elevates the country to some degree above the others.

In the Caucasus, the calculation is different. In many ways, the Caucasus is simply another foreign region with which it needs to engage and consequently it is treated as thus. The BRI is a major consideration with the region, given its location at the heart of where many of the routes across the Eurasian landmass would flow. In dealing with the countries, China is always conscious of the Russian relationship, and is more likely to defer to Moscow than it necessarily would in Central Asia. The region has tried to use China as a card to play in its wider geopolitical struggles with Russia, or the west. But Beijing has little interest in getting dragged into these clashes, and consequently engages at a utilitarian level.

Russia is the only power that Beijing considers a genuine competitor in Central Asia. And even there, it is largely seen through the lens of cooperation at a more strategic level, where Beijing is more focused on its larger relationship with Moscow than its more limited relations with the Central Asian capitals. With the Caucasus the calculation is even stronger, with even fewer reasons for China to not defer to Russian concerns. The only interesting wrinkle to this is the Russian war with Georgia in 2008 which was an act which Beijing was not happy about – suggesting as it did a world order in which neighbours could recognize minority communities and then them use as a context to invade. The precedent set by Moscow was one Beijing did not appreciate, and expressed displeasure about in closer doors, though stopped short of open condemnation of Moscow. This event, however, did not change Beijing’s broader strategic calculus towards the region though it did emphasize the broader awkwardness of the relationship with Moscow.

When looking to other capitals, it has entertained opportunities for cooperation with Europe (through joint projects between Chinese entities and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and broader discussions about possible Belt and Road cooperation) and its energy firms have entered into large-scale consortia with other international energy companies in the region. China has cooperated in the past with both India and the United States bilaterally in Afghanistan, but there has been little evidence of much desire to expand such cooperation in Central Asia. There has been some cooperation with Turkish intelligence in the region, though this has been on narrow concerns. At a strategic level, it is not clear how much Beijing focuses on Turkey, Iran or individual European actors within the region.

China has also played a role in advancing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a major regional institution in which all of the Central Asian powers, except Turkmenistan, have membership and extra-regional powers India, Pakistan and Russia are members, with others like Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus, Mongolia or Sri Lanka have some stake. Yet, China’s treatment of the SCO is in some ways exemplary of its broader willingness to work with others in Central Asia. Beijing never seems to reject engagement, but this is not always followed by action. This is a reflection of China’s sense of confidence in the region, where Beijing for the most part seems to assume a level unassailable importance which is ultimately going to trump all others. The one power they see as a potential competitor is Moscow, but there China recognizes that the overall geostrategic relationship is more significant than Central Asia meaning that for the time being, it will not entirely disregard Russia’s wishes and Moscow is similarly unlikely to cause too much of a fuss.

The Future

China’s influence and engagement with Central Asia and the Caucasus is likely to continue on an upward trajectory over the next five years. While events in Afghanistan have created a new level of potential uncertainty, China’s unwillingness to step forward into a role of responsibility or leadership highlights the likelihood that Beijing will simply continue to hedge in Afghanistan going forwards. Even in the event of eventual recognition of the Taliban government, it is unlikely that China will pour in vast sums of investment or strengthen its security presence, but rather it will seek to continue to invest in securing its secondary borders with the country – principally in Tajikistan and Pakistan. This might extend to Uzbekistan (though likely unnecessary) and possibly Turkmenistan (though Ashgabat is likely to continue to be highly reticent in this regard).

The dilemma, however, will be if Uyghur networks are able to reestablish themselves in any great strength in Afghanistan either under Taliban protection or take advantage of an unstable environment in the country. Beyond this as well, there has been a notable refocusing by various militant groups across the region towards treating China as an adversary. The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) recently launched an attack in which they specifically menaced China’s cooperation with the Taliban government. This comes atop an increasing rate of attacks against Chinese nationals by separatists and jihadists in Pakistan. All of this might force Beijing’s hand, though it is still not clear that China would abandon its current view of Afghanistan as a “Graveyard of Empires.” Rather, it is likely that Beijing would find other local actors to engage with to manage its problems. These could come from within the various factions in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Central Asia.

The relationships with the Caucasus are likely to going to continue to grow, and it is the one with Georgia that probably bears closest watching. The country has made itself the most welcoming towards Chinese investment, something that has been done to specifically help Tbilisi hedge against western abandonment and Russian incursion. It will be an interesting strategic question to see how Beijing comes out should Moscow try something again, and the relationship might become an interesting bellwether of the broader China-Russia relationship. In that, should Moscow start to do something in Georgia which damages Chinese firms, endangers nationals, or again sets a new norm in international behavior Beijing is not happy with, it will interesting to see how the two manage the situation.

With regards Central Asia, the greatest potential risk to Beijing’s future in the region is that it lets its growing hubris get ahead of itself to the point that it entirely overlooks Moscow’s concerns in particular. While until now Russia has seemed willing to simply let China sweep in, events in Afghanistan have highlighted to Moscow once again the need to have direct presence and influence in the region. And this needs to be done with effective coordination with Beijing. Should Beijing continue to expand its influence unabated in Central Asia and start to use the region as a staging point for greater economic penetration into Russia that starts to look like it might be undermining Moscow’s control, it is possible that a clash could take place. While at the moment the geopolitical sands are aligned towards Beijing and Moscow staying in lockstep in confrontation with the west, the question for the future will be whether China starts to take this for granted or its hubris gets the best of calculations that recognize Russia’s contribution to its interests in the region. Whatever the case, Beijing will be a significant (if not the most significant) actor in Central Asia, but it will be a much more complicated ascent if it is done in an antagonistic manner with Moscow.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). He is the author of the forthcoming Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022.

It is a new year and there is a lot going on, something that I mean in every way. A lot of big projects landing this year, as well as various substantial papers. That on top of stuff in life in general means it is going to be very busy, and it seems as though posting material on here has already fallen foul of my scheduling! Am going to try to catch up slowly on myself, but have quite a few bits to do. Am also going to try to get back to posting my media comment highlights as well, but that is going to be an adventure for another day. First of all, a piece for the ever wonderful Nikkei Asian Review which ran back in early December before the current chaos in Kazakhstan. I have a lot more on those events which will come in due course, and of course all of this China-Central Asia writing is hopefully whetting your appetite for the forthcoming book, Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, which should be landing in April this year (and if you are so minded, can be pre-ordered here). A lot more on this to come as you can imagine.

Ties that bind Kazakhstan to China are starting to unravel

Frustrations with Beijing are becoming increasingly visible

Nursultan Nazarbayev, right, and Xi Jinping attend a news briefing after signing bilateral documents in Astana in September 2013: Kazakhstan’s view on its connections to China is not as rosy as they once were.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).”

When President Xi Jinping launched China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, he chose to do it in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana, where the concept of connectivity with China has been playing out for years.

Since then, Astana has changed its name to Nursultan, and Kazakhstan’s view on its connections to China is not as rosy as they were when the Silk Road Economic Belt was launched.

Among the countries that most warmly welcomed the Belt and Road Initiative, Kazakhstan had already been embracing Chinese investment for some time. A year after Xi’s speech, then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev inaugurated his own national vision Nurly Zhol, or Bright Path, which consciously sought to build on what was then called the Silk Road Economic Belt that President Xi had announced in Astana. Kazakhstan predicated its national development on China’s new foreign policy vision.

Yet, nearly a decade later, Kazakhstan is finding binding itself tightly to Beijing comes with as many problems as benefits.

Some of these issues are long-standing. In mid-November, Kazakh authorities reported that the water level in Lake Balkhash will fall to a critical point by 2040 unless something urgent is done, in particular at the consumer end of the river Ile in China. Kazakh authorities are developing plans, but most of them involve requiring China to curb its water consumption. Shrinking aquifers are not a new problem, but it has a growing urgency.

This is not the only waterway that Kazakhstan has problems with. Its shared rivers with Russia and Uzbekistan also suffer from similar problems, but the Chinese water consumption is causing the drying up of a critical lake.

But while too much Kazakh water is flowing into China, not enough Kazakh goods are. According to Kazakh data, between January and September 2021, food exports to China dropped 78%.

By March, a bottleneck of some 12,000 railcars had accumulated, and long queues of trucks were stopped at the border as stringent Chinese COVID-19 regulations prevented Kazakh products from getting in at the same rate as they were before.

Trains loaded with containers at the Altynkol railway station near the border with China in Kazakhstan, pictured on Oct. 26: stringent Chinese COVID-19 regulations prevented Kazakh products from getting in.   © Reuters

To the extreme irritation of Kazakh producers, transit traffic passing through Kazakhstan to and from China is facing no such delays. In fact, transit traffic has increased. This would seem to violate a key Belt and Road concept, which is supposed to be all about improving trade and connectivity among China’s neighbors first and foremost.

Another aspect of the Belt and Road idea that Central Asian nations have always liked is the idea that as manufacturing got priced out of China, production would move into their countries.

While Kazakhstan was never going to be that attractive for low-end manufacturers, the country did hope to reap some benefit from China’s economic boom, not just in terms of trade but helping its economy advance, and succeed in attracting some Chinese companies across the border.

Beijing’s decision to crack down on cryptocurrency mining has offered an unexpected opportunity for this transfer. Since China moved to shut down bitcoin mining in May, a substantial number of Chinese companies migrated to Kazakhstan, attracted by the country’s tech-friendly policies and cheap electricity.

However, these miners’ electricity consumption was too much for the Kazakh national grid to bear, forcing them to request more electricity from neighboring Russia that has created a new set of tensions with Moscow. This unexpected surge in demand for electricity is not the sort of technology transfer Kazakhstan was hoping for.

There is an element to which blaming all of these problems on the BRI is unfair. Geography can often be seen as the root issue. Similar issues are less relevant in more distant BRI countries. But at the same time, it does show the dangers of being overdependent on China, and how abrupt changes within China can have destabilizing consequences on countries that are heavily dependent. It also quite clearly undermines the win-win narrative often painted at the heart of BRI.

While Beijing continues to show a positive face with Kazakhstan, they have also let the country fall foul of the narratives stirred up during the pandemic. When Moscow started to spread stories that COVID-19 may have emerged from laboratories in Kazakhstan that the U.S. had supported after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Beijing fanned the flames.

And when a series of articles emerged in the Chinese media suggesting Kazakhstan was, in fact, a historical part of China, leading to an uproar on Kazakh social media, the Chinese embassy in Nursultan did not apologize and instead blamed it all on the West.

All of this for the country where President Xi launched his keynote foreign policy initiative and which has eagerly embraced China as an economic, security and cultural partner.

In some ways, Kazakhstan had no choice, forced by geography to be bound to China. But it is slowly finding that the ties that BRI fosters are not necessarily ones that deliver as you expect.

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

I dilemmi della Cina sull’Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afghanistan crisis lingers over the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit

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

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

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

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

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

SCO and Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

The SCO Summit on 17 September 2021

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

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

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

More catching up from what has been a busy period for short pieces. There are some longer ones in the pipeline which will eventually land as well as the book early next week. This was for the South China Morning Post exploring the missed opportunities of China’s engagement with Afghanistan.

Time for China to stop hedging its bets in Afghanistan

  • The flak Beijing has drawn for its Taliban engagement is not just unfair but also misses the point. If China’s Afghan strategy is to be faulted, it’s for doing too little
  • China has the influence and tools – not to mention incentive, as Afghanistan’s neighbour – to take a leading role in fostering peace
Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

Now that Kabul has fallen, there is a growing narrative about Afghanistan that China is siding with the Taliban in some sort of nightmarish new alignment. The truth is that Beijing has been engaging with the Taliban in the same way that everyone has.

It is difficult to understand why we should condemn China for meeting publicly a group that the United States had earlier bolstered with meetings and a formal agreement in Doha. And it is not the only one.

Where China could be accused of failing Afghanistan is in not stepping forward to take a more proactive role in fostering an agreement, rather than simply waiting for some resolution to work itself out through bloodshed. As it turns out, this is also an echo of the approach Washington has decided to take.

China’s engagement in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood is not new. It has existed since before the September 11 attacks, growing in fits and starts.

The exaggerated narratives around Chinese potential economic plundering of Afghanistan have not played out as predicted. This, it should be noted, is much to the chagrin of the former government in Kabul, which would have loved to get the tax and investment benefits from the exploitation of the country’s natural wealth.

The Belt and Road Initiative is still a concept in Afghanistan, rather than something tangible. China has strategic and economic investments in almost all surrounding countries, but surprisingly limited investment in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, China has largely hedged. It developed relations with the Afghan government and various factions and groups on the ground. It has strengthened its direct contacts with the Taliban rather than relying solely on Pakistan to provide the connections. And it has strengthened its direct and indirect borders with Afghanistan to create a security buffer around the Wakhan Corridor.

All of this is a reflection that Beijing does not trust the Taliban any more than the US or anyone else does.

In direct security terms, Beijing has provided some military aid and support, but not much and largely non-lethal. Chinese views on the US presence have oscillated between a sense of concern that the US had active military bases on its borders to a secret sense of gratitude that the US was fighting a conflict it did not have to worry about.

The one constant in Chinese engagement has been a focus on Uygur militancy, and fears that Afghanistan could be used as a base to strike within Xinjiang. While Beijing’s views about who is supporting these Uygur fighters seem to have shifted over time, and there are questions about the scale and scope of the actual threat, it is an undeniably constant concern that China articulates at every juncture.

This is often its main point of discussion when it focuses on Afghanistan. And it is likely to be the primary concern that Beijing worries about now it has new interlocutors in Kabul.

Beijing has also engaged in multilateral diplomacy of all kinds. It has played a limited role in some of the larger international engagements around Afghanistan, offering some support and money during international donor aid rounds.

It has fostered regional multilateral engagements, and has used Afghanistan as a point of engagement with its adversaries – both Washington and New Delhi, for example, have run training programmes for Afghan officials jointly with Beijing.

And, outside direct engagement, China has tried to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to play a more substantial role in Afghanistan. It helped bring the country in as an observer member and fostered the creation of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group. What this SCO action might look like in practice is unclear, but it is something that China has continually pushed.

But this also highlights the real failure of Chinese engagement in Afghanistan. Beijing has, sadly, not stepped in to take a more prominent and leadership role when it could have tried and clearly has all the links and tools in place to do so.

Beijing is ultimately going to be Afghanistan’s most powerful and influential neighbour. Pakistan may have deeper ties on the ground, but Islamabad is highly dependent on Beijing and likely to be even more so going forward.

Iran and Central Asia have also made large bets on Chinese economic partnership. China is now going to be seen as the major power across a wide swathe of the Eurasian heartland.

With all these connections, power and influence, China should logically have been a greater leader in Kabul. Admittedly, Afghanistan is a difficult country and China has little experience in conflict resolution of this sort, but it could have been hoped that it would have taken a more proactive role in a country with which it shares a border.

There will doubtless be a certain amount of joy in Beijing as the narrative is advanced that Washington is leaving from China’s neighbourhood with its tail between its legs.

And Chinese officials will seek to play up the idea that this is the end of Pax Americana and a further demonstration of American fecklessness, something they will use in their larger narratives of confrontation with the US. But the US and the West were at least trying to bolster Afghanistan and help it transform.

Pre-eminent in Beijing’s concerns should have been the realisation that, while America may have played a role in making this mess, it is China that will have to live next to it at the end of the day.

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

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.