Posts Tagged ‘China-Central Asia’

Another piece written around President Xi’s visit to Central Asia, this time for the Straits Times exploring the growing clout that China has within the region. Draws on ideas in the book of course, but also on the fact that travel is now possible once again so am able to get to the region a bit again.

China’s growing clout in Central Asia

A vacuum is developing as Russia’s war in Ukraine dismantles Moscow’s credibility and strength across the Eurasian heartland.

A broadcast of the meeting between Mr Xi Jinping and Mr Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan. PHOTO: REUTERS

President Xi Jinping’s decision to pick Central Asia for his first foreign trip since the Covid-19 pandemic began reflects Beijing’s confidence that it is now the ascendant power in the Eurasian heartland. This was clearly evident from both Mr Xi’s tour of the region and the much-watched meeting between the Chinese leader and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the fringes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last week.

The optics around Mr Xi’s visit underlined China’s rising star in the region. First, the grandiloquence was apparent in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two countries he chose to visit.

The Kazakhs were clearly very pleased that theirs was the first country Mr Xi decided to visit. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was at the airport to personally welcome the Chinese leader in fluent Mandarin and nothing was spared in the way of pomp and ceremony for the state visit, including the awarding of the Order of Altyn Kyran (Order of the Golden Eagle) to Mr Xi. The two leaders also toured a recently opened exhibit of archaeological artefacts that was displayed under the title “Kazakhstan-China: Dialogue of the Millennia”.

Not to be outdone, the authorities in Uzbekistan also put on a grandiose welcome for Mr Xi, with large groups of dancing people at the airport. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev could not match his Kazakh counterpart’s Mandarin skills, but he also awarded Mr Xi the country’s “highest friendship award”, the Order of Friendship.

The contrast could not have been more striking during Mr Mirziyoyev’s meeting with Mr Putin. Rather than the Uzbeks offering their visitor an award, it was the Russian leader who dished out a medal to his Uzbek counterpart. He awarded Mr Mirziyoyev the Order of Alexander Nevsky, which is given to foreign leaders “for major contributions to promoting friendly ties with Russia”.

The strains were also palpable during the bilateral meeting between the Chinese and Russian leaders, with Mr Putin openly acknowledging that China had expressed concerns and questions about the war in Ukraine. Mr Putin made similar comments during his separate bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was also in town for the SCO summit. Mr Putin’s comments separately to both leaders only served to emphasise the sense that neither China nor India was in fact very pleased with the Russian leader’s aggression in Ukraine.

But the differences should not be overplayed. In Beijing’s case, at least, the reality is that it has little desire to put Russia down or see Moscow lose in a conflict against the West. The net result of that would be to weaken Beijing’s support base in its larger geopolitical confrontation with the West, and would also provide more space for the West to focus more on China. The conflict in Ukraine provides a useful distraction at the moment.

China is certainly not happy with the global disruptions and costs generated by the conflict, but at the same time, it has little choice but to support Moscow as an important geopolitical partner in confronting the United States-led West.

Wider context

The wider context of the summit in the Uzbek capital was more interesting. Established in 2001 with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and China, the SCO has grown, in large part due to Chinese efforts, to become a multilateral organisation bringing together the leaders of around 40 per cent of the world’s population. It now includes India, Pakistan and Iran, with countries like Belarus and Turkey knocking at the door. An organisation often overlooked in the West (or in much strategic discourse), it is in fact emblematic of the growing influence that China has across a growing swathe of the central and eastern Eurasian heartland.

Mr Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative came from a desire to carve routes across this region, rewiring infrastructure and trading routes that used to lead to Moscow to instead be diverted to China. While the Kremlin was initially dismissive of China’s inroads into the region, Moscow now finds itself trying to co-opt or counteract Beijing by touting to the others what it can offer that China cannot.

Russia, though, is increasingly on the back foot among its neighbours, largely because of Ukraine. In the past couple of weeks, violence has erupted once again between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus. A long-running border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has also escalated again, leading to dozens of deaths as security forces on both sides shell and shoot at each other. This is occurring as trouble on the other side of Tajikistan, in the Badakhshan region, continues, and there has also been recent large-scale public unrest in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Yet, Russia has been able to offer security support only in Kazakhstan, and even then in a limited way.

It is worth noting that China has not stepped into any of these issues. Beijing has little appetite to get stuck in such messy conflicts, recognising that it will struggle to try to resolve them, and will most likely only make enemies in the process. China would rather wait it out and let history take its course. But it will be increasingly difficult to adopt this passive stance as it becomes the biggest economic power across the region.

Few in the region will deny Russia’s importance, but many have become wary of Moscow in the aftermath of Mr Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. There has been notable diplomatic pushback across Central Asia, and a growing sense of a need to develop other options, including building up ties with China.

A vacuum is developing – one which, logically, China can fill. Russia’s war in Ukraine is dismantling Moscow’s credibility and strength across the Eurasian heartland, and China is currently the most obvious beneficiary.

But Beijing has not chosen to do much with its growing clout.

Going forward, evading that responsibility might no longer be possible.

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

Almost up to date, now a piece for Foreign Policy about the importance of Central Asia in Chinese foreign policy in the wake of his tour to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Why Xi Jinping Chose Central Asia for His First Post-COVID-19 Trip

The region has long served as a testing ground for Beijing’s economic and foreign-policy ambitions and is becoming increasingly close to China.

China’s President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and other participants attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders’ summit in Samarkand on September 16, 2022. (Photo by Sergei BOBYLYOV / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI BOBYLYOV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to make Central Asia the site of his first foreign visit since the coronavirus pandemic began is an unsurprising one. The region is one where China can claim lots of foreign-policy successes and is full of countries that will not publicly criticize Beijing. As then-Lt. Gen. Liu Yazhou [1] put it in 2010, Central Asia ‘is a rich piece of cake given to today’s Chinese people by Heaven.’

Modern China’s relationship with Central Asia goes back to the end of the Soviet Union. Beijing inherited a number of things from the collapse of Moscow’s empire. One was a lesson on how not to dismantle a communist ruling governance structure; the other was a messy border adjacent to one of Beijing’s most sensitive regions. The second became the foundational issue for China’s relations with Central Asia.

For China, the end of the Soviet Union meant that it suddenly found itself bordering four new countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also emerged, but they did not share borders with China.) The Soviet-Chinese frontier had always been remote and ill-defined, and with the emergence of these new states, there was a need to establish relations, define borders, and attempt to demilitarize what was a messy and ill-defined space. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to make Central Asia the site of his first foreign visit since the coronavirus pandemic began is an unsurprising one. The region is one where China can claim lots of foreign-policy successes and is full of countries that will not publicly criticize Beijing. As then-Lt. Gen. Liu Yazhou[1] put it in 2010, Central Asia ‘is a rich piece of cake given to today’s Chinese people by Heaven.’

Modern China’s relationship with Central Asia goes back to the end of the Soviet Union. Beijing inherited a number of things from the collapse of Moscow’s empire. One was a lesson on how not to dismantle a communist ruling governance structure; the other was a messy border adjacent to one of Beijing’s most sensitive regions. The second became the foundational issue for China’s relations with Central Asia.

For China, the end of the Soviet Union meant that it suddenly found itself bordering four new countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also emerged, but they did not share borders with China.) The Soviet-Chinese frontier had always been remote and ill-defined, and with the emergence of these new states, there was a need to establish relations, define borders, and attempt to demilitarize what was a messy and ill-defined space.

This led to the creation of the Shanghai Five grouping, bringing together the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia to help define borders, establish what military presence would exist, what cross-border trade would look like, and how the relationships between China and these new states could develop.

But the entity grew far beyond its initial mandate, and it was so successful (at least from a Chinese perspective) that Uzbekistan was encouraged to join. With Tashkent’s ascension, the name changed and in 2001, it evolved into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Each member joined for their differing reasons. Beijing was always interested in the organization developing a strong economic aspect, something the others were more skeptical of. Ultimately, they all agreed to let it develop as a security grouping focused on terrorism, and it became the first international, security-focused, multilateral organization that China created.

This was a major step forward at a moment when China was still a relatively timid actor on the world stage. Here the country was trying to build something, when in many other contexts it appeared to be trying to still live by the maxim of ‘hide and bide your time.’ But within Central Asia, it was actually not surprising.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has sought to rekindle the idea of Silk Roads through Central Asia. At the time, the focus was to build pipelines and rail links from the region across China to the eastern seaboard to reach the booming Japanese market that was keen for Central Asian hydrocarbons. However, this rapidly shifted as China’s economy took off and needed more of these resources itself and people saw growing markets they wanted to connect with.

Beijing signed contracts in 1997 and was soon building pipelines in Kazakhstan to get its oil back to China (agreements were signed even earlier with Turkmenistan to access its rich gas supplies, but took much longer to actually implement). In the wake of his 1994 tour of the region, Chinese Premier Li Peng hosted meetings of Eurasian rail ministers to help develop links across the region and open up routes from China. This was a first for Chinese energy firms. Central Asia was a region where China was willing to try out new things.

As well as get access to the region’s rich resources, China’s ultimate goal in Central Asia was to help stabilize Xinjiang province. Beijing was worried about violence in the region, which had links across the border. Militant Islamists were a feature of the scenery in both the region and China—though the degree to which they were motivated by religion or their ethnic identity was difficult to determine. Large-scale violence took place in Central Asia as well as China throughout the late 1990s. China wanted cooperation and support from Central Asian governments to deal with this. As a result, strong and sensitive security links were developed.

But the longer-term answer to these problems, in Beijing’s analysis, was always going to be economic. A benefit of the collapse of the Soviet Union to Xinjiang in particular was a sudden opening up of what had been a landlocked region that had faced sealed borders. Chinese leaders at the time pushed the region to exploit these opportunities. As then-Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen put it (as reported by Xinhua News Agency in March 1993), ‘the foreign minister urged all border regions [Xinjiang] to further improve their infrastructure and basic industries such as transport, energy and telecommunications to meet challenges they will face in years to come. Border trade must develop into mutual economic cooperation.’

This order was followed, and over the next few years, Xinjiang gradually increased its trading activity of goods with Central Asia. Products from across China would increasingly move through Xinjiang to Central Asia while raw materials and some agricultural products, in particular, would go into China. Much of this was via routes built by Chinese firms, often with Chinese bank loans supporting them.

This was something that was carried forward into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s time, when he decided in September 2013 to make Kazakhstan the site of his first speech laying out his big foreign-policy concept: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In doing this, he was building off earlier visits by Li and later declarations by leaders like former Chinese President Jiang Zemin or former Chinese leader Wen Jiabao, who in 2012 declared Urumqi the ‘gateway to Eurasia.'[2]

Central Asia had always held an important place in Chinese thinking, and Xi decided to stamp his imprimatur on it and take it one step further by globalizing the entire concept. But the broader vision of the BRI was something that China had been talking about and doing in Central Asia since the late 1990s.

There was an additional hard security agenda at play as well. Although strong contacts and focus had helped manage the violent threat that China perceived from angry Uyghurs, there were still risks. In the wake of rioting in Xinjiang in 2009, violence seemed to escalate, coming to an embarrassing head in 2013 when an attack was perpetrated in Tiananmen Square and then a year later when Xi visited Xinjiang in 2014, only to be met by an attempted suicide bombing at Urumqi’s train station. In their wake, an already tight security vice clamped down further, and there was an increasing push by China to establish clearer visibility on security threats in the region.

This led to the creation of a People’s Armed Police (PAP) permanent presence being established in Tajikistan along the top of the Wakhan Corridor—the thin strip of Afghanistan which reaches out and touches China, separating Tajikistan from Pakistan. (It was initially developed as a border between the rival Russian and British empires). This was China’s first-known military base outside its borders; it has since more publicly established a naval base in Djibouti and is currently exploring opportunities in other places as well.

The exact dates of the establishment of the base are unclear. From my own research around the region, I started to hear rumors as early as 2012, though it was unclear whether this was just Chinese soldiers patrolling, people misinterpreting what they thought they had seen, or something else. What is clear is that as word of it started to spread in the mid-2010s, Russia started to become agitated. But its public anger was directed more toward Tajikistan than China—bristling at the fact that a Collective Security Treaty Organization partner would allow a foreign base on its territory without informing its partners.

The Tajikistan episode highlights a long-standing, simplistic analysis that is often thrown around regarding this region. There are always dark rumors that Beijing is trying to oust Moscow from the region and that heated competition behind the scenes could escalate. There is doubtless some displacement happening, but the truth is that for both of them, competition over this region is far less relevant than the important geostrategic support they provide each other in their collective confrontation with the United States. Russia has noted it is losing ground and seeking to strengthen its position in creative ways by demonstrating what it can offer, but it is unlikely to do this in a way that would be interpreted as running counter to Chinese interests.

The region is a propitious one for Xi to make his first foreign foray in over two years. He is visiting a region where China has consistently tested out new foreign-policy ideas, where the local governments will go to great lengths to ensure the visit goes smoothly, and where there is an appetite for economic cooperation on all sides.

From a domestic Chinese perspective, it means Xi has had an easy visit where he rubs shoulders with some of the world’s largest powers (like Russia and India), can showcase his foreign-policy vision (the Belt and Road Initiative), and celebrate China’s contribution to the world of international multilateral organizations (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

Although the SCO is widely derided in the West, it has only grown and expanded in remit during its 21-year existence, and it now encompasses almost 40 percent of the world’s population. It is an organization that has important Western allies (like India) as members, reflecting its appeal beyond the club for anti-western authoritarians that it is sometimes described as. For many of its members, the SCO is an expression of the ‘more just’ international order that senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi[3] described to the Russian ambassador to Moscow. It is showing the world that there are options out there beyond the western-dominated order that was created in the wake of World War II.

Central Asia has always held an important place in Chinese strategic thinking. It is a space where China has consistently tested out new ideas and has a web of relations and interests that are tied to some of its most sensitive domestic national security concerns. It is now also giving Xi the final step of his victory lap ahead of his likely third-term coronation at the 20th National Party Congress.

[1]: https://www3.nd.edu/~pmoody/Text%20Pages%20-%20Peter%20Moody%20Webpage/AdvanceTowardWest.pdf

[2]: http://english.mofcom.gov.cn/article/newsrelease/significantnews/201209/20120908320465.shtml

[3]: https://www.theepochtimes.com/mkt_app/china-and-russia-vow-more-just-international-order-ahead-of-putin-xi-meeting-top-ccp-diplomat_4727591.html

Another interview with La Repubblica, this time focused on my most recent book Sinostan and looking at Chinese foreign policy more broadly. Again in Italian so you will have to learn the beautiful language (or use Google Translate…).

Raffaello Pantucci: “La Cina? Un impero in espansione, ma senza una chiara strategia. E questo è un problema”

di Enrico Franceschini

Parla l’esperto di sicurezza internazionale per il Royal United Services Institute di Londra (Rusi): “Pechino sta diventando un impero accidentale che minaccia di estendersi in tutta l’Eurasia, ma senza una visione su cosa fare e come affrontarne i problemi. Una prospettiva che, a partire dalla tensione di questi giorni intorno a Taiwan, è molto pericolosa per gli equilibri internazionali”

“La Cina sta diventando un impero accidentale che minaccia di estendersi in tutta l’Eurasia, ma senza una chiara strategia su cosa fare e come affrontarne i problemi. Una prospettiva che, a partire dalla tensione di questi giorni intorno a Taiwan, è molto pericolosa per gli equilibri internazionali”. È il monito che Raffaello Pantucci, esperto di sicurezza internazionale per il Royal United Services Institute di Londra (Rusi), lancia dalle pagine di Sinostan, il libro che ha da poco pubblicato in Inghilterra con la Oxford University Press, frutto di tre anni di studi sul campo in Estremo Oriente.

La tesi del suo saggio è che sta per nascere un impero cinese, Pantucci?
“La Cina sta diventando la potenza più influente in Asia centrale e in gran parte dell’Eurasia: una vasta zona del mondo, piena di problemi, su cui tuttavia Pechino non sembra avere una chiara strategia. È la potenza che cresce di più in quell’area, ma non si capisce che intenzioni abbia”.

Per questo lo definisce un impero “accidentale”?
“Sì, perché la Cina è diventata una potenza economica regionale e anzi continentale, ma senza una vera strategia, bensì con tanti piccoli progetti. Naturalmente in quella zona si muove anche la Russia, ma Mosca ha bisogno di Pechino per contrastare l’Occidente e dunque la chiave della situazione ce l’hanno in mano i cinesi”.

Le esercitazioni militari cinesi davanti a Taiwan sono la prova generale di un’espansione militare in tutto il continente?
“La situazione è diversa rispetto all’Asia centrale, perché Pechino considera Taiwan parte del proprio territorio. Ma paradossalmente su Taiwan esiste un equilibrio strategico, mantenuto finora dal confronto fra Cina e Stati Uniti, mentre in Asia centrale e in Eurasia questo equilibrio non c’è: la Cina è praticamente sola o comunque in grado di condizionare l’altra potenza regionale, la Russia, che ha bisogno del sostegno di Pechino. Dunque in un certo senso è una zona ancora più pericolosa”.

Secondo lei la leader del Congresso americano Nancy Pelosi ha fatto bene o male a visitare Taiwan?
“Non ho una risposta sicura a questa domanda. Da un lato non capisco le tempistiche di una visita simile, in un momento così delicato. Dall’altro però credo anch’io che l’autonomia e la democrazia di Taiwan vadano protette con fermezza”.

Il ventunesimo secolo sarà il secolo cinese, come il ventesimo è stato il secolo americano e il diciannovesimo quello britannico?
“Nonostante le apparenze, non credo che sarà il secolo cinese in modo analogo a come il secolo scorso è stato dominato dall’America e quello precedente dall’Impero britannico. Penso che sarà un secolo di potenze multilaterali in competizione tra loro: la Cina e la Russia da una parte, l’America e l’Europa dall’altra. E mi auguro che questa competizione produca stabilità anziché conflitti”.

Come dovrebbe reagire l’Occidente democratico all’espansionismo cinese?
“Secondo me l’Occidente dovrebbe aiutare i Paesi presi nel mezzo a non sentirsi costretti a scegliere con chi schierarsi. Dovrebbe aiutarli a crescere economicamente, a consolidarsi, mantenendo una propria libertà di scelta sul cammino da fare. O noi o loro può diventare un aut aut controproducente dal punto di vista occidentale”.

Quanto è serio il rischio di un conflitto militare tra Pechino e Washington, o addirittura di una Terza guerra mondiale che cominci proprio dalle tensioni su Taiwan?
“Per ora non sembra che nessuno dei due voglia veramente la guerra. Ma il punto preoccupante è che il presidente cinese Xi ha detto di volere risolvere la questione di Taiwan nell’arco del proprio periodo al potere, quindi nei prossimi cinque anni o entro i cinque successivi se verrà riconfermato nell’incarico. Abbiamo dunque una sorta di conto alla rovescia”.

Perché Taiwan è così importante per la Cina?
“Perché i cinesi considerano l’isola parte della Cina, ma anche per un’altra ragione: riprendere Taiwan è una dimostrazione di forza per Pechino. Se Taiwan diventasse più indipendente, altre regioni della Cina potrebbero spingere per fare altrettanto e l’intero paese rischierebbe di andare in pezzi, senza contare che la popolazione potrebbe concludere che il partito comunista ha mancato i suoi obiettivi”.

Una teoria di alcuni anni or sono era che la Cina, con la crescita del benessere economico e di una classe media, avrebbe imboccato gradualmente la via della democrazia: crede possibile che questo prima o poi avverrà?
“Penso che non si possa escludere una evoluzione positiva, una Cina più aperta nei rapporti con il resto del mondo e più tollerante sul fronte domestico, ma credo che sarebbe comunque una forma di democrazia diversa dalla nostra almeno per ancora molto tempo”.

More belated commentary, this time for the Straits Times exploring the range of trouble spots in Central Asia that have not gotten much smaller since I wrote this.

Trouble brews in Central Asia

A mix of geopolitics and domestic turmoil is stirring unrest in all but one country in the region, which serves as an important land bridge between Europe and Asia.

The most recent bout of trouble in the region emerged in Uzbekistan last month with unrest in Karakalpakstan. PHOTO: REUTERS

The world has a collective habit of forgetting Central Asia. Rich in natural resources, the region sits at the heart of what British geographer Halford Mackinder described as the geopolitical pivot of the world – serving as an important land bridge between Europe and Asia. Key overland routes – like the Silk Road of yore – cut across the region connecting Europe directly to China.

The past year has been a tumultuous one for the region. A mix of geopolitics and domestic turmoil has created a dangerous brew in all but one of the five countries making up the region – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Only Turkmenistan, which has just seen a power transition from a tried and tested leader to his young son, appears unaffected. There is no evidence of instability in the country at the moment, although it is impossible to know what is really going on because of the lack of information. Food prices are reportedly high, inflation has long been a problem, while the population is still struggling amid a Covid-19 crisis.

REINVIGORATED MOTOR AND BULWARK

The most recent bout of trouble in the region emerged in Uzbekistan last month with unrest in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the north-eastern region of the country. An attempt to redraft the nation’s Constitution led to anger as locals felt their special status was being taken away without their consent. At least 18 people were killed.

The violence in Uzbekistan had followed unrest in Kazakhstan, the wealthiest and most influential Central Asian power which had thus far been regarded as the bulwark of regional stability. Both countries were widely seen as former Soviet bloc countries seemingly on the path of reform.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev turned the country around when he took over in 2016 following the death of founding president Islam Karimov. Moving to rapidly open up the previously reclusive regime, the government in Tashkent was viewed elsewhere in Central Asia as a reinvigorated motor to the region.

When Kazakhstan’s founding leader and president Nursultan Nazarbayev handed over power peacefully in 2019 he seemed to set the tone for how such power transitions could be handled elsewhere. But, in January last year, a fuel tax hike led to mass protests that were quickly overtaken by a political dispute. The violence rapidly spiralled out of control, leading President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to call on Russia to deploy its forces under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to help stabilise the country. Reports suggest that over 200 people were killed in the unrest.

The authorities in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are still counting the costs of the unrest, including the geopolitical and political consequences of what occurred. President Tokayev’s decision to bring in Russian forces was highly sensitive politically in a country where the government has long been pushing an increasingly nationalist narrative.

In Tajikistan, the trouble centres on the Pamiri community living along the country’s border with Afghanistan with many people angry at their treatment by the central government. The Pamiri people, who are ethnically and linguistically different from the Tajiks, have historically been locked in conflict with the rulers in Dushanbe. Last November, a young local man was tortured and killed by the authorities. This led to protests and repression which, in turn, erupted into much larger violence in May this year. The government is still suppressing the violence and has only recently reopened communications lines from the region.

Afghanistan has been a source of concern for Central Asia. As majority Muslim countries ruled by secular authoritarian or semi-authoritarian leaders, they fear the rise of Muslim fundamentalists in their region. The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban put everyone on edge. As the militant group swept into Kabul, Russia rapidly dispatched aid to Central Asia in the form of joint training exercises and speeded up arms sales to the region. China, another regional power, contributed less, though it stepped into an active diplomatic role and bolstered its forces in Tajikistan along the Afghan-Tajik border.

Border disputes remain an obstacle to better ties in the region and the problem is particularly complicated in the volatile Ferghana Valley, where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan meet. Almost half of the 970km Kyrgyz-Tajik border has yet to be demarcated and this has led to repeated tensions between the two countries. In April last year, more than 40 people were killed as Tajik and Kyrgyz troops clashed over their disputed frontier and access to water. Tensions have since remained high with a Tajik border guard killed just a month ago.

SHADOW OF UKRAINE

All of these developments have taken place in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has a particular resonance in the case of Kazakhstan, which has a large ethnic Russian population in its north along the border with Russia. Kazakhstan has been pushing Kazakh nationalism in an effort to craft a stronger sense of independent national identity, to the detriment of Russians. This has stirred anger in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other prominent commentators questioning Kazakh national identity as a concept. The similarity with Ukraine is not lost on seasoned observers.

Nestled between China, Russia and Iran, Central Asia is isolated from the West and yet wishes it was part of it. The United States and Europe have made efforts to connect with the region, but distance, prioritisation and local governance issues have often meant that it has ended up being nothing more than a distracted partner. Instead, Central Asia has found itself stuck with regional superpowers which are locked in a geopolitical struggle with the West, and tend to see the world in entirely transactional terms.

These regional powers are also not interested in trying to manage the problems in Central Asia. Moscow continues to take a paternalistic attitude towards the region, while China is an entirely disinterested regional hegemon – increasingly the most consequential economic and political partner – but only willing to just watch as problems play themselves out. Iran is preoccupied with too many domestic problems.

The result is a Eurasian heartland in turmoil. This has consequences for energy prices – Turkmenistan is home to the world’s second largest natural gas field, and Kazakhstan is a key regional oil and gas producer. The country is also a major wheat exporter, at a time when the war in Ukraine has impacted two of the world’s largest exporters (Russia and Ukraine). The instability also has potential consequences for China’s Belt and Road visions across Eurasia, as most of the key land routes cut through this region on their way to Europe.

In his 1904 paper, The Geographical Pivot Of History, Sir Halford identified the Eurasian heartland as the key territory to control the planet. Recently it has seemed as though Russia is relinquishing its control of the region and China is assuming it, the more accurate recent narrative is that everyone is watching as it becomes unstable. The question the world needs to pay attention to is what happens if this same pivot falls off its hinges. An unstable heartland is as dangerous as a dominated one.

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

Side box

Nestled between China, Russia and Iran, Central Asia is isolated from the West and yet wishes it was part of it. The United States and Europe have made efforts to connect with the region, but distance, prioritisation and local governance issues have often meant that it has ended up being nothing more than a distracted partner.

Instead, Central Asia has found itself stuck with regional superpowers which are locked in a geopolitical struggle with the West, and tend to see the world in entirely transactional terms.

Causes for strife

BORDER DISPUTES

When the region’s borders were defined during the Soviet period, Central Asia was carved up in such a way as to ensure that its patchwork of ethnicities would remain in conflict with one another and, therefore, no threat to Moscow. The result has been a series of ill-defined borders that still cause trouble to this day. This is most apparent between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where each country has communities living in exclaves entirely surrounded by the other.

Waterways, roads and food supplies have regularly been a source of conflict, most recently in border shootings that erupted into conflict in April last year.

ETHNIC DIVISIONS

In Tajikistan, the region called the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) is home to the Pamiri people, who have historically been locked in conflict with the rulers in Dushanbe, the capital. In the 1990s, the country was wracked by a brutal civil war which led to tens of thousands of deaths. The civil war ended in 1997 with an internationally mediated accord.

In November last year, the death of a young Pamiri man in custody led to renewed tensions and fighting as the government sought to crush the Pamiri protests.

In Uzbekistan, as part of a broader drive to reform the country and potentially extend his rule, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev sought to redraft the national Constitution – including changing the status of Karakalpakstan. Physically the largest of the country’s 14 regions, Karakalpakstan has been an “autonomous republic” since the establishment of modern Uzbekistan in 1991. People in the area have always cherished their special status which gave them particular power and status within the country. Last month violent protests occurred in the regional capital, Nukus, which left 18 people dead.

ECONOMIC WOES

The apparent trigger for trouble in Kazakhstan came from a fuel tax hike at the beginning of the year. Already suffering from a domestic economic contraction, the public expressed anger at the visible economic inequalities in a resource-rich country.

The apparently organic protests were quickly overtaken by a larger power struggle as factions close to former long-time founding leader Nursultan Nazarbayev sought to undermine President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev using the cover of the protests.

Part of the problem was that many in the security forces remained loyal to the former leader, leading President Tokayev to make the politically risky decision to seek Russian forces to help stabilise the situation.

His gamble worked, and the trouble was contained, but it highlighted the deep political tensions in the country overshadowed by the apparently peaceful transition of power in 2019.

Posting another interview promoting the book, this time with the excellent Central Asian site Central Asian Analytical Network and the wonderful Ruslan who very kindly took time to do this interview and a podcast separately. Am posting it here in Russian as it ran.

этом эпизоде Руслан Изимов и его гость – Рафаэлло Пантуччи обсуждают, почему Китай непреднамеренно становится империей в Центральной Азии? Как будет меняться подход Пекина по продвижению инициативы Пояс и путь? Как война в Украине меняет видение Китая своей роли в Евразии? Смогут ли Москва и Пекин сохранять баланс интересов в Центральной Азии? И наконец, как странам Центральной Азии продолжать сохранять многовекторный внешнеполитический курс?

Рафаэлло Пантуччи является старшим научным сотрудником RUSI и ранее был директором по исследованиям в области международной безопасности. Он является старшим научным сотрудником Школы международных исследований им. С. Раджаратнама, Сингапур. Его исследования сосредоточены на терроризме и борьбе с терроризмом, а также на отношениях Китая с его западными соседями. В настоящее время он проводит свое время между Лондоном и Сингапуром. Дополнительную информацию о работе Рафаэлло можно найти на сайте:  http://www.raffaellopantucci.com,  а о его работе по Китаю и Центральной Азии:  http://www.chinaincentralasia.com.

Совсем недавно была опубликована новая книга Sinostan. China’s Inadvertent Empire («Синостан: непреднамеренная империя Китая»), в которой авторы рассказывают о подъеме Китая в качестве империи на примере стратегии Пекина в Центральной Азии.

Книга является результатом 10 лет работы двух авторов: Рафаэлло Пантуччи, старшего научного сотрудника Школы международных исследований им. С. Раджаратнама (RSIS) в Сингапуре и эксперта Королевского института объединенных служб (RUSI) в Лондоне, а также Александроса Петерсена, академика, писателя и эксперта по геополитической энергетике, который трагически погиб в Кабуле в 2014 году.

Авторы книги главным образом показывают, насколько важна Центральная Азия для Китая в контексте как внутренней политики Пекина, так и его глобальных амбиций. Так, красной нитью через всю работу проходит мысль о том, что стабильная и процветающая Центральная Азия является одним из ключевых условий долгосрочной стабильности в самом беспокойном регионе Китая – Синьцзян-Уйгурском автономном районе (СУАР).

Авторы задаются вопросом – есть ли у Китая комплексная стратегия в Центральной Азии? На основе анализа они приходят к выводу о том, что Пекин имеет четкое видение и стратегию в СУАР, а политика в Центральной Азии скорее является ее логическим и географическим продолжением. Именно поэтому китайские власти вкладывают многомиллиардные инвестиции в Центральную Азию, развивают инфраструктуру, транспорт и культурно-гуманитарные связи.

Такая активная деятельность Китая в Центральной Азии, по мнению авторов книги, уже приводит к значительному изменению баланса сил в регионе. Например, ЕС и США не рассматривают Центральную Азию в качестве приоритета, и влияние Запада здесь неуклонно снижается. Особенно явным это снижение стало после вывода войск США из Афганистана.

Но влияние России и Китая в регионе, наоборот, продолжает расширяться. При этом, в отличие от России, Пекин обладает широкими финансовыми возможностями, и китайское руководство этим пользуется для того, чтобы еще больше увеличить зависимость молодых республик от Китая.

Для наращивания своего влияния в регионе Китай в равной степени использует различные механизмы, а также многосторонние и двусторонние форматы. Тем самым Пекин стремится держать под контролем процесс региональной кооперации в Центральной Азии, а также, что немаловажно, иметь возможность противодействовать устремлениям других держав в регионе. В конечном счете именно Центральная Азия становится ярким индикатором возросших глобальных амбиций Китая.

Почему Китай непреднамеренно становится империей в Центральной Азии? Как будет меняться подход Пекина по продвижению инициативы “Пояс и путь”? Как война в Украине меняет видение Китая своей роли в Евразии? Смогут ли Москва и Пекин сохранять баланс интересов в Центральной Азии или они превратятся в открытых конкурентов? И наконец, как странам Центральной Азии продолжать сохранять многовекторный внешнеполитический курс?

Эти вопросы мы обсуждаем с автором книги Рафаэлло Пантуччи.

Рафаэлло Пантуччи

Cначала позвольте мне поблагодарить вас – Руслан и Лидия – за ваше приглашение принять участие в этой беседе. Всегда приятно читать ваши материалы. Для меня это большая честь. Меня зовут Рафаэло Пантуччи. Я старший научный сотрудник аналитического центра S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) в Сингапуре и старший научный сотрудник Королевского института объединенных служб (RUSI) в Лондоне. Я сейчас нахожусь в Сингапуре.

Ваша книга называется “Синостан – непреднамеренная империя Китая”. Вы могли бы вкратце привести свои аргументы нашим слушателям, почему Китай непреднамеренно становится империей, по крайней мере, в Центральной Азии?

Да, предпосылка книги, которая базируется на большом объеме исследований, проведенных в Центральной Азии и Китае, а также в регионе в целом за последнее десятилетие, заключается в том, что Центральная Азия – это та часть мира, где Китай все больше становится самым значимым актором. И это происходит из-за определенной комбинации естественных и политических факторов, то есть это не обязательно результат намеренных действий Китая. Но следствием этого является то, что Китай становится очень влиятельным актором на местах. Очень важным. Но это актор, который в некотором роде не заинтересован в том, чтобы взять на себя эту роль и эту ответственность. То есть, если мы посмотрим на регион, мы увидим, что весь регион Центральной Азии все чаще сам рассматривает Китай как источник экономических возможностей. Даже как источник некоторых ограниченных решений безопасности. Как важного партнера на мировой арене. Но в то же время Китай на самом деле не очень заинтересован в том, чтобы пытаться решать какие-либо вопросы на местах внутри региона, будь то в Афганистане, будь то в Центральной Азии или в более широком регионе. То есть Центральная Азия это часть мира, где присутствует все более влиятельная сила, которая имеет очень сильное присутствие и очень важна для всех действующих лиц на местах, но это сила, которая не обязательно заинтересована в этом или намерена сознательно вовлечься в реальное решение проблем на местах, или взять на себя ответственность, связанную с тем, чтобы стать своего рода крупным экономическим партнером для большинства стран региона.

В определенной степени именно Центральная Азия является ярким индикатором возросших глобальных амбиций Китая. Как мы помним, именно здесь в Центральной Азии, в столице Казахстана в 2013 году Си Цзиньпин предложил инициативу Один пояс один путь. За прошедшие 9 лет инициатива прошла большой путь. В том числе, если брать регион Центральной Азии, то здесь “Один пояс – один путь из простой инициативы переросла в действенный инфраструктурный проект. Особенно в 2015-2019 годы. Но сейчас об этой инициативе говорят не так много. С чем это связано? Это только пандемия или проблемы долговых ловушек и другие уязвимые точки инициативы влияют?

Да, спасибо. Я думаю, вы знаете, что Центральная Азия имеет решающее значение для инициативы «Пояс и путь» во многих отношениях, потому что есть причина, почему Си Цзиньпин озвучил ее в ходе своей речи в бывшей Астане и Назарбаев университете. Это было потому, что во многом то, что он описывал, когда он описывал Экономический пояс Шелкового пути, по сути, уже существовало. То есть он давал название тому, что уже происходило в Центральной Азии и Китае в течение некоторого времени. И это было своего рода признанием того, что такой подход, такого рода идея создания инфраструктуры, предоставления кредитов, попытки открыть рынки, попытки улучшить связь, на самом деле были довольно позитивным внешнеполитическим видением, которое нужно продвигать в мире. То есть, я думаю, вы видите, что Китай и Си Цзиньпин в частности, решают превратить это в свою ключевую внешнеполитическую идею.

И это своего рода глобализация подхода, который происходил в Центральной Азии, я бы сказал, уже на протяжении десятилетия. Таким образом, Центральная Азия стала тестовой площадкой для инициативы, которая затем стала глобальной. И это было своего рода видением «Пояса и пути». Но важно понимать, что «Пояс и путь» —это не столько конкретный проект, сколько общее видение. Это большая внешнеполитическая идея Си Цзиньпина. Он толкает ее в мир. И он во многих отношениях институционализировал ее как свою внешнеполитическую идею. Если вы посмотрите на конституцию китайской коммунистической партии, они теперь вставили в нее “ Пояс и путь”, а это означает, что пока он у власти, “Пояс и путь” всегда будет актуальной и никогда не исчезнет.

Но, с другой стороны, многие уже отмечают и очень правильно указывают на недавнее замедление некоторых из этих инвестиций. И я думаю, это действительно стало результатом некоторых процессов. Во-первых, пандемия явно замедлила ход событий за последние несколько лет. Вы знаете, блокировки Китая, как мы видим сейчас, очень драматичны и очень масштабны и действительно вызывают проблемы, с точки зрения попыток торговать со страной. Но на самом деле проблемы были и до этого. И проблемы на самом деле стали возникать, если вы посмотрите на годы бума инициативы «Пояс и путь», которые приходятся на 2013 по 2015 или 2016 год, когда деньги уходили во всех направлениях, компании везде инвестировали, новые проекты объявлялись повсюду. Были потрачены миллиарды и миллиарды. Но было неясно, эффективно ли они расходуются и в правильных ли направлениях.

Были вопросы – а вдруг некоторые из этих проектов будут неудачными, потеряют деньги. И когда наступил экономический спад, произошло небольшое сокращение, когда в основном китайские банки, китайские компании приостановились – или им было сказано притормозить, проверить, что они делают, убедиться, в том, что они делают проекты, которые на самом деле знают. Потому что никогда не предполагалось, что “Пояс и путь” станет грандиозным проектом международной помощи. Никогда не предполагалось, что Китай просто раздаст деньги. На самом деле речь шла о том, чтобы вывести китайские компании в мир, наладить торговые связи через внешнеполитическое видение и делать соответствующие инвестиции, чтобы способствовать этому и строить разные проекты. Но речь не шла о том, чтобы просто раздавать деньги. Вы знаете, поэтому я думаю, произошло своего рода сокращение, и я думаю, именно поэтому мы наблюдаем небольшое замедление.

И я думаю, дискуссия вокруг инициативы также утихла отчасти потому, что, знаете ли, было много шума, даже перегрева, некоторого избыточного энтузиазма. Но ключевой момент, который я бы отметил, это то, что инициатива никуда не делась. Просто до этого мы видели последовательные усилия по реализации, а сейчас Китай начал немного переформатировать ее. И теперь мы видим, как Китай говорит об инициативе глобального развития, которая, по сути, является своего рода новой артикуляцией того же самого. Но, по сути, концепция “Пояс и путь” и то видение, которое за ней стоит, я не думаю, что они исчезнут. Я думаю, что активность некоторых проектов немного замедлилась, потому что для Пекина было важным убедиться, что все это работает, а не просто разбрасываться деньгами.

Спасибо. Сейчас про инициативу Пояс и путь есть разные мнения. Даже есть такие оценки, что Китай может отказаться от нее. Но есть и противоположное мнение, что Пояс и путь — это брендовый проект самого Си Цзиньпина, и китайская сторона вряд ли откажется от него пока Си находится у власти. Как уже отметили, с одной стороны, слишком быстро она развивалась и за достаточно короткое время, последние 5-6 лет, охватила огромное количество стран Евразии ив целом, в мире. Но если посмотреть на эту инициативу, с точки зрения последних событий, в частности война в Украине показала, что для Евразии необходима сеть альтернативных и разнообразных маршрутов. Как повлияли эти оба события на видение Китая своей роли на континенте?

Да, я думаю, что события в Украине важны для Китая. Вся концепция «Пояса и пути» заключается в нацеленности на достижение тесных связей, открытости, открытых границ, простоте ведения торговли, перемещения товаров. И тут внезапно огромная страна между Китаем и Европой – Россия – попадает под очень жесткие санкции Запада. До такой степени, что товарам становится трудно осуществлять этот транзит. Так что возникли всевозможные вопросы. С другой стороны, Украина была страной, которая на самом деле была в некотором смысле главной целью «Пояса и пути», и это была цель не только с точки зрения китайских инвестиций, во многих других областях, и Китай был крупнейшим торговым партнером Украины до конфликта. Я не знаю, каковы нынешние торговые показатели. Это страна, которая была очень важна во многих отношениях, и внезапно появился этот гигантский барьер на евразийском массиве суши. Понятно, что это вызовет проблемы для транзита, но это практические проблемы, и они преодолимы, потому что даже если транзит через Россию будет трудным, есть другие маршруты, и я думаю, они будут пробоваться. Поэтому я думаю, что хотя это проблема, но в каком-то смысле это не обязательно непреодолимый вопрос. С точки зрения Китая, более серьезный вопрос, возникающий в связи с конфликтом на Украине, — это отношения с Россией. И в некотором смысле конфликт действительно обострил ту грань отношений, где Китай и Россия считают себя союзниками в конфликте против Запада. Теперь идут реальные и ожесточенные боевые действия. И они разделяют мир на непримиримые линии – мир все больше делится на тех, кто с одной стороны, и тех, кто с другой. В части Юго-Восточной Азии, где я сейчас нахожусь, люди сильно запутаны. Возможно, есть люди, которые находятся где-то посередине, и они все еще пытаются это решить. Но когда мы смотрим на Европу, и особенно на Центральную Азию, которая окружена Китаем и Россией, то это регион, который по умолчанию ощутит на себе последствия своего рода вырезания России из западной экономической системы и последствия того, к чему это приведет в Китае. И это немного усложнит попытки Центральной Азии, давние попытки попытаться наладить связи с Западом, чтобы попытаться открыться в этом направлении. Так что я думаю, что для инициативы “Пояс и путь” все очень усложнится и придется искать обходные пути. Я думаю, одна из умных вещей в инициативе “Пояс и путь”, это то, что она никогда не была ограничена конкретными странами, она всегда оставалась совершенно открытой. И как совершенно открытая идея, она способна гибко измениться. Нет какого-то предела, за которым последует остановка или провал. Нет, она всегда может изменить курс и направление. И я думаю, что это будет именно так происходить. Но я думаю, более серьезная проблема для Центральной Азии заключается в том, что есть риск стать привязанной к региону, который все больше подвергается остракизму со стороны Запада. И надо выходить из этого и продолжать строить отношения с Западом, которые, я знаю, Центральная Азия очень хочет иметь.

Каким Вы видите будущий формат отношений между Китаем и Россией в Центральной Азии? До настоящего момента Москве и Пекину удавалось найти компромиссный вариант. Теперь ситуация в мире меняется. Россия неизбежно слабеет как экономически, так и политически. В этой ситуации будет ли Китай пытаться как-то решительно изменить статус-кво в Центральной Азии?

Я думаю, что это действительно интересный и сложный вопрос, потому что правда в том, что Китай будет продолжать двигаться в том же направлении, в котором он шел. Я думаю, в Центральной Азии Китай, по существу, ориентирован на свои собственные интересы. Я думаю, разница в некотором смысле между взглядами Китая и России на Центральную Азию, и я слышал от многих китайских экспертов, что это формулировалось на протяжении многих лет, заключается в том, что Китай смотрит на регион и видит в нем транзакционный потенциал – то есть делать что-то в обмен на что-то. Это пять стран, с которыми у Китая разные отношения по разным причинам. Есть особый угол безопасности в отношениях, потому что эти страны имеют прямую границу, потому что они беспокоятся о потенциальной оппозиции, где уйгуры вдруг будут замышлять нападение на Китай из Центральной Азии. Но в основном для Китая это всегда сделка и Россия имеет гораздо более патерналистский взгляд на регион. Она рассматривает это как регион, который был частью Советского Союза, который в некотором смысле является частью их территории. Я прекрасно понимаю, что это очень деликатный вопрос в Центральной Азии, но я боюсь, Москва, вероятно, так это и видит. То есть эти две страны относятся к региону немного по-разному. И, вы знаете, я думаю, лучший способ взглянуть на это, подумать об этом, — это посмотреть на реакцию на основные проблемы безопасности, которые имели место, и которую мы видели за последний год.. Если мы вспомним падение Кабула в середине прошлого года, вы знаете, это были не китайские силы, которые вдруг поспешили провести учения на границах Таджикистана и Узбекистана с Афганистаном. Не Китай начал торопиться с продажей оружия в регион. Вы знаете, это была Россия, это был ОДКБ. Именно Россия действительно вмешалась в ситуацию. И я думаю, это очень важно. Китай не очень заинтересован в этом. Китай, по сути, делал то, что ему нужно. Он будет строить отношения, продвигать свои интересы, но я не думаю, что он заинтересован в заполнении этой пустоты, потому что в некотором смысле я думаю, они вполне счастливы работать параллельно и вполне удовлетворены тем, чтобы просто сосредоточиться на своих конкретных интересах, а не конфликтовать с Россией. Я думаю, другой, последний элемент, который важен, с точки зрения Центральной Азии, заключается в том, что, в конце концов, и Китай, и Россия считают свой геополитический альянс более важным, чем любой другой вопрос в Центральной Азии. А это значит, что они не собираются доводить себя до столкновения в Центральной Азии, потому что не хотят подрывать глобальный Альянс, что очень важно в плане противостояния США и Западу.

В целом, долгосрочная стратегия Китая в Центральной Азии приобретает новые формы и содержание. На мой взгляд, подходы Пекина в нашем регионе менялись несколько раз, хотя цели и устремления во многом оставались прежними. Так, условно говоря, в 90-е гг. Пекин стремился обеспечить в ЦА стабильность, чтобы с ее территории не было угроз безопасности СУАР. В 2000-х основной упор китайской политики в регионе делался на использовании формата ШОС и расширении энергетического присутствия в ЦА. Позднее, в 2010-х гг., ШОС стала исчерпывать свой потенциал. К тому же наметились определенные противоречия между Китаем и Россией, поскольку Москва активизировала в регионе собственные интеграционные структуры (Таможенный союз, ЕАЭС). Все это не давало в рамках того же ШОС реализовывать новые проекты. Как следствие в 2013 г. появилась инициатива “Пояс и путь”. Она давала возможность перевести отношения со странами ЦА с многостороннего на двусторонний формат. Однако позднее на фоне катастрофических последствий пандемии коронавируса “Пояс и путь” стал терять свои конкурентные преимущества. Но Пекин пока не готов отказаться от Пояса и пути и даже ШОС, считая их собственными имиджевыми проектами. В то же время Китай сегодня активно использует региональный формат С+С5 (Китай + Центральная Азия). Тем самым Пекин стремится держать под контролем процесс региональной кооперации в Центральной Азии, а также, что немаловажно, иметь возможность противодействовать устремлениям других держав в регионе. Как Вы считаете, как будет меняться политика Китая в регионе в краткосрочной перспективе? В чем интересы Китая в Центральной Азии касательно ее интеграции?

Для начала я хотел бы отметить такой интересный факт. Если вы вернетесь и посмотрите на 1994 год, когда Ли Пэн совершил свой первый грандиозный тур по региону, он посетил все столицы, кроме Душанбе. Потому что там, конечно, в то время шла гражданская война, и это было довольно опасно. Но он побывал во всех других столицах. Что интересно, его визит тогда включал такие пункты, как беспокойство об угрозах безопасности со стороны уйгурских диссидентов, которых они тогда называли сепаратистами, и строительство нового Шелкового пути, и налаживание связей региона с остальным миром. На самом деле речь шла об импорте энергетических ресурсов региона в Китай и даже о доставке энергоресурсов по всему Китаю. Но это в основном в 1994 году: двумя главными пунктами были осуществление нового Шелкового пути и проблема безопасности. До сих пор эти два пункта являются главенствующими. Но что изменилось, так это точная артикуляция вокруг них в рамках Шанхайской организации сотрудничества и более позднего формата C5+1 и многими другими структурами. То есть ключевой момент, который я хотел бы отметить, это то, что Китай никогда не делал что-то многосторонним способом. Так что я думаю, опасно думать, что Китай имеет и применяет какой-то региональный подход. Правда состоит в том, что это не так. Они действуют на всех фронтах одновременно. Если мы посмотрим на встречи ШОС, когда бы они ни происходили, как правило, есть большая встреча, на которой встречаются лидеры или министры иностранных дел, или кто-то еще, в своего рода большом многостороннем формате. Но также они всегда имеют ряд двусторонних встреч после этого саммита или в то же время. И я часто слышал, что именно на двусторонних встречах совершалось много сделок. То есть Китай действует на всех уровнях одновременно. И я думаю, они продолжат это делать, поскольку китайская система довольно громоздкая. И я думаю, подход будет заключаться в том, чтобы продолжать взаимодействовать по всем направлениям. Я думаю, формат «пять плюс один» — это интересный формат, на котором стоит сосредоточиться, потому что он явно направлен на противодействие Соединенным Штатам. На самом деле, я думаю, китайцев не очень беспокоит российское влияние в регионе, потому что вообще говоря, я думаю, китайцы и русские имеют взаимное согласие по тому, чего они хотят от Центральной Азии, которая, по сути, является регионом, который не экспортирует им проблемы, который стабилен и с которым они могут торговать. И это в основном то, что они хотят. Пока Центральная Азия не создаст им проблем, их это, в принципе, устраивает. И, вы знаете, я думаю, российский подход к этому гораздо более, как я уже сказал, направленный вперед, контролирующий, в то время как китайский подход немного ограничен и даже ситуативен – давайте просто будем заниматься и делать что-то. Но в основном эти подходы не расходятся. Так что на самом деле, нет, я не думаю, что вижу большую конкуренцию между ними двумя, но я вижу конкуренцию с Соединенными Штатами. И я думаю, что формат «пять плюс один» был очень четким эхом американского формата «пять плюс один» и попыткой Китая показать, что мы взаимодействуем с регионом так же, как и они. И это, я думаю, говорит о большой проблеме, которую мы увидим в дальнейшем в китайской политике в отношении Центральной Азии. В частности, я думаю, вы будете продолжать видеть постепенную попытку, по сути, продолжать ограничивать роль США в регионе. И я думаю, что это будет своего рода движущей силой. Другими целями будет постоянное стремление к тому, чтобы регион оставался стабильным, хорошим торговым партнером, в частности, хорошим экономическим партнером для Синьцзяна. Кроме того, я думаю, они будут продолжать беспокоиться об угрозах безопасности и угрозах безопасности со стороны уйгуров-диссидентов, уйгурских боевиков, которые могут организовать заговор в регионе, чтобы напасть на Китай. То есть они все больше беспокоятся о безопасности, потому что в регионе растет число негосударственных групп или националистов. И это, я думаю, распространяется на Пакистан, Афганистан, но также и на Центральную Азию. Они все чаще рассматривают Китай как большую имперскую державу, которой они не очень довольны, и протестуют против нее, и которые начинают выражать себя с помощью насилия. Поэтому я думаю, изменения, которые вы увидите в политике Китая в будущем, связаны с растущим желанием попытаться заморозить активность Соединенных Штатов в регионе. Я думаю, вы увидите растущую озабоченность нетрадиционными угрозами безопасности, связанными с уйгурскими боевиками. Эта застарелая проблема. И конечно, Китай будет стараться способствовать экономическому процветанию с целью стабилизировать регион, но также стабилизировать и сделать процветающим Синьцзян.

Спасибо. Если мы продолжаем Вашу мысль о том, что главным противником в Центральной Азии Китай видит США, при этом все еще находит какие-то компромиссные модели сосуществования и сотрудничества с Россией, то как быть нам, странам Центрлаьной Азии? Для нас, например, те же США – это один из важнейших балансиров для того, чтобы сохранить мультивекторную внешнюю политику. Но с каждым годом сохранять этот баланс становится все сложнее, потому что, с одной стороны, у нас есть многосторонние структуры, о которых мы сегодня упоминали, – это и ЕАЭС, ШОС, ОДКБ, несколько форматов 5+1. Они помогают нам воплощать многовекторный курс. Но, с другой стороны, эти структуры все сильнее тянут нас в противоположные стороны. Как Вы думаете в качестве специалиста, который находится за пределами региона, как странам Центральной Азии дальше проводить внешнеполитический курс? То есть какой могла бы быть оптимальная внешнеполитическая стратегия стран ЦА?

Я думаю, это действительно трудная проблема, потому что Центральная Азия фактически оказалась в тупике. География говорит, что Центральная Азия находится между всеми этими странами и как бы в центре политики великих держав. И, вы знаете, две великие державы, расположенные по обе стороны от Центральной Азии – Россия и Китай – как вы правильно заметили, в некотором роде находятся в согласии друг с другом и, в основном, сосредоточены на своем конфликте с Западом. И многовекторный подход, который Центральная Азия пытается использовать или использует, очень трудно реализовать в этом контексте. Но я думаю, интересно посмотреть, как Центральная Азия реагирует на то, что происходит с Россией в Украине. Понятно, что есть определенное недовольство, и это было сформулировано некоторыми довольно высокопоставленными чиновниками и было очевидно в некоторых сигналах. Отрадно было увидеть гуманитарную помощь, которую люди в регионе посылали украинцам, и некоторое осуждение того, что сделали русские. Это очень позитивно, и это действительно видят, я думаю, в Вашингтоне и в некоторых частях Европы. И я думаю, в некотором смысле, главное, что нужно сделать, — это продолжать демонстрировать этот уровень независимости и продолжать формулировать это, несмотря на существующее давление. Думаю, никто на Западе не ожидает, что регион должен прекратить отношения с Китаем и Россией. Понятно, что это невозможно. Только общая география связывает вас с регионом, и это нормально. Но речь идет о том, как вы прокладываете для себя своего рода независимый путь. И я думаю, что регион Центральной Азии в состоянии сделать это и сформулировать свои опасения, например, в отношении России и Китая. И конкретно в случае с Китаем, я думаю, если страны региона могли бы немного больше говорить о том, что происходит в Синьцзяне, пытаясь сделать немного больше, может быть, чтобы помочь людям в Синьцзяне или, по крайней мере, выразить обеспокоенность этим китайскому правительству, это было бы воспринято очень позитивно сейчас. Это позволило бы осуществлять такую многовекторность гораздо более гладко. И Запад может попытаться теснее взаимодействовать с регионом и помочь ему реализовать многовекторный подход. Вы знаете, я думаю, на западе есть люди, которые признают, что это происходит. Я думаю, Соединенные Штаты, в частности, в последнее время пытались что-то сделать, и это довольно интересно. Но в некотором смысле действительно важно, чтобы регион продолжал демонстрировать свою независимость в некотором роде. И при этом, как я уже сказал, не должно быть конфликта с Россией или Китаем. Но формулируя независимость, регион может осуществлять многовекторность так, чтобы иметь крепкие отношения, в принципе, не только со всеми региональными державами, но и с внешними, что опять-таки будет укреплять позиции и внутри региона.

Спасибо большое за беседу.

С нами был Рафаэлло Пантуччи, старший научный сотрудник Школы международных исследований им. С. Раджаратнама (RSIS) в Сингапуре и эксперт Королевского института объединенных служб (RUSI) в Лондоне.

Still catching up on myself after my extended delinquency, here posting something about Pakistan in the wake of Shabhaz Sharif’s rise to power in the South China Morning Post. Think it still holds water reasonably well now, though I am not sure I quite see China seeing a field of friends across its border any more. Suspect it is more complicated than that, but then it always is. This coming week and the SCO Summit and President Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is going to be a really interesting attempt to connect with something. Be interesting to see how it plays out.

How Pakistan’s new prime minister completes a favourable picture for China in the region

– Shehbaz Sharif’s rise to power in Pakistan puts China in an advantageous position as its western neighbours all have governments friendly to Beijing.

– This also means China has a stake in the many problems that emanate from this region, though, and will be forced to take a more active role.

Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

The election of Shahbaz Sharif as prime minister of Pakistan by legislators completes a series of events which place China in a favourable place in its Eurasian neighbourhood. Beijing now has a leader in Islamabad with whom it has had a successful relationship in the past.

China is also increasingly presenting itself as the closest partner to the new Taliban government in Kabul, and in Central Asia it faces a region where Russia – the other major power – is distracted by a disastrous war of its own choosing in Ukraine. China’s march of influence westward is continuing, but Beijing has still made no clear decision about what it will do with this influence.

When Nawaz Sharif – Shahbaz Sharif’s brother – was prime minister, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was jokingly called the “China-Punjab Economic Corridor” because many of the largest, juiciest investments appeared to be going to Nawaz Sharif’s home province of Punjab. At the time, the chief minister of Punjab was Shahbaz Sharif.

The reality is that the economic ­corridor’s investment has been fairly spread out around Pakistan, though completion rates seem better in Punjab and Sindh. However, it is worth noting that Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous region, so perhaps the focus of Chinese investment there is hardly surprising. 

The tilt towards Punjab also reflected the fact that Beijing liked Shahbaz Sharif and found him a competent leader to engage with. Pakistan has a challenging political and economic environment, and in Punjab China found someone who could deliver. 

Now Sharif has ascended to power after the tumultuous reign of former cricket star Imran Khan. While Beijing has been careful to avoid expressing a preference for one leader over another, China likes having decisive and effective leaders in charge.

Khan was acceptable because he was seen as being the military’s man initially. He was also happy to be outspoken in his support for Beijing while China came under fire for what is happening in Xinjiang. But China has faced growing problems in Pakistan in the past few years as its interests and nationals are increasingly targeted by militants. 

China has always been happy dealing with military men because of their ability to deliver on outcomes. Beijing was in many ways most content when former general Pervez Musharraf was in charge in Islamabad. A former commando, he tended to tackle problems headfirst and actively sought to make sure China was happy even when this caused him problems at home. 

But Sharif is an excellent alternative from Beijing’s perspective. This completes a picture for Beijing where it is dealing with authorities across its western borders with whom it seems satisfied. In Kabul, Beijing has shown itself to be a powerful player in tightly embracing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan government.

In Central Asia, China has a series of leaders who are either willing to quietly engage to advance whatever goals it wants or are actively eager to cultivate a positive economic relationship. In Kazakhstan, it has a leader who studied and worked in China and speaks Mandarin. This is a highly advantageous environment for Beijing. 

However, Central Asia is also a highly troubled region, as we have seen in the past 12 months with the collapse of the Republic of Afghanistan and the chaos in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year. Also, non-state groups in the region increasingly see China as an adversary they are eager to focus on.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor continues to be a narrative focus for Balochistan separatists in Pakistan, while Islamic State Khorasan has referred to China as an adversary in its literature and deployed a suicide bomber last October in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province. At a less violent level, nationalists in Kyrgyzstan have expressed anger towards China and attacked Chinese nationals, while public polling across Central Asia often places China in a negative light.

Beijing thus faces a major dilemma on a shortening horizon. It can no longer claim to have only passive influence across its Eurasian borders or face hostile authorities in power. It now has governments in power across the board that seem eager to actively please China. This also means China increasingly has a stake in the many  problems that emanate from this region.

As the power closest to the governments in both Kabul and Islamabad, China now has little excuse for not trying to mediate the tense relations that continue to exist between the two capitals. As one of the largest investors in and increasingly the largest trading partner with both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, it will start to look odd if Beijing does not try to help the two smooth over their occasionally violent border relations.

Should further trouble erupt and Moscow is too preoccupied elsewhere to do something about it, Beijing will have to think about how it will manage the  situation. Its currently passive approach might not always work out.

China is increasingly the most  consequential actor in Eurasia, and it now has governments in power across the region who actively recognise that fact and are eager to please Beijing.

This both puts Beijing in a position of power but also one of great responsibility. It remains to be seen how China will rise to this challenge.

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

Another belated posting related to book promotion, this time with a lovely inversion of the book’s title in the article’s title in the excellent Diplomat. Many thanks to the wonderful Catherine Putz for doing the interview.

China’s Inadvertent Empire: Welcome to Sinostan

Containers are seen near cranes at the Khorgos Gateway, one of the world’s largest dry dock in a remote crossing along Kazakhstan’s border with China near Khorgos, on April 2, 2018.
Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

In “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire,” Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen take readers into the heart of Eurasia for insight into Beijing’s rise. Over a decade of travel, research, and writing went into the book, which charts the growth of Chinese power and presence in Central Asia. It was in Kazakhstan where, in 2013, newly minted Chinese President Xi Jinping first laid out the vision we now call the Belt and Road Initiative. And it is in examining China’s forays into Central Asia that we can truly grasp the means and motives of China’s global rise. 

Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. Petersen was an academic, writer, and geopolitical energy expert; he was tragically killed in a 2014 restaurant bombing and attack in Kabul, Afghanistan.

In the following interview, Pantucci explains the linkages between Xinjiang and Central Asia, which stand at the heart of Chinese efforts in the region, dives into the implications of China’s involvement in Eurasia for other powers, from Russia to the United States, and discusses much more.

The book starts with Chinese road workers in Kyrgyzstan in 2011. How important has physical infrastructure, like roads, been to both regional engagement with China and broader Chinese aims in the region?

Physical infrastructure has always been a core component of China’s engagement with Central Asia. Looking back at [Chinese Premier] Li Peng’s grand tour of the region in 1994 (where he visited all of the capitals except Dushanbe, which was wracked by civil war), there were two core issues that he focused on during the trip: separatists and building new silk roads. At the time, however, the routes that were being discussed flowed from Central Asia across China to Japan. More recently, these have flowed the other way, and in fact the first big infrastructure in the region were pipelines from Kazakh fields to China. Chinese firms and funding have been subsequently used to refurbish roads, build additional pipelines from Turkmenistan’s munificent gas fields to China, as well as build tunnels, rail, and roads around the region. All of this is in addition to a range of other pieces of infrastructure that have been built, like power stations, ancillary energy infrastructure, airports, buildings of all sorts and more.

This is important for broader Chinese aims as it helps connect Xinjiang to the world, one of the key interests China has in Central Asia. The region in China is infrastructure poor, and the region outside of China is equally limited, and yet if China is going to make Xinjiang prosperous (the long-term answer to the instability Beijing sees in Xinjiang), then it is going to need to be better connected. 

Ultimately, what has been happening in Central Asia for more than the past two decades is in many ways the foundational concept which has been globalized under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is no accident that President Xi first announced his lasting foreign policy idea at a speech in then-Astana in 2013 when he laid out his vision of a Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), which was then joined by the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) in a speech in Jakarta a month later, to become the wider BRI. The whole concept of infrastructure as a foundation for a vision for foreign policy comes from what was going on in Central Asia and was built on the logic that more infrastructure and connectivity meant more economic prosperity which would lead to more stability. This is a pattern which China has observed delivered success at home, and sees as the answer to issues elsewhere as well as a positive concept to use to engage with the world. 

Does China have a comprehensive strategy for Central Asia? Are its engagements just ad hoc developments in bilateral relationships?

We asked a lot of senior Chinese experts and officials about whether Beijing had a strategy for the region, and we were uniformly rebuffed and ridiculed. But then in the early years on our work on this project, President Xi went to the region and announced the creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). But while this laid out a vision, it did not specify a plan. Our conclusion was that it was not a specific strategy that was laid out saying, we need to do a, then b, then c, and then our goal will be achieved. But rather, a wider vision was laid out, and the Chinese system followed. This meant all of the institutions moved forwards in their own ways to try to articulate and play their part in the wider vision that the leader had laid out.

But it was never clear that China had a comprehensive strategy. It has a far clearer strategy for Xinjiang, and in some ways Central Asia plays out as an extension of that, but this is incidental to the core aim of the vision which is to stabilize Xinjiang. As a result much of China’s vision for the region is a series of bilateral engagements that when taken together can be described as looking like a strategy (especially as they are so similar in each case), but it is not clear that there is a comprehensive strategy for the region (except insomuch as the BRI can be described as a broader foreign policy strategy for China).

The only other thing to mention in this context is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which was born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and a grouping called the Shanghai Five which was aimed at helping delineate borders and establish security relations between China and the newly minted countries it shared borders with. This is sometimes described as something which is the vehicle for China’s strategy, but in fact it seems more like an umbrella for everything China does which runs in parallel often to China’s specific interests which are addressed at a bilateral level.  

In what ways is China’s strategy in Central Asia an extension of its strategies and policies in Xinjiang?

Beijing has long worried about stability and security in Xinjiang. Remote from the capital (two hours’ time difference, if China used regional time zones, and about five or six hours by plane), China has struggled to maintain control. At times this has spilled over into violence and even in much earlier years, instances of separatism. The most recent turning point came in July 2009 when rioting in Urumqi led to at least a couple of hundred deaths and the embarrassing specter of the leader of the country having to leave a G8 Summit in Italy to come home and stabilize the situation.

After this we see a push to change things along two axes: first, a heavy security presence, something that was imposed through “strike hard” campaigns – which had extensions into Central Asia from the reality that there have been attacks on Chinese interests and individuals there, as well as the fear that groups of dissident Uyghurs might use the region as a base to attack China. Second, was a heavy economic investment into the region which is the long-term answer from Beijing’s perspective to make Xinjiang stable.

But to make the region prosperous, you need to encourage prosperity and connectivity in its neighboring region. Xinjiang is in many ways the sixth or seventh Central Asian country (depending on if you also include Afghanistan). This is not to deny that Xinjiang is part of China, but to make the point that Xinjiang is deeply intertwined with the region – there are large ethnically Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Kazakh populations in Xinjiang, in much the same way there are Uyghur, Han, and Dungan (ethnic Hui) populations living in Central Asia. This highlights the fact that the region is tied into its neighborhood, but also that Xinjiang is as far from the coasts and global maritime trade routes as any of the Central Asian countries. 

So any economic development in Xinjiang is only going to come when you open up routes across Central Asia to Europe, Russia, and elsewhere, as well as trying to get into the opportunities and markets in Central Asia itself. And of course, finally, Central Asia’s mineral wealth is something that the insatiable Chinese economic machine will constantly need. All of this highlights the importance of the region to China, but critically to Xinjiang (in China’s conception).

What are the implications of Chinese strategies in Central Asia for Western countries, like the United States and in Europe?

The region is not a current priority for Europe or the United States. At various moments in recent times it has risen up in the rankings of priority regions for the West – for example, the U.S. used routes through the region to help supply forces in Afghanistan during their long war there, and during the evacuation last year, European powers in particular relied on regional support to get their people out. Depending on who holds the reins of power in Brussels, Europe is engaged, though overall the European Union has constantly discussed the region as one that they want to focus on but Brussels often struggles to maintain its focus. In large part focus is driven by which power is holding the rotating presidency of the Union. Separately, the U.K. has a strong footprint across the region, and interesting links to a number of countries, but the region is (sadly I might add) not a priority for London.

At the same time, all are significant players in economic and aid terms in the region. They are eager to try to coax the countries of the region into becoming more open, transparent, and accountable. But the lack of focus means this goal is followed to a limited degree by senior levels. This is in contrast to China or Russia – Moscow which takes a traditional paternalistic view to the region and has repeatedly shown itself willing to deploy forces to help deal with local security threats with President Vladimir Putin expressing himself and meeting regional leaders. And China is the coming power in economic and strategic terms in the region, but continues to pay its respects to all of the regional leaders. All of this will serve to crowd out Western interests and approach, as while the region would like to play the various sides off each other and have the West as an option, the reality is the West does not seem as engaged – or their interest is sporadic. China and Russia are constant, and China in particular ascendant through sheer economic force alone.

This means this region is increasingly going to find itself sucked into China’s thrall. This will make it harder for the U.S. or Europe to advance their goals. It also means that much of the Eurasian heartland will increasingly fall from Western influence leaving it to China and Russia. And if historical British geographer Halford Mackinder is to be believed, this means losing control of the “world island” and therefore power and influence on the planet.

How does China’s strategy in Central Asia compare with those of other major players in the region, like Russia, and those further afield with important interests, such as the United States, Turkey, Japan, etc.?

There are many similarities, in terms of seeking to offer investment and opportunity, as well as worrying about security issues through engagement with locals. But at the same time, there are some critical differences. Russia does not so much see Central Asia as a neighboring region, but more an extension of self. Not all in the same way as Russia views parts of neighboring countries with Russian populations (though of course this does apply in Kazakhstan’s case), but more in terms of how economically and socially tied Russia is still to these countries. This is not only through the web of institutions that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union – like the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), or the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – but also through the sense that the region is Russia’s soft underbelly with the potential risks and threats that emanate from Afghanistan coming through the region to threaten Moscow. This is different to Beijing’s more transactional approach which is less interested in being in control or seeing itself as responsible, but is instead focused on its own interests and how they are affected by the region.

Other powers, like Japan, Turkey, India, or South Korea, have varying degrees of interests in the region and tried slightly different things. Turkey has long called upon its Turkic heritage to develop relations across Central Asia, but these have often failed to deliver to the hoped for results. Turkey is an alternative place for migrant labor to go to from the region, there are some Turkish companies and goods that are very well received in the region, and Istanbul has actively sought to cultivate its soft power links through education and culture. But it struggles to deliver the same impact as others. Japan and South Korea have both engaged in the region, though to different degrees of attention – both use policy banks and their own firms to try to build infrastructure or access resources in the region. And both have advanced visions for engagement, but the reality of geography means this will only really work if their relations with Central Asia’s neighbors are good. 

Similarly, India has always sought to engage with the region. All of the recent Indian leaders have done big tours of Central Asia after which they have spoken of their interest and focus on the region. And India has historically had some air force footprint in Tajikistan. But this has always stumbled in the follow on – in part due to the complexity of geography (with Afghanistan and Pakistan in between, and Chabahar Port in Iran being an awkward route from Central Asia to India), but also due to strategic concerns with China, as well as the reality that India is not a command driven economy and tends to drift in its foreign policy focus (except with Pakistan). All of these contrast with China’s very focused and growing attention which geography favors and is something that they are able to do without ruffling too many Russian feathers at the moment.

Many discussions about China focus on its rise both globally and in the Indo-Pacific, with a heavy focus on the maritime space. Is landlocked Eurasia overlooked in those conversations? If so, why is it important to pay attention to China’s “inadvertent” empire in the heart of Asia?

It is a great disappointment to me that many of the Indo-Pacific strategies focus almost solely on maritime power. This misses out the vast and rich hinterland that exists in the Eurasian heartland. An area replete with opportunities, ancient civilizations and culture, but also a region which has sadly created problems for the West in the recent past. September 11, 2001 emanated from Afghanistan, and more recently we can see that this is a region of great strategic importance to both of the main Western adversary powers – China and Russia (and even Iran). By developing strategies towards Asia that almost entirely exclude the Eurasian heartland, the West is missing out on an opportunity in many ways. As mentioned before, according to Mackinder, whoever controls this region, controls the world. But stepping away from grand geopolitics, this is a region with which Europe is contiguous, meaning what happens there is likely to resonate. To simply abandon it to its fate misses a regional opportunity, but also misses out on understanding how Chinese foreign policy actually works in practice in an area which Beijing cannot simply walk away from.

More book promotion stuff, this time a short article for the wonderfully entitled Splash, a trade publication about global shipping industry. It just felt too perfect to write about landlocked Central Asia in such an outlet. Huge thanks to editor Sam for the kind invitation.

China’s transport links with Central Asia in the spotlight

Raffaello Pantucci, the co-author of the just published Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, a book studying the People’s Republic’s growing influence in Central Asia, writes for Splash today.

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative vision is to open up markets and enhance connectivity around the world, ultimately transforming China into the heart of a global web of trade routes and goods flows. But in many contexts, it is as much about connectivity more broadly than solely links back to China. In landlocked Central Asia, Beijing’s vision has helped the region develop multiple links to the seas.

The most prominent example of this is Lianyungang Port in Jiangsu province which has offered itself as a staging point for Central Asian goods to get to international markets, and goods to get to the region. In late 2019, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Chinese instigated regional organization involving all of the Central Asians minus Turkmenistan, but also including Russia, India and Pakistan, held a meeting for logistics firms in the city, part of a broader engagement effort. Kazakh firms have invested heavily into the Port, and established numerous strong connections. Links which have unfortunately suffered during COVID as Chinese border restrictions have tightened considerably leaving Central Asians struggling to get goods in or out.

Another more subversive example is the Chabahar Port in Iran, which has long been seen primarily as an Indian-Iranian project which would enable Indian firms to reach Central Asian markets. Something they struggled to do when trying to reach directly through adversary Pakistan and war-torn Afghanistan (though this has started to change recently changed with some limited direct routes opening). But long-standing Indian prevarication over Chabahar – something Delhi has been discussing working on for over a decade – has meant that Iran has solicited China to help the development of the port, with mention of it included amongst the many documents circulating around the 25-year strategic deal signed between China and Iran in 2021. China is helping take over this route too.

The final more complicated example can be found in Pakistan, where the recent Taliban take-over in Kabul has seemed to breathe life – at least from Beijing’s perspective – into a longstanding Chinese desire to connect up their BRI vision in Pakistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), with Afghanistan. The idea is one Beijing has been pushing for some time, but has largely floundered under the Republic government in Kabul due to tensions between Islamabad and Kabul. The advent of a theoretically more friendly government in Kabul, and China’s warm embrace of the newly minted Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), suggests this idea might be on the table once again. Should this connection realize, it will help give Afghanistan (and Central Asia) its quickest possible route to seas, through the Chinese developed port of Gwadar in Baluchistan. It will also quite firmly anchor Afghanistan in China’s wider BRI vision, something that has been missing in any practically meaningful way outside rhetoric.

Whether any of this is practicable of course is a different matter altogether. While relations are changed, tensions clearly still remain between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Similarly, Chabahar is a growing port, it equally remains to be seen how useful it really is as an alternative to the existing ports that access the markets that are already operational. And a key lesson many Central Asian export/importers will have learned during the pandemic was that Chinese controlled routes are not entirely reliable. It is only now, two years on, that some of the border posts between China and Central Asia are opening up once again.

Beijing might have helped connect landlocked Central Asia to the seas, but it is not clear that it is going to be entirely smooth sailing from now on.

More catch up posting with another interview in the wake of Sinostan’s publication. This one for the excellent Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting (CABAR). Many thanks to the wonderful Ruslan for sorting it out!

How Does the War in Ukraine Affect Central Asia? An Interview with Raffaello Pantucci

Analytical platform CABAR.asia spoke with Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), about Central Asian countries in the light of confrontation between Russia and the West, the indirect impact of sanctions on the region, the role of China and the potential of the EAEU and the CSTO.


Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) in London. His work focuses on China’s relations with its western neighbours, Central Asia, and terrorism and counter-terrorism. His most recent book is Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022, with Alexandros Petersen). Much of his work can be found at: http://www.raffaellopantucci.com


CABAR.asia: The Central Asian states are in a difficult position because of Russia’s military action in Ukraine – on the one hand, there is no opportunity to speak out openly against the Kremlin’s military action because of the economic and political dependence of the countries in the region on Russia. On the other hand, there is the possibility of falling under Western sanctions alongside with Russia. In the light of these developments, what action should be taken by the Central Asian countries?

I think that Central Asia is in a very hard place in this context, because of all the reasons you outlined, but also because I think no matter what happens, the sanctions are going to hit Central Asia due to the nature of the connection that the region has with Russia in particular. It is almost impossible that it is not going to be affected. If we just look at labor migration, which is a really important part of the connection for the region, maybe less so for Kazakhstan, but for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan this is a critical part of their economy. That is just going to plummet suddenly in volume and going to have a huge effect and mass potential unemployment for a lot of people. So the impact is unfortunately unavoidable for the region because no matter what there is going to be an echo.

But what is interesting is the fact that the leaderships have all taken slightly different approaches to responding to what Russia has done. So as far as I can tell the Turkmen and the Tajiks have not said much. The leadership in those two countries has said relatively quiet on the conflict in Ukraine so far avoiding criticizing either on Russia or on Ukraine. The Kazakhs have done a very interesting job of actually trying to be quite proactive where on the one hand there have been some attempts to drag them into the debate, in particular from some sort of Russian media sources, but still the Kazakhs they’ve tried to step back from this.

There’s been some public protesting Kazakhstan, which the government has let happen. So obviously that shows a certain level of tacit support for the Ukrainian side. The government has sent humanitarian aid Ukrainian side as well. In addition, they’ve already shown some effects of the sanctions by stopping Air Astana from flying to Russia, which is a massive deal. But they have also engaged with Russia and abstained in UNGA votes. So the Kazakhs have tried to strike a balance, where on the one hand they’ve continued to have a relationship with Russia, but on the other hand, they’ve tried to demonstrate that they are trying to reach out to both sides. The most recent statements by Deputy Foreign Minister Vassilenko about not wanting the country to be stuck behind a new iron curtain with Russia and remain open to the west is the clearest articulation in some ways yet of the fears in Central Asia about being closed off with Russia while at the same time trying to be pragmatic and take advantage of the situation. The Uzbeks are trying something similar, but doing it more subtly. Foreign Minister Kamilov was clear about drawing the lines of where the country would not support Russia in refusing to recognize the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lughansk (a view shared in Nur-Sultan). As far as I can tell the Kyrgyz appear to be the ones who more are leaning into the relationship with Moscow, though even this is a bit clouded by some of the protests we have seen and a sense that the government is being pushed into this position. Though Kyrgyzstan has always been quite close to Moscow. In some ways, this probably reflects the overriding sentiment that exists in most of these countries towards Russia, which is one kind of concern, but at the same time, a recognition of the importance of the relationship that they do have with Moscow.

To be honest, at the moment that’s probably the best that we can expect because they are all in a very difficult position. I would like to see them more leaning into the relationship with Ukraine, because these are all countries that in many ways have suffered under Russia in similar ways, they’re all bound to Russia in similar ways and Ukraine is an important partner for lots of Central Asian countries. But at the same time, it’s clear that the leaderships across the region are different. So from my perspective, the way the Kazakhs are handling it at the moment would probably be seen as the most positive (especially given events at the beginning of the year in which they leaned on Moscow to help them resolve their domestic problems), with the Uzbeks shadowing them. But it’s still would be nice to see more frankly of them trying to show solidarity and support to the Ukrainians because at the end of the day they’re all in a very similar boat.

How would you describe the mood of the political elites in Central Asia regarding the recent events in Ukraine? How would you assess the statements of the Central Asian authorities on this issue and how the region is now perceived in the international arena?

Broadly speaking, there seems to be quite a high level of concern in Central Asia amongst the elites in so much as it’s possible to discern about what’s happened and what is of concern. In particular,  in Kazakhstan there is an underlying fear that the same that has been done to Ukraine might be visited upon them. But at the same time, they recognize the importance of the relationship with Russia. There does seem to be a level of desire to try to make sure that they don’t let this spillover too much because they do still want to have a working relationship with Russia. It’s important for them to do that. So they want to kind of find a way of striking a balance, but my sense is broadly speaking one of concern. It is, however, challenging trying to figure out what this means in practical terms going forwards.

In terms of how Central Asia is perceived in the international political arena, so far I have seen fairly limited comments about Central Asia in the international sphere within this context. I think the United States appears to be trying to reach out to Central Asia, which I think is quite positive, but I think it reflects an approach from the State Department at the moment of trying to outreach to Central Asia and trying to strengthen that relationship. So we’ve had Secretary Blinken do the C5+1 meetings. We’ve seen them condemn when they’ve been worried about what’s happening, a lot of condemnation about the rioting that we saw happening in Kazakhstan, but at the same time, a desire to reach out, that seems to be where they’re going.

We haven’t seen the Turkmen or the Tajik presidents say anything. We’ve seen the Kyrgyz president quite openly talk about leaning into the relationship with Moscow. But when we look at Tashkent and we look at Nur-Sultan, these two countries seem to be trying to strike a balance. It’s reflected also in the UN voting, where all of the Central Asian countries all seem to be trying to vote in terms of showing some sort of support for Ukraine, even if they do this in a very tempered way and try to abstain from votes rather than necessarily vote in support of Ukrainian positions.

As we know from the events in Georgia in 2008 and the current events in Ukraine, we can observe Russia’s strong measures towards countries conducting a pro-Western policy. Is there any chance that Russia might do the same with Central Asian countries? Which Central Asian country is the least dependent on Russia and can pursue a multivector foreign policy?

The difficulty that Central Asia always has with this multi-vector foreign policy concept is that for it to really work in a transformative way it would require them to change quite a lot in a more Western direction, which they are doing gradually. A greater push westward would be needed for it to work in that direction, otherwise the multi-vector diplomacy is a case of juggling between China in Russia, two powers that are always frankly going to more agree with each other than they are going to pick a side with countries in between.

The multivector foreign policy notion is one that is most credible with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

At the moment the one that everyone used to look to is the one that was doing it most effectively was Kazakhstan because the Kazakhs had more money, more power and more resource to be able to kind of strike an independent view. But what we saw after the rioting at the beginning of the year was that they leaned very heavily on Moscow. That has kind of demonstrated that at the end of the day, when the region worries about security issues, and there are a lot of security issues in the wider region, they still look to Moscow as the kind of father protector rather than Western powers or China. Something that we also saw during the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. So in some ways, the whole narrative of multi-vector diplomacy has changed now from what it used to be and its credibility is diluted. This has been further complicated by events in Ukraine of course which has cast Russian power in a very menacing light once again.

If we look at what Russia is doing, I think the country that’s most understandably concerned is Kazakhstan. Because of all of the kind of underlying issues and motivations which Russia cited as reasons for its military actions in Georgia and Ukraine, you could find in Kazakhstan: there is a population of Russian ethnic communities living in the north, predominantly along the border with Russia who still speak Russian. There has been a campaign in Kazakhstan trying to de-Russify to some degree, though they put it more in light of trying to Kazakh everything – using more the Kazakh language, pushing less use of the Cyrillic script. This could be interpreted by Moscow as a policy of de-Russification (or persecution of Russian minorities), which is exactly the reason why Russia has just given for why it’s gone into Ukraine.

There has been a concern about this in the past and even if we look at what President Putin has said in some of his comments where he’s referred to Kazakhstan, as not being a country, about President Nazarbayev building something interesting out of nothing. You could take these words and interpret them in the same way that we’ve just seen them interpret their justification for going into dismember Ukraine. So within that context, Kazakhstan is the one that’s got to be most concerned about this, but at the same time, one of the key lessons I’ve taken away from what happened at the beginning of the year in Kazakhstan was that the Russians did come in and they left. They came in, they played a stabilizing role and they left.

In some ways, I think what that showed to the Russians and the Kazakhs were that Russia could still be an important security stabilizer and that was ultimately appreciated by the local government. That means that the government there is still one that Moscow would look at as relatively pliant, unlike president Zelenskiy in Ukraine or the leadership in Georgia. I think that that’s why, one of my key takeaways from the beginning of the year was that Kazakhstan is an important country for Russia in the region, but the relationship is different to that with Ukraine. I’m sure the Kazakhs are still worried about the parallels, but at the same time, the lessons from what we saw happening at the beginning of the year were that their relationship with Moscow is still one that Moscow obviously feels quite confident in and still feels that it has an upper hand on. That suggests that they’re less likely to create these kinds of aggressive Novorossiya visions into Kazakhstan than they are in Ukraine as there is less need for it.

Central Asian countries have already felt the effects of the sanctions against Russia: national currencies are devaluing, there are shortages of goods and remittances are shrinking. How do you think the economic crisis will affect the lives of ordinary citizens in the region? Could the economic and financial crisis affect the anti-Russian sentiments of the Central Asian populations, for example, by demanding withdrawal from such organizations as the EAEU or the CSTO?

I think it will impact people as you’ve already described. It’s clear that there’s already a direct impact and it will get worse because remittances will stay low and people will not be able to get jobs. It will become harder because presumably, the economic constriction in Russia will mean fewer jobs and so less need for Central Asian workers to come in. So it is a double-whammy in collapsing national currencies and lack of opportunities.

On the interesting side, some countries are still very dependent on energy and oil and gas and presumably with those prices going up, countries like Kazakhstan should benefit. The problem is that that doesn’t necessarily trickle down into everyone’s wallet. It’s really about how the governments manage that. But I could see people across the region suffering from the drop in remittances and the general constriction of the Russian economy whose close ties to the region make it hard to avoid repercussions.

Will that then lead to more anti-Russian sentiment? I’m not sure. Because I have a sense that I don’t know that people would make the direct connection in a way. It’s more a case that people will blame the sanctions rather than the Russian action that triggered the sanctions. I think anti-Russian sentiment will probably increase amongst a certain segment of the community anyway because people will be worried about what Russia might do. But I’m not sure that the economic constriction will necessarily track into that. I think it will cause more problems to local governments as they struggle to manage the fall-out.

Will it lead to withdrawal from EAEU or CSTO? I don’t think so on those either. Because I think leaving an institution like the EAEU for Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan now when the economy is bad is probably the worst time to do it. Because pulling apart something like that will be so complicated and will lead to more economic blockages that they don’t want. So I think, no, it won’t trigger that. The CSTO it’s a different organization, I’m not sure people directly make that kind of connection. If the CSTO was called to fight in Ukraine, maybe we could see people talking about that, but I have a feeling people wouldn’t leave the organization. What would happen is they would just refuse to send soldiers, as has reportedly already been the case in Kazakhstan.

Against the backdrop of a weakening Russian position, what role will China play vis-à-vis the Central Asian states? Will it undertake any measures to strengthen its position? What is the overall impact of the war on China and its foreign policy?

Within the Central Asian context, I think Central Asians will want to encourage more Chinese investment because suddenly their major economic partner is going to go through an economic recession. So for them to avoid that as well, they will want to bring something in. At the same time, it is going to be very difficult because Chinese companies will be careful about sanctions. Chinese companies will come and while they do employ some people, they’re not going to employ enough people to replace all of the jobs that could be lost from the loss of jobs as migrant labor in Russia.

There will be a desire for more China to come in, but China will only come in in the ways that it wants, which is mostly its companies focused on their investments, focused on projects that they want to do, and economic opportunities that they see. Something which does not always equate with what the local governments or populations necessarily want on the ground. China will not want to provide lots of its aid to help bail the region out. It will do what it wants to do rather than what the region would necessarily want to do. But with the crashing economies, I imagine that means certain assets will become cheaper. So you might see Chinese companies wanting to come and do projects now, which will be cheaper than if they did them before.

I think there will be an interesting question about energy because China is very interested in energy from the region and presumably those prices are going to shoot up and China will want to lobby for them to go back down again. That’ll be an interesting dynamic to watch play out.

So I think China will ultimately try to come in, try to do more, but it will do it on its terms rather than on Central Asia’s terms. That will be something that Central Asians will be frustrated by because they will want more and probably not get exactly what they want or to the level that they want, but they will be much more dependent now than they were before.

Recently there has been some talk in the West of imposing sanctions against other EAEU member states because they can almost freely import and export goods within the union to circumvent anti-Russian sanctions. How true do you think this statement is? What would be the consequences of this?

I’m not entirely clear how this necessarily plays out. I hope people don’t go down the path of sanctioning EEAU countries as well because I think then other countries will be suffering. I don’t think the Western governments would go that far. What you might see them trying to do is maybe target specific companies that are maybe using Kazakhstan as a way or using Kyrgyzstan as a way of sneaking into the Russian market. You could see that happening or sort of targeted sanctions, but I don’t think you’d see a blanket sanctioning of the whole institution because I think that from a Western perspective would look very unfair. Ultimately the West would want to help these countries and them to turn on Russia rather than push them towards Russia. That’s the more likely thing that we are going to see happen.

Could it be a kind of transit point? I think it could be potentially because I think you could see people bringing goods there and then taking advantage of repackaging, relabeling, and then selling into Russia. You could see that happening, you saw happen in the past. On the banking side, I don’t think it could quite work because, from my understanding of how the banking system works, I think the regional banks, except for Kazakhstan, probably wouldn’t be able to support a useful level of financial trade and flows. I think the Kazakh ones people will be watching them to not facilitate this stuff. So it’ll be quite difficult to see that happening.

Is there a possibility that Western international finance and institutions will pay more attention to Central Asia because of the possibility of a Ukrainian scenario? 

There have been hints from Washington at least that they are trying to pursue this kind of strategy. But I don’t know the energy that’s being put behind it and whether this will mean a kind of flow of investments into alternative projects, that is something we will have to probably wait and see. At the moment there was a lot of desire to support Central Asia post Afghanistan. I think what we saw happening in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year complicated things somewhat because it upended the order regionally a bit and made people worry about stability in the region. If those sorts of protests and violence could happen in Kazakhstan, which everyone thought was so stable, what could be happening elsewhere that we do not know about? So that will have have confused approaches to engage with the region. But I would hope that Western countries will lean into Central Asia rather than lean away as a result of what happens in Ukraine.

What forecast can you give for the next year (short term) and the next 5 years? How will Russia emerge from the sanctions, and what awaits the rest of the Central Asian region?

I think Russia is going to come out of these sanctions with a very much weaker economy than it was before. You are going to see a lot of secondary damage which Moscow is not thinking about now, but will have an impact far beyond Russian borders and in particular in places like Central Asia. And you are going to see an erosion of Russian power to some degree as well. Because I don’t think the war in Ukraine’s going to be over quickly and the more it drags out, the more damage Russia suffers. Russia will find its security forces are stretched and that will have an effect on the vision of Russian power, which taken alongside an economy which is going to constrict points to a power which seems less than it currently is. Russia will doubtless continue  to act very loud, but I think its tools will be reduced substantially.

You will see a much stronger China – Russia relationship going forwards.

You will see that showing up in a more complicated context than we have seen until now. All of that has consequences for Central Asia and could lead to a situation where Central Asians find themselves in a very trapped space because the region is essentially surrounded now by countries that are targets of Western sanctions. Admittedly the level of sanctions is different: Russia, Iran – very hard, China – not that hard, but probably going to get harder as time goes on. So, Central Asia going to find itself increasingly struggling to project out of the region and that’s going to complicate things for them.

How can Central Asia maintain a compromise approach, being a welcoming place for Western countries, without becoming trapped in the encirclement of Russia and China?

That’s going to be the real challenge for Central Asia going forward. Because if we look now we’ve had two major crises in the region in the past six months: the fall of the Republic of Afghanistan and the chaos in Kazakhstan. And of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the two earlier events reflect an instability that still exists in the region that could spark off in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Who knows what is happening in Turkmenistan – the economy has had difficulties and we are now seeing a leadership transition take place which as we have seen in Kazakhstan can have unpredictable consequences. Tajikistan will probably be going to have a leadership transition fairly soon as well. How will that play out? I would suspect we might see some more violence in the region. There have been shootings on the borders between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan again. You worry that in a region where there is all this kindling, you’re now going to have essentially China and Russia as the two powers that are kind of watching over. Russia has shown that it is not very interested in stepping into fix problems unless it’s actively asked like it did in Kazakhstan and it requires a relatively low commitment. The support they provided in the wake of the fall of Kabul was really about Moscow strengthening its extended borders rather than trying to bring stability to the region. And China has repeatedly shown how it’s not interested in committing to anything and happy to watch things play out.

All of this paints a difficult picture for the region. Economically the region is going to suffer going forwards. It’s going to be a very tough few years for Central Asia and its desire to project itself as a region that is not bound by geographical realities but can reach far beyond with its strategic vision and multi-vector diplomacy with the west is going to come under an ever tougher challenge.

It has been quite a while since I posted. My new book was published and I got caught up with a number of things and frankly this fell behind. Am also in need of a bit a refresh to the site, but cannot quite figure it out. If anyone reading this has any suggestions, please do feel free to get in touch and let me know! But now to catch up on a few months worth of articles. But for the time being here is a longer interview with the excellent The Wire China inspired and promoting my new book looking at China in Central Asia, Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire. A few of these to come, as well as some extracts that were published.

The West’s Missed Opportunity in Central Asia

Raffaello Pantucci talks to Andrew Peaple about Xinjiang’s relationship to Central Asia, the BRI’s origins, and the China-Russia relationship in Central Asia.

Q & A

Raffaello Pantucci is a scholar and senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), whose research focuses on China’s relations with its western neighbors, as well as terrorism and counter-terrorism. His new book, Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, investigates China’s relations with its neighbors in Central Asia, based on extensive travel in the region and in China’s western province of Xinjiang. In the following lightly edited interview, we talked about why Central Asia is key to Beijing’s controversial policies towards Xinjiang’s Uyghur population, its economic and security relations in the region and its approach to Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal last year.


Raffaello Pantucci.
Illustration by Lauren Crow

Q: You make the argument in your new book that China’s approach to Central Asia can largely be explained by its concerns over Xinjiang. Can you explain your thinking — and to what extent do you think China’s strategy is working?

A: Xinjiang is in many ways the sixth Central Asian country, or seventh, if you include Afghanistan. It’s just an accident of history that it ended up within China’s borders; it’s always had a very strong connection to Central Asia. If you look at the populations on the ground, everyone associates the Uyghurs with Xinjiang, but there are quite substantial Uyghur diasporas in Central Asia. And if we think about Central Asian peoples, there are large Kazakh, Tajik and Kyrgyz populations in China. So the intermingling and the linkages to the region are very strong, and this goes back centuries. These are longstanding nomadic communities that were transient across the entire space, until the borders were defined at various moments.

So, Xinjiang has always been intimately tied to Central Asia. Going back to the end of the Cold War, China saw that the links that Xinjiang had with the region were very important. If we look at the mid-1990s, when [former vice premier] Li Peng did a famous tour through the region and visited four of the capitals, you can see he’s talking in these places about the problems of separatists, which was a reference to the Uyghurs, and he was talking about building new Silk Roads across this region, linking China up. So it’s always been a running theme for China.

If you take it forward to today, the important marker to look at is 2009, when there was large-scale rioting in Urumqi and Xinjiang, which led to a change in the government’s approach towards the region. And what we saw happen after that was a kind of supercharging of economic linkages between Xinjiang and Central Asia. The government decided that if it was going to fix the problems that had expressed themselves so brutally in the rioting, it needed to do two things: One was a very heavy security crackdown, which we’ve seen and also has a long history behind it. But two, it really needed to improve the economy in the region, because that would be the longer-term answer to bringing stability to Xinjiang. And if you’re going to develop this region, which is as landlocked as any of the Central Asian countries it’s next to, you’re going to have to develop its linkages and help improve its prosperity through the region it is adjacent to. I think that connection [with Central Asia] is at the core of what China sees as the longer-term answer to stability in Xinjiang.

Is it working?

It’s very challenging. After 2009, the perception from Beijing was that the violence in Xinjiang and emanating from Xinjiang was getting worse. And so what we’ve seen over the past few years is the dominance of the security approach, pushing down the economics approach. But they recognize that the economic path is the way to bring stability in the longer term.

You also argue that even though Xinjiang is central to China’s thinking on Central Asia, it still doesn’t have a really coherent strategy towards the region. There seems to be a paradox there.

We started doing the work on this book in the early 2010s. We traveled around the region and Xinjiang, and we found this clear connection, which had quite a long history and was clearly growing. And it was clear to us that there was something happening; there was a big surge into Xinjiang, which was having an overspill into Central Asia, but it was equally clear that it wasn’t all coordinated. And whenever we talked to people in Beijing or Shanghai, the big strategists, we never had a sense that there was a coherent strategy saying “Okay, so first, we’re going to do this, then we do that, and the answer will be this.”

Then in 2013, after we had done a whole bunch of this research and travel, Xi Jinping went to Astana [in Kazakhstan], and announced the Silk Road Economic Belt, and then a month later, we got the 21st century Maritime Silk Road [which together became the Belt and Road Initiative]. And of course, the year before, in 2012, [Peking University professor] Wang Jisi had given his famous treatise about China marching westward. And so suddenly, you start to see there is some clear thinking about what this is going to look like. But what we still never quite saw was actually a clear, laid out plan. In fact, what it looked like was that what had been happening in Central Asia for some time was being formalized, and then basically becoming China’s larger strategy for engaging with the world. At the same time, we still never saw a very clear and perfectly articulated strategy for Central Asia, it’s more that Central Asia becomes the first place where this approach has been tested.

Why do you think Central Asia is important? And should we in the West be paying more attention to what China is doing there?

It’s a bit of a lacuna that the Indo Pacific strategies being pushed out now [by the U.S. and EU] focus almost single-mindedly on the maritime side. They’re missing a huge story that’s happening in Eurasia. And this is important to Europe, particularly, but also more grandly, in bigger strategic terms. This is where all of these powers that at the moment the West is locked in a struggle with, have a very important stake. And so it seems odd that we’re not engaging more.

But at the same time, Central Asia is an interesting mix, if you look at the degrees of engagement. For example, the European Union is always talking about Central Asia as a place where it really wants to engage, and engage with China as well. But it’s never quite been able to pull it off, because Europe has various internal complexities that make it very difficult for them to focus on some things, when there are other priorities.

For the United States, when you had the focus on Afghanistan, the region was very interesting and appealing; whenever you don’t have that, it’s become less crucial. At the same time, the U.S. even having a small presence does have an outsized impact. What we’ve seen over the past few weeks is an attempt by Washington to engage with the region in quite an interesting way, but not to the degree that the region wants and is actually needed, it’s still not rising that high up in the rankings.

What are the implications if the West does allow China to just carry on increasing its economic, security, and even its cultural ties with Central Asia?

It’s worth remembering that we have got countries here like Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have created problems that have struck the West quite dramatically in recent times. This is not a region that is unimportant; it does have an ability to reach out and hit us.

It feels like a missed opportunity to just say that the Eurasian heartland is going to be signed over to this new axis of authoritarian powers, comprising Russia, China and Iran, and that these countries in between will just get stuck into that morass. There is a real opportunity in Central Asia where you have got some relatively young countries, that have a desire to reach westward, that have young populations that are very interesting and dynamic. And it feels like a missed opportunity to just say it’s off the beaten track, too complicated, let’s just leave it alone, when actually you’re dealing with countries that would be very keen to engage more in Western discourse, and are trying, in some cases, to move in that direction.

At the moment, they have this sort of easy fallback of Russia and China; Russia, they’re always very slightly worried about and China they’re also not totally happy with at the moment, probably a little bit more comfortable than with Russia because of current Russian activity. If we go back and look at history and geopolitics, this is the Eurasian landmass, which is the biggest single piece of territory on the planet; and for it to just be sort of controlled by these other powers misses a geopolitical beat. And just focusing on the maritime side of China misses not only a huge part of China, but also a huge part of Eurasia.

Frankly, what the region wants is options; they don’t want to be constrained. And the difficulty they have is when they don’t have any options. They would like to have Western options available to them as well. These are countries that would like to craft out a different path, they are 30 years young: It’s 30 years since they shed the Soviet yoke, they don’t really want to just fall under someone else’s. They would like to be able to craft out an individual identity.

What attitude have governments in Central Asia tended to take towards the reports of the oppression that’s taking place in Xinjiang?

There was concern and knowledge about it, it’s certainly something that did come up. But the flip to that was, I never really saw vast protests or movements to try to do something about it. There is a Uyghur diaspora in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in particular. And in the past, Kazakhstan has been a place where lots of dissidents used to gather. And in Kyrgyzstan there have been previous incidents of Chinese getting murdered there by angry Uyghur groups. So there is a history and a connection in that way. But when I would go to the region, I wouldn’t find much sympathy towards the Uyghurs. The sentiment was often “Well, they probably brought it on themselves in some way.” And at the government level, there was always a sense of ‘we don’t criticize what other governments do, in terms of handling their own internal security, because we don’t want them to criticize us’.

What about the other criticism that you sometimes hear of China’s economic diplomacy, which is that it’s forcing countries into debt in order to entrench China’s power?

There’s always that fear, but I’ve never liked the debt diplomacy, debt trap narrative, because I feel it removes agency from the host countries. We can question judgment; we can question whether a project was undertaken under corrupt practices, or whether something happened behind the scenes. But I struggle to find evidence that there’s a conscious effort by the Chinese bankers and companies to essentially entrap these countries in some way, to then reclaim something from them. In some deals, there was quite clearly an effort by the Chinese company or the bank to make sure they had a guarantee, and they will say, “We’re going to do this project, but we will need some mineral rights to ensure our returns.” The transaction was at that level, it wasn’t a forced thing, the government had the agency to make the decision or not. Now, they’re very poor countries, how many things are really off the table? You can question some of that. But I was never very convinced by the debt trap diplomacy argument, because this suggests a level of planning and antagonism from Beijing that I always struggled to find.

The impression I got from the book was that there are several projects that China is essentially extending its investment-driven model to Central Asia, to the benefit of Chinese companies. Does that bring any benefit to the local economy, though?

It’s a good question. It was one of the jokes I used to hear on these trips, people would say, “Well, you look at some of these projects. Money has moved from one building in Beijing to another building in Beijing, and a road has popped up in Tajikistan.” And there was something to that, when you looked at the way that these deals were structured.

At the same time, a road did pop up in Tajikistan. To give another example there, they had the famous “tunnel of death” that used to cut across the country, which was built by the Iranians in the late 2000s and which was a terrifying thing to go down. The Chinese built a parallel one that is much better and is safe, and you don’t have to worry about it flooding and you don’t have to worry about it possibly collapsing on you. These are real benefits — although it’s not a uniform story, there are definitely examples you can find where the net result, frankly, has been problems on the ground that have then ended up in more money having to be spent to retro-fix.

How coordinated did you find China’s investments under the BRI to be in the region?

A crucial thing to say about this is that the BRI was already happening in the region, before it was the BRI. And it got called the BRI afterwards. Everything that had been happening in the region then suddenly got rebranded as BRI and just continued on. BRI is a slogan, really. In this region, in particular, you can see that the slogan was just slapped on top of something that was already happening.

The most dynamic and potentially coordinated area I’d look at is the digital space, where there is an interesting narrative. And the mechanics of how it all ties together still need to be unpicked. Chinese telecom companies like ZTE and Huawei are responsible for the hardware in the region. They’re increasingly responsible for a growing proportion of the software as well. Alibaba has investments in the region. Alibaba’s investments in Russia and the connections that these companies all have through the SCO, and some of the legislative changes that have started happening in the region — there is something that feels a bit more coherent. If we look at the payment systems that come alongside Alibaba and Taobao, all of that does seem to be a bit more edgy. And that is interesting, because there you are seeing the kind of future market that is being both built and, increasingly, delivered by Chinese companies.

There’s also an awful lot of froth around the BRI. Whenever leaders came out to visit, they would sign multibillion dollar deals, and then you’d look in and see that this actually was a lot of deals for the past five years and the future five years, all repackaged together, stuffed into one number so that it can look bigger. In reality, the future ones might never happen, the older ones are gonna get redone. A bit of realism has probably been injected into the process. But look, BRI is not going to go away, because Xi’s written it into the constitution of the Party. So yeah, BRI forever!

The idea that most people on the outside probably have is that Central Asia is a region where Russia still supplies a lot of the security and military muscle, and China increasingly is providing economic support and growth for the region. How do the two countries interact there?

The China-Russia relationship in Central Asia is an interesting one. I often think the tension is overplayed, because I found it in fairly limited supply on the ground. There’s a degree to which you have Russian paranoia. But we tend to think of it as though Russia is worried that its sphere of influence is getting eroded in some way. What that misses is that Russia still does have a very strong influence in the region. If we think back to the beginning of the year, and the protests in Kazakhstan, or even if you go back and look at the fall of Kabul last year, it wasn’t China that countries turned to, it was Russia. It was Moscow that sent soldiers to help stabilize Kazakhstan. Russia does do military sales to a lot of the Central Asians, and did joint training exercises with the Uzbeks and the Tajiks in the wake of the fall of Kabul. So Russia is still a very important security actor in the region. It has also got an important economic connection, through the Eurasian Economic Union. Russian companies, of course, are able to operate there quite happily, and so there is a kind of strong historical connection that continues to sort of exist with Russia now.

Having said that, China is clearly the growing force and becoming probably the most consequential power in the region. What’s different is that Russia takes a more paternalistic view of the region, and China is seeing it in a much more transactional light. And so while China does engage increasingly in security matters, they engage with matters that are linked to its interests. The PAP — the People’s Armed Police, a kind of security force in China that is very closely linked to the party that usually deals with domestic security issues — is often at the front of engagement with the region, because their primary security concern with the region isn’t this abstract geopolitical fight with the Russians, it is a very specific one: militants gathering there to come and hit them back at home. China’s very focused on its own interests.

It’s the same at the economic level, these companies that are going in, they’re going in there to do deals, to do transactions; they’re not going there, for some sort of abstract, geopolitical goal. It’s driven by whatever company they’re working for. We get caught up in these geopolitical games. In reality, the Russians do see it as their kind of fiefdom. And the Chinese are just coming in and doing what they want and what they’re worried about. So those two concepts don’t necessarily need to collide. Where they do collide, the key thing we have to remember is that for both Beijing and Moscow, far more important than whatever happens in these countries, is their geopolitical alignment against the United States and the West. As long as that exists, they will overlook whatever tensions and issues you find in the countries in between.

From what you’ve seen, then, it still seems the case that China is pretty reluctant to get involved in anything that involves its own military.

We’re still a way off that, frankly. Now, this is a negative for the region in a way, because the Russians have shown themselves to be a mixed protector at best. The West has demonstrated its fleeting interest, with the coming and going in Afghanistan. And so, with China slowly becoming the most consequential economic actor in this region, you would expect it to try to play a greater role in trying to mediate some of the tensions. But I’ve seen very little appetite from Beijing to do that. A kind interpretation would say, well, where have they got the experience of doing this sort of thing successfully? And this is a very complicated region, is this really the place you want to start testing these things out? But an unkind reading would say, frankly, they just don’t care. Because they say, “It’s up to you to have your history and work things out.” And sadly, that narrative is probably the more prevailing one in Beijing.

When the U.S. and Western withdrawal from Afghanistan happened last year, there was speculation that it had been left open for the Chinese to come in and dominate. You seem relatively skeptical that that’s what’s taking place.

When we went to Afghanistan, in the early 2010s, the same deals that are being talked about now with the Chinese were being talked about then, and had actually been signed. There’s two big resource deals basically: there’s one in Mes Aynak, a copper project, and there’s one up in the north in Amu Darya, an oil and energy concession. And those two projects were ones that were signed with the Republic government, when the Americans were the dominant force there, and they didn’t go anywhere for many years, and the companies had all sorts of problems. I don’t think any of these problems have really gone away: the only one that could be said to have gone away is security, where it is now frankly, more stable than it was previously. But at the same time, the Taliban openly talked about protecting Mes Aynak; they said a number of times, we will protect this project. My point is they [the Chinese] were not able to deliver on these projects when you had in power in Kabul a more technocratic government that could manage these sorts of things. I don’t know how that becomes easier now with a government that doesn’t have that same sort of technocratic expertise, and is treated as a pariah on the world stage.

The caveat is what we have seen in recent months, which is very interesting in Afghanistan, is a growing push at a much lower level of economic engagement. We have seen a lot of low level trading going on, and an opening up of shuttle routes for pine nuts, or saffron or lapis lazuli — all products that the Afghans have that are of interest to the Chinese market. This is a positive because these are projects and commercial transactions that will benefit a larger number of Afghans, because it’s not about state-to-state deals about mineral resources, which only really benefit the central government and a few workers and don’t have a much wider impact. We have seen the Chinese try to encourage that, and that’s creating an interesting connection economically between Afghanistan and China, which actually costs the Chinese state very little. Because just making sure pine nuts can get into your country, what does that cost the Chinese state?

It remains a very live concern in Beijing that trouble in Afghanistan could overspill into Xinjiang. I think the more likely immediate source of threat probably comes from problems in Afghanistan spilling into Pakistan, and impacting Chinese projects and investments there. I think that’s of equal concern to Beijing. It’s interesting because in a way, the Chinese government had a good working relationship with the Republic government in Afghanistan, on dealing with Uyghur threats, because at the time the Republic government, of course, saw Uyghur militants, frankly, in the same light, as it saw the Taliban — they were all fighting together against them. There seems to be some evidence that towards the end of the Republic government time, there was some sort of breakdown in the relationship between the government and Beijing.

My understanding is that at the moment, there’s two tracks of thinking in the Taliban authorities: On the one hand, there are some that say, “Well, we need to cooperate with the Chinese, because they’re clearly an important economic actor for us; they’re going to be very crucial going forward. So we should think about how we resolve this Uyghur issue to their desire, so that we can overcome this hurdle and get the unfettered Chinese investment that we want.” But there’s another group that says, “Well, we’ve just won a war, a 20-year struggle against the mightiest empire on the planet, and we won fighting alongside these guys. Why should we turn these people over to another state government that wasn’t helping us previously?”