Posts Tagged ‘China’

A piece from late last week as part of a short dossier ahead of the Afghan election done for a new outlet of an excellent Italian think tank called Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI). My contribution focused on China’s role in Afghanistan, a common theme which there should be more work on later in the year.

In addition, spoke to Norwegian paper Morgenbladet about Anjem Choudary’s release and the Sun about ISIS in Syria.

18 October 2018

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Afghanistan remains an awkward fit within China’s Belt and Road Initiative concept. Look at most maps of Xi Jinping’s keynote foreign policy concept cutting a route across Eurasia, and they tend to go tidily around Afghanistan. But this masks China’s genuine stake in the country, the gradual shift that is visible in Beijing’s activity and finally, the potential importance of the country to China’s broader push across Eurasia.

Starting with national security, China has increasingly sought to harden its security presence in Afghanistan. But this has been focused for the most part on Chinese national interests, rather than providing broader security support to the country. Beijing has provided funding, equipment and training for Afghan forces in Badakhshan, in Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan, and helped build border bases for Tajik forces on their side of the border in Badakhshan. At a strategic level, China has fostered the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism(QCCM) which brings together the Chiefs of Army Staff for China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. The focus of the grouping the border region around the Wakhan Corridor which all three of them share.

The key to understand this is that China is not seeking to displace the United States or NATO as a key security provider for Afghanistan’s armed forces. The country is focusing on bolstering its links and the capability of the various armed forces that touch upon its border with AfghanistanThis posture focused on Chinese national security concerns can be seen in China’s previous security engagements with Afghanistan which have for the most part focused on building relations with local groups to ensure that China’s security equities – either its nationals and investments or its concerns about Uighur militants using the territory to plan attacks in China – are covered. 

Having said this, there is an equally noticeable gradual increase in China’s activity in Afghanistan. From largely seeing the country as a graveyard of Empires from which it prefers to keep a discrete distance, China has increasingly stepped forwards to play a role in the country. Chinese firms have won some large extractive projects – in the north CNPC won an oil concession in Amu Darya, while MCC and Jiangxi Copper famously won the Mes Aynak Copper mine in Logar. Construction firms like Xinjiang Beixin, CBRC and Gezhouba have all worked on major infrastructure projects in the country. And at the smaller end of the scale, Chinese traders have sought to exploit the gemstones in Afghanistan, while Afghan shuttle traders are a feature of the thriving community of developing world merchants in Yiwu.

And Beijing has actively sought tomend the previous omission of Afghanistan from the broader Belt and Road, hosting conferences in Kabul and Beijing on the topic. At the same time, China has used a multiplicity of regional groupings to bring different regional configurations together on Afghanistan. Large multilaterals like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), and the Heart of Asia (or Istanbul) Process have all seen Chinese leadership try to push different parts of them towards playing a role in Afghanistan. At a mini-lateral level, Beijing has brought together the Afghan and Pakistani Foreign Ministers, and engaged, separately, with the US, India, UK and Germany on Afghanistan.

All of this is a step change from earlier years when Beijing largely kept on the sidelines of any discussion around Afghanistan. To some degree this was part of a general reticence by Beijing to become too involved in any major international entanglements, but it was also a product of China’s habit of abrogating its Afghanistan policy to Islamabad. While Beijing continues to be responsive to Pakistan’s concerns in Afghanistan, it has increasingly struck out its own path. The key turning point can likely be seen in 2014 when Beijing realized that American-led NATO efforts in Afghanistan had a shelf life and were not likely to result in a tidy resolution in Kabul. And while Islamabad could provide some support to advance Beijing’s goals, it did not have total control. The United States instead, was not a continental power. It could eventually up and leave – as a physical neighbour, Beijing was a hostage of geography.

At the same time, the main running narrative from Beijing was one of Belt and Road. There was a gradual build up to this through Xi Jinping’s early years – with a major foreign policy work conference on peripheral diplomacy, a refocusing on Xinjiang and China’s border regions, some major foreign travel to South Asia by leadership figures (including in May 2013 the signing of the MoU that laid the foundation for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor), and finally in September and October 2013 the respective announcements of the Silk Road Economic Belt (in Astana, Kazakhstan) and the 21stCentury Maritime Silk Road (in Jakarta, Indonesia). In 2014, China decided to create a position of Special Envoy for Afghan Affairs, appointing seasoned diplomat and Afghanistan watcher Sun Yuxi to the role.

Yet while the appointment was a clear signal of focus by Beijing, it was made in a manner which seemed to suggest it was adjacent to the broader Belt and Road Initiative. At the time, the concept was still working itself out, so in some ways this was not surprising, but the net result was to create a sense of BRI not necessarily being something which encompassed Afghanistan.

The appointment of Ambassador Sun, however, did demonstrate a level of seriousness by Beijing in terms of trying to understand how to engage with Afghanistan at a more sophisticated level than just engaging with Kabul. The difficulty with a country like Afghanistan for a power like China which is still developing its civil service cadre, is to find individuals who are able to understand countries from the inside and figure out which levers deliver results. In a tribal country like Afghanistan, this problem is multiplied, with local power brokers as significant to guarantee success of projects as the central government. As an Ambassador who had served in the country for some time, Ambassador Sun had a good understanding of these dynamics and good relations across the board on the ground. He was also instrumental in getting Beijing’s efforts are helping try to broker negotiations between the Taliban, Islamabad and Kabul together – playing an important role in the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) bringing together China, USA, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This was not unfortunately always the case with Chinese investments in the country. When CNPC embarked on its project in the Amu Darya region, they did it with a company which was not linked to the local power brokers, causing issues when their engineers deployed into the region to deliver the actual project. 

Over time, Beijing has learned these lessons, and is increasingly seeking opportunities to engage with Afghanistan in new formats and play a slightly more forward role. It has ensured that it has developed a range of relationships within the country amongst all the different factions, but at the same time ensured that it has prioritized strengthening its specific border with Afghanistan to make sure China is protected from overspill of security problems. Currently the focus is largely on bolstering capacity in neighbouring weaker countries (in Central Asia, or parts of Pakistan), while also continuing to show a willingness to talk about playing a positive role in Afghanistan. Beijing’s broader caution, however, remains and the country continues to refuse to take a clear leadership role with Kabul. A posture which is likely to continue until China sees with greater clarity what exact role the United States sees for itself in the longer run.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)

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And another piece, this time a more recent one for the South China Morning Post exploring reactions to the Belt and Road once again.

Unbuckling China’s belt and road plan will not be easy for Western powers

While the major powers are offering alternatives to infrastructure funding, developing countries are trying to play a stronger hand in negotiating with the Chinese

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 7:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 7:32pm

Quite a bit of catch up posting to do. Been distracted with various projects, so going to do it all in one sweep this evening. First up is an article for the South China Morning Post looking at the threats to Chinese interests in Pakistan from separatist groups in the country.

The lesson of the Pakistan suicide attack: China will have to pay a high price for its infrastructure plan

China’s greatest security problem in strife-torn Pakistan is that it is increasingly becoming the focus of separatists’ attention, Raffaello Pantucci writes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2018, 12:16pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 August, 2018, 9:54pm

 

The attempted suicide bombing against a bus carrying Chinese engineers in Dalbandin, Balochistan highlights the complexity of the security problems China faces in Pakistan.

The attack was a rare suicide bombing for the Balochistan Liberation Army and was specifically targeting China. It showed how Beijing is finding itself dragged into a clash whose answer lies in the resolution of fundamental issues within Pakistan.

In February this year, The Financial Times ran a story which claimed that Chinese officials had been negotiating for years with Baluchi separatists.

At around the same time, the Chinese ambassador to Islamabad gave an interview to BBC Urdu in which he proclaimed that Baluchi separatists “were not real Pakistanis” and did not pose a threat to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The negotiations story was denied by senior Baluchi leaders as well as the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. BLA leader Aslam Baloch, whose son blew himself up at Dalbandin, dismissed the talks, stating: “Our people are [disappearing] every day. They are being killed. Their houses are being looted and burned. In such a situation, any dialogue with China is impossible. We reject such a proposal.”

None of this is that surprising, nor is it impossible that China (or Chinese entities) have been in contact with Baluchi groups.

Since the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was announced, at least two publicised incidents have occurred in which Chinese nationals were almost killed by Baluchi separatists; other, similar occurrences likely have received less attention. Furthermore, many have taken place where Pakistanis have lost their lives.

In September 2016, the Pakistani government announced that at least 44 Pakistanis had lost their lives on CPEC projects. Since then, there have been many more reported incidents by the BLA specifically targeting CPEC projects – incidents they publicly link afterwards to CPEC –, leading mostly to the deaths of Pakistani guards or workers. Prior to the announcement of CPEC, at least seven Chinese workers had died at the hands of Baluchi separatists, as well as numerous Pakistanis.

And China’s problems have expanded beyond Balochistan. Since CPEC’s announcement, the targeting of Chinese interests and nationals by Sindh separatist groups has increased noticeably. After one bombing that injured a Chinese worker and his companion in May 2016 in Karachi, a note was found stating that “we will oppose every anti-Sindh project, including the China-Pakistan economic corridor”.

Just over a year later, a bomb detonated after a Chinese convoy passed in Port Qasim. A message issued soon afterwards declared: “Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army claims the responsibility of the bomb attacks on Chinese engineers in Karachi today and warns the Chinese that they should not become the part of any project in Sindh which may be against the national interest of Sindhis.”

In fact, the specific threat to China seems to emanate more from separatists than Islamists. It is true that since CPEC’s announcement, four Chinese nationals have lost their lives in Pakistan to violent Islamists, but it is not clear that China was a target in the incidents. In contrast, Baluchi or Sindhi groups loudly state that they are targeting China.

There are obvious reasons for this. For separatist groups, the Pakistani state is the ultimate enemy. As Islamabad’s closest friend, Beijing becomes a target by association. And the people of these regions do not feel like they are getting their piece of the CPEC bounty.

At a conference in Islamabad shortly before the election, I listened as representatives from Gwadar complained publicly (before numerous security officials) to a Chinese official sitting on a panel about the issues they were having accessing fresh water.

This example illustrates a problem that Beijing faces in Pakistan and can be found in other BRI countries as well. The problems of separatism and central government anger in Balochistan and Sindh are not new. Violence in the country is not new (and is in fact in decline), but China is increasingly becoming the focus of attention as the biggest outside player who is focusing on supporting the central state.

And while the Pakistani government can provide some support and security for Chinese nationals sent to deliver CPEC in the hope that the economic prosperity it may generate will help alleviate these issues in the longer term, this is only part of the answer.

The longer-term answer to the problems of separatism in these regions are to be found in political solutions: issues that infrastructure and mining investment will not resolve, and may in fact be exacerbating.

As Rehan Baloch stated in his message before he tried to murder a busload of Chinese engineers: “Through this act, I want to make China and its people realise [that] whosoever will try to meddle in Baloch issues without Baloch nation’s consent, will face the wrath of Baloch nation.”

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

 

More belated catch up posting from my occasional column in the South China Morning Post, this one published at the same time as the SCO Summit and G7 in Charlevoix.

From China to Central Asia, a regional security bloc’s long, slow march towards an alternative world order

The world’s attention was on Singapore and Charlevoix but the future may have been in the Chinese city of Qingdao

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 8:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 2:18pm

While the world was captivated this week by the globetrotting show of US President Donald Trump, another summit just days earlier suggested what an alternative world order might look like.

Various heads of state from member nations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) met in the Chinese city of Qingdao for the bloc’s annual heads of state meeting.

The SCO’s activities have been limited in the decade and a half since it was formed but this year’s summit had some significant moments.

First and foremost was the presence of – and handshake between – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain. While the membership of the two regional rivals is likely to be a major block to future activity, the presence of their leaders showed some of the organisation’s potential. Modi’s attendance alone signalled that the world’s biggest democracy wanted to maintain strong links to this archetypal non-Western institution to make sure it had all of its international bases covered.

The event was also an opportunity for two of the West’s biggest pariahs, Iran and Russia, to grandstand.

In the past Beijing has sought to tamp down efforts by Iranian leaders to transform the summit into a chance to bash the West. Back in 2010, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was so disappointed by the SCO’s refusal to admit Iran over fears of antagonising the West that he skipped the summit in Tashkent and instead attended the Shanghai Expo. But in Qingdao, the group chose to unite to highlight their displeasure at renewed Western sanctions against Iran and the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has also regularly used high-profile summits in China to show disregard for Western sanctions and the optics around Putin’s attendance were similar to many other previous events, though this time are topped with a medal for his “friendship” with China.

On the sidelines of the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that “no matter what fluctuations there are in the international situation, China and Russia have always firmly taken the development of relations as a priority”. On live television he then proceeded to give the Russian leader a gold medal lauding him as “my best, most intimate friend”.

Awkward phrasing aside, this is a clear signal that China is siding with Moscow in tensions between Russia and the West. While Beijing might not always approve of Moscow’s disruptive behaviour on the international stage, the reality is that the two powers will, under their existing leaderships, always stand together against the West.

And this signal by Beijing was the most notable point about this entire summit.

China has long treated the SCO with the reverence required of an institution that brings together the heads of state of a number of its allies and which it helped name, while at the same time disregarding it as a functional organisation. Beijing has been unable, for example, to realise some of its key ambitions with the group. China has sought to push the SCO towards greater economic integration and activity, something resisted by other members fearful of China’s further encroachment into their territories.

Moscow sees the SCO as a way to try to control Chinese efforts in Central Asia while the Central Asians broadly view it as a possible way to maintain a balanced conversation with their giant neighbours. Meanwhile, powers like Iran, India or Pakistan see it as an alternative international forum that they want to be involved in.

With the accession of India and Pakistan most observers in China fear that the organisation’s already limited ability to operate is going to be even further reduced.

Yet none of this detracts from the fact that for Beijing it is a forum which they are hosting which now brings together the leaders of over a third of the planet’s population. They are clearly the dominant player within it, and it is a forum in which Western powers cannot meddle.

This gives Beijing the perfect opportunity to show its stature on the world stage and its efforts to offer a more stable alternative world order to the chaotic one that is most vividly expressed by the Trump administration.

The SCO may have done remarkably little beyond hold big meetings and China’s activity in all of the SCO member states at a bilateral level is infinitely more significant than its efforts through the bloc.

But at the same time, this is a forum that has consistently met and only grown. Under its auspices, China has managed to slowly encroach on Russia’s military and political dominance in its own backyard, and has now persuaded the world’s biggest democracy that it is an important group to be involved in.

This slow march forwards stands in stark contrast to the imagery and disputes to emerge from the G7 summit in Charlevoix. And while the Western media may have largely ignored events in Qingdao for events in Canada and Singapore, the rest of the world is paying attention. An alternative order might be starting to crystallise, or at least one that has potential to deeply undermine the West’s capacity to determine the future of world affairs.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

Have failed to keep up on posting working on longer things. Have a few longer pieces which will eventually land, but in the short run a few opinion pieces in the South China Morning Post, looking at the Belt and Road in various incarnations.  First, a piece about South Asia, intended to be in the wake of the Wuhan Summit meeting between President’s Xi and Modi.

How Beijing, Delhi and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor could reshape global foreign policy in Asia 

Raffaello Pantucci writes that a China-India symbiosis stemming from the infrastructure projects being built in Pakistan will force the West to rethink its South Asia strategy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 8:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 11:13pm
There is an air of possible change in South Asia. After a positive summit in Wuhan, presidents Modi and Xi both made it clear they wanted the event to be the opening gambit in a rapprochement between India and China.

The modest practical achievements presented from the meeting should be seen as positive, illustrating that both powers are aware of the tensions and limitations of their relationship.

Nevertheless, the decision to focus on Afghanistan as a possible source of Indo-Chinese cooperation highlights the leaders’ willingness to be ambitious in their thinking. In Islamabad, however, there is a sense of concern about Pakistan being the potential loser in this larger regional rapprochement.

This short-sighted logic is founded on the perennial tensions that exist between Delhi and Islamabad. Yet, it misses a few key elements. China is clearly committed to Pakistan. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is the flagship project of the broader “Belt and Road Initiative” concept that Xi Jinping has advanced.

The People’s Bank of China’s expansion of the currency swap between the countries highlights a doubling down of China’s willingness to continue to invest in Pakistan.

The imprimatur given to the project by President Xi highlights the degree to which this part of the broader concept has to be delivered on, notwithstanding the sometimes awkward economic logic that underpins some projects.

For China, the undertaking is an important one and tied not only to its domestic security and prosperity, but also to the strategic assets it receives from its interest in the Gwadar Port.

But the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor sometimes does frustrate and worry Beijing. While Chinese diplomacy is an exemplar of keeping disputes out of the public eye, there are some issues.

Workers have been murdered and various insurgent and terrorist groups around the country have made specific targets of Chinese nationals and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in an attempt to undermine the government.

That the Chinese consulate in Karachi had to issue a travel advisory to nationals earlier this year, dissuading them from travelling to Quetta, illustrates the security concerns China feels in the country.

That the minister responsible for managing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (who is also the interior minister) was injured by an assassin’s bullet does little to inspire confidence in Pakistan’s national security.

None of this is to talk about the awkward economics that exist around some of the corridor’s projects.

And China has proven willing in the past to side with Delhi on security problems. The statement after the BRICS summit last year in which China agreed to specifically single out some Pakistan-based groups for criticism, as well as Beijing’s regular efforts to get Delhi and Islamabad to talk after incidents, highlight the Chinese government’s awareness of the problems that exist.

What Islamabad needs to bear in mind is that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is not the only part of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is one strand of Xi Jinping’s bigger foreign policy concept. It is not even the only South Asian corridor (the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor is another slow burning concept), but rather the first to be implemented with vigour.

The ability of China and India to hold a summit and discuss ideas for cooperation sensibly when hawkish administrations are in both Beijing and Delhi, reflects the underlying direction in which South Asia is moving.

For China and its companies, India is in many ways the bigger game to play. The growing number of tech purchases by Chinese firms in the Indian market highlights an awareness of India’s booming potential. And beyond India, China realises that a more interconnected, stable and cordial community of South Asian nations will ensure the prosperity that will help stabilise China’s immediate land peripheries.

Afghanistan needs stability to be prosperous and not export problems to Central Asia, Pakistan and, ultimately, China. From Beijing’s perspective, this will only work if the country is more connected to its region.

Wang Yi and other officials have talked about connecting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, but it is not clear how positively Islamabad views this idea. The corridor will only deliver the prosperity that will help Pakistan grow if it is a truly regional project, and this means it must connect better with its immediate neighbours as well as those in the Khunjerab Pass area.

This is the point Islamabad needs to keep in mind: China and India want to find ways to engage and tap each other’s economic opportunities.

India may be sceptical of the broader belt and road plan, but it remains keen to engage in some aspects of it, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the chance to bring Chinese investment into the country. A nation hungry for investment, Modi’s India is keen to find any way to grow to catch up with its richer Asian neighbour.

For Beijing, this is an opportunity in every direction: a prosperous India would be good for China. A prosperous and stable Pakistan would be a net boon. And a stable and secure Afghanistan would achieve a long-awaited goal for the entire region.

While Beijing is still working out how it will manage to deliver on this vision, the direction of travel is clear – and should be appreciated, not just by the region but the world.

Notwithstanding the tensions that will undoubtedly create some bumps in the road, the ability to hold a summit and discuss ideas for cooperation sensibly when hawkish administrations are in both Beijing and Delhi, reflects the underlying direction in which South Asia is moving.

Islamabad needs to pay attention before casting all its chips in one basket; the West needs to focus on what South Asia’s course means for any attempts to use India as a counterbalance to China.

Ultimately, these Asian giants know their own backyard, and will focus on that over any global ideological confrontation.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Islamabad should not fear signs of Sino-Indian rapprochement

Another one for RUSI, this time looking at how the UK should respond to the Belt and Road Initiative. Rather repeats points from previous pieces, but still need to be made. More on this topic in the form of a more substantial piece soon hopefully.

Also, catching up on some other things – this report Understanding the Factors Contributing to Radicalisation Among Central Asian Labour Migrants in Russia which was the product of a longer project we worked on at RUSI finally emerged. It looks at the phenomenon of radicalisation amongst Central Asian labour migrants in Russia. Was the product of a lot of effort, and the final drafting of the paper is heavily owned by my RUSI colleague Mo who took the lead, and Sarah and Nadine who both contributed substantially to both working on the project and drafting bits. Thank you all! Off the back of this, did a Majilis podcast with the excellent Bruce and Muhammad for RFE/RL.

And on the other side of my substantive equation, spoke to the Intercept about the far right terror menace in the UK, and to Voice of America about the Liege terror attack today.

port_of_gwadar_pakistan_china_belt_and_road_initiative

China’s Belt and Road Initiative: A Call for Pragmatism

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary22 May 2018
ChinaInternational Security Studies

China’s Belt and Road Initiative requires a logical response, one based on an assessment of realities rather than rhetoric, and reciprocity, rather than outright confrontation.

There has been little clarity of the UK’s approach to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since the prime minister’s visit to Beijing in January. The key message to emerge from the visit seemed contradictory: the UK claimed to be ‘a natural partner’ for the BRI, but at the same time, Prime Minister Theresa May refused to sign a memorandum of understanding for the initiative presented by Chinese leaders. But this is a comprehensible paradox. The UK is facing the same conundrum posed to most countries: Chinese investment is attractive, but the norms and political pressure that may follow in the wake of this grand initiative are not.

The key to properly responding to Beijing’s economic statecraft under the BRI is clarity. The foreign policy concept advanced by Chinese President Xi Jinping is the latest expression of China’s ‘going out’ policy; it provides the overarching logic for Chinese external investment. The BRI narrative is one that has grown over time to overwhelm Chinese foreign policy; almost any external engagement that China engages in can be captured in some way under the BRI.

The first point worth remembering is that just because China talks of the BRI in grandiose uniform terms, this does not mean other countries need to be engaged with it as a single project. For European powers, for example, it is abundantly clear that there is a vast difference between Chinese projects in Europe, and projects in faraway parts of Asia. The BRI concept is an overarching foreign policy idea best understood as a series of distinct projects. And, as with any large set of projects (or foreign policy goals laid out by a foreign power), some elements have a natural logic of cooperation to them, while others do not.

Secondly, it is essential to understand what is actually happening on the ground, since there is much rhetoric and sometimes little action when it comes to the BRI. There are numerous examples of mismatched expectations throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The much vaunted 16+1 format (China plus the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe) has delivered little in terms of solid investment; the Czech Republic has found itself facing a sudden massive loss of prospective investment as Chinese energy conglomerate CEFC withdrew abruptly from its push into the Czech market. By contrast, Pakistan is abuzz with activity, as Chinese companies build new infrastructure up and down the country.

The moral of these contrasting episodes is, therefore, to focus on what is happening, not on what is being merely discussed or announced. For, while this is an obvious point, it remains far too easy to get caught up in the noise around Chinese projects and miss what is actually going on. It is also too easy to fall for the other stories that such mega-projects generate. Some stories – such as allegations that Chinese prison labour is being used to implement infrastructure projects – are untrue, while others – such as claims that some countries are taking on onerous debt burdens alongside Chinese projects – are true. But even then, the debt burden story is nuanced. For example, the terms offered by the Export–Import Bank of China or the China Development Bank are sometimes favourable, but there are also genuine questions about the financial liabilities of some projects once they are up and running: see, for instance, the controversy over the sizeable obligations that the government of Pakistan has assumed in guaranteeing revenue for the many Chinese-financed and executed electricity generating projects in the country.

Finally, there is the broader ideological question posed by the BRI. As Western values of prosperity through democracy are being increasingly questioned by Western publics, and governments themselves, Beijing is offering an alternative worldview underpinned by norms and standards that do not necessarily conform with Western outlooks. Yet even on this point, the debate needs to be focused on a case by case basis. The relatively new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that elicited such a great controversy in the West was in part a response to a perception among countries of the global south that the dominant international financial institutions did not represent their interests or give them a voice. The AIIB is a product of these considerations as well as an attempt by Beijing to try its own hand at operating international structures that are not Western-invented. In sum, far from being a parallel or disruptive player, the AIIB could be seen as representing a positive Chinese-led contribution to the international order.

In contrast, China’s push to advance its version of the internet to strengthen models of state control, or its attempts to use its economic weight as a coercive tool, remain to be contested. But the key to any such response is strengthening alliances to confront patterns of behaviour from Beijing – either under the auspices of the BRI or otherwise – that are against national interests or those shared throughout the West. Beijing may resist, seeking ways to circumvent such opposition, but this is the natural push-and-pull of international affairs. The key to guiding a response is to offer alternatives and to think about what could address the issues on the ground that Beijing is seeking to resolve through its investments. In other words: if the UK is concerned with a project being undertaken by a developing country under the BRI, they should find ways of engaging with that country to either agree upon alternative sources of investment or to ensure that the Chinese project is delivered to an acceptable standard and that it will deliver maximum local benefit.

This lesson is broadly applicable. The West should focus on engaging with segments of the BRI that are empirically underway, and should engage with local partners to ensure they gain real benefits. The idea that the BRI could be a source of massive profit for UK companies based globally is a view that needs tempering. UK companies in Beijing are already making money accompanying their long-standing Chinese partners as they pursue the BRI. The broader profit is more likely to come from taking advantage of the infrastructure investment that is taking place, and finding ways of ensuring that the countries receiving BRI investment are able to grow in its wake.

The key point to remember within all of this is that the Chinese companies and banks making deals under the BRI are focusing on their own interests; they will expect everyone else to do the same thing.

Slightly late posting a piece for Prospect a week or so ago about China-Russia relations. Covers ground that has been touched on before at greater length in Current History and China Economic Quarterly pieces. Undoubtedly more on this topic to come. Separately, spoke to The Times about the two captures ISIS ‘Beatles’, my recent China-South Asia piece was picked up by a Forbes columnist, and for those who can understand Italian, an event I spoke at in Rome (alongside the chair of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the UK Ambassador, the head of Counter-Extremism in Italy, and we were joined at the end by Marco Minniti, the Interior Minister) has now been posted online.

China and Russia: the perennial frenemies

As Russia’s relations with the west go into deep freeze, watch as Putin warms to the east

Back in 2014, relations between Russia and the west took a nosedive as Moscow annexed Crimea, then invaded eastern Ukraine. The west’s opprobrium was largely shrugged off by Russian president Vladimir Putin who instead headed to Shanghai where he was feted by President Xi Jinping. A $400bn gas deal between their two countries was signed. As we watch western relations with Moscow slide even lower in the wake of the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury and the Syrian crisis, do not be surprised if we see President Putin turning, once more, towards the east.

The paving stones for a visit were laid a couple of weeks ago during the Moscow Conference on International Security. Bringing together allies from around the world, the aim of the conference is to showcase Russia’s international relationships. This year, Beijing was represented by its Defence and Foreign Ministers. Both used the event as an opportunity to highlight the importance of bilateral relations. Foreign Minister Wang Yi described relations as at the “best level in history” while Defence Minister Wei Fenghe went further stating “The Chinese side has come (to Moscow) to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia… we’ve come to support you.” Reinforcing this, at around the time of the conference the Russian news agency TASS announced the delivery of an S-400 Triumf missile defence system to China. They also discussed President Putin’s pending visit to China later this year, another opportunity to highlight the strength of their ties.

For those minded to see axes of evil around the world, this pro-Chinese orientation by Moscow seems to fit the bill. As essentially one-man and one-party states, they are natural allies. But this superficial understanding of a relationship misses the contradictions and disgareements at the heart of their relationship: China and Russia are bound together, but they do not necessarily like it.

Back in July 2000, soon after his first inauguration as president, Vladimir Putin gave a speech in Lake Baykal in southern Siberia near the border with Mongolia, in which he worried about Russia’s far east. “If we do not make real efforts to develop the far east in the very near future,” he said, “the Russian population will mainly be speaking Japanese, Chinese and Korean in a few decades.” Yet just 17 years later, Putin’s Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was in Beijing praising the rise of the Renminbi and speaking of Russia’s interest in connecting with the currency, further opening Russia to Chinese investment. From fearful neighbour to pusillanimous supplicant, the shift in the Sino-Russian relationship is almost complete.

On the surface of course, relations are better than ever. Chinese officials will highlight how Moscow is a first port of call for new Chinese leaders. Xi Jinping went even further than his predecessors, not only going to Moscow but heading to Sochi a year later for the opening of the Winter Olympics—the first time a Chinese leader had attended such an event. Clearly eager to make sure his Russian hosts were happy, President Xi described the games as “splendid.” President Putin has made more visits to Beijing than any other foreign capital, and consistently turns to Beijing when he is looking for support on the international stage.

“From fearful neighbour to pusillanimous supplicant, the shift in the Sino-Russian relationship is almost complete”

Yet, there is a more complicated story. Last year in Moscow I sat in the audience at a conference panel discussing Eurasian visions. On the rostrum were two prominent Chinese experts who proceeded to give superb presentations on China’s view of the new Eurasian Silk Roads in fluent Russian. Cracking jokes, quoting Russian authors and explaining Beijing’s policies, these men had the mostly Russian audience enrapt. Over lunch later, a Muscovite friend joked how the Chinese experts’ Russian was better than theirs.

In contrast, a year or so earlier I had listened to one of those Chinese experts complain about how difficult a partner Russia was, and how their natural preference laid with relations with the west. Moscow was an unreliable and unpredictable partner whose strategic choices were ones disruptive to the placid world view that Beijing favours. Nor is this wariness one-sided. Talking to friends in Moscow during my last visit, people spoke of unrealised investment promises and a growing concern at the erosion of their nation’s strategic influence thanks to China’s actions in Russia’s backyard.

Such duplicity is in some ways not surprising. Anyone who has looked in detail at relations between any states will find a complicated mass of contradictions, where human dynamics, history and strategic imperatives will often wrestle with each other. But it is particularly striking in the Sino-Russian case. Both are powers driven by a fundamental world view of stable authoritarian state power as the ultimate answer to the difficult management of human societies. Both are fearful of the messianic and democratising west that brings instability, chaos and ultimately state collapse in their wake.

This fundamental imperative keeps the two together, while in secret they fret about each other’s activity. Russia’s behaviour in its perceived sphere of influence is the best example of this. Beijing was deeply unhappy about Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine more recently. When Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reached out to his Chinese counterpart in 2014 to get support for Ukraine, the best he could muster was a statement that China and Russia held “broadly coinciding points of view… over the situation.” The idea that the westphalian order of state borders could be so wantonly disregarded and then breakaway provinces recognised strikes to the heart of China’s worries about its own state survival. Fearful that others might start doing the same to some of its own renegade provinces, Beijing was notably less than outspoken in support on Ukraine and actively blocked Moscow’s moves to get Central Asian powers to recognise what had happened in Georgia.

Yet at the same time, what statements did emerge about Ukraine in particular highlight how while Beijing might not like the end point that was reached, it did understand the imperative behind the initial Russian-led activity. For Beijing, the idea that popular revolutions can overthrow regimes—as appeared to be happening in Ukraine—is a worrying prospect. It points towards a confusing world order in which the primacy of state control comes into question. The Arab Spring, for example, was seen in both Moscow and Beijing as a catastrophic set of events which upended a relatively stable world order. The consequences of which they still see today.

And it is this ultimately which will keep the two powers bound together. Notwithstanding the growing Russian dependence on Chinese investment and the stealthy Chinese encroachment on Russia’s backyard—both in Central Asia where Beijing is increasingly the most consequential actor on the ground, or in Russia’s own empty and resource rich vast eastern regions—Moscow will continue to court Beijing as a close ally and friend. A friend Russia will need even more now that its relations with the west are on such a downward trajectory. And while Beijing may disapprove of Russia’s habit of stirring up the international order as a matter of principle, it will not stymie its behaviour or overtly condemn it. In fact, as we saw in Moscow recently in response to a more aggressive posture from Washington, China will overlook Russia’s disruptive activity to more pointedly confront the west.

These are two powers bound together in an embrace the west will struggle to ever pull apart.