Posts Tagged ‘China’

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

Commentary: China’s expanding security role in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author

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

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

Central Asian connectivity: Going beyond China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching up on old posting again, this time a piece for the Telegraph after Trump’s Taiwan telephone call and the implications on the relationship for China. Not a title I would have chosen if I am honest.

China has been getting its way with the world for three decades. Thanks to Trump, that’s over

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Donald Trump’s assault on the basic assumptions of international relations continues. His latest broadside has struck China, with the President-elect refusing to bend to the “one China” policy which has governed the US-China relationship since President Nixon visited Mao Zedong in the 1970s. Yet while this challenge is fraught with risks of miscalculation, it also casts a light on the interesting potential that a President Trump administration offers – one where previously ossified assumptions that underlie international relations can no longer can be taken for granted.

The current world order is one that favours China. Sitting in Beijing last year, I watched as one of the senior figures in the party happily recounted the scene at September 2015’s 70th anniversary celebrations to commemorate the end of the Second World War. Looking wistfully into the distance, he recounted how blue the skies were that day and how impressive China’s mighty army looked. Aligned next to him were various world leaders eager to highlight the proximity of their relationship with Beijing. For China, a country that has taken full advantage of globalisation and its massive population to turn itself into the world’s factory, the world order is working very well.

Consequently, the arrival of Donald Trump, a leader talking of scrapping trade treaties and offering a newly assertive America, is deeply troublesome. China’s rise in the world under the shadow of a western-led liberal order focused on open markets had been a steady one. it was one in which China often rejected some of the same open principles that it was able to take advantage of in other markets. While it is relatively easy for Chinese companies to seek out opportunities in western markets, it is often nowhere near as easy for western companies to go into China.

On the geopolitical stage, China has also managed to establish a consensus that asserts its advantages and interests, something most clearly on display with the international community’s relations with Taiwan. While many welcome relations with Taiwan, it is very much on Beijing’s terms. Taiwanese Embassies around the world are called “Representative Offices” while its officials are kept out of international institutions. Yet at the same time, the United States is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act to protect any assault on Taiwanese democracy. The most visible sign of this is arms sales, whereby the United States continues to provide the weaponry to ensure that Taipei is able to protect itself from an attack from the mainland.

And yet, every time the arms sales are advanced, a delicate diplomatic dance is undertaken whereby Beijing complains, the United States refuses to bend, undertakes the arms transfers yet continues to acknowledge the “one china” policy. These past few weeks have started to upend the delicate diplomatic dance that underlies this transaction.

Talking to people in Beijing last week, the overriding sense from President-elect Trump’s statements was one of confusion. Still unclear as to how much his commentary should be taken seriously, Beijing saw him reaching out through the appointment of a new Ambassador who had a personal history with President Xi as well as through messages sent through former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Yet at the same time, he spoke the language of confrontation through his actions with Taipei and running commentary through interviews and Twitter. Beijing is now uncertain where it stands, and has begun to realize that the assumptions that underlay the world order that it was quietly riding to steady growth are increasingly going to be challenged.

It is entirely unclear how this is going to play out. This in many ways is probably President-elect Trump’s intent, aiming to establish a new bargaining point in negotiations with China. Yet the danger is in miscalculation. The Taiwan question for China is not one of international relations, but rather a domestic one. Consequently, the sort of horse-trading that might be possible in other fields will be harder if not impossible.

No doubt this has been considered to some degree in Trump Tower, but it is not clear that these messages are getting to Beijing in the manner they are supposed to. If Donald Trump has miscalculated, it  could mean a confrontation between two of world’s superpowers – with consequences that will impact us all.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

A short blogpost for a new outlet, the rather impressive China Policy Institute Analysis blog which is linked to the University of Nottingham. Touches on a couple of topics which are going to be a focus for the immediate future, the ‘Belt and Road’ and the BCIM in particular. As ever, much more on these topics to be found at China in Central Asia.

How New is the Belt and Road?

Chiang Sheng Yang, Presenter, Phoenix Satellite Television Holdings, Hong Kong SAR, Zhang Bingjun, Corporate Chairman, Tianjin TEDA Construction Group, People's Republic of China, Ian Bremmer, President, Eurasia Group, USA; Young Global Leader Alumnus; Global Agenda Council on Geo-economics, Jin Liqun, President, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Beijing, Li Daokui, Dean, Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, People's Republic of China; Global Agenda Council on Global Economic Imbalances and Benedikt Sobotka, Chief Executive Officer, Eurasian Resources Group, Luxembourg at the World Economic Forum - Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, People's Republic of China 2016. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Sikarin Thanachaiary

 Copyright by World Economic Forum / Sikarin Thanachaiary

Written by Raffaello Pantucci. 

Back in the late 1990s, then-PRC President and Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin noticed that the country was facing an imbalance. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had opened up the coastal cities, transforming them into beacons of international industry and development. Cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou were on their way to becoming international hubs. And yet looking inland, the difference was stark, with parts of the centre or border regions with neighbouring Southeast, South and Central Asia remaining poor and underdeveloped. Seeking to rectify this, and in part to help Chinese companies go out, Jiang Zemin instigated a ‘Develop the West’ or ‘Great Western Development’ strategies.

Academics like Zheng Xinli came back from their travels along China’s borderlands with southeast Asia with ideas of developing multilateral institutions that would help address one of the key problems in the region, a lack of infrastructure to help accelerate trade between parts of the world that were already deeply economically interdependent. To China’s west, the problems were political and had a security bent to them thanks to the proximity of Afghanistan, historical conflicts with Russia and an angry resident Uighur population. As the Soviet Union fell apart, China accelerated a process of border demarcation going on between itself, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into a process called the ‘Shanghai Five’ – named after the city in which they met. The priority was largely to define what China’s borders were, with a later attempt to move the discussion towards other economic and political goals.

To China’s south, the scenario looked different. In the absence of a collapsing superpower with which China had fought conflicts, Beijing instead found itself confronted by a series of underdeveloped nations (including ones with which it had fought conflicts in some cases) that nonetheless had deep economic and ethnic links back and forth across China’s equally underdeveloped borderlands. In August 1999, over one hundred academics and experts from China, India, Burma and Bangladesh gathered together in Kunming for a conference at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences (YASS). The outline for the conference was laid out as:

  1. Practical and strategically significance for the regional cooperation among China, India, Bangladesh and Burma;
  1. Feasibility of cooperation in the economic, trade and technological cooperation among China (Yunnan), India, Bangladesh and Burma (including industry, agriculture, tourism and finance);
  1. Study on the construction of communication channels and networks among China, India, Bangladesh and Burma (including the opening and reconstructing roads, air lines, water routes and railways);
  1. Prospect and basis for the economic cooperation among China, India, Bangladesh and Burma;
  1. Open-door policies and trade and investment environment for China, India, Bangladesh and Burma;
  1. Construct the framework for regional cooperation in China, India, Bangladesh and Burma.

Its conclusions were similar and thus was laid out the framework for the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM), or the ‘Kunming Initiative’. Focusing on improving infrastructure and opening markets, the BCIM was dreamed up as a way of developing China through opening of markets, building infrastructure, and enhancing cooperation between China and its border nations.

The vision was one that was actually suggested a few months earlier in March 1999 at the 9th National Party Congress in Beijing by President Jiang Zemin. Crystallized in speeches delivered later in the year and put on the front page of the People’s Daily on June 19 1999, the ‘Great Western Development Strategy’ was a vision that suggested the ‘time was ripe’ to speed up the development of the central and western regions’ and that this ‘should become a major strategic task for the party.’

In other words, the Chinese Communist Party was to throw itself into working to develop the left behind ‘western’ (put in parentheses as the logic of ‘west’ was substantially stretched to anything not on China’s coast), and the ‘Kunming Initiative’ was to push this concept out as a trade and economic corridor that swept through Myanmar and Bangladesh to India.

All of which sounds a lot like the current vision that is being advanced for the ‘Belt and Road’, where we see Beijing pushing out trade and economic corridors in every direction as a way of helping not only China’s companies go out into the world, but also to help develop China’s under-developed ‘western regions’, be this in central China, Xinjiang, Tibet or Yunnan. Given the problems in Xinjiang, it is maybe unsurprising that the Central Asian strand of the ‘Belt and Road’ – the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ that Xi Jinping christened when he visited Astana in September 2013 – has found itself front and center, but it is also the one which is building on a well-established political track which Beijing had been laying since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There is an additional problem with the BCIM which is that it ends with a power, India, with which Beijing continues to have tense relations that are complicated by China’s intimate embrace through another strand of the ‘Belt and Road’ with India’s persistent enemy Pakistan (the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor). This tension alongside the persistent problems of development, governance and criminality that are encountered in Myanmar and Bangladesh, all serve to illustrate why China has had a harder time of things in Southeast Asia.

But the BCIM and its history do serve to illustrate that the ‘Belt and Road’ vision that is on its way to becoming the signature foreign policy initiative of the Xi Jinping administration is not in fact as new as it may sound. Rather, it is a case of an old model being re-attempted in a new cast. And as the ‘Belt and Road’ continues to remain a nebulous vision rather than a specific project, its conceptual embrace becomes ever tighter and it drags in historical projects like the BCIM into its all-encompassing horizon. During their July 2015 meeting on the fringes of the joint SCO and BRICS meeting Russia hosted in Ufa, Presidents Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping confirmed the proximity of the two visions. As reported in the official Chinese read-out of the meeting:

‘Both countries should also join efforts to promote the construction of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), New Development Bank (NDB) of BRICS nations and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM), and discuss on effectively connecting China’s initiative of the “Belt and Road” with related initiatives of India, so as to achieve mutually beneficial cooperation and common development.’

The BCIM has therefore been brought into the broader ‘Belt and Road’ vision, highlighting the degree to which its goals are interchangeable with the approach being practiced by Beijing in the modern ‘march west’ strategy as laid out by Xi Jinping. Thus bringing in full circle the repetition that is inherent within the current vision and the historical one, and showing how this approach is in fact one that China has attempted before. Whether this one will succeed where previous have not is unclear at this point, but when one considers the vast sums that Beijing is able to muster and deploy under the auspices of the current approach, it seems that the current ‘Belt and Road’ will leave an indelible impression. One that may even help imprint the BCIM onto Southeast Asia in its wake.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). He is also the co-creator of http://www.chinaincentralasia.com and is currently working on a number of projects looking at the Belt and Road through a number of different lenses. Image credit: CC by World Economic Forum/flickr.

New piece for an outlet to which I haven’t contributed for some time, The National Interest. This time looking at trying to explain China’s enhanced engagement and interest in Syria with Michael Clarke of Australian National University. We are hopefully working on a longer writing related project along these lines in the future, and the topic is undoubtedle one there will more on.

China Is Supporting Syria’s Regime. What Changed?

Michael Clarke | Raffaello Pantucci
Beijing’s motivations are close to home.

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On August 14, Guan Youfei, a rear admiral in China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, visited the Syrian capital of Damascus, escorted around the city under heavy guard. Guan’s visit reportedly included meetings with senior military officials and Russian officers, as well as pledges that the Chinese military would provide medical training for Syrian medical staff. The question is why China is increasing this engagement now.

Admiral Guan’s engagement contrasts with previous Chinese behavior during the Syrian crisis. While China has been one of the few powers to maintain an embassy in Damascus throughout the current crisis, Beijing’s engagements have been fairly limited, and mostly focused on attempts from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to insert itself into peace negotiations and occasional expressions of concern around individual nationals who appear on the battlefield (either as hostages or fighters). The approach has been driven by a mix of motives, including Beijing’s long-standing principle of “non-interference,” aversion to what China sees as largely Western-led regime change in the guise of humanitarian intervention and a Chinese desire to insulate its growing economic interests in the Middle East from the continuing consequences of the Arab Spring.

That dynamic may now be about to change. China has started to become a participant in the many international discussions around countering terrorism, and ISIS in particular. China has participated in the Global Counterterrorism Forum and hosted sessions about terrorists’ use of the internet, while engaging in discussions at home about contributing more to the fight against ISIS. Last year, a decision was made to alter national legislation to allow Chinese security forces to deploy abroad as part of a counterterrorism effort, and China has sought to establish overseas bases in Djibouti. In neighboring Afghanistan, it has established a new sub-regional alliance between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and China to discuss and coordinate the fight against militancy and terrorist groups in the area. All these actions highlight the degree to which China is slowly pushing its security apparatus out into the world in a more aggressive posture than before. Seen within this light, Admiral Guan’s visit to Damascus is another piece in this puzzle, and the most ambitious yet in many ways for a power that has historically preferred to play a more standoffish role in addressing hard military questions.

Looking to the Syrian context in particular, there are two major reasons for China’s apparent decision to begin playing a more forward role in engaging in Syria. One is China’s concern at the numbers and links of Uighur militants from its restive province of Xinjiang participating in the Syrian conflict. The other is its desire for geostrategic stability in the Middle East as it seeks to consummate its “One Belt, One Road” strategy.

Of particular importance on the first count is the presence of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) on the Syrian battlefield. TIP is a successor organization of sorts to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that Beijing has blamed for violence linked to Xinjiang after 9/11. Beijing has claimed that Al Qaeda directly “funded and supported” ETIM, and while the scale of Al Qaeda’s direct support of ETIM has been widely disputed, the relationship between TIP and Al Qaeda has only grown closer since, with TIP garnering more Uighur recruits from 2009 onward and Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praising Uighur contributions to the global jihad in a recent message.

Chinese suppression in Xinjiang, especially after the interethnic riots and violence in the capital, Urumqi, in July 2009, has resulted in the development of what Chinese state media has dubbed an “underground railway” of Uighurs seeking to flee the region. Some of those have ultimately found their way to Turkey and onward to Syria to fight with TIP and other jihadist groups. By 2015, TIP had established a well-documented presence on the battlefield in Syria, with the group releasing a number of videos detailing its combat role fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. (TIP does not fight alongside ISIS; its leadership has released statements in which it condemns ISIS’s activities.) TIP is increasingly showing itself to be an effective force, participating in many major fights (including the breaking of the Aleppo siege) and showing off its skill, manpower and equipment.

Historically, China has not had much economic interest in Syria, a country that prior to the civil war was more closely linked economically to its region, Iran and Russia. And more recently, China has continued to play a second-tier role. While it has had numbers of nationals join ISIS, others kidnapped and killed by the group, and the group has threatened it in some of its rhetoric, it does not appear to be much of a focus for the group. On the non-ISIS side fighting the regime, the numbers fighting alongside TIP seem to be quite substantial, whilst the group’s leadership and a core of the group continues to fight in Afghanistan. And, according to Kyrgyz authorities, this connection may have now matured into the attack that took place in late August against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.

This threat from TIP in particular is one that is therefore becoming of much greater concern for Beijing. Yet it is not clear who is focused on fighting TIP on the ground in Syria. Western powers fighting in Syria are for the most part focused on ISIS and less focused on the groups fighting against the Assad regime, like TIP. Turkey’s historical proximity to the Uighur cause has raised concerns with Beijing; Uighurs are a people whose culture and language are very close to Turkey’s, and Uighur flags and symbols are regular features during AKP rallies. Erdogan himself has expressed support for the Uighur cause, and back in 2009, in the wake of rioting in Xinjiang that led to some two hundred deaths, he referred to Chinese activity on the ground as “a sort of genocide.” Since 2012, Uighurs have been found traveling on forged Turkish passports in transit countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, raising questions of Turkish complicity. Leaked ISIS documents show a consistent flow of individuals through Kuala Lumpur, as well as other Southeast Asian routes to Turkey.

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On the second count, Beijing faces multiple challenges in the current Middle East for its “One Belt, One Road” strategy. In brief, OBOR is Beijing’s attempt to facilitate Eurasian economic connectivity through the development of a web of infrastructure and trade routes linking China with South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Key parts of this project, such as the $45 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the proposed Yiwu-Tehran high-speed rail link, according to James M. Dorsey, “illustrate the politics of its One Belt, One Road Initiative. Xi Jinping believes that he can achieve Chinese dominance through investment and interconnected infrastructure.”

The current fracturing of the Middle East as a result of the Syrian crisis, however, poses a central roadblock to China’s ability to make this vision a reality. In this context, Beijing views the United States’ approach to Syria as driven by Washington’s desire to use the civil war as a pretext to overthrow the Assad regime in order to weaken Iran’s growing power and influence in the Middle East. In contrast, Russia has been firm in its commitment to root out what it calls the “terrorist” threat there in support of the regime in Damascus, and Beijing has been impressed by the manner in which Russia’s decisive moves have had an effect that years of attrition on the battlefield failed to achieve.

So Beijing may now have arrived at the conclusion that supporting Assad and taking sides with Russia is the most viable option to effectively combat the growth of TIP. Increasing its involvement in Syria via military-to-military cooperation can also be seen in the wider context of a PLA keen to develop its overseas experience, in areas from peacekeeping to antipiracy missions to counterterrorism.

David Shambaugh eloquently argued in 2013 that China remained a “partial power” whose diplomacy “often makes it known what it is against, but rarely what it is for” and that this made its foreign policy in many regions of the world “hesitant, risk averse and narrowly self-interested.” This calculus is now changing under pressure from developments in the Middle East and Afghanistan that directly threaten core Chinese interests and are metastasizing into the very terrorist threat that China has long said it is concerned about. The response from China is relatively predictable—an outward security push. The question that remains, however, is how deeply China wishes to plunge into troubled waters to defend these interests.

Dr. Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College at Australian National University. Raffaello Pantucci is Director of the International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Image: Chinese tanks in formation at Shenyang training base in China. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

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

Karimov’s Death Seen From Beijing

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

chinese-emb-bishkek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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