Posts Tagged ‘China’

Not quite finished in a busy week of China-Afghanistan writing, and one more to come after this. This one for the Diplomat touches on the very challenging question of how this is going to change China’s relationship with Central Asia. Big thanks to the wonderful Niva for getting this idea going. We have some more in the pipeline together, looking forward to seeing them go live.

China’s Afghanistan Challenge and the Central Asian Dilemma

None expect China to replace the United States in military terms, but Central Asia may hope Beijing plays a more substantial role in Afghanistan.

Credit: Kyrgyz MFA: https://twitter.com/MFA_Kyrgyzstan/status/1392445892930715648

The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is underway and is due to be completed by September 11, 2021. In the early days of the War on Terror, U.S. military bases in Central Asia were central to mobilization in Afghanistan, but regional pressure led to their closure. While a narrative persists in the press that the United States will want to keep some substantial presence in the region after the drawdown, it is unclear that anyone in Central Asia has actually been asked.

Russia is unlikely to step forward very far to fill this vacuum, instead preferring to continue to play a supportive role where it serves its interests. To the extent that the United States does appear to want to stay engaged, it seems to be focused on reviving the New Silk Road concept that connects Central Asia to South Asia through Afghanistan, alongside positioning some over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities.

The key uncertainty is whether China is going to finally step forward to take up some mantle of responsibility toward Afghanistan and follow through on its repeated security promises.

Central Asian politics have changed since the United States vacated the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan in 2014. At the time the overriding discourse was how Moscow was going to fill the ensuing security vacuum. Yet, the narrative of the intervening seven years has not been of Russian dominance, but of Chinese expansion. From politics to security, language and economics, China is the rising power in Central Asia.

On May 12, China hosted the second China plus Central Asia (C5+1) Foreign Ministerial talks in Xi’an. The five Central Asian foreign ministers were the first group of foreign officials invited to China since the start of the pandemic. Political ties between China and the Central Asian states have grown exponentially in the past decade. 

Afghanistan was an obvious topic of discussion. Central Asian states fear the potential spillover of conflict and are looking for a security guarantee from within Afghanistan, as well as the other major powers in the region. While urging the U.S. troop withdrawal to “proceed in an orderly and responsible manner to avoid a resurgence of terrorist forces,” China (like Russia) has no desire to see the return of U.S. bases in Central Asia. Yet, at the same time, Beijing has failed to deliver tangible security plans to support its neighbors on the western periphery in the event of an escalation of instability in Afghanistan. The joint statement on Afghanistan released at the end of the Chinese C5+1 meeting was thin on details.

In the past few years, China has emerged as an active player in Afghanistan. China has opened a number of multilateral diplomacy channels around Afghanistan, participated in regional talks, worked with the United States and Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, and repeatedly pushed (albeit to no avail) to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to do more about Afghanistan. China has offered some limited support to Afghan, Tajik, and Pakistani border forces, and reportedly built its own base in Tajikistan. But these efforts are single-mindedly focused on Chinese border concerns.

The story has been similar on the economic side. China has expanded measures to induce economic incentives for peace in Afghanistan, something that Chinese policymakers have put forward as the most appropriate contribution China can make. A bilateral economics and trade committee was set up in 2015. Direct cargo flights between Afghanistan and China opened in late 2018. After building the Mazar-i-Sharif to Hairatan train line, a cargo train corridor between China and Afghanistan was inaugurated in summer 2019, via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Bilateral trade between China and Afghanistan doubled from $338 million in 2013 to $629 million in 2019, according to data from Chinese customs. And Beijing has repeatedly spoken about bringing Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative foreign policy vision – increasing Afghan connectivity with Central Asia, China, and Pakistan.

In reality Beijing has achieved little. China’s most recent promises include reported security contributions to help with counterterrorism efforts, but it is not clear what these will look like. Economically, China’s stake in Afghanistan has grown, but it has failed to deliver on the massive extractive project in Mes Aynak its firms signed contracts for in 2007, and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) project in northern Afghanistan has also been suspended. Beijing has not lived up to its economic potential in the country yet.

None of this is going to get any easier in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. With the possible outcome that the Taliban will regain control of a greater part of Afghanistan, rule by Islamist ideology may then become an inevitability and that will have consequences for China. While Beijing has clearly been bolstering its relations with factions in the government in Afghanistan, its analysts are equally certain that some Taliban return to power is likely. This confusion in part reflects the baffling complexity of the Afghan battlefield, but it also highlights a dissonance within current planning.

It also illustrates where China’s post-American Afghan strategy likely falls down. With Washington present in force, Beijing can largely apportion blame and responsibility to the U.S. for anything that happens. Once the U.S. is gone, this excuse may still have some rhetorical currency, but it will lack tangible use on the ground. And while China may be able to ensure that its security concerns are addressed, its neighbors in Central Asia will expect it to use its weight and gravitas to play a more substantial role in stabilizing the situation. None expect China to replace the United States in military terms, but Central Asia may hope Beijing will play a more forward and substantial role in Afghanistan — a role that actually helps stabilize and calm the situation — rather than hedge and watch while it collapses in on itself.

Its been a busy week on various fronts, but in particular in work on China-Afghanistan. But it seems apt given the SCO celebrated its second decade. Have a couple more pieces to post from the week, but for the time being here is a piece for the excellent Oxus Society (established by Edward to whom I am very grateful for publishing this) which draws on my various experiences meeting with the Organization over the years. You will find a lot more of this coming in the book which is due out early next year, but for the time being enjoy. As ever comments, criticisms, corrections welcome.

The SCO Turns Twenty

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was born almost exactly two decades ago, on June 15, 2001 at a glittering event overlooking the Huangpu River in Shanghai. Celebrating the birth, President Jiang Zemin articulated a vision for the organization that spanned everything from counter-terrorism, regional trade agreements, to pragmatism, solidarity, a pioneering spirit and openness. The last was delivered without a sense of irony to a room of leaders who (for the most part) had taken power with little public ratification. The key, President Jiang said, was to maintain the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ that had brought them all to where they were today.

This was very different to the birth story I was told almost exactly a decade later sitting in the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We were told that the SCO was “a baby that was born of a time.” It was an “illegally born child” to its parents China and Russia who could not agree on a way forward, hence they decided to form a family called the SCO. But like any family, our Kyrgyz interlocutor informed us, there were “certain frictions” usually involving money, and over time there was “psychological exhaustion by the parents.” A more cynical view that over time I discovered was more typical from the region to what I would hear in Beijing.

A year later, I had my first physical encounter with the organization. After chasing various contacts and colleagues in Shanghai, I fixed a meeting at the Organization’s headquarters in Beijing with a fellow researcher. We had aimed to meet with the Secretary General, but ended up getting passed along to some lower-level diplomats. A Kazakh and a Russian official who were posted to the Organization from their respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs. The more elderly Russian was in a playful mood and clearly enjoying what he saw as a sinecure role. 

Sat in a grand and slightly dusty meeting room which had a cabinet full of football trophies in the corner, we listened as he expounded about the organization’s processes and procedures downplaying any of the more menacing aspects. Projects were nascent and slow moving, he told us. Everything was done by consensus. Terrorism – something he described using the Chinese phrasing of the Three Evils (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) – was a major concern. Economic aspects were still under discussion. The overriding message we got from them was nothing to see here, move along, move along.

The overriding question from all of these encounters was what really was the point and aim of this organization? Western diplomats we met in Beijing or Central Asian capitals would largely rubbish the organization as a large talking shop. Chinese officials we spoke to, however, would talk about it as a foundational element in their vision for Eurasia and the world. Westerners, they would tell us, missed the gentle consensus building that the SCO brought to the table. As a Chinese expert at one of the more influential think tanks in Beijing told me when I asked what the SCO had achieved “to not do anything is to do everything.”

The initial seed of the SCO was planted in the wake of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union fell apart, there was an imperative for China to clarify its western borders. China had shared a long, porous and remote border with the Soviet Union. Once China was suddenly confronted with three new border countries, this vagueness no longer worked. From this was born the idea of establishing a grouping to discuss de-militarization and border delineation between China and the new states of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Meeting first in Shanghai in 1996, the grouping was imaginatively called the Shanghai Five, upgraded later to the SCO when Uzbekistan joined at the glittering event in Shanghai.

China’s vision was larger, however, than just borders and security. It was about economic connectivity and prosperity across the entire region. The larger concept could be found in a visit in 1994 by then-Premier Li Peng to Central Asia, when he swept through all of the capitals except Tajikistan. China was opening itself up after the setback of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres and Premier Li had been at the forefront of promoting the new China, taking groups of businessmen around with him and trying to encourage western firms to come and invest. Central Asia was critical both in terms of being a border region to China, but also given the deep cross-border security concerns that existed with Beijing worried about Uyghur dissidents using the region as a base to launch attacks within China. 

This blend of security and prosperity is what has been at the heart of Chinese interests in the SCO. Focusing on terrorist threats in particular is something that all of the member states find themselves agreeing on, and economic prosperity is always appreciated. Counter-terrorism in particular developed its own home. 

The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS), first announced in 2001, and then formally opened in Tashkent in 2004 was established as a hub for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism activity. When I visited in 2012, I found a sleepy institution in a bright pink building where the Chinese officials refused to speak Mandarin to me, while their bosses told me about the meetings and conferences their institution hosted and some of them fell asleep during our meeting. This dozy welcome, however, masked the institution’s role in creating a common roster of enemies and the growing legal harmonization in counter-terrorism and countering online extremism that RATS helped foster. 

Counter-terrorism has also provided China with a way into other forms of engagement. China pushed forwards the development of a training center in Shanghai which offered courses for Interior and Border Guard forces across the region – providing an opportunity to develop relationships at multiple levels in local security forces. Through the SCO it has hosted and partnered with numerous regional partner forces on joint military exercises. The regular large-scale military exercises provide not only an opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations, but also for Chinese forces to practice with the vastly more experienced Russian forces. It has also increasingly given China an opportunity to show-case some of their military hardware – in particular drones – to potential customers. 

But the organization has over time developed a much wider range of activities beyond this, creating an entire cultural roster of actions and events to encourage what they describe as the ‘Shanghai Spirit.’ A whole series of cultural activities bringing SCO nationals together. A marathon, a film festival, young businessmen forums, a traveling festival of culture which I once came across by chance in Tashkent which included exhibitions from key cities in each member state, a university exchange program which allows for post-graduate students to spend a year at a university in another member state university offer a sense of the SCO’s broader activities. 

Not everything Beijing wanted to achieve has succeeded. Notwithstanding putting almost one billion dollars on offer, the idea of an SCO Development Bank or Fund has never taken off. Repeated efforts to establish an SCO Free Trade Area have gone nowhere. And after having tried to get the Organization to do something specific about Afghanistan rather than just host meetings, China seemed to accept it was too complicated. In 2016, China established a new mini-lateral entity called the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brought together the Chiefs of Army Staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Notwithstanding continued Chinese efforts, they realized nothing was moving forwards within the SCO on Afghanistan and so they built a parallel entity to handle their direct security concerns. This is not to say that China has not continued to push the idea of the SCO doing more in Afghanistan forwards – most recently, after meeting with his Central Asian counterparts in May 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi once again hammered home the point that the Organization needed to do something about Afghanistan. Everyone agreed, though it is still not clear anything will happen.

But China’s relentless persistence with the Organization has paid dividends. And the Organization has only continued to grow over time, now also encompassing Pakistan and India, with Iran a regular courter. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are official Observer states, while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are Dialogue Partners. The Organization is growing and at current count claims to be the largest regional organization by population and geographical coverage – representing about half of the world’s population. Whatever Jiang Zemin released in Shanghai in 2001 has proven to be attractive. 

Beijing has also shown itself to be highly dynamic through the Organization, echoing in many ways their global growth in other areas as well. When one path is blocked they seem to find another. Having been repeatedly stymied in their grand economic goals, China has now managed to start to advance them through its tech and digital giants who have started to work with the SCO to advance China’s Digital Silk Road. Chinese applications, Chinese online markets, Chinese online health and educational platforms, have all become increasingly dominant within the SCO. Central Asians working with the Organization tell me working with Chinese tech is one of their biggest tasks. The capstone of all of this activity was laid in November 2020 with the establishment of the China-SCO Development Zone in Qingdao, which was inaugurated with $8.6 billion worth of projects focusing on China’s digital and tech sector.

China’s SCO partners were not very visible during the event, however, but had supported its establishment during an earlier Summit in Qingdao in 2018. They have continued to attend, participate and host, even as other tensions have developed between them. Notwithstanding the violent border clashes and technological tensions between Delhi and Beijing last year, Prime Minister Modi attended the SCO leaders Summit and paid respect to the Organization, while his country has taken the lead in establishing a working group looking at digital commerce and start-ups ahead of this year’s twentieth anniversary. China and India may be at knifepoint at the border, but Delhi still sees great value in participating in the SCO.

And this is the ultimate goal of this now two-decade old entity. To create an Organization in China’s image that has captivated the Eurasian heartland with its non-judgmental appeal. The constant meetings, conferences and encounters have developed a web of relationships across the Eurasian heartland that are all fostered around a vision of the world articulated by China. The world may be obsessed with what China is doing in the seas, but it is through the SCO and over land that the longer-term play can be seen. It is here that the real impact and effect of China’s webs of connectivity can be found, and a vision of what China’s new world order might look like.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. His work focuses on terrorism, counter-terrorism and China’s Eurasian relations.

It is a big week for Eurasia, though much of the attention is focused on President Biden’s Europe trip. In parallel to his visit to NATO, the G7 Summit, a meeting with President Putin and more, a number of other things are happening – most curiously from my perspective the SCO is turning 20. More on that later. First of all though, a paper on China in Afghanistan for a NATO Defence College paper edited by excellent colleagues Aniseh and David. This was initially written a little while ago, and has had some updating as we have gone along. I think its has managed to stay accurate given the constantly changing events on the ground, but it is surprising to me how little attention Afghanistan has been getting during the NATO Summit. Something that really reflects the total disinterest that you now find about staying in country. More on that topic to come as well.

China

What China wants

China has taken a largely neutral view on Afghanistan, repeatedly calling for all sides to agree and for violence to de-escalate. It has sought to engage with Afghanistan through multiple regional and global formats, never taking a leadership role while carefully cultivating relationships with every side of the conflict – including the Taliban with which it brokered informal talks in 2015.144 It seems that Beijing is fairly ambivalent about who will ultimately come to power in the country, though it would likely prefer not to see the Taliban solely dominant.

China’s public passivity might reflect a genuine expression of Beijing’s view on the Afghan Peace Negotiations (APN) and the end state in the country. It has not taken any public position on the APN beyond stating its support for any Afghan-led and Afghan-owned discussion.145 In December last year, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, “We hope both sides of the Afghan peace talks will put the nation and people first, act on the people’s will, meet each other halfway and reach consensus on peace as soon as possible. China will continue working with the international community to play a constructive role in this process.”146 This has been the official line delivered consistently, with a different MoFA spokesman (and former Deputy Chief of Mission to Islamabad) Zhao Lijian stating in March, “China calls on the Afghan Taliban and all parties in the country to grasp the opportunity to start the intra-Afghan negotiations as soon as possible, and to negotiate for political and security arrangements acceptable to all so as to realize lasting peace and stability of Afghanistan.”147 When the APN started in September, Foreign Minister Wang Yi sent some opening remarks calling for all sides to agree,148 and special representative Liu Jian later visited Qatar.

This neutral expression towards the talks masks the fact that Beijing places much of the blame for failure on the talks with the US, whom they see as posturing and refusing to acknowledge the outsized role they play in the problem. China believes the US has a responsibility to resolve the issues in Afghanistan. These are the very same issues they have contributed to creating, and Beijing does not see much chance of success.149 More recently, a more aggressive tone has crept into China’s commentary about the US role in Afghanistan. In a late March 2021 MoFA Press Conference, Spokeswoman Hua Chunying played a video in which Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, spoke of how the US’s decision to invade Afghanistan was part of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) plan to develop assets to attack China from within in Xinjiang.150 Such rumour has long circulated in Beijing, but its elevation to official discourse by the MoFA shows a willingness to far more aggressively confront the United States in Afghanistan. It closes the door on possibilities for cooperation, while also potentially signalling that Beijing may view NATO’s operations in Afghanistan with more hostility than previously. A leaked intelligence report in December which suggested that Chinese agents were offering bounties for American casualties in Afghanistan is an example of how this souring narrative can drag Afghanistan into the heart of the US-China clash.151

The advent of the Biden administration does not appear to have changed the trajectory of US-China relations, and arguably it has been getting worse. Many of the key figures in the new American administration are individuals who had previously worked in the Obama administration and helped shape the cooperation between China and the US in Afghanistan. And while there are suggestions that Afghanistan could lend itself as a useful platform for cooperation between the US and China152, this seems unlikely this time around. The steps taken by the outgoing Trump administration might have sealed the conflict with China. Some of these have direct salience to Afghanistan – for example, the decision to remove the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from the list of proscribed terrorist organisations. In Beijing’s eyes, the US is negating the existence of China’s primary concern in the country: Uyghur militants and affiliates’ activities in Afghanistan.153 By raising the spectre of US manipulation of Uyghurs to attack China from within, Beijing is linking Afghanistan to its core domestic security concerns in Xinjiang – something which has also become a focus of US sanctions towards China. Afghanistan has thus now been tied to the very heart of the US-China confrontation.

The US decision to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan is unlikely to have much direct impact on Chinese behaviour in Afghanistan. China has for the most part developed a complicated set of tools to help hedge against what it perceives as its direct security threats from Afghanistan. As a result, Beijing is likely less concerned about whether the US is there dealing with terrorist groups than it was before. An additional concern was that the United States would use bases in Afghanistan as forward staging posts against China. This fear has shifted. While China seems more concerned about secretive CIA deployments, it is less focused on military deployments. Ultimately, a substantial US drawdown will only further assuage this concern.

Overall, China is likely to maintain a watching brief in Afghanistan, refusing to step forward, except where its most direct interests are involved – such as the security of its direct borders with Afghanistan or concerns about Uyghur militants. Undoubtedly China would prefer a stable Afghanistan on its borders. But at the same time, it is not clear how concerned it actually is about having an unstable Afghanistan next door. Beijing has now hardened its direct links and borders with the country, meaning China likely feels it has cauterized its direct security concerns. Senior Afghan officials repeat Chinese talking points about Uyghur threats, while they appear to have a path for discussion with the Taliban. Given the relative absence of much activity by Uyghur militants targeting Chinese interests, China is most likely fairly comfortable with the current relative instability.

Playing the Eurasian chessboard

To some degree, Chinese concerns with Afghanistan are shaped by Beijing’s fears of the potential for instability in the country to affect Pakistan and Central Asia. China has invested a great deal in both Pakistan (through the fabled China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC which is reportedly a cumulative investment package of between $30 and $50 billion) and Central Asia (where Xi Jinping first announced his keynote Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Chinese influence and presence has been growing for the past 20 years). These investments are closely linked to China’s long-term project to stabilize its western region of Xinjiang. Consequently, tensions and difficulties between Afghanistan and its southern neighbour Pakistan are of potential concern to Beijing (there is far less tension between Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries). At the same time, China’s long-standing and close relationship with Pakistan means that China is likely to favour Islamabad over Kabul.

In fact, the relationship with Pakistan plays a substantial part in China’s relationship with Afghanistan. While Islamabad used to be the conduit of China’s relationship with Afghanistan, Beijing is now more confident in its direct relationships with Kabul and has crafted a policy which is developed around its specific interests. At the same time, its relationship with Pakistan is still significant, and much of what China does is done with taking into consideration the impact on Pakistan’s interests.

The consequence of the proximity between Islamabad and Beijing has been a knock-on effect on India and its role in Afghanistan (and the broader region). Already locked into a tense confrontation with India after border violence in Ladakh, China’s security apparatus is increasingly pushing for a more confrontational approach towards India. Taken alongside the growing hard-line set of relationships with Pakistan, this suggests Beijing might be more willing to accede to Pakistani positions on India’s role in Afghanistan. This is unlikely to be a major driver of the Chinese policy on Afghanistan, but it will play into its considerations. The suggestions floated during President Xi and Prime Minister Modi’s one-on-one meetings that they would focus their efforts on finding ways to cooperate in Afghanistan154 are likely to be shelved for the time being due to broader tensions, and Pakistani fears about Indian activity in Afghanistan are likely to get a positive hearing in Beijing.

Taken to its most extreme, this could result in China and India waging a proxy war in Afghanistan. Hints of what this could look like might already be seen in the repeated attacks against Baluchi groups operating from bases in Afghanistan155 that have targeted Chinese interests in Pakistan.156 While those responsible for the attacks are not often identified, or they are blamed on vague militants, there is a correlation between high profile attacks in Pakistan against Chinese targets, and subsequent targeting of senior Baluchi figures hiding in Afghanistan. There are also reports about India stirring Tibetan activists or fighters against China.157 Senior Indian politicians made appearances at public events alongside Tibetan activists and the Indian press championed the role of Tibetan forces serving in the Indian Army158 (there have also been reports of Chinese agents stirring things up with Assamese separatists159). Were this escalation to develop further, it could turn into Chinese and Indian proxies targeting each other in Afghanistan.

At the same time, it is worth noting that there is likely a limit to how far Beijing will let Pakistan dictate its policies towards India, and the degree to which China will seek a full on conflict with India. Notwithstanding border tensions and a growing Indian effort to de-couple technologically from China by banning Chinese mobile phone applications and threatening to ban Huawei and ZTE from building Indian telecoms infrastructure,160 Prime Minister Modi and other senior Indian officials have continued to engage in multilateral institutions where China is an influential leader.161 Senior Indian representatives have attended both the BRICS (Brazil – Russia – India – China – South Africa) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summits in 2021, and still talk about engaging productively within them.162 Furthermore, the thawing in relations between Islamabad and New Delhi could further complicate this dynamic. There remains a danger within this overall context that Afghanistan becomes a useful deniable battlefield where the two sides’ more hawkish elements and security agencies can face off against each other.

Counter-terrorism as a priority

Counter-terrorism has always been high on China’s list of concerns with Afghanistan, though the threat from militant Uyghur networks in the country seems much reduced in comparison to earlier years. China has not reported any attacks within its borders linked to militants in either Afghanistan or Pakistan for over a decade – the last time was a 2011 incident that took place in Kashgar.163 China’s border control efforts have focused on supporting the construction of an Afghan security forces base in Badakhshan,164 providing equipment for Afghan forces and undertaking joint patrolling with their Afghan counterparts,165 while also providing support to border control forces in Tajikistan166 and Pakistan.167 It has also fostered the creation of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brings together the Defence Chiefs of Staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan.168

This regional mechanism which has admittedly not done much in the past couple of years, is nonetheless important for a number of reasons. First, it provides China with a direct structure through which it can address its security concerns with Afghanistan. It shows that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has an interest in engaging on the security issues related to the country. Second, it provides a multilateral framework which answers a need which should (in theory) fit within the responsibility of the SCO. The existence of the QCCM in many ways reflects China’s disappointment with the SCO as a vehicle to advance its security concerns with Afghanistan.169 Third, the QCCM was established without notice to Moscow, something troubling to Russia as one of the members, Tajikistan, is also a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), whose members are supposed to cooperate closely on security matters. This fact highlights both China’s willingness to act without heeding Russia’s concerns and the fallacy of common assumptions that China only focuses on economic issues in Central Asia while leaving security issues to Moscow.

Besides securing its direct border with Afghanistan, it also developed relationships with parties in Kabul interested in countering Uyghur groups. Both the Taliban and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) have said they would either fight Uyghurs or prevent them from acting against China from the Afghan territory. The lack of any major attack or plot in Xinjiang or China for years reflects the relative effectiveness of this security blanket from China’s perspective, though it is equally clear that China wants to ensure that it can guarantee its security concerns directly as well as through partners.

Having said this, China’s increasing concern about the US potential use of Uyghur proxies to attack or undermine its interests, suggests that counter-terrorism (CT) will remain high on Beijing’s agenda, with indications that China might have already started to take a more proactive view on disrupting Uyghur networks in Afghanistan.170

Binding the world with Belts and Roads

China’s Belt and Road Initiative has, for the most part, not touched on Afghanistan. While there have been numerous conferences, and officials from both the Afghan and Chinese governments talk about the BRI relevance for Afghanistan, the truth is that there has been as little investment in infrastructure or other domains in Afghanistan as China has made in Central Asia or Pakistan. The one piece of direct infrastructure connecting the two countries which has been mooted is a fibre optic cable that is supposed to run through the Wakhan Corridor – a project supposedly developed under the auspices of a World Bank initiative.171 It is worth noting that Chinese firms have worked (and are working) on numerous infrastructure projects within Afghanistan, but these are all funded by international financial institutions rather than by Beijing. In other words, Chinese contractors are working on the ground, but it is not part of any formal Beijing driven BRI project.

The two much vaunted economic investment projects in Afghanistan – the Mes Aynak copper mine and the Amu Darya oil field – have both stagnated and not delivered nearly the local benefits that the Afghans had hoped when they signed the deals.172

China has, however, encouraged BRI related projects in Central Asia and Pakistan that might connect with Afghanistan, particularly those focused on developing infrastructure linked to CPEC. Beijing has long wanted to get connected with Afghanistan and has invested in making border crossings of goods more efficient.173 As direct trade between China and Afghanistan also remains limited174, Afghanistan therefore does not play a particularly significant role in China’s broader economic vision for the region, except with regards the potential spill over of instability from Afghanistan to Central Asia and Pakistan, where China has substantial investments. Going forward, it is unlikely that this is going to change much. The Chinese economic vision for the region does not need to include an Afghanistan that will succeed. Additionally, there has been a broader push by Chinese institutions to recalibrate the projects that they are doing under BRI with a view to ensuring economic sustainability and returns on investment. Seen in this light, it is unlikely that Afghanistan will become a major target for BRI support in the future.

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144 E. Wong and M. Mashal, “Taliban and Afghan peace officials have secret talks in China”, The New York Times, 25 May 2015.

145 “常驻联合国副代表耿爽大使在阿富汗问题阿里亚模式会上的发言”, Permanent Mission to the UN, 20 November 2020 (Speech by Ambassador Geng Shuang, Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the Aria Model Meeting on Afghanistan).

146 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying’s regular press conference on 3 December 2020”, People’s Republic of China, 3 December 2020.

147 “China welcomes US-Taliban peace deal: FM spokesperson”, Xinhuanet, 3 February 2020.

148 “China welcomes intra-Afghan talks, expects lasting peace via joint efforts”, China Global Television Network, 14 September 2020.

149 “The status of the Afghan Taliban”, Charhar, 13 October 2020.

150 Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on March 26, 2021 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1864659.shtml

151 J. Swan and B. Allen-Ebrahimian, “Scoop: Trump administration declassifies unconfirmed intel on Chinese bounties”, Axios, 20 December 2020.

152 D. Markey, “The best place to test cooperation with China is in Afghanistan”, The Hill, 22 February 2021.

153 “China condemns US for delisting of ETIM as terrorist organization”, China Global Television Network, 6 November 2020.

154 A. Krishnan, “Modi-Xi bonhomie 2.0: all that happened during the ‘informal’ Wuhan summit”, India Today, 28 April 2018; S. Haida and A. Aneja, “Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping ‘informal summit’ in Chennai from October 11”, The Hindu, 9 October 2019.

155 S. Shukla, “Who are Baloch Liberation Army? Insurgents who killed 30 in Pakistan in last one week”, The Print, 20 February 2020.

156 “Alleged leader of Chinese consulate attack in Pakistan killed”, Al Jazeera, 27 December 2018.

157 K. Purohit, “Tibetan SFF soldier killed on India-China border told family: ‘we are finally fighting our enemy’”, South China Morning Post, 24 September 2020.

158 A. Bhaumik, “Nyima Tenzin: an unsung Tibetan hero of India’s resistance against Chinese PLA’s aggression”, Deccan Herald, 2 September 2020.

159 “Beijing said to fund separatist India movement”, Asia Sentinel, 21 August 2020.

160 M. Singh, “India bans 43 more Chinese apps over cybersecurity concerns”, TechCrunch, 24 November 2020.

161 “PM Modi addresses SCO summit: Key points”, The Times of India, 10 November 2020.

162 “Brics summit 2020 live updates: PM Modi addresses Brics summit”, The Times of India, 17 November 2020.

163 M. Wines, “China blames foreign-trained separatists for attacks in Xinjiang”, The New York Times, 1 August 2020.

164 M. Martina, “Afghan troops to train in China, ambassador says”, Reuters, 6 September 2018.

165 S. Snow, “Chinese troops appear to be operating in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon is OK with it”, Military Times, 5 March 2017.

166 “Tajikistan: secret Chinese base becomes slightly less secret”, Eurasianet, 23 September 2020.

167 ANI, “China strengthening military base in Gilgit Baltistan by constructing mega infrastructures, say activists”, Yahoo News, 17 July 2020.

168 “QCCM military group launched to counter terror”, The Nation, 4 August 2016.

169 The existence of the QCCM in many ways reflects China’s disappointment with the SCO as a vehicle to advance its security concerns with Afghanistan. China has consistently sought to get the SCO to engage more in Afghanistan, with Xi Jinping once again raising the issue during the SCO Heads of State Summit (held online) in November 2020. See: X. Jinping, “Full text: Xi Jinping’s speech at 20th SCO summit”, China Global Television Network, 10 November 2020. However, notwithstanding China’s push, the organization has consistently played no role in Afghanistan. Since 2017 there has been a push to revive the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group but it is not clear that this grouping has achieved anything practical. See “SCO Resumes Afghanistan Contact Group Meeting”, Tolonews, 11 October 2017.

170 While the full details are not clear, public and private reporting has suggested that the network of Chinese agents that was disrupted by NDS in Kabul in late 2020 was seeking to establish a fake Uyhgur cell to draw in real Uyhgur networks to neutralise them. See S. Gupta, “10 Chinese spies caught in Kabul get a quiet pardon, fly home in chartered aircraft’, The Hindustan Times, 4 January 2021.

171 Z. Jahanmal, “Afghanistan, China to connect through fiber optic network”, Tolonews, 23 April 2017.

172 R. Pantucci, “China’s non-intervention in Afghanistan”, The Oxus Society, 18 November 2020.

Another piece from a busy week, this time in the Spectator looking at China and Russia’s growing possible cooperation on the world stage. Not a title I would have chosen to be honest, as the article is more about cooperation than competition, but there we go. The trigger is Belarus in particular, but there is growing evidence that Beijing and Moscow are working in growing confluence. It is very hard to tell what cooperation actually looks like, and there are a few projects I am working on at the moment which explore this question in various different contexts.

Before posting that, however, am also adding a link to a really interesting discussion I participated in with RFE/RL’s excellent Majlis podcast on the impact to Central Asia of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan with host Muhammad Tahir, his excellent colleagues Salimjon Aioubov and Bruce Pannier, and the always impressive Alex Cooley.

Why Russia and China are competing to woo Belarus

Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin (Getty images)

Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko has been roundly condemned following the arrest of Roman Protasevich, but he still has one ally. Lukashenko spent the weekend at Sochi, on the Black Sea, where he was hosted on president Vladimir Putin’s yacht. The two leaders greeted each other with a hug. After dolphin spotting, the pair wrapped up a deal on the release of a $500 million (£350m) loan to Belarus which will help blunt the effect of fresh western sanctions. The announcement followed a celebration in Minsk earlier in the week for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist party, where ambassador Xie Xiaoyong lauded the bilateral relationship between China and Belarus. 

As ever, Beijing and Moscow are stepping in to support a regime falling foul of the west. China and Russia have long acted in a sort of harmony together on the world stage. They back each other up in the UN Security Council, and have a similar outlook on the world, fearing messy democratisation driven by western governments and NGOs. 

But underlying this is a tension; the two countries have a common aim, yet they still distrust each other. Russia, in particular, fears the way the scales in their relationship have increasingly tipped in Beijing’s favour. Beijing, in turn, worries about Moscow’s reliability, fearing it might abruptly turn westward. 

There are also tensions in China and Russia’s choice of allies. Russia has long been an arms supplier to countries like Vietnam and India who both have contentious relationships with China. Beijing has increasingly developed relationships with numerous former Soviet states, slowly winning over their economic favour to Moscow’s detriment. But both China and Russia are increasingly lining up together behind powers that are falling into conflict with the west.

Belarus is the latest example of this. As the UK, EU and US all pile in with sanctions, Moscow speeds up loans and Beijing emphasises its Belt and Road investment. Another recent example can be found in Myanmar. In the wake of the military junta’s coup in February and the subsequent crackdown, the EU, UK and US weighed in with sanctions. China’s response was to lobby regional bodies like ASEAN to not condemn the coup, demand that their companies operating in Myanmar be protected from assault and get approval for a $2.5bn (£1.8bn) natural gas project. Russia followed with more focused military support; Russian generals were among the few foreigners attending the national military day parade soon after the takeover, while Russian deputy defense minister was the first senior foreign official to visit the country in the wake of the coup. 

Other autocratic countries like Iran have long been supported by both China and Russia. While it is a remarkably delicate economic dance (all are ultimately, to varying degrees, fearful of the secondary impact of the aggressive US sanctions on Tehran), the security politics and dynamics have always worked closely together. The three have cooperated closely in intelligence terms, sharing experiences and information about their common foe: the Americans. Iran, Russia and China have held military exercises together in the waters of the Gulf; all three are ardent supporters of Syria’s despotic president Bashar al-Assad.

As for their responses to Covid-19, Russia and China have also been quick to co-ordinate their messaging. Both have highlighted western failings and made great hay of their collective push to offer their vaccines around the world. 

Their messaging more generally is also increasingly similar to each other’s. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long perfected the art of dissimulation and a nudge-nudge, wink-wink approach when commenting on international affairs. Deny everything and accept nothing is the usual approach. This is a playbook increasingly emulated by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose so-called ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy is, in fact, a carbon copy of Kremlin megaphone diplomacy. Broadcasting marginal western voices as though they are reflective of the mainstream, pushing back on every assertion made that can appear derogatory and denying verifiable facts vehemently are also useful tools. All of these rhetorical methods are ones that used to be alien to the traditionally staid and bland Chinese MFA, but are now a regular feature of their repertoire. 

This growing coordination is new and is reflective of a relationship that is getting closer. While previously, it was possible to find and pick at fissures in the Sino-Russian relationship, these gaps are closing and the more salient question now is the degree to which they might be coordinating their actions. 

Their goal seems not only to bolster each other, but also to gradually strengthen a network of strategic alliances around the world which will support them in their broader confrontation with the west. Once a leader falls foul of the western alliance for whatever reason, Beijing and Moscow quickly step right in to fill the vacuum. While this might seem to be bringing them more unreliable and expensive allies than useful support, it is, in fact, strengthening their hand by giving them more cards to play and expanding the network of nations that stand behind them rather than the west. This means more votes in the UN and other international institutions, and validating their strongman approach to governance on the world stage. 

Beijing and Moscow are no longer simply an axis of convenience. Increasingly they are developing an alliance of autocracy whose sole purpose is to challenge the western order.

Been working on a few too many different projects of late: some large, some small, some with some really excellent co-authors (whom I beg forgiveness for being slow at the moment). As I chug along, penned a short article for the South China Morning Post which tries to set out some ideas on how (and if) the west should respond to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Not vastly new ideas, but the topic is going to get a lot of airtime during the upcoming G7 session so it seemed the right moment to put the ideas out there.

How the West can best respond to China’s belt and road

  • Competing with China dollar for dollar is pointless as Chinese banks and state-owned firms are driven by different concerns than their Western peers
  • Building up governance capacity in developing countries will help them better manage and push back when Chinese firms step over the line
Illustration: Craig Stephens for South China Morning Post

In a barely veiled reference to the Belt and Road Initiative, the recent Group of 7 Foreign Ministers final communique called on China to end its “coercive economic policies and practices”.

It is not the first time the G7 and its individual members have targeted the initiative, but it is unclear what they would offer instead. Rather, the project has become a whipping boy in the broader geopolitical confrontation with China.

The first thing the West should remember when responding to China’s strategy is that it is not seen the same way globally. While Western countries might view Beijing’s investments in developing countries as exploitative, coercive and attempts to entrap nations in debt, they are sometimes simply the latest round of funding from a wealthy foreign power to come knocking with their own list of requirements.

Some will take China’s strategy at face value and do not care much about the requirements that follow, interpreting them as equal to Western nations’ requirements.

This is a crucial point to consider; while Western powers might attach a certain set of values to Chinese investments, this is not necessarily how they are seen. Most developing countries will accept investment wherever it comes from, and have such deep needs that they will take what appears to be the best value.

That is why competing with China dollar for dollar is pointless.

Part of the reason concerns the institutions involved. Chinese state banks and state-owned firms, often the main implementers of belt and road projects, are driven by a different logic than their Western counterparts. Their considerations centre around activity, employment and continuity rather than short-term profit.

This is not to say they want to lose money, but they are willing to look at projects with a different timeline. They will also, in some contexts, take on a project because the state wants them to. This is not the same for most Western companies, which answer to shareholders.

State-run institutions in China must also take account of the fact the Belt and Road Initiative is a main part of President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy vision and has been enshrined in the constitution. Thus, implementation of the vision is likely to be put above other considerations.

This is also different from in the West, where institutions may have political links, and Western banks might prefer to work with national firms, but there is little binding companies to specific national foreign policies. Rather, most try to avoid overt political links, knowing it can spell trouble.

This highlights a difficult policy area for Western governments. If they want to compete effectively, they have to start considering policies which would clash with the liberal market principles they claim to advocate.

This already happens, but it is often done quietly. Western capitals might need to start being more explicit about it.

One answer is to offer alternatives to critical decisions or infrastructure being targeted as belt and road projects. This is likely to differ from case to case, but the key will be to cooperate with like-minded allies to focus on specific projects.

One idea could be to develop a list of specific areas – no doubt technology would be top. But there is a danger such a list could become unwieldy, especially considering how many areas of society have some technological component. Embassies on the ground could be encouraged to work together, but this would be a complicated process.

A more effective strategy would be to focus on building up the governance capacity in developing countries. This is the real route to success in managing Chinese investment.

For example, rules in contracts for belt and road projects are not always followed or the contracts themselves have exemptions built in.

Chinese companies can fail to perform or implement feasibility studies, find ways around contractual obligations and are sometimes in a hurry to get things done, tending to operate as they are used to doing at home. This can create problems for host countries, which are left to clean up afterwards.

The best way for Western countries to tackle such issues is not by complaining but, rather, to build up local capacity to hold Chinese firms to account. In everything from infrastructure and technical standards to data storage, if the local authorities have stronger powers and capabilities, they will be able to better manage and resist when Chinese firms step over the line.

This recognises what seems the biggest gap in Western thinking. It is true that corruption can sometimes tip the scales, but the answer to that is not more investment, a bidding war or threats about taking Chinese money. Rather, it is empower locals to deal with corruption and ensure local governance can better manage investment.

None of this easy. Many investors, aid agencies and international financial institutions have been trying to do as much for years, which highlights another issue worth remembering.

That is, China does not have a magic wand to make all these problems go away. Arguably, in the belt and road, it has created a tool that could exacerbate issues. So, while China might be able to keep its projects on course for now, that may not be the case indefinitely.

As China becomes more embroiled in problems around the world, it will find itself hitting many of the brick walls that Western powers have experienced over time.

All this highlights why the West should worry less about belt and road projects per se and focus more on strengthening developing countries so they are able to manage whatever investments come their way.

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

A week and a bit later, finally posting my most recent piece for local paper Straits Times. This one explores the Digital Silk Road, something I have been looking at a growing amount for this larger RUSI project I have been working on which has a specific cyber and digital strand to it. In other words more on this to come, though more likely from the policy angle than the technical one which I am continually learning about.

Bumps on the Digital Silk Road

Chinese tech giants are superb builders but feared for their prowess and government links. But what if the greater risk lies in these firms themselves?

A potentially bigger problem the Digital Silk Road faces comes from within China.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

At the height of the Sino-Indian Himalayan border clash last year, New Delhi suddenly slapped a ban on dozens of Chinese mobile phone apps on security grounds. Most prominent among them was TikTok, the video-sharing app which has taken the world’s teenagers by storm.

The Indian ban came amid a wider wave of pushback against China’s digital and technology companies, led by the United States but taking effect globally in different ways, creating bumps in the building of China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR).

India has always been a major point of interest for Chinese technology firms. With a market size potentially the same as China’s, it offers an opportunity for exponential growth right next door. For TikTok, before the abrupt cut-off, India was its biggest market outside China with some 200 million people on its platform and proof that a Chinese company could take on America’s Big Tech in new markets.

Hardware companies such as Xiaomi and Huawei have long listed India as a major source of growth. In 2018, Huawei announced an “India first” policy and started to establish a growing volume of its manufacturing for the market in the country itself. In 2017, Xiaomi’s sales in India topped US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion), while in the first quarter of this year (notwithstanding political tensions and Covid-19 economic slowdowns) it shipped some 38 million units to Indian customers, accounting for 26 per cent of the smartphone market with an impressive 23 per cent year-on-year growth.

On the software side, Bytedance (TikTok’s parent company) had bet heavily on India prior to the banning, hoping to grow its user base with a local team of around 2,000 staff. Mr Jack Ma’s Alibaba is reported to have invested some US$2 billion in the Indian market since 2015.

This push into India was the realisation of the vision of the DSR, a concept first laid out by Beijing in a 2015 White Paper. At the time, the DSR was somewhat ignored except in specialist circles as it seemed to be the latest variant of the Silk Road nomenclature in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s 2013 Belt and Road speeches in Astana and Jakarta.

Yet this rather dismissive view belies the potential impact of the expansion of the DSR, which sees China, through its technology firms and state loans, helping recipient countries build their telco networks, e-commerce, mobile payment, smart city and other high-tech infrastructure. Chinese technology companies are paving parts of the world’s digital future.

In the global market, China’s technology firms are more than holding their own. Huawei and Xiaomi phones are affordable and of good quality. Huawei is increasingly the only firm that is manufacturing the infrastructure needed by countries to upgrade their next-generation Internet network. Huawei and ZTE are among the dominant providers of telecoms hardware in the countries surrounding China, while firms like Hikvision or Dahua are offering new technologies at accessible rates.

Chinese online payment applications and fintech are at the cutting edge, while across growing swathes of Asia, Alibaba, Taobao and JD.com online sales platforms are competing robustly against Amazon and other online marketplaces. The easy access to cheap Chinese products makes them very attractive.

An entire sub-economy has emerged of local entrepreneurs in countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Indonesia who create websites in local languages that provide people with access to the Chinese platforms. Across Asia (and more widely), these online middlemen set themselves up as interpreters of Chinese platforms to those who are unfamiliar with the language but want access to the bountiful and cheap products on offer.

In some ways, this is a classic win-win. The countries get affordable technology, investment and access to the Chinese market.

DATA SECURITY CONCERNS

Yet there is another side to it which India was trying to address with its abrupt closure of a whole raft of Chinese apps. Part punitive and part defensive, India’s pushback was amongst the sharpest that China had yet encountered as it paved its Digital Silk Road.

Concerns about privacy, access to data and espionage have increasingly dogged Chinese technology firms. Former president Donald Trump’s White House was aggressive in calling out the dangers of Chinese technology, though his scattershot approach did not always deliver the impact that was intended. Chinese firms and the government have repeatedly denied the accusations levelled against them.

Notwithstanding the Chinese denials, there are areas of concern. In 2017, Huawei removed a Wi-Fi module in a surveillance system sold to police in Lahore when it was discovered by locals. The discovery of the module, which provided an option for remote control that the company had not advertised, caused consternation in Islamabad. Not enough, however, to stop the Huawei chief executive from meeting Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2019 and signing a memorandum of understanding for the company to build a giant cloud data centre in Pakistan. And there have been repeated reports that Chinese-installed technology in the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa have been used to send information back to China.

Separately, TikTok has come under fire in various jurisdictions for censoring data, in part to adhere to Chinese government concerns. In Europe, the Italian government is suing the company for not having adequate protection for children’s data.

The biggest fear at the moment, however, is data collection and access. Driving this is the fear that the Chinese government could in theory demand that any Chinese company hand over whatever data it might have on foreign nationals using its application.

The reality, however, is far more complicated than this. In response to different data protection requirements of the countries they operate in, Chinese tech companies have built data centres around the world to store client information. Singapore, for example, is a particular beneficiary of this trend in Asia, offering a secure location outside China in the heart of Asia. Such centres should be beyond the Chinese government’s reach, though, of course, it can be difficult to monitor this.

But this is not the most interesting aspect of this data collection. Far more important is the volume of information this provides Chinese firms to hone their technical capabilities.

The current rush in new technology is to develop new artificial intelligence tools. In order to train these tools, you need massive amounts of data for them to learn from – something these Chinese behemoths are increasingly gathering in vast volume from around the world and particularly in Asia.

For countries leery of China’s ambitions, this advantage makes the growth of Chinese tech companies not only a potential national security threat, but also an economic threat that could stymie if not kill off rival plans to develop similar tools.

Given all of these concerns, it is not surprising that India decided to block Chinese penetration of its market. For India and others, the worry is not just the DSR burrowing too deeply into their local economies but also the longer-term risk of taking over their digital futures and exposing them to unknown future problems.

VULNERABLE GIANTS

For all that, a less discussed but potentially bigger problem the Digital Silk Road faces comes from within China. The abrupt defenestration of China’s most famous tech entrepreneur, Mr Ma, after he had carried Beijing’s flag for tech growth and innovation around the world, highlighted how vulnerable Chinese private companies really are. Not even China’s biggest tech company, Alibaba, is immune to political censure and punishment.

So far, it appears a chastened Mr Ma is having his wings clipped for challenging China’s domestic lenders too brazenly. His future remains unclear, but the slapdown halted what would have been the world’s largest-ever initial public offering of Alibaba’s payments off-shoot, Ant Financial.

While the scenarios are speculative at this stage, some questions about the relationship between the central government and Chinese tech companies need looking at. What are the implications for contracts or activities run by these companies should they fall foul of the government? What if the Chinese government was to abruptly nationalise or take over parts of Alibaba’s global empire? Countries could find themselves suddenly facing a situation where their entire online payments system was in fact owned by a foreign government.

In other words, the Digital Silk Road’s greatest dangers may not necessarily lie in the possibility of Chinese firms secretly accessing private data or the Chinese state using the infrastructure to hack people around the world, but the political vulnerabilities these firms face back home. If they are less stable than they appear and given the world’s growing reliance on digital economies and infrastructure, the unravelling of key parts of this silk road is a far graver threat than meets the eye.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

The wonderful Katie Putz of the Diplomat was kind enough to invite me to do an interview with her excellent publication – covering a wide range of China in South and Central Asia questions, though mostly looking southward with a bit of a focus on Afghanistan. Have not posted it all here as behind a firewall at the moment, but will hope to later. Am posting after it a podcast recording that I did with Suzanne Raine of Cambridge University (and formerly of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office) looking at how terrorist threats are evolving.

Raffaello Pantucci on China’s Presence in South Asia

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights the importance of South and Central Asia to China.

Pakistan and Chinese soldiers take part in a joint exercise in Jhelum, Pakistan Thursday, Nov 24, 2011.
Credit: AP Photo/B.K.Bangash

As the United States embarks on its withdrawal from Afghanistan, some wonder what China will do given the country’s critical interests in South and Central Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is merely the latest articulation of a strategic narrative that imbues the South and Central Asian region with critical importance to China. As Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), explains in the following interview, China has long-running interests in the wider region. While Beijing is not poised to follow the Soviet Union and now, the United States, into the “graveyard of empires,” those interests remain important to China.

What interests in the wider South and Central Asia region most draw Beijing’s attention?

China is most worried about security problems it perceives as being based in South and Central Asia which might threaten domestic stability. Principal amongst these is a fear that the region might become a staging ground for Uyghur dissidents or militants to create instability in Xinjiang. A secondary group of concerns emanates from a fear of threats to Chinese economic investments and interests in the region. In Beijing’s conception these investments are also linked to Xinjiang as well, as their success is in part linked to prosperity and growth in Xinjiang, which China sees as the key to longer-term stability within its borders.

At a wider strategic level, China is worried that the region could be used by adversary powers, like the United States, as a place from which to foment instability within China. This has most recently been tied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly to Afghanistan, but is a persistent fear that has always lurked in the back of Chinese minds. From their perspective, the region is their backyard and directly linked to some of the most sensitive parts of their country.

Finally, this region is the cradle of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy vision, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The concept was launched in the Kazakh capital, then-Astana (now Nur-Sultan), and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is called the keynote project of the vision. This gives it a particular importance conceptually to Beijing as failure here would be tantamount to failure of his vision. The economic interests that are linked to BRI in the region are important to China, but are often overstated as the priorities for Beijing’s concerns. The economic interests are important to the specific firms involved; the strategic aspect comes in terms of the impact they might have on domestic growth and stability, in particular in Xinjiang.

Read more here.

Also, am posting the podcast discussion with Suzanne Raine for the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University.

Some more late posting on a subject been doing a lot of work on this year China in Afghanistan, this time for the South China Morning Post. Have a longer paper on this landing soon, and there is a whole chapter in my upcoming book which draws on some time I spent there a while ago. This is going to be an important year for Afghanistan, let us hope things go well for everybody there.

How US withdrawal from Afghanistan offers promise and peril for China

  • The balance in Afghanistan seems weighted more towards opportunity than challenge for China as the geopolitical equation changes
  • Beijing might believe it knows how to avoid pitfalls, but history is littered with powers that were confident they had sway over the Eurasian heartland
US Marines patrol as they clear improvised explosive devices in Trikh Nawar on the outskirts of Marjah, Afghanistan, on February 21, 2010. Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden’s decision for the US to leave Afghanistan is both a challenge and an opportunity for China. On the opportunity side, China rids itself of worrying US military bases near its border. On the challenge side, it leaves open the question of who will deal with the instability that might grow in Afghanistan.

China still lacks the hard power to do this itself, and it is unclear whether Afghan forces can deliver such security assurances. None of this is new for Beijing, but the balance now seems weighted more towards opportunity than challenge.

China has long worried about instability from Afghanistan, but more indirectly than directly. This is based on an understanding of the region – the Taliban has not been known to attack north into Central Asia and are wary about irritating supporters in Pakistan – as well as the fact that Afghanistan’s border with China is remote and fairly firmly secured.

There is always the fear that Afghanistan could be a base from which trouble can brew, though. Militants who want to launch attacks elsewhere might see Afghanistan as a convenient home from which to operate. We have seen this play out with al-Qaeda and are seeing hints of it with Islamic State forces. China is worried Afghanistan might become a staging point for Uygur militants.

Since President Xi Jinping’s visit to Xinjiang in 2014, there has been an increase in Chinese security attention on the border with Afghanistan to mitigate this risk. This was in part driven by the declaration that the US was leaving Afghanistan.

Beijing has supported border forces in Tajikistan and Pakistan, and it has worked with Afghan security forces to strengthen their side of the Wakhan Corridor. It has developed deeper relations with Afghanistan’s security apparatus, strengthening political links and providing support to build bases.

From Beijing’s perspective, this is a relatively small and tight seal at the moment, though complacency in these cases is lethal.

Afghan security officials appear conscious of these concerns. They continue to refer to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a potential danger, to soothe Chinese worries and as a snub to the US, which has removed the ETIM from its list of terrorist organisations.

In other words, Afghan leaders are referring to a specific threat the US says does not exist. Additionally, the Taliban has shown itself willing to engage with Beijing and mentioned a willingness to provide protection for infrastructure being built in Afghanistan.

Having covered security up to a point, China has the opportunity side to consider. The often overplayed economic opportunities are not the biggest prize, as basic economic geography dictates that China will be a major beneficiary of Afghanistan’s resources. Their slow uptake so far is a reflection of Afghanistan’s complexities rather than Chinese appetite.

From Beijing’s perspective, the removal of a US military base from its backyard as relations with the US become testier is a relief. There was always secret gratitude that the US was in Afghanistan, dealing with the Taliban and other worrying groups, but this was balanced by Beijing’s principal adversary operating in its backyard.

Now that this is gone, China has a clear sweep across the Eurasian heartland. With Iran and Russia as anti-American brackets on the other side of Central Asia, Beijing has geopolitical sway over the entire region. With India and Pakistan growing closer and New Delhi willing to step back from the brink along the Sino-Indian border, China finds itself comfortably placed in Eurasia.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes these countries as members or observers, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The SCO has been derided as a do-nothing entity, but the American withdrawal leaves a hole the China-led grouping is well-placed to fill.

This is not to say the SCO will deploy in force. Instead, it provides China with an existing framework to play a role in determining the region’s future.

The problem for Beijing is this role comes with responsibilities and issues that China has repeatedly failed to figure out how to address. The Taliban is not a responsible player and, like everyone else, Beijing will be sceptical about any assurances it receives.

At the same time, none of the other SCO members are enamoured by Chinese power or aspire to it; rather, they fear it. Governance by fear might be effective, but it leaves you exposed if those powers are presented with other options. Russia and Iran, for example, would probably turn on China if the West abruptly shifted its posture towards them. 

None of this appears to unduly concern China. It is focused on highlighting American behaviour and spreading conspiratorial narratives about the US using Afghanistan as a base to mobilise Uygurs to attack China.

It is going to get dragged into regional geopolitics in the longer term, though, and while China has managed to avoid such clashes so far, it will eventually have to make some hard choices.

Beijing might believe it knows how to avoid such forks in the road, but history is littered with powers that were confident they had sway over the Eurasian heartland. China might enjoy the American withdrawal from Afghanistan but, in the longer term, the scales might tip more towards challenge than opportunity.

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

Into a new month, and a few things left over from the last one to publish. First up a short letter for the Financial Times which got a surprising amount of resonance, which reflects the fact that size is not everything I suppose!

Am also using this moment to do a media catch up which I have not done in a while. At the bottom of this post am putting a podcast I did with Veerle as part of a project I have been working on with RUSI (and partnering with Chatham House) which looks at trying to develop an agenda for a Transatlantic Dialogue on China.

This aside, spoke to RFE/RL about China in Afghanistan and separately about the Belt and Road; to the South China Morning Post about what the withdrawal from Afghanistan means to China, how China characterises its counter-terrorism program in Xinjiang, why ISIS has not talked much about China, what China is doing in Afghanistan, and China-Japan; to CNN about the China policy that Biden inherited; to the Mail on Sunday about Jack Ma; and on the other side of my work, to the Telegraph about 10 years on since bin Laden’s death; to The National about UK air strikes on ISIS in Syria; and, finally, to Australian ABC about the excellent work of the Unity Initiative.

Letter: West needs ‘grey zones’ not red lines in Ukraine and Taiwan

From Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute, London SW1, UK

A Russian navy ship is seen during navy drills in the Black Sea on April 14, 2021. © AP

Gideon Rachman (“Why China and Russia will now test Biden”, Opinion, April 20) is right to identify Taiwan and Ukraine as places where the US (and its allies) will find themselves tested by China and Russia.

Setting red lines, however, is not necessarily the answer. It might instead create a series of tests which Beijing and Moscow feel compelled to probe in creative ways.

The challenge of setting red lines is that people will tend to run towards them. Knowing exactly where the lines in the sand are drawn provides adversaries with a target. And once they have reached the line, they explore ways in which they can softly undermine it — using the very “grey zone tactics” that Rachman identifies as being key weapons in Beijing and Moscow’s toolboxes.

The net result is further confusion. If they have not clearly crossed the line by using deniable cyber tactics or proxies, what is to be done?

It may take time to clarify. But for the moment, the discussion will be about whether they crossed the line or not — with the mere debate about it suggesting they did and the west did nothing about it. No good comes of this beyond seeming to undermine western commitments.

The question is not are China and Russia adversaries in these situations. They clearly see themselves as such and continue to act as though they are. Rather it is a question of whether the west is committed to helping Ukraine and Taiwan. So far, the west has remained resolute in its support for both countries — President Joe Biden is sending delegations of close allies to Taipei while his most recent round of sanctions suggests a willingness to confront Russian behaviour. Both countries continue to be recipients of US military aid.

The only additional benefit a clear red line would contribute would be to suggest the throwing down of a gauntlet after which presumably the west will have to reply with harder force.

Far better to keep a deniable grey zone on the west’s side as well, which keeps adversaries wondering how we might respond and how far they can go. A jockeying may seem to leave things open for miscalculation, but is also likely to be the best we can hope for, short of open warfare in a geopolitical context of great power conflict.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Associate Fellow
Royal United Services Institute

And now for some links to other media outputs which are online that have popped up in the past period. First up is the podcast referenced above which is part of the bigger Transatlantic Dialogue on China project Veerle and myself are working on at RUSI.

Next up a panel discussion with Turkish TRT Television looking at what Biden’s pledges towards NATO mean for Europe and international security in particular, with former NATO policy planner Dr Jamie Shea CMG and Dr Thomas Sutton from Baldwin College.

And finally, another panel with TRT, this time looking at what the UK’s new Integrated Review means with the Evening Standard’s Defence correspondent Robert Fox and former Foreign Office Permanent Under Secretary Sir Simon Fraser.

Have not been posting for a while, need to catch up. Been very busy with some longer projects some of which will eventually emerge. But for the time being, enjoy this comment for the South China Morning Post on Wang Yi’s Middle East tour following the blow-out in Anchorage.

How China’s Middle East charm offensive succeeded despite affecting little change

  • What Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to the region may lack in material achievements, it makes up for in good optics. China is a major player in the region
  • In highlighting this, Wang has undermined the Western-driven condemnation of the week before and achieved China’s foreign policy goals
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after a document-signing ceremony in Tehran on March 27. Photo: EPA-EFE
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after a document-signing ceremony in Tehran on March 27. Photo: EPA-EFE

US-China tensions have continued seamlessly into the Biden administration. Beijing’s desire for a reset was bluntly rebuffed in Alaska, however China is trying to spin that story now. The sanctions dispute over Xinjiang will only further strengthen a transatlantic desire to confront China. 

Sensing this, Beijing has launched a diplomatic offensive, first hosting its traditional ally, Russia, followed by a Middle East roadshow by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

But while the Middle East visit was largely a repeat of what we have heard before and showed the limits of China’s ability to change the region, it did highlight again the world’s desire to not get caught in the middle of a spat between Beijing and Washington – an outlook that strengthens China’s hand.

The one place in which change was delivered was Iran, a country that is struggling for options at the moment in the grip of Western sanctions. For Tehran, the relationship with Beijing is a window onto the world and an opportunity when it is running out of options.

But the 25-year cooperation agreement the two sides signed is not a cheque for US$400 billion as was widely reported but rather a list of areas in which China will engage with Iran during the next two decades.

Given China’s and Iran’s generally negative image and collective confrontation with the United States, there is clear utility to the imagery of striking a loud public deal like this for both countries. It does change Iran’s calculus and position, but the biggest benefits are likely to accrue to China, whose companies will be able to pick and choose the opportunities they want at prices they like, given Tehran’s lack of alternatives at the moment.

The other new – and very contemporary – aspect to this visit was the push on medical or vaccine diplomacy. While in the UAE, Wang oversaw the launch of a joint project between Sinopharm and local firm G42 Medications Trading in the Khalifa Industrial Zone of Abu Dhabi.

Intended to open later this year, the project aims to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines to help the region inoculate against the virus. The project builds on earlier engagement by the Chinese firm in the UAE, which hosted phase 3 trials of the vaccine last year. It is undoubtedly positive that more people will get access to the vaccine as a result.

But much of the rest of Wang’s visit was a repeat of what we have heard before. The overall five-point structure he proposed, advocating mutual respect, upholding equality and justice,  non-proliferation, fostering collective security and accelerating development cooperation are a fairly predictable roster of declarations by a Chinese leader. They are not anything one can disagree with, but it is difficult to see China achieving some of those goals in the region.

Wang proposed China would try to help broker peace between Palestine and Israel. Beijing has declared this goal before and it has always been warmly welcomed, but it seems unlikely that China will be able to deliver. The offer to host another meeting between the two sides is unlikely to break that deadlock.

Additionally, China said it was going to work with Russia to unlock the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. This is not going to move ahead unless the Western partners are all on board.

The more interesting chasm which Beijing instead managed to navigate is the clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Wang did not offer any new ideas here, but more intriguing is that both countries were equally eager to engage notwithstanding the tensions they share.

This is the confusing magic of China’s Middle Eastern relations – its ability to float between adversaries in ways which others cannot.

The extent of Wang’s demands on the visit appeared to be having good optics and statements supporting China’s treatment of its own people at home. Even during his stop in Turkey, where he was confronted with protesting Uygurs, the Turkish government offered no strong criticism and instead, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised the Sinovac vaccine his country has received.

Little materially changed in the region as a result of the visit, and it is unlikely anyone expected much to. Even so, the world was reminded once again that China is a major player and has the red carpet rolled out for it wherever it goes.

Wang also sought to ensure that the visit focused on positive aspects – connecting national development strategies, taking advantage of the region’s natural resources and helping the region develop new health care industries. While there was some discussion about Xinjiang, it was largely kept to Chinese talking points and controlled protests in Turkey, a contrast to the sanctions and tone coming out of Western capitals.

The difficulty for Western countries is not so much that China is displacing the United States – it still lacks the means, experience or interest to try to untangle the tangled complexities of the Middle East – or that anyone in the region changed their strategic positions towards the West. Instead, the visit reflects a region that follows China’s brutally realist view of the world, where values come second to interests. In highlighting this, Wang has undermined the Western-driven condemnation of the week before and achieved his foreign policy goals.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London