Posts Tagged ‘China’

Almost caught up, but then will invariably get behind, another short piece for the South China Morning Post inspired by events in Ukraine, this time trying to tackle the obsession in the west about China’s support for Russia.

How the West’s focus on China’s ties with Russia misses the bigger geopolitical picture

  • The US and EU’s condemnation of Russia and repeated calls for their allies to do the same reflects a world view in which democracies stand united against autocracies
  • In reality, drawing battle lines is far more difficult when interests and values rarely align
Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

The single-minded focus on China’s friendship with Russia misses the far wider range of supporters around the world that Moscow has been able to muster. It is this wider web that really highlights the difficulty the US and Europe will have in marshalling international support to condemn Moscow’s actions.

The myopia reflects the difficulty in playing the complicated game of three-dimensional chess that is international geopolitics, where relationships are coloured by shades of grey and focus on interests rather than values.

There is no doubt China has chosen to side with Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine. But it is important to note that this choice has been carefully couched as not being against Kyiv, but in opposition to the US and Nato’s missteps in causing the problem in the first place by antagonising Moscow.

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Beijing’s choice is also the result of a calculation that Russia remains a critical ally in China’s wider confrontation with the West.

This framing may anger the West, but it is one that Ukraine seems willing to (at least in public) accept. In recent comments, the head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, Andriy Yermak, described China’s position as “neutral”, while saying that Ukraine’s leader was expected to talk to President Xi Jinping soon.

China was Ukraine’s largest trading partner before the invasion, and there is every chance that this economic relationship will pick up where it left off should stability ever return to the country.

Such commentary stands in contrast to Kyiv’s views on India, the other Asian giant that has stood behind Moscow. As the invasion unfolded, Western leaders called on New Delhi to stand behind them in condemning Russia.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government declined, leading Ukraine’s Ambassador to India Igor Polikha to declare he was “deeply dissatisfied” with India’s stance, calling on New Delhi to be “much more actively engaged, given the privileged relations India has with Russia”.

Few who had been paying attention would be surprised by India’s position. The country’s military-industrial relationship with Russia is a long-standing sore in US-India relations, fuelling concerns about defence and intelligence transfers.

Neither New Delhi nor Beijing, however, are outliers. Both have chosen to abstain in United Nations Security Council votes. And, in the wider UN General Assembly vote demanding humanitarian access to Ukraine and condemning Russia’s actions, they stood alongside South Africa, Pakistan, Iran, Vietnam, a range of African powers and much of Central Asia in abstaining (only a few predictable powers like North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Eritrea joined Russia in voting against the resolution).

South Africa even sought to follow up on the vote with another focused solely on the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, omitting any refence to Russian action.

But there is further complexity within these positions. While Central Asian powers chose to abstain from the UN vote, both the Uzbek and Kazakh governments have chosen to openly reject recognition of the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk that Moscow has recognised, while also appearing to more actively reach out to Ukraine.

This seeming stand against Russia is one that flies in the face of Kazakhstan’s decision early this year to call on Russian forces to support the government in the face of mass protests, and the Uzbekistan government’s reliance on Russian security to help bolster their border with Afghanistan as the republic’s government collapsed last year.

Looking beyond UN voting, Russia also appears to have a number of friends in the Middle East. On the one hand, Iran has openly sought a closer relationship with Moscow, in large part for the same reason as Beijing – as a bolster against a confrontational relationship with Washington.

But, on the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both also shown support for Russia while snubbing Washington – a choice that is driven by a concern about reliability of US alliances and irritation at condemnation of their own actions (their conflict in Yemen) by the West.

The reality is that international relations are grey. Countries are driven by interests that are both short and long term. An adversary today can become an ally tomorrow. The one immutable truth in international relations is that nothing is permanent.

But this is a critical problem for a West that is seeking to build a binary world of autocracies versus democracies, painting this as the defining struggle of our time. It also reflects a core tension within the approach being driven by Washington, where there appears to be a desire to create an alliance of democracies alongside a shifting constellation of coalitions focused on outcomes.

While, in theory, this is not impossible – countries are often willing to maintain contradictory policies while focusing on interests – it becomes difficult when a single-minded obsession with one adversary clouds everything else.

While American and Chinese strategic thinking may be centred on a world in which the other is the main adversary, to the rest of the world, this narrative is more complicated. And these complications do not always hold across interests, and may in fact undermine each other in crucial ways.

There is no easy way to thread this needle. But maintaining a resolute focus on interests rather than values is a disappointing place to start. This is not going to be appealing to those who want to see a world of like-minded allies or democracies ruling the waves, but is more likely to reflect the brutal reality of geopolitics, where values are not as transcendental as we might like to believe.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. He is co-author, with Alexandros Petersen, of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire”

More updating from last month, this time a piece for the South China Morning Post which attracted a certain ire online at the time looking at China’s broadly passive approach to all of the trouble on its periphery of late. My point was maybe not as strongly put as the headline, but as ever headline writers are focused on clarity and not subtlety.

Eurasia in turmoil: how China’s passivity foments the chaos

  • From Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and now Ukraine, the Eurasian heartland has fallen prey to three forces: authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity
  • Beijing may be happy to sit out the chaos for now but it will ultimately spill over and create problems it cannot ignore
A sign outside the the Canadian embassy in Beijing on March 3 in support of Ukraine. Photo: AFP

It has been a tumultuous six months for Eurasia. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last August was followed by widespread civil unrest in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year and now a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While Russia has had a prominent role in each context, it is China’s perspective that people most frequently ask about. Yet Beijing has stayed broadly passive, highlighting the role that China sees for itself in the world.

China may be the new superpower on the international stage, but it appears to have little interest in committing itself to resolving any problems that emerge in its neighbourhood or beyond.

The attention on China can sometimes seem exaggerated. We look for Beijing’s view on everything nowadays, sometimes where it is unlikely to be relevant. Yet the truth is that Beijing is a significant actor in all three Eurasian contexts.

China remains the putative largest single external investor in Afghanistan, is Kazakhstan’s second-largest trading partner (and fastest-growing investor), and since 2019 has been Ukraine’s largest trading partner.

China has undertaken or signed contracts for large-scale investments in all three countries, is an important trading partner and (in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan) has a particular interest given the shared borders.

So it is not entirely surprising that people look for China’s views in these contexts, and expect Beijing to want to step in when things turn bad. Yet, in each situation, China has instead stood by to let others try to fix the problems.

A similar playbook can be observed in all three cases. In the first instance, Beijing apportions blame – often finding the United States culpable for the situation.

In Afghanistan, the American withdrawal precipitated the Taliban takeover, making it an easy connection. In Kazakhstan, mutterings of “colour revolutions” started in Moscow and Nur-Sultan, giving Beijing ample fuel to point towards the US. And in Ukraine, China has continued to point to US-driven Nato expansion as a key underlying reason for the conflict.

Having blamed the US, the next step is to try to embrace tightly. In Afghanistan, this has led to a surge in Chinese activity on the ground, regular aid, close engagement with the Taliban authorities, regular championing of their interests at the United Nations and the constant promise (that has yet to materialise) of larger-scale investment.

In Kazakhstan, Beijing picked up seamlessly from where it left off before the trouble in January, while in Ukraine it is trying to sell itself as an impartial supporter of both sides.

Yet in all of this, Beijing commits very little. The constant presentation of multiple-point plans to resolve situations are largely empty declarations which appear well meaning but are not followed by any real evidence of effort to resolve the situations. Instead, they largely state the obvious and seem to suggest that Beijing is somewhat above the situation as a benign observer.

There is no doubt some element of Beijing’s stasis is not really knowing what to do. China’s offers to act as a peace broker have tended to be hollow, usually offering a table around which the various parties can sit.

While this is a useful role, a proper negotiator will need to work the various groups, understand their interests and force heads together. This is also likely to mean telling people what they do not want to hear, something Beijing is never very interested in doing as it potentially creates adversaries.

But so far, by sitting and watching, Beijing has not done itself much ill. While its international standing may be damaged among those who would like to see it take a more active role, by not doing so, China is leaving itself in a position where it can continue its relations with whichever party comes out on top.

And given Beijing’s strong economic interests in every situation, all the parties involved will usually have a strong incentive to continue to engage with Beijing after the chaos subsides.

But there is a longer-term problem here, which may eventually cause China some regret. The result of this passivity has been a Eurasia increasingly in tumult.

As Washington leads the West in a mostly seaborne crusade in the Indo-Pacific against China, we see the Eurasian heartland fall prey to three forces. Authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity. The result has been large-scale loss of life, and growing constraints on people’s liberties.

This is the net result of a Eurasian heartland abandoned to local forces, and increasingly overseen by superpowers who see value only in shaping history when they deem it important to their grandeur, and otherwise seem content to simply let things play out, no matter the consequences on the ground.

For now, China might be happy to watch things play out. But, unfettered, these forces are likely to create nothing but misery and a Eurasian backyard in which China will find itself the dominant power watching over chaos.

And while in the short term it might be possible to find some benefit from this situation, in the longer term, it will spill over and ultimately create problems that Beijing cannot just watch from the sidelines.

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

More catch up posting from last month, this time a short piece for the wonderful Nikkei Asian Review looking at how Central Asia is likely to suffer from the chaos generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Have a few more since this which make similar points but through different lenses, but for now enjoy this.

Central Asia braces for economic catastrophe

Sanctions aimed at Russia will have serious knock-on effects

Migrant workers from Uzbekistan collect potatoes at an agrarian field in Beryozovka near Russia’s Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk: their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income.   © Reuters

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

Across what is still referred to as the former Soviet space, there has been a sharp intake of breath. While many have grown accustomed to overbearing Russian behavior, few expected the dismemberment of Ukraine.

For Central Asia, the consequences go deeper than worrying whether they might be next. The intertwining of their economies with Russia means the drastic sanctions being imposed on Moscow will likely hit them too. And for a region that is increasingly being targeted by the West, this will further exacerbate economic suffering.

It is not so long ago that Central Asia was actively calling for greater Russian military support. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, Russian forces rushed in to undertake joint training exercises with Tajik and Uzbek forces, while Moscow sped through military sales to customers across the region.

In January, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on Russian forces, under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to help reestablish control in the wake of violent protests wracking his country.

For Central Asians, Russia remains an essential security partner. While China is seen as ascendant, it is Russia that remains hugely significant in political, economic and security terms.

The truth is that while Beijing may be the rising power, China tends to be quite passive, as its responses to the crises in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan have shown. Similarly now with Ukraine, Beijing appears largely content to talk rather than actually try to do something on the ground.

While China sees Central Asia as five nations it wants to do business with, Russia takes a more paternalistic view, in some cases even questioning their viability as states. Vladimir Putin has on occasion questioned Kazakhstan’s nation status, just as he has with Ukraine. This worries Central Asians.

Take Kazakhstan, which has a population of around 3.5 million ethnic Russians, nearly 20% of its population, concentrated near its border with Russia. It is very easy to envisage a scenario where Moscow stakes a claim to these people back in much the same way as in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 first crystallized this concern. At the time, Moscow not only sought regional endorsement through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but recognition of the two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Moscow claimed it had gone in to defend. This appeal was roundly rejected, with China in particular horrified by the precedent that Moscow was setting.

Fast forward to today, and while it is clear that Central Asians are uneasy, there is a lot less condemnation. In fact, in a conversation with President Putin, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov appeared to support Russia’s position, prompting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to withdraw his ambassador from the capital Bishkek.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Sadyr Japarov during a meeting in Strelna on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg, in December 2021: the Kyrgyz President appeared to support Russia’s position. (Handout photo from Kremlin Press Office)    © Reuters

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both found themselves pulled into the information war, with both being forced to deny that they supported Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Kazakhstan that they had been asked to participate in the fighting by Moscow. In Uzbekistan, the government issued a statement pointing out that any national who was found to be fighting for a foreign army would be prosecuted upon return home.

Ultimately though, it will be economic questions that will dominate minds across Central Asia. Millions of Central Asian citizens work in Russia, and their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income, something that will be hit by the abrupt drop in the value of the ruble.

The collapse in the value of the Russian currency has also led to massive knock-on devaluations across Central Asia as markets reflect on the consequences of Russia’s exclusion from the international economy.

Russia is a major investor and partner to all five countries. Russia has reportedly invested around $40 billion in Kazakhstan alone since the fall of the Soviet Union, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are bound intimately to the Russian economy as members of the Eurasian Economic Union.

All of this means that when Russia suffers economically, Central Asia feels it. Now, the region is bracing for the worst. Central Asia may have experienced something similar following the 2014 sanctions leveled against Russia, but this time the hit is likely to be exponentially harder.

All of which comes at a moment of great flux in a region still suffering from the fallout from COVID. Add to that, Kazakhstan is still recovering from the national unrest that rocked the country in January, Turkmenistan is in the midst of a leadership transition, and Tajikistan appears to be on the cusp of something similar.

Many geostrategists may be tempted to conclude that Beijing is likely to benefit. And there is no doubt that this will strengthen Chinese options in the region. But the reality is that Central Asia will still be very much tied to Russia, with all the consequent loss of income that will entail. Central Asian migrant labor will struggle to find the same opportunities in other countries.

Now entirely encircled by countries that are being targeted by escalating Western sanctions — Afghanistan, Iran, China and Russia — Central Asia is increasingly finding itself between an economic hard place and a politically precarious one.

Pushed into a corner not of its choosing, the collateral damage to Central Asia from Putin’s Ukrainian invasion is likely to be considerable.

A piece for my UK institutional home RUSI, exploring China’s relations, links and role to the current conflict in Ukraine. Suspect going to be an issue which is going to come up increasingly over the next few months, but the overriding China-Russia relationship does not feel like it is going to change much.

China’s Soft Shoe on Ukraine

Hard geopolitics dominates China’s view of Russian action in Ukraine.

Main Image Credit Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pictured in 2016. Courtesy of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the West, China’s views on Ukraine have largely been seen through the lenses that people want to interpret China’s actions. Some fear Beijing will use the opportunity to do something in Taiwan, while others instead suggest that this will lead to a fissure between China and Russia as Moscow tests the international order, recognises breakaway states and causes economic chaos – all things that logically irritate Beijing. Yet all of this stands apart from the fairly blank and often confusing response we have actually seen, where Chinese officialdom initially made statements which lacked internal coherence and seemed aimed at pleasing everybody, and then latterly took a posture of blaming the US. Beijing has aligned itself with Russia from the outset, though it has repeatedly softened its line to reflect a genuine concern about a potential catastrophic escalation, a desire to appear to be trying to do the right thing, and a likely genuine wish not to actively encourage Russian adventurism.

Go back in time to 2014, and Chinese commentators were more circumspect in their response towards Russian action in Crimea. While they did not leap up to praise and support, they did not condemn, and instead offered commentary that seemed to suggest that they at least understood Moscow’s underlying concerns. From Beijing’s perspective, events in 2014 were an extension of the problem that Chinese (and Russian) officials refer to as ‘Colour Revolutions’, a refence to the toppling of authoritarian regimes by public uprisings that can be traced back to the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003. That event precipitated a similar uprising in Ukraine a year or so later (dubbed the Orange Revolution), and was followed by a similar government overthrow (dubbed the Tulip Revolution) in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. This chain of events then seemed to slow until 2011 and the Arab Spring, which brought a similar wave of public protest and authoritarian overthrow across the Arab world, and even touched on China’s shores in the very limited ‘Jasmine Revolution’.

While Beijing was not ecstatic about the redrawing of borders on the basis of ethnicity and the recognition of breakaway provinces (a precedent they always fear will be used against them), it could see where Moscow was coming from and worried about the wider consequences of the Euromaidan protests that culminated in Russia’s actions in Crimea. Additionally, it had little interest in condemning Russia, an important neighbour and ally whom it recognises has a very different view on how independent former Soviet countries actually are. Back in 2014, China was preoccupied with many other issues – including a domestic terrorist problem which appeared to be getting out of control – and saw little value in becoming entangled in a fundamentally European problem. In a comment which echoes precisely what is being said today, then Chinese UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi stated that Crimea posed a ‘complex intertwinement of historical and contemporary factors’.

This stood in stark contrast to 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia and recognised the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At that time, Beijing was irritated that Moscow had chosen to launch its incursion right when Beijing was hosting the Olympic Games (by contrast, the 2022 Winter Games had notably ended at around the time Putin decided to take action against Ukraine, suggesting at the very least a sense of diplomatic timing by Moscow), and actively worked to block Russian attempts to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to support what Moscow as doing. Led by the unassuming and consensus-driven Hu Jintao, China was a power that still framed itself as rising and eager not to make waves. In what could be read as a thunderous rebuke by the then usually mute Beijing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) expressed ‘concern’ about Russia’s recognition of the two states.

Cut forward to today and Beijing seems much more willing to rhetorically champion Moscow’s perspectives. In earlier statements, it appears to have tried to maintain a line which avoided praising Russia, acknowledged some legitimacy in its concerns and at the same time upheld the UN charter and its calls for the protection of national territorial integrity (a nod to Ukraine’s perspective). But in fact, Beijing said very little. Echoing 2014, MFA spokesman Wang Wenbin stated that from Beijing’s perspective there was ‘a complex historical context and complicated factors at play on this issue’.

But things sharpened rapidly. While these same narratives remain present, a more aggressive tone towards the US came in when spokeswoman Hua Chunying took over the regular MFA briefings. ‘A key question here is what role the US, the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine, has played. If someone keeps pouring oil on the flame while accusing others of not doing their best to put out the fire, such kind of behaviour is clearly irresponsible and immoral’, she said. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made explicit reference to Russian concerns about NATO expansion, suggesting it as an explanation for the conflict.

While it is no longer surprising to hear such fiery rhetoric from the formerly staid MFA, it is a clear step further than Beijing was willing to go last time. What has changed is not the partnership with Russia, which has remained a constant and strengthened during the past decade and a half, but rather the relationship with the US, which is the principal vector through which Beijing views international affairs.

Viewed in this light, the response to Ukraine becomes shaped by the wider geopolitical context that Beijing sees. There is a substantial economic relationship between Ukraine and China, with China overtaking Russia as the country’s biggest trading partner in 2019. But it is not something that is irreplaceable from China’s perspective, and there is nothing to say that China will not be able to pick up quickly in economic terms after the Russian invasion, no matter who is left in charge. Reflecting China’s willingness to accept a relatively high risk threshold in Ukraine, PowerChina agreed in late 2020 to undertake the construction of the largest wind farm in Europe at a cost of around $1 billion in the divided Donetsk region of Ukraine, near where separatist rebels controlled territory (and presumably now at the heart of the conflict). This highlights Beijing’s willingness to undertake difficult investments, which doubtless the government in Kyiv would have appreciated. It is notable that while India’s tacit tolerance of Russia has generated anger from Kyiv, there has been less comment about Beijing’s very similar messaging, although it is reported to have generated some anger towards China on the ground.

But it is highly doubtful that China will prioritise bilateral trade and investment with Ukraine over its relationship with Russia. It is equally unlikely that Beijing will decide to join the West in a chorus of condemnation towards Moscow. The wider negative geopolitical consequences fly in the face of the grand joint communique issued by Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin when they met at the opening of the Winter Games in Beijing. While it is the source of great speculation whether Putin informed Xi when they met of what was being planned, the idea that China now feels played in some way seems unlikely. That the vast Chinese commentariat (and Ministry of Foreign Affairs) were unaware of what the leadership knew is unlikely to be a reflection of a systemic lack of knowledge, but rather suggests a closed centre around Xi that chose not to share information. Xi may have calculated that the Russian conflict would be brief, that it was not really his problem to worry about, and that it was not his place to judge what Putin saw as simply a ‘domestic’ issue.

China may not appreciate the chaos that Russia’s actions engender, but it will also conclude that there is little it can gain from trying to rein Moscow in, except to lose a partner in its confrontation with the US. In fact, there is every chance Beijing will benefit from this situation, gaining a stronger hand over its bilateral relationship with Moscow as Putin alienates large portions of the globe and sees Russia cut out of the international system. And in some parts of Chinese considerations, there may even be some thought given to the benefits that Russia’s actions might bring in terms of creating a wider distraction, exposing fissures between Western allies, providing lessons for future confrontations and more broadly creating an opportunity for China to look like a more stable actor on the international stage in contrast to Russia.

None of this is to say Beijing is pleased with being associated with a bellicose pariah, and there is no doubt that China’s calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict are genuine. Doubtless, there is some concern about the Chinese students who appear to be stuck in Ukraine. But it is also clear that hard geopolitics is prominent in China’s thinking, and its willingness to support Russia trumps such concerns. Moreover, Beijing, like Moscow, believes that things blow over. In what is almost a complete turnaround from 2008, in December last year an image emerged of the Ambassador to Syria for the breakaway Georgian Republic of Abkhazia meeting with the Chinese Ambassador to Damascus, Feng Biao. The full content of the encounter is not clear, but it was a source of friction between Tbilisi and Beijing. Reflecting continued Chinese curiosity in the region, a Shanghai news outlet recently had a reporter visit, something that was reported in light of the recent Russian recognitions in Ukraine.

A final point to note is that there is little reason why Beijing would feel it is being isolated on the international stage alongside Moscow at the moment. Watch the UN meetings in the run-up to Russia’s invasion, and India’s statements echo China’s refusal to condemn Moscow. Both voted the same way (alongside the UAE), choosing to abstain on the UN resolution condemning Russian action, while Indian finance officials are reported to be examining ways they can circumvent Western sanctions to continue to trade with Russia. Chinese banks have also been exploring ways of limiting their exposure, but the larger food, finance, technology and energy deals signed during Putin’s visit to Beijing earlier in the year highlight a deep economic relationship that is unlikely to change. Neither Beijing nor New Delhi appear eager to follow Western sanctions, although China is more forthright in condemning the use of the tactic. New Delhi may have subsequently done more to try to reach out to the Ukrainian side, but it has continued to avoid any sense of condemnation towards Moscow.

China and India may in other contexts be in violent conflict with each other, but they appear unified in being unwilling to jettison their relationship with Moscow in favour of Ukrainian or Western appeals. And given their collective representation of over a third of the planet’s population, this provides all three countries with adequate cover to wait and see how things develop, while keeping a cold eye on realist geopolitics.

More very late posting, this time from January for the Straits Times looking at how China was impacted by events in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year. Seems a world away from what we are facing now, though there is clearly a link that runs through Moscow.

China’s Kazakh Concerns

China is going to find that Kazakhstan is not the secure and predictable neighbour that it was, says the writer. PHOTO: REUTERS

When Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) vision in 2013, he started it with a speech in Astana, as the capital of Kazakhstan was then called.

In an expansive speech, Mr Xi articulated the importance of Kazakhstan within his broader vision of Chinese policy across the Eurasian landmass.

The Kazakh government appreciated the speech and the wider concept, so much so that a year later then President Nursultan Nazarbayev articulated his own national economic strategy called Nurly Zhol (bright path), which built on the Chinese ideas and projects. 

China and Kazakhstan would grow and prosper together. The Kazakhs benefited from Chinese trade and investment while Beijing appreciated having a stable “soft authoritarian” success story on its border. This intertwining highlights the importance of Kazakhstan to China, and explains the consequent horror with which Beijing watched the chaotic way in which the country welcomed in the new year. 

Chinese strategists were not alone in being shocked at the chaotic scenes that have played out over the past couple of weeks. Central Asia watchers both within the region and beyond were equally surprised by the turn of events, which began as demonstrations against a fuel price hike and escalated into violent clashes with hundreds reported dead and injured.

STABILITY AND PROSPERITY

Most used to see Kazakhstan as the most stable and prosperous country in what is still described as the post-Soviet belt that surrounds Russia. The government was an almost perfect articulation of the concept of “soft authoritarianism”, in which a strong authority dominated the country but left a certain space for political discourse, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a free (but controlled) media. 

The main reason it was able to do this was the massive wealth accumulated by the government, thanks to its large mineral and hydrocarbon reserves. 

These were exploited by numerous foreign companies, including Western ones.  Chinese firms have long looked at Kazakhstan as an important opportunity. Soon after the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) stepped in to exploit oil fields in Atyrau on the shores of the Caspian Sea.  In order to get the oil back to China, it built China’s first direct oil pipeline which stretched from Atyrau back to China covering more than 2,300km of the empty Central Asian steppe. This was only the first of numerous hydrocarbon projects. 

And it was not only a story of oil and gas. Mining company Kazakhmys, which dominates Kazakhstan’s rich copper reserves, received loans of around US$4.2 billion (S$5.7 billion) from the China Development Bank. The company would regularly take some parts of its loan facilities in yuan, something the Chinese bank appreciated as it helped with its wider strategy of trying to get the Chinese currency in wider global circulation, as well as ensuring that Chinese firms were used as contractors. 

Kazakhstan is one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, and in November last year started a joint venture with Chinese firms to produce nuclear fuel – a key part of China’s national energy strategy to reduce their carbon footprint. Kazakhstan is also a major target for Chinese agribusiness eager to take advantage of the vast underpopulated territory. 

According to Kazakh Invest data, there are some 20 million hectares of arable land (roughly the size of the United Kingdom) and another 180 million ha of meadows and pastures. This is very attractive to a country like China, with its booming population of middle class consumers looking for bountiful cheaper food options. 

Shortly before the Covid-19 outbreak, Kazakhstan opened a new market in Wuhan, where its products were sold. This became an early victim of the pandemic.  Kazakhstan was also a crucial first way station in the BRI. As mentioned, this was the country where Mr Xi first articulated his vision, even though elements of his ambitious trans-continental network were in existence long before the concept was announced. 

Kazakhstan had long sought to develop its rail and road links to China, eager to access its markets.  In the early 1990s, then President Nazarbayev had encouraged opening up his markets and rail routes to China, keenly sending his representatives to a Eurasian rail connectivity conference hosted in Beijing by then Premier Li Peng in 1996. 

For China, the Kazakh connection was useful more as a path on the way to more prosperous and populated markets in Russia and Europe. Either way, the two countries saw mutual advantage, with the Kazakhs getting infrastructure and transit fees, while China had a smooth path across the Eurasian heartland. 

Yet all this was thrown into question these past couple of weeks. The unexpected chaos in Kazakhstan caused concern among investors around the world. 

Western consultancies with large offices in big cities Nur-Sultan (Astana’s current name) and Almaty (the biggest city in the country) suddenly lost communications with them during the Internet outages amid the protests. Chinese firms were slightly more insulated from these disruptions, as most of their in-country staff were based at remote locations near oil fields or mining concessions.

PASSIVE BUT POINTED RESPONSE

While the riots look to have been put down, questions remain over stability in Kazakhstan and how China will manage this relationship going forward. At the moment, the response has been fairly passive, though pointed.  In a message to Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in the wake of the violence, Mr Xi talked about “colour revolutions”, highlighting the degree to which China was concerned about the instability in the country. 

This was an allusion to Western interference, referring back to the series of government overthrows seen in the former Soviet space in 2004, when Ukraine underwent a so-called “Orange Revolution”, Georgia a “Rose Revolution” and Kyrgyzstan a “Tulip Revolution”. For the Russians and the Chinese, these uprisings were widely seen as being linked to American-sponsored NGOs. 

For Beijing, the “colour revolutions” as well as the “Arab Spring” are like deadly viruses – something to be kept out lest the “bug” of public uprising catches on in China too. 

Yet, notwithstanding these concerns, China has done little in trying to help stabilise the situation. Instead, it has sat back and applauded as the Kazakhs called on Russia to step in and help bring stability under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-led alliance of six former Soviet states. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did offer “law enforcement and security cooperation” to help the country oppose interference by “external forces” – a narrative which echoed the explanations offered by the Kazakh government for the unrest. But these are likely just words. There is little to suggest the Kazakhs would take the Chinese up on the offer. 

This is in part because it is not clear what China would really be able to contribute that would be needed by the Kazakhs. There are also sensitivities at a public level about the relationship with Beijing. China has always struggled with an underlying sense of Sinophobia in the country. 

Earlier attempts by Chinese agribusiness to rent land in Kazakhstan had led to protests against the government for selling the people’s national patrimony to foreigners. Back in 2010, protests and violence erupted in Zhanaozen over a dispute between workers and a local CNPC affiliate, leading to at least 14 deaths. There have also been repeated lower-level clashes in the country between Chinese workers and locals. 

More recently, Covid-19 has made things even more awkward. While the Kazakhs have been keen to keep the borders and trading going, the Chinese have made entry to China very difficult. Although goods were coming out of China, they were not going back into the country. 

This had led to problems in Kazakhstan, in terms of sellers struggling not only to get their goods to China but also through it to other markets. Lianyungang, a city in Shandong, is heavily used by Kazakh sellers eager to gain access from their landlocked country to global markets. The Kazakh economy, already suffering from the effects of Covid-19, now found that the BRI, which was supposed to be about free-flowing connectivity, suddenly went only one way.

WORRIES AHEAD

All of this sets the context for how China is going to have to manage future relations with Kazakhstan. It is clearly happy that Russia had stepped in to help stabilise the situation, but the Kazakh government still has a lot of work to do in resolving bigger entrenched problems such as a glaring income divide, corruption and elite power contests. 

China is unfortunately a part contributor to these issues. Its investments have tended to engage with the elites, with locals feeling cut out. While Mr Tokayev will undoubtedly want to maintain the strong economic relationship with China, it will now have an added layer of concern to it from the Chinese perspective, and he will have to juggle his desire to keep Beijing happy while finding himself needing to answer to his local population in a more timely manner than before. All of which is likely to mean China is going to find that Kazakhstan is not the entirely secure and predictable neighbour that it was. 

The bigger problem for China is that if this is the case in Kazakhstan – the starting point of the Belt and Road chosen in large part for its stability – where else might their current assumptions be wrong

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

Another belated post from the last annual RSIS Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) overview of the threats over the previous year, this time looking at China, again with Nodir.

China

Xinjiang Province

For the fifth year in a row, China’s Xinjiang province was free from acts of reportedly politically motivated violence in 2021. Authorities asserted that this cessation in violence has been a product of enhanced security measures implemented in combination with re-education and labour transfer policies. In the jihadist sphere, the threat of Uyghur militancy continues to draw attention. Mainly, this stems from the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which still maintains ties to varying degrees with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria. The Afghanistan connection in particular has grown in salience since the Taliban takeover in Kabul, and will be Beijing’s main point of focus with the new government for the immediate future.

Trends

It has been just under five years since there were any reported cases of politically motivated violence involving Uyghurs in China. The last reported incident was in February 2017, when three Uyghur assailants undertook a series of knife stabbings in Hotan Prefecture in Xinjiang, an event which was followed by large displays of security presence across the region. According to Chinese counterterrorism authorities, Xinjiang has stabilised following the launch of the “special campaign against violence and terror” in 2014, which has led to crackdowns on more than 1,900 violent and terrorist gangs, the arrest of over 14,000 suspects, and the confiscation of more than 2,000 explosive devices so far.688 While it is difficult to assess these figures, it seems clear that China is keen to demonstrate it has a substantial threat it is fighting to keep under control. This crackdown builds on previous crackdowns which were conducted under the rubric of “Strike Hard” campaigns.689

The reasons for this cessation in violence in Xinjiang are hard to objectively analyse, but seem due in large part to the increasingly pervasive security blanket that exists across the region. This has two sides to it – on the one hand, a heavy security presence; on the other, widespread use of “re-education centres” and labour transfer policies within Xinjiang and other parts of China. While the implementation of the mass re-education programmes has been reportedly wound down, labour transfer policies appear to continue unabated.690 For instance, by March 2021, 250,000 Uyghur and other minority workers from Xinjiang’s Hotan Prefecture had reportedly resettled in other provinces under the ongoing state-run labour transfer scheme. Western governments and scholars have criticised this scheme as being a “system of coercion” that would ultimately aim to “thin out minority populations” in Xinjiang.691 In response, Chinese authorities and researchers have denied allegations of forced labour transfers, insisting that such programmes are a voluntary element of the state’s poverty alleviation strategy in Xinjiang.692

There is also little evidence that the security blanket has been much lowered, especially with the recent appointment of Lieutenant General Wang Haijiang to take over as PLA commander in Xinjiang. Formerly in charge of Tibet, the implication was that his approach to suppressing minorities might be the reason for his move to Xinjiang (following a pattern set by current Xinjiang Party Chief Chen Quanguo who had previously served in Tibet and brought many of his policies with him). It is likelier, however, that General Wang was picked due to his experience managing volatile borders. Ultimately, it is not PLA forces that are responsible for internal security in China.

The need for a military commander with experience in managing potentially volatile borders that China shares was illustrated by the change in government in neighbouring Afghanistan, where Beijing continues to be concerned about the potential overspill of violence. This potential threat emanates both from across the small direct border China shares with Afghanistan, the parts of Tajikistan or Pakistan that are close to China which also share a border with Afghanistan, and most substantially, from Uyghur militant groups who might use Afghanistan as a base to attack China or its interests at home or in the region. These concerns have escalated since the arrival of the Taliban-led government into Kabul.

Uyghur Groups in Afghanistan and Syria

Afghanistan and Syria continue to shelter a large number of Uyghur jihadist fighters from Xinjiang. The vast majority are known to be fighting under the most prominent Uyghur militant group, TIP. TIP retains fighting units in both theatres of conflict. Since the very early days of its participation in the Syrian conflict, the Syria-based TIP has introduced itself as the “Turkistan Islamic Party’s branch in Sham [Syria],” while indicating Abdulhaq Damullam (or Abdul Haq al-Turkistani), the long-standing leader of the Afghanistan-based TIP, as their “bash emir,” or supreme (overall) leader.693 United Nations reporting confirms that the two groups maintain direct, albeit limited, ties due to geographic distance and the difficulty of guaranteeing secure communication.694

In Afghanistan, TIP has been one of the Taliban’s closest foreign jihadist allies for nearly 25 years. Before the former’s capture of Kabul in August 2021, TIP had approximately 400 Uyghur fighters, gathered primarily in the Jurm district of the country’s north-eastern Badakhshan province, which shares a small border with Xinjiang via the mountainous Wakhan Corridor.695 Before the fall of the Westernbacked Afghan government, a contingent of 1,000 fighters, including Uyghur militants, was under the command of TIP’s deputy commander Hajji Furqan, or Qari Furqan, who has reportedly also served as a deputy commander in Al-Qaeda (AQ).696 TIP fighters participated in several Talibanrun offensives and were reported by local officials as being highly effective fighters.697 According to various reports, the group also facilitated the transit of fighters from Syria, along various routes, including via Vietnam and Pakistan toward Afghanistan.698

A potential resurgence of TIP, which China blames for many attacks at home, has been the latter’s overriding security concern. Beijing has repeatedly urged the Taliban to sever its ties with the group. In response, the Taliban leadership has reassured that nobody would be allowed to use Afghan soil as a launchpad to carry out attacks against other countries. In September, the Taliban’s spokesperson claimed that many TIP members had left Afghanistan after having been asked by the movement to do so.699 Reports, however, surfaced in October alleging that the Taliban relocated the Uyghur fighters from Badakhshan to other areas, including in the eastern Nangarhar province, suggesting that they are still residing in Afghanistan.700 Various unverified reports suggest the Uyghur presence remains a point of tension between the Taliban and China.701

In Afghanistan, TIP is not the only terrorist group of concern to China. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), that is reported to have bases in Afghanistan from which it launches campaigns in Pakistan, are both organisations that have recently been linked to incidents involving China. Until now, ISKP has not much discussed China and the Uyghur cause.702 This changed, however, on 8 October 2021, when ISKP claimed responsibility for an attack on a Shia mosque in Kunduz that killed nearly 50 and injured dozens. In its claim of responsibility, ISKP identified the suicide attacker as “Muhammad al Uyghuri” without providing any details about his nationality.703

Rumours have circulated about his possible Turkish background and experience in Syria.704 ISKP’s use of the kunya “Al-Uyghuri” in reference to the attacker is also notable, given most Uyghur militants are usually identified as “AlTurkistani.” According to ISKP’s statement, the attack targeted “both Shias and the Taliban for their purported willingness to expel Uyghurs [from Afghanistan] to meet demands from China.”705 This explicit threat to China is something new from the group.

TTP is a more established group in some ways, though its attention has remained on Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. Recently, the group has shown an increasing interest in targeting Chinese personnel and officials.706 A suicide bombing by the TTP in April targeted the Serena Hotel in the Pakistani city of Quetta, barely missing China’s ambassador to Pakistan. Later in July, a car laden with explosives killed 12 Chinese engineers going to the Dasu hydroelectric power project in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Chinese and Pakistani officials claimed TTP and TIP to be behind the attack, though no official claim of responsibility was issued.707

In Syria, TIP remains one of the most powerful, well-organised and well-trained foreign units fighting under the umbrella of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), AQ’s former Syrian ally. TIP commands between 1,500 and 3,000 fighters in the northwestern Idlib province. In line with its apparent attempt to pivot away from the global jihadist agenda and transition into a locally-oriented revolutionary insurgency, HTS has been pressuring militant outfits under its control, including TIP, to deprioritise or give up their external agendas and links especially with internationally designated terrorist groups such as AQ. This has apparently led to internal strife within TIP, particularly between lesser extreme (pragmatic) and hard-line elements. As a result, approximately 30 per cent of the group’s fighters defected to Hurras al-Din (HAD), a faction established by veteran AQ loyalists as a counter to HTS in Syria, after the former started to distance itself from AQ.708

Amidst such developments, Ibrahim Mansur, who rose to become the leader of TIP’s Syrian branch five years ago, defected from the group. Some extremist websites in Turkish claimed in September 2021 that Mansur was captured by police officers while applying for Turkish citizenship with a fake identity in Izmir. The website accused Mansur of committing a series of crimes (murder, robbery and others) in Turkey through TIP’s hidden cells when he was leading the group. While it is unclear exactly why and how he stepped down as the group’s leader, he might have been the target of HTS’ pressuring campaign to subdue rivals and solidify its dominance.709 According to TIP videos, “Abu Umar,” also known by the moniker “Kawsar aka” (Kawsar brother), has replaced Mansur as the group’s leader.710

TIP has a very strong online presence. During the period under review (January to December 2021), it produced more than 60 extremist propaganda videos and 280 audios and released them on its Uyghur language website, which serves as a primary distribution platform of its productions to other platforms such as Telegram and Flickr. However, the coverage of Afghanistan consists only a small percentage of the overall material on the website.

The Taliban’s capture of Kabul has been an iconic moment for TIP and many other jihadist groups across the world. A few days after the fall of the Afghan government, TIP issued a statement lauding the Taliban’s “victory” and the “restoration of the Islamic Emirate.” In a video released in September, TIP’s military commander Abu Muhammad (Zahid) was shown in a video talking to a group of about 50 Uyghur teenagers studying in a madrasa (Islamic school). He claimed that the “discipline, unity, patience to struggle and investment in education” have been key for the Taliban’s “achievement of victory.” He also explained that “an independent Islamic state in their homeland” could be achieved only through “armed struggle,” while framing TIP’s involvement in the Syrian war as a necessary military preparation for its fighters.

Dozens of audio materials released by the group contain translations of the work of Abu Musab Suri, a notorious AQ-linked jihadist ideologue, and Abu al-Hasan Rashid al-Bulaydi, the slain head of the Sharia Committee of AQ in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This illustrates TIP’s continued subscription to the AQ ideology, despite HTS’ public commitment to pivot away from its AQ past. At the same time, the presence of Abu Al Harith Al Masri, an influential jihadist ideologue within HTS, in several TIP videos, shows that HTS continues to see TIP as an important partner. Overall, TIP has been more visible in Syria than in Afghanistan, assisting HTS to run checkpoints, police some villages and conduct offensives against Syrian armed forces. It remains to be seen how the fracturing witnessed within the group will play out in the longer term, or how this will affect fighter transfers from Syria to Afghanistan.711 What is clear, however, is that TIP continues to be an active force amongst the roster of international jihadist groups.

Responses

It appears unlikely that China will seek to lighten its security presence or approach in Xinjiang. From Beijing’s perspective, this process is working, and has helped ensure that there is no violence being reported in the region. Few in China seem publicly unhappy about the approach that is being taken, with most Han Chinese, the ethnic majority, appearing to be largely willing to accept the authority’s narrative of counter extremism being the primary motivation for the crackdown in the region. However, there is evidence that the Han Chinese in Xinjiang find the policies as oppressive as the Uyghurs (though it is not targeting them) and the overall environment in Xinjiang is reported as being highly oppressive for everyone.712 While some people in China have started to express anxiety about certain developments within their country,713 this is not a widespread sentiment, and the authorities in Beijing are unlikely to change paths. The external pressure brought by international sanctions and condemnation only appears to feed a nationalist sentiment around the policies, even further reducing the desire by Beijing to change course.

Separately, there appears to be some Chinese trepidation about the potential for trouble from Afghanistan to impact the threat picture in China. This has been expressed in a number of different ways. In the first instance, there has been a more visible presence of Chinese intelligence within Afghanistan, reportedly focusing on trying to proactively disrupt perceived Uyghur threats in the country. This was sharply brought into focus in December 2020, when a network of Chinese intelligence agents was reportedly disrupted and ejected from the country.714

There was also an increase in commentary by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggesting that the US might be seeking to use Uyghur groups in Afghanistan to try to destabilise China.715 And finally, the Chinese government sought to engage all sides in talks and highlighted concerns about militant Uyghurs in every format. This included meetings with security officials with the old government in Kabul,716 as well as with the Taliban.717 Though, as reports in October uncovered, there were some 35 Uyghur militants in Afghan detention, when the former government fell, who were freed, illustrating Chinese problems with both the old government and the Taliban.718 On their part, the Chinese press and expert community continue to publicly express concern about the potential for militant Uyghurs to use Afghanistan as a base of operations.719

Outlook

TIP’s (or other Uyghurs) fate in Afghanistan will depend on the Taliban’s political will and ability to balance complex internal and external challenges. The current Taliban government in Afghanistan is highly focused on trying to gain international legitimacy, and so is incentivised to instruct militant groups in the country to not use it as a base to launch attacks elsewhere. However, the Taliban are also ideologically motivated and likely feel a certain degree of loyalty to TIP (amongst others), who have been fighting alongside them for over two decades. According to jihadi precepts, any unreasonable disavowal of existing oaths of allegiance would be viewed as a serious offence. The Taliban may therefore choose to settle the issue through informal but non-aggressive methods – moving militants around as has already been suggested, ask individuals to leave or disarm them. Whether this will work, and how far they will go to enforce this is unclear. Any violent suppression may turn some TIP militants against the Taliban, or even lead them to join ISKP. The problem is that it is equally unclear whether a path of compromise will be adequate for outside powers like China that the Taliban are keen to cultivate to help gain greater international acceptance.

By claiming publicly to have mobilised a Uyghur fighter to launch its Kunduz mosque bombing and by portraying the attack as a retaliation for the Taliban’s ostensible cooperation with China against Uyghurs, ISKP is giving a clear signal that it will have a more hands-on stance towards China. This is a direct challenge to evolving Taliban-China relations and helps bolster ISKP’s narrative of being the leading anti-Taliban organisation in Afghanistan. In using this messaging, the group may be willing to position itself as a new protector of the Uyghurs after the Taliban’s stated incentive to curb its ties with Uyghurs, so that it could recruit disaffected TIP militants and others to swell its ranks. In Syria, more pragmatic and less extreme members of TIP remain aligned with HTS, assisting this alliance to consolidate its local control. Although HAD, with its more global and extreme outlook, may keep attracting hardline Uyghurs, it will likely continue to focus on local priorities given pressure coming from both HTS and the Syrian government.

Overall, however, there remains little evidence that any of the many Uyghur factions has developed a capability to strike within China, though an increase in the targeting of Chinese nationals and messaging focusing on China going forward is likely, involving an ever-wider range of militant organisations.

About the Authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg.

688 “ETIM Is a Big Threat as It Keeps Sending Members to China to Plot Terrorist Attacks: Ministry of Public Security,” Global Times, July 16, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202107/1228823.shtml.

689 This is a term used by the Chinese government to characterise the ‘harder’ side of their response to dealing with instability and terrorism in Xinjiang. The term has been used a number of times over the years, but most recently in 2014 in the wake of a visit to the region by President Xi Jinping. See “‘Strike Hard’ Campaign Aims to Restore Harmony in Xinjiang,” Global Times, July 7, 2014 https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/869084.shtml.

690 John Sudworth, “‘If the Others Go I’ll Go’: Inside China’s Scheme to Transfer Uighurs Into Work,” BBC News, March 2, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china56250915. There is also some dispute on whether the Xinjiang government is actually winding down its re-education camps.

691 Ibid.

692 Xie Wenting and Fan Lingzhi, “Xinjiang Workers Enjoy Full Freedom and Benefits Working in Guangdong, Academics Find Through 9-Month-Long Field Study,” Global Times, March 23, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202103/1219241.shtml.

693 It should be noted that some sources including the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) refer to the TIP’s Afghanistan-based core as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). ETIM continues to be designated by the UNSC and several countries as an international terrorist organisation. However, the U.S. Department of State and some scholars insist that the ETIM is not a real organisation, but just a mislabel used to describe Uyghur jihadists who fought in Afghanistan. As TIP’s Syrian branch and its core in Afghanistan currently identify themselves only as TIP, the authors use TIP in this article to refer to both branches.

694 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (July 21, 2021), 11, https://undocs.org/S/2021/655.

695 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 19-20, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486; “Chinese Uighur Militants Operating Under Taliban Umbrella in Badakhshan,” KabulNow, March 1, 2021, https://kabulnow.com/2021/03/chinese-uighurmilitants-operating-under-taliban-umbrella-inbadakhshan/.

696 Ibid., 20.

697 Tamim Asey, “China’s Borderland Relations: Afghanistan,” Young China Watchers Online Discussion, September 2021, https://www.youngchinawatchers.com/chinasborderland-relations-afghanistan-with-tamimasey/.

698 Ibid. Asev clearly made reference to the Vietnam/Pakistan route. The transit has been reported in the UN Monitoring Group’s reporting, though there are also some dissenting views from Turkey suggesting this transit may not be taking place to the scale suggested. See “From Myth to Reality: A Look at the Flow of Fighters From Idlib To Afghanistan,” Independent Turkce, October 9, 2021, https://www.indyturk.com/node/421701/t%C3%BCrki%CC%87yeden-sesler/efsanedenger%C3%A7ekli%C4%9Fe-i%CC%87dlibtenafganistana-sava%C5%9F%C3%A7%C4%B1-ak%C4%B1%C5%9F%C4%B1-iddialar%C4%B1na.

699 Wen Ting Xie and Yun Yi Bai, “Exclusive: New Afghan Govt Eyes Exchanging Visits With China; ETIM Has No Place in Afghanistan: Taliban Spokesperson,” Global Times, September 9, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1233876.shtml.

700 Reid Standish, “Taliban ‘Removing’ Uyghur Militants From Afghanistan’s Border With China,” RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, October 5, 2021, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/taliban-uyghurmilitants-afghan-china/31494094.html.

701 “China’s Intelligence Chief Mounts Pressure on Sirajuddin Haqqani to Extradite Uyghur Militants From Afghanistan,” Sify.com, October 9, 2021, https://www.sify.com/news/chinasintelligence-chief-mounts-pressure-on-sirajuddinhaqqani-to-extradite-uyghur-militants-fromafghanistan-news-national-vkjjktfjhbehf.html.

702 Elliot Stewart, “The Islamic State Stopped Talking About China,” War on the Rocks, January 19, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/01/theislamic-state-stopped-talking-about-uighurs/.

703 Although the bomber’s nom de guerre (“Al Uighuri”) suggests that he could be an ethnic Uyghur, it does not mean that he was necessarily from Xinjiang. Despite the fact that a majority of ethnic Uyghurs reside in Xinjiang, there are Uyghur immigrant communities in many foreign countries including Afghanistan.

704 Saleem Mehsud, “Some interesting details about ISIS-K Kunduz suicide bomb Muhammed al Uyghuri-was Boxer; former solider of Turkish Army; migrated to Khorasan with his elder brother to join ISKP etc; his elder brother killed in classes with Taliban in Khogyani district of Nangrahar, Afghanistan,” Twitter, October 8, 2021, https://twitter.com/saleemmehsud/status/1446762669713895428?s=12.

705 “Afghanistan: Dozens Killed in Suicide Bombing at Kunduz Mosque,” Al Jazeera, October 8, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/8/blasthits-a-mosque-in-afghanistans-kunduz-duringfriday-prayers.

706 Xin Liu, Hui Zhang and Yun Yi Bai, “TTP’s Enmity Toward Pakistan Creates Risk for Chinese Projects: Analysts,” Global Times, September 18, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1234606.shtml.

707 “Truth on Dasu Terror Attack Surfaces Amid Unanswered Questions, As China And Pakistan Step Up Security For Chinese,” Global Times, August 13, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202108/1231423.shtml.

708 United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (July 21, 2021), 11, https://undocs.org/S/2021/655.

709 HTS has a record of removing non-abiding commanders with corruption and criminality charges (framed or actual).

710 UN reports identify him as “Kaiwusair.”

711 “From Myth to Reality: A Look at the Flow of Fighters From Idlib to Afghanistan,” Independent Turkce, October 9, 2021, https://www.indyturk.com/node/421701/t%C3%BCrki%CC%87yeden-sesler/efsaneden-ger%C3%A7ekli%C4%9Fe-i%CC%87dlibtenafganistana-sava%C5%9F%C3%A7%C4%B1-ak%C4%B1%C5%9F%C4%B1-iddialar%C4%B1na.

712 “’The Atmosphere Has Become Abnormal’: Han Chinese Views From Xinjiang,” SupChina, November 4, 2020, https://supchina.com/2020/11/04/han-chineseviews-from-xinjiang/.

713 Darren Byler, “‘Truth and reconciliation’: Excerpts From the Xinjiang Clubhouse,” SupChina, March 3, 2021, https://supchina.com/2021/03/03/truth-andreconciliation-excerpts-from-the-xinjiangclubhouse/.

714 “10 Chinese Spies Caught in Kabul Get a Quiet Pardon, Fly Home in Chartered Aircraft,” Hindustan Times, January 4, 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/10-chinese-spies-caught-in-kabul-get-a-quietpardon-fly-home-in-chartered-aircraft/storyYhNI0zjmClMcj6T7TCCwVM.html.

715 “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on March 26, 2021,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, March 27, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1864659.shtml.

716 “Zhu afuhan dashi wang yi huijian a di yi fu zongtong sa li he pibo mei ‘she jiang shengming’,” February 3, 2021, http://af.chinaembassy.org/chn/sgxw/t1850986.htm.

717 “Wang Yi Meets With Head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, July 28, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1895950.shtml

718 “Exclusive: Uyghur Jailbreak Complicates Taliban’s Ties With China,” The Telegraph, October 16, 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/worldnews/2021/10/16/exclusive-uyghur-jailbreakcomplicates-talibans-ties-china/.

719 “Will Afghan Taliban Honor Its Promise to China to Make a Clean Break With ETIM,” Global Times, September 16, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1234477.shtml.

Been very busy with other things of late and have entirely failed to post. As a result a short backlog has accumulated, while some bigger projects and issues elsewhere have kept me rather busy. Anyway: catching up now starting off with a piece for the South China Morning Post on China-Russia relations over events in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year. Crazy to think how far we have come now with everyone’s attention firmly on Ukraine.

Why China won’t lose sleep over Russian troops in Kazakhstan

Suggestions of China-Russia rivalry for power in Central Asia miss the mark. In reality, while both are active in the region, their roles are more complementary than competitive

Russia is the de factor provider of security guarantees, while China is the economic opportunity everyone wants to tap

The outbreak of violence in Kazakhstan has awakened the question of Sino-Russian competition in Central Asia. The assertion of Russian hard power is interpreted as being an example of Moscow getting the upper hand, to Beijing’s detriment.

Yet this analytical framework is unhelpful in really understanding the situation or the nature of the current China-Russia relationship. Beijing and Moscow have no reason to clash with each other over Kazakhstan. Rather, they will play the situation to their advantage and further freeze out the West from the Eurasian heartland.

China and Russia’s broad interests in Kazakhstan are the same. Both want a stable country that is in their collective economic and military thrall, and ideally with looser ties to the West.

China has the upper hand in economic terms, but this is partially because Kazakhstan is rich in the raw materials needed for the Chinese economy. In contrast, Russian firms see Kazakhstan as a state in which they can ply their trade, and to which they have easier access thanks to the Eurasian Economic Union.

Russian service members disembark from a military aircraft as part of a peacekeeping mission from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation amid mass protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, at an airfield in Kazakhstan. This still image is from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry on January 8. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Russian service members disembark from a military aircraft as part of a peacekeeping mission from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation amid mass protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, at an airfield in Kazakhstan. This still image is from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry on January 8. Photo: Handout via Reuters

In strategic security terms, Russia has long had bases in Kazakhstan. The arrival of Russian forces under a Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) banner is new – both in terms of Russian deployments in Kazakhstan and in a first for the CSTO. But it is not clear how or why this might be a challenge to China.

Beijing has not expressed an interest in deploying its forces in Kazakhstan. China and Kazakhstan have done training exercises together, but these have been limited and done either bilaterally (mostly on counterterrorism questions) or under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), of which Russia is also a member.

Beijing has pressured the Kazakh government to do something about dissident networks of Uygurs, and it has in the past sought to get permission for its private security companies to operate in the country. While the Kazakh government was willing to accede to the first request, they were unwilling to let Chinese private security firms in.

None of China’s activity has been about competing with Russia. China is consistently focused on its specific interests in Kazakhstan.

Containers are loaded onto a train to Kazakhstan in the China-Kazakhstan Logistic Base in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, on September 17 last year. The base is an important seaport for Kazakhstan export and provides efficient transit for cargo and consumer goods from the Central Asian country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Containers are loaded onto a train to Kazakhstan in the China-Kazakhstan Logistic Base in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, on September 17 last year. The base is an important seaport for Kazakhstan export and provides efficient transit for cargo and consumer goods from the Central Asian country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Where there was a possible overlap in competition with Russia was on military sales, with Chinese firms having sold high-end weapons to the Kazakh government, like drones, some air and missile systems, as well as technological surveillance and communications tools. It is, of course, possible that these arms sales are depriving Russian companies of contracts, but Kazakh purchasing is done on the basis of quality and price, rather than Beijing trying to edge Moscow out of Kazakhstan.

In fact, China is happiest when someone else is dealing with Central Asian security questions. In the immediate fallout from the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, it was not Chinese soldiers or weapons that were rushed to Central Asian borders, but Russian ones.

On the economic side, Russian companies are active in Central Asia, but cannot compete with their Chinese counterparts, whose appetites are on a different scale.

Similarly, the almost bottomless Chinese consumer market is something that Central Asian producers are increasingly keen to have access to. The entire economic geography of this region is being pulled towards China not because of geopolitics, but because of its sheer economic weight.

The “Silk Road economic belt” strand of the Belt and Road Initiative, which cuts through Central Asia, also ties Russia into China’s wider vision of global prosperity. Consequently, Moscow has little interest in complicating it; rather, it is focused on ensuring it benefits as well.

The point being, this is not a competitive relationship. Beijing and Moscow are both active in Central Asia, but are different actors on the ground. Russia is the de facto provider of security guarantees, while China is the economic opportunity everyone (including Russia) wants to tap.

Seeing this through the lens of competition suggests that Beijing would rather be the one who is stepping in to provide security guarantees, and that Moscow is somehow going to push China out economically. There is little evidence in either capital that this goal is in play. Rather, they both seem happy to operate in parallel, playing a supportive rhetorical role and staying out of each other’s way.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on December 15 last year. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on December 15 last year. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The question is in the medium to longer term – when China starts to worry about being dependent on Russian security guarantees.

At the moment, Beijing seems comfortable. But, at some point, this thinking may change. In many other places, China has increasingly started to try to provide its own security guarantees, and there is no reason to think this might not also take place in Central Asia.

On the other side of the coin, the tipping point for Russia is likely to be when Chinese economic investment into Central Asia starts to turn into unfettered Chinese economic influence and power in Russia directly.

But this concern appears to be receding, as Moscow seems to increasingly welcome and open up its economy to Chinese investment and connections – in large part due to tensions with the West.

But none of this is about Kazakhstan. Rather, this is about China and Russia’s larger posturing and view of their respective roles in the world. Within this context, Beijing is happy if Moscow is going to play a role in tidying up what looks like an increasingly messy bout of political infighting in Kazakhstan, while Moscow is pleased to be seen as the regional security guarantor.

In contrast to many other situations involving China, this is a win-win for them both.

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

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

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

Raffaello Pantucci

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Shifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Views on Central Asia and the Caucasus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ties that bind Kazakhstan to China are starting to unravel

Frustrations with Beijing are becoming increasingly visible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief piece drawing on some really interesting discussions have been having with Ajmal, an old contact from Kabul who has now spread his wings further. This first piece together is an excellent snapshot of events in Afghanistan through the lens of the pine nut for the Diplomat, with more to come. The larger topic of China-Afghanistan is a focus am going to continue on and of course is a big part of the upcoming book.

Why Is Beijing Going Nuts for Afghan Pine Nuts?

The trade offers concrete and immediate benefits to both the Chinese government and the Taliban

Credit: Depositphotos

China’s exercise of economic statecraft to exert influence in pursuit of foreign policy objectives is nothing new. Nor are its security interests in Afghanistan. This combination is usually assumed to come together in the form of mineral exploitation in exchange for security guarantees. 

But it is possible that China is planning a more complicated game which reduces its exposure but benefits a larger number of Afghans. Deliveries of pine nuts to China were first formalized in 2018 under the Western-backed government in Kabul with annual exports worth up to $800 million. By end of 2019, Afghan traders had inked over $2 billion worth of contracts with China for exporting pine nuts over a period of five years. Unlike the large and complicated mineral deals whose stories fill the press, the export of agricultural products like pine nuts is a way to immediately reach a large community of Afghan farmers, something the Taliban are very happy about and Beijing can commit to at little cost.

The China-Afghan pine nut story is a complicated one. While it can be simply explained as the law of supply and demand (with an almost bottomless consumer market in China that can absorb almost anything), a question not being asked is why China picked pine nuts among many other high-quality Afghan cash crops on which it could focus its attention. 

A key reason is location. Pine nuts are naturally grown in the wild in Laghman, Kunar, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces. These areas have long been hotbeds of insurgent activity from the Haqqani network, in Khost, Paktia, and Paktika, to the Islamic State (ISK), in Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman. These are also the areas where China feels it faces greater security threats from groups like the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). This could explain why China suddenly developed a taste for Afghan pine nuts.

While China’s facilitation of output-type contacts (whereby the buyer guarantees purchase levels as long as quality is maintained) and removal of logistical barriers have lifted thousands of pine nut growers out of poverty, it has also made these pine nut growing areas export-dependent on China. This gives China an interesting form of leverage and economic influence over the inhabitants of this region regardless of which government rules in Kabul. 

Chinese purchasers of pine nuts for export were always keener to be in direct touch with the farmers than to use middle men. The result of this link might be seen in an espionage case that blew up in Kabul in December 2020, when the old local intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), rolled up a cell of 10 Chinese citizens on accusations of espionage. According to stories that later emerged, one of the purported spies was allegedly involved in pine nut export, and the network was reported to have been building links to the Haqqani Network. 

Whatever the details of this case, pine nuts remain at the top of China’s Afghan agenda. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to Doha to meet Taliban officials at the end of October coincided with the harvest season for pine nuts. With air corridors closed and all financial transactions with Afghanistan disrupted, the pressure was building on the Taliban to re-establish international trade. The Afghanistan Pine Nuts Union issued a statement calling on the Taliban administration to ban the smuggling of pine nuts and resume air corridors to facilitate exports to China. 

In the staged portion of Wang’s visit to Doha a short video was released of Taliban Foreign Minister designate Amir Khan Muttaqi handing over an elaborate box of pine nuts. The topic was not reported as coming up during Wang’s meeting with Taliban Deputy Prime Minister designate Abdul Ghani Baradar, where instead he was reported as focusing on China’s security concerns, stating “China hopes and believes that the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with the ETIM and other terrorist organizations, and take effective measures to resolutely crack down on them.”

While it is believed that China discussed a whole host of economic and state building opportunities, re-establishing the pine nuts air bridge was the most practical and easy solution with immediate wins for both sides. And China was able to show results very quickly. On November 1, the first flight of the restarted air corridor went to Shanghai, bringing with it 45 tonnes of pine nuts. A week later, online superstar salesman Li “lipstick king” Jiaqi and CCTV news anchor Wang Bingbing showcased cans of Afghan pine nuts on their online shopping show, shifting 120,000 cans with the support of Chen Zhong, a Chinese Pashto speaker and expert on Afghanistan. 

This rapid market to cash transaction highlights part of the way out of Afghanistan’s current liquidity crisis to the Taliban, while also giving China an easy way of supporting the Afghan economy at little cost to itself. It also gave the Taliban a way of showing their positive capability as export promoters to a part of the country where dangerous groups thrive.

Of course, both China and the Taliban recognize that the long-term answer to Afghanistan’s economic stagnation does not lie in pine nuts. According to reliable sources at the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, samples of rare earths from Helmand’s Khanneshin district were handed to a Chinese delegation that met the Taliban acting minister of mines shortly after Wang’s visit to Doha. A delegation of Chinese company representatives were issued special visas and were reported to have visited Kabul in early November to conduct site inspections of sites of potential lithium mines, though their official read-out was very wary of committing to anything specific.

China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has restarted exploring opportunities in the Amu Darya field it had been thrown out from under the former government. Production from 11 wells at Angot and Kashkari blocks can start fairly quickly and without any large upfront investment because much of the existing infrastructure and wells were rehabilitated when CNPC took over the operations 10 years ago. 

With global oil prices above $80 a barrel for the first time in three years, and a severe winter ahead of a cash-strapped Afghan population, resuming production from Amu Darya could provide another “win-win” opportunity for China and the Taliban government. There are also reports that MCC, the firm that won the tender to mine the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar, have sent teams to discuss restarting with the Taliban – though they state they remain highly concerned about the security situation. 

But all of these projects are longer-term and far more expensive. It will require considerable outlay on the Chinese side for a project which may or may not work, and will take a long time to deliver cash to the government and people. Pine nuts in contrast offer a quick turnaround which both helps get currency into the hands of farmers and the laborers they need to harvest the nuts, and requires little major commitment by China except easing access to the Chinese consumer market. They also provide an interesting possible avenue for Chinese intelligence to gain direct contact in areas of concern. 

All in all, it is a win-win that both the Taliban and Beijing can sign off on with little cost, but lots of positive imagery on all sides. Crucially, it allows China to play an economic role and deal with security issues, all without feeling like it is being dragged too far into the Afghan quagmire.

Guest Authors

Ajmal Waziri is an international development advisor with a research interest in the political economy of natural resources.

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