Posts Tagged ‘China’

Still catching up on myself, this time a paper I had the pleasure of co-authoring with the excellent Veerle Nouwens, Pepijn Bergsen and Antony Froggatt. Part of a longer project we had been working on together which sought to explore the Transatlantic relationship towards China and ended up looking in some detail at the various problems that exist.

China and the transatlantic relationship

Obstacles to deeper European–US cooperation

Image — European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a joint press conference with US president Joe Biden in Brussels on 25 March 2022. Photo credit: European Commission/Pool/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

The rise of China is one of the greatest challenges for the transatlantic relationship. European countries and the US have similar concerns over China, but fundamental obstacles hinder a more joined-up approach.

Although no longer aiming for decoupling as under the Trump administration, the US under President Joe Biden still sees itself in ‘strategic competition’ with China, while the European Commission has identified China as a ‘systemic rival’. However, differences remain between Europe and US on the scale of the challenge, and also within the EU over the desired level of economic and political engagement with China and over policy responses on the national, bilateral and global levels.

This paper presents results from a two-year joint research project by Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute on a Transatlantic Dialogue on China. The project examined the transatlantic relationship in the context of the China challenge by looking at four different policy areas – trade and investment, digital technology, climate change and the global commons.

Introduction

China is among the most complex strategic challenges confronting the transatlantic partners at this moment. Great power competition (or ‘strategic competition’ as the US is now suggesting) is not of course restricted to China. But the China challenge cuts through so many issues across domains both internal and external that it is perhaps more complex than any other.1

There are additional tensions between Europe and the US, with Washington frustrated by the European Union (EU)’s inaction on China and at times by its quest for greater strategic autonomy – a phrase that is often interpreted as meaning autonomy from the US. Notwithstanding these frictions and the systemic rivalry between Europe and the US on one side and China on the other, each side of the Atlantic is deeply intertwined with China.

From China’s perspective, the US is the principal adversary and China often tries to detach individual European countries from a transatlantic alignment. It has encouraged notions of European strategic autonomy, recognizing their potential to damage transatlantic relations, as well as finding other ways of amplifying intra-European tensions.

This briefing paper presents results from a two-year joint research project by Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on a Transatlantic Dialogue on China. The project examined the transatlantic relationship in the context of the China challenge by looking at four different policy areas – trade and investment, digital technology, climate change and the global commons.2

Although it is by no means the only player on the European side of the transatlantic relationship, the EU’s leading role in many of the policy areas studied made it the main focus of the project. Underlying this choice was the acceptance that, on China, non-EU European powers (including the UK) tend towards policies that either complement the EU’s approach or align closely with the US. Where there were specific divergences or tensions (for example, around the AUKUS defence and security partnership), these were addressed in the analysis.

This paper not only brings perspectives on different but related policy challenges, it highlights several commonalities running across these areas that characterize the overall challenge for the transatlantic relationship. Given the weight and significance of China, Europe and the US, it is critical to understand how they intersect in these domains at this moment of fluidity in international relations.

The purpose of this paper is to provide analysis and conclusions from the research into these four areas within the context of European relations with China, but also with regard to how these fit into the wider transatlantic picture. The hope is that it will contribute to a better understanding of the challenges faced by the transatlantic partners.

Context

Although the challenges in the four policy areas tend to differ, they all exist within the same context – one in which China is often seen as the West’s major adversary. This is still the case despite recent events in Ukraine, which have refocused Western attention on Russia. This sense of competition with China has been growing for some time, starting during the presidency of Barack Obama but accelerating under the administration of Donald Trump, with China (and, to a certain degree, Russia) becoming the central concern of national security policy under his presidency. In March 2019 a joint communication from the European Commission on EU–China relations identified China as a ‘systemic rival’, followed two years later by the UK’s Integrated Review, which referred to China as a ‘systemic competitor’.3

This sharpening of the discourse around China reflects two views in the West. First, the shedding of the notion that China might move towards Western norms as it becomes more prosperous and economically liberal. Rather, China under Xi Jinping is now seen as an increasingly disruptive and assertive power in international affairs, while the space for political discourse within China is closing. Second, the sense that China increasingly sees the world in a purely competitive light, focusing on becoming the dominant power in its region and eventually further afield. Chinese political visions like Made in China 2025, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the China Dream all articulate a notion of Chinese supremacy and centrality in the global system, or, at the very least, a sense of China as a strong and independent power. Even Western voices that articulate a more nuanced view on Chinese power projection see a strong sense of competition underpinning Beijing’s thinking.

The current US administration of President Joe Biden has retained a broadly antagonistic approach to China in almost all policy areas, while placing a greater emphasis on working together with allies than its predecessor. EU–China relations have deteriorated at the same time. An example of this has been the failure to move forward the ratification of the so-called Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between the EU and China, signed in late 2020 and seen initially as a snub by the EU towards the incoming Biden administration. Mutual imposition of sanctions has stalled the agreement’s ratification by the European Parliament. European powers had already expressed concern about human rights abuses in Xinjiang and restrictions on political freedoms in Hong Kong, leading to strong support for US sanctions against China. Beijing reacted with counter-sanctions, including some targeting members of the European Parliament and academics based in Europe. Policy on all sides – including in China – is, if not explicitly pushing towards a complex and costly decoupling, shifting towards greater economic self-reliance. Bifurcation in technology (and other) standards will further exacerbate the development of separate international blocs.

China is also increasingly seen as an aggressive military power. China’s military development has accelerated as it tries to live up to the demand by President Xi that the People’s Liberation Army be able to fight and win wars. This is not necessarily a statement of aggression, but a clear articulation of a need to improve capabilities. At the same time, confrontations with India, incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ), a growing external military presence, increasingly aggressive action at sea and dual capabilities in outer space all point to a China that seeks to present itself as a significant global military power. The US has long confronted Beijing militarily, but European powers are now increasingly eager to deploy their seafaring capabilities in Asian waters. This stance is a demonstration of both support for allies in the region (including the US) and of a growing willingness to confront China.

This is the wider geopolitical and geo-economic context in which Europe, the US and China currently operate, setting up a complicated triangular relationship between the three powers. Geopolitical trends are pushing Europe and the US closer together, in large part due to a growing disconnect and divergence of worldviews with China. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has further complicated the situation, with likely ramifications for all the policy areas considered in this paper. The EU and the US responded rapidly and largely in unison through coordinated sanctions on Russia and broadly similar approaches. Meanwhile, China has so far remained equivocal and, at times, has appeared to support Russia.4

However, there are areas in which cooperation is not only possible but essential. Climate change is recognized as one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. Without joint action and cooperation, it will be impossible to avoid the potentially catastrophic warming of the planet. Similarly, global pandemics will be hard to manage in a decoupled world, and a divided global economy is likely to be a less prosperous one overall.

Transatlantic divergence and convergence

In this wider context, there are numerous structural issues which create tensions across the Atlantic and complicate efforts to develop a coherent perspective on China. At the same time, there are several areas of clear convergence – most obviously the long-standing close security links (exemplified by NATO), and the deep economic interlinkage. But there are also divergences, often driven by internal policy disputes within Europe and the US. There is an overarching assumption that Europe and the US – as close liberal and democratic partners in contrast with autocratic China – should have the same strategic and geopolitical ambitions, and should seek close cooperation to that end. However, transatlantic divergence and convergence on China are visible across the four policy areas examined in this paper. The nature of great power or strategic competition has meant that Beijing and Washington’s view of one another has had a greater impact on their policy direction than transatlantic coordination. In Europe, the China challenge remains further down the agenda than in the US, and responses are often hindered by a lack of agreement within the EU.

Trade and investment

Significant differences in perspective remain between Europe and the US, and also within Europe, when it comes to economic policymaking in response to the rise of China. The variations in economic exposure to China (see Figure 1, which shows European countries’ goods trade with China before COVID-19-related disruption) go some way to explaining these differences, particularly among EU member states. While all EU countries import significant quantities of goods from China, some member states have more at stake than others in terms of exports and investments. Germany is the bloc’s largest and most powerful member state, and also the most economically interwoven with China, both in absolute and relative terms. This complicates the EU decision-making process. Furthermore, interest in courting inward investment from China varies strongly between EU member states. While most Western European member states have become increasingly sceptical of Chinese investment – as this is seen to be driven in part by China’s desire to gain access to critical technologies – some Eastern European member states have continued to court inward investment from China, often with disappointing results.5

Figure 1. European countries’ goods trade with China, 2019

– Sources: UN Comtrade (2021), ‘UN Comtrade Database’ (accessed 11 Jun. 2021), https://comtrade.un.org; World Bank (2021), ‘World Development Indicators’ (accessed 17 Feb. 2021), https://databank.worldbank.org/reports.aspx?source=2&series=NY.

Some of the resulting dynamics have been seen recently in the spat between Lithuania and China over Lithuania’s recognition of the Taiwanese representation in Vilnius.6 China retaliated with economic measures, and threatened others doing business with Lithuania. Although the EU did file a case against China at the World Trade Organization (WTO), the initial response from the German business lobby was to put pressure on Lithuania to reconsider its actions.

There are also clear differences within countries. Those EU member states that are most deeply integrated with the Chinese economy, like Germany, remain hesitant to take a more confrontational approach.7 While the US approach generally has been confrontational, including under President Biden, the American financial sector is one of the main examples of an industry actually increasing its exposure to China.8 The market opportunity in China remains large enough to create divisions between those in Europe and the US seeking to profit from it and those looking to push back for either economic or political reasons. Often this is seemingly strategically driven by Chinese policy, as the Chinese government in recent years both opened its financial sector for US firms and reduced joint-venture requirements in the automotive sector; the latter with the intent of attracting German carmakers to invest even more in China.9

In the realm of economic policy, and the economic challenge posed by China, the differences between the transatlantic partners are in the perceived scale of that challenge but also in how Europe sees itself in relation to both China and the US. Although the EU has begun talking about China as a ‘systemic rival’ as relations with China have moved up the agenda, it has mainly responded with a series of relatively small policy interventions, aimed at reducing or removing distortions to the level playing field in its single market. These measures have included, for example, investment screening mechanisms, rules on public procurement, a stronger focus on industrial policy and pursuing concessions from China on reciprocal market access. In contrast, for the US, the rivalry with China has become almost a defining feature of its policymaking. Although economic decoupling has become a less overt objective under Biden, policy has not changed to any significant degree compared with the Trump administration.

Differing attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic towards the future of the global economic governance system form another major obstacle to a more coordinated transatlantic response to the economic challenge from a rising China. While the EU has sought to sustain the global multilateral trading system, the US has put it under pressure by undermining the WTO’s dispute settlement system.10 A similar split has been visible over how to engage with China through multilateral financial institutions and the extent to which both the EU and the US have been willing to engage with new, often China-led institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The BRI has also proved contentious, with some European countries – mainly in Central and Eastern Europe – actively engaged with the initiative. In contrast, the US has sought to engage European partners in its own competing initiatives, such as the soon to be rebranded Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership.11

Transatlantic cooperation in many of these areas is as difficult to achieve as a broader European strategy. This is because European thinking is often defined as aiming to achieve economic sovereignty not just in relation to China, but also the US. In many ways, this stance is not dissimilar to US policies aimed at bolstering ‘America First’, but within Europe internal competition between member states adds a further layer of complexity.

Beyond being significantly closer to each other in terms of values, Europe and the US are also more deeply economically interlinked than China is with either party. Although both the US and the EU import significant amounts of goods from China, other measures of economic interconnection show a much stronger transatlantic bond. For instance, despite a significant increase in Chinese investment in Europe during the past decade, the amount of inward investment in the continent from China is still dwarfed by that from the US (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sources of foreign direct investment stock in Europe, 2019

– Sources: OECD (2021), ‘Inward FDI stocks by partner country (indicator)’ (accessed 15 Jun. 2021), https://doi.org/10.1787/9a523b18-en; Statistics Finland (2021), ‘Foreign direct investment by immediate target and investor country’ (accessed 15 Jun. 2021), https://pxnet2.stat.fi/PXWeb/pxweb/en/StatFin/StatFin__yri__ssij/statfin_ssij_pxt_12gu.px.

Companies and private sector representatives in both the US and EU have increasingly voiced frustration with Chinese economic practices such as forced technology transfers, intellectual property protections, unfair competition from Chinese state-owned firms and unreciprocated market access. However, the lure of the Chinese market, and even of cooperation with Chinese firms, remains strong enough for them to keep their criticism modest.

There are also similarities to be found in terms of policies enacted on both sides of the Atlantic. Policies enacted by the EU as part of its so-called toolbox, such as investment-screening, an anti-coercion instrument and export controls, are comparable to efforts in the US. These provide potential for transatlantic cooperation, through information-sharing or shared action. For example, one of the working groups within the EU-US Trade and Technology Council is on export controls.12 While this also suggests some cooperation on industrial policy – particularly with regard to the challenge from China in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and electric vehicles – there remains more competition in this area than cooperation. This is highlighted by the fierce competition between European and US firms to attract semiconductor manufacturing capacity in the wake of the global shortages in this sector since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The increasing realization of the scale of the China challenge in Europe and the much closer and historic interlinking of transatlantic economies, together with a decrease in transatlantic tensions under the new US administration, have led to more cooperation between the EU and US. This is, for example, apparent in the newly created EU–US Trade and Technology Council (TTC), an attempt to develop a structure for transatlantic coordination in the key area of technology. While the aim of the TTC is far wider than solely policy towards China, it speaks of encouraging ‘compatible standards and regulations based on our shared democratic values’. The TTC plans joint work and cooperation on norms in a series of important technological areas (such as AI). It should be noted that, despite all this work, the remit of the TTC is largely limited to coordination. A return to something like the failed negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – an attempted EU–US trade agreement in 2016 – remains highly unlikely.

The importance of the China challenge is also visible in the EU’s overt attempt to compete with the BRI through its Global Gateway plan.13 As with the US-led B3W initiative, it remains to be seen whether Global Gateway will be substantial enough to have any real economic or geopolitical impact, as no new resources have been made available for it. Closer cooperation between the EU and the US has also yet to lead to any significant shared efforts to boost the influence and effectiveness of multilateral economic and financial institutions; the US is often behind the increasing ineffectiveness of those institutions and presents a stumbling block to reforms that the EU would prefer to pursue, for instance in case of the WTO.14

Digital technology

There is a general agreement on both sides of the Atlantic about the importance of digital technology, as highlighted by the creation of the TTC. It remains to be seen to what degree the TTC achieves its goals, but its existence – as well as the desire to focus on technology and the continued veiled references to China and Chinese investment in its published materials15 – all highlight the desire of the EU and the US to at least focus discussions on the topic. It is also clear that, via purchases of Western technology firms and other overt or covert methods, China is strengthening its own capabilities – something that European powers are becoming increasingly aware of and are expressing concern about. There are, however, numerous fissures between the EU and US which suggest that the TTC will face challenges in trying to develop a coherent transatlantic approach towards China in the digital and technological domain.

The first issue is the way in which broader geopolitical tensions and relations affect internal European politics. Broadly speaking, Central and Eastern European countries view the relationship with the US as essential and as the key bulwark against Russian aggression – a fear that has become more acute in recent years and particularly amid the Russia–Ukraine conflict. This means that those countries are keen to pursue policies closer to those of Washington than to the views of either Brussels or larger member states. This divergence was most apparent during the Trump presidency, when Central and Eastern European countries were among the most supportive of the push from the US administration to remove Chinese technology from European digital infrastructure. This view was in contrast to that from Western European capitals such as Berlin, London or Paris, where there was a desire to constrain rather than to block Chinese technology. Larger member states have sought a balanced relationship with Beijing partly due to their economic interests, which echo through the digital and technology spaces, and partly to different geopolitical views.

Figure 3. Chinese technology projects in the EU, EFTA and UK

– Source: Compiled using publicly available data from Australian Strategic Policy Institute and International Cyber Policy Centre (undated), ‘Mapping China’s Tech Giants’, https://chinatechmap.aspi.org.au/#/homepage.

While France and Germany view the transatlantic security alliance as crucial to their security and prosperity, there is also a strong desire in those countries to emphasize European (or, rather, national) strategic autonomy from the US. At the same time, the view in Central and Eastern Europe is not universal, with some countries like Hungary placing a premium on the relationship with Beijing – a stance which, to some extent, is guided by the significant Chinese digital and technological investment in Hungary.16 This investment is also visible in the larger EU member states, which have welcomed Chinese participation in research and development as well as other key digital and technological domains (see Figure 3, which shows the number of individual Chinese technology projects in each European country). These countries are keen to retain such investments – in some cases because companies might go out of business if Chinese investment was not forthcoming and also because Western governments do not necessarily see a value in underwriting those companies. This desire to maintain inward investment flows creates a natural point of influence for China within Europe, but also counteracts attempts in Europe to present a more aggressive front against China on technology in particular.

Within the transatlantic alliance too, there is an inherent tension caused by competition and cooperation. Western governments may currently favour cooperation to confront the challenge posed by China, but this is not always the case among private companies, and each side of the Atlantic is likely to favour its own businesses. Ideas for joint US and European support for Western companies that can become ‘champions’ in technologies currently dominated by Chinese firms do not appear to have been taken forward.

Companies themselves do not always have the same interests as their host governments and tend to be more agnostic in their political views. Their desire to access large markets like China means they may be more inclined to seek engagement. Vast parts of tech supply chains are linked to China, while Western tech companies sell considerable volumes of goods in the Chinese market. This makes the technology space an inherently difficult one for Europe and the US to control and hinders any joint effort to force companies to comply with an anti-China stance.

This tension between private and public sector interests runs through the entire digital and technology space. Within China to some degree it is more coherent, though often the West underestimates the tensions within the Chinese system – most recently evidenced by the clampdown on social media and tech companies within China.17 This development reflects a desire by the Chinese government to bring the sector under tighter state control, in part due to many of the same concerns around data protection that exist elsewhere, but also out of concern over the immensely powerful structures being built in the Chinese private sector, which the state fears could supplant it in key sectors of the economy. At the same time, in the West, liberal market policies make it difficult for governments to develop industrial policies that do not undermine the free-market logic underpinning the European and American economies. Given the increasing centrality of technology in daily life around the world, this dynamic will be a difficult one to manage anywhere.

At the same time, the decision to focus transatlantic cooperation in a vehicle such as the TTC reflects both the importance for the area for future growth and its role in the competition with China. Within the technology domain, the public sector largely acts as a regulator, and is crucial in determining the rules within which companies operate. This impacts everything from development and ethics to income, economic viability, employment and tax burdens. Given the size and power of the transatlantic economy in this regard, coordination affords the EU and US considerable influence in determining international technological norms.

The public sector can also play a significant role in investing in the research and development that underpins the discoveries helping to develop the digital world – though, in this area, the public sector is most usefully able to play a supportive role. Once technologies have started to achieve a certain maturity, it becomes harder for the public sector to be involved as this can be seen as distorting the market. At earlier stages of development, government can provide the investment and support that can help ideas be tested and in some cases fail. Identifying which technologies to support, and how long to continue to support them, becomes a difficult balance for government, especially when market viability in certain key technologies may only be achievable through subsidy – for example, when a much cheaper Chinese technology is widely available.

Finally, there are also normative and conceptual disputes between Europe and the US in the area of digital technology; for example, on the subjects of data privacy and regulation of online discourse. In Europe, there is a greater willingness to seek to impose restrictions, while in the US a more libertarian approach is favoured. At the same time, European approaches to personal data protection have gone much further than the US – exemplified by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which entered into force in May 2018 and which places much greater emphasis on data managers to ensure citizens’ control of personal data. This directly contradicts the business model of numerous online firms, including that of large US social media platforms, and has caused a degree of transatlantic friction. In contrast, China has created its own legislation mirroring large parts of GDPR.

However, in terms of the openness of online discourse, and even in areas like protection of citizens’ data, Europe and the US are closer in perspective than either of those two partners are to China. In terms of developing the future infrastructure and standards of the global digital economy, Europe and the US also share more with each other than either does with China. This extends into the global institutions that shape our technological world, where there is a growing effort by both Europe and the US to coordinate efforts to counterbalance Chinese attempts to dominate and establish norms that reflect their own interests.

Climate change

China, the EU and the US are the world’s three largest emitters of greenhouse gases and therefore are fundamental to global efforts at achieving a stable climate. In the US, climate change is a party-political issue, with Democrats largely favouring both national and international action – for example, Democratic President Obama signed the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change18 – and the Republicans less committed – Obama’s Republican successor, Trump, withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement in 2020.19 To further demonstrate the partisan nature of climate change, one of the first acts by President Biden – a Democrat – after taking office in January 2021 was to rejoin the agreement. Therefore, all too often, the nature of the US’s international engagement changes every four to eight years with the election of a new president. Given the US’s importance to global efforts to combat climate change, this on/off approach creates significant difficulties for the EU and other like-minded partners, as they seek to build and maintain momentum towards more ambitious policies.

However, while the US’s international climate policy is led by the president, the ability of any administration to ratify international agreements is ultimately determined by the US Senate. This tension was demonstrated in the late 1990s when the Clinton administration signed the Kyoto Protocol20 – which was a legally binding treaty as opposed to the non-binding Paris Agreement – but never submitted it to the Senate for ratification. Efforts at international cooperation therefore face further uncertainty, as not only does the US climate position depend on whether a Democrat or Republican is in the White House, but also whether the executive and legislative branches of US government are politically aligned.

Climate change is considered an important issue by the incumbent Biden administration, as demonstrated by its hosting of the Climate Leaders Summit in April 2021.21 John Kerry, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, has invested considerable time and effort into engaging with China, resulting in the signing of a joint declaration on enhancing climate action at the UN COP26 climate summit held in November 2021.22 While the declaration does not bind either party to new targets, it does provide a platform for further cooperation between the US and China.

China is important to global diplomacy on climate change, owing to the scale of its emissions and to its manufacturing capabilities, being the world’s largest producer of solar and wind equipment.2324 Furthermore, China has significant geopolitical and economic influence, particularly in developing countries and those countries that are signed up to BRI.

Individual EU member states have enacted their own climate mitigation plans, carbon-pricing and cooperation agreements with third countries. The EU has been consistently supportive of more ambitious climate action, although Central and Eastern European member states tend to be less enthusiastic. During negotiations between member states on the latest 2030 carbon reduction plans, Poland, alongside like-minded states, sought to ensure that the upcoming reform of the EU carbon market would increase financial resources dedicated to supporting the transition in Central and Eastern European member states. Despite these divisions, under the current presidency of Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission has made climate change a high priority, with increased funds and more ambitious emissions reduction targets. In the approach to COP26, the Commission raised the climate mitigation target to greenhouse gas emissions reductions of at least 55 per cent by 2030, up from 40 per cent as initially proposed in the Paris Agreement.25

Climate change is recognized as one of the most important – if not the most important – global challenges of our time. Emissions primarily from the burning of fossil fuels and land-use changes are increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides and fluorine gases) in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a higher planetary temperature. If emissions continue to rise, then the consequences of the associated increasing global temperature will be catastrophic for humanity. The most recent IPCC report said that: ‘[i]t is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land’, which is ‘already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe’.26

Greenhouse gas emissions have the same impact regardless of where they are released. Therefore, without common action, it is impossible for any country or individual to be unaffected. Given the clear and uncontested view of the causes – and, increasingly, the impacts of climate change – global and coordinated action needs to follow.

There is no doubt that unless China and the US – and, to a lesser extent, the EU – take ambitious climate action, meeting agreed targets will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Joint actions will also both make the transition cheaper and more rapid and will remove much of the uncertainty about decarbonization. Therefore, an overarching cooperative approach to climate change is clearly not only mutually beneficial but essential. It demonstrates the necessity of a cooperative approach between China, the EU and the US, and also of common approaches between the G20 countries and with developing countries, emissions from which in many cases are rising rapidly.

The war on Ukraine and consequent economic sanctions imposed on Russia have affected global prices for fossil fuels, and have raised concerns in Europe particularly over energy security. The implications for climate change are unclear, as the EU seeks to accelerate the transition towards greater use of renewable energy and increased energy efficiency, in order to reduce its dependence on Russian-sourced coal, oil and gas. This may in turn lead to the export of more Russian fossil fuels to China. The US is also anticipating increased exports of its gas to the EU, further changing the geopolitics and financial flows of the global energy sector.

The global commons

In Europe, the EU and its member states (as well as most non-EU countries) have signed up to the major global regimes governing the seas and oceans, including those covering the Southern Ocean and its seabed and outer space. However, national economic interests, as well as intra-European political disputes, have led to a fractured European response on a range of issues that extend beyond the long-standing concern over China’s human rights record. These include, among others, technological cooperation with China on outer space and arbitration on disputes in the South China Sea. On the latter, for example, Greek and Hungarian objections to an EU statement in support of a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, against China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, were criticized as being motivated by those countries’ dependence on Chinese inward investment.27 Croatia also reportedly raised concerns over the statement, owing to its own maritime boundary disagreement with Slovenia, for which the court ruling would have set a precedent.28

As in other areas of policymaking, intra-European governance structures hamper coordination. In the example of outer space, European policies have been overwhelmingly driven by individual member states and their national space agencies. To an extent, these agencies are brought together in the European Space Agency (ESA), but this organization itself is separate from the EU. While the EU has sought to streamline its space policy via the EU Space Programme for 2021–2027 and its new EU Agency for the Space Programme in order to be able to compete with China and the US, it remains unclear how these initiatives will reduce the influence of national interests in the decision-making process.29 Indeed, while the EU seeks to establish its own space industry and strategic position, France reiterated in March 2021 that it would continue to work with China bilaterally in outer-space exploration.30 Similarly, the ESA continues to support China’s space exploration programme.31 Media reports suggest that France and the ESA were exploring opportunities to work with China and Russia on their future lunar base, although it remains uncertain whether this was indeed the case and how Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine will affect long-term interest in such cooperation.32 Potential economic opportunities in the space industry have further driven European companies to cooperate with their Chinese counterparts, despite growing concerns of European governments over Chinese dual-use capabilities and strategic objectives in outer space. The private sector provides an example of the difficulty of building deeper transatlantic cooperation, despite pre-existing comprehensive links between Europe and the US and long-standing messaging from the US over its concerns regarding European space cooperation with China, in particular the sharing of sensitive technology.33 However, the commercial opportunities to advance European space technologies and companies, and to create security supply chains to help enable strategic autonomy, also drive a sense of competition with the US.34

The economic dimension of countering China’s challenges in the global commons can also be seen in the maritime sector. For example, in 2021, German sales of engines were reported to have helped to modernize the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet, despite widespread concerns in Europe and the US over both Chinese military modernization in general and China’s assertiveness at sea in waters beyond its national maritime jurisdiction.35

However, there are also more deep-rooted challenges in the differing European and US interpretation of norms, particularly with regard to outer space. While the EU recognizes outer space as a global common, recent US administrations have mainly sought to protect American national interests in this new frontier. In 2015, the Obama administration enacted the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which included Title IV on Space Resource Exploration and Utilization to defend US investments in outer space resource-extraction.36 In 2020, Trump signed an executive order stating explicitly that outer space is not viewed by the US as a global common. Furthermore, the US has embarked on its own regime for conduct in outer space through the creation of the Artemis Accords, an initiative which so far has received the support of 19 other countries, including seven European states, with France becoming the 20th state to join the accords in June 2022.37

Despite their differences over governance of the global commons, there is also a great deal of alignment between Europe and the US. This is particularly evident in the maritime domain, despite the US’s continued refusal to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) due to long-standing domestic political opposition. Concerns cited by opponents include possible infringements on US sovereignty through restrictions on its access to marine resources and legal obligations to accept the jurisdiction of an international body over disputes concerning US resources and territory.38 However, the US has consistently abided by UNCLOS as a matter of customary international law.39 It is also worth noting that not all states that have ratified UNCLOS – including European states – share the same interpretation of its various rules, and that such differences have not obstructed their relations with other countries.40

Increasing interest in the Indo-Pacific from European states, as demonstrated by recent naval missions in the South China Sea, shows a shared concern over Beijing’s attempts to rewrite the rules of maritime law in its own region. In 2019, the E3 – France, Germany and the UK – issued a joint statement expressing support for UNCLOS and the 2016 PCA Final Ruling on the South China Sea, and noting their concern over destabilizing activities that were not in line with international maritime law. This was followed in 2020 by a note verbale to the UN.41 In 2021, France, Germany and the UK separately announced that they would send warships to the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region in an effort to underscore the importance of international maritime law and the principle of free passage; the UK’s deployment of its Carrier Strike Group included a US ship and a Dutch ship, as well as US F-35 jets.42

Transatlantic cooperation in the governance of outer space is likewise moving forwards. A UK-led UN resolution on norms for conduct in outer space received support from both European states and the US. Cooperation is also being advanced through the ESA, plus government-to-government and commercial channels. While the Artemis Accords have not yet been fully subscribed by EU countries, the ESA and NASA have signed a bilateral memorandum of cooperation on joining ‘the first human outpost in lunar orbit’ by contributing service modules and affording ESA the opportunity to send European astronauts to the outpost.43 NATO is also considering the strategic use of space: in 2019, it adopted a new Space Policy and declared space an operational domain. In 2020, NATO established a dedicated space centre at Allied Air Command in Germany,44 and in 2021, it recognized that its members could invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty over attacks to, from or within space.45

Conclusion

While Europe remains closer to the US than it is to China, and while European countries and the US share concerns over China’s economic and geopolitical rise, the transatlantic relationship is far from settled when it comes to developing a coherent response to the challenges posed by China. Obstacles to closer cooperation are present across all four policy areas explored in this project. Although this paper is far from exhaustive, it presents some of the most significant barriers to more effective transatlantic cooperation on China in several policy domains.

Competition between Europe and the US holds back deeper transatlantic cooperation across all policy domains considered. For instance, discussions in Europe on attaining strategic autonomy are often held not so much with China in mind, but the US. Meanwhile, US policy remains broadly one of ‘America First’. This rivalry continues to drive competition in trade and technology, with impacts on normative behaviour in the global commons.

Furthermore, the fractured nature of internal policymaking in the governance structures in both Brussels and Washington remains a hurdle across all of the policy domains studied. While the narrative of the past years has been a growing political consensus in numerous Western countries with regards to China, the reality is that many institutions and sectors in those countries retain different interests – whether they are in the private sector, public sector or are non-governmental in nature. For example, US tech companies continue to depend heavily on Chinese contractors and suppliers, while German automotive firms remain reliant on demand from the Chinese market. On both sides of the Atlantic, influential constituencies believe in a more moderate approach to China, would prefer engagement over confrontation, want economics to be prioritized over human rights or can see the benefits of continued engagement in such areas as environmental protection and resource scarcity.

Paralysis in policymaking is a long-standing complaint about the European and US governing structures. This does indeed place the transatlantic alliance at a disadvantage when facing China’s more top-down decision-making process. While varying perspectives can be found in the Chinese system, the central command structure is more focused and has become stronger during Xi Jinping’s presidency. For example, while European and US authorities struggle to regulate their digital sectors, there has been a dramatic regulatory clampdown on technology companies in China recently. Beijing clearly has greater capacity to bring companies to heel, compared with Western governments. Even if US and European authorities were able to agree a course of action, it is not clear that their private sectors would necessarily follow.

It is worth observing that the transatlantic partnership was able to rapidly mobilize and respond to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, suggesting that it is not impossible for Western countries to overcome internal disagreements to impose strong and punitive sanctions on an adversary. But it is not clear that China would undertake such a bellicose action as Russia’s to prompt a similar response. It is equally true that Russia’s links with the global economy are not the same as China’s. While there is still deep interdependence between Europe and Russia in certain sectors (for example, in energy), the direction in Europe at the moment is to break this dependence. Nevertheless, the key lesson here is that, in the face of extreme action, Europe and the US can mobilize rapidly, and are willing to accept damage to their own interests in advance of a common goal against an adversarial power.

Across the four policy areas, there is a significant difference in adherence to the existing global multilateral order between the transatlantic partners, as both the US and China have undermined this at certain times. This has led the EU to seek a mediating or leadership role in the policy areas of trade, digital and tech, climate change and global governance. European powers regard themselves as both beneficiaries and champions of the international order and its institutions. They also see the EU as an independent strategic actor and would rather move towards greater autonomy from the US than increase dependence. This sentiment might be stronger under some US administrations than others. But the main lesson for Europe from the Trump presidency was that the US might not always be a reliable actor and partner in international affairs. Even under the Biden presidency, the AUKUS partnership and the chaotic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan against European wishes appear to have confirmed the sense among certain EU countries that they lack influence over decision-making in Washington.

It is further important to consider third-party countries in all policy areas – both in Asia and elsewhere. These powers have considerable agency over the issues considered in this paper, and have their own perspectives on the China challenge. For example, Taiwan is crucial to the production of semiconductors, while Japanese and South Korean firms are at the cutting edge of many new technologies. Meanwhile, much of the developing world continues to rely on Chinese suppliers of goods due to their relatively low prices and rapid delivery – which Western companies struggle (or do not want) to compete with.

A solely transatlantic response to China will therefore leave gaps, which will make it impossible to achieve desired outcomes. Cooperation with third countries is already happening in some areas as the transatlantic partners engage more deeply with security issues in the Indo-Pacific region. But even in this case, they do not always take the wider region into account, except China and a small number of large players like India and Japan.

The current lack of trust within the international system makes good-faith engagement difficult. But it is imperative to include China in the global conversation if these problems are to be overcome. China is a now a major part of the global system and this is unlikely to change fundamentally in the medium-term.

Whether the issue is establishing rules on international technology standards, mitigating the next pandemic or governing the global commons, some level of engagement with China will be necessary. On climate change in particular, no comprehensive solution is possible without China. It may prove difficult for Western policymakers to achieve such engagement. But finding a balance between engagement, competing views within the transatlantic alliance and an increasingly assertive China will be the West’s most significant challenge for the next decade or more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Эти вопросы мы обсуждаем с автором книги Рафаэлло Пантуччи.

Рафаэлло Пантуччи

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Спасибо большое за беседу.

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

Back in May, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing looking at “China’s Activities and Influence in South and Central Asia”. I was invited to testify, and though I could not sadly go and join in Washington, I was able to do it remotely. The entire hearing can be found here (including a complete video, as well as all of the other excellent experts testimony). My own testimony is pasted below.

China’s Current Security Approaches and Interests in Afghanistan

Testimony Before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, May 12, 2022

Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore

China’s security interests and approaches to Afghanistan and its environs are shaped by a concern that threats from this region might ultimately come back to hurt China. This is either from Uyghur separatists which Beijing fears are hiding in the region, or increasingly the growing number of regional groups that have identified China as an adversary. This shapes China’s security responses in the region. But underpinning the direct security responses that China undertakes is a vision for economic prosperity and development across the region which Beijing believes will ultimately stabilize the region and deliver long-term security guarantees.

1. In what ways does China hedge its relationship with the Taliban through bilateral and multilateral security initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the quadrilateral counter-terrorism cooperation mechanism (QCCM) with China, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan? Does China use these organizations primarily for security cooperation and training or to establish blocks of political influence? Has China’s investment in these organizations, either in manpower or money, changed since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

China has always sought to hedge its security concerns with Afghanistan through multiple avenues of engagement. Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, China has largely sought to continue its regional activities as before. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has continued to hold a number of meetings and engagements, including a heads of state hybrid summit held in Dushanbe in September 2021. China participated in this and other SCO sessions in much the same way it has before, seeking to engage through the format, but not appearing to force through anything new. President Xi in his remarks during the summit focused heavily on Afghanistan and spoke of China’s goals as being: “One, the peaceful transfer of power to Afghanistan. Second, contact and communicate with Afghanistan. Third, provide humanitarian and anti-epidemic assistance to the Afghan people.”[1] He also called on the United States to play a greater role in providing funding to stabilize the country, releasing funds being held up by Washington, and help Afghanistan out of its economic funk. The major achievement of the Summit was the admission of Iran into the organization, and while Afghanistan hung heavy over the discussions – it was likely too close to the fall of Kabul to be able to properly adjust and respond. There was some discussion about how the Taliban should be engaged with now it was the de facto government of Afghanistan, but it was not something that Beijing expressed a view on.[2] This attitude is likely to persist with the SCO, with China continuing to highlight Afghanistan as an issue within the organization, and repeating these talking points, but unlikely to be actively pushing towards the SCO doing much more – in particular as there does not seem to be a consensus amongst members about exactly how to handle Taliban-led Afghanistan.

Looking to the Quadrilateral Cooperation Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) – this was an institution that was developed in large part as a result of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeking to play a greater role in Afghanistan. When it was established in 2016, it came as part of a larger effort where China was seeking to strengthen its direct border relations with Afghanistan – there was discussion about undertaking more training and even potentially building a base with the Afghans in Badakhshan. It was also the moment around which the discussion of the Chinese base in Tajikistan became more publicly acknowledged. After this initial appearance by the QCCM, it went quiet, though it continued to provide a convening function for China to engage with its regional partners on border security questions in particular. Afghan officials acknowledged its utility in particular in trying to manage complex security questions in remote Badakhshan. Given the official partner in the engagement would have to be government of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence, it would require formal recognition of the Islamic Emirate government for it to be formally included and revived, meaning its revivification is something which would only be possible in the wake of formal recognition of the authority in Kabul – a step Beijing is unlikely to take first.

At the same time, in many ways, China has already recognized the Islamic Emirate government. Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted his Pakistani counterpart Qureshi and Amir Muttaqi in April 2022 on the fringes of the larger regional meeting hosted by China at Tunxi.[3] This format replicates an earlier multilateral engagement that China used to host which brought together senior foreign ministry officials between the three countries. In June 2021, two months before the collapse of the Republic government, Wang Yi hosted a virtual engagement involving Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi and then-Foreign Minister Atmar.[4] This highlights China’s desire to attempt to re-engage with the Islamic Emirate government in the same way that it was engaging with the Republic beforehand, restoring the same structures. Given the fact this has now happened with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it would not be impossible for a similar event to be held between Defence Ministries of the three powers. It is worth noting though that the QCCM is a structure theoretically represented by the Chiefs of Defence Staff which would be a different form of engagement to political ministries.

There have also been reports that China has helped facilitate engagements between the Islamic Emirate security authorities and the Pakistani intelligence services, in an attempt to help get them to resolve some of their differences.[5] Issues that have become more acute in the recent past as Tehrek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have increased the tempo of their attacks in Pakistan, and in return Pakistani authorities have launched cross-border strikes alongside violent border clashes between Afghan and Pakistani fighters.[6] If confirmed, China’s attempt to step into the middle of this divide suggests a recognition by China of the role it can play in trying to stabilize the relationship between the two countries, leveraging the relationships that it has developed. Within these contexts, China appears to be trying to improve relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, while also building up its on bilateral links to both. The aim ultimately is to enable China to have good security relations, establish influence and place China in a significant role across the wider region.

It is difficult to discern at the moment the degree to which China has actually increased its engagement or activity within these structures since the takeover, though there are persistent rumours of increased Chinese security engagement with the Taliban. The exact nature of these contacts is unknown. Whatever the case, the key driver of Chinese engagement is recognition that the Islamic Emirate authority appears like the most stable governance structure in Afghanistan for the immediate future and therefore an entity that Beijing will have to engage with if it wants to ensure its security interests in Afghanistan. While in the early days, much of the noise around China’s security concerns was focused on the potential for Uyghur militants to establish themselves, it appears as though the Islamic Emirate’s decision to move what Uyghur networks were present to locations far from Afghanistan’s regions closest to China has to some degree soothed Chinese concerns.[7] The more likely concern at the moment is the growing violence in Pakistan which as has been seen in a number of recent attacks has led to the deaths of Chinese nationals.[8]

While China is still reticent to transfer all its former engagements with Kabul to the new government, it is clear that Beijing is increasingly moving in this direction. The ultimate goal will be not only to help strengthen China’s relations and influence, but more specifically to ensure security guarantees from potential threats that may develop. It is worth remembering that from China’s perspective, in many ways, the earlier relationship with the Republic government was one that Beijing appreciated as the Republic authorities for the most part shared their assessment about Uyghur militants being a group that needed clamping down on. While there was some evidence that this relationship had started to sour in the final months of the Republic government, there was also evidence that this had also created some tension with the incoming government which failed to monitor the escape of a number of Uyghur’s in detention when they took over the country.[9]

This aspect is significant as it shows the levels of mistrust that China still needs to overcome in terms of its security relationships with Kabul, meaning Beijing will continue to seek to hedge rather than put all its eggs in one basket. This is likely to be a key aspect of the engagements China undertakes, with no single avenue being used, but instead a web of connections both with the Islamic Emirate authorities, regional powers, as well as long-established and more recently developed regional formats. Alongside this, China will continue its policy of strengthening its security relations with Tajikistan and Pakistan – with a particular emphasis on border security – to ultimately provide a hard security guarantee to accompany the multiplicity of political engagements. This hedging approach is a continuation of the approach that China has been taking with Afghanistan since at least 2014.

2. Please describe China’s security presence in neighboring countries aimed at reducing extremist threats. What Chinese organizations are present (e.g., Peoples Armed Police, Ministry of State Security, private security companies), and how do they cooperate with host governments? Is their focus stopping flows into Xinjiang, or has it moved toward creating stability in the the region? What changes, if any, has China made to their security presence in Tajikistan and neighboring countries in the last year, including any use of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units, increased militia presence, or additional training exercises outside of China’s borders?

The primary goal of China’s security actors in neighbouring countries is to provide guarantees for China, as well as eyes and ears onto possible security threats from the region which might come back to China. Within the context of Pakistan and Afghanistan, this extends to worrying about the threats exacerbating tensions around the region, as well as threatening Chinese nationals or interests in the region. However, this latter concern is a secondary one, with the primary concern being domestic security. Thus far, there is confirmed presence of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) in Tajikistan,[10] as well as reports they have in the past undertaken joint patrols with Republic forces in Afghanistan.[11] The principal aim of these security forces has been to help China have an ability to have a direct reach into local security forces, to enable them to have a greater sense of control over the potential threats that might emerge. There is also a history of China providing security support through equipment to Pakistani forces in Gilgit Baltistan, strengthening the other indirect border China shares with Afghanistan.

It is difficult to trace the movements of the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The most visible appearance of MSS operatives in Afghanistan took place in late 2020, when the Republic authorities disrupted a spy network in Kabul which they accused of collusion with anti-government factions on the ground. Their ejection was rapid and kept relatively discrete by the Afghan and Chinese authorities, as the Republic government had little incentive at that stage to entirely sabotage its relationship with Beijing. However, it was notable that reporting indicated that at least one of the men who had been ejected had been masquerading as a pine nut trader – a trade that Beijing has been encouraging between China and Afghanistan, but which also provides China with a good reason to engage with farmers in parts of Afghanistan where Uyghur militant groups have been active.[12]

This economic engagement has also been seen in other contexts, where China has used direct aid to the regions in Afghanistan near to its borders to try to develop links and contacts on the ground.[13] While there is a logic to cultivating these relationships due to their border proximity and the humanitarian needs on the ground, it also provides a good opportunity for intelligence gathering and an excuse for China to maintain eyes on the ground.

The final element which is difficult to further quantify is the presence of Chinese private security companies. While they have been seen in Kyrgyzstan, and are believed to be present in Tajikistan, it is difficult to pin down their activities in other places.[14] Reports from the ground suggest that some have started to emerge in Afghanistan, and since the recent attacks on Chinese nationals in nearby Pakistan, it is likely the presence of private Chinese security firms will increase there as well.

Whatever its scale and vector, the decision to assert some security presence is reflection of a sense of trepidation, and a continued fear that the situation in Kabul might abruptly destabilize. What remains constant, is China’s single-minded focus on its own interests, rather than trying to bring regional stability. Quite aside from not having any experience in bringing peace brokering initiatives to life, China is also disinterested in engaging in regional issues between powers as this will force China to take sides, something which will only weaken Beijing’s hand before some of the parties. By maintaining its objective view, this enables China to continue to cultivate all sides.

3. What lessons or assessments can be drawn from China’s undeclared persistent security force presence in Tajikistan?  How might the presence of armed forces from China in Tajikistan be indicative of future armed force projection (whether People’s Armed Police, PLA, contract, or based on other military or paramilitary forces)? To what extent is that presence indicative of China’s leadership expanding their definition of China’s “border region” in their security interests? What opportunities or burdens does China perceive in its growing security presence in and around Afghanistan?

The deployment of a Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) base in Tajikistan has been overread as evidence of Chinese security stretch into Central Asia. China has long been providing military support for Tajikistan to strengthen its borders with Afghanistan, recognizing that the long and porous border between the two countries represented a weak point in the region.[15] This mirror’s Russia’s own continued to provide military support in Tajikistan and continued to maintain its largest military base outside its own borders in Tajikistan, the 201st Military Base which is divided between Dushanbe and Bokhtar, done under agreement with the Tajiks until 2042.[16] The aim of this Russian presence is to help monitor and address potential threats that might emanate from Afghanistan through Tajikistan and ultimately threaten Russia. The Russian base has continued to be active, undertaking regular training exercises,[17] including a surge of effort around the time of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.[18]

While the Chinese presence is more limited than the Russian one, and with a very different history, the ultimate goals are similar. Beijing, like Moscow, is concerned about potential threats from Afghanistan spilling into Tajikistan, and recognizes that the border regions which China has with Tajikistan are adjacent to the border regions Tajikistan shares with Afghanistan. Remote and rugged, these are regions which are hard to entirely monitor and there is little faith in Tajik capabilities to ensure security coverage. As a result, Beijing has on the one hand provided regular military support to the Tajiks, but it has also chosen to ensure it has some of its own eyes on the potential threats and problems that might emerge. This is the fundamental reason for the Chinese presence. It is additionally significant to note that the security force that is being used is the People’s Armed Police (PAP), an extension of a domestic security agency. This is the same force that has played an important role in building bilateral engagements with Uzbek, Kazakh and Kyrgyz security forces, reflecting the fact that China sees security threats in Central Asia as ones that have the potential to be linked directly to domestic security threats.

While China continues to refuse to entirely admit to the basing, when pressed, Chinese experts compare the engagements in Tajikistan to what Chinese security forces have done in the Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia with which China shares borders. In the wake of the brutal kidnap and massacre of Chinese sailors in October 2011,[19] China started to undertake joint patrols with Laotian, Thai, Myanmar and Cambodian forces to try to ensure better security in the region.[20] In some cases, the Chinese provided equipment, and have now started to explore basing in the region.[21] This is similar to the context in Tajikistan, where there is a live security concern that Beijing is worried about in a neighbour where Beijing obviously has little faith in their capabilities to provide security assurances. The result has been to increase its direct security equity to be able to provide and ensure for its concerns – something articulated through equipment and funding support, the establishment of forward bases, and the creation of overlapping multilateral and minilateral institutions that provide opportunities for engagement.

The aim here is not to provide regional stability, but rather to ensure Chinese security concerns. There has been little evidence of China wanting to take a wider security leadership role, instead, China has retained a narrow focus on its own interests. The useful contrast is to examine Russian security engagement which while also fundamentally about Russian concerns about instability in the region impacting Russia directly, is interpreted in a far more expansive fashion whereby Russia sees itself as an ultimate security guarantor across the region. Witness the surge of Russian security engagement and activity at around the time of the fall of Kabul, and the Russian willingness to deploy to support the Kazakh government in the wake of violent protests in January 2022. Neither of these are roles that China sees for itself, where instead there was a limited increase in Chinese engagement with Tajikistan during the summer of 2022, but this was simply building on what China was already doing, rather than expanding it.

In terms of lessons that can be drawn from this, it is that China remains a fundamentally solipsistic regional security actor, focused single-mindedly on its concerns which it interprets through a fairly narrow lens. What is interesting is the fact that it appeared in the early days of China’s deployment of forces and base establishment in Tajikistan, it appeared to be something that was not done in consultation with Moscow, with reports from the ground suggesting Russia was surprised by the reports of the base’s establishment. This illustrates a tension between Beijing and Moscow which is worth considering, though not overstating, as it is clear that both countries have been able to move beyond these initial tensions. It is also notable, however, that they have not actually done anything to undertake cooperation in Tajikistan on security questions notwithstanding a presence that is near to each other on the ground. The key point is that while they are willing to work side by side, when it comes to hard security concerns on the ground, both clearly want to have their own eyes on problems, rather than relying on each other. And even more crucially, this does not seem a competitive relationship, but rather one that functions in parallel.

The overarching take-away from this deployment is that China is still not interested in taking a utopian approach to regional security, but is focused on its own security concerns. It will focus on these interests through multiple and overlapping approaches which will collectively provide China with enough assurance to be content. In the case of Afghanistan, this includes regional engagement as well as engagement with the Taliban with the two parts of the piece providing assurance to each other. It is questionable whether this model is one that China would offer in other contexts as well, outside direct border regions, as the fundamental driver to China’s concerns in Tajikistan and Afghanistan are ultimately the potential impact this could have back to China directly.

4. Is there risk of actors being drawn into or choosing to engage in proxy wars through unattributable support to militant groups in and around Afghanistan? How does any potentially increased risk emanating from Afghanistan impact existing internal security concerns in Tajikistan, Pakistan, or for others in the region?  What might this look like, and how might it affect U.S. interests in the region?

There has been a clear and growing problem of terrorist groups using Afghanistan once again as a base to launch attacks on neighbours. At the moment, the problem is most acute with Pakistan where the TTP in particular has increased its presence and violence within Pakistan from bases in Afghanistan, but it is notable that Balochi militancy has also been increasing as a problem for the past few years with a sharpening focus on China. The recent attack at Karachi University which led to the death of the Confucius Institute Director, two of his Chinese staff and their driver, was conducted by the Majeed Brigade of the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), a unit that has undertaken repeated lethal attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan. In Central Asia, Chinese interests have not recently been targeted in the same way – but the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was an illustration of the dangers that exist for China in the region.[22] The recent cross border shootings and growing rhetorical effort being undertaken by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province’s (ISKP) to garner support and threaten Central Asia are illustrations of how problems in Afghanistan are reaching across borders north into Central Asia as well as south into Pakistan.[23] The fact ISKP has also made specific threats towards China further sharpens this concern towards Beijing.[24]

This violence has already created some problems for regional relations. Pakistani forces have launched cross-border incursions into Afghanistan to address with threats they observe from there. There has also been a notable number of violent deaths of TTP leaders in Afghanistan since attempted peace talks between the TTP and government in Pakistan dissolved late in 2021. To the north, the Uzbek airforce has launched strikes into Afghanistan in response to concerns about ISKP threats from there. And there have been border clashes between IEA forces and their counterparts on Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan and Iran.

Underpinning all of this violence is a fear of groups being manipulated by outside forces. Pakistan, for example, has long accused Balochi groups of being in the pay of India – a paranoia which is sometimes echoed in Chinese statements around attacks.[25] The evidence base for this is difficult to ascertain in the public domain. In some cases, Chinese paranoia takes this one step further and point to the United States as a possible outside actor manipulating forces. An early narrative that was advanced in the immediate wake of the collapse of the Republic government (which is heard less now) was that the United States was seeking to manipulate Uyghur groups in the region to threaten China.[26] The decision in late 2020 by the Trump administration to remove the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from its list of proscribed terror organizations was seen by China as a prelude to a move by Washington to engage with the group as a proxy against China.[27]

More recently, Chinese officials have stopped making such references publicly, though it remains to be seen if this is because of a lack of concern or simply a decision to not antagonise the relationship with Washington. The recent decision by the US government to include the Central Asian group Katibat Tawheed wal Jihad (KTJ) on its list of proscribed organizations specifically referring to the group as being responsible for the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek might have been an attempt to mend this fence by Washington.[28] But until a decision is made to return Uyghur militants to the list of proscribed organziations, there will continue to be paranoia in China. Beijing continues to worry about the manipulation of groups in the region in advance of larger geopolitical interests, be this directed by Delhi, Washington, or others.

It is possible that China might seek to undertake similar manipulations itself. There have been reports of efforts by Chinese security and intelligence to develop contacts with potential proxies in border regions with India in Myanmar or Bangladesh to undermine Indian security.[29] But in the Afghan and Pakistani context, most of these stories have instead pointed to China seeking to develop connections with groups with the idea in mind of trying to get them to stop attacking Chinese interests.[30] It would presumably not be impossible for China to seek to manipulate groups to attack western or other adversary interests, but at the same time, Beijing does not have much form in successfully doing this. And for most of the violent groups in the region, there is a growing interest in targeting China recognizing as they do Beijing’s growing influence and power across the region. Manipulations could easily backfire.

The primary danger to US interests lies in the broader violent trends in the region which could develop into threats which start to reach out beyond the region. There is also the potential danger to the US presence in the region – for example, diplomatic staff, businessmen, or travellers. If violence in Pakistan continues to escalate, it would be likely that US or allied interests might come into the cross-hairs of violent groups. The danger of proxy warfare through such groups in the region is another possible threat vector, but the risk comes more from the US being seen as being linked to such manipulations or India being discovered as being linked to violence. Both of these would escalate violence in the region, and increase the threat from groups which might even start to stretch beyond the region.

Finally, by increasing its security connections across the region, China is embedding itself further into the region. This could in the longer-term translate into influence which further locks the United States out of the region – part of a much bigger trend which has been visible across the wider region. While the US remains a significant player, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, worsening relations with Pakistan and worsening relations with Iran, Russia and China all mean this is a part of the world where the US is increasingly seen in an adversarial light. As Chinese influence increases, and as long as US-China relations remain tense, this is likely to harden further.

5. The Commission is mandated to make policy recommendations to Congress based on its hearings and other research. What are your recommendations for Congressional action related to your testimony?

It is difficult to make recommendations without knowing more about what current action is already being taken, so these suggestions are simply ideas or areas in which the United States could explore taking steps forwards in the near term future in the region.

First – the US should try to avoid seeing the region through the lens of big power politics. Afghanistan has in the recent past been a place where the US and China have been able to cooperate to address mutual threats and concerns. Such cooperation might be impossible at the moment, but avoiding going too far in the other direction will enable the US to continue to try to address the humanitarian questions that exist across the region while also making overwatch of potential security threats that might emerge from militant groups more possible.

Second – the US should explore reversing the decision to remove ETIM from the proscribed terror list. While re-listing may be complicated, recognizing that there are some Uyghur groups that have made connections to violent jihadist groups is an important element to restore faith in US focus on genuine terror threats as opposed to political games being played through such proxies.

Third – unblock funding which could be used to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans. This will be difficult as the IEA government has shown repeatedly it is disinterested in meeting western demands around women’s rights, but those who suffer are the Afghan people and finding ways of reaching out positively to them is important. It will remove a plank of China’s narratives in Afghanistan.

Fourth – increase direct support for border security forces in Central Asia. The United States already has strong links and has provided support across the region. Continuing and exploring expanding this support is an important signal to the region as well as a way of building US ability to mitigate risks and maintain security overwatch in the region.

Fifth – work to encourage Pakistan to try improve the security situation in Balochistan through negotiations. The situation in Balochistan is worsening at the moment and it is possible Pakistan will react to it with a harder crackdown. Engaging with the new government in Islamabad to take a new approach might enable a new dynamic in the region which would strengthen the US hand in the region.


[1] http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/ctenglish/2018/commentaries/202109/t20210926_800259123.html

[2] https://eurasianet.org/csto-sco-summits-presage-policy-of-wary-tolerance-of-taliban-regime-in-afghanistan

[3] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202203/t20220331_10658064.html

[4] https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceuk/eng/zgyw/t1881345.htm

[5] https://www.intelligenceonline.com/government-intelligence/2022/04/14/guoanbu-calls-on-isi-to-cooperate-with-taliban-secret-services,109767975-art

[6] https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/05/pakistans-twin-taliban-problem

[7] https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-taliban-uyghurs-china/31494226.html

[8] https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/Karachi-terror-attack-strains-Pakistan-s-ties-with-China

[9] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2021/10/16/exclusive-uyghur-jailbreak-complicates-talibans-ties-china/

[10] https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/central-asia/tajikistan/b87-rivals-authority-tajikistans-gorno-badakhshan

[11] https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2017/03/05/chinese-troops-appear-to-be-operating-in-afghanistan-and-the-pentagon-is-ok-with-it/

[12] https://thediplomat.com/2021/02/did-china-build-a-spy-network-in-kabul/

[13] https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202112/1243022.shtml

[14] https://oxussociety.org/the-growth-adaptation-and-limitations-of-chinese-private-security-companies-in-central-asia/

[15] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tajikistan-china-border-idUSKCN11W0T1

[16] https://tass.com/defense/1394749

[17] https://interfax.com/newsroom/top-stories/76143/

[18] https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-military-drills-near-afghan-border-deliver-warning-to-extremists-11635188626

[19] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/10/chinese-sailors-killed-mekong-river

[20] https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-southeastasia-drugs-mekong-idUKKCN0WH2ZW

[21] https://www.voanews.com/a/us-says-cambodia-not-transparent-about-chinese-role-in-naval-base-construction-/6272820.html

[22] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kyrgyzstan-blast-china-idUSKCN11C1DK

[23] https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/05/05/islamic-state-uzbekistan/

[24] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3151791/why-did-isis-k-say-its-suicide-bomber-was-uygur

[25] https://www.firstpost.com/world/china-warns-india-says-it-will-intervene-if-new-delhi-foments-trouble-in-balochistan-2980404.html

[26] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/202103/t20210327_9170714.html

[27] https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-irate-after-u-s-removes-terrorist-label-from-separatist-group-11604661868

[28] https://www.state.gov/terrorist-designation-of-katibat-al-tawhid-wal-jihad/

[29] https://www.asiasentinel.com/p/beijing-said-to-fund-separatist-india?s=r

[30] https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/pakistan-balochistan-china-seperatists-talks/29055188.html

Still catching up, here a longer piece for Foreign Policy with my excellent new partner in writing Ajmal. We are brewing up a few more projects, lots of interesting stuff happening in the China-Afghanistan space.

China Wants Its Investments in Afghanistan to Be Safer Than in Pakistan

Beijing could profit handsomely from Afghan resources and exports, but new ventures risk exposing Chinese nationals to violence

Afghan worker works on the site of an ancient monastery discovered in Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar on November 23, 2010. The archaeological dig is located at the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine. The Chinese government-backed mining company, China Metallurgical Group Corp., which won the contract to exploit the site, has given archaeologists three years to finish the excavations. Archaeologists fear that the 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery will probably be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP via Getty Images)

On April 26, a suicide bomber killed Huang Guiping, the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi, as well as two Chinese teachers and a Pakistani driver. The attack, claimed by Baloch separatists, highlighted the tensions that China has stirred up with its massive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor investments in Pakistan—a lesson Beijing has learned and is keen not to repeat in Afghanistan. But China will struggle to entirely sidestep these problems, especially because the answer it often reaches for in these situations is economic investment—something that inevitably expands exposure on the ground.

The most prominent example of this tension can be found at the Mes Aynak copper mining project in Afghanistan. For years, the project was a byword for broken Chinese dreams. The Taliban, now returned to power in Afghanistan, have revived the project and are more generally trying to take advantage of the nation’s proximity to China. And Beijing seems willing to reciprocate.

The recent Tunxi Initiative endorsed by President Xi Jinping referenced the project, and Chinese executives have visited Kabul to discuss the project. Yet the problems they appear to be discussing are the same ones that were being raised under the old government. And the mining executives seem far less sure-footed than their colleagues at China National Petroleum Corp., which is seeking to restart oil production at its concession in northern Afghanistan under a new deal.

It is doubtful either of these projects will move quickly. And ordinary Afghans won’t see the benefits for years in any case, no doubt stirring resentment toward China. It is lower-level activities such as artisanal mining and exports of gemstones, pine nuts, and saffron that could take off much more quickly. They could also have a real impact on the lives of ordinary Afghans, but they will also make China far more exposed to security risks.

Kabul is awash with Chinese businessmen. Walk out of Kabul International Airport, and you are greeted by a big billboard advertising Chinatown, a housing and business compound in the city that offers a range of services for Chinese (and other) entrepreneurs interested in taking advantage of Afghanistan’s opportunities. So many businessmen and random curiosity-seekers have been showing up that the Chinese Embassy has had to issue repeated warnings telling their citizens to report to the mission and not take unnecessary risks. The fear is that these Chinese nationals could become targets like the Confucius Institute director and his team in Pakistan.

Whereas in Pakistan China feels as if it has a reasonably stable counterpart to deal with, one of Beijing’s major concerns about Afghanistan is that the Taliban government might collapse. Beijing had hoped that the Taliban would bring in an inclusive government, which would help bring some stability to Kabul and unity to the country. In the absence of an inclusive government or much evidence the Taliban is planning to create one, Beijing has concluded that the only answer is to support the government and ensure it does not collapse chaotically. However, the challenge China faces is how to do this without assuming responsibility for everything that happens in Afghanistan.

While Afghanistan’s mineral potential is of significant interest to China in terms of its proximity, scale, and strategic importance to regional infrastructure development, Chinese firms are also aware of the complications that come with trying to exploit it. The Tunxi meeting and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s subsequent speech and visit to Kabul are clear signals to any Chinese majors that are interested in exploiting Afghanistan that the political support is now there but it’s not yet clear how much these state owned enterprises will engage.

Economics plays an important part in Chinese considerations. When it comes to rare-earth minerals, China is already a market leader. It provides more than 85 percent of the world’s rare earths, and it is home to about 30 percent of the world’s total rare-earth reserves. China is not in a hurry to secure additional supplies, particularly when the value of worldwide rare-earth imports stood just at $8 billion in 2018—a fraction of the more than $1 trillion in global oil imports.

While dependence on rare earths enables China to leverage influence on the world stage, it is something that Beijing has in the past discovered limited utility in trying to exert. Following an attempt by China to choke Japan’s supply after a political dispute, Tokyo found alternative supplies and reduced its dependency on Beijing.

Similarly, according to reports from last November, Chinese miners were in talks to access Afghanistan’s vast lithium reserves. But big firms see little reason to endure the complexities of Afghanistan. Some opportunist mineral ore brokers may step in, including small-scale operations run by individuals or small companies that will use pumps and excavators to get at the brine lithium that can be found under dried salt lakes.

This requires none of the heavy industrial machinery or effort of a large firm, just access to the site, something that is now possible given the relative stability the Taliban government has brought to Afghanistan. There is evidence from contacts on the ground (and videos on Chinese social media) that Chinese prospectors are already exploring these opportunities.

But while lithium and rare earths may make catchy news headlines, politically overlooked but economically significant commodities are more likely to be of interest to China. Afghanistan has world-class deposits of iron ore. The Hajigak iron ore deposit, situated in the central province of Bamyan, is one of the several prospecting sites a Chinese delegation visited in November. It was previously won by an Indian consortium that decided not to proceed with the project for political and commercial reasons.

According to old Soviet and U.S. surveys, the deposit contains approximately 1.8 billion metric tons of ore at a concentration of 62 percent iron, which makes it the region’s largest known direct shipping ore deposit—the stuff that you can just dig up and ship. High-grade iron ore supply is already struggling to meet demand as China’s decarbonization efforts have boosted demand.

The S&P Global Platts index for 62 percent iron ore fines reached a record $233.1 per metric ton on May 12, 2021, driven by a resurgence in global demand and tightening supply. Although this has slightly eased, China’s increasingly ambitious emission reduction schemes; its efforts to diversify away from Australian supply in the wake of recent political disputes between Beijing and Canberra, which accounted for 61 percent of Chinese iron ore imports in 2020; and a COVID-induced shuttered capacity in Brazil will mean demand for alternative high-grade iron ore will remain robust. This is not to say Afghanistan is not a risky prospect, but it gives China an alternative option much closer to home.

By focusing on Afghanistan’s iron ore deposits, China can achieve several key objectives. First, it can secure access to an alternative high-grade iron ore deposit critical for the production of low-carbon steel. Second, with the current favorable market prices, it is economically viable to mine and ship the ore via Karachi without the need for investing in transport infrastructure. Third, it will demonstrate a quick win by generating the much-needed cash flow for the Taliban regime. Fourth, in the past 10 years, many small-scale steel mills, including ones run by Chinese companies, have popped up around Afghanistan, relying for the most part on a dwindling supply of scrap metals for the production of their steel products.

Unlike many other minerals for which no domestic consumption capacity exists in Afghanistan, iron ore can immediately utilize domestic steel industry capacity, perhaps with some help from China to improve quality and efficiency.

The other advantage provided by Afghanistan is an abundant supply of coal. This is crucial in the smelting process, which requires power that can be generated by coal to process the steel from the iron. Chinese producers have a long history of undertaking such projects regionally. In fact, those who designed the initial Mes Aynak copper project had intended to build a coal-fired power plant to help supply both the mining site and smelting plant, as well as the local region.

This model was one that had been proposed to the republic government before the fall of Kabul, when a Chinese delegation met former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with a proposal to commission a 300-megawatt coal-fired power station at an approximate cost of $400 million just northeast of Kabul, where the Pul-e-Charkhi Industrial Park and most of the steel plants are located. Ghani had approved the proposal in principle and had given instructions to the relevant authorities to facilitate and expedite the project. This project is one that the Taliban is simply waiting to approve and could provide an easy win for the new authorities in Kabul.

The crucial question is the degree to which Beijing is going to orchestrate such projects in Afghanistan or allow enterprising entrepreneurs to go ahead and launch the projects with its tacit support. Industrial-scale lithium, rare earths, and copper mining require large outlays and substantial infrastructure as well as end users who tend to be important state-linked actors. Iron ore is easier to manage discretely and already has a substantial Chinese infrastructure under the surface in Afghanistan.

There is also substantial demand for iron ore around China and the wider region, which makes it an easy commodity to exploit without drawing too much attention. (Conveniently, this also means the polluting part of the process is shifted offshore, helping China with its climate-related goals as well.) In reaching out to China’s limitless consumer market, it could be similar to the pine nut exports that China has encouraged and that has seen around 40 planeloads of Afghan pine nuts go to China to be rapidly sold for a tidy sum online as a luxury product.

Iron ore and pine nuts (and similar products) offer China a way of engaging in Afghanistan with little direct state commitment. Getting big state-owned enterprises engaged is full of political and security risks and could lead to targeting of Chinese nationals working for these firms, as happened in Pakistan. This has knock-on effects in terms of getting the local authorities to provide protection and generates tensions at a state level. Focusing on smaller-scale projects and miners while allowing small traders and hardy entrepreneurs to try their hand costs Beijing little and has far less risk attached to it. And what risks are attached tend to be linked to the individuals rather than the Chinese state.

The lesson learned from Pakistan seems to be: engage—but at a lower level that commits you to less and therefore exposes you to less risk. Yet the web of economic activity that is spun is potentially just as substantial and might actually benefit a wider range of Afghans. By linking the Afghan economy to China’s at a lower level, Beijing would help support stability in Afghanistan at little cost to itself.

But as much as China might hope to avoid the same problems it is encountering in Pakistan, as the world’s second-largest economy that shares a direct border with both countries, it seems unlikely that China can do so without playing a role in resolving regional problems. Beijing’s longer-term goal is to ensure Afghanistan does not destabilize the wider region or cause problems for itself. Taking a lower-profile approach to economic engagement will help China achieve this goal without attracting the same high-profile problems it is finding in Pakistan. But economic opportunity does not always translate into stability. Beijing need only look at what it has been trying to do in parts of the Pakistani region of Balochistan to see the anger it can provoke, with tragic consequences.

Still catching up, this time a short piece for Nikkei Asian Review in the wake of the attack in Karachi by Balochi separatists which murdered the Confucius Institute director and some of his staff.

Karachi terror attack strains Pakistan’s ties with China

New government needs to listen to the concerns of Balochi separatists

Police officers and a crime scene unit gather near a passenger van after a blast at the entrance of Karachi University’s Confucius Institute on April 26: The attack crossed many red lines.   © Reuters


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

While Beijing would never admit it, the rise of Shehbaz Sharif as Pakistan’s new prime minister is a welcome development.

Sharif’s early and positive comments toward China, the fact his new Finance Minister Miftah Ismail made meeting officials from the Chinese Embassy his first formal encounter and the appointment of Ahsan Iqbal as minister responsible for the managing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor were all clear signals that the new government wants a cooperative relationship with Beijing.

That chummy mood was shattered by a brutal suicide bombing on April 26 that was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army at Karachi University and which killed the director of the Confucius Institute, Beijing’s cultural promotion organization, as well as two Chinese staff and their Pakistani driver.

The suicide bombing was the latest in a series of attacks by separatists who are now targeting China because of Beijing’s heavy investment in Balochistan, which includes the much discussed Gwadar Port.

Balochi separatists have a history of targeting Chinese nationals in Pakistan, launching a number of dramatic attacks over the years that include targeting the Chinese consulate in Karachi, the Chinese-built Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar and the Karachi stock exchange.

Shehbaz Sharif meets with Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy of China Pang Chunxue to offer condolences for the victims in Islamabad on April 26: The chummy mood was shattered. (Handout photo from Pakistani Prime Minister’s Office)   © Reuters

In 2018, then-Balochi leader Aslam Baloch dispatched his eldest son as a suicide bomber to blow up a busload of Chinese engineers going to work in Balochistan. No one aside from the bomber was killed, but that attack kicked off a violent campaign that has now taken another dark twist.

The latest attack on the Confucius Institute, a soft but prominent target, crossed many red lines, the most conspicuous of which was the unprecedented use of a female suicide bomber. The fact she appears to have been a well-educated, middle-class woman who leaves behind two young children suggests how broad and attractive the Balochi narrative has now become.

Amid the scramble to better understand precisely who was behind the attack, there are hints that other militant groups may have played some sort of support role. And as is usually the case in this troubled region, many are looking for signs that outside powers might be manipulating the Balochi cause for their own ends.

The usual suspects for those conspiracy minded are India and the United States. Afghanistan used to be the third, but this is less likely given the Taliban government’s crackdowns on Balochi groups based in Afghanistan, groups the former Western-backed government seemed to tolerate, a major source of discord between Islamabad and Kabul.

The bigger point is that the Balochi separatist cause is continuing to gain traction inside Pakistan and is only getting worse, with militants getting more and more ambitious, and seemingly able to strike at will.

In January, a bomb was detonated at a crowded market in Lahore, killing three, and in February, a large detachment of militants took on two bases belonging to the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force charged with maintaining law and order in Balochistan.

At least 20 militants and nine Pakistani soldiers were killed in fighting that went on for many hours, although Balochi groups said the casualty rates were much higher, claiming that nearly 200 Pakistanis were killed, with only 16 of theirs dead.

By targeting the Confucius Institute, Balochi militants are sending a clear signal to the many thousands of Chinese who live and work in Pakistan.

Because not all Chinese living and working in the region are linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, many of them live beyond the security perimeter that has been put around official CPEC projects. These people are now all clearly targets too, vastly expanding the number of people Pakistani authorities need to worry about protecting.

It is not clear what Beijing’s answer to all this will be. One option would be to deploy a Chinese military detachment. More likely is that China will step up military and intelligence aid, as well as increase their discrete security presence on the ground. Chinese private security contractors will doubtless start to appear more frequently.

But this is only a stopgap answer. China is clearly unhappy, and while they might be willing to absolve the new government for responsibility for this latest attack, the underlying problem is that Pakistan seems unable to bring the separatists under control.

If we continue to see attacks like this on Chinese nationals, it will become increasingly difficult for Beijing to send its people to work in the country. More importantly, the repeated targeting of Chinese nationals undermines the myth that Chinese investment in Pakistan is seen as benign on the ground. A much wider and more dangerous narrative that Beijing has little desire to take hold.

The truth is that across this wider region, China is increasingly becoming the most consequential player on the ground. This attracts allies and enemies alike and is a role that has responsibilities, as much as Beijing might want to shy away from them.

Islamabad clearly needs to take a different tack in Balochistan. Locals feel persecuted and see little opportunity in modern Pakistan. Stories of extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture are common. Nor do locals see much direct benefit from Chinese investment.

Greater transparency and engagement are needed. Otherwise, the conflict will continue to metastasize and create problems with one of Islamabad’s most important partners on the world stage.

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

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

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

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

Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Inadvertent Empire: Welcome to Sinostan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s transport links with Central Asia in the spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The West’s Missed Opportunity in Central Asia

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

Q & A

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


Raffaello Pantucci.
Illustration by Lauren Crow

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

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

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

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

Is it working?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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