Posts Tagged ‘China’

Another piece on China in Central Asia, this time for the Straits Times looking at the question of competitive vaccine diplomacy in competition with Russia. All of this is teeing up the book, and a few more bigger pieces due out at some point during the year. Am also maybe hoping to revive the website, though that is going to take some work.

Wooing Central Asia, over Covid

Russia deployed vaccine diplomacy. China brought in not just vaccines, but equipment and medical aid. Who won?

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Trapped between China and Russia, Central Asia has always found itself stuck between empires. In earlier times, it was conquerors from the region such as Tamerlane who built Eurasian empires, but increasingly the countries find themselves trying to thread a diplomatic needle between competing external powers.

Currently, it is medicine that is defining the struggle in the region, as both China and Russia compete for influence through their medical diplomacy.

While Beijing appears to have the upper hand in terms of volume, it is Moscow that appears to be winning over the hearts and minds.

As Kazakhstan embarks on a vaccination drive using Sputnik V, China could ask itself why its medical diplomacy in Central Asia has not worked as it hoped it might. Rather than turn the region towards Beijing, it appears to have simply exacerbated existing tensions and suspicions towards China. The region has benefited from China’s support and largess, but Central Asians still tend primarily towards Moscow.

First, a bit of history: Russian strategists tend to see the world through spheres of influence. From their view, Central Asia is seen as “theirs”. From before the Soviet Union, the nations of Central Asia were part of the wider Russian Empire. During the 1800s, Imperial Russia expanded up to Afghanistan, and the original Great Game was born between the competing English and Russian empires as they sought to keep each other at bay in distant Asia.

At the time, China was an inward-looking power. The Qing Dynasty was fighting wars against encroaching European empires, and Chinese Imperial expansion into Central Asia had stopped far earlier, after the Battle of Talas in 751AD. Xinjiang under the Qing was a far-flung corner of China which was far from the Emperor’s attentions.

BALANCING ACT CONTINUES

Today, the countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are independent states with their own governments and agency. This year, they celebrate their 30th independence anniversaries from under the Soviet yoke. But they remain landlocked and bound to their neighbours, stuck in an awkward balancing act between China and Russia.

Moscow is keen to stay influential. There is an economic and security interest. Human connections persist with millions of Central Asians working as low-wage labourers or workers in Russia. The remittances generated provide huge inflows of currency to Central Asian economies, while Russia gets the benefits of a cheap workforce. The region is also attractive to Russian companies that see opportunity in a region where they share a language and many cultural practices.

At the same time, Moscow also sees the region as a buffer from the violence and drugs that emanate from Afghanistan, investing considerable amounts in supporting security institutions across the region.

And Russia has sought to strengthen this connection through a constellation of post-Soviet multilateral institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called part of an attempt to re-Sovietise the region, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Commonwealth of Independent States. (The former grew out of the framework of the latter.)

Not all Central Asians are willing participants, though in the case of the EAEU, it was an idea which was proposed by Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

CHINA’S FOCUS: STABILITY

Modern China wants to expand into the region to protect itself from any threats that might emerge, as well as profit from the potential it offers.

Since then Premier Li Peng’s foundation-laying tour of the region in 1994 – which established the contours of the area’s contemporary relationship with China – the focus has been on economic links and trade corridors articulated under the phrasing of silk roads. This has sat alongside a persistent fear that Uighur groups might use the region to foment trouble within Xinjiang.

The answer, from China’s perspective, is a growing security footprint focused on its own interests and concerns, alongside a surge in economic links and investment which ultimately seek to improve stability and security in the region and Xinjiang. China is not really interested in conquering the region or creating a sphere of influence like Moscow, but rather it wants guarantees and stability to ultimately help foster stability and security at home.

And so far, China is playing a winning game. It is now the main trading partner with all the Central Asian powers, and has been increasing its investment.

Traditionally perceived as being focused on natural resources such as metals, oil and gas, Chinese companies are, in fact, increasingly present across Central Asian economies – from online traders like Alibaba or Taobao, to agriculture and food products, and infrastructure construction of every sort – from roads, rail, telecoms and more.

This flow of investment and trade is followed by a soft-power push in education and training, which is increasingly normalising China’s presence in and links with the region.

RUSSIA’S FOCUS: INFLUENCE

Russia continues to keep its hand active, though. China may be rewiring the region, literally as well as metaphorically, so all paths lead back to Beijing, but Moscow continues to be the first capital politicians will visit. And Russia remains the pre-eminent security partner in training, military sales and security ventures.

Technology is the one space where it is hard to see Russia competing with China, but Moscow has sought to find other ways of maintaining a significant role, including through influencing legislation.

But there is a tension between the two powers. Russia can see it is losing ground, but feels it is unable to do too much because it lacks China’s resources. It also prioritises a geostrategic relationship with Beijing over whatever happens in Central Asia.

There is little appetite in Russia for Central Asia to become an impediment or complicating factor to its relationship with China. Ultimately, Moscow is more interested in ensuring Beijing is onside in its greater confrontation with the West than the concerns Russia might have with Chinese encroachment into Central Asia. But there is a growing concern in Moscow that they might find Central Asia becoming the soft underbelly through which China can undermine Russia.

MEDICAL DIPLOMACY

This leads to pushback, the most recent expression of which can be seen in the vaccine diplomacy being deployed across the region.

Central Asia’s response to Covid-19 was spasmodic at best. Turkmenistan, for instance, has yet to admit it has suffered any cases, though foreign diplomats have perished from Covid-like diseases and the country has ordered vaccines. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have all suffered cases, but the numbers have been relatively low. At this point, the region does seem to have turned a corner in dealing with the coronavirus, in part due to the interventions from its two giant neighbours.

In the Russian case, it has been through the Sputnik V vaccine, while China has provided protective equipment, medical training courses and webinars as well as planeloads of aid from Chinese companies, regions and institutions. Additionally, Chinese vaccine producers have used Uzbekistan as a site for phase three testing, while deliveries of their vaccines have started to arrive in the region.

But this Chinese dominance has not translated into popularity. According to data from the Central Asian Barometer, when asked which country would be most likely to help them manage Covid-19, 52 per cent of Kazakhs, 58 per cent of Uzbeks and 76 per cent of Kyrgyz surveyed said Russia was most likely to be able to help. Only 20 per cent of Kazakhs, 14 per cent of Uzbeks and 8 per cent of Kyrgyz believed the same of China.

These numbers echo surveys done pre-Covid-19 which showed that across the region Russia was most popular, with China and the United States competing for second place.

For all its efforts, China’s medical diplomacy and growing investments do not appear to have delivered popular success in the heartland of Eurasia.

Bound still by linguistic, cultural and economic links, and a media which has great penetration throughout the region, Russia remains the more dominant actor within Central Asia. The region’s population still looks primarily towards Russia for its external support, something left over in part from history, but also out of a growing sense of concern about the meteoric rise of China around the world and in their immediate neighbourhood.

This will ultimately be reassuring to Moscow, as it realises it has a few cards that it can play against Beijing. For now, medical diplomacy is one of those cards as clearly Central Asians look more favourably on medical care from a bear than a dragon.

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

The first in a pair of articles for Asian papers looking at China’s relations with Central Asia through the current COVID-19 disaster. This first one for the South China Morning Post, exploring the reality of how trade is being impacted during this time. In many ways what has been happening is not that surprising, but at the same time it seemed quite dissonant from Wang Yi’s comments during the 两会.

Belt and Road Initiative: China’s rosy picture is at odds with realities on the ground during Covid-19

  • Foreign Minister Wang Yi and others have sung the praises of the initiative and promoted its goal of improving cross-border flows of people and goods
  • The reality during the pandemic has been different, though, with China’s neighbours and partners frustrated by border closures, and goods facing lengthy delays
Foreign Minister Wang Yi (second right) attends a virtual ceremony with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to formally commence the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries in Beijing on March 2. Photo: Xinhua

Foreign Minister Wang Yi (second right) attends a virtual ceremony with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to formally commence the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries in Beijing on March 2. Photo: Xinhua

There is no pause button for the Belt and Road Initiative, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during his expansive news conference on Chinese diplomacy during the annual Two Sessions summit in Beijing. Yet, look around China’s neighbours in Central and South Asia and the story looks very different. Closed or only partially opened borders, alongside stories of Chinese frustration at local partners, suggest at the very least a slow-motion button has been hit in several areas.

While the initiative as articulated by Wang is focused on infrastructure development, China has repeatedly highlighted how infrastructure is only the first pillar of the broader vision. Longer-term, the strategy is intended to be a vision for trade and economic flows around the world.

During a “high-level video conference on belt and road cooperation”, held last June, Wang spoke of a desire to “discuss the establishment of fast-track lanes for cross-border flows of people and goods with belt and road partners”.

Talk to haulers or traders in Central Asia, though, and the picture during the past year has been very different. Last December, the bottlenecks at Kazakh-Chinese rail borders became so bad that a reported 7,000 containers were stuck waiting to cross, with delays stretching to more than a month because of restrictions on the Chinese side.In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the border posts have remained closed at China’s request, with only very limited traffic being reported as passing through.

In his meeting last week with Chinese Ambassador to Bishkek Du Dewen, Kyrgyzstan Prime Minister Ulukbek Maripov made the latest official plea for China to open its border. Du has held numerous meetings with various Kyrgyz officials since the new government came in, and the question of reopening and speeding up border crossings has been repeatedly brought up, to no avail.

Traders using the Kulma Pass between China and Tajikistan have faced a closed border since October, and reportedly the Chinese side is using the opportunity to increase their own market share and squeeze out Tajik traders. One spoken to by the local press reported how winter clothes he had ordered from Kashgar last year were still stuck on the Chinese side and were now useless to him as winter had largely passed.

A Tajik official said in February that only 25 Tajik trucks had been allowed through the pass since the beginning of the year, and there was a 260-truck backlog. Meanwhile, the queue at Erkeshtam on the China-Kyrgyzstan border is four days, and only seven to eight trucks are able to cross daily as opposed to 50 to 60 that used to do so.

This has had a knock-on effect on transport costs. Uzbek markets report that the costs of taking a truckload of tangerines from China in 2019 was US$4,000 to US$5,000 per truck. In 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the cost per truck increased to US$25,000 to US$26,000.Trucking goods from China to Europe used to take 16 to 18 days, but the border restrictions by China mean a vehicle can find itself waiting 15 to 20 days just to cross the China-Kazakh border.

The blame for many of these blockages is on the Chinese side, where restrictions blamed on Covid-19 are stopping transit trade. In fact, according to Chinese trade data, flows between China and all Central Asian countries with the exception of Kazakhstan have slumped in the past year. They range from an almost 50 per cent drop year on year with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to a 30 per cent fall with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Kazakhstan has seen a 5 per cent year-on-year increase, though this is down on 9 per cent the year before and 34 per cent the year before that. So much for trade and connectivity flows being boosted during Covid-19. 

At the same time, China’s perennially complicated relationship with Pakistan continues to stumble on. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is inching forwards, although Chinese irritation is increasingly visible.

The 10th meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee for CPEC, the central organising body which includes senior figures from China’s National Development and Reform Commission and Pakistan’s Ministry of Planning Development and Special Initiatives, has yet to take place. The ninth session was held in November 2019.Repeated delays blamed on Covid-19 and other complications have held things up, leading to suspicions something else might be at play. Covid-19 was, for example, not enough to stop Defence Minister Wei Fenghe visiting Pakistan in December 2020 to sign a new Memorandum of Understanding to bolster the already strong China-Pakistan military relationship.

The problems around CPEC have been obvious for some time. The increasing Pakistani military presence and involvement with CPEC decision-making highlights Beijing’s frustration, given that it has always favoured decisive military men over Pakistan’s politicians, and Chinese and Pakistani officials see military relations as the backbone of bilateral relations.This comes alongside the appointment of Nong Rong, a trade specialist from Guangxi, as ambassador to Pakistan in contrast to the usual foreign ministry cadre and South Asia hand who would usually be appointed, showing a desire by the Communist Party to further strengthen its hand.

None of these problems are that new or surprising, and China is perfectly entitled to strengthen its border controls to control the spread of Covid-19. However, it seems somewhat dissonant with the rosy picture painted by Wang.

Officials all over the world are prone to positive interpretations of events, but to offer something so discordant with what is happening on the ground suggests a larger problem. China has placed downward pressure on the Belt and Road Initiative, notwithstanding a clear desire by neighbours for things to get going again.

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

A new post for Carnegie, this time the kind invitation to contribute came from the brilliant Sasha in their Moscow office to write about a subject that I continue to write a lot about and have a book landing soon about, China in Central Asia. This time it looks again at the question of Chinese security presence in the region, a topic that I have touched on before and have at least one chapter on in the book. It all is part of a much bigger project Carnegie Moscow are running called Pax Sinica, which is well worth checking out.

Not-So-Hidden Dragon: China Reveals Its Claws in Central Asian Security

China sees security issues in Central Asia as inextricably tied to its own domestic security concerns, and is rapidly establishing a footprint that will allow it to deal with matters as it sees fit in the region.

There has long been a fallacy at the heart of much analysis of Chinese security policy in Central Asia that China is focused on economics in the region, and Russia on security. This is built on the odd assumption that Beijing is willing to simply delegate its security concerns to others: something that clashes with the increasingly strong China that President Xi Jinping has been projecting. In fact, China has long had a security footprint in Central Asia. What is new, however, is Beijing’s increased willingness to demonstratively flex its muscle in the region.

The most obvious recent example of this and the problems it can generate occurred in December last year in Kabul, when it was reported by Indian media that Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, had arrested a cell of about ten Chinese nationals at various locations in the Afghan capital. While the exact details of what took place have not been confirmed, the principal Afghan accusation appears to have been that the cell was establishing contacts with extremist networks and trying to build an artificial Uighur cell to draw in militant Uighurs of concern to China in Afghanistan.

The incident was cause for great awkwardness on both sides, and concluded with the reported repatriation of the Chinese agents on a private jet back to Beijing. The story was only covered by Indian media, through leaks clearly calculated to embarrass Beijing and highlight nefarious Chinese activity in Afghanistan. The Chinese government did not comment, while the Afghan authorities publicly claimed nothing had happened. Yet if the contours of the reported story are accurate, then the plans by the network had a level of ambition that is novel for Chinese security services. It was also an odd plot to hatch in a country which has been broadly supportive of Chinese goals and which sees itself as fighting the same Uighur networks, given their proximity to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Until now, Chinese security activity in Afghanistan was largely thought to be limited to sealing off China from security threats that might emanate from the country. Investment focused on helping to build and strengthen Tajikistan’s border posts with Afghanistan, increasing the capability of Gilgit-Baltistani security forces in Pakistan, and building a base for Afghan mountain forces in Badakhshan, near the mouth of the Wakhan Corridor that connects China to Afghanistan. China’s People’s Armed Police even went so far as to establish their own dedicated counterterrorism base in Tajikistan, and there are rumors of an additional Chinese base in Afghanistan. Yet none of this activity was aggressive, and rather seemed focused on cauterizing the dangers that might flow from the physical links between Afghanistan and China.

The incident in Kabul, however, shows a new level of Chinese activity that suggests a desire to tackle security issues head on. It comes amid the growing presence of Chinese private security firms in Central Asia, as well as growing pressure on local authorities to accept their presence, in contravention of local legislation. This pushiness has encroached further into the public domain in other ways, too. Du Dewen, the Chinese ambassador to Bishkek, made boosting the security of Chinese nationals and companies a priority issue during her inaugural meeting with new Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev late last year. The usually staid transcript from the meeting released by the embassy highlighted both ambassador Du’s complaint and the emphatic and acquiescent response from the minister.

The other notable point about China’s security engagement with the region is that it is done for the most part by People’s Armed Police (PAP) forces, rather than the People’s Liberation Army. PAP is reportedly responsible for shoring up the border posts in Tajikistan and performing joint patrols with Afghan and Tajik forces. It has also signed agreements and carried out patrols with its counterparts in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. In December 2018, a female cadre of elite PAP Falcon Commandos provided training for their Uzbek counterparts, while in August 2019, they hosted their Kyrgyz counterparts for counterterrorism exercises in Urumqi, Xinjiang.

The appearance of PAP at the forefront of engagement with Central Asia highlights the degree to which China sees the security issues in those countries as inextricably tied to domestic security concerns. As a gendarmerie force whose primary responsibility is domestic, the PAP’s growing presence on China’s periphery raises questions about Chinese thinking on how to manage security problems in its neighborhood.

Central Asia has also become a conduit through which China has increasingly sought to target its perceived dissident Uighur community. Reports emerged in 2019 of Uighurs being arrested in Turkey, given Tajik travel documents, and placed on planes to Dushanbe, from where they were immediately flown back to China. Central Asian complicity is further suggested by the Kazakh authorities’ decision to clamp down on anti-China protesters within their own country.

In some ways, none of this is particularly new. Uighurs in Central Asia have long been a major Chinese concern. When it was officially inaugurated in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization used fighting the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism as its foundational credo. During his famous tour of the region in 1994, which laid the groundwork for the current Silk Road visions across the region, then premier Li Peng highlighted concerns about Uighurs at every stop. Over subsequent years, rumors circulated about the Chinese pursuing Uighurs across Central Asian borders, while any dissident networks that existed in Central Asia were clamped down upon. Occasional attacks against Chinese businessmen or officials in Bishkek served as a reminder of the dangers that existed in the region, but the Chinese response largely involved pressuring local officials to do more to protect their people and go after people they did not like.

Now, however, China appears to be starting to change tack. Rather than relying on local law enforcement agencies or passing on responsibility for security to Russia, China is stepping forward with its own forces to deal with its own concerns. Locals are still expected to do their bit, but China is now establishing a footprint that will allow it to deal with matters as it would like fit in Central Asia. The fact that a growing number of regional security forces are buying high-end technical equipment from China—while their cyber infrastructure is increasingly built using Chinese hardware—gives Beijing growing leverage.

Beijing’s rise as a security actor in Central Asia is not aimed at displacing Russia from its perceived sphere of influence in some contemporary replay of the Great Game, but rather at guaranteeing Chinese interests. In many ways, it’s not a surprising move: what country is not interested in securing its own interests? It is, however, a change in China’s external behavior, which has traditionally been to pay lip service to local autonomy and Chinese non-interference. China is getting involved, and stepping ever further into the breach.

Have been slow in posting and also been slow in production of late. A few longer projects that have been working on which should land soon. And a few shorter ones which are just taking a while to land. For the time being, here is my latest for local newspaper the Straits Times, looking at China-Pakistan relations.

The rising costs of China’s Pakistan project

Last month, the obscure Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA) claimed a pair of attacks against Chinese businessmen going about their affairs in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. A bomb was detonated near a restaurateur, while a businessman and his interpreter were shot at as they looked around a car showroom.

The random attacks were not surprising, with the group being one of a number that have targeted the growing Chinese population in Pakistan, but the decision to attack so brazenly in Pakistan’s largest city showed the group’s growing ambition.

Touted as the jewel in the crown of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, Pakistan is increasingly emblematic of the problems China faces as it invests in its periphery.

Announced shortly before Mr Xi’s speech in September 2013, when he inaugurated the Belt and Road concept, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was quickly wrapped into the broader concept and elevated within the broader vision.

The idea was to create a web of economic links, trade and projects between China and Pakistan that would build on the historical relationship between the “iron brothers”.

But this proximity has brought China problems in many different forms. There have been historical concerns of militant Uighurs using Pakistan as a base to target China, though these seem much reduced now. Currently, the most prominent, direct security threat is illustrated through the attacks on Chinese businessmen in Karachi. The growing Chinese footprint has created a new range of potential targets for local militants.

In some cases, the perpetrators are internationally minded terrorists affiliated with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria who are eager to strike at foreigners to draw more attention to their cause.

LOCAL MILITANT ATTACKS

But more frequently, the danger in Pakistan comes from local separatist militants who are angry at the government, and see Chinese support as justification for targeting Chinese nationals.

The SRA is one such group. Focused on the liberation struggle of the Sindhi people, the group is active in the Sindh region of Pakistan where Karachi is located. Last July, the SRA announced a partnership with the Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar, a grouping of organisations from neighbouring Baluchistan province.

Both the Baluchi and Sindhi groups have repeatedly targeted Chinese nationals and interests in the country – including, in the Baluchi group’s case, ambitious targets like the Chinese consulate in Karachi, the Karachi Stock Exchange, busloads of Chinese engineers and the Pearl Continental Hotel.

The attack on the hotel in May 2019 which left five people dead particularly highlighted local anger at Chinese investment. The hotel, which was established to cater to the business community that was expected to be drawn to the region, was built near the port in Gwadar, Baluchistan, a project that was first proposed during a 2001 visit to Pakistan by then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji.

Between 2007 and 2013, the port was run by Singapore’s PSA Corp, though it relinquished the contract to a Chinese operator, having concluded that the security situation was too difficult.

Since then, the project has become the focus of discussion for armchair strategists who see it as a key point in an alternative route for Chinese access to the warm waters of the Gulf, bypassing the crowded Malacca Strait.

In reality, Gwadar is a huge underused port whose practical use is questionable even to Pakistan. Disconnected from major trading routes, adjacent to the already well-connected and thriving port of Karachi, Gwadar appears to be a white elephant, which China finds itself having to support nevertheless, given the investment and effort that has been put into it. The security situation has always been complicated, leading most recently to a discussion about trying to build a wall around the site.

These complications come not only from the fact that the much-discussed investment has not materialised in the way that was expected, but also from the fact that locals do not feel like they are getting any value from the port.

In fact, groups like the Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar see the port as an expression of the predatory Pakistani state, supported by China, merely stealing from their territory once again.

Pakistan has long been aware of this security problem and has sought to address it through mobilising thousands of soldiers to protect Chinese nationals or projects within the country. Yet, this has not stopped repeated attacks and rising rhetoric from separatist groups in the country, making China an adversary on a par with the Pakistani state.

SUNK COSTS, RISING DEBTS

The clash is one that has become entangled with larger South Asian rows, with accusations that India is fuelling the separatists’ fight against China in Pakistan, further showing how Beijing is getting dragged into toxic local dynamics.

It is not the only way in which China now finds itself ever more deeply embroiled in Pakistan. Last month, as Pakistan faced a payments crisis after Saudi Arabia called in its debts, Beijing came to Islamabad’s rescue offering a US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion) extension to a currency swap deal. Pakistan was then able to use this to pay off the Saudi debt, but it merely strengthened China’s place as Pakistan’s largest creditor.

With reports of CPEC investments going into tens of billions of dollars, Beijing is finding itself holding large amounts of debt in a country struggling with payments and security issues.

Meanwhile, the pace of CPEC projects has slowed down, reflecting hesitation by companies as well as local managerial problems.

Furthermore, growing pressure from the United States on Pakistan has raised questions among some in Beijing about Islamabad’s commitment to the relationship, while escalating tensions with India have only made it harder to get Pakistan to focus on its immediate problems.

Part of Beijing’s answer came last October, when a new ambassador was deployed. He was not chosen from the cadre of officers from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs who are focused on South Asia, but was instead a party official from Guangxi. The decision reflects a desire by China to see a strong party hand steering the relationship forward on the ground.

The Pakistani side has reciprocated by growing the number of military officers in prominent roles managing the CPEC. Beijing has always preferred the reliability of the Pakistani military – often referred to as the backbone of the China-Pakistan relationship – to Islamabad’s feckless political class.

But the problem is that this places a massive infrastructural and economic undertaking on military officers. These are competent men in many ways, but not those usually responsible for complex economic projects.

And there is only so much soldiers can do even on security matters. On Jan 3, ISIS militants abducted and killed 11 Shi’ite coal miners in Quetta, capital of Baluchistan. Even though the Chinese were not the targets this time, the deadly attack has cast a further shadow and highlighted sectarian tensions in a Pakistani province where Chinese nationals and CPEC projects have been repeatedly targeted.

Another sign that relations between the “iron brothers” are not well: The annual bilateral meeting of the CPEC’s top decision-making body, the Joint Cooperation Committee (which brings together key Pakistani planners with their Chinese counterparts), has been postponed again after the last one in November 2019. Although the delays were initially attributed to Covid-19, the more recent setbacks are reportedly linked to disagreements over Chinese financing and delays in getting the special economic zones up and running.

Covid-19, however, did not appear to hinder China’s defence minister from visiting Pakistan last month to sign a memorandum of understanding between the two countries to counter a similar agreement signed between the US and India.

The CPEC is regularly referred to as the keynote project of the Belt and Road Initiative.

But as seen in the problems China is experiencing, it is shaping up to be a warning sign of what happens when Beijing invests heavily in countries with histories of ethnic and religious strife and insurgencies. Local corruption, instability and less-than-effective workforces can all create situations where large volumes of money get absorbed with little immediate return.

While this matters little in boom times, it becomes more questionable when budgets tighten. As Western countries have found, the expansion of one’s geopolitical footprint comes at a price.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia that draws on almost a decade’s worth of travel and research across the region.

A longer piece for an outlet I have written for a few times before, the world’s oldest journal dedicated solely to international affairs, Current History. Am again here looking at China through the lens of the Belt and Road Initiative (previous pieces have looked at Central Asia and South Asia), this time looking at how it impacts and influences beyond infrastructure. It is currently free to access on their site, so please download directly, but have also provided some links at the bottom of this post.

“The BRI is creating a web of links around the world that will guarantee some form of pervasive Chinese influence for generations to come.”

The Many Faces of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Global Trends: January 2021

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is best known as a massive set of infrastructure projects stretching from Asia to Europe. But more than that, it is a sweeping foreign policy vision that provides China with opportunities for deep engagement with virtually every aspect of state and society in its partner countries. Many developing countries welcome the investments and opportunities for trade linked to the initiative, but some of the projects have sparked local resistance over fears of unfair terms or potential opportunities for Chinese intelligence penetration.

The emergence of COVID-19 initially loomed as a catastrophe for the leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although Beijing later tried to change the narrative of the pandemic’s origins, the first major outbreak of the novel coronavirus occurred in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and the largest city in central China. Early in 2020, the PRC leadership faced a domestic crisis as people in the afflicted region panicked and accusations flew over mismanagement of the outbreak. President Xi Jinping, seemingly worried that his reputation might be affected by association with the disaster, dispatched Prime Minister Li Keqiang to serve as the face of the official response. The time-worn strategy of blaming local leaders was deployed; a range of Wuhan officials was condemned and punished in quick succession. All the while, Beijing stayed above the fray, seeking to absolve itself of responsibility.

As time passed, and as health authorities in Wuhan (and around China) brought the outbreak under control, Beijing switched its approach. The leadership had come to see COVID-19, which by then had become a global pandemic, as an opportunity for China to show a positive face to the world. Having quietly accepted aid from other countries in the early days of the outbreak (privately requesting that European powers refrain from publicizing the assistance they provided), China decided to champion the aid it had begun to distribute around the world.

China’s “medical diplomacy” (sometimes called “mask diplomacy”) focused on sharing expertise and sending doctors and medical equipment to countries that were struggling to control the virus. This was all wrapped together and labeled a “Health Silk Road.” Beijing was relying on the diplomatic playbook that had come to typify the Xi era. Almost everything China does outside its borders increasingly is incorporated into a Silk Road narrative.

By doing so, Beijing is associating a variety of policies with its overarching vision for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is a foreign policy framework that Xi first articulated in 2013, when he spoke of creating a Silk Road Economic Belt across Central Asia. Soon after that, he called for creating a twenty-first century Maritime Silk Road. The two schemes together make up the foundation of the BRI.

For more, go either to Current History or get in touch or download it here.

An end of year piece (or beginning of the new decade depending on how you see things), this time projecting forwards looking at how conflict with China is likely to play out for a UK audience in the UK’s Sunday Times. Have a suspicion that this year is going to involve a lot of discussion around this, have a few events already planned which will touch on some of these issues. The newspaper also produced a great graphic to accompany the piece which is posted below and draws on Global Fire Power‘s data.

Beijing aims to avoid battle but win war with new dark arts

As Britain prepares to send the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Asia-Pacific region in a new year show of hard power, 2020 is ending with ringing warnings about the military threat that China presents to the world order.

Shortly before Christmas, the chiefs of the US navy, Marine Corps and coastguard pointed out that Beijing’s naval battle force was bigger than America’s (350 ships and submarines to the US Navy’s 293). The chief of the UK defence staff, General Sir Nick Carter, warned in sync with the Americans that the West needed a long-term strategy against Chinese expansionism.

Is China preparing for war? Not quite. The conflict is likely to be dominated by asymmetry, cyberweapons, clashes in third locations and economic sniping. As Carter explained, paraphrasing the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: “Their goal is to win without going to war.”

China is aware of its hard-power limitations. While the military has been on a spending spree of dramatic proportions over the past few years, it remains a relatively weak power overall compared with its biggest rival, America. As a consequence, it has sought to harness opportunity where it sees over-reliance and weakness in its principal adversary.

The result is an army that is focused on diversionary conflict, trying to throw the US off balance. On the battlefield this means a focus on electronic warfare, satellites and disruption, making it hard for the highly advanced American fighting machine to talk to itself and deliver its shock and awe capability.Off the direct field of battle, it involves political meddling, using economic levers, and targeting American allies such as Australia in ways that undermine their links with America and create complicated situations that Washington will struggle to confront in classic deterrence terms. It is difficult to calibrate an appropriate response to economic sanctions against Australian wine producers.

This does not, however, mean that China has not also developed advanced weapons to place on the field of battle. The military has swarm drone technology that seeks to overwhelm adversaries with a confusing number of small, unmanned vehicles. Over a tense summer in which the US conducted exercises in the Pacific and a cabinet-level official visited Taiwan, China showcased its ability to conduct exercises simultaneously across its coasts.

It concluded this summer of tension by testing its DF-21D, the so-called “carrier killer” missile. According to a Chinese academic it also deployed microwave weapons to move Indian forces off rival mountaintops during their springtime clashes. China’s army is making sure that it is able to deliver on President Xi Jinping’s demand that it can “fight and win”.

But true to Sun’s maxims, the priority for China is the asymmetric conflict that avoids confrontation on the battlefield. While being ready for conflict and showing strength is important, it is clear that Beijing realises that a catastrophic global conflict would hurt China as well. Reliant on global trade and commerce, Beijing would worry about the consequences of a clash that brings the world’s economy shuddering to a stop.

Translated to the field of battle, this means confronting your enemies in indirect ways: targeting American allies in lieu of angering the US directly.

This means aggressive tariffs on Australian products alongside an escalating war of words played out over social media. It means kidnapping and holding hostage the Canadian consultants Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor as punishment for the detention by Canada of Meng Wanzhou, a senior Huawei executive, in response to an American arrest warrant. Or it means detaining or scaring off journalists from English-speaking publications based in Beijing; an action that is a net loss to both sides, depriving everyone of a key bridge in understanding between China and the world.

And then there is the new bombast of the Chinese foreign ministry. While it still talks of win-win and a harmonious world, it has increasingly taken a tabloid approach to delivering these messages.

Twitter has become populated by a growing number of Chinese diplomats and journalists who use their feeds to shout at and confront adversaries online. Look at the webpages of Chinese embassies, and it seems as though their priority is confrontation with America, rather than the priorities of the countries they are based in.

The UK has been fortunate to have avoided most of the direct fire. The clash over Huawei caused a lot of noise, but resulted in little response. Downing Street walked away from the company, notwithstanding all the menacing talk. Nor, aside from public declarations of anger, has Beijing responded directly to Britain’s criticism of its clampdown in Hong Kong.

When it does so, the response is unlikely to be a military. Rather, it will be a complicated web of pushing and pulling of levers that will hit the UK in different ways. It will materialise in pressure on countries with which the UK is seeking to develop stronger ties or with which it has strong links — in parts of Africa and south Asia in particular we are likely to see this sort of competition heating up.

China usually seems more eager to focus on the UK as a potential partner in these parts of the world, but it is hard to know how long this will last. China might start to try to push the UK out of some of these locations by forcing local leaders to make a choice between China or the UK. The trigger could be a decision by Beijing to more prominently associate the UK with America.

Beijing is also likely to seek to use the UK’s post-Brexit isolation from Europe as a fissure to apply more strategic economic pressure to persuade the UK to take its side on the world stage. Any tensions between London and Washington will be exploited in similar ways. Key trade restrictions may be applied, UK companies targeted for punishment or cyberinterference increased.

So far, none of this has taken place any more than usual, but these are the sorts of options that Beijing is more likely to turn to instead of open warfare.

These actions are ones that recognise that conflict is taking place against a backdrop of a world that continues to be deeply interconnected, meaning that the effort by Beijing (and Washington) will constantly be to keep the adversary on the back foot and off-balance, avoiding the catastrophic consequences of direct confrontation.

These are the choppy waters into which HMS Queen Elizabeth will be steering. A conflict that is neither black nor white, but is made up of moves and countermoves played out across a globe where no one really wants to have to choose sides, and no one really wants to fight.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies

Going to quickly upload a couple of pieces now in that netherworld between Christmas and New Year, both China focused, but for very different outlets. This first one is for the China-India Brief, which is a bi-weekly newsletter published by the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Am not totally content with everything here to be honest, but China-India relations are going to stay complicated for the near future whatever happens. My understanding is both sides have now factored in a higher level of tension as the established norm between the two of them. It will just be a question of how effectively they are able to manage this.

Washington Focuses on China While Delhi Drifts

  
CIB173Image credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

There is a sense in Asia that the arrival of the Biden administration in Washington foreshadows a softening of the US’s stance towards China. Nowhere is the concern more acute than in Delhi, where India fears it might find itself without its preeminent ally against China at a moment when confrontation is all the vogue. But India’s concerns are misplaced. The problems Delhi may have with Washington are not likely to be the product of a shift in America’s view on China. Rather, they will emanate from a more coherent and focused American approach towards dealing with Beijing, as towards Delhi over its numerous domestic problems. 

There will be a change in Washington’s approach towards China, but it is more likely to be a tactical shift than an adjustment in perspective. Beijing has been formally classified in American strategic thinking as the principal adversary in a global confrontation (Moscow scores as a problem just behind it). President Trump’s attempt to cast his political adversary as ‘Beijing Biden’ never resonated. Comment pages and think tank output over the past few years have gone to great lengths to emphasize that the aggressive posture towards China emanating from Washington was in fact a bipartisan push. Few on either side of the aisle has dared to articulate a narrative of cooperation or engagement, with a hawkish perspective that portrayed China as a new Soviet-style adversary on the world stage being the dominant view. 
 
But while this firm shift against China took place in Washington in the shade of an erratic Trump administration, Delhi found itself getting into an ever-tighter fix with Beijing. Constant border irritations escalated to the point that in the summer of 2020 Indian and Chinese soldiers fought a medieval-style battle in contested territory leading to unknown numbers of dead. Fury boiled over as hawks screamed for vengeance and confrontation.  
 
Yet the result has been as inconsistent as could have been expected. On the one hand, there has been a sharpening. The security establishment in Delhi is now minded towards confrontation with greater alacrity. Visions of cooperation with China in Afghanistan are gone, the long-dormant Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor is stalled (if not defunct), and Delhi is seeking to slowly push China out of its domestic cyber infrastructure in every possible way. India’s military establishment is using this moment to burnish its budget and buy as many new tools as it can. 
 
On the other side of the coin, however, India has continued to engage with China. Most specifically through various multilateral formats that the two share. At the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS Summits, India has appeared at the appropriate level and sought to avoid bringing its bilateral clash with China to the table. This reflects a broader reality that Delhi continues to acknowledge, namely, that no matter what happens, it will still find itself bordering China, a country on its way to being the world’s second (or possibly) largest economy.  
 
India has always been amongst the most hesitant partners of the Australia-India-Japan-US Quad. Its defence arrangements with the US have improved considerably over the past few years with a series of major agreements, but remain quietly complicated by India’s close relationship with Moscow. Delhi has always sought (understandably) to have its cake and eat it: it engaged with Russia and the US at the same time. It benefitted from stratospheric Chinese growth while also hinting at joining anti-Chinese alliances. And since Beijing saw its future as one intimately bound to Delhi in some way and did not see India as much of a threat, China was willing to let this prevarication go, until the recent confrontation which seems to have tipped the scales in both Delhi and Beijing towards the hawks. 
 
But Delhi’s hedging is going to become more complicated under a Biden administration, though not necessarily for reasons of Biden softening on China. Far from Washington changing on China, we are likely to see a continuation of an aggressive policy towards Beijing under President Biden. The difference will be that it is likely to be delivered with greater coherence and consistency than under President Trump. In fact, we are likely to see a more hardnosed and transactional relationship between the US and China – one  that no longer looks with optimistic lenses towards a world they would like to build together or fantastical bargains that cannot be maintained, but rather a relationship built on realpolitik focused on national interests. Biden will be more able to work with China on certain issues, but these will be framed through a context of importance to Beijing rather than being about American nationalism or global goods. Trade relations will be dealt with in a way that genuinely prioritizes American industries and holds China to account for promises that it has failed to fulfil. The US will continue to push on human rights and will not offer any break on these in exchange for other issues. This will all be delivered alongside Western allies who have been desperately waiting for American leadership. And crucially, the President will not personally hint in meetings at offering a break in his policies to China and will stand behind what his staff have negotiated. 
 
Beyond the difficulties India will have hedging with China is that the Biden hardliners will also come down on Delhi. While India has largely gotten a pass on domestic problems which have been bubbling up under Prime Minister Modi during the Trump administration, under President Biden human rights questions in Kashmir as well as problems in domestic political discourse will be raised. And it is unlikely that Washington will be willing to bargain these away in exchange for a deeper partnership against China. In addition, Washington might actually ask for a harder line towards Russia, something President Trump refused to broach, while fissures between Washington and Delhi on issues like technology openness and access might become bigger. Delhi will find itself under greater pressure from Washington and be unable to exploit space between China and the US.  

Delhi may look at a new Biden administration as a spanner in the works of its relationship with China, casting blame on soft Democrats unwilling to confront Beijing. But this will miss the real problem, which is that the US’s perspective on India has shifted while clarifying on China. Delhi will find itself still hedging with China while Washington has marshalled a new clarity and direction in its policy towards Beijing and the world.


Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI and a Senior Fellow at RSIS.

Posting my latest piece for the South China Morning Post which seeks to push back on some of the latest narratives to emerge about the end or collapse of the Belt and Road Initiative. Am skeptical we have seen the end of it for various reasons. Am not very convinced by the title or image chosen by the editors to be honest, but cannot complain as the piece got some attention online and always enjoy publishing with the SCMP. A longer piece on BRI is coming out next month for those keen, and next year is going to be full of China-Central Asia material in the build up to the book coming out. As ever, welcome thoughts back.

As the face of China’s foreign policy, the belt and road will survive debt and coronavirus

An exhibitor sells goods at the “Belt and Road” exhibition area of the 17th China-Asean Expo in Nanning, Guangxi, on November 27. The belt and road is an idea rather than a project, and lends its name to multiple projects and events, even theme songs, cartoons, courses and think tanks. Photo: Xinhua

Having had such a catastrophic year, the world seems eager to turn the page and jettison what went before. Among the many victims of this purge appears to be the Belt and Road Initiative, which after some seven years of existence is reportedly winding down.

This premature dismissal is based on an interpretation of a vision as a project, and misses how embedded the belt and road is in Chinese foreign-policy thinking.

The belt and road draws on a long tradition of Silk Road conceptions linked to China. Clichés abound when one thinks back to Marco Polo, Matteo Ricci, the epic Battle of Talas in 751 or Ferdinand von Richthofen, who in 1877 coined the Silk Road phrasing after his travels through Asia.In contemporary Chinese parlance, the idea first came into focus under premier Li Peng, who in 1994 embarked on a tour of Central Asia in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s historic “Southern Tour” that started China on its communist-capitalist path.

Li’s trip was intended to take place in 1993, though he was reportedly delayed by ill health. Also, the visit did not stop in every Central Asian capital: Tajikistan, in the midst of its brutal civil war, was given a miss. Security was a key aspect of Li’s trip, and requests for support in suppressing militant Uygur networks were made at most stops.But the visit was also framed around trade and connectivity, and reopening the Silk Road across the Eurasian continent to China.

Following the trip, Li hosted a conference in Beijing where he called for rail connectivity across the region. Around that time, Chinese officials also held discussions with Japanese officials and investors about building pipelines from Turkmenistan, across China, to the eastern seaboard from where the hydrocarbons could help fuel Japan’s booming economic growth.

The Silk Road routes at the time went across China, rather than from it. Looking in the other direction, premier Li also travelled to Europe seeking business links.

So when President Xi Jinping announced his own interpretation of the Silk Road in 2013, under the framing of the Belt and Road Initiative, he was treading on familiar territory – both practically, but also conceptually. It was about building links around the world, and reaching European markets.

But ultimately, the belt and road as articulated by Xi is to provide a vision for Chinese foreign policy. There are undoubtedly many individual projects under the broader umbrella, but they are specific items rather than a connected infrastructure plan.

When Xi announced the idea, it was not meant to be the inauguration of a single large infrastructure project, but rather to provide the great machine of China’s external-facing apparatus with a new driving vision. The idea was that, from now on, China would articulate its foreign policy identity on the world stage as one built around building things, connecting with people and countries, and together fostering prosperity.

That’s a fairly anodyne and positive foreign policy vision, and one that resonates with anyone who has listened to Chinese officials’ endless win-win rhetoric.

It built on the earlier steps that Xi and his predecessors had laid, not only in terms of using Silk Road terminology, but also in focusing first on China’s immediate periphery and helping focus domestic efforts of spreading prosperity to China’s historically poorer inner territories.

Jiang Zemin had his Great Western Development strategy, and Xi built on Peking University professor Wang Jisi’s call to “March West”. All of these are tied together and projected forward with the grandeur now appropriate for a China that was on its way to being the world’s second-largest economy. Thus was born the Belt and Road Initiative.

But the key is that this was an idea rather than a project. Many infrastructure projects and corridors were immediately attributed to it, but so were innumerable non-infrastructure-related projects. Theme songs, cartoons, cultural shows, think tanks, courses and more were thrown into the mix (alongside many non-infrastructure-related economic projects).There was a moment when you could not avoid the framing in every conversation you had in China. It was also enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s charter. Belt and road became a way of thought.

This is not only about Xi imprinting his ideas onto the nation’s history, but also creating a vision that is the central organising concept which will dominate Chinese foreign-policy thinking in the near and possibly far future.This is also why it is not something that can fail, end or be drawn to a close. Quite aside from it being linked to a supreme leader who will not brook failure, the vision has largely artificial and unclear deadlines. While China has put a date of 2049 on achieving the belt and road, what needs to be done by then is not specified.

And even if it was, it would be in typically vague terms, meaning that whatever result has been achieved could simply be drafted into whatever the new interpretation of the Belt and Road Initiative was. Goalposts on ideas can move if they are set loosely enough.

The belt and road as a foreign policy idea is unlikely to end as long as the current leader is in power. And if it looks like it is slowing down, the vision could be reinterpreted to suit. It was never about pure aid, and it was never a single project.

It is simply Xi’s vision for how China should talk about going out into the world. Phrased like this, it has no reason to ever be completed or resolved. Unlikely to die, it will simply continue to evolve.

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

A longer piece for my current local newspaper the Straits Times on a topic that have been doing a lot of work on of late, China in Afghanistan. It has been something of a running theme for some time and this tries to focus the analysis specifically through the lens of the pending US withdrawal. When I started to first really dig into this topic in the early 2010s, the discussion was Obama’s potential withdrawal which seemed to accelerate Chinese thinking. This time, it does not seem to be having the same effect.

In addition, a quick media catch up. Spoke to the Financial Times in the wake of the Austria and France terror incidents (which was picked up in Croatian), to RFE/RL about Central Asian decisions to repatriate more of their people from the Syrian camps, and on the other side of the coin spoke to David Wertime for his excellent Politico China Watcher column.

Will China be better off as the US withdraws from Afghanistan?

A US Chinook helicopter flying over Kabul in 2017. Beijing may now be enjoying America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it is the one that is most likely to feel the longer-term repercussions, says the writer.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

China is enjoying the United States’ precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. From Beijing’s perspective, America’s abrupt dash for the exit as the conflict continues to rage reinforces the argument that the US is an erratic and unreliable player on the world stage.

This glee, however, should be tempered by the fact that the trouble that is likely to follow America’s withdrawal is going to cause Beijing more trouble than the seemingly never-ending conflict which it has been able to observe from the sidelines.

In the short term, China has comfortably hedged itself against all direct threats from Afghanistan.

In the wake of declarations under the Obama administration that the US was going to withdraw from Afghanistan, China started a programme of investment into the military and border capabilities of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan, countries with which it shares the Wahkan Corridor, China’s direct border with Afghanistan.

It established a forward base for the People’s Armed Police in Tajikistan, as well as built a base for Afghan forces in Badakhshan, where in the first few years Chinese forces would also patrol. The Chinese also inaugurated a new regional multilateral structure, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism, that brought together the chiefs of army staff of the countries with which it shared the Wakhan Corridor.

China also started to more openly cultivate its relations with all of the factions on the Afghan battlefield. Previously Beijing would rely on its “iron brother” Pakistan to facilitate contacts with the Taleban. This included visits to Kabul pre-2001 to meet Taleban leader Mullah Omar and offers by companies like Huawei to help build infrastructure in the country. But while this outreach was initially done behind the scenes, from 2014 onwards China started to openly host Taleban delegations in Urumqi and Beijing, while its special envoy for Afghanistan Sun Yuxi would help organise meetings involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US and China.

In addition, every senior visit by a Chinese official to Afghanistan was accompanied by photo calls with all of the major political leaders in the city. The result of all this engagement was statements by the Taleban that they would help protect Chinese infrastructure investments in the country, as well as regular support for Chinese perspectives by all factions in the Afghan government.

Neither side – Taleban or the Afghan government – said they would provide support for Uighur militant groups using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks in China. In fact, both said they would actively eject such groups from their territory.

All of this has given Beijing the sense of having effectively shielded itself from the Afghan conflict. It has hardened its direct and indirect borders and has won friends across the board. Theoretically, China is well-placed no matter what happens in a post-America Afghanistan.

INDIA, U.S. AND THE UIGHURS

Yet this happy situation for China is now vulnerable to the broader tensions it has engendered through its recent aggressive foreign policy. Afghanistan used to shine for China as a place where it could cooperate with even its most difficult partners. During the Obama years, China and the US had developed a series of cooperative projects in Afghanistan, including a diplomat training programme which involved courses in Beijing and Washington. When President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met first in Wuhan in April 2018 and then later near Chennai in October last year, they discussed Afghanistan as a place for cooperation, with infrastructure as a possible area of particular focus.

But the souring of ties with the US and India has largely put paid to these efforts. The Sino-US joint programme was suspended earlier in the year purportedly because of Covid-19 restrictions, but seems unlikely to start again. And anyway, any cooperative activity between the US and China in Afghanistan is going to be complicated by the fact that the US government made a decision in October this year to remove the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from its list of terrorist organisations.

An organisation whose specific existence has long been disputed, ETIM is the catch-all term used by the Chinese authorities to describe Uighur militants. For years the US had acceded to the group’s inclusion on its list of banned terrorist groups, in part to ensure China’s support for Washington’s broader war against terrorism. But what Uighur militants do exist tend to use a different name, fighting in Afghanistan and Syria under the banner of the Turkestan Islamic Party. They talk about attacking China in their videos, and have historically claimed links to incidents in China (though the evidence of actual responsibility is limited).

Washington’s decision to remove ETIM from its list of proscribed groups hardens the rupture between China and Washington in Afghanistan. One of Beijing’s biggest stated concerns about Afghanistan is the possibility of Uighur militants operating as ETIM using the country as a staging point from which to attack China.

Yet now Washington does not even acknowledge that the organisation exists, meaning it formally disputes one of the fundamental reasons for Chinese engagement in Afghanistan. For the US to reverse this decision would require the State Department to push through legislation targeting Uighur militants at the same time as the entire US government is attacking China’s broader policy towards Uighurs through an escalating sanctions regime.

India’s position is less complicated, though it is unlikely that the government in Delhi will be very interested in engaging China over Afghanistan given current broader tensions as a result of the border clashes earlier this year.

The Taleban’s continued hostility towards India as well as Pakistan’s long shadow and close ties to China suggest it is unlikely that we will see cooperation between Delhi and Beijing soon. In fact, there are indications that we might even see the opposite.

BALUCHISTAN SEPARATISTS

One of the irritants that China has noticed over the past few years is the growing instances of violence by Baluchi separatist groups in Pakistan targeting Chinese projects in the country. These groups loudly tout their anger against Islamabad and Beijing, accusing them both of raping their land in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province while launching attacks on prominent targets linked to China such as a busload of Chinese engineers, or a hotel in Gwadar (the Pakistani port that is spoken of as the “jewel” of the wider China Pakistan Economic Corridor). They do this from bases in Afghanistan, particularly in Kandahar.

Pakistani, and increasingly Chinese, experts blame much of this Baluchi violence on Indians and their Afghan proxies. From their perspective, Delhi is playing an old game of manipulating militants based in Afghanistan against them. Place this activity alongside the American decision about ETIM, and it can look to Beijing like Afghanistan is becoming a place where two of its biggest adversaries are lining up to support anti-Chinese militant groups.

Whatever the merits of the accusations, the fact remains that Afghanistan’s geography and porous borders make it an inviting base from which militant fighters can strike at Pakistan and Xinjiang province.

TALEBAN PROMISES

China may draw comfort from Taleban statements about not supporting foreign militants in using their territory, but the Taleban’s history of reliability about such statements is quite thin.

Chinese officials and experts alike love to chuckle about how Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. They point to the futility of previous British, Russian and now American efforts to assert their might over the country. They would never be so silly as to get caught in that trap, they say.

Yet simply standing back is not going to make Afghanistan’s problems go away. China’s large mineral extraction projects in Afghanistan (a copper mine in Mes Aynak and an oilfield in the north) have not brought the Afghans the benefits hoped for. Beijing cannot but be on the watchout for its adversaries latching on to local disgruntlement against failed projects to stoke a bigger backlash.

China may not want to get dragged into Afghanistan’s troubles, but it may find itself unable to avoid them. Whether America completely withdraws or not, China will still be Afghanistan’s wealthiest neighbour with growing economic interests in every country that Afghanistan borders. Its concerns about domestic and regional threats from terrorism and instability have links into the country.

Beijing may now be enjoying America’s embarrassing withdrawal, but it is the one that is most likely to feel the longer-term repercussions.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia that draws on almost a decade’s worth of travel and research across the region.

Returning to a topic that has been on the agenda for years, this time for a brand new outlet, the Oxus Society, a wonderful new Central Asia focused organization based in Washington founded by old friend and excellent Central Asianist Edward Lemon. Looking forward to cooperating with them a lot going forwards.

Before posting, time for a quick media catch up. In the wake of the spate of terrorist attacks in Europe spoke to Dutch NRC, Voice of America (which was also translated into Spanish), the Financial Times, and on the other side of the coin spoke to the South China Morning Post about the recent SCO Heads of State Summit, the US de-listing of ETIM, and the impact to China of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

China’s Non-Intervention in Afghanistan

As the current stage of conflict in Afghanistan works its way towards a conclusion, China needs to decide its role in the country’s future. Within Afghanistan there is growing frustration about China’s hedging, while across the neighborhood there is a growing sense of concern about China’s more aggressive posture. This will likely have a knock-on effect within Afghanistan and ultimately create blockages to stability within the country. This is a loss for everyone. 

Kabul is losing out on support from its biggest and most powerful neighbor, while Beijing is missing an opportunity to showcase its potentially positive influence to the world with a country desperately in need of it. 

Beijing has for the most part been a quiet actor in Afghanistan. It has played a role in most aspects of the country’s development in the past decades – from helping host negotiations, offering economic investment (including what on paper is the country’s biggest ever single investment in Mes Aynak), aid, military capacity building in the form of light weapons, base construction and training, and even working with strategic rivals like the United States to achieve stability in the country. In addition, China has engaged with a number of multilateral configurations around Afghanistan, and spoken repeatedly of bringing the country into Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Kabul and others have welcomed this activity, with the Afghan government ensuring that it does all that it can to keep Beijing happy, eager to get it to follow through on its promises.  

Yet, notwithstanding consistent activity, Beijing has never lived up to its promise. As Afghanistan’s richest and most influential neighbor, there was an underlying expectation that China would be able to play a more significant role in the country. But this has never quite materialized as was hoped. Instead, China has studiously hedged, continuing to offer the potential for engagement but never quite following through.

In economic terms, Chinese companies’ investments into the country are the biggest that Afghanistan has ever seen. The much discussed Mes Aynak copper mine was awarded to a Chinese consortium of MCC and Jiangxi Copper in 2007 with an initial price tag of $3 billion attached to it, while CNPC won a tender to develop oil fields in Amu Darya in 2011 with the promise of $400 million in investment. The companies drove the investments, but were strongly supported by Beijing as they were seen in part to reflect a sense of China doing its bit for Afghanistan. At the time, voices in the U.S. expressed anger that China was once again taking advantage of the mineral opportunities created in the wake of American-led invasions (a similar story played out in Iraq with CNPC winning oil tenders in that country), but this was balanced by a sense in Washington that it was not a bad thing for China to step into a more stabilizing role in a country from which the U.S. wanted an exit strategy.

The projects, however, have made little further forward progress. Repeated issues have been thrown up around Mes Aynak, including security concerns, an archaeological dig atop the site, problems with locals complaining about land compensation, access to appropriate chemicals, and a persistent effort by the company to redefine the terms of the project that they had initially signed up to. In March 2016,  the lead Chinese state owned enterprise working on the project, MCC, announced the decision to reallocate funds that had been raised to support the project elsewhere in the company.

In the north of Afghanistan, a similar story has played out. In 2011, Chinese energy giant CNPC signed a contract in conjunction with the Watan Group, a local Afghan firm, to exploit an oil field in Amu Darya in the north of the country. The project was one that was spotted by the company’s engineers in Turkmenistan working on the same oil field on that side of the border. Yet, since the agreement, the project has also been beset with problems. Disputes between the Watan Group and CNPC, between both companies and the Afghan government, and most dramatically between the company’s engineers and local potentates who reportedly deployed armed men to threaten the engineers when they had not received what they felt was their adequate compensation. Additionally, there has been little evidence of progress in the construction of a refinery which was initially discussed when the company won the concession. The entire project has also now reportedly been put into deeper suspension as the Afghan government has sought to strip the Chinese firm of its contract and run the project itself. 

Beyond this, China has talked repeatedly about including Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative, though this has also failed to move forwards. There has been discussion of linking Afghanistan to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), though this seems to have met with resistance in Islamabad. A fiber optic cable link has been mooted from China to Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor. A survey was launched in 2018 by the Afghan government, but the project appears to be slow in moving forwards. The project is part of a broader World Bank regional CASA digital initiative, reducing Beijing’s commitment to the project. Reflecting the low connectivity, according to a 2019 UNCTED report, China was the only border country with which Afghanistan did not have a terrestrial fibre optic cable link.

None of this ultimately reflects the real opportunity that China could offer Afghanistan. Look at neighboring Pakistan, Central Asia or Iran where Chinese firms are active across the economy and the government regularly touts massive deals. Not all come through, but enough that the economic geography of all of Afghanistan’s neighbors is increasingly turning towards Beijing. 

In political and military terms – China has played a role in negotiations, but never chosen to step into a forward role to force parties to the table. Discussion of China acting as a ‘security guarantor’ to any agreement has not generated concrete outcomes, and most Chinese security activity in Afghanistan has been focused on securing the small part of the country that touches China. Beijing has strong links to Islamabad, the Taliban and the Afghan government – yet, has not ultimately done much with these connections to generate actual outcomes in Afghanistan. 

Instead, all evidence points to China strengthening and sealing off its direct and near borders with Afghanistan. It has provided military support to strengthen Tajik border posts and built its own base for its own forces there, equipment to Pakistani forces in Gilgit-Baltistan, and even reportedly helped develop a mountain base for Afghan forces in Badakhshan. The establishment of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) which brings together the chiefs of military staff of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China to focus on their shared border area, is the institutionalization of this approach. 

The net result is that the actor with the widest range of potential positive links in the country, a relatively neutral history, and the greatest potential economic opportunity has not come forward to help Afghanistan in the way that it could. Rather, Beijing has sat back and watched. The narrative from many prominent Chinese experts remains one of Afghanistan being a” graveyard of empires.” 

Yet now the conflict appears to be winding towards some sort of conclusion, the time would be ripe for China to finally step forwards and take a stronger and more positive role in the country. At a moment when Chinese international diplomacy is under assault, a good news story in Afghanistan might help with Beijing’s global image. 

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this will happen. While Beijing may simply be waiting out the result of the current negotiations, and hope that the subsequent likely coalition government may provide an effective partner to work with, the most likely outcome from the current negotiations will be messy and inconclusive. Violent actors are not going to go away, nor is a single faction going to be able to take control. NATO will continue its gradual withdrawal, while regional powers will focus on their individual border regions and interests. A vacuum will be left with various factions in Kabul struggling over their stakes. 

The result is a loss for all concerned, with Afghanistan losing the most. And in a worst case scenario, the country could become a further location for conflict between China and its many adversaries in a new proxy war.

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