Posts Tagged ‘Chinese foreign policy’

I am travelling and working on various projects which is impeding my productivity and ability to post. A few pieces to come this next week hopefully though. This one is an op-ed for the EU Observer, somewhere I used to write more frequently for but I like to hope gives me an hearing in Brussels. At its base, the idea of the piece is to try to raise awareness of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt in Brussels where so far it has not quite taken off. A Chinese friend pointed out it was translated into Mandarin, while I also see that the Russian press has picked it up. Not sure what I should read into that. More on this topic undoubtedly to come.

Europe: The other end of China’s Silk Road

I'm preparing for my trip to China and when I bought the currently I was a little surprised to see that Mao is still on the Yuan notes.  Hmm. I took some detail shots of the money as well - I always enjoy seeing the currency of different countries.  This shot was taken with my 100mm Macro f/2.8 IS.  Flash fired remotely with a poverty wizard to add sidelight to enhance the texture of the paper.

China is coming closer to European markets (Photo: dolmansaxlil)

LONDON, 18. MAY, 09:24

All of the attention around Xi Jinping’s recent European trip was focused around his visit to Moscow in time for the May Day military parade.

By focusing so singly on the Moscow stop, however, the importance of the route he took was missed.

Coming soon after the President’s visit to Pakistan in which he laid out the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), this trip affirms one of the key routes of the Silk Road Economic Belt – running through Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus to ultimately end in Europe.

This final link is the key which Europe needs to wake up to, to understand that this Chinese outward push is one that is both a reality and one that can advance European interests.

The Silk Road Economic Belt route of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative advanced by Xi is going to become the cornerstone foreign policy of the current Chinese administration. Enmeshed in the idea of returning China to its place at the center of global power, the initiative has led to the fanning out of a number of economic and trade corridors from Beijing.

The precursor to all of the ones currently talked about (a latticework of routes stretching out from China’s ports around the world through the Maritime Silk Road, through Pakistan in the CPEC, through Bangladesh-Myanmar and to India in the BCIM) was the route through Central Asia.

Initiated as part of a strategy to develop China’s western regions, the idea was to help reconnect Xinjiang to Central Asia, and ultimately through the region to European markets. For Beijing, Europe is the other end of the Silk Road Economic Belt.

In trying to implement its strategy, China has made a very conscious effort to reach out to Europe, in terms of official statements and an eagerness to try to find ways of working together on making this strategy work.

At this point it has gone beyond rhetoric. As well as pouring massive amounts of money in helping infrastructure across the former Soviet space, they have also looked at undertaking large investment projects in Belarus, Ukraine and other countries on Europe’s south-eastern periphery.

Closer to Europe

An economic force is sweeping along the Silk Road bringing China ever closer to European markets.

To some this will be seen as a threat. Chinese goods getting a quicker route to European markets will only place more pressure on already threatened European industries.

But this is a dynamic that is going to happen anyway and is already underway. Far better to try to focus on the other side of the equation and the potential opportunities.

Not only in terms of high end luxury and technical goods which Europe continues to manufacture which are so keenly desired by the ever-growing middle class Chinese consumer market which can travel back along this route, but also in terms of the development it will bring along the way to countries that Europe has long sought to help along the path of economic development.

This is something that is particularly true in Central Asia.

Europe has long seen Central Asia as a region it has been trying to support. The current Latvian Presidency has made the region a particular priority. As well as the potential economic opportunities (that Central Asians welcome), the region is one that has fraught internal dynamics.

European entities like the EU and OSCE are amongst the only ones that have been able to help bridge some of these divides – providing a set of lessons and experiences that China is simply unable to replicate, but is keen to learn from.

On the economic side of the equation, Chinese firms have been pushing into Central Asia and encountering all sorts of difficulties be it in terms of local governance or security issues.

This is a space that European companies and international institutions like the EBRD have long worked in and have developed a number of strategies for dealing with these very particular regional problems.

There is an opportunity here.

Building missing links

For Europe, China offers the opportunity to magnify effect – Europe’s economic and political force is substantial, but when bolstered by Chinese capacity and means, becomes an even more substantial force.

As well as the $40 billion Silk Road fund, there is the nascent Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the slowly developing BRICS Bank, and the sometimes talked of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Development Bank.

And China has continued to sign massive bilateral deals in countries along the route, with a particular focus in Central Asia. Admittedly some of this money is hyperbole around official high level visits, but go on the ground across the region and it is impossible to deny the presence of the Chinese funding – tangible as it is in roads, pipelines, railway projects, energy infrastructure and construction across the region.

There is also a larger political point to be made here about China’s relationship with the European Union.

The EU has long sought to find ways to engage with China in a productive manner – Central Asia and the larger Silk Road Economic Belt offers an opportunity to work with China on something that is of direct interest to Europe, but also is clearly a strong strategic priority from the very top of Xi Jinping’s administration.

For Beijing, Europe is the other end of the Silk Road – Europe needs to seize this opportunity to help advance its own interests.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at Rusi, a think tank in the UK

 

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Still catching up on old posting, new writing has sadly slowed of late. Busy with various projects, including promoting the UK Jihad book. Hopefully usual service will resume soon. In the meantime, the new Brill journal Central Asian Affairs published my contribution to a series of essays commissioned by the excellent Erica Marat about The Chinese Question in Central Asia:

CAA cover

Sinophobia: A Potential Knot in the Silk Road

Sitting in a café in Bishkek recently, a foreign diplomat explained the Chinese problem in Central Asia with a rather simple characterization. The issue, he said, is a “genetic one,” whereby Kyrgyz have an in-built antipathy toward Chinese. While such a simplistic explanation is one that most international relations experts would shy away from, it is one of the clearest issues to leap off the page of Marlene Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse’s excellent : , , . The biggest factor in favor of the Chinese often seems to be their very overwhelming presence and the potential that their existence just across the Tian Shan mountains poses to the Central Asian states.

On the ground in the markets at Kara Suu, Dordoi, or Barekholka, the Chinese are largely seen in a fairly passive light. Bored and griping as one would expect from workers who are earning a living grafting and selling products to poor populations, the Chinese salesmen and workers largely operate on the fringe of local societies, aware that attracting too much attention can lead to trouble. Chinese energy giants operating in the region tell of training their workers deployed in country to avoid drinking in public and to always have their documents on them, as well as a phone number, in case they get into trouble with local authorities.

And of course, there is trouble. Early 2014 in Bishkek, 16 Chinese workers beat up a policeman after he came across one of them intoxicated at their construction site. This particular attack on a policeman was novel, but clashes between Chinese workers and locals is a fairly regular occurrence in Kyrgyzstan. But what is fascinating, and in many ways a demonstration of issues China faces going out more broadly, sometimes these clashes involve Chinese workers rioting because they have not been paid by their Chinese employer. Either way they look dangerous to locals. For local Kyrgyz who see their markets full of Chinese goods and a growing presence of Chinese workers on building sites or doing jobs that they feel they could easily do, there is a certain amount of anger and bitterness. This spills fairly easily into resentment that taps into the age-old Sinophobia that Laruelle and Peyrouse attribute to a dearth of Chinese studies in the Soviet era. Where people did study China in Central Asia, it tended to be through the lens of minority populations like the Uyghurs or Dungans—the archetypal Chinese Central Asians.

Into this void fill rumor and conspiracy—concepts endemic to the Russian mindset and consequently ever present in the still predominantly Russian Central Asian region. Stories of a sweeping “yellow peril” fill conversations and discussions. As Laruelle and Peyrouse point out, “Each year the Chinese population increases by more than 15 million people, a number almost equivalent to the total population of Kazakhstan” (p. 183). Or to look at it another way, China will grow by about two Kyrgyzstans plus one Turkmenistan or by two Tajikistans every year.

Of course, these figures and comparisons are completely artificial—a relatively limited amount of this population growth actually takes place in Xinjiang, China’s domestic piece of Central Asia sitting across the border from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In fact, Xinjiang’s population is proximate to a large Central Asian nation’s: just under 25 million, spread over a geography that accounts for one-sixth of China’s landmass. But bordering the world’s largest manufacturer with a small population that is increasingly becoming dependent on China is a worrying prospect, especially when, as Laruelle and Peyrouse point out, China’s regional efforts have “profoundly changed the economic status quo in the region” (p. 45). All roads in Central Asia no longer lead to Moscow; the newly paved ones go to Urumqi or Kashgar, with new spurs and projects constantly being announced. Be they in infrastructure, like the rail tunnel in Uzbekistan, a new thermal power plant in Dushanbe, or more pipelines to get Turkmen gas back to China, Chinese firms stepping in to fill the void as Rosneft backs out of taking over Bishkek’s Manas airbase, or receiving a piece of the Kazakh supergiant field Kashagan over an Indian state-owned firm.

But while these are all signs of China’s growth in the region, the reality is that there are a number of games at play here. Since Laruelle and Peyrouse’s book was published, the parameters of a possible strategic outline for China’s push into the region have begun to emerge. Back in September 2013, in the middle of a tour of Central Asia in which he signed almost $56 billion in contracts, President Xi Jinping gave a speech at Nazarbaev University in which he referred to China seeking to create a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would connect China to Europe through Central Asia.

To take this speech as a full-on strategy, however, is apparently premature. In discussions in Beijing, Shanghai, and Urumqi (as well as across Central Asia), officials, experts, and others all continue to express a lack of certainty about what exactly this Silk Road Economic Belt means. As one prominent expert recently put it in Shanghai, “Our leadership likes to lay out visions and then leaves it to others to work out the details.” Specifically, Beijing appears to be waiting for the National Development and Reform Commission () to outline the practicalities of the vision, and then all the responsible ministries will be able to implement it. This is meant to happen later this year, and after that—by all accounts—we should start to have a clearer sense of what China’s vision for Central Asia looks like.

But as with all geopolitical puzzles, this is a fluid one, and while China seems to be clarifying its intent regarding Central Asia, Russia has upended the chessboard with its action in Ukraine, causing concern across Central Asia. The push toward a Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union stretching across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and eventually Tajikistan, as well as the Western sanctions are all having a knock-on effect in Central Asia. In Kazakhstan they are causing concern at an official level as they worry about the impact on their own relations with the West and the fact that through the Customs Union they are tied more closely to Russia’s economy. Talk to traders in Kyrgyzstan’s Dordoi or Kara Suu and they have been feeling this impact for some time; since the Customs Union came into play between Kazakhstan and Russia, re-exporting their goods across Kazakh borders is more challenging. They worry that once their country joins, the cheap Chinese products will have little reason to be re-exported through Kyrgyzstan and it will make more sense to simply go in through Kazakhstan.

And yet, in the face of this, Russia remains the clear primary partner of choice for Kyrgyzstan. Customs Union membership is on track for 2015, and the Kyrgyz still see Russia as an important partner, their primary security guarantor, and employer to the thousands of Kyrgyz who work in Moscow and elsewhere send precious remittances to support family members who stay behind. The first port of call for Kyrgyz politicians remains Moscow, rather than Beijing. Out of choice or fear, they look to Russia as a geopolitical parent even though their long-term economic future lies to the south with China, India, and the other rising powers.

Kazakhstan faces a different issue. Already caught in Russia’s embrace, they are more desperate to make their much-vaunted multivector strategy a reality. China is but one partner in this picture, and Kazakh officials and businessmen will highlight their nation’s growing links to Iran, pending membership, and the fact that they are renewing their partnership agreement with the European Union as evidence that it is alive and well. Russia is an important partner for them, but not the only one.

The key question here is what this means for the logic of China being the increasingly consequential partner for Central Asia. Is it possible that China’s influence in the region is one that is more fragile than it seems and that the underlying Sinophobia is a problem that can be stoked at will to blunt China’s push? The raw economic force behind Chinese investment would seem to belie this, especially as Russia has little chance to properly counter this strength, given a faltering economy that is already facing new burdens in Crimea and over Ukraine.

But it does raise questions about China in Central Asia. And it does cast an ever-larger light on what the meat of China’s proposed Silk Road Economic Belt will be and how they will try to counter these regional forces and the Sinophobia under it.

For the time being, three aspects would benefit from getting greater coverage:

First, what are Chinese views regarding the long-term goal? Both Laruelle and Peyrouse have long experience in China, but the text does not always address the fundamental question of what the long-term Chinese goal is. On the one hand, this is partially because a clear enunciation of it is something that we are only now starting to see with Xi Jinping’s announcement of the Silk Road Economic Belt, but it is something that Chinese strategists have been edging toward for some time.

Second is the reality of the much-vaunted “multivector” foreign policy that Central Asians so often talk about as their strategy. Talk to officials in any country and they will deny Chinese (or any other) dominance, declaring that it is something that they are ably playing one power off the other. The reality of this is often questionable, especially when one considers the irresistible economic force of China compared to all others, making one wonder to what degree the Central Asians actually are able to manipulate and control their destiny.

And finally, there is the dilemma of absorption. How much does China want responsibility or can the Central Asians avoid finding themselves increasingly looking to China to help resolve issues? Is China becoming the regional hegemon by default, with no-one having really thought through the consequences or what it means for regional stability (or who the principal provider of regional security is) in a situation where Beijing is increasingly the most consequential player on the ground that assiduously avoids conflict or becoming embroiled in resolving it? Central Asian tensions and problems will not fade as China rises, and what this means for China is an as-of-yet unanswered question.

Been quiet for a while as am getting very caught up with administrative things which are driving me a bit crazy. Have some more writing which I will publish over this week, mostly around my China looking west work, and more pieces hopefully in the pipeline, but the big push over the next few weeks is going to be my UK Jihad book. Am hoping for more reviews around that. So far, have had the Evening Standard and a very nice write-up based off the book in The Times. More hopefully en route.

This aside, have spoken in the past month to the South China Morning Post about extremists on campus in Guangzhou University and China in Central Asia, to the BBC about new government measures to handle extremist preachers, to the Daily Mail about ISIS, Voice of America about China, to the Associated Press about the attacks in Tunis, Bloomberg about China’s counter-terrorism policy going out and China getting Uighurs sent back to China, El Mundo about al Muhajiroun, and to the Times about ISIS using deaf mutes in its videos. There are also likely others, but cannot find links.

The main body of this post, however, is my submitted written testimony to the US-China Economic and Security Commission (USCC) where I had the honour to testify last month on China in Central Asia. The hearing was an excellent opportunity to hear a lot of the top experts on Central Asia in the same place at the same time. Please note that the footnotes seem not to have survived posting here, please follow this link for the full PDF.

March 18, 2015

Raffaello Pantucci

Director, International Security Studies

Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)

Testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission

Looking West: China and Central Asia

 

Background

 

In September 2013 during a visit to Astana President Xi Jinping spoke of establishing a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (SREB) that would ‘open the strategic regional thoroughfare from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, and gradually move toward the set-up of a network of transportation that connects Eastern, Western and Southern Asia.’ Made during the President’s inaugural visit to Central Asia, the speech was both an articulation of a policy in a region that had been underway for around a decade, as well as the first declaration of a foreign policy vision that has increasingly shaped China’s own projection of its approach to foreign affairs. Founded in Central Asia, the SREB and the development of trade and infrastructure corridors emanating from China that it has come to symbolize, is slowly becoming Beijing’s dominant and most vocalised foreign policy strategy and is possibly set to be the defining public narrative for Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping.

 

Xinjiang

 

To understand the SREB in its proper context, it is important to first understand Xinjiang. Xinjiang occupies approximately a sixth of China’s landmass, with around 1.5% of its population (at around 22.09 million according to the 2011 census). It is home to large oil and gas reserves (about a fifth of the national total of oil), and has about 40% of the nation’s coal reserves that are close to the surface and of good quality (coal remains one of China’s main sources of electricity generation). It also has a major agrarian industry, with 70% of China’s tomatoes grown in the province, making the region one of the world’s major sources of ketchup and tomato paste. Xinjiang is a region that is beset with tensions focused around ethnic rivalries. Home to Uighurs, a Turkic speaking people’s whose language, culture and ethnicity is closer to Uzbek or Turkish, the region has faced community tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese for decades. Uighurs were once a majority in the region. PRC census data from 1953 indicates that at the time the province was 75% Uighur and 6% Han, a figure that today stands instead at around 40+% each according to the 2011 census. There is resentment against the growing presence of Han Chinese, with the Uighur population feeling that their identity and culture is slowly being eroded down as Beijing profits from the region’s natural wealth.

 

Since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conquered Xinjiang in 1949, the region has faced tensions with angry Uighurs occasionally rising up against the state or inter-communal violence erupting between the growing Han population and the increasingly minority Uighur one. This has expressed itself in terrorist violence at home and abroad. Groups of Uighurs have travelled abroad into Central Asia or Afghanistan, where they have connected with extremist groups and created training camps to prepare to return to China and fight.

 

Most recent attention, however, was focused on July 2009 when rioting in the region’s capital led to an estimated 200 deaths as mobs of Uighurs rampaged through the city attacking, and killing, Han Chinese. The next day, counter-marches took place with angry Han taking to the streets to protest both against the Uighur-led atrocities, but also the failure of the government to protect them. The local government’s failure to quell the violence was so dramatic that President Hu Jintao had to embarrassingly leave the G8 Summit in L’Aquila to return home to manage the crisis. The result of this was a change in leadership in the region, with of the removal of a number of local figures from their positions (for example, Li Zhi, Communist Party Secretary in Urumqi, and Xinjiang Public Security Bureau head Liu Yaohua) and most dramatically, a year later, the removal of long-time regional party boss Wang Lequan.

 

At the same time as changing the regional leadership, on May 17-19, 2010, Beijing hosted a major conference on the region. The Xinjiang Work Conference was hosted in Beijing by the CCP’s central committee and the State Council, involving then President Hu Jintao and then-Premier Wen Jiabao, as well as both of their successors Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping. This was a rare but significant work conference about a specific region (a number have been done for Tibet), and it led to a number of new policy approaches to the region by Beijing. Focusing on ‘leapfrog development’ the main thrust of the conference was economic development as the key to solving the region’s problems. Amongst the raft of economic measures was the developed of a twinning policy between more affluent provinces in China and prefectures in Xinjiang. For example, Shanghai took on responsibility for parts of Kashgar – something that translated in practice to the transfer of Shanghai officials to work in the region for a year, the delegation of a portion of Shanghai’s GDP as financial support for the region, and delegation visits from Shanghai to the region to advise on developing institutions and structures that had added to Shanghai’s prosperity. State and provincial companies are actively encouraged to invest in the Xinjiang, while different provinces would attempt to teach the parts of Xinjiang that they are responsible for some of the things that helped their success. For example, Shenzhen helped Kashgar develop a Special Economic Zone. Another innovation was the transformation of the then relatively moribund Urumqi regional trade fair into a Eurasian Expo, aimed at bringing in traders, businessmen and officials from across the Eurasian landmass to Urumqi – a city described by an Urumqi official to the author as the ‘closest big Chinese city to Europe.’ Economic investors from Europe and elsewhere were actively encouraged with preferential benefits and gentle persuasion. For example, a Turkish-Chinese business park was developed just outside Urumqi to bring Turkish investment into the region. German carmaker VW was encouraged alongside its Chinese joint venture partner SAIC to build a sedan factory in the region. Central Asian businessmen and traders were actively targeted for the Eurasian Expo, and another Special Economic Zone was established at the border crossing with Kazakhstan at Khorgos. And finally, funding was allocated to develop infrastructure, roads, rail and airports across the region to enable Xinjiang to become ‘a gateway for mutually beneficial cooperation between China and other Eurasian countries’, as put by Premier Wen Jiaobao during the Second Eurasian Expo in Urumqi in September 2012.

 

China’s policy towards Xinjiang was not, of course, solely one of economic investment. Alongside this surge of inward investment (something that had been underway for some time through various ‘develop the west’ initiatives) was a growth in security spending in the region. Emphasis was placed on trying to strengthen the security forces in the region and stamp out the periodic bouts of violence that continue to plague the region. China’s approach was in essence a binary one of heavy economic investment and heavy security clampdown. The balance between these two seemed to be shifted back in favor of ‘stability’ (or security) in the wake of a second Xinjiang Work Conference under Xi Jinping’s leadership in January 2014. However, the State Council also emphasised the importance of economic investment when it announced in June 2014 that the Xinjiang government was to spend approximately $130 billion to develop the region’s infrastructure.

 

But for both the security and economic surges to work, there was clearly a need to develop stronger links to the region around Xinjiang, and it is here that Central Asia starts to play a prominent and key role. Abutting Xinjiang, Central Asia is China’s westernmost periphery. Scattered around the region are pockets of Uighur populations – with major communities found in ethnically proximate Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan in particular, Uighurs play a substantial role in the nation, with current Prime Minister Karim Massimov an ethnic Uighur. In Pakistan, relatively large Uighur communities live along Pakistan’s side of the Karakoram Highway. Within these communities and countries, China sees concern and Beijing and Urumqi security chiefs have developed strong links with their local counterparts (at a bilateral level, but also through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) to ensure that, should any dissident Uighurs flee across the border, they will be rapidly repatriated.

 

More visible than this strong security bond, however, is the huge level of economic activity and investment that is slowly spilling across the border into Central Asia from China. Something that has always happened naturally given the borders, traditionally nomadic people’s and the nature of trading across Central Asia, it has increasingly taken on a life of its own as Chinese investment has poured in to refurbish and revitalize the trade routes across the region. The logic to this growth is simple: Xinjiang is as landlocked as the Central Asian countries it abuts. If Beijing is going to ensure that the region prospers, then it will need to be better connected to the world. Given the relative land proximity to Europe, it therefore makes more sense to develop the region’s physical links into Central Asia, not necessarily for Central Asian prosperity in itself, but rather to ultimately help transport Chinese goods to Eurasian and European markets (and vice versa). Hence the need for infrastructure that helps re-connect and re-wire the Eurasian landmass from China to Europe. Ultimately, if Xinjiang is going to benefit from the push for economic investment within China, it is going to have to have somewhere to trade with and through. Logically, conduit for this has to be Central Asia.

 

China’s Economic Surge into Central Asia

 

It is in many ways the economics of China’s push into Central Asia that is the most significant external aspect of this ultimately domestic policy response. The narrative of Chinese investment into the region used to be one of mineral extraction and exploitation. A late entrant into Central Asian energy through investments in Kazakhstan, CNPC purchased aging Soviet oil fields in Aktobe, western Kazakhstan and rapidly built an oil pipeline back to China. Built with great speed and efficiency, the pipeline became the symbol of China’s relations with the region. Most perceived China as viewing Central Asia simply as a large source of fuel and minerals that it could exploit to feed the seemingly insatiable energy needs its economic development required. This view was further affirmed through CNPC’s major investments into Turkmenistan, where the country has been one of the few to successfully operate and buy Turkmen gas. CNPC has become one of the largest supporters of the Turkmen national budget, through gas purchases and the development of almost four different pipelines to transport gas back to China.

 

This superficial view of China’s growth in the region misses the reality on the ground whereby China is slowly becoming a dominant player in a vast array of different economic areas. From Kyrgyzstan, where the import and re-export of Chinese goods plays a huge role in the national economy, to Tajikistan that is increasingly becoming one of China’s biggest debtor partners. To better understand the breadth and depth of China’s economic influence in the region, it is useful to look at the extent to and manner in which China operates in the energy industry, one of the dominant industries in which China participates in Central Asia.

 

As has been mentioned, China is the major player in Turkmenistan, where it is the sole country that is able to get substantial access to Turkmen hydrocarbons. Russian volumes have shrunk and Iran has had difficulty paying in cash (offering barter instead), making China the preferred player in Ashgabat. This is a similar story in Kazakhstan, where China has not only constructed one of the quickest-built pipelines ever in the country, but it has also bought 8.33% of the supergiant oil field Kashagan, purchasing American firm ConocoPhilips’ stake. Buying into a project run by a multi-national consortium is a new endeavor for a Chinese company in Kazakhstan. It is also a major purchaser of Kazakh uranium. In 2014 Kazakhstan’s state-run nuclear energy agency Kazatomprom said that 55% of Kazakh uranium production was exported to China. In Uzbekistan, China has signed contracts to extract some gas and build a pipeline across the country from Turkmenistan. It has also aided in developing electricity re-metering , as well as helped the country to develop its solar panel production capability, and refurbish solar furnace factories.

 

Tajikistan, until relatively recently considered a very energy poor country, made discoveries of large potential gas reserves in the Bokhtar region. Chinese company CNPC partnered with Canadian Tethys and French Total to undertake further exploration. Downtown Dushanbe, once famous for its blackouts, now has a large Chinese-built thermal power plant that provides electricity to the city through the cold winter months. A major producer of hydroelectric power, Chinese firms have explored the possibility of both exporting Tajik hydroelectric power, but also building some of the infrastructure to support it. And finally, Kyrgyzstan, remaining energy poor has nonetheless benefited from Chinese attention in the energy field. While Russian firm Gazprom remains a major player in the nations energy mix, CNPC has offered to build refineries in the country, as well as helping connect the country upgrade and build power transmission lines. China is a player across Central Asia’s energy fields, not solely in extractives.

 

The funding for these projects comes in a number of different ways. In some cases, like a coal-fired plant in Dushanbe, the project was one that is offered by a Chinese firm in exchange for preferential treatment on another project. In other cases, it is funded through Chinese policy bank loans that are offered at preferential rates and stipulate that the implementing party must be Chinese. One example of this structure is the decision to build a camera monitoring system in Dushanbe to help monitor traffic in the city. Money was offered through an ExIm Bank loan, and the implementer was Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. This approach is not actually novel to the region, with both Korean and Japanese banks offering similar structures in regional contexts, but the scale and size of Chinese loans and rapid implementation is significant.

 

Increasingly one can see China assisting in the rewiring of roads, railways, pipelines and electricity grids across the region so that all lead back to China, or at least in some way benefit China’s access. All of this helps connect up what is happening in Central Asia with the all-important domestic strategy in Xinjiang. Consequently, the economic push into Central Asia by China comes from a blend of economic forces as a result of the economic investment into Xinjiang, as well as the ongoing outward push by Chinese firms and money.

 

Enunciating a strategy

 

While this is how things have been playing out on the ground for many years, prior to Xi Jinping’s SREB announcement, China’s investment strategy for Xinjiang and Central Asia was not something that had been directed or enunciated in any clear or coherent way from Beijing. The closest thing to a regional strategy document can be found in the Xinjiang Work Plan and its acknowledgement of the importance of developing markets and routes into Central Asia to improve Xinjiang’s prosperity. In 2011, Chinese academic and Dean of Beijing’s international school Wang Jisi offered some sort of academic theory to the logic of this push in his influential writing about China’s March Westward. But there was no clear policy expression or formulation offered until Xi Jinping visited Central Asia in 2013 and laid out his SREB vision, in essence symbolizing Xi Jinping’s desire to take ownership over a reality that had been going on for some time and stamping his brand and leadership on an overarching policy concept around it.

 

And since the announcement of this belt, and the later addition of the Maritime Silk Road in a speech in Indonesia in October 2013, amalgamated into the phrasing ‘one belt, one road’ there has been a further surge in development and investment to make this vision a reality. At home, the Silk Road has now become a project with huge implications across the west of the country. Maps have been issued showing the city of Xi’an as the starting point, while $79.8 billion has been announced into investment into Gansu. A further domestic fund of some $16.3 billion has been announced for supporting Silk Road projects at home. Mostly infrastructure investment projects, there have also been more specific investments emanating from provinces in Western China to Central Asian countries – like $800 million invested by Henan into Tajikistan. On the ground such investment efforts can be found in Tashkent in the form of trade fairs bringing Xinjiang traders to the region, as well as in markets across the region that are filled with low-end traders and larger property or market owners who have spent a decade or more in Central Asia building up empires of market stalls, local factories and real estate portfolios.

 

Externally, this surge of infrastructure investment is also clearly visible in the form of a growing constellation of investment banks being directed out of Beijing, as well as the expansion of the concept of the SREB. From an initial vision that seemed focused on Xinjiang development through Central Asia, it has now become something that spans the Eurasian landmass (more than 60 countries now see themselves in its route), but has also developed offshoots in the Maritime Silk Road, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Each of these is less developed compared with the SREB, but at the same time all reflect logical trade corridors that China would like to open up. China has already started to explore how to develop the necessary infrastructure in each case.

 

One of the main reasons why this push seems more credible than previous efforts is the volume of funding that China is pushing towards the projects and the array of development bank vehicles they are creating to help make it a reality. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the BRICS Bank, and the earlier discussed but never realized Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Development Bank, are all expressions of this. Whilst the AIIB and BRICS Bank are not singularly focused on Central Asia, the model of development they are focused on is one that reflects China’s experiences in Central Asia, using the lever of economic infrastructure investment to help foster trade corridors and routes that ultimately connect China to its markets. The focus on infrastructure reflects not only the reality of a region that has infrastructure huge demand for investment in this area, but also a Chinese policy outlook that is shaped by the concept of regional connectivity and development of a prosperous neighbourhood. This underlying concept is something that has been present in Xi Jinping’s foreign policy outlook from the beginning of his presidency. This is highlighted when in October 2013 he held a rare foreign policy work conference focused on ‘peripheral diplomacy’, meaning China’s relations with its proximate neighbours.

 

Regional repercussions

 

The biggest question in this Chinese push, however, is how the region is going to react to it. Looking to Central Asia in particular, China has played a very careful and sensitive game. This is most clearly exemplified in the SCO, that was first developed as the Shanghai Five, a cooperative grouping focused on delineating China’s borders with the former Soviet Union in the wake of the latter’s collapse. In 2001, Uzbekistan joined China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the SCO was formed with a Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) founded in Tashkent. From there, the organization has continued to operate, using counter-terrorism as its main rallying flag, but with little evidence of it developing too much more beyond this. Chinese thinkers and officials have tried to push the SCO in a more economic and development direction, but this has largely been met with skepticism and hesitation by regional powers, in particular Russia, who has hesitated to let the SCO develop too much more beyond its current mandate. At the same time, China’s hesitation to get involved in hard security questions regionally means that the Central Asian members of the organization continue to prioritize the security relationship with Russia over China (though there is some evidence that this is starting to change).

 

With Russia, the question of underlying tensions has remained a major issue, though whenever Chinese officials and experts talk of Russia in a Central Asian context, they go to great lengths to highlight the fact that they would do nothing that would contradict their Russian counterparts interests in Central Asia. For their part, Russian experts recognize that China is the coming force in Central Asia, but seem willing to accept it and highlight that most regional leaders see Moscow as their key international partner who is also able to play a much more decisive security role than Beijing. There have been some deals recently where Russian firms have lost contracts in favor of Chinese companies – for example, the redevelopment of the Manas Airbase in Kyrgyzstan in the wake of American withdrawal, is something that has been passed on to Chinese firms rather than Russian Rosneft who was initially believed to be taking the contract. But at a larger strategic level, both powers seem to have reached a modus vivendi in Central Asia that does not necessarily reflect the strategic balance in outsiders eyes, but that functions for them on the ground.

 

The other key regional question hanging over the region is Afghanistan (and Pakistan). For Central Asia, it is Afghanistan that is seen as the great potential destabilizer, and there is the concern that the massive investments into the SREB that have been done into Central Asia may be negatively impacted should Afghanistan become once again an exporter of instability. This is a concern that Chinese officials will express, though most often when talking about Afghanistan they will express concern that Uighur extremists might once again use the territory as a training ground to export violence back to China. China has increasingly been playing a role in Afghanistan, in particular in trying to offer itself as a broker between the Taliban and authorities in Kabul, as well as mineral extraction, economic investment, and some regional collaboration. But at the same time, it is unclear that Afghanistan necessarily features as part of the SREB, except in some of its northern regions that offer themselves as routes to Iranian and other Middle Eastern markets, in one of the routes offered in Chinese publications of where the SREB actually flows.

 

The biggest regional problem that China faces with its SREB in Central Asia, however, is the question of Sinophobia. Something that is palpable on the ground at times in the resentments that people feel towards Chinese businessmen and traders, there is a noticeable sensitivity when discussions come up about Chinese redrawing boundaries in certain parts of Central Asia. In Tajikistan, online discussions about land deals between Chinese state owned agri-businesses and Tajik authorities were blocked to reflect the perception on the ground that these deals were the government selling the nation to China. In Kazakhstan a similar deal was announced by President Nazarbayev in 2009, but the public outcry against it led to him walking back on the initial deal. Relatively small countries by population, the Central Asians fear overwhelming by China, a sentiment that can also be found in Russia’s border regions with China. This is not only about numbers of people, but also in the fact that all of the Central Asians want to become manufacturing hubs themselves, something that is going to be very difficult when they sit next to the world’s manufacturer.

 

China is not unaware of this Sinophobia, and has attempted through various means to undertake a soft power push in the region. For example, there is a growth number of Confucius Institutes in the region. They have also funded specific research projects in countries like Kazakhstan by local experts and opinion formers to help both shape the individuals views, but also to understand better the nature of the sinophobia so they can react to it. Travel to Aktobe, a city where CNPC plays a major economic role, and it is almost impossible to find a visible Chinese presence in the city. Chinese workers stay outside the city in a compound in an old sanatorium.

 

US Relations and impact

 

From a Chinese and Central Asian perspective, the US’s role is complicated. In the first instance, it is important to understand a bit more of the theory behind the policy. When Professor Wang Jisi drafted his influential work on the need for China to March Westward, his thinking was not only based in trying to get China to focus on its immediate periphery and develop its west, but also to try to get Chinese officials to refocus from their almost obsessive attention to China’s relations with the United States and maritime powers. This underlying logic highlights how to some degree China sees its push into Eurasia as something that it is doing without the United States. At the same time, China has shown itself to being increasingly willing to cooperate with the United States in Central Asia, with a willingness to undertake joint programs in Afghanistan, as well as explore discussions with American officials about what cooperation could be undertaken collaboratively in Central Asia.

 

At the same time, regionally, the United States is seen as something of an erratic actor. With the drawdown from Afghanistan, and the oscillating American attention to Central Asian powers, there is a regional perception that the United States is a fairweather friend or only focuses on the region when national interests are threatened (like in the wake of September 11, 2001). Furthermore, the United States is seen as not offering the same opportunities as China – while there was an interest in the New Silk Road highlighted by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a speech in Chennai in 2011, little has come from that beyond an expression of interest by the United States in creating a north-west corridor through Afghanistan. Projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline or CASA 1000 are slowly moving forwards, but without the financial push or heft of China behind them, progress is much slower than China’s efforts.

 

A new piece for RUSI’s in-house bi-monthly magazine Newsbrief, this time looking at China’s relations with the Taliban. I owe a lot of people thanks for talking to me about this topic, and am in the midst of a lot of work on this topic at the moment (China’s relations with Afghanistan). Somewhat related, I spoke to Reuters about the new Chinese counter-terrorism law, but the overwhelming majority of recent media conversations have been around the revelations around the identity of Jihadi John. On that, I spoke to the New York TimesWashington Post, Financial Times, CNN, Sunday TimesAustralian ABC, Daily Mail, Independent, and Voice of America amongst others. Doubtless this story is going to run a bit more and I am hoping to finally get something substantial on about his background sometime soon. Of course, my book in jihad in the UK has finally landed and is getting launched at RUSI on March 19 – so watch this space!

Will China Bring Peace to Afghanistan?

RUSI Newsbrief, 27 Feb 2015

By Raffaello Pantucci

After years of fence-sitting, Beijing appears to have finally decided to admit that it is willing to play a role in Afghanistan’s future. While the exact contours of the part it seeks to play are still uncertain, China’s willingness to be seen to be involved in brokering peace in Afghanistan is surprising for a nation that continues to profess non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs as the core of its foreign-policy credo.

It also remains unclear exactly how China can help to bring the Taliban to the peace table: while it may have the links to both the government in Kabul and the Taliban, it is uncertain that it knows how to bring them together, beyond offering a platform for talks. This activism is nonetheless likely to be welcomed by Western powers. Yet high expectations are not warranted; even if China does ultimately prove that it knows what to do with these talks, its efforts in Afghanistan will ultimately seek to advance its own interests rather than those of the West.

In February, news emerged that the Taliban were undertaking discussions in Pakistan as part of a reconciliation effort aided, in part, by China. This built on news last November that China had itself hosted a Taliban delegation in Beijing. Although this earlier revelation (confirmed during this author’s meetings in Beijing) was a surprise to many, it reflected a longstanding, behind-the-scenes understanding amongst Western policy-makers that China had direct links to the Taliban. The fact that these links became publicly known (although Chinese officials remain circumspect when discussing them in public) only suggests that China is willing to be more open about its possible role in Afghanistan – a development potentially accelerated by the formal conclusion of ISAF operations in the country.

The first public sign of Chinese mediation efforts came with the suggestion in November that China’s special envoy to Afghanistan – a career diplomat and former ambassador to India, Italy, Poland and (separately) Afghanistan – had visited Peshawar (or Doha, reports vary) to move talks with the Taliban forwards. Then came the visit of the Taliban delegation (following Beijing’s hosting of the Heart of Asia process meeting later that month), led by Qari Din Muhammad Hanif, a former minister in the Taliban government and possibly including representatives of both the Quetta and Peshawar Shuras of the Taliban, and potentially others from Pakistan. It was only in February, however, that Taliban spokesmen were willing to confirm that the meeting had taken place, with the same delegation apparently then in Pakistan continuing discussions there.

The revelation that China has maintained direct contact with the Taliban was no great surprise; these contacts predate the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. In December 2000, a Chinese delegation headed by then-Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with Mullah Omar in Kabul to lobby the Taliban authorities not to support anti-Chinese Uighur extremists based in Afghanistan, which were then a source of major consternation for Chinese security officials. China was also amongst those that lobbied, unsuccessfully, to prevent the Taliban from destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas. Nor was such contact limited to simply making demands of the Taliban, with Chinese telecommunications companies ZTE and Huawei both having signed contracts to undertake work in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

In July 2001, a delegation of Taliban-associated businessmen undertook a reciprocal visit to China, and on 11 September 2001 itself, a delegation of Chinese officials was in Kabul to sign a number of memoranda of understanding with the Taliban Ministry of Mines. Whilst these economic ties were largely voided in the wake of 9/11, they nevertheless show a credible link between the two and a longstanding Chinese interest in the Afghan economy.

Even in the wake of the US-led overthrow of the Taliban regime contact persisted, apparently directed out of China’s embassy in Islamabad, with relevant officials paying regular visits to Peshawar. Though initially largely handled through Pakistani interlocutors, it is understood that, over time, direct links between Chinese officials and the Taliban were consolidated. The exact nature of these exchanges is unclear, though for China they appear to have provided a means to enlist Taliban help in addressing the problem of Uighur extremists and in protecting their investments in Afghanistan, while also hedging against a persistent Chinese fear that permanent American bases in Afghanistan might be part of a strategy of encirclement.

Chinese concern that Uighur extremists in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s lawless areas might use these countries as a springboard to launch operations within China is not without some basis; indeed, there is recent evidence of this. In July 2011, for example, Memtieli Tiliwaldi was identified by the Chinese government as having belonged to a group that launched bomb and knife attacks in the city of Kashgar, Xinjiang. Weeks later, Uighur extremists in Pakistan, operating under the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), released a video purporting to show Tiliwaldi at a training camp run by the group. Such clear links are difficult to draw in relation to subsequent attacks, though China occasionally make claims that terrorist incidents in Xinjiang have connections – either in practical or ideological terms – to extremist groups based outside of China. More recently, Chinese security officials have begun to focus on the fact that such links also flow through Syria and Iraq (where there is evidence that ethnically Chinese and Uighur extremists are fighting) and Southeast Asia (where cells of Uighurs have been identified attempting to connect with militants in Poso, Indonesia). Alongside these emerging connections, however, the existence of links between Uighur extremists and both Afghanistan and Pakistan remains a key source of concern.

As importantly, Afghan authorities have long wished for China to play a more positive role in their country, particularly in the hope that the latter will use its historically strong links to Pakistan to persuade Islamabad to reduce its support for the Taliban. During newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s inaugural visit to Beijing last October (his first official international trip), he specifically lobbied China to use its relationship with Pakistan to help build peace in his country. At the same time, Afghan security officials have repeatedly attempted to show their Chinese counterparts that Pakistan is playing a double game with them – using intelligence to highlight occasions on which Pakistani officials appeared to be supporting (or at least turning a blind eye to) Uighur extremists. Recently, for example, Afghan officials announced that they had repatriated fifteen Uighurs discovered within their territory – three in Kabul and twelve in Kunar Province. They had apparently been trained in Pakistan’s Waziristan, though it was unclear what their ultimate goal had been.

This revelation might be part of the reason that China has chosen to play a stronger hand in Afghanistan. The news that Uighur cells could be training in Pakistan and moving across the border into Afghanistan, presumably with the ultimate aim of conducting some form of attack in China, suggests that the discreet infrastructure of contacts that China had established to defeat such networks was not, in fact, working. The reported presence of Uighurs in Kunar, in particular, suggests a failure of China’s relations with the Taliban, while the presence of individuals training in Waziristan shows a simultaneous failure by its Pakistani ally. All of this bolsters China’s perceived need to play a more prominent role in negotiations to bring the chaos in Afghanistan to a resolution.

However, while there is now an apparent correlation in the positions of China and the West in Afghanistan, Western hopes should not be excessively raised. Chinese officials admit that they are not clear on the exact nature of internal Afghan or Taliban dynamics, and remain concerned about a potential backlash against greater engagement, making them unlikely to push as hard as the West might hope. At the same time, in seeking to ensure the region’s stability (of which Afghanistan is a key part), China is primarily focused on denying Uighur extremists safe havens from which to operate, as well as developing its Silk Road Economic Belt trade corridors. It is less concerned with the Western emphasis on good governance (though there is growing discussion in Beijing about the importance of this in ensuring stability). And it is certainly not concerned about the perceived legacy of the West’s investment of over a decade’s worth of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Instead, China’s interests in Afghanistan are ultimately national, reflecting an increasing desire on the part of Beijing to enhance stability on its western periphery on its own terms.

More broadly, however, the most interesting aspect of China’s activity in Afghanistan is the fact that it has shown itself willing to play this sort of role in a foreign nation. This clearly highlights the degree to which Chinese foreign policy is evolving and opening up to the world. The danger is that China is embarking upon this role in a country that has for generations proven impervious to external activism. The larger concern must therefore be what it might mean for Chinese foreign policy should this effort fail.

Raffaello Pantucci
Director, International Security Studies, RUSI.
Twitter: @raffpantucci

 

Further catching up on delinquent old posting, here is a piece I wrote for the EU’s foreign and security policy think tank EUISS. Part of a series they did on Central Asia, and bigger work they have been doing recently in support of the Latvian Presidency of the EU which has been focused on this topic. Big thanks to Eva for helping me connect with this project.

Central Asia: The View from China

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China’s rise in Central Asia is not a new phenomenon. For the past decade, Beijing has gradually moved to become the most significant and consequential actor on the ground in a region that was previously considered Russia’s backyard. In September last year, President Xi Jinping announced the creation of a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ running through the region. Although this declaration is the closest thing seen so far in terms of an articulation of a Chinese strategy for Central Asia, it nevertheless offered more questions than answers.

To understand China’s approach to Central Asia, a wider lens needs to be applied to explore both the detail of what is going on and how this fits into a broader foreign policy strategy that is slowly becoming clearer under Xi Jinping’s stewardship.

The Long March westward

It is in the first instance important to look at the geographical link that exists between China and Central Asia. This flows principally through Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province which is home to a disgruntled Uighur population, some of whom are currently locked in a painful struggle with the Chinese state. An ethnic minority in China (though almost 10 million strong, with a substantial diaspora in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkey), the Uighurs are closer in terms of culture and language to Central Asian peoples like the Uzbeks. Stemming from Xinjiang (a region that covers a sixth of China’s landmass but contains roughly 1-2% of its population), Uighurs have long complained that their identity is slowly being eroded by Beijing-sponsored Han Chinese immigrants. This alienation has resulted in protests, as well as violence directed against the authorities, the resident Han population, and local Uighurs seen to be collaborating with the central government. The most recent bout of serious civil unrest can be traced back to 2009, when roughly 200 people were killed during riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. In the wake of this event, Beijing’s attention was drawn towards the troubled region, and a subsequent work plan laid out in May 2010 signaled a new push towards fostering development in the province.

This focus was not in fact completely new. Chinese officials had long worried about Xinjiang and the underdeveloped nature of China’s western frontiers. While coastal provinces like Shanghai and Guangzhou were booming, some regions in the centre and west were left behind economically. In addition, China’s foreign policy was almost exclusively focused on maritime disputes and the country’s relationship with the US. The reality is that if Xinjiang is to be developed, China needs a more prosperous region in its vicinity to trade with – and through. Far from the coast, Xinjiang’s southern markets are closer to Europe or the Indian subcontinent than they are to China’s mighty eastern seaports. The result is an approach towards Xinjiang that is focused on economic development and improving its links through Pakistan and the countries of Central Asia.

A Chinese pivot?

The outcome of this approach is the development of the Silk Road Economic Belt, a corridor that (eventually) will connect Xinjiang to Europe. A project that is being implemented by Chinese companies with funding provided by the country’s policy banks, it seeks to help (re)connect Central Asia to China. The region is consequently being transformed from one which is wired to Moscow to one which is increasingly wired to Urumqi – and Beijing. Unlike the US plan to forge a ‘New Silk Road’, China has devoted substantial financial resources to its Silk Road Economic Belt – some $40 billion has been allocated for external aspects, and $17 billion for projects within China. Beyond this, new international financial institutions created and funded by China – such as the BRICS Bank or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – all point to a Chinese desire to help and fund the development of its immediate neighbourhood.

There are clearly selfish motivations for China’s investments – from Turkmenbashi to Khorgos, Chinese traders are often the most dynamic players on the ground. But while the overall project is designed to help improve China’s undeveloped regions, there are also clear ancillary benefits for Central Asia.

A grander vision

China is, however, not solely an economic giant: it has demonstrated a growing willingness to engage in security matters in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (perceived by Beijing to be the most unstable of the Central Asian states) through bilateral military support and training. Beijing might not want to take full responsibility for the region’s security, but with every visit by a Chinese leader resulting in greater economic connectivity between these countries and one of China’s most sensitive provinces, it is becoming increasingly difficult for its government to simply ignore its place as a regional stakeholder.

That said, Beijing remains uncertain of how exactly to exert its power. And it is here that the EU might step in and play a role in influencing China’s posture. For example, Chinese officials and businessmen often fall into the same corruption traps as their European counterparts active in Central Asia. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and other European entities, however, effectively operate in the region, and their lessons learned are ones that Chinese enterprises could benefit from. China has likewise little experience in resolving border disputes, while European bodies like the OSCE or projects like the EU’s Border Management Programme for Central Asia (BOMCA) have an extensive history of being deployed in the region. If China’s wish to build a trade corridor through Central Asia is to become a reality, Beijing’s policymakers will have to establish ways to deal with the region’s complicated dynamics. Europe can help China with this aim, while also helping to promote greater regional stability. For example, joint training and capability building missions, cooperative security strategies, and efforts to counter drug trafficking and criminality in the region would advance both Chinese and European interests.

At a more strategic level, there is an opportunity in the Silk Road Economic Belt for Europe to develop its relations with China. It is not only part of Beijing’s vision for Central Asia, but has formed the contours of China’s foreign policy towards a raft of regional partners: economic corridors similar to the Belt are now are sprouting from every direction to and from China (including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor, and the Maritime Silk Road). This increases the importance of the Silk Road Economic Belt and offers a chance for Europe to play a role in a project that is both key for the Chinese leadership personally and important to a strategically significant region which Europe has expressed a keen interest in. The Belt already effectively exists. It has (under different auspices) been a reality for almost a decade or more. China’s leadership has decided this is a cornerstone project which ultimately should stretch all the way to Europe. If Europe were to reach back and thereby improve its relationship with China, there would be significant benefits for all actors involved.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

A new piece for China Outlook, an excellent online magazine that I have actually written for before, but failed to post here for some reason. For my previous piece for them, please see here, it looked at foreign investment into Xinjiang and the difficulties the Chinese government was encountering in persuading people to come. This one instead draws and expands considerably on a presentation I did in Beijing. It draws on my time honoured theme of China’s push into Central Asia, and of course, much of my work on this topic can also be found on the site I co-run, China in Central Asia. Special thanks to editor Nick at China Outlook for his work on this and for allowing me to repost here and on my other site.

Related, I spoke to the Associated Press about Xinjiang and how the Chinese government tries to control the narrative, and unrelated, to NBC about the new video featuring European fighters to emerge from ISIS in Syria.

China’s inexorable drive into Central Asia

August 5, 2014

by Raffaello Pantucci

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Picture from China Outlook

In a speech last September at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, China’s President Xi Jinping coined a new strategic vision for his country’s relations with Central Asia, calling for the creation of a Silk Road Economic Belt. Coming at the culmination of a sweep through Central Asia during which he signed deals worth $56bn and touched down in four out of five capitals, the declaration may be something that has now received a new moniker from President Xi, but the economic and geopolitical reality that it characterizes is one that has been underway for some time.

President Xi’s declaration of the Silk Road Economic Belt needs to be understood within a wider context, particularly in his October 2013 speech at a work conference on diplomacy in which he set out his first formal statement on foreign policy. There he highlighted the priority he wanted his administration to place on border diplomacy: “We must strive to make our neighbours more friendly in politics, economically more closely tied to us, and we must have deeper security cooperation and closer people-to-people ties.”

The emphasis has continued and China has placed great store by the events it is hosting which focus on regional coordination and connectivity: the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) was elevated from being an unheard-of conference to a spectacle of international importance; whilst the Heart of Asia process (focused on re-connecting Afghanistan to its region) is being hosted in Tianjin later in August to equal fanfare. On the international stage, China has prioritized creating a new development bank to reflect both its increasing rejection of the old global financial structures, but also to increase its ability to influence growth and development in the world.

The clearest expression of the Xi administration’s newly attentive border diplomacy, however, can be found in the focus on economic corridors. The declaration of the Silk Road Economic Belt has been matched by an enhanced focus on three other major economic corridors emanating from China: the Maritime Silk Road, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor.

Talk to Chinese officials or experts and they will talk of these corridors as strings of the same instrument, highlighting the focus on economics, connectivity and the stability that flows from prosperity as the end goal of this ‘corridor’ diplomacy. Officials talk of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy that focuses in particular on the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt as the two core elements.

For President Xi’s administration, the aim is to recreate China as the heart and hub of regional politics and economics, to develop China’s poorer border regions and to provide prosperity and opportunity for Chinese firms that are increasingly being pushed to go out into the world. In diplomatic terms, it is the beginnings of a realization in Beijing that it can no longer sit by and let international affairs happen in its neighborhood without taking any role. But as with all Chinese initiatives, it starts by focusing on confidence-building measures, discussion and economics.

China’s rise in Central Asia at the expense of Russian influence and power is not new, but has been underway for almost a decade. President Xi’s visit to Astana came off the back of a number of regional visits by his predecessor President Hu where China had signed a number of huge deals and demonstrated that it was the coming power in Central Asia. As Russian influence has stagnated and infrastructure rotted, Chinese firms have moved in to secure energy fields and mining concessions, as well as rebuilding Central Asia’s physical infrastructure.

Travel along the routes from Kashgar or Urumqi in Xinjiang into Central Asia and you will find roads and rail links that have been refurbished or newly built by Chinese firms. Pipelines from Kazakhstan’s oil fields in Atyrau or Turkmenistan’s super-giant Galkynysh gas field have been built in record time to bring the fuel back to China. Mining concessions across Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been snapped up by Chinese firms, while Chinese companies burrow roads and rail links through mountains in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Visit downtown Dushanbe in Tajikistan, and you will now find a city that has had its main roads refurbished in time for a national anniversary by Chinese firms, a Presidential home and library built by Chinese companies, a CCTV traffic system paid for by a China Development Bank loan and built by Huawei, fields of cranes manned by Chinese workers erecting new buildings around the city, and all of this powered by a giant thermal electricity plant built by PowerChina that ensures that Dushanbe’s power shortages during winter are a thing of the past.

China’s relationship with Central Asia can no longer be caricatured as being built on extracting mineral wealth to feed insatiable Chinese factories. Chinese companies build infrastructure and are increasingly becoming regional energy suppliers, as well as supplying Chinese goods into Central Asian markets. From Kyrgyzstan’s southern entrepots of Kara-Suu and Osh to the Caspian Sea at Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan, Chinese goods fill the markets.

Talk to young students at the Confucius Institutes in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere and they will often speak of learning Mandarin at their parents’ demand to help them cut better deals in Chinese markets in Urumqi or Guangzhou. Language training at a more formal level extends to officialdom in Kyrgyzstan, with scholarships offered to bureaucrats in the Presidential administration, ministry of foreign affairs and ministry of the interior. Beijing, Shanghai and Urumqi universities are full of Central Asian officials’ children who are learning Mandarin. When Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov visited Beijing in November 2011 he was greeted by around 1,000 Turkmen students on scholarships at Chinese higher education establishments.

These scholarships are part of the Chinese soft power push into the region, one that is matched with strong political relations that are advanced at a bilateral basis as well as through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). And as this multifaceted push develops, its economic force and gravity becomes a draw for random Chinese traders and adventurers seeking prosperity.

One couple in Bishkek reported initially arriving as officials working for a state owned firm and as a travel agent: 15 years later, they owned stalls in Kyrgyzstan’s markets, a Chinese restaurant in Bishkek, as well as a biscuit factory outside the city. In downtown Dushanbe, a generous Chinese businessman who had been in the country for about seven years proudly showed off the factory into which he had designed purpose-built flats for Chinese workers coming into the country. His main industry was a fireworks factory and on his wall he displayed a calendar with pictures of himself with senior leaders and events at which he had supplied the fireworks.

The drive behind all this activity is both directed and haphazard. The latter is mostly the product of industrious Chinese following the economic gravity in the region. At a more directed level, however, the effort is part of a longstanding effort by the Chinese government to increase development and prosperity in the under-developed western regions. Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province that accounts for a sixth of the nation’s land mass, has an under-developed infrastructure with an angry Uighur minority who are increasingly expressing their anger through attacks against state institutions.

The Chinese government’s solution to this is a heavy-handed security response matched with focused economic investment. But for landlocked Xinjiang to be able to prosper it will require trade links through Central Asia to Russian and ultimately European markets, or through Afghanistan or Pakistan to Arab and Iranian markets or to the Indian Ocean.

The push in this direction has been in existence for some time. It was late 2011 when Peking University’s dean of international studies, Wang Jisi, first floated his ‘March Westward’ concept. And it is one that President Xi Jinping appears to have harnessed as one of the cores of his foreign policy direction as he looks out at the world.

Building on the success of this drive into Central Asia and its economic and trade push, with politics and security coming as secondary consequences, the model is now being replicated elsewhere, with the four corridors fundamentally echoing the New Silk Road that had been underway for some time.

For anyone trying to understand China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping, it is in Central Asia that the first glimmers of understanding can be found. The larger focus on border diplomacy and its short and medium-term impacts and consequences can all be found in Central Asia where China is rapidly becoming the most influential player on the ground.

The region is being re-wired so that all roads go to China, and the economics are slowly becoming increasingly dependent on China. The longer-term implications of this shift have yet to be completely understood, but they will likely strike a path that we will slowly see China following along its other economic corridors.

A short piece for Reuters and their rather wonderfully named ‘Expert Zone’ looking at Sino-Indian relations in Afghanistan. Builds on the earlier paper published on this topic through RUSI and part of an ongoing project.

Afghanistan a building block for China-India ties

By Raffaello Pantucci

JULY 30, 2014

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters, images used in the piece can be found here)

The appointment of a former ambassador to Kabul and New Delhi by China to the role of Special Envoy for Afghanistan highlights China’s thinking of what it can do in Afghanistan.

China is not seeking a leadership role in the country, but is rather looking for regional partners to support its efforts. A key partner is being sought in New Delhi where the Narendra Modi administration has welcomed Xi Jinping’s early overtures for a closer broader relationship. The opportunity presents itself that Afghanistan’s two largest Asian neighbours might be on the cusp of closer cooperation to help the nation onto a more stable footing.

It is clear that there are issues with Sino-Indian collaboration on Afghanistan. First among these are differing perceptions on Pakistan and its responsibility and role in Afghanistan’s current predicament. For China, Pakistani security forces are trying to deal with a monster within their country with links across the border. For Indian authorities, it remains a Frankenstein’s monster of Pakistani construction that is, therefore, fundamentally theirs to address. China’s particularly close relationship with Pakistan plays into this divide, raising concerns in New Delhi as well as complicating China’s approaches to Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, all three sides (China, India and Pakistan) seem to have found some way of working through these concerns, as there has been considerable movement and public discussion (including this project the author has been working on) between China and India in particular about their future collaborations in Afghanistan.

All of this highlights how divergent views on Pakistan aside there remains substantial scope for cooperation between the two in Afghanistan. In particular, both sides agree that terrorism in Afghanistan is a problem that needs to be addressed and a part of this is through the strengthening of Afghanistan’s security forces. Neither power is going to send forces, but there does seem to be the possibility of some agreement to increase their security training contribution. While this has to be managed carefully, it is clear that there is a need to do something to support the Afghan National Security Forces post-2014, and in particular with the more than 100,000 men under arms who will become unemployed in line with the Chicago declarations of shrinking the ANSF from 350,000 to around 228,500.

One idea would be that China and India step in to find a way to support the transformation of some of these men into a ‘mineral protection corps’ or some other paramilitary role that means they will continue to retain jobs rather than becoming unemployed men with arms and military training. This is a logical lead for China and India given it is most likely to be their national firms that are coming in to rebuild Afghanistan and profit from its mineral wealth.

Beyond this, the most obvious strand of cooperation between the two in Afghanistan lies in focusing on developing the country’s economy and building the nation’s technocratic infrastructure. This works through governments ensuring their state-owned firms (those most likely to be investing substantially in Afghanistan’s economy in the future given their higher risk threshold and capacity to make major infrastructure investments adjacent to mineral extraction projects) maintain a certain level of coordination when building infrastructure and that they agree to not go below certain thresholds of corruption when entering into deals within the country.

Given it is state-owned firms that make the most investments in Afghanistan, it is more likely that governments in either country will be able to drive policies forwards in this direction. They can further consolidate this with support to Afghanistan’s bureaucratic future through the creation of a large pool of scholarships at their technical universities for young Afghans. This will have the effect of building a soft link between the nations as well as provide Afghanistan with the needed technocratic capability that will help it build institutions to confidently rebuild the country.

The net result of these efforts is likely to be incremental. Neither China nor India are going to take the lead in Afghanistan having watched the West flounder for the past decade. At the same time, both have an interest in rebuilding Afghanistan and have many of the necessary levers of power to make a difference. The longer-term benefit of this cooperation is a tangible result for the increasingly warming Sino-Indian relationship — something that will only strengthen the hands of both powers in Asian affairs. Afghanistan could become the starting point of a new Asian order, increasingly led by billion-person giants China and India.