Posts Tagged ‘Chinese foreign policy’

Another piece for my institutional home’s analytical publication, Newsbrief, this time looking at the relationship between Pakistan and China. While this is not exactly Central Asia, it still forms a component of my bigger research project looking at China in Central Asia with Alex. More on this broader theme on the way.

China in Pakistan: An Awkward Relationship Beneath the Surface
RUSI Newsbrief, 15 Jan 2014
By Raffaello Pantucci

Characterised by soaring rhetoric, at first glance the China–Pakistan bilateral relationship appears to be one of the world’s closest. Yet below the surface calm bubble concerns, with policy-makers in Beijing particularly worried about the implications of the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan for stability in Pakistan. Western policy-makers should not, however, be optimistic that these concerns will soon translate into Chinese willingness to somehow assume responsibility or leadership in helping Pakistan to develop in a way favourable to the West. Rather, Chinese concerns should be seen within the context of a regional relationship that is likely to grow in prominence as time goes on, ultimately drawing China into a more responsible role in South Asia at least.

China’s Pakistan policy has three principal pillars – political, economic and security – which, together, leaders in Pakistan see as their main bulwark against international abandonment. Elites in both countries have publicly signalled the importance of the Sino–Pakistani relationship. For example, Premier Li Keqiang was the first foreign leader to visit Pakistan after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected in June 2013, while Sharif made China his first international destination as prime minister. Meanwhile, speaking about the region more broadly, China’s Ambassador to Islamabad Sun Weidong told Pakistan’s National Defence University in October that ‘the Chinese government attaches great importance to developing relations with South Asia, and takes South Asia as a key direction of China’s opening up to the west and a prominent position in China’s neighbouring diplomacy’.

However, the decision to refer to Pakistan in the regional context reflects a divergence of views between the two countries on the importance of the relationship. While China clearly cherishes its links with Pakistan – indeed, Ambassador Sun closed his speech with the rallying call: ‘May the China–Pakistan friendship last forever!’ – the relationship between the two is imbalanced, with China the big brother and Pakistan the supplicant.

Indeed, for China, Pakistan is significant particularly within the broader regional context of relations with the countries along its western borderlands – stretching from Kazakhstan in the north to India in the south. Ties with Pakistan are seen by Beijing as part of this wider picture, rather than constituting a bilateral relationship in its own right.

This has been evident, most recently, in the relatively slow progress on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a 2,000 km route connecting the Pakistani port of Gwadar with Kashgar in the northwestern Xinjiang region of China – which was formally mentioned during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s May 2013 visit to Pakistan. Always an ambitious project, at a Sino–Pakistani track-two meeting in Beijing in August 2013, Lin Dajian, vice director general of the Department of International Cooperation at the National Development and Reform Commission, highlighted ‘the security issues and challenges that could impede the speed of [the] project’. A month later, Ambassador Sun more pointedly stressed the expectation of Pakistani support in ‘safeguarding the security of Chinese institutions and citizens in Pakistan’ as they developed the CPEC.

Other Chinese firms with investments in Pakistan have previously expressed similar concern for the safety of staff based there. In September 2011, China Kingho Group, one of the country’s largest private coal-mining firms, backed out of a $19 billion deal in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, telling the Wall Street Journal that this was out of security concerns for its staff. In 2004, the Chinese state-owned enterprise Sinohydro, which had won a contract to build the Gomal Zam Dam in Pakistan’s restive southern Waziristan province, suspended work when Chinese engineers were kidnapped near the site. One died during a rescue attempt, and the project was delayed for a further three years while Sinohydro aggressively renegotiated the contract (more than doubling its price). While this dam has now been completed, other Sinohydro projects, like the Duber Khwar hydropower project, have encountered similar problems.

These examples highlight the difficulties – even for Chinese companies – of doing business in Pakistan, belying the overly positive vision of the relationship often portrayed by the media. It also casts some doubt on the feasibility of the CPEC. With the state-owned China Overseas Holdings Limited responsible for managing the Gwadar port since February, focus has turned to the attendant ambitious plans for the Chinese-led re-development of Pakistan’s roads, railways and pipelines, with the aim of transforming the country into a giant highway conveying Chinese goods to the open seas. So far, however, it is unclear how much progress has been made on rendering the port usable. In July, it was revealed in the Pakistani media that an investigation would be initiated into why a Chinese ship had been unable to reach the port due to heavy silt, despite ‘billions of rupees’ having apparently been spent on dredging work.

Yet China’s security concerns with regard to Pakistan extend beyond apprehension about the safety of its nationals. In October 2013, a BBC Urdu report indicated that, at the behest of the Chinese government, Pakistani authorities had added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM – known within the group itself as the Turkestan Islamic Party) as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) to its list of proscribed terrorist organisations. This announcement came amidst a period of turbulence in China, which saw attacks in Xinjiang and one in central Beijing in Tiananmen Square in late October. Although Chinese authorities did not specifically mention a Pakistani link in relation to these attacks, they have previously referred repeatedly to Pakistan or South Asia (which is usually read as Pakistan) as the source of such plots. They also reported, in the aftermath of a number of the attacks in Xinjiang and the Beijing incident, that radical material produced by ETIM had been found at the homes of those involved.

The nature of this connection with ETIM is unclear. While there are radical elements in Xinjiang who might use the ideological inspiration of the group as cover for their actions, it is not clear that there is a command-and-control connection. Certainly, those elements of ETIM that do exist outside of China mostly reside in Pakistan’s badlands, under the protection of those close to the most fervently anti-state members of the militant outfit Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). There, they produce a constant flow of radical videos, magazines and audio messages, calling for the overthrow of the Chinese state and for funding and support. In two messages in 2013, ETIM leader Abdullah Mansour praised those behind recent acts of violence in China: one message was released following an incident in Bachu County in April in which twenty-one were killed after a confrontation with authorities, and the other in the wake of the Beijing attack. However, Mansour did not claim responsibility for these two attacks, instead appearing more eager to give the impression that such acts are not the product of mindless anger, but of a global jihad.

Indeed, domestic messaging about international links to recent incidents in China tends not to refer specifically to Pakistan, but – increasingly – to Syria. For example, Chinese officials have suggested that individuals involved in attacks in Xinjiang also intended to go to Syria while reports in the Chinese media in July 2013 suggested that ETIM members were already fighting there. Subsequent reporting indicated that one member of the group had confessed that he had been dispatched from the battlefield in Syria with orders to conduct some sort of attack in China. Whilst the specifics of these reports are unconfirmed, videos have emerged showing Chinese-speaking individuals and Uighurs on the battlefield there – although whether they hail from China originally or from the large diaspora community in Turkey is unclear.

Despite this, for Beijing, the decision to push for Pakistan to list these groups as terrorist organisations seems more closely linked to concerns that ETIM is increasingly seeking and receiving support from other Central Asian groups based in Pakistan’s badlands. Indeed, the increasingly broad fusion of jihadi groups in the region is likely to be appealing to ETIM, which has historically had difficulty sustaining itself and gaining traction among its counterparts internationally. Furthermore, Central Asian groups like IMU and IJU would be natural partners given their linguistic and ethnic proximity, and recent reports indicate that IMU in particular has been moving northward through Afghanistan, possibly heading back towards its primary ideological target – Islam Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan. As such, Chinese analysts speak with growing concern about the ‘re-networking’ of extremist groups across the broader Central Asian region.

This is where the importance of Pakistan to China, due to its role and position in the region, becomes clear. Although China has invested substantially in Pakistan itself, it has also invested heavily in the broader region. Afghanistan, Central Asia and India are all potential trade partners and sources of the natural resources needed by China to bolster national growth and, more specifically, to enhance development in Xinjiang. Instability in Pakistan – perhaps through the presence of terrorist organisations – has the potential to undermine such efforts. Thus the prosperity and, indeed, the survival of the Pakistani state is essential to China.

Yet Western policy-makers must remain cautious in their interpretation of this relationship. While China may have a great deal invested in Pakistan, the way in which it pursues its interests there is not likely to further those of the West. Indeed, China will advance an agenda that, first and foremost, safeguards its citizens and assets. It will be unlikely to take on a major security role, preferring to bolster local authorities with whatever they say they need to counter the threat. Human-rights issues are unlikely to be prioritised, and in cases where bribes are required to expedite a process, it is unlikely that Chinese firms will hesitate to oblige.

The positive side of all of this is that China will provide Pakistan with useful infrastructure, be it roads, ports, railways or alternative sources of electricity. China has also demonstrated a willingness to lean on Pakistan when the mutual hostility with India becomes too tense: in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, Chinese shuttle diplomacy was important in soothing tensions. Following a visit by then-President Zardari of Pakistan to India in 2012, former Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani told the press that it was ‘our best friend China … [which] advised us to promote trade relations with India’.

The end result is a situation in which China will increasingly find itself as the responsible partner to Pakistan, drawn more closely into Pakistani affairs. However, Beijing is unlikely to push for reforms within the Pakistani system or to try to influence affairs beyond its own specific interests. Any Western–Pakistani spats or discussions will be left to one side, with China more eager to nurture a stable country than one that is friendly with the West.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Research Fellow, RUSI
Twitter: @raffpantucci

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Starting the new year with a splash and a piece for the Financial Times BeyondBRICS, this captures an idea I have been working on for a while and am hoping this year to finally really develop. Lots more on my work with Alex in particular on our joint site: http://www.chinaincentralasia.com

Guest post: The route to better relationships with China lies along the Silk Road

Jan 8, 2014 9:26am by guest writer
By Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute

A gentle rapprochement is under way between China and the United Kingdom. After almost two years in a diplomatic freeze, David Cameron visited Beijing last month and made an effective play for more trade. For the UK, this is a moment to recalibrate its relationship and play a role in coaxing China towards becoming a responsible international stakeholder. One route to that end is through understanding and working with China’s ‘march westward’ strategy, which has at its heart the re-activation of the ancient Silk Road linking China to Europe.

Coined by prominent Chinese academic Wang Jisi back in 2011, the ‘March Westwards’ strategy is the external component of the ‘Develop the West’ strategy that Beijing advanced to bring prosperity and development to its historically underdeveloped and turbulent western provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet. Long-standing sources of instability for the central government, the regions were racked by particular violence in 2008 (Tibet) and 2009 (Xinjiang). The brutality of the Xinjiang violence was a wake-up call, with more than 200 reportedly killed on the streets of Urumqi, the provincial capital, as the chaos forced then-leader Hu Jintao to leave an international G8 Summit in L’Aquila to manage the situation.

Since then, a series of measures have been taken to try to force the region to prosper. Richer coastal provinces have taken responsibility for counties in Xinjiang, putting a percentile of their GDP and staff to work in the region. Chinese companies have been encouraged to invest in the province, while a local trade fair has been transformed into an international China-Eurasian Expo that has attracted regional heads of state, senior Politburo members and former leaders of the stature of Tony Blair. The Xinjiang government has made an active play in trying to court foreign investment into the region, undertaking trade missions around Europe while also building trade parks targeted at regional players such as Turkey.

But all of this investment will achieve nothing if Xinjiang has nowhere to trade with. This explains China’s push into central Asia. Once a bit player in the region, China is the ascendant power across central Asia with Chinese businessmen and workers crowding the streets of Bishkek, Dushanbe and Almaty. In Tajikistan, international financial institutions report that tenders for contracts are increasingly competitions between Chinese firms underbidding each other to rebuild the mountainous country. In Turkmenistan, the economy is focused on exporting its hydrocarbon wealth to China, the one country that has shown the agility and capacity to unlock its mineral wealth and is willing to engage with the authorities on their terms. Across the region, Chinese work-teams are rebuilding roads, railways and other infrastructure to re-wire the region’s infrastructure so that all roads lead to Beijing.

But the ultimate goal of all this is to reconnect China to Europe across the Eurasian landmass and to strengthen the physical link between Chinese producers and European markets. As Wen Jiabao affirmed in his speech at the 2nd China-Eurasia Expo, China’s aim is to transform Urumqi once again into the ‘gateway to Eurasia’. And it is here that the UK can find its natural role as the anchor at the other end of this route.

Sitting in Urumqi last year, a Xinjiang official who had been sent to the province from Beijing as a footsoldier in China’s regional strategy, told a visiting British delegation that Urumqi was ‘the closest big Chinese city to Europe’. From a Chinese perspective, a key part of this solution to Xinjiang’s problems is to nurture the economic link and encourage Europe to participate more actively.

This is an opportunity for British businesses to get into one of the underdeveloped parts of the Chinese economy, as well as tapping into a growing boom in central Asia. In some fields this will mean competing with Chinese companies but, in others, finding niche specialisms or technologies that British companies have and Chinese companies lack offers an opening into markets in both China and central Asia. Several British companies have found Xinjiang to be a profitable market. Some are providing equipment for energy companies, others are developers helping cities re-design themselves, others supply heavy building equipment to support China’s infrastructure boom across the region. Chinese competitors may exist in these fields but ‘brand China’ continues to be seen in a negative light both within and beyond the country. When other brands are available, people tend to prefer to go for them if they are affordable. And doubtless other opportunities exist.

There is of course an important human rights component to this discussion that needs to be addressed. Many object to China’s disregard for human rights in its ‘counter-terrorism’ strategy in Xinjiang, a concern only further heightened in central Asia. While care needs to be made, this also offers a further angle for British engagement. The UK’s CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy may have its faults and deficiencies but is a widely emulated model whose division between pre-emptive and reactive measures offers a useful structure through which to try to engage with political violence. Clearly, the approach and relative weighting of different aspects of the strategy needs to be carefully calibrated in every situation – but the Chinese are in the midst of a re-structuring of their counter-terrorism response with Xinjiang at the heart of their concerns. Engaging now offers a moment to influence the situation positively.

The UK’s history with China has been dominated by the seas. Hong Kong was the final bastion of British seafaring dominance of China, a history that still hangs heavy in the Chinese mindset. A new approach is needed that instead looks to China’s Eurasian heritage to rebuild a British, and European, policy towards China.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

 

A quiet period during the holidays as I try to catch up some longer writing projects I have due. In the meantime, I have a new book review in my institutional home’s journal, the RUSI Journal, this one of Jeremy Shapiro’s interesting new book The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations which focuses on bureaucracy in terrorist networks. It comes just as AP publishes a whole series of documents online found in Mali detailing al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s internal corporate structure – very much illustrating many of Shapiro’s points. The review can be found here.

I also realize I never published links to other book reviews I have done for the RUSI Journal. Earlier in the year, I did one about Stig Jarle Hansen’s book Al Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012That review can be found here. A very detailed book, which seems to be first of two he did for Hurst.

And finally, I did a review essay of China going out looking at China’s Silent Army: The Pioneers, Traders, Fixers and Workers who are remaking the world in Beijing’s image and The Chinese Question in Central Asia: Domestic Order, Social Change, and the Chinese Factor. Two very different co-authored books – one more journalistic than the other (China’s Silent Army), but both interesting in different ways. The review essay can be found here.

Given they are all paywalled, I cannot simply post them here, but if you get in touch I can try to help.

A post for a new outlet, Reuters, this one looking at painting a big picture of China’s interests in Central Asia and Pakistan and how they all stitch together. A bigger theme that I am going to be exploring more through my co-edited site: http://www.chinaincentralasia.com

China re-wires it’s West

OCTOBER 4, 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci

(Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London)

In his seminal article from October 2012 advocating for China’s ‘March Westwards’ Beijing University Dean of International Relations Wang Jisi spoke of a ‘new silk road [that] would extend from China’s eastern ports, through the center of Asia and Europe, to the eastern banks of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean coastal countries in the west.’ In addition to this route to Europe, ‘A major route from China’s western regions through the Indian Ocean should also be constructed as quickly as possible.’ An ambitious geopolitical sketch of the world seen from Beijing, but one that is being brought to life under President Xi Jinping, whose recent tour of Central Asia provided some definition of what exactly China is aiming for in its western relationships.

There were many significant moments during President Xi’s tour of Central Asia. He planted a tree and opened the CNPC-managed gas field at Galkynysh in Turkmenistan, in Uzbekistan he signed agreements with an aging Islam Karimov, in Kyrgyzstan he attended an SCO Summit and deals worth $3 billion (a small sum compared to investments in neighbors, but nonetheless a substantial amount for Kyrgyzstan whose 2012 GDP $6.5 billion), and in Kazakhstan he presided over the signing of deals worth $30 billion and gave a keynote speech at Nazarbayev University. In many ways, it was this speech that provided the clearest insight into China’s strategy towards Central Asia, outlining a ‘silk road economic belt’ that would ‘open up the transportation channel from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea.’

Five days after President Xi gave this keynote address in Kazakhstan, the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, Sun Weidong, gave an equally ambitious speech at the National Defence University in Islamabad. In between platitudes about China and Pakistan being ‘brothers’ he spoke of the ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ that brings together ‘the transportation infrastructure, the energy and economic zones along the corridor, which will organically combine China’s ‘Western Development’ strategy and ‘Opening up to the West’ policy together with [a] Pakistani blueprint for national development.’ China’s strategy in Pakistan is both integrally bound into Pakistan and China’s national development.

These two speeches illustrate the greater vision that Professor Wang was talking about. A ‘silk road economic belt’ to bring European markets closer to China, as a ‘organic’ binding transforms Pakistan into a highway for Chinese goods to get to the Indian Ocean. The ultimate aim for Beijing: to reconnect its western province Xinjiang to the world and open it up for trade. Under-developed and riven with ethnic tensions that continue to spill over into violence, Beijing’s solution is an economic development strategy that needs routes to markets. Hence a highway through Central Asia to Europe and a path through Pakistan to the Indian Ocean.

The odd man out in this broader vision is Afghanistan that sits squarely in between these two routes. China has invested in some routes through the country, but these are at best subsidiary paths to the outer edges of the routes from Central Asia to Xinjiang or possibly a longer-term vision to directly correct Iran to China. But where Afghanistan can play a spoiler in this plan is to disrupt broader regional stability – in particular in Pakistan where a difficult situation on the ground will likely get further exacerbated by a negative outcome post-2014 in Afghanistan. In Central Asia a similar threat exists, but appears far less existential – militant groups previously occupied fighting western forces in Afghanistan may flow back home to Central Asia, but they are unlikely to have the sorts of numbers necessary to overthrow regimes. Nevertheless, an unstable Afghanistan would have negative repercussions on the region and all of this would displace China’s broader strategy.

The grander Chinese vision may be imperiled by potentially negative fall-out in Afghanistan, but the reality is that there are numerous short-term problems that are already hindering the situation. Pakistani instability has always presented a problem for Chinese firms: back in September 2011 China Kingho pulled out of a massive investment in southern Sindh in fear of the security of its workers (though this now may be back on). And the investment climate in Kyrgyzstan is so difficult that in late 2012 Li Deming, the head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in the country wrote an op-ed in Global Times highlighting all the difficulties Chinese firms faced in the country.

Difficulties notwithstanding, China is making moves to fulfill the reality of the broader vision. There is already a route for goods to go from China to Europe by rail, and it is already possible to travel by road from Kashgar to Gwadar through Pakistan. And Chinese firms are working to re-develop these routes either using national development banks or through the Asian Development Bank. As the world looks elsewhere, China is re-wiring the infrastructure of its western neighbors to bind them ‘organically’ into Beijing’s domestic development strategy.

Another piece for The Diplomat, this time with Alex (my co-editor at China in Central Asia), focusing on Xinjiang and how this fits into China’s Central Asian strategy. Very much the theme of our bigger project that we are working on at the moment. So much more on this subject soon!

Tightening the Silk Road Belt
By  Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

September 18, 2013

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As Chinese President Xi Jinping headed to Central Asia last week, Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang in the northwest of China, hosted the 3rd annual China Eurasia Expo. While maybe not intentionally choreographed to take place at the same time, the two events have a significant parallelism to them, reflecting the importance of Xinjiang to China’s Central Asian policy. For China, the “Silk Road Economic Belt” that Xi spoke of in Kazakhstan starts in Xinjiang, acting as the connective tissue that binds China’s crowded and prosperous eastern seaboard with Eurasia, Europe and the Middle East.

China’s interest in Central Asia is primarily a selfish one. This is not unusual in national interests: foreign policy is naturally focused on self-interest. But with China in Central Asia, the key role of Xinjiang distinguishes it from China’s relations with other parts of the world. For Beijing, Central Asian policy aims at both increasing China’s connectivity to Europe and the Middle East as well as reaping the benefits of the region’s rich natural resources, but also about helping foster development and therefore long-term stability in Xinjiang. A province periodically wracked by internal violence and instability, Beijing has quite clearly made the calculation that to stabilize the province, more economic development should be encouraged.

The result is a surge in internal investment in the province, most recently typified by the figures to emerge from the China Eurasia Expo, where some $121 billion worth of domestic deals were announced. German-Chinese joint venture company VW-SAIC is opening a car factory outside Urumqi, a Sino-Turkish investment park is being opened on the other side of the city, while companies from across China are being actively encouraged to invest in the province. And across Xinjiang new infrastructure is being built – from the refurbishment of the Karakoram Highway, to a new airport in Urumqi, to new roads to connect Kashgar to nearby border posts with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, all of which aims to transform the province into the “gateway to Eurasia” as former leader Wen Jiabao put it during his speech to the Expo last year.

But for this approach to work, it is essential that Xinjiang have a prosperous region around it to trade with – hence the heavy focus during Premier Xi’s visit on economic development and links. And it is important to note that it is not only a region to trade with, but also a region to trade through. Ultimately, Central Asian markets are quite limited and still relatively underdeveloped and poor. The real goal is to reach through Central Asia, into Russia and ultimately Europe. This is the Silk Road Economic Belt that Xi is talking about, and it is one that ends in the first instance at the new city being built with Chinese support outside Minsk in Belarus and similar developments near Tbilisi in Georgia, but really ends in the homes of European consumers.

An ambitious goal for sure, but from Beijing’s perspective, it is a means of re-connecting China to its Eurasian heritage, while also helping develop a province that has proven a difficult issue to resolve. It also provides China with a further avenue to markets that is not reliant on sea routes, as well as opening up links to a part of the world rich in natural resources.

The vision is good, but is it actually being realized? This year, cumulative deaths in Xinjiang are approaching 200, the result of a number of incidents. Almost three years on from the re-branded strategy and the “Develop the West” push, it is not clear that this approach is working. In fact, given that it increasingly seems as though incidents in Xinjiang are not the product of external direction, but rather internal anger, one could say that the problems are getting more intense.

So if the strategy is not quite working, what does China need to do to change it? What is missing, it seems, is an overarching vision that seeks to reach beyond simply making everyone wealthy, but also tries to address some of the fundamental underlying social and ethnic tensions that boil beneath the surface. Xinjiang-ren, or those who consider themselves natives of the province, will clearly not be happy just to be given jobs, trade prospects and prosperity. A larger, more holistic picture must be painted and one that is not solely reliant on trade or an iron fist. This must be the legacy of the New Silk Road: reconnecting Xinjiang and opening up the province in every way to enable it to prosper once again.

China is Central Asia’s most consequential power, a consequence of the intense focus on the region through Xinjiang. If Beijing really wants this policy to work, then it will need greater nuance and focus to transform it from a money-driven theory to one that better reflects local realities.

Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Dr. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.

And another piece, this time for The Diplomat, linked to Xi’s visit through Central Asia, this time focusing on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit now happening in Bishkek with my friend and co-author Li Lifan. I have also been doing various media bits around this trip, including an interview with RFE/RL among others.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Not Quite the New Silk Road

By  Raffaello Pantucci and Li Lifan

September 12, 2013

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Presaging his stopover in Kyrgyzstan, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in Kazakhstan in which he spoke of establishing a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would bind China to its Eurasian neighborhood. A trip so far focused largely on Afghanistan and trade, the stopover in Bishkek for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO) summit is the capstone to what has been a successful trip, tidily wrapping the two subjects up in a bow largely of China’s making.

Of course, there are numerous other topics on the table at the summit beyond Afghanistan. Expanding membership looks like it is going to remain unresolved again – India and Pakistan continue to knock loudly on the door. Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani has announced he will attend, possibly highlighting the new regime’s diplomatic approach (although it is unclear what the SCO means within this context), and it seems likely that further agreements about closer cooperation and discussion are likely to be held. Beijing will undoubtedly push an economic agenda – though this will find hostility from the other member states fearful of dominance. The question over the SCO development bank will remain unresolved.

Inevitably, Afghanistan will feature as a major topic of conversation. Just prior to the delegates meeting in Bishkek, units from SCO member states will have just completed a training exercise near Lake Issyk-Kul in the northeast of Kyrgyzstan. This comes after an earlier SCO flagged exercise, in which Chinese and Kyrgyz troops trained in their border areas, and a larger “Peace Mission” exercise involving Chinese and Russian formations. All of these training missions are described as being focused on countering terrorism: large-scale military activity that in fact seems more aimed at border protection and countering insurgent groups rather than urban terrorists. Useful skills if you are worried about overspill from Afghanistan.

The reality, however, is that the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is still largely considered the main regional security player by most Central Asians, backed as it is by Russian guarantees and equipment. The Chinese-led SCO still plays a second fiddle to the Russian endeavor, though the SCO has spoken at length about counter-narcotics, countering the “Three Evils” of “extremism, separatism and terrorism,” and now has a Chinese head of its security structure in Tashkent – the unfortunately namedRATS center (Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure).

The problem for the SCO is that it remains an organization lacking a clear sense of its role in the world. This is a problem that is fundamentally about the very divergent views among the member state capitals (all of whom have equal weighting within the institution’s decision-making processes), and in particular Beijing’s desire to create a positive umbrella under which to shelter its efforts in Central Asia, even as other members worry about Chinese dominance.

The result is a half-baked multilateral vehicle that focuses on arcane discussions about membership with no conclusion, and holds military exercises aimed at unspecified enemies. On the one hand, this helps develop relations and bonds in a region rife with internal tensions, but on the other it fails to deliver much in the way of practical progress. The real progress during Xi’s trip has already been made. The SCO summit merely provides a tidy bookend.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the co-editor ofChina in Central AsiaLi Lifan is secretary general of the Centre for SCO Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

A slightly belated posting of a piece I wrote for the Chinese newspaper I occasionally contribute to, 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post), looking at Xi Jinping’s still ongoing trip through Central Asia. More on this soon as the subject remains one I am working actively on. As with other pieces I write in Chinese, I have posted the English I submitted above, with the the published Chinese below.

China needs a clear strategy for Central Asia

Two major themes have emerged as key during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Central Asia: economics and Afghanistan. The economics is made all the more relevant with the concurrent China Eurasian Expo where senior leaders from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan attended alongside businessmen from across Central Asia. The focus of the Expo is to attract investment and prosperity to Xinjiang, something that is seen as being inextricably intertwined with Eurasia and is captured in the Expo’s tagline this year of ‘common development.’ From Beijing’s perspective, developing Xinjiang is a crucial goal if the violence that has peaked once again this year is to finally be brought under control. And in order to do this properly, Beijing needs to have Xinjiang surrounded by an area of prosperity, or at the very least a region which has good roads through which goods from China can pass on to the more lucrative European and Russian markets. This is the ‘Silk Road economic belt’ that President Xi spoke of in Kazakhstan.

Central Asia is also appealing because of its wealth of natural resources: Chinese firms are one of the only ones able to extract hydrocarbons (in the form of gas) from Turkmenistan and CNPC recently successfully pulled off a major coup when it was able to buy into Kazakhstan’s giant Kashagan oil field. In Kazakhstan, China’s Development Bank has made major investments into firms extracting copper and other minerals from Kazakhstan’s rich mines. Elsewhere, Chinese companies are on the ground in Kyrgyzstan seeking out the country’s gold mines in the north of the country. And hanging over this all is the potential mineral wealth in Afghanistan, estimated by the US Geological Survey of being potentially as large as $1 trillion, including massive Lithium reserves and rare earths, as well as copper and oil fields already being developed by Chinese companies.

And sitting atop all of this bilateral activity, China has been pushing to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to move in a more economic direction. Ideas like the SCO Development Bank, an SCO Free Trade Area, greater cross-border currency usage and greater economic integration across the region are fundamentally driven out of Beijing while the other members of the organization grow concerned about Chinese economic dominance. It is here that President Xi’s visit to Uzbekistan in particular was interesting. Long the heart of Central Asia, it retains the most developed industrial infrastructure and largest population – all of which make it tempting for China but also a country that is wary of Chinese economic inroads, seeing the potential for it to undermine the nation’s capability to develop its own economy to a greater degree. Talking to Uzbek businessmen, the perception is that China is both an excellent potential partner, but also one that raises some concerns among officials who worry of succumbing to Chinese economic dominance.

All of this helps explain China’s interests in Central Asia. But the problem is that does not address the two major missing components in China’s regional approach: first is a clear strategy for the region and second is a vision for what role China sees for itself in post-2014 Afghanistan. Clearly the other key aspect of President Xi’s visit to the region, Afghanistan featured as a topic of conversation in most capitals and as part of the strategic partnership agreements and discussions that were held. But while President Xi spoke to the Central Asians about Afghanistan, it remains unclear how exactly the Chinese strategy towards the country is going to dramatically change. It remains to be seen whether we are now going to see the emergence of a clearly developed and pragmatic approach to ensuring security and stability in Afghanistan post-2014.

The absence of a clearly developed strategic vision for Afghanistan is only part of a larger problem in Central Asia, where it is equally unclear that Chinese strategists have developed a holistic approach and strategy that encompasses the full spectrum of national interests – both from a Chinese perspective and Central Asian. All of the Central Asians trade with China and seek out Chinese investment, but public opinion is not usually in China’s favour. People worry about China’s regional aims, fearing that they are about to be subsumed into becoming vassal states of China. And outside powerful elites, few feel they are really benefiting from the influx of Chinese investment. Angry publics in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in particular have attacked Chinese nationals and interests, and in Tajikistan there was a substantial public outcry when it was revealed that large pieces of territory were being leased to Chinese agricultural companies for development. In the absence of clear explanation, public opinion tends towards conspiracy and paranoia, something that can have practical implications for Chinese companies and operators on the ground. China needs to finds ways to master its strategic communications and ‘soft power’ projection in the region.

On Afghanistan, the picture is a complicated one, though it is clear that chaos in the country has the potential to upset Chinese investments and efforts across Central Asia and Xinjiang. Currently, all that is understood of China’s interests and efforts in Afghanistan can be seen in the increasingly complicated process of the Aynak copper mine where companies MCC and Jiangxi Copper are now seeking to re-negotiate the terms of the deal. Afghans, already sceptical of China’s interests in their country, now see this as a situation where the Chinese firms are doing nothing more than impeding their capacity to benefit from their natural resource wealth. The absence of any efforts by China to support the security situation further strengthen this perception, with few in Afghanistan seeing China playing a positive role in their country. The reality is of course that China is doing something in the nation (though on security, it remains a very limited presence at training a few hundred police), but it lacks a clear strategic vision and push. It appears limited, reactive after much external pressure in a very limited way and driven by large state owned companies focused on mineral resource extraction.

Like it or not, China is going to be a major player in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The time has come for Beijing to develop a coherent regional strategy and approach that finds ways of accepting this responsibility and living up to the promises towards Afghanistan that China continues to say it is making. President Xi’s trip highlighted China’s acknowledgement that Central Asia is worried about Afghanistan: as the big player at the table, it is time to take some leadership and more from rhetoric to pragmatism.

 潘睿凡

特约撰稿人

正当第三届中国-亚欧博览会在乌鲁木齐盛大召开之际,习近平也开始了他就任中国国家主席之后的首次中亚之行。时间上的重叠既凸显了中亚对于中国的重要性,也投射出了双方关系的复杂性。就中国而言,重视对中亚的政策与中国的内政密切相关,同时也与当下一些最错综复杂的国际安全问题紧密相连。问题在于外界对于中国在中亚到底有没有一个成熟的或者清晰的战略视野尚不清楚,即使从一开始中国就参与了围绕中亚的战略博弈。

习近平此访的两项优先议程是经济合作与阿富汗问题。与第一项议程直接相关的就是刚刚落幕的中国-亚欧博览会。出席博览会的除了来自中亚的商界人士,还有吉尔吉斯斯坦总理和塔吉克斯坦第一副总理。博览会的主要目的是为新疆招商引资,从而促进新疆繁荣昌盛。这是因为新疆的发展一直被视为与欧亚大陆的命运难解难分,这从今年博览会“共谋发展”的主题中也可见一斑。从北京的视角来看,如果要抑制新疆的暴力恐怖活动,发展新疆就是至关重要的抉择。而要达到这个目标,北京就需要为新疆塑造一个繁荣的外部环境,至少要有一条稳定的通道将中国的商品运往更有利可图的欧洲和俄罗斯市场。这一点对于吉尔吉斯斯坦尤为重要,因为各方资料均显示对中国商品的进口和再出口如今占到了这个中亚最贫困国家国内生产总值的三分之一。

中亚的吸引力还在于其丰富的自然资源。中国企业是少数能够从土库曼斯坦开采到天然气的外国公司。中石油最近又成功参股哈萨克斯坦的卡沙甘(Kashagan)油田。中国国家开发银行还向哈萨克斯坦企业提供贷款,帮助它们在本国开采铜矿和其他矿物。除此之外,中国企业还在吉尔吉斯斯坦北部开采金矿。更令中国企业兴奋的是,根据美国地质调查局的估算,阿富汗潜在矿藏的价值可能高达1万亿美元,其中包括大量的锂矿和稀土,以及中国公司已经在中亚其他地区开采的铜矿和油田。

除了上述双边合作项目,中国正在力推上海合作组织(SCO)成为一个更加偏重经济的区域组织。无论是上合组织开发银行、上合组织自贸区还是更大规模的区域经济一体化方案,基本上都是出自北京之手。习近平此番对乌兹别克斯坦的访问特别引人瞩目。乌兹别克斯坦最吸引中国企业的地方在于它拥有中亚最发达的工业基础设施和最庞大的人口,长期以来都是中亚的中心国家。但另一方面,这个国家中的有些人也担心中国的经济影响力可能会削弱其发展本国经济的能力。根据笔者同乌兹别克斯坦商界的交谈,他们认可中国是不可多得的潜在合作伙伴,但也有政府官员担心将来会受制于中国的经济控制力。

所有这些都可以帮助解释中国在中亚的利益。但中国的中亚政策还有两个重要的组成部分有待补全:一是清晰的地区战略,二是2014年以后中国在阿富汗发挥什么作用。

缺乏一个清晰和成熟的地区战略可以解释中国与中亚国家之间时不时出现的小摩擦。尽管所有的中亚国家都与中国做生意并渴望中国的投资,但坦率地说,在这些国家的公众眼中,中国并不一定总是讨人喜欢。当地总有些人担心中国在中亚的真正意图,个别人甚至害怕它们将来会沦为中国的附属国。由于缺少清楚的解释,这些国家的舆论倾向于相信阴谋论,并对中国在当地的企业及其经营者疑神疑鬼。中国不妨想办法改善战略沟通,并在该地区投射“软实力”。我们高兴地看到,习近平在哈萨克斯坦的有关中亚政策的演讲已经开启这一进程。

阿富汗问题非常复杂。目前显而易见的是该国的混乱局面可能会破坏中国在中亚和新疆的投资与努力。当前中国在阿富汗的利益和努力可能比较集中在形势越发复杂的艾娜克(Aynak)铜矿。习近平主席此行与他访问的中亚国家都就促进阿富汗的安全、和平和发展达成了一致,这表明中国开始意识到是时候在中亚地区事务中发挥大国的作用了。

中国正在成为中亚和阿富汗的主要行为体,这是不以他人的意志为转移的。不过,由于战略视野和动力尚待进一步清晰,中国和该地区的关系显得既棘手又复杂。习近平选择出访中亚凸显了该地区对中国的重要性,让我们期望他此行的演讲和与中亚国家领导人的会晤能为一个更加清晰的地区视野寻找到一个新的表述。(胡勇 译