Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

Another piece for the Telegraph after the St Petersburg terrorist attack, though the title is rather deceptive as the piece is mostly about the phenomenon of radicalisation amongst Central Asians, a topic that appears sadly relevant again after the incident Friday in Stockholm.

The Saint Petersburg attack is a reminder that sophisticated terror plots are still a real threat

A victim is carried in a soft stretcher

The Metro attack was the worst terror attack in Russia for several years CREDIT: ANTON VAGANOV/EPA

The attack on St Petersburg in some ways resembles a throwback to an earlier time. With the recent spate of low-tech incidents involving knife-wielding and car driving extremists, the perception was that the nature of the terrorist threat had evolved. The as of yet unclaimed atrocity in St Petersburg is a reminder of how terrorists continue to deploy explosives to advance their causes, and how Russia remains a priority target for international terrorist networks.

It is not yet clear who is responsible for the attack in Russia, though initial indicators suggest that it was by an individual of Central Asian origin who may have previously been radicalised. This comes after an arrest earlier in March at Moscow airport of a Tajik citizen who had reportedly been sent by Isil to launch an attack in Russia. According to reports in the Russian press, the Tajik had been deployed to connect with networks already in the country who were to supply him with equipment to launch a terrorist strike. Central Asians were also implicated in the attacks late last year on the Ataturk Airport and Reina nightclubs in Istanbul, and in an attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek last August.

None of this may appear surprising to the lay observer. Central Asia has long been perceived as a hotbed of radicalisation. And yet in reality, it is a threat that has never quite expressed itself. Central Asian warriors have been a feature of the conflict in Afghanistan and more recently Syria and Iraq, but they have not been responsible for many attacks beyond these battlefields. Increasingly this appears to have changed.

It is something that is of particular concern to Russia, which has deep human, economic and security links with Central Asia. In part through the large community of labour migrants working in Russia from the region, but also directly with the countries of the region. Reflecting this, the new President of Uzbekistan is paying his first formal visit to Moscow this week, an event that has been eagerly anticipated since his election as leader in December 2017. Undoubtedly security questions will now feature as a larger part of the conversation.

From Moscow’s perspective, the menace of international terrorism is something that has been a persistent concern for some time. Of late, it appeared as though Russian security forces had been able to, for the most part, keep a lid on the problem. The attack on the Metrojet plane flying from Sharm el Sheikh was something that was beyond their control in Egypt, and at home the last major attack was in 2013 at Volgograd in the run up to the Winter Olympic games in Sochi. But the attack on St Petersburg shows the threat that Russia faces persists, and it is one that is likely to continue to become more acute as the battlefield in Syria and Iraq shrinks and groups seek to apportion blame and punish the outside powers who are perceived to be fighting against them.

There is a further danger within Russia that this growing narrative of Central Asians being seen as responsible for the incidents will strengthen suspicion among the Russian public towards the hundreds of thousands of migrants from the area. This community provides a huge service to Russia in the form of essential labour, while also providing a huge economic boost back home in remittances. The perception of threat from this community may be high, but the reality of it is actually small, a balance that Moscow needs to manage very carefully.

Finally, this attack highlights once again how terrorism is a multifaceted and complex threat that will continually find ways to penetrate security and murder civilians in advance of a political message. In the wake of incidents in Europe including the Westminster attack, the sense was we were moving towards a threat which was more focused on low tech attacks involving weapons easily available in our everyday lives. The reality is that terrorist groups retain the intent and capacity to launch more sophisticated assaults. The recent threat against aviation and the ban on large electronic items on certain routes is a reflection of the continuing threat of highly sophisticated plots; the St Petersburg attack shows how bombs in bags are still an equally effective vehicle through which to murder and attract attention to your cause.

Security agencies around the world will continue to need to pay attention to a wide range of potential threats, expressed in a variety of forms, in many different locations. The threat may yet become more acute as Isil faces defeat in its homeland.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

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Things are slowing down a bit now in the wake of the Paris atrocity, though unfortunately am sad to say the story is likely to not go away. Still some interest around the topic though, and spoke to the Sunday Times about the noisy Sally Jones, to the Huffington Post about how ISIS compares to historical threats, as well as the South China Morning Post about China’s view on the downing of the Russian plane and the Straits Times about what China might do to contribute to the anti-ISIS coalition. More on all of this am sure as ever. In the meantime, a new piece which was acually published prior to the Paris atrocity about China-Russia relations globally for the China Economic Quarterly. Huge thanks to the editors for their patience and invitation to do this. Greatly appreciated and definitely a subject that will be returned to.

China And Russia: Locked In Reluctant Embrace

china russia image

The dynamic of the Sino-Russian relationship is one that has long perplexed Western decision makers and thinkers. At a geopolitical level they appear in lockstep in an anti-western front, but below the surface they seem willing to engage with the west against each other’s interests while also sharing some fundamental disagreements. The reality is that Moscow and Beijing have a sophisticated modus vivendi that both allows for a clear disparity in the relationship in Beijing’s favor, while at the same time retaining an equal sense of importance of the broader strategic relationship. The overriding priority for both remains to ensure that they have an ally against the West and as long as this need remains the axis of authoritarianism will persist.

The archetypal space to explore this complex divergence is Central Asia. On the one hand it is a region where China has gradually increased its footprint to become the most consequential actor on the ground, while on the other it remains linked inextricably to Russia through multilateral vehicles and long-standing ties. And while in other parts of Eastern Europe or the Caucasus Russia has reacted negatively to encroaching external influences with armed conflict (like Georgia or Ukraine), in Central Asia the slow creep of Beijing’s influence has happened largely with Moscow’s acquiescence, though not without some counter-reaction.

China’s interest in Central Asia stems from a desire to improve the economic situation in Xinjiang. Seeing economic development as the answer to ethnic tensions between Han and Uighur in the region, Beijing has embarked on numerous large-scale economic projects to develop the western region of Xinjiang. However, for effective economic development to take place in Xinjiang there is a need for the region to have greater connectivity outwards. A fivehour flight from Beijing, Urumqi is as landlocked as the Central Asian countries it is near, and for it to prosper adequately, it needs to develop routes and roads into the region and ultimately to European markets. Consequently, as Beijing has poured money into the region, there has been an ancillary push into Central Asia with policy banks, state owned enterprises and private citizens all seeing the opportunity and need that lies in developing routes and markets into the Russian space.

Chinese cash displaces Russia in Central Asia…

The consequence of this has been a steady growth of economic influence across the region as Chinese capital and companies move into the region to repave, rebuild and open up Central Asian markets while also taking advantage of the region’s natural wealth to feed the Chinese economic machine. Previously a region largely the domain of Russian extractives firms, and, in the post-Cold War period, large Western players, Central Asia has seen CNPC and other Chinese energy firms moved in to stake claims. But significantly, Chinese firms have not stopped at only extracting energy, with firms showing up re-metering national gas infrastructure, re-developing solar furnaces, and building new power plants, refineries, and transmission lines across the region. The most rapid global pipeline growth of the past decade can be seen in the region, as Chinese firms plan, fund and built in quick succession a series of pipelines bringing hydrocarbons back to China from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

All of this has largely been done to the detriment of Russian firms, who retain key stakes in most regional energy efforts but find themselves unable to compete with China’s easy funding and rapid construction. The American evacuation of the Manas airbase is a case in point. Initially awarded to a Russian firm linked to Rosneft, the company had to withdraw due to lack of funding, leaving a Chinese firm to step in and take over the contract. In Turkmenistan, a longstanding animosity between Moscow and Ashgabat culminated with the main pipeline to Russia blowing up and not being rebuilt. Instead, Chinese pipelines appeared and China is now the nation’s key partner—so much so that Turkmenistan might question the wisdom of its almost complete dependence on China.

…but Russian weapons are still welcome

Despite China’s economic incursions, Russia remains the most credible security provider. Untested by conflict outside its borders, China’s military is still a relatively timid force that is wary of launching direct confrontations or placing themselves in situations that would lead to such conflict. Whenever there is security trouble in the region, the powers look more to Russia to provide them with support – in particular in the more unstable nations of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of whom have looked to Russia to help provide some stability in the wake of interethnic violence (Kyrgyzstan) and to strengthen their border with Afghanistan (Tajikistan).

Moscow has also made better use of regional organizations than has Beijing. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), sponsored jointly by China and Russia, is in the most externally observed, but least effective regional multilateral vehicle. The Moscow-driven Common Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) are all more active in changing the context on the ground. The EEU in particular is seen as an attempt to recreate the Soviet space and is driven by Moscow as a specific attempt to reclaim the economic dominance and influence it used to hold. Encompassing Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan the latest joiners, the EEU gives Moscow the power to dictate border tariffs and standards across the entire region.

In Central Asia the EEU is seen as direct push-back to Beijing’s growing influence. Yet the reality is that the EEU can do little to stem the rising influence of Chinese cash. And for Beijing’s traders keen to take advantage of Xi Jinping’s vision to create a New Silk Road Economic Belt through the region to European markets, the existence of a single tariff zone from Kazakhstan to Belarus will save them money and time in getting goods from China to Europe. Direct trade with Central Asia may be down, but, as traders in Kyrgyz markets at Kara Suu and outside Bishkek pointed out during a visit in early 2015, these markets had been shrinking for years due to closed local borders and weakening local economies. The addition of a failing Russian economy only further softened local currencies and further reduced remittances from Central Asian laborers in Russia, which in the case of Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan account for almost a third of GDP.

On the whole, Beijing policymakers seem to view the EEU as complementary to their Belt-and-Road strategy; and even if they did not, they have reason to be skeptical of the EEU’s longevity. Belarus and Kazakhstan have already blocked some trade across their borders, and it remains unclear how Kyrgyzstan is going to be able to effectively integrate and thrive in an economic union where it has few advantages.

China has the upper hand in bilateral affairs

All of this takes place against a backdrop of a failing Russian economy that is increasingly looking to Beijing for growth. Whilst previously resistant to letting Chinese firms invest in upstream energy assets, Moscow allowed the Chinese Silk Road Fund to invest in the Yamal gas field. In a sharp turnaround from previous paranoia of Chinese expansion into Russia’s east, Moscow has actively encouraged cross-border trade between Heilongjiang and the Amur region, with the governor of the region going so far as to say that he would welcome Chinese workers coming into the region to help repopulate it. The Russian press is increasingly full of stories of actively encouraging trade across the border, something that stands in stark contrast to speeches by President Putin in 2000 about losing Russia’s East to Asia.

In all this investment, China clearly retains the upper hand. The Power of Siberia pipeline remains a project largely on paper as CNPC lobbies aggressively to get the deal finalized on its terms. And although the large gas deal signed between Russia and China was supposedly resolved earlier in the year after almost 15 years of haggling, the reality is that the agreement was largely cosmetic. It came at a moment when President Putin wanted to be able to show the world that he had strong allies in the face of a growing animosity between Moscow and the west over Ukraine. Within hours of the deal being signed, stories surfaced of re-negotiations taking place and a continuing lack of agreement over the pricing structure of the deal.

At a geostrategic level there are further tensions between the two great powers. Vietnam is a long-time client state to Russia that depends on Moscow for military equipment, including naval assets that Vietnam feels it needs to bolster its claims to islands in the South China sea that it disputes with China. India is another long-term Russian ally that has border disputes with China and a long-standing inferiority complex to its neighboring Asian giant.

It is also clear—despite its lack of public criticism—that China is displeased by Russia’s adventures in Ukraine and Georgia, as it worried about the precedent of annexing parts of neighboring countries and recognizing break-away provinces. Nor is it enthusiastic about Russian intervention in Syria where it seems unlikely that more combatants on the field will resolve the situation. As a status quo power that sees the future as firmly within its grasp under the current world order, Beijing disapproves of Russia’s efforts to undermine current structures.

The SCO was supposed to be a vehicle for joint maneuver in Central Asia, but has bogged down in disagreements. Beijing’s interest in having it focus more on economic issues has been blocked by Moscow. And in turn Moscow has promoted a rapid expansion of the group, against China’s wishes. Unwilling to directly confront and exclude others, China has found itself forced to bow to external pressure in letting the organization expand against its better judgment.

Authoritarian birds flock together

Notwithstanding these tensions, the two powers retain a tactical geopolitical alignment. Partially this is for the purpose of mutual support in the UN Security Council. As two of the permanent five members, knowing that they will consistently support each other (by either veto or abstention), means that they need never feel isolated in the body.

Shared political insecurity also draws them together. Both governments are equally paranoid about the overthrow of authoritarian regimes. Both speak equally acerbically about the negative influence of democracy and the wave of color revolutions that swept through the former Soviet space in the mid-2000s and the subsequent ‘Arab Spring.’ Watching as chaos came in the wake of the civilian overthrow of regimes from Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and then later Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, both ascribe these incidents to a missionary foreign policy advocated by western capitals. Fearing that ultimately this wave of civilian insurrection ends up with regime overthrow in Beijing and Moscow, both see each other as fundamental allies in a world divided between western democratic zealots riven with uncertainty and stable one-party states ruled by strongmen and parties.

These underlying geopolitical realities outline why this axis of authoritarianism continues to function as a genuine alliance of sorts despite fundamental differences and an ever-growing imbalance in power between the two. Russia may increasingly be selling itself to China in a manner that will become irreversible, but it is doing this to a power that it fundamentally sees itself locked in step with. It was President Putin who first enunciated in 2000 the fear that Russia would lose its east to Asian influences, but it is also President Putin under whose reign China has become the Russia’s biggest geopolitical friend.

More catch-up, this time a longer magazine sized piece for the excellent current affairs journal Current History. This explores the China-Russia relationship with a particular focus on Central Asia sitting in between them. Clearly more on this topic to come – including a piece soon focused a bit more on the econ and geopolitical equation more broadly. I have pasted the first paragraph below to give you a flavour, but the whole thing is available as PDF below as well.

China and Russia’s Soft Competition in Central Asia

China and Russia have a long history of conflict and competition in Central Asia. Sitting between the two great superpowers, the landlocked Central Asian nations appear to have little choice or control over their destiny, and are often considered to be pawns in a perpetual great game. Yet this narrow view misses the broader picture of the Sino-Russian relationship. It is undeniable that the region has been slipping out of Russia’s immediate economic sphere of influence for some time, but China has been making inroads with Russia’s full acquiescence. For Moscow and Beijing, Central Asia is increasingly a region of soft competition where they are very aware of and attentive to each other’s interests, rather than a source of conflict and tension.

Overriding any differences concerning the steppe are the larger realities of the Sino-Russian strategic relationship on the international stage, where the two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council continue to support each other’s refusal to bow to a Western-dominated global order. Russia may appear to be the loser in Central Asia, but the two powers have established a modus vivendi that suits the interests of both. The real geopolitical losers are likely to be the Central Asians, slowly slipping from Russia’s orbit into China’s.

Please follow for entire article

 

Somewhat belatedly, I am reposting here an article that I had published in the Chinese 东方早报 (The Oriental Morning Post) during Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow a week or so ago. The article does not seem to have been put online, so I have posted the English text that I submitted below. I currently cannot figure out how to attach a PDF here, so cannot add the tear page, but if you are interested, please drop me a line and I can send it over. Related, I did an interview for Danish radio on the visit, focusing in particular on Central Asia. I am also going to use this opportunity to highlight interviews I did for the Italian AGI and The Atlantic on China in Central Asia. As ever for more on my work in this direction, please have a look at the site I manage with Alex focusing on our project on China in Central Asia.

China and Russia will maintain a pragmatic partnership

There has been a great deal of speculation in the press about the significance of Xi Jinping’s decision to make Russia his first foreign trip as leader of China. The implication of much of the discussion is that China is about to reorient itself to turn Moscow into a priority ally, creating some sort of a new axis in international affairs. The reality is that little is practically changing in this relationship beyond reaffirmation of the fact that both sides see the other as a power with which it suits them to be perceived as being aligned.

The relationship in the past few years has evolved substantially. Discussions about enhancing military cooperation and the prospect of joint technological development projects were highlighted during Defence Minister Shoigu’s visit to Beijing late last year, national energy giants CNPC and Rosneft have signed deals to build refineries near Tianjin and explore similar opportunities in Russia as well as looking at doing a large $25-$30 billion loan for oil deal – the Russian firm is believed to be seeking the loan from the Chinese firm in a repeat of a deal from a few years ago. At a political level, President Putin visited Beijing very soon after his election victory, so in some ways this is reciprocating. And on the international stage, China and Russia broadly find themselves in agreement with regards their postures on issues like Syria or Iran and generally prove willing to support each other’s positions in the United Nations Security Council. They both found the ‘colour revolutions’ of a few years ago alarming, and view the ‘Arab Spring’ in an even darker light. Trouble from rebellious provinces is an issue they both share, and they see western plots inside domestic problems.

But beneath this cordiality there is a tension. In the run-up to President Xi’s visit, much has been made in the Chinese press that some final agreement may be about to come about on the topic of gas pricing, a discussion that has been ongoing between China and Russia for over a decade. Unable to reach an agreement, we have seen a number of high level visits come and go with no conclusion in sight of the deal. This time, we are told, it may actually happen. And the logic may finally be there: China’s growing gas relationship with Turkmenistan means that it is going to be less reliant on finding Russian sources, something that will in turn pressure Russia to come to some agreement to not lose its hand in the discussion with China.

This aside, there is the question of Central Asia more broadly. A region that Russia has traditionally seen as its strategic backyard, but where China is increasingly becoming the more relevant actor. Economically, this is displacing Russian interests, though it remains clear that the Central Asian powers continue to see Russia as the more important security guarantor regionally. The story of the past decade, however, is the money and investment flowing in mostly from Xinjiang rewiring Central Asia so its roads all lead to China. Russia is seen to be pushing back against this through the institution and implementation of the Customs Union that at the moment only encompasses Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. But this is a still developing project and it is unclear how it will ultimately impact Chinese economic growth in Central Asia.

Looking beyond Central Asia, there is the dilemma of Afghanistan and the tensions between India and Pakistan. This triumvirate of countries is a complicated one with both Moscow and Beijing having very different views. Russia has always supported ally India, while Beijing retains strong ties with Islamabad. A delicate balance that has the result of keeping both India and Pakistan out of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). And on Afghanistan, while there is evidence that China is slowly coming to the realization that more must be done and soon, Russia remains trapped in the shadow of its history in that country and refuses to commit much.

The point is that China and Russia are not an easy pairing. They may concur on a few things, but disagree on others too. But what they do share is a concern about western dominance in international affairs and a feeling that the American approach is not always necessarily the right one. And it is maybe here that we should look for deeper meaning in the Russia-China relationship. It is not so much that they are partners of principle, but they are partners of utility. Each sees the value in having a strong counterpart whom is willing to stand up to the United States and the West. Left alone, they would end up being isolated in international affairs and have to deal with the brunt of international wrath when they stood up for unpopular issues. But united they are able to provide some cover for each other and extend the travel schedule of any western foreign minister seeking to lobby their support for issues at the UNSC or elsewhere.

China and Russia remain partners of convenience. Their tentative gestures towards a real strategic partnership are likely to continue to edge gradually forwards, and mutual support will continue on the international stage, but the reality is that this is never going to be a holistic and firm axis in international affairs. Instead it will remain a utilitarian partnership that will provide each other with a useful ally when facing down against perceived western interventionism.

 

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

Another op-ed on Central Asia for the Global Times, one of China’s English dailies. This time focused on looking beyond Great Games in Central Asia.

Local needs matter more than imaginary struggles in Central Asia

Global Times | 2012-12-17 19:25:05

By Raffaello Pantucci

Last month, Russia was reportedly ready to provide weapons worth $1.1 billion to Kyrgyzstan and $200 million to Tajikistan along with a further $200 million in petroleum products. In early June, China offered $10 billion through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to Central Asia. India has been focusing on developing a strategic partnership with Tajikistan since September, while the US always develops a stronger relationship with Uzbekistan.

There is a sense that we are returning to the “Great Game” in Central Asia. But this focus on abstract theories misses hard realities on the ground. Outside powers invest in Central Asia to advance their individual national interests, not out of a strategy directed against other powers.

Russia has long been a primary supplier of military equipment to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: The money that Russia is providing will buy Russian arms and will help bolster an industry at home. And Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have long been the weak regional security links, providing a path into the Commonwealth of Independent States directly from Afghanistan. Drugs from Afghanistan can flow along the porous Tajik-Afghan border and from there into Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia and ultimately Russia.

Similarly, were the security situation in neighboring Afghanistan to deteriorate, then other threats could use this path. This is why Russia is willing to spend money to help strengthen the Kyrgyz and Tajik militaries. Certainly, a desire to keep American bases out of its backyard plays into the decision, but direct security considerations are the priority.

China has taken a different approach to Central Asia, one that is focused on economic and trade relations. For China, the main focus is to develop the region’s links with the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to help the underdeveloped Chinese region grow and become a hub for Eurasian trade. The result is a strategy focused on building roads and rail links, infrastructure to support local development, as well as investing in exploiting the region’s rich natural resources.

While China has expressed concern in security threats emanating from the region, it remains a timid security power in Central Asia with some participation at SCO exercises, bilateral interaction about specific security concerns and training missions in Afghanistan.

For the US, the major interest at the moment is developing a stronger relationship with Uzbekistan, something that is largely built around the 2014 exit strategy from Afghanistan. The US and Europe have little direct interest in Central Asia beyond a useful route in and out of Afghanistan.

India, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan and Turkey all express an interest in the region, but have less to work with. Each one sees Central Asia through a slightly different lens, but all are ultimately interested in trying to strengthen their economic relations with the region.

And all of this discussion of outside powers forgets that Central Asians too have a seat at this table. As relatively poor countries that are still in a development phase, they frankly welcome the outside attention bringing them investment that they desperately need.

This is particularly true of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which unlike their other Central Asian partners lack abundant natural resources.

So when Russia comes and offers them substantial assistance, they are going to take it, in much the same way that regional leaders signaled their support for China’s policy toward the region when they attended September’s China-Eurasia Expo in Urumqi. Their hope was to be seen supporting China’s push to develop Xinjiang into the gateway for Eurasia and to see how they could also do well out of this approach.

Focusing single mindedly on the struggle between great powers in Central Asia often misses important details. Doubtless, regional geostrategy plays to some degree into Moscow’s considerations when providing weapons to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but there are equally immediate security concerns at play.

China’s rising profile in the region may make it look like the increasingly dominant power, but this is something that is taking place as a result of an intensive focus from China on the “develop the west” strategy.

The “Great Game” in Central Asia should be left in the past as we focus on the very real problems that exist in the region.

The author is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

A longer article in the latest The National Interest journal, this one alongside Alex as part of our ongoing China in Central Asia project. Whilst the whole article is available on their site, they have asked that I only post the first few paragraphs here for the time being with the rest up later here. The article is the first that captures comprehensively the ‘inadvertent empire’ thesis that is going to be a big focus of this project.

China’s Inadvertent Empire

From the 

A Chinese road crew works in Tajikistan.

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S late 2011 announcement of his administration’s pivot to Asia marked a sea change in America’s geopolitical posture away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific Rim. Reflecting the growing strategic repercussions of China’s rise, the move presages a new era of great-power politics as the United States and China compete in Pacific waters. But is the United States looking in the right place?

A number of American strategists, Robert D. Kaplan among them, have written that a potential U.S.-Chinese cold war will be less onerous than the struggle with the Soviet Union because it will require only a naval element instead of permanent land forces stationed in allied countries to rein in a continental menace. This may be true with regard to the South China Sea, for example, or the Malacca Strait. But it misses the significance of the vast landmass of Central Asia, where China is consolidating its position into what appears to be an inadvertent empire. As General Liu Yazhou of China’s People’s Liberation Army once put it, Central Asia is “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.”

For most of its unified history, China has been an economically focused land power. In geopolitical terms today, China’s rise is manifest particularly on land in Eurasia, far from the might of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Washington’s rimland allies—and far also from the influence of other Asian powers such as India. Thus, Western policy makers should be dusting off the old works of Sir Halford Mackinder, who argued that Central Asia is the most pivotal geographic zone on the planet, rather than those of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the great U.S. strategist of sea power. Greater attention needs to be paid to China’s growing presence in Central Asia if the United States is to understand properly China’s geopolitical and strategic rise.

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Veering away from my recent spate of terrorism related articles, a new op-ed for the South China Morning Post, a newspaper I have written for before on China-Central Asia with the same co-author, my friend Li Lifan. This uses the recent Russian election as a spring-board for some analysis of China’s relations with Russia and Central Asia. This is a topic I am going to be doing a bunch of writing on in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, however, SCMP operate a firewall, so I cannot simply post this here, though I will ask my editorial contacts. In the meantime, feel free to write if you have any questions. (UPDATE, per SCMP’s approval, I have now reposted it all here).

Contest over Central Asia between allies

Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci say China and Russia are both adept strategists

Mar 20, 2012

Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in Russia was predictably controversial in Europe and America. In Beijing, the official read-out provided by Xinhua highlighted a positive conversation, with President Hu Jintao stating with “confidence that Putin’s new presidential term would see faster progress in building a stronger and richer nation”. That statement affirmed the importance of the Sino-Russian axis as a pole in international relations. Putin, the quintessential Russian chess master, has a very clear sense of where Russia’s future must lie, and needs Beijing onside if he wants to carry this out.

The Sino-Russian relationship has had its ups and downs. As Putin put it recently, “there are some sources of friction”. The joint Chinese-Russian veto last month of a UN resolution on Syria attracted attention. But, beyond this, tensions persist as Russia proves implacable in discussions over energy pricing, and tries to develop a “Eurasian Union” to counter China’s successful inroads into Central Asia. The resultant price increase is detrimental to Chinese interests and delays economic integration under the auspices of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO).

But these contradictions are perfectly adapted for both the Chinese and Russian political system, where shadow chess games are seen as the antidote to erratic Western policy strategies. Rather than make dramatic shifts and pronouncements, both sides forge long-term alliances of convenience, focusing on their mutual interests, where possible, while recognising unresolved tensions remain.

This malleable alliance is something that both countries will need in the next few years, as problems over Iran’s nuclear programme come to a head and the US withdraws from Afghanistan, leaving potential chaos in both China and Russia’s backyard. Neither China nor Russia have any interest in seeing the Iranian situation escalate.

In Afghanistan, neither is interested in seeing the nation fall back into chaos, but they will be relieved to see a reduced American military footprint in their immediate neighbourhood. Figuring out how to manage the situation post 2014, the deadline for US withdrawal, will probably require a joint effort, which Russia and China have started to explore within the SCO format. The security drills to be held in Tajikistan in June will showcase the grouping’s capacity to address threats regionally and help improve co-ordination ahead of the American withdrawal.

Domestically, the abutting regions of Xinjiang and Siberia are their respective nations’ most underdeveloped regions and will require close attention from Beijing and Moscow. Xinjiang is a cauldron of ethnic tensions that China is trying to calm with economic development, while Russia’s east is a largely empty space that gets ever more depopulated as its youth go west to Moscow and Europe.

Establishing better prospects and opportunity there will help stabilise the administration of both nations, and better economic co-operation and regional stability are key to long-term development. Of course, underlying this is a competition for resources and markets in Central Asia, with unresolved energy pricing issues and the Russian fear of mass Chinese immigration colouring debates.

But these are known tensions, and carefully managing them is something that leaders on both sides recognise as important.

The two are each other’s biggest allies in the United Nations Security Council and are members of the new BRICS club. As such, they see a close alignment on international issues. At the same time, regionally, they see elements of peer competition.

Striking a balance is the essence of realist international relations. The result is a considered game of chess between a Chinese leadership used to deliberative policymaking and a newly minted Russian leader who has long shown his capacity for an unemotional approach to international relations.

Li Lifan is a senior fellow and Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences