Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

A final column for last year, this time a forward look at Central Asia in 2023 for Nikkei Asia Review, repeats the same format last year. The last one became somewhat obsolete quickly in large part because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It remains to be seen how this one will play out.

2023 outlook: Central Asia is not out of the woods yet

Spillover effects from Ukraine and Afghanistan, so far limited, still pose risk

Vladimir Putin met with other presidents at the Central Asia-Russia summit in Astana on Oct. 14: Central Asia will continue to find Moscow a complicated partner.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.”

It has been a tumultuous year for Central Asia. It started with large-scale internal violence and is ending with talk of a formal alliance between the region’s two most powerful players, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Yet uncertainty remains on the horizon for the coming year, with the potential for violence to boil over, geopolitics to come crashing down around regional states or internal pressures to escalate once again.

The biggest question that still hangs in the balance is what will happen next in fellow former Soviet republic Ukraine. With little sign of an end to its conflict with Russia in sight, Central Asia will continue to find Moscow a complicated partner with which to engage over the coming year.

So far, gloomy economic predictions offered in the immediate wake of Russia’s invasion have not played out.

Higher energy prices have meant increased revenues for energy-rich Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Rather than falling as expected, remittances from Central Asian migrant workers in Russia have risen, thanks to a surge in demand for labor, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Meanwhile, Russian and Belarusian companies seeking to get around Western sanctions have set up operations in the region, as have some Western companies exiting Russia.

These trends helped prompt the EBRD to raise its 2022 gross domestic product growth forecast for the region to 4.3% in September from just 1.1% in May. It also adjusted its 2023 outlook to 4.9% from 4.7%.

It remains to be seen whether these trends can hold.

Europe’s desire to get access to Central Asian energy was on clear display during European Council President Charles Michel’s visit to the region in October. But the same fundamental problems that have long held up trans-Caspian energy routes persist and are unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

Other world leaders are courting the region, too, with Chinese President Xi Jinping choosing Central Asia for his post-COVID return to the international stage, a stream of U.S. officials coming through and Russian President Vladimir Putin taking advantage of some of the few doors around still open to him.

Xi Jinping and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Astana on Sept. 14: The Chinese president chose Central Asia for his post-COVID return to the international stage. (Handout photo from press service of the president of Kazakhstan)   © Reuters

But despite the surge of attention and economic resilience so far, the Ukraine conflict could still carry major downsides for Central Asia.

The Russian economy could still implode, or the geopolitical balance that Central Asia has managed to strike could suddenly shift.

There has also been little international condemnation or fallout from the instability seen earlier this year in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the continuing crackdown in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region or violent border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The general attitude taken by outside powers, including the usually accusatory Western ones, is to simply move past these issues, hoping the governments will be able to handle them.

But the raft of incidents this year exposed a dangerous risk. The large-scale violence in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was a shock to most observers. While things appear to have settled down, the unrest underscored that there are potential issues bubbling under the surface, even in the region’s traditionally more stable countries, which could lead to widespread problems.

What other surprises lie beneath the surface is of course unknown. Few, for example, would confidently speculate about what exactly is going on in Turkmenistan.

A more clear and present danger can be found across the border in Afghanistan, where the Taliban continue to exert a weak grip on power. The Islamist regime may face no direct and obvious challenger, but it is clearly unable to enforce its mandate very far.

This has particular repercussions for Central Asia, due to the continuing threat of Islamic State Khorasan as it broadcasts threats in regional languages and seeks recruits from its outposts in Afghanistan.

Led mostly by Uzbekistan, Central Asia has sought to answer Afghanistan’s problems with a push for connectivity with South Asia, but the cost of realizing this dream is prohibitively high for the countries involved to absorb themselves. International finance could help, but Taliban rule continues to pose a threat to project completion.

So far, much external engagement with the region has focused on security support for mitigating potential problems from Afghanistan, rather than large-scale transformative investment.

China remains an important partner, and the end of zero COVID might bring new economic exchanges, but it is unlikely that Beijing will be willing to expend much to realize Central-South Asian connectivity dreams.

Meanwhile, although Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have started to make a show of strengthening their promising partnership, Putin’s proposal to join with the two Central Asian states in a “natural gas union” has not been flatly rejected.

There is a long history of grand Central Asian visions that have not managed to catch on, so it remains to be seen how these trends will play out.

The fallout from Ukraine has so far not been as bad as initially expected. And while Afghanistan remains a problem, the spillover has been limited so far.

Yet the downside risk in both cases for Central Asia remains high. The new year looks to be a challenging one.

More from late last year, this time trying to dig into the narrative that emerged of Kazakhstan in particular seeking to use China as a counter-weight to Moscow for the South China Morning Post.

Why Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan’s hopes of using China as a hedge against Russia could be doomed

  • Central Asia’s increasingly tense relations with Russia have made closer ties with China attractive, but achieving that is not without its problems.
  • Far from Beijing proving a hedge against Moscow, the opportunities on offer in Russia might simply increase the competition for China’s attention.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) walks alongside Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan on September 16. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have welcomed China’s interest in Central Asia, but that interest has been complicated by the pandemic and geopolitical concerns. Photo: EPA-EFE

Uzbekistan has in many ways always been the heart of Central Asia. It might be dwarfed in hydrocarbon wealth and physical size by Kazakhstan, but its other attributes give it influence. Yet, China does not have the same sort of commanding position within the country as it has with Kazakhstan.

There are numerous reasons for this, from local hesitance to problems in China, but collectively they illustrate the trouble Central Asia faces as it seeks to use Beijing as a hedge against Moscow, with whom relations have grown increasingly testy.

The difference in how Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan see their relationships with the two capitals was most clearly seen in the past few weeks. They both abstained from a vote against Russia on Ukraine at the United Nations, while they voted against a UN resolution seeking a debate on Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang.

Both have been appalled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While some individuals within the countries might hold some moral objections towards what China is doing in Xinjiang, they largely see this as a domestic issue within China.

There is no doubt some element of hard geopolitics has also played into their thinking. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have expressed reservations about Russia’s actions in Ukraine publicly before and are concerned about the clear evidence of Russian weakening.

They seek new partners to help stabilise their increasingly tormented neighbourhood. Their embrace of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the region in September underlines their eager eagerness for more Chinese investment. 

But at the same time, both are aware of the complications of increasing their dependence on China. This came into view during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Uzbek traders report that during the height of the pandemic, the costs of containers going through China to Uzbekistan rose by at least five times. While they have since gone down, they remain more expensive than they were pre-pandemic. The growth of traffic through the region to Russia helps keep them high alongside complications on the Chinese side.

At the same time, routes into China have only recently reopened, even though opening them was a focus of regular lobbying during the pandemic as landlocked Central Asians sought to get goods out and in.

The problems went beyond goods at borders. According to Uzbek data, the pandemic led to an abrupt drop in the number of new companies being created in Uzbekistan with Chinese investment. The numbers have started to rise again but are far below pre-pandemic levels.

China has retained its trade primacy in Uzbekistan, though the numbers are lower than before the pandemic and dipped substantially in 2020. All of this comes on top of Chinese companies in Uzbekistan being seen as behaving in ways that will keep local authorities happy but do not always actually deliver.

For example, media reports and experts on the ground suggest there has been a steady growth in recent years of Chinese companies opening factories in Uzbekistan. This is something the authorities welcome, eager to turn the country into a manufacturing hub. Yet at the same time, it is not clear how much these factories are actually manufacturing rather than serving as assembly plants. 

The reasons for this from a Chinese perspective are logical – it is often not clear the local market will be able to absorb the volume more active plants could produce. However, the consequences are a smaller level of local capacity building.

It also means it can often be quicker and cheaper to simply import the desired piece of machinery directly from China rather than purchase it from the local manufacturing plant. The factory is going to have to wait for the parts from China and then take time to assemble the product in Uzbekistan. Once you factor order book backlogs on top of this, it can become quite a long wait. These problems are not exclusive to Uzbekistan. Import-export firms across the region have noted the trade problems with China during the pandemic, and the unpredictability these have injected into an economic relationship both sides assumed would simply continue to boom. 

This reality lurks in the shadows of the push to warmly embrace Xi. Both Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made it clear they welcomed and sought a closer relationship with China. Kazakh officials behind the scenes were ecstatic about Xi’s comments about being willing to defend their national sovereignty, interpreting it as a protective clause should Moscow’s revanchist eye fall on their territory.

Yet the reality is that China is unlikely to play that role or do much to prioritise trade with the region. This reticence will emerge elsewhere as well, leading to frustration on the ground.

This might eventually turn in an even more complicated direction as Beijing leverages the surge of hydrocarbons and other opportunities that will present themselves as Moscow seeks new markets, against the same purchases and opportunities they see in Central Asia. Far from Beijing proving a hedge against Moscow, Russia might in the end simply increase the competition for China’s attention.

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

A new piece for the South China Morning Post this time exploring the fact that all of the prognostications of China, Russia and other adversary powers sweeping into Afghanistan have not come to pass. In fact, they all appear to have more complicated relations with the Taliban than the US does at this point. There is more to say on this topic, so look out for a refresh soon.

China won’t be filling the void left by the US in Afghanistan any time soon

  • Rather than being quick to gain an edge in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal, China, along with Russia and Iran, remains uneasy about security threats coming from the country
  • Meanwhile, the Taliban government is frustrated at the lack of economic support being provided by its neighbours

A Taliban fighter stands guard at Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop in Kabul on August 30, the one-year anniversary of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. A year and a half on from its withdrawal, the US has managed to establish a regional foothold which enables it to at least deal with some of its security concerns. Photo: AFP

There was a lazy narrative that emerged in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Kabul that this would be a major victory for China. The operating assumption was that Beijing would swoop in and fill the geopolitical void left by the Western withdrawal.

Underpinning this was a general sense of Western decay which “adversary” powers – China, Russia, Iran – would be able to take advantage of. Yet as we have seen ahead of this month’s meetings known as the Moscow format talks, these powers are having as many, if not more, problems with the Taliban government as the West.

The Moscow format is a Russia-initiated group that was established in 2017 to bring together Afghanistan’s neighbours. It includes Russia, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The last meeting of the group was held in October 2021 and included representatives from the Taliban, who walked away from the session feeling that there was a “positive atmosphere”. The format also agreed to treat the Taliban as the de facto authorities in Afghanistan (acknowledging without acknowledgement) and sought to put pressure on the United States to lift all sanctions against the regime.

It is consequently quite a turnaround for Russian coordinator Zamir Kabulov to announce that “the Taliban delegation will not take part [in the meeting], it is only for members of the Moscow format”. The format in his view was to focus on fostering closer cooperation among Afghanistan’s neighbours, while encouraging the Taliban to act on women’s rights and deal with terrorist threats.

Kabulov did not offer any explanation for not inviting the Taliban to the talks. It is not hard, however, to guess why.

The decision is likely linked to a growing frustration among Afghanistan’s neighbours at the Taliban’s seeming inability to deal with the security threats they are all worried about. The ISKP, an affiliate of the Islamic State militant group, has lashed out in its neighbourhood with little evidence of an effective Taliban response.

Iranian authorities have pinned the recent terrorist attack that killed 15 at a shrine in Shiraz on ISKP, while the group also claimed responsibility for the attack on the Russian embassy in Kabul in September that killed two Russian officials, among others. Rocket attacks on Central Asia that came from Afghanistan have also been claimed by the group.

China has so far been spared any direct assault, but the ISKP’s publications are full of anti-Chinese narratives. And Beijing continues to be frustrated by the Taliban’s failure to crack down on armed Uygur groups that are living in the country.

The irritation goes both ways. The Taliban have also found themselves frustrated by the level of commitment from some of Afghanistan’s neighbours. While Central Asian countries have sought a tight economic embrace to help stabilise the country, China has delivered very little.

Beijing has sent some aid, but much of the economic activity seen in Afghanistan has been driven by private enterprise. The large Chinese state-owned enterprises with interests in Afghanistan have held numerous meetings, but actual progress has been slow.

Russia has sent delegations of officials to Kabul and hosted Taliban interim Minister of Industry and Commerce Nooruddin Azizi. They have signed agreements about food, oil and aid, but investment has not been forthcoming.

This stands in contrast to the success of the United States in dealing with its direct security concerns – as exemplified by the drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The US has also provided at least US$327 million in aid, and has opened direct lines of communication with the Taliban through meetings in Kabul and Doha attended by the CIA chief and his deputy, respectively.

The US has also leaned heavily into its security cooperation with Afghanistan’s Central Asian and South Asian neighbours. At the same time, Washington has not compromised on handing over money it had frozen in the wake of the Taliban takeover, instead creating a special fund in Switzerland which will manage the money to pay for key national requirements like electricity.

This has not been seen as positive by the Taliban, who remain furious at Washington for “usurping” their money. And yet, the approach has borne some fruit for the US. The release in September of US prisoner Mark Frerichs in exchange for a Taliban warlord and drug dealer in American detention reflects an ability to strike an agreement with the Taliban that pleases both sides. And it is likely other agreements have been reached behind the scenes too.

It is not impossible that both China and Russia have sought similar arrangements, but the public optics are noticeably different. Russia failing to invite the Taliban to the Moscow format follows growing irritation in Kabul around the lack of Chinese investment, and growing concern in Iran about terrorist attacks on its territory.

A year and a half on from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, we have come full circle. The much vaunted vacuum has not been filled by regional “adversary” powers, while the United States has managed to establish a regional foothold which enables it to at least deal with some of its security concerns.

So much for the narratives of China filling the void.

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

My latest column for the Financial Times on Russia’s purported ‘counter-terrorism’ activity in Africa. Not so much CT as counter-influence operations really, none of which bodes well for the underlying problems.

Russian proxies seize the advantage in Africa’s Islamist insurgencies

As western counter-terrorism efforts flounder, Kremlin-backed militias are offering support in Mali and Burkina Faso

Supporters of Ibrahim Traoré after the coup in Burkina Faso. Russian flags were on display when the leader took over the capital Ouagadougou © Issouf Sanago/AFP/Getty Images

When Russia was widely condemned for its illegal referendums in the Donbas at a vote of the UN General Assembly last month, it was notable that a clutch of African countries chose to abstain or stay away. Many of these had benefited from Russian counter-terrorism support; Burkina Faso – still reeling from a coup sparked by the government’s failure to stem an ongoing Islamist insurgency – might be about to ask for it. As al-Qaeda affiliates and Isis representatives converge in the Sahel region and across the continent, Moscow is increasingly bending terrorism to its advantage in the pursuit of political influence.

The terrorist threat picture across Africa has always been a messy one. Most groups are active locally, and the aspiration or capability to launch attacks beyond the continent’s borders tends to be confined to Isis networks in Libya or Egypt and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Terrorist groups across the region target foreigners, with mixed motives: attacking the Westgate Mall or DusitD2 Complex in Kenya, or the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria attracts attention; kidnapping can often be as much about profit as terror.

The situation is even more complex when groups without clear affiliations declare Isis as their inspiration. Almost half the deaths attributed to Isis worldwide in 2021 took place in sub-Saharan Africa. But it can be hard to distinguish between Islamist violence and longstanding regional conflicts. The jihadifuelled insurgency in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado appears to have some international links but draws on a long history of local disenfranchisement.

Counter-terrorism support from the west has a chequered history. Former regional colonial powers like the UK and France have played a significant role in countries such as Mali, while the US has funded or trained special forces to varyincreased, degrees across the Sahel to help combat threats. Non-military aid in the region has been targeted at the underlying causes of instability.

Yet none of this has done much to suppress the overall threat and may even have been counter-productive. In September 2021, Guinean forces left their training with the US Green Berets to join the military takeover of Conakry. The 2020 coup in Mali, which led to the eventual breakdown in relations between Paris and Bamako, was led by forces built up by the French army over the previous seven years under Opération Barkhane. This project – established by the French after the near takeover of Mali by Islamist militants in 2013 – was undermined by loosely defined goals. As tensions with Bamako the Élysée finally announced in February a withdrawal of troops.

The result has been a turn by Malian authorities towards mercenaries such as the Wagner Group, which has close links to the Russian GRU intelligence agency. This is not unique to Mali: Wagner forces have also appeared in Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Mozambique. In Bamako, members of this Russian proxy militia are celebrated in the streets. In exchange for their services, Wagner appears to be receiving access to minerals while Moscow wins strategic allies, as evident in UN voting patterns.

But the signature of Wagner deployments tends to be a focus on subduing civilian populations and harshly suppressing insurgencies. While the western approach may have not been as effective as intended, it at least avoids the indiscriminate brutality exercised by Russian-backed forces.

In Burkina Faso, the latest coup leader Ibrahim Traoré seems to be playing both sides: he reportedly told US diplomats that he did not intend to call on Wagner forces, but some of his local suping porters have called for a new strategic partnership with Moscow, and Russian flags were prominently on display as he took over the capital Ouagadougou. Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin also posted his support for the takeover on Telegram, saying soldiers had done what was necessary.

Given the failure of many western counter-terrorism efforts, it is hard to see how this battle for influence can be resolved. Moscow is acting both to frustrate the west and benefit itself. It is imperative that the US, UK, France and their allies find ways to continue engaging with Sahelian countries and working to alleviate the disenfranchisement that is often a touchpaper for insurgency.

Security engagement around specific terrorist groups must continue, with better safeguards to prevent it backfiring. And crucially, these efforts must be disentangled from the wider geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the west. Otherwise, the Sahel will remain a region ripe for manipulation.

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Another piece written around President Xi’s visit to Central Asia, this time for the Straits Times exploring the growing clout that China has within the region. Draws on ideas in the book of course, but also on the fact that travel is now possible once again so am able to get to the region a bit again.

China’s growing clout in Central Asia

A vacuum is developing as Russia’s war in Ukraine dismantles Moscow’s credibility and strength across the Eurasian heartland.

A broadcast of the meeting between Mr Xi Jinping and Mr Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan. PHOTO: REUTERS

President Xi Jinping’s decision to pick Central Asia for his first foreign trip since the Covid-19 pandemic began reflects Beijing’s confidence that it is now the ascendant power in the Eurasian heartland. This was clearly evident from both Mr Xi’s tour of the region and the much-watched meeting between the Chinese leader and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the fringes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last week.

The optics around Mr Xi’s visit underlined China’s rising star in the region. First, the grandiloquence was apparent in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two countries he chose to visit.

The Kazakhs were clearly very pleased that theirs was the first country Mr Xi decided to visit. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was at the airport to personally welcome the Chinese leader in fluent Mandarin and nothing was spared in the way of pomp and ceremony for the state visit, including the awarding of the Order of Altyn Kyran (Order of the Golden Eagle) to Mr Xi. The two leaders also toured a recently opened exhibit of archaeological artefacts that was displayed under the title “Kazakhstan-China: Dialogue of the Millennia”.

Not to be outdone, the authorities in Uzbekistan also put on a grandiose welcome for Mr Xi, with large groups of dancing people at the airport. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev could not match his Kazakh counterpart’s Mandarin skills, but he also awarded Mr Xi the country’s “highest friendship award”, the Order of Friendship.

The contrast could not have been more striking during Mr Mirziyoyev’s meeting with Mr Putin. Rather than the Uzbeks offering their visitor an award, it was the Russian leader who dished out a medal to his Uzbek counterpart. He awarded Mr Mirziyoyev the Order of Alexander Nevsky, which is given to foreign leaders “for major contributions to promoting friendly ties with Russia”.

The strains were also palpable during the bilateral meeting between the Chinese and Russian leaders, with Mr Putin openly acknowledging that China had expressed concerns and questions about the war in Ukraine. Mr Putin made similar comments during his separate bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was also in town for the SCO summit. Mr Putin’s comments separately to both leaders only served to emphasise the sense that neither China nor India was in fact very pleased with the Russian leader’s aggression in Ukraine.

But the differences should not be overplayed. In Beijing’s case, at least, the reality is that it has little desire to put Russia down or see Moscow lose in a conflict against the West. The net result of that would be to weaken Beijing’s support base in its larger geopolitical confrontation with the West, and would also provide more space for the West to focus more on China. The conflict in Ukraine provides a useful distraction at the moment.

China is certainly not happy with the global disruptions and costs generated by the conflict, but at the same time, it has little choice but to support Moscow as an important geopolitical partner in confronting the United States-led West.

Wider context

The wider context of the summit in the Uzbek capital was more interesting. Established in 2001 with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and China, the SCO has grown, in large part due to Chinese efforts, to become a multilateral organisation bringing together the leaders of around 40 per cent of the world’s population. It now includes India, Pakistan and Iran, with countries like Belarus and Turkey knocking at the door. An organisation often overlooked in the West (or in much strategic discourse), it is in fact emblematic of the growing influence that China has across a growing swathe of the central and eastern Eurasian heartland.

Mr Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative came from a desire to carve routes across this region, rewiring infrastructure and trading routes that used to lead to Moscow to instead be diverted to China. While the Kremlin was initially dismissive of China’s inroads into the region, Moscow now finds itself trying to co-opt or counteract Beijing by touting to the others what it can offer that China cannot.

Russia, though, is increasingly on the back foot among its neighbours, largely because of Ukraine. In the past couple of weeks, violence has erupted once again between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus. A long-running border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has also escalated again, leading to dozens of deaths as security forces on both sides shell and shoot at each other. This is occurring as trouble on the other side of Tajikistan, in the Badakhshan region, continues, and there has also been recent large-scale public unrest in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Yet, Russia has been able to offer security support only in Kazakhstan, and even then in a limited way.

It is worth noting that China has not stepped into any of these issues. Beijing has little appetite to get stuck in such messy conflicts, recognising that it will struggle to try to resolve them, and will most likely only make enemies in the process. China would rather wait it out and let history take its course. But it will be increasingly difficult to adopt this passive stance as it becomes the biggest economic power across the region.

Few in the region will deny Russia’s importance, but many have become wary of Moscow in the aftermath of Mr Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. There has been notable diplomatic pushback across Central Asia, and a growing sense of a need to develop other options, including building up ties with China.

A vacuum is developing – one which, logically, China can fill. Russia’s war in Ukraine is dismantling Moscow’s credibility and strength across the Eurasian heartland, and China is currently the most obvious beneficiary.

But Beijing has not chosen to do much with its growing clout.

Going forward, evading that responsibility might no longer be possible.

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

Almost caught up on re-publishing my writing here after a long period of delay, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit pointing to the optics of the session as one of the key attractions to some of the members.

China and Russia to showcase alternative world order at SCO Summit

Samarkand gathering demonstrates sanctioned states still have allies of substance

Xi Jinping is set to attend as he makes his first international trip since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.   © AP

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

As the West advances a world order constructed around institutional structures developed after World War II, those leading the charge against the West are embracing their own institutions to demonstrate their options.

This week, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will hold its annual heads of state summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, bringing together Russia, China, Iran and a host of other nations. The narrative these countries want to advance is that there is another order out there beyond the Western-imposed one, as thin as it often seems on closer inspection.

This year’s summit is attracting more interest than previously as Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to attend as he makes his first international trip since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. The fact that he has chosen Central Asia and an SCO heads of state summit to do this, even before confirmation of his third term as Communist Party leader at the party’s congress next month, is a reflection of the importance of the SCO to Beijing.

The exact agenda of the summit is still being set, but it is likely that Afghanistan, new members and connectivity will be key items.

Afghanistan has been a perennial issue on which the SCO has failed to deliver. With the full accession of Iran to the group next year, Afghanistan will be almost entirely engulfed geographically by full SCO members, save for uncompromisingly neutral Turkmenistan, but Iran has been joining SCO summits for a while and Turkmenistan will be there this year too.

Taliban fighters in Kabul celebrate the first anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops on Aug. 31: Afghanistan has been a perennial issue on which the SCO has failed to deliver.   © AP

Notwithstanding the bloc’s clear interest in resolving Afghanistan’s long-standing issues, the organization has done nothing to help it, nor has it come together effectively to deal with the problems emanating from the country.

It is unlikely we will see much material progress this time either amid continuing uncertainty about the longer-term viability of the Taliban authorities, as well as concerns about their mixed attempts to rein in militant groups.

The answer from Uzbekistan’s perspective has been to seek ways of trying to engage with the new Taliban authorities. It has been keen for some time to push a narrative of greater connectivity across Eurasia.

Rather than simply piggyback on China’s Belt and Road Initiative vision, Tashkent has sought to instead cultivate a vision of connectivity between Central and South Asia, to both tap markets and seek escape from the region’s landlocked nature.

But these practical issues are side stories to the main narrative that will emerge from the Samarkand summit.

Attendees are expected to include the leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Mongolia, Iran and Belarus, which are each seeking to highlight their inclusion and links to the SCO. Rumors suggest Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may appear too.

In joining with the leaders of existing members Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan and China, they will be part of a constellation of powers that for various reasons, and to different degrees, have tensions with the West.

For all of these powers, there is a pleasing visual utility to being present at a colloquium of such stature, representing at least a third of the world’s population and with no Westerners present. They can all show that notwithstanding the sanctions or sanctimony thrown at them by the West, they have allies of substance who welcome them with open arms.

There is no doubt that the SCO is nowhere near capable of competing with entities like the Group of Seven, NATO or the EU, but this is not the point. The organization is one that marches to its own beat, has only grown in its 20-plus years and continues to enlarge the volume of topics that it engages on.

It has helped normalize China’s role as a major player on the Eurasian continent while also providing an opportunity for Chinese diplomats, officials and business executives to engage regularly at multiple levels with their neighbors and a growing range of countries. Even supposed Western allies like India and Turkey see value in showing up for the meetings to soak in a non-Western-led order that they can appreciate being involved in.

There is no doubt that the members have little trust in one another, and the international order they are building is flawed. But at the same time, the interesting question is whether this matters to them.

The optics are good enough as the summitry gets positive play in other parts of the world. The event presents the impression, with some apparent foundation, that the democratic order advanced by the West is not the only achievable structure out there.

A short piece for the Financial Times looking forwards on how terrorism might evolve and melt into the wider greater great power conflict that currently consumes international affairs.

Terrorism fused with great power conflict may be the west’s next challenge

Some countries such as Iran persist in using armed proxies to advance their goals

Veteran al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a drone strike on a safe house in Kabul

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Terrorism is the past and the future is great power conflict. In a moment of nearly perfect public narrative, the death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was almost entirely overshadowed by the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. Yet the risk is that we miss how the two problems can become entangled and make each one worse.

As national security agencies turn their focus to states, they will inevitably deprioritise terrorist threats. Yet the shift is unlikely to be as tidy as this suggests. Even more worrying than the risk of paying less attention to terrorist groups is the potential for the two threats to interact with each other. In a worst-case scenario, great power conflict might make global terrorism worse.

The use by states of terrorist groups as proxies is not new. Iran has a long history in this regard. Hizbollah in Lebanon is the largest of numerous proxies that Iran has used to attack its adversaries. In recent years, Tehran has become more overt about using terrorist tactics directly itself.

In July 2018, an Iranian diplomat was arrested in Germany alongside a pair of Iranians in Belgium for planning to bomb a high-profile dissident rally in Paris. Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s former lawyer, and several British MPs were due to attend the event. This month, the US Department of Justice charged a member of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards with directing agents in the US to murder John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser.

Tehran may be the most blatant about it, but it is not the only power to use such groups or engage in such plots. Moscow’s hand can be seen behind some extreme-right terrorist networks in

Europe. India detects Chinese intelligence playing in the shadows of some of its domestic conflicts. India and Pakistan have honed the art of manipulating such groups against each other, and sufunderlying fered the blowback as a result. Furthermore, all these powers see supposedly all-powerful western intelligence agencies lurking behind various networks and plots that they perceive as threats.

The second risk comes from how the war on terrorism has been pursued around the world. As the west grows frustrated with longstanding counterterrorism campaigns in distant places, resources have been pulled back or withheld. Clearly, some capability is retained, but in certain places a vacuum has emerged and Russia has frequently filled it. Private security group Wagner has stepped in to bolster local authorities and launch offensives in the name of counter-terrorism. It is questionable how much this helps. It often appears as though these campaigns exacerbate the anger that creates the terrorist groups in the first place.

Mali is the most obvious example, with the situation escalating to the point that the country’s government is now accusing France – a previous leader in providing counter-terrorism support – of working with jihadis. At the same time, Wagner is celebrated in the streets of Bamako, the capital. But Wagner forces have also been deployed in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mozambique, all places suffering from terrorism that the west has failed to address or is not focusing on.

According to one view, it is a relief to have someone else deal with such problems. But the risk is that they are only making the situation worse, or that they may try to manipulate groups on the ground to their own ends, with little regard for any backlash that might strike the west. Or, this could be their intention.

The other side to this shift in attention is that taking pressure off terrorist groups may end up with no one focusing on them. We do not really know whether the reason we are now seeing a lowered terrorist threat is because the threat has gone down or because of the pressure that was on it.

The exact nature of how threat and response play off against each other is poorly understood. But just because we have stopped worrying about a problem does not mean it no longer exists. It is hard to say with confidence that any of the underlying issues that spawned the international terrorist threat have been resolved. Some analysts think they have grown worse.

Twenty years of conflict have changed the international terrorist threat that we face. But it has not gone away, and in a nightmarish twist it may start to fuse with the great power conflict we find ourselves locked into. The world has a habit of throwing multiple problems at us. In a growing world of threat, disinformation, proxies and opacity, terrorist groups offer a perfect tool. The west may one day rue the fact that it no longer has the relative clarity of the early years of the war on terror.

This report was a long time in the making and in fact completed initially prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but needed a lot of tidying up afterwards. Thanks to RUSI for publishing it, and to my excellent co-author Eleonora for bearing with the lengthy process to get it over the finish line. Am not going to republish it all here, as you can see it in its splendid PDF form for free online here.

Russian and Chinese influence in Italy

By examining political, security, economic and cultural ties, this paper explores Russian and Chinese influence in Italy.

Italy has been one of the leading advocates in the EU of dialogue and cooperation with both Russia and China, and its longstanding political tradition of ‘trying to sit in the middle’ sometimes faces other EU states’ criticism. This paper seeks to explore the dynamics between Italy and Russia, and Italy and China, through an examination of political, security, economic and cultural ties. It also attempts to understand the degree to which Rome’s policy positions are shaped by external influences or internal choices.

While it is inherently difficult to demonstrate influence, this paper stresses Italy’s agency in driving the relationships forwards, though it is clear that interference attempts and the economic connections that exist between the three powers play a role in influencing Italian planning. Even if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is heavily impacting the relationship between Rome and Moscow, how this will play out in the longer term is hard to predict.

More delayed posting, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review which seeks to tie together some of the strands of trouble that have been brewing in Central Asia since the beginning of the year.

The Perils of Ignoring Eurasian Instability

Volatile region has historically caused problems for the rest of the world

A Kyrgyz policeman looks at a burnt armored personnel carrier outside the village of Kok-Tash near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border in southwestern Kyrgyzstan in May 2021: Exchanges of fire continue to take place with casualties on both sides.   © AP

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

As the world focuses on a possible clash between China and the West over Taiwan and war in Europe on the other, the parts in between are going up in flames.

In the past, Russia or the United States could be relied upon to step in and settle the situation, but both are now otherwise engaged. With Beijing showing a reluctance about stepping into the role, this leaves a region that has historically caused problems for the rest of the world without a security blanket.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year marked a turning point.

While Afghanistan itself has seen violence go down, tensions have moved north into Central Asia, with the Islamic State in Khorasan Province launching several rocket attacks into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as increasing the propaganda it publishes in Central Asian languages.

In Pakistan, Balochi separatist groups have continued to grow the volume and ambition of their attacks, as has the Tehreek-E-Taliban Pakistan. Worryingly for Islamabad, there are signs that Balochi and Islamist groups are cooperating.

In Afghanistan, while the Taliban has repeatedly stated that it will not lets its territory be used to plot terrorism against others, it has done little to stop it. In one recent and particularly galling display, the previously reported dead leader of the Uighur militant group Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) released a video showing him celebrating Eid al-Fitr festival this year in Afghanistan.

This is despite repeated calls by China for the Taliban to not allow Uighur militants to use Afghanistan as a base. Left-behind American weapons have already appeared in attacks in Pakistan and even as far away as their border with India.

Looking beyond Afghanistan, the situation in Central Asia has become markedly more violent over the past year.

There has been trouble in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region as locals push back against Dushanbe in clashes that recall the country’s brutal Civil War from the 1990s. An attempt to re-write the constitution in Uzbekistan led to large-scale violence in Karakalpakstan whose costs are still being counted. On Tajikistan’s messy border with Kyrgyzstan, exchanges of fire continue to take place, with casualties on both sides.

Add to that the chaos in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year, which led many to question their assumptions about the stability of Central Asia.

Long Seen As Central Asia’s Wealthy Bulwark, The Instability In Kazakhstan Has Been Driven By A Combination Of Unhappiness With The Government Of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev And An Internal Power Struggle That Has Shown How Fragile The Country Actually Is. And If Seemingly Stable Kazakhstan Can Unravel So Quickly, What Is Really Going On Elsewhere In The Region? Recent Events In Uzbekistan Serve To Only Strengthen This Narrative.

Long seen as Central Asia’s wealthy bulwark, the instability in Kazakhstan has been driven by a combination of unhappiness with the government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and an internal power struggle that has shown how fragile the country actually is. And if seemingly stable Kazakhstan can unravel so quickly, what is really going on elsewhere in the region? Recent events in Uzbekistan only serve to strengthen this narrative.

President Tokayev’s decision in January to call for help from Russia and the other four members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization highlighted Moscow’s continuing role as a security guarantor in the region.

At the same time, Russia’s subsequent decision to invade Ukraine has resonated across Central Asia, in part over concerns that President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist fantasies might swing in Central Asia’s direction.

Kazakhstan, in particular, continues to find itself targeted by Russian Nationalists, and there is a wider concern about the knock-on damage that each country is likely to feel from the crashing Russian economy and the degree to which Moscow might be able to continue to play a stabilising role.

President Putin’s visit to Tajikistan this past week was a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder or Moscow’s importance. His visit focused attention on Russian forces in Tajikistan and their supposed focus in Afghanistan, but aside from likely celebrating the fact that they have not been sent to Ukraine, it is not clear what they are doing there.

Vladimir Putin listens to Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon during a meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on June 28: a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder of Moscow’s importance.   © Reuters

While Washington stepped back from the region following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it has recently taken quiet steps back into Central Asia with a focus on shoring up regional security.

The region doubtless welcomes this attention, but given prior American fickleness and the light touch being applied, it remains to be seen how far the US will, or can, go when it comes to security. Central Asia is ultimately bordered by powers with which the US is locked in geopolitical struggle, while Washington’s relations with Islamabad continue to be complicated.

Throughout all of this, Beijing has taken a watching brief. In Afghanistan, this has taken the odd form of China being the most prominent external interlocutor on the ground with the Taliban government while still hedging its bets.

Beijing’s anger at Pakistan has grown as the violence being directed at Chinese nationals there continues to get worse. There are persistent rumours of Chinese involvement in helping Tajik authorities stabilize the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, but the details are unclear.

There is a narrative in some western capitals suggesting that none of this really matters because the Eurasian heartland is far away and more likely to cause trouble for its neighbours than the west. But this neglects the fact trouble in this region has a tendency to spread.

South Asia has human connections around the world, as well as three nuclear powers will ill-defined borders and histories of enmity, while Central Asian militants have been showing up increasingly further afield.

Afghanistan has long been a major source of narcotics, and it is always useful to remember that this is the battlefield that forged Al Qaida and from which the Sept. 11 attacks were launched.

It may seem unlikely that such a terrorist catastrophe could happen again, but this remains a region that has the ability to shock the world. Failing to take note of instability there could prove very costly for us all.

Back to more book promotion for Sinostan, this time an edited extract that was published by Prospect magazine, focusing in particular on the China-Russia dynamics articulated in the book.

The rising tension between China and Russia

The war in Ukraine and Beijing’s growing military assertiveness are testing relations with Moscow

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen 

June 24, 2022

Tensions: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with President of China Xi Jinping at the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Credit: Alamy

Tensions: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with President of China Xi Jinping at the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Credit: Alamy

The war in Ukraine has brought the China-Russia relationship into sharp relief. China’s seeming willingness to tolerate behaviour which directly contradicts a series of principles that Beijing has sought to advance in international relations has left everyone scratching their heads about the nature of the partnership. The old assumption, often described as playing out in Central Asia, was that China was doing the economics and Russia the security. Yet, travelling around Central Asia my co-author and I Alexandros Petersen found that the dynamic is far more complicated, with Beijing increasingly making its presence felt in the security domain while continuing to value the geostrategic relationship it has with Moscow. The relationship is one that defies the simple narrative often painted in the west, and we found this repeatedly on the ground in the Eurasian heartland that binds the two powers together.

A trip from Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek to Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2013 illustrated the reality of this dynamic vividly. We had noticed the Chinese businessman in the queue for the plane. Stuck in Bishkek’s underwhelming waiting lounge with little else to do, we wandered over to strike up a conversation. Intrigued to find a foreigner who spoke some Mandarin, he told us about his work as a manager/engineer for the China Rail company. While he was vague about exactly what project he was working on, he was very keen to impress us with how well connected he was where we were going in Dushanbe. He showed us pictures on his phone in which he was standing next to a tall and severe-looking Tajik security official in his full dress uniform. Then a young Kyrgyz man in army fatigues came over and started speaking Chinese, saying he appreciated the opportunity to practice. He told us he recognised the severe-looking officer in the pictures.

The Kyrgyz officer had learned his atonal but fluent Mandarin on an 11-month training course in Nanjing. He was particularly keen to tell us about the brothels and night markets he had found. He had been sent on the course along with several mid-ranking officers in his border guard unit—the whole programme was sponsored by the Chinese government. The Chinese businessman chuckled at this strange encounter with all these Mandarin-speaking foreigners, and we separated to board the plane, though of course not before the obligatory selfies were taken.

The encounter was one of our earliest insights into the depth and complexity of China’s security relationship with Central Asia. When we started researching the country’s role in Central Asia, the abiding narrative (that has only recently started to change) was that the Chinese were all about economics and trade. With the advent of the Belt and Road Initiative, this was redefined as being principally about infrastructure and extractives—getting the region’s rich hydrocarbon and other resources back to China. But at no point did we get much of a sense that security was a part of the story. Rather, most analysis pointed to a bargain—unspoken or not—between Beijing and Moscow whereby China did the economics and Russia the security. But this seemed an odd conclusion. In the first instance, our entire sense of why China was interested in Central Asia was predicated on a domestic security concern. China wanted Central Asia to be secure, open, connected and prosperous, so that its own part of Central Asia, Xinjiang, would also be prosperous and therefore stable. Ultimately, China’s thinking about Central Asia was based on the goal of security at home.

There was also a very hard edge to this concern. China is concerned about militancy, both within Xinjiang and across the border in Central Asia. Chinese diplomats, businesspeople, and visiting dignitaries had been targeted over the years in Kyrgyzstan by groups it assessed—in some cases correctly—as being linked to militant Uyghurs. In 2016 the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was targeted by a car bomb. The subsequent investigation revealed a network with links to Uyghur groups in Syria. When we pressed Kyrgyz security officials for answers about the attack, they dismissed it as not having links to international terrorism, pointing to it as an instance of local “political” violence linked to a specific grievance against the Chinese rather than anything else (earlier this year, the US government linked it to a larger Central Asian militant group with a footprint in both Afghanistan and Syria).

While there was little evidence back then of similar networks in other countries, China was nevertheless concerned about the possibility of such threats as well as about other groups that might emanate from Central Asia to threaten Xinjiang or China directly. In the wake of the attack, there was considerable concern from the security community in China around the potential for similar incidents in Tajikistan as they surveyed the security environment in Central Asia, both from the perspective of threats as well as local capability to manage them.

Second, as we uncovered the deep levels of distrust that existed between China and Russia in Central Asia in particular, it seemed very unlikely that Beijing would simply abrogate its security interests in Central Asia to Moscow. The Chinese officials and experts we met repeatedly expressed their disdain for Russia, while at the same time maintaining a convivial public demeanour. Moscow’s management of the post-Cold War collapse of the Soviet Union was treated in Beijing as a textbook case of how not to manage such a change. In Moscow we looked on as, at a prominent event in 2017, one of China’s top Russia watchers wowed an audience of cynical Muscovites with his fluent Russian, peppered with humour and Dostoevsky quotes, as he talked about the relations between the two great powers.

Over lunch afterwards, a Russian friend praised the Chinese academic’s linguistic skills, joking it was better than theirs. Yet, a short year later we saw the same academic in Beijing before an audience of European experts in which he lambasted Russia and complained about how difficult they were to work with. He said China felt forced into a relationship with Russia because it was rejected by the west. Beijing would far prefer to be close to Europe. We heard the converse repeatedly in Moscow over the years. Both were clearly playing to their audiences, but it nevertheless highlighted a deep underlying mistrust.

The Sino-Russian relationship may be strategically important to both, and it has grown closer in recent years through collective confrontation against the west, but they do not trust each other. The Sino-Soviet split in earlier times casts a long shadow. “Frenemies” is the best characterisation we were able to come up with at the time (though it still feels unsatisfactory), where the two see themselves as important strategic allies, but fundamentally worry things may one day turn adversarial. This was repeatedly reflected in discussions we had where it did not take long, in any bilateral engagement, to find that the counterpart in front of us would complain about the other who was not present. Russians were always quick to complain about the Chinese, and after a little prodding the Chinese would reciprocate.

This tension was visible in our various engagements as well as publicly. Discussions around bilateral deals were always contentious and occasional spy dramas would play out in the press. In 2020, a story emerged of the Russian FSB arresting prominent academic Professor Valery Mitko, president of St Petersburg Arctic Social Science Academy. A former navy captain, he was accused of selling secrets about Russia’s submarine fleet to Beijing. A year or so earlier, a similar story had played out in Kazakhstan, where a prominent academic sinologist who had advised the new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in his dealings with China was arrested for selling state secrets to Beijing. A former KGB officer, Konstantin Syroyezhkin was given a ten-year sentence and stripped of his citizenship, meaning he faces deportation to Russia upon completion of his time in prison. All this merely serves to illustrate once again the close relationship that Russia has with the region, and how this competition can sometimes hit up against China.

The debate about Huawei and whether Russia should use the company in the construction of its own 5G network was a good articulation of the tension at the heart of the relationship for Moscow. On the one hand, Russia (and its intelligence agencies) feared letting China into their digital and tech infrastructure, but on the other hand, they felt somewhat limited in their options. As we were told in Moscow, “look who is actually sanctioning us.” They might not trust the Chinese, but they recognized at a strategic level that they are on the same page as Beijing rather than the western capitals producing the alternatives to Huawei, meaning Moscow would have to go with the Chinese option.

It seems illogical that Beijing would, in turn, rely on Moscow to guarantee the security of its growing assets and interests in Central Asia. Given Beijing’s particular concerns around Xinjiang and the importance of this to the Chinese Communist Party and their control over China, this logic seems even more flawed, illustrating why the simplistic assumption that China does economics while Russia does security does not work. Nor is it visible on the ground in Central Asia. The reality was articulated perfectly to us during a visit to Bishkek where, as we were doing the rounds of the think tanks and ministries, we were repeatedly given the line that China did the economics while Russia did security, only for an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to turn to us and say, “well, in fact, the Chinese did just build a new headquarters for our border guards.”

It has been fascinating to watch Chinese assertiveness, particularly in the military domain, grow over time. From a power that was largely passive in security matters, it became a power increasingly flexing its muscles, developing a security footprint that not only served to advance China’s direct and narrow interests but increasingly seemed to be aimed at embedding China within the region’s security apparatus in the long run. What officials in Moscow had assumed was solely theirs has been eroded over time. Afghanistan notably lurks like a menacing shadow for Beijing in the background of their concerns about Central Asian stability. From providing border support and equipment, to language training and Covid-19 aid—China’s military relationship with Central Asia is as ascendant as in every other area. The old implicit bargains between Beijing and Moscow are increasingly being tested, with events in Ukraine likely placing even greater pressure on them.

Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen are the authors of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (OUP)