Posts Tagged ‘SCO’

I seem to be on a particular China over its western borders scribbling jag at the moment. Here is my latest, again circling around the twentieth birthday of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), this time for the Straits Times. Have another piece on a related topic which has just landed and will post later, but for the time being enjoy this. For those more interested in terrorism, there are a few bigger pieces on that topic lined up, just been focused quite a bit on China of late as the book goes through another wave of effort ahead of publication next year.

What does China see in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?

Nato soldiers conducting an inspection near the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, in March last year. PHOTO: REUTERS

While the world’s attention was on the G-7, Nato and Europe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) turned 20 last week. Bringing together China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan, and built around counter-terrorism cooperation, the SCO is sometimes described as Nato of the East.

But this misses the bigger impact it has had in terms of providing China a vehicle through which to shape the Eurasian heartland.

As it quietly breaches its second decade, the SCO has given China an ever-deepening foothold in the heart of the planet’s super continent.

We mostly think of Chinese connectivity through the lens of belts and roads. Since President Xi Jinping’s pair of speeches in 2013 that launched his foreign policy vision that has now been enshrined in Chinese Communist Party doctrine, we tend to see that as the starting point for China’s concepts of connectivity.

But contemporary Chinese thinking on these issues goes back further than this.

The roots can be found in the end of the Cold War as China suddenly found itself having to abruptly adjust to the reality of going from having a single neighbour (the Soviet Union), to four new countries with which it shared borders and communities.

Out at Xinjiang’s northern and western borders, the concept of nationhood is still developing.

Central Asian communities – from Uighurs, to Kyrgyzs, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Dungans and more – are all now bound in national borders, but have familial links back and forth across the region.

This reality made it important for China to establish strong connections there early to be able to manage its own communities and security concerns, as well as to try to help Xinjiang develop.

This is the starting point for China’s interest in fostering greater webs of connectivity around it.

THE LINKS WITH THE BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE

In 1994, then Premier Li Peng carved a path in trying to establish these links across China’s western border. On a visit to all of the Central Asian capitals except Tajikistan (which was in the midst of a grim civil war), he championed the idea of a new Silk Road across the region.

In 1996, then President Jiang Zemin created the Shanghai Five grouping, bringing together the leaders of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to discuss border delineation and demilitarisation.

When in 2001 they welcomed Uzbekistan into this group and transformed it into the SCO, they married up these two strands on security and prosperity, describing it as the “Shanghai Spirit”. The idea was that they would all peacefully move forward and engage without treading on one another’s toes – an articulation which is an echo of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is about using connectivity with the world through economic engagement on the premise of joint prosperity.

The resonance is important as it helps us understand better China’s longer-term vision through the SCO, and more generally its aims for the Eurasian heartland.

For China, the SCO is a vehicle to strengthen bonds and normalise its position as the pre-eminent power. The SCO has developed from a high-level organisation into an institution that has annual meetings of ministers from the member states. It has created a post-graduate university exchange scheme which offers opportunities for students from member states to do a year at a school in another member state.

It has working groups that bring together officials, businessmen and institutions at every level.

It has a secretariat in Beijing, a counter-terrorism centre in Tashkent, an interior and border ministry training centre in Shanghai, and an economic development centre in Qingdao.

It has helped harmonise security approaches, legislation and standards across the region – mostly in a Chinese direction.

A recent report by the United States think-tank, the Rand Corporation, concluded that China’s international leadership would be focused on “exercising a partial global hegemony centred principally on Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa”. Such leadership would be characterised by “a reliance on finance, diplomatic engagement and security assistance to exercise influence while maintaining a modest overseas military presence”.

The SCO is the perfect vehicle to achieve this, offering a broad range of links which fit as a tidy parallel to the more specific projects offered under the BRI.

But at their core, both of these are interwoven into the broader goal of placing China as an ever more significant actor across the Eurasian landmass.

THE AFGHAN PROBLEM

China’s dilemma with this, however, is that with great influence comes great responsibility. And it is assuming leadership in an unstable neighbourhood.

As the SCO turned 20, Nato was discussing its plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan, a country sitting on China’s border where it increasingly looks likely that a government controlled or heavily influenced by the Taleban is going to take over.

While Beijing seems surprisingly comfortable with this outcome, some of Afghanistan’s other neighbours are less so.

Shi’ite Iran is worried about the prospect of a return of Sunni hardliners to Kabul. Under the previous Taleban administration, Iran saw its diplomats murdered and religious minorities targeted. The likely waves of poor migrants that are also likely to cross into Iran will put a strain on the already fragile Iranian economy.

Prior to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan suffered a number of large-scale border incursions with links to Afghanistan, while Uzbekistan saw a series of massive car bomb attacks in its capital.

The Tajik civil war of the mid-1990s was fuelled by camps in Afghanistan. And even Pakistan with its strong connections to militant groups in Afghanistan is concerned about a too-powerful Taleban taking control of the country, worrying about the consequences for the violent Islamist groups within its borders (and the potential exodus of migrants).

The one thing that all of these border countries with Afghanistan share is a link (through membership or participation) to the SCO, suggesting that it might be a good vehicle to try to bring some resolution to the country’s longer-term problems. And yet, much like China, the SCO has done nothing to really advance peace and stability in Afghanistan.

This is not for want of trying. Chinese leaders repeatedly try to get the SCO to do something about Afghanistan. This was hammered home again recently at a summit meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his five Central Asian counterparts. A key takeaway from the summit (the first China has hosted since the pandemic) was that they would do something on Afghanistan.

Yet, few hold much hope for that happening, with the statements of intent joining a long list of such declarations over the past years.

But this is the central problem for the SCO which China is going to have to address at some point. Not only the realities of having a Taleban-dominated leadership in Kabul at the heart of the SCO’s territory, but also the fact that Beijing has been building all of this influence and connectivity with little evidence of wanting to step in to fill the security vacuums that are likely to emerge as the West withdraws from this region.

The famous British geographer Halford Mackinder once described Central Asia as the geographical pivot of what he termed the “world island”, comprising the Eurasian landmass. As he put it, “who rules the heartland commands the world-island; who rules the world-island commands the world”. Through the SCO, Beijing can make a compelling case of laying the foundations to trying to control the “world island”; the dilemma China has yet to come to grips with is to acknowledge the responsibilities that are likely to go alongside this influence.

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

Its been a busy week on various fronts, but in particular in work on China-Afghanistan. But it seems apt given the SCO celebrated its second decade. Have a couple more pieces to post from the week, but for the time being here is a piece for the excellent Oxus Society (established by Edward to whom I am very grateful for publishing this) which draws on my various experiences meeting with the Organization over the years. You will find a lot more of this coming in the book which is due out early next year, but for the time being enjoy. As ever comments, criticisms, corrections welcome.

The SCO Turns Twenty

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was born almost exactly two decades ago, on June 15, 2001 at a glittering event overlooking the Huangpu River in Shanghai. Celebrating the birth, President Jiang Zemin articulated a vision for the organization that spanned everything from counter-terrorism, regional trade agreements, to pragmatism, solidarity, a pioneering spirit and openness. The last was delivered without a sense of irony to a room of leaders who (for the most part) had taken power with little public ratification. The key, President Jiang said, was to maintain the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ that had brought them all to where they were today.

This was very different to the birth story I was told almost exactly a decade later sitting in the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We were told that the SCO was “a baby that was born of a time.” It was an “illegally born child” to its parents China and Russia who could not agree on a way forward, hence they decided to form a family called the SCO. But like any family, our Kyrgyz interlocutor informed us, there were “certain frictions” usually involving money, and over time there was “psychological exhaustion by the parents.” A more cynical view that over time I discovered was more typical from the region to what I would hear in Beijing.

A year later, I had my first physical encounter with the organization. After chasing various contacts and colleagues in Shanghai, I fixed a meeting at the Organization’s headquarters in Beijing with a fellow researcher. We had aimed to meet with the Secretary General, but ended up getting passed along to some lower-level diplomats. A Kazakh and a Russian official who were posted to the Organization from their respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs. The more elderly Russian was in a playful mood and clearly enjoying what he saw as a sinecure role. 

Sat in a grand and slightly dusty meeting room which had a cabinet full of football trophies in the corner, we listened as he expounded about the organization’s processes and procedures downplaying any of the more menacing aspects. Projects were nascent and slow moving, he told us. Everything was done by consensus. Terrorism – something he described using the Chinese phrasing of the Three Evils (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) – was a major concern. Economic aspects were still under discussion. The overriding message we got from them was nothing to see here, move along, move along.

The overriding question from all of these encounters was what really was the point and aim of this organization? Western diplomats we met in Beijing or Central Asian capitals would largely rubbish the organization as a large talking shop. Chinese officials we spoke to, however, would talk about it as a foundational element in their vision for Eurasia and the world. Westerners, they would tell us, missed the gentle consensus building that the SCO brought to the table. As a Chinese expert at one of the more influential think tanks in Beijing told me when I asked what the SCO had achieved “to not do anything is to do everything.”

The initial seed of the SCO was planted in the wake of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union fell apart, there was an imperative for China to clarify its western borders. China had shared a long, porous and remote border with the Soviet Union. Once China was suddenly confronted with three new border countries, this vagueness no longer worked. From this was born the idea of establishing a grouping to discuss de-militarization and border delineation between China and the new states of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Meeting first in Shanghai in 1996, the grouping was imaginatively called the Shanghai Five, upgraded later to the SCO when Uzbekistan joined at the glittering event in Shanghai.

China’s vision was larger, however, than just borders and security. It was about economic connectivity and prosperity across the entire region. The larger concept could be found in a visit in 1994 by then-Premier Li Peng to Central Asia, when he swept through all of the capitals except Tajikistan. China was opening itself up after the setback of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres and Premier Li had been at the forefront of promoting the new China, taking groups of businessmen around with him and trying to encourage western firms to come and invest. Central Asia was critical both in terms of being a border region to China, but also given the deep cross-border security concerns that existed with Beijing worried about Uyghur dissidents using the region as a base to launch attacks within China. 

This blend of security and prosperity is what has been at the heart of Chinese interests in the SCO. Focusing on terrorist threats in particular is something that all of the member states find themselves agreeing on, and economic prosperity is always appreciated. Counter-terrorism in particular developed its own home. 

The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS), first announced in 2001, and then formally opened in Tashkent in 2004 was established as a hub for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism activity. When I visited in 2012, I found a sleepy institution in a bright pink building where the Chinese officials refused to speak Mandarin to me, while their bosses told me about the meetings and conferences their institution hosted and some of them fell asleep during our meeting. This dozy welcome, however, masked the institution’s role in creating a common roster of enemies and the growing legal harmonization in counter-terrorism and countering online extremism that RATS helped foster. 

Counter-terrorism has also provided China with a way into other forms of engagement. China pushed forwards the development of a training center in Shanghai which offered courses for Interior and Border Guard forces across the region – providing an opportunity to develop relationships at multiple levels in local security forces. Through the SCO it has hosted and partnered with numerous regional partner forces on joint military exercises. The regular large-scale military exercises provide not only an opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations, but also for Chinese forces to practice with the vastly more experienced Russian forces. It has also increasingly given China an opportunity to show-case some of their military hardware – in particular drones – to potential customers. 

But the organization has over time developed a much wider range of activities beyond this, creating an entire cultural roster of actions and events to encourage what they describe as the ‘Shanghai Spirit.’ A whole series of cultural activities bringing SCO nationals together. A marathon, a film festival, young businessmen forums, a traveling festival of culture which I once came across by chance in Tashkent which included exhibitions from key cities in each member state, a university exchange program which allows for post-graduate students to spend a year at a university in another member state university offer a sense of the SCO’s broader activities. 

Not everything Beijing wanted to achieve has succeeded. Notwithstanding putting almost one billion dollars on offer, the idea of an SCO Development Bank or Fund has never taken off. Repeated efforts to establish an SCO Free Trade Area have gone nowhere. And after having tried to get the Organization to do something specific about Afghanistan rather than just host meetings, China seemed to accept it was too complicated. In 2016, China established a new mini-lateral entity called the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brought together the Chiefs of Army Staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Notwithstanding continued Chinese efforts, they realized nothing was moving forwards within the SCO on Afghanistan and so they built a parallel entity to handle their direct security concerns. This is not to say that China has not continued to push the idea of the SCO doing more in Afghanistan forwards – most recently, after meeting with his Central Asian counterparts in May 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi once again hammered home the point that the Organization needed to do something about Afghanistan. Everyone agreed, though it is still not clear anything will happen.

But China’s relentless persistence with the Organization has paid dividends. And the Organization has only continued to grow over time, now also encompassing Pakistan and India, with Iran a regular courter. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are official Observer states, while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are Dialogue Partners. The Organization is growing and at current count claims to be the largest regional organization by population and geographical coverage – representing about half of the world’s population. Whatever Jiang Zemin released in Shanghai in 2001 has proven to be attractive. 

Beijing has also shown itself to be highly dynamic through the Organization, echoing in many ways their global growth in other areas as well. When one path is blocked they seem to find another. Having been repeatedly stymied in their grand economic goals, China has now managed to start to advance them through its tech and digital giants who have started to work with the SCO to advance China’s Digital Silk Road. Chinese applications, Chinese online markets, Chinese online health and educational platforms, have all become increasingly dominant within the SCO. Central Asians working with the Organization tell me working with Chinese tech is one of their biggest tasks. The capstone of all of this activity was laid in November 2020 with the establishment of the China-SCO Development Zone in Qingdao, which was inaugurated with $8.6 billion worth of projects focusing on China’s digital and tech sector.

China’s SCO partners were not very visible during the event, however, but had supported its establishment during an earlier Summit in Qingdao in 2018. They have continued to attend, participate and host, even as other tensions have developed between them. Notwithstanding the violent border clashes and technological tensions between Delhi and Beijing last year, Prime Minister Modi attended the SCO leaders Summit and paid respect to the Organization, while his country has taken the lead in establishing a working group looking at digital commerce and start-ups ahead of this year’s twentieth anniversary. China and India may be at knifepoint at the border, but Delhi still sees great value in participating in the SCO.

And this is the ultimate goal of this now two-decade old entity. To create an Organization in China’s image that has captivated the Eurasian heartland with its non-judgmental appeal. The constant meetings, conferences and encounters have developed a web of relationships across the Eurasian heartland that are all fostered around a vision of the world articulated by China. The world may be obsessed with what China is doing in the seas, but it is through the SCO and over land that the longer-term play can be seen. It is here that the real impact and effect of China’s webs of connectivity can be found, and a vision of what China’s new world order might look like.

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

Have been delinquent again in posting, but been very busy with a big deadline that is now upon me. In the meantime, have had a few pieces emerge in various places. Will post here as soon as find time. Wanted to flag one up sooner rather than later though as am doing a webinar today about it. It is a short paper for the wonderful Central Asia Program at George Washington University, run by the excellent Dr Marlene Laruelle. Many thanks to her and Jennet for all their work on this paper. It tries to look at how China’s relationship with Central Asia has developed in light of COVID-19, and offers some thoughts on the longer-term impact. The webinar is taking place at 9PM Washington, DC time today, and am sure late signer-uppers can still sneak in – follow this link to get to it.

Beijing Binds: COVID-19 and the China-Central Asia Relationship

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Washington’s intensely negative perspective on China has obscured the ability to look in detail at what is going on around the world. While it is true that many are concerned about China’s assertive rise and how COVID-19 has been handled, the story is not universally negative. In Central Asia, where countries are increasingly dependent on China economically and are likely to become more so in a post-COVID-19 world, the narrative is a complicated one. Previous tensions have been exacerbated by the virus, while at the same time China has strengthened its presence and relationships. The net result is likely to be an even closer binding between China and Central Asia, notwithstanding the persistent tensions that exist between them.

Patient Zero and Sinophobia

Given their physical proximity, it is interesting to note that none of the Central Asian powers have pointed to China as the source of their initial infections. The one that comes closest to pointing an accusing finger is Turkmenistan, which on February 1 saw a flight from Beijing to Ashgabat redirected to Turkmenabat after a woman on board was taken sick. She was discharged from the plane and placed in quarantine in a tuberculosis sanatorium. However, Turkmenistan has not yet had any officially confirmed cases (and this story was not reported in official media).1 In contrast, Kazakhstan identified their first cases as coming from Germany on March 9 and 12,2 Kyrgyzstan from Saudi Arabia entering on March 123 and Uzbekistan from France on March 15.4 Tajikistan only admitted official cases in late April after there had been repeated reports of people falling sick from pneumonia type diseases, making public tracing of patient zero within the country impossible.5 Rumours had circulated for some time prior to these official confirmations about cases, and it is interesting that all appear to have announced their first cases at around the same time.

This relatively late link did not, however, stop a wave of Sinophobia sweeping through the region in January and February as people went down the route of attacking ethnic Chinese they saw in the markets. Whilst early rumours that violence in early February in Masanchi, south Kazakhstan between Dungan (ethnically Han but religiously Sunni peoples who have lived in the region for over a hundred years) and Kazakhs was related to COVID19 inspired Sinophobia proved false,6 there were reports of violence against Chinese in markets in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan7 and Tajikistan.8 In Bishkek, Parliamentary Deputy Kamchybek Zholdoshbaev made a speech in Parliament about how Kyrgyz should avoid contact with Chinese citizens and all those in the country should be forced to wear masks.9 On January 29, a train in the south of Kazakhstan was stopped and two Chinese nationals on board booted off when a panic set in that they might have the virus. They tested negative.10

Reflecting a broader anger against China in the country, in mid-February the announcement was made to cancel the At-Bashi logistics center in Kyrgyzstan. The US$280 million project was signed during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping the year before and had faced massive protests.11 It was not entirely clear from reporting whether the Kyrgyz government or company withdrew the project, but it was obvious that it was the volume of local protestors that drove the decision. Described as an articulation of fear of Chinese landgrab, the project’s collapse is a net loss to Kyrgyzstan as it would have helped restore some of the country’s role as a regional trade hub. There is no evident link between the project’s cancellation and COVID-19, but doubtless it played into the background of protestors views.

Medical Aid Flows Both Ways

Sinophobia was not, however, the pervasive view amongst government across the region, with the Uzbek,12 Kazakh13 and Kyrgyz14 governments all sending various volumes of medical aid to China during the first half of February. The Turkmen government sold one million masks to China at around the same time.15 In late January early February, they all gradually severed their physical connections with China, closing direct borders, air routes and setting bans on arrivals from China. These measures were imposed as much of the world was severing its contacts with the Middle Kingdom as the full measure of the COVID-19 outbreak across China became clear.

It did not take very long for the tables to turn. By mid-March, the Central Asians were facing their own outbreaks and started to seek support and aid from China. The Kyrgyz Security Council met and decided to request support from Beijing.16 Beijing quickly reciprocated the donations, with aid starting to arrive by the end of the month. In the first instance it was mostly to Kazakhstan17, Kyrgyzstan18 and Uzbekistan19 (the three countries that had admitted they were suffering from the disease), but testing kits and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were also handed over on March 30 (a full month before Dushanbe reported cases) by Chinese officials to their Tajik counterparts at the Karasu (or Kulma) border post.20 Turkmenistan remains a black hole of information.

And this munificence has continued, with repeated flights of aid from both regional authorities across China (Xinjiang seems a natural leader, but lots of other regions have provided support as well) as well as the business community. The Jack Ma foundation followed up on an earlier promise of support to Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members by sending planeloads of aid to all Central Asian members.21 Companies with large footprints in the region like Huaxin, Sany, Sinopec, China Construction, China Road and Bridge Company (CRBC) and many more, provided money or PPE (often through the local embassy). One shipment to Uzbekistan was sent by a group of mostly Chinese defence companies using Uzbek military aircraft to distribute PPE to security officials and front line medical staff.22 In late April, the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek handed over PPE and medical aid to the State Border Guard Service.23 By mid-May, the PLA got into the action, sending supplies to their counterparts in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.24 The Uzbek colonel receiving the aid in Tashkent noted that this was the first medical aid from abroad that the Uzbek Armed Forces had received.25

Even before the aid (some of which was sold rather than gifted, though from open reporting more seems given than purchased), Chinese doctors were heading to the region or providing regular video conferences with their local counterparts to share their experiences. For example, a group from Xinjiang did a 15-day tour of Kazakhstan in early April.26 The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) representative in Tashkent met with his local counterparts to discuss how China had implemented its lockdowns.27 The China Petroleum University, who is responsible for the Confucius Institute in Khujand, Tajikistan, launched the translation in Russian of a manual to help deal with COVID-19.28 In Uzbekistan, a telemedicine system was set up between Jiangxi and Tashkent to help provide sharing of experiences.29 Similar exchange structures have been suggested in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The SCO has also played a growing role, interestingly beyond the security space with which it is most commonly associated. On March 22, SCO Secretary General Vladimir Norov wrote an effusive letter to remote learning firm Weidong Cloud Education. A company with a strong footprint through MoUs already around the region, Norov praised the firm’s contribution to member states’ ability to respond to COVID-19.30 In mid-May, the SCO co-hosted a seminar with Alibaba to connect Chinese doctors from the First Affiliated Hospital of Wenzhou Medical University with their SCO counterparts. Potentially reflecting language preferences, the session did not include Indian and Pakistani experts, but did include Observer member Belarus and Dialogue Partner Azerbaijan.31

Persistent Tensions

But all good news must come to an end, and amidst this flood of support and aid there has been a consistent pattern of bad news stories towards China as well. An early one relating directly to the virus was a diplomatic spat at Dushanbe airport in early February when Chinese diplomats returning to the country refused to be placed in mandatory quarantine.32 But most of the reported stories have focused on Kazakhstan, where the government has had to manage anger around an article that emerged mid-April in China which seemed to suggest that Kazakhstan wanted to “return” to China.33 Emanating from a clickbait farm in Xi’an, the article was one of many that were published written for a nationalist domestic audience in mind which suggested that most of China’s neighbours were eager to “come back” to China.34 Unsurprisingly, this was not well-received (though curiously did not attract the same sort of attention in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan about which similar articles were also written35), and led to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to haul the Ambassador in for a dressing down.36

The Embassy sought to dismiss the story as a Western concoction,37 but in early May the Ministry in Beijing caused the Ambassador a further headache when they launched a coordinated rhetorical attack with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a series of U.S. supported biolabs across the former Soviet space.38 Established in the wake of the Cold War, the biolabs were part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) initiative which sought to decommission safely the many weapons of mass destruction left over from the Soviet Army. The story that circulated was that in 2017 an American team working out of one of these labs in Kazakhstan was studying Coronavirus in bats as part of a U.S. Department of Defence funded programme.39 It takes little imagination to draw a conspiratorial line to the current day.

None of this played well in Kazakhstan, leading to news commentaries which in essence called a plague on both houses – saying Kazakhstan was unhappy with both China and the United States.40 This confirmed polling undertaken by a NSF-funded collaborative research project on “The Geopolitical Orientations of People in Borderland States,” which suggested that both the US and China are held in low regard, with Russia only slightly higher as a primus inter pares amongst big powers in the region as far as Kazakhs were concerned.41 It seems as though some of this tension also spilled over into the medical diplomacy China was providing, with Chinese and Kazakh doctors arguing over the amount of PPE they were using in hospital. The Chinese doctors thought all the staff at hospital should be using high levels of PPE for every patient they were handling, while the Kazakhs responded saying they were following World Health Organization’s guidelines which pointed to its use only in intensive care or patients known or suspected to be infected.42

Get Central Asia Moving Again

Tensions aside, the Central Asians are getting quite keen to get their economies moving once again. The Kyrgyz have asked to open their border posts with China,43 something which must have now happened given the fanfare that was attached to the announcement of a shipload of goods heading from Gansu to Tashkent via Irkeshtam in Kyrgyzstan.44 There is further evidence of Chinese agricultural products entering the region.45 The Kyrgyz have taken things even further, and sought to renegotiate their debt load with China – as part of a bigger push to re-negotiate their entire foreign debt burden. President Jeenbekov made a direct plea to Xi about this in a phone call.46 It is not clear that the Chinese have signed off on this, but given the general trend globally (and China’s statements through the G20 about debt relief47), it would be likely that China will extend the repayment schedule at the very least. Presumably, a similar discussion is ongoing with Tajikistan at the very least, though it has not been publicly reported.

The Uzbeks have taken a more pragmatic approach, and instead spoken about speeding up construction of the long-delayed train line between Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China. The Kyrgyz section has held things up, but the Uzbeks now consider it essential to help create a safe corridor for transport in a time of COVID-19.48 Reflecting the possibility that the Kyrgyz obstacle might still be in place, and showing further use of COVID-19 rhetoric for potentially political reasons, the Kyrgyz MP Kenjebek Bokoev said that the virus is a major obstacle to completing the line.49 He appears to have been overruled, however, as the Gansu train is reportedly travelling as far as Kashgar on rail, before shifting over to vehicles before picking up a train again at Osh. This demonstration is presumably a push to try to force the conclusion of the discussion with the Kyrgyz side.

A central dilemma to this problem, however, is who is going to do this construction. Many of the Chinese engineers who were working in the region had gone home for holidays before the virus took off, and simply never returned. In early March, officials in Kyrgyzstan were already expressing concern about who was going to complete various road projects around the country,50 while the Chinese Ambassador in Dushanbe pointed out that there might need to be delays to ongoing projects given absent staff.51

For Chinese workers that have stayed in the region the situation is not always a positive one. Chinese workers in Tajikistan lost their temper at local authorities, rioting at their mining site near the northern city of Khujand. Local authorities claimed it was a protest about the fact that they had not been paid in some time, but it seems more likely the men were fearful of their environment and demanding repatriation.52 As has been pointed out, it is possible that all of these stories are true as the experience of Chinese workers in Central Asia is a tough one in general,53 and shortly before the fight the Chinese Embassy had reported that the first Chinese national in the country had succumbed to COVID-19.54 Long before the government in Dushanbe had accepted its first COVID-19 cases, Chinese contacts in Tajikistan were reporting concerns about the spread of the disease within the country. All of which suggests likely local tensions.

The Central Asian economies had been suffering even before the virus hit them full bore. The crash in remittances from migrant labor in Russia has kicked out a major pillar of many of their economies, while the collapse in commodities prices has knocked out another. China made a coordinated request to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan that they all lower the volume of gas that they are sending, part of a broader slowdown in the Chinese economy.55 It is also true that China appears to have increased its oil purchases from Kazakhstan (potentially taking advantage of low prices to fill strategic reserves – something that has been seen in their purchases from Russia as well56), this is one of few bright economic lights in the region.57 Chinese projects that had been suspended appear to be starting up again and reports are starting to trickle in of Chinese workers returning to complete projects across the region. No one in the region will be looking to Moscow to resolve the economic dilemma that COVID-19 has created, especially given Russia’s own difficult situation with the virus at home, as well as the continuing hit from rock bottom oil prices. Rather, the current situation and its fall-out is likely to push the Central Asians into even deeper economic binding with China, and in increasingly innovative ways.

Towards a Chinese e-future

Alibaba (Chinese Amazon.com equivalent) founder Jack Ma’s aid towards the region comes after a meeting mid-last year with SCO Secretary General Norov and other Central Asian leaders.58 Alibaba’s sites are amongst the most commonly used across the SCO space, with a majority of packages travelling into Central Asia and Russia from China emanating from the company in some way. In his meeting with Norov, Jack Ma spoke of creating some 100 million jobs in the next decade and many of these would be in SCO member states.59 They have also discussed using the platform’s payment tools like AliPay to help facilitate payments across the entire region, as well as finding ways of using the platform to open up Southeast Asian markets to Central Asian and Russian consumers.60

While this ambitious talk may be just that, it is in many ways the realization of something that Beijing has long sought to push through the SCO. Over the years, Chinese experts have repeatedly advanced ideas of creating an SCO Free Trade Area, an SCO Development Bank or other financial institutions. Beijing’s stated aim with the SCO was consistently to make it an economic structure rather than a security one. Yet they were consistently stymied by other members. Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan was particularly recalcitrant, and until relatively recently so was Moscow. Through Alibaba and the COVID-19 disaster, China might have found a vehicle to finally advance this goal.

And this is in many ways the story of China’s COVID19 experience in Central Asia. As with much of the world, the narrative is one of acceleration as a result of the virus and its fall-out. Existing trends supercharged as the world spirals into disorder and confrontation. China has long been re-wiring Central Asia into its own orbit. The virus has merely opened up new opportunities, or at least strengthened ones that were already moving in a certain direction. Economic dependence is becoming ever more real, while the underlying cultural tensions remain strong. China continues to have soft power problems in the region, but these are being subsumed by a web of economic and other links increasingly intertwining the region to China. Taking the example of how China’s response to COVID-19 has played out in cyber-space with links in e-medicine, e-commerce, e-payments, elearning and doubtless more shows how wideranging China’s contributions and links to the region are. In many cases, it might be building on efforts that existed pre-virus, but COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to show how helpful these can also be to the region and increase their uptake. Of course, Russia is still a dominant player (for example agreements across the region through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and common Russian telcos bound by SORM legislation at home means Moscow has great access to Central Asian data61), but the foundations are being deepened into Chinese digital technologies in a wide-ranging manner across society.

Central Asians of course see this with some concern, and would clearly be interested in diversifying their options. But in the absence of serious commitments which cover the broad gamut of their interests, they will find China an irresistible force. While Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in early February as the drawbridges were being pulled up with China was actually quite comprehensive in the range of issues that was covered,62 all of the media attention pushed by the State Department was about confronting China.63 This push to get the region to more actively fight back against China is a losing battle given physical proximity and economic realities on the ground. Something especially the case when US engagement is done in such a spasmodic and occasional manner. And it has to be said that to some degree there is nothing wrong with the region having a strong relationship with China. It would be strange for the Central Asian powers to not have a relationship with such a powerful and rich neighbour. But the perennial problem is that the scales of control are not tipped in the region’s favour, and judging by how the COVID-19 crisis has played out so far, this is unlikely to change going forwards. Beijing will doubtless emerge from the current disaster with stronger links to the region as the Central Asians get sucked inexorably deeper into China’s orbit.

1“Passazhirku reĭsa, sledovavshego iz Pekina, pomestili v karantin v Turkmenabate,” hronikaturkmenistana.com, February 2, 2020.
2 “Dva sluchaia zarazheniia koronavirusom podtverzhdeny v Kazakhstane” Fergana.news, March 13, 2020.
3“V Kyrgyzstane zaregistrirovan pervyĭ sluchaĭ koronavirusa,” kabar.kg, March 18, 2020. 4“U grazhdanina Uzbekistana, vernuvshegosia iz Frantsii, vyiavlen koronavirus” kun.uz, March 15, 2020.
5“Tadzhikistan ofitsialno priznal nalichie koronavirusa covid-19 v strane” avesta.tj, April 30, 2020. 6“Death Toll In Ethnic Clashes In Kazakhstan’s South Rises To 11,” rferl.org, February 13, 2020. 7 “Call Tsenter: Na rynke djynhay prodavcy vygnali kitaycev iz ih konteynerov,” kaktus.media, March 2, 2020.
8 “Chem Torguyut v Kitaiskih Produktovih Magazinah Dushanbe,” asiaplustj.info, March 2, 2020. 9 “Kamchybek joldoshbaev o koronaviryse: nyjno izbegat kontakta s grajdanami kitaia” kaktus.media, January 29, 2020.
10“Dvuh grajdan kitaya podozreniem koronavirus snyali poezda,” Tengrinews.kz, January 29, 2020.
11 “China-led $280 Million Kyrgyzstan Project Abandoned After Protests,” Reuters.com, February 18, 2020.
12 “Uzbekistan Sending Medical Supplies to Virus-hit China,” rferl.org, February 12, 2020.
13 “Mid knr poblagodaril kazahstan za gumanitarnuyu pomosch v bor be s koronavirusom,” lenta.inform.kz, February 3, 2020.
14 “MCHS Kyrgyzstana peredalo 7 tonn gympomoshi Kitau,” kaktus.media, February 19, 2020.
15 “Kitaĭ zakupil v Turkmenistane 1 million zashchitnykh meditsinskikh masok”, turkmenistan.ru, February 16, 2020.
16 “Sovbez rekomendoval provesti peregovory y Kitaia poprosiat pomosh dlia Kyrgyzstana,” kaktus.media, March 16, 2020.
17 “Pervyy gumanitarnyy grus iz Kitaya pribyl v Almaty,” inform.kz, April 2, 2020.
18 “Dostavlena gympomosh ot Kitaia dlia medrabotnikov,” kaktus.media, March 26, 2020.
19 “Istinnoĭ druzhbe rasstoianie ne pomekha,” Uzdaily.uz, March 30, 2020.
20“Kitaj predostavil tadzhikistanu sredstva profilaktiki koronavirusa” avesta.tj, March 30, 2020.
21 Uzbekistan: “V Tashkent pribyl ocherednoĭ gumanitarnyĭ gruz, predostavlennyĭ kitaĭskimi partnerami,” uzdaily.uz, April 10, 2020;Kazakhstan: “Dzhek ma napravil v Kazakstan medicinskie sredstva zaschity,” lenta.inform.kz, April 11, 2020.; Kyrgyzstan: “V Kyrygyzstan pri byla pervaia partiia gryza predostavlennogo osno vatelem alibaba djekom ma,” kaktus.media, April 10, 2020.; Tajikistan– it is not clear from public reporting that any has been sent to Tajikistan, but it seems likely that some will have been sent.
22 “V Uzbekistan pribyl gumanitarnyĭ gruz iz Kitaia,” uzdaily.uz, March 30, 2020.
23 “Chinese Embassy hands over PPE to Kyrgyz Border Gaurds,” en.kabar.kg, April 24, 2020.
24 “Chinese PLA sends epidemic prevention supplies to militaries of 12 countries,” english.chinamil.com, May 17, 2020.
25 “Uzbekistan I kitay klyuchi ot budushchego/narodno osvoboditelnaya armiya kitaya peredala gumanitarnyy gruz dlya borby s koronavirusom vooruzhe”, podrobno.uz, May 13, 2020.
26“Pribyvshie v stolicu kitayskie vrachi posetili nacional nyy nauchnyy kardiohirurgicheskiy centr,” lenta.inform.kz, April 11, 2020.
27 “V GUVD g. Tashkenta obsudili opyt politsii Kitaia v period borʹby s pandemieĭ koronavirusa,” uzdaily.uz, April 6, 2020. 28 “Chinese universities compile the first new crown prevention manual for Tajikistan,” news.sciencenet.cn, April 15, 2020.
29 “China-Uzbekistan telemedicine system put into operation,” xinhuanet.com, April 25, 2020.
30 “Weidong Cloud Education together with SCO to fight COVID-19”,” wdecloud.com, March 27, 2020.
31 “With SCO support, the Alibaba Group hosted a workshop on countering the spread of the novel coronavirus infection,” eng.sectsco.org, May 14, 2020.
32 “Mocharoi Diplomati bo Diplomatchoi Chin Furudgochi Dushanbe,” akhbor.com, February 9, 2020.
33 “Kazakhstan summons Chinese ambassador in protest over article ,” reuters.com, April 14, 2020.
34 “Rising Nationalism Tests China’s uneasy partnerships in Central Asia,” eastasiaforum.org, May 29, 2020.
35 “WeChat responds to the article “Multi-country eager to return to China”: delete 227 articles, 153 titles,” thepaper.cn, April 16, 2020.
36 “Kazakhstan summons Chinese ambassador in protest over article ,” reuters.com, April 14, 2020.
37 “ChinaAmbassadorKazakhstan – Post April 17” Facebook.com, April 17, 2020.
38 “China, Russia can initiate probe of US bio-labs,” globaltimes.cn, May 14, 2020.
39 “Pentagon okruzhil rossiyu poyasom sekretnykh biolaboratoriy,” mk.ru, May 5, 2020.
40 “Kazakhstan okazalsya mezhdu molotom I nakovalnej v konflikte SSHA I Kitaya o voenno biologicheskih laboratoriyah,” ehonews.kz, May 12, 2020.
41“Kazakhs are wary neighbours bearing gifts,” opendemocracy.net, April 30, 2020.
42 “Almatinskie vrachi otvetili na kritiku kolleg iz Kitaya,” ehonews.kz, April 17, 2020.
43 “Kyrgyz, Chinese FMs discuss opening of border checkpoints,” akipress.com, May 27, 2020.
44 “Uzbekistan I Kitay klyuchi ot budushchego Kitay otkryl novyy transportnyy koridor v Uzbekistan v obkhod Kazakhstana,” podrobno.uz, June 6, 2020.
45 “Chinese business briefing working overtime,” Eurasianet.org, June 4, 2020. 46“Jeenbekov predlojil predsedatelu knr oblegchit ysloviia po vneshnemy dolgy,” kaktus.media, April 14, 2020.
47“China suspends debt repayment for 77 developing nations, regions,” globaltimes.cn, June 7, 2020.
48 “Uzbekistan I Kitay klyuchi ot budushchego, Uzbekistan predlozhil uskorit stroitelstvo zh d Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan I Kitay eto samyy bezopasnyy put’ v uslovnikh pandemii,” akipress.com, May 20, 2020.
49 “Coronavirus has become a big obstacle for China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad project: PM,” akipress.com, May 12, 2020. 50 “Premer:grajdane Kitaia pokidaut Kyrgyzstan. Kto teper bidet stroit dorogi,” kaktus.media, March 4, 2020.
51 “Kitaj Pobezhdaet koronavirus I gotov okazat pomoshh mirovomu soobshhestvu,” avesta.tj, March 20, 2020. 52 “Strel’ba v Zarnisore: Pochemu omon podavil protest Kitaiskiv rabochix?” akhbor.rus.com, May 21, 2020.
53 “Chinese business briefing working overtime,” Eurasianet.org, June 4, 2020. 54 “Notify the first case of new coronary pneumonia among Chinese citizens in Tajikistan,” Chineseembassy.org, May 10, 2020.
55 “Central Asian countries discussing shared cut in gas supplies to China Uzbekneftgaz,” spglobal.com, May 5, 2020.
56 “China buys record volume of Russian oil as European demand dives traders,” reuters.com, March 25, 2020.
57 “Kazakhstan to resume exports of its oil to China in March,” reuters.com, February 26, 2020.
58 “SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov, Alibaba Group CEO Jack Ma discuss intra-SCO IT cooperation,” eng.sectsco.org, August 29, 2019.
59 “Alibaba to create 100 million jobs, most of which in SCO countries,” marketscreener.com, August 30, 2020.
60 “China-Russia bilateral trade expand. Alibaba Russia e-commerce,” silkroadbriefing.com, October 9, 2019.
61 “Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia,” privacyinternational.org, November 12, 2020.
62 “Secretary Pompeo’s Visit to Kazakhstan,” state.gov, February 1, 2020.; “Secretary Pompeo’s Visit to Uzbekistan,” state.gov, February 2, 2020.
63 “Pompeo, in Central Asia, Seeks to Counter China,” voanews.com, February 3, 2020.

More belated catch up posting from my occasional column in the South China Morning Post, this one published at the same time as the SCO Summit and G7 in Charlevoix.

From China to Central Asia, a regional security bloc’s long, slow march towards an alternative world order

The world’s attention was on Singapore and Charlevoix but the future may have been in the Chinese city of Qingdao

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 8:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 2:18pm

While the world was captivated this week by the globetrotting show of US President Donald Trump, another summit just days earlier suggested what an alternative world order might look like.

Various heads of state from member nations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) met in the Chinese city of Qingdao for the bloc’s annual heads of state meeting.

The SCO’s activities have been limited in the decade and a half since it was formed but this year’s summit had some significant moments.

First and foremost was the presence of – and handshake between – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain. While the membership of the two regional rivals is likely to be a major block to future activity, the presence of their leaders showed some of the organisation’s potential. Modi’s attendance alone signalled that the world’s biggest democracy wanted to maintain strong links to this archetypal non-Western institution to make sure it had all of its international bases covered.

The event was also an opportunity for two of the West’s biggest pariahs, Iran and Russia, to grandstand.

In the past Beijing has sought to tamp down efforts by Iranian leaders to transform the summit into a chance to bash the West. Back in 2010, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was so disappointed by the SCO’s refusal to admit Iran over fears of antagonising the West that he skipped the summit in Tashkent and instead attended the Shanghai Expo. But in Qingdao, the group chose to unite to highlight their displeasure at renewed Western sanctions against Iran and the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has also regularly used high-profile summits in China to show disregard for Western sanctions and the optics around Putin’s attendance were similar to many other previous events, though this time are topped with a medal for his “friendship” with China.

On the sidelines of the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that “no matter what fluctuations there are in the international situation, China and Russia have always firmly taken the development of relations as a priority”. On live television he then proceeded to give the Russian leader a gold medal lauding him as “my best, most intimate friend”.

Awkward phrasing aside, this is a clear signal that China is siding with Moscow in tensions between Russia and the West. While Beijing might not always approve of Moscow’s disruptive behaviour on the international stage, the reality is that the two powers will, under their existing leaderships, always stand together against the West.

And this signal by Beijing was the most notable point about this entire summit.

China has long treated the SCO with the reverence required of an institution that brings together the heads of state of a number of its allies and which it helped name, while at the same time disregarding it as a functional organisation. Beijing has been unable, for example, to realise some of its key ambitions with the group. China has sought to push the SCO towards greater economic integration and activity, something resisted by other members fearful of China’s further encroachment into their territories.

Moscow sees the SCO as a way to try to control Chinese efforts in Central Asia while the Central Asians broadly view it as a possible way to maintain a balanced conversation with their giant neighbours. Meanwhile, powers like Iran, India or Pakistan see it as an alternative international forum that they want to be involved in.

With the accession of India and Pakistan most observers in China fear that the organisation’s already limited ability to operate is going to be even further reduced.

Yet none of this detracts from the fact that for Beijing it is a forum which they are hosting which now brings together the leaders of over a third of the planet’s population. They are clearly the dominant player within it, and it is a forum in which Western powers cannot meddle.

This gives Beijing the perfect opportunity to show its stature on the world stage and its efforts to offer a more stable alternative world order to the chaotic one that is most vividly expressed by the Trump administration.

The SCO may have done remarkably little beyond hold big meetings and China’s activity in all of the SCO member states at a bilateral level is infinitely more significant than its efforts through the bloc.

But at the same time, this is a forum that has consistently met and only grown. Under its auspices, China has managed to slowly encroach on Russia’s military and political dominance in its own backyard, and has now persuaded the world’s biggest democracy that it is an important group to be involved in.

This slow march forwards stands in stark contrast to the imagery and disputes to emerge from the G7 summit in Charlevoix. And while the Western media may have largely ignored events in Qingdao for events in Canada and Singapore, the rest of the world is paying attention. An alternative order might be starting to crystallise, or at least one that has potential to deeply undermine the West’s capacity to determine the future of world affairs.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

A very short piece for an excellent Central Asian regional newsletter called the Conway Bulletin looking at Pakistan and India possibly joining the SCO.

SCO Expansion Should Not Threaten the West

Expanding the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) will strain its functions but could boost trade and relations between Central Asia and South Asia, writes Raffaello Pantucci.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has achieved remarkably little in its decade plus life.

Established formally in 2001, it grew out of a regional grouping aimed at seeking to define China’s borders with the former Soviet Union. Over time, it has expanded beyond its immediate neighbourhood to include countries as distant at Belarus and Sri Lanka as ‘dialogue partners’.

The current push to welcome both India and Pakistan is likely to further test the organisation’s already limited capability. The practical implications for Central Asia are unlikely to be dramatic, though in the longer term it may help bind Central and South Asia closer together and foster a greater sense of community across the Eurasian heartland.
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In practical terms, the SCO has always been a fairly limited organisation. Seen initially by Russia as a way of controlling Chinese activity in Central Asia, for Beijing it has provided a useful umbrella under which to pursue their stealthy expansion in the region. For Central Asian powers, it provided another format in which to engage their larger neighbours. While the primary thrust of its activity has been in the security space, China has regularly sought to push it in an economic direction.

Yet, at the same time, all of the countries involved have largely pursued their own national interests through other pathways. The most recent demonstration was the establishment by
Beijing of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM). Focused on
managing the security threats from Afghanistan, the QCCM in many ways replicates a function which one would have expected the SCO to deliver.

The addition of Pakistan and India to the grouping is unlikely to change this dynamic.

All of the nations involved in the SCO will continue to function through their own bilateral and other multilateral engagements. But it will offer another forum in which India and Pakistan are obliged to interact and will also help further tie Central and South Asia together. These ties have been growing for some time. Kazakhstan has expressed an interest in participating in the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Indian President Narendra Modi visited Central Asia last year.

If India and Pakistan join the SCO, it will further help tie them together.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the London-based Royal United Service Institute (RUSI).

Catching up on some old posting again, combination of being busy and some technical difficulties causing issues with updating. This is a piece for The Diplomat in the wake of the SCO Summit in Tashkent which passed with very little attention.

Is SCO Expansion a Good Thing?

Whilst the brotherhood of European Union countries has shrunk by one, the community of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) states grew by two. Whilst it is by no means confirmed that India and Pakistan are full members of the regional security organization, their membership is all but assured as long as they are able to ratify the relevant documents through their national processes. The more existential question is whether this membership is going to transform the SCO in the same way that British exit from the EU is likely to transform the EU. As with the EU referendum, no one really knows, but it seems equally likely that the end result will be negative.

SCO expansion has been a source of great trepidation for member states for some time. Previous efforts at expansion had stalled for various reasons. Iran was kept out both for practical reasons: it was under UN sanction in contravention to the rules. But realpolitik also played a role: the larger member states did not want to so openly join former President Ahmadinejad’s aggressive anti-Western alliance. Afghanistan was always kept at near arms length, reflecting some member states’ desires to bring the state in, whilst others preferred to maintain their relations at a bilateral level. And the question of India and Pakistan always seemed to be balanced by the two big powers (China and Russia) who each wanted one of the two in, whilst the Chinese generally grew concerned that an expanded group would lose coherence.

In the end, China appears to have lost this struggle, obliged to both accept its close ally Pakistan as well as expanding a regional organization whose utility it was already questioning. Whilst to outside observers, the SCO was the primary vehicle of regional engagement, in reality, Beijing was undertaking a consistent level of bilateral engagement on the sidelines of SCO meetings. Every SCO Summit was accompanied by bilateral engagements, and by all accounts, it was at these engagements that all serious business was done. Previous Chinese efforts to push the SCO in new directions stalled, including Beijing-led efforts to create an SCO Development Bank, an SCO free trade area, or other economic initiatives.

Most recently, China had shown the degree to which it was losing interest in the SCO as a vehicle for regional multilateral security engagement when PLA Chief of Staff Fang Fenghui raised the notion of a regional sub-grouping of China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan as a vehicle for engagement on regional security questions. Whilst it is not clear that this proposal was a new regional concept as opposed to a potential relevant meeting grouping, its expression reflects a Chinese willingness to look beyond the SCO to resolve regional security questions and highlighting their skepticism toward the organization.

This is in many ways a shame. The SCO, for all its failings, is an organization that might offer some solutions for a fractured region. Central Asia is a part of the world that is beset with border disputes at a very senior level that impede the most basic cross-border trade. The SCO is one of the few organizations that guarantees relevant leaders are obliged to meet with their counterparts on a regular basis on neutral ground. The hope for some was that by bringing Pakistan and India into this format, it would similarly force them to engage in another forum on a regular basis.

In reality, however, SCO expansion is likely to produce little such impact. But it has potentially highlighted a reality in international affairs. Whilst people are keen to leave multilateral organizations in the first world, they appear keen to continue to join them in the developing world. Notwithstanding protestations of national strength and independence by SCO member states, the reality is that they are all 25 years young this year and keen members of an organization that they may not adore, but one in which they have had a resonant voice from the beginning. From an outsider perspective, some of the practices that are advanced through the SCO are questionable at best, but seen from inside they are comprehensible measures that address fundamental questions of national security. This clarity of purpose is what gives the organization its attractiveness, cutting through the nebulous normative concepts that drive European security projects.

But as the EU has learned to its detriment, expansion and new members do not always lead to a positive outcome. It can also lead to a context in which individual member states dictate agendas and steer narratives away from hoped for goals. And it is here that sentiment for expansion for the SCO lies: somewhere between timid optimism and catastrophic exuberant expansionism. The SCO was already having difficulty crafting an identity and practical ideology with six member states, let alone with eight. Going forwards it is likely to continue to drift onward, meandering through the seas of time with no clear port in sight.

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

A new piece with a Chinese friend looking again at China-Afghanistan relations and trying to establish how Beijing might play a more positive role in the country. Something that looks increasingly complicated nowadays with the current chaos, but I think still remains an important project for Beijing to undertake. Much more on this topic to come as ever.

As is usual, however, most discussions with the media were terrorism related, including conversations with AFP, Radio France International and France 24 about the Thalys incident, and separately the New York Times about the death of British jihadi hacker Junaid Hussain and the Independent on Sunday about British women taking their children to join ISIS.

Can China Assert Itself in Afghanistan?

Beijing needs to play a stronger leadership role in Afghanistan.

By Raffaello Pantucci and Kane Luo for The Diplomat

Ghani Xi signing

Confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death has confused an already difficult picture in Afghanistan. Precarious relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been pushed even closer to breaking point, and the one bright spot, that of increased regional support, seems to have slipped onto the back burner. Beijing in particular needs to wake up and play a stronger leadership role in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Ufa with high hopes of again bringing the support of regional powers to bear on helping resolve his country’s ongoing civil war and the growing emergence of ISIS related terrorism within his country. On the face of it, the SCO would appear to be a very promising lead. Now expanding to include both India and Pakistan, the multilateral organization is one that manages to bring together almost all of the regional elements that are likely to be needed if we are to see a genuine local push to resolve Afghanistan’s problems. Its security architecture further offers a set of existing regional structures to discuss and implement some sort of regional response to Afghanistan’s perennial security threats. But thus far the organization has singularly failed to deliver much in terms of action on Afghanistan. The reality is that the real driver of a regional shift on Afghanistan is going to come from Beijing.

Looking solely within an SCO context, Afghanistan has only ever really been a focus under Chinese leadership. It was under Chinese stewardship that the SCO-Afghanistan contact group was created – when Beijing held the chairmanship in 2006. Six years later, it was at the 2012 Summit in Beijing at which the country was more formally accorded ‘Observer’ status. But very little activity has flowed from these shifts, and where we have seen action on Afghanistan from SCO members it largely appears to be at a bilateral level.

This includes China, which while it continues to act in Afghanistan through multilateral formats (for instance, through hosting of the trilateral discussions with Afghan and Pakistani officials), expends most of its attention on bilateral efforts. Yet these efforts have still not crossed the threshold to be decisive, and China still appears to be playing a hedging role in the country. Even in the peace talks that China is currently supporting (although the nature of its role in the wake of the Mullah Omar announcement seems unclear), it seems as though China remains an observer rather than a decisive actor.

Key to advancing China’s potential as a positive force in Afghanistan is to push the current slate of economic projects forward, as well as finding ways to ensure that the peace talks move towards some sort of resolution. Both are clearly difficult, but the first is far easier for the Chinese government move forward.

In late May the Afghan government revealed that Ghani had held talks with a Chinese construction firm to advance construction of the Jalalabad-Kabul road. The Chinese worries about the project were, understandably, primarily focused around security concerns, something that they saw as the remit of the Afghan authorities. This may indeed be the case, but the Chinese government could play a greater role in trying to offer training to Afghan forces to help improve their capacity to protect the Chinese project. Currently, China plays a somewhat marginal role in Afghan security, offering training to a few hundred police over many years, whilst also contributing some equipment to the ANSF. Whilst there are undoubtedly some logistical issues around training (linguistic differences for example), China could step up its equipment and financial support rather than only offering limited amounts of in-kind support.

More substantially in some ways than this, however, is the potential game changer that China could play in Afghanistan’s economy were some of the larger economic projects to come to fruition. At the moment, China is one of the biggest players with unrealized potential in Afghanistan. While CNPC has had some success in developing its field in the north, the Mes Aynak copper project continues to fester unfinished. During Xi Jinping’s head of state encounter with Ghani, discussion was made of the establishment of an intergovernmental committee to help the project move forwards. But there has been little movement since then, and it is unclear that we are going to see anything more in the near term future. This is hugely problematic as the project sits in a region that would benefit enormously from the investment.

At a more geostrategic level, Afghanistan also does not quite see where it fits into Xi Jinping’s great regional vision the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). Repeated conversations with Afghans have underscored that they have not understood where they fit into this grand vision for regional connectivity. The discussion around Afghanistan’s involvement appears to focus on how it might develop into an extension or part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – the strategy for Pakistan to essentially become a corridor for goods going from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar Port in Baluchistan. Looking towards Central Asia, there has been discussion of some connections from Tajikistan extending into Afghanistan, but it is unclear that these are much of a focus for Chinese strategists and builders who are much more focused on developing routes through Central Asia to Russian and European markets. China needs to tell Afghanistan how it fits into the SREB.

China has set itself up to be a major player in Afghanistan’s future and expectations are being raised. It now needs to find ways of asserting itself both politically and economically to play the role that increasingly is being expected of it. Beijing may still shy from such ambitious aims, but at the same time, it is now too late to back away from them. China needs to find its feet and move forward in a more certain manner in Afghanistan.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Kane Luo is Vice President of Wakhan Abresham Consulting Service.

 

Finally posting my second piece from last week around the SCO Summit, this time for the South China Morning Post. Focuses more on the China-Russia side of things. Beyond this, spoke to the Independent about the elusive Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, the Daily Mail about ISIS and women, and Reuters about Chinese intelligence dealing with the counter-terrorism questions outside the country.

Russia holds the door to Central Asia open for China

russia-sco_nem589_51321653

Raffaello Pantucci says to a region in need, the Chinese offer of funds and expertise is too attractive to resist, as agreements at the Moscow-hosted BRICS and SCO meetings show

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 12:05pm

Late last week, the leaders of almost half the world’s population gathered in Ufa, Russia. The collision of the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summits was orchestrated by Russia to guarantee exposure and attention, and highlight to the world how many friends Russia has. Dig below the shallow surface, however, and the links between the countries of the two international organisations are barely skin deep, with everyone attending for their own reasons.

For China, the two summits provide another opportunity for global engagement, as well as helping Beijing advance two international financial institutions. A timid player in many ways on the international stage, Beijing has found that its capital is one lever that it can use without raising too many hackles, and the meetings in Ufa gave it another opportunity to flex these financial muscles.

Fixating on the slow path to SCO membership for India and Pakistan, the world largely missed the key takeaway from the summits: China’s growing financial domination of Russia and its immediate backyard.

In the wake of the first Ufa summit, greater clarity was cast around the BRICS development bank, a new financial entity to emerge from the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, with an initial market capitalisation of US$50 billion. The leaders also created a US$100 billion currency exchange reserve, of which US$41 billion was offered by China, while Russia, Brazil and India each gave US$18 billion, and South Africa contributed US$5 billion.

A day or so later, the SCO members agreed once again to try to advance the concept of an SCO development bank or at least a joint fund.

China has been pushing the idea of an SCO financial institution for some time.

Seeing economic engagement as its major advantage in Central Asia, many years passed before Chinese interlocutors first presented the idea of an SCO development bank.

However, the idea has never quite taken off, with Russia in particular concerned that the vehicle would simply leave the door to Central Asia wide open for Beijing.

We live now, however, in different times, and, rather than be concerned, Russia has opened the door to Beijing. Indeed, Moscow appears to be helping to hold the doors open as China uses its lever in Russia’s backyard. Already endowed with the Silk Road Fund (focused on China’s western partners in Central and South Asia) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s external constellation of economic firepower has been further enhanced by Ufa.

Russia itself has further opened up its own economy to Chinese investment, offering Chinese state-owned firms majority stakes in its oil and gas fields.

Eager for foreign investment and unable to look west anymore, Moscow is reaching east and apparently willing to throw open not only its backyard, but also Central Asia’s.

The result is a further strengthening of China’s hand in Central Asia, as the country pours finance and infrastructure into a part of the world that is crying out for it.

While in the short term there is little to worry about this investment (these are infrastructure-poor countries that will benefit from China’s appealing combination of low-cost construction firms and cheap loans), over the longer term, Chinese leverage will certainly offer Beijing a grip over the region. The lesson from Ufa is that the region’s one great resistor, Russia, has largely lifted its objections and is now welcoming all the Chinese investment it can attract.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Russia holding the door to Central Asia open for China

In honour of this week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Ufa, I have a new piece for a new outlet, the Indian think tank Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. It explores how India might (or might not) benefit from its joining the organization. Related, spoke to Bloomberg about Sino-American cooperation on Afghanistan and unrelated to Newsweek about the revelation that a couple of Indonesian pilots had gone to join ISIS.

India and SCO: the real benefit

India becoming a becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will be a significant moment in its engagement with Central Asia. However, there are not a lot of security or other benefits to be gained

post imageIndia’s path to membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) now seems certain. It is not clear that the Ufa Summit will conclude with the organization admitting both Pakistan and India, but the next step in membership will be taken with Delhi formally being admitted into the SCO structures next year.

But what will this new membership actually mean for India?

The short answer: not much.

An often misunderstood and overblown entity, the SCO was founded in 2001 and evolved from a grouping born out of the end of the Cold War to define China’s western borders. Over time, the grouping discovered a common set of interests in countering terrorism, agreeing broadly on what constitutes terrorist activity and then developed structures to try to counter it collectively.

In reality, the organization has done little in practical terms to counter terrorism, except for holding regular meetings, establishing the unfortunately-achronymed RATS (Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure) center in Tashkent – really just a repository of information of proscribed individuals – and organizing large-scale joint military exercises under the rubric of counter-terrorism. There has been discussion of a number of other entities being created (like an SCO Bank, most recently raised again by the Kyrgyz leadership), as well as an SCO University (a constellation of universities across the member states where students can earn joint degrees), and various other forms of cooperation.

Little has been practically done, however, with the most visible contribution of the SCO being that at least once a year the leaders of the Central Asian countries will have to sit down with each other. This is not, in itself, a bad thing given how toxic relations are between some of the regional leaders. But considering that it appears to be the grouping’s central achievement, there is a somewhat questionable return on investment in the effort.

There is some benefit to this for India. The regular leadership and other meetings around the SCO now means that both Indian and Pakistani officials at a senior level (from Prime Minister and head of state meetings to Health Ministers, Foreign Ministers and Interior Minister meetings) will now have to encounter each other at least once a year, away from the glare of the annual September UN General Assembly meeting. This is not negative as it will provide another neutral forum in which the two rival powers have an opportunity to interact. Participation in RATS may bring some new levels of intelligence sharing, as well as help the others develop counter-terrorism strategies based on India’s long experience of it.

Beyond this, India’s principal benefit from joining the SCO will be geopolitical. It will help bring India closer to China by supporting the only multilateral security entity outside the United Nations that China has both created, is a part of and refuses India entry into. It will also help clarify India’s growing interest in Central Asia – something already highlighted in President Modi’s visit to the five countries on the fringes of his visit to Russia.

This may be the longer-term gain for India. The sometime fractious China-India relationship has been on a broadly positive trajectory for a while, notwithstanding the periodic border spats, thanks to a concerted charm offensive by the Xi Jinping administration. China and India are able to hold constructive conversations on a wide range of issues, from AIIB membership to joint counter-terrorism exercises. The relationship is moving in a positive, though still slightly tentative, direction. Perhaps the principal exchange emerging from India’s accession to the SCO, will be a new push by China to be admitted into SAARC.

The relationship with Central Asia, however, is one of India’s untapped opportunities. Indian soft power already has considerable influence in Central Asia, far more than China. Bollywood movies are much enjoyed, compared with Chinese entertainment, for instance. But it is unclear whether India has really found ways to profit beyond that. In Tajikistan, Indian doctors and military support play an interesting bilateral role, but Indian companies have not participated in the way they should have in the region.

The main problem for India is the physical impediment of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This reality complicates relations, but India has sought to overcome it by developing the Chahabar Port in Iran – an alternative route for Indian products from Central Asia.

The bigger issue is political attention. The Central Asian powers are sandwiched between China and Russia and find themselves increasingly drawn into China’s economic thrall, in the face of a declining Russia to which they are still bound by history and physical and linguistic infrastructure. They constantly seek new partners and India offers an alternative they can appreciate and work with.

India can surely gain from access to Central Asia’s minerals and energy, as also market access to Russia and ultimately Europe. Central Asia is still deeply underdeveloped, offering an entree for Indian construction firms and others. This will require formal support, something that Chinese leaders have long recognized through their regular visits to the region. Indian leaders seem not to have recognized that yet.

SCO membership will go some way towards changing this, though it will still need a concerted effort by New Delhi if India is to capitalize effectively on the opportunity that Central Asia offers. Indian membership of the SCO will undoubtedly be trumpeted as a major change in regional geopolitics; it will only become A reality if India follows through with its offers to Central Asia.

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

This feature was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations

A new op-ed in the South China Morning Post with Lifan looking at China and Russia’s relationship and China’s foreign policy more grandly as part of the discussion around the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) currently going on in Shanghai. I also spoke to Agence France Presse about the meeting.

China relishes its new role fostering regional cooperation

Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci study China’s rising profile as a big power

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 9:12pm

UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 4:02am

The Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, which begins today in Shanghai, largely passes unnoticed most years. But this year it is being touted as a major global event, largely due to Russia’s current awkward relationships elsewhere and China’s growing global profile.

It also offers a window into President Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s foreign policy.

First proposed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan in 1992, it took 10 years for the conference to hold its first summit in Almaty. Now with 24 members, nine observer states and four observer organisations, the conference offers an interesting forum where countries with difficult relations can interact.

This year, there are high expectations of what it might mean for regional engagement in Afghanistan in the post-drawdown world.

The group’s first summit in 2002 was held in the shadow of the September 11 attacks and concluded with a declaration on eliminating terrorism. Non-traditional security threats have always been high on the agenda; in the current environment, they remain a priority.

But in many ways, this year’s event will be overshadowed by the interaction between Russia and the various members.

Both China and Russia have already hinted that this is finally the year when they will resolve their long-standing gas pricing dispute, and both have indicated they will have substantial bilateral interactions, including military exercises near the time of the conference.

The benefits for Russia are obvious. At a time when its relations with Europe and the US are soured over Ukraine, this is an opportunity to interact with a friendly community of nations and show how Russia has other geopolitical options.

One has to take a step back, however, to appreciate the benefits for China. For China, the conference is an opportunity to showcase itself as a major power at the heart of a number of different international forums (China is host this year), as well as a moment where Xi can offer a glimpse into his vision for China’s foreign policy.

This vision needs to be understood in the context of Chinese strategic considerations. One is the four trade corridors: the Silk Road economic belt (through Central Asia); the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation; and the maritime Silk Road. These are really four strings of the same instrument – one that flows from Xi’s comments about the importance of China’s border relationships late last year.

Foreign policy under Xi is one in which China will play an increasingly proactive role, founded on practical economic relationships, but also one that is heavily focused on multilateral cooperation. Xi wants his foreign policy to be seen as all about regional cooperation and integration.

For China, the meeting is in many ways an expression of this. Bringing together contentious partners and old friends alike, it highlights China as a major power that can convene important conferences with all sorts of actors around the table. Its concepts of “peaceful development” and “new great power relations” are both captured within this bigger vision.

The reality, of course, is that this is the natural state of international relations between states, where contentious relations sit alongside necessary cooperation. But it is significant that Xi has seen it as such a critical concept.

Li Lifan is secretary general of the Centre for SCO Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Raffaello Pantucci is senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.