Posts Tagged ‘Tajikistan’

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 delayed catch up posting, this time a short piece for an excellent website called East Asia Forum, which is a platform for a very interesting discussion about Asian affairs drawing on a wide variety of authors and topics. Some very interesting stuff covered, well worth checking. Mine draws on a well-worn topic for me which is only going to build up further as time goes on.

China’s complicated relationship with Central Asia

2019-09-04T093820Z_1563111202_RC11D584FDF0_RTRMADP_3_KAZAKHSTAN-CHINA-PROTESTS-400x262

Author: Raffaello Pantucci, RUSI

The closure of a mine in Kyrgyzstan, protests on the streets in Kazakhstan. The grand guignol of menacing Chinese investment into Central Asia appears to be rearing its head in public discourse. Both fearful and grateful, the region is a paradox for China at the beginning of its Belt and Road. Hardly a week goes by without a senior Chinese visitor appearing somewhere in Central Asia, revealing a long-term influence game that Beijing is winning.

But the situation in Central Asia goes beyond foreign investment. People want to connect with China. In Ashgabat, queues of eager young Turkmen wait outside the Chinese Embassy seeking visas. For the young in Dushanbe, learning Mandarin is in vogue. In Uzbekistan, Chinese investment is the talk of the town, as the city celebrates the Chinese autumn festival and the China Expo showcases Uzbekistan as key to China’s Central Asia vision. And while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan may have protests, Kazakh leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has just visited Beijing talking of strategic partnerships and Kyrgyzstan awarded Chinese President Xi Jinping their highest national award when he visited earlier in the year.

We have seen anti-Chinese protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan before. Back in 2009 and 2016 there were large-scale protests focused on reports that the government was going to allow China to rent land for agricultural purposes. In 2011, fighting broke out between oil workers and the Kazakh state in Zhanaozen leading to a number of deaths — Chinese company CITIC was among the investors and received some blame for the bad pay which appeared to underpin the protests. Smaller scale brawls between Kazakh and Chinese workers are frequent. As seen currently in Kazakhstan, protests are usually linked to bad working conditions, clashes between workers or environmental damage. There is also usually a strong undertone of local politics.

Central Asians have watched as Chinese money, workers and influence have shaped the regional economic geography with the open support of local authorities. This is a lever that political opponents can sometimes use. Building on an elemental sort of racism towards Han Chinese that can often be found in the region, the protests can actually often be complaints aimed at local authorities. People are often protesting against their own government, with China becoming a target by proxy. This confluence was most clearly on display recently in Kazakhstan where protestors’ public anger was targeted at the Chinese, but the protests were clearly instigated by governmental political opponents.

In Kyrgyzstan, paranoia towards foreign mining investors has repeatedly led to locals scaring away foreign investment. The massive Kumtor mine in Kyrgyzstan has faced environmental issues and other problems for its Canadian owner. Chinese projects are smaller, but beset with similar problems. Stories of pollution, bad pay and local corruption blend with a general fear of Chinese investment which is sometimes stirred up by local potentates seeking to extract more money or score points against political rivals.

And there have been some dramatic failures by Chinese firms in the region. In January 2018, Bishkek lost powerfrom its main power station after refurbishment by Chinese firm TBEA failed at exactly the wrong moment. There are questions surrounding corrupt and pollutive practices of Chinese companies working in the region. Chinese firms tend to lower their standards in the region, ignoring requirements they usually adhere to back home.

What is less visible are the expressions of sympathy and concern about the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang. US State Secretary Pompeo may have heard polite noises during his comments to Central Asian foreign ministers in New York but there is little public sympathy for their plight. Concerns tend to focus on co-ethnics and family members caught up in China’s camps system and fears that their governments might seek to purchase similar technology to use against them. When people do express fear about how events in Xinjiang might impact them, it is at a very personal level focussed on their own personal safety, rather than the broader cause of abuse of Muslims in China.

But very little of this matters to Beijing. Central Asian leaders remain eager for Chinese investment. The once closed Uzbekistan is the most obvious example of this, where the surge of Chinese investment is openly welcomed. Beijing is increasingly holding large portions of debt and becoming the main trading partner across the region.

China, in the meantime, is increasingly focusing on its security equities in Central Asia. Stories of Chinese private security emerging in the region sit alongside more overt displays of strength through the building of bases, the conduct of joint training exercises and the provision of equipment for Tajik forces along the Chinese border with Afghanistan. Already this year, there have been reports of joint training exercises with Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbekforces.

It would also be unfair to not point out the positive side of China’s presence in the region. In Badakhshan, Tajikistan locals may have conspiracy theories about China’s long-term intentions in the back of their minds, but they will admit that the Chinese-built roads have changed their communities for the better. Chinese companies and projects are often seen as more credible than locals — who often show up, make a lot of noise and fail to deliver. And while Confucius Institutes are regularly talked about in the public debate as centres focussed on brainwashing the young to be Xi acolytes, visit them on the ground and they are full of eager young Central Asians chasing the opportunities that China offers.

The story of China in Central Asia is a complicated and nuanced one of an emergent region which is being swallowed up by a neighbour who cares little about it, focussed instead on its geopolitical clash with Washington. Locals at an individual level do not care about these broader issues and are instead trying to navigate their way to prosperity among the economic boom they see in China. As the world watches the US–China confrontation play out on the international stage, few are paying attention to the heart of Eurasia where a sea change is happening. China’s natural borders mean it will always have a strategic interest in Central Asia, but helping the region develop other options should be the focus of western policymakers.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), London.

Another piece for Longitude, the Italian’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs magazine. Part of a special edition on borders it looks at China’s western land relations, building on the work I have been doing on this subject as part of the China in Central Asia project. It is done in conjunction with Sarah Lain, my new co-editor on the site and RUSI colleague.

Related to Syria, I spoke to La Presse about Syrian Chechen leader Omar al Shishani and Newsweek about threats to aviation.

Creeping Encroachment, China’s Western Surge

While many are concerned with territorial disputes in Southeast Asia, the fact that China is quietly expanding its presence westward often goes unnoticed. Beijing has now become a huge player in Central Asia’s Great Game.

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A PDF of the article can be found here: Longitude China Central Asia Borders

Slightly delayed posting of my latest piece, this time with my sometime co-author and friend Li Lifan looking again at China-Russia and Central Asia. This was part of a series that Ben edited at Open Democracy Russia which seems to have attracted some attention. As usual, a lot more on this topic coming soon as part of mine and Alex’s project on China in Central Asia.

Decision time for Central Asia: Russia or China?

LI LIFAN and RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI 24 January 2013

Vladimir Putin’s attempts to draw the countries of central Asia into his fledgling Eurasian Union creates a dilemma for some of them: if they take up his offer, they might lose their valuable trading links with China. Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci discuss their options.

If one turns enough of a blind eye, it is easy to be optimistic about Central Asia. Wily diplomats from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are masterfully playing off the great powers. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are turning into hubs in their own right – and nobody can tell plucky Uzbekistan what to do. This is nobody’s backyard, and attempts by neo-imperialists in Moscow, Washington and Beijing to play games in the region are only strengthening the hands of the Central Asian states themselves. This is a comforting picture – which is why Western policymakers love it – but it looks increasingly false as President Putin tightens the screws.

Why a Eurasian Union matters

Russia’s desire to strengthen its sphere of influence in Central Asia seems to be intensifying. The first sign came in October 2011 when Russia’s ‘national leader’ published his vision for a Eurasian Union in the Gazprom-Media owned daily Izvestia. Here Putin stated that the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan that would come into force on 1st January 2012 was just the beginning – and that it would expand ‘by involving Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Then, we plan to go beyond that, and set ourselves the ambitious goal of a higher level of integration – a Eurasian Union.’

The Russian president is said to dream of his third term being his ‘geopolitical presidency,’ where he will make up for the lost ground and lack of achievement in foreign affairs that he views as his main failing. The transformation of the fledgling Customs Union into the Eurasian Union of his dreams is the centrepiece of this strategy. Whilst Kazakhstan seems to have already decided that it wants to be a part of the Union (and its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev is credited for first raising the idea of a Customs Union back in 1995), for the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan this is a potential turning point, forcing a decision on which partner they want to prioritize: China or Russia?

The way Central Asian states will turn — to Russia’s Eurasian Union or to China — is the test for influence in the region. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia/IvaNdimitry

Deciding whether to follow Putin into the Eurasian Union will be a decisive choice for both states in the year ahead, as it will force them to choose which they want to risk: the GDP they get from trade with China or the GDP generated from remittances from their nationals working in Russia. Putin has thrown down the gauntlet – they will now have to make up their minds whether their economic future is going to be closer to Moscow or Beijing. Their dichotomy is not quite as black and white as this, but this is nevertheless a power test. The choices they make will decide whether Russia or China has a stronger say in Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan’s dilemma

There is a simple reason why Putin’s union matters so much to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: trade with China. Unlike energy rich Kazakhstan, already in the Customs Union, Bishkek and Dushanbe’s economies are dependent on business with Beijing. Kyrgyzstan’s ‘shuttle trade’ business with China, where small traders cross borders as ‘tourists’ with their goods in suitcases in order to avoid Customs duties, accounts for roughly a third of its GDP.

On the other hand there is fear in Bishkek that if they do not deepen integration with Moscow then the millions of migrant workers it exports to Russia – whose remittances are also equivalent to a third of GDP – will be forced to carry international passports, or suffer far reduced quotas. The nightmare is that they will eventually end up barred from Moscow’s labour market by a full visa regime – something nationalist elements in Russia, including charismatic opposition leader Alexey Navalny, have been calling for.

These fears are well grounded: in December 2012 Putin warned that within three years he wanted to end the post-Soviet practice of migrants from the CIS being able to come to Russia on their internal passports, effectively ID cards – but Customs Union members will be exempted from the new requirement for international passports. Polls conducted by the independent Levada Centreshow over 60% of Russians supporting tighter immigration controls.

Visa-free admission to Russia and access to the Russian labour market may be soon be a thing of the past for Kyrgyz migrants. Photo: (cc) Shutterstock/FotograFFF

That free access to Russia can no longer be taken for granted is not lost on Kyrgyzstan. But at the same time the Kyrgyz elite fears that joining a Eurasian Union would mean effectively losing control over its border tariffs and regulations, and would destroy the rich network of new trade routes that are tying them into China, bringing them cheap goods and enabling a substantial re-export economy. These trade routes are economic lifelines for this fragile state – and for this network the Customs Union has all the potential to be a total disaster. As a former Kyrgyz cabinet minister put it to one of us in Bishkek last year, it would ‘decimate’ the country’s key markets in the south at Kara Suu and Osh. In his words, ‘almost every’ small business in Kyrgyzstan is reliant on trade with China and any new tariffs or rules would entirely change the local economy.

China: vulnerability and official indifference

Chinese officials insist that the expansion of the Customs Union matters little to them. Ambassador to Bishkek Wang Kaiwen put it succinctly to reporters in late November when he said: ‘Kyrgyzstan’s entry into this Customs Union will not affect trade relations with China.’ Kyrgyz-Chinese trade, he pointed out, oscillated somewhere between $5-$10 billion per annum, a figure that was ‘a small problem’ dwarfed by China’s overall foreign trade of $3 trillion. The question of whether ‘to join or not…should be your decision.’

This blunt response hides a complex reality. It is true that in the grand scheme of things, China’s trade with Kyrgyzstan is a drop in the ocean. The problem for China is that it is a drop that comes from one of the most troubled parts of one of its most restive provinces. China is not investing massively in its trade infrastructure with Central Asian countries for reasons of charity – but to stabilize its own restive Xinjiang Uygur province by turning it into a trade hub for this region.

The Eurasian Union would have a potentially damaging effect on the substantial investment China has made on both sides of its border. The erection of a Russia controlled tariff barrier between China and Kyrgyzstan is likely to have a chilling effect on trade coming out of Kashgar, at a time when the Chinese government has invested a great deal into trying to develop the southern city. Capital of a part of Xinjiang that has faced heightened ethnic tensions for decades, the government has spent a lot of money re-developing the old city and establishing a Special Economic Zone with the aim of turning it into a hub for Central Asian trade.

According to recent figures China invested some $91.91 billion into infrastructure in its ‘western provinces’ – an area that covers Tibet, Guizhou and Xinjiang. This is a focused strategy and Xinjiang sits in the middle of it. All of this will be threatened if suddenly traders no longer find it profitable to send their goods along the roads winding into the CIS from Kashgar. At the same time these traders’ choice of markets is surprisingly limited: without a route through Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan they would have to travel through the Khunjerab Pass to Pakistan. The problem there is the roads on the Pakistani side remain woefully under-built. Their only other possible border crossing would be with Afghanistan, which remains firmly closed at time of writing.

Seen from China, these are unanswered questions. When one of us asked a group of academics in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, what they thought of the Customs Union’s impact to China, they shrugged and in vague terms said they were ‘waiting to see’ if the Customs Union would actually come to pass across the whole region. In Shanghai and Beijing, everyone has stories of friends who have conducted surveys in the region that highlight its unpopularity. But this is largely behind closed doors. The official line is that espoused by Ambassador Wang, that ‘Kyrgyzstan’s entry into Customs Union will not affect trade relations with China.’ Nothing to see here, keep moving on…

A losing game for small states?

This used to be the sort of situation where Central Asians were in their element, masters of the game of playing one partner off against another. Kyrgyzstan in particular has cannily used access to its Manas airbase to extract large chunks of money from both America and Russia. This time it seems as though Moscow is playing a much harder game, forcing Bishkek into a decision that could ruin one aspect of its economy or another. How this plays out may end up determining the shape of the Kyrgyz economy. For all the talk about China in Central Asia, Putin is still able to compete with Beijing – and the choices made in Bishkek and Dushanbe will make it clearer whether Moscow is still the world power it dreams of being.

A kick-off to the new year with Alex on China-Central Asia with an overview for Jamestown Foundations’ China Brief. This is part of our ongoing project looking at China in Central Asia about which we have a number of large publications coming this year.

China and Central Asia in 2013

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 2
January 18, 2013 05:10 PM Age: 1 days

China’s Gateway to Central Asia, Khorgos, picture from here

In the last two years, China has emerged as the most consequential outside actor in Central Asia. As we have described in other writings, China’s ascension to this role has been largely inadvertent [1]. It has more to do with the region’s contemporary circumstances and China’s overall economic momentum than a concerted effort emanating from the Zhongnanhai. The implications for United States and NATO policy are nevertheless profound. Not only have the geopolitics of Eurasia shifted in ways little understood in Washington and Brussels, but the socio-political and physical undergirding of the post-Soviet space from Aktobe to Kandahar is being transformed.

Official Chinese policy in Central Asia is quiet and cautious, focused on developing the region as an economic partner with its western province Xinjiang whilst also looking beyond at what China characterizes as the “Eurasian Land Bridge…connecting east Asia and west Europe” (Xinhua, September 4, 2012). Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are active throughout the region on major infrastructure projects, but it is not clear how much they are being directed as part of some grand strategy as opposed to focusing on obvious profitable opportunities. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the main multilateral vehicle for Chinese regional efforts and reassuring engagement is a powerfully symbolic, but institutionally empty actor. Many smaller Chinese actors—ranging from shuttle traders to small-time entrepreneurs to schoolteachers and students posted to Confucius Institutes throughout the region—are the gradual vanguard of possible long-term Chinese investment and influence.

China’s engagement in Afghanistan is growing as U.S. and Western involvement wanes. Whether Chinese companies and diplomats remain in the event of a surge in violence and country-wide destabilization is a question that will be answered post-2014. For the moment, however, Chinese SOEs Metallurgic Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper are invested heavily in one of the world’s biggest copper mines at Mes Aynak (just southeast of Kabul) while China’s energy giant China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is pumping oil in Afghanistan’s northern Amu Darya Basin. Currently, the firm is trucking the oil across the border to refineries in Turkmenistan, although plans are in place to develop a refinery on the Afghan side of the border. Plans also are moving forward for the construction of another string of the Central Asia-China pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang to pass through northern Afghanistan (Xinhua, June 6, 2012). CNPC and its subsidiaries already have cut deals with local authorities to ensure security in their operating areas. Should Afghanistan once again be split between a Pashtun south and a Tajik and Uzbek north, Chinese companies may have the relationships to continue operations under the protection of a new Northern Alliance. It seems that plans for the natural gas pipeline include distribution to local communities in northern Afghanistan [2].

Next door, at the source of the gas in Turkmenistan, CNPC and the Chinese government have carved out for themselves an envious position as one of the most influential outside players in Ashgabat, at least when talking in energy terms. The Central Asia-China pipeline, one of the most impressive feats in energy infrastructure construction, was completed in 18 months and now is slated to bring 60 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas per year to China in the coming decades (Platts, August 31, 2011). These immense volumes—four times that planned for the Trans-Anatolian pipeline from the Caspian to Southeastern Europe—may require up to three different routes for the project’s separate strings. This route planned to traverse northern Afghanistan will offer an alternative to the more costly route through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan [3].

Turkmenistan’s main energy and foreign policy priority at the moment is the realization of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) pipeline southeast across Afghanistan to markets in Pakistan and India. During the project’s recent international road show, CNPC and Sinopec reportedly expressed interest in the project, even if it was unclear in what capacity [4]. For the sake of diversity, Turkmenistan’s leadership would almost certainly prefer non-Chinese companies investing in TAPI. During the Petrotech conference in New Delhi in October 2012, the acting Minister of Oil and Gas Industry and Mineral Resources Kakageldy Abdullaev made overtures to Indian firms to come and invest in Turkmenistan (Business Standard, November 27, 2012).

Further downstream in Uzbekistan, the government started to pump its own gas down the pipeline traversing its territory in September. The move was part of a 2010 agreement signed between the two countries for Uzbekneftegas to send some 10 bcm per year to China (Platts, September 24, 2012). In historically energy-poor Tajikistan, CNPC partnered with Total to purchase a share each of Tethys find in Bokhtar, at the eastern end of the Amu Darya Basin (Bloomberg, December 21, 2012). In Kyrgyzstan, a Chinese firm also has agreed to build a refinery in the Chui Oblast whilst acting Kyrgyz Economy Minister Temir Sariyev reported “China is interested in the construction of Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-China oil pipeline and a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via the south of Kyrgyzstan” (Azer News, December 4, 2012; Central Asia Online, April 27, 2012).

Beijing and Chinese companies have long cultivated a close partnership with Kazakhstan as a regional power and source of valuable resources (“Sino-Kazakh Ties on a Roll,” China Brief, January 18). While Western companies suffer in their attempts to bring offshore projects online in Kazakhstan’s Caspian waters, China steadily has become the largest outside energy investor onshore. China’s sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corporation (CIC) is set to buy into Kazakhoil Aktobe, Kazakhturkmunai and Mangistau Investments—a deal which according to some estimates will give Chinese companies control over 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil production (TengriNews, January 8). The Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline—completed in a number of stages throughout the last decade—is slated to operate at its full capacity of 20 million tons per year (tpy) by 2014 (EnergyGlobal, November 9, 2012).

Nevertheless, this rosy picture has another side. According to analysts spoken to in Astana, the fields to which China has access are older ones that have been exploited for years. Furthermore, local Kazakhs with whom the authors spoke do not have particularly positive perspectives on their Chinese employers. At a grander scale, the slow progress with the Kazakh side of the free trade zone at Khorgos on the border between the two countries just northeast of Almaty is further evidence of these tensions. Analysts and officials asked either side of the border have vague responses about delays with the site. Currently, the Chinese side teams with new markets, corporate offices, hotels and customs buildings, but the Kazakhstani side still has some way to go in bringing its infrastructure on par with its neighbor [5]. Khorgos is the crossing point from China into Central Asia for three developments: a Central Asia-China pipeline from Turkmenistan; a new highway that is under construction linking Almaty, Astana, the Caspian shore and Russia; and a second train connection between China and Kazakhstan that opened last month (Xinhua, December 22, 2012). A key component of China’s so-called “New Eurasian Land Bridge,” the Khorgos passage is one of the main arteries in the chain connecting China’s eastern coast with Western Europe through Russia and the Black Sea-Caspian region.

These difficulties are even more evident in Kyrgyzstan where there have been a spate of clashes between locals and Chinese workers. In October, reports emerged from a gold mine managed by the Zijin Mining group in Taldy-Bulak that locals had threatened to burn down a company office after the company allegedly was killed a local horse (RIA Novosti, October 22, 2012). Then, in January, a fracas broke out between Chinese and local workers after Chinese workers allegedly caught a local stealing. In the ensuing clash some 100 people were involved and 18 Chinese workers were injured, two seriously (Xinhua, January 11). Whilst Kyrgyzstan is a notoriously difficult environment for foreign investors with many other nation’s countries also experiencing problems, China seemed to respond with particular attention this time around. In response to the first incident, the head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Kyrgzystan, Li Deming, wrote an op-ed stating “Kyrgyzstan still a mine field for investors” (Global Times, October 28, 2012). In December, during an SCO Prime Ministers’ Meeting in Bishkek, Premier Wen Jiabao met with his counterpart and reinforced this message encouraging “Chinese enterprises to expand investment in Kyrgyzstan” (Xinhua, December 4, 2012).

A much larger, potentially strategic, threat to Chinese investments in Central Asia, however, lies in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union. Most recently announced in October 2011, when President Putin laid out his plan in an article in the Izvestia newspaper, the notion has its roots in the Customs Union that was first proposed in the 1990s by President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. While slow to accept the idea, President Putin now has embraced the idea wholeheartedly to create a regional organization that would coordinate “economic and currency policy” between the countries of the former Soviet Union (Reuters, October 3, 2011). Currently, the Union is made up of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, but, in Central Asia, both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have expressed an interest in joining. What is not entirely clear is whether this is something that is taking place as a result of Russian pressure or whether this is a choice. In his annual statement to the Duma in December 2012, President Putin spoke of tightening requirements for the citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to enter Russia with passports rather than simply ID cards as is the case at the moment. He left open the caveat, however, that free access would continue to be allowed for citizens of countries members of the Union (RIA Novosti, December 12, 2012). The potential implication to remittance-reliant Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan is clear, creating an instant obstacle for the masses of young men from those countries who work in Moscow to send money back home to their families.

The issue for China is what impact this will have on China’s trade relationship with these countries. In particular, Kyrgyzstan is one of the key routes for Chinese goods into the region and for onward re-export—Ambassador Wang Kaiwen, China’s man in Bishkek, places the figure at $5 billion per annum. In commenting, Ambassador Wang also placed Kyrgyzstan’s trade with China in a broader context. As he put it, “trade between China and Kyrgyzstan is $5 billion, and China’s foreign trade is $3 trillion…so this [joining the union] is not a big problem” (Knews.kg, November 30, 2012). The point is that this is a relatively limited problem for China, but the repercussions in Bishkek are uncertain and potentially more substantial.

In many ways, this uncertainty places China’s 2013 in Central Asia in its appropriate context. It is increasingly clear that China is the most consequential regional actor that is making all the right moves to consolidate its interests. The regional impact and the reactions of both the Central Asian states and Russia to this growing preponderance remain to be seen. For Beijing, the relationship is an important one if they are to effectively develop Xinjiang, but their growing perceived dominance is something that is met with ambivalence regionally where nations like China’s money, but worry about its dominance. The dragon has clearly risen in Central Asia, but how the region will decide to respond still remains unclear.

Notes:

  1. Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen, “China’s Inadvertent Empire”, The National Interest, October 24, 2012,chinaincentralasia.com/2012/10/24/chinas-inadvertent-empire/
  2. Author interviews, November 2012
  3. Author interviews, October 2012
  4. Author interviews in Ashgabat, September 2012
  5. Author observations at Khorgos, April 2012; and interview January 2013

A new post over at China in Central Asia, the site I am managing as part of my large long-term project looking at Chinese influence and interest in Central Asia. This time about a part of Tajikistan where trouble has recently erupted which we visited earlier this year. More on this topic as our project progresses, including some more about our impressions of the security situation there.

Chinese Traces in Gorno-Badakhshan

by Raffaello Pantucci

Lenin greets visitors to Murghab, Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan

Attention has been focused in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region this week, as a government operation in retaliation for the murder of a Major General Abdullo Nazarov, a senior intelligence official, has been launched in the region’s Pamir Mountains. While the regional capital Khorog has apparently now re-opened for business, it seems as though hostilities continue in the mountains.

Earlier this year, we made a trip to this part of Tajikistan, on our way through to the Kulma Pass, Tajikistan’s border post with China. Closed to anyone but Chinese or Tajik passport holders, we instead went right up to the border on either side, driving from Kashgar to Tashkurgan, pausing at Kara Suu to see the brand new border post that has been built on the Chinese side of the Kulma Pass and sat empty waiting for business. It was a crystal clear day, with the border post and army base next to it seemingly abandoned. From what we could see on the Tajik side, nothing was stirring.

Once we got over to the Tajik side a couple of weeks later, it was a largely similar experience but with worse roads. Having made a two-day trip from Dushanbe with an overnight in Khorog, we got to the village of Murghab and asked our baffled host to drive us straight out to the border. With a shrug he fired up his jeep, got his son moving and off we went. The bumpy road across the moonscape had seen better days. According to our driver, the road had been built by a Turkish firm with Aga Khan money years earlier, and while there are stories that the Chinese are meant to be rebuilding it, there was little evidence of this on display.

On the Tajik side, there were numerous other markers of Chinese presence. We found at least two Chinese-Tajik truck stops, and scattered amongst the rocks were smashed bottles of Wusu beer (a Xinjiang specialty). A place we stopped for lunch had 食堂 (canteen) written on the side of the building and an aid convoy apparently going deeper into the Pamirs was made up of half a dozen large white trucks with white Chinese writing emblazoned across them. Most impressive of all was a Chinese tomb that we found outside Bash Gumbaz – a small village in between Khorog and Murghab. According to all the guide books, this ‘marked the high tide of Chinese influence on the Pamir’ – and after much research I have been able to find very little much more information out about it than this. The Kyrgyz farmer who took the time the take us out to the site enjoyed himself on the way back telling us about how there were Kyrgyz all over the Wakhan and how they had bravely fought the Chinese off centuries before.

Back in Khorog we wandered around the region’s capital, staring across the river that separates the city from Afghanistan. The same river acts as a border for much of the Tajik-Afghan border and during the high summer months it is apparently largely dried up, making it easy to cross from one country to the other. When one pairs this with the rather limited security we saw – occasional teams of three young conscripts trudging along with AK-47s slung on their backs – it is easy to see why this is not considered a particularly tight border and how easy it would be to transit drugs from Afghanistan into Tajikistan in the area. This also helps provide a bit of explanation as to why Chinese investment in the roads in the area has been slow. For China, the unstable region is also not likely to provide a huge market for products (Gorno-Badakhshan has a population of about 200,000, the whole country about 7.5 million), and does not provide a road link to anywhere particularly useful. Instead, Chinese- built roads go to the north through Kyrgyzstan from Kashgar, bringing them right into a road network that goes to Russia, Uzbekistan and beyond that Europe.

More research from my recent trip to Central Asia, this time a detailed piece on China and Tajikistan’s budding relationship for Jamestown’s China Brief. Very interesting to compare Tajikistan with regards the other countries, where China clearly has more invested. Lacking a market and much connectivity into Chinese routes to Europe or to ports in Iran or Pakistan, the country is clearly a secondary priority. As ever, for more on this research, please see the site I co-edit with Alex my co-author on this piece: China in Central Asia.

Beijing Lays the Groundwork in Tajikistan: A View from the Ground

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 11

May 25, 2012 03:17 PM Age: 1 days

The Chinese and Tajik Foreign Ministers Meet in Beijing in Early May

Meeting on the fringes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Beijing on May 11, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohon Zarifi and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi made the usual affirmations of good bilateral relations (Xinhua, May 11). Part of a raft of bilateral meetings between China and Central Asian states that have taken place on the fringes of the various SCO meetings occurring in the run up to the June Summit in Beijing, the encounter is hard to distinguish from the others taking place. As the single predominantly non-Turkic state, Tajikistan however has always been an outlier in Central Asian terms. This extends to Chinese interest, although, for China, it is the absence of large volumes of natural resources and an obstructive mountain range making direct road transit difficult that make it the least interesting among the Central Asian states. While clearly key in ensuring that the entire region becomes developed, Dushanbe lacks the immediate appeal of its surrounding states to Beijing and as a result seems something of a lower priority for Chinese policymakers. Nevertheless, seen from the ground, China clearly is making a few strategic decisions that show it is committed and interested in helping Tajikistan’s development. As a foreign analyst based in Dushanbe put it to us on a recent trip, in contrast to China in the other Central Asian states, ”China’s influence in Tajikistan is delayed” [1]. Many of the long-term concerns that can be found in other Central Asian capitals towards China are reflected in Tajikistan where people are suspicious of China’s long-term ambitions.

Infrastructure and Roadways

Tajikistan’s infrastructure is in need of a massive overhaul.  The crumbling Soviet hulks of the 1980s require fixing, and the country’s transport sector barely runs on a combination of inexistent roads and non-functioning air links, interspersed with badly conceived or unfinished aid projects from the last two decades [2].  The most notorious of these is a north-south tunnel at the ShahristanPass completed by Iranian engineers in 2010 (Asia Plus, July 1, 2010). Due to its less than sterling construction, the tunnel floods periodically and these authors observed that it has collapsed in parts and has a heavily-potholed road running through it. Other more limited projects in parts of the Pamir Mountains have been sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation. The Asia Development Bank also has funded a road Dushanbe-Kurgan-Tyube-Dangara-Kulyab as well as ongoing projects “to rehabilitate the Dushanbe–Kyrgyz Border–China road corridor ($118 million in loans and grants); and a $120 million grant, approved in 2011, to upgrade a vital road linking the capital Dushanbe with the Uzbekistan border (Tursunzade)” [3].

On the ground, however, it is often Chinese firms that are actually carrying out the work. When the government wanted the prestige project of the main Rudaki Avenue in Dushanbe re-done in time for September 2011’s independence day celebrations, they turned to Chinese firms to do it rapidly [4]. This rather small project was preceded by the road linking the Tajik road network into the Kyrgyz one from Saray-Tash (the first big Chinese project in the country), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) funded road projects to link Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Dushanbe to the border through Khojand) and Dushanbe to Dungara, which is described as being the first part of the Tajikistan-China highway [5]. Undertaken by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CBRC), these projects have been proceeding at a relatively rapid pace, though it seems clear that the priority is to develop the road from Dushanbe to Uzbekistan rather than the China-Tajik connection. Managed by Innovative Road Solutions (IRS) a company housed in the British Virgin Islands, the Dushanbe-Uzbekistan road is a well-functioning toll road (the only one in the country and dogged by questions of where the money is going) with one remaining piece, the Shahriston tunnel, currently under development by CBRC [6]. Initially slated for opening in September 2011, the tunnel is now expected to open in time for National Unity Day on June 27 (Asia Plus, March 19). When seen by the authors this month, however, it did not appear to be nearing conclusion.

In contrast, the Dushanbe-Kulma Pass road, which would connect China to Tajikistan directly, was perilous and for the most parts a mud or stone track. The road immediately out of the capital (toward Dungara—President Rahmon’s home province) was well developed as was a Chinese-built portion along the Afghan border that had been funded by the Asia Development Bank (ADB), but the rest of the road was virtually impassable to all but large trucks and high performance four-wheel drive SUVs [7]. Chinese road crews were visible on the portions of road near Dushanbe—working with signs in Chinese and Russian—but for the most part, the road was destitute, highlighting its relatively low priority in Chinese terms. For China, the priority was to develop Tajikistan’s links through Garm to Saray Tash and Osh in Kyrgyzstan, tying the country’s routes to Uzbekistan (also Chinese built as previously indicated) into the road network linking Kyrgyzstan to China directly through Irkeshtam and the Torugut Pass (“China’s Slow Surge in Kyrgyzstan,” China Brief, November 11, 2011).

Tajik officials interviewed were keen to boost the profile of a potential rail connection from China through Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan to Afghanistan and eventually Indian Ocean ports—either Chinese-developed Gwadar in Pakistan or Bandar Abbas in Iran. This project however is still apparently undergoing feasibility studies and it is unclear that there is major political will behind it [8].  The economic benefits it might bring to Tajikistan are partly hostage to future developments in Afghanistan. Connecting China and Tajikistan by rail would not make economic sense in and of itself. While there are some Chinese markets in the country, they pale in comparison to the behemoths of Kyrgyzstan’s Dordoi and Kara Suu or Kazakhstan’s Barakolka. Prospective Chinese commercial interests in agriculture and electricity generation in Tajikistan are notable, but would not require the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars that would go into rail construction in the country.

Political Ties

Largely due to the country’s immense need for outside aid and investment, Tajikistan’s government generally operates an “open-door” policy in its relations with major powers. Dushanbe’s relationship with Moscow is currently strained over tough negotiations on Russian troop presence in the country, while links with the United States and Western actors are largely predicated on Afghanistan. Tajikistan’s traditional ethnic and linguistic affinity with neighboring Iran is often more rhetorical than substantive. China’s approach of offering investment with few obvious strings attached is appealing to the leadership in Dushanbe, which has received considerable sums of loans for various projects from Beijing as well as support in building a number of key landmark buildings (like the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Library and a park surrounding the world’s tallest flagpole in the middle of the city) (Reuters, March 30, 2011).

A large volume of funding has come under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—Tajikistan is the largest recipient of loans provided through the organization. Tajikistan’s policymakers are keen to support the SCO as it provides the opportunity for equal-status dialogue with more wealthy Central Asian neighbors as well as Russia and China (Xinhua, September 9, 2011). Dushanbe also is the largest beneficiary of Chinese aid through the SCO, receiving in total over $600 million [9]. Despite the SCO’s origins in the Shanghai Five border delimitation agreements, however, the ratification in 2011 of the border delineation between China and Tajikistan was decided on a bilateral basis outside SCO structures. Local authorities and analysts proudly point out that Tajikistan only gave way on 3.5 percent of China’s land demands (approximately 0.7 percent of Tajikistan’s territory) in contrast to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that ceded much larger percentages of Chinese demands.

More controversial than this agreement, however, are a pair of deals for agricultural land that were undertaken at a government-to-government level, involving, on the Chinese side, the state-owned China National Agricultural Development Group. These concern a pair of pieces of agricultural land—the first plot is about 6,000 hectares, the second plot is of unknown size—that were given over to Chinese developers. Solid information about the project is hard to find, but, according to local analysts as well as local and foreign officials interviewed, the land was reported as being heavily salinated and therefore unusable. Given China’s agricultural expertise, the government gave this to China to develop with the understanding that for the first three years all products used would be sold in Tajikistan. Local concerns however preponderate with people pointing out the numerous Chinese workers who have been sent over. Some estimates are as high as 1,500-2000 Chinese farmers coming over (“Revising the Border: China’s Inroads into Tajikistan,” China Brief, July 29, 2011). When asked, Chinese officials stated only 30 percent of the workers were Chinese and that the real controversy was a product of the fact that the Tajik side had understood that more equipment was going to be sourced locally. The success of the project currently is unclear with locals complaining it has not been performing according to plan [10].

Culture and Language Exchanges

At a public level, China is not that visible in Tajikistan. While there is evidence of Chinese businessmen and others walking around Dushanbe as well as Chinese restaurants and a Chinese hospital offering traditional Chinese remedies, the majority of the Chinese in the country are work crews. They however work on infrastructure projects and live in camps near their sites—one popular if unfounded rumor is that these work crews are made up of Chinese prison laborers. At a cultural level, however, the heart of China’s cultural and linguistic links in Tajikistan is the Confucius Institute based at Tajikistan National University.

Managed by Xinjiang Normal University with a team of some 4 teachers sent from China, the Institute estimates it has taught some 1,800 students from high school to university in the past year. This figure is an increase from the year before and continues a  steady expansion over the past four to six years. They have established a subsidiary branch in Penjikent at local request, aimed at helping local high schoolers to learn Chinese. Unlike other Confucius Institutes in Central Asia (such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), the Institute lacks many support materials. The only current Tajik-Chinese dictionary is a small one done by a Tajik who spent some time in China, and they have no direct language textbooks to help them. Instead, teachers operate using a mix of Chinese, Russian and English materials—something replicated in the classroom environment where students would flicker between all three languages. At a cultural level, the Chinese Embassy reported they held some six cultural events per year in the country bringing over dance, music and theater troupes—the most popular ones apparently were groups from Xinjiang [11].

Conclusion

Tajikistan is clearly a secondary priority for China. While groundwork has been laid that could be turned into influence down the road, Beijing’s immediate interests in the country are limited. Whether or not this changes depends very much on what happens in Afghanistan. Should China’s investments there, such as at the Aynak copper concession or the Amu Darya gas fields, see substantial development in a relatively stable Afghanistan after the 2014 Western withdrawal, then Tajikistan’s importance as a throughput between Xinjiang and Afghanistan will grow. Further deterioration in Pakistan’s domestic situation also would enhance Tajikistan’s value as a logistical pathway. This would likely bring with it more Chinese engagement and investment in Tajikistan’s isolated Gorno-Badakhshan region as well as in the more populous west of the country. This however depends on Afghanistan’s uncertain future.

It is more likely that Chinese investors will remain cautious in a highly uncertain and probably unstable Afghanistan over the next ten years. For Tajikistan, this means that it will remain one of multiple routes for Chinese interests to crisscross the Eurasian continent and reach ports in the Indian Ocean. As it is now, it will remain less important than Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in terms of the flow of Chinese goods and the direction of Chinese investments. Tajikistan also will remain behind Turkmenistan in terms of Chinese energy interests. Its importance will stem from its role as a redundant route, useful for diversity’s sake if political unrest erupts amongst its neighbors. The one project that could change this calculation would be the rail route through Tajikistan’s north from Kyrgyzstan and into Afghanistan to reach the Indian Ocean. So far, this has not gathered significant political or financial momentum, but, if it does, then Chinese exporters, investors and policymakers in Beijing probably will reassess Tajikistan’s strategic importance.

Notes:

  1. Author interviews with foreign NGO, Dushanbe April 2012.
  2. The authors traveled these routes: Dushanbe-Khorog-Murghab-Kulma Pass and Dushanbe-Sharistan-Khojand-Oybek.
  3. Aga Khan Foundation in Tajikistan 2012, Aga Khan Development Network,www.akdn.org/publications/2012_tajikistan_akf.pdf; Tajikistan Fact Sheet, Asian Development Bank, December 31, 2011, www.adb.org/sites/default/files/pub/2012/TAJ.pdf
  4. Author interviews with foreign NGOs and local analysts, Dushanbe, April 2012.
  5. Author interview with local journalists and analysts, Dushanbe, April 17, 2012; “Build a Bridge for the China-Tajikistan Friendship,” China Road and Bridge Corporation Press Release, August 29, 2011.
  6. Author interviews with local and foreign analysts, diplomats and journalists, Dushanbe, April 2012.
  7. Author interview with ADB officials, Dushanbe, April 26, 2012.
  8. Author interviews with Tajik officials, Dushanbe, April 2012, and foreign NGOs and diplomats, Kabul, May 2012.
  9. Author interviews with local analysts and official think tanks, Dushanbe, April 2012. According to reports in the press this number may be as high as $700 million (Reuters, March 30, 2011). Official sources in Dushanbe, however, stated the number was in fact $605 million.
  10. Author interviews with local journalists and analysts, foreign diplomats and official think tanks, Dushanbe, April 2012.
  11. Author interviews with Chinese officials and local academics, Dushanbe, April 2012.