Posts Tagged ‘US-China’

As usual have been distracted in real life to get around to posting here, so have a bit of catching up to do. That and the fact that the world seems to be becoming utterly consumed by this virus nightmare, makes you wonder what the longer term consequences of everything really are. But in any case, been writing for a few new outlets and here is the first of a few pieces that emerged recently. First up is a blog post for the French Institut Montaigne, an interesting think tank that is close to President Macron. Thanks to Mathieu and Viviana for their invitation and work on this. Looks at the already faltering peace deal in Afghanistan and China’s general appetite on engagement within the country.

The US-Afghanistan Peace Agreement and a Detached China

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It has not taken long for the strains in the US-Taliban agreement to show. Within hours of signing the agreement, Afghan authorities appeared to be contradicting one of its key pillars. Within days, there was a noticeable return to violence, with the Taliban attacking government positions, the US striking Taliban forces and civilians getting killed. As more time has passed, perspectives are appearing to become more entrenched. What has been noticeable, however, has been the largely quiet response from Beijing, one of Afghanistan’s potentially most consequential neighbors that has played a relatively limited role in the country until now. A question lingering in the back of most regional planning is at what stage might Beijing ultimately step forwards to play a more proactive role.

An agreement for bringing peace

The agreement itself – at least the published part – appears fairly thin gruel. The rather clunky title “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America” reflects the immense complexity that undoubtedly underpins the broader effort to get to the position where the two sides were able to sign a document. The fact it has taken such a short period of time for the seams to show is a reflection of the rush with which it was assembled. This was an agreement to paper over an intense American desire to leave Afghanistan.

And to some degree this perspective is an understandable one. Washington has now been engaged in Afghanistan for almost two decades, and it is hard to see where the end of this conflict might lie. Simply slugging on may exhaust further American blood and treasure without changing much.

At the same time, the precipitous nature of the US withdrawal as it is currently structured appears to answer a US political need and calendar rather than any Afghan interests. For President Trump, an agreement with the Taliban and withdrawal from Afghanistan will be another foreign policy victory he will add to the list that he will no doubt repeatedly shout about on the campaign trail – adding a cowed Taliban to the roster of dead terrorist enemies (which includes ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s leader Qasim al-Rimi and Iranian General Qasem Soleimani).

The impact of such a precipitous withdrawal is not clear. Many point to the fact that it took a few years for President Najibullah to hang after the Soviet withdrawal, with many ascribing the end of foreign aid to his government as the final nail in his coffin. But Afghanistan today is not the same country it was almost three decades ago, and the Taliban are not the same organization they were two decades ago. And in contrast to then when China was a far weaker power still emerging on the international stage, Afghanistan now borders one of the world’s fastest-growing economies (Coronavirus excepted). In many ways, it could be Beijing’s response now that will help shape Afghanistan’s future – be this in terms of investment in infrastructure, encouraging bilateral trade and playing a more proactive role in stabilizing the country in political, economic and security terms. How Beijing steps forwards could shape Afghanistan’s future.

China’s circumspection

So far, Beijing has been circumspect in its response to the peace negotiations. They have not been hugely positive, nor very critical. Rather they have said they will support the process and welcome a clean resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan. In gently critical pieces they suggest that the United States has more responsibility around blame than the Taliban, though they are very careful to not to point too many fingers.

This careful approach is a product of the fact that Afghanistan appears to be one of the few places where the US and China might still effectively cooperate. Notwithstanding tensions elsewhere, Beijing and Washington were able to craft a series of engagements in Afghanistan which they delivered together. However, this approach has been sorely tested since the arrival of the Trump administration and their single-minded and aggressive focus on China. This has extended to harsh criticisms of China’s activity around its western periphery with Secretary of State Pompeo attacking China’s activity in Central Asia during a visit last month, following blunt comments by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of South and Central Asian Affairs Ambassador Alice Wells about China’s activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In blunt terms, she excoriated China’s involvement in Afghanistan during a Congressional hearing. While she acknowledged China’s willingness to engage on peace talks, in no uncertain terms she stated “I think that it is fair to say China has not contributed to the economic development of Afghanistan. We have not seen any substantial assistance from China. The Belt and Road is just a slogan.” Just over two months later in a public discussion at the Wilson Center, she repeated these statements as part of a broader assault on China’s Belt and Road activities. When asked about Afghanistan she responded “I haven’t seen China take the steps that would make it a real contributor to Afghanistan’s stabilization, much less stitching it back into the Central Asia and the international community.

Unsurprisingly, this generated angry commentary in the nationalist Chinese Global Times newspaper which attacked Ambassador Wells and accused the United States of continually failing to provide an “efficient resolution to boost the Afghan peace process.” In an interesting contrast, the newly installed Chinese Ambassador to Kabul Wang Yu responded to Ambassador Wells with a detailed presentation about China’s contribution to Afghanistan, including detail about the collaborative efforts that the US and China had done together. This more conciliatory approach likely reflects a desire by China to be seen as at least leaving itself open to cooperating in Afghanistan.

China no longer fears a US withdrawal

At the same time, however, it is not clear that Beijing has much plan to step forwards into the Afghan mess. Beijing has spent considerable time and effort over the past few years strengthening the various sides of the border that it shares with Afghanistan – it has provided investment and equipment support to Tajik border forces, Pakistani security forces in Gilgit-Baltistan, and hardened its own direct border.

It has provided support for Afghan forces in Badakhshan (in the form of camps, equipment, training and some joint patrolling), and it has sought to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) more engaged in the country. Particularly notably, it also instigated the creation of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brings together the Afghan, Chinese, Pakistani and Tajikistani Chiefs of Military Staff and has started to explore doing joint training exercises together.

All of this means that China is not too concerned about security problems in Afghanistan having a direct impact back on itself, or what concerns it might have it has now created buffers against. And any problems they might generate in Central Asia or Pakistan are likely already factored into the regional instability that China expects in these regions. As a result, from Beijing’s perspective, there is little to be concerned about with regard to Afghanistan becoming a source of instability for China. It would appear that China’s security apparatus heeded Xi Jinping’s reported closed-door 2014 declarations about protecting the country from trouble from Afghanistan in the face of potential American draw-down.

This stands in contrast to the past, where Beijing was very alarmed by the prospect of an abrupt American withdrawal and did little about it. When such talk circulated in the early 2010s, Beijing started to panic, worried it would be left with chaos on its border though at that stage was not very confident about what would need to be done beyond hedging through Pakistani proxies. Flash forward and Chinese analysts are far more sanguine about Afghanistan. The government may survive, the Taliban may come in, fighting may break out, but China is unlikely to be impacted by much of this. Its limited investment projects in the country have not really delivered much, and while it is a positive aid contributor to the country, it has not taken the burden on that it might. No-one in Beijing is advocating for the PLA to deploy in the country. Rather, this time around, it would seem as though China is distancing itself from the American withdrawal, positioning itself as the honest broker who will be there and friends with whoever takes power. And in the event of complete chaos, China has now strengthened its direct borders insulating it from direct trouble.

Keeping the Afghan problem at bay

Earlier discussions of China acting as a ‘security guarantor’ seem to have fallen by the wayside, and China seems to have given up the role of hosting the intra-Afghan talks. Beijing, it could be concluded, sees little good coming from the abrupt American withdrawal and wants to be as disassociated from the mess as possible. This would fit with the largely flat comments to have emerged from the MFA and Xinhua in the wake of the talks as they essentially wait the situation out.

What is also clear, however, is that the goodwill that had been generated between the US and China over Afghanistan has likely gone. From Beijing’s perspective, everything is now shaped through the lens of its conflict with the United States and COVID-19. Within this context, it might actually be preferable for the United States to stay bogged down in Afghanistan as this will distract Washington’s attention from China. Afghanistan used to be a place for potential cooperation, but this is likely not the case anymore. But Beijing is no longer fussed. This time China has laid its groundwork and is in a far more comfortable position to weather any chaos that might follow the implementation of the US-Taliban agreement. Washington may think this is a problem on China’s doorstep, but Beijing has hedged itself against most eventualities.

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

China’s Inadvertent Empire

From the 

A Chinese road crew works in Tajikistan.

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

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

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

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A new post for Whose World Order?, drawing on some of my more interesting experiences here in Shanghai. I am constantly surprised at how similar the Chinese and American outlooks are. Hopefully in the longer term this bodes well and does not augur conflict.

Shanghai View: Reading Orwell in Shanghai

Date: 10th March 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: 1984Jane AustenOrwellShanghaiChina

I am sometimes asked at my institute to interview prospective employees, to assess their level of English. It is usually a pretty depressing experience, as most of these young Chinese speak excellent English (certainly infinitely better than my Mandarin). After starting off with some getting to know you questions, I try to dig into something substantive that they are interested in. Recently I decided to ask them all what books they had read and liked in English.

The position that was being recruited for was an administrator’s role, and those (mostly young women) interviewing for it were English language or literature graduates. When confronted with the question what book they liked most, Jane Austen scored the most, with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility most common (one girl had to whip out her ipad mid-interview to tell me the name of her favourite – “Sense and Sensibility”). William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily did well, and a girl who had done French language and literature at University was a fan of Hugo’s Notres Dame de Paris(the Hunchback of Notre Dame in English). All pretty standard stuff and probably course texts chosen by nervous job interviewees who wanted to say the right thing.

A couple were a bit more revelatory – one girl who had done her dissertation at University on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby said she liked the book because of the parallels she saw in the “American dream” and the new “Shanghai dream.” One of the few males said that he was a fan of Moby Dick because of the idea of an everlasting chase to beat the enemy, a situation he empathized with. But even these were tempered reactions, and I was very surprised to learn that the girl who had studied Fitzgerald had not read any other books by the author. A lack of inquisitiveness that is surprisingly common amongst some students I come across.

But then, at the end, a friend asked if I could interview her daughter as well, so she could practice her English. Sure thing, I said, and did the same questions I had before. This time, she launched off into telling me that Orwell was her favorite writer and in particular 1984 and Animal Farm. Why? Well, the book, she said, had a lot to teach us. In particular, she thought that it could show the Communist Party how it might try to improve itself and its image in the world. The lessons that could be learned from 1984 could help the Party show the world that Communism does not have to be that bad.

Now of course this girl did not have anything to lose in her interview and so was less inhibited. But it was an interesting perspective that highlights something I have touched on before – the patriotism that stirs within many young Chinese. Even a book which might be seen as damning for China (I recently re-read it while on a long car journey across China’s restive Xinjiang province and certainly saw some parallels) is seen by some of China’s youth as another opportunity for their great country to do better. They are fundamentally part of the system and proud of it, seeing a country before them in which one can reasonably talk about an aspiration to a “Shanghai dream” being a reality. These are by no means cock-eyed optimists, but instead young people with outlooks that to me seem very similar to those of youth in the United States or Europe. Does this mean that the system as it is will simply continue into perpetuity? Not necessarily, as, in parallel to this growing desire to aspire, there is clearly a growing desire to reform – just at a Chinese pace, rather than something pushed from the outside. At least, let us hope it is going in this direction, as otherwise dystopian visions similar to 1984 or Brave New World that were painted in subversive best seller The Prosperous Time: China 2013 last year might come to pass.

A rather belatedly posted piece on the ECFR website looking at EU-China relations comparing them to US-China. Am finishing up a longer paper on this which will hopefully draw out some useful ideas for people. In the meantime, any suggestions or things that I am missing would be very welcome.

Handling the Chinese: Europe should take lessons from Washington

BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI – 24 JAN 11

President Hu is no doubt pleased about how his trip to Washington went. Aside from some translator issues, there were no embarrassing moments and it looked to the world like a meeting between two of the world’s most powerful leaders. From the American side too there is certainly relief that things went so well – some concessions were given by the Chinese on DPRK and indigenous innovation, a few big deals were signed and the press walked away assessing that the President had pressured the Chinese on human rights.

Contrast this with the last EU-China Summit last October, which resulted in Premier Wen Jiaobao being irritated, a press conference being cancelled and a scuffle over some journalists being excluded, which was read by the press as evidence of Chinese authoritarianism abroad. The only reason this embarrassment was so quickly brushed under the carpet was the almost total absence of any meaningful media coverage of what takes place in Brussels. If there ever was a signal that Europe’s approach to China was broken, hopefully this is it.

Some in Europe will disagree with this harsh assessment, highlighting that the EU is able to work at a mechanical and practical level with their Chinese counterparts. The EU is China’s biggest trade partner and discussions at a trade or economic level are sophisticated and effective. Furthermore, the deals signed in America are on a par with the deals signed when President Hu went to Paris last year or when David Cameron went to Beijing.

But those deals were at a bilateral, member state level, and while it is true that some very important discussions take place at an EU-China level on trade, IPR and tariffs, all of these are quite practical discussions that are in everyone’s interests. Nations will always try to find ways to trade and sell things to each other. The reason that the Chinese reaction to their DC trip was so much more positive than that EU-China Summit was that there was clear evidence of Washington taking Chinese concerns seriously and effort was put into making sure the event looked good.

In the lead up to the meeting, Beijing was repeatedly visited by senior American diplomats. Chinese officialdom was told about what was going to happen and how it would happen. The issues on the table were raised and repeated, so President Hu knew what he was going to be facing long before he got to the White House. China was worried about how the meeting would play given previous humiliations when the President has visited the White House, and the US made sure none of the hiccups of the past took place. This resulted in a good event from which both sides were able to walk away with their heads held high.

In stark contrast, when Premier Wen went to Brussels for the summit he was presented late with a list of demands that the EU expected as outcomes from the meeting, and told that the market economy status question which he thought had finally been resolved was not to be concluded this time. At a business meeting during his visit (which at least some Chinese diplomats counted as a success!), Premier Wen finally lost his temper and went off-script to warn Europe not to “join the choir” of those telling China to re-evaluate. The disaster was such that the final press conference of the summit had to be cancelled.

Clearly, Brussels failed to do all the necessary diplomatic footwork. This was no doubt in part due to the fact that the EU was then in the midst of the big reshuffle, as Catherine Ashton figured out her role and the EEAS was drafted. But it would be too easy to blame it all on this, and the reality is that the EU still fails to get what it is that it needs to do if it wants to be taken seriously by the Chinese.

China is serious about wanting market economy status from the EU and the arms embargo lifted. Neither of these things may seem of much tangible import – MES will be irrelevant in four years anyway and the arms restrictions in place at a member state level are stronger than the embargo – but to China they would be a clear message that Europe recognises they are important to China and are wiling to give them over even though they are politically thorny at home. This optic is important to the Chinese, and the EU is giving no sign of having taken this on board.

In 2004, the lifting of the arms embargo was described as a “done deal,” and then nothing happened (everyone believes this was due to American pressure). In early 2010, the new Spanish Presidency of the EU hinted that the time might have finally come, but others rapidly corrected them. Then, late in 2010, a paper leaked out in which Catherine Ashton suggested that the embargo was “a major impediment,” and that a “way forward” needed to be designed. But in early 2011, while Li Keqiang was in the UK, stories emerged of David Cameron’s rage at the possibility, suggesting the idea was once again dead.

This vacillation on something that China repeatedly says it holds dear is seen by Beijing as a slap in the face. Couple this with European behaviour on the Galileo satellite project – China was disinvited having initially been brought in as a senior partner on a project to create an alternative to the US-controlled GPS system – and with Europe’s continued failure to recognise China’s market economy status, and it is easy to see that Wen’s behaviour at the messy meeting in October was the result of accumulated anger. So while Hu went to Washington and had the red carpet rolled out for him, Wen went to Brussels and ended up having to cancel a press conference. No one went home happy and now a higher hill will have to be climbed to ensure the next one looks better.

It is flogging a dead horse to continually criticise Europe about its incapacity for unified decision-making, but European leaders should at least be able to organise the optics of a meeting with China. Once they have resolved this they can start to seriously think about what it is they want from a “strategic partnership” with China.