Posts Tagged ‘xinjiang’

Going to catch up on a batch of belated posting today, starting with a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) annual counter-terrorism yearbook looking in particular at what China has been up to in 2016.

China’s Terrorism Threat and Response in 2016

Raffaello Pantucci

Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

In August 2016, China experienced what appears to have been the first targeted terrorist attack against one of its embassies.1 A Uygur suicide bomber drove a car into China’s diplomatic compound in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, exploding it outside the ambassador’s residence; the attacker was the only fatality, but three Kyrgyz employees were injured. While Kyrgyz authorities were quick to link the attack to a Syrian-based network—although publicly available evidence to date has been limited—for Beijing the attack was the manifestation of an increased threat from Uygur groups, which had now spread beyond China to threaten Chinese interests abroad. Clear and substantial connections between Uygur groups and international terrorist networks were also confirmed in 2016.

During the year, China increased its external security presence to mitigate these threats, while attempting to balance this against its longstanding practice of non-interference. At home, it has continued a hardline approach to managing the Uygur issue in Xinjiang, and 2016 marked a new level of regional control in the region, including an almost complete halt to media reporting of security-related incidents.

China’s terrorist threat comes primarily from the divisions in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang, where a Uygur minority resents rule from Beijing.2 That resentment has expressed itself through social tensions, an exodus of Uygurs from the country and violence against the state. Beijing has taken a two-pronged approach to dealing with the problem. In the rst instance, it has invested heavily in the region economically (including the‘Silk Road Economic Belt’, which has opened Xinjiang to regional trading markets), but at the same time launching regular ‘strike hard’ campaigns deploying heavy security measures to control the region and enacting new regional and national CT legislation.

Beijing’s focus on terrorism is primarily concerned with Chinese Uygurs, something that has attracted some international and human rights concern as potentially unfairly dealing with its own minority citizens.3 The national CT legislation has similarly attracted criticism for not balancing strong CT measures with transparent and fair judicial process, as well as for a broad de nition of terrorism that may be at odds with international law standards for free speech, freedom of religion and peaceful protest.

Reported terrorist incidents within China decreased in 2016, and then-regional Communist Party chief Zhang Chunxian stated in March that ‘violent terrorist incidents have dropped signi cantly.’4 Indeed, only one incident was reported: an attack on 29 December in Moyu (or Karakax) County in southern Xinjiang, where a group drove explosive-laden cars into a local Communist Party office. Reporting on casualties was mixed, although o cial sources reported that three attackers, one security official and one bystander were killed.5 The explosives, while rudimentary, appeared to demonstrate an increased level of sophistication for attacks in the region.

While this incident capped an otherwise quiet year, non-state sources suggest that more was going on but not being publicly reported. The day after the incident in Moyu/Karakax County, a report published by the Hong Kong-based advocacy group, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, claimed that more than 1,000 violent incidents in Xinjiang in the past year weren’t reported in the press.6 The precipitous drop in reported incidents is indeed surprising, given previous levels of violence, which had been variously estimated at between a few hundred and 2,000 fatalities per year since 2013, but is difficult to evaluate due to the difficulties of undertaking independent research in the region.7

The reported decrease in incidents may be a product of a more aggressive government security posture in the region. In August, the regional government passed CT legislation supplementing national legislation passed earlier in the year. The local legislation was seen as far more wide-ranging than the national laws, focusing in particular on recruitment and radicalisation, the dissemination of extremist material (the definition of which was also expanded) and the deradicalisation of prisoners.8 Soon after its passage, a large CT exercise was undertaken in southern Xinjiang—the part of the region that remains majority Uygur—involving around 3,000 personnel and testing 21 new types of ‘high-tech equipment, including drones, assault rotorcraft and all-terrain assault vehicles’.9

The security approach was further sharpened during the year through changes to the regional party leadership. Leader Zhang Chunxian was moved to the post of Deputy Leader of the Leading Group for Party Building and replaced by Chen Quanguo, the former party chief in Tibet. Upon arriving in the region, Chen immediately introduced hardline policies re ecting those used in Tibet, including establishing a region-wide network of ‘convenience’ police stations, providing increased state presence and surveillance. Recruiting drives for security officers were launched in Xinjiang and neighbouring regions to increase the number available for deployment.10 The importance Chen attaches to shows of strength was demonstrated in the wake of the Moyu/Karakax County attack, when he hosted a large public oath-taking ceremony and CT exercise in Urumqi.11 Nevertheless, this heavy approach to security appears to be unable to completely address the region’s problems, and the attack at the end of the year showed that local anger can still erupt into violence that gets to public attention despite the government crackdown.

Outside China, Beijing has also faced an increasingly worrying threat picture. The August attack in Bishkek followed a growing number of worrying indicators that Uygur militant groups outside the country were gaining strength.

The Syria and Iraq battlefields have also provided opportunities for anti-Chinese groups to link with Islamist terrorist groups. The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is the main Uygur terrorist group.

TIP’s close link with al-Qaeda was confirmed earlier in the year through a series of videos released by the two groups. In May, the leader of TIP, Abdul Haq, who had previously been believed killed, re-emerged and released an audio message in which he attacked ISIS, praised al-Qaeda, and highlighted TIP’s proximity to the latter.12 In July, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video as part of a bigger series called ‘Islamic Spring’ in which he specifically praised the Uygur contribution to the jihad in Afghanistan and beyond and elevated leaders from the group into the pantheon of senior jihadi leaders.13 Both videos carried threats for China, but in many ways the most worrying aspect for Beijing was the clearly warm and public embrace shared by the two groups.

Al-Qaeda has historically had close links with Uygur militants (Abdul Haq was identified as a member of al-Qaeda’s shura, or leadership council, as early as 2005 14) but has shown little interest in dedicating resources to the Uygur cause. The videos suggested the possibility of a change.

In Syria, TIP ghts mainly alongside Jabhat al-Nusrah / Jabhat Fateh al-Sham groups and regularly publishes videos showing large numbers of well-armed ghters engaged in combat across Syria, as well as releasing messages condemning Islamic State (IS) activity. While the main body of TIP fighters is engaged in ghting in Syria, Beijing considers that Abdul Haq is hiding in northern Afghanistan. The South Asian wing of the group appears to have moved into Afghanistan in response to the Pakistani Government’s Zarb-e-Azb push that ejected them from their previous base in Pakistan’s badlands.

Evidence from the Middle East shows that a substantial number of Uygurs have joined IS. Leaked IS documents indicate between 118 and 167 IS ghters are identifiably Chinese or Uygur. Additionally, Uygurs appear to have been picked up by Turkish authorities as part of the investigation into the New Year’s Eve attack in Istanbul. Yet while IS has added China to its list of enemies, it hasn’t dedicated many resources to attacking it.

The patterns of TIP and other militant Uygur activity in Afghanistan and Syria go some way to explaining increased Chinese security activity in both countries. On 14 August, People’s Liberation Army Navy Rear Admiral Guan Youfei met Russian and Syrian security o cials in Damascus, where he pledged China’s training support to Syrian medical staff.15 In Afghanistan, building on a long history of engagement, China sought to establish a new regional security subgrouping, bringing together the army chiefs of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China to discuss border security and regional terrorist groups. Tajikistan has additionally publicly confirmed that China is helping to construct border posts between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.16

Beyond warzones, Uygur militants have demonstrated increased contact with Southeast Asian terrorist groups. In August 2016, Indonesian authorities shot and killed a Uygur linked to the East Indonesia Mujahidin, one of the main terrorist groups in Indonesia, led by Santoso.17 This was the tenth Uygur killed alongside the group. The Uygur group was allegedly seeking training with the East Indonesia Mujahidin before returning to China. In November, Nur Muhammet Abdullah al Faris was jailed in Indonesia for his involvement with a network planning a series of terrorist attacks in the region. The network was also reportedly involved in people smuggling to help Uygurs flee China and in some cases receive terrorist training. Some reports indicate that the group received money from TIP (or, as it was identified in the reports, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement), which it was using to advance its own goals as well as to support terrorist training for Uygurs.18

These developments indicate increasingly deep and substantial connections between militant Uygur groups and international terrorist networks. This menacing picture for China underscores the increased need for China to act against the networks externally. The 2016 national CT law recognised this, providing a broader mandate for Chinese security forces to act outside national territory to disrupt terrorist networks. And, as discussed above, China is also increasing the substance and visibility of its security forces beyond its national territory.

The question that remains, however, is the extent to which China’s actions may be exacerbating the very threat that it seeks to mitigate. China’s Uygurs see themselves as a persecuted minority that’s subject to restrictive legislation not imposed on any other groups in China, including other Muslim minorities.19 While there’s been substantial economic investment into Xinjiang, it’s unclear whether the benefits are filtering down to the Uygur community or remaining primarily with the politically and economically dominant Han community. And the lack of information coming out of the region means that it’s impossible to independently evaluate whether the ‘strike hard’ campaign has delivered results.

Certainly, the move of Zhang Chunxian from Xinjiang to Beijing and his replacement by former Tibet party leader Chen Quanguo suggests that the central leadership had mixed feelings about Zhang’s tenure in the region, although it’s hard to discern whether his move was related to failed policies in Xinjiang or his factional connections. Within Xinjiang, it appears that a hard line is taken against officials for failure in areas where attacks occur. A recent report indicated that the party chief in Moyu/Karakax County and the party secretary of Hotan Prefecture (where Moyu/Karakax is located) were both under investigation by the Discipline Inspection Committee for corruption and dereliction of duty, seemingly linking these investigations to the security failures associated with the 29 December incident.20

China’s terrorist problem continues to grow. Last year marked a new point with the attack on the Bishkek Embassy, and the broader threat indicators are not positive. As China continues to advance its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, its nationals and companies are increasingly going to dangerous countries and potentially finding themselves in the cross-hairs of terrorist groups.21 Also, whereas previously China was able to shield itself from attack somewhat because terrorist groups saw the US and the broader West as their targets, this will change as Uygurs rise up the ranks of international terrorist networks and China assumes a more prominent role in international affairs.

Another side to China’s growing outward push reflects the country’s increasing desire to assert itself internationally and become a more normalised security actor in international affairs. While this is reflected in continuing assertiveness in China’s maritime relationships, on land it’s often seen through the lens of CT, on which China finds a more accommodating international consensus. For Beijing, CT offers a more acceptable way to test the limits of its ability to assert its security interests abroad. But the complicated domestic nature of China’s Uygur issue has led to some calls of concern from members of the international community. At the same time, however, Beijing finds an increasingly worrying international terrorism threat picture connected with its domestic concerns, requiring a more assertive posture. In future, it’s likely that these trends mean that Beijing will continue to crack down at home while expanding its efforts abroad.

Notes

  1. Chinese compounds have previously been struck by terrorist or insurgent networks, but the strikes have typically been incidental to being in a warzone and not speci cally targeted, or have been small-scale individual attacks, as seen in Bishkek in 2009.
  2. China has also faced a number of other incidents that have a terroristic aspect to them, including mass stabbings, occasional bombings and shootings, although for the most part those incidents have tended to be linked to individuals’ complaints against the state.
  3. See, for example, Javier C Hernandez, ‘China says 5 killed in attack on Communist Party o ce in Xinjiang’, New York Times, 29 December 2016, online.
  4. ‘“Violent terrorism” in China’s Xinjiang has dropped: party official’, Reuters, 8 March 2016.
  5. Cui Jia, ‘Terrorists strike, but progress made,’ China Daily, 30 December 2016.
  6. Kenji Kawase, ‘More than 1,000 violent clashes in restive Xinjiang this year’, Nikkei Asian Review, 30 December 2016.
  7. See, for example, reporting in Richard Finney: ‘As many as 700 died in Xinjiang violence in last two years, rights group says,’ Radio Free Asia, 3 March 2015, online and ‘“At least 2,000 Uyghurs killed” in Yarkand violence: exile leader’, Radio Free Asia, 5 August 2014.
  8. Chong Koh Ping, ‘Xinjiang gets tough on terrorism’, Straits Times, 5 August 2016; ‘Xinjiang issues China’s rst local counterterrorism law’, Xinhua, 5 August 2016.
  9. ‘China’s armed police hold anti-terror exercise in Xinjiang’, Xinhua, 15 August 2016.
  10. James Leibold, Adrian Zenz, ‘Beijing’s eyes and ears grow sharper in Xinjiang’, Foreign A airs, 23 December 2016.
  11. Eva Li, ‘Show of force in Xinjiang sends hardline message’, South China Morning Post, 3 January 2017.
  12. Thomas Joscelyn, Bill Roggio, ‘Turkistan Islamic Party leader criticizes the Islamic State’s “illegitimate” caliphate’, Long War Journal, 11 June 2016.
  13. Thomas Joscelyn, ‘Zawahiri praises Uighur jihadists in ninth episode of “Islamic Spring” series’, Long War Journal, 7 July 2016.
  14. UN Security Council Subsidiary Organs,‘QDi.268 Abdul Haq, reasons for listing’, UN Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 1267 (1999) 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) Concerning ISIL (Da’esh) Al-Qaida and Associated Individuals Groups Undertakings and Entities, summary published 13 August 2009, online.
  15. Christopher Bodeen, ‘Chinese admiral visits Syria in show of support’, Associated Press, 18 August 2016.
  16. ‘China to build outposts for Tajik guards on Tajikistan–Afghanistan border,’ Reuters, 26 September 2016.
  17. Ruslan Sangadji, ‘Last Uighur of MIT shot dead’, Jakarta Post, 18 August 2016.
  18. Nivell Rayda, ‘Uighur terrorists sent funds to Indonesia,’ The Australian, 6 September 2016.
  19. Alice Su, ‘China doesn’t mind Islamic extremists’, Foreign Policy, 16 December 2016.
  20. Jun Mai, ‘China probes senior Xinjiang party o cials days after deadly bomb attack’, South China Morning Post, 5 January 2017.
  21. The Belt and Road Initiative, also called ‘One Belt, One Road’, is China’s broad-ranging economic development and trade initiative, aiming to increase prosperity through developing land and maritime trading links. A feature of the initiative relevant to terrorism and CT is infrastructure development across areas in China and neighbouring Central Asia.

New piece for an outlet to which I haven’t contributed for some time, The National Interest. This time looking at trying to explain China’s enhanced engagement and interest in Syria with Michael Clarke of Australian National University. We are hopefully working on a longer writing related project along these lines in the future, and the topic is undoubtedle one there will more on.

China Is Supporting Syria’s Regime. What Changed?

Michael Clarke | Raffaello Pantucci
Beijing’s motivations are close to home.

china_syria

On August 14, Guan Youfei, a rear admiral in China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, visited the Syrian capital of Damascus, escorted around the city under heavy guard. Guan’s visit reportedly included meetings with senior military officials and Russian officers, as well as pledges that the Chinese military would provide medical training for Syrian medical staff. The question is why China is increasing this engagement now.

Admiral Guan’s engagement contrasts with previous Chinese behavior during the Syrian crisis. While China has been one of the few powers to maintain an embassy in Damascus throughout the current crisis, Beijing’s engagements have been fairly limited, and mostly focused on attempts from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to insert itself into peace negotiations and occasional expressions of concern around individual nationals who appear on the battlefield (either as hostages or fighters). The approach has been driven by a mix of motives, including Beijing’s long-standing principle of “non-interference,” aversion to what China sees as largely Western-led regime change in the guise of humanitarian intervention and a Chinese desire to insulate its growing economic interests in the Middle East from the continuing consequences of the Arab Spring.

That dynamic may now be about to change. China has started to become a participant in the many international discussions around countering terrorism, and ISIS in particular. China has participated in the Global Counterterrorism Forum and hosted sessions about terrorists’ use of the internet, while engaging in discussions at home about contributing more to the fight against ISIS. Last year, a decision was made to alter national legislation to allow Chinese security forces to deploy abroad as part of a counterterrorism effort, and China has sought to establish overseas bases in Djibouti. In neighboring Afghanistan, it has established a new sub-regional alliance between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and China to discuss and coordinate the fight against militancy and terrorist groups in the area. All these actions highlight the degree to which China is slowly pushing its security apparatus out into the world in a more aggressive posture than before. Seen within this light, Admiral Guan’s visit to Damascus is another piece in this puzzle, and the most ambitious yet in many ways for a power that has historically preferred to play a more standoffish role in addressing hard military questions.

Looking to the Syrian context in particular, there are two major reasons for China’s apparent decision to begin playing a more forward role in engaging in Syria. One is China’s concern at the numbers and links of Uighur militants from its restive province of Xinjiang participating in the Syrian conflict. The other is its desire for geostrategic stability in the Middle East as it seeks to consummate its “One Belt, One Road” strategy.

Of particular importance on the first count is the presence of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) on the Syrian battlefield. TIP is a successor organization of sorts to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that Beijing has blamed for violence linked to Xinjiang after 9/11. Beijing has claimed that Al Qaeda directly “funded and supported” ETIM, and while the scale of Al Qaeda’s direct support of ETIM has been widely disputed, the relationship between TIP and Al Qaeda has only grown closer since, with TIP garnering more Uighur recruits from 2009 onward and Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praising Uighur contributions to the global jihad in a recent message.

Chinese suppression in Xinjiang, especially after the interethnic riots and violence in the capital, Urumqi, in July 2009, has resulted in the development of what Chinese state media has dubbed an “underground railway” of Uighurs seeking to flee the region. Some of those have ultimately found their way to Turkey and onward to Syria to fight with TIP and other jihadist groups. By 2015, TIP had established a well-documented presence on the battlefield in Syria, with the group releasing a number of videos detailing its combat role fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. (TIP does not fight alongside ISIS; its leadership has released statements in which it condemns ISIS’s activities.) TIP is increasingly showing itself to be an effective force, participating in many major fights (including the breaking of the Aleppo siege) and showing off its skill, manpower and equipment.

Historically, China has not had much economic interest in Syria, a country that prior to the civil war was more closely linked economically to its region, Iran and Russia. And more recently, China has continued to play a second-tier role. While it has had numbers of nationals join ISIS, others kidnapped and killed by the group, and the group has threatened it in some of its rhetoric, it does not appear to be much of a focus for the group. On the non-ISIS side fighting the regime, the numbers fighting alongside TIP seem to be quite substantial, whilst the group’s leadership and a core of the group continues to fight in Afghanistan. And, according to Kyrgyz authorities, this connection may have now matured into the attack that took place in late August against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.

This threat from TIP in particular is one that is therefore becoming of much greater concern for Beijing. Yet it is not clear who is focused on fighting TIP on the ground in Syria. Western powers fighting in Syria are for the most part focused on ISIS and less focused on the groups fighting against the Assad regime, like TIP. Turkey’s historical proximity to the Uighur cause has raised concerns with Beijing; Uighurs are a people whose culture and language are very close to Turkey’s, and Uighur flags and symbols are regular features during AKP rallies. Erdogan himself has expressed support for the Uighur cause, and back in 2009, in the wake of rioting in Xinjiang that led to some two hundred deaths, he referred to Chinese activity on the ground as “a sort of genocide.” Since 2012, Uighurs have been found traveling on forged Turkish passports in transit countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, raising questions of Turkish complicity. Leaked ISIS documents show a consistent flow of individuals through Kuala Lumpur, as well as other Southeast Asian routes to Turkey.

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On the second count, Beijing faces multiple challenges in the current Middle East for its “One Belt, One Road” strategy. In brief, OBOR is Beijing’s attempt to facilitate Eurasian economic connectivity through the development of a web of infrastructure and trade routes linking China with South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Key parts of this project, such as the $45 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the proposed Yiwu-Tehran high-speed rail link, according to James M. Dorsey, “illustrate the politics of its One Belt, One Road Initiative. Xi Jinping believes that he can achieve Chinese dominance through investment and interconnected infrastructure.”

The current fracturing of the Middle East as a result of the Syrian crisis, however, poses a central roadblock to China’s ability to make this vision a reality. In this context, Beijing views the United States’ approach to Syria as driven by Washington’s desire to use the civil war as a pretext to overthrow the Assad regime in order to weaken Iran’s growing power and influence in the Middle East. In contrast, Russia has been firm in its commitment to root out what it calls the “terrorist” threat there in support of the regime in Damascus, and Beijing has been impressed by the manner in which Russia’s decisive moves have had an effect that years of attrition on the battlefield failed to achieve.

So Beijing may now have arrived at the conclusion that supporting Assad and taking sides with Russia is the most viable option to effectively combat the growth of TIP. Increasing its involvement in Syria via military-to-military cooperation can also be seen in the wider context of a PLA keen to develop its overseas experience, in areas from peacekeeping to antipiracy missions to counterterrorism.

David Shambaugh eloquently argued in 2013 that China remained a “partial power” whose diplomacy “often makes it known what it is against, but rarely what it is for” and that this made its foreign policy in many regions of the world “hesitant, risk averse and narrowly self-interested.” This calculus is now changing under pressure from developments in the Middle East and Afghanistan that directly threaten core Chinese interests and are metastasizing into the very terrorist threat that China has long said it is concerned about. The response from China is relatively predictable—an outward security push. The question that remains, however, is how deeply China wishes to plunge into troubled waters to defend these interests.

Dr. Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College at Australian National University. Raffaello Pantucci is Director of the International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Image: Chinese tanks in formation at Shenyang training base in China. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

More catch-up posting this time for the Telegraph in the wake of the suicide bombing on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. Also spoke to Voice of America, Financial Times, Guardian and BBC Chinese on the topic.

Now China, too, is in Isil’s firing line

chinese-emb-bishkek

A suicide attack on China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan will have little registered on most British radars. Yet, it marks a significant moment for China, as one of the first times that China has come so directly into the crosshairs of terrorists outside its borders.

Details may be scant at the moment, but it appears to mark the first time a Chinese diplomatic compound has been hit in such a way. It is also the latest marker in a gradual escalation of a terrorist threat that China is finding itself facing and points to an interesting marker in the growing normalization of China’s global role.

At the moment, it is unclear who is responsible for the attack. Early reporting seems to indicate Uighur extremists, and the targeting of the Chinese Embassy is a clear message.

Uighurs are a minority community resident mostly in China’s westernmost region (Xinjiang, that is adjacent to Kyrgyzstan), who have long chafed under Beijing’s rule.

This anger has expressed itself in large-scale riots between communities in China, a growing emigration of unhappy Uighurs from China, terrorist incidents within the country, and increasingly now violence outside the country.

The incident in Bishkek is not the first time that Uighurs have come under blame for attacks against Chinese officials in Kyrgyzstan, and it is not the first time that Uighurs have been linked to attacks against Chinese targets outside the country. A group is currently under trial in Thailand for their responsibility in a bombing of a shrine popular with Chinese tourists in Bangkok in August of last year.

But the targeting of the Embassy like this shows the degree to which China’s terrorist problem is one that has metastasized.

China has growing numbers of Uighurs and other nationals fighting in Afghanistan and Syria – both with Isil (the various leaks of Isil documents show almost 200 records that show links to China), whilst those fighting with other groups under the banner of a group called the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) alongside other jihadi groups fighting against the Assad regime number possibly into the high hundreds.

Both groups have threatened attacks against China, though it is not clear that they have actually allocated many resources towards trying to achieve this.

Where China has usually faced the menace of international terrorism, it is more usually in an incidental fashion with nationals in the wrong place at the right time. And whilse groups have sometimes claimed to have been aiming for China – like in July last year when Somali group al Shabaab struck the Jazeera hotel in Mogadishu killing 12, including a guard at the Chinese Embassy which was operating out of the building, and later released a message saying the attack was in solidarity for Uighurs’ treatment in China – there has been little evidence that they were really the intended target.

In fact, in its early days, al Qaeda did not appear to really engage much with the Uighurs’ cause or see China as a natural enemy.

In an interview in 1999 Osama bin Laden denied all knowledge of Uighurs saying: “I often hear about Chinese Muslims, but since we have no direct connection with people in China and no member of our organization comes from China, I don’t have any detailed knowledge about them.” And other al Qaeda ideologues at the time spoke of the alignment of Chinese and al Qaeda’s interests in fighting the United States.

Fast forward to today and current al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has loudly praised Uighur extremist leaders in some of his recent speeches. At the same time, Isil leader al Baghdadi has specifically threatened China in speeches and his group has ransomed and been responsible for the deaths of Chinese hostages.

An almost complete turnaround for China, and something that highlights the degree to which China has ascended to being a front line power with all the problems and responsibilities that are associated with that.

The full contours of what has taken place in Bishkek are still unclear. It may yet prove to be something with deeper local links and causes, but it comes against a broader trajectory of China increasingly finding itself in terrorist cross-hairs around the world. This is the darker side of global power and projection, and something China is going to have to get used to.

 

Catching up on another late post, this time for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS blog looking in some detail at the question of how the ‘Belt and Road’ has had an impact on Xinjiang-Central Asia trade. Trying to look at this as a case study for the bigger question lots are asking. Am immensely grateful to the excellent Anna Sophia for doing some excellent digging to get the numbers for this. As ever a topic that will get more coverage as we go forwards, and check out China in Central Asia for more on this larger topic.

Xinjiang trade raises doubts over China’s ‘Belt and Road’ plan

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The vast Chinese northwestern frontier region of Xinjiang may serve as a useful early indicator of how Beijing’s much-touted “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) is supposed to work – and how successful it may become.

The region, which is home to several muslim minority peoples, has been wracked by ethnic turmoil for decades, prompting Beijing to seek to nurture social stability by driving economic development through hefty investments.

But for this strategy to gain traction, Beijing realised that it needed to boost development in the region around Xinjiang by building commercial corridors to neighbouring Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Thus, Xinjiang was key motivator behind the BRI concept.

But so far the results have been underwhelming. In the three years since the forerunner of the BRI was launched, Xinjiang’s trade volume has not increased and it still constitutes an unchanging portion of total Chinese trade with Central Asia (see chart). This discrepancy between action and results raises questions about whether the BRI is a turning point in Chinese economic policy or simply old wine in a new bottle.

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region government is an active player in the BRI. Under its auspices, Xinjiang’s major energy companies are expanding Chinese energy trade with Central Asia.

Following its promotion as one of seven national centers for the development of Chinese wind power in 2014, the Xinjiang-based wind turbine company Goldwind won contracts to build plants throughout Central Asia in 2015. In addition, the Tebian Electric Apparatus Stock Company, one of China’s major power transformer companies located in Xinjiang, announced in 2015 plans to build a power transformation line in Kyrgyzstan and a power station in Tajikistan.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, called the power station in Tajikistan a symbol of the growing “friendship” between China and Tajikistan, highlighting Xinjiang’s importance to the political and economic objectives of the BRI.

In addition to this corporate activity, the Xinjiang Communist party leadership has represented Beijing in Central Asia. Zhang Chunxian, Communist Party Secretary in Xnjiang, has formalised trade partnerships initiated by Mr Xi with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. These include deals on agriculture, infrastructure and trade with Tajikistan after Mr Xi’s 2013 visit and a $2bn trade deal with Kazakhstan. Thus, Xinjiang is serving to implement the leader’s vision.

These BRI deals, however, do not in fact represent a departure from Xinjiang’s trade history. Special trade relationships with Central Asian states existed before the initiative was announced, and energy and commodities were already important in its regional trade.

The Kashgar Special Economic Zone was established in 2010 and is intended to deal primarily in regional commodities exports. Likewise, plans for the Kazakhstan Khorgos Border Cooperation Center, where duty-free trade between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang could occur, were already announced in 2011, though construction did not begin until 2014. The point being that many of the projects now tagged as BRI are in fact pre-existing projects that are being re-branded.

The lack of change in Xinjiang’s trade volume since the BRI was announced calls the connection between the broader vision and the deals into question. In 2015, Xinjiang’s trade volume with Central Asia declined more rapidly than the national volume, while experiencing a reduction in trade with every Central Asian country aside from Turkmenistan, which was involved in building a new pipeline to the region.

Xinjiang’s textile exports have increased in 2016, according to the Global Trade Review. However, textiles were already a significant part of Xinjiang’s trade to Central Asia, so the rebound may merely be the result of a weak 2015 base.

The discrepancy between Xinjiang’s visibility in the BRI and its steady proportion of China’s total trade with Central Asia suggests that – so far – the initiative is simply publicising trade relations that existed before, instead of changing China’s trade patterns.

If this pattern holds, it will be important for countries that deal with China to look beyond the visionary rhetoric of the BRI and engage instead with concrete and bankable projects. This requires a focus on what made sense before the BRI was announced.

Raffaelo Pantucci is director of international security studies and Anna Sophia Young is a research intern at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think tank based in London.

Another piece of holiday writing, this time looking at China’s new counter-terrorism legislation and some of the preventative aspects that still may need to be worked on. It was published by the BBC both in Chinese and English and I have posted both below. Another topic that there will undoubtedly be more work on in the next year.

Will China’s new law tackle terror?

  • 2 January 2016
  • From the section China
paracops in Urumqi
China’s paramilitary police on recent operations in the Xinjiang autonomous region

China’s long-discussed counter-terrorism legislation, passed this week, frames the way the country will counter terrorist threats at home and abroad. But it is capable of getting to the root of the problem?

China faces a dual problem from terrorism; abroad, the picture is very similar to that faced by most Western countries, with Chinese nationals and interests increasingly threatened by groups affiliated with the so-called Islamic State group or al-Qaeda; at home, China has a problem with individuals angry at the state, who sometimes resort to violence against citizens and the state apparatus to express their anger.

Some domestic terrorism appears to be motivated by personal gripes, while some stems from a more general sense of disenfranchisement and alienation.

The latter can be found particularly in the westernmost region of China’s Xinjiang province, where the minority Uighur population resent the perceived encroachment by Beijing into their culture and identity.

There has also been some evidence that some Chinese nationals have gone abroad to fight alongside IS or al-Qaeda affiliates on the battlefield in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, while others have turned up in training camps in South-east Asia.

Underlying Anger

The new legislation attempts to deal with these dual problems but it does not appear to offer a clear framework for how to prevent people from being drawn to terrorist networks and ideologies in the first place. It does offer a formal framework for countering terrorism abroad, through sending Chinese security forces abroad to deal with the threat.

That is in itself a significant shift – offering Beijing an option to deploy forces abroad, in contrast to China’s longstanding principle of non-interference in foreign policy.

But then Chinese security forces are already increasingly going out into the world – be it as peacekeepers with more forward leaning mandates or to set up forward operating bases in places like Djibouti – and the new legislation merely strengthens this broader push.

chinacops tianshan
Chinese state media have publicised images of counter-terror troops searching Xinjiang

Where China’s problem becomes really complicated is in incidents such as the bombing in Bangkok, Thailand, earlier this year, when a cell linked to a Turkish-Uighur network left an explosive device outside a shrine popular with Chinese tourists. Twenty were killed, the majority ethnic Chinese.

The exact reason for the attack remains unclear, although it appeared to be part of a larger wave of anger against China and Thailand for the forced deportation of a large number of Uighurs who had fled China for South-east Asia.

In many ways, the attack was an extension of China’s domestic terrorist problem. The Uighur anger that initially mostly prompted attacks against the state in Xinjiang slowly spread around China (including prominent incidents in Beijing and Kunming) and now could be found abroad.

The problem is that, while it is clear the new legislation tries to deal with the mechanics of these issues – by establishing frameworks through which people can be detained and pursued abroad – it is not clear that it deals with the underlying anger behind the terror.

Lessons from the UK

Much has been done in the UK to address the problem of radicalisation, which is often as much a personal as political process. The state-sponsored Prevent programme aims to catch people before they are radicalised. Its focus is on developing strong ties to minority communities and trying to connect with individuals that feel alienated from the state.

Controversially, various bits of state apparatus from healthcare to education have been drafted into the effort, but the overall thrust of the government agenda has been to find ways to steer people away from violence before they start down the path towards it.

This is the key element missing from China’s new approach. While there is some discussion in China of involving other parts of the state beyond security officials, there is seemingly no discussion about how to tackle the underlying causes of radicalisation.

CameronXi
Xi Jinping visited David Cameron earlier this year

There is some evidence that the Chinese state is at least thinking about the issue. Leader Xi Jinping has discussed non-security approaches to countering terrorism, and Security Minister Meng Jianzhu has talked about expanding the country’s de-radicalisation efforts, but that thinking does not appear to be reflected in the legislation.

Instead, the legislation appears instead to be very focused on the practical side of countering terrorism – the use of blunt force to simply stop networks and the spread of ideas; some tools potentially so blunt that they may in fact cause collateral damage.

China is not alone in this – the UK approach faced accusations that it risks alienating young Muslims – but in the UK at least public debate and discussion about the problem is a key component of shaping public policy and the programme of work is one that is constantly evolving to respond to the threat and public reaction to it.

If China wants to be able to properly and effectively tackle its terrorism problems at home and abroad, it needs to start to think in this way too. It needs to find a way to not only disrupt terror networks but to understand why people are drawn to terror in the first place and how it can address the issue.

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

分析:中国新《反恐怖主义法》能起效吗?

潘睿凡
英国皇家联合军种国防研究所国际安全项目总监
2015年 12月 31日

151227111842_cn_beijing_sanlitun_swat_02_624x351_afp_nocredit
一如外国的反恐法,中国的《反恐法》能否应对中国面对的问题实在是疑问?它能在干扰活跃的恐怖主义网络之外,还防止未来的问题出现吗?

本周,中国全国人大通过《反恐怖主义法》,为中国面对来自海内外的恐怖主义威胁定下应对之术。但是一如外国的反恐法,这些做法能否应对中国面对的问题实在是疑问?它能在干扰活跃的恐怖主义网络之外,还防止未来的问题出现吗?

中国在恐怖主义问题上面对两个难题。在海外,与大部分西方国家所面临的一样,中国人与中国的利益越来越受到“伊斯兰国”组织或基地组织等支派组织的威胁。作为日益强大的国际超级力量,中国越发明白,作为主要外来投资者,中国国民和公司将会遭遇麻烦。

在国内,中国面对越来越大的问题,是个人对于国家的愤怒。因此常常一个人发动炸弹袭击或一大帮人刀伤其他个人与国家机构。一些可能是个人出于对国家的怨愤,其他似乎出于一般的恼怒或感到被国家疏离。

后一种原因尤其出现在新疆维吾尔人口中。他们中的一些怨恨北京侵蚀维族文化和身份。此外,还有证据显示,一些中国人到海外协助“伊斯兰国”组织或基地组织在叙利 亚和伊拉克战斗,另一些则出现在东南亚的训练营。

最尖锐的问题

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中国最新的这部反恐法试图解决这些问题,但是似乎没有提供明确的框架,表明如何应付最尖锐的问题:如何防止人们被恐怖主义网络及思想吸引。

立法确实应付了应对海外恐怖主义的问题,但是却是通过允许中国保安部队到海外处理恐怖主义者的威胁。这个转变颇为重要,它让北京可以摆出有可能向海外派出安保部队的姿态,而不单单似乎长期以来中国所行使以不干预为原则的外交政策。

中国安保部队已经越来越多在全世界执行任务,无论是参与和平部队,或者在世界各地参与安保合作和训练。新的反恐法不过是加强这些,并提供特定方式在中国的海外利益受影响时,让部队出外应对。

但让问题变得复杂的,是诸如8月份的曼谷四面神爆炸案。虽然原因不明,但这似乎与中国和泰国遣返维吾尔人的事件有关。某种程度上,这一所为是中国本土恐怖主义问题在海外的延伸。维吾尔人的愤怒从袭击新疆目标,慢慢扩散到中国各地,现在更远至海外。

现在的问题是,这一新立法试图解决这些问题,但并不清楚它究竟是否能处理背后推动这些行为的愤怒。

英国经验

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在英国,当局试图与社区建立联系,设法劝阻人们被恐怖主义网络吸引,尝试与个人联系,了解他们为何感到疏离,并介绍 以其他方法消解愤怒,而非诉诸暴力。

极端化是很一个复杂的过程,因人而异。但是根源是个人的身份认同。人们感到被疏离或对国家愤怒,会从外来的思想中寻找认同和联系,进而认为自己与国家作战。原因 很可能是个人问题,也可能是政治问题。

在英国,当局试图与社区建立联系,设法劝阻人们被恐怖主义网络吸引,尝试与个人联系,了解他们为何感到疏离,并介绍 以其他方法消解愤怒,而非诉诸暴力。

中国的新立法似乎缺乏这些元素,也没有讨论如何应对极端化问题,或人们被恐怖主义网络吸引的背后原因。新立法似乎非常集中于对付恐怖主义的实际操作,粗暴封杀网络和和思想的散播。但这些方法很可能适得其反。

在英国,这也是人们经常讨论的问题,是英国在国内阻止恐怖袭击努力的核心考量。不过,英国已经采取措施去防止其发生。另外,公众辩论与讨论也是英国公共政策成形前的重要一环。

如果中国希望适当而有效地应对海内外的恐怖主义问题,就应该也开始思考这些方法。不单封杀恐怖主义网络,还要明白人们被恐怖主义网络吸引的原因。

It has been a while since I posted and apologies to avid followers. Been inundated with work of late and things are slipping by. I have tried to continue to be productive and am now going to post a series of pieces that have come out in the past month, some of which have been in the pipeline for a while. First up is a piece for BBC 中文 looking at Uighurs and the Bangkok bombings. This was maybe also going to come out in English so I am not going to post the text here, but will eventually if nothing emerges. For the time being, it will be an opportunity to practice using google translate.

國際縱橫:維吾爾人與曼谷爆炸案

BBC Zhongwen image

image from: BBC Zhongwen

泰國當局在調查八月發生的四面佛爆炸案方面進展緩慢,但越來越多跡象顯示這起兇殘的攻擊於可能與新疆有關。

最近逮捕的其中一人擁有中國護照,當中顯示的出生地是新疆。當然,這個關聯是否屬實仍未清楚,但看來中國公民是這起攻擊的目標越來越有可能,而背後的原因在某程度上可能與中國的新疆政策有關。

這不是中國公民第一次在國際恐怖組織的行動中成為受害人。過去曾發生例如在喀麥隆,與尼日利亞極端組織博科聖地有關的團伙曾綁架中國工人;在巴基斯坦,中國遊客曾被綁架和殺害;在摩加迪沙的中國使館受到炸彈襲擊;中國工人在北非阿拉伯之春的暴亂中受影響;還有數年前在肯尼亞內羅畢的西門購物中心(Westgate Mall)襲擊中受傷的中國公民。

維族人在敘利亞

今時今日在世界每個角落都可以找到中國公民的足跡,無論他們是遊客或外勞或政府官員,反映了中國在全球留下越來越多的腳印。相對而言,恐怖組織也加強了他們的活動,在更多地方肆虐。因此,在這類襲擊中受到連累的中國公民數目增加是不難想像的。

在土耳其的維吾爾人示威聲援新疆維族人2015年7月
Image copyright AP
Image caption 今年7月在土耳其的維吾爾人示威聲援在新疆死亡的維族人

可是,至今為止仍未有很多證據顯示中國公民是攻擊目標,針對維吾爾族異議者的證據也不多。但這並非說維吾爾人與全球聖戰者全無關係。在塔利班管治時期的阿富汗有不少證據顯示不滿中國的一些維族人逃到阿富汗集結。在美國領頭攻打阿富汗時,很多這些人輾轉流離到巴基斯坦,相信他們在那裏更靠近基地組織,並與藏身巴基斯坦部落地區的中亞聖戰者組織建立更密切的聯繫。

此外,有跡象顯示維族人正更積極參與全球聖戰運動。有關維族人在敘利亞參戰和死亡的報道不斷出現。最近在敘利亞吉斯爾舒古爾城鎮周圍的戰鬥,就有報道說兩名維族人充當自殺炸彈手;另有報道說約20名維族人與努斯拉陣線一同作戰,努斯拉陣線被視為是基地組織在敘利亞的分支。

去年九月,印尼當局逮捕了四名維吾爾人,懷疑他們嘗試與極端主義頭目桑托索聯繫,以進入他在東帝汶建立的其中一個聖戰者訓練營。在2010年7月,一個與基地組織有聯繫並由維吾爾人領導的團伙在挪威奧斯陸被攻擊。在2008年6月,阿聯酋當局逮捕兩名維族人,他們後來因策劃攻擊迪拜龍城購物中心被定罪。

「沒得到基地組織、IS支援」

雖然基地組織和IS「伊斯蘭國」組織的領袖以及他們的刊物紛紛展示支持維族人的姿態,說這些人所處的困境反映出西方不關心穆斯林的痛苦。但事實上聖戰組織支持維族人的實質證據很少,間或有言辭上的聲援,但在資源上幫助的證據很少。

維吾爾人是否已在國際聖戰網絡中起到重要作用,目前尚未清楚。反而有跡象顯示他們看來處於絕望的境況,不斷出現有關他們逃離中國的報道。 由於中亞國家加強了邊境控制和與地區政府的聯繫,他們前往該地區越來越困難。例如去年底有十名維族人在吉爾吉斯坦邊境死亡。此路不通後,維族人看來轉而南下到東南亞。很多時候他們被捕時辯稱說自己是土耳其人,最終目的地是土耳其。在越南邊境也出現過涉及維族人的暴力衝突,還有幾個報道說一些維族人在東南亞國家被捕或遣返。

中國遊客在泰國曼谷大皇宮附近2015年8月
Image copyright AP
Image caption 泰國曼谷是受中國遊客歡迎的地點

總的說,現在的兩個現象是維吾爾人繼續逃出中國,以及在他們前往的目的地附近出現更多的暴力。在某程度上來說,突顯出新疆和中國其他地區出現的有關維族人的攻擊。不過,這類攻擊最近看來有所減少,但這類報道通常不透明,很難獨立引證到底發生什麼事。

事實上,很多維吾爾人對當局感到不滿或憤怒,他們試圖離開中國,但這方面越來越困難,令他們更鋌而走險。

從中國的角度來說,他們擔心的是針對海外中國公民暴力的增加與新疆內部的不滿有關。在土耳其曾有亞裔遊客和中國使館被襲擊,以及曼谷爆炸案中的遊客。北京當局正調查是否有曾在敘利亞或伊拉克進行恐怖襲擊的人在中國內組成團伙。中國一直以來擔心海外國民受到威脅,以及國內發生的事情與外國有關聯。

這些所謂的聯繫一直相當模糊不清,直至現在看來越來越明顯,一個可能的結論是:中國本土的聖戰者終於與發展出某些國際聯繫,但至今為止很難令他們落網。

(編譯:葉珊 / 責編:晧宇)

I have been rather delinquent in posting here, so am going to now briefly catch up on a few things. First up is a piece written for the UK Embassy Beijing’s ‘Strategic Communications Initiative’ that aims to advance a discussion between China and the UK on strategic questions. I have contributed a piece with a Chinese friend who is very active on the ground in Afghanistan working with business there offering some ideas for China’s possible role in the country. This is not my first piece for the Initiative, and I hope not the last! As ever, much more on the topic of China-Afghanistan (and more broadly China-Central and South Asia) to come.

Understanding the Cultural Fabric: The Missing Piece in China’s Outreach to Bring Peace to Afghanistan

Kane Luo, Vice President of Wakhan Abresham Consulting Service and Raffaello Pantucci, Director, International Security Studies, the Royal United Services Institute

A head of state’s first visit abroad is usually a strong indicator of that country’s future foreign policy. So when Ashraf Ghani, the newly elected President of Afghanistan chose China as the destination of his first state visit, the message from the new President of Afghanistan was clear: as we enter the year of NATO withdrawal, Afghanistan is increasingly looking East.

President Ghani certainly received a warm welcome in Beijing; President Xi Jinping showed China’s generosity promising a $330 million aid package over the next 3 years, a figure that exceeds China’s combined aid to Afghanistan for the last 14 years. China also announced a plan to help to train 3,000 Afghans in various fields, something that builds on previous promises of training, including an earlier program announced during former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang’s visit to Kabul in 2012 of 300 Afghan police. The discussion of re-opening the Wakhan Corridor, the slim mountainous borderland between Afghanistan and China that has long been a request of the Afghan government, has been restarted. Visa requirements for government officials of both countries are said to possibly be about to be scrapped. But in many ways, the most interesting outcome of Ghani’s visit to China was the revelation that China would offer itself as a host for peace discussions between the Taliban and the government in Kabul – bringing all relevant sides to the table to help broker peace in the country. Whether this approach will bear fruit is unclear, but its seeming admission and confirmation by officials highlights the fact that China is proving itself increasingly willing to accept it has an important role to play in Afghanistan’s future.

China’s motives behind her rapidly increasing efforts in Afghanistan are multiple, but the factor most often cited by Chinese experts and officials is domestic security. Violent, disenfranchised individuals from Xinjiang are becoming an increasingly deadly threat, something that has been increasing since 2008 and reached something of a crescendo in the past year. It is unclear how much manpower, resources and organizational capability Uyghur militants actually have; but their increased use of explosives, suicidal tactics and rising frequency of attacks are proof of a problem that is increasing. Angry denizens from Xinjiang have also shown a growing desire to launch attacks in not only remote areas of Xinjiang, but also in major political and population centers in eastern China as well, as the attack in October 2013 in Tiananmen Square, the March 2014 attack in Kunming and other incidents have demonstrated.

The link to these groups and Afghanistan come through Beijing’s claims that they possess evidence to prove that Uyghur militant groups are trained, financed and organized by ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)’, which is further linked with Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) in Afghan-Pakistani border area. There is some historical precedent to this link dating back to before September 11, 2001. A number sources verify the presence of Uyghurs in substantial numbers in Taliban Afghanistan with some pledging allegiance to Mullah Omar. These days it may not be the case that every terrorist attack in China is launched from caves of Waziristan (something increasingly recognized by Chinese experts); but Uyghur militants’ recent tactics indicate that they are certainly getting ideas from the global Jihadist movement, be it in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. Beijing’s concern is that if these Islamic militants are left unchecked and Afghanistan is allowed to become a source of regional instability once again, a sophisticated enough terrorist attack may finally emerge or instigate some larger incident in Xinjiang that would expand the current instability in Xinjiang further around the nation.

Another important reason behind China’s evolving Afghan policy is Beijing’s concern over her ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. The so called ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative consists principally of the ‘New Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (with side projects stretching from Kashgar to Gwadar in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh-China-Myanmar-India (BCIM) corridor), an extremely ambitious grand strategic design of President Xi Jinping’s administration. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative is meant to drastically increase the movement of capital, humans, goods, speed up cultural exchanges and even start to harmonize governmental policies across Eurasia; by constructing two separate but complementary routes that both start from China and then stretch westward. The ‘New Silk Road Economic Belt’ goes through Central Asia, Russia, Iran, and Arabia before finally reaching Europe; the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ passes through Malacca Strait, Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and ultimately reaches the Mediterranean Sea. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative includes thousands of miles of proposed high-speed railway and highway, seaports and airports, oil and gas pipelines, even nuclear power stations that will cost trillions of U.S. dollars and decades to build. It would conclude with the development of massive trade and economic corridors bringing Chinese products to the world, and opening China even further. It would also have the ancillary effect of redeveloping a large swathe of China’s immediate periphery, something that has led to some prominent Chinese commentators, like Dingding Cheng, to describe it as ‘China’s Marshall Plan,’ a reference to the post-Second World War America’s massive effort to rebuild Europe. Afghanistan plays a very dangerous potential spoiler role within this, sitting adjacent to China and in the midst of a number of these land corridors emanating from China’s western provinces. Should the country collapse into chaos and become an exporter or incubator of instability, it would likely upset this key part of this plan.

But beyond just seeing the importance of Afghanistan to China’s domestic health, Beijing policymakers also see the importance of regional relationships to ensure a stable future. However, in contrast to the United States, China has the advantage of having far less contentious relationships with a key partner for Afghanistan, Pakistan. China is well aware of its influence over Islamabad, and has long nurtured a strong bilateral relationship with the country that both cherish publicly and loudly. China has already used its influence to bring Pakistan and Afghanistan to the table, as well as initiate a number of other regional discussions involving Pakistan (or about Pakistan), the recent admission of contact with the Taliban and a willingness to use this relationship to advance reconciliation all highlight the degree to which China is showing it is willing to use its relationships in advance of greater regional stability.

This approach to bringing the Taliban to the table is not, however, without its difficulties. Taliban are likely to play some role in Afghanistan’s future; but the trouble is, the Afghan government and Taliban today are both highly fragmented entities that lack centralised authority for Beijing to effectively engage with. The Taliban’s addition into this mix will only further complicate Afghanistan’s already difficult political situation. Finally, for China to be taking such a forward role in such a sensitive aspect of Afghan affairs will make it harder for China to maintain its position of detachment from events in Afghanistan – something that has in the past given the country a certain neutral image within Afghanistan.

There are further problems with taking the role of reconciler with a group that is reviled by many Afghans (the Taliban) and country (Pakistan) that many Afghans blame for some of their security problems. Anti-Pakistani feeling is very high amongst Afghans who see their neighbours as meddlers who have supported groups that have led to many deaths. Being seen as a close ally to both the Taliban and Pakistan might not play well amongst the Afghan public. Others within Afghanistan continue to feel that the Taliban have no role to play in their country’s future, highlighting with anger the fact that the government in Kabul is being forced to reconcile with a group that has shown no remorse in butchering civilians, officials, and soldiers alike. Finally, it is not entirely clear the degree to which outside stakeholders will all welcome this mediating role – for western powers, any support in bringing stability and peace to Afghanistan is welcome, but for players like India, Iran or the Central Asian powers, they have their own regional dynamics to consider. These are all issues that Beijing needs to consider.  Beijing must have a 360 degree of vision and be mindful of a basic reality in international affairs: when a button is pressed, there will be a series of chain-reactions. Some of these reactions can be predicted, but others will require rapid appropriate policy responses, something Beijing has historically had some issues with undertaking.

This diplomatic approach aside, China has also placed significant emphasis on developing Afghanistan’s economy, something highlighted again during President Ghani’s visit to Beijing. However, bringing economic and social progress to Afghanistan often requires an acceptable level of security as a pre-condition, something highlighted by the particular problems experienced by the two biggest Chinese investors in the country: the China Metallurgical Company (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper’s investment at Mes Aynak and China National Petroleum Corp’s (CNPC) project in the Amu Darya basin near the border with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Both projects have faced numerous difficulties hindering progress, with security ranking fairly high amongst concerns. Talking to officials at both companies, they will report security as a major factor, though it is likely that it is only one of a number of problems encountered. Others include difficulties with local authorities, lack of access to raw materials and infrastructure.

For the Afghan Taliban there is a natural desire to want to try to prevent any national economic progress from taking place, as a strategy to prevent the government in Kabul gathering public support. In another words, people will not always welcome progress with open arms, and in Afghanistan there is some question of whether major projects can proceed without the support of superior firepower. Despite China’s recently increased efforts in Afghanistan’s economic sphere, if Beijing really wants to see positive results, Beijing still needs to greatly expand the security-related cooperation it is looking to undertake in Afghanistan, as well as seek out bolstering cooperative relationships with powers like India and the remaining western forces.

Finally, and in some ways most importantly, as world’s biggest economy in terms of purchasing power, China has the material resources to achieve her objectives in Afghanistan. However, the lack of human expertise on Afghanistan in particular is a substantial invisible problem that China urgently needs to overcome. Because material resources cannot correctly allocate themselves, they need people to manage them and these people need a deep understanding of their surrounding environment. In other words, China has a need to grow a pool of people who understand Afghanistan’s complex social realities, ethnic mosaics, cultural customs and fragmented history. There is a need for China to support its push into Afghanistan with people who speak fluent Farsi and Pashtun, people who understand the Islamic world, or even, are Muslims themselves. Currently, such knowledge and skills are only the privilege of a few of China’s intelligence officers, diplomats and scholars; but they should also be extended to executive managers and chief engineers in China’s state-owned corporations and the general Chinese population too. This sort of deep cultural knowledge and understanding is the only way to make sure the multi-billion dollar investments are being effective implemented, as these individuals will be able to better understand and interact with the fabric of Afghan society. This will help avoid unnecessary tensions and misunderstandings, and is as essential as the multi-billion dollar aid packages as it guarantees they will actually have impact.

Unlike Britain, the United States or other western or regional powers who have been actively engaging Afghanistan for decades, either through peaceful means or through wars; China has had little intensive engagement with Afghanistan throughout its history. China has never fought a war with Afghanistan (though it played a supporting role in the anti-Soviet jihad); many of the few Chinese intellectuals who understood Afghan Central Asia were purged during early, and at the time the role of ambassadors to the Muslim world were not seen in a positive light. Although China opened up in 1970s, letting the world gradually in again and exposing itself to the world, China was almost exclusively focused on the West and China’s Eastern Asian neighbours, a preference that has continued to this day. It is only very recently that China found itself needing to engage to a greater extent with Central Asia and Afghanistan in particular. China needs more of everything that stimulates China’s knowledge of Afghanistan, otherwise the push towards Afghanistan will find it lacks the crucial internal building blocs to ensure it has a solid foundation for the future.