Posts Tagged ‘xinjiang’

A slightly belated posting of a piece I wrote for the Chinese newspaper I occasionally contribute to, 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post), looking at Xi Jinping’s still ongoing trip through Central Asia. More on this soon as the subject remains one I am working actively on. As with other pieces I write in Chinese, I have posted the English I submitted above, with the the published Chinese below.

China needs a clear strategy for Central Asia

Two major themes have emerged as key during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Central Asia: economics and Afghanistan. The economics is made all the more relevant with the concurrent China Eurasian Expo where senior leaders from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan attended alongside businessmen from across Central Asia. The focus of the Expo is to attract investment and prosperity to Xinjiang, something that is seen as being inextricably intertwined with Eurasia and is captured in the Expo’s tagline this year of ‘common development.’ From Beijing’s perspective, developing Xinjiang is a crucial goal if the violence that has peaked once again this year is to finally be brought under control. And in order to do this properly, Beijing needs to have Xinjiang surrounded by an area of prosperity, or at the very least a region which has good roads through which goods from China can pass on to the more lucrative European and Russian markets. This is the ‘Silk Road economic belt’ that President Xi spoke of in Kazakhstan.

Central Asia is also appealing because of its wealth of natural resources: Chinese firms are one of the only ones able to extract hydrocarbons (in the form of gas) from Turkmenistan and CNPC recently successfully pulled off a major coup when it was able to buy into Kazakhstan’s giant Kashagan oil field. In Kazakhstan, China’s Development Bank has made major investments into firms extracting copper and other minerals from Kazakhstan’s rich mines. Elsewhere, Chinese companies are on the ground in Kyrgyzstan seeking out the country’s gold mines in the north of the country. And hanging over this all is the potential mineral wealth in Afghanistan, estimated by the US Geological Survey of being potentially as large as $1 trillion, including massive Lithium reserves and rare earths, as well as copper and oil fields already being developed by Chinese companies.

And sitting atop all of this bilateral activity, China has been pushing to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to move in a more economic direction. Ideas like the SCO Development Bank, an SCO Free Trade Area, greater cross-border currency usage and greater economic integration across the region are fundamentally driven out of Beijing while the other members of the organization grow concerned about Chinese economic dominance. It is here that President Xi’s visit to Uzbekistan in particular was interesting. Long the heart of Central Asia, it retains the most developed industrial infrastructure and largest population – all of which make it tempting for China but also a country that is wary of Chinese economic inroads, seeing the potential for it to undermine the nation’s capability to develop its own economy to a greater degree. Talking to Uzbek businessmen, the perception is that China is both an excellent potential partner, but also one that raises some concerns among officials who worry of succumbing to Chinese economic dominance.

All of this helps explain China’s interests in Central Asia. But the problem is that does not address the two major missing components in China’s regional approach: first is a clear strategy for the region and second is a vision for what role China sees for itself in post-2014 Afghanistan. Clearly the other key aspect of President Xi’s visit to the region, Afghanistan featured as a topic of conversation in most capitals and as part of the strategic partnership agreements and discussions that were held. But while President Xi spoke to the Central Asians about Afghanistan, it remains unclear how exactly the Chinese strategy towards the country is going to dramatically change. It remains to be seen whether we are now going to see the emergence of a clearly developed and pragmatic approach to ensuring security and stability in Afghanistan post-2014.

The absence of a clearly developed strategic vision for Afghanistan is only part of a larger problem in Central Asia, where it is equally unclear that Chinese strategists have developed a holistic approach and strategy that encompasses the full spectrum of national interests – both from a Chinese perspective and Central Asian. All of the Central Asians trade with China and seek out Chinese investment, but public opinion is not usually in China’s favour. People worry about China’s regional aims, fearing that they are about to be subsumed into becoming vassal states of China. And outside powerful elites, few feel they are really benefiting from the influx of Chinese investment. Angry publics in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in particular have attacked Chinese nationals and interests, and in Tajikistan there was a substantial public outcry when it was revealed that large pieces of territory were being leased to Chinese agricultural companies for development. In the absence of clear explanation, public opinion tends towards conspiracy and paranoia, something that can have practical implications for Chinese companies and operators on the ground. China needs to finds ways to master its strategic communications and ‘soft power’ projection in the region.

On Afghanistan, the picture is a complicated one, though it is clear that chaos in the country has the potential to upset Chinese investments and efforts across Central Asia and Xinjiang. Currently, all that is understood of China’s interests and efforts in Afghanistan can be seen in the increasingly complicated process of the Aynak copper mine where companies MCC and Jiangxi Copper are now seeking to re-negotiate the terms of the deal. Afghans, already sceptical of China’s interests in their country, now see this as a situation where the Chinese firms are doing nothing more than impeding their capacity to benefit from their natural resource wealth. The absence of any efforts by China to support the security situation further strengthen this perception, with few in Afghanistan seeing China playing a positive role in their country. The reality is of course that China is doing something in the nation (though on security, it remains a very limited presence at training a few hundred police), but it lacks a clear strategic vision and push. It appears limited, reactive after much external pressure in a very limited way and driven by large state owned companies focused on mineral resource extraction.

Like it or not, China is going to be a major player in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The time has come for Beijing to develop a coherent regional strategy and approach that finds ways of accepting this responsibility and living up to the promises towards Afghanistan that China continues to say it is making. President Xi’s trip highlighted China’s acknowledgement that Central Asia is worried about Afghanistan: as the big player at the table, it is time to take some leadership and more from rhetoric to pragmatism.










中国正在成为中亚和阿富汗的主要行为体,这是不以他人的意志为转移的。不过,由于战略视野和动力尚待进一步清晰,中国和该地区的关系显得既棘手又复杂。习近平选择出访中亚凸显了该地区对中国的重要性,让我们期望他此行的演讲和与中亚国家领导人的会晤能为一个更加清晰的地区视野寻找到一个新的表述。(胡勇 译

And a final update for this evening, this time an op-ed I had appear in this week’s South China Morning Post focusing on the grim troubles in Xinjiang this past month. More on this coming soon, and I did a number of media interviews about this.

Xinjiang violence a sad indictment of Beijing’s policy

It is proving to be another hot and violent summer in Xinjiang . In quick succession, incidents of violence have erupted across the autonomous region, leading to double-digit casualties. Beijing seems torn between blaming the incidents on foreign terrorists and pointing the finger at domestic turmoil, a focus that ultimately misses the point that whatever is being done to fix the region’s problems is not working.

The problem is complicated. First, there are individuals in Pakistan’s badlands who are plotting to attack China. Just last week, a video emerged on jihadist forums in which the emir of the Turkestan Islamic Party praised the incident in April in Bachu county, just outside Kashgar , in which 15 policemen and officials and six attackers were killed. Last month, the group published a video in which a senior al-Qaeda ideologue gave them advice in their struggle.

This relatively limited group, however, seems far apart from the violence erupting in the province. In incidents reported from Hotan , it seems a mob launched an assault on a police station.

This sounds like a replay of events in 2011 when a group attacked a police station in the prefecture, leading to 18 deaths and dramatic pictures beamed around the world in which armed police were photographed trying to take their station back.

The violence is a sad repetition of history that is becoming a marker of Xinjiang’s summers.

It is not as though Beijing has not made efforts to try to improve the region’s lot. The annual China-Eurasia Expo brings billions of dollars of investment into the province, aspiring party cadres agree to relocate to the region to try to bring their expertise to bear on developing its economy, and foreign investors are courted by Xinjiang officials. The decision to appoint governor Zhang Chunxian after hardliner Wang Lequan’s removal was seen as a conscious effort to give the region new leadership, and one that would be more open in a media age.

Founded on good intentions, this strategy has, nonetheless, not been working. Rather than a reduction in violence since the grim 2009 riots in Urumqi that claimed some 200 lives, trouble has spread.

Travel around Xinjiang and you can see construction, and an effort being made to rebuild. Talk to local officials, often cadres sent from other provinces, and you find competent staff eager to engage and create opportunities in the region. Yet, clearly, it is not working.

Part of the problem may be that entrenched interests there are not allowing economic development to flow in as it could. Talk to most Uygurs in the province and you will find people who do not feel they are personally benefiting from the economic boom that is purportedly happening. The trickle-down effect isn’t working.

Furthermore, while the government tries to advance quite progressive policies towards minorities, there is still clearly a strong sense that their voices are not being heard. In numerous accounts recently, individuals have reported that trouble was sparked by the imposition of regulations regarding religious conduct. A sense of persecution is evident.

There is no easy solution. However, it’s clear that the economically driven strategy is not having the desired effect. Trouble continues to escalate, whether or not outside forces are helping to stir things up. The long-term answer lies in local security, and that is what Beijing’s new leadership needs to focus greater attention on.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London

Am finally catching up on some late posting, this is a piece from a few weeks ago when I was in Kabul about how China is perceived there. It was initially published in  东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) and I have put the English at the top and the Chinese it was published in below.

Kabul – China’s optics in Afghanistan are not good. After a week of travelling around talking to Afghans and others in Kabul, the general consensus is that China is doing little to contribute on the ground. In fact, the perception remains that China is doing little than trying to draw profit from Afghanistan’s abundant natural resources while giving little in return.

Central to Afghan concerns are the activities of MCC and Jiangxi Copper at Mes Aynak. One of the world’s largest copper mines, back in 2007 the Chinese state owned companies paid somewhere in the region of $3 to $4 billion (depending on whose figures you believe) to acquire the mine. Since then, very little has actually happened. Security on the site, an archeological dig of great historical importance on top of the site, company problems back home and elsewhere and difficulties with the Afghan authorities have all meant that the project has not started in any meaningful way.

In fact, currently the discussion seems focused around the fact that the Chinese firm is trying to renegotiate its contract for the site. The perception from officials, media and the public spoken to is that this is something that the Chinese side is doing specifically to drive a harder bargain and alter the parameters of an already agreed deal. Something that infuriates Afghans as it means that a project they are eager to get started as it might provide some economic benefit to the country is not moving forwards. The possible jobs that the project would provide are believed to be one way of helping develop the province and maybe quell some of the tensions underlying the insurgency. The longer it does not start, the longer it will take for these benefits to be felt.

On the other side of the equation, there is acknowledgement that MCC and Jiangxi Copper’s concerns are valid. The area is dangerous and the historical site above the mine requires some care. Additionally, Afghanistan is still working on resolving and passing its new mining legislation, something that understandably makes foreign companies hesitant to invest in the country.

But whatever the reality of these concerns, the truth is that this is not the message that has gotten down to most Afghans. All they see is a large foreign company sitting on one of their prime assets without any sense that it is going to develop it any time soon. This angers people and is only one of a number of negative images China has in the country. Aside from having a low visible public diplomacy presence, China’s contribution to Afghanistan’s security (300 police trained after Zhou Yongkang’s visit last year) is low and there is a strong sense that China prefers perennial enemy Pakistan to Afghanistan. China’s soft power in Afghanistan is in a very low state.

China has a difficult hand to play in Afghanistan. On the one hand, as a wealthy neighbor with influence over Pakistan and positive links to the Taliban it is perceived as being the one holding one of the best hands in the region. But at the same time, the realities on the ground mean China is wary of getting too involved in a situation that has historically proved very difficult to mend. But the current approach of waiting and seeing is having a deeply counter-productive result. Not only is it engendering anger amongst the Afghan population, but it is furthermore helping render a situation in Pakistan that is dangerously escalating out of control even worse. More instability in Afghanistan is only going to make Pakistan more dangerous.

A quick fix solution to this is difficult to see. But some ideas exist that could help raise China’s profile. The initial security contribution offered by Zhou Yongkang should be developed further – more police should be trained and China should offer to help foot the costs of maintaining the Afghan security forces post-2014. Focusing this money towards specific areas where China’s companies have made investments would be a way to link this money to specific Chinese interests. Secondly, China should undertake a soft power push into Afghanistan. Other rising Asian giant India provides somewhere in the region of 2,000 scholarships a year to Afghan students to come to India – China provides far fewer. Increasing this number is an easy way to start to develop a new cadre of young Afghans with a stronger feeling towards China. And finally, China’s companies that are invested in Afghanistan should do more to help develop the nations infrastructure. Chinese companies are amongst the best in the world at doing such work in difficult environments – they should deploy this ability into the Afghan context.

China has long played the waiting game with Afghanistan. The time has come to step forwards and develop a more coherent, sustainable and holistic approach to find some resolution in Afghanistan. Helping solve the country’s problems will not only be of benefit to the region and world, but it will directly help China’s development of its own western provinces. A win-win if ever there was one.





阿富汗人最关心的是中冶集团(MCC)和江西铜业共同投资的艾娜克(Mes Aynak)铜矿项目。作为世界上已探明的最大铜矿之一,艾娜克铜矿早在2007年就得到了中标的上述两家中国国有企业30亿到40亿美元的投入。不过,阿富汗糟糕的安全形势、艾娜克矿区重大的考古发现、投资者自身的举棋不定以及与阿富汗当局的微妙关系都表明短期内项目仍不可能建成投产。







胡勇 译

And more late posting, this time a piece I wrote for Jamestown’s China Brief looking at the recent grim events in Xinjiang. A topic that is only going to become more relevant as time goes on given the depth of tensions. Of course, this all also feeds into the larger project I am working on looking at China in Central Asia.

Xinjiang’s April 23 Clash the Worst in Province since July 2009

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 11
May 23, 2013 04:16 PM Age: 4 days

A People’s Armed Police Patrol in Xinjiang, from here

On April 24, reports emerged from Xinjiang that 21 people had been killed in what was reported as a “terrorist clash” in Bachu County, Kashgar Prefecture (Xinhua, April 24). The incident came as U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke was undertaking the first visit to the province by a senior U.S. delegation in 20 years as part of Beijing’s push to attract foreign investment to the province (Xinjiang Daily, April 25). The juxtaposition of the two events highlighted Beijing’s persistent difficulties in taming the province’s tensions. They call into question Beijing’s economics-based strategy while illustrating the ongoing questions about the drivers of radicalization in the province.

Initial descriptions about the events in Selibuya village in Bachu County (also known as Maralbexi) just outside Kashgar, suggested the incident was the product of a “violent clash between suspected terrorists and authorities” (Xinhua, April 24). Three community workers were described as entering a property and finding suspicious individuals with knives. They managed to alert others, but were killed before help could arrive. This lead to a larger clash in which a total of 15 police and community workers were killed while six so-called “mobsters” were shot to death (Xinjiang Daily, April 24; Shanghai Daily, April 24). The 15 dead were heralded later as “martyrs” and identified by their ethnicities as 10 Uighur, three Han and two Mongolians (Xinhua, April 29). Grim pictures released in the days after the funerals seemed to show females identified as cadres with their throats slit (CCTV13, April 30).

Xinjiang government spokeswoman Hou Hanmin quickly blamed the incident as being the work of terrorists (Reuters, April 24). Two days later after U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell refused to call it terrorism, an editorial lashed out at U.S.  “double standards,” something felt all the more keenly in the wake of the Boston bombings in which a Chinese student was killed (Xinhua, April 26). A few days later, security forces announced they had arrested a further 11 suspects for involvement in the incident, bringing the total number of captured individuals to 19 (Xinhua, April 29). In making this announcement, the government laid out its claim that they had disrupted a terrorist cell headed by Qasim Muhammat (also spelt Kasmu Memet) that had been founded in September 2012 and was in the process of planning “something big” this summer in Kashgar (Xinhua, April 29). The group allegedly would gather at cell member Muhanmetemin Barat’s house where they would do physical training, watch extremist videos, read the Koran and practice making explosives (Xinhua, April 29). The group was in the process of making explosives at the house when the three community workers came visiting leading to the incident (Xinhua, April 29).

According to an official timeline released by the government, one of the members of the cell, Musar Aisanjon, had first come to security officials’ attention in July 2007 when he was questioned by authorities linked to unspecified charges. Three years later, he is alleged to have met Qasim Muhammat, who subsequently went on to recruit the other members of the cell (China Daily, April 30). By September 2012, the group was formed and under Qasim’s lead were gathering regularly to train, listen and watch radical material and make knives. By the time of the incident, they allegedly had tested explosives five times. When authorities subsequently raided the properties, they uncovered knives, combat training equipment, illegal religious material and three jihadist flags along with at least one identified as being an “East Turkestan” banner (Xinhua, April 29; China Daily, April 30). Nevertheless, a few days later spokeswoman Huo Hanmin went on record saying that the incident and individuals involved “had no connection with foreign forces” in contrast to many previous incidents where external influences were blamed (China Daily, May 2).

This official version of events was disputed remotely by dissident groups through Radio Free Asia, where they called for independent coverage of the story (RFA, May 3). A BBC crew was able to get to Selibuya and spoke to locals who said a family that was at the center of the clash had “a long-standing dispute with officials.” Apparently very religious, the family was under pressure to shave their beards and for their women to unveil themselves—something that was apparently in accordance with local laws. The family refused and something snapped on April 23 leading to the brutal incident (BBC, April 26). Little of this account beyond the end result was corroborated by official Chinese reports, leaving observers in the usual frustrating state of confusion when observing such incidents in Xinjiang.

Waters were further muddied when RFA—citing Uighur websites, local sources and dissident groups—reported that there had been a further incident in Hotan, Xinjiang during which two more community workers were killed and three cars burned in an incident sparked off by clampdowns in the wake of the Selibuya deaths (RFA, April 26). No further information has emerged about this incident. Other incidents reported by RFA in subsequent days (and not corroborated elsewhere) showed tensions between Uighur and Han across the country. One report indicated there had been a clash between Uighur and Han students at Beijing’s Minorities University leading to the authorities separating the two communities on campus (RFA, April 29). Meanwhile in Shanghai, a group of Uighur women protesting their being banned from selling products outside the Changde Lu Mosque, reportedly were moved along violently by local authorities (RFA, May 3). It is unclear if there is any connection between all of these events and whether these are anything more than usual intra-ethnic tensions. They do, however, highlight a persistent issue.

A contact in Kashgar at around the time of the incident reported no particular local coverage of events, with locals suggesting they return to Urumqi rather than press on toward the borders near Kashgar. Another report indicated that the government had re-issued laws regulating possession of SIM cards in the region (RFA, April 30). Such laws had been issued previously in conjunction with other rioting when it was believed that dissemination of pictures of Han or Uighur brutality against each other had exacerbated tensions. By having people registering SIM cards against ID cards, the belief was that individuals could be tracked.

While possibly sensible from a security surveillance perspective, such measures are impediments to rapid transfer of information. Something that when taken in conjunction with the confusion that permeates the official accounts of the events in Selibuya suggests that the government is going to continue to have a difficult time in attracting the external investment that it is looking for to develop the province. External investors will be both alarmed by the security situation, but also the heavily watched environment and the impediments to obtain SIM cards.

According to 2012 trade figures, during the first 11 months of 2012, Xinjiang attracted some $396 million in foreign direct investment (FDI)—a figure up 30.8 percent year-on-year—but still paltry when put in the context of the $100.02 billion that China overall attracted during the same period (Xinhua, December 21, 2012). Eager to attract foreign firms, the Xinjiang government has been proactive in bringing foreign companies out to the province. It has signed a cooperation agreement with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI); Volkswagen has established a joint venture car factory outside Urumqi; French waste management firm Veolia is taking on the modernization of Urumqi’s wastewater infrastructure; Coca-Cola is opening a plant in the province with its bottling partner Cofco; IBM is working with authorities in Karamay to develop a “smart city”; Danish wind power manufacturer LM Glasfiber setting up a factory in the Urumqi Economic and Technological Development Zone; and Turkey signed an agreement in 2011 to develop a Sino-Turkish Development Park outside Urumqi (, January 28; China Daily, November 14, 2012; South China Morning Post, April 3, 2012; China Daily, August 16, 2011;, September 1, 2005). More recently, the U.S. delegation visiting with Ambassador Locke had representatives from GE, the Aluminium Company of America (Alcoa), DuPont, Cummins and Peabody Energy Corporation (Xinjiang Daily, April 25).

All of this activity, however, does not seem to be translating into a huge pay-off on the ground as external investment remains relatively low. Foreign firms wonder about the prospects in the wake of incidents like that in Selibuya as well as practical concerns like the province’s still underdeveloped infrastructure and its distance from any bodies of water or markets. The annual China-Eurasia Expo held in Urumqi in September, for example, is intended as a further FDI booster, but most of the deals done are between Chinese firms. During the 2011 Expo, $29.14 billion in deals were signed with Chinese firms versus $5.5 billion in foreign trade contracts (Xinhua, September 3, 2012).

What does seem to have changed, however, is the government’s willingness to blame incidents like that in Selibuya on outside actors (something attested to by Huo Hanmin’s earlier clarifications). In a number of discussions over the past year, the author has heard Chinese scholars suggest that incidents in Xinjiang are at root domestic problems rather than external ones [2]. Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian published an article in Seeking Truth following the wake of the Bachu incident in which he laid out the current context and strategy for developing Xinjiang. Hinting at a slight adjustment in the degree to which authorities are eager to blame outside forces, Zhang described the security problems in terms of social stability and development rather than blaming foreign elements (Qiushi, May 16). In keeping with the reported paranoia of the security services, an anonymous Xinjiang security official, however, said “The ‘three evil forces’ of separatism, extremism and terrorism have long been using mobile phones and the Internet to incite terrorist attacks in China” (Xinhua, May 17). The party secretary’s article stands in contrast to statements in response to previous incidents where outside groups were accused of directing plotters and infiltrating operatives.

Further confusing matters, at around the time of the incident, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) released its latest batch of videos through Islam Awazi, including one in which a now believed dead senior al Qaeda ideologue, Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti provides “advice for the Muslims of East Turkestan” (, May 4). At no point in these videos is there any mention of recent incidents in Xinjiang or of any specific direct threats against targets in China. Something suggestive of a disconnect between what Uighur groups operate in Waziristan and their ethnic brethren in Xinjiang. The narrative of this incident further emphases this discontent, pointing in the direction of being a domestic clash with no external instigation.

The fact that government has chosen to release such detailed information about this incident would suggest an effort to get their side out with as much detail and openness as possible. This reflects the growing desire of propagandists to have official government bureaus be the most authoritative source on breaking events (Study Times, May 6). This public relations approach seems to be part of a broader effort to shift the messaging about who is to blame for such incidents. Who this is directed at, however, is unclear: the international community, Chinese residents elsewhere in the country or residents of Xinjiang? Whichever the case, given their previous history of opacity and conflicting views from the ground, much more still needs to be done for Beijing’s views on events in Xinjiang to be taken at face value.


  1. Author’s Communication with Foreign Visitor in Kashgar, April 24, 2013.
  2. This is a perspective the author has heard at conferences at official think tanks in Beijing and Shanghai and has been corroborated by other foreign scholars in discussions with Chinese experts looking at terrorism questions and South Asia.

A new article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank with offices around the globe. It focuses on China in Afghanistan and is part of a series being directed out of their Beijing office looking at giving China advice for the coming year in foreign policy. The piece has already been re-printed in the Diplomat and I believe may be being re-published on East Asia Forum. I also want to use this opportunity to highlight this piece in the Russian Penza news which I did an interview for, here it is in English and Russian. For more of my work on this part of the world, check out China in Central Asia that I co-edit with Alex.

China’s Leadership Opportunity in Afghanistan

The 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is fast approaching. China has just over a year before Afghanistan fades from the West’s radar and Western attention toward the country shrinks substantially. However, it is not clear that Beijing has properly considered what it is going to do once NATO forces leave and pass the responsibility for Afghan stability and security to local forces.

And more crucially, it is not clear that China has thought about what it can do with the significant economic leverage it wields in the region. Afghanistan offers China the opportunity to show the world it is a responsible global leader that is not wholly reliant on others to assure its regional interests.

Traditionally, Chinese thinkers have considered Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires.” They chuckle at the ill-advised American-led NATO effort and point to British and Soviet experiences fighting wars in Afghanistan.

But in reality, the presence of NATO forces provided China with a sense of stability. Beijing correctly assumed that NATO’s presence in Afghanistan would mean regional terrorist networks would remain focused on attacking Alliance forces rather than stirring up trouble in neighboring countries like China. NATO’s targeting of Islamist groups also had the effect of striking anti-Chinese Uighur groups that had sought refuge in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. These Uighur groups would otherwise have focused their attention on targeting China.

Yet as the date of American withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, this security dynamic is changing. While China does worry about the threat of Islamist Uighur groups striking from their Afghan bases, this concern is relatively marginal. The bigger problem is the potentially negative repercussions for the rising number of investments from China’s private sector in Afghanistan and its surrounding region. These investments are part of a broader push into Central Asia that flows from an effort to develop China’s historically underdeveloped province of Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan.

The prospect of an Afghanistan returning to chaos is, therefore, not appealing to policymakers and businesspeople in Beijing. This scenario would bring instability directly to China’s doorstep, and this instability could potentially expand northward into Central Asia or southward into Pakistan. China would suffer from further chaos in either direction.

The solution to this problem is complex. China is not necessarily expected to invest heavily in security efforts and rebuilding Afghanistan’s security apparatus, though some more substantial contribution in this direction than the offer to train a nominal 300 policemen that China made last year in Kabul would be helpful. Rather, China could focus on what it is able to do best: invest in Afghanistan and develop its abundant natural resources.

Chinese state-owned firms have already invested in oil fields in Amu Darya in northern Afghanistan and a copper mine in Mes Aynak, southeast of Kabul. These investments have had mixed success.

Amu Darya has produced for the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), though its current status is unknown. Problems and uncertainty with China’s investments in Central Asia are reflected in the difficulties of two other Chinese companies—the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper—in the south.

In part this is because companies operating in the south face understandable security concerns that range from locals angry because they feel they were not justly compensated for their land that was affected by the mine to Taliban-affiliated groups eager to punish the central government by undermining efforts to develop the country.

But these companies also often find they lack a full understanding of the environment in which they are trying to invest. Orchestrators of projects that begin with the best of intentions and large investments, like the Mes Aynak mine, find themselves burdened with a local government response that is confused. Confusion turns to anger when these projects fail to deliver elements that were supposedly included in the original contract. For example, the local Afghan government initially believed that MCC and Jiangxi Copper would build a train line in the south. But the companies claim the contract only stipulated it would conduct a feasibility study. They also claim that the security situation has driven Chinese workers to refuse to work on the site, though reports about whether these stoppages are actually occurring are unclear.

The difficulty of this deal contrasts with the rapidity with which Chinese energy giant CNPC was able to bring online the oil field in Amu Darya. Political complications with the local Afghan strongman Rashid Dostum have held up work, and it is not clear that they have been completely resolved. The field has produced some oil that was transported across the border by truck into Turkmenistan, where it is refined at a separate CNPC site. The company has also said that it is going to develop a refinery in Afghanistan to help facilitate Afghan energy independence.

These two projects show the potential benefits and downsides to investing in Afghanistan. Large mining projects like these have the potential to be help rebuild parts of Afghanistan and transform the economy from one that is reliant on the drug trade and foreign aid to self-reliance.

Even if they were all successful, Chinese investments alone would not transform Afghanistan into a stable and prosperous state. China also needs to leverage its power within the region and persuade other countries to engage in Afghanistan in order to complete this transformation. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional entity led by China, has done very little in Afghanistan due to a lack of agreement among members about what exactly actions to take. China believes the SCO should do more, but other member countries believe a bilateral approach is better that a multilateral one and that focusing on building individual relationships in Afghanistan will help strengthen their particular interests. This is unfortunate as the SCO could be a useful vehicle through which China and other regional actors could undertake efforts to counter the narcotics trade in the region and strengthen border controls.

China has growing influence in the Asian Development Bank, which has already invested heavily in Afghanistan. China could continue its support for these projects to help connect Afghanistan to the broader region and reintegrate the nation into the global community, thus fostering stability. This approach complements China’s broader regional strategy to develop Xinjiang into the “gateway for Eurasia” as Premier Wen Jiabao put it during the China-Eurasia Expo in September last year.

And at the social level, China needs to foster person-to-person contact with Afghanistan. Last year during a visit to Kabul, the most striking characteristic of Kabul University’s Confucius Institute—one of the Beijing-backed centers that promote Chinese language and culture across the world—was the absence of Chinese teachers and Afghan students. This stood in contrast to other Confucius Institutes in Central Asia with dozens of students crowding around excited teachers. The security situation undoubtedly complicates things in Kabul, but there are safer parts of the country in which to operate. To further encourage societal ties, Beijing could try to entice more Afghans to study and work in China through scholarships and study grants.

China has an opportunity in the next year to assert some leadership in helping steer Afghanistan in a more positive direction. A stable Afghanistan is in China’s national interest, and taking the lead on this regional issue of international importance could help bolster Beijing’s global position. The West may have made mistakes in Afghanistan’s past, and making up for them will undoubtedly take time. But the Afghanistan problem is one that remains on China’s borders and has the potential to result in even more regional instability. Investing in Afghanistan now will save years of trouble later.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the co-editor of

A new piece for the latest issue of Caravan magazine, an excellent Indian publication that I would highly recommend. The piece is an evolution of a blogpost that we did for the China in Central Asia site a while ago, and of course part of the bigger project on the subject that Alex and myself are working on with Sue Anne helping us document it visually.

Horse to Water

China’s first faltering steps towards building trade links with Uzbekistan


At the 2012 Uzbekistan Tashkent China Xinjiang Business and Trade Fair, an Uzbek visitor photographs a scale model of a Chinese cotton-picking machine.
On a flight from Beijing to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Sue Anne Tay, the photographer with whom I visited Tashkent in May last year, ran into a group of businessmen from China’s Xinjiang region. They were on a government-sponsored trip to the “Uzbekistan Tashkent China Xinjiang Business and Trade Fair” in Tashkent, to help build relations between Xinjiang and the neighbouring countries as part of an economic strategy laid out by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. As he put it, China wants to “make Xinjiang a gateway for mutually beneficial cooperation between China and other Eurasian countries”.

Unfortunately for this group of businessmen, they had to take a circuitous route to get through this gate. Because of a lack of direct flights from Urumqi to Tashkent at the time, they had been forced to re-route rather inconveniently through Beijing—a five-hour flight south-east followed by a six-hour flight west. In retrospect, the businessmen’s long trip was emblematic of difficulties they later faced in Tashkent.

We ran into them the next evening at a market in a small park behind a statue of Amir Timur, the 14th-century Asian emperor, in the centre of Tashkent. In the cool evening, traders, painters and other craftsmen had gathered to ply their wares to tourists. Some of the Chinese businessmen were getting their portraits drawn, frustrating the Soviet-trained draftsmen by constantly shifting to smoke cigarettes.

One businessman was intrigued by stalls set up near the artists. A forthright man with a flattop haircut typical of many middle-aged Chinese traders who have little time for the niceties of fashion, he had come to Tashkent to sell his food products to local traders. He was a natural leader, with the robust confidence of someone from a tough frontier province, which made his fascination at the outdoor market with faux vintage Soviet cameras all the more odd. Turning them over in his hands, he remarked on how authentic they were; I couldn’t help but think they had been made, like so many things in this world, in China. Using broken English, gestures, and my assistance as a Chinese–English translator, he proudly bargained down the cost of two cameras to $15.

Two days later, at the expo, this gentleman and the other Chinese businessmen were the sellers, trying to win over Uzbek customers for their products. Sponsored by the Xinjiang government, the expo was part of the Chinese autonomous region’s strategy to develop its economic ties with Central Asia. The companies represented all had operations in Xinjiang, though quite a few were from other provinces in China, such as Guangdong. This was also part of the central government’s strategy: richer eastern provinces were to give financial and other aid to their poorer counterparts and participate in the strategy of turning Xinjiang into a Eurasian gateway.

The expo, held in an exhibition hall in the northwestern corner of Tashkent, was underwhelming—a smattering of stalls were arranged in the centre of a much larger, imposing space, giving visitors the impression of being in a hangar. Sellers displayed everything from high-end power generation machinery and cotton-picking machines to uniforms (with a focus on the oil industry and military outfits), Uighur clothing, spices, sauces, car engine parts and electronics. Some exhibitors had carefully considered where they were travelling to—at one of the clothing stalls a sign proudly boasted that they sold ‘Turky Style clothing’, the unfortunate typo belying an attempt to tap into the Turkish-Uzbek ethnic connection. Another stall had a Chinese woman dressed up in what was supposed to be traditional ethnic Uighur attire, wearing a hat with what looked like a feather duster attached to it, as she tried to sell pillows, rugs, slippers and other homemade wool products. Compounding the hall’s feeling of emptiness was the thin crowd.

At one of the few stalls that were attracting a crowd, a Guangdong merchant selling electronics told me that his company “had been asked to invest in Xinjiang by the Guangdong government”. Having attended the expo before, he had an obvious edge over others and had had the foresight to bring along a Uighur salesman from his Urumqi office. Given Uighur and Uzbek are mutually intelligible languages, both spoken by Turkic peoples, the Uighur salesman was able to talk to curious locals and pitch them products. He proudly announced that the products on offer were all made in Xinjiang by Uighur workers, and told visitors to disregard the Guangdong branding. As proof, he pointed to the picture on a computer tablet box: a Google Android figure donning a hat of a style common to both Uighurs and Uzbeks.

Most others vendors had failed to bring someone who could communicate with locals; instead, the men sat around waiting for proceedings to end. At a stand trying to woo Uzbek companies to buy plots inside a new mall outside Xinjiang’s Kashgar city, one of the men who had had his picture drawn the night before was sitting with two of his colleagues. Bored and with no business prospects, they fiddled with mobile phones and remarked on how they, too, had been encouraged to come to Tashkent by the Guangdong government. (Although the trip had government sponsorship, they resentfully noted, they had to pay a fee to join.) It was only upon arrival that they realised Uzbekistan was an underdeveloped and poor market that was unlikely to have many companies eager to set up operations in China. “The Uzbek market is too small and low-income compared to the vast opportunities we have in Xinjiang,” said Tan Chao, a manufacturer of uniforms.

Dealing in goods of a vastly different scale, those manning the machinery companies’ stalls were less surprised by the slow foot traffic. At one stand, Liu Zhao, a cheery representative from a Siemens subsidiary that builds power stations, showed off a large model of a power substation. It had cost them somewhere in the region of 10,000 RMB (Rs 84,000) to ship the ping-pong table-sized model to Tashkent, a fraction of the money the company would make if it sold one, but he did not seem very optimistic about securing a sale. While my Chinese failed me as he went through the technical specifics of the project, he smiled pleasantly as he told me that people in Uzbekistan didn’t need products like the ones his company was offering, because “these people are at a very different stage of development”.

Soon after lunch, a local school was dismissed and there was a sudden influx of Uzbek children into the hall. The stall that particularly appealed to them was the one run by a company that made cotton-picking machines, a subsidiary of Chinese state-owned military aviation firm AVIC, which was hoping to tap the Uzbek cotton market, one of the top five in the world. But even the recent news that Xinjiang had set a cotton producing record was not helping their sales with locals, who apparently preferred American equipment. This left the Chinese businessmen to fight off eager children drawn not out of some financial stake in cotton, but rather by a large toy automobile that the company had sent along. The harassed vendors shooed away the children as they eagerly tried to play with the car, which was roughly the size of a microwave oven. Neither vendor spoke any Russian or Uzbek, but they had learned enough to say something approximating “no sale” to the young and old Uzbeks who pestered them to buy the model.

In the mid-afternoon, Duan Weiming, one of the clothiers, made a modest sale of some Western suits and received a down payment of a few hundred thousand in Uzbek som. Striding around gleefully with huge bundles of cash, he proclaimed that, given its lack of value, he would have no choice but to blow it all while he was in Uzbekistan—the Uzbek som is officially worth 1,800 per US dollar, but unofficially trades at around 2,800. When asked what he planned to spend it on, he responded, “Dinner, drinks and karaoke.” By 4 pm that day, the group at the expo concluded that the day was basically a write-off and that it was time to go home. Rounding everyone up, they hopped on a tour bus and went back to their hotel, enervated by the prospect of sitting through another day in the empty auditorium.

A few days later, over lunch with an Uzbek businessman whose company had helped sponsor the expo, we got a sense of how successful the whole enterprise had been. “Not very, to be honest, but better than last time,” he said. “More Chinese are coming.” A former government employee, he had seen the economic possibilities of China’s booming, dynamic manufacturing capabilities and had chosen to end a flourishing civil service career at a young age to go into business, with a focus on China. Though at the forefront of Sino-Uzbek relations, he was not optimistic about Xinjiang as the gateway for Central Asia. The province made low quality products and traders were, in fact, simply agents from elsewhere in China, he told us. But he admitted that the greater problem was the difficult business environment in Uzbekistan in general. Awkward red tape, worthless currency conversions and a political environment that took very careful manoeuvering meant that it did not matter how many trade fairs were held. “You can take a horse to water,” he told us, “but you cannot make it drink.” And with that his phone rang, dragging him off to do more business with China.

A new piece with Alex for The Diplomat, an excellent online magazine focused on mostly Asian affairs and strategy. This one looks particularly at Turkey’s recent public dalliance with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and highlights some of the problems inherent in that organization. Turkey’s role in Central Asia writ large is a fascinating one and the topic of much more research – more hopefully to come! In the meantime, I was quoted in this piece for another online magazine The International on China’s role in ‘New Iron Silk Road’ and Afghanistan. As ever, for more of mine and Alex’s work on the broader themes in these pieces, please see our co-authored blog:

Turkey: Abandoning the EU for the SCO?

February 15, 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

Recent moves suggest Turkey could make a bid for entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It would be a mistake.


The European Union is in a rut. Its once-vaunted economy and “ever closer” integration is facing the tough challenges of a dogged recession and anti-EU sentiment in some of its most powerful member states. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that some EU aspirants appear lukewarm about their prospects and continued desire to join the club. For Turkey, probably the most unfairly spurned EU aspirant, it makes a lot of sense to at least explore alternatives.

After all, Turkey’s economy is booming – leaping from $614.6 billion in 2009 to $775 billion in 2011 (in current U.S. dollars) according to World Bank figures. Reflecting the country’s position at the global cross-roads, Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport international traffic more than doubled between the years 2006 and 2011. Last year alone its passenger volume increased by 20%, making it Europe’s 6th busiest airport. The country’s regional and global profile has grown since it first evinced a desire to join the EU. European leaders should only be surprised that Turkey has maintained its interest in the EU for so long.

However, even as it makes sense to decision-makers in Ankara to reconsider their relationship with the EU, it is not a strategically sound choice for Turkey to consider membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an alternative. Already a ”dialogue partner” with the SCO, late last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he had made an overture to Russian President Vladimir Putin about joining the SCO, stating “If we get into the SCO, we will say good-bye to the European Union. The Shanghai Five [former name of the SCO] is better — much more powerful.” Erdogan also noted that Turkey has more “common values” with the SCO member states.

The issue, however, is that the SCO remains a nascent organization that is still in the process of defining itself. Absorbing new members, or figuring out the protocols for new members to be formally acceded, is merely one of the many problems the SCO faces. The Organization’s security structures, including the unfortunate-acronym RATS Center [Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure], have yet to fully flesh out their purpose in advancing regional security in a very militarily tense region. Meanwhile, China continues to dominate the SCO’s economic agenda, including negotiations to establish an SCO Free Trade Area (FTA), an SCO Development Bank, and Beijing offering $10 billion in loans for member states. All of this alarms Russian strategists who see China encroaching on Moscow’s Central Asian interests. Nonetheless, all of this results in a minimal concrete presence, something we found first-hand as we travelled around Central Asia over the past year, finding little tangible evidence of the Organization’s footprint on the ground.

Further complicating matters, Turkey is not the only country that has expressed an interest in becoming a full member. In fact, Pakistani and Indian officials both said their countries were interested in becoming full-fledge members at the Prime Minister’s Summit in Bishkek last December. Iran too has expressed an interest in joining the organization, although Moscow recently said this would not be possible so long as Tehran remains under UN sanctions. All three countries currently languish as “observers,“ a status that Pakistan and India have held since 2005 and one that is considered superior to the ‘dialogue partnership’ that Turkey was only accorded last June. Still, both Pakistan and India – strategically important allies for China and Russia respectively – would undoubtedly feel put out were Turkey allowed to jump the queue.

None of this is to say that Turkey does not have a key role to play in Central Asia, the SCO’s primary area of operations. Waiting for visas in Bishkek, we found ourselves jostling with Turkish truckers getting visas to Kazakhstan, whilst in the city’s downtown, eager students at the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University told us how exciting it would be to visit Turkey. In neighboring Uzbekistan, our driver told us how he preferred to fly Turkish airlines and how convenient the country was linguistically. This ethnic proximity is something that China in particular has sought to cultivate – in April last year, Erdogan broke protocol when he started his Chinese trip with a stopover in Urumqi, capital of historically Turkic Uighur Xinjiang.

Eager to attract outside investment to encourage prosperity as a salve for ethnic tensions between Uighur and Han Chinese and historical underdevelopment, the Urumqi government has established a Turkish-Chinese trade park outside the city, offering Turkish investors favorable rates and support to develop businesses in the province. Turkey is clearly a significant regional player and its SCO “dialogue partner” status reflects this. But full membership is a step too far and one that seems out of whack with the Organization’s current trajectory.

Far more likely, Erdogan is hinting at a shift in orientation in frustration at the West’s relationship with his country. Europe has repeatedly proven an awkward partner and the United States has demonstrated little appetite to get overly involved in the problems that sit right on Turkey’s border. Aware of his nation’s geopolitical location at a global crossroads, Erdogan is highlighting that he has options.

Still, the reality is that joining the SCO would not heighten Turkey’s global stature or teach the West a lesson. U.S. and NATO policymakers keep an eye on the SCO, but none seriously view it as a strategic counterweight. In some respects, Western strategists have been far more eager than their Chinese counterparts about the possibility of an SCO role in stabilizing Afghanistan after Western combat forces depart in 2014. In the past year, the Organization has expressed some interest in doing more in Afghanistan, but it remains light years away from replacing NATO as a security guarantor.

As an ascendant power in Eurasia, Turkey may find it useful to keep in a toe in the SCO.  However, full membership is not in the offing.  And even if it were, Turkey’s decision-makers would quickly find that China’s multilateral cover for its bilateral engagement in Central Asia is still an empty shell.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).  Dr. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West and an Associate Professor at the American University of Central Asia.  Their joint research is available at