China And Russia: Locked In Reluctant Embrace

By Raffaello Pantucci

china russia image

First published in China Economic Quarterly, November 2015

The dynamic of the Sino-Russian relationship is one that has long perplexed Western decision makers and thinkers. At a geopolitical level they appear in lockstep in an anti-western front, but below the surface they seem willing to engage with the west against each other’s interests while also sharing some fundamental disagreements. The reality is that Moscow and Beijing have a sophisticated modus vivendi that both allows for a clear disparity in the relationship in Beijing’s favor, while at the same time retaining an equal sense of importance of the broader strategic relationship. The overriding priority for both remains to ensure that they have an ally against the West and as long as this need remains the axis of authoritarianism will persist.

The archetypal space to explore this complex divergence is Central Asia. On the one hand it is a region where China has gradually increased its footprint to become the most consequential actor on the ground, while on the other it remains linked inextricably to Russia through multilateral vehicles and long-standing ties. And while in other parts of Eastern Europe or the Caucasus Russia has reacted negatively to encroaching external influences with armed conflict (like Georgia or Ukraine), in Central Asia the slow creep of Beijing’s influence has happened largely with Moscow’s acquiescence, though not without some counter-reaction.
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How China rediscovered Central Asia

Xi Jinping Central Asia

By Tao Xie

From 1949 until the late 1990′s Central Asia was conspicuous in Chinese foreign policy by its absence. China has since “rediscovered” Central Asia. Twice.

China first rediscovered the five Central Asian republics as a crucial source of energy and the key partner in fighting against separatists in North-west China. In the first decade of the 21st century, bilateral trade—primarily in the form of Chinese imports of energy and exports of manufactured products—witnessed extraordinary growth, reaching $51.1 billion in 2013. Meanwhile, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was established in 2001, and one of its main missions continues to be to “maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region”. Continue reading


Connecting the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt: Current Problems and Challenges for Russia


By Ivan Zuenko

During the Putin-Xi summit that took place in Moscow on May 8, the leaders of Russia and China signed a joint declaration “on cooperation in coordinating the development of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) project and the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB)”. Moscow and Beijing’s declared goal in combining the two projects was to build a “common economic space” in Eurasia, including a Free Trade Agreement between the EEU and China.

The positive implications of such a connection are obvious. Cooperating with China can provide Russia and other post-Soviet countries with much-needed funding and technologies for the implementation of large-scale infrastructure projects, primarily in the sphere of transcontinental logistics. It is this auspicious aspect of the EEU-SREB merger that has attracted the most attention in academic papers published by experts. Continue reading


Silk Road: China’s project could transform Eurasia

Photo: Thomas Depenbusch
Photo: Thomas Depenbusch

By Raffaello Pantucci and Sarah Lain

First published in the EU Observer, October 2015

Almost two years have passed since Chinese President Xi Jinping first gave a name to the strategy that China had been undertaking in Central Asia for over a decade. The announcement of the Silk Road Economic Belt in Astana in September 2013 was rapidly followed by the declaration of a number of other trade and economic corridors emanating out from China, which largely copied the Central Asian model.

At home in China there has been a flurry of activity to try to unpack at a regional and national level the roadmap of the leader’s vision, manifested in conferences, regional strategy documents, and various declarations.
Outside China there has been less clarity, with most in Europe (who have heard the message that they are the other end of this road) questioning what the Chinese vision looks like in practice. Continue reading


China and Russia’s Soft Competition in Central Asia

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published in Current History, October 2015

China and Russia have a long history of conflict and competition in Central Asia. Sitting between the two great superpowers, the landlocked Central Asian nations appear to have little choice or control over their destiny, and are often considered to be pawns in a perpetual great game. Yet this narrow view misses the broader picture of the Sino-Russian relationship. It is undeniable that the region has been slipping out of Russia’s immediate economic sphere of influence for some time, but China has been making inroads with Russia’s full acquiescence. For Moscow and Beijing, Central Asia is increasingly a region of soft competition where they are very aware of and attentive to each other’s interests, rather than a source of conflict and tension.

Overriding any differences concerning the steppe are the larger realities of the Sino-Russian strategic relationship on the international stage, where the two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council continue to support each other’s refusal to bow to a Western-dominated global order. Russia may appear to be the loser in Central Asia, but the two powers have established a modus vivendi that suits the interests of both. The real geopolitical losers are likely to be the Central Asians, slowly slipping from Russia’s orbit into China’s.

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Can China Assert Itself in Afghanistan?

by Raffaello Pantucci and Kane Luo

First published in The Diplomat, August 28, 2015

Ghani Xi signing

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

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

By Sarah Lain

First published in The Interpreter, July 17 2015

Ufa Summits

This month saw a super summit of two organisations that are significant for both Russia and China. The 7th BRICS summit and 15th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, both held in Ufa, Russia, included the typical member-state declarations confirming cooperation on major issues such as counter-terrorism, ensuring stability and enhancing global economic development.

There were also strong indications, however, that these multilateral organisations are fast becoming platforms for China to promote its own projects, namely the Silk Road Economic Belt. Announced by President Xi Jinping at Nazarbaev University in 2013, the Silk Road is a key foreign policy vision for Beijing aimed at enhancing global trade, connectivity, financial integration and cultural understanding.

Although so far the project seems more of an umbrella term for large Chinese-funded energy and infrastructure projects in Central and South Asia, it has become a centrepiece of China’s bilateral and multilateral relations and discussions. The growing references within the SCO on how it can participate in, and facilitate, the development of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative are subtly eroding Russia’s position.
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Russia holds the door to Central Asia open for China

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published in the South China Morning Post, July 15 2015


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

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

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published in Gateway House, July 9 2015


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

But what will this new membership actually mean for India?

The short answer: not much.

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

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The geopolitical roadblocks

By Raffaello Pantucci and Qingzhen Chen

First published in China Analysis, June 10 2015



Zhang Yunling, “Analysis says One Belt One Road Faces Five Challenges,” Xiaotang Caizhi, 23 March 2015.

Tang Yiru, “Where does the money come from for the One Belt One Road? Geopolitical risks cannot be ignored,” Guoji Jinrong Bao, 9 February 2015.

Hu Zhiyong, “How to understand the political risks of ‘One Belt One Road’”, Aisixiang, 2 March 2015.

Jia Qingguo, “A number of issues that the OBOR urgently needs to clarify and prove,” Aisixiang, 24 March 2015.

Ge Jianxiong, “The History of One Belt One Road is misunderstood,” Financial Times (Chinese version), 10 March 2015.

Pang Zhongying, “One of the resistances to the One Belt One Road is from India,” Aisixiang, 4 March 2015.

Chinese authorities – and authors – describe China’s “One Belt, One Road” (一带一路, yidai yilu, hereafter OBOR) strategy as one of the most important foreign policy initiatives in the twenty-first century, and Chinese authors agree. Across the country (and, increasingly, across the world), Chinese universities and research institutions are conducting projects to explore how the vision might be implemented. Meanwhile, China’s leadership is offering economic incentives to help make the vision a reality, either through bilateral connections or through the new constellation of multilateral international financial institutions that China is developing. However, the Chinese comments also reflect that the strategy will have to overcome many challenges. Is Chinese business ready to go global? Are the countries along the routes ready to embrace the initiative? How much does China know about the countries involved and about how they will be changed by Chinese investment? And is China properly prepared to implement this strategy?
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Untangling the web of India, China and Pakistan diplomacy

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published by Reuters, May 25 2015


On the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China, Xinhua published a rare opinion piece by his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. The obvious choreography of the visit and article shows the delicate balance in relations between China, India and Pakistan.

For Beijing, both powers are important if it is to realize its ambitious strategy of trade and economic corridors emanating from the Middle Kingdom under the rubric of the Silk Road Economic Belt. For current governments in Islamabad and New Delhi, Beijing’s economic miracle offers a way of helping develop their economies. Yet we are some way off before this trilateral relationship will be able to live up to its potential as the economic powerhouse at the centre of Asia.
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Europe: The other end of China’s Silk Road

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published by EU Observer, May 18 2015

61/365 March 3 - Still on Top

All of the attention around Xi Jinping’s recent European trip was focused around his visit to Moscow in time for the May Day military parade.

By focusing so singly on the Moscow stop, however, the importance of the route he took was missed.

Coming soon after the President’s visit to Pakistan in which he laid out the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), this trip affirms one of the key routes of the Silk Road Economic Belt – running through Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus to ultimately end in Europe.

This final link is the key which Europe needs to wake up to, to understand that this Chinese outward push is one that is both a reality and one that can advance European interests.
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Understanding the Cultural Fabric: The Missing Piece in China’s outreach to bring peace to Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci and Kane Luo

First published by the UK-China Strategic Communications Initiative, April 25 2015

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.
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Sinophobia: A Potential Knot in the Silk Road

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published in Central Asian Affairs, April 2015


Sitting in a café in Bishkek recently, a foreign diplomat explained the Chinese problem in Central Asia with a rather simple characterization. The issue, he said, is a “genetic one,” whereby Kyrgyz have an in-built antipathy toward Chinese. While such a simplistic explanation is one that most international relations experts would shy away from, it is one of the clearest issues to leap off the page of Marlene Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse’s excellent The Chinese Question in Central Asia: Domestic Order, Social Change, and the Chinese Factor. The biggest factor in favor of the Chinese often seems to be their very overwhelming presence and the potential that their existence just across the Tian Shan mountains poses to the Central Asian states.

On the ground in the markets at Kara Suu, Dordoi, or Barekholka, the Chinese are largely seen in a fairly passive light. Bored and griping as one would expect from workers who are earning a living grafting and selling products to poor populations, the Chinese salesmen and workers largely operate on the fringe of local societies, aware that attracting too much attention can lead to trouble. Chinese energy giants operating in the region tell of training their workers deployed in country to avoid drinking in public and to always have their documents on them, as well as a phone number, in case they get into trouble with local authorities.
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Don’t wake up evil while it’s quiet, nor turn pale at the mention of a tiger

Russian and Chinese scholars debate their countries’ relations in Central Asia.
By Brian G. Carlson

Brothers Forever- Russia Turns to the East

“Brothers Forever: Russia Turns to the East” April 21, 2014 edition of The New Times (Новое Время), a Russian publication.

Same belt, different dreams

As China and Russia grow closer together strategically, a process that the Ukraine crisis has accelerated, their future relations in Central Asia remain unclear. China’s economic inroads into this region, which Russia regards as its backyard, have become a source of growing concern in Moscow, especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt during a speech in Astana, Kazakhstan, in September 2013. These concerns remain largely tacit among Russian officials, but they appear regularly in media and scholarly commentary.

During Xi’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 8 in Moscow, Russia and China issued a joint declaration expressing their desire to cooperate in linking the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). This declaration clearly states that Russia supports the construction of the SREB, while China supports Russia’s efforts to promote Eurasian integration through the EEU. The two sides pledged to seek the linkage of these projects in both bilateral and multilateral formats, above all in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which both are founding members.[i] The Russian government has grown increasingly supportive of the SREB in its official statements over the past couple of years, during which time Putin and Xi, as well as other high-ranking officials from both countries, have discussed the issue during frequent meetings.

Beneath this diplomatic veneer of cooperation, however, Russian government officials and scholars are grappling with the question of how to respond to China’s growing influence in Central Asia. Chinese scholars, meanwhile, are studying the implications of the SREB and focusing especially on the question of how to offer reassurance to Russia. Continue reading