Author Archives: China in Central Asia

China and Central Asia in 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in China Brief January 18, 2013.

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

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

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China’s Latest Piece of the New Silk Road

By Alexandros Petersen

First published in Eurasia Daily Monitor January 10, 2013.

While the concept of a “New Silk Road” of trade, transport and telecommunications connections across Eurasia was formally endorsed by the US State Department, it is Beijing and Chinese companies that have taken the lead in realizing the immense infrastructure projects that will tie the mega-continent together. The latest is the completion of a second railway link between China and Kazakhstan at the burgeoning Khorgos crossing point and Special Economic Zone. This nearly 600-kilometer section is part of a larger project that connects China’s eastern port of Lianyungang with Kazakhstan’s rail system and points west toward Russia and the Caspian region. Chinese officials refer to it as part of the New Eurasian Land Bridge from China’s ports to Western European ports such as Rotterdam (Global Times, December 22, 2012).

Plans call for the railway to handle 20 million tons of freight by 2020, increasing to 30 million by 2030. The 292-km Chinese portion of the project was built for less than $1 billion—relatively inexpensive by global standards. Khorgos is already the key border crossing for the Central Asia–China natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan and a new highway network under construction. According to Kazakhstan’s Minister for Transport and Communications Askar Zhumagaliyev, 800 km of this Western Europe–Western China highway will be completed in 2013, with much of the route running alongside the just-completed railway (Tengrinews, December 20, 2012). Continue reading

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Central Asia: What is China’s Policy Driver?

Alexandros Petersen is quoted by Joshua Kucera on EurasiaNet.

Part of the reason is that Central Asia remains a low priority for the government in Beijing, and so policy is shaped on an ad hoc basic via deals made by various companies and government organs, said Alexandros Petersen, an analyst and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center who studies Chinese policy in Central Asia. “There is no grand strategy for Central Asia on the part of Beijing,” Petersen said. “What there is, however, is a confluence of all the activities of these multifarious actors which, regardless of what Beijing wants or doesn’t want, means that China is nonetheless the most consequential actor in the region.”

Nevertheless, China’s strategy towards Central Asia may be a function of its need to pacify Xinjiang, Petersen said: “The engagement in Central Asia … has to do with security concerns about Xinjiang, number one, and only secondly, after that, is it about resources and economic development.”

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Implications of Tajikistan’s New Chinese-Built Tunnel

By Alexandros Petersen

In the last week of October, China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) completed the longest tunnel in Tajikistan, better connecting the country’s capital with its northern regions by reportedly cutting almost 10 hours off of an already grueling journey through spectacular mountains.  The inauguration of the new Sharistan Tunnel makes this “the shortest route between Asia and Europe”, announced Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon.  The 3.25 mile tunnel replaces a crumbling Iranian-built tunnel, an ill-fated “gift” upon Tajikistan’s independence.  At an opening ceremony, President Rahmon praised CRBC workers for their ingenuity in building the company’s longest tunnel project outside of China.  He also awarded the project manager with Tajikistan’s Order of Friendship.  Chinese Ambassador to Tajikistan Fan Xianrong was on hand to praise the project as a symbol of the close relationship between the two countries. Continue reading

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China’s Inadvertent Empire

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in the November/December hardcopy of The National Interest

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

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

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In hunt for Caspian Gas, the EU can learn from China

By Alexandros Petersen

First published by EPC October 17, 2012

The prospect of reaching European markets once excited oilmen in the energy-rich Caspian countries of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Now, the famed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline has been built and the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) is on the cusp of realising a natural gas line through Turkey that will finally get the long-stalled Nabucco project going. On the eastern side of the Caspian, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan’s major energy partner is China. As the uneasy grouping of European governments, EU negotiators and Western companies dithered, China worked to create the world’s fastest-built natural gas pipeline, linking Turkmenistan’s vast southeastern gas fields with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s formidable reserves to help slake the second-largest economy’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for resources. This has caused a split down the middle of the sea. For the moment, most resources on the western side go West, and most resources on the eastern side go East. Continue reading

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China in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in the Washington Times October 11, 2012

On Sept. 23, a top Chinese security official and Politburo member, Zhou Yongkang, made a surprise four-hour visit to Kabul during which time he reportedly met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. This was the first high-level visit by a Chinese official to Afghanistan in half a century — a clear signal of a policy shift on Beijing’s part and probably the harbinger of further engagement to come.

Until now, China’s approach to its Eurasian neighbors, including Afghanistan, has been “soft,” primarily based on investment, infrastructure projects, promoting Chinese language and the multilateral body of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Beijing has stayed away from difficult political issues — so much so that U.S. diplomats have actively courted China to become more involved in ensuring Afghanistan’s stability after the 2014 withdrawal of Western combat forces. The accusation against the Chinese government and Chinese state-owned enterprises has been that by investing in Afghan natural resources such as copper and oil, they are reaping the benefits of American efforts without expending any political capital. As the 2014 deadline approaches, however, this is quickly changing. Continue reading

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Kazakhstan Cabinet Reshuffle Promotes Massimov

By Alexandros Petersen

First published in Eurasia Daily Monitor September 25, 2012

The first autumn winds in Kazakhstan’s capital brought with them a major cabinet reshuffle that promoted popular, effective Prime Minister Karim Massimov to head the preeminent presidential administration and moved First Deputy Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov to the premier spot. President Nursultan Nazarbayev confirmed both appointments on September 24, after one of his advisors spoke to the press two days earlier about the possible shift (Tengrinews, September 22). The musical chairs at the top of Kazakhstan’s government structures come amid widespread speculation and reported wrangling over who will succeed Nazarbayev to become the country’s second president.  Continue reading

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Senior Chinese official visits Afghanistan for first time in 50 years

Raffaello Pantucci is quoted in The Telegraph.

“It’s clearly a big thing,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences who studies Chinese foreign policy. “China is increasingly firing all cylinders on its relationship with Afghanistan.”

Mr Pantucci said that while security concerns meant China would “still be quite hesitant” about future investments in Afghanistan, Mr Zhou’s visit would strengthen his country’s hand there. “It’s not just talk,” he said. “Zhou Yongkang has these connections to natural resources companies [and] China is certainly eyeing the US report that said there were $1 trillion of resources in Afghanistan. By being there first – and on the ground – it will make it easier for them.”

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Chinatown, Kazakhstan?

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

Is there a Chinese restaurant in town?  The front desk clerk at our hotel answered that he knew of none in the city and could only direct us to a Japanese-Korean establishment, complete with waitresses in kimonos and chopsticks sanitized in Seoul.  While the food was good, it wasn’t what we were looking for.

Aktobe is our latest stop through the region tracking China’s influence in Central Asia.  We had heard this was the oil town where China National Petroleum Corporation runs the show and we wanted to try to get a sense of China’s role on the steppe.  Local Kazakhstani’s have nicknamed the city ‘Chinatown’ – a reflection of the size of the Chinese population. But, how could there be no Chinese restaurants in Chinatown? Continue reading

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Finding Common Ground in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in Foreign Policy’s Af-Pak Channel August 16, 2012.

A beat was missed on U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon’s late July visit to Beijing. Described in the Chinese press as a “fire extinguisher visit,” it came as tensions continue to ratchet up in the South China Sea and the United States continues to butt heads with China over Iran, Syria and theoretical war plans. These disputes obscure the one area with scope for much greater cooperation between China and the United States: Afghanistan. Building on mutual goals in Afghanistan could have a positive effect on the overall relationship, showing that the distance between the two sides is not the Pacific-sized gulf that it is sometimes made out to be.

In discussions with Chinese officials about their objectives, the uniform answer is “a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.”  This is almost identical to answers given by their American counterparts.  That said, there is a difference in tone that reflects the underlying concerns that craft it.  Continue reading

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Kazakhstan Puts Components in Place for Caspian Shipping

By Alexandros Petersen

First published in Eurasia Daily Monitor July 31, 2012.

On July 25, Kazakhstan’s coastal city of Aktau hosted an expert-level conference on implementing global standards for maritime shipping at Caspian ports (News.az, July 25). Organized by TRACECA’s Logistics Processes and Motorways of the Sea (LOGMOS) project, the conference signals the inauguration of an important stage in the development of “New Silk Road” corridors from East and South Asia to Europe. As the European Union’s trans-Eurasian transport coordinating mechanism, TRACECA provides a regional forum and technical assistance for countless projects across the continent. However, while TRACECA can help on the margins, for a project to go forward, it requires political and financial commitment from host governments. For this reason, a number of LOGMOS projects have stalled, most notably the planned Turkmenbashi-Baku connection. But, the Aktau-Baku link seems to be moving ahead, with key managerial, logistical and technical issues addressed, to tackle one of the New Silk Road’s most vexing obstacles: the Caspian Sea Continue reading

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Uzbekistan’s Balancing Act With China: A View From the Ground

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in China Brief July 19, 2012.

The exact reasons for Uzbekistan’s decision to withdraw from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) at the end of June remain unclear (Xinhua, June, 29; Russia Today, June 28, 2012). However, while Tashkent seems to have soured on the Russian-led regional organization, President Islam Karimov took time in June to pay a state visit to Beijing that included attending the Chinese instigated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In addition to attending the SCO Summit, President Karimov held separate bilateral meetings with President Hu Jintao, signed a strategic partnership agreement and approved a raft of new measures to strengthen Sino-Uzbek relations (Gov.uz, June 8; Xinhua, June 7). At this high level, relations are clearly moving in a positive direction. The view from the ground, however, is far more complex with Uzbekistan’s traditional vision of itself as a regional powerhouse and industrial power potentially at odds with China’s growing influence in Central Asia. Continue reading

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Khorgos to Become Kazakhstan’s Trans-Eurasian Transport Hub

By Alexandros Petersen

First published in Eurasia Daily Monitor July 10, 2012.

On June 28, Kazakhstan’s Senate amended the country’s transport regulations partly to allow for the state railways operator, JSC “NC” Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ), to develop a transport and logistics company, spearheading the country’s transformation into a Eurasian transport hub (Kazinform, June 28). Exactly how this new state-led company will be organized remains to be seen, but KTZ seems to be preparing for an expansion of its scope and activities. In early July, it placed $800 million in 30-year Eurobonds on the London and Kazakhstan stock exchanges, and KTZ is expected to be a major part of Kazakhstan’s so-called People’s IPO in the coming years, wherein ordinary Kazakhstanis will be able to invest in some of their country’s largest enterprises (IFR, July 7).

But, the focus of KTZ’s activities in the transport area is the burgeoning “land port” at Khorgos on the China-Kazakhstan border, northeast of Almaty. As a result of a number of agreements between Astana and Beijing, the area around Khorgos is set to become a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), with 30-day visa exemptions for businessmen operating in the zone. Plans call for centers for trade, tourism, culture and sports, a number of hotels, as well as an airport and the terminus of a railway to Almaty, which is to connect with the Chinese-funded high-speed railway project planned to run from Almaty to Astana (Tengrinews, May 25, 2011). According to the World Bank, Khorgos is to be a key node on the Western Europe-Western China International Transit Corridor, coordinated by the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program (World Bank, May 1). An immense new freight terminal has already been built, with bays for six trucks to be inspected simultaneously.

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After CSTO Withdrawal Uzbekistan Also Looks East

By Alexandros Petersen

Uzbekistan’s decision to withdraw from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for the second time does not come as much of a surprise for long-time observers of Tashkent’s foreign policy.  Before finally calling it quits, Uzbekistan’s leadership had expressed frustration with the group’s overtly anti-Western guise, its fealty to Moscow and its pretensions at competition with NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).  Uzbek forces have not participated in the group’s military exercises and President Islom Karimov made a point of not attending CSTO summits.  In contrast, his recent visit to Beijing for the SCO summit was highly publicized, as was a new strategic partnership agreement signed with China. Continue reading

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