Category: Central Asia

China in Pakistan: An Awkward Relationship Beneath the Surface

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published by RUSI Newsbrief, 15 Jan 2014


Characterised by soaring rhetoric, at first glance the China–Pakistan bilateral relationship appears to be one of the world’s closest. Yet below the surface calm bubble concerns, with policy-makers in Beijing particularly worried about the implications of the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan for stability in Pakistan. Western policy-makers should not, however, be optimistic that these concerns will soon translate into Chinese willingness to somehow assume responsibility or leadership in helping Pakistan to develop in a way favourable to the West. Rather, Chinese concerns should be seen within the context of a regional relationship that is likely to grow in prominence as time goes on, ultimately drawing China into a more responsible role in South Asia at least.

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China and India: Time to Cooperate on Afghanistan

by Raffaello Pantucci

First published in The Diplomat, October 23, 2013

Two Asian giants met in Beijing this week, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making a reciprocal visit to Beijing. The focus of the trip was economic cooperation and plans to get China-India trade to $100 billion by 2015, although it was the border disputes – and in particular the signing of a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement designed to defuse tensions – that captured the public attention.

What was missing from the agenda, however, was Afghanistan, a country in which Beijing and Delhi both have substantial mutual interests and where the two Asian giants could demonstrate their ability to responsibly manage the regional order.

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Security and Borders

by Sue Anne Tay

Xinjiang bus towards Khorgas Border with China

Zharkent, Kazakhstan: A long-distance sleeper bus with Xinjiang, China license plates in the town of Zharkent, the last outpost before the Khorgos border with China. The journey from Almaty in Kazakhstan to Urumqi in Xinjiang province can take up to 24 hours. Passengers, made up of largely Chinese, Uighurs and Kazakhs, stock up on drinking water and food supplies in Zharkent before the crossing which could involve long waits at the border.

Road leading to new Khorgas Border on Kazakh side

Khorgos, Kazakhstan: New smooth roads lead to a new custom crossing in Khorgos which remains under construction on the Kazakh side, and is expected to speed up inspection process. The area around Khorgos is set to become a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), with 30-day visa exemptions for businessmen operating in the zone.

Trucks line up for inspection at Khorgas border

Khorgos, Kazakhstan: Container trucks parked on the Kazakh side of the Khorgos border awaiting customs inspections before being allowed to cross into Xinjiang province in China. Bribery and complicated customs procedures are often cited as reasons for long waits at the borders and rising import/export costs.

China Bridge Road Corporation Irkeshtam Kyrgyzstan

Southern Corridor highway, Kyrgyzstan: An outpost of the China Bridge and Road Corporation (CBRC) responsible for repaving the Southern Transport Corridor highway from Osh through Sary Tash to the Irshketam Border Pass with China. The sign says “Go to work happy (L); return safe and sound (R).”

Chinese companies paving Southern Corridor

Southern Corridor highway, Kyrgyzstan: Chinese construction workers paving new highway roads near the Irshketam Border Pass. Due to the extreme cold in the mountains, Chinese engineers and workers only work between April and October and travel back to China for the rest of winter.

Trucks at Irshketam border

Irshketam border, Kyrgyzstan: Chinese and Uighur drivers on the Kyrgyz side of the Irshketam border waiting to fuel up and rest ahead of their days-long journey at a slow pace through winding highways towards key trade bazaars in southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.


Southern Corridor highway, Kyrgyzstan: Trucks carrying coal in Chinese-made trucks along the Southern Corridor highway on the way to the Irshketam Border Pass with China. It is one of the key trade routes from China into the region.

Khorgas Border Almaty

Khorgos, Kazakhstan: A Sinooil petrol station near the Khorgas Border Pass with China which is a key trade route between the two countries.

Zharkent  Wooden mosque

Zharkent, Kazakhstan: Zharkent town’s central and unique mosque was built around 1887 by a Chinese architect, Hon Pik, who was hired by a local Zharkent merchant. Note the Chinese-styled pavilion in typical traditional Chinese colors of vermillion red, yellow and green. The interior design of the mosque is a mix of Chinese, Tsarist Russian and Central Asian influences.


by Sue Anne Tay

Uzbekistan Women at Registan

Uzbek women stand in Registan, the centre of Samarkand which is known as the cradle of Islamic civilization in the region, one of the oldest cities in the world and link along the Silk Road. Three landmark structures stand in Registan, he Ulugh Beg Madrasah (1417–1420), the Tilya-Kori Madrasah (1646–1660) and the Sher-Dor Madrasah (1619–1636).

Islamic architecture of Miri-Arab Madrasah, Bukhara

The intricate and stunning Islamic architecture of Miri-Arab Madrasah in Bukhara, seen as Bukhara’s best architectural structures built in the 16th century.

WWII Memorial in Independence Square Tashkent

An eternal flame burns at the World War II memorial in Tashkent’s Independence Square, constructed in 1999 to honour of the 400,000 Uzbek soldiers who died during the World War II. Uzbeks lay flowers and wreaths on yet another anniversary.

Uzbek family portrait Independence Square Tashkent

A family portrait in Independence Square in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital.

Uzbek girl at Samarkand Ulugh Beg's Observatory

A young Uzbek girl poses outside Ulugh Beg’s Observatory in Samarkand which was built in 1420s. Ulugh Beg was one of the most famous Islamic astronomers of his time.

Uzbek wedding in Samarkand

A young Uzbek couple pose for pictures with show pigeons for their wedding in Samarkand.

Tourists at Shah-i-Zinda Samarkand

In Samarkand, Uzbek tourists listen to their guide as he takes them around the Shah-i-Zinda which includes mausoleums and other ritual buildings of 9-14th and 19th centuries.

Tashkent streets

A Uzbek girl walks by a row of public housing in Tashkent.


by Sue Anne Tay

Central square of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University

Students stroll through the central square of the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Alamaty. A large poster featuring President Nursultan Nazarbayev and university students hang against the side of a key administrative building.

Kazakh steppes

Typical Central Asian steppe landscape along the highway from Almaty to Khorgas, the border town with China.

Central Mosque Almaty

The Central Mosque in downtown Almaty is built in the Timurid style of architecture and accommodates up to 7,000 worshippers.

Kazakh bride outside Central Mosque

A Kazakh bride in traditional dressing poses with her family outside the Central Mosque in Almaty.

Almaty street scene

A mother and her children walk by shops in Almaty.

Play at the Theatre of Young Spectator

A play based on local Kazakh folk lore concludes at the Kazakh Theatre of the Young Spectator in Alamaty.

Kazakh waitress in cafe

A Kazakh waitress takes orders in a buffet-style cafe in downtown Almaty.

Sale of Kazakh dolls

Kazakh dolls dressed in traditional costumes on sale at Barakholka Bazaar, Almaty’s largest and busiest wholesale trade bazaar.


A trendy school girl in the streets of Almaty.


by Sue Anne Tay

Ala-Too Square Bishkek

Two men stroll through Ala-Too Square, Bishkek’s main square in the city centre.

Kyrgyzstan Turkish Manas University

The entrance to one of the campuses of the Kyrgyzstan Turkish Manas University which is strongly supported by the Turkish government.

Bishkek Osh Highway

Horses race along the Bishkek-Osh highway that runs north to south from the country’s capital to the second largest city in the south.

Jalalabad Market Russian Salads

A ethnic Russian Kyrgyz boy stands in front of a colorful array of cold salads in a food bazaar in Jalalabad, a southern city in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan Presidential Palace Bishkek

A view from outside the Kyrgyzstan Presidential Palace in Bishkek. During the Tulip Revolution in 2005, opposition forces protesting corruption, stormed the palace, forcing out the then-President President Askar Akayev.

Osh Presidential Candidate

A political rally is underway in Osh city in southern Kyrgyzstan in October 2011. The candidate was a Osh official, Bakir Uulu, a candidate seen as a soft-Islamist and eager for the US to move its military presence out of Kyrgyzstan.

Jalalabad Market Osh Blue Woman

An elder woman strolls through the back alleys of the trade bazaar in Jalalabad, a southern city in Kyrgyzstan.

Market Scene in Osh

A typical market scene in Osh, the southern and second largest city in Kyrgyzstan.

Interview with Kyrgyz politician Bishkek

A Kyrgyz politician is interviewed by a correspondent for a local television station.

Confucius Institutes 孔子学院

by Sue Anne Tay

Competition My China Dream Tashkent

Tashkent, Uzbekistan: A young Uzbek university student gives an impassioned speech entitled “My China Dream” as part of the “Chinese Bridge” (or han yu qiao) – a global Chinese language proficiency competition - in 2011. Candidates are coached by their Chinese teachers to recite lyrical speeches as part of the competition which also include a Q&A on Chinese history and culture and a cultural performance.

Uzbek student in Yunnan minority dress

Tashkent, Uzbekistan: An Uzbek university student rehearses ahead of the cultural performance section of her ”Chinese Bridge” (or han yu qiao) competition. She wears a Yunnan ethnic minority ceremonial dress as part of her act.

Tashkent Hanqiao Winners Chinese ambassador

Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Chinese ambassador Zhang Xiao, a fluent Russian speaker, was the guest of honor at the ”Chinese Bridge” (or han yu qiao) competition. Here, he poses with the winner and runners-up of the language proficiency contest, along with their Chinese teachers. The winner heads to Beijing to compete in the semi-finals with other international winners of the Chinese Bridge competitions held world-wide.

Students at Jalalabad Confucius Centre

Jalalabad, Kyrgyzstan: Uzbek students study Mandarin at a Chinese language centre in Jalalabad University. The Centre is paired up with Xinjiang Normal University and is in the process of upgrading to a Confucius Institute which would allow it to officially apply for more funding and resources. Jalalabad is a major trade city in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Confucius Centre Bishkek

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: A Kyrgyz graduate student of the Bishkek Humanities University does her Chinese homework in the Confucius Institute located within the university campus. In the background, a figurine of Confucius hangs on the wall. The television is hooked up to Chinese satellite to receive more Chinese channels than the limited array of CCTV channels (in Russian and English) available in the city.

Chinese Kyrgyz Textbook Hanban

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: A Chinese-Kyrgyz textbook sits atop boxes of education supplies shipped from Hanban, the Beijing-based headquarters of Confucius Institutes worldwide. Early teaching materials were mainly Chinese-Russian translations due to the pervasiveness of Russian spoken among the educated classes in Central Asia. However, Hanban has dedicated special effort in translating pedagogical materials in local languages like Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Tajik.

Bishkek Humanities University Confucius Centre

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: Professor Wang of the Confucius Institute at the Bishkek Humanities University converses with a Chinese-Kazakh language teacher and a Kyrgyz graduate student. He was sent by the Xinjiang Normal University to Bishkek. Confucius Institutes abroad are usually paired up with a Chinese university for teachers and pedagogical materials are dispatched from Hanban in Beijing.

Confucius Institute in Almaty

Almaty, Kazakhstan: A Chinese teacher at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University’s Confucius Institute shows off a framed photograph of the China Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo held in 2010.

Confucius Centre Kazakh National University

Almaty, Kazakhstan: A Kazakh student studies in a brightly decorated language training centre in Al-Farabi Kazakh National University’s Confucius Institute.

Central Asia’s Most Important City Is … Not in Central Asia

By Alexandros Petersen

First published in The Atlantic on July 12, 2013

Central Asia’s beating heart, the commercial hub of the region that cultivated the old Silk Road, is neither of the fabled Thousand and One Nights cities of Samarkand or Bukhara. In fact, the center of this region is not even really in Central Asia. It’s in China.

Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, the autonomous region that together with Tibet makes up China’s western edge, is a bubbling, gritty metropolis, and probably the most cosmopolitan place between Shanghai and Istanbul. On the surface, Urumqi resembles most second-tier Chinese industrial hubs. But, with its myriad advertisements, signs and business placards in Chinese, Uighur, Russian, Kazakh and Kyrgyz — written in Chinese, Arabic or Cyrillic scripts –Urumqi is no ordinary Chinese city. In fact, it has emerged as the de factocapital of a revived Central Asia, a region poised to assume a higher profile in the world’s energy, diplomatic, and cultural scenes. Continue reading

Central Asia’s New Energy Giant: China

By Alexandros Petersen

First published in The Atlantic on June 28, 2013

Turkmenistan’s southeastern desert, not far from the border with Afghanistan, is a forbidding place. Its bleak, dusty vistas are punctuated by the ruins of ancient caravansaries: once rest stops on the old Silk Road. But, the silence of that long lost East-West artery is now regularly broken by the rumble of Chinese truck convoys. These are not ordinary tractor-trailers, either: they move slowly carrying massive loads of natural gas extraction equipment, and according to Turkmen officials, the shepherds’ bridges and village roads have had to be reinforced from the impact of their weight. The equipment is headed to one of the top five natural gas fields in the world; Formerly known as South Yolotan-Osman, in 2011 the field was renamed “Galkynysh” or “revival” in Turkmen. The name is apt because this gargantuan reserve of natural gas is the prize motivating CNPC, China’s largest oil company, to revive the old Silk Road — only this time by pipeline. Continue reading

Beyond the Ladakh Border Dispute

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published in RUSI Newsbrief June 24, 2013

Beyond the Ladakh Border Dispute

Courtesy of AP Photo/Saurabh Das

On the eve of his visit to India in late May, Premier Li Keqiang published an editorial in The Hinduin which he spoke of China and India as ‘two big Asian countries … destined to be together’. Running under the headline ‘A Handshake Across the Himalayas’, the piece offered an optimistic look at relations between China and India. Only one brief mention was made of the border dispute that had dominated headlines in previous months, brushing the issue under the carpet by stating that, ‘with joint efforts in the past few years, the two sides have gradually found a way to maintain peace and tranquility in the disputed border areas’. This statement would have jarred with Indian assessments of the border incursion as provocative Chinese action aimed at altering the established modus vivendi across the Line of Actual Control, the de-facto border between the two countries accepted in the absence of an internationally recognised border in the region. Nevertheless, the episode passed without too deleterious an impact on Premier Li’s visit, something that senior Indian commentators have interpreted as a sign of China’s victory in this round of tension between the two Asian giants. Continue reading

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

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published in China Brief May 23, 2013

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). Continue reading

China’s Strategy in Afghanistan

By Alexandros Petersen

First published by The Atlantic on May 21, 2013

For a relatively small drilling operation, China National Petroleum Corporation’s (CNPC) project in Afghanistan’s Sar-e-Pul province has a large footprint. Several layers of fences and containers serving as blast walls surround the extraction site, which includes dormitories, an office complex and various security structures. Throughout the day, trucks ferry in equipment and more containers. On the outside, the faces are all Afghan, but CNPC’s logo and bright red Chinese slogans are impossible to miss.

This remote outpost, not far from Afghanistan’s northern border with Turkmenistan, may symbolize the country’s future after the planned U.S. withdrawal of combat troops next year. As Washington prepares its exit following 13 years in the country, signs that Beijing has steadily stepped up its official and corporate presence across Afghanistan have begun to arise. In September, then Politburo member Zhou Yongkang met with President Hamid Karzai, while lower level diplomats have discussed greater engagement with the Afghan government. China even plans to re-open a branch of the Confucius Institute, an organization devoted to teaching Chinese culture and language, in Kabul. Continue reading

Russia’s Energy Bully Takes a Fall

By Alexandros Petersen

First published by Foreign Policy on May 6, 2013

After years as Eurasia’s energy bully, Russia’s state-controlled natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, is getting a taste of its own medicine. Even as Gazprom seeks to build the tallest skyscraper in Europe as its new headquarters in St. Petersburg, pressure from Russia’s neighbors led to a 15 percent decline in the company’s profits last year, eating into the state budget. Moscow’s single-minded focus on gas exports in an effort to become, in the words of President Vladimir Putin, an “energy superpower” has crippled its ability to adapt to profound changes in the global energy landscape — from the shale gas revolution in North America to the dynamism of new market players such as Azerbaijan. Having spent the last decade making enemies in Central Europe and Central Asia, Gazprom and Russian decision-makers are now reaping what they have sown. Continue reading

Afghanistan has what China wants

By Alexandros Petersen

First published by Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel on April 18, 2013

As we near the date of withdrawal for U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan, the debate about the country’s largest neighbor has shifted. No longer are American analysts worried about Chinese investments free-riding on U.S. and NATO stability efforts. Now, the hope is that China’s massive state-owned enterprises (SOEs) will pour more funds into Afghanistan in the hope that foreign direct investment will shore up a centralized government and provide opportunities for all to make money instead of war. But, Chinese companies face many of the same uncertainties that U.S. forces and contractors have contended with for a decade.

Much has been written about the controversies and delays at the site of China’s largest investment in the country: the gargantuan copper mine at Mes Aynak. Both company officials and local observers indicate that the SOE leading the project, China Metallurgical Group Corporation, is biding its time, waiting to assess the post-withdrawal security situation.

What could be far more significant in the long run, however, are Chinese plans for oil and gas investment in the north of the country. These have the potential to link Afghanistan into China’s growing pipeline network in Central Asia, providing the infrastructure-led regional integrationthat U.S. officials have been touting for years. Nearby Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have grown wealthy and centralized partly due to Chinese energy investment. Could the same be true for Afghanistan in the future? Continue reading

Inadvertent Empire

Alexandros Petersen is interviewed by The Gadfly on April 16, 2013

The Gadfly: You have referred to China’s growing influence in Central Asia as an “Inadvertent Empire.” Could you explain what you mean?

Alexandros Petersen: It’s an inadvertent empire in the sense that China is already the most consequential actor in the region and will soon be the dominant actor in a number of different areas. It already is the dominant actor in the economic sphere and definitely so in the energy sector, which is actually quite a significant accomplishment given Russia’s traditional role in that area. China has also become the go to place for loans and investments. One of the key needs in Central Asia is investment in infrastructure, and that requires funds. Russia doesn’t have the money; the United States doesn’t have the money in some cases and simply doesn’t care in others; the European Union is not comfortable giving money because of the nature of some of the regimes in the region, so China is really the only option to provide funding as well as institutional capacity building. So, it’s an empire in the sense that China is the player to watch and will be the dominate player in the future, but it’s inadvertent, in the sense that China doesn’t really have a strategy for the region. China doesn’t want an empire. As Seeley would say, it has an empire “in a fit of absence of mind.” Continue reading