By Raffaello Pantucci
First published in South China Morning Post, August 19, 2017
Geopolitics matters. As we move deeper into a multipolar world, the importance of grand strategy will only grow. Relations between states at a strategic, economic and even emotional level will all intertwine to create a complicated web that will require sophisticated diplomacy to navigate. For China this is a particularly important lesson to learn, given its keynote “Belt and Road Initiative” that requires an acquiescent and peaceful world to deliver on its promise of building a web of trade and economic corridors emanating from China and tying the Middle Kingdom to the world. China’s current stand-off with India highlights exactly how geopolitics can disrupt Xi Jinping’s foreign policy legacy initiative.
The details of the specific transgression within this context are not entirely important. China is asserting itself in its border regions and changing facts on the ground to solidify claims. Indian push-back is based on strategic relations with Bhutan that go back a long way and a concern about how this changes Indian capabilities on the ground.
By Raffaello Pantucci
First published in EU Observer, May 19, 2017
Chinese leader Xi Jinping trumpeted his foreign policy vision – the Belt and Road – to great fanfare this past week.
Yet a consistently discordant note was heard from European reporting around the event, with officials talking to press about their lack of understanding of the project. While some of their concerns were understandable, there was an element of missing the point.
Xi Jinping may talk in terms of a project, but in reality what we are seeing laid out is a grand vision: one that Beijing is using to re-shape its engagement with the world.
By Raffaello Pantucci
First published in RUSI, May 12, 2017
A great deal of rhetoric is expended over China’s gigantic investment initiatives. Still, many of the economic projects are real, and Western governments will be well advised to understand their purpose.
The Middle Kingdom is asserting its centrality in global affairs by hosting the Silk Road summit this weekend. Aimed at showcasing President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision, the conference will bring together leaders, officials and experts from around the world.
Apart from the signing of some large deals and some affirmations about China’s eagerness towards free trade, the summit’s real importance is in the message it sends about China’s place in the world.
By Raffaello Pantucci
First published in the Conway Bulletin, March 20, 2017
Expanding the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) will strain its functions but could boost trade and relations between Central Asia and South Asia, writes Raffaello Pantucci.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has achieved remarkably little in its decade plus life.
Established formally in 2001, it grew out of a regional grouping aimed at seeking to define China’s borders with the former Soviet Union. Over time, it has expanded beyond its immediate neighbourhood to include countries as distant at Belarus and Sri Lanka as ‘dialogue partners’.
The current push to welcome both India and Pakistan is likely to further test the organisation’s already limited capability. The practical implications for Central Asia are unlikely to be dramatic, though in the longer term it may help bind Central and South Asia closer together and foster a greater sense of community across the Eurasian heartland.
By Raffaello Pantucci
First published in the South China Morning Post, March 19, 2017
As the new president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyayev, embarks on foreign visits, Beijing is likely to be fourth on the list, illustrating a broader set of tensions for China in its quest for a Silk Road economic belt through Central Asia.
Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan has maintained a strategic distance from Moscow and been unwilling to open its doors wide to Chinese investment. It also employs tight currency controls, making it hard for companies to withdraw profits.
All of this produces problems for China’s vision of open trade and economic corridors under the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
by Raffaello Pantucci
An Afghan security personnel keeps watch at a road construction site, which is being built by a Chinese company, in Khogyani district of Nangarhar province November 19, 2015. REUTERS/Parwiz/Files
First published in Reuters, March 1, 2017
Stories have emerged once again of China’s military presence in Afghanistan. These reports come after China thwarted India’s attempt to get Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar added to the U.N. list of proscribed terrorist individuals, and China appeared to christen a new regional grouping after a meeting in Moscow with Pakistan and Russian officials to discuss the future of Afghanistan.
Seen from New Delhi, the picture could be interpreted as one of growing Chinese alignment towards Pakistan. In reality, these shifts mark the growth of China as a regional security actor whose views are not entirely dissimilar to India’s.
The main characterization of Beijing’s efforts in Afghanistan remains hedging. China continues to engage through multiple regional and international formats. Either through international multilateral vehicles like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the ‘Heart of Asia’ or ‘Istanbul Process’, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA); or through sub-regional groupings like hosting Pakistan-Afghanistan-China trilateral, bilateral engagements with India, Russia, the UK, Germany, the U.S. or Pakistan focused on Afghanistan (some including specific projects – like the American joint training programmes); or finally through Chinese instigated mechanisms focused on Afghanistan like the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, U.S. and China) or the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM, made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China).
The inaugural train from Angren to Pap (photo: Railway Gazette)
by Dr Farkhod Tolipov
After the collapse of the Soviet Union the newly independent countries of the Central Asian region for the first time in their modern history looked beyond the iron curtain with which they were isolated from the world within the Soviet era. They quickly remembered that in ancient times they were an important part of what today can be called a global system of communication and trade – the Great Silk Road, which connected China to Europe through the Eurasian continent. Central Asian countries desperately needed to break their newly land-locked status. Forming a trade path from East to West was part of their unique selling point. However, such a position is not merely their geographical destiny. It is also a geopolitical condition due to the fact that unlocking the region depends largely on neighboring great powers – namely China and Russia. But interestingly, the opening and unlocking of Central Asia appears to be a more complicated and protracted process than expected, in which the ‘Modern Silk Road’ needs to balance multiple national interests. Continue reading
by Raffaello Pantucci
Islam Karimov’s death is the realisation of a regional concern that many have long worried about: succession amongst leaders of the Central Asian states. The question of who comes next has been a persistent concern, particularly in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Beijing is not immune to these worrries. On every visit to Beijing in which Central Asia has been a focus of discussions, there have been inevitable conversations with Chinese Central Asia analysts who have been particularly perplexed about what might happen in a post-Karimov Uzbekistan. Yet, now that this scenario has arrived, China seems unperturbed and experts spoken to seem equally unconcerned. Seen from Beijing, Uzbekistan post-Karimov is a case of business as usual.
The biggest indicator of China’s reaction to Islam Karimov’s death is how the leadership responded to the news of his demise. It came at an awkward time for China, with Beijing policymakers and planners consumed with the preparations and meetings around the G20 Summit in Hangzhou. Consequently, the best that Xi Jinping could muster was a formal note through the MFA to acting President Nigmatilla Yuldoshev praising Karimov as ‘true friend’ to China. He later dispatched Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli to the funeral as his special envoy, while Prime Minister Li Keqiang paid his respects at the Uzbek Embassy in Beijing.
By Raffaello Pantucci and Anna Sophia Young
First published in the Financial Times Beyond BRICS, August 10, 2016
The vast Chinese northwestern frontier region of Xinjiang may serve as a useful early indicator of how Beijing’s much-touted “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) is supposed to work – and how successful it may become.
The region, which is home to several muslim minority peoples, has been wracked by ethnic turmoil for decades, prompting Beijing to seek to nurture social stability by driving economic development through hefty investments.
But for this strategy to gain traction, Beijing realised that it needed to boost development in the region around Xinjiang by building commercial corridors to neighbouring Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Thus, Xinjiang was key motivator behind the BRI concept.
But so far the results have been underwhelming. In the three years since the forerunner of the BRI was launched, Xinjiang’s trade volume has not increased and it still constitutes an unchanging portion of total Chinese trade with Central Asia (see chart). This discrepancy between action and results raises questions about whether the BRI is a turning point in Chinese economic policy or simply old wine in a new bottle.
By Raffaello Pantucci and Sarah Lain
First published by RUSI, 29 June 2016
Proceedings of a workshop held in New Delhi in March 2016 to explore the challenges that China’s strategic Belt and Road vision to connect Central Asia hopes to address.
Download the report here
In March 2016, RUSI, in collaboration with the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) hosted a workshop in New Delhi to discuss the challenges of connectivity facing China’s strategic Belt and Road vision, which aims to connect Central Asia and develop strategic economic corridors across the region.
The workshop covered the different economic corridor concepts initiated by China and India and their aim of enhanced connectivity in Central and South Asia, how such visions will be realised and how they could enhance the security and economic development of the region.
The report summarises these discussions and provides insights into co-operation between China and its regional partners.
By Raffaello Pantucci
First published in Eurasianet, June 20 2016
China’s rise in Central Asia marks one of the most consequential changes in regional geopolitics since the turn of the century.
China announced that it intended to be a major player in Central Asia back in September 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech in Astana that inaugurated the “Belt and Road” vision — the most dominant expression of Chinese foreign policy from his administration. Yet this declaration notwithstanding, it remains unclear whether Beijing has a coherent vision for Central Asia. Instead, Beijing continues to grow into a role of regional prominence without a clear plan to manage the ramifications of its growing role.
The narrative of spreading Chinese influence throughout the region is not new. Indicators of China’s influence are plentiful. Markets are full of Chinese products, infrastructure is heavily built by Chinese firms with Chinese loans, leadership visits — either Chinese to the region or regional to China — are followed by announcements of massive deals being signed, and increasingly China is playing a more prominent role in regional security questions. Even so, China remains a hesitant regional actor, and is keen to continue casting itself as subordinate to Russia. Beijing is also eager to avoid becoming embroiled in inevitable regional economic and political complications.
Most recently, these complications have manifested themselves as protests in Kazakhstan, where locals have expressed anger at the government’s decision to change legislation governing foreigners’ ability to rent land for lengthy periods of time. Public anger is rooted mostly in concerns that Chinese firms will exploit this legislation to slowly lease ever larger tracts of Kazakhstani land. Such problems have arisen in the past. In 2009, for example, when President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced a leasing arrangement, Chinese and Tajik censors blocked references in the media to a similar deal in Tajikistan in 2011.
by Sarah Lain and Raffaello Pantucci
First published by Central Asia Program, April 25, 2016
Despite the significant rise of China’s economic influence in the region, Russia continues to maintain its political leverage in Central Asia. In contrast to China, it explicitly states its intention to keep its grip on this influence, as highlighted by Medvedev’s speech in 2008. This declared commitment to preserving Russia’s ‘spheres of privileged influence’ certainly includes Central Asia. The key aim for Russia is to ensure, at least in theory, loyalty to the Russian government, seeking countries it can depend on for support. The various alliances Russia plays a crucial role in alongside the Central Asian states, such as the EEU, SCO, CSTO and CIS, also have a utility of legitimizing Russia’s position in a visibly multipolar world. Indeed, the SCO is a platform shared with China, but they all act as a way of overtly demonstrating structural equivalents of Western-dominated organizations such as the EU and NATO.
The Ukraine crisis has undermined Russia’s legitimacy by raising suspicions for both Central Asia and China about Russian intentions in the region. The prevention of color revolutions, which was enshrined in the recently updated version of Russia’s Military Doctrine, has potential implications across the former Soviet space. Indeed, Russia’s commitment to protect Russian- speakers and ethnic Russians abroad causes concern for Central Asians. Although Russia has almost exclusively acted on this in the more Western-leaning post-Soviet countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia, a speech by Putin that addressed Kazakhstan was provocative in light of events in Ukraine. Not only did Putin praise Nazarbayev, but he also highlighted that Kazakhs realized the value of being part of the “greater Russian world,” which raised alarm bells in Astana. Russia has proven it has no issues in leveraging its position over former Soviet states for certain self-interested strategic purposes.
By Raffaello Pantucci
First published by South China Morning Post, February 16, 2016
President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) visit to Tehran – the first by a foreign leader since the lifting of sanctions – highlights the potential centrality of Iran to China’s broader regional foreign policy. The opening up of Iran, a country in which China has long maintained substantial interests, means Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” vision can now go cleanly across Eurasia without ever going through Russia. Moscow can be cut out.
Visiting Tashkent, one can see the ancient routes laid out by the Timurid empire that constituted the ancient silk road. Rather than track through Russia, most would go below the Caspian and Black seas to reach Turkey and Europe.
Soon after Xi visited Tehran, a train laden with goods left Yiwu, Zhejiang province (浙江), headed to Tehran following this route. On February 10, it crossed the border from Turkmenistan and arrived in Iran this week. The Ukrainian minister of infrastructure announced at the same time that, by the end of the month, a direct rail line would open between Ukraine and China, cutting across Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea and Kazakhstan. An iron silk road has been established that will track the old silk routes.
By Raffaello Pantucci
First published in The Interpreter, February 10 2016
Once the heart of the Timurid Empire, the city of Samarkand now sits in the middle of Uzbekistan, relegated to a splendid tourist attraction. Sitting atop the city with a clear view in every direction is the great astronomer Ulugh Beg’s observatory, from where he mapped the stars while his grandfather’s empire ebbed away.
Samarkand was at the heart of the ancient silk trading routes, which went cleanly around Russia, crossing Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran to reach Turkey and Europe’s shores. Track forwards to today, and this straightforward route across the continent is being replicated by China. The first freight train left from Yiwu in China’s Zhejiang province en route to Tehran in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Iran.
Beijing, it seems, has the ancient silk routes in mind.
By Raffaello Pantucci
First published by RUSI, February 2, 2016
China is playing a positive role in Afghanistan, but needs to take a greater ownership and direction of the potential peace process. As a partner with positive relations in both Kabul and Islamabad, Beijing is well placed to play this role.
The latest round of the Quadrilateral Group (Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the USA) is being held in Islamabad this week. This round builds on an effort instigated by Beijing earlier in 2015 and has been one of the hallmarks of Afghan President Ghani’s presidency. The question, however, is whether China has the power to be a decisive player in Afghanistan that it has been increasingly hinting at with its role in these talks.
China has long been playing a productive role in the country. Whilst Beijing maintains awkward relations with Washington across the Pacific Ocean, on land, it is undertaking joint training programmes with the United States for Afghan diplomats and officials. It has helped facilitate discussions between Afghanistan and Pakistan and has helped soothe relations between Islamabad and Delhi. Most significant, however, has been the official diplomatic track that it has helped open between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. Though unofficial contacts existed previously, President Ghani’s ascent to power in September 2014 gave the relationship renewed impetus. This included a focus on a key role for China in the Afghan peace process, a point highlighted by Ghani’s first formal overseas trip being to Beijing.
This was not the first time discussions between the government in Kabul and the Taliban had been mooted. Previous dialogue tracks through institutes like Pugwash, in Chantilly, France or through the Taliban Doha office had not appeared move very far forwards with little evidence that the Taliban were taking the negotiations seriously. In contrast, the track opened with Beijing’s support appeared to draw its influence directly from the heart of the Taliban in Pakistan. Consequently, there appeared to be greater confidence that those talking were able to deliver what they were discussing. This was a key aspect to make the talks genuinely useful.