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 →
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 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.
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.
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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
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.
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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →