Category: Dispatches From The Road

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

Chinese Refinery in Kyrgyzstan to Reduce Russian Leverage

On April 2, 2013 Alexandros Petersen conducted an interview with Chris Rickleton, a Bishkek-based analyst and Instructor at the American University of Central Asia.

Chinese refinery in Kyrgyzstan to reduce Russian influence

You have conducted in-depth research into Chinese plans for a refinery at Kara Balta in Kyrgyzstan. What exactly are these plans and on what sort of timetable are they to be carried out?

The refinery is already behind schedule, but is expected to be built by July of this year, and operating at full capacity by September. Local media reported some tough talk in January between Chu Chan, the director of Zhongda, the Chinese state-owned firm that will run the refinery, and Kyrgyz Prime Minister Jantoro Saptybaldiyev. Saptybaldiyev was clearly very keen to see the refinery working as soon as possible and asked Chu why the facility still hadn’t been built. Chu referred to “misunderstandings” having led to the wrong equipment being delivered to the site. Chu also wanted the “sanitary zone”, which governs the distance residential homes can be from the refinery, reduced from 500 metres to 300 metres, which would have helped the company out in some of its compensation battles with local residents. When Saptybaldiyev rebuffed this offer, Chu reminded him that the company have already paid something like $4,000,000 in taxes and that they will have invested $250 million into the project by the time it is up and running.

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A Hungry China Sets Its Sights on Central Asia

By Alexandros Petersen

First published by The Atlantic on March 5, 2013

In the gravelly, uncertain road coursing through Kyrgyzstan’s picturesque Alay Valley, it does not take long to stumble across the Chinese road workers’ camp. Though just a dusty collection of prefab dormitories, the camps nevertheless proudly display the company’s name, logo and various slogans in large red Chinese characters. A Kyrgyz security guard is fast asleep on his cot, and the camp is deserted except for a young engineer from Sichuan. He explains that they work six months out of the year, when snow doesn’t block the passes. Next year, the road will be finished. He says his friends that work on Chinese-built roads in Africa get a better deal.

Further down the road, amid bulldozers and trucks full of dirt, are the road workers. They’re slowly reshaping the mountains, molding them into smooth inclines and regulation grades. Then there are the trucks; hundreds of them, crowding at the Chinese/Kyrgyz border, all engaged in the increasingly active trade between the two countries. One of the truckers, a member of China’s Muslim Uighur minority, is eager to chat. The roof of the world is his workplace. It takes three days to drive a 30 ton load from Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang province, through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. He and his colleagues bring 100 such loads across every week. Continue reading

Horse To Water

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published by The Caravan on March 1, 2013

ON A FLIGHT FROM BEIJING TO TASHKENT, the capital of Uzbekistan, Sue Anne Tay, the photographer with whom I visited Tashkent in May last year, ran into a group of businessmen from China’s Xinjiang region. They were on a government-sponsored trip to the “Uzbekistan Tashkent China Xinjiang Business and Trade Fair” in Tashkent, to help build relations between Xinjiang and the neighbouring countries as part of an economic strategy laid out by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. As he put it, China wants to “make Xinjiang a gateway for mutually beneficial cooperation between China and other Eurasian countries”.

Unfortunately for this group of businessmen, they had to take a circuitous route to get through this gate. Because of a lack of direct flights from Urumqi to Tashkent at the time, they had been forced to re-route rather inconveniently through Beijing—a five-hour flight south-east followed by a six-hour flight west. In retrospect, the businessmen’s long trip was emblematic of difficulties they later faced in Tashkent. Continue reading

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

Borderlands

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in Caravan September 1, 2012

A Kyrgyz guide takes his horse for a drink in Lake Karakul, roughly halfway between Kashgar, in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, and the Pakistan border. By Sue Anne Tay

On paper, the Karakoram Highway stretches from Kashgar in China’s far western province of Xinjiang to Islamabad. In reality, it unfolds like a ribbon across China’s westernmost border before its tarmac comes to an abrupt halt at the Khunjerab Pass on Pakistan’s border – the highest spot on the world’s highest paved international highway. China scholars often point out that domestic concerns colour Beijing’s foreign relations, but the multifarious stops and diverse communities along the Karakoram reveal that China’s domestic concerns are anything but uniform.

Our journey starts in Ürümqi, a grubby metropolis of more than 2.3 million people that looks like many other second- or third-tier Chinese cities. Large boulevards cluttered with imposing buildings are filled with frenetic construction as the city rushes to erect more shopping malls to appease insatiable local consumers. As the capital of an autonomous region which is China’s largest political subdivision, and home to a substantial portion of China’s natural wealth, it is also a draw for poor fortune-seekers from neighbouring provinces. A taxi driver from the adjacent province of Gansu boasted how opportunities in Ürümqi are plentiful, with girlfriends to match—one for each day of the week.

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Chinese Traces in Gorno-Badakhshan

by Raffaello Pantucci

Lenin greets visitors to Murghab, Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan

Attention has been focused in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region this week, as a government operation in retaliation for the murder of a Major General Abdullo Nazarov, a senior intelligence official, has been launched in the region’s Pamir Mountains. While the regional capital Khorog has apparently now re-opened for business, it seems as though hostilities continue in the mountains.

Earlier this year, we made a trip to this part of Tajikistan, on our way through to the Kulma Pass, Tajikistan’s border post with China. Closed to anyone but Chinese or Tajik passport holders, we instead went right up to the border on either side, driving from Kashgar to Tashkurgan, pausing at Kara Suu to see the brand new border post that has been built on the Chinese side of the Kulma Pass and sat empty waiting for business. It was a crystal clear day, with the border post and army base next to it seemingly abandoned. From what we could see on the Tajik side, nothing was stirring.

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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

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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The Shanghai Spirit in Beijing

By Raffaello Pantucci

Beijing is in a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) kind of mood. All around the city there are SCO logos and nowhere more so than in Tiananmen Square and the Wangfujing area near it. Along Chang An Jie (Avenue of Peace) the big international hotels have prominent signs in front declaring in Chinese, Russian and English “Welcome to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit.” Outside the Singaporean owned Raffles Hotel, alongside what I presume are their usual flags, the Afghan, Indian and Pakistani flags fly, presumably marking the delegations staying at the hotel. Outside, black Audis marked “Pak” awaited delegates, while in the lobby groups of South Asians checked in. Teams of bullet-proof wearing black clothed policemen march around guaranteeing security, multiplying the already tight security around the Square.

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China Digs Into Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in The National Interest May 24, 2012

Our recent trip to one of Kabul’s Chinese restaurants was disrupted by President Obama’s motorcade. It was May Day, and Obama said he had come to the Afghan capital to sign a strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the United States, a document that will delineate the two nations’ interactions for the next few years. The more clearly political intent of the visit, however, was to note the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death and visibly draw a line under U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. It all presaged the next two years of troop withdrawals. As Election Day in November looms, the administration is keen to demonstrate that it has brought an end to U.S. sacrifices in Afghanistan.

Our visit to Kabul, however, was part of a larger project tracking the interests and influence of a power that is digging in for the long term. As the United States and its NATO allies prepare to pack their bags, China is looking toward a long presence in Afghanistan with mining, energy and transport projects. A low-key presence on the ground, Chinese firms and diplomats are thinking and acting in terms that have a horizon beyond 2014. Beijing may not be angling to take over the country, but in contrast to the West’s increasingly unseemly rapid exit, it is setting itself up to guarantee its long-term interests. Continue reading

The Irkeshtam Border Pass Between China and Kyrgzstan

By Raffaello Pantucci

The red arrow and circle indicate the Irkeshtam border pass. Picture from here.

In what can only be described as a cosmic coincidence or evidence of some deeper significant trend that I can only guess at, on either sides of the Irkeshtam Pass between China and Kyrgyzstan we found Japanese backpackers. The surprising part was that our visits to each side of the border took place some five months apart from each other. Ardent Japanese travellers aside, there were few other obvious similarities on the two sides of the border. In fact, what differences there were seemed to be weighted in favour of the Kyrgyz side, where the road was in better shape than its Chinese counterpart.

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A Xinjiang Trade Fair in Tashkent

By Raffaello and Sue Anne Tay

Last week, we have been visiting Tashkent, Uzbekistan as part of our ongoing research on Chinese interests in Central Asia.

Fortunately, on the flight here from Beijing, one of us had the good fortune to be seated amidst a boisterous group of 40 Xinjiang businessmen part of a provincial business delegation attending a trade fair in Tashkent. They had been forced to fly through Beijing from Urumqi – a geographically illogical route – due to the fact that there are no direct flights between Tashkent and Urumqi.

At their invitation, we visited the trade fair earlier this week. Held in an old exhibition hall in the outskirts of Tashkent it was a no-frills affair with basic booths lined up four by four. In its fourth year, the Xinjiang Trade Expo was sponsored by the Uzbek Chamber of Commerce, the Xinjiang government, and the bingtuan (the former People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-managed state owned enterprise (SOE) responsible for much of Xinjiang’s industries). Continue reading

Kyrgyzstan: Between Two Worlds

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen.

First published in The National Interest on November 4, 2011.

The Chinese government, via China Aid, donated more than 50 public buses manufactured by Yaxing Motor Coach company to Bishkek in 2009 with commitment for more in 2011. Each bus has a China flag and China Aid logo on the side, and the words “Chinese-Kyrgyz Friendship Bus” written in Chinese and Cyrillic. Photo by Sue Anne Tay

In the midst of a relatively calm election season, we have been travelling to Kyrgyzstan’s cities, villages and border posts to track the rise of China in Central Asia. The atmosphere around this election is less tense than in previous years, when governments have been ousted by street revolutions and transfers of power have yielded ethnic violence. But Kyrgyzstan’s new government will not alone decide the country’s fate.

Kyrgyzstan is a place between powers, and not just geographically. This is reflected in Jalal-Abad University, located in the country’s third-largest city, where respective wings of the central administrative buildings are run by the U.S. embassy-sponsored American Center and a Chinese government-funded Confucius Center subsidiary. In between sit Kyrgyz administrators.

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A Rally In Kyrgyzstan

By Raffaello Pantucci and Sue Anne Tay.

First published in the Lowy Institute for International Policy’s The Interpreter on 26 October 2011.

Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of what appears to be a lively democratic election campaign. Rushing to meetings around Bishkek and then driving to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city, big political posters adorned bridges, tollbooths and places in between. So it was with little surprise that we came across a large-scale rally at the stadium adjacent to our hotel in Osh. Continue reading