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

China Ups Presence In Afghanistan As U.S. Withdraws

Alexandros Petersen is interviewed by National Public Radio’s Here and Now on June 7, 2013

CNPC’s oil blocks in Afghanistan’s Amu Darya basin

President Obama and Chinese President Xi JinPing are meeting in California on Friday.

Cybersecurity, trade and North Korea are expected to come up. One topic that will not be a focus is Afghanistan.

As the U.S. prepares for a military withdrawal in that country, China is ramping up its presence there.

China is investing in the energy and wireless sectors, and even opening a Chinese Confucius cultural center in Kabul. 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

China’s Leadership Opportunity in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and The Diplomat on April 2, 2013

The 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is fast approaching. China has just over a year before Afghanistan fades from the West’s radar and Western attention toward the country shrinks substantially. However, it is not clear that Beijing has properly considered what it is going to do once NATO forces leave and pass the responsibility for Afghan stability and security to local forces.

And more crucially, it is not clear that China has thought about what it can do with the significant economic leverage it wields in the region. Afghanistan offers China the opportunity to show the world it is a responsible global leader that is not wholly reliant on others to assure its regional interests.

Traditionally, Chinese thinkers have considered Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires.” They chuckle at the ill-advised American-led NATO effort and point to British and Soviet experiences fighting wars in Afghanistan. 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.

Continue reading

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

…or Central Asia’s China Problem

By Alexandros Petersen

The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) latest report, “China’s Central Asia Problem” is a sweeping and masterful work in many ways. As we traveled through and conducted research in eastern China, Xinjiang, post-Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan, Raffaello and I came across ICG researchers and bounced our ideas off of ICG’s seasoned Eurasia hand Paul Quinn-Judge. The report kindly quotes a couple of our articles that appeared here on chinaincentralasia.com.

But, does the ICG report get it right? Yes and no. The overall point that China is on the brink of becoming the pre-eminent external power in the region, not just in the economic sphere, is correct. We have argued that China is already the most consequential actor in Central Asia, as well as the most forward-looking external power. In the context of a U.S., and more broadly Western, exit from the region, the engagement of multifarious Chinese actors – from diplomats to state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to shuttle traders to manual laborers and Chinese language teachers – combines to create a momentum that has no clear counterweight. 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

Turkey: Abandoning the EU for the SCO?

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published by The Diplomat on February 15, 2013.

The European Union is in a rut. Its once-vaunted economy and “ever closer” integration is facing the tough challenges of a dogged recession and anti-EU sentiment in some of its most powerful member states. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that some EU aspirants appear lukewarm about their prospects and continued desire to join the club. For Turkey, probably the most unfairly spurned EU aspirant, it makes a lot of sense to at least explore alternatives.

After all, Turkey’s economy is booming – leaping from $614.6 billion in 2009 to $775 billion in 2011 (in current U.S. dollars) according to World Bank figures. Reflecting the country’s position at the global cross-roads, Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport international traffic more than doubled between the years 2006 and 2011. Last year alone its passenger volume increased by 20%, making it Europe’s 6th busiest airport. The country’s regional and global profile has grown since it first evinced a desire to join the EU. European leaders should only be surprised that Turkey has maintained its interest in the EU for so long. Continue reading