Russia and China May Compete Economically in Central Asia, But Not Militarily

Raffaello Pantucci is quoted by Joshua Kucera in the Bug Pit

Last week, Open Democracy Russia ran a very good series of articles on relations between Russia and China. One was especially interesting for EurasiaNet readers, about choices that the Central Asian states are having to make between integration with Russia or China. The piece concentrates on the economic sphere, in which, as the authors convincingly argue, integration with the two big superpowers is becoming mutually exclusive.

Of course, Russia and China also have their respective Central Asia integration schemes in the security sphere: China has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Russia the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So I asked one of the piece’s authors, Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on Chinese-Central Asian relations, about whether there was going to be a similar reckoning in that sphere. Short answer: no. His more detailed thoughts:

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Decision time for Central Asia: Russia or China?

By Raffaello Pantucci and Li Lifan

First published in Open Democracy Russia January 24, 2013

The way Central Asian states will turn — to Russia’s Eurasian Union or to China — is the test for influence in the region. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia/IvaNdimitry

If one turns enough of a blind eye, it is easy to be optimistic about Central Asia. Wily diplomats from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are masterfully playing off the great powers. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are turning into hubs in their own right – and nobody can tell plucky Uzbekistan what to do. This is nobody’s backyard, and attempts by neo-imperialists in Moscow, Washington and Beijing to play games in the region are only strengthening the hands of the Central Asian states themselves. This is a comforting picture – which is why Western policymakers love it – but it looks increasingly false as President Putin tightens the screws.

Why a Eurasian Union matters

Russia’s desire to strengthen its sphere of influence in Central Asia seems to be intensifying. The first sign came in October 2011 when Russia’s ‘national leader’ published his vision for a Eurasian Union in the Gazprom-Media owned daily Izvestia. Here Putin stated that the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan that would come into force on 1st January 2012 was just the beginning – and that it would expand ‘by involving Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Then, we plan to go beyond that, and set ourselves the ambitious goal of a higher level of integration – a Eurasian Union.’

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China and Central Asia in 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in China Brief January 18, 2013.

In the last two years, China has emerged as the most consequential outside actor in Central Asia. As we have described in other writings, China’s ascension to this role has been largely inadvertent [1]. It has more to do with the region’s contemporary circumstances and China’s overall economic momentum than a concerted effort emanating from the Zhongnanhai. The implications for United States and NATO policy are nevertheless profound. Not only have the geopolitics of Eurasia shifted in ways little understood in Washington and Brussels, but the socio-political and physical undergirding of the post-Soviet space from Aktobe to Kandahar is being transformed.

Official Chinese policy in Central Asia is quiet and cautious, focused on developing the region as an economic partner with its western province Xinjiang whilst also looking beyond at what China characterizes as the “Eurasian Land Bridge…connecting east Asia and west Europe” (Xinhua, September 4, 2012). Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are active throughout the region on major infrastructure projects, but it is not clear how much they are being directed as part of some grand strategy as opposed to focusing on obvious profitable opportunities. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the main multilateral vehicle for Chinese regional efforts and reassuring engagement is a powerfully symbolic, but institutionally empty actor. Many smaller Chinese actors—ranging from shuttle traders to small-time entrepreneurs to schoolteachers and students posted to Confucius Institutes throughout the region—are the gradual vanguard of possible long-term Chinese investment and influence. Continue reading

China’s Latest Piece of the New Silk Road

By Alexandros Petersen

First published in Eurasia Daily Monitor January 10, 2013.

While the concept of a “New Silk Road” of trade, transport and telecommunications connections across Eurasia was formally endorsed by the US State Department, it is Beijing and Chinese companies that have taken the lead in realizing the immense infrastructure projects that will tie the mega-continent together. The latest is the completion of a second railway link between China and Kazakhstan at the burgeoning Khorgos crossing point and Special Economic Zone. This nearly 600-kilometer section is part of a larger project that connects China’s eastern port of Lianyungang with Kazakhstan’s rail system and points west toward Russia and the Caspian region. Chinese officials refer to it as part of the New Eurasian Land Bridge from China’s ports to Western European ports such as Rotterdam (Global Times, December 22, 2012).

Plans call for the railway to handle 20 million tons of freight by 2020, increasing to 30 million by 2030. The 292-km Chinese portion of the project was built for less than $1 billion—relatively inexpensive by global standards. Khorgos is already the key border crossing for the Central Asia–China natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan and a new highway network under construction. According to Kazakhstan’s Minister for Transport and Communications Askar Zhumagaliyev, 800 km of this Western Europe–Western China highway will be completed in 2013, with much of the route running alongside the just-completed railway (Tengrinews, December 20, 2012). Continue reading

Central Asia: What is China’s Policy Driver?

Alexandros Petersen is quoted by Joshua Kucera on EurasiaNet.

Part of the reason is that Central Asia remains a low priority for the government in Beijing, and so policy is shaped on an ad hoc basic via deals made by various companies and government organs, said Alexandros Petersen, an analyst and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center who studies Chinese policy in Central Asia. “There is no grand strategy for Central Asia on the part of Beijing,” Petersen said. “What there is, however, is a confluence of all the activities of these multifarious actors which, regardless of what Beijing wants or doesn’t want, means that China is nonetheless the most consequential actor in the region.”

Nevertheless, China’s strategy towards Central Asia may be a function of its need to pacify Xinjiang, Petersen said: “The engagement in Central Asia … has to do with security concerns about Xinjiang, number one, and only secondly, after that, is it about resources and economic development.”

Local needs matter more than imaginary struggles in Central Asia

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published in Global Times December 17, 2012

Last month, Russia was reportedly ready to provide weapons worth $1.1 billion to Kyrgyzstan and $200 million to Tajikistan along with a further $200 million in petroleum products. In early June, China offered $10 billion through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to Central Asia. India has been focusing on developing a strategic partnership with Tajikistan since September, while the US always develops a stronger relationship with Uzbekistan.

There is a sense that we are returning to the “Great Game” in Central Asia. But this focus on abstract theories misses hard realities on the ground. Outside powers invest in Central Asia to advance their individual national interests, not out of a strategy directed against other powers.
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China rapidly becoming primary player in post-war Central Asia

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in Global Times December 5, 2012

Picture from here

China is on its way to becoming the most consequential actor in Central Asia. This isn’t a critical or a negative statement, but rather a reflection of a reality on the ground.

The heavy investments in Central Asian infrastructure and natural resources, the push to develop the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and China’s focus on developing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization into an economic player are slowly reorienting Central Asia toward China. None of this means that China is aiming to become a regional hegemon, but unless it is willing to write off considerable regional investment, it is going to find itself needing to engage in regional affairs in a more focused manner.

And these actions are likely to be interpreted regionally as hegemonic. A potentially very prosperous corner of the world, Central Asia, is in an early stage of development that could easily be pushed by instability in a wrong direction. China needs to prepare herself to step in and help resolve matters.

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China in Afghanistan, a tale of two mines

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published in the Financial Times Beyond Brics December 4, 2012

Picture from here

Facing a heavy domestic agenda and growing foreign policy tensions in the seas to the east, it is unlikely that Afghanistan is going to be a major priority for incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Unfortunately, this does not mean the problems are going away. The contrasting fates of China’s large extractive projects in Afghanistan highlight a number of growing issues for the new administration in Beijing as the 2014 deadline for American withdrawal imposed by President Obama looms ever closer.

Up in the north, CNPC has started to extract oil from the ground in its project in the Amu Darya basin, while southeast of Kabul at Mes Aynak, the giant copper mine run by Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper has been put on hold while the Chinese firms reassess their ambitious plans for a project described by President Karzai as ‘one of the most important economic projects in Afghan history’.

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Central Asia: Europe’s Asia Pivot?

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published in EU Observer November 28, 2012

Picture from here

BRUSSELS - World media has been abuzz with America’s “Asia Pivot” and President Barack Obama’s groundbreaking trip to Rangoon.

But while the visit signals the importance of Asia as a strategic focus for Obama’s second administration, the same cannot be said of Europe.

This week’s visit by Catherine Ashton to Central Asia offers a possible key that could both refocus Europe on an area it has long ignored, as well as helping shift its relationship with China onto a more practical basis.

European leaders talk of paying attention to Asia and have long cultivated a “strategic partnership” with China, but there is little evidence of much of this having any relation to what is happening on the ground.

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Corporate China’s Challenges and Opportunities in Central Asia

By Raffaello Pantucci (潘睿凡)

First published in 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) November 14, 2012

(published Chinese above, English translation below)

潘睿凡 发表于2012-11-14 05:13

上月,吉尔吉斯斯坦传来新闻说,由中国人投资的金矿因与当地民众发生纠纷,不得不撤走工作人员,施工被中止。

  上月,吉尔吉斯斯坦传来新闻说,由中国人投资的金矿因与当地民众发生纠纷,不得不撤走工作人员,施工被中止。这不是中国公司第一次在吉尔吉斯斯坦遇到类似麻烦,也不是中国公司第一次在中亚遇到类似事件。

今年9月在乌鲁木齐召开的第二届中国-亚欧博览会上,温家宝总理强调了新疆作为中国与亚欧之间桥梁作用的重要性。博览会上,面对来自阿富汗、哈萨克斯坦、吉尔吉斯斯坦、塔吉克斯坦等国的高层领导,他特别指出:“新疆的改革开放和发展振兴,不仅惠及新疆各族人民,也将给亚欧国家带来更多的发展机遇。”发展新疆与这些国家都有着重要关系。

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Shifts in Beijing’s Afghan Policy: A View From the Ground

by Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in China Brief November 5, 2012

Zhou Yongkang with Afghan President Karzai in September

In a clear but still gradual shift over the past year, Chinese policymakers have changed their stance on Afghanistan from cultivated disinterest to growing engagement. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal in 2014 comes into sharper relief, Beijing has come to realize that it will have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. As with China’s engagement in Central Asia as a whole, Chinese activity in Afghanistan is less a part of a grand strategy for the region and more the sum of number of disparate parts. Nevertheless, the sum of these parts could have major consequences for Afghanistan and the region’s trajectory as it signals a growing realization by Beijing of the role it will find itself playing in the future. Continue reading

Implications of Tajikistan’s New Chinese-Built Tunnel

By Alexandros Petersen

In the last week of October, China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) completed the longest tunnel in Tajikistan, better connecting the country’s capital with its northern regions by reportedly cutting almost 10 hours off of an already grueling journey through spectacular mountains. The inauguration of the new Sharistan Tunnel makes this “the shortest route between Asia and Europe”, announced Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon. The 3.25 mile tunnel replaces a crumbling Iranian-built tunnel, an ill-fated “gift” upon Tajikistan’s independence. At an opening ceremony, President Rahmon praised CRBC workers for their ingenuity in building the company’s longest tunnel project outside of China. He also awarded the project manager with Tajikistan’s Order of Friendship. Chinese Ambassador to Tajikistan Fan Xianrong was on hand to praise the project as a symbol of the close relationship between the two countries. Continue reading

China’s Inadvertent Empire

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in the November/December hardcopy of The National Interest

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S late 2011 announcement of his administration’s pivot to Asia marked a sea change in America’s geopolitical posture away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific Rim. Reflecting the growing strategic repercussions of China’s rise, the move presages a new era of great-power politics as the United States and China compete in Pacific waters. But is the United States looking in the right place?

A number of American strategists, Robert D. Kaplan among them, have written that a potential U.S.-Chinese cold war will be less onerous than the struggle with the Soviet Union because it will require only a naval element instead of permanent land forces stationed in allied countries to rein in a continental menace. This may be true with regard to the South China Sea, for example, or the Malacca Strait. But it misses the significance of the vast landmass of Central Asia, where China is consolidating its position into what appears to be an inadvertent empire. As General Liu Yazhou of China’s People’s Liberation Army once put it, Central Asia is “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.” Continue reading

In hunt for Caspian Gas, the EU can learn from China

By Alexandros Petersen

First published by EPC October 17, 2012

The prospect of reaching European markets once excited oilmen in the energy-rich Caspian countries of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Now, the famed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline has been built and the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) is on the cusp of realising a natural gas line through Turkey that will finally get the long-stalled Nabucco project going. On the eastern side of the Caspian, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan’s major energy partner is China. As the uneasy grouping of European governments, EU negotiators and Western companies dithered, China worked to create the world’s fastest-built natural gas pipeline, linking Turkmenistan’s vast southeastern gas fields with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s formidable reserves to help slake the second-largest economy’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for resources. This has caused a split down the middle of the sea. For the moment, most resources on the western side go West, and most resources on the eastern side go East. Continue reading

China in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in the Washington Times October 11, 2012

On Sept. 23, a top Chinese security official and Politburo member, Zhou Yongkang, made a surprise four-hour visit to Kabul during which time he reportedly met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. This was the first high-level visit by a Chinese official to Afghanistan in half a century — a clear signal of a policy shift on Beijing’s part and probably the harbinger of further engagement to come.

Until now, China’s approach to its Eurasian neighbors, including Afghanistan, has been “soft,” primarily based on investment, infrastructure projects, promoting Chinese language and the multilateral body of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Beijing has stayed away from difficult political issues — so much so that U.S. diplomats have actively courted China to become more involved in ensuring Afghanistan’s stability after the 2014 withdrawal of Western combat forces. The accusation against the Chinese government and Chinese state-owned enterprises has been that by investing in Afghan natural resources such as copper and oil, they are reaping the benefits of American efforts without expending any political capital. As the 2014 deadline approaches, however, this is quickly changing. Continue reading