China Should Develop its Role in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci (潘睿凡)

First published in 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) June 12, 2012

(original text in English below, including final paragraph omitted in Chinese)

中国如何在阿富汗更有作为
作者 潘睿凡 发表于2012-06-12 03:05

上合组织北京峰会上周决定以观察员国的身份接纳阿富汗。
潘睿凡
上海社科院访问学者

  上合组织北京峰会上周决定以观察员国的身份接纳阿富汗,中国与该国总理卡尔扎伊在单独双边会谈中签署了战略协议,透露出中国愿意在邻国的未来中发挥更大的作用。不过,中国眼下在阿富汗并非主要玩家,这一点在我不久前遍访喀布尔,不断询问中国在阿富汗的利益及其影响力时,屡次得以显现。目前阿富汗人主要的注意力都集中在美国2014年从阿富汗的撤军,及其对于该国未来的意义。

实际上,在阿富汗很难见到中国存在的证据。当2008年阿富汗安全局势恶化以后,很多曾经充斥当地市场以及开餐馆的中国商人关门回国了。留下来的中国人如同其他当地的外国人一样保持低调,躲在高墙以及安全人员的保卫之下。但是在战略层面上,中国却十分显眼,刚赢得了艾娜克(位于喀布尔东南)铜矿的开采合同,以及在阿姆河(阿富汗北部)一处气田的开发权。

从这些大合同中,我们可以看见中国如何能够在这个国家扮演更大和更积极角色。

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TAPI Pipeline: Bigger is not better

By Alexandros Petersen

First published in Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel June 12, 2012

Last month saw a major step forward for the proposed TAPI natural gas pipeline. Regarded as a perennial pipe dream by many energy analysts, many critics of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India project were silenced by the signing of a gas sales and purchase agreement between Turkmengaz, Inter State Gas Systems of Pakistan and the Gas Authority of India (GAIL). With the backing of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the deal set important specifics, including payment and transit terms. But the ambitious project still faces daunting hurdles before it can become reality. Continue reading

Break Up Time for Pakistan, China?

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published in The Diplomat June 7, 2012

Chinese and Pakistani officials often talk in lofty terms about the proximity of their relationship. “Higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, sweeter than honey, stronger than steel and dearer than eyesight” is the official characterization, and Chinese or Pakistani researchers will often say how they are welcomed like brothers when they visit their respective countries.

A story last week in the Pakistani press, however, seemed to belie this, stating that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had declined to move a meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to Karachi, forcing the president to rapidly reschedule his trip to be in Islamabad to meet with Yang. Whatever the accuracy of this specific story, there has been a noticeable tenseness in relations between Beijing and Islamabad, indicating that things may not be as rosy as they are sometimes portrayed.

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Clashing interests in Central Asia strain Sino-Russian co-operation

By Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci

First published in the South China Morning Post June 6, 2012

On the surface, this week’s Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) summit will be another marker in the organisation’s steady development as a serious player in regional and, increasingly, international affairs. Below, however, a growing tension between China and Russia is starting to show.

The two powers increasingly see their interests diverging in Central Asia. They are close allies in the UN Security Council, but on the ground China and Russia are steadily moving in different directions.

And it would seem that the SCO is not the only reason for his visit. In initial discussions, the summit was to be held in Shanghai. But, primarily at Moscow’s instigation, the decision was made to hold the conference in Beijing. Given that this was Putin’s first visit to China in his new role, he was eager to ensure that it was held in the capital so he could combine the summit with a state visit to Beijing, highlighting the importance of the bilateral over the multilateral in Russian minds.Russia’s hesitation with the SCO is observable in several ways, not least in President Vladimir Putin’s travel schedule. His first foreign visit since regaining the reins of power took him to Belarus, Germany and France, before coming to China this week.

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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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Beijing Lays the Groundwork in Tajikistan: A View from the Ground

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in China Brief May 25, 2012

The Chinese and Tajik Foreign Ministers Meet in Beijing in Early May, picture from here

Meeting on the fringes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Beijing on May 11, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohon Zarifi and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi made the usual affirmations of good bilateral relations (Xinhua, May 11). Part of a raft of bilateral meetings between China and Central Asian states that have taken place on the fringes of the various SCO meetings occurring in the run up to the June Summit in Beijing, the encounter is hard to distinguish from the others taking place. As the single predominantly non-Turkic state, Tajikistan however has always been an outlier in Central Asian terms. This extends to Chinese interest, although, for China, it is the absence of large volumes of natural resources and an obstructive mountain range making direct road transit difficult that make it the least interesting among the Central Asian states. While clearly key in ensuring that the entire region becomes developed, Dushanbe lacks the immediate appeal of its surrounding states to Beijing and as a result seems something of a lower priority for Chinese policymakers. Nevertheless, seen from the ground, China clearly is making a few strategic decisions that show it is committed and interested in helping Tajikistan’s development. As a foreign analyst based in Dushanbe put it to us on a recent trip, in contrast to China in the other Central Asian states, ”China’s influence in Tajikistan is delayed” [1]. Many of the long-term concerns that can be found in other Central Asian capitals towards China are reflected in Tajikistan where people are suspicious of China’s long-term ambitions.
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Uzbekistan courts China on its own terms

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in the South China Morning Post May 25, 2012

The Uzbek-Korean air and truck port outside Navoiy.

Among the many items festooning souvenir shops in the Silk Road city of Bukhara are a set of stamps commemorating Uzbekistan’s 15th anniversary of independence. Pride of place alongside President Islam Karimov on these stamps is not a prominent Uzbek, but, rather, the then president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun. For Uzbekistan, a close embrace with Korea is a good balancer against a dominant China.

Uzbekistan is in search of a post-Soviet model for development. Initially an eager partner of the West in the wake of the September 11 attacks, it fell out of favour following a hardline government response to violence in the city of Andijan in 2005. This led the nation to look to the Asia-Pacific as a model or partner. But this has not simply meant closer ties with China.

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Pipe Dream in Afghanistan?

By Alexandros Petersen

First published by UPI May 24, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan, May 24 (UPI) – Since U.S. President Barack Obama‘s visit earlier this month, talk in the Afghan capital has centered almost exclusively on how the United States’ and NATO presence will pack its bags on the way out of the country, beginning next year.

In country and in the region, Washington has had trouble managing the optics of that exit. But, one thing that almost all parties in Afghanistan, as well as its neighbors agree on is that economic development is key to ensuring that the country doesn’t relapse into endemic conflict and international black hole status.

A lot has been said about the importance of the Afghan ring road in this effort. The U.S. State Department’s New Silk Road Strategy is meant to link Afghanistan to its neighbors in Central and South Asia through road and rail links.

But the world’s No. 4 holder of natural gas reserves says these projects might be complemented by the resurrection of a pre-9/11 pipeline project: the Trans-Afghan or TAPI natural gas line. Afghanistan’s northern neighbor, Turkmenistan, says its vast relatively undeveloped gas fields could be linked to energy-hungry Pakistan and India, while providing spinoff development opportunities along its right of way through Afghanistan’s neglected rural areas. At a capacity of 33 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, the relatively large project would snake through troubled Herat and Kandahar provinces. Continue reading

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

China and Turkey Revive the Silk Road

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in The Commentator May 22, 2012

The implications of the burgeoning Sino-Turkic relationship in Central Asia remain unexplored. Washington must act to guarantee everyone’s strategic objectives in the region

URUMQI, WESTERN CHINA – The leaders of the world’s fastest growing economies in Eurasia met in Beijing last month. Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to China, coming soon after president-in-waiting Xi Jinping’s visit to Turkey might have heralded a new dawn of Sino-Turkic relations on the old Silk Road: in Central Asia.

This could be an opportunity for the United States to enlist these two dynamic economies to contribute to stability in the region once Western forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan. It could also emerge as an alternative to U.S. influence in the region. Much depends on how Washington approaches the revived relationship.

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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

The Clash of Eurasian Grand Strategies

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in The National Interest and The Atlantic May 1, 2012

In Khorgos, on the China-Kazakhstan border, trucks laden with Chinese goods line up along the road, waiting for Chinese and then Kazakhastani customs officers to give them the go-ahead to continue their transcontinental journey across Eurasia. Many will be heading to the great markets of Central Asia, like Dordoi, Barakholka and Kara Suu, while others head all the way to Europe. Squeezing through a single lane, the trucks get stuck in lengthy backlogs as they wait in the shadow of the brand new multilane Chinese customs point that sits idle next door. This idleness is the product of conflicting strategies, emblematic of a lack of coordination that is taking place across Central Asia.

It is cliché to talk about Central Asia in great-game terms, with battling rival powers elbowing each other to assert their influence. Seeing the region as either as a buffer area to other powers or as a source of natural wealth and instability, the surrounding large powers have long treated Central Asia as little more than a chessboard on which to move pawns.

These days, however, the strategic approach taken by surrounding powers has shifted. Rather than talking about dominating the region, the discussion is focused on differing approaches to development, all of them tied to great powers’ particular interests. Lead amongst these are China, Russia and the United States—all of which have launched new initiatives intended to bring stability and security to the region. Continue reading

China and Turkey Reprise the Silk Road

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in the South China Morning Post April 23, 2012

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent visit to Urumqi, Xinjiang, was a dramatic turnaround for a leader who just over two years ago had characterised the Chinese response to riots in the same city as “simply put, a genocide”. Now he has shifted his pose, reaffirming “the one-China policy” and speaking in Shanghai of the “cultural similarities” between the two countries. Engendered by an increasingly eastern-facing Turkish posture, this shift highlights a Eurasian axis that invites closer attention.

As two developing countries with good manufacturing capacity and large labour forces, China and Turkey were long able to grow independently of one another. Both were export-driven economies, but they did not directly compete for markets.

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Contest over Central Asia Between Allies

By Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci

First published in the South China Morning Post March 20, 2012

Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in Russia was predictably controversial in Europe and America. In Beijing, the official read-out provided by Xinhua highlighted a positive conversation, with President Hu Jintao stating with “confidence that Putin’s new presidential term would see faster progress in building a stronger and richer nation”. That statement affirmed the importance of the Sino-Russian axis as a pole in international relations. Putin, the quintessential Russian chess master, has a very clear sense of where Russia’s future must lie, and needs Beijing onside if he wants to carry this out.

The Sino-Russian relationship has had its ups and downs. As Putin put it recently, “there are some sources of friction”. The joint Chinese-Russian veto last month of a UN resolution on Syria attracted attention. But, beyond this, tensions persist as Russia proves implacable in discussions over energy pricing, and tries to develop a “Eurasian Union” to counter China’s successful inroads into Central Asia. The resultant price increase is detrimental to Chinese interests and delays economic integration under the auspices of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO).

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