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

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Xinjiang: struggle to revive Silk Road

By Raffaello Pantucci

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

Picture courtesy here

What do you do about attracting investment if you are a remote corner of China, best-known internationally for your ethnic tensions?

If you are Xinjiang, you invest heavily in a blockbuster economic exhibition. Urumqi is this week hosting its second annual China-Eurasia Expo, opened this year by premier Wen Jiabao, a clear upgrade from last year’s star host, vice premier Li Keqiang.

Leaders and/or ministers from seven countries flew in, giving credence to Wen’s claim that the Expo aimed ‘to build a new bridge of friendship and cooperation across the Eurasian continent…and make Xinjiang a gateway.’ But it’s along way from prime ministerial declarations to the investment that Xinjiang badly needs.

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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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China and Russia are no more than allies of convenience

By Raffaello Pantucci

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

Foreign Minister Lavrov meets State Councillor Dai. Picture from here

State councillor Dai Bingguo’s visit to Russia this week for strategic security talks has once again focused attention on the supposedly close relationship between the two BRICS powers.

An image of alliance thrown up by their parallel voting in the UN and Western analysts’ inability to look beyond former cold war alliances mean that suspicion is often cast on a relationship that has as many fractures as it does cohesion. The reality is China and Russia disagree as often as they agree.

On the chaos in Syria, the two have shown they are willing to support each other by holding up the UN as a reason for their refusal to countenance action on Syria. But while both may see eye to eye on this issue, this is not always the case. Looking in the annals of Security Council resolutions over the past few years, one can find a few instances where China or Russia found themselves abstaining alone.

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Finding Common Ground in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in Foreign Policy’s Af-Pak Channel August 16, 2012.

A beat was missed on U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon’s late July visit to Beijing. Described in the Chinese press as a “fire extinguisher visit,” it came as tensions continue to ratchet up in the South China Sea and the United States continues to butt heads with China over Iran, Syria and theoretical war plans. These disputes obscure the one area with scope for much greater cooperation between China and the United States: Afghanistan. Building on mutual goals in Afghanistan could have a positive effect on the overall relationship, showing that the distance between the two sides is not the Pacific-sized gulf that it is sometimes made out to be.

In discussions with Chinese officials about their objectives, the uniform answer is “a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.” This is almost identical to answers given by their American counterparts. That said, there is a difference in tone that reflects the underlying concerns that craft it. Continue reading

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Kazakhstan Puts Components in Place for Caspian Shipping

By Alexandros Petersen

First published in Eurasia Daily Monitor July 31, 2012.

On July 25, Kazakhstan’s coastal city of Aktau hosted an expert-level conference on implementing global standards for maritime shipping at Caspian ports (News.az, July 25). Organized by TRACECA’s Logistics Processes and Motorways of the Sea (LOGMOS) project, the conference signals the inauguration of an important stage in the development of “New Silk Road” corridors from East and South Asia to Europe. As the European Union’s trans-Eurasian transport coordinating mechanism, TRACECA provides a regional forum and technical assistance for countless projects across the continent. However, while TRACECA can help on the margins, for a project to go forward, it requires political and financial commitment from host governments. For this reason, a number of LOGMOS projects have stalled, most notably the planned Turkmenbashi-Baku connection. But, the Aktau-Baku link seems to be moving ahead, with key managerial, logistical and technical issues addressed, to tackle one of the New Silk Road’s most vexing obstacles: the Caspian Sea Continue reading

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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

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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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Featured: “China’s Footprint Beyond Its Western Borders”

On the photography front, our project has been gaining strong traction with both Mainland Chinese and Western outlets. In particular:

Southern Window (南方窗), a leading Chinese commentary magazine, has published our photo essay entitled “China’s Footprint Beyond Its Western Borders” or “西陲之外的中国足迹” which looks at China’s wide array of interests and Chinese trader communities in the Central Asia region.

Based on numerous interactions with local Chinese here in Shanghai, granted a limited research pool, one discovers that layman awareness of China’s numerous western neighbors is quite limited. China’s tourists still prefer to travel to Europe, Southeast Asia and the US, and apart from specific industries (infrastructure, oil, gas etc) and goods trade run from Xinjiang province, the Chinese man/woman on the street does not feel that Central Asia has any significant impact – economic or cultural – on their daily lives. Continue reading

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After CSTO Withdrawal Uzbekistan Also Looks East

By Alexandros Petersen

Uzbekistan’s decision to withdraw from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for the second time does not come as much of a surprise for long-time observers of Tashkent’s foreign policy. Before finally calling it quits, Uzbekistan’s leadership had expressed frustration with the group’s overtly anti-Western guise, its fealty to Moscow and its pretensions at competition with NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Uzbek forces have not participated in the group’s military exercises and President Islom Karimov made a point of not attending CSTO summits. In contrast, his recent visit to Beijing for the SCO summit was highly publicized, as was a new strategic partnership agreement signed with China. Continue reading

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China prefers the real Shangri-La

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter 25 June 2012

Central Asia’s magisterial valleys, like the Fergana or the high plateaus of the Pamirs, have long been thought to be the location of the mythical Shangri-La.

This idyllic hidden valley, where peace-loving people age only ever so slowly, not only inspired James Hilton to write his eponymous book but also Southeast Asian billionaire Robert Kuok to found the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore. And the luxury hotel has lent its name to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Asia Security Summit, regularly attended by defence ministers from the region and the US Secretary of Defense.

For most Asia Pacific powers, the Shangri-La Dialogue is seen as the major security summit of the year. The high-level American attendance reassures regional powers, offering them an opportunity to interact with counterparts from the US and to understand better their interests and activity in the region. Continue reading

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Afghanistan and the Eurasian Neighborhood

by Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in The National Interest June 21, 2012

The big takeaway from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit held earlier this month here in Beijing is that the group is going to become more involved in Afghanistan. Western optimists seem to have concluded that this means the SCO—which includes China, Russia and all of the post-Soviet Central Asian states except for Turkmenistan—might take on the burden as the West tries to extricate itself from the war-torn country. But this expectation, while popular in Washington and Brussels, is vastly overblown.

The SCO was born out of the ashes of the Cold War and the Shanghai Five, a grouping aimed at delineating China’s border with the newly independent Central Asian states. By 2001, it had successfully resolved these questions and decided to formalize the structure into a regional organization that expanded to bring in Uzbekistan (which does not border China). Of course, that was also the year that everything changed in the world, when Osama Bin Laden finally managed to launch an attack from his Afghan base that got America’s attention. From then on, the seeming orientation of the group shifted from building greater regional coordination to a counterterrorism-oriented but still anti-Western club. When Iran tried to join in 2006–07, this narrative was somewhat confirmed in the public mind, though little attention was paid when the body rejected Iran’s application.

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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

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