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

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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

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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

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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

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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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How the West is wholly missing China’s geopolitical focus

By Alexandros Petersen.

On a recent visit to China, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov smiled broadly as he was awarded the title of Emeritus Professor at Peking University. Yet his satisfaction was probably less the academic distinction than a lucrative energy export deal he had signed earlier that day — 65 billion cubic meters of natural gas, roughly half of China’s 2010 gas consumption, would eventually flow from Turkmenistan’s massive fields to China’s seemingly insatiable consumers.

This end-of-year agreement prompted some observers to proclaim that gas-rich Turkmenistan had achieved a coup against regional political powerhouse Russia: For years, Moscow has been negotiating a gas export deal with Beijing, but what would it do now that China was receiving so much supply from Turkmenistan? Yet that analysis is backwards: Rather than a Turkmen power play, the natural gas deal was a geopolitical chess move by Beijing, whose fundamental interest in the region is both raw resources, and raw power. While the West is focused on constraining China’s actions in the Asia-Pacific, Beijing is capitalizing on vast space for influence to its west in Central Asia.

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China is the Power of the Future in Central Asia

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen. Photo by Sue Anne Tay.

First published on Registan.net November 22, 2011.

BY Josh Foust. I’ve bee pushing back against the idea, advocated most eloquently by Alexandros Petersen and Rafaello Pantucci, that China will take over the future of Central Asia. This is a response, an argument that China really is the future of Central Asia.

***

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

China has always been a bashful power. Globally, the nation has taken on an ever more important role, but has been very careful to play its cards close to the chest. Rather than become involved in any overt power plays or geopolitical conflicts, it has chosen to quietly accumulate power and move with a view to a long-term trajectory. Typical of this trend is China’s role in Kyrgyzstan, where on our recent visit we observed a nation that while not visibly transformed into a province of China, was clearly somewhat alarmed by the growing influence that its neighbor to the east has on its economy.

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Russia, China and the Geopolitics of Energy in Central Asia

By Alexandros Petersen with Katinka Barysch.

First published as a Centre for European Reform report on November 16, 2011.

Introduction

Energy has come to symbolise the geopolitics of the 21st century, reflecting countries’ diminishing reliance on military and political power. Today, energy is an instrument of geopolitical competition, like nuclear weapons or large armies were during the Cold War. The means of international influence have become more diverse and sophisticated, but the goals remain much the same: national security, power projection, and control over resources and territory. Continue reading

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The Limits of Regional Cooperation in Asia

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published at Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel blog November 16, 2011.

VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia was unsurprisingly uneventful. While not a “head of state” summit — where traditionally big announcements like the decision to allow new members in would be made — in the lead-up to the meeting there was a flurry of press about a possible enlargement of the group. But aspirant members and current observers India and Pakistan were not made into full members, and Afghanistan was once again not brought any closer into the club. Generally seen by Western observers as a less threatening entity than before, the organization’s inability to move forward on expansion highlights its immaturity and should show outsiders the likely limited role that it will be able to play in post-American Afghanistan.

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China’s Slow Surge in Kyrgyzstan: A View from the Ground

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief on November 11, 2011.

Chinese Ambassador Wang Kaiwen with the Kyrgyz Premier

Kyrgyzstan’s recent peaceful presidential elections did not feature China as a campaign issue. For the most part, they focused on domestic issues and where foreign policy seeped in, it was mostly in the positive light that most Kyrgyz see Russia and separately its regional customs union, or perennial whipping boy the U.S. “transit hub” at Manas airport, outside Bishkek. Subsequent to the elections, the winner Mr. Atambaev declared: “In 2014 the United States will have to withdraw its military base from the ‘Manas’ international airport” (www.regnum.ru, November 1). China was not mentioned at all, even though a series of conversations and interviews up and down the country in the weeks prior to the election revealed a strange sense of unease about Kyrgyzstan’s growing dependence on China.
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Uncertain Times For Afghan Neighbors

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in the Washington Times on November 9, 2011.

OSH, KYRGYZSTAN.

There is a sense in Kyrgyzstan that the United States is on its way out. It is a worrying prospect when one considers that almost a fifth of its gross domestic product comes from the U.S. “transit hub” for Afghanistan at Manas Airport, outside the capital, Bishkek. Against this backdrop, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a visit to neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan last month to highlight how America has a strategy for the region, post-Afghanistan. Such a strategy is essential to lay out now if the United States does not want to leave a regional vacuum that allows a poor region to fall further into disaffection and economic uncertainty.

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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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