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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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

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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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