Once the heart of the Timurid Empire, the city of Samarkand now sits in the middle of Uzbekistan, relegated to a splendid tourist attraction. Sitting atop the city with a clear view in every direction is the great astronomer Ulugh Beg’s observatory, from where he mapped the stars while his grandfather’s empire ebbed away.
Samarkand was at the heart of the ancient silk trading routes, which went cleanly around Russia, crossing Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran to reach Turkey and Europe’s shores. Track forwards to today, and this straightforward route across the continent is being replicated by China. The first freight train left from Yiwu in China’s Zhejiang province en route to Tehran in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Iran.
The conclusion of the 14th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit hosted in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on 11-12 September 2014 resulted in the signing of key documents that set out procedures for accepting new members, including requirements that applicant states need to fulfil in order to achieve full SCO member status. Consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the SCO has not expanded since its evolution from the “Shanghai Five” in 2001. Despite this, discussions relating to SCO membership expansion, specifically in relation to India and Pakistan’s potential entries, have been on the SCO leaders’ table for a number of years. However, it was only at the recent SCO summit that the organization’s leaders have come closer to agreeing on the admission process for new members.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular supports SCO expansion. At the Dushanbe summit, he proclaimed the progress over SCO membership enlargement to be of great importance, emphasizing that when Russia takes the SCO chairmanship at the next summit in Ufa in 2015, Continue reading →
Xinjiang will soon see the launch of its first high-speed railway train that will run from Lanzhou city in neighboring Gansu province to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The government has hailed this as a significant move that will boost Xinjiang’s economy through more open trade, tourism and connectivity into Central Asia as part of the leadership’s vision of the new Silk Road Economic belt. Yet, the Guardian has countered that the high-speed railway in Xinjiang may end up exacerbating the growing economic inequality in the province.
Characterised by soaring rhetoric, at first glance the China–Pakistan bilateral relationship appears to be one of the world’s closest. Yet below the surface calm bubble concerns, with policy-makers in Beijing particularly worried about the implications of the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan for stability in Pakistan. Western policy-makers should not, however, be optimistic that these concerns will soon translate into Chinese willingness to somehow assume responsibility or leadership in helping Pakistan to develop in a way favourable to the West. Rather, Chinese concerns should be seen within the context of a regional relationship that is likely to grow in prominence as time goes on, ultimately drawing China into a more responsible role in South Asia at least.
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 ofGansu boasted how opportunities in Ürümqi are plentiful, with girlfriends to match—one for each day of the week.
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.