China In Eurasia Briefing: Beijing Cautiously Treads Into Afghanistan
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Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.
The China In Eurasia briefing is 6 months old and I want your feedback. Send me an e-mail and let me know what you like so far, what you want to see more, and what you think can be improved. Send your feedback to StandishR@rferl.org
I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.
Beijing Cautiously Treads Into Afghanistan
With the Taliban quickly gaining ground in Afghanistan, China is stepping up its presence in the country and the wider region as it cautiously takes on a larger leadership role. As I reported, Beijing is mostly focused on security issues, but also has a growing array of political and economic goals.
Finding Perspective: It began with a weeklong tour of Central Asia by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who visited Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan the week of July 12.
The scheduled visit covered a range of issues, from infrastructure to energy investment, but also focused on Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s offensive has left the country’s neighbors anxiously watching the security situation deteriorate.
Beijing’s main focus on Afghanistan is ensuring that the chaos doesn’t cross the border into China -- and to a lesser degree, spill over into Central Asia. Chinese policymakers are concerned about the country becoming a haven for extremist groups again, particularly Uyghur militants who would have their sights set on Xinjiang.
This has also led to ongoing talks between China and the Taliban centered on targeting Uyghur militant groups and denying them refuge in Afghanistan.
The Taliban appears to be receptive to the outreach and has recently been on a goodwill tour of sorts, praising Beijing and saying that the country would be a “welcome friend” in Afghanistan.
The Taliban has also refused to condemn China's repression of Muslims in Xinjiang, as I explored here in this explainer about the group’s decades-old relationship with Beijing.
For Beijing, the Taliban represents a means to an end, especially considering the militant group's ascendency in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban sees China as a pathway to international legitimacy and a reliable stream of investment for war-torn Afghanistan.
Why It Matters: Wang’s visit and Beijing’s complicated diplomatic game is about shoring up China’s growing clout.
Unlike in 2001, when the war began with the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, China is now a leading player on the world stage and especially in the region.
Beijing has lucrative and reputation-bearing investments in Central Asia and Pakistan through its Belt and Road Initiative that instability in Afghanistan could upset, and the region’s actors are looking to their large neighbor to the east to be a leader.
This holds both risk and opportunity for China. Beijing has valuable cards to play and already signaled that it hopes to broker a peace deal in Afghanistan, but getting increasingly involved also brings the danger of China getting stuck in the problems of its volatile neighbor.
? Those fears of violence spilling over from Afghanistan coming from Russia and Central Asia today have been echoed before. My colleague Bruce Pannier has a good piece looking at the region’s complicated history with its neighbor.
? Is China ready to be a superpower? Here’s two different looks on the subject from Tsinghua University’s Yan Xuetong for Foreign Affairs and from Gideon Rachman for the Financial Times.
? For the latest developments on the fast-changing situation in Afghanistan, follow RFE/RL’s Gandhara website, which has everything from reporting on the ground to analysis from afar.
Expert Corner: China's Boots On The Ground?
Readers asked: “With Chinese companies increasingly being targeted, will Beijing fund a security presence on the ground to protect its investments?”
To find out more, I asked Niva Yau, a researcher at the OSCE Academy in Kyrgyzstan and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who tracks Chinese private security companies.
“If we look at Chinese bases overseas in the last 10 years, their presence was justified as necessary for securing Chinese commercial interests in that region. China has openly admitted to having a base in Djibouti and at the same time framed that under the umbrella of protecting Chinese companies and projects across Africa.
“When we look at the rise of private security companies in Central Asia, specifically in Kyrgyzstan, this is the same rationale. China has also tried to set up private security companies in Kazakhstan, but the Kazakh government has resisted this.
“In the future, we are definitely going to see a higher security presence from China, specifically because we are expecting another wave of Chinese infrastructure investments in Central Asia and Afghanistan.”
Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.
Three More Stories From Eurasia
1. Beyond Pakistan And China's 'Iron Brotherhood'
The death of nine Chinese workers in a bus bombing in Pakistan on July 14 has underscored the security risks attached to China's overseas projects and highlighted flaws within Beijing and Islamabad’s otherwise close relationship, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal reported.
What Happened: The bus was carrying around 40 Chinese personnel to a hydropower dam construction site in Pakistan's northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province near the border with China.
China is building the Dasu hydropower project under an investment plan that is part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Shortly after news of the attack, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian quickly spoke out, expressing "shock and condemnation over the bombing" and urged Pakistan to "severely punish" those responsible and "earnestly protect" Chinese nationals and projects.
This appeared to be at odds with the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, which issued a statement initially contradicting Beijing, saying that the bus “plunged into a ravine after a mechanical failure, resulting in the leakage of gas that caused a blast.”
The Pakistani side later backtracked this earlier conclusion and a Chinese investigative team was dispatched to examine the bus.
Looking Ahead: China is Islamabad's closest regional ally, but the security of Chinese workers in Pakistan has long raised concerns in Beijing.
It appeared that the discrepancy in accounts led to some initial strain between Beijing and Islamabad, with China canceling a meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee -- a planning body for the multibillion-dollar CPEC.
Expect the topic of security in Pakistan to continue to be on the agenda. China’s ambassador to Pakistan met Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa on July 19 to discuss how the Pakistani military can better protect Chinese personnel.
2. Kyiv Inches Toward Beijing
The Ukrainian government is chasing Chinese loans and trying to attract more Chinese companies into the country, according to a report by my colleague Ievgen Solonyna from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.
Ukraine Looks Further East: Kyiv and Beijing reportedly inked an infrastructure agreement shortly after the Ukrainian government was accused by Western diplomats in an AP report of removing its name from a statement at the Human Rights Council in Geneva that condemned repression in Xinjiang in order to get preferential access to Chinese vaccines.
The agreement is short on specifics but outlines broad cooperation to attract Chinese investment into railways, airports, and ports, as well as telecommunications infrastructure in Ukraine.
China and Ukraine have a complicated relationship. Ties were strained earlier this year when Kyiv blocked Chinese investors from acquiring the Ukrainian aerospace company Motor Sich.
But Kyiv still has its eyes on Chinese cash, especially as it looks to untangle itself from Russia’s economy and search for new ways to inject a financial jolt into its lagging economy.
3. A Solution At Last for Montenegro’s $1 Billion Debt?
After months of speculation and political posturing, Montenegro appears to have reached a solution on its $1 billion China-owed highway debt -- at least for the time being -- according to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.
What's In Place: Milojko Spajic, the country’s finance minister, announced on July 8 that the interest rate on the loan owed to the Export-Import Bank of China for the highway project was reduced, which would save the country 8 million euros from its annual budget.
The deal is the result of a refinancing agreement reached with two American banks and one French one and will give the Montenegrin government, which is besieged with an array of political and economic problems, room to breathe.
It’s not a long-term fix to the country’s budget woes or for its debt owed to China, but it eliminates the frantic crunch that Podgorica found itself under. For more background reading, check out our previous report here.
Across The Supercontinent
Bosnian Coal: Russian billionaire Rashid Serdarov, the owner of Comsar Energy Republika Srpska (RS), signed an agreement with a state-owned Chinese and Polish-Chinese company on a strategic partnership to build a new thermal power plant and coal mine in Bosnia-Herzegovina, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported.
Backing Beijing: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan came under fire from politicians and commentators for his praise of China’s autocratic one-party system, which he said offered a better model for countries compared to electoral democracy, Daud Khattak of RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal and I reported.
A Third Shot: Hungary relied on a mix of Chinese, Russian, and Western vaccines to protect its population against COVID-19, but an increasing number of those inoculated with China’s Sinopharm shot are reportedly still getting the virus, RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service reported.
The Serbian Connection: Reuters reported on July 7 that the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) is using genetic material collected from prenatal tests around the world for military research. RFE/RL’s Balkan Service takes a look at BGI’s operations in Serbia and the issue of collecting personal data.
One Thing To Watch
The United States and other Western countries on July 19 accused China of hacking the popular e-mail platform Microsoft Exchange as part of a global cyberespionage campaign headed by Beijing.
Chinese authorities angrily denied the accusations, calling them “fabricated.”
Microsoft blamed a Chinese cyberespionage group for exploiting a vulnerability on its e-mail platform. The group, known as Hafnium, was found by Microsoft's Threat Intelligence Center to be state-sponsored and operating out of China.
The incident marks a stepped up and more aggressive use of cybertools from the Chinese, as well as a rare and coordinated rebuke from a broad group of countries.
Similar accusations have circulated in Afghanistan and Central Asia. On July 1, the cybersecurity firm Check Point said that it found a Chinese campaign to target Central Asian governments after hackers had infiltrated Afghanistan’s National Security Council and then posed as senior officials in an attempt to gain access to Central Asian government networks.
Source: Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.