Category Archives: China-Central Asia

China’s Domestic Counterterrorism May Fail Against Global Jihadis

‘RESTIVE’ IS THE adjective favoured in the popular prints to qualify Xinjiang. President Xi Jinping’s call for the far western autonomous region to be surrounded by a ‘great wall of iron’ suggests the presence of a greater threat.

As does Cheng Guoping, state commissioner for counterterrorism and security.

He says that the Uighur separatists that comprise the East Turkestan Independence Movement are the China’s ‘most prominent challenge to social stability economic development and national security’.

Xi and Cheng’s comments follow the most recent show of force in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi and other cities such as Kashgar, involving some 10,000 paramilitary police with accompanying armoured vehicles and attack helicopters.

China has been fighting a sporadic and low-level civil war with Uighur separatists for decades that on occasion erupts into deadly terrorist attacks across China. These attacks, usually involving a car bomb or knifings, have become more frequent, dispersed and indiscriminate since 2012, though the number, as far as can be determined, is small.

A May 2014 attack in Urumqi killed 43 and wounded 90. The province simmers with unrest as the now minority Muslim population bristles under what it considers to be culturally and religiously repressive government by ethnic Han Chinese.  Yet there is little on the surface to suggest that the local threat level has suddenly escalated to the degree these actions and Xi and Cheng’s comments would imply.

However, Beijing now sees external as well as internal threat. That is challenging its notions of how to deal with ‘terrorists’.

Three recent videos, purportedly made by the Islamic State group and an al-Qaeda affiliate, raise the spectre that China could import the radical Islamic extremism that it has so far avoided. Beijing has long used the bogeyman of radical connections between Xinjiang separatists outside and the Muslim Uighur minority within to exert repressive domestic control.

The 30-minute video that surfaced in February, in particular, gives some weight, at last, to those warnings. It shows Uighurs training in Iran and threatening that blood would ‘flow in rivers’ in China — although also in Russia and the United States.

There are well-documented reports of Uighurs having gone to Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq to fight for radical Islamic groups. The numbers of Chinese ones — 100-150 on the estimates we have seen — scarcely seem to justify the extraordinary reaction of authorities, although one of the Islamic State videos includes what is thought to be the first instance of Uighur-speakers declaring allegiance to Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliphate.

One question is whether Beijing’s fears are overblown and its response proportionate; another is whether it can adapt a counterterrorism approach developed in response to domestic concerns to international terrorism.

China, unlike the United States and Russia, has little by way of a military footprint in West Asia thanks to its profession of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. It is not involved in either the US or Russian/Iranian-led actions against Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, the usual prerequisite of Islamic State acts of terror against a country.

A hostage taking and killing in 2015 is the sole known case involving targeting a Chinese citizen, although seven Chinese were among the 20 killed in a bomb attack on Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine and three Chinese citizens were among the 27 who died during an attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako, both the same year.

However, China’s growing global footprint and expatriate labour force, and especially the expansion of ‘One Belt, One Road’ across Eurasia, makes it almost inevitable that it would eventually be unable to avoid coming into harm’s way from international jihad.

As we noted recently, China and Afghanistan share a short border through which the forces Beijing so fears could enter the country directly. China border-police controls are keeping it under close surveillance in the event that, as Islamic State loses territory in Syria and Iraq, the group falls back to being an insurgent guerrilla force and its leaders and others of global jihadist movements relocate to Central Asia and Afghanistan, far too close to China for Beijing’s liking.

However, the capacity of Islamic State to coordinate and stage large-scale attacks inside China will be limited. Furthermore, Beijing’s already-fierce repression in Xinjiang and tight censorship everywhere mitigates the caliphate’s strategy of inspiring lone wolves and affiliated terror groups through a radicalising narrative of domestic marginalisation of Muslim minorities.

This has had some success in Europe and the United States, but beyond the difficulty in having the message penetrate the Great Firewall, disaffected Muslim minorities do not exist in China in the widespread urban pockets they do in, say, France, Belgium and Germany.

Hitherto, China has dealt with the threat of domestic terrorism, which it considers one and the same as separatism and extremism, with a three-pronged strategy: enhancing regional economic growth; stronger internal security; and strict controls over ethnic and religious activities. All have been heavily applied in Xinjiang with the additional factor of ethnic Han inward migration.

Beijing’s likely response to the new external threat that it sees to its emerging core national interests will be to crack down even harder on the one place it knows there are a lot of Muslims. Already law regulates and constricts religious practices and public life in Xinjiang, such as growing beards, wearing the veil and fasting during Ramadan — all symbols, the authorities say of “Islamic extremism” (like in the US, ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ will quickly become conflated).

Since last year Xinjiang residents who have a passport are required to turn it into local police, to whom they must reapply for its return if they want to travel abroad. There were reports last year of another Muslim minority, Kazakhs living in border districts of Xinjiang, being told to give DNA samples and fingerprints when applying for travel documents. Uighurs who speak in favour of greater political freedoms risk imprisonment.

These measures are likely to be both more tightly enforced and extended, in the name of “maintaining social control” in the resource-rich western marches that give onto the key overland routes through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe.

However, the One Belt, One Road dimension and the need to protect the growing numbers of Chinese citizens abroad is evolving Beijing’ security interests. Its responses will have to follow suit. It has been exchanging information on Islamic State with the United States, with which it also cooperates on technical matters to counter terrorism such as port security and anti-money laundering.  (Whether and how that will continue with the Trump administration remains to be seen.)

China has also been talking to Pakistan and the Afghan government about ways to promote stability in Afghanistan, and within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Regional Anti-Terrorism initiative. More controversially, it has also pushed for groups it considers to be terrorist to be added to international and national terrorist watch lists.

Beijing slowly recognises that many of the terrorism challenges that it faces have roots beyond its borders and thus will need it to participate in international counterterrorism efforts. However, its has so far shown that it prefers bilateral attempts to apply its three-pronged strategy with economic, policing and security aid to other countries, but that at best has to be done at arm’s length or get China involved in the internal affairs of countries in ways that run counter to its non-interference doctrine.

As it tries to figure that out, its instinctive reaction will still be to over-react at home by doing more of what it knows how.

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China and Afghanistan Draw Closer On The Roof Of The World

 

wakhan_corridor

CHINA’S BOUNDARY WITH Afghanistan is short; less than 100 kilometres arcing around the end of the Wakhan Corridor, a high mountain valley, seen above, on the ‘roof of the world’ that once provide a narrow imperial buffer between the Russian and British empires. Today it separates Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south and looks on maps like a panhandle of Afghanistan whose territory it is.

Though it is an ancient trade route, spilling into Xinjiang through the Wakhjir Pass, it has long been closed at the Chinese end for fear of the drugs, Uighur separatists or other extremists that might flow through it.

Beijing and Kabul have a 2015 border policing agreement that involves joint patrols, but of late there have been reports that Chinese forces have been operating on the Afghan side of the border.

Map showing location of Wakhan Corridor in AfghanistanThis is a remote part of the world, so supporting accounts are scant. The Defense Ministry has confirmed that counter-terrorism and anti-cross-border crime operations have occurred but has dismissed Central Asian and Indian reports of Chinese military vehicles patrolling inside Afghanistan.

Pictures published last November show what look like Chinese-made armoured patrol vehicles inside the Wakhan Corridor. While the vehicles can be made out, what cannot is who is driving them — PLA soldiers, Chinese armed police, Chinese private security firm personnel, or someone else altogether, such as Afghanistan border police.

Relations between the two countries have been gradually growing closer since the establishment of Afghanistan’s National Unity government in 2014.

Afghanistan has agreed not to provide sanctuary for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Uighur separatist group that has been fighting a long and sporadic war for Xinjiang’s independence. For its part, China is training Afghan police and supplying the force with equipment and has pledged $70 billion in military aid as the policing relationship expanded to the defence side (though this hasn’t yet extended to heavy weapons). Bilateral exchanges on both fronts are increasing.

None of this is yet any substitute for Afghanistan’s dependence on the West. However, for Beijing, always worried about insecurity on its Western marches, a close relationship with Kabul will also be essential to the success of One Belt One Road, especially if security concerns about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor worsen.

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The China-Aligned Movement

PRESIDENT XI JINPING’S will be arriving in Indonesia for the 60th Anniversary of the Bandung Conference by way of Pakistan. There could be no more apt metaphor for how China’s place in the world has changed.

At Bandung in 1955, Zhou Enlai and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru bestrode the emerging movement of African and Asian leaders summoned by Indonesia’s President Suharto to come together in ‘non-aligned’ anti-colonial solidarity — a “meeting of the rejected” as the American author Richard Wright who attended the conference described it.

Six decades on, Xi arrives having just announced $46 billion in Chinese investment in Pakistan, partly for energy but also to construct transport, energy and communications links between the western Chinese city of Kashgar and the blue-water port of Gwadar.

It is just one leg in the southern corridor of a grand Chinese scheme to create a new network of land and sea routes between East Asia and Europe. This New Silk Belt and Maritime Economic Road is such a central part of Xi’s foreign-policy initiative that the Politburo has set up a leading team to oversee its implementation .

As this Bystander has noted before,

to Beijing, Pakistan looks a lot like a corridor from the high plateau of China’s western reaches to the blue water ports of the Arabian Sea and thus access to shipping routes to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The distance is relatively short, less than 1,500 kilometers as the crow flies, but at the northern end the terrain is difficult, the weather harsh, borders unsettled and security uncertain.

Road and rail links are patchy, particularly north of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, and frequently disrupted. Nor is there yet a motorway connecting the capital to the southern port city of Karachi, let alone to Gwadar on the Gulf of Oman close to the border with Iran and where China is developing a deep-water port and naval base.

Xi described his trip to Pakistan, his first, as being like visiting his brother’s home. The two countries don’t seem familial allies, even if they have been discussing turning Pakistan into an energy pipeline for China since at least 2006. Not that they couch it in such terms: Xi calls it an “all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation”.

In the meantime, Beijing has been dancing delicately with its regional rival, Delhi. Xi’s bounteous trip to Pakistan, though, will make Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China next month — a reciprocal visit for Xi’s trip to India last September — an uncomfortable one. It will be telling to see whether China is more a bestower or receiver of gifts on that occasion.

Modi has been taking a more assertive line with China than his predecessor, particularly in the Indian Ocean. He has also aligned India more closely with the U.S., signing a strategic agreement with Washington during President Barack Obama’s visit earlier this year.

Beijing blatantly cosying up to Pakistan will sit ill with India. Non-aligned no more — on either side. Bandung in 1955 seems not only a very different time, but a very different world.

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China Tilts Kazakhstan Away From Russia

china-kazakhstan-li-keqiang-karim-massimov at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, March 27, 2015.

Prime Minister Li Keqiang (R) greets Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, March 27, 2015. (Photo credit: Xinhua/Zhang Duo)

CHINA HAS NOW signed $40 billion-worth of deals with Kazakhstan in the course of barely four months. The latest tranche ($23.6 billion) was agreed during last week’s visit by Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov, reciprocating his counterpart Li Keqiang’s trip to Astana in December. On that occasion, $18 billion in joint ventures was inked.

The two men also met at the World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland in January. Despite being a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, Kazakhstan is intent on deepening its strategic relations with China, if nothing else as a counterbalance to Russia, the region’s longstanding power, and to the West, which has become more of a presence in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

For its part, Beijing will welcome the security of a trade-tied neighbour on its at times troubled far western marches as much as it does Kazakhstan’s exports of oil, natural gas and uranium. The Central Asian country also offers a prospective market for China’s growing defense industry while being a key leg of the new Silk Road westward overland trade corridor Beijing wants to develop, and which was so prominently touted at the annual Boao conference just concluded.

Kazakhstan is already the largest recipient of Chinese foreign direct investment among the post-Soviet Central Asia republics. Loans-for-oil-deals between the two countries date back to 2009. Beijing will use the investment funds it makes available via the Silk Road Fund, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and its proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to cement that position.

Kazakhstan has its own ‘Bright Road’ project to boost economic development through infrastructure projects. The spillover from Russia’s sanctions-slowed economy has made that need more urgent. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development downgraded its forecast for Kazakhstan’s GDP growth this year to 1.5% from the 5.1% it forecast as recently as last September. 2014’s estimated GDP growth was 4.3% down from 6% in 2013.

One-fifth of Kazakhstan’s $84 billion–year of exports now goes to China, twice the share that goes to Russia. The relative positions reverse on the import account: Russia being the source of 36% of Kazakhstan’s $44 billion a year of imports; China of 18%. That gap looks set to narrow. A regular goods rail service between Lianyungang and Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, started last month with the first westbound load carrying Chinese cars, electronics and household goods.

Beijing has the trade and investment clout to exploit Russia’s moment of vulnerability and so expand its influence and market power across the region at Moscow — and the West’s — expense.

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China Picks And Chooses Its Gas Suppliers

Gazprom’s decision to put off construction of a $38 billion trans-Siberian gas pipeline for a year will trouble Moscow more than Beijing. The delay is because the two countries continue to be apart on pricing for new Russian gas exports to China.

China, for all its energy hunger, is the more ready of the two to wait to get the pricing it wants on the 38 billion cubic meters of gas it has agreed to buy annually from Gazprom. Russia, on the other hand, is anxious to get its oil and gas companies selling to Asia to cut their reliance on European markets.

The International Energy Agency recently estimated that China will absorb one-third of new LNG supplies worldwide over the next five years as its demand grows by 12% a year. In June, Rosneft signed a contract to supply 2.6 billion barrels of crude oil to China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) over the next 25 years, with CNPC also taking its first stake in a Russian gas-export project, 20% of Novatek’s Yamal LNG fields. Novatek, as Russia’s second-largest gas producer, is a Gazprom rival. CNPC will import 4 billion cubic meters of gas a year under its deal, likely starting in 2016.

Earlier this week, CNPC secured a deal to buy more gas from Turkmenistan. State-owned TurkmenGas will up its annual sales from 40 billion cubic meters a year to 65 billion cubic meters a year by 2020. China last year imported 20 billion cubic meters from Turkmenistan. The extra 25 billion cubic meters will come from opening up the second phase of TurkmenGas’s giant Galkynysh field. CNPC will do the development which is being paid for with Chinese financing. Gazprom can wait.

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Dai The Diplomat

China’s top diplomat, Dai Bingguo, has been busy in troublesome places for China’s foreign policy just beyond the country’s outer marches, first visiting Myanmar, now Pakistan: two outlets for China’s overland energy routes to the oil of the Middle East, and forming a pincer around India.

The two countries provide mirror image challenges for Beijing’s foreign policy. In Myanmar’s case, a fast ally turning towards Washington; in Pakistan’s case, an ally of Washington, if never a fast one, falling out with its erstwhile friend and turning toward Beijing. In both places, there is unrest: ethnic minorities fighting for autonomy in northern Myanmar along the border with Yunnan; the overspill of the Afghanistan conflict in the other, along the border with Xinjiang, Beijing also believes that its own rebellious Uighurs take shelter in exile in northwestern Pakistan.

Beijing’s interest lies neither in turning allies nor picking sides, however. It is in stability, so it’s strategic commercial interests, such as CNPC’s new oil exploration deal in Afghanistan, can thrive and its hydropower stations, oil terminals, pipelines, and the coaling stations for its blue water fleet — its string of pearls around the Indian Ocean — can be constructed without disruption.

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A Pipeline Called Pakistan

To Beijing, Pakistan looks a lot like a corridor from the high plateau of China’s western reaches to the blue water ports of the Arabian Sea and thus access to shipping routes to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The distance is relatively short, less than 1,500 kilometers as the crow flies, but at the northern end the terrain is difficult, the weather harsh, borders unsettled and security uncertain. Road and rail links are patchy, particularly north of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. Nor is there yet a motorway connecting the capital to the southern port city of Karachi, let alone to Gwadar on the Gulf of Oman close to the border with Iran and where China is developing a deep-water port and naval base. That is why additional Chinese investment in Pakistan’s N-35 highway, the Karakoram Highway, may prove to be the most significant of the deals announced during Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to the country.

The highway (left) links Hasan Abdal, on the Peshwar-Rawlpindi motorway in the northern Punjab some 40 kilometers west of Islamabad, to Kashgar in Xinjiang via the Khunjerab Pass. Started in 1959 and not completed until 1986, the road snakes for 1,300 kilometers (two-thirds of it in Pakistan) over some of the highest paved road in the world. It makes for a stunningly beautiful trip across the Karakoram mountains along one of the branches of the Old Silk Road, but it is less splendid as a commercial artery. It is mainly two lanes and impassable for parts of the year because of either winter snows or summer monsoon; the border crossing is closed for a third of the year.

The two countries agreed in 2006 to to triple its width and upgrade it so it can take heavy trucks in all weathers. The long-term plans call for the Karakoram Highway to be linked to Gwadar by rail; Chinese investment is funding a rail connection from the port to Rawalpindi. Separately, a feasibility study is underway for the rail link to go all the way through to Kashgar, following the Karakoram Highway from Havelian, a town on the N-35 at the northern edge of Pakistan’s existing rail network. At Kashgar, it would connect to the Chinese rail network at its most westerly point.

There are also plans to run a parallel oil pipeline from Gwadar into Xinjiang. Before then trucks carrying natural gas bound for western China may be rumbling up the roads of the Indus valley, the first part of their journey being on the $200 million coastal highway between Gwadar and Karachi that Beijing is paying to build. Gwadar will also be a terminal for the proposed natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, intended originally to give Central Asian states access to European markets without going through Russia, but now seemingly another of the web of links connecting Central Asia’s natural resources with western China.

There are geo-political reasons beyond the purely commercial for Beijing’s relationship with Islamabad, reflected in the other deals struck during Wen’s visit and in the delicate dance China is engaged in with India. It also gives Pakistan an alternative to its uneasy relationship with the U.S. and thus Beijing another front to its own complicated relationship with Washington. But if Pakistan is to be an energy pipeline for China, it also underlines Beijing’s obsession about separatistism in its western reaches.

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