China In Eurasia Briefing: Beijing’s New Bargain In Central Asia

Beijing’s New Bargain In Central Asia
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent geopolitical shock waves around Central Asia and is changing long-standing assumptions about the balance of power between Beijing and Moscow in the region.

Finding Perspective: In a deal that was met with little fanfare, Tajikistan last month agreed to carry out regular anti-terrorism drills with Chinese security forces on its territory.

The agreement formalizes the growing military cooperation between the two countries, but as I reported here, it also provides a glimpse into Beijing’s evolving ambitions for Central Asia in the aftermath of Russia’s war.

Central Asian nations continue to look for ways to distance themselves from their traditional ally in Moscow, but doing so is proving to be a complicated high-wire act.

As Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained to me, Central Asian leaders are all looking to diversify their partners, but there’s a growing tension between the desire to branch out from historic ties to Russia while also looking to avoid a strong backlash from Moscow in response.

“There’s still lots of sensitivity here [in Central Asia]. The region has never been in the middle of two fires like it is now,” Umarov told me.

Why It Matters: The outreach hasn’t been limited to China, but Beijing offers the path of least resistance for Central Asia.

A flurry of diplomatic activity has been under way with Turkey, the Middle East, and increasingly with Europe, but Russia remains wary of any meaningful Western inroads.

China has been a rising political and economic force in Central Asia for decades, and deepening ties between Beijing and Moscow mean that a growing embrace of China by regional leaders is at least palatable for the Kremlin. This makes Beijing the safest way forward.

“Russia can accept China’s growing security presence in [Central Asia], and the Kremlin understands that in many ways this is an inevitable process beyond its control,” Umarov said.

Read More

● Central Asia is grappling with energy shortages. Read my colleague Chris Rickleton’s dispatch from Kazakhstan about what’s at stake for the region this winter.

● A growing number of Russian electronics manufacturers are struggling as they find themselves cut off from Western processors due to sanctions. There has been some hope that China could fill the void, but that looks increasingly unlikely. According to a report by the Russian newspaper Kommersant, China has banned the export of its military-grade Loongson processors to Russia.

Expert Corner: China Still Careful On Russia Sanctions
Readers asked: “Will China help Russia evade sanctions in 2023?”

To find out more, I asked former U.S. Treasury official Peter Piatetsky, who is now the CEO of the consultancy Castellum.AI:

“China is unlikely to help Russia to evade sanctions in any significant way. Although China will continue to buy Russian oil at a discount, Beijing has actually instructed its bank to cut back business with Russia, and unlike North Korea and Iran, China has declined to send weapons to Russia. China and Russia both see the United States as an enemy, but they also see each other as competitors, and China sees a weakened Russia as a benefit because that allows China to expand its influence in [neighboring regions like] Central Asia.”

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. An Attack On The ‘Chinese Hotel’ In Kabul

Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), the Afghan branch of the extremist group, claimed a December 12 attack on a Kabul hotel known for housing Chinese nationals, RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi reports.

What You Need To Know: Details are still emerging, but at least three assailants were killed and 21 other people were wounded, according to a Taliban spokesman. Other reports have said that some of the wounded have since died from their injuries while in the hospital.

The assault comes as IS-K has stepped up attacks since the Taliban retook control of the country in August 2021 and increasingly took aim at China in its propaganda.

Lucas Webber, the co-founder and editor of Militant Wire, a research outlet tracking extremist groups, told me that this marks the first official militant operation by the group against Chinese nationals and interests in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has turned to China for investment in its lucrative mining sector, humanitarian aid, and help in gaining international legitimacy since retaking power, but Beijing has moved cautiously in Afghanistan due to the tenuous security situation.

The day before the attack, Wang Yu, China’s ambassador to Kabul, met with Taliban officials and called on the group “to pay more attention to the security of the Chinese Embassy in Kabul.” On December 13, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called for all of its citizens to leave Afghanistan.

Webber says that IS-K is pursuing a strategy to humiliate the Taliban by targeting high-profile targets that could damage its legitimacy, with Chinese nationals and interests increasingly in the crosshairs.

“This exposes the Taliban’s inability to even secure its guests in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s own capital city,” he told me. “The ‘Chinese Hotel’ assault, the rocket attacks against Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the suicide bombing at the Russian Embassy, and the shooting at Pakistan’s embassy are…[intended] to undermine international confidence in the Taliban’s capacity to ensure domestic security.”

2. Chinese-Style Surveillance Back On The Books In Serbia

Serbia’s Interior Ministry has put forward a new draft law that could finally legalize mass biometric surveillance in the country and open the door for a rollout of thousands of facial recognition cameras purchased from Huawei, Iva Martinovic from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reports.

What It Means: The new so-called law on internal affairs is nearly identical to one put forward by the ministry in September 2021 that was eventually withdrawn after generating pushback and controversy on Belgrade at home and abroad.

Among several contentious provisions, the draft law could provide carte blanche for mass biometric surveillance in the Balkan country and finally allow the government to fully deploy the facial recognition capable surveillance cameras it bought from the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.

Rights groups have already sounded the alarm, saying that the draft ignores many of the concerns raised by them over privacy and abuse of the data collected.

Beyond the issue of surveillance, the document also contains provisions that give the police the right to enter apartments and other premises without a warrant and ways to limit journalists’ right to confidential sources.

Public discussion remains open on the draft law until December 31, where it could then be turned into official legislation.

For a deeper look at the concerns for misuse of Chinese surveillance tech by Serbian authorities, read RFE/RL’s recent two part investigation (Part One and Part Two) on the issue and listen to the most recent episode of Talking China In Eurasia.

3. Pakistan Leads New Index On Chinese Influence

Pakistan is the country in the world that is the most influenced by China, according to a new database compiled by Doublethink Lab, a Taiwan-based research organization.

The Details: The China Index ranked the South Asian country atop a list of 82 other countries around the world, saying that its links to and dependency on Beijing in terms of foreign and domestic policy, technology, and the economy make it particularly susceptible to Chinese influence.

Behind Pakistan, Southeast Asia features prominently in the rankings, with Cambodia and Singapore listed in second and third, followed by Thailand. The Philippines is seventh and Malaysia is 10th. South Africa is the first African country at No. 5, where it is tied with Peru, the highest-ranked South American country.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the Central Asian countries most influenced by Beijing, coming in at eighth and ninth place on the index.

Meanwhile, Germany is the highest-ranked European country at 19th, and the United States leads North America in 21st position.

Read my interview with Min Hsuan-Wu, the co-founder and CEO of Doublethink Lab, here and explore the database for a closer look.

Across The Supercontinent
Quashed: The Kremlin had previously pushed for the creation of a “gas union” with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and potentially other countries like China.

However, Kazakh Energy Minister Bolat Akchulakov said that while Kazakhstan is cooperating closely with Moscow and Tashkent on gas transit, there are no discussions about forming a union, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reports.

Beijing’s Man In Brussels: A year after the previous Chinese ambassador left, Fu Cong has arrived as Beijing’s new ambassador to the European Union. Finbarr Bermingham from the South China Morning Post explains more here about what to expect from the new Chinese envoy.

Fishing In The Gulf: Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a landmark visit to Saudi Arabia where he told Arab leaders in attendance for a summit that Beijing would work to buy oil and gas in yuan.

The visit to Riyadh pushed the Chinese-Saudi relationship forward in a big way and the call from Beijing to use the yuan is part of a larger effort to establish its currency internationally and weaken the U.S. dollar’s grip on world trade.

Road Warriors: China Railway Wuju Group Corporation (CRWG) signed a $57 million contract with Tajikistan’s Sughd region to build a new 51-kilometer stretch of highway, RFE/RL’s Tajik Service reports.

One Thing To Watch
Following a wave of unprecedented protests over strict COVID restrictions, Chinese officials have begun to ease the country’s hard-line strategy.

However, warnings are now rising over the potential for a massive spike in cases. Tight rules have kept transmission in control but suppressed natural immunity in the process.

Intensive care units are already under strain in some large centers, with some experts calling into question Beijing’s officials figures, which could be hiding a wider outbreak.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

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.

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