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China In Eurasia

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech marking the centenary of the ruling Communist Party in Beijing in July, in which he criticized U.S. plans to limit Chinese access to certain technologies.

Although the pipelines, roads, and grand infrastructure projects of China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have garnered the most attention as part of Beijing’s efforts to expand its economic and political influence around the world, a new book focuses on the growing digital side of that venture that could shape the economies of the future.

From a planned Chinese subsea cable connecting Pakistan and Djibouti to Safe City surveillance initiatives in Serbia and facial-recognition software used to crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslims in western China now being used in Central Asia, author Jonathan Hillman gives a tour of this new battleground, charting its origins and showing where the competition is heading.

“We have only seen the first phase of the U.S.-China technology competition and it has been mostly focused in developed countries,” Hillman, author of The Digital Silk Road: China’s Quest To Wire The World And Win The Future, told RFE/RL. “But the real competition is set to play out across the developing world."

Hillman, an analyst and director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: "It’s invisible, but everywhere. Even the traditional infrastructure projects all have a digital component to them."

From 5G to AI-enabled surveillance systems and fiber-optic cables, Beijing and Washington are fighting for control over the networks of the future and, as Hillman writes in his book, "the Network Wars have begun."

"This is a complex moment and the competition under way is even more complex,” he added.

'Invisible, But Everywhere'

In August, a multiyear legal fight between Chinese communication giant Huawei and a small U.S.-based contractor moved to an American federal court when the contractor alleged that Huawei had stolen its technology and pressured it to create a “back door” to gain access to a law enforcement project in Pakistan.

U.S. officials have long raised concerns about Huawei and how its equipment could be used by Chinese authorities to spy on the countries that install it, an allegation Huawei has repeatedly denied.

A surveillance camera is seen outside Huawei's factory campus in Dongguan, China.
A surveillance camera is seen outside Huawei's factory campus in Dongguan, China.


But Business Efficiency Solutions, the contractor, said in its lawsuit that Huawei forced it to set up a system that would give the Chinese company access to sensitive information about Pakistanis and government officials through the Chinese-backed Safe City surveillance project being installed in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city.

The dispute is still tied up in court, but the episode -- though small in scale -- gets to the heart of the globe-spanning web of companies, contractors, new technologies, and national interests that forms the backbone of an intensifying rivalry between China and the United States.

Unraveling this complicated labyrinth of geopolitical ambition and next-generation technology is the focus of the book, which was released on October 19.

'The Network Wars'

As China’s Digital Silk Road expands across the globe, from Latin America to South Asia, the stakes remain high.

Beijing's quest for digital dominance comes from the top. Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for his country to lead advanced manufacturing by 2025, lead standard-setting for new technologies by 2035, and to become a superpower by 2050.

In order to achieve these goals, Xi has pushed Chinese companies to invest heavily in digital infrastructure inside China and spread more of their products abroad under the umbrella of the expanding BRI.

In this vein, it is the fight for the markets of tomorrow.

China’s success would bring commercial and strategic benefits to the country and allow Beijing to hold the reins on global finance, communications, and the flow of data, which could all be reshaped to better fit its geopolitical interests. All of these advantages are currently enjoyed by the United States.

A central part of Hillman’s book looks at how Washington helped enable China’s rise as a technology powerhouse, believing that technology could play a role in keeping the flow of information open and fueling a Chinese transition towards democracy.

French President Emmanuel Macron (center right), U.S. President Joe Biden (center left), European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (right), and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi talk at the G7 summit in July where they announced the Build Back Better for the World (B3W) program meant to compete with China’s BRI.
French President Emmanuel Macron (center right), U.S. President Joe Biden (center left), European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (right), and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi talk at the G7 summit in July where they announced the Build Back Better for the World (B3W) program meant to compete with China’s BRI.

“There was this overoptimism with technology and assuming that spreading connectivity and tech would help spread freedom,” Hillman said. “But technology is a tool and, as we’ve seen, it can also be used to repress and help authoritarians.”

According to a 2019 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 71 percent of Huawei’s Safe City agreements are with countries that have a dubious track record on human rights.

A Shifting Battlefield

Chinese companies have expanded rapidly in recent years, winning greater market share by offering their products and services at lower prices and being able to operate with less oversight than their Western competitors.

In Central Asia, Chinese tech companies play a prominent role.

In 2019, Huawei closed a $1 billion deal with Uzbekistan to build a large-scale traffic-monitoring system and Hikvision, which has developed facial-recognition software that can target ethnic Uyghurs, is a major supplier for cities across Kazakhstan.

A police command center that opened in 2019 in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, has also turned to Chinese firms for facial-recognition cameras.

Russia has also cautiously leaned on Huawei for its next generation 5G telecommunications networks, which the Kremlin acknowledges the country is unable to produce at a high quality on its own. The move not only strengthens the Chinese company’s place in the Russian market, but also improves its position in the battle for other emerging markets.

U.S. President Joe Biden addresses the UN General Assembly in September where he touted American plans to develop traditional and digital infrastructure around the world.
U.S. President Joe Biden addresses the UN General Assembly in September where he touted American plans to develop traditional and digital infrastructure around the world.

As Hillman notes in his book, this tech competition is still in its early stages and could shift dramatically in the coming years as political events unfold and new technologies are developed.

Huawei, once seen as a juggernaut in Western policy circles, has been hobbled by a U.S.-led diplomatic and sanctions campaign, forcing the Chinese company to experiment with new business lines, cede overseas territory, and rebuild a supply chain independent of the United States.

In August, Huawei announced that its revenue had dropped by 29 percent in the first half of 2021, with its chairman saying the company’s “aim is to survive.”

The United States, the European Union, India, and Japan have also moved to form alternatives to BRI and taken a strong focus on digital infrastructure, although those initiatives are still in their nascent stages.

For Hillman, this gets to one of the most difficult challenges for the United States as it looks to compete with China on the digital battlefield across the world.

So far, the majority of U.S. measures have been what Hillman calls “defensive,” such as sanctions and export controls. Moving forward, the United States will also need to press on with its own “offensive” moves, such as developing new technologies and broadening access to information.

“There is a risk of only criticizing China’s activities without offering credible alternatives,” he said. “We need to think of how to compete and not just criticize.”

Frontier defense troops of China and Tajikistan conduct a joint patrol along the Chinese-Tajik border. (file photo)

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

An Unofficial Military Base And Beijing’s War On Terror

A secret Chinese base in Tajikistan, Beijing’s first military footprint in Central Asia, is in full swing, but China finds itself in a bind following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, RFE/RL’s Tajik Service and I reported.

Finding Perspective: With drones, patrols, and a collection of outposts, China’s unofficial base has been in existence for at least five years, but we reported new details about what Chinese personnel are up to and how things are changing since the Western-backed government was toppled in August.

The base relied on cooperation between Chinese, Tajik, and Afghan troops, but since the Taliban’s return to power, the Afghan contingent has not been replaced and the facilities now only consist of Chinese and Tajik personnel.

The focus of the base is linked to Beijing’s concerns about Uyghur militants operating in Afghanistan and crossing into the country through Tajikistan’s porous borders to launch attacks in China.

Chinese personnel have also replaced their Tajik counterparts along lengthy sections of the Tajik-Afghan border where they now patrol on their own.

Why It Matters: While the base is a reflection of China’s growing influence and power across Central and South Asia, Beijing is also dealing with an increasingly complicated situation on the ground.

Chinese military strategists and policymakers have long been anxious about the potential threats of extremism in the Middle East and Central Asia spreading to China. The situation in Afghanistan and the presence of Uyghur militants, particularly those from the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), have been high on that list of concerns.

But as China's economic and military presence grows across the region, it also means that its interests are being targeted by a wide variety of groups around South and Central Asia -- something that Beijing will need to adapt to.

You can read the full article here.

Read More

● The CIA announced the formation of a new China Mission Center, highlighting the Biden administration’s focus on Beijing.

● My colleagues Farangis Najibullah and Mumin Ahmadi interviewed Afghan pilots who fled the Taliban and found refuge in Tajikistan, where they now are stuck in limbo.

Expert Corner: Taiwan's Europe Tour

Readers asked: “Taiwan is sending a diplomatic and trade delegation to several European countries. How significant is this trip?”

To find out more, I asked Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, China reporter at Axios:

“It’s an opportunity for Taipei, but the fact that this trip is happening indicates how much China is changing the status quo.

“Only a few years ago, China had few problems in Europe. There wasn’t even much of a policy conversation going on, it was just about business and trade. Now there is a conversation taking place and Taiwan is becoming part of it.”

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. Hungary’s China Deals
A court in Hungary ruled that the government must disclose the contracts from a 2014 deal for a Chinese-financed railway project from Budapest to Belgrade, RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service reported.

A Quick Look: The disclosure is from a lawsuit launched by Bernadett Szel, an independent opposition Hungarian MP, and the ruling said that the documents must be released by October 22.

The project has been marred in controversy and delays, and is seen by analysts as part of Beijing’s effort to open new foreign trade links inside the European Union, of which Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been an enthusiastic partner.

China, Serbia, and Hungary signed the original memorandum on the rail route in 2014. Construction in Serbia started in 2018.

In 2020, Hungary took out a 20-year, $1.9 billion Chinese loan. In April of that year, the Hungarian parliament voted to keep all details around the railway project classified, including a feasibility study about its profitability, arguing that it was required in order to secure a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China.

My colleagues in Budapest caution that key details from the documents could still be censored in the coming release, but the episode should provide some added insights into Chinese investments in Hungary.

2. NATO Looks East
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says that the military alliance will be shifting its attention toward China as part of an expanding focus on countering Beijing’s growing military capabilities and geopolitical heft.

Transatlantic Takeaways: Those comments are from an October 18 interview that Stoltenberg gave to the Financial Times where he outlined some of NATO’s reorientation.

The shift toward China marks a new direction for the Western military alliance. NATO has traditionally focused on countering Russia, and, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, also on terrorism.

The turn further east also comes after NATO ended its 20-year mission in Afghanistan and Stoltenberg said that more attention would be put toward confronting the security implications of Beijing’s rise for North America and Europe.

“What we can predict is that the rise of China will impact our security. It already has,” the secretary-general said during the interview. “China is coming closer to us . . . We see them in the Arctic. We see them in cyberspace. We see them investing heavily in critical infrastructure in our countries.”

The Financial Times also reported on October 16 that Beijing tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August. The move allegedly caught U.S. intelligence off guard and demonstrated that China has made progress faster than believed on its next-generation weapons.

3. China, The Taliban, And a Jailbreak
Pivoting back to Afghanistan, The Daily Telegraph reported about a jailbreak of alleged Uyghur militants during the Taliban’s August takeover that could have major implications for Beijing’s relationship with the group.

The Story: According to a former senior security official in President Ashraf Ghani’s administration who spoke to the paper, the Taliban helped suspected members of TIP escape from prison as the former government collapsed.

“We had 35 [Uyghur] militants in jails all over Afghanistan. All of them escaped after the Taliban takeover,” a former official told The Daily Telegraph.

The reported episode gets to the heart of the Taliban’s strange balancing act under way with Beijing.

The new regime in Kabul has courted China in order to win investment and diplomatic support. In exchange, Beijing has pushed for the Taliban to rein in Uyghur militants in Afghanistan -- and ideally hand them over to Chinese security authorities.

But while the Taliban has refrained from criticizing China’s policies targeting Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang and offered assurances to Beijing that it would not allow militants to stage attacks in Afghanistan, cooperation with China is not so straightforward.

As RFE/RL reported earlier this month, the Taliban relocated Uyghur militants from areas close to Afghanistan’s border with China, but has stopped short of handing them over.

While this shows that the Taliban is willing to accommodate Beijing’s requests, cooperation with China also has its limits.

Across The Supercontinent

Opening Up: In hopes of boosting trade, Kyrgyzstan announced that it will be lifting the last of its COVID-19 restrictions with China and allow for more trucks to cross the border, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported.

Coal Crunch: China’s own energy shortage has led to the country buying up coal from abroad in order to meet its domestic needs, which is leading to knock-on effects elsewhere. My colleague Yevhen Solonyna from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service looks into how the supply shortages could affect Ukraine this winter.

The Pipeline: China’s appetite for energy continues to rise and the country is drawing on its neighbors as much as possible. RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reported that gas imports from Turkmenistan to China rose by 23.9 percent in the first half of the year.

Putin’s Turn: Russia is set to host the Taliban and other factions for talks in Moscow on October 20. Diplomats from Russia, the United States, China, and Pakistan are also set to meet in the Russian capital this month to talk about Afghanistan.

Long Reach: China’s diplomatic power at the UN has been growing for years. Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch reports on how Beijing has grown particularly skilled at derailing Western sanctions regimes.

‘An Unprecedented High’: During an October 8 speech, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbayev said that relations with China had reached “an unprecedented high” and that they were “exemplary and time-tested,” RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reports.

China Goes Local: Researchers Dirk Van Der Kley and Niva Yau have a new paper out that looks at how Chinese companies have adapted to local business environments in Central Asia, with increasingly successful results. Read it here.

One Thing To Watch

It wasn’t that long ago that the world wrapped up the (long-delayed) Tokyo Summer Olympics, but recent protests in Athens at the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony were a reminder that the Winter Olympics in Beijing are just around the corner.

Greek police detained two human rights activists after they unfurled banners about Tibet and Hong Kong at the Athens Acropolis as the Olympic flame was set to make its long journey to Beijing ahead of the February 4, 2022 opening ceremony.

With pushback against China rising, expect more displays from activists as the Chinese Olympics draws closer.

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

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

To subscribe, click here.

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