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China In Eurasia

An Afghan government soldier stands guard on the Jalalabad-Kabul highway on July 8 amid recent gains made by the Taliban. 

As the security situation in Afghanistan worsens, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has begun a high-profile tour of Central Asia that analysts say is an effort by Beijing to boost its interests in the region.

The weeklong visit to Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan comes as the Taliban continues to take territory from Afghan government forces amid the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from the country, which is set to be completed by August 31.

Wang will look to shore up Beijing’s rising clout while discussing the growing security concerns in the region as the departure of foreign troops winds down and fighting between the Taliban and government forces intensifies.

The Taliban offensive has left Beijing and the Central Asian states -- as well as regional players Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, all with key interests in Afghanistan -- anxiously eyeing the tenuous security situation on their doorstep. Afghanistan’s neighbors have also stepped up their diplomatic efforts with the main parties in the conflict as they scramble to prevent it from spilling across their borders.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) with his Turkmen counterpart, Rashid Meredov, in Ashgabat on July 12.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) with his Turkmen counterpart, Rashid Meredov, in Ashgabat on July 12.

“I wouldn’t expect any surprises from this trip, but Beijing will use this as an opportunity to show its regional power ambitions,” Temur Umarov, an expert on China in Central Asia at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL.

The trip began with a two-day visit to Turkmenistan on July 12 followed by meetings in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where Wang will attend an annual gathering of the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, to focus on what Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called Afghanistan’s “post-troop withdrawal era.”

The SCO -- a Eurasian political bloc focused on counterterrorism that includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- has been one of the main vehicles through which Beijing has expanded its influence in Central Asia and the wider region, which could grow amid the fluid situation in Afghanistan.

China’s future role, however, is still being defined. Beijing maintains a strategic relationship with Pakistan, the Taliban’s main backer, and strong ties with Iran. China’s political and economic influence in Central Asia has also expanded dramatically in the last decade.

But while Beijing holds influential cards for Afghanistan, its “strategy is unclear and vague,” Umarov said, who adds that even though “China doesn’t want to replace the United States” in Afghanistan, it also won’t be taking a hands-off approach.

“In the future, we can likely expect more [Chinese] engagement with different parties in the Afghan conflict, but only if it fits China’s interests in the region,” said Umarov. “The most important goal for China is to seal the chaos inside Afghanistan’s borders.”

The View From Central Asia

Those spillover fears, as well as concerns over an uptick in Islamist extremist activity, are shared by Afghanistan's northern neighbors in Central Asia. They have also been at the heart of a series of recent moves across the region and will be on the table in Dushanbe during the SCO summit.

Turkmenistan moved heavy weaponry closer to its border with Afghanistan on July 11 and put reservists on alert in Ashgabat, the capital. The reclusive Central Asian country, which shares an 804-kilometer border with Afghanistan, also hosted a Taliban delegation for talks on July 10, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reported.

Taliban representatives have also visited Islamabad, Moscow, and Tehran in recent weeks as the group has looked to reach out to Afghanistan’s anxious neighbors and calm fears over a security vacuum emerging in the country following the U.S. withdrawal.

On July 5, Tajikistan -- where two-thirds of the country’s 1,357-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan is now under Taliban control -- sent 20,000 army reservists to guard the border and called for assistance from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led military bloc of which Tajikistan is a member.

Similarly, both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have seen refugees and defeated Afghan forces flee across their borders amid intensified fighting in recent weeks.

Tajikistan in particular remains a crucial focal point for wider security issues in the region. The country hosts approximately 7,000 Russian troops at a major military base and is also home to a Chinese military outpost along the Afghan-Tajik border, which is Beijing’s only military facility in the region.

Taliban negotiators Abdul Latif Mansoor (left), Shahabuddin Delawar (center), and Suhail Shaheen attend a press conference in Moscow on July 9.
Taliban negotiators Abdul Latif Mansoor (left), Shahabuddin Delawar (center), and Suhail Shaheen attend a press conference in Moscow on July 9.

The collection of military compounds is reportedly used by Chinese personnel for intelligence gathering focused on counterterrorism, specifically on Uyghur militant groups based in Afghanistan whom Beijing wants to monitor and prevent from crossing into its western Xinjiang Province.

Moscow remains a regional military leader and views Central Asia as within its “sphere of influence.” While China and Russia share similar concerns over regional stability, the Kremlin remains apprehensive about an expanded Chinese military footprint in the area, a factor that analysts note Beijing will need to be mindful of amid the evolving situation in Afghanistan.

“I think it would be difficult for Moscow to accept Beijing playing the first violin in the region,” Nargis Kassenova, a senior fellow at Harvard who focuses on China's role in the region, told RFE/RL.

China And The Taliban

While China holds broader regional ambitions, its most pressing concerns for Afghanistan remain narrowly focused on Uyghur militants and its own security.

The Taliban’s historical connections to Uyghur extremist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda go back decades and have been a source of alarm for Beijing in the past, particularly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

The United States and other countries previously branded the group a terrorist organization, but the Trump administration removed that designation in 2020, sparking a backlash from Beijing.

China has, in part, used the existence of such extremist groups to justify its crackdown in Xinjiang, where it has interned more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities in a vast camp system, according to United Nations human rights officials.

Many Uyghur militants previously based in Afghanistan moved to Syria in recent years, but a 2020 United Nations Security Council report estimated that several hundred militants remained in the country.

Despite this tense history, the Taliban has refused to condemn China's treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang and has begun courting Beijing's favor by saying it will not harbor Uyghur militants in the territory it controls.

“We are seeing some sophisticated statements from the Taliban about working with China,” Niva Yau, a researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, told RFE/RL. “It shows that there is interest from the Taliban in gaining legitimacy and recognition from China.”

Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani (left), Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (center), and Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif in 2017.
Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani (left), Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (center), and Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif in 2017.

In an attempt to assuage Beijing’s concerns, Taliban representatives have engaged in public outreach, giving statements to Chinese media and to the foreign press that China is a “welcome friend” in Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told reporters in Qatar on July 8 that Afghan territory under the groups’ control would not be used against other countries and that the Taliban would not interfere in China’s internal affairs.

While Beijing officially supports the government of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, China is reportedly pressing the Taliban to limit its ties to Uyghur militant groups in return for financial investment in Afghan infrastructure should the hard-line Islamist group gain control over the country.

“The Taliban know that if they get control [of Afghanistan] they will need recognition of statehood and legitimacy from its neighbors. That includes Central Asia [and] China,” Yau said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a giant screen as he delivers a speech marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on July 1.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

The China In Eurasia briefing is nearly 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 of, 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.

The Building Blocks For A China World Order

China celebrated the 100-year anniversary of its ruling Communist Party in grandiose fashion on July 1 as Beijing looked to signal its growing influence across the globe as it plays a more assertive and prominent role in world affairs.

You can read my report on the event and what it means here.

Finding Perspective: The anniversary was a domestic event meant to herald an array of political and economic victories at home, but the celebration’s international implications can’t be overlooked.

President Xi Jinping’s nationalistic speech, where he praised the Communist Party’s expanded influence and said that anyone who tries to challenge China “will find themselves on a collision course with a steel wall forged by 1.4 billion people,” signaled a global confidence in Beijing’s political model, which is already spreading across the world.

In addition to Beijing’s massive financial influence, Chinese standards for economically vital next-generation technology are already coming into place in the Balkans and Central Asia, and China has begun to expand into higher education as well.

As Nadege Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research and a former adviser on Chinese strategic issues to the French Defense Ministry, told me:

“We are starting to witness a transition that is much more proactive, where China is trying to shape the government systems of countries,” she said. “Not everything is being implemented yet, but we are seeing the building blocks for the future put into place.”

Why It Matters: This is a natural progression for a power like China, which continues to see its influence rise, but its full impact remains to be seen.

The last year has been a mixed bag for Beijing’s standing in the world. A recent Pew Research Center study showed that China’s reputation has dropped markedly among Western countries and Beijing finds itself in a series of diplomatic spats across Europe and Asia.

But China’s newfound influence is undeniable and Beijing’s confidence will lead to more and more elements of its political system being adopted around the world.

Read More

● Central to China’s rise is its growing economy. Eric Zhu and Tim Orlik examine for Bloomberg when (and if) China can overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy.

● German authorities arrested a former spy for Germany’s secret service on suspicions that he conducted “intelligence agent activities” for China, POLITICO Europe reports.

Expert Corner: Understanding China's 'Wolf Warriors'

Readers asked: Does China's so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy -- the combative and nationalistic tone taken by the country’s diplomats online and in the media -- actually work?

To find out more, I asked Peter Martin, the author of “China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” and a former China correspondent for Bloomberg:

“The main audience for Wolf Warrior diplomacy is not foreigners but political elites in Beijing, and there is evidence that Chinese diplomats that try out this approach are rewarded for it.

“It’s much more debatable if it has been successful in other countries. This approach allows Chinese diplomats to appear unfazed by the challenges posed by the West and also reminds smaller countries that there are consequences for defying Beijing, and that can be very powerful.

“While some governments like Putin’s Russia or Hungary’s Orban might find it appealing to see Chinese diplomats speak so frankly about the West, if you look at polling, you can see that Wolf Warrior diplomats are contributing to China’s deteriorating image and losing China lots of potential friends.”

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. The Dark Side of Vaccine Diplomacy

Citing diplomatic sources, the AP reported that Beijing threatened to stop shipments of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines destined for Ukraine unless Kyiv withdrew its support for an investigation into rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Now, Beijing and Kyiv have reportedly inked an investment deal.

The Rundown: Ukraine seemed to have removed its name from a statement at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. According to the AP report, Beijing warned the Ukrainians it would block a scheduled shipment of at least 500,000 doses of China's Sinovac vaccine.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not specifically acknowledge the charge in the report but told the AP in a statement that “there isn't any geopolitical purpose or any political conditions attached” to the supply of vaccines.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. But Oleksandr Merezhko, chairman of the Ukrainian parliament's Committee on Foreign Policy and Inter-Parliamentary Cooperation, called the report "unofficial information" and questioned who the anonymous diplomatic sources were.

Ukraine ordered 1.9 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine from China but has so far only received 1.2 million shots while being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. China’s War On The Uyghurs Goes Global

China is flexing its economic muscle across Asia and the Middle East to target Uyghur and other Muslim minorities from Xinjiang who are living abroad through what a new report describes as “a transnational campaign of repression on an unprecedented scale” that has reached 28 countries.

Rendition and Repatriation: The report and accompanying dataset were put together by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project. They say their research is the most complete account of China's international campaign.

The research documents how governments have cooperated with Beijing to surveil, detain, and repatriate Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities from China who have fled Xinjiang, examining 1,546 cases from 1997 to March 2021.

While Beijing’s global campaign predates its economic rise of recent years, the report notes that the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 has created new levers for China to exercise influence and use its financial power to pressure governments to cooperate in targeting Uyghurs for economic gain.

The report also notes that efforts to target Uyghurs and force them back to China have intensified since 2017, when Beijing is believed to have begun its mass internment program in its Xinjiang Province that is estimated to have detained more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in a vast camp network.

Read more about the report’s findings and my interview with its lead author here.

3. Brussels Steps Up In Montenegro

Cash-strapped Montenegro appears to have reached a solution and will be receiving help from a European financial institution to refinance its $1 billion debt owed to China, my Balkan Service colleagues Srdjan Jankovic and Gjeraqina Tuhina and I reported.

A Coming Deal: The Balkan country’s debt is from a controversial highway project that has been hit with delays and is still incomplete.

A European Union source told us that an agreement on providing credit is in the process of being finalized and, once finished, will be signed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

It is not yet known which institution will provide the refinancing, but Montenegrin Finance Minister Milojko Spajic said that the low-interest credit will allow the cash-strapped government to make savings and cut interest rates.

China holds approximately one-quarter of Montenegro's total debt, which reached 103 percent of GDP last year, and the government is juggling a host of financial and political crises at the moment.

Europe and China: A refinancing agreement could bring an end to the ongoing uncertainty over Montenegro's debt with China and its relations with the EU.

The highway and the massive debt have been at the center of ongoing conversations about growing Chinese influence in Europe and an agreement is seen by observers as a necessary and welcome move from Brussels that can boost the EU’s credibility in the Balkans.

However, the outcome isn’t necessarily bad for China, as Vuk Vuksanovic, a researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, explained.

“China is not entirely the loser here. Let's not forget that it will be paid in the end,” he said.

Across The Supercontinent

Heavenly Siberia: My colleagues at Current Time released an excellent documentary looking at how China’s growing influence is changing all aspects of life in Russia’s Siberia and Far East. Watch the documentary here (in Russia with English subtitles).

Beyond The Garden: The team at Current Time has another new China-theme documentary available to watch. This one explores how residents of Russia's Bolshoi Ussuriisky Island are trying to adapt after Moscow handed over part of the island to China in 2008. Watch it here.

Chinese Bitcoin Moves Next Door: Shenzhen-based Bitcoin miner BIT Mining has delivered 320 mining machines to a facility in Kazakhstan, with another 2,600 expected to arrive as China continues to crack down on crypto-mining at home.

A Lovely Day In The Neighborhood: During a June 28 teleconference, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping extended the China-Russia Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation for another five years.

The treaty was first inked in 2001 and outlines broad cooperation between Beijing and Moscow. The renewal comes as relations between the two countries are closer than ever, although increasingly slanted in China’s favor.

The China Picket: A small-scale demonstration in Almaty, Kazakhstan, against rising prices and growing Chinese influence ended in skirmishes with police on July 6, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reported.

Another Shipment: North Macedonia received 500,000 doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine on June 27, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported. The small Balkan nation has relied heavily on Chinese shots for its immunization campaign.

An Eye On Afghanistan: I sat on a June 25 panel hosted by the Middle East Institute discussing how China and other regional players like Iran, Pakistan, and Russia will deal with the uncertainty in Afghanistan. You can watch it here.

A Visit: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on June 21 that she hopes to be able to visit Xinjiang this year and be given "meaningful access” to investigate “reports of serious human rights violations.”

One Thing To Watch

Taliban forces are making rapid advances in Afghanistan as the United States has nearly completed its military withdrawal from the country, leading to speculation about how Beijing may react to the fallout.

It’s a tough situation for China, which shares a 76-kilometer border with Afghanistan and has security concerns about the country moving forward.

The Wall Street Journal reported that a recent assessment by the U.S. intelligence community concluded that the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after the U.S. military withdrawal from the country is completed.

Beijing is reportedly already having talks with the Taliban to have its concerns over Uyghur groups met and is also looking to entice the group with offers of investment.

What role Beijing will look to play in a future Afghanistan is still to be seen, but the country is becoming more involved despite hesitancy about being drawn too far into the country’s affairs.

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

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

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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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