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China In Eurasia

Taliban special forces fighters at the airport in Kabul on August 31

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.

A New Reality For Beijing In South And Central Asia

The Taliban has taken over Afghanistan and for the first time in 20 years, there are no U.S. forces in the country. But is this dramatic change in the region a big win for Beijing?

Finding Perspective: It’s not so straightforward, as I explained here in this article about how China views the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has signaled that it is willing to play ball with Beijing, especially when it comes to monitoring and denying sanctuary to any Uyghur militant groups.

Afghanistan In Turmoil: Full Coverage On Gandhara

Read RFE/RL's Gandhara website for complete coverage of the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. Gandhara is the go-to source for English-language reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi and its network of journalists, and by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, which offers extensive coverage of Pakistan's remote tribal regions.

But beyond that, China is treading cautiously. Multiple experts that I’ve spoken with from China, South Asia, and the West all see Beijing focused on limiting risks rather than chasing opportunities in Afghanistan.

This is partly because of the wave of uncertainty that has been released across the region. The Taliban toppled a fragile government in Kabul, but it too now faces the difficult task of governing Afghanistan.

A major question is also how events in Afghanistan will ripple out elsewhere, especially when it comes to emboldening and providing a home base for militant and terrorist groups that also operate in Pakistan and Central Asia.

On August 20, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a Pakistani militant group, launched an attack on Chinese transports in Gwadar. Reports diverge on the casualties figures, but the attack is the fourth high-profile incident this year targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan.

Why It Matters: All this shows that Beijing is now preparing for a reshaped geopolitical map and a new era of security risks in South and Central Asia.

The pace of attacks against Chinese ventures in Pakistan has accelerated, pointing to how as China rises on the global stage, it attracts the focus of terrorist organizations.

How Beijing will navigate this new reality is an open question and one that Chinese policymakers are currently grappling with. China wants to project power, but there is an underlying fear of becoming sucked into the conflicts that Beijing watched the United States wrestle with for decades.

Read more

● Here’s a fascinating piece from SupChina about how the fall of Kabul is viewed within China, looking at how the Taliban takeover “reminded some nationalistic Chinese commenters of the victory of the People’s Liberation Army in 1949.”

● For another interesting insight into the Chinese perspective on events in Afghanistan, read this interview from Bloomberg with Jalal Bazwan, an Afghan who blogs in Chinese on Weibo, and has recently been attacked by nationalist trolls in China for his criticism of the Taliban.

● As always, check out RFE/RL’s Gandhara website for the latest reporting on what’s happening in Afghanistan.

Expert Corner: Can China Bring The BRI To Afghanistan?

Readers asked: "Will Beijing connect the Belt and Road Initiative to Afghanistan?”

To find out more, I asked Jonathan Hillman, the director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of The Emperor’s New Road: China And The Project Of The Century.

“China's Belt and Road faces major obstacles that will limit large transport and energy projects, but its tech dimension, the Digital Silk Road, is likely to be pulled and pushed into Afghanistan.”

“The Taliban needs assistance to assert control over largely unfamiliar and vastly expanded networks, Chinese firms have expertise and experience operating in the country, and the Chinese government may see an opportunity to increase security and build leverage.”

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 Moscow And Beijing

A Russian-Chinese company has been charged with violating environmental safety regulations in Russia's Republic of Chuvashia, sparking protests over alleged corruption, RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service reported.

The Case: The most recent episode involved charges against the Sichuan-Chuvashia Chinese-Russian agricultural joint venture for neglecting agricultural lands leased to it, which could lead to wildfires like those already sweeping parts of Russia.

Prior to that, Aleksandr Andreyev at Chuvashia's State Council accused local top officials of involvement in illegally allocating land plots to the company.

Earlier in August, another local official was handed a suspended prison sentence of more than three years after a court convicted him of forging documents pertaining to land rights for the joint Russian-Chinese venture.

The Big Picture: The incident highlights the tensions between Beijing and Moscow’s close political relationship and the realities on the ground.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping enjoy a strong working relationship and have been talking recently about how to coordinate on the situation in Afghanistan.

But beyond the geopolitics, China-Russia ties tell a different story. A bridge linking the Chinese and Russian rail system across the Amur River in the Far East was completed on August 17, seven years after ground was broken.

Elsewhere in Russia’s Far East, Chinese investment has fallen far below forecasts for the resource-rich region, resulting from a mix of logistical and political problems at the local levels, as this report from the South China Morning Post details.

2. Not So Great Games

My colleague Bruce Pannier took a look at how great-power politics will affect Central Asia and the region’s relationships with China, Russia, and the United States.

Regional Fallout?: The recent events in Afghanistan are already shifting the wider region and many analysts are expecting big disruptions. But as Pannier explains, it’s “more likely that little about Central Asia's relationships with the big powers, as they currently stand, will change at all.”

The United States’ engagement in Central Asia remains confined mostly to Washington’s narrow interests around Afghanistan, which are coming to a close. Looking ahead, it will continue to play a somewhat influential, but peripheral role.

Russia, meanwhile, has stepped up its engagement, especially in the military sphere, where it has conducted exercises with its Central Asian partners in recent weeks and stepped up activity through the Moscow-led military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

China continues to see its influence rise in Central Asia. Beijing is already a top investor and is seeing a growing shift into political and military affairs in the region.

Afghanistan is unlikely to alter any of these trends. Perhaps the biggest fallout, as Pannier puts it, could be that it leads to the Central Asian countries cooperating more together and relying less on the big outside powers.

3. The Latest On Fudan University In Budapest

Hungary's election authority has approved a bid to hold a referendum over the planned construction of a satellite campus for Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University in Budapest, RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service reported.

What’s Next: Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony announced on Facebook that the National Election Committee had approved his referendum question and said that in September a drive to collect 200,000 signatures in order to trigger the referendum process will begin.

Hungarian voters will be asked if they wish to repeal the law adopted earlier this year by parliament, which is dominated by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party, which gave a green light to the university project.

The project became a lightning rod for controversy this spring in Hungary after it was revealed that the government planned to take out a $1.5 billion loan from a Chinese bank to build the campus, raising concerns about corruption and the impact on Hungary’s education system.

Across The Supercontinent

A Geopolitical Update: In a sign of the times, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry has updated its official website for foreigners and tourists to now include information in Chinese, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service reported.

High Alert: China’s embassy in Tajikistan has warned its citizens and companies in the country to take extreme caution due to the shifting security situation in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Mine: A Chinese-owned mine near the Serbian city of Bor is causing environmental damage, leading to complaints from local residents over pollution and forcing the company to temporarily halt its operations, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reports.

200 Days And Counting: Protesters have demonstrated outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for more than 200 consecutive days over the disappearance of their relatives in Xinjiang and have now begun to spend the night outside the building, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reports.

Beijing Vs. Vilnius: China continues to target Lithuania over its decision to open a trade office in Taiwan, with Chinese companies halting contracts with the country and Beijing freezing export permits.

One Thing To Watch

What role the European Union will play amid Beijing and Washington’s deepening rivalry has been a topic of debate among policymakers, with the bloc taking up a series of at times contradictory positions.

That looks unlikely to change any time soon, especially with Slovenia, which has generally avoided criticizing China, currently holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union and seemingly keeping China policy off the EU agenda.

Still, relations between Brussels and Beijing have taken a hit of late and public attitudes look to be changing too. Fifty-eight percent of Germans now support a tougher line on China, even if it hurts economic ties.

Europe’s balancing act with China is unlikely to end, but the events of the last year have pushed it onto shifting terrain.

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 in-box on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

Russian, Chinese, and Mongolian troops and military equipment parade at the end of the day of the Vostok-2018 military drills not far from the Chinese-Mongolian border in Siberia in September 2018.

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.

Beijing, Moscow, And An Eye On Afghanistan

In the latest display of their deepening ties, Beijing and Moscow held military exercises this week in western China, with a focus on security in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Finding Perspective: As I reported here, the drills come amid big changes taking place in the security environment across Eurasia that are increasingly on the radar of both China and Russia.

Afghanistan In Turmoil: Full Coverage On Gandhara

Read RFE/RL's Gandhara website for complete coverage of the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. Gandhara is the go-to source for English-language reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi and its network of journalists, and by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, which offers extensive coverage of Pakistan's remote tribal regions.

More than 10,000 troops from the Chinese and Russian militaries participated in the Zapad/Interaction 2021 exercises in a training that marked the fourth consecutive exercises between Beijing and Moscow and the first joint drills held in China.

China and Russia have been growing closer over the years, but especially since 2014, when Russia found itself hit by Western sanctions. The exercises are part of this larger trend and they highlighted growing interoperability between both countries' militaries.

The focus on Central Asia and how the situation in Afghanistan could destabilize the wider region also points to another area of mutual concern for both countries.

While the Chinese and Russian analysts I spoke with were quick to note that neither Beijing or Moscow is intent on forging a formal military alliance, the way both countries respond to security challenges in the region will define how their relationship matures in the coming years.

Why It Matters: The Taliban's dramatic sweep to power this week is just the beginning of what's to come.

Refugee flows into Central Asia and beyond are likely to be a major issue moving forward and Uzbekistan has shown how it will defend its borders, detaining fleeing Afghan soldiers and shooting down an Afghan Air Force plane it says illegally entered its air space.

Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan has already met with the Taliban since they took Kabul, and China had stepped up its engagement with the militants as they advanced across the country.

What comes next is still very uncertain, but Afghanistan will continue to be a major test for both China and Russia.

Read more

● My colleague Frud Bezhan has a good article breaking down what happened this week in Afghanistan and where things might be headed next for the Taliban and the country. Read it here.

● For a deeper look at Moscow's calculus toward the Taliban's takeover, RFE/RL's Mike Eckel has a sharp piece breaking things down.

● To follow the latest in Afghanistan, check out RFE/RL's Gandhara website, which is full of reporting on the ground.

Expert Corner: Is China After Afghan Resources?

Readers asked, "Does China have its sights on Afghan resources now that the Taliban is in charge?"

To find out more, I asked Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute.

"Chinese companies have long looked at untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan as opportunities...[but] they will have also observed that the two previous large extractive investment projects in Afghanistan have encountered substantial difficulties. It is difficult for me to see how this situation becomes easier now that we have a Taliban-led government in charge."

"So far, much of the actual investment and projects that have taken place in Afghanistan have been company- or individual entrepreneur-led. I have seen little evidence of the Chinese government pushing its companies into projects in the country."

"Undoubtedly, Chinese companies will see that their government seemingly has some understanding with the Taliban and will be willing to explore opportunities, but they will think very carefully before jumping in."

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. China's Uyghur Dragnet Goes Global

China has used its massive economic clout in Pakistan to gain Islamabad's cooperation in its transnational campaign targeting Uyghurs, according to a new report from the Oxus Society for Central Asian affairs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

What's Important: Pakistan was the first country to actively collaborate with Beijing in monitoring and extraditing Uyghurs to China and cooperation has only deepened as the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has been built up.

The key assertion of the report is that this is part of a deliberate Chinese strategy centered upon "offering extravagant development projects while deepening security ties," which has been effective in influencing the Pakistani government to help target the country's Uyghur community.

This model for cooperation built with Islamabad is also a template that Beijing is looking to export elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East. You can read more about it here in my article where I spoke with the report's authors.

In another sign of this regional trend, AP reported about the existence of a Chinese secret detention facility operating in Dubai, where a Chinese woman says she was held for eight days along with at least two Uyghurs.

2. The Baltics Vs. Beijing

A diplomatic spat between Lithuania and China over Taiwan has pushed Europe's relations with Beijing back into the spotlight as the European Union struggles to define its increasingly shaky relationship with Beijing. Read the full article here.

What Happened: Things kicked off on August 10, when China recalled its ambassador to the Baltic country in response to Lithuania's decision to set up a diplomatic office in Taiwan. This was followed by China demanding that Vilnius recall its ambassador from Beijing.

Things have since escalated further as Beijing has banned freight trains from China going to Lithuania.

Beijing's anger centers around Lithuania's move to open a representative office in Taipei under the name Taiwan. (Most representative offices use Taipei, the capital, in the official name.)

China's tough response is meant as a warning shot to other countries in Europe looking to follow suit and comes amid changing sentiment toward Beijing across the EU.

The Bigger Picture: This isn't an isolated incident.

Vilnius and Beijing had a previous spat in the spring, when Lithuania left the "17+1," a Beijing-led format for engaging with Central and Eastern European countries, and the Baltic country has been vocal in its criticism of China over Hong Kong and its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The episode comes as many countries in the EU are readjusting their China policies and the spat with Lithuania could have broader ripple effects, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

While Lithuania is unlikely to steer the EU, it could be a harbinger of what's down the line for Beijing. One looming event that could start a shift is Germany's September elections, which could set the stage for a far more pragmatic approach to China across Europe.

3. China Road and Bridge Corporation In the Spotlight

The National Council for the Fight against High-Level Corruption in Montenegro announced that the current Montenegrin government must criminally prosecute those responsible from the previous government for the devastation of the Tara River, RFE/RL's Balkan Service reported.

Digging Deeper: Calovic Markovic, who heads the council, which functions as an independent oversight body, also said that the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), which is building a section of the almost $1 billion Bar-Boljare highway, should not be allowed to leave Montenegro until it compensates for the environmental damage caused to the river.

Markovic also called to publicize all sections of the contract signed with CRBC by the previous government, an election promise by the current government that is unfulfilled.

The highway, which is financed by a loan taken out by the previous government from the Export-Import Bank of China, has been a source of controversy in Montenegro and internationally.

The project has also long been a target for anti-corruption activists in the Balkan country and the push from the council is a sign that the Chinese-funded highway will continue to be a thorny issue in Montenegrin politics.

Across The Supercontinent

No Man's Land: An ethnic Kazakh man from Xinjiang is detained in Ukraine after trying to cross the border into Slovakia, RFE/RL's Ukrainian and Kazakh services reported.

The man had previously held temporary asylum in Ukraine and was sent back by Slovak authorities after he attempted to enter the country. He is currently in a detention facility in Ukraine and has reapplied for asylum.

Chinese Apps On The Rise: Didi, the Chinese ride-sharing app, is growing its footprint across Russia and undercutting its competitors, my colleague Elina Yagudina of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported.

Islamabad Investigates: Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies were behind the July 14 bus blast that killed 13 people, including nine Chinese workers, and that the Pakistani Taliban carried out the attack. Indian officials have said the claim is "baseless."

Practice Run: China and Tajikistan kicked off military exercises outside the capital, Dushanbe, on August 17, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported.

One Thing To Watch

Chinese hacking and digital surveillance are on the rise across Eurasia.

A U.S. firm accused the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei of requiring it to set up a safe city system that gives Huawei access to sensitive national security information, including data on citizens and government officials in Pakistan.

That accusation comes after another report by the cybersecurity firm FireEye that said that Chinese hackers broke into computers across Israel's government and tech companies in 2019 and 2020 and planted code in Persian to disguise themselves as an Iranian group.

Another recent report from the Group-IB security consulting group said that they believed a 2019 cyberattack against Russian federal authorities was also likely carried out by Chinese hackers.

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 in-box 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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