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China In Eurasia

Saturday 1 January 2022

A giant screen at a shopping mall in Beijing broadcasts news footage of a virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 15.

What a difference a year can make.

Already feeling triumphant from its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic at home, China marked a geopolitical win by signing a massive trade deal with the European Union in late December 2020 that sent a powerful message to U.S. President Joe Biden’s incoming administration.

But 2021 had other plans for Beijing.

The investment deal was sidelined indefinitely in May following tit-for-tat sanctions between China and the EU over Beijing's abuses of Uyghurs and other minority Muslims in its western Xinjiang Province.

Since then, Taiwan has improved its ties across Europe, with Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu launching a landmark tour of several Central European countries in October.

Lithuania, a small Baltic country of 2.7 million people, has also been at the center of Chinese-European ties, withdrawing from a Beijing-led diplomatic format in February and then navigating a prolonged spat over its ties to Taipei that has seen China launch a fierce propaganda campaign, economic sanctions, and a diplomatic dispute that led to Vilnius leaving its embassy in Beijing on December 15.

While Europe still lacks a cohesive plan for dealing with China, the events of 2021 have emboldened officials and governments from the bloc to call for a harder line toward Beijing. The entire episode represents the wider mix of diplomatic opportunities and strategic missteps that defined Chinese policy from Central Europe to South Asia this past year.

Looking ahead to 2022, China is poised to continue its uneven rise across Eurasia.

Tensions between Russia and the West have helped fuel even warmer ties between the Kremlin and Beijing, and the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power has opened the door for opportunities, while also bringing new risks.

Taliban leaders met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in China in July.
Taliban leaders met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in China in July.

Meanwhile, the coming year will see a key moment in modern Chinese history as President Xi Jinping is predicted by many to abandon term limits and seek one-man rule.

With a new year of globe-spanning developments on the horizon, here are five big trends to watch as China deepens its influence throughout Eurasia.

1. China's Security Footprint Cautiously Expands

Concerns over border security, extremist groups, and the security of Chinese personnel across Central and South Asia grew this year following the Taliban’s August takeover and a spate of attacks on Chinese nationals working in Pakistan.

Beijing has long worried about terrorism in the region, particularly from Uyghur extremist groups, and it has moved to build up security relationships with all its neighbors -- from Central Asian governments to the Taliban -- that link China’s internal security apparatus to foreign counterparts.

“So far, [Beijing] has demonstrated that it views its security interests narrowly to things that it fears can impact China directly [at home],” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL.

Many of these partnerships continued to grow in 2021.

A Russian helicopter launches missiles during a joint training exercise in Russia as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in September. More than 3,000 soldiers from Russia, India, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan were involved.
A Russian helicopter launches missiles during a joint training exercise in Russia as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in September. More than 3,000 soldiers from Russia, India, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan were involved.

In October, it was announced that China would fund and build a police base in Tajikistan for Tajik personnel, while an RFE/RL investigation showed that China’s presence at a base along the Afghan-Tajik border continues to grow, with Chinese personnel even patrolling stretches of the border.

“China has shown that it prefers a light touch and would like to focus on building relationships [with local governments] to address security concerns,” said Pantucci. “The big question is whether Chinese interests being targeted more and more leads to Beijing thinking it needs to have a different kind of presence on the ground.”

In the meantime, those links look set to grow with law enforcement and security agencies across the region for the year ahead. Beijing continues to invest in training for many of its neighbors, and China has reportedly signed 59 extradition treaties with foreign countries in recent years.

2. A New Era For Beijing And Moscow?

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed their increasingly close ties on December 15 during a 90-minute video call in which they sought to display a unified front amid Western pressure on both China and Russia.

Moscow and Beijing are not formally allied, but during the call, Putin said that “a new model of cooperation between our countries has formed on principles such as noninterference in internal affairs and respecting each other’s interests,” while Xi thanked his counterpart for his “strong support of China’s efforts to protect its key international interests.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin in his office during a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on December 15.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in his office during a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on December 15.

Their ties are getting closer as their rivalries with the United States intensify, conducting joint military exercises and even offering political support for each other on a range of issues, from Putin criticizing the AUKUS military alliance (composed of Australia, the United States, and Britain) to Xi supporting Moscow’s demand for security guarantees to limit the West’s influence across the former Soviet Union.

“They are getting closer, and while they don’t want to formalize an alliance, [they’re] increasingly willing to support each other on issues that don't affect the other,” said Pantucci.

How close this relationship will progress remains to be seen, especially as Russia anxiously watches China’s security and political influence grow across Central Asia and each country’s regional economic model -- the Moscow-led Eurasian Union and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -- faces high tariffs and coordination problems, despite the rosy rhetoric.

But with tensions only set to grow with the West in 2022, expect Putin and Xi to lean on each other even more in the future.

“We are seeing this relationship transform in real time,” said Pantucci. “We need to update our thinking, as this dynamic continues to change and potentially becomes something more durable.”

3. Polishing The Belt And Road

In less than 10 years, the BRI has positioned China at the center of the international system, with new railroads and bridges, fiber-optic cables and 5G networks, pipelines and ports that have helped expand Beijing’s financial, technological, and political influence through hundreds of billions of dollars in investment and projects from Latin America to Southeast Asia.

But the foreign policy project has hit plenty of speed bumps lately, including debt concerns linked to Chinese projects and allegations of corruption, shoddy construction, poor labor practices, and disregard for the environment. Investment levels have also declined steadily since 2016, and the BRI has begun to shift focus to new areas, such as arts and culture, e-payment systems, and satellites.

The train terminal in Khorgos, Kazakhstan, one of the country’s flagship projects in the Belt and Road Initiative.
The train terminal in Khorgos, Kazakhstan, one of the country’s flagship projects in the Belt and Road Initiative.

This backlash has also opened the door for new competing initiatives from Japan, the United States, and the European Union.

“By design, it’s meant to be abstract and vague. The point was that any Chinese stakeholder could come in and do any project and that could be called part of BRI,” Niva Yau, a senior researcher at the OSCE academy in Bishkek, told RFE/RL. “We need to stop thinking of it as one thing. It’s always changing and is ultimately about China increasing its influence in all aspects globally.”

Looking to 2022, Xi’s signature project will continue to evolve, and Yau says China is already putting a greater emphasis on soft power and courting public opinion through aid, medical assistance, exporting Chinese culture, and creating local jobs rather than only winning over political elites.

“[BRI] is targeting the public more and more. Of course, this isn't always effective, but that isn’t really what matters right now,” she said. “If they continue to invest in soft power and devote resources towards it, that will eventually see some results.”

4. 'Wolf Warriors' Are Here To Stay

But while the BRI continues to search for new ways to boost China’s global influence, Beijing will have to deal with an increasingly negative global view of the country that has hurt both Chinese soft power and diplomacy over the past year.

A Pew survey in June of mostly Western, developed countries found that unfavorable views of China have reached new heights, with only a majority of respondents from Greece and Singapore showing a favorable view of Chinese policies.

“It's undeniable that China's image is in a poor state and looks unlikely to improve substantially any time soon,” Charles Dunst, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL.

Beijing’s COVID-19 diplomacy, which had some small victories early in the pandemic in countries like Serbia and Italy, has since faded.

A shipment of Chinese Sinopharm vaccines to Belgrade is met by Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and Chen Bo, China’s ambassador to Belgrade, on April 5.
A shipment of Chinese Sinopharm vaccines to Belgrade is met by Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and Chen Bo, China’s ambassador to Belgrade, on April 5.

The country’s so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats, who have adopted an aggressive style of targeting and coercing governments, companies, and individuals that criticized China, are here to stay and even threatened to cut off aid or access to vaccines and personal protective equipment (PPE) in some cases.

Many also spread disinformation about the origins of the coronavirus, and Beijing went on to place restrictions and tariffs on some of Australia’s most popular exports after Canberra called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

“Countries around the world are worried most about Beijing's willingness to wield economic ties for political purposes,” he said. “It's hard to see China reversing this trend in 2022, given both [Xi’s] clear preference for foreign policy aggressiveness and popular Chinese nationalism.”

5. The Limits Of Trading With COVID-Zero China

China is one of the last countries in the world to continue with a strict "zero-COVID-19" strategy, which sometimes entails locking down entire cities if a single case is detected. Now, with the spread of the omicron variant, it looks like that policy is here to stay.

That’s bad news for many across Central Asia who rely on cross-border trade, which has seen a precipitous drop over the course of the pandemic due to rigid border controls and restrictions on the types of people and goods that have been allowed to come into China.

“China and Central Asia will have many difficulties in their trade relations not only in the upcoming year but well into the future, depending on how the pandemic develops,” Temur Umarov, an expert on China in Central Asia at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL.

Kyrgyz truck drivers wait in line to ferry goods across the Torugart border crossing with China.
Kyrgyz truck drivers wait in line to ferry goods across the Torugart border crossing with China.

The vast majority of Chinese trade with the region is focused on natural resources, especially oil and gas, but the pressures on freight trade brought by China’s border restrictions have become a political issue in some countries.

The Kyrgyz government has said that restarting some version of pre-pandemic trade is a priority, and officials from Bishkek have held talks with their Chinese counterparts and even proposed a new system for cargo trucks to better comply with Chinese COVID-19 regulations.

With new variants of the virus continuing to emerge, Umarov says, this remains the only option on the table for local governments.

“Of course, this will frustrate Central Asia,” he said. “But at the same time, they need China economically, and that is why they will have to go and take these additional steps and negotiate what they can for cross-border traffic.”

Chinese leader Xi Jinping (right, with Russian President Vladimir Putin) called the U.S.S.R.'s dissolution “a profound lesson” that many China watchers say has helped fuel Beijing’s tough crackdowns and desire for control over varying aspects of life.

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.

The collapse of the Soviet Union is still seen as a cautionary tale in Beijing, but it paved the way for China’s three-decade rise as a power across Eurasia.

Not only did it mark a dramatic reversal of fortunes for Beijing and Moscow, the effects of this shift are still being felt today as the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union draws near, as I explained here.

Finding Perspective: The Soviet Union’s dissolution, which officially took place on December 26, 1991, and the creation of 15 new states was a source of fear and anxiety in Beijing.

But the end of tensions with Moscow, which had been simmering since a border conflict between the two countries in 1969, freed up Chinese resources and planning to focus outside its borders -- and away from a potential Soviet threat -- in a way that wasn’t previously possible.

This set China up to become a leading force in Eurasia and elsewhere. Not only was Beijing propelled on a path of steep economic growth that saw decades of improving living standards at home, it was also able to forge new political ties with its neighbors and eventually launch the globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Over the following decades, China slowly expanded its influence westward, with the region increasingly becoming a focus for its policymakers.

The Soviet Union’s end also deeply impacted thinking at the top in Beijing. Avoiding a similar fate has been a fixation for the Chinese Communist Party’s top brass, including Xi Jinping, who called the U.S.S.R.'s dissolution “a profound lesson” that many China watchers say has helped fuel Beijing’s tough crackdowns and desire for control over varying aspects of life -- from curbing the amount of time young people can play video games to recently limiting vasectomies for men.

Why It Matters: As Peter Frankopan, professor of global history at Oxford and author of the book Silk Roads, told me, one of the big takeaways for understanding China’s rise across Eurasia after the collapse of the Soviet Union is how unforeseen such a development was at the time.

“There was a widespread conviction that communism was dead; that socialist states would fail; and that China’s direction of travel was predictable, straightforward, and inevitably one of convergence with the Western world,” Frankopan said.

In this vein, the story of China’s rise across the former Soviet space is just one piece of the puzzle of Beijing’s new influence in Eurasia. Another crucial part is Western complacency and policy missteps.

“[There was] a profound lack of thought around what China’s rise meant, either in its own terms, in Eurasia, or even globally,” Frankopan told me. “We are paying the price for that today.”

Read More

● The Chinese Communist Party wants the world to see China’s continued rise as inevitable, but it is anything but, write Eric Zhu and Tom Orlik for Bloomberg.

● For a deeper look at what China learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union (and China’s impact on Moscow), read this excerpt from Chris Miller’s book The Struggle To Save The Soviet Economy.

● China’s admission to the WTO was a largely unnoticed event of epic geopolitical and economic importance. The BBC’s Faisal Islam takes a look at the decision’s legacy 20 years later.

Expert Corner: How Will The EU Handle Olympic Boycotts?

Readers asked: “The United States has announced a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. Will the European Union follow suit?”

To find out more, I asked Finbarr Bermingham, the Europe correspondent for the South China Morning Post, who is based in Brussels:

“I think the EU is unlikely to follow the U.S.-led boycott. Like most issues related to China, it's proven impossible to get member states to discuss it, let alone come to a common position.

“I was surprised late last week when four separate member states and senior EU officials briefed that a boycott would be discussed at this week's Foreign Affairs Council. For months, Brussels had been brushing off my questions about it, saying sports was a ‘member state competency.’

“In the end, it wasn't discussed. ‘We ran out of time,’ one diplomat told me. ‘It was not on the agenda,’ said a prickly Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, when I asked him about it, even though that morning he'd told us to ask him about it later.

“Brussels says it hasn't decided whether to send commissioners, the French tell me ‘there's still time’ to debate, but I sense reluctance to follow Washington on this one.

“Lithuania and Belgium have already said they won't send officials and the Dutch are mulling it, but don't expect an EU-led blanket move."

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. Can There Be Justice For Xinjiang?

An unofficial London-based tribunal investigating China’s oppression of the Uyghur people charged Xi Jinping and high-ranking members of his government with genocide, crimes against humanity, and systematic torture against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, RFE/RL reported.

What’s Next?: The Uyghur Tribunal comprises lawyers, academics, and businesspeople, but it has no government backing or powers to sanction or punish Beijing.

Its organizers, however, hope the process of publicly laying out evidence will compel international action to tackle alleged abuses in China’s western province and can act as an important symbol.

The tribunal is part of a raft of recent measures attempting to hold China accountable for alleged atrocities in Xinjiang, which the Chinese government denies.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 428-to-1 to ban imports from Xinjiang over concerns about forced labor, and the United Nations' human rights office is finalizing its report on alleged abuses against Uyghurs and other groups.

Tajikistan is also the subject of a recent filing by Uyghur groups to the International Criminal Court (ICC) alleging that the Central Asian government has allowed Chinese officials to operate on its territory in order to deport Uyghurs back to China and to coerce them into becoming informants.

Elsewhere, Argentina is set to hear a court case against Beijing for its actions in Xinjiang in early February.

China is not part of the ICC, and the legal effort targeting Tajikistan, which is a member, is meant to implicate Beijing and take Chinese officials to court.

While the slate of moves point to growing international momentum over the issue, there is still no clear or likely path for how to punish Beijing and hold officials involved legally accountable.

2. Disinformation Nations

China and Russia have pushed widespread disinformation and propaganda campaigns about the origins of COVID-19 and the efficacy of vaccines aimed at winning over foreign audiences and sowing distrust toward Western governments.

The Details: A new study from the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) analyzed both countries’ tactics and found that while China and Russia have played a central role in spreading COVID-related disinformation and propaganda, they have followed largely separate strategies. (You can read our report here.)

While both countries have mobilized their own campaigns, they differ in interesting -- and revealing -- ways.

Chinese efforts have tried to convince the world that it should not be blamed for the pandemic and that China is the most effective global partner in combating the virus, while Russian disinformation networks have largely sought to undermine faith in Western efforts to fight COVID-19 and exacerbate tensions.

“China is trying to send out a message of self-confidence and push a consistent message about the [Communist Party’s] abilities,” Edward Lucas, one of the study’s authors told me. “Whereas the Russian campaigns are more focused on creating chaos, regardless of whether it contradicts the Kremlin’s official version.”

3. In The Shadow Of CPEC

Mass protests in Gwadar, one of the main hubs for Chinese investment into Pakistan, continue to grow and pose a risk for Beijing’s plans in the country through the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Radio Mashaal, RFE/RL’s Pakistani service, reports.

What You Need To Know: Sporadic demonstrations have been going on for months, with protesters demanding clean drinking water, uninterrupted access to the sea for fishing, and a ban on deep-sea trawling.

But the movement gained new momentum on December 10 as hundreds of thousands took to the streets after calls from Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman, a local politician who has taken up the cause and campaigned strongly against illegal trawlers fishing off Gwadar’s waters.

While China is not the main focus of the protests (although Chinese trawlers have often been accused of illegal fishing), they highlight how CPEC, which is the flagship project of Beijing’s BRI, has become embroiled in local grievances against the Pakistani state.

The large crowds could derail Chinese-funded projects in Gwadar, which is home to a strategic port, and both Islamabad and the Chinese authorities are watching closely.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imrhan Khan said after the December 10 protests that he would take action against illegal fishing, and Chinese state-run media have been targeting any coverage that looks to link China to the wave of discontent.

Across The Supercontinent

Buyer's Remorse: Montenegrin Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic visited the site of the country’s $1 billion Chinese-funded and -built Bar-Boljare highway and said the government is dissatisfied with the pace and quality of the construction, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported.

Not Forgotten: Belarus’s authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a new directive with China on December 3 to deepen relations that called for a greater focus on military and BRI investments.

Mining Dreams: Officials from the Taliban government in Afghanistan said they want to restart work on the Mes Aynak copper-mining project that China has the rights to.

While the Taliban wants to finalize a deal with Beijing, the project has been at a standstill for years, and China is hesitant about investing too much into the mine.

Catch And Release: A Uyghur man detained at Belgrade's airport whose whereabouts were unknown for several days has been released and returned to Turkey after an outcry from human rights groups, my colleagues at RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported.

He Said, Xi Said: Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a video call on December 15 to “enhance mutual trust and lend stability and positive energy to the international situation,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

Sharp Power: The National Endowment for Democracy launched the Sharp Power Research Portal, a tool meant to track and catalogue research and reporting on five authoritarian countries -- China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates and their activities across 134 countries. Check it out here.

One Thing To Watch

Germany’s new coalition government has promised to pursue a values-based foreign policy focused on democracy and human rights and to be tougher on China and Russia than Angela Merkel’s successive governments.

But when it comes to China, Olaf Scholz, who was sworn in as chancellor on December 8, has already walked a muddled line. He offered a vague, noncommittal response when asked if Germany would follow the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics and also reportedly signaled to Beijing before becoming chancellor that Berlin would continue to follow Merkel’s pragmatic, business-first line on China.

It will no doubt be a tightrope for Scholz, who has to balance German industry’s calls for a more friendly China policy with the views of Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who is much more hawkish.

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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