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China In Eurasia

Wednesday 5 January 2022

A decorative plate featuring an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen behind a statue of late communist leader Mao Zedong at a souvenir store next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

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

We’ll be doing things a little bit differently this week. This is a special edition of the newsletter that will be taking stock of a very eventful 2021 and looking ahead to some of the biggest stories to watch this year across Eurasia and inside China.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following for 2022.

What To Watch In 2022

From the Beijing Olympics to increased tensions with Taiwan, there’s no shortage of important China stories on the horizon for 2022.

Here’s an overview of the top trends to watch for China’s growing footprint across Eurasia for this year. (Keep scrolling for other China developments to watch in 2022)

Finding Perspective: As 2021 began, Beijing was feeling triumphant from its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic at home and from signing a massive trade deal with the European Union in late December 2020.

But as the year went forward, China saw many of its foreign policy plans derailed. The EU trade pact was put on ice following tit-for-tat sanctions with the bloc over Beijing's abuses of Uyghurs and the country’s image across much of the West has fallen to new lows.

In Eurasia, however, Beijing’s outlook is much more rosy. While relations have soured with many European nations, China is still ascendent across much of the supercontinent.

I surveyed a group of leading experts and analysts and picked five big stories to follow for this year: Beijing continuing to grow its security presence, a new era of relations with the Kremlin, shifting the Belt and Road away from big infrastructure projects, doubling down on Wolf Warrior diplomacy, and rewiring cross-border trade with China’s neighbors.

For a more detailed look, read the article here.

Why It Matters: The prediction business is a messy one, but Beijing finds itself well-placed beyond its western borders and will have no shortage of opportunities to keep progressing on the gains it has made across the region.

The big question is what kind of unforeseen developments does 2022 have in store for Eurasia and how could the fallout affect Beijing?

A prolonged energy crisis and rising costs could provoke political instability in Central Asia. Afghanistan will continue to be a looming security threat on Beijing’s radar, and another Russian invasion of Ukraine could unleash a host of ripple effects that might affect Chinese initiatives across the region and beyond.

Read More

● What’s next for Afghanistan after the United States’ withdrawal? My colleague Ron Synovitz takes a look at what’s at stake for the country as the wider geopolitical map gets redrawn in the region.

● A wall of maturing debt and a surge in seasonal demand for cash will test China’s financial markets in January, Bloomberg reports.

● Washington is preparing for the wrong war with China, Hal Brands and Michael Beckley argue in Foreign Affairs.

Expert Corner: Forecasting Chinese Foreign Policy

Readers asked: “What is the 2022 forecast for Chinese foreign policy?”

“The combination of needing to shore up a defensive front against those calling for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, together with the successful staging of the actual event -- if the 2008 Beijing Summer Games are anything to go by -- will mean a prouder, more nationalistic China.

“This may translate into an even more retributive foreign policy. Watch what more Beijing will do to Lithuania, especially with an EU distracted by Russian maneuvers. Also look at China-Australia relations. It’s often been a harbinger of how relations will unfold with the United States and Europe. Unfortunately, we’ll continue to see PLA jets enter Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. Some argue the maneuvers are not really a threat. Regardless of your take, what is true is these moves are exhausting and testing the island’s air force, and contributing to instability in the region as neighboring countries look on nervously.” -- Melissa Chan, former China correspondent and now a Berlin-based contributor to The Global Reporting Centre

"In 2022, Chinese foreign policy will remain aggressive, with more incursions into Taiwan's air defense identification zone, the continued militarization of China's Indian border, and retaliation to perceived slights -- like when China started a trade war with Australia after Canberra called for an investigation into COVID-19's origins. Additionally, Beijing will maintain its outreach and provision of economic assistance to Global South countries, which form the backbone of China's international support.

“Still, aggressiveness will remain constant because of Xi Jinping: There are few constraints on his authority; Chinese foreign policy has accordingly evolved with his ideology, becoming more impulsive and combative. Augmenting this is the fact that his domestic legitimacy hinges at least somewhat on nationalism, which China has stoked with decades of 'patriotic education.' For Xi, then, foreign policy aggressiveness is not only a personal preference, but a way to solidify his grip on power at home.” -- Charles Dunst, fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

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 To Follow in 2022

1. Xi Jinping Forever

The coming year will see a key moment in modern Chinese history as President Xi Jinping is predicted by many to seek one-man rule.

What's Next? Xi’s hold on power is widely viewed as unchallenged. In a display of his authority in November, he entered into the history of the Chinese Communist Party in a resolution approved by elite party cadres.

The resolution places him on a par with his most notable predecessors: Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, and Deng Xiaoping, whose economic reforms are credited with laying the foundations for Beijing’s rise.

Later this year, Xi is expected to claim a third five-year term in power, breaking with Communist Party rules imposed in the post-Mao era to limit the return of one-man rule.

In advance of the 20th national party congress in October 2022, expect a focus on eliminating threats at home and pushing back against the West more strongly abroad. This was already started in 2021, with a rapid rollback of economic liberalization, a crackdown on individual freedoms, and an escalation of global influence efforts and saber-rattling from Beijing.

2021 marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and Beijing was keen to show that the party is as strong as ever. As Xi prepares for a new era, expect an even greater emphasis on leading China toward what Beijing sees as its rightful global preeminence.

2. A New Line For Europe

Europe still lacks a cohesive plan for dealing with China, but an eventful 2021 has changed the playing field for Beijing and emboldened EU officials and governments who want a harder line.

The Details: The EU’s China policy was perhaps best summarized by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who said during a year-end interview with state media that Europe has a “cognitive split” by trying to both be a partner for Beijing and also seeing it as an opponent.

European countries have often struggled to find a balance between pursuing their economic interests with China and criticizing Beijing over its human rights record and more aggressive foreign policy moves.

But 2021 pushed the needle forward for much of Europe. The EU launched Global Gateway, its answer to China’s Belt and Road, and a series of trade and diplomatic spats, most notably one involving Lithuania over the status of Taiwan, escalated tensions.

With 2022 in mind, Beijing will be watching Hungary’s April vote closely, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban, China’s closest partner within the EU, is facing a close election battle.

Another crucial fissure will be how Germany’s new government handles Beijing.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her Green Party have taken a critical stance toward China and Baerbock called for an EU-wide import ban on goods made with forced labor -- a demand that would particularly hit China.

It’s uncertain how closely this criticism is backed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has tried to reach out to Beijing and reassure China that Berlin would follow a more friendly policy line akin to his predecessor, Angela Merkel.

3. The Shadow Of The One-Child Policy

Decades of birth restrictions through its one-child policy have left China with fewer women of childbearing age and a younger generation less eager to start a family. Now, Beijing is reversing course and closing many abortion clinics while expanding fertility services to encourage couples to conceive.

What You Need To Know: The legacy of the one-child policy, which ended in 2016, has left China with a declining number of births year over year and a looming demographic crunch that could limit the country’s future economic growth in the decades to come.

For years, the government called on women to postpone marriage to encourage smaller families, but reversing that trend as provincial governments now try to raise the birthrate is proving difficult.

Not only is the new track another dramatic example of the control the Chinese government is willing to exert over its citizens’ lives and the very human toll that such policies can have, it also gets to the heart of some of Beijing’s deeper anxieties.

The trend of fewer young people to replace a growing number of retirees has been clear for years but dealing with it has largely been kicked down the road.

Now, Beijing can no longer ignore the demographic shadow over long-term growth and is resorting to all possible measures to change course.

Across The Supercontinent

Boycott: The Global Council of Imams called for a boycott for the Beijing Olympics, asking for Muslims not to attend the Games due to the repression of Chinese Muslims, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reports.

15+1?: Marko Mihkelson, the head of the Estonian parliament’s foreign committee said that the Baltic country should join Lithuania and leave the 16+1, China’s diplomatic format for engaging with Central and Eastern Europe.

Fueling Friends: China is still the top consumer of Turkmen gas, but Russia announced that it has doubled its gas exports from the Central Asian country, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reports.

New Additions: Islamabad has officially confirmed its long-speculated acquisition of the Chinese J-10C Firebird fighter jet, which is slated to arrive in time to take part in the Pakistan Day parade on March 23, Defense News reports.

Watching You: Milan Marinovic, Serbia’s commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection, has called the government’s plans to install thousands of Chinese-made facial recognition cameras in 2022 “dangerous.”

One Thing To Watch

The Winter Olympics are just a few weeks away, but with thousands of athletes from all around the world headed to China, the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus is quickly presenting one of the most complicated possible Covid-19 scenarios for the 2022 Beijing Games.

In spite of being vaccinated, previously infected, or both, hundreds of athletes could contract the variant by the February 4 opening ceremony. Few will likely be seriously ill, but their positive tests could upend training and selection for the Olympics.

Moreover, the games will be a major test for China’s “Covid-zero” approach to the virus, where a new variant is yet to wreak havoc, but where such an outbreak feels inevitable with a new influx of international travelers on the horizon.

China appears to be uniquely vulnerable against Omicron because of its low levels of existing natural immunity among more than one billion people and its heavy reliance on Chinese-made vaccines that research suggests will be ineffective against the highly contagious variant.

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

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.”

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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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