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China In Eurasia

Sunday 1 May 2022

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Zhang Ming (left), the secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on March 17.

When Zhang Ming left his post as China’s ambassador to the European Union and became secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on January 1, Central and South Asia looked a lot different.

The region had already been rocked by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, but in the span of a few decisive days, the path ahead for the career diplomat took an unexpected turn.

Unrest broke out across Kazakhstan in early January, leading to violent clashes sparked by long-simmering, popular grievances and a behind-the-scenes power struggle that culminated in a Russian-led military intervention in the Central Asian country under the guise of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-dominated security bloc.

About seven weeks later, the Kremlin invaded Ukraine, launching the largest-scale conflict in Europe since World War II and triggering a tougher-than-expected Western response that has brought a series of political and economic knock-on effects that continue to reshape both Ukraine's and Russia’s neighbors.

For Beijing, both crises have proved to be revealing tests about the scope and limits of Chinese foreign policy, particularly across Eurasia, where the SCO has been one of China’s main vehicles for engaging with Central and South Asia.

Born from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the multilateral security and economic bloc helmed by China -- which includes India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as members -- must now navigate the fallout across the region from Russia’s Ukraine invasion, including the risk of a food crisis, the ripple effects of Western sanctions against Russia’s economy, and growing anxiety over possible Russian political machinations in Central Asia.

“In general, the war in Ukraine has deeply disappointed the Chinese and also largely derailed their goals for the SCO,” Haiyun Ma, a professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland who studies Beijing's relations with countries in Central and South Asia, told RFE/RL.

For China, the SCO has long been an umbrella for China’s more specific interests in the region and has also come to represent a balance of power between Beijing and Moscow, who cemented their deepening ties together in a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in early February.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on February 4. China must now navigate the task of embracing many SCO members’ desire for more distance from Russia, while still politically backing Moscow in the war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on February 4. China must now navigate the task of embracing many SCO members’ desire for more distance from Russia, while still politically backing Moscow in the war.

But the Ukraine war has thrown that balance off-kilter and experts believe it may never be reset.

“China has been trying to promote bilateral ties with Russia, but also multilateral ones, too, and the SCO was set to play a larger role between Beijing and Moscow,” said Ma. “But Russia’s invasion and the blowback it has brought with the war mean that the SCO is now entering a period of reevaluation. It will need to find a new identity.”

A New Face For Eurasia

Finding that new face will be the task of the 64-year-old Zhang in his three-year term at the helm of the SCO.

During his tenure in Brussels, he earned a reputation as a consensus-maker with an “old-school” approach to diplomacy, in contrast to the brash and confrontational style seen in a younger generation of Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats who have gained headlines in recent years, according to an EU official who dealt with Zhang during his time as ambassador to Brussels.

“He is a man of compromise and pragmatism,” said another EU official who worked with Zhang and asked to remain anonymous.

Both those traits will be needed as Zhang steers around the regional wreckage brought by the Ukraine war.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) with Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev in Beijing on September 11, 2019. Political fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine could lead to Beijing becoming even more appealing as a partner to countries in Central Asia.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) with Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev in Beijing on September 11, 2019. Political fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine could lead to Beijing becoming even more appealing as a partner to countries in Central Asia.

In Central Asia, both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have sent aid to Ukraine and said that they respect Kyiv’s territorial integrity.

While not an outright rebuke of the Kremlin, the moves highlight the tightrope the governments in Central Asia are currently walking between their unease and displeasure with Russia’s invasion and the need to preserve what is traditionally a close working relationship.

With brutal fighting under way in Ukraine and nationalism rising inside Russia, countries in the region are eager to avoid getting caught in the Kremlin’s crosshairs while maintaining room to maneuver. They’re also looking to cushion themselves from the effects of Russia’s economic free fall, which has already cut growth estimates across the region.

According to Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center, Russia remains firmly planted within Central Asia, but political fallout from the Ukraine war could lead to Beijing becoming even more appealing as a partner in the region, where it has already invested billions and become its preeminent economic force.

Chinese soldiers are seen a joint military exercise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization held in Kyrgyzstan in September 2016.
Chinese soldiers are seen a joint military exercise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization held in Kyrgyzstan in September 2016.

“On the one hand, you have Russia's reputation being damaged and its brand becoming toxic,” Umarov told RFE/RL. “On the other hand, all the Russian assets in Central Asia didn’t disappear. Its economic and security presence is still there and, in addition to that, Moscow still has a deep understanding for how domestic politics works that China does not.”

Founded in 1996 as the Shanghai Five by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, the bloc renamed itself the SCO in 2001 with the introduction of Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan joined in 2018 and Iran’s membership application was approved in 2021, although the country still needs to pass a technical and legal process before it can formally join.

The SCO served as an early format for Beijing to settle lingering territorial disputes with the other members, and China initially had designs for creating a strong economic focus for the bloc. But those efforts were largely pushed aside by Russia, the organization’s other hegemon, who has guarded its influence in Central Asia.

As a result, the SCO consolidated around what it calls the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism and has focused on combatting organized crime and narcotics trafficking, as well as enforcing a loosely defined counterterrorism mandate.

Since its founding, the SCO has faced criticism of being too diluted by competing ideas from its members and bogged down by a lack of funding and underlying mistrust between governments.

In particular, Beijing has been careful about the Kremlin's interests in Central Asia, which it views as within its “sphere of influence,” although in recent years the two countries have strengthened their cooperation.

When Putin and Xi met in Beijing on February 4 and signed a strategic document to hail their “no limits” partnership, they also vowed to strengthen the role and relevance of the SCO with both Beijing and Moscow at the helm.

Participants listen to Chinese President Xi Jinping deliver a speech via a video link during a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Dushanbe on September 17, 2021.
Participants listen to Chinese President Xi Jinping deliver a speech via a video link during a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Dushanbe on September 17, 2021.

But now China must navigate the task of embracing many of its members’ desire for more distance from Russia, while still politically backing Moscow in the war, where it has often echoed the Kremlin’s narrative of the conflict and refused to condemn alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

“Due to its size and geography, China’s role will grow, but the SCO won’t have many success stories to point to,” said Umarov. “Beijing is also now seen as a supporter of Russia and as a country that isn't doing much to restrain Moscow when many [SCO members] are seeing it as a potential threat.”

China's Western Neighborhood

Overcoming these problems will be no small task for Beijing.

Zhang and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi have floated the prospect of the SCO playing a mediator role in the Ukraine crisis, but such an idea received little reception outside of Chinese circles and has since vanished from official talking points.

The SCO did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for comment about how the Ukraine war could affect its future, but Giulia Sciorati, a fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, who studies the bloc, told RFE/RL that she believes the organization will look to find new opportunities by broadening its focus more to the Middle East and South Asia and branching out more into economic initiatives rather than the security focus it has taken on in recent years.

“This is an opportunity for China to push the SCO in new directions,” she said. “Beijing will have more on its shoulders than before, but there is still a view from China that the SCO is complementary to other outlets for Chinese power in the region and beyond.”

Prior to his posting as China’s ambassador to the EU, Zhang worked in the Middle East and Africa. Three EU officials told RFE/RL that they view him as one of the architects of Beijing’s policy on that continent, where China has grown into one of Africa's most economically influential actors.

The structure and mandate of the SCO make it difficult for an individual to put a personal stamp on the organization, but EU officials who worked with Zhang in Brussels said his new role should be viewed as a promotion and a sign that he is trusted in Beijing.

As Ma, the Frostburg State University professor notes, this experience could go a long way as both Beijing and the SCO adapt to changes in the region and search for new relevance.

“The SCO has lost a lot of attraction right now,” he said. “But Zhang has a strong [CV] that shows that he could help reform and reframe it as more of an economic mechanism.”

Beijing launched a brutal crackdown that has swept more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities into detention camps and prisons in its western Xinjiang Province under the pretext of fighting Islamist extremism.

China is hunting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities through an expanding global dragnet that is increasingly relying on cooperation with governments in the Middle East and South and Central Asia.

Using a complex tool kit of intimidation, harassment, surveillance, detentions, and extraditions, Beijing's transnational campaign has grown to unprecedented depths across the world and is documented in detail in a new report, Great Wall Of Steel, by the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.

The new research shows how China's global rise -- exemplified by its outsized economic influence through projects like the multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -- has granted Beijing newfound leverage over governments and allowed it to co-opt them as partners in a spreading repression campaign.

The study's dataset has documented 5,532 cases of Uyghurs facing intimidation, 1,150 cases of Uyghurs detained in a host country, and 424 cases of Uyghurs deported or extradited to China, from 1997 to January 2022.

As the study notes, of the 10 countries where Uyghurs as well as ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other groups remain most vulnerable to detention or extradition, China is the largest financial creditor for five of them: Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Cambodia, and Myanmar, leading to deals in which leaders "trade human rights for economic opportunity," according to the report.

Beijing launched a brutal crackdown that has swept more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities into detention camps and prisons in its western Xinjiang Province under the pretext of fighting Islamist extremism. But those efforts have led to allegations of imposing forced labor, mass internment, forced birth control, erasing Uyghur cultural and religious identity, as well as accusations of genocide.

To find out more, RFE/RL spoke with Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the Wilson Center and the author of the study, which was released on April 25.

RFE/RL: How has the scale of China's transnational campaign against Uyghurs and other groups evolved over the years and what are the main tools being used by Beijing?

Bradley Jardine: China's campaign against the Uyghurs has been evolving for quite some time. I track most of my data back to 1997, when we saw the first deportations from Pakistan. This was in response to incidents in a town called Barin in southern Xinjiang and this was really where China started to pay attention to the Uyghur diaspora community. Since then, the scale has accelerated dramatically.

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This is driven by two main things. The onset of the [U.S.] War on Terror [in 2001] provided China with new rhetorical tools for building alliances and coalitions for pursuing Uyghur dissidents and diaspora communities; and then, in 2017, with the mass incarceration program in Xinjiang, where China really began ramping up algorithmic surveillance [across the province].

This led to a [greater focus] from Chinese security services [on] pursuing Uyghurs. The scale of where things stand today is that I've tracked some 1,500 Uyghurs who have either been detained within countries such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or who have been rendered from places [like] Tajikistan, so the scale is quite large. And this is just the number for detentions and renditions. If we're taking into account cyberattacks, [which] is a growing tool that China is now wielding, or threats against family members, you would see this number [increase] to over 7,000 logged incidents.

Also, my data is derived primarily from reported media cases. So most of these Uyghurs [being targeted] are named or they've been part of reports where there have been investigations into the particular incidents. Seven thousand is a base figure [and is] just the tip of the iceberg for what the reality may be, with [many more] unreported cases.

RFE/RL: It's becoming increasingly difficult for Uyghurs to escape persecution in Xinjiang and flee elsewhere. Central and South Asia were once areas of escape and refuge, but that has changed as governments in the region have formed closer bonds with Beijing. Now we are seeing Turkey, which was seen as one of the last spots for Uyghurs fleeing abroad, also change its policies about extradition. Where does that leave Uyghurs to go?

Jardine: Uyghurs have increasingly lost space. Of course, they've lost political space in Central and South Asia, Southeast Asia, and increasingly in traditional safe havens, such as the Middle East and Turkey, where Turkish President [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] signed an extradition treaty with his Chinese counterpart during a Belt and Road summit forum [that was later ratified in December 2020]. Ever since, there's been a sense of fear among Turkey's Uyghur diaspora community [and] many of them have actually been leaving for Europe or for North America, [with] Japan also [becoming] a major refuge for Uyghurs.

Turkey is still the largest destination, although there is a small exodus of particularly prominent figures, such as Kazakh activist Serikzhan Bilash, who relocated [to] the United States. So there is no real space for them at the moment unless there's more political will in the West to increase its [refugee] quotas. This is where they would be safest.

Of course, they're not entirely safe, as my research points out that within democracies, a lot of Uyghurs are facing cyberattacks [and] their families are still in danger [back in] Xinjiang. The diaspora particularly relies on WeChat and Chinese social-media platforms to communicate with family members. So WeChat has become a tool for both collecting information on Uyghurs, but also for the security services in Xinjiang to reach out to them and curtail their activism.

RFE/RL: Your report focuses on a web of institutions and frameworks that help China enact this repression abroad. Looking specifically at Eurasia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has played a major role. What tools does Beijing really have at its disposal through this bloc?

Jardine: Central Asia is a very unique case because it was one of the earliest [regions] to develop extensive cooperation with China in terms of transnational repression and monitoring Uyghur diaspora communities.

This diaspora [in the region] was one that China paid particular attention to [and] saw as potentially threatening or destabilizing in the post-Soviet era. All that is to say that China has built and established a number of tools [in Central Asia] that we've not seen elsewhere.

One of these is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is a multilateral framework [where] China coordinates with its counterparts in Central Asia and with Russia. This largely emerged to deal with border delimitation issues [that] emerged from the [collapse] of the Soviet Union and then started to [focus] on the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. [This] became a rhetorical crutch that allowed China to [adopt] anti-extremist rhetoric in Central Asia -- where secular regimes were [already] pursuing dissidents and labeling them as religious extremists -- [and] apply it to the Uyghur population at home and abroad.

Within the SCO, there are a number of treaties that allow for mutual extradition [with] no questions asked between member states. There are also some frameworks for counterterrorist cooperation, [such as] intelligence sharing of anyone who's been flagged as a terrorist, [often] with minimal evidence in most cases. This [type of cooperation] has really accelerated [and] made the region very dangerous and hostile [for Uyghurs]. For diaspora communities, many of them fled to what [looked like] safer jurisdictions at the time, particularly Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey.

This still remains the case today: [Central Asia] is one of the most dangerous places for Uyghur activists due to these extradition treaties.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

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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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