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.
An Unofficial Military Base And Beijing’s War On Terror
A secret Chinese base in Tajikistan, Beijing’s first military footprint in Central Asia, is in full swing, but China finds itself in a bind following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, RFE/RL’s Tajik Service and I reported.
Finding Perspective: With drones, patrols, and a collection of outposts, China’s unofficial base has been in existence for at least five years, but we reported new details about what Chinese personnel are up to and how things are changing since the Western-backed government was toppled in August.
The base relied on cooperation between Chinese, Tajik, and Afghan troops, but since the Taliban’s return to power, the Afghan contingent has not been replaced and the facilities now only consist of Chinese and Tajik personnel.
The focus of the base is linked to Beijing’s concerns about Uyghur militants operating in Afghanistan and crossing into the country through Tajikistan’s porous borders to launch attacks in China.
Chinese personnel have also replaced their Tajik counterparts along lengthy sections of the Tajik-Afghan border where they now patrol on their own.
Why It Matters: While the base is a reflection of China’s growing influence and power across Central and South Asia, Beijing is also dealing with an increasingly complicated situation on the ground.
Chinese military strategists and policymakers have long been anxious about the potential threats of extremism in the Middle East and Central Asia spreading to China. The situation in Afghanistan and the presence of Uyghur militants, particularly those from the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), have been high on that list of concerns.
But as China's economic and military presence grows across the region, it also means that its interests are being targeted by a wide variety of groups around South and Central Asia -- something that Beijing will need to adapt to.
You can read the full article here.
● The CIA announced the formation of a new China Mission Center, highlighting the Biden administration’s focus on Beijing.
● My colleagues Farangis Najibullah and Mumin Ahmadi interviewed Afghan pilots who fled the Taliban and found refuge in Tajikistan, where they now are stuck in limbo.
Expert Corner: Taiwan's Europe Tour
Readers asked: “Taiwan is sending a diplomatic and trade delegation to several European countries. How significant is this trip?”
To find out more, I asked Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, China reporter at Axios:
“It’s an opportunity for Taipei, but the fact that this trip is happening indicates how much China is changing the status quo.
“Only a few years ago, China had few problems in Europe. There wasn’t even much of a policy conversation going on, it was just about business and trade. Now there is a conversation taking place and Taiwan is becoming part of it.”
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. Hungary’s China Deals
A court in Hungary ruled that the government must disclose the contracts from a 2014 deal for a Chinese-financed railway project from Budapest to Belgrade, RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service reported.
A Quick Look: The disclosure is from a lawsuit launched by Bernadett Szel, an independent opposition Hungarian MP, and the ruling said that the documents must be released by October 22.
The project has been marred in controversy and delays, and is seen by analysts as part of Beijing’s effort to open new foreign trade links inside the European Union, of which Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been an enthusiastic partner.
China, Serbia, and Hungary signed the original memorandum on the rail route in 2014. Construction in Serbia started in 2018.
In 2020, Hungary took out a 20-year, $1.9 billion Chinese loan. In April of that year, the Hungarian parliament voted to keep all details around the railway project classified, including a feasibility study about its profitability, arguing that it was required in order to secure a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China.
My colleagues in Budapest caution that key details from the documents could still be censored in the coming release, but the episode should provide some added insights into Chinese investments in Hungary.
2. NATO Looks East
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says that the military alliance will be shifting its attention toward China as part of an expanding focus on countering Beijing’s growing military capabilities and geopolitical heft.
Transatlantic Takeaways: Those comments are from an October 18 interview that Stoltenberg gave to the Financial Times where he outlined some of NATO’s reorientation.
The shift toward China marks a new direction for the Western military alliance. NATO has traditionally focused on countering Russia, and, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, also on terrorism.
The turn further east also comes after NATO ended its 20-year mission in Afghanistan and Stoltenberg said that more attention would be put toward confronting the security implications of Beijing’s rise for North America and Europe.
“What we can predict is that the rise of China will impact our security. It already has,” the secretary-general said during the interview. “China is coming closer to us . . . We see them in the Arctic. We see them in cyberspace. We see them investing heavily in critical infrastructure in our countries.”
The Financial Times also reported on October 16 that Beijing tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August. The move allegedly caught U.S. intelligence off guard and demonstrated that China has made progress faster than believed on its next-generation weapons.
3. China, The Taliban, And a Jailbreak
Pivoting back to Afghanistan, The Daily Telegraph reported about a jailbreak of alleged Uyghur militants during the Taliban’s August takeover that could have major implications for Beijing’s relationship with the group.
The Story: According to a former senior security official in President Ashraf Ghani’s administration who spoke to the paper, the Taliban helped suspected members of TIP escape from prison as the former government collapsed.
“We had 35 [Uyghur] militants in jails all over Afghanistan. All of them escaped after the Taliban takeover,” a former official told The Daily Telegraph.
The reported episode gets to the heart of the Taliban’s strange balancing act under way with Beijing.
The new regime in Kabul has courted China in order to win investment and diplomatic support. In exchange, Beijing has pushed for the Taliban to rein in Uyghur militants in Afghanistan -- and ideally hand them over to Chinese security authorities.
But while the Taliban has refrained from criticizing China’s policies targeting Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang and offered assurances to Beijing that it would not allow militants to stage attacks in Afghanistan, cooperation with China is not so straightforward.
As RFE/RL reported earlier this month, the Taliban relocated Uyghur militants from areas close to Afghanistan’s border with China, but has stopped short of handing them over.
While this shows that the Taliban is willing to accommodate Beijing’s requests, cooperation with China also has its limits.
Across The Supercontinent
Opening Up: In hopes of boosting trade, Kyrgyzstan announced that it will be lifting the last of its COVID-19 restrictions with China and allow for more trucks to cross the border, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported.
Coal Crunch: China’s own energy shortage has led to the country buying up coal from abroad in order to meet its domestic needs, which is leading to knock-on effects elsewhere. My colleague Yevhen Solonyna from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service looks into how the supply shortages could affect Ukraine this winter.
The Pipeline: China’s appetite for energy continues to rise and the country is drawing on its neighbors as much as possible. RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reported that gas imports from Turkmenistan to China rose by 23.9 percent in the first half of the year.
Putin’s Turn: Russia is set to host the Taliban and other factions for talks in Moscow on October 20. Diplomats from Russia, the United States, China, and Pakistan are also set to meet in the Russian capital this month to talk about Afghanistan.
Long Reach: China’s diplomatic power at the UN has been growing for years. Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch reports on how Beijing has grown particularly skilled at derailing Western sanctions regimes.
‘An Unprecedented High’: During an October 8 speech, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbayev said that relations with China had reached “an unprecedented high” and that they were “exemplary and time-tested,” RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reports.
China Goes Local: Researchers Dirk Van Der Kley and Niva Yau have a new paper out that looks at how Chinese companies have adapted to local business environments in Central Asia, with increasingly successful results. Read it here.
One Thing To Watch
It wasn’t that long ago that the world wrapped up the (long-delayed) Tokyo Summer Olympics, but recent protests in Athens at the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony were a reminder that the Winter Olympics in Beijing are just around the corner.
Greek police detained two human rights activists after they unfurled banners about Tibet and Hong Kong at the Athens Acropolis as the Olympic flame was set to make its long journey to Beijing ahead of the February 4, 2022 opening ceremony.
With pushback against China rising, expect more displays from activists as the Chinese Olympics draws closer.
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,
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