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China In Eurasia Briefing: A New Reality For Beijing In South And Central Asia


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

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is a correspondent for RFE/RL focused on China in Eurasia. He previously worked for Foreign Policy magazine in Washington and Moscow and has reported across Europe and Central Asia for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Politico Europe.

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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