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VOA Interview: Raffaello Pantucci, Co-Author of Sinostan, China's Inadvertent Empire

Raffaello Pantucci is pictured during his remote interview with VOA.
Raffaello Pantucci is pictured during his remote interview with VOA.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and senior associate fellow at the Royal United Service Institute in London.

More than a decade ago, Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen, an expert in energy geopolitics, embarked on a journey to write a book about China’s influence in Central Asia. The two academics’ new book, “Sinostan: China's Inadvertent Empire,” offers a glimpse into China's expanding economic, cultural, and political power in the Eurasian heartland. Petersen was killed in 2014 in Kabul in a terrorist attack. Pantucci said they started the book project together, “so it was appropriate to finish it with his name as well.”

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: Why do you call your book “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire”?

RESEARCHER AND BOOK AUTHOR RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: What you have in Central Asia is increasingly a region that finds itself linked and beholden to China, but at the same time, it’s now got a new kind of large great power in its region and in its midst but is not interested in sort of playing the same kind of a father role maybe that you find with Russia, that used to be the dominant power and still is a very important power in the region, or the United States, which has always been a relatively transient or passive power in this region as well. So, China is increasingly becoming the most consequential player on the ground, principally in economic terms but increasingly that’s spreading to all sorts of other areas as well. This is the thing we’re trying to explore in this book.

VOA: Isn’t the region of Central Asia traditionally known as one under Russia’s political dominance?

PANTUCCI: Yes, certainly Central Asia is a region that is very heavily influenced by Russia and continues to be. There (are) the real economic links. There is a lot of infrastructure that ties Central Asia to Russia. Roads in the region were built by Moscow, and so, therefore, they were built with Moscow’s logic in mind, and this is more about connecting them up to the rest of the Soviet, what was then the Soviet Union what is now Russia, rather necessarily to connect up to that region. This is true of rails. This is true of roads.

But then also you’ve still got a very important role for Russia in economic terms. We look at remittances and migrant labor. There are lots of young men in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and young women and even older ones who go and work in Russia. They can’t find good jobs in in their own territory. So, they find themselves migrating to Russia to find better jobs and better employment and then send the money home. And this is not inconsiderable money that we’re talking about. In the case of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, various accounts say that it’s about a third of national GDP comes from these remittances.

But I think the key thing that has changed over time is that Russia, which used to be the kind of a big economic power and a big powerhouse is every term in the region, has become a much smaller power, in some ways a weaker power. In contrast to Russia, China which has become (an) incredibly dominant, growing power, and so this has kind of shifted the power dynamic a little. Now what was interesting in doing the research for this book was that we found that essentially the Chinese were always very careful, very careful to be sure that they would not aggravate Moscow and things that they were doing in the region. So, while it’s certainly true that Russia used to be the dominant player, China is the coming power. But it’s interesting, the two of them seem able to operate in this sort of parallel way when you actually see Russia in particular, trying to edge back and take (a) piece of influence or assert its authority.

There are still things that Russia can do and will do in the region that China will not. I think security is a very good example of this. If we look at the kind of security deployments that Russia made in the wake of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in the region, this is something that China can never do, and China would never want to do. If we look at the stabilizing effect of Russian forces after we saw chaos in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year, again, which China would not have been able to do. Mr.(Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s visit recently to Tajikistan where he spoke about Afghanistan, and he spoke about economic remittances highlighted once again the important role that Russia does still play.

The war in Ukraine has complicated this, complicated this considerably because I think a lot of people in the region being quite worried about Russia’s behavior in Ukraine and what this might mean for what they could do to Central Asia. But you know, (at) the moment I think they still recognize that Russia has a very important and special role to the region, which China cannot quite replace yet.

VOA: What has China’s approach been to Central Asia since the ex-Soviet republics’ independence?

PANTUCCI: If we go back to the end of the Cold War, so the early ’90s, China was (a) very different power to the one that we have today, and it was just coming out from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. In 1992, we had, of course, Deng Xiaoping’s famous southern tour, and then interestingly in 1994, we had a visit by Li Peng into Central Asia. This is actually a visit which was initially intended from 1993. This visit was one where he toured four Central Asian capitals. He avoided Dushanbe which at the time was racked by a brutal civil war, but he visited all the other capitals.

In these capitals, he highlighted the point that China was an eager partner was sort of opening up, wanted to open up more in this direction, was very interested in two things we kind of discussed repeatedly at every stop. One was recreating the Old Silk Road and so creating connectivity across the region and the other was worrying about Uyghur militancy and Uyghur dissidents and extremists that the Chinese worried about in general -- that they feared would gather in Central Asia to ultimately cause trouble within China.

VOA: What is Central Asia’s place in China’s Xinjiang policy?

PANTUCCI: Central Asia plays a very important role in China’s Xinjiang policy. The Chinese government is ultimately preoccupied about national legitimacy. When we look at a region like Xinjiang, Xinjiang is in many ways I've always thought, the sixth or seventh Central Asian country from the sense that, you know, it's got within it this ethnic population of Uyghurs who are closer in ethnicity to the Turkic Central Asians than they are to Han Chinese who speak (a) language that is very close to the sort of Turkic populations rather than the Chinese ones. They've got a long history in this region.

But at the same time, Xinjiang is not an independent country. It is part of China and, what this means in sort of practical terms is that, as we've seen, that there is this connection. Now, if you go back and look at the sort of early days of the end of the Cold War, this was largely seen through a fairly threatening light. The concern was that these linkages across the border would basically be a source of problems and instability. And this continues to be a concern, but what has changed is that the degree to which China can see that actually in a long-term answer to stability in Xinjiang is not just the sort of heavy security pressure, which they will continue to exert, but actually long-term answer is economic prosperity and stability.

And the interpretation analysis is that through this economic prosperity, this will bring a kind of population which is happy and which will no longer protest and therefore, will bring stability to it. But if you are going to develop a region like Xinjiang, you're going to have to connect it up to the region it’s next to.

Central Asia plays such important role in China's thinking towards Xinjiang. If they are going to stabilize this region, make it more prosperous, they're going to have to create greater connectivity through this region. That was the thing they've been planning out for many years before the Belt and Road (Initiative) was articulated.

VOA: How do you sum up the Chinese influence in Central Asia?

PANTUCCI: I think the one thing that's very clear is (its) economic influence is very important and plays an important role, and I think that's both real in the sense that there is a lot of Chinese investment and there are a lot of Chinese opportunity. If you're a young Central Asian these days, I think learning Mandarin to enable you to go and trade directly in Chinese markets is something a lot of people want to do and think about because it's a great opportunity and it's the boom market. That kind of economic opportunity is really big, and I think is both real but also both a carrot (that) kind of always dangles there that people kind of want to take advantage of. …

But I think the one interesting question, which I think is the influence one, which I think is going to be an interesting one to observe going forward, is the volume of people who increasingly have this connection, personal connection to China, be that through the many scholarships that the Chinese government offers to the students in the region to go work there, to go and study in China to the many people who work in presidential administrations who got offers or civil servants in the region or security officials who also go to training program in China and speaks in Mandarin. I think that is going to have an interesting impact on the influence level.

VOA: What does China’s rise in Central Asia mean to the world and, in particular, to the U.S.?

PANTUCCI: I think it's significant that you now have a situation where China, I think historically was a much more maritime-focused power. And there's a lot of attention being paid to China's maritime power. I think in Washington's halls of power, that's where a lot of the attention focuses on the issue of Taiwan and people don't really look at what happens in Central Asia, in the Eurasian heartland, and people tend to disregard that. But what's happening there's a really fundamental geostrategic shift in China's direction. It's going to really spread Chinese influence across this wide space and bring it right up to Europe's borders. So for Europe this is desperately important because this is contiguous to the European territory and is deeply connected to Europe and (an) important part of Europe. And for the United States that means, you know, it's going to reshape the kind of Eurasian landmass and that is going to be significant for the United States as a kind of a global power.

China, I don't think is necessarily to (have) thought through the consequences of what having this influence and power actually means and what it means in terms of responsibilities.