Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.
There will not be an episode of Talking China In Eurasia this week. I’m on the road reporting at the moment, but please stay tuned as there are some exciting new developments in store for the podcast.
I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish, and here’s what I’m following right now.
What Beijing Is Learning From The Western Response To Ukraine
Greetings from Bratislava, where I’m at GLOBSEC, an international strategic conference that’s gathered leaders and thinkers from across Europe.
The mood here is generally positive because of how the West has managed to stick together over nearly 16 months of war in Ukraine, but an undercurrent of anxiety is growing over how fragile that unity is.
Finding Perspective: The focus of the conference is squarely on Europe and the fallout from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The West has so far managed to surprise many of its critics since the onset of the war, but there are concerns over Western unity for continued military support for Kyiv and a waning appetite to keep enforcing sanctions. With many elections on the horizon across the West in the next few years -- from Slovakia to the United States -- there’s also worry that new populist and isolationist politicians could widen the cracks that are appearing now.
China has not been a centerpiece of the conversation here, but I sat down on the sidelines of the conference with Roy Chun Lee, Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister, for a wide-ranging interview.
Lee’s main point was that Taiwan and Ukraine’s fates are linked together and that the best way to deter China over Taiwan is to support Kyiv against Moscow.
“Until a final victory arrives, defending Ukraine against Russia has [direct] implications for Taiwan,” the senior Taiwanese diplomat told me. “In particular, it shows the potential support that we will receive from our democratic allies in the case of a Chinese military invasion.”
Why It Matters: Beijing views Taiwan as a rogue province and has vowed to unify it with mainland China -- even by force, if necessary. U.S. President Joe Biden has also vowed to defend the island if it’s attacked, fueling concerns that Taiwan could be the next geopolitical flashpoint after Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In our conversation, Lee offered a generally positive, but by no means stellar, report card for the West’s support for Ukraine.
While he said that Ukraine’s successful, Western-supported defense of its territory has so far had a deterring effect on China, he adds that Beijing is assessing the war over a “longer time span” and is closely following cracks within Western unity.
“I think China is waiting to see what happens two years from now, and three years from now, and if the Western democratic camp will be able to hold their position,” he added.
He was also quick to push back against increasing statements from some Republican voices in Congress that aid for Ukraine is limiting Taipei’s defenses and should be scaled back.
Lee said that Taiwanese leadership “does not agree with that” and that the best form of support for the island nation of 24 million at the moment is to avoid “making the same mistakes twice” with China that were made with Russia in the years before February 2022.
“That’s why we’re asking everybody to support Ukraine. It’s the best way to deter China,” he told me.
Expert Corner: Why Taiwan Is Urging The West Not To Abandon Ukraine
Here are a few more notable passages from my interview with Lee.
On Macron’s Taiwan comments in April: “Of course, everyone was a little bit confused about the signal that President [Emmanuel] Macron was sending.
“I don't think France is trying to play this appeasement game anymore. [Macron] is just keeping with their strategic autonomous approach in relation to the U.S.”
On the connection between Ukraine and Taiwan: “It’s too late already for us to stop Russia, but I think we still have time to build up our solidarity to deter China from making the worst-case scenario into reality.
“Taiwan has benefited from the very fact that it was Russia who invaded Ukraine before China invaded Taiwan.… We can learn [from Ukraine], and we can start to accelerate the preparations along with the United States and European countries.”
On Taipei’s relations with Europe: “I think the Czech Republic and Slovakia are demonstrating in a very ambitious way that you can do a lot of substantive work with Taiwan without violating your One China policy.
“I think we're looking at a model [set by Bratislava and Prague] that we would like to see increasing in a number of European countries that will take a similar pragmatic approach.
“We're seeing more countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, assess the situation pragmatically and start to follow the footsteps of the leadership set by Slovakia and the Czech Republic.”
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. Unpacking The Summit In Xi’an
China hosted a landmark summit in Xi’an on May 18-19 with Central Asian leaders, signaling Beijing’s growing attention to the region at a time when Russia, its long-standing hegemon, is seeing its influence wane.
What You Need To Know: The summit in Xi'an was complete with sparkle as Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave a lavish, red-carpet welcome to Central Asia's leaders that was rich in symbolism despite sometimes being light on substance and details.
In terms of the most notable takeaways, we saw Chinese promises to invest billions of dollars more in Central Asia's economies and calls to open up China's own economy to Central Asian businesses.
For Central Asian leaders, that's welcome news, especially after years of pandemic-era measures that left borders closed and Central Asian trade restricted.
But beyond the economic focus of Xi's so-called "new paradigm" for relations with Central Asia were calls to deepen cooperation on defense and security, two areas where China has generally been hesitant to deepen its footprint.
According to a summary delivered by Chinese state media, “Xi stressed that China is ready to help Central Asian countries improve their law enforcement, security, and defense-capacity building in an effort to safeguard regional peace.”
But beyond those loud pronouncements, few details emerged from Xi's statements, and we're left to speculate about where this might lead.
Tajikistan is of particular interest to Beijing as the only country bordering both China and Afghanistan. It has already been a focal point of Beijing's limited security cooperation in the region by hosting Chinese border outposts and having already accepted Chinese funding for the construction of a police base in 2021.
A potential early area of cooperation could be reviving anti-terrorism drills on a bilateral basis with Tajikistan, which have been carried out in the past, or looking to use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) again as a vehicle for security exercises with the region, which China did on a limited basis previously.
China's focus has been and continues to be its own domestic security and it sees Central Asia as an extension of that.
The focus on policing and counterterrorism highlights this and is the latest step in Beijing's long-term strategy for the region, which is not to break the previous status quo but rather to rewrite many of the rules on China's terms.
2. A Russian Visit To Beijing And Pipeline Politics
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visited Beijing on May 24 to meet with Chinese Premier Li Qiang, where he hailed growing economic ties between the two countries and said that Western pressure is pushing them closer together.
What It Means: Mishustin’s visit was another sign of Beijing’s enduring support for Moscow amid its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian prime minister cited government statistics that said that bilateral trade turnover between China and Russia may reach $200 billion this year and that Russia will continue exporting hydrocarbons to China on a “long-term basis” and that Moscow is ready to significantly increase agricultural exports to China.
But Mishustin left Beijing without a clear commitment from China on Power of Siberia 2, a long-prized gas pipeline project that could transform Asian energy flows.
The Power of Siberia -- a different Russian pipeline to China -- was launched in 2019 and is expected to reach its maximum capacity of 38 billion cubic meters per year by 2024.
The Power of Siberia 2 is particularly important as it looks to supply China with gas from Russia’s northeastern Yamal Peninsula, which historically served the European market through several pipelines, including Nord Stream, whose supplies had ceased to flow in disputes with the EU even before it was sabotaged in 2022.
Analysts believe that Beijing is taking its time in talks with Moscow as part of a negotiating strategy to secure a lower price for gas through the pipeline.
In the meantime, China has been pursuing alternatives. At the summit in Xi’an, Beijing pushed for the construction of the so-called Line D pipeline, which would be China’s fourth in the region bringing gas from Turkmenistan.
3. Pakistan And Debt
Pakistan’s economic woes are continuing to grow and putting China’s lending practices under scrutiny.
The Details: Pakistan expects China to roll over more than $2 billion in debt that’s due in June, but Islamabad is still bracing itself for other repayment deadlines that risk tipping the country into default.
With a crucial International Monetary Fund (IMF) lending program stalled, Pakistan has about $3.7 billion in overseas debt due in May and in June against its current foreign reserves of just $4.3 billion.
That economic pressure has led to some calls for debt forgiveness from Beijing -- something that China has traditionally been reluctant to provide.
Earlier this year, Beijing rolled over some loans to Pakistan, and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang pledged continued financial support during a recent visit.
Pakistan, which has long relied on lenders such as the IMF and China to finance its budget deficits, is trapped in one of the worst economic crises in its history.
The mounting debt in Pakistan and elsewhere has renewed criticism that Beijing is engaged in so-called “debt trap diplomacy,” despite many experts pushing back on this notion.
Chinese lending -- much of which has come under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative over the last decade -- has come from dozens of banks in the country that have tended to be uncoordinated and haphazard.
Rather, experts such as Brad Parks, the executive director of AidData, a research lab at Virginia's William & Mary, have argued that Chinese lenders are unwilling to take losses because it could cause fallout at home where many are grappling with reckless lending to China’s real estate sector and a slowing domestic economy.
“They’re kind of making it up as they go along. There is no master plan,” Parks recently told the Associated Press.
Across The Supercontinent
Flowing East: Uzbekistan has resumed natural gas exports to China, sending volumes worth $40.5 million in April, RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service reports.
Railing On: One of the concrete deliverables from China’s Central Asia summit was that a trilateral document for the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway was signed that details its next steps, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported.
A feasibility study has already been completed; next comes the development of more detailed designs and a financing scheme for the project, according to the document.
'That's For The Historians To Decide': Fu Cong, China’s ambassador to the EU, recently gave a wide-ranging interview to the New Statesman magazine.
Among many notable passages, Fu -- when asked why China has not condemned Russia’s invasion -- said Beijing has its “own diplomatic style. I think at this stage actually a simple condemnation does not solve the problem. It may reduce your space for diplomacy.”
When asked if Russia started the war, he said: “That’s for the historians to decide.”
Iron Brothers: Earlier this month, Pakistan was plunged back into political turmoil after former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested, sparking protests and violence across the country. But what does it mean for China?
Listen to my Talking China In Eurasia podcast, where guest Daud Khattak, the managing editor for RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, explains how the latest instability could strain ties between Islamabad and Beijing.
One Thing To Watch
Tesla and Twitter billionaire Elon Musk visited China for the first time in three years and met with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
China is Tesla's second-largest market after the United States, and its Shanghai plant is the electric carmaker's largest production hub.
The trip comes as Tesla is grappling with multiple issues, including intensifying competition with Chinese automaker that are exporting their locally made electric vehicles as demand in the world's largest auto market weakens.
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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