The following is a book review of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire by Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen (Oxford University Press, 2022). If you are interested in finding out more about Sinostan, join China Foresight’s webinar with Raffaello Pantucci on 6 April 2022 by clicking here.
Two events have provided an interesting context for the publication of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire by Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen – the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Both are significant for determining China’s place in Central Asia’s future, the focus of Sinostan. In this book, Pantucci and Petersen make a compelling case that China’s growing role in Central Asia is led exclusively by its own narrow interests based on domestic imperatives, and that any local political implications of China’s role are merely by-products for Zhongnanhai: an “inadvertent empire”.
Sinostan is interspersed with accounts of candid conversations with migrant workers, businesspeople, diplomats, road builders, taxi drivers and travellers. Each anecdote brings a unique individual-level perspective of China’s growing role in Central Asia. They highlight the porous nature of China’s sprawling Western border with Central Asia, where the flow of goods and people in both directions gives renewed meaning to the name Xinjiang, which literally translates as “new frontier”.
These personal stories add immensely to Pantucci and Petersen’s portrayal of the region. When speaking of China in Central Asia, pundits tend to talk solely in terms of trade and investment and peddle the notion of BRI-led debt trap diplomacy. Chinese money funnelled through the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) is clearly driving enormous changes in the region. But beyond trade and geopolitics, important human-driven social and cultural forces are at play. The regular digressions made by Pantucci and Petersen are a welcome addition to a typically lacklustre discourse in this regard, and ultimately underpin the core arguments made in Sinostan.
This anecdotal approach lends itself particularly to the chapter on Afghanistan, where so much remains materially uncertain. Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar province, for example, a joint venture by two Chinese SOEs which was meant to be the single largest investment in Afghanistan to date, has seen little development since the initial contracts were signed. Many consider enthusiasm for the project to have fizzled out. But this is not so for those who expected to see the benefits of Mes Aynak’s related infrastructure. The authors describe how every time they talked to Afghans about China, the mine came up as a sticking point. Locals complained the Chinese companies didn’t seem to be in a hurry to resume work. Archaeologists claimed they were being used as an excuse to delay. These quandaries are outside China’s purview: Pantucci and Petersen argue that Afghanistan is emblematic of China’s reluctance to take on any kind of leadership, despite being “doomed to play a significant role” due to its economic clout and security interests.
The chapter on Xinjiang is also well put together, tracing the province’s steady transformation into the dystopian police state that we see today. Pantucci and Petersen’s key claim is that Xinjiang is the “golden thread” tying together China’s domestic and foreign policy in Central Asia: Beijing’s development and security concerns in Xinjiang are the foundation of China’s interaction with Central Asian countries. Equally, the authors reiterate the need to adopt a regional perspective in order to understand China’s systemic repression of not only Uighurs, but many of the ethnic Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik population in its borders. This should also be a key takeaway for those looking to coordinate policy responses at the international level.
Overall, the book presents an interesting two-pronged argument: firstly that the consequences of China’s growing role in in Central Asia are largely incidental or “inadvertent” from Chinese policy makers’ perspective; and secondly, that Central Asia should act as the paradigm with which we understand China’s future as a global power in the 21st century. For some this equation could be conflicting: surely an area where China is intentionally pursuing regional dominance, such as the South China Sea, gives a better window into China’s global power aspirations?
But when applied to the most pressing global event in recent weeks, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pantucci and Petersen’s argument seems to be correct: China’s apparent indifference as an influential power in Central Asia is a microcosm of its ambivalence on the global stage. As the authors write, “China prefers to stand back from any situation, to wait and see who comes out on top, and to then make deals with them. Should there be a period of uncertainty or chaos, their answer has been simply to make deals with everybody, refusing to make value judgments choices about the actors on the ground.” As such, Sinostan should be on the reading list of any individual who is trying to understand the China-Russia relationship in these uncertain times.
A comparative understanding of empire could have been an interesting addition to their analysis. For example, when speaking of an “inadvertent empire”, one thinks of the supposedly reluctant or informal historical extension of American power. Nonetheless, the authors maintain a strict focus on China and Central Asia to produce a rich and thought-provoking work.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.