Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen’s Sinostan is a thorough look at China’s increasing influence in the neighbouring Central Asia region, one that has allowed it to amass an “inadvertent empire”, as the book’s subtitle put it.
In recent years, the region has bestowed part of the name of China’s ambitious trade gambit, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), named for the historic Silk Road, which connected China and western Asia. Chinese president Xi Jinping first announced the plans for the BRI on a visit to the Kazakh capital Astana (now Nur-Sultan) in 2013. But things have been far from smooth, with the authors noting increasing discontent among locals in Central Asian countries at being shunted out of employment at Chinese oil and mining companies. Rising Sinophobia has even forced certain high-ranking officials such as former Kazakh prime minister Karim Massimov to play down their ability to speak Mandarin.
The promised trade has yet to materialise on a scale Beijing has expected but, for all the resentment in Central Asian countries, there is widespread acceptance they are increasingly reliant on China. Afghanistan is also a focus of concern for the Chinese government, which is at pains to avoid getting embroiled as western powers have done in the past. Beijing has cultivated a working relationship with the Taliban, both before and since the radical Islamists returned to power last year. This is largely to head off possible support for extremists in Xinjiang, who targeted China’s embassy with a suicide bombing in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek in 2016.
Beijing’s heavy-handed reaction to previous insurgencies in Xinjiang, with its mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslims, has drawn accusations of genocide from western countries. It has also made a fractious region, in which China has had an intermittent presence for almost two millennia, even more so. The Xinjiang that Pantucci and Petersen depict is far from the harmonious ethnic theme park of Chinese state propaganda, but rather an outpost on edge, where Uyghurs and Han Chinese alike are increasingly alienated from one another.
Sinostan is an invaluable work on a relatively obscure region and is surprisingly vivid for an academically minded text, with much fascinating detail from the authors’ travels across the vast region. It is also poignant in that Pantucci was left to finish the book alone, after Petersen was killed in a Taliban attack on a restaurant in Kabul in 2014.