This Is Stealth Empire: On Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen’s “Sinostan” and Franck Billé and Caroline Humphrey’s “On the Edge”

By Valerie HansenFebruary 3, 2023

This Is Stealth Empire: On Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen’s “Sinostan” and Franck Billé and Caroline Humphrey’s “On the Edge”

On the Edge: Life Along the Russia-China Border by Caroline Humphrey and Franck Billé
Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire by Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

AS THE WORLD recovers from the pandemic and international travel resumes, some places remain out of reach: the Russian Federation because of its invasion of Ukraine, for example, and Afghanistan because of Taliban rule. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has also been hard to reach because of its COVID-19 shutdowns, though this situation is suddenly shifting as I write this in mid-December 2022. It’s been easier throughout the early 2020s to visit Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan (a.k.a. the Five Stans) that border the three closed-off countries just listed. Only the most intrepid travelers, however, dare to venture to Central Asia at a time of such uncertainty.

This is also a time of great changes. Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire analyzes how the PRC has been increasing its influence in Central Asia, which the authors define as the Five Stans, Afghanistan, and Xinjiang. Raffaello Pantucci and his co-author Alexandros Petersen had almost finished the first draft of the book in January 2014, when Petersen was killed in a bombing incident in Afghanistan. Fluent in Chinese and Russian, both men have a deep affection for the region. They are clear-eyed about patterns of repression, but they sincerely believe that the Chinese authorities seek to foster economic growth in Central Asia because it will produce the prosperity that will lead to peace in Xinjiang.

It’s easy to understand why the two decided to co-author a book. They both love to travel in the region. It doesn’t seem that either lived anywhere in Central Asia for too long (all Pantucci says is that “[a]t various times we lived in this region or in China,” without giving specifics). At the time Petersen was killed, he was teaching political science at American University of Afghanistan. Pantucci worked in the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences before taking up his current positions at London’s Royal United Service Institute for Defence and Security Studies and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Pantucci uses the first-person plural for all meetings, even those that occurred after Petersen’s death, which is a little odd but saves him from having to explain each time who was present at a given interview.

The reader senses immediately that she is in good hands. The two authors have an unusual research method. They strike up conversations with anyone they can whenever they travel to the region for conferences or meetings (they received funding from the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and the Carnegie Endowment): the travelers they sit next to on planes, the people they run into in airport lounges, Chinese workers digging tunnels, vendors in markets — really anyone who is willing to talk to them. At one point, as they are in the waiting lounge of the Bishkek airport, they decide to chat with the Chinese businessman they had noticed when checking in; this man deftly sidesteps their questions about what he is doing there while showing them pictures of “a tall and severe looking Tajik security official in his full dress uniform.” And when a young Kyrgyz army officer comes over to join the conversation, he recognizes the security official in the photo, and the conversation continues in Mandarin until they depart. The book is filled with encounters like this.

Pantucci and Petersen have time for everyone, and they take careful notes on each encounter, which means that they can visit someone in a market on one occasion and then, five years later, visit the same individual who has by then established a bigger company — and learn everything that has happened since the first conversation. This makes for a lively narrative filled with real people and genuine human interest. Their broad subject is the gradual expansion of Chinese influence in the region, a phenomenon that they concede is difficult to measure.

By contrast, Franck Billé and Caroline Humphrey have spent much less time in the area they’re writing about: the border separating China and Russia. The writing in On the Edge: Life Along the Russia-China Border doesn’t flow with the same confidence as Petersen and Pantucci’s because they stretch their material to the point where it stops being interesting. Billé devotes fully four figures and parts of two chapters to drawings done by Russian and Chinese students of the Russian town of Blagoveshchensk and the nearby Chinese town of Heihe to demonstrate that Russian students with ties to the Chinese see the two towns as more closely linked than those who don’t know any Chinese. Both Billé and Humphrey are skilled ethnographers, but they depend on newspapers, blogs, and other online sources; this may well become the norm for research about Central Asia in the future, but their account is often flat as a result.

To be fair, Billé and Humphrey have less to write about than Pantucci and Petersen. There simply isn’t that much activity taking place along and across the Chinese-Russian border. They do highlight a key difference between China and Russia: “the Chinese propensity for real (albeit authoritarian) participatory assimilation, in contrast to the Russian predisposition for top-down bureaucratic control and misleading claims.” In other words, the Chinese in the region have enough money and organizational skills to complete their projects quickly, while the Russian side rarely finishes anything. The Tongjiang–Nizhneleninskoye bridge connecting Tongjiang, China, with a small village named Nizhneleninskoye in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast provides a good example. The Chinese completed 6,200 feet of the bridge soon after the project was launched in 2013; by 2020 (when the book went to press), the Russians had not built their 1,000 feet (the bridge was completed only in August 2021).

The main finding of On the Edge fits perfectly with the expansion of Chinese influence and the decline of Russian power that Pantucci and Petersen analyze so skillfully. The Belt and Road Initiative, announced by Xi Jinping in 2013, is a key element in their narrative. Their analysis of two pipelines — the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) gas pipeline, which starts on the right bank of the Amu Darya river and connects Turkmenistan’s gas to China’s east coast cities over 10,000 kilometers away, and the Kazakhstan–China oil pipeline — is one of the most interesting parts of Pantucci and Petersen’s consistently engaging book.

Kazakhstan and China signed an agreement to build an oil pipeline in 1997. Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev had reservations about being too dependent on Russia early on; many suspect that his decision, also made in 1997, to relocate the capital to the interior city of Astana aimed to prevent the invasion of the former capital, Almaty. Kazakhstan may have approached China in an effort to minimize Russian control, but the Chinese negotiated so skillfully that the “CNPC now controls more of Kazakhstan’s oil output than any single Western oil company.”

The tale of the Turkmen gas pipeline is even more fascinating. In 2008, when the British consulting firm GaffneyCline announced that Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves were the fourth largest in the world, many countries took notice. In late 2016, the gas pipeline to China was built in an extraordinary 18 months, completely cutting Russia off from these natural gas reserves. Not everything has been smooth: some Turkmen officials complained in “mysterious non-specific terms” to the authors that the Chinese were not ideal partners because their demand for natural gas fluctuated unpredictably. When the Chinese didn’t buy gas after the pandemic began, the Turkmens suffered shortages of cash. But the Turkmen effort to find other customers, notably in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, has failed so far.

The authors are clearheaded. When you consider all of China’s energy imports, the amount of oil and natural gas from Central Asia is less than 10 percent. But it’s likely that the Chinese demand for natural gas will increase in the future. More importantly, if the PRC ever lost access to the Malacca Strait, the gas and oil from Central Asia would continue to flow because no enemy power can block it.

Sinostan’s coverage of Xinjiang is just as insightful as that of the two pipelines. Unlike so many accounts that depict the 2009 uprisings as the start of the current situation, Pantucci and Petersen begin their narrative earlier, with the efforts of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or Bingtuan (“The Corps”), to develop agriculture in Xinjiang after 1949. In 1994, then-premier Li Peng traveled to Central Asia and made a speech in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in which he made a promise: “China will make every effort to […] develop friendly relations and cooperation with all countries, especially the neighboring nations on the basis of the five principles of peaceful coexistence.” His announcement shows that the Chinese government was thinking about Central Asia some 19 years before Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative.

Sinostan covers the nongovernmental sides as well, by pointing out lesser-known pre-2009 protests in Xinjiang: the 1990 uprising in Baren, outside Kashgar near the Chinese border with Tajikistan, which was partly prompted by forced sterilizations and abortions of Uyghurs; a 1997 skirmish that killed dozens in Yining; and bomb attacks in Ürümqi in the same year. The story of how growing tensions in Xinjiang led to mass incarcerations of non-Han people in reeducation camps is not new, but Sinostan gives a longer, more detailed chronology than do most observers.

China is offering considerable aid to the governments of the Stans but, interestingly, not requiring the recipients to support every single PRC policy. Kazakhstan’s courts, for example, have in some cases granted asylum to Chinese Kazakhs so that they do not have to return to China where they are likely to be detained. This may be the key reason for China’s success with the different governments of the Stans. The Chinese don’t insist on total adherence to all Chinese policies. The Chinese are willing to wait for the various governments in Central Asia to come around to their point of view. Unlike the Russians, who view the Stans as a bloc and expect them to obey all Russian initiatives, Sinostan explains that the Chinese often treat each of the Stans as a separate entity and tend to respect their desire to maintain their independent views.

Pantucci and Petersen’s analysis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and, as part of SCO, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) illuminates why this seemingly unimportant organization is actually extremely important. Originally founded as the “Shanghai Five” after meeting in Shanghai in April 1996, the organization initially included China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia — but not Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Mongolia, or Belarus. The group added Uzbekistan in 2001 and renamed itself the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO charter specifies that every member has to approve any decisions the organization makes, with the result that the organization doesn’t make decisions quickly. Even though the SCO did not support Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia or 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Russia continues to belong.

Because the group meets every year (no matter where the summit occurs, the Chinese pay the bill), rapport among the members has developed. Courses mounted by RATS give the security forces of the member nations a chance to get to know one another. Even though participants may not share a common language, they have a chance to grow accustomed to one another. And many of the RATS members purchase Chinese weapons and anti-terrorism technology, such as facial recognition software. In 2015–17, one of China’s greatest foreign policy successes was placing Chinese troops on the Tajik-Afghan border as part of joint border patrols.

Early in the pandemic, Russia sent home many of its guest workers from the Stans, cutting off the flow of remittances that help sustain the economies of their home nations. In sharp contrast, China offered extensive help, financed by different regions: planes filled with medical equipment, doctors, and personal protective equipment. As a result, most SCO members grew closer to China than to Russia.

Sinostan is a deeply researched book that makes for fascinating reading. It has only one serious shortcoming: the claim in its subtitle — that this region is “China’s Inadvertent Empire” — which the book puts forward throughout. The PRC has no sustained policy in Central Asia, they argue, as they meet with various experts on the Chinese side who describe no unified foreign policy in the area. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Pantucci and Petersen that an initiative might succeed in such a sensitive region precisely because it is not publicly articulated.

What does China have to show in return? A gas pipeline direct to Turkmenistan, an oil pipeline to Kazakhstan, Chinese troops on the Tajik-Afghan border, a growing customer basis for China’s anti-terrorism technologies. These are major foreign policy successes, which Sinostan shows are the product of sustained, light-handed initiatives. This is not “inadvertent empire” as the book’s subtitle promises; this is stealth empire. And Pantucci and Petersen have done Anglophone readers a huge service in explaining precisely how that stealth empire is expanding.


Valerie Hansen teaches world and Chinese history at Yale University. Her most recent book is The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World — and Globalization Began (2020).

LARB Contributor

Valerie Hansen teaches world and Chinese history at Yale University. Her most recent book is The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World — and Globalization Began (2020).


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