The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in 2021 represented more than an end to the long war in the country. It also marked a decisive pivot on the part of the USA away from continental Asia and towards the Indo-Pacific. States in the surrounding region that had grown used to the presence of US troops over twenty years were confronted with a sudden vacuum. Not only had the US military gone but with it too American money, attention and political energy. A few months later, the Russian invasion of Ukraine started to pose questions about the staying power of the region’s other dominant outside influence. The capacity of Russia, militarily drained and economically fragile, to shape outcomes across Central Asia looks considerably lessened. Across Eurasia, the big question is what this will mean for the role of the newest superpower on the block, the People’s Republic of China.
Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen’s Sinostan thus appears at an opportune moment. It was originally a joint effort and benefits from their work and travels in Central Asia over the course of a decade, but the project was ultimately completed by Pantucci alone following the tragic murder of Petersen in Kabul in 2014. It offers a picture of both high politics and ground realities – of crisscrossing trade routes and contested cultural identities. If there is one thing you take away from the book, it is a feeling of what China’s growing influence actually amounts to in the dusty corners and scrappy trading outposts of Central Asia, where Beijing, Washington and Moscow seem impossibly far away.
The book’s subtitle, ‘China’s Inadvertent Empire’, looks all the more apposite given the events that have transpired since the manuscript was finished. The authors recognise that while this part of the world ‘has traditionally been considered a second rank concern for American and Western policymakers, who saw it