…or Central Asia’s China Problem

By Alexandros Petersen

The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) latest report, “China’s Central Asia Problem” is a sweeping and masterful work in many ways.  As we traveled through and conducted research in eastern China, Xinjiang, post-Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan, Raffaello and I came across ICG researchers and bounced our ideas off of ICG’s seasoned Eurasia hand Paul Quinn-Judge.  The report kindly quotes a couple of our articles that appeared here on chinaincentralasia.com.

But, does the ICG report get it right?  Yes and no.  The overall point that China is on the brink of becoming the pre-eminent external power in the region, not just in the economic sphere, is correct.  We have argued that China is already the most consequential actor in Central Asia, as well as the most forward-looking external power.  In the context of a U.S., and more broadly Western, exit from the region, the engagement of multifarious Chinese actors – from diplomats to state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to shuttle traders to manual laborers and Chinese language teachers – combines to create a momentum that has no clear counterweight.  

ICG’s researchers are also correct to pinpoint the primary driver of Chinese policy in Central Asia: domestic concerns in restive, rapidly transforming Xinjiang.  This can seem like a paradox.  But, were China to craft a foreign policy strategy for Central Asia, it would almost certainly be less influential than it is now, where its policies towards the region are a sort of spillover from highly prioritized domestic policies.  The Develop the West strategy of achieving stability through prosperity in Xinjiang may or may not achieve its goal (it may succeed in spite of it self) of emasculating Uighur separatism and the appeal of Islamist extremism in western China, but the investment it is bringing to the comparatively small economies of Central Asia has an immense knock-on effect of advancing Beijing’s clout.

The hollow nature and practical ineffectiveness of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) can partly be explained by the fact that it is not bolstered by a major Chinese foreign policy push.  Rather, it is multilateral window dressing for the bilateral external aspects of China’s domestic Develop the West strategy.  Its main plank is to reassure Russia, as well as its four Central Asian members, that China’s activities are not threatening.  We have found significantly less evidence than the ICG researchers that China’s security arrangements in the region, including the SCO, are predicated on fears of spillover instability from Afghanistan post-2014.  Our impression has been that the Chinese are far more concerned about the potential for social or political unrest in the Ferghana Valley – a sort of Osh riots times ten scenario –  than terrorist networks spreading northward.

We differ with ICG on a major point of emphasis.  China may find that it has a number of problems to deal with in Central Asia – some of its own making, others neglected by regional governments and other outside powers.  But, what of the effect of China’s growing dominance for the peoples of the region?  Central Asia, including Afghanistan, is quickly shedding one hegemon for another.  At the same time, the region’s ability to seek alternative relationships with the United States or the European Union are diminishing.  The story of external powers in Central Asia is increasingly not about competition, but rather America and Russian acquiescence to Chinese suzerainty.

Such an outcome is detrimental to U.S. strategic interests.  This is not to say that the United States and China cannot cooperate on a number of fronts in the region.  In fact, in some key areas there is exemplary collaboration.  However, if the independent policymaking of Central Asian states is entirely undermined by China’s geoeconomic momentum, instead of ameliorating the threat of Turkic Muslim upheaval, it could spread the problems of Xinjiang to the rest of the region.  It goes without saying that Western powers would lose access to the strategically vital part of the Eurasian landmass.  On top of that, Washington and Brussels may find themselves not having to deal with future spillover effects of a violent Afghanistan, but rather a entire restive region that China has only half digested in a fit of absence of mind.

Dr. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.  His current research is available at www.chinaincentralasia.com.


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