Inadvertent Empire

Alexandros Petersen is interviewed by The Gadfly on April 16, 2013

The Gadfly: You have referred to China’s growing influence in Central Asia as an “Inadvertent Empire.”  Could you explain what you mean?

Alexandros Petersen: It’s an inadvertent empire in the sense that China is already the most consequential actor in the region and will soon be the dominant actor in a number of different areas.  It already is the dominant actor in the economic sphere and definitely so in the energy sector, which is actually quite a significant accomplishment given Russia’s traditional role in that area.  China has also become the go to place for loans and investments.  One of the key needs in Central Asia is investment in infrastructure, and that requires funds.  Russia doesn’t have the money; the United States doesn’t have the money in some cases and simply doesn’t care in others; the European Union is not comfortable giving money because of the nature of some of the regimes in the region, so China is really the only option to provide funding as well as institutional capacity building.  So, it’s an empire in the sense that China is the player to watch and will be the dominate player in the future, but it’s inadvertent, in the sense that China doesn’t really have a strategy for the region.  China doesn’t want an empire.  As Seeley would say, it has an empire “in a fit of absence of mind.”

What China does have is a strategy for its piece of Central Asia: the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  I’m referring to the “Develop the West” policy, which started working overtime in 2009 after the ethnic riots in Xinjiang.  The riots were a blow not just to the economy of Xinjiang, but also the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.  China’s reaction, in the form of the “Develop the West” strategy, was to bring economic investment to Xinjiang in the hope that investment will lead to economic prosperity and therefore stability.  China’s strategy in Central Asia is mainly a domestic strategy, but there is a spillover effect.  There’s a sense that the states around Xinjiang (particularly Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) should be factored into the strategy, if only as a cordon of somewhat prosperous and secure states around Xinjiang.  What China doesn’t want is for Uyghur separatists or terrorists to have bases across the border.  So, China knows vaguely what it wants from Central Asia, but it does not have an actual strategy.

“China knows vaguely what it wants from Central Asia, but it does not have an actual strategy.”


The Gadfly: What about the quote by the People’s Liberation Army General Liu Yazhou you mention in your article, referring to Central Asia as “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.”  Does that suggest some people in China do see gaining a foothold in Central Asia as a goal in and of itself?

Alexandros Petersen: Two things: first, of the various state institutions, only the PLA has a sense of Central Asia’s importance.  You might think the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would be interested, but it has no one really working on this area, there isn’t even a Kazakhstan desk in the ministry.  There are people working on Central Asia in other contexts, but no one actually focuses on Central Asia.  At the Politburo, they only see Central Asia as a neighbor to Xinjiang.  You see this reflexed in the sorts of diplomats that are sent to the region; they are usually not the top level Beijing has to offer.  The PLA, however, given its large role historically in Xinjiang, is aware of the strategic importance of Eurasian geopolitics—they are aware of Mackinder’s theories concerning Central Asia as the heart of the Eurasia and the importance of the area to the United States over the past ten years.  That said, the PLA has not devoted many resources towards dealing with Central Asia.  They may well do so in the future, but not yet.

Second, General Liu referred to Central Asia as “a slice of cake.”  The reason he put it that way is because of the obvious benefits China could gain by tapping into Central Asia’s natural resources.  If you look at the grand scheme of things—for instance, where China gets its oil and gas—Central Asia only provides a tiny sliver of China’s resources globally; however, Central Asia is still important given China’s rapacious appetite for natural resources and its geographic location.

A lot of China’s expansion in the region is driven by forces outside the Chinese government.  Given Central Asia’s abundant natural resources, its close proximity to China, and fading Russian capacity, China’s state-owned enterprises see Central Asia as a great opportunity for expansion.  Chinese companies feel they have an advantage over other external players in the region, and they would like to build on that.

“…of the various state institutions, only the People’s Liberation Army has a sense of Central Asia’s importance.”


The Gadfly: Why would Chinese companies have an advantage in the region?

Alexandros Petersen: They do have an advantage in that they are often able to make upfront investments of large sums.  They are also willing to deal with business practices and corruption when other companies are not.  And when Chinese investments come into Central Asia, they arrive with no strings attached: no talk about good governance, no lectures on corruption, etc.  Those are objective facts.  What the Chinese also claim is that they understand Central Asian culture.  That, I think, may be more their perception than reality.  But back to the first point, although there are no strings attached at the moment, there may be demands in the future: not tied to good governance, but favors that have to be repaid by Central Asian governments in political and security terms.  That’s when China’s empire becomes less inadvertent.

The Gadfly:  Do we see any signs of that happening now?  Is China starting to formulate a policy for the region, or make demands in return for its investments?

Alexandros Petersen: Maybe on a very limited basis, but I wouldn’t say we’ve seen that change yet.  I would be surprised if we don’t see it happen in the near future.  Probably after 2014 when the United States pulls out of Afghanistan.  When they do decide to make that move, they will be able to build off of their current position and structures like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The Gadfly:  What are the perceptions locally of China’s involvement in Central Asia?  Is China a welcome presence, or are there some reservations among the local elite?

Alexandros Petersen: There are differences between the five post-Soviet countries and Afghanistan, and there are differences between various factions within those countries. Kazakhstan has tried to strike a balance between Western, Russian and Chinese investments and political influence, but it seems the trend is towards more Chinese influence.  In the long run, I think they will end up leaning more towards China.  In Uzbekistan, they have been far more wary of Chinese influence—it is there, but they are more careful.  The future of China in Uzbekistan is unpredictable.  Kyrgyzstan is already overwhelmed by Chinese investment, and they have very little choice other than to look towards more Chinese involvement.  Tajikistan is headed in the same direction.  Turkmenistan is the really interesting case.  If you look on paper, it appears Turkmenistan is very reliant on China.  Most of its natural gas goes to China—the Turkmenistan-China pipeline is its major lifeline.  At the same time, because Turkmenistan is such a closed place, because it is so heavily managed at the top, and because they are making clear concerted efforts to diversify their links, Turkmenistan may in the long run find it has more options than its neighbors.  Afghanistan is desperate for money from anywhere.  The US embassy in Kabul has resigned itself to working with the Chinese and has already done so on a number of different projects.  Compare that to the recent past, when the narrative in the United States was that China was free riding on our security efforts, now the United States would just be happy if it could leave Afghanistan with some economic stability.

“When Chinese investments come into Central Asia, they arrive with no strings attached: no talk about good governance, no lectures on corruption, etc.”


The Gadfly: What are the major challenges from internal and external players China faces in Central Asia?

Alexandros Petersen: First, let’s talk about external actors.  The primary purpose of the SCO was to reassure Russia that China had no interest in undermining Russia’s influence in the region.  If China could find a way to move into the region without jeopardizing Russia’s role as the dominant power, it would.  So, the SCO sends a signal that although China is moving into the region, it still respects Russia’s sphere of influence.  China can take advantage of the current system, because it leaves Russia to address security issues.  And the West is not a significant challenge to Chinese presence.  China only has to worry about competing with Western companies, and they are used to doing that in other parts of the world.

The main concern China has in the region is internal stability.  What will happen when the current leaders are no longer around?  They are less worried about terrorism from Afghanistan and more worried about what happens if the Fergana valley explodes during a sloppy handoff of power.

The Gadfly: Is there a danger of local backlash against Chinese presence?  How do non-elites in Central Asia see China?

Alexandros Petersen: We have to take into account the fact that during the Soviet Era, the Chinese were seen as a great “other,” and many Central Asians see Chinese as invading outsiders.  Central Asians also sympathize to some extent with the Uyghur population in China, and that adds a little more tension to the relationship.  That is something that will be hard for China to overcome.

China is aware of the problem, but it is not addressing the issue in a concerted way.  There are things that Chinese companies are doing—think of it as Corporate Social Responsibility with Chinese Characteristics—to reach out to communities, and they are doing much more than even three years ago.  They have realized they need to be more involved in the communities, in which they are investing and at least pay lip service to environmental and labor issues.

“I would say Political Islam is more capable than either Russia or the West of affecting China’s future influence in the region.”


The Gadfly:  Has there been an effort by the Chinese government to bolster its image in the region?

Alexandros Petersen: China has done some of that, what with building Confucian Institutes and so on, but we should be careful not to overestimate their effectiveness.  I do think, however, that Chinese as a language is gaining influence.  Increasingly, English is the second language of the elite, but the middle class is interested in Chinese, because it provides the best opportunity for making money.  English is not as useful if you don’t have the money to pay for an education in the West and make connections there.

The Gadfly:  What trends should we be watching in order to get an idea where China’s relations with Central Asia are headed?

Alexandros Petersen: One of the most important things to watch is the transfer of power.  We now have 20 years of post-soviet governance.  The next generation of leaders is not going to look like the current one.  That could have broad implications for China.  A nationalist leader in Kazakhstan, for instance, might play off sinophobic sentiment to consolidate power.  On the other hand, a leader that wants to move away from Russia might be more open to Chinese involvement.

We should also watch Political Islam in the region.  Political Islam will almost certainly be anti-Chinese.  In the future, we may see secular, China-oriented political factions competing for power with Gulf-oriented, Islamist political factions.  The AKP in Turkey took power by appealing to religious small businessmen in Anatolia.  I could see a similar situation emerge in Central Asia.  I would say Political Islam is more capable than either Russia or the West of affecting China’s future influence in the region.


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