By Raffaello Pantucci
First appeared in Reuters October 4, 2013
In his seminal article from October 2012 advocating for China’s ‘March Westwards’ Beijing University Dean of International Relations Wang Jisi spoke of a ‘new silk road [that] would extend from China’s eastern ports, through the center of Asia and Europe, to the eastern banks of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean coastal countries in the west.’ In addition to this route to Europe, ‘A major route from China’s western regions through the Indian Ocean should also be constructed as quickly as possible.’ An ambitious geopolitical sketch of the world seen from Beijing, but one that is being brought to life under President Xi Jinping, whose recent tour of Central Asia provided some definition of what exactly China is aiming for in its western relationships.
There were many significant moments during President Xi’s tour of Central Asia. He planted a tree and opened the CNPC-managed gas field at Galkynysh in Turkmenistan, in Uzbekistan he signed agreements with an aging Islam Karimov, in Kyrgyzstan he attended an SCO Summit and deals worth $3 billion (a small sum compared to investments in neighbors, but nonetheless a substantial amount for Kyrgyzstan whose 2012 GDP $6.5 billion), and in Kazakhstan he presided over the signing of deals worth $30 billion and gave a keynote speech at Nazarbayev University. In many ways, it was this speech that provided the clearest insight into China’s strategy towards Central Asia, outlining a ‘silk road economic belt’ that would ‘open up the transportation channel from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea.’
Five days after President Xi gave this keynote address in Kazakhstan, the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, Sun Weidong, gave an equally ambitious speech at the National Defence University in Islamabad. In between platitudes about China and Pakistan being ‘brothers’ he spoke of the ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ that brings together ‘the transportation infrastructure, the energy and economic zones along the corridor, which will organically combine China’s ‘Western Development’ strategy and ‘Opening up to the West’ policy together with [a] Pakistani blueprint for national development.’ China’s strategy in Pakistan is both integrally bound into Pakistan and China’s national development.
These two speeches illustrate the greater vision that Professor Wang was talking about. A ‘silk road economic belt’ to bring European markets closer to China, as a ‘organic’ binding transforms Pakistan into a highway for Chinese goods to get to the Indian Ocean. The ultimate aim for Beijing: to reconnect its western province Xinjiang to the world and open it up for trade. Under-developed and riven with ethnic tensions that continue to spill over into violence, Beijing’s solution is an economic development strategy that needs routes to markets. Hence a highway through Central Asia to Europe and a path through Pakistan to the Indian Ocean.
The odd man out in this broader vision is Afghanistan that sits squarely in between these two routes. China has invested in some routes through the country, but these are at best subsidiary paths to the outer edges of the routes from Central Asia to Xinjiang or possibly a longer-term vision to directly correct Iran to China. But where Afghanistan can play a spoiler in this plan is to disrupt broader regional stability – in particular in Pakistan where a difficult situation on the ground will likely get further exacerbated by a negative outcome post-2014 in Afghanistan. In Central Asia a similar threat exists, but appears far less existential – militant groups previously occupied fighting western forces in Afghanistan may flow back home to Central Asia, but they are unlikely to have the sorts of numbers necessary to overthrow regimes. Nevertheless, an unstable Afghanistan would have negative repercussions on the region and all of this would displace China’s broader strategy.
The grander Chinese vision may be imperiled by potentially negative fall-out in Afghanistan, but the reality is that there are numerous short-term problems that are already hindering the situation. Pakistani instability has always presented a problem for Chinese firms: back in September 2011 China Kingho pulled out of a massive investment in southern Sindh in fear of the security of its workers (though this now may be back on). And the investment climate in Kyrgyzstan is so difficult that in late 2012 Li Deming, the head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in the country wrote an op-ed in Global Times highlighting all the difficulties Chinese firms faced in the country.
Difficulties notwithstanding, China is making moves to fulfill the reality of the broader vision. There is already a route for goods to go from China to Europe by rail, and it is already possible to travel by road from Kashgar to Gwadar through Pakistan. And Chinese firms are working to re-develop these routes either using national development banks or through the Asian Development Bank. As the world looks elsewhere, China is re-wiring the infrastructure of its western neighbors to bind them ‘organically’ into Beijing’s domestic development strategy.