By Alexandros Petersen
In a year of potential flux across Central Asia, one trend should remain constant: China’s relentless expansion of influence in the region. As Western forces withdraw (in one configuration or another) from Afghanistan, the Manas Transit Center closes in Kyrgyzstan and the United States diplomatic, development and security cooperation efforts are precipitously decreased in the area between the Black Sea and the Pamirs, leaders in the region are preparing for a reality in which they will have to balance Russia’s bombastic pugnacity with China’s economic steamroller. While it would be ideal for the locals, so to speak, to carve out their own geopolitical and economic space, this task is made more difficult with the loss of a non-Eurasian great power as a potential partner.
Were Washington wise, it would view the Afghanistan withdrawal as an opportunity to recast its Eurasia policy as one that engages the countries of the region on their merits – not as thoroughfares for Afghanistan or adjuncts to Russia. A recent excellent blog post by the team at Central Eurasia Standard highlights the long list of U.S. interests that should and will inevitably draw Washington policymakers to address Eurasia’s fluid dynamics: http://cestandard.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/10-reasons-the-us-foreign-policy-community-cant-afford-to-ignore-eurasia/
Meanwhile, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) continues to expand its energy network from the Caspian to Karamay. The latest piece was put into place on the last day of 2013, when the Kyrgyz parliament ratified a deal for CNPC to build an alternative route for the Central Asia-China pipeline through Kyrgyzstan. This network, which is set to encompass all six Central Asian states, including Afghanistan, not only brings gas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Chinese consumers, but distributes gas in the region, giving CNPC notable geopolitical leverage with regional governments – a tool that only Russia’s Gazprom used to enjoy. CNPC plans continue to fluctuate, but future pipeline routes to Tajikistan, southern Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan seem to be in the offing.
The ever insightful Chris Rickleton, writing for Eurasianet, highlights an interesting trend line, which could color Chinese approaches to investment across Central Asia: namely the simmering puissance of Sinophobia: http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67928 While the rise of extortion of and attacks on Chinese in the region will likely not stem the flow of investment and manpower coming from the east, it could stake certain communities against the Chinese presence more generally and/or force official Beijing to take a more active role in guiding the growth of what Raffaello Pantucci and I have called China’s Inadvertent Empire in the region.
It is encouraging to see that the narrative we have been promoting for over two years – that as the United States pivots to the Asia-Pacific, China pivots to Eurasia – is gaining steam in a number of outlets, most recently on Al Jazeera (http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/1/the-us-s-pivot-eastchinasmarchwest.html). However, it is worth noting that a lot of often non-specialist commentators do not quite get the picture right when examining China’s activities across Eurasia.
Readers interested in a perhaps overly detailed account of ongoing Chinese activity in the region can view my remarks at a recent Johns Hopkins SAIS Central Asia-Caucasus Institute discussion here (beginning at the 39:00 mark): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dI02JFPFnGU&feature=youtu.be
For those with less free time, below is a telegraphic list of five threads to watch this coming year in the China in Central Asia story:
1. As the clout of Chinese energy companies continues to eclipse that of their Russian counterparts in the region, how and where will Beijing seek to use its increasing geopolitical leverage in Central Asia’s energy sectors? Until now, the major arena has been Turkmenistan, but look for increased activity in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
2. How will Chinese companies, traders and diplomats react – if they do at all – to Moscow’s implementation of Customs Union provisions in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan? There is little evidence that Russian efforts will present a challenge to the tsunami of Chinese trade and investments in the region.
3. Will Sinophobia bubble over in a major flashpoint that will alter Chinese approaches to engagement and investment in the region? Small-scale incidents occur regularly, but it seems only a matter of time until a larger one grabs widespread attention.
4. How will Chinese actors react to the region’s looming transitions? From northern Afghanistan to the Fergana Valley to Badakhshan, Chinese investments could either come under threat due to looming political transitions or serve as a salve for tensions. The China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) does not seem capable of grappling with Central Asia’s current and potential security concerns. What might force its hand?
5. When and how will China cash its check in the region? Having provided hundreds of billions of USD in investments, tens of billions in loans and almost all of Central Asia’s new infrastructure in the past decade, while also establishing Mandarin as the region’s fastest growing language, will Beijing inject its ‘Inadvertent Empire’ with purpose?
Dr. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.