Conceptualizing Chinese Continentalism

By Kendrick Kuo

Wang Jisi March West

People have used a variety of phrases to describe the emerging phenomenon of Chinese relations with Eurasia and the Middle East. The most prominent to emerge from China itself was Peking University professor Wang Jisi’s “March West” (xijin) strategy (pictured above). This vision was outlined in a widely read Global Times essay in October 2012, which highlighted the benefits of Chinese engagement with Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East as the U.S. withdraws from the region. What is missing, however, is an overarching phrase to describe such geopolitical shifts. The purpose of this piece is to propose the idea of ‘Chinese Continentalism’ as a way of describing China’s unfolding relations with its western neighbors on the Eurasian landmass. Chinese Continentalism as a concept will hopefully be both a theoretical contribution to the way international relations scholars think about China’s engagement in the Eurasian landmass and a framework for understanding the changing dynamics in the region.

Kent Calder Chinese Continentalism is a nod to Kent Calder and his work The New Continentalism, where he outlines the post-Cold War geopolitical logic of multilateral configurations in Eurasia. Calder posits that economic growth in Asian economies has created a symbiotic relationship with energy producers in the continent’s western regions. Geographic proximity was not enough to draw these partners together because of Cold War divisions; but with the Soviet Union’s collapse came a reshaping of the continental order.

In a similar vein, Chinese Continentalism describes the logic behind Beijing’s turn toward its Eurasian backyard. Chinese Continentalism cannot be explained merely by a ferocious appetite for energy, though this is an important motivator. Rather, an overwhelming geographic, political, and economic logic compels China to invest in relations with Russia, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East. Geographic proximity incentivizes economic investments to secure energy flows; and the U.S. naval dominance over sea-lanes encourages Beijing to find overland routes for energy transportation. Beijing has a stake in how Eurasia addresses the security vacuum in Afghanistan and Central and South Asian safe havens for terrorists targeting China. There is also political convergence in Eurasia as autocratic regimes keep a tight grip on power and maintain heightened vigilance against new colored revolutions. These regimes publicly support each other to justify human rights violations and circumscribe civil society in the name of stability.

Empirics of Chinese Continentalism

China’s Continentalist foreign policy is regarded differently across the four regions. In the Middle East, a major question is how Beijing will navigate international discourse on the right to protect, maintain its principle of noninterference, and yet also sustain goodwill with Middle Eastern countries. A quick glance at Middle East headlines last year reveals a surge in references to China, whether it be Chinese business interests in Iraq’s oil sector or China’s abstention on the UN vote for a no-fly-zone over Libya; Xi Jinping’s proposal on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations or China’s position on Syria.

Alex Cooley

In Central Asia, China’s rapidly changing role is quite remarkable. As Alex Cooley explains in Great Games, Local Rules, Beijing is taking the lead in providing critical infrastructure to the region through its pipeline investments and using the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to establish bilateral ties in the region. Joint counterterrorism efforts will take on increasing salience as Xinjiang’s instability continues to threaten China’s aspiration of a harmonious society as part of achieving the Chinese Dream. Xi Jinping’s grand tour of Central Asia in 2013 promoted student exchanges and struck deals on trade, infrastructure, and energy development. For example, China’s China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) signed a deal with Kazakhstan for an 8.33 percent stake in the Kashagan oilfield for USD$5 billion, beating India’s ONGC. Commenting on the trip, Martha Olcott wrote, “China has come to displace both the United States and Russia as the great power with the most influence in Central Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping just ran a ten-day victory lap through the region.”

In South Asia, China has maintained significant relationships with all major players, but they are of a more diverse nature. Historic territorial disputes with India flared up again in 2013 with military skirmishes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries. China’s role in a post-2014 Afghanistan has gained more attention over the past year. Some in Washington discussed the potential for Chinese appeals to bring the Taliban to the political negotiating table. China’s contract to develop the Aynak copper mine and CNPC’s project in Amu Darya ensures that the country will have a hand in Afghanistan long after coalition troops leave. However, the apparent reluctance to sink more capital into the venture reflects a “wait and see” attitude characteristic of Beijing’s approach to Afghanistan more broadly. Meanwhile, Pakistan, China’s all-weather friend, continues to enjoy a close relationship with Beijing.

China’s security and its economic growth are intricately tied to the above regional dynamics and developments. Economic integration between China’s western provinces and their surrounding neighbors feeds into the Grand Western Development (xibudakaifang) strategy, launched in 2000 to rectify the disparity between eastern coastal provinces and inland areas. Beijing believes that the economic development of places such as Xinjiang will bring with it stability. China’s insatiable demand for energy also motivates its outreach to the Middle East and Central Asian producers, complemented by the logic of geographical proximity.

Thinking Critically About Chinese Continentalism

Peter Perdue China’s Continentalism is not an entirely new concept and has already played a part in Chinese modern history. China has historically considered its western flank to be of strategic importance. Perhaps the most comprehensive work to date is Peter Perdue’s China Marches West, which traces the Qing conquest of Central Eurasia from 1600 to 1800. Perdue argues that at the beginning of the 19th century, the Qing Empire was not an agrarian polity that complemented a tribute system, but rather acted like Russia, France, Britain, and other colonizing entities that wielded both military and development potential. The Manchus formed alliances with outsiders to isolate and destroy enemies. The Qing dynasty’s empire-building arguably has repercussions for contemporary Chinese thinking on Islamism and ethnic nationalism. Recognizing China’s long history with Japan and the Korean peninsula is crucial to our understanding of contemporary Northeast Asia. The history of China’s reach into Central Eurasia should not be neglected, and go further beyond the 1990 Baren rebellion and even the first and second East Turkestan Republics.

Chinese Contintentalism is a rich field of research. Alex Cooley takes an initial step toward using data around this phenomenon to understand great power politics, demonstrating the “multiple principals” problem whereby subordinates have an advantage leveraging one dominant power against another. In other contexts this has been referred to as ‘multivector’ diplomacy – something championed in particular by the Central Asians when discussing their foreign policy approach to great power relations.

Peter KatzensteinAt the same time, data from Chinese Continentalism can potentially inform and broaden current theoretical frameworks on regionalism. Is Chinese Continentalism the beginning of the end of world politics based on regions developed under the U.S. postwar imperium? In A World of Regions, Peter Katzenstein demonstrated how the U.S. used Japan in Asia and Germany in Europe as regional military and economic poles to sustain U.S. global influence. While this form of U.S.-imposed regionalism appears persistent in Asia Pacific, the Eurasian continent appears ripe for change and China looks to be the agent. Russia lacks the economic clout to sustainably revise the Eurasian order. Moscow’s game is more about defending its reputation and a semblance of a sphere of influence, both of which Beijing is willing to cede in return for a freer hand in securing a favorable economic and political working relationship with Central Asian states. Russia and China are coexisting at the moment, with Russia running a sprint while China is in it for the marathon. Chinese-backed continental institutions are going to affect the rules of regional, and even global, governance as Asia and Europe reorient their economies slowly but surely toward a dual relationship between a continental pole (China) and a maritime pole (the United States).

Although Beijing’s contemporary forays into Eurasia may have elements of an axis of convenience or inadvertent empire, they are not without an eye toward longer term strategic posturing. Chinese Continentalism, rather than being a series of diplomatic meetings, economic deals, military maneuvers, and political wheeling-and-dealing, should be studied as a coherent phenomenon with important implications for the global order.

Kendrick Kuo is a China specialist pursuing graduate studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He lives in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter: @KendrickKuotes.


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