How China rediscovered Central Asia

Xi Jinping Central Asia

By Tao Xie

From 1949 until the late 1990′s Central Asia was conspicuous in Chinese foreign policy by its absence. China has since “rediscovered” Central Asia. Twice.

China first rediscovered the five Central Asian republics as a crucial source of energy and the key partner in fighting against separatists in North-west China. In the first decade of the 21st century, bilateral trade—primarily in the form of Chinese imports of energy and exports of manufactured products—witnessed extraordinary growth, reaching $51.1 billion in 2013. Meanwhile, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was established in 2001, and one of its main missions continues to be to “maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region”.

The second time Beijing rediscovered this vast land mass was when it identified Central Asia as a critical component to the Silk Road Economic Belt (the Belt for short). This is an ambitious Chinese initiative that proposes to enhance interconnectivity and economic cooperation across the Eurasian continent by building an extensive infrastructure network.

The first rediscovery may be proactive (or endogenous), in the sense that it was primarily driven by the twin goals of meeting China’s insatiable demand for energy and of maintaining stability in Xinjiang. The second rediscovery, however, seems reactive (or exogenous), because it can be viewed partly as a Chinese response to the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia.

For many Chinese analysts, rebalance to Asia—and the TPP too—is a thinly disguised US attempt to “encircle” a rising China. To avoid head-on confrontation with the US in the western Pacific, some analysts contend, China should look West towards the vast Eurasian continent for new sources of economic growth and potential geopolitical allies.

It appears that the “March West” strategy had the full endorsement of China’s top leaders, and the Belt was officially proposed by President Xi Jinping during his September 2013 visit to Kazakhstan. Since then the Belt—along with the 21st century Maritime Silk Road (or the Road), which was announced by Xi a month later in Indonesia—has become the most discussed and researched foreign policy topic in Chinese academia and policy circles.

Indeed, the stars appear to be aligned strongly in favor of such a westward strategy. First, the war in Iraq and the Snowden case have significantly strained U.S. relations with many of its traditional allies in Europe (e.g. Germany and France). Meanwhile China has fast become the most important trade partner for many European countries such as Germany and the UK. These changes undoubtedly have paved the way for China to be viewed more favorably in Western Europe.

Second, the US-Russia relationship went from bad to worse during the Obama administration, particularly in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine and the war in Syria. As a result, China and Russia appear to be having their first real geopolitical honeymoon since the breakup of the former Soviet Union. This presents an opportunity for China to gain Russia’s endorsement for the Belt project.

Third, US influence in Central Asia has long been non-existent at worst and tenuous at best. To be sure, many U.S. companies have major investments in the region, and the Obama administration seems to be shoring up its influence in Central Asia (e.g. John Kerry’s visit to the five republics). Nevertheless, China apparently has more influence in the region, because it already boasts extensive economic ties and security cooperation with the five Central Asian countries.

Last but not least, China’s “March West” has the additional benefit of boosting economic development in China’s underdeveloped western regions. Massive investment in transcontinental infrastructure—roads, bridges, sea ports, airports, and railways—will undoubtedly better integrate western China into the Eurasian economic zone. In particular, improved connectivity is aimed at increasing the prosperity and stability in Xinjiang and other western provinces.

In light of China’s troubled relations with some Southeast Asian countries due to ongoing maritime disputes in the South China Sea, there is much uncertainty about the future of the Road. Thus the Belt seems to be the best option for China to counter the US rebalance to Asia and to expand its global influence. So, are we seeing the dawning of China’s Eurasian century?

To answer this question, one must look at Central Asia, which is the land bridge between China and Europe. What potential challenges does Central Asia pose for a China-centered Eurasian century?

One challenge stems from the dominant pattern of China-Central Asia economic transactions, namely, Chinese imports of and investment in oil and natural gas. Admittedly, local residents benefit from such imports and investment (e.g. new jobs and improved infrastructure), but environmental concerns and labour disputes, plus the negative impact of Chinese manufactured products on local industries, have resulted in increasing resentment in some parts of Central Asia. If China is perceived to be treating Central Asia as merely a crucial source of energy (i.e. an alternative to the volatile Middle East) and a dumping ground for Chinese products, then the long-term prospects for bilateral relations will be anything but optimistic.

Another challenge pertains to Russia, or more precisely the China-Russia-Central Asia triangle. For more than one hundred years Central Asia was firmly under Russian control. Though the five Republics have been sovereign states since 1991, they are still viewed by Moscow as its proper sphere of influence. However, Russia, which has been enfeebled by economic woes and diplomatic isolation, seems incapable of fully reasserting its influence in the region. For the moment Russia may have no choice but to resign itself to growing Chinese presence and influence in Central Asia, but strategic competition between the two powers may well emerge when Russia recovers from its current position of weakness.

There are other challenges out there, but in the end the biggest challenge to the Belt seems to be China itself. The top priority of the Belt is to improve interconnectivity across the vast Eurasian continent, and such an extensive infrastructure network requires trillions of dollars of investment. Two Chinese initiatives, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund, constitute a significant source of financing for infrastructure development. What these two institutions, even in conjunction with other international financial institutions, can supply, however, will be no match for the scale of demand, which is estimated to be $8 trillion for the next decade. Besides, the Chinese economy is showing unmistakable signs of significant slowdown, which casts a long shadow over China’s role as the major benefactor of the Belt.

So it seems too early to hail the advent of China’s Eurasian century. “March West” may seem an attractive geopolitical strategy vis-à-vis the U.S. rebalance to Asia, but there are too many uncertainties to make this westward strategy a plausible one in the short term.

Tao Xie is Professor, Associate Dean at the School of English and International Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University

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