Though it has received comparatively little attention, one of the most profound geopolitical trends of the early 21st century is gathering steam: China’s pivot to Central Asia. As American military forces withdraw from Afghanistan and gaze toward the Asia-Pacific, and while Washington’s European allies put NATO’s eastward expansion on the back burner, Central Asia has become China’s domain of investment and influence. The Washington policy community finally woke up to this reality in September, when Chinese president Xi Jinping swept through Central Asia, signing tens of billions of dollars worth of deals and generally treating the former Soviet republics as if they were in China’s sphere of influence. Continue reading →
As local leaders fear instability following the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, Chinese policymakers are equally mindful of “unrest in the Fergana Valley once there is a change of leadership in Tashkent, or due to other factors,” said Alexandros Petersen, an energy specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Petersen notes that Beijing is trying to spread risk with yet another alternative pipeline route on the drawing board, from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Tajikistan to China.
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. Continue reading →
As Chinese President Xi Jinping headed to Central Asia last week, Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang in the northwest of China, hosted the 3rd annual China Eurasia Expo. While maybe not intentionally choreographed to take place at the same time, the two events have a significant parallelism to them, reflecting the importance of Xinjiang to China’s Central Asian policy. For China, the “Silk Road Economic Belt” that Xi spoke of in Kazakhstan starts in Xinjiang, acting as the connective tissue that binds China’s crowded and prosperous eastern seaboard with Eurasia, Europe and the Middle East.
China’s interest in Central Asia is primarily a selfish one. This is not unusual in national interests: foreign policy is naturally focused on self-interest. But with China in Central Asia, the key role of Xinjiang distinguishes it from China’s relations with other parts of the world. For Beijing, Central Asian policy aims at both increasing China’s connectivity to Europe and the Middle East as well as reaping the benefits of the region’s rich natural resources, but also about helping foster development and therefore long-term stability in Xinjiang. A province periodically wracked by internal violence and instability, Beijing has quite clearly made the calculation that to stabilize the province, more economic development should be encouraged. Continue reading →
Presaging his stopover in Kyrgyzstan, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in Kazakhstan in which he spoke of establishing a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would bind China to its Eurasian neighborhood. A trip so far focused largely on Afghanistan and trade, the stopover in Bishkek for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO) summit is the capstone to what has been a successful trip, tidily wrapping the two subjects up in a bow largely of China’s making.
Of course, there are numerous other topics on the table at the summit beyond Afghanistan. Expanding membership looks like it is going to remain unresolved again – India and Pakistan continue to knock loudly on the door. Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani has announced he will attend, possibly highlighting the new regime’s diplomatic approach (although it is unclear what the SCO means within this context), and it seems likely that further agreements about closer cooperation and discussion are likely to be held. Beijing will undoubtedly push an economic agenda – though this will find hostility from the other member states fearful of dominance. The question over the SCO development bank will remain unresolved. Continue reading →
Whither Central Asia after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan? That is the question on the lips of Central Asia watchers globally, as well as policymakers and pundits in the region. There are numerous theories, but few take into account the full picture of shifting geopolitical tectonics.
The narrative popular in some circles in Washington and propagated by some in Kabul and elsewhere in the region is that the greatest upcoming threat will be the potential “spillover” of extremist Islamism into the post-Soviet space.
The coming great power vacuum in the region, when the US loses interest and Russia finds itself less capable of asserting itself, is often linked to the supposed spillover effect to create a swirl of potential political instability, perhaps resembling the current tumult across the Middle East. Continue reading →
Central Asia’s beating heart, the commercial hub of the region that cultivated the old Silk Road, is neither of the fabled Thousand and One Nights cities of Samarkand or Bukhara. In fact, the center of this region is not even really in Central Asia. It’s in China.
Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, the autonomous region that together with Tibet makes up China’s western edge, is a bubbling, gritty metropolis, and probably the most cosmopolitan place between Shanghai and Istanbul. On the surface, Urumqi resembles most second-tier Chinese industrial hubs. But, with its myriad advertisements, signs and business placards in Chinese, Uighur, Russian, Kazakh and Kyrgyz — written in Chinese, Arabic or Cyrillic scripts –Urumqi is no ordinary Chinese city. In fact, it has emerged as the de factocapital of a revived Central Asia, a region poised to assume a higher profile in the world’s energy, diplomatic, and cultural scenes. Continue reading →
Turkmenistan’s southeastern desert, not far from the border with Afghanistan, is a forbidding place. Its bleak, dusty vistas are punctuated by the ruins of ancient caravansaries: once rest stops on the old Silk Road. But, the silence of that long lost East-West artery is now regularly broken by the rumble of Chinese truck convoys. These are not ordinary tractor-trailers, either: they move slowly carrying massive loads of natural gas extraction equipment, and according to Turkmen officials, the shepherds’ bridges and village roads have had to be reinforced from the impact of their weight. The equipment is headed to one of the top five natural gas fields in the world; Formerly known as South Yolotan-Osman, in 2011 the field was renamed “Galkynysh” or “revival” in Turkmen. The name is apt because this gargantuan reserve of natural gas is the prize motivating CNPC, China’s largest oil company, to revive the old Silk Road — only this time by pipeline. Continue reading →
On the eve of his visit to India in late May, Premier Li Keqiang published an editorial in The Hinduin which he spoke of China and India as ‘two big Asian countries … destined to be together’. Running under the headline ‘A Handshake Across the Himalayas’, the piece offered an optimistic look at relations between China and India. Only one brief mention was made of the border dispute that had dominated headlines in previous months, brushing the issue under the carpet by stating that, ‘with joint efforts in the past few years, the two sides have gradually found a way to maintain peace and tranquility in the disputed border areas’. This statement would have jarred with Indian assessments of the border incursion as provocative Chinese action aimed at altering the established modus vivendi across the Line of Actual Control, the de-facto border between the two countries accepted in the absence of an internationally recognised border in the region. Nevertheless, the episode passed without too deleterious an impact on Premier Li’s visit, something that senior Indian commentators have interpreted as a sign of China’s victory in this round of tension between the two Asian giants. Continue reading →
On April 24, reports emerged from Xinjiang that 21 people had been killed in what was reported as a “terrorist clash” in Bachu County, Kashgar Prefecture (Xinhua, April 24). The incident came as U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke was undertaking the first visit to the province by a senior U.S. delegation in 20 years as part of Beijing’s push to attract foreign investment to the province (Xinjiang Daily, April 25). The juxtaposition of the two events highlighted Beijing’s persistent difficulties in taming the province’s tensions. They call into question Beijing’s economics-based strategy while illustrating the ongoing questions about the drivers of radicalization in the province.
Initial descriptions about the events in Selibuya village in Bachu County (also known as Maralbexi) just outside Kashgar, suggested the incident was the product of a “violent clash between suspected terrorists and authorities” (Xinhua, April 24). Three community workers were described as entering a property and finding suspicious individuals with knives. They managed to alert others, but were killed before help could arrive. This lead to a larger clash in which a total of 15 police and community workers were killed while six so-called “mobsters” were shot to death (Xinjiang Daily, April 24;Shanghai Daily, April 24). The 15 dead were heralded later as “martyrs” and identified by their ethnicities as 10 Uighur, three Han and two Mongolians (Xinhua, April 29). Grim pictures released in the days after the funerals seemed to show females identified as cadres with their throats slit (CCTV13, April 30). Continue reading →
For a relatively small drilling operation, China National Petroleum Corporation’s (CNPC) project in Afghanistan’s Sar-e-Pul province has a large footprint. Several layers of fences and containers serving as blast walls surround the extraction site, which includes dormitories, an office complex and various security structures. Throughout the day, trucks ferry in equipment and more containers. On the outside, the faces are all Afghan, but CNPC’s logo and bright red Chinese slogans are impossible to miss.
This remote outpost, not far from Afghanistan’s northern border with Turkmenistan, may symbolize the country’s future after the planned U.S. withdrawal of combat troops next year. As Washington prepares its exit following 13 years in the country, signs that Beijing has steadily stepped up its official and corporate presence across Afghanistan have begun to arise. In September, then Politburo member Zhou Yongkang met with President Hamid Karzai, while lower level diplomats have discussed greater engagement with the Afghan government. China even plans to re-open a branch of the Confucius Institute, an organization devoted to teaching Chinese culture and language, in Kabul. Continue reading →
After years as Eurasia’s energy bully, Russia’s state-controlled natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, is getting a taste of its own medicine. Even as Gazprom seeks to build the tallest skyscraper in Europe as its new headquarters in St. Petersburg, pressure from Russia’s neighbors led to a 15 percent decline in the company’s profits last year, eating into the state budget. Moscow’s single-minded focus on gas exports in an effort to become, in the words of President Vladimir Putin, an “energy superpower” has crippled its ability to adapt to profound changes in the global energy landscape — from the shale gas revolution in North America to the dynamism of new market players such as Azerbaijan. Having spent the last decade making enemies in Central Europe and Central Asia, Gazprom and Russian decision-makers are now reaping what they have sown. Continue reading →
As we near the date of withdrawal for U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan, the debate about the country’s largest neighbor has shifted. No longer are American analysts worried about Chinese investments free-riding on U.S. and NATO stability efforts. Now, the hope is that China’s massive state-owned enterprises (SOEs) will pour more funds into Afghanistan in the hope that foreign direct investment will shore up a centralized government and provide opportunities for all to make money instead of war. But, Chinese companies face many of the same uncertainties that U.S. forces and contractors have contended with for a decade.
Much has been written about the controversies and delays at the site of China’s largest investment in the country: the gargantuan copper mine at Mes Aynak. Both company officials and local observers indicate that the SOE leading the project, China Metallurgical Group Corporation, is biding its time, waiting to assess the post-withdrawal security situation.
What could be far more significant in the long run, however, are Chinese plans for oil and gas investment in the north of the country. These have the potential to link Afghanistan into China’s growing pipeline network in Central Asia, providing the infrastructure-led regional integrationthat U.S. officials have been touting for years. Nearby Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have grown wealthy and centralized partly due to Chinese energy investment. Could the same be true for Afghanistan in the future? Continue reading →
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.” Continue reading →