China’s rise in Central Asia is not a new phenomenon. For the past decade, Beijing has gradually moved to become the most significant and consequential actor on the ground in a region that was previously considered Russia’s backyard. In September last year, President Xi Jinping announced the creation of a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ running through the region. Although this declaration is the closest thing seen so far in terms of an articulation of a Chinese strategy for Central Asia, it nevertheless offered more questions than answers.
To understand China’s approach to Central Asia, a wider lens needs to be applied to explore both the detail of what is going on and how this fits into a broader foreign policy strategy that is slowly becoming clearer under Xi Jinping’s stewardship.
Central Asia is emerging as a region that could test the influence of India and China. Although New Delhi is following Beijing’s lead and expanding into this resource-rich and strategically important region, it is set to play second fiddle.
Parts of this article were adapted from the authors’ “China and Central Asia: A Significant New Energy Nexus” in The European Financial Review, April 30, 2013, accessible here.
Over the past decade China has aggressively developed its energy cooperation with Central Asia, which has an abundance of oil and natural gas deposits, and relative political stability. Through its energy relationship with Central Asia, China not only diversifies its access to new energy sources but also gains greater flexibility in playing regional geopolitics that advances its broader national interests.
(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of IHS Jane’s)
China’s northwestern Xinjiang province has again made headlines in 2014, largely because of a number of brutal attacks carried out by militants within the province’s Muslim Uighur population. Among the most notable attacks, 29 people were killed in a 1 March knife attack at a train station in Kunming; on 22 May, 39 people were killed in a market attack in Xinjiang’s capital, Ürümqi; and in July, the Chinese authorities reported that 59 “terrorists” and 37 civilians had been killed in Shache county during an attack on a police station, followed by the murder of a Uighur imam.
The death toll among the militants may, in reality, be much higher as a result of the authorities’ hardline security response. Although the Chinese government interprets such attacks as a product of religious extremism, many Uighurs view them as protests against the discrimination they experience at the hands of the authorities.
Xinjiang will soon see the launch of its first high-speed railway train that will run from Lanzhou city in neighboring Gansu province to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The government has hailed this as a significant move that will boost Xinjiang’s economy through more open trade, tourism and connectivity into Central Asia as part of the leadership’s vision of the new Silk Road Economic belt. Yet, the Guardian has countered that the high-speed railway in Xinjiang may end up exacerbating the growing economic inequality in the province.
In a speech last September at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, China’s President Xi Jinping coined a new strategic vision for his country’s relations with Central Asia, calling for the creation of a Silk Road Economic Belt. Coming at the culmination of a sweep through Central Asia during which he signed deals worth $56bn and touched down in four out of five capitals, the declaration may be something that has now received a new moniker from President Xi, but the economic and geopolitical reality that it characterizes is one that has been underway for some time.
President Xi’s declaration of the Silk Road Economic Belt needs to be understood within a wider context, particularly in his October 2013 speech at a work conference on diplomacy in which he set out his first formal statement on foreign policy. There he highlighted the priority he wanted his administration to place on border diplomacy: “We must strive to make our neighbours more friendly in politics, economically more closely tied to us, and we must have deeper security cooperation and closer people-to-people ties.” Continue reading →
On May 29 Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia signed into existence the Eurasian Economic Union (“EEU”), set to come into force in January 2015. The EEU’s aim is the economic integration of ex-Soviet countries, based on a European Union-style collective model. It builds on the Customs Union, signed in 2010, which implemented a common customs territory and removed internal border controls between the three states. Against the backdrop of a shifting geopolitical landscape sparked by events in Ukraine, and strengthening Russian and Kazakh bi-lateral relations with China, the original vision of the EEU may no longer be viable. Although they wish to show they have a diversified partner base, Kazakhstan and Russia also want to avoid perceptions of any overt economic threat to its shared Chinese partner. This is particularly relevant to Kazakhstan, which has in fact suffered economically from the initial implementation of the Customs Union, as laid out below.
China’s President Xi Jinping (left) and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev look on next to an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at the eve of the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit, in Shanghai. Photo: Reuters
The Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, which begins today in Shanghai, largely passes unnoticed most years. But this year it is being touted as a major global event, largely due to Russia’s current awkward relationships elsewhere and China’s growing global profile.
It also offers a window into President Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s foreign policy.
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. Continue reading →
A gentle rapprochement is under way between China and the United Kingdom. After almost two years in a diplomatic freeze, David Cameron visited Beijing last month and made an effective play for more trade. For the UK, this is a moment to recalibrate its relationship and play a role in coaxing China towards becoming a responsible international stakeholder. One route to that end is through understanding and working with China’s ‘march westward’ strategy, which has at its heart the re-activation of the ancient Silk Road linking China to Europe.
Two Asian giants met in Beijing this week, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making a reciprocal visit to Beijing. The focus of the trip was economic cooperation and plans to get China-India trade to $100 billion by 2015, although it was the border disputes – and in particular the signing of a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement designed to defuse tensions – that captured the public attention.
What was missing from the agenda, however, was Afghanistan, a country in which Beijing and Delhi both have substantial mutual interests and where the two Asian giants could demonstrate their ability to responsibly manage the regional order.
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 →
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 →
The way Central Asian states will turn — to Russia’s Eurasian Union or to China — is the test for influence in the region. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia/IvaNdimitry
If one turns enough of a blind eye, it is easy to be optimistic about Central Asia. Wily diplomats from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are masterfully playing off the great powers. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are turning into hubs in their own right – and nobody can tell plucky Uzbekistan what to do. This is nobody’s backyard, and attempts by neo-imperialists in Moscow, Washington and Beijing to play games in the region are only strengthening the hands of the Central Asian states themselves. This is a comforting picture – which is why Western policymakers love it – but it looks increasingly false as President Putin tightens the screws.
Why a Eurasian Union matters
Russia’s desire to strengthen its sphere of influence in Central Asia seems to be intensifying. The first sign came in October 2011 when Russia’s ‘national leader’ published his vision for a Eurasian Union in the Gazprom-Media owned daily Izvestia. Here Putin stated that the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan that would come into force on 1st January 2012 was just the beginning – and that it would expand ‘by involving Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Then, we plan to go beyond that, and set ourselves the ambitious goal of a higher level of integration – a Eurasian Union.’
In the last two years, China has emerged as the most consequential outside actor in Central Asia. As we have described in other writings, China’s ascension to this role has been largely inadvertent . It has more to do with the region’s contemporary circumstances and China’s overall economic momentum than a concerted effort emanating from the Zhongnanhai. The implications for United States and NATO policy are nevertheless profound. Not only have the geopolitics of Eurasia shifted in ways little understood in Washington and Brussels, but the socio-political and physical undergirding of the post-Soviet space from Aktobe to Kandahar is being transformed.
Official Chinese policy in Central Asia is quiet and cautious, focused on developing the region as an economic partner with its western province Xinjiang whilst also looking beyond at what China characterizes as the “Eurasian Land Bridge…connecting east Asia and west Europe” (Xinhua, September 4, 2012). Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are active throughout the region on major infrastructure projects, but it is not clear how much they are being directed as part of some grand strategy as opposed to focusing on obvious profitable opportunities. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the main multilateral vehicle for Chinese regional efforts and reassuring engagement is a powerfully symbolic, but institutionally empty actor. Many smaller Chinese actors—ranging from shuttle traders to small-time entrepreneurs to schoolteachers and students posted to Confucius Institutes throughout the region—are the gradual vanguard of possible long-term Chinese investment and influence. Continue reading →