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.
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 →
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 →
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 →
In the gravelly, uncertain road coursing through Kyrgyzstan’s picturesque Alay Valley, it does not take long to stumble across the Chinese road workers’ camp. Though just a dusty collection of prefab dormitories, the camps nevertheless proudly display the company’s name, logo and various slogans in large red Chinese characters. A Kyrgyz security guard is fast asleep on his cot, and the camp is deserted except for a young engineer from Sichuan. He explains that they work six months out of the year, when snow doesn’t block the passes. Next year, the road will be finished. He says his friends that work on Chinese-built roads in Africa get a better deal.
Further down the road, amid bulldozers and trucks full of dirt, are the road workers. They’re slowly reshaping the mountains, molding them into smooth inclines and regulation grades. Then there are the trucks; hundreds of them, crowding at the Chinese/Kyrgyz border, all engaged in the increasingly active trade between the two countries. One of the truckers, a member of China’s Muslim Uighur minority, is eager to chat. The roof of the world is his workplace. It takes three days to drive a 30 ton load from Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang province, through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. He and his colleagues bring 100 such loads across every week. Continue reading →
The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) latest report, “China’s Central Asia Problem” is a sweeping and masterful work in many ways. As we traveled through and conducted research in eastern China, Xinjiang, post-Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan, Raffaello and I came across ICG researchers and bounced our ideas off of ICG’s seasoned Eurasia hand Paul Quinn-Judge. The report kindly quotes a couple of our articles that appeared here on chinaincentralasia.com.
But, does the ICG report get it right? Yes and no. The overall point that China is on the brink of becoming the pre-eminent external power in the region, not just in the economic sphere, is correct. We have argued that China is already the most consequential actor in Central Asia, as well as the most forward-looking external power. In the context of a U.S., and more broadly Western, exit from the region, the engagement of multifarious Chinese actors – from diplomats to state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to shuttle traders to manual laborers and Chinese language teachers – combines to create a momentum that has no clear counterweight. Continue reading →
The European Union is in a rut. Its once-vaunted economy and “ever closer” integration is facing the tough challenges of a dogged recession and anti-EU sentiment in some of its most powerful member states. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that some EU aspirants appear lukewarm about their prospects and continued desire to join the club. For Turkey, probably the most unfairly spurned EU aspirant, it makes a lot of sense to at least explore alternatives.
After all, Turkey’s economy is booming – leaping from $614.6 billion in 2009 to $775 billion in 2011 (in current U.S. dollars) according to World Bank figures. Reflecting the country’s position at the global cross-roads, Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport international traffic more than doubled between the years 2006 and 2011. Last year alone its passenger volume increased by 20%, making it Europe’s 6th busiest airport. The country’s regional and global profile has grown since it first evinced a desire to join the EU. European leaders should only be surprised that Turkey has maintained its interest in the EU for so long. Continue reading →
While the concept of a “New Silk Road” of trade, transport and telecommunications connections across Eurasia was formally endorsed by the US State Department, it is Beijing and Chinese companies that have taken the lead in realizing the immense infrastructure projects that will tie the mega-continent together. The latest is the completion of a second railway link between China and Kazakhstan at the burgeoning Khorgos crossing point and Special Economic Zone. This nearly 600-kilometer section is part of a larger project that connects China’s eastern port of Lianyungang with Kazakhstan’s rail system and points west toward Russia and the Caspian region. Chinese officials refer to it as part of the New Eurasian Land Bridge from China’s ports to Western European ports such as Rotterdam (Global Times, December 22, 2012).
Plans call for the railway to handle 20 million tons of freight by 2020, increasing to 30 million by 2030. The 292-km Chinese portion of the project was built for less than $1 billion—relatively inexpensive by global standards. Khorgos is already the key border crossing for the Central Asia–China natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan and a new highway network under construction. According to Kazakhstan’s Minister for Transport and Communications Askar Zhumagaliyev, 800 km of this Western Europe–Western China highway will be completed in 2013, with much of the route running alongside the just-completed railway (Tengrinews, December 20, 2012). Continue reading →
China is on its way to becoming the most consequential actor in Central Asia. This isn’t a critical or a negative statement, but rather a reflection of a reality on the ground.
The heavy investments in Central Asian infrastructure and natural resources, the push to develop the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and China’s focus on developing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization into an economic player are slowly reorienting Central Asia toward China. None of this means that China is aiming to become a regional hegemon, but unless it is willing to write off considerable regional investment, it is going to find itself needing to engage in regional affairs in a more focused manner.
And these actions are likely to be interpreted regionally as hegemonic. A potentially very prosperous corner of the world, Central Asia, is in an early stage of development that could easily be pushed by instability in a wrong direction. China needs to prepare herself to step in and help resolve matters.
On Sept. 23, a top Chinese security official and Politburo member, Zhou Yongkang, made a surprise four-hour visit to Kabul during which time he reportedly met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. This was the first high-level visit by a Chinese official to Afghanistan in half a century — a clear signal of a policy shift on Beijing’s part and probably the harbinger of further engagement to come.
Until now, China’s approach to its Eurasian neighbors, including Afghanistan, has been “soft,” primarily based on investment, infrastructure projects, promoting Chinese language and the multilateral body of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Beijing has stayed away from difficult political issues — so much so that U.S. diplomats have actively courted China to become more involved in ensuring Afghanistan’s stability after the 2014 withdrawal of Western combat forces. The accusation against the Chinese government and Chinese state-owned enterprises has been that by investing in Afghan natural resources such as copper and oil, they are reaping the benefits of American efforts without expending any political capital. As the 2014 deadline approaches, however, this is quickly changing. Continue reading →