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 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is fast approaching. China has just over a year before Afghanistan fades from the West’s radar and Western attention toward the country shrinks substantially. However, it is not clear that Beijing has properly considered what it is going to do once NATO forces leave and pass the responsibility for Afghan stability and security to local forces.
And more crucially, it is not clear that China has thought about what it can do with the significant economic leverage it wields in the region. Afghanistan offers China the opportunity to show the world it is a responsible global leader that is not wholly reliant on others to assure its regional interests.
Traditionally, Chinese thinkers have considered Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires.” They chuckle at the ill-advised American-led NATO effort and point to British and Soviet experiences fighting wars in Afghanistan. Continue reading →
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 →
Last month, Russia was reportedly ready to provide weapons worth $1.1 billion to Kyrgyzstan and $200 million to Tajikistan along with a further $200 million in petroleum products. In early June, China offered $10 billion through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to Central Asia. India has been focusing on developing a strategic partnership with Tajikistan since September, while the US always develops a stronger relationship with Uzbekistan.
There is a sense that we are returning to the “Great Game” in Central Asia. But this focus on abstract theories misses hard realities on the ground. Outside powers invest in Central Asia to advance their individual national interests, not out of a strategy directed against other powers. 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.
BRUSSELS - World media has been abuzz with America’s “Asia Pivot” and President Barack Obama’s groundbreaking trip to Rangoon.
But while the visit signals the importance of Asia as a strategic focus for Obama’s second administration, the same cannot be said of Europe.
This week’s visit by Catherine Ashton to Central Asia offers a possible key that could both refocus Europe on an area it has long ignored, as well as helping shift its relationship with China onto a more practical basis.
European leaders talk of paying attention to Asia and have long cultivated a “strategic partnership” with China, but there is little evidence of much of this having any relation to what is happening on the ground.
Zhou Yongkang with Afghan President Karzai in September
In a clear but still gradual shift over the past year, Chinese policymakers have changed their stance on Afghanistan from cultivated disinterest to growing engagement. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal in 2014 comes into sharper relief, Beijing has come to realize that it will have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. As with China’s engagement in Central Asia as a whole, Chinese activity in Afghanistan is less a part of a grand strategy for the region and more the sum of number of disparate parts. Nevertheless, the sum of these parts could have major consequences for Afghanistan and the region’s trajectory as it signals a growing realization by Beijing of the role it will find itself playing in the future. Continue reading →
PRESIDENT OBAMA’S late 2011 announcement of his administration’s pivot to Asia marked a sea change in America’s geopolitical posture away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific Rim. Reflecting the growing strategic repercussions of China’s rise, the move presages a new era of great-power politics as the United States and China compete in Pacific waters. But is the United States looking in the right place?
A number of American strategists, Robert D. Kaplan among them, have written that a potential U.S.-Chinese cold war will be less onerous than the struggle with the Soviet Union because it will require only a naval element instead of permanent land forces stationed in allied countries to rein in a continental menace. This may be true with regard to the South China Sea, for example, or the Malacca Strait. But it misses the significance of the vast landmass of Central Asia, where China is consolidating its position into what appears to be an inadvertent empire. As General Liu Yazhou of China’s People’s Liberation Army once put it, Central Asia is “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.” Continue reading →
On the surface, this week’s Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) summit will be another marker in the organisation’s steady development as a serious player in regional and, increasingly, international affairs. Below, however, a growing tension between China and Russia is starting to show.
The two powers increasingly see their interests diverging in Central Asia. They are close allies in the UN Security Council, but on the ground China and Russia are steadily moving in different directions.
And it would seem that the SCO is not the only reason for his visit. In initial discussions, the summit was to be held in Shanghai. But, primarily at Moscow’s instigation, the decision was made to hold the conference in Beijing. Given that this was Putin’s first visit to China in his new role, he was eager to ensure that it was held in the capital so he could combine the summit with a state visit to Beijing, highlighting the importance of the bilateral over the multilateral in Russian minds.Russia’s hesitation with the SCO is observable in several ways, not least in President Vladimir Putin’s travel schedule. His first foreign visit since regaining the reins of power took him to Belarus, Germany and France, before coming to China this week.
Beijing is in a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) kind of mood. All around the city there are SCO logos and nowhere more so than in Tiananmen Square and the Wangfujing area near it. Along Chang An Jie (Avenue of Peace) the big international hotels have prominent signs in front declaring in Chinese, Russian and English “Welcome to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit.” Outside the Singaporean owned Raffles Hotel, alongside what I presume are their usual flags, the Afghan, Indian and Pakistani flags fly, presumably marking the delegations staying at the hotel. Outside, black Audis marked “Pak” awaited delegates, while in the lobby groups of South Asians checked in. Teams of bullet-proof wearing black clothed policemen march around guaranteeing security, multiplying the already tight security around the Square.
The Chinese and Tajik Foreign Ministers Meet in Beijing in Early May, picture from here
Meeting on the fringes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Beijing on May 11, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohon Zarifi and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi made the usual affirmations of good bilateral relations (Xinhua, May 11). Part of a raft of bilateral meetings between China and Central Asian states that have taken place on the fringes of the various SCO meetings occurring in the run up to the June Summit in Beijing, the encounter is hard to distinguish from the others taking place. As the single predominantly non-Turkic state, Tajikistan however has always been an outlier in Central Asian terms. This extends to Chinese interest, although, for China, it is the absence of large volumes of natural resources and an obstructive mountain range making direct road transit difficult that make it the least interesting among the Central Asian states. While clearly key in ensuring that the entire region becomes developed, Dushanbe lacks the immediate appeal of its surrounding states to Beijing and as a result seems something of a lower priority for Chinese policymakers. Nevertheless, seen from the ground, China clearly is making a few strategic decisions that show it is committed and interested in helping Tajikistan’s development. As a foreign analyst based in Dushanbe put it to us on a recent trip, in contrast to China in the other Central Asian states, ”China’s influence in Tajikistan is delayed” . Many of the long-term concerns that can be found in other Central Asian capitals towards China are reflected in Tajikistan where people are suspicious of China’s long-term ambitions. Continue reading →
The Uzbek-Korean air and truck port outside Navoiy.
Among the many items festooning souvenir shops in the Silk Road city of Bukhara are a set of stamps commemorating Uzbekistan’s 15th anniversary of independence. Pride of place alongside President Islam Karimov on these stamps is not a prominent Uzbek, but, rather, the then president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun. For Uzbekistan, a close embrace with Korea is a good balancer against a dominant China.
Uzbekistan is in search of a post-Soviet model for development. Initially an eager partner of the West in the wake of the September 11 attacks, it fell out of favour following a hardline government response to violence in the city of Andijan in 2005. This led the nation to look to the Asia-Pacific as a model or partner. But this has not simply meant closer ties with China.
Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in Russia was predictably controversial in Europe and America. In Beijing, the official read-out provided by Xinhua highlighted a positive conversation, with President Hu Jintao stating with “confidence that Putin’s new presidential term would see faster progress in building a stronger and richer nation”. That statement affirmed the importance of the Sino-Russian axis as a pole in international relations. Putin, the quintessential Russian chess master, has a very clear sense of where Russia’s future must lie, and needs Beijing onside if he wants to carry this out.
The Sino-Russian relationship has had its ups and downs. As Putin put it recently, “there are some sources of friction”. The joint Chinese-Russian veto last month of a UN resolution on Syria attracted attention. But, beyond this, tensions persist as Russia proves implacable in discussions over energy pricing, and tries to develop a “Eurasian Union” to counter China’s successful inroads into Central Asia. The resultant price increase is detrimental to Chinese interests and delays economic integration under the auspices of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO).