China’s rise in Central Asia marks one of the most consequential changes in regional geopolitics since the turn of the century.
China announced that it intended to be a major player in Central Asia back in September 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech in Astana that inaugurated the “Belt and Road” vision — the most dominant expression of Chinese foreign policy from his administration. Yet this declaration notwithstanding, it remains unclear whether Beijing has a coherent vision for Central Asia. Instead, Beijing continues to grow into a role of regional prominence without a clear plan to manage the ramifications of its growing role.
The narrative of spreading Chinese influence throughout the region is not new. Indicators of China’s influence are plentiful. Markets are full of Chinese products, infrastructure is heavily built by Chinese firms with Chinese loans, leadership visits — either Chinese to the region or regional to China — are followed by announcements of massive deals being signed, and increasingly China is playing a more prominent role in regional security questions. Even so, China remains a hesitant regional actor, and is keen to continue casting itself as subordinate to Russia. Beijing is also eager to avoid becoming embroiled in inevitable regional economic and political complications.
Most recently, these complications have manifested themselves as protests in Kazakhstan, where locals have expressed anger at the government’s decision to change legislation governing foreigners’ ability to rent land for lengthy periods of time. Public anger is rooted mostly in concerns that Chinese firms will exploit this legislation to slowly lease ever larger tracts of Kazakhstani land. Such problems have arisen in the past. In 2009, for example, when President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced a leasing arrangement, Chinese and Tajik censors blocked references in the media to a similar deal in Tajikistan in 2011. Continue reading →
Once the heart of the Timurid Empire, the city of Samarkand now sits in the middle of Uzbekistan, relegated to a splendid tourist attraction. Sitting atop the city with a clear view in every direction is the great astronomer Ulugh Beg’s observatory, from where he mapped the stars while his grandfather’s empire ebbed away.
Samarkand was at the heart of the ancient silk trading routes, which went cleanly around Russia, crossing Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran to reach Turkey and Europe’s shores. Track forwards to today, and this straightforward route across the continent is being replicated by China. The first freight train left from Yiwu in China’s Zhejiang province en route to Tehran in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Iran.
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 →
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 →
ON A FLIGHT FROM BEIJING TO TASHKENT, the capital of Uzbekistan, Sue Anne Tay, the photographer with whom I visited Tashkent in May last year, ran into a group of businessmen from China’s Xinjiang region. They were on a government-sponsored trip to the “Uzbekistan Tashkent China Xinjiang Business and Trade Fair” in Tashkent, to help build relations between Xinjiang and the neighbouring countries as part of an economic strategy laid out by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. As he put it, China wants to “make Xinjiang a gateway for mutually beneficial cooperation between China and other Eurasian countries”.
Unfortunately for this group of businessmen, they had to take a circuitous route to get through this gate. Because of a lack of direct flights from Urumqi to Tashkent at the time, they had been forced to re-route rather inconveniently through Beijing—a five-hour flight south-east followed by a six-hour flight west. In retrospect, the businessmen’s long trip was emblematic of difficulties they later faced in Tashkent. 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 →
The exact reasons for Uzbekistan’s decision to withdraw from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) at the end of June remain unclear (Xinhua, June, 29; Russia Today, June 28, 2012). However, while Tashkent seems to have soured on the Russian-led regional organization, President Islam Karimov took time in June to pay a state visit to Beijing that included attending the Chinese instigated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In addition to attending the SCO Summit, President Karimov held separate bilateral meetings with President Hu Jintao, signed a strategic partnership agreement and approved a raft of new measures to strengthen Sino-Uzbek relations (Gov.uz, June 8; Xinhua, June 7). At this high level, relations are clearly moving in a positive direction. The view from the ground, however, is far more complex with Uzbekistan’s traditional vision of itself as a regional powerhouse and industrial power potentially at odds with China’s growing influence in Central Asia. Continue reading →
Uzbekistan’s decision to withdraw from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for the second time does not come as much of a surprise for long-time observers of Tashkent’s foreign policy. Before finally calling it quits, Uzbekistan’s leadership had expressed frustration with the group’s overtly anti-Western guise, its fealty to Moscow and its pretensions at competition with NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Uzbek forces have not participated in the group’s military exercises and President Islom Karimov made a point of not attending CSTO summits. In contrast, his recent visit to Beijing for the SCO summit was highly publicized, as was a new strategic partnership agreement signed with China. 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.
Last week, we have been visiting Tashkent, Uzbekistan as part of our ongoing research on Chinese interests in Central Asia.
Fortunately, on the flight here from Beijing, one of us had the good fortune to be seated amidst a boisterous group of 40 Xinjiang businessmen part of a provincial business delegation attending a trade fair in Tashkent. They had been forced to fly through Beijing from Urumqi – a geographically illogical route – due to the fact that there are no direct flights between Tashkent and Urumqi.
At their invitation, we visited the trade fair earlier this week. Held in an old exhibition hall in the outskirts of Tashkent it was a no-frills affair with basic booths lined up four by four. In its fourth year, the Xinjiang Trade Expo was sponsored by the Uzbek Chamber of Commerce, the Xinjiang government, and the bingtuan (the former People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-managed state owned enterprise (SOE) responsible for much of Xinjiang’s industries). Continue reading →
On a recent visit to China, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov smiled broadly as he was awarded the title of Emeritus Professor at Peking University. Yet his satisfaction was probably less the academic distinction than a lucrative energy export deal he had signed earlier that day — 65 billion cubic meters of natural gas, roughly half of China’s 2010 gas consumption, would eventually flow from Turkmenistan’s massive fields to China’s seemingly insatiable consumers.
This end-of-year agreement prompted some observers to proclaim that gas-rich Turkmenistan had achieved a coup against regional political powerhouse Russia: For years, Moscow has been negotiating a gas export deal with Beijing, but what would it do now that China was receiving so much supply from Turkmenistan? Yet that analysis is backwards: Rather than a Turkmen power play, the natural gas deal was a geopolitical chess move by Beijing, whose fundamental interest in the region is both raw resources, and raw power. While the West is focused on constraining China’s actions in the Asia-Pacific, Beijing is capitalizing on vast space for influence to its west in Central Asia.
An outpost of the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) responsible for repaving the Southern Transport Corridor highway in Kyrgyzstan from the city of Osh through Sary Tash to the Irkeshtan border with China. Photo by Sue Anne Tay.
BEIJING — Traffic around Tiananmen Square was even worse than usual last week as President Vladimir Putin rolled through town to cement the supposedly flowering Chinese-Russian relationship. A series of high-level deals were signed between Chinese and Russian state-owned enterprises and China announced a substantial infusion into the new Russian Direct Investment Fund.
While cordial, an unspoken undertone to the meetings was Russian concern about growing Chinese influence in the former Soviet Union and particularly Central Asia.