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 →
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 →
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 →
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 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 →
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 →
Alexandros Petersen is quoted by Joshua Kucera on EurasiaNet.
Part of the reason is that Central Asia remains a low priority for the government in Beijing, and so policy is shaped on an ad hoc basic via deals made by various companies and government organs, said Alexandros Petersen, an analyst and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center who studies Chinese policy in Central Asia. “There is no grand strategy for Central Asia on the part of Beijing,” Petersen said. “What there is, however, is a confluence of all the activities of these multifarious actors which, regardless of what Beijing wants or doesn’t want, means that China is nonetheless the most consequential actor in the region.”
Nevertheless, China’s strategy towards Central Asia may be a function of its need to pacify Xinjiang, Petersen said: “The engagement in Central Asia … has to do with security concerns about Xinjiang, number one, and only secondly, after that, is it about resources and economic development.”
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 →
What do you do about attracting investment if you are a remote corner of China, best-known internationally for your ethnic tensions?
If you are Xinjiang, you invest heavily in a blockbuster economic exhibition. Urumqi is this week hosting its second annual China-Eurasia Expo, opened this year by premier Wen Jiabao, a clear upgrade from last year’s star host, vice premier Li Keqiang.
Leaders and/or ministers from seven countries flew in, giving credence to Wen’s claim that the Expo aimed ‘to build a new bridge of friendship and cooperation across the Eurasian continent…and make Xinjiang a gateway.’ But it’s along way from prime ministerial declarations to the investment that Xinjiang badly needs.
A Kyrgyz guide takes his horse for a drink in Lake Karakul, roughly halfway between Kashgar, in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, and the Pakistan border. By Sue Anne Tay
On paper, the Karakoram Highway stretches from Kashgar in China’s far western province of Xinjiang to Islamabad. In reality, it unfolds like a ribbon across China’s westernmost border before its tarmac comes to an abrupt halt at the Khunjerab Pass on Pakistan’s border – the highest spot on the world’s highest paved international highway. China scholars often point out that domestic concerns colour Beijing’s foreign relations, but the multifarious stops and diverse communities along the Karakoram reveal that China’s domestic concerns are anything but uniform.
Our journey starts in Ürümqi, a grubby metropolis of more than 2.3 million people that looks like many other second- or third-tier Chinese cities. Large boulevards cluttered with imposing buildings are filled with frenetic construction as the city rushes to erect more shopping malls to appease insatiable local consumers. As the capital of an autonomous region which is China’s largest political subdivision, and home to a substantial portion of China’s natural wealth, it is also a draw for poor fortune-seekers from neighbouring provinces. A taxi driver from the adjacent province ofGansu boasted how opportunities in Ürümqi are plentiful, with girlfriends to match—one for each day of the week.
Lenin greets visitors to Murghab, Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan
Attention has been focused in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region this week, as a government operation in retaliation for the murder of a Major General Abdullo Nazarov, a senior intelligence official, has been launched in the region’s Pamir Mountains. While the regional capital Khorog has apparently now re-opened for business, it seems as though hostilities continue in the mountains.
Earlier this year, we made a trip to this part of Tajikistan, on our way through to the Kulma Pass, Tajikistan’s border post with China. Closed to anyone but Chinese or Tajik passport holders, we instead went right up to the border on either side, driving from Kashgar to Tashkurgan, pausing at Kara Suu to see the brand new border post that has been built on the Chinese side of the Kulma Pass and sat empty waiting for business. It was a crystal clear day, with the border post and army base next to it seemingly abandoned. From what we could see on the Tajik side, nothing was stirring.
Chinese and Pakistani officials often talk in lofty terms about the proximity of their relationship. “Higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, sweeter than honey, stronger than steel and dearer than eyesight” is the official characterization, and Chinese or Pakistani researchers will often say how they are welcomed like brothers when they visit their respective countries.
A story last week in the Pakistani press, however, seemed to belie this, stating that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had declined to move a meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to Karachi, forcing the president to rapidly reschedule his trip to be in Islamabad to meet with Yang. Whatever the accuracy of this specific story, there has been a noticeable tenseness in relations between Beijing and Islamabad, indicating that things may not be as rosy as they are sometimes portrayed.
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 →