INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
China pivots towards Central Asia
, November 9, 2013
China is rapidly expanding its economic and strategic interests in Central Asia, with global strategic implications.
As the United States refocuses its attention from Afghanistan to the Asia-Pacific, and NATO halts its eastward expansion, China is stepping up its “Marching Westwards” policy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently toured through Central Asia, signing contracts worth tens of billions of dollars, and treating the former Soviet republics as if they were now in China’s sphere of influence.
He opened an important energy pipeline that will feed Caspian gas from Kazakhstan across Asia into China’s coastal cities. It will traverse Turkmenistan, feeding into another jointly developed pipeline.
President Xi is familiar with the ancient Silk Road trade routes: he was born in Shaanxi province, its easternmost node. In a recent speech, Xi said that the “seaway that bridges China and foreign countries” is as “prestigious as the Silk Road that connects East and West”.
Writing in The Atlantic, (October 25, 2013), Dr Alexandros Petersen, a scholar of grand strategy and energy geopolitics and author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2011), said that Beijing’s push into Asia’s heartland began almost unnoticed in 2001 when it launched the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The SCO founding members included China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Russia is a second-tier partner in the arrangement. Belatedly, Moscow formed a neo-Soviet “customs union”, and has called for a Eurasian Union, in order to maintain its influence in the region.
Notably, China sought to give priority to the SCO over any other organisations in the Asia-Pacific region.
Ankit Panda, associate editor of The Diplomat (October 29, 2013), wrote that China has few all-weather strategic friends along its vast south-eastern rimland. But to its west there are many states craving investment in the minerals and energy that China needs, and these states are not so concerned about Beijing’s strategic ambitions.
To that end Panda says, “One of China’s greatest strengths when it comes to foreign policy and business is its willingness to go everywhere and do almost anything. It has become a formidable ‘all-weather’ partner to many countries. China does this best when messy topics like Asian history, nuclear weapons, and territorial disputes are left out of the equation.”
The rationale of China’s “March Westward” strategy was outlined by Yun Sun, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. She said: “The logic of ‘March West’ is rather simple and reflects the complex regional quagmire China is in. As Washington rebalances to Asia, the relationship between the U.S. and China has become increasingly contentious and ‘zero-sum’. In Beijing’s view, deeply embedded in the rebalancing is Washington’s profound concern about China’s rise in the region and a determination to curtail its expanding influence.
“Under this overarching theme, Beijing sees a comprehensive policy of Washington to block China’s rise in the East through strengthened military alliances, ‘sabotaging’ China’s ties with ASEAN and undercutting China’s effort to lead the region’s economic integration by pushing the U.S.-centred and China-free Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“Since both Beijing and Washington are seeking to expand their influence in East Asia, as Wang Jisi [a prominent Chinese international relations scholar at Beijing University] argued, if China continues to push forward, more problems, even a head-on military confrontation with the U.S. (such as over the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute), would be inevitable.” (Quoted in The Diplomat, October 29, 2013).
Part of China’s response is to secure its interests in the Asian heartland, cultivating more friendly allies to its west, all the way to the Caspian Sea.
These states may not offer the same level of economic sophistication as those in the Asia-Pacific region; but, according to Panda, they offer “massive strategic prizes that will grow increasingly important in the 21st century”.
The aim of China’s westward pivot is twofold:
First, Beijing has calculated that there are lower risks in importing oil through land pipelines than across the sea from the Persian Gulf, which must traverse the sea lines of communication of an unfriendly state, India. As a balancing move to offset U.S. and Indian influence in the Indian Ocean, China is investing heavily in the Pakistan port of Gwadar.
Second, friendly alliances with Central Asia provide a favourable bulwark against greater domestic instability in China’s western frontiers, particularly among Uighur separatists in the westernmost province of Xinjiang. Beijing is concerned about Islamic militancy among the Uighurs.
Alongside economic investment, China is conducting joint military exercises with SCO members and has treaties that provide for the extradition of ethnic Uighurs to China.
While China’s main strategic investment will still be in forces facing the Pacific, China wants to achieve greater security in its western provinces and energy imports.
As Ankit Panda concludes, “Ultimately, China’s attention to its western frontier is a strategic response to external developments in East Asia, and to the U.S. pivot, and one that will continue to have important consequences in the story of China’s rise.”
Patrick J. Byrne is national vice-president of the National Civic Council.
Alexandros Petersen, “China is pivoting to Central Asia — but is Washington paying attention?”, The Atlantic, October 25, 2013.
Ankit Panda, “China’s pivot west”, The Diplomat (Tokyo), October 29, 2013.