(H/T Dan Drezner) From this week’s bookclub at TPM Cafe comes Josh Kurlantzick and his new book, Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World. Now, this is a much broader topic than only how it relates to the countries we focus on here, but Kurlantzick mentions an interesting case in his opening post:
But between 2001 and 2005, Central Asia went from an obscure region of Muslim-majority “’Stans” to one of the world’s most vital regions. As diminishing global oil reserves and growing energy demands pushed up world oil prices, the resource-rich Central Asian states became, comparatively, even resource-richer. After September 11, the region’s land borders with Afghanistan, and its old Soviet bases, placed it in the center of the fight against Al Qaeda…
China had been cultivating Central Asia before the world discovered the region. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Chinese officials like then-Premier Li Peng courted Central Asia’s leaders, promoting Chinese investment and trying to boost trade through proposed border free trade zones. Supporting China’s charm offensive, the Chinese government invested in public diplomacy in Central Asia and increased its aid programs. Beijing established a Confucius Institute for Chinese-language and -cultural studies in Uzbekistan. It created programs to train Central Asian officials and politicians, and promised the ’Stans that Beijing would fund a $1.5 billion highway linking China to Central Asia.
Once the SCO was formed, China could use the multilateral organization for leverage as well, to present itself as a natural leader of the region, or at least a regional coleader with Russia.
Kurlantzick is glossing over many things in this characterization, though his entire post deserves reading for proper context. Right off the bat, describing the ‘Stans as “resource-richer” because of rising oil prices isn’t quite right—it is not rising prices that make them “richer” somehow, nor is it necessarily diminishing global reserves. The reason Central Asia is so attractive to oilmen is that it is not Arab. Non-Arab sources of oil and gas are diminishing fast—from the three biggest American importers (Mexico, Canada, Venezuela) to the African states, even to Russia. In fact, as oil and gas become scarcer, the region that will most benefit, or, rather, be most viciously fought over, will actually be the Middle East—not Central Asia. Central Asia only matters because political uncertainty bred through terrorism and the war in Iraq (along with a rise in demand not matched by a rise in Middle Eastern production capacity) have driven prices up—making the increased cost of extraction and distribution of Central Asian—Kazakh quite specifically—oil more economical.
China, too, wasn’t the only country actively wooing the ‘Stans in the mid-90’s. In the early 90’s, the U.S. had begun sending military advisers to many of the countries, and by 1996 had established full relations. In 1994, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan had all signed onto NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, and by 1996 Kazakh staff officers were joining in preparedness exercises in Florida. Within a year, the U.S. had provided the Kazakh government with a fast patrol boat for its Caspian fleet and was conducting joint exercises with the Kazakh military. In September of 1997, Kazakhstan was chosen for a massive (and, at the time, quite stunning) capability showoff for the U.S. Army: the 82nd Airborne Division, one of the most storied units in American military history, took off in transports from their home base in North Carolina, flew 8,000 miles without landing, then parachuted into the desert around Shymkent for a joint exercise.
Then there is the case of James Giffen, who, throughout the 90’s, pandered to the Kazakh government in exchange for oil rights.
But anyway, the point here isn’t to compare and contrast American versus Chinese investments and influences in Central Asia, but to see if China in fact can be considered a major player there. While CNPC’s purchase of PetroKazakhstan raised eyebrows, it only came after CNOOC’s unsuccessful bid on Unocal—something of a consolation prize, in a way. Let’s go back to Sean-Paul Kelly’s excellent look at China’s real influence in the region. While sniping at a poorly-written article on China’s influence in Central Asia, he hits upon some really key points which I’ll summarize below:
- Though most setbacks for the U.S. have been primarily about the U.S. (either its condemnation of Andijon, it’s debt practices in Kyrgyzstan, or its meek requests to pretty please stop torturing people in Turkmenistan), there is an effort to make it about China.
- Their population policies in Xinjiang are so unbalanced they’re negatively impacting Kazakhstan.
- The Chinese essentially renounced imperial ambitions west of the Tien Shan after the Battle of Talas in 751.
- Thinking the Chinese “love” of the Uighurs means they have a natural stake in the area is at best fallacious and at worst purposefully deceitful.
- While energy is a force in the area, there are larger (and quite local) cultural influences in the region that will eventually affect its fate.
There is, of course, a lot more in Kelly’s post, which I recommend re-reading.
So, what is it? Does China in fact have any soft power in Central Asia, and if so is it a significant force? Obviously, not being there in person limits how much I could evaluate that. But I do know this: China still doesn’t always fare well in a competitive environment. China has made modest gains in Africa and South East Asia only because no one else has given the regions much thought. In Central Asia, where the countries have a choice of European, Russian, or American influences to choose from in addition to Chinese, China hasn’t been as wildly successful.
More importantly, at least for this discussion, Kurlantzick seems to be confusing Soft Power and Economic Power, which are two very different things. Soft power is traditionally measured (if it can be at all) in terms of things like cultural affinity and “warm and fuzzy” feelings (Nye called it “attractiveness” or some such). While China has established a Confucius Institute for Chinese-language and -Cultural Studies in Uzbekistan, it’s not like people are running out to buy Mao suits.
Indeed, no other country on earth has yet figured out how to compete with American cultural products. Exiled Tibetan monks buried deep into the jungles of India ask western journalists for Michael Jackson cassettes; in National Geographic you see Mongolian teenagers putting Britney Spears posters on the walls of their ger; the NBA is turning into as much of a global marketing presence as the EPL; and so on, and so on. That’s not to say other cultures and other countries don’t exert a lot of influence, but still it’s difficult to escape American culture and norms—or their attractiveness to young people. I remember quite vividly in Karaganda the college students asking me to write out Eminem lyrics so they could translate, and one night trying to fall asleep while a flat under mine was playing Jay-Z quite loudly.
That is changing, however. American soft power is very much on the decline, thanks to our government’s many mistakes in the War on Terror. But American soft power has traditionally moved in cycles, depending on America’s fortunes. The real question is: what might displace it? There is the potential for more European values and cultural icons to crop up, but it’s just as likely they’ll be rejected. The celebration of Nauryz in Kazakhstan, and its modern convergence with the Iranian Novruz festival, might hint at some other non-western cultural inroads. But I can’t for the life of me think of any other kinds of countries the ‘Stans aspire to be: it’s no longer the U.S., it was never Turkey, it probably won’t be Iran, most people there don’t really want it to be Russia, and it probably won’t be China.
Could it be that maybe, just maybe, some of the ‘Stans are innovating their own influences?