How Might China’s Soft Power Impact Central Asia?

by Joshua Foust on 6/26/2007 · 6 comments

(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?


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 6 comments }

davesgonechina June 27, 2007 at 12:46 am

“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.”

It’s been a while since I read Joseph Nye’s book, but I seem to remember Soft Power included economic powers. Of course the big problem is the concept is fuzzy (as in “unclear”, not “warm and …”) – Nye said it was anything that attracted or persuaded others, and there was a spectrum from soft to hard (sanctions would be somewhere near the middle). Some ways Kurlantzick is using the term:

1) Free trade zones
2) Public diplomacy (I’ll give him aid money, but I don’t see CCTV pulling a VOA)
3) Confucian Institutes (really, too big a deal is made of these. Does the Goethe Institute revolutionize Germany’s image?)
4) Highways
5) The SCO

The SCO is the biggie, and not exactly soft power. Meanwhile, from what I hear, anti-Chinese sentiments, fears of waves of migration, and the usual cheap goods that suffocate children, are alive and well in Central Asia. You could say the PRC is making deals with sketchy characters, but calling it “soft power” strikes me as lame.

Joshua Foust June 27, 2007 at 4:10 am

Dave –

Actually Nye drew the distinction as well. He said there were three kinds of power: physical or military, economic, and “soft,” which he generally defined as influence or attractiveness. The first is obvious in a place like Iraq—the U.S. is trying to force Iraq into a national mold through military force. The second can be seen in the broad U.S. policy toward China, in which the assumption is that economic integration and interdependence will influence China’s behavior.

The third, however, is quite rightly difficult to explain. And if you’ll forgive me venturing outside Central Asia for a moment, it is not at all clear how to measure it—China is both resented and admired in Sudan, where they have a growing presence of their own version of the Peace Corps. So even in a place most in the West define as aligning itself with China, the picture is not at at all clear save one thing: China cares about its perception abroad.

Which then raises the question for us: why doesn’t anyone try to make them feel shame for how poorly they treat the Uighurs?

davesgonechina June 27, 2007 at 4:50 am

I’d point out the Chinese “peace corps” you link to isn’t in Sudan, but across the border in Ethiopia. Anyway, I agree that in places like Sudan, places associated with ruthless Chinese mercantilism, there’s a mixed view of China.

As for soft power, while I think Nye is right that one ought to think about seducing and attracting a bit more than bombing, I find it a flaky concept. I think the truly interesting thing about China and soft power is not measuring it, a fruitless task, but exploring what “soft power” means to the Chinese. They certainly write about it often enough. As for what is displacing American soft power, I think the answer is: everything else. Not replacing, but the field just continues to get more crowded. In the Cold War, America was pretty alone in the global media and entertainment business. It’s still huge, but everybody has alot more choices these days. Hell, some in China complain of the soft power of Korean soap operas and pop music. But no one says “I wish I lived in South Korea”, as blue jeans purchasers in the USSR did.

I agree that China does care about its perception abroad, but I wonder if the post-9/11 lesson they taken is “just make sure you don’t look like a schmuck” – a lesson they’re still learning, I believe. It’s not quite the same as American “we’re the coolest, most fun country EVAR!” message that the U.S. has often projected, or tried to project at any rate.

As for the Uyghurs, people do try to shame China about it, but China isn’t receptive to it. Why? It’s the whole “internal affairs” thing. The PRC believes that you’re not overstepping your bounds when you enter economic or development relationships with a foreign government, but you are overstepping your bounds when you tell them to re-organize their society or redraw their borders. Democracy and Uyghurs are two issues that they perceive as crossing this line. You can’t shame them on it, because they don’t think you have the right. You could, however, shame them about being hypocrites interfering in another nation.

Chinese individuals, however, could be made to feel shame and then pressure the government themselves, but you’d have to approach so as they don’t feel they’re being lectured or told what conclusions to reach by foreigners. Not an easy thing.

Joshua Foust June 27, 2007 at 5:28 am

You’re right about the Peace Corps thing – I didn’t mean to say it was in Sudan, merely that the Chinese are actively trying to mirror the “soft” foreign interactions Americans have enjoyed for decades.

And it’s a good point you make about the Uighurs. For example, we so completely know how poorly they’re treated we refused to repatriate Uighurs the Army picked up in Afghanistan (though their subsequent treatment, including years of imprisonment despite official innocence, and subsequent neglect in Albania, is deeply shameful); yet, we allowed Chinese interrogators to enter Guantanamo to interrogate them — where, by all accounts, they were threatened and harassed.

My understanding of China’s feeling about “itself” (which I consider loosely defined, given how few on its periphery really wish to be ruled by the Han) is that there are three unnegotiable areas, which John Derbyshire, in a rare moment of clarity, called “The Three T’s”: Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkestan (which is Xinjiang and maybe part of Gansu). All of this is probably tied back to the One China policy, which might even include Outer Mongolia.

I’m not so sure democracy is an off-limits subject, though, at least in the abstract. They certainly react negatively to foreigners lecturing them on how to run their country — as everyone, perhaps especially America, does. But there are so many thousands of protests every year over environmental degradation, economic injustices, and unjust local governors, that I don’t think it’s an impossibility. (Update: Well, just today Hu Jintao ruled out ever allowing a multi-party democracy, so at least in an official sense I guess the one party rule is here to stay… forever.)

Anyway, back to the topic at hand, I still don’t see how China is leveraging its influence in Central Asia, or if it even has any. I don’t think anyone is all that interested.

davesgonechina June 27, 2007 at 7:22 am

“Anyway, back to the topic at hand, I still don’t see how China is leveraging its influence in Central Asia, or if it even has any. I don’t think anyone is all that interested.”

Agreed, though I can’t say I know enough about Central Asia all-round to be sure. I think Central Asian governments are happy to take China’s money and use them as leverage with the US or Russia (or the EU, I guess). But I don’t think that translates into any sort of affection or desire to be like China – in other words, all the leverage is on the Central Asian side, not the Chinese side. Couple that with the anti-Chinese sentiment that, in my limited experience, is pretty strong across the region, and I don’t see them being any kind of satellite or proxy any time soon.

Matt W June 27, 2007 at 10:53 pm

As far as the soft power issue goes, if we’re talking about soft power as affinity, consumption of pop-culture products, etc. I’d say the China-Central Asian relationship is best characterized as mutual animosity. No soft power or mutual curiosity here.

The Chinese people, for their part (or at least the ones in Shanghai) seem to refuse to recognize Central Asians– who are constantly referred to as Xinjian ren (people of Xinjain) regardless of whether they are from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc. Just miscellaneous nations waiting to be assimilated as proper Han. I guess this is somewhat benign, an equivalent of Americans saying “Oh, so you’re from Russia”, but more ominous, since Xinjian is territorially part of China.

Chinese people don’t seem to really like the Uighurs– I find myself constantly having to stick up for them. They’re kind of like boogeymen here. Some things commonly said about them: “You should carry your money in your front pocket, there are a lot of Xinjian ren in Shanghai now [and of course they are all thieves, because a Chinese person would never steal].” Latin-American friends of mine with good Chinese are made to sit in the front of taxicabs, as they are suspected of being Xinjian ren and will, therefore, run off. I also have started to hear “Don’t buy the shashlik that the Xinjian ren make on the streets– one skewer is like smoking 4 packs of cigarettes”, “They’re dirty”, “They’re all in gangs”, foreigners are constantly told to be careful of the Xinjian ren… It goes on, I don’t bring it up myself in conversations but constantly hear it, there is a strong anti-Turkic prejudice among average Chinese people.

And by now we’re all familiar with what the Central Asians think of the Chinese: the purchasing of eshaks and frogs for meat (kind of reminds me of the snakehead fish thing in the DC area a few years back), crowding 20 to an apartment in Karasuu, terrible drivers who don’t think twice before hitting livestock (my organization’s car got hit by a Chinese truck in Kyrgyzstan– the management at the local office then tried to scare our representatives, were aggressive with them, finally paid minor compensation, but that’s because we’re an international organization). The Han Chinese and Chinese Uighurs have different professional organizations at the Karasuu bazaar and didn’t, as of last year at least, permit cross-membership. Chinese vendors tend not to speak a lick of anything except for Chinese. Chinese investors insisting on using mostly Chinese workers at large projects also does not help (although I do recall the cement factory they’re doing around Kyzylkyia as bringing in local workers, so I’m not totally clear as to how common this policy is).

I would say Central Asia’s receptive to soft power from many sources– Russia, America, Europe (mostly through Russia– I don’t think real Europeans take Eurovision seriously, for instance, but Russians do, and so do Central Asians) and, increasingly, the Middle East (music and marriage– both I would say highly influential).

Nothing coming from China. No mutual affinity whatsoever. A small increase in language study (from the Central Asian side of course) that is probably economically motivated, some feel-good exchanges through the SCO. Plenty of economic power, but tons of animosity too.

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