A Chinese Strategy for Central Asia?

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by Joshua Foust on 1/10/2012 · 6 comments

I’ve been trading arguments with Alexandros Petersen and Raffaello Pantucci the last few months about whether or not China is really gaining influence in Central Asia (see some of that here and here). I still haven’t seen much evidence that China has been terribly active or even successful in building a network of influence in the region. But today, Alexandros published a provocative new twist on the debate at my friend Steve LeVine’s Foreign Policy blog:

It would be more accurate to say that Beijing’s choice of Turkmen, Kazakh and Uzbek gas over Russian has forced Gazprom to reassess its regional strategy. While price negotiations with Moscow have slogged on over the last five years, the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) has cobbled together and upgraded largely existing transportation infrastructure to create the China-Central Asia gas pipeline (pictured above). The resulting shift in the region’s energy geopolitics reflects China’s rise.

It also reveals a Beijing whose intentions are inherently geopolitical. The deliverable for Beijing is stability — client states with predictable, subservient governments. The Chinese analysis is that they are the adults in Central Asia, while Russian and Western actors breed instability.

What’s so interesting about Alexandros’ argument is the number of Chinese analysts and officials he quotes as disagreeing with him. Indeed, as with the first piece I read by them last year, the arguments for Chinese motivations and plans are implied, but not actually proven or even supported factually.

No one would argue that China is expanding its economic presence in Central Asia. But that expansion hasn’t been without its hiccups or resistance. In 2007, for example, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said very explicitly that he was unhappy with the unbalanced economic relationship between Astana and Beijing. Earlier this year, Eurasianet ran a story detailing the resentment many Kyrgyzstanis feel at China’s overpowering economy as well. And Tajikistan’s parliamentary vote to cede some territory to China a year ago sparked unease both within Tajikistan and within neighboring countries.

So while China might want to have a stronger presence in the region (and again there’s not really much evidence for that apart from tea leaf reading), it is not a done deal. Locals remain unsure. But then this bit leapt out:

A CNPC representative put it in these terms: “Some regional partners like to use our presence as a foreign policy tool.” He was quick to add, “Chinese companies are not involved in politics.” I heard the terms “non-interference” and “harmonious relations” more times than I could count. But, addressing the Turkmen deal directly, a senior policymaker with the Chinese energy ministry said, “Energy is the basis for a wider relationship with Turkmenistan, which we see as a major, long-term partner in the region.” Kazakhstan has far more oil, in addition to much natural gas, but Turkmenistan appears to be at least equivalent and perhaps more consequential to China. When I asked whether the relationship with Turkmenistan was important in diversifying China’s energy import options in light of recent civil unrest in Kazakhstan, he answered simply, “Yes.”

That’s a curious claim, since the pipeline that transports the oh-so-valuable Turkmeni gas east to China has to go through seven hundred miles of Kazakh territory. See here:

The Central Asia-China Pipeline.

Whatever China’s relationship with Turkmenistan, it won’t be a hedge if a major crisis in Kazakhstan cuts off that pipeline. Still, despite Alexandros’ seeming skepticism of the Chinese desire for “harmonious relations” with Central Asia, there is reason to take them at their word: academic studies of Chinese foreign policy show a marked preference for diplomacy over force, and for enforcing regime stability even at the expense of Chinese territorial goals.

It makes for a marked contrast to China’s relationship with Pakistan. Especially on issues of terrorism, China has been less than shy about openly exerting pressure on Islamabad to gain concessions, going so far as to spark the Lal Masjid crisis in 2007. That’s in part because Chinese investment in Pakistan is not just a matter of some Chinese companies either investing or building local subsidiaries, but the result of large, politically significant projects like the Gwadar port and large military sales. In contrast, pressuring a Central Asian government to, for example, round up some Uighur activists it doesn’t like anyway is barely worth mentioning, especially because it imposes no cost on the leaders who do it.

It’s important to keep in mind that China is not operating in a vacuum, and that other countries — Russia, Turkey, the U.S. — have also spent lots of time and money trying to buy influence in the region. The U.S., which just announced it’s pumped $1.4 billion into the Kyrgyz economy through the Manas air base since 2001, has had a difficult translating its huge expenditures into actual influence (and in the case of Turkmenistan barely even tried, anyway). Russia and Turkey, as well, have seen their political fortunes wax and wane.

Still, the effects of Chinese policies in Central Asia are not the same as the policies themselves, and this is what Alexandros (and his common writing partner, Raffaello Pantucci) is arguing. But, despite the big talk about Chinese plans for doing… something influential in the region, there just isn’t data that there is a concerted, long-term plan for establishing decisive Chinese control. And that’s the big problem I have with this formulation: it is a deductive analysis of what China might be doing, but there just aren’t enough data to conclusively say that this is what China intends to do. And more important, there’s no sense of whether it’s a good thing, a bad thing, — and if the U.S. should respond, much less care about it.


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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 }

ET January 10, 2012 at 4:04 pm

How does the SCO fit into the picture in your opinion? There is no mention of it in the article, or has it already been discussed in the argument trading? Does the SCO constitute “a concerted, long-term [Chinese] plan” or something more amorphous?

Jakob January 10, 2012 at 6:00 pm

“It is a deductive analysis of what China might be doing, but there just aren’t enough data to conclusively say that this is what China intends to do.”

I think that’s essential and so true for other topics as well. Arguments go along the same lines in the ‘Future Water and Conflict in Asia’ debates. (Armed) Conflict over international Water is prognosed because China might build this or that dam and might divert water. But it hasn’t really proven to do so on a significant scale (expecially the Brahmaputra plan vs. India and Irtysh vs. Kazakhstan).

Xenophon January 10, 2012 at 9:55 pm

“I still haven’t seen much evidence that China has been terribly active or even successful in building a network of influence in the region.”

When you see it, it will already have happened.

“What’s so interesting about Alexandros’ argument is the number of Chinese analysts and officials he quotes as disagreeing with him.”

Why is that so interesting? What should we expect the Chinese to say?

“Whatever China’s relationship with Turkmenistan, it won’t be a hedge if a major crisis in Kazakhstan cuts off that pipeline.”

Well, exactly. So that would argue for a concerted Central Asian strategy for China, wouldn’t it?

“It makes for a marked contrast to China’s relationship with Pakistan.”

That’s because Pakistan is looking to China as a counterweight with India (and increasingly the US). This gives China more leverage with Pakistan.

“But, despite the big talk about Chinese plans for doing… something influential in the region, there just isn’t data that there is a concerted, long-term plan for establishing decisive Chinese control. And that’s the big problem I have with this formulation: it is a deductive analysis of what China might be doing, but there just aren’t enough data to conclusively say that this is what China intends to do. And more important, there’s no sense of whether it’s a good thing, a bad thing, — and if the U.S. should respond, much less care about it.”

JF, your search for “data” is admirable. But let’s look at this from a different perspective. Why is China building railroads in Pakistan and Iran? Why did China build Gwaidar? Why is China building pipelines across Central Asia? Does the US have a strategy for Central Asia? Does Russia? Of course–they all do! Guess what: China has a strategy for Africa and Latin America too. And the US has a strategy for Asia-Pac, etc, etc, etc. Who can be sure what will succeed and what will fail? But the strategies are being pursued–of that, you can be sure.

In short, how can China–with its huge resource needs–NOT have a strategy for Central Asia? Whether it establishes “decisive control,” as you put it, it beside the point. It has strategic requirements and strategic goals to try to satisfy those requirements. Its timelines are its own. The “data” will be available to you in good time.

Nick Hanz January 10, 2012 at 10:08 pm

China operates on a policy of self-sufficiency. While the US sees China as a threat, it is unclear whether China really cares or pays attention to what the US says or does.

In relation to Central Asia, China’s position and interests match those of Iran, Pakistan, and Russia. Their joint positions are at odds with the US, and because of this the US agenda for the region has faltered.

China’s rising economy also has given it more leverage and influence as more nations are turning to Chinese relations.

The US Asia-Pacific strategy is in fact an omission of China’s emergence as a superpower. China simply seems to not care about the unwanted attention

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm

This really struck me because I’ve been reading a bit about relations between the Qing/Manchu and both Russia and Central Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries. The phrase there was also “self-sufficiency.” To the point of neglecting all foreseeable benefit from trade, as such was beneath the leadership of China (though not its lower-class citizens). It didn’t by any means preclude other forms of relations – but the standard ideas of foreign-relations-equals-trade-agreements didn’t seem to be the rule of the day.

Alexander January 20, 2012 at 2:10 pm

I agree that for the time being, there are no actual indications of what Beijing is up to in Central Asia. Nor there are any signs that Beijing would like to use its growing economic role in the region for political purposes. However, I believe that it would be too naive to assume that the Chinese would not eventually seek to translate their rapidly growing economic influence in Central Asia into greater political role.

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