This is a guest post by Kendrick Kuo, a grad student at Johns Hopkins and China specialist with a wealth of field experience in China and the Middle East. You can check out more of his work at his own blog, http://asiancrescent.com.
Chinese foreign policy toward Central Asia and the Muslim world at large remains a niche subject that only concerns a subset of researchers. In the popular imagination, China is solely an East Asian power. But as the Sino-American relationship continues to evolve, through both frictions and convergence of interests, Central Asia promises to be an important area of cooperation. My point is not that China is the primary reason the U.S. should remain interested in Central Asian states, but consideration of Sino-American relations should play a role in shaping continued U.S. engagement in the broader region.
China’s pivot to Central Asia
Any consideration of Beijing’s policies toward Central Asia must examine the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). There are signs that China’s military cooperation with Central Asian countries is waning. Last week, the SCO held its annual military exercises in Kazakhstan. Over at Eurasia.net, Joshua Kucera observes several aspects of the exercise that indicate diminished emphasis placed on the SCO’s military initiatives. Only three states participated and the number of troops involved seems to be significantly reduced.
China’s primary instrument in Central Asia at this point is economic ties. Beijing’s influence on Central Asian states’ foreign policies persists due to its economic clout. In 2010, Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in Kazakhstan reached $1.59 billion, ranking fourteenth among top outbound destinations. The United States receives about $4.9 billion in FDI stock, ranking eighth. Turkmenistan also receives considerable FDI flows, adding up to $450.51 million, ranking fifteenth in top FDI flow destinations, compared to the United States’ $1.3 billion. Recently, in May 2013, Tajikistan President Emomalii Rahmon met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) heads on an official state visit. He left Beijing with multi-million dollar investment projects in sectors such as infrastructure, banking, and energy. They also agreed on technical cooperation to the tune of $200 million.
Perhaps the most discussed Chinese investments in Central Asia are the pipelines. China has a long history of funding pipelines that would bring oil and gas overland from the west, as opposed to seafaring tankers that must pass through the U.S.-controlled Straits of Malacca. The agreement between Kazakhstan and China to build a pipeline importing oil from the Caspian shore to Xinjiang was penned as far back as 1997. Completion is scheduled for 2014, when it is expected to have a capacity of 20 million tons per year. The Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline (also referred to as the Central Asia-China gas pipeline), which runs through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, currently brings natural gas into Xinjiang. These pipeline investments are avenues for economic flourishing in the participating countries.
The Central Asian element to China’s strategic calculations will remain indefinitely as the civil unrest in Xinjiang does not look like it will be abating any time soon. Just this year in April, violence right outside Kashgar left 21 dead–the most deadly incident since the 2009 Urumqi riots. Beijing’s relations with Central Asia is as much about border security as it is about economic expansion, if not moreso.
We also must take into account the Sino-Pakistani relationship, which Beijing touts as an “all-weather” relationship. Chinese outbound FDI stock in 2010 equaled $1.8 billion. In 2012, China purchased a Pakistani port. Two years earlier, China announced that it intended to sell two heavy water nuclear reactors to Pakistan, which could produce plutonium. China has sold military aircraft and weapons to Pakistan, including an AWACS aircraft, surface-to-surface missiles, and J-10 fighters.
Potentially more important for the United States, China is interested in stabilizing Afghanistan. With a drawn out withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Beijing has had time to prepare itself. Beijing is not comfortable with a failing state on its borders. Uyghurs have crossed the border to train for jihad against the Chinese government in Xinjiang. The United States detained Uyghurs at Guantanamo Bay for a period of time after capturing them during military operations in Afghanistan. These fears of Uyghur jihad are often framed in the narrative of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). What’s Beijing’s game plan? Economic engagement.
Alexandros Petersen describes China’s strategy as making a shift in 2011, from leaving Afghanistan as Washington’s problem to fix to a proactive plan to inject investment into the Afghan economy in order to ensure the national government is not toppled after U.S. withdrawal. Chinese SOEs are visible throughout Afghanistan, whether it be in the extractive sector in the form of the Metallurgical Company of China, the Jiangxi Copper Corporation, and the China National Petroleum Corporation, or in the telecommunication sector as Huawei and ZTE dominate wireless sector infrastructure projects. Security concerns are real for these Chinese companies, but centrally-directed investments are marked by a higher tolerance for risk than western corporation.
China as a partner along the New Silk Road
Central Asia may prove to be an important area of Sino-U.S. cooperation on issues important to both countries. Most important is stability in Afghanistan and monitoring terrorist activities generally, but another issue that comes to mind is widespread economic development. The State Department unveiled the New Silk Road Initiative back in October 2011 in preparation for a post-2014 Afghanistan, but since then the political will to make this vision into concrete reality has been questionable. The New Silk Road was designed to link South Asia and Central Asia through international investment that bolsters regional trade. The strategy is described as comprised of both “hardware” and “software.” The hardware is infrastructure development, such as electricity from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan powering buildings in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Afghanistan rail connections, and the famous TAPI gas pipeline. The software refers to trade, the private sector, and other economic links.
Beijing could be a critical partner in the New Silk Road strategy. Surprisingly, this option does not grace the ongoing discussions about the strategy. The New Silk Road is conceived (and perceived by China and Russia) as an attempt to tie Central Asia to South Asia, pushing out Russia and bringing India into the mix. Russia, in some ways, is in competition with the U.S. strategy, but China does not have to be. Though Russia has historically been the overshadowing trading partner in the region, Beijing’s push westward, as described above, is challenging Moscow’s political and economic clout in Central Asia.
China is well-situated to play the role of U.S. partner for three key reasons: 1) the Sino-Russia dynamic in the region, 2) its influence on important players in the New Silk Road strategy, and 3) the de facto impact China is already making on Central Asian economies.
First, many analysts have observed the balancing act being carried out by Central Asian states. The CSTO and SCO are in passive-aggressive competition in the region, leading countries such as Uzbekistan to play them off one another. China is already checking Russian encroachment.
Second, China’s friendship with Pakistan is a valuable asset. U.S.-Pakistani relations have been turbulent, to say the least, and having Beijing weigh and apply pressure on Islamabad to support Afghanistan’s stability would be in the Washington’s interest. Some have noted the unfortunate absence of Iran from the New Silk Road strategy. China’s relationship with Iran, which has proven to hold up even under international pressure, has bequeathed Beijing with a good amount of political capital. This could prove useful if Iran is ever to be drawn into plans for regional economic development.
Finally, China is already making the New Silk Road. Of course, many of China’s major investments link the former Soviet Union republics to Xinjiang in hopes of stabilizing China’s restive northwest, but at least Beijing is getting things done. Yesterday, NATO officially transferred security over to the national army in Afghanistan. As the U.S. draws down troops, commitments will inevitably fall as well. Beijing, on the other hand, looks like it is ratcheting up its commitments. In establishing a Sino-U.S. partnership, Washington should be ready to broaden the geographic focus of the New Silk Road to encompass China in an informal, tri-regional (Central Asia, South Asia, China) economic zone.
Christopher Schwartz mentioned several days ago that the fiscal worries in the United States should not be overplayed in Central Asia. To add to this line of thinking, Beijing could be the perfect partner, bringing large bags of money to the table. Admittedly, there will be at times a conflict of interest, especially involving questions of civil society, democracy promotion, rule of law, and the like. Yet these are issues that trouble many Sino-U.S. interactions. Frequency breeds familiarity, which in turn can encourage diplomatic habits of understanding. China the game-changer is here to stay, and there is opportunity to make Central Asia an area of cooperation that supports the overall health of the Sino-U.S. relationship.
Kendrick Kuo is pursuing graduate studies at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in the China Studies program. He received his undergraduate degree from The George Washington University where he specialized in Middle East and Islamic Studies. Kendrick has lived in China and Jordan and currently resides in Washington, DC. He blogs at The Asian Crescent (http://www.asiancrescent.com).