China’s pragmatic vectors of regionalism in Central Asia

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by Mathieu BOULEGUE on 10/23/2013

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently wrapped up a 10-day official tour in Central Asia between 3 and 13 September in the midst of his participation to the G-20 Summit in Saint Petersburg on 5 and 6 September and his subsequent presence at the Council of Heads of States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Bishkek on 13 September to promote regional trade and security. This unprecedented multilateral visit to four Central Asian capitals serves, among others, a double self-oriented and pragmatic purpose for Beijing: securitizing the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and ensuring greater energy security to meet growing national needs.

Beijing considers Central Asia as a region of its own, if not a testing ground for China’s foreign policy, while publicly stating that the region remains under Russia’s sphere of influence. The post-Cold War Chinese approach to Central Asia is based on the concept of Zhoubian, or peripheral strategy, meaning that security has to be reached in the bordering Chinese territories through the development of a belt of stable neighbors based on peaceful coexis­tence. Thus, Central Asia represents a continental bridge between China and Europe: regional stability is paramount for Beijing because turbulences on the bridge could endanger the whole sub-system. Furthermore, Central Asia is comprised within China’s direct Dingwei, to which Beijing attaches great value in terms of economy and security.

Therefore, self-help security preoccupations account for an important part of China’s growing influence in Central Asia: stability at China’s Western periphery is a necessary precondition for the integrity of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China’s engagement of Central Asia is linked to the stabilization of Xinjiang: being the sole resource-rich province of China and a major energy transit route, stability in Xinjiang is of vital importance. The post-Soviet opening of Xinjiang had the result to revive the ethno-religious pan-Turkic separatism, thus forcing China to tighten its control over border areas and clamp down on secessionist claims. In order to stem the support for Xinjiang separatism, Beijing advocated for the economic integration of Xinjiang with the border Central Asian Republics. To do so, the Great Western Development Plan was launched in 2000 and made Xinjiang a trade and energy corridor with Central Asia – this further allowed consolidating control over the province and extended China’s regional clout. It also fostered the revival of a “new Silk Road” and the implementation of transport infrastructures throughout Central Asia to overcome development inequalities in Xinjiang.

Since the late 1990s, China’s regional search for influence has been driven by self-centered security concerns to break Muslim Uighur separatist movements and fight against transnational terrorism by fear that trans-border interactions with Central Asia might have a spill-over effect in Xinjiang. About half a million Uighurs living across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan keep strong affiliations with their kin in Xinjiang: Beijing fears this could create a potential base for secessionist mobilization advocating for an autonomous East Turkestan territory across Xinjiang, and potentially with the help of Islamist radicals. Separatist movements and Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia is loathed by Beijing since Uighurs could make common front with regional terrorist groups ranging from the IMU to al Qaeda, or at least access their military capabilities.

Yet in order to prevent local ethno-religious nationalist from finding support among Islamist movements, Beijing needs the help of regional States. This was initially achieved in the mid-1990s by the establishment of military confidence building measures. China then pushed Central Asian States to cooperate on the Uighur issue, mainly by restricting the movements of local Uighur populations and identifying potential separatists. Military cooperation with Central Asia is mostly carried out through joint anti-terrorism exercises but also assistance programs for border control and sales of weapons and technologies.

The SCO was also used as a tool serving China’s security interests. Soon after its inception, terrorism was placed high on the common agenda: Islamist insurgency was manufactured as the main threat against member States, especially after 9/11 when China used the international fight against terrorism to seek increased assistance from Central Asia and particularly focus the attention on the Uighur issue. The SCO’s anti-terrorist agenda was summed up in the ‘three evils’ – namely ethno-separatism (or “splittism”), religious extremism, and terrorism – and directly turned against Xinjiang. This threat rebranding is actually nothing more than the outsourcing of the Xinjiang issue onto Central Asia, a matter of relevance for the Republics who somewhat share Beijing’s obsession with regional threats, and especially in the context of the 2014 pullout of Coalition Forces from Afghanistan.

China’s ability to foster greater cooperation to serve its interests nevertheless remains limited among Central Asian States, who are relatively suspicious of Beijing’s genuine intentions. The military instruments deployed, mainly the RATS, are weak when compared to Moscow’s presence: Russia completely overshadows China’s geostrategic influence since the CSTO encompasses the majority of the regional military operations nowadays. There is also a lack of appraisal by the Chinese authorities concerning the behavior to adopt in case of crises erupting in Central Asia: the 2005 Kyrgyz revolution, the Andijan crisis in 2005, as well as the ethnic turmoil in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 showed that Beijing rebukes direct intervention (in line with its strict non-intervention policy), thereby limiting China’s role as an influential regional security actor.

Another paramount vector of China’s economic influence in Central Asia is represented by Beijing’s pragmatic search for energy security and the diversification of its suppliers after the country became a net oil importer in 1993: in this, China is actively seeking to switch its oil & gas supplies away from traditional yet increasingly less reliable providers through the creation of supply deal and the financing of infrastructure projects to carry the resources to China. In this regard, Central Asia is a key area for Beijing’s energy security since the region represents a stable land-based supply alternative to the Middle East – by 2030, Central Asia could cover up to 10 percent of China’s energy needs.

Beijing’s Central Asian energy policy relies on a double approach. On the one hand, Beijing buys controlling shares in distressed energy consortiums at low prices as well as purchases local oil fields: the numerous jointly-developed fields in Central Asia attest of China’s growing influence. The other side of the energy strategy is the development of pipelines in order to connect all the acquired fields and deposits to the wider Chinese network. However, state-owned CNPC and similar companies arrived late on the oil market and were only able to buy marginal deposits. China is also interested in gas deposits, largely in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Beijing also extended its reach to vital economic sectors – notably the hydro-electric sector to compensate electricity deficits in Xinjiang; the mining industry; as well as the infrastructure sector required to transport raw materials. This holds particularly relevance for infrastructure projects and in the construction and rehabilitation of networks such as railroads and highways, but also in the power generation sector. In turn, better infrastructures allow for the economic growth of Xinjiang thanks to boosted border trade.China therefore relies on a bottom-up approach with Han entrepreneurs implementing businesses locally to better flood Central Asian markets with low-quality consumer goods and finished products.

Furthermore, China is focusing its economic foothold in Central Asia through the active development of border and shuttle trade with the neighboring Republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as well as through the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps created in 1954 to strengthen Beijing’s control over its border regions.

Stability in Xinjiang and energy security will probably continue to drive China’s search for influence in Central Asia for the years to come but it is too early to say if China will ever constitute a regional hegemon. Consequently, Beijing’s self-interested diplomacy could increasingly encounter resistance from local countries and ultimately clash with Russian interests in its near abroad.

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A Sciences Po and King’s College London alumnus, Mathieu Boulègue is an analyst in the field of Russia/CIS security and geostrategic issues. He currently works as a project manager for a risk management consulting firm. He is also a founding member of Sogdiane, a strategic think-tank on Eurasian affairs.

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