The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has put more emphasis lately on economic and security partnerships in the West. Some experts call this phenomenon China’s “Pivot to the West”, as a reaction to the United States’ “Pivot to the East”.1 As the US steadily tightens strategic partnerships with Asian allies (Japan, Vietnam, Philippines) to ensure a strong presence in the Asia-Pacific, China looks toward the West to further its global position and boost its economy. (Featured Image © APEC 2013)
The Central Asian region2 has increasingly gained importance in recent years. Being an essential part of the Silk Road between Europe and China, it held an important geographic position from the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) until the late middle ages. In the 19th century the region became the playing field of the so-called Great Game between Great Britain and Russia. The goal of this strategic power competition was access to valuable political and economic territories, such as India or Persia. However, the end of the Second World War signaled the start of Soviet domination over the Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, fifteen Soviet republics became independent states and established their own state structures.
Reasons behind the Eurasian Pivot
In recent years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been increasing their attention towards the Central Asian region. The primary focus of Beijing lies on trade and energy resources in the area. Second, stability in Central Asia is closely linked to internal security in western China. Military security on bilateral issues with Central Asian countries is deemed a necessary tool to diminish the widespread threat posed by terrorism and organized crime.3 Subsequently, terrorism has already reared its ugly head within Chinese borders. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has a hard time dealing with the discontent of the Uighur population in the Xinjiang province. This minority in the most Western province of China is displeased by the erosion of their identity by Beijing policy makers, which lies closer to Central Asian culture and languages than Han Chinese equivalents. When in 2009 violent riots occurred in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, a shift of focus towards the West manifested itself.45
Beijing has already vastly expanded its economic presence in Central Asia through multiple bilateral arrangements since 1991. In 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced the creation of two trade and infrastructure networks from East Asia to Europe (the so-called Silk Roads): a maritime one and a continental one. The latter one, also called the New Silk Road, the Silk Road Economic Belt or the “One Belt, One Road” initiative (OBOR), is of utmost importance to Central Asia. The OBOR initiative plans to invest in the construction of railways, airports, pipelines, telecommunication networks and other critical infrastructure in the region through multiple funds and arrangements.67 Not many details in regard to the implementation of OBOR are known, though more substantial information will be gradually added to the project. In addition, policy makers in Beijing have long been concerned with the economic underdevelopment of China’s western provinces in contrast with coastal cities in the East, and hope to assuage these concerns through OBOR.
Receptiveness of Central Asia towards China
The relative openness of Central Asian countries in favor of China is related to altered views of other major players in the area. The Obama administration perceived the region as a whole through the lens of its problems in Afghanistan. Subsequently, with the withdrawal of the majority of U.S. and NATO troops in 2014, its direct influence in the region declined considerably. The region is also very important for the Russian Federation. The Global Financial Crisis in 2008 hit the Russian resource-led economy hard and fairly weakened its position in Central Asia. Nonetheless, Russia maintains an aggressive stance in what it considers as its political backyard. When Russian trade began to decline in 2007, Beijing overtook Moscow as the main trade partner in the region.8
Economic cooperation with the PRC benefits the region as a whole in many ways. Central Asia’s energy rich states, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, would welcome new export destinations of their oil and gas supplies. Moreover, diversification of their economies beyond a resource exporting industry would further contribute to their economic well-being. Especially the OBOR initiative would realize a buildup of domestic infrastructure and a huge increase of connectedness in the region. Additionally, to safeguard these investments and mutual interests, security cooperation with China could partially resolve internal problems, such as bureaucratic corruption9 and terrorism, in Central Asia.10
“For it is in giving that we receive” – Francis of Assisi
Cooperation on other fields are progressively visible as well. China seems to have heeded Francis of Assisi’s advice of nearly one thousand years ago: “For it is in giving that we receive”. Beijing tries to field its soft power in the Central Asian region by investing large amounts of capital in cultural exchanges, environmental cooperation and education.11 For example, Kazakhstan ranked 9th in the top 10 of international students’ nationalities in China from 2008 onwards. Moreover, the number of Kazakhstan exchange students had doubled by 2013, and will likely grow even further over the years.12 As a result of flexing its soft power muscle, China has improved its reputation in the region to a greater extent. However, it remains to be seen if China’s financing in the region guarantees a return on investment in the future.13
Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Russian influence
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the relative economic decline of Russia, Beijing took over as the main trade partner of Central Asian countries in 2007. Yet, instead of a dominant position like Russia, it prefers a system of weak multilateralism in the Central Asian region. This approach most definitely includes Moscow, as it still shares strong cultural links with these states. On the other side, however, China is being perceived by Russia as an intruder in its political backyard.14 China does not view Russia as a long-term threat due its relative decline and rather wishes to take advantage of its influence in the region.
Established in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a multilateral institute having only six members (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China and Russia15) and will welcome India and Pakistan as full members in 2016. The organization is mainly oriented to deal with security issues in the Central Asian region and operates on the basis of consensus, which ensures that all member states can voice their opinions. Set up primarily by China, it benefits its creator in three ways: improvement of regional security, management of weak multilateralism, and expansion of China’s geopolitical position.16 Moreover, by handling issues in a multilateral setting, Beijing hopes to reduce voices worrying over a “China threat” and demonstrate its policy of non-interference in domestic affairs.
SCO nevertheless only has a limited influence in the region, due to the strained relationship between Moscow and Beijing in regard to Central Asia, combined with varying national contributions and compliance of member states to the institute.17 Russia prefers the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to manage relations with its southern neighbors. This regional Russia dominated organization includes the same Central Asian states as the SCO, but without membership or meddling of China. Furthermore, Moscow already has leverage over the area through the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which was instituted on January 1, 2015. Still, as only Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are current members, and Tajikistan is weighing its options to join the union, the EEU cannot be used to manage the entire region.18 However, due to complex interstate relationships and internal problems, the effectiveness of these organizations should be questioned.
Joint ventures between Moscow and Beijing in Central Asia would represent an efficient way in strengthening bilateral ties and achieving palpable results in Central Asia. On May 8, 2015, Russian president Vladimir Putin held a summit on the 70th anniversary of Germany’s surrender at the end of WWII.19 While Western state leaders refrained from attending the ceremony due to the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, Chinese president Xi Jinping did meet with his Russian counterpart.20 At the summit the two heads of state released the “Joint Statement on Cooperation on the Construction of Joint Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Projects”, which would examine merging both the EEU and the OBOR initiative.21 This statement could be interpreted in two ways: the acceptance of China’s economic dominance in the Central Asian region and a means to benefit from the wave of Chinese investment.
Multiple strategic shifts in cooperation between China and Russia have manifested themselves in the previous years. First of all, since the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and directly related economic sanctions of the West, Moscow has turned more proactively towards Beijing for energy deals. For example, Russian gas giant Gazprom concluded a $400 billion deal with the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) in May 2014, and plans to build a Siberian gas pipeline that could access Chinese markets have been under consideration. However, both deals have not seen much progress due to a decreasing demand of natural gas and a subsequent lack of financing from Beijing. Furthermore, Chinese direct investment in Russia has decreased by 20 percent in the first half of 2015, particularly due to increased ruble volatility. China-Russian economic cooperation has undoubtedly encountered several setbacks, but the outlook on bilateral economic relations is certainly not grim.22 Strategic shifts in the field of finance, infrastructure and military cooperation too are exceedingly apparent.23
The PRC has most definitely turned its eyes towards Central Asia. Starting from trade and energy resources, it invests time, human resources and money in the region to aggrandize its position. In particular the OBOR initiative can bring about a multitude of mutual benefits and an increased feeling of connectivity. The five Central Asian states are quite receptive of Chinese investment in the region, which could most definitely aid in a further development of their domestic infrastructure and economy. However, caution is necessary, as terrorism and corruption in Central Asia pose a threat to desired results. Beijing upholds a principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its trade partners and prefers a system of weak multilateralism to manage its interests in the region.
In terms of multilateral institutions to manage relations in Central Asia, the SCO is the most desirable institution to achieve China’s goals, while Russia by preference turns to the CIS. The establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union in the beginning of 2015 could be viewed as a tactical move of Russia to block off other players in the region, but the joint agreement to combine both development projects reached between president Xi and Putin in May supposedly tells otherwise. In addition, though setbacks have occurred, Moscow works more closely with Beijing on multiple fields and will most likely continue to do so in the following years. All in all, it seems ties between Central Asia, Russia and China are intensifying, which could well be a successful example of China’s strategic diplomacy in international politics.