China’s foothold in Central Asia

Dost Muhammad Barrech

REGIONS blessed with natural resources have always been a bone of contention among regional as well as global powers. The Central Asian States, landlocked and full of natural resources, became independent after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which also triggered the quest of global powers to dominate the newborn Central Asian states. One of the main factors of the US attack on Afghanistan after 9/11 was to have an influence in Central Asia. China, unlike the US, desires to initiate development projects in Central Asia. China under current juncture seems to be the neighbouring country of the entire world, reaching every nook and corner of the world for economic development. China is the first country in the last two centuries, breaking the so-called US Monroe doctrine 1823, not allowing the Great Britain to have an influence in Western-Hemisphere. China has even reached Western-Hemisphere to promote economic development.
Being a close neighbouring country of the Central Asian Republics (CARs), China has many reservations in its consideration. The proximity Xinxiang region of China, where the separatist movement is underway is having ethnic, religious as well as cultural affinities with western borders of Central Asia, causing fear and anxiety for China. Besides, China is committed to promoting geo-economic strategies with the CARs to guarantee stability and security in the region. Bilateral relations of China with Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have improved and have resolved border disputes. Central Asia, well-known for natural resources will quench the Chinese energy security. China, since 1993, has been importing oil from Central Asia. The Chinese President, Xi Jinping, visited Kazakhstan in 2013 and initiated “Silk Road Economic Belt” (SREB) a part of “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative. Xi Jinping, during his speech, accentuated the economic ties and trade with the Eurasian region, further said that “we should take an innovative approach and join hands in building an economic belt along the Silk Road.” China without SREB cannot find a foreseeable route for OBOR. The SREB initiative is the Chinese periphery policy since the disintegration of the Soviet Union amid at consolidating cordial ties and reshaping geopolitical scenario in the region.
Russia initiated the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to promote regional cooperation, desired to exclude China. The inclusion of China in the EEU created a divergence of interests in Russia and China. Russia’s interest differed from that of China in creating free trade zone. The SREB for Central Asia paves the way for transport network, highways, railways and airways communications and digital infrastructure as well as oil and gas pipelines. China through the SREB can easily reach the West to establish a Eurasian Economic Corridor. Participation of CARs in the SREB has multifaceted advantages in reaping the fruits, benefiting from huge investments of China in developing their national infrastructure and consolidation of economies. Above all, being transit countries, between China and Europe, Central Asian States will get monolithic transit fee. China in 2009, granted US$10 billion loan to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to support the Central Asian States in coping with the economic crisis. By supporting them, China in 2012, offered another loan of US$10 billion accordingly.
Xi Jinping’s visit to Central Asia in 2013 promoted the idea of the SREB and signed agreements of worth US$48 billion with the Central Asian States, stimulating energy, trade as well as infrastructure development. China in November 2014, announced US$40 billion to create Silk Road Fund to support building transport infrastructure will solely be funded by China. Meanwhile, the US is interested in expanding democracy in Central Asia and Afghanistan. China incompatible with the US, intends to promote regionalism under the tutelage of the SCO. Intriguingly, SCO in its declaration did not mention promotion of democracy in Central Asia, emphasised non-interferences in domestic affairs of states and respect for the sovereignty. Regionalism of China in Central Asia, by and large, strengthens the China’s Grand Strategy of peaceful rise.
Economic developments cannot be carried out without challenges and obstacles. China, for the time being, has made tremendous headway in Central Asia. But threats of non-state actors cannot be ruled out in the region. The Islamic State (IS) has already released a video, showing a Turkic Muslim of Uyghurs, the region of China, threatening China. Resultantly, Xi Jinping called for a “great wall of iron.” His remarks were attributed to protecting the western part of China. Xi Jinping’s views by Western media were marked to Central Asia. On the other hand, Russia has military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and is the biggest supplier of arms to the five Central Asian States. There is a great deal of divergence in the interest of China, the US and Russia in the region. The divergence of interest between the global powers will always have ramifications for any the region of the world. To conclude, Halford Mackinder in his paper titled “The Geographical Pivot of History.” says “whoever controls Eurasia controls the world.” History is replete with innumerable testimonies that great powers have always strived to have dominance in Eurasia. To have control over Eurasia, China will have to demonstrate its economic and military power in Central Asia.
— The writer works at Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-tank based in Islamabad.

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