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China’s Approaches to Central Asia States

China’s Approaches to Central Asia States

No. 7-8, Sep.-Dec. 2017 » Bridging News

The article deals with China's interests in Central Asia states. It is said that Central Asia has traditionally (since the early 1990s) been interested in Beijing in terms of economic development and security of the neighboring Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Also, China is interested in Central Asia as an additional source for the import of energy resources. For China, Central Asia has an important geopolitical significance as a transit route between mainland China, Europe and the Persian Gulf countries, an alternative to sea routes. 

China’s pivot 

In recent years, China has sharply increased its attention to the Central Asia states. This is highlighted by the fact that Beijing began to actively cooperate with them both in the energy field and in other areas. Oil pipelines from Kazakhstan to China were constructed, as well as a Trans-Asian gas pipeline from Turkmenistan. Chinese companies are increasingly active in all countries of Central Asia, replacing Western and even Russian competitors. In this regard, it is necessary to consider how the leadership of the PRC pursues a policy towards the countries of Central Asia, and how they are viewed from the points of view of China's interests.

Let us analyze, first of all, what interests the PRC has in the Central Asian region:

  • Central Asia has traditionally (since the early 1990s) been interested in Beijing in terms of economic development and security of the neighboring Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In this respect, the PRC has taken and continues to undertake a set of measures to develop cross-border trade;
  • China is interested in Central Asia as an additional source of energy resources. This source is, by some parameters, somewhat more stable than in the Middle East, which helps China pursue a policy of diversifying oil imports;
  • In addition, for China, Central Asia has an important geopolitical significance as a transit route between mainland China, Europe and the Persian Gulf countries, an alternative to sea routes. This takes on special significance in the conditions of the Sino-American naval rivalry unfolding in the Pacific (in which all major US Allies in the region are involved) and in the Indian-Chinese naval competition in the Indian Ocean. In both cases, a potential threat to the Molucca Strait is created as the place through which most of China's trade with the countries of Europe and the Middle East passes. 

Chinese policy perspectives 

It is interesting to note that in China the countries of Central Asia are perceived in different contexts by different departments[1]. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China has a department of Eurasia that deals with the entire post-Soviet space, including Central Asia. In the Ministry of Commerce of the PRC, Central Asian countries already belong to the department of Europe. In this regard, it can be noted that, from the political point of view, Central Asia is perceived in Beijing as part of the post-Soviet space, and from the economic perspective as a possible alternative route to Europe.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China has a department of Eurasia that deals with the entire post-Soviet space, including Central Asia. In the Ministry of Commerce of the PRC, Central Asian countries already belong to the department of Europe.

Since the 1990s until nowadays, the situation in Central Asia has been constantly changing. In this regard, China's policy has been also gradually evolving in accordance with the changes in the directions of the national interests of the country. There are three stages in the development of China's policy in Central Asia. An analysis of the content of Chinese politics in the relevant periods is very important, since Beijing's strategy is characterized by strict consistency in building up efforts, and each subsequent period, in fact, "builds on" the achievements of the previous one.

The first stage, since December 1991 to September 1997, can be called a stage of “creating good-neighborly and friendly relations”. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, new independent states appeared in Central Asia. This led to the emergence of new neighboring countries alongside China, and a new situation developed in the region.

During this period of time, the situation in Central Asia was as follows:

On the one hand, as a result of the collapse of the USSR in the Central Asian space, the unified defense system of the former Soviet Union was fractured. Newly independent states in the region were not yet able to protect themselves from external and internal threats to security. There was a security vacuum. A civil war broke out in Afghanistan, military conflicts arose in Tajikistan. On the other hand, as the USSR disintegrated, a situation arose in the region wherein no ideology could take a leading place above others. There was no new dominant ideology, and the old ideology - Marxism-Leninism - disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Against the backdrop of a vacuum of ideology, religious extremism, pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism began to gain strength in Central Asia. These trends threatened the security of the Western regions of China (especially Xinjiang).

Considering the above facts, at that time, China's national interests in the region could be formulated as follows:

  • The establishment of diplomatic relations with new neighboring countries and the development of normal interstate relations;
  • The resolution of the border problems left by history with the Central Asian states through negotiations;
  • Joint security and stability in border areas;
  • Gaining the support of the Central Asian states in the fight against Uyghur separatism in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region;
  • Carrying out trade and economic activities in order to stimulate the economic development of the Western part of the country.

In order to realize the basic national interests, the Chinese government defined the main principles for developing relations with the Central Asian states, which were put forward by the PRC Premier Li Peng:

  • Ensuring good-neighborliness, friendship, cooperation and peaceful coexistence; promoting joint prosperity through mutually beneficial cooperation;
  • Respect for the choice of the peoples of the Central Asian states, non-interference in internal affairs;
  • Respect for independent sovereignty and the promotion of regional stability.

Summing up, it can be noted that the main content of the PRC's policy in Central Asia at the first stage was: the establishment of diplomatic relations, the solution of border problems, ensuring the stability of the country's western border, and finally, the development of trade and economic ties with the Central Asian states. 

New stages 

An analysis of the content of Chinese politics in the relevant periods is very important, since Beijing's strategy is characterized by strict consistency in building up efforts, and each subsequent period, in fact, "builds on" the achievements of the previous one.

The second stage of evolution began in September 1997 and lasted until June 2001. It was called the “stage of strengthening cooperation”. In September 1997, an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the oil and gas field was concluded between China and Kazakhstan. This event became a sign of the onset of a new stage in China's policy in the region.

During this period of time, the situation in Central Asia was characterized by a number of trends. As the Taliban's influence and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan unfolded, there was an increase in the challenges and threats in the region. Accordingly, the zone of cooperation in the field of security between China and the Central Asian states expanded. In fact, this cooperation with border areas was extended to the entire region.

In the late 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century, China's economy began to develop rapidly, resulting in a strong increase in the country's demand for energy resources to ensure the normal development of the economy. Central Asia became an additional source of energy for China. At that time, there was also a particularly noticeable tendency of divergence between the levels of economic development between the Western and Eastern parts of China. In order to maintain stability, the Chinese government undertook the strategy of “Mastering the West”. In China's policy, the place and role of the Central Asian states increased, as these countries became important trade and economic partners for the Western part of China.

To achieve these interests, China took the following actions with regard to Central Asia:

  • developing cooperation in the energy field;
  • expanding the scale of financial support to certain Central Asian countries;
  • strengthening mutual political trust with the Central Asian states;
  • promoting cooperation in the field of security;
  • developing trade and economic relations;
  • cooperation in international affairs.

On the latter issue, for example, China has a common position with the Central Asian states on the issue of Kosovo, on reducing nuclear weapons, and on actively participating in solving the regional problems – China became a party to the 6 + 2 regime to solve the Afghan problem etc.

It should be noted that, at this stage, China not only actively participated in regional affairs, but also became one of the founders of a key regional structure. In June 2001, a new regional organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), was established at the initiative of the PRC, the Russian Federation and the Central Asian states, which ensures cooperation in the political, economic, energy and security fields. 

The current phase 

The third stage of the evolution of China's policy in Central Asia began with the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (2001) and continues today. It was called “all-round cooperation”. At this stage, the relations and ties between China and the countries of the Central Asian region are developing rapidly and successfully.

During this period of time, in connection with the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the situation in the region had seriously changed:

  • After the "global war on terrorism", the US influence in the region increased. This was due to the American military presence and increased financial assistance from the West (the US and its European allies) to the Central Asian countries;
  • American influence somewhat limited the influence and role of the SCO in solving regional problems, but it did not neutralize the trend towards the progressive development of Chinese influence;
  • Russia partially lost its historic leading position in the region;
  • The importance of Central Asia in international affairs in connection with the struggle against terrorism has grown.

In the described context, relations between the PRC and the countries of the region at the beginning of the 2000s were to some extent complicated. This happened for the following reasons:

First, the strengthening of the American presence in the region has provided the Central Asian states with additional conditions for a difficult balancing and “playing” between the interests of Russia, China and the United States.

Secondly, the countries of Central Asia are actively cooperating with the US in the field of security, as a result of which, cooperation in the sphere of security with China within the SCO has suffered. Located in the region (in Afghanistan and at the rear bases in Central Asia), the powerful military forces and generous financial assistance provided by the United States to the Central Asian states hampered mutual security cooperation between China and these countries.

However, despite this, the PRC continued to strengthen relations in all areas, using also the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's capabilities and bilateral relations. This led to the fact that over the past few years, the PRC has been able to overcome the difficulties encountered and strengthen its influence in the region, primarily through economic instruments. 

China’s global project 

The first stage, since December 1991 to September 1997, can be called a stage of “creating good-neighborly and friendly relations”. The second stage of evolution began in September 1997 and lasted until June 2001. It was called the “stage of strengthening cooperation”. The third stage of the evolution of China's policy in Central Asia began with the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (2001) and continues today. It was called “all-round cooperation”.

In late 2013, President Xi Jinping put forward the concept of the “Economic belt of the Great Silk Road”. This testifies to the processes of a serious upgrade of the PRC's regional and global policies. The Chinese «Zhen'min' zhibao» newspaper refers to several advantages of the Chinese project in relation to the corresponding Russian (Eurasian integration) and American (the creation of a belt of US allied states along the borders of China, the project "New Silk Road" to solve the problems of Afghanistan) plans. As noted in the newspaper, the project is comprehensive and extends to the East, West, North and South. If it develops, then about 3 billion people will benefit. The Russian project of Eurasian integration can unite 10-15 times fewer people with, respectively, smaller markets. In addition, as it is believed in Beijing, within the framework of the Chinese idea of the economic belt, it is possible to create a "Eurasian economic zone", which will include China, Central Asia and Europe[2].

China has a common position with the Central Asian states on the issue of Kosovo, on reducing nuclear weapons, and on actively participating in solving the regional problem

At the same time, according to the Chinese idea, there are no contradictions between the interested parties and, in particular, contradictions between Moscow and Beijing do not arise. Within the framework of the "Economic belt of the Silk Road", the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Community can interact with each other, and the American plan "New Silk Road", designed to solve the problems of Afghanistan, is also not excluded from the framework of the Chinese plan[3].

The main objectives of the project "Economic belt of the Silk Road" are as follows:

Firstly, the construction of transport highways. They should be full-fledged modern high-speed lines. China over the past decade has made a significant breakthrough in this regard and the level of development of roads has achieved world leadership. Now the time has come when Chinese technology is exported. The New Silk Road is a strategic project that will be put forward under the Chinese initiative and will be carried out under the direct leadership of Beijing. The development of the road network can also help reduce the costs of exporting goods from China, which is very important because China may no longer able to compete on cost with other newly industrializing countries as seriously as before, and, in terms of quality, the Chinese products are still far inferior to the ones of developed countries.

Secondly, the construction of transport highways, in turn, will give impetus to the development of the related infrastructure. So, along new high-speed roads, new regional centers will appear, the potential of logistics will expand, the touristic potential will have a new development, many new jobs will be generated. This will contribute to a real diversification of the economy and the full development of the regions[4]. In addition, the opportunities for the export of Chinese capital will increase. The PRC has accumulated the world's largest foreign exchange reserves and has a serious need to invest this money outside the United States, where Beijing still holds the bulk of its financial reserves.

The countries of Central Asia are actively cooperating with the US in the field of security, as a result of which, cooperation in the sphere of security with China within the SCO has suffered.

Thirdly, transport and infrastructure development will inevitably expand the potential of cooperation in the field of trade. The Silk Road will connect the different countries of Eurasia with each other, and will also strengthen regional cooperation. For example, within the SCO framework, a corridor project has been successfully implemented, which will unite Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The Belt and Road project is comprehensive and extends to the East, West, North and South. If it develops, then about 3 billion people will benefit. The Russian project of Eurasian integration can unite 10-15 times fewer people with, respectively, smaller markets.

Fourthly, economic development is impossible without observing the basic condition - political stability and guaranteeing public security. This is very important for the countries of the region, each of which faces threats of destabilization, which for Beijing, as well as for Moscow, are associated, in particular, with Western influence. A significant contribution to ensuring this stability will also be made, according to Beijing's plan, through is New Silk Road[5]

Briefs for individual countries 

Within the framework of China's cooperation with Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is a key trade and logistics hub for the distribution of China's products. The mass of Chinese goods destined not only for Central Asia, but also for Russia, passes through the Kyrgyz wholesale markets, such as Dordoi.

China has the following levels of cooperation with Central Asian countries:

  • Uzbekistan – cooperation between China and Uzbekistan concerns, above all, the sphere of Chinese investment in the industry of this country, as well as the trade in Uzbek natural resources;
  • Kyrgyzstan – within the framework of China's cooperation with Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is a key trade and logistics hub for the distribution of China's products. The mass of Chinese goods destined not only for Central Asia, but also for Russia, passes through the Kyrgyz wholesale markets, such as Dordoi. According to some expert estimates, the share of this trade in Kyrgyzstan's GDP ranges from 30 to 50%[6];
  • Kazakhstan – Astana is a key partner of Beijing in Central Asia in terms of an alternative source of oil supply to the Middle East. For Kazakhstan, after laying an oil pipeline to China, this country became the second most important buyer of raw materials after the EU[7];
  • Tajikistan – China is becoming a major infrastructure investor and trading partner of Tajikistan. The growth rate of Chinese influence in this country, which is beginning to displace traditional Russian influence, is impressive. As early as mid-September 2014, 16 new cooperation documents were signed between China and Tajikistan[8].
  • Turkmenistan – China has firmly become the main buyer of natural gas (and the trade in this raw material is the basis of the entire Turkmen economy). From this key position, China has long ousted the Russian Gazprom[9]

Conclusions 

Proceeding from the foregoing, it can be stated that at present the leadership of the PRC is interested in Central Asia, primarily as a source of raw materials (especially hydrocarbons) and an alternative to the sea route where the Sino-US and Sino-Indian military confrontation unfolds. The instrument for the realization of China's economic interests has become, primarily, economic ties.

China has firmly become the main buyer of Turkmen natural gas. From this key position, China has long ousted the Russian Gazprom

China's national interests in Central Asia can be divided into geopolitical and economic. In the field of geopolitics, these tasks are formulated as follows:

  • The strengthening good-neighborly and friendly relations with the countries of Central Asia and preventing the emergence of anti-Chinese forces in the region;
  • The steady strengthening of security cooperation in order to ensure stability in Xinjiang;
  • Promoting co-prosperity by strengthening cooperation in the energy, trade, economic and humanitarian fields;
  • Ensuring the stability of the power of the Central Asian states in order to prevent new unrest in the region;
  • Stimulation of the development of the SCO.

As for the economy, China has recently been paying more and more attention to energy cooperation with Central Asian countries. And for Central Asia, China is turning into a key economic partner, gradually supplanting both Russia's interests and the interests of the West. 

Bibliography

 

Гусев Л. Основные направления политического и экономико-энергетического развития Казахстана. Москва-Берлин. Издательство – Директ-Медиа. 2016.

Gusev L. "The main directions of political and economic-energy development of Kazakhstan: a collection of articles." Moscow-Berlin. Ed. - Direct-Media. 2016. 

Гусев Л.Ю. Россия - Центральная Азия: перспективы отношений. Научно-аналитический журнал «Обозреватель – Observer». 2005. № 12 (191).

Gusev L. Russia - Central Asia: the prospects for relations. The scientific and analytical journal Observer. 2005. № 12 (191). 

Китай и Казахстан намерены наращивать всестороннее прагматическое сотрудничество во всех областях:

http://russian.people.com.cn/31519/8393035.html (Дата посещения 01.03.2017).

China and Kazakhstan intend to increase all-round pragmatic cooperation in all areas: http://russian.people.com.cn/31519/8393035.html ( (Visited 01.03.2017). 

Китай наращивает свою значимость в Центральной Азии: http://www.warandpeace.ru/ru/exclusive/view/73316/ (Дата посещения 01.03.2017).

China is increasing its importance in Central Asia: http://www.warandpeace.ru/ru/exclusive/view/73316/ (Visited 1.03.2017). 

Китай, США и Россия в Центральной Азии: у каждого своя стратегия… Евразийский союз будет частью китайского суперпроекта?…: https://www.discred.ru/news/kitaj_ssha_i_rossija_v_centralnoj_azii_u_kazhdogo_svoja_strategija_evrazijskij_sojuz_budet_chastju_kitajskogo_superproekta/2013-10-14-3832 (Дата посещения 25.02.2017).

China, the US and Russia in Central Asia: everyone has their own strategy ... The Eurasian Union will be part of the Chinese superproject? ...: https://www.discred.ru/news/kitaj_ssha_i_rossija_v_centralnoj_azii_u_kazhdogo_svoja_strategija_evrazijskij_sojuz_budet_chastju_kitajskogo_superproekta/2013-10-14-3832 (Visited 25.02.2017). 

Присутствие Китая в центральноазиатском регионе: http://delonovosti.ru/analitika/2615-prisutstvie-kitaya-v-centralno-aziatskom-regione.html (Дата посещения 05.03.2017).

China's presence in the Central Asian region: China's presence in the Central Asian region: http://delonovosti.ru/analitika/2615-prisutstvie-kitaya-v-centralno-aziatskom-regione.html (Visited 05.03.2017). 

Таджикистан и Китай подписали 16 новых документов о сотрудничестве: http://www.avesta.tj/goverment/27710-tadzhikistan-i-kitay-podpisali-16-novyh-dokumentov-o-sotrudnichestve.html (Дата посещения 03.03.2017).

Tajikistan and China signed 16 new documents on cooperation: http://www.avesta.tj/goverment/27710-tadzhikistan-i-kitay-podpisali-16-novyh-dokumentov-o-sotrudnichestve.html (Visited 03.03.2017). 

Цан Сиоюн, заместитель руководителя отдела России и Центральной Азии шанхайского института международных исследований, выдержки из доклада, представленного на семинаое по Центральной Азии в фонде «Наследие Евразии» в 2010 г.

Qiang Xiaoyun, Deputy Head of the Department of Russia and Central Asia of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, Abstracts of the report presented at a seminar on Central Asia, held at the Eurasia Heritage Foundation in 2010. 

Шелковый путь – проект для Евразии: http://telegrafua.com/world/14663/ (Дата посещения 26.02.2017).

The Silk Road is a project for Eurasia: http://telegrafua.com/world/14663/ (Visited 26.02.2017).

 

[1] Цан Сиоюн, заместитель руководителя отдела России и Центральной Азии шанхайского института международных исследований, выдержки из доклада, представленного на семинаое по Центральной Азии в фонде «Наследие Евразии» в 2010 г. Qiang Xiaoyun, Deputy Head of the Department of Russia and Central Asia of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, Abstracts of the report presented at a seminar on Central Asia, held at the Eurasia Heritage Foundation in 2010.

[2] Китай, США и Россия в Центральной Азии: у каждого своя стратегия… Евразийский союз будет частью китайского суперпроекта?… https://www.discred.ru/news/kitaj_ssha_i_rossija_v_centralnoj_azii_u_kazhdogo_svoja_strategija_evrazijskij_sojuz_budet_chastju_kitajskogo_superproekta/2013-10-14-3832. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Китай, США и Россия в Центральной Азии: у каждого своя стратегия… Евразийский союз будет частью китайского суперпроекта?… https://www.discred.ru/news/kitaj_ssha_i_rossija_v_centralnoj_azii_u_kazhdogo_svoja_strategija_evrazijskij_sojuz_budet_chastju_kitajskogo_superproekta/2013-10-14-3832. 

[6] Китай наращивает свою значимость в Центральной Азии http://www.warandpeace.ru/ru/exclusive/view/73316/.

[7] Китай и Казахстан намерены наращивать всестороннее прагматическое сотрудничество во всех областях

http://russian.people.com.cn/31519/8393035.html.

[8] Таджикистан и Китай подписали 16 новых документов о сотрудничестве http://www.avesta.tj/goverment/27710-tadzhikistan-i-kitay-podpisali-16-novyh-dokumentov-o-sotrudnichestve.html.

[9] Присутствие Китая в центральноазиатском регионе http://delonovosti.ru/analitika/2615-prisutstvie-kitaya-v-centralno-aziatskom-regione.html.

 
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