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China’s Limits In Central Asia


A Chinese worker of the Asia Gas Pipeline (AGP) walks along the Kazakh stretch of the 1,833-kilometer Turkmenistan-China pipeline. (file photo)

A Chinese worker of the Asia Gas Pipeline (AGP) walks along the Kazakh stretch of the 1,833-kilometer Turkmenistan-China pipeline. (file photo)

With the announcement of its new $16.3 billion Silk Road plan, China has again demonstrated it has the greatest economic influence in Central Asia at the moment. This trend is likely to continue for some years since Russia’s economic situation puts Moscow in a position where it cannot hope to spend freely in Central Asia any time soon.

But Chinese economic influence in Central Asia should not be confused with political or military dominance. Beijing profits most from the relationship it already has with Central Asia.

I wrote something about China and Central Asia earlier and I made the point in that article that China’s main interest in Central Asia is energy resources. China is seeking energy resources all around the world to help drive its economic growth.

Until recently, some 80 percent of China’s oil and gas imports came by tanker through the Malacca Straits. Beijing worries that if tensions broke out, an unfriendly power could block the straits. Central Asia is a neighbor, so it is not that strange that China is funding the development of Central Asian oil and gas fields and the construction of oil and gas pipelines to bring these fuels to China.

The deals China has with the Central Asian countries are similar to the deals China has with neighboring Burma, where Chinese companies have been developing oil and gas fields. There is a gas pipeline to China operating already and a parallel oil pipeline should start work in the coming months.

China signed the deals with the military government, but Burma’s political future is now unclear. And Burma is not the only neighbor causing concerns for Beijing.

China’s neighbors also include unpredictable North Korea, Laos, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Other neighbors Vietnam, Russia, and India are all countries with which China has been involved in military conflicts since 1960. Nepal and Bhutan are under suspicion because of their Buddhist ties to Tibet.

That leaves only Mongolia and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, specifically) as neighbors China can consider friendly. Admittedly, much of that friendship is based on Chinese investment.

China has never interfered in Central Asia’s internal politics, never voiced an opinion on inter-regional disputes like borders or water rights, and never, publicly, had anything but praise for Central Asian leaders. It is in China’s interest that the situation remains as it is now.

Security is another area where some believe China will be exerting its influence in Central Asia in the future.

This thought seems based on China’s problems with the Muslim Uyghurs who live in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and the fear of an expansion of jihadism.

Uyghur resistance to Chinese rule goes back more than 1,000 years and has surfaced every time China was able to claim the region. The Uyghur movement is essentially a nationalist movement. Uyghurs are fighting for their homeland and the preservation of their culture, not for religion, although Islam is part of their culture.

Uyghurs have made news this year for carrying out several attacks in XUAR, mainly on Han Chinese. Such attacks and unrest have been happening in XUAR for decades already, though not so frequently as in 2014. Uyghurs have been reported among militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal area and in Afghanistan and that led to speculation the Uyghurs are training for jihad in XUAR. But many of the attacks this year were committed by people with knives and axes.

However, it is not surprising that some Uyghurs are seeking help from jihadist groups. Who else would help a Muslim group in China?

If the security situation across the border in Central Asia were to deteriorate drastically due to Islamic extremists, might not China feel compelled to intervene?

Some speculate Beijing would use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia, as the vehicle for sending in military forces.

If China did so, it would require reorienting its current military posturing, which is facing east where the threat of the United States and its allies Japan, South Korea, and Beijing’s goal of Taiwan are located.

More importantly, the first Chinese soldier who steps foot on Central Asian soil to engage in hostilities changes China’s conflict with the Uyghurs into a battle easily portrayed as being with the Islamic world.

China would become embroiled in a protracted guerrilla war. Historically, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has not fought well outside Chinese borders, taking huge losses in Korea and Vietnam. Even during the brief hostilities with the Soviet Union on the Ussuri River, Chinese losses were several times higher than those of Soviet troops.

The PLA has no experience fighting in a guerrilla war and is, in fact, designed for large-scale, open warfare.

And China would also have to consider its projects and investments all around the world, any one of which could suddenly be targeted by Islamic terrorists.

So while China might quietly try to manipulate events in Central Asia, there is nothing to be gained from openly becoming involved in Central Asia’s politics or its problems. But there is a lot to lose.

-- Bruce Pannier

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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