Chinese President Xi Jinping is working to build economic and political links with Beijing's neighbors in Central Asia this month with visits to four of the region's five former Soviet republics.
It is Xi's first tour of Central Asia since he was sworn in as president in March. His stops in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan bookend a visit to the G20 summit in St. Petersburg later this week.
The final stop on Xi's Central Asia tour is Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, where he plans to attend a September 13 meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – a group that comprises Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, as well as China and Russia.
According to James Reardon-Anderson, a professor of Chinese studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Xi's travel agenda shows that Central Asia is becoming more strategically important to China. "He’s visiting four out of the five capitals [of Central Asia's former Soviet republics]," he says. "That is unprecedented. That's an enormous investment of the time and presence of the Chinese chief of state in that region. So it really underlines how important that region is to China’s future."
A natural-gas deal signed by Xi in Turkmenistan on September 3, the first stop of his tour, reflects Beijing's drive to secure the delivery of Central Asian energy supplies. The deal with Turkmenistan would boost annual gas deliveries to China to about 65 billion cubic meters by 2020.
Xi told journalists in Ashgabat that energy cooperation between China and Turkmenistan could serve as a model for global cooperation in the energy sector.
Siphoning Kazakh Oil
Securing oil supplies is high on Xi's agenda when he visits Kazakhstan from September 6 to September 8 -- a trip planned upon his return from the G20 summit in St. Petersburg.
Kazakhstan is Central Asia's largest oil exporter. But China must compete for those supplies with Russia, which wants to control the lion’s share of Kazakhstan’s exports.
At the center of Moscow’s strategy are Kremlin attempts to pull former Soviet republics into a customs union it has created with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
By trying to create an EU-like economic bloc, dubbed a Eurasian Union, Moscow ultimately hopes to gain control over Kazakhstan’s oil shipments to the European Union so that they pass through Russian pipelines instead of alternative southern routes.
But the Kremlin's strategy is facing challenges from politically-charged trade disputes with Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus. And these disputes could create an opening for China to make deals with Almaty and siphon off a greater share of Kazakhstan’s oil exports.
"Both China and Russia view oil supplies and the control of the flow of oil out of Kazakhstan as an important resource," says Reardon-Anderson. "And both are doing their best to gain as much access to that as possible. [Nursultan] Nazarbaev, the president for life of Kazakhstan, has pretty effectively played the two parties off against one another. So there is a kind of tripartite negotiation going on there over the price and supply of oil."
Central Asian energy shipments to China could also alleviate pressure in Beijing’s geopolitical disputes further to the east.
By cultivating overland deliveries from Central Asia into western China, Xi hopes to make China less dependent on oil from East Africa and the Persian Gulf.
Those deliveries are currently shipped by oil tankers across the Indian Ocean, via the Strait of Malacca, and up through the South China Sea. Accordingly, China has bolstered its naval presence in the strategic shipping lanes of the South China Sea.
But that has exacerbated territorial and maritime disputes with other countries in Southeast Asia.
It also has led to disagreements with Washington over the right of the United States to deploy military ships in the South China Sea.
Analysts in China say Xi also wants to build good relations with Central Asian neighbors to bolster security along China’s western border as NATO's 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan looms.
Beijing is concerned about links between Central Asia's ethnic Uyghur population and the Uyghur separatist movement in western China. It is also concerned about the threat of religious extremists and drug traffickers moving across its western border from Central Asia.
Chinese analysts like Sun Zhuangzhi of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Shen Shiliang of the Xinhua state news agency say the completion of NATO's Afghanistan withdrawal -- along with the accompanying closure of NATO's transport corridor through Central Asia -- creates an opening for China to improve security ties with Central Asian states.
That would give Beijing a chance to work closer with its Central Asian neighbors against what the Chinese analysts call "the triple evil" -- separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism.