Though it has received comparatively little attention, one of the most profound geopolitical trends of the early 21st century is gathering steam: China’s pivot to Central Asia. As American military forces withdraw from Afghanistan and gaze toward the Asia-Pacific, and while Washington’s European allies put NATO’s eastward expansion on the back burner, Central Asia has become China’s domain of investment and influence. The Washington policy community finally woke up to this reality in September, when Chinese president Xi Jinping swept through Central Asia, signing tens of billions of dollars worth of deals and generally treating the former Soviet republics as if they were in China’s sphere of influence.
Due to Xi’s visit, people are beginning to notice. Martha Olcott at the Carnegie Endowment observed that China’s influence in Central Asia is “unmatched,” noting the glaring contrast between China’s multiple high-level visits over the years and the fact that a U.S. president has never set foot in the region. Publications by Brookings, the German Marshall Fund and Stratfor all highlighted the geopolitical implications of Washington supposedly being blindsided by Xi’s trip to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. An event in Washington, D.C. with China’s foremost Eurasia scholar, Pan Guang of the Shanghai Academy of Social Science, drew a large crowd of non-Central Asia watchers, all eager to make sense of a development that seemed to carry global implications. But, China’s influence in the region is not new.
President Xi’s trip was symbolic of the growth of what can be called China’s “inadvertent empire” in Central Asia. Contrary to implications in the Western press, the visit was much more about cashing in China’s chips than a bet, one that was actually placed back in 2001 when Beijing launched a regional organization led by China and including every post-Soviet Central Asian country but Turkmenistan: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Though barely noticed at the time, China’s formation of the SCO was a clear signal that Beijing’s pivot had begun. And while the SCO is not a major player in beyond the region, it is notable that China sought to build such an institution in Central Asia and not the Asia-Pacific and especially that, when it comes to the balance of power in the region, Russia accepted “second-tier” status in the enterprise. Subsequently, Moscow’s neo-Soviet “Customs Union” and stated aspirations for a so-called “Eurasian Union” represent a rearguard action to stem the influence of China.
Since the founding of the SCO, China’s priorities for its own westernmost province, Xinjiang, has colored its engagement in Central Asia. Much of the SCO’s activities are concerned with fighting the co-called “three evils”: terrorism, separatism and extremism. In the wake of the September 11th attacks and the subsequent American-led intervention in Afghanistan, these priorities were misunderstood in Washington to refer to potential violent extremism in Central Asia, or the potential “spillover” of Afghan Taliban. But in hindsight, it seems that the “three evils” focus is almost entirely about the perceived threat of the Uighurs, the minority ethnic group native to Xinjiang. This focus is reflected in bilateral security deals between China and the Central Asian states, which provide for extradition of ethnic Uighurs to China and in the unfortunately acronymed Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) Center in Tashkent, which maintains a database of “undesirables” throughout the region, mainly Uighur separatists. SCO joint military exercises often feature war simulations involving separatists or operations against irregular forces.