China Is Pivoting to Central Asia—but Is Washington Paying Attention?

China’s disjointed but nonetheless overwhelming economic influence in the region also has largely to do with Beijing’s priorities in Xinjiang.  The “Develop the West” strategy to bring stability to the region through economic development has had a number of spillover effects into Central Asia, including Afghanistan, both intended and inadvertent.  By turning China’s Western urban centers of Urumqi, Kashgar and even tiny Tashkurgan into regional overland trading hubs, connected to China’s western neighbors by road, rail, air, and pipeline, Beijing’s objective is to provide trade and transportation opportunities for new businesses and manufacturers in Xinjiang.  But, given the ramshackle infrastructure in much of post-Soviet Central Asia, the major cross-border projects of Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs), such as the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), mean that China is also transforming Xinjiang’s neighbors. 

This is partly intentional: the Develop the West strategy includes bringing development and stability to Xinjiang’s neighbors in order to lessen the likelihood of Islamic extremism “infecting” China’s Uighur population.  However, much of the spillover growth results from the sheer momentum of China’s behemoth economy being felt in countries with populations of a few million and state budgets that compare to those of medium-sized Chinese municipalities.

This development is why China’s so-called empire in Central Asia is inadvertent, and why Xi’s recent trip through the region was the affirmation of a process that has been ongoing without much central direction for about a decade.  This is also why China’s role in Central Asia will likely shape the future of the region for decades to come.  As opposed to a strategy that might change with a new Five-Year Plan the growth of China’s inadvertent empire in Eurasia is an organic process, involving multiple actors, many of whom care little about Beijing’s geopolitical goals. 

These actors include Chinese owners of market stalls in Central Asia’s largest bazaars.  One I spoke to had lived for years in a shipping container he shared with four other men at the back of a clothes market in Kazakhstan’s largest bazaar.  A multi-millionaire, he provided for his children’s Western education, multiple apartments in Shanghai, and even overseas property investments.  To him, Central Asia is the land of opportunity. These actors also include Chinese teachers sent to staff the many Confucius Institutes sprouting up around the region.  Some I spoke with missed home, but many said they preferred the exciting “frontier life.”  CNPC engineers across the region know that they are in for the long haul, as their company and its many subsidiaries build imposing structures in every Eurasian capital.  The immense pipeline network CNPC is threading through the region consists of infrastructure set to last half a century.

What does this mean for U.S. policy?  First of all, even if the Central Asian region remains a low priority, it is simply irresponsible not to have full information about developments there, most prominently China’s steadily growing influence. Also, because American policy towards Central Asia has, for over a decade, been almost exclusively geared toward providing for the effort in Afghanistan after the 2014 pullout, Washington risks being caught without an approach to the region at all.  Any policy that is developed cannot come from the traditional Russia-oriented Central Asia shops in Washington.  

Going forward, China experts—in conjunction with an emerging cohort of genuine Central Asianists—should shape U.S. engagement in Eurasia.  They will have to contend with the central conundrum that the U.S. is pivoting to China's east while China is pivoting to its west.  Finally, the Central Asian space that constitutes China's inadvertent empire is adjacent to most of Washington's ongoing areas of concern: China, Russia, Iran, South Asia, Turkey, the wider Middle East, and European NATO allies.  It is also a major center of energy security concerns.  If nothing else, this means that the U.S. should be more aware of China's actions there going forward.

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Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. He co-runs chinaincentralasia.com.

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