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

Beijing's deepened connections to the energy-rich countries on its Western border represent a significant geopolitical shift—one the U.S. ignores at its peril. 

(R-L) Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmon, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev, China's President Xi Jinping, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov pose for a picture before a session of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek, September 13, 2013. (Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

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.

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.