Is China Really Moving Into Central Asia?

For all the fears of Chinese expansionism westward, the rising power doesn't actually seem to be doing all that much

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Kazakh President Nazarbayev toasts with Chinese counterpart Hu as they meet in Astana / Reuters

Debating China's role in the world, or in neighboring regions, has become something of a blood sport: policy wonks love debating it and watching the debates about it, while normal people wonder if they should be relieved or worried about it. For the last few months, two very smart analysts, Alexandros Petersen and Raffaello Pantucci, have been publishing their analyses of China's supposed push for influence in Central Asia. There are reasons to be skeptical of the broad argument (see some of that here and here). There is not much evidence that China has been terribly active or even successful in building a network of influence in the region. But today, Alexandros published a provocative new twist on the debate at Steve LeVine's Foreign Policy blog:

It would be more accurate to say that Beijing's choice of Turkmen, Kazakh and Uzbek gas over Russian has forced Gazprom to reassess its regional strategy. While price negotiations with Moscow have slogged on over the last five years, the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) has cobbled together and upgraded largely existing transportation infrastructure to create the China-Central Asia gas pipeline (pictured above). The resulting shift in the region's energy geopolitics reflects China's rise.

It also reveals a Beijing whose intentions are inherently geopolitical. The deliverable for Beijing is stability -- client states with predictable, subservient governments. The Chinese analysis is that they are the adults in Central Asia, while Russian and Western actors breed instability.

What's so interesting about Alexandros' argument is the number of Chinese analysts and officials he quotes as disagreeing with him. Indeed, as with the first piece they published last year, the arguments for Chinese motivations and plans are implied, but not actually proven or even supported factually.

Few would argue that China isn't expanding its economic presence in Central Asia. But that expansion hasn't been without its hiccups or resistance. In 2007, for example, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said very explicitly that he was unhappy with the unbalanced economic relationship between Astana and Beijing. Earlier this year, Eurasianet ran a story detailing the resentment many Kyrgyzstanis feel at China's overpowering economy as well. And Tajikistan's parliamentary vote to cede some territory to China a year ago sparked unease both within Tajikistan and within neighboring countries.

So while China might want to have a stronger presence in the region (and again there's not really much evidence for that apart from tea leaf reading), it is not a done deal. Locals remain unsure. But then this bit leaped out:

A CNPC representative put it in these terms: "Some regional partners like to use our presence as a foreign policy tool." He was quick to add, "Chinese companies are not involved in politics." I heard the terms "non-interference" and "harmonious relations" more times than I could count. But, addressing the Turkmen deal directly, a senior policymaker with the Chinese energy ministry said, "Energy is the basis for a wider relationship with Turkmenistan, which we see as a major, long-term partner in the region." Kazakhstan has far more oil, in addition to much natural gas, but Turkmenistan appears to be at least equivalent and perhaps more consequential to China. When I asked whether the relationship with Turkmenistan was important in diversifying China's energy import options in light of recent civil unrest in Kazakhstan, he answered simply, "Yes."

That's a curious claim, since the pipeline that transports the oh-so-valuable Turkmeni gas east to China has to go through 700 miles of Kazakh territory. See here:

The Central Asia-China Pipeline.

Whatever China's relationship with Turkmenistan, it won't be a hedge if a major crisis in Kazakhstan cuts off that pipeline. Still, despite Alexandros' seeming skepticism of the Chinese desire for "harmonious relations" with Central Asia, there is reason to take them at their word: academic studies of Chinese foreign policy show a marked preference for diplomacy over force, and for enforcing regime stability even at the expense of Chinese territorial goals.

It makes for a marked contrast to China's relationship with Pakistan. Especially on issues of terrorism, China has been less than shy about openly exerting pressure on Islamabad to gain concessions, going so far as to spark the Lal Masjid crisis in 2007. That's in part because Chinese investment in Pakistan is not just a matter of some Chinese companies either investing or building local subsidiaries, but the result of large, politically significant projects like the Gwadar port and large military sales. In contrast, pressuring a Central Asian government to, for example, round up some Uighur activists it doesn't like anyway is in some senses barely worth mentioning, especially because it imposes no cost on the leaders who do it.

It's important to keep in mind that China is not operating in a vacuum, and that other countries -- Russia, Turkey, the U.S. -- have also spent lots of time and money trying to buy influence in the region. The U.S., which recently announced that it has pumped $1.4 billion into the Kyrgyz economy through the Manas air base since 2001, has had a difficult time translating its huge expenditures into actual influence (and in the case of Turkmenistan barely even tried, anyway). Russia and Turkey, as well, have seen their political fortunes in the region wax and wane.

Still, the effects of Chinese policies in Central Asia are not the same as the policies themselves, and this is what Alexandros (and his common writing partner, Raffaello Pantucci) is arguing. But, despite the big talk about Chinese plans for doing ... something ... influential in the region, there just isn't data that there is a concerted, long-term plan for establishing decisive Chinese control. And that's the big problem I have with this formulation: it is a deductive analysis of what China might be doing, but there just aren't enough data to conclusively say that this is what China intends to do. And more importantly, there's no sense of whether it's a good thing, a bad thing, or if the U.S. should respond, much less care about it.