What does China seek and what does China find in Central Asia?

For Beijing access to central Asian Republics, with their rich natural resources, is one of the most important goals of its foreign policy.
Chinese historians claim their country has had a presence in Central Asia since ancient times. For example, the remains of Buddhist temples have been discovered in the city of Mari in Turkmenistan. And on the pillars by the entrance to local mosques there are depictions of dragons, which are traditional to China. The silk route is known to us through history books, and this road linked China with Central Asia. However, all this is from the dim and distant past. Just a century ago influence in Central Asia was fought over by the powers of the time, the British Empire and the Russian Empire. However, the era of geopolitical “chess” is over. Now the “big game” is more likely to be Chinese Chequers.

Beijing has three very important tasks to undertake in Central Asia. The first is to provide security in the region. The main concern is to oppose separatism in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The region has been a worry to the Chinese government for a long time. And in the summer of last year the area was actually on the cusp of a civil war. In its efforts to influence the politics of Central Asian countries, China is trying to isolate terrorists and deprive them of their resources.

Another important task is to solve the problem of a deficit in energy resources. For China, with its rapidly developing economy, this is an absolutely fundamental issue. Countries rich in oil, gas and other minerals could give China what it needs. At the end of last year the chairman of the PRC, Hu Jintao, toured around the countries of this region. He visited Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and met the president of Uzbekistan. In Ashkhabad he took part in a ceremony to mark the commissioning of the Central-Asia – China pipeline.

Before this the same path was taken by the deputy Prime Minister of the State Council of the PRC, Li Keqiang, who is seen as the most likely candidate for the post of Head of State. In the capital of Turkmenistan he signed documents ensuring China’s right to use Turkmenistani gas for many years hence. China sees the allocation of advantageous loans as an effective means of gaining influence in the countries of Central Asia. At the same time debtors promise to spend the money they receive mainly on excavating reserves of natural resources, which can then be exported to China.

The third factor is Beijing’s aim to consolidate their political influence in the neighbouring republics, thus establishing their status as regional leader, if not as superpower. Here Moscow has several advantages, stemming from historical, cultural and ideological factors. Washington is acting energetically and is not holding back on its extravagant promises, which at times (but not always) come to fruition in concrete financial help. Beijing has chosen another tack – “to strengthen the political dialogue through economic collaboration”.

“China’s prospects in the region are for now commensurate with those of Russia. And, in my opinion, they exceed those which the USA and the EU would like to have. In essence we could say that in the next five years China could become the key foreign centre of power for the Central Asian Republics. In this case, whether we like it or not, Russia must give way to China”, says Aleksei Vlasov, the director for the Centre of Post-Soviet Studies at MGU.

However, it is not all black and white. “China, in all its activity in Central Asia is careful not to get in Russia’s way. You can be certain that Russian influence is absent almost everywhere where Beijing is active”, says Alexander Lukin, the Director of Eastern Asian Research and Centre for East Asian Studies and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (ShOS MGIMO), “You could say China is trying to occupy empty niches. If Russia acts in a more enterprising manner, then the PRC will choose to behave with more caution”.

China is also turning its attention to regional structures, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Beijing is using this as a launch pad for solving economic issues. The Premier of the State Council, Wen Jiabao, recently explained the importance of ShOS for China.

“ShOS is a tool for working out consensus decisions. But even here we can see the dominance of China, which is gradually claiming payment of the funds it allocated during the crisis in the form of loans, preferences, bonuses et cetera”, says Aleksei Vlasov.

This does not just apply to Post-Soviet Republics: Beijing is trying get a foothold in Afghanistan as well. Here the interests of the Chinese are also linked to the exploitation of mineral reserves – copper ore.

The sheer scale of Chinese investment is impressive. China is preparing to invest around three and a half billion dollars in a project for the development of the biggest copper mine in Afghanistan. However it is not just the economic aspect which is important to China in Afghanistan.

Beijing is worried that tensions are high near its Western borders, and that terrorist groups are still being incubated, including those destined for activity in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Moreover the Chinese aren’t overly pleased that there is a war-ready American contingent close at hand. Beijing is not going to accept America’s role of “curator” in Afghanistan.

And what next? Will China be able to consolidate its influence in this region? “China’s politics in Central Asia are based on the so called “generation strategies”. These are based on distinct pragmatic calculations”, says Aleksei Vlasov.

However, in his words, there is no clear-cut attitude towards China’s activity in these areas. “On one hand the governments of the Central Asian States are wary of China’s presence. They understand the necessity of good relations with Beijing, but if they give the Chinese preference from the point of view of selling goods at local markets, then national producers just won’t be able to keep up with the competition. On the other hand it is beneficial for the elite to collaborate with China as the contracts are good. But in reality, although they recognise the potential benefits, they remain wary. As for the wider population, in my view, the Chinese are regarded by most with increasing suspicion”.

Pipeline, loans, mines

One of China’s main projects in the area could well be the Central Asia – China pipeline. It begins by the border of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and travels through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, finishing at the Chinese border point Khorgos. The pipeline consists of two pipes, and its overall distance is 1833 km. The first pipe was bought into experimental usage in December 2009. It is planned that the pipeline will begin full operation by the end of this year. As can be expected it will mainly transport gas from Turkmenistan, which will be supplied to the West of China, and will then pass on to China’s internal pipeline running from East to West, joining with the main China-Central Asia line and supplying Shanghai, Guan hoi and other cities. The capacity of the pipeline is 30 billion cubic metres a year, and the project is costing around 35 billion dollars.

Tajikistan. China is the Republic’s biggest creditor. The sum of loans and investments is nearly 800 million dollars.

Turkmenistan. Beijing’s main economic project is gaining access to Turkmenistan’s gas. China has already given loans worth three billion dollars, which will be used to exploit the South Yolotan gas reserves (according to preliminary estimations this is the fourth biggest gas reserve in the world).

Kazakhstan. Beijing has invested 16 billion dollars into the Kazakh economy. Out of this 8.9 billion is investment, 1 billion is low-interest loans, almost 6 billion covers the cost of acquired assets. They are most interested in fuel and energy, and also ferrous and nonferrous metal deposits.

Kyrgyzstan. Beijing regards this Republic mostly as a market for its surplus goods, and also a unique “staging post” for their subsequent re-export to all Post-Soviet countries.

Uzbekistan. China’s presence here takes the form of the allocation of various types of credit for the realisation of joint projects. The Central Asia – China pipeline, which is invaluable to China also goes through this republic. For Beijing, Uzbekistan, like Tajikistan, is more important from a geo-political point of view than from a trade and economic perspective.

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