Columbia International Affairs Online: Journals

CIAO DATE: 05/2010

China's Laboratory

The Journal of International Security Affairs

A publication of:
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs

Volume: 0, Issue: 17 (Fall 2009)

Stephen J. Blank


Full Text

China's rising economic and military power is unmistakable. There is enormous concern today, in Washington and elsewhere, about the future trajectory of PRC power and policy. Chinese President Hu Jintao has repeatedly promised that his country will never be an imperial power, or pursue military hegemony over anyone.1 Obviously the true test of these statements, however, is China's actual approach to its neighbors and interlocutors. And Central Asia, which includes China's restive province of Xinjiang, home to a large and discontented Muslim population, is one place where we can see Chinese policy in action. The rioting that occurred in the summer of 2009 underscores the extent of potential unrest there and its importance to China.

China's "peaceful rise" is as visible in Central Asia as it is throughout Asia. Indeed, many of the trends associated with China's rise and "new diplomacy" began here-among them the settlement of border disputes, the recasting of policy to emphasize mutually beneficial economic and political relationships with neighbors on China's periphery (the so-called "peripheral policy"), and Beijing's increasingly positive attitudes toward participation in regional and multilateral security associations. Central Asia, therefore, is a laboratory of sorts-a place where China first experimented with many of the policies that it has implemented elsewhere since 1996.

What China wants in Central Asia

Central Asia holds importance to China for numerous reasons. Chinese observers see many regional security problems as potential threats, especially given the mounting intensity of great-power interests in the "post-Soviet space." Most important, however, is the fact that Central Asia's proximity to China leads Beijing to view developments there as essentially an outward manifestation of the PRC's internal security agenda.2 This approach is likely to intensify in view of the recent unrest in Xinjiang.

This makes the region an area of intense interest in economic terms, as a facilitator for China's domestic economic growth, and in foreign policy terms, with the constriction of Western military and political influence in Central Asia a primary aim.3 Such constriction is necessary because Chinese analysts believe that Muslim minority movements among the Uighur population in Xinjiang can only succeed with foreign assistance, something which the PRC is determined to deny them.4

Thus China's Central Asian policies reflect many of the considerations that drive its overall foreign policy and derive from its perception of domestic security. A central motive is to forestall the possibility of internal threats to China's stability, integrity, and continuing development from arising in its borderlands.5 Although different authors characterize this objective differently, there is a consensus about Beijing's primary strategic goal in Central Asia, as elsewhere. "China is still a country whose real interests lie mainly within its boundaries, and to a lesser extent, the Asia-Pacific region, where developments may have a direct impact on the country's national interests," Chinese analyst Wu Xinbo has explained.6 Similarly, scholars in the West have noted that, despite Chinese foreign policy's new confidence vis-à-vis Asia and the world more broadly, its primary purpose remains the defense of the regime's internal security.7

Second, and related, is China's interest in preventing the emergence of a "containment coalition led by any combination of the great powers."8 Such a grouping, the dominant view holds, would fundamentally challenge China's domestic security and standing abroad.

China's Central Asian policy thus flows from the imperatives of maintaining the stability of Xinjiang, forestalling insurrections or insurgency there, preserving the stability of the current regime, and no less importantly, insulating Xinjiang from foreign influence. Those influences are twofold; on the one hand, ethnic or religious influences coming from over the border to Central or South Asia (Islamist agitation), on the other American or other foreign military-political or ideological influence regarding democratization and self-determination. Accordingly, China's new security concept aims to dethrone the reigning U.S. system of power, i.e., its alliances, in the region, and undermine the ideological intellectual underpinnings of that system in Asia. A critical aspect of that process is to deny any legitimacy or opportunity to U.S. efforts to interfere in what China calls its internal affairs,

Beijing has therefore sought to prevent further "color revolutions" from taking place in the region. China, like Russia, believes that the peaceful governmental upheavals that took place from 2003-2005 were essentially fomented or instigated from abroad as part of a conscious policy aimed at reducing Beijing's regional influence.9 Indeed, China reportedly thought about using force to prevent the revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, and has since then sought a base in Kyrgyzstan to forestall further such outbreaks.10 China's subsequent warm embrace of Uzbek President Islam Karimov immediately after the Andijan massacre underscores that continuing dread of any upheaval in Central Asia as does its forceful response to the unrest in Xinjiang.

To Chinese analysts, the nexus between democratic elections, "color revolutions" and almost certain violent instability in Central Asia is clear, and striking. As scholars Dong Xiaoyang and Su Chang wrote,

If the Color Revolution proceeds in other Central Asian countries, which is very likely at present, then more elections will be seen in Central Asia, supported by the opposing forces and other forces, and the revolution may well come about through violence or riots. At least from present perspectives, the violent mode is hard to avoid.11

It is not hard to see why China is seeking to enhance its multilateral connections in Central Asia through the SCO, and why it is so eager to oust America and U.S. influence from there.

New challenges...

Over the past year, China has been forced to factor new challenges into its Central Asian equation. During 2008, it became clear that domestic unrest in China was not confined to Tibet. In striking fashion, it emerged in Xinjiang as well, and remains very much an issue today, as the protests that rocked the Chinese region this past summer made clear.12 Consequently much of Chinese diplomacy towards both South and Central Asia aims at preventing foreign assistance that could help these rebels better challenge Beijing's authority.13 And this year's unrest only reinforces the persistence of those challenges.

A second, related challenge is the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The prospect of a Taliban victory there represents a danger to China, and to the Central Asian region as a whole, on a number of fronts. A Taliban victory is likely to threaten local autocrats, expanding the appeal of regional radicals, and jeopardize Beijing's relatively sizable investments in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region.14 Chinese analysts, moreover, suspect that any upsurge in terrorism and insurgency would probably not stop with Afghanistan or the former Soviet republics, but rather could extend to envelop Xinjiang as well.

The risk factors that exist in Central Asia are also palpably multiplying. The intersection of the global economic crisis, the spillover effects of the war in Afghanistan, and the precarious domestic situation of regional states could easily combine to open another front in the war against terrorism. Indeed, virtually all the CIS countries are increasing their military budgets or receiving military aid from either Russia or the U.S.15 Their populations, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly restive. Surveys of opinion in Central Asia show widespread anger at official corruption and an ensuing profound alienation from local governments. Widespread repression against religious organizations has generated substantial resentment, particularly among younger residents (aged 18 to 30) who see local security forces as unaccountable and brutish. Unemployment, meanwhile, is on the rise in places like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, a product of the global economic crisis that has added another incendiary element to local discontent.

Left unchecked, these circumstances have the potential to cause an upheaval in key Central Asian states like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, or Uzbekistan, especially if the perception of control weakens further.16 Regional governments understand this very well, and are taking remedial steps; Kyrgyzstan, for example, has recently focused attention on one of the major Islamist challenges to the regime, the radical organization Hizb al-Tahrir (also known as Hizb ut-Tahrir).17 Tajikistan has followed suit, putting new pressure on the relatively obscure Islamic revival movement Tablighi Jamaat.18

...and responses

In Chinese, the characters for the word "crisis" denote both challenge and opportunity. Consistent with this perception, China's response to the new challenges that have arisen in Central Asia has been opportunistic. Two main "lines of advance" may be seen, one via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the other in economics and energy policy.

Although Russia and China, as well as the smaller member states of the SCO, have disagreed as to the extent that the grouping should become a military bloc, the trend line is unmistakable. Even before 2008, the SCO appeared to be moving steadily toward an expansion of its security functions.19 And the Afghan situation has galvanized the SCO to move further; at its March 27, 2009 meeting, the SCO adopted a comprehensive program to step up its efforts to counter drug flows from Afghanistan as well as security precautions against terrorism within member countries.20 Subsequently, at a meeting of the SCO's Defense Ministers in Moscow on April 29, the bloc again advocated a new international order (a swipe at the U.S.), called for greater defense cooperation among the members, reiterated the commitments made in March, and decided to expand cooperation with observer states: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran and Mongolia.21 The message is clear: while the SCO is willing to let Washington shoulder the burden of fighting in Afghanistan, even going so far as to provide it with some non-military support, it is also battening down the hatches against the possibility of a Taliban victory there.

This hedging approach is duplicated in Chinese energy policy towards Central Asia. Today, signs of Chinese investment are everywhere. China's Export-Import Bank has committed to lending $5 billion to the state-owned Development Bank of Kazakhstan; the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is expected to lend the same amount to Kazmunaigaz, Kazakhstan's state-run gas company. Moreover, CNPC is in the process of buying a 49 percent minority stake in Kazakhstan's AO MangistauMunaigaz in a deal that would shore up Astana's position as a leading regional energy source.22 Indeed, Kazakh leaders recognize that since at least 2006, "economic cooperation has become the major motivation for pushing the overall development of the Kazakhstan-China relationship."23

Kazakhstan is not the only area of Chinese interest. Beijing is also building power plants in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and pipelines in Turkmenistan. It is mining iron ore in Kyrgyzstan from what is apparently Asia's largest source of iron. Likewise, in the past few years, China has invested heavily in Afghanistan's energy and mineral resources, which have been found to be abundant, with a view to building pipelines either directly to China or possibly through the port of Gwadar and Pakistan to China.24

These steps, moreover, are just the beginning. CNPC recently outlined a detailed plan to "strive to build five cooperation zones covering Central Asia, Africa, South America, the Middle East, and the Asia Pacific region within eight to ten years." Ultimately the overseas oil and gas business of the state-owned conglomerate would amount to 200 million tons of oil and gas annually.25 And Central Asia figures prominently in its plans, another sign of the intertwined nature of energy, strategic, and political considerations in China's energy policies.26

Watching the experiment

These investments, and the accompanying strategy behind them, portend a new stage in the development of the so called "Beijing consensus."27 China is clearly making strategic investments, in Eurasia and elsewhere, as a way of translating its economic power into political advantage.28 And some scholars claim that this model is coming to replace the previous "Washington model" of economic development.

The situation in Central Asia shows similar signs of rising Chinese power. For some time, it has been apparent that China has had the power to influence at least some of the policies of the Central Asian states. It has, for example, successfully prodded Kyrgyzstan into enacting an "anti-extremism law in 2004 because it believed that Uighur underground parties existed there and in Kazakhstan.29 In like manner, Kazakhstan may have sacrificed some of its own interests in 2005 in order to get China to make its first energy purchase there.30 More recently, a study of Central Asian perceptions of China concluded that local governments view China as a uniquely powerful regime that could substantially injure their interests.31 In other words, these countries are being forced into accomodating China.

This trend is certainly not unique to the "post-Soviet space." It can be seen in Australia, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. A sure sign, according to some, that "the balance of influence between China and the United States in Asia is shifting decidedly in China's favor."32 While this is hardly a settled consensus, it does point to the vigor of China's current policies. China sees in this global crisis an opportunity, and is working to exploit it.

That makes Central Asia significant in Chinese strategy. Just as the region was China's laboratory for the settlement of border conflicts and the creation of multilateral security organizations, it could now become the laboratory for the next step of consolidating a sphere of influence-one in which China's superior economic power begins to shape political and broader security outcomes. Beijing's policies in Eurasia, in other words, serve as a template for understanding the PRC's strategic plan: to use its economic power to secure unchallengeable positions in Eurasia and elsewhere. It is an experiment that bears careful observation in the years ahead.