China is quickly displacing both the US and Russia as the great power in Central Asia. Their strategic initiative for the region stems from a desire to develop an energy road that does not require getting its feet wet in the eastern Pacific. China wishes to restore the bounties of the energy-rich Silk Road as part of its “marching westward” policy.
Given that China imports the majority of its energy, and with much of these deliveries relying on uninterrupted maritime routes, China has positioning itself expertly as a prime partner for the huge developing energy fields in Central Asia.
It seems every second month or so a new oil field or mine is opened in one of the “Stan” countries, to great fanfare and promised visits of heads-of-state with large check books. Chinese President Xi Jinping spent 10 days this month visiting those countries in a whirlwind tour of shaking hands and smiling faces.
More than most Asian heavyweights, the energy and resource-hungry China is very keen to grow its economic ties to the region. However, it won’t be an easy ride. Beijing is competing with Russia, Europe, and the United States for influence and access.
All these countries want a slice of what could boast the largest untapped store of rare earth minerals and hydrocarbons on the planet. From Moscow’s perspective, the geopolitics of Central Asia have changed remarkably over the past two decades.
For much of the last century, Russia was the go-to trade partner for states such as Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and even troubled Afghanistan. But Russia has become a net energy exporter and doesn’t need as much energy piped from its Former Soviet Union as it once did. Those countries have also developed their democratic systems and are becoming increasingly independent of power patrons.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, they all discovered much healthier options for trade with a rising China and an interested Europe. The opportunity was grabbed with both hands by Beijing. Today the oil and gas pipelines are heading east to China because Beijing has what the Stan countries need: somewhere to sell their abundant natural goods.
According to US Energy Information Agency estimates, Kazakhstan alone owns over 30 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and over 60 trillion cubic metres of natural gas. Most of the other Stan countries boast similar potential reserves.
It is possible growing competition could increase friction between China and Russia, but it will also offer more opportunities for diplomatic cooperation, decreased militancy, and lower the potential for interethnic conflict between the hundreds of people groups.
Depending on how events play out on the ground, Russia and China do not have to fall out diplomatically over changing political alignments in Central Asia. While Russia does not need the hydrocarbon energy for domestic consumption, this by no means implies Moscow is uninterested in retaining its ideological and cultural influence over the various governments.
Moscow still dreams of re-establishing dominance over the region as quickly as it can, a fact proven with the April 2010 Russian-backed coup in Kyrgyzstan. So China’s game for influence will be suspicious in Moscow.
Aside from the energy ambitions, Moscow and Beijing are acutely aware of the United States impending departure from Afghanistan in 2014. Without the military might of the US, there is dangerous potential for security lapses throughout Central Asia as Islamist groups return home from a decade of fighting. Already the honed skills and insidious political ideologies they bring with them are threatening the present status quo.
When the US removes the majority of combat troops from Afghanistan, Central Asia will be more or less off the radar for strategic planners in Washington. The residue US forces will not be adequate for sustained security in the region, and China would dearly like to avoid any spill-over of violence into its energy interests.
To cope with this China still defers to Russia for security issues in the region, especially for militant Islamists which Moscow has deep experience with. Nevertheless, Beijing needs to avoid the separatist Muslim Uighur population in western China taking advice from battle-hardened jihadists.
A decade ago the Chinese economy was weaker than the United Kingdom’s. Today it is feeling strong enough to stretch its foreign policy legs to test itself as a counterweight to the United States in the Pacific. This strategy seems to be working for Beijing in its east, but stretching legs in Central Asia will throw China up against Russia. And while cooperation is still the best move in the short term, Russia is a very different beast to America and may not bow so easily under pressure.
Ultimately, Beijing is noticing Russia can be challenged for control and influence over Former Soviet Union states. Despite the growing friendship between Russia and China in other areas, Beijing’s “marching westward” policy will frustrate Moscow no matter how close they pull together on other fronts. Both Asian landmass heavyweights will of course benefit from the disappearance of American influence and prestige in Central Asia.
Thankfully, if events play out as predicted, economic and diplomatic cooperation between Russia and China will probably bring more peace and prosperity to Central Asia. Trade has the tendency to do that.