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Finding Common Ground in the Silk Road

Sep 14 , 2013
  • Su Xiaohui

    Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS

In a speech delivered during his visit to Central Asian countries, Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested that China and Central Asia work together to boost cooperation. The proposal was termed “Silk Road economic belt”, which reminds others of the idea of the “New Silk Road” advocated by the US.

There is inevitable concern that the Chinese Silk Road plan will not be compatible with the US one, and there will be increasing competition between China and the US in Central Asia.

Different Policy Intentions behind the Silk Road Proposals

In July 2011, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially proposed the initiative of creating a new Silk Road. The key of this initiative is to build a web of economic and transit connections across South and Central Asia with a central hub in Afghanistan, in order to help Afghanistan to build a sustainable economy, and in turn ensure a more prosperous future for the region as a whole. Specifically, the three pillars of this plan are democracy promotion, economic cooperation and security cooperation.

Actually, the idea of the “new Silk Road” was not new. It arrived much earlier, but at that time, it was entitled as “Great Central Asia”.

In the summer of 2005, Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University published an article, in which he put forward the vision of the “Great Central Asia” strategy. The US government quickly accepted this concept and carried out related actions. The State Department reorganized its South Asia Division and included the issues of the five Central Asian states into the jurisdiction of South Asia Division. The country held a congressional hearing, focusing on the “Great Central Asia” strategy. The country also hosted some international conferences to publicize the idea.

The intentions behind the US initiative fall into three parts. The first is that the US understands the importance of Central Asia and the region’s implication for Afghanistan reconstruction. The second is that the US seeks to improve its image, which has been badly undermined by its inappropriate operation in Central Asia, specifically the promotion of a “color revolution”. The third is that the US try to counterbalance the influence of Russia as well as China, in order to gain more weight in regional affairs.

Compared with the US, China’s appeals in the region seem more practical. A stable Central Asia will promote China’s security environment, especially for the western part of the country. Development and prosperity of the region will benefit China’s long-term strategy for developing its western region, which is under-developed.

Therefore, in recent years, China has upgraded cooperation with Central Asian countries, mainly in security and economic fields. The security cooperation is basically carried out under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Trade is the traditional cooperation pattern. The Central Asia-China gas pipeline and Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline are both major achievements. During President Xi’s visit, China moved forward to facilitate cooperation with related countries, which will further benefit China’s energy security and help regional countries’ development as well.

The Chinese president also urged the regional members to promote a settlement of local-currency. Under the current circumstances, financial security is having an increasing impact on countries all over the world, and it is meaningful to strengthen the capability for dealing with financial risks.

Common Interests in Central Asia

With increasing involvements, there is inevitable competition between the US and China in Central Asia. However, both sides do have some common interest in the region, which provide an opportunity for potential cooperation in the future.

The stability of Afghanistan is in the interests of both China and the US. China has been working with Central Asian countries to jointly crack down on the “three evil forces” of terrorism, extremism and separatism, as well as drug-trafficking and transnational organized crimes. By this approach, China is playing a constructive role in the reconstruction of the Afghanistan. After the US withdrawal from the country in 2014, China’s security cooperation with Central Asia will be a blessing for regional security.

China and the US also share the same goal of boosting interconnectivity in the region. President Xi proposed in his speech that China and Central Asian countries should work to improve traffic connectivity so as to open the strategic regional thoroughfare from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, and gradually move toward the set-up of a network of transportation that connects Eastern, Western and Southern Asia. Interconnectivity in Central Asia will improve the trade flows in the region. This is helpful for eliminating the obstacles faced by China in the trade cooperation with the region.

On the whole, China believes that it is impossible for China to rule out the US presence in Central Asia. Instead, China seeks co-existence with other powers, including the US, in the region. What is more, China aims at improving policy coordination with others, in order to avoid misconception or vicious competition.

China has sent out a signal to the US by reiterating that it will not pursue leadership or exclusive influence in the region. China is looking forward to a positive response. There is a chance that the “Silk Road economic belt” and “New Silk Road” will echo each other.

Su Xiaohui, Deputy Director, Department of International and Strategic Studies, China Institute of International Studies.

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