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Foreign Policy

Beijing and Washington Brace for Central Asia 2016

Dec 16 , 2015

Central Asia could become a more prominent issue in Chinese-U.S. relations next year. Kemel Toktomushev recently reviewed the growing Chinese presence in Central Asian markets. Evaluating the security dimension—terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and other transnational threats—makes even clearer where Beijing and Washington might partner more in the region in coming years. 

Dor Doi is the floodgate through which China is able to proliferate its many, many products to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. (Photo: Jonathan Foster-Moore)

Dr. Toktomushev notes how China’s aggregate trade volume with Central Asia has risen from $1 billion to almost $50 billion since 1990. China has also become a leading provider of foreign investment and credits to the region. Among other contributions, Chinese loans and corporations have increased regional oil, gas, and uranium production and supported the construction of roads, railroads, energy pipelines, and other transportation infrastructure.

The Xinjiang Autonomous Region is the pivot for Beijing’s Central Asian policies. On the positive level, Xinjiang, which borders three Central Asian countries, is the main foundation for the transportation and economic partnerships that China is building in the region. Over 75 percent of the items leaving Xinjiang go through Central Asia. Chinese scholars have at times described Xinjiang’s engagement with Central Asia as an example of the “win-win” approach that China wants to promote as a model for its foreign relations with other nations. Beijing also sees Xinjiang as a buffer zone against Islamism extremism, drug trafficking, and other maladies that can emanate from and through Central Asia.

On the negative side, PRC authorities worry that Xinjiang could conversely provide a conduit for importing the “three evil forces” of regional terrorism, religious extremism, and ethnic separatism into the rest of China. For this reason, Beijing has retained tight border security controls between Xinjiang and its Central Asian neighbors, even at the cost of foregoing some economic exchanges.

Unlike Russia or the United States, however, China has not deployed its own military forces to Central Asia or Afghanistan. Instead, to address these transnational threats at their source, Beijing is comfortable relying on good intelligence, law enforcement, development assistance, and other non-military tools augmented with some low-level Chinese security assistance to the local governments.

The Chinese government’s Central Asian policies are intellectually coherent and have achieved important goals while minimizing China’s risks and costs. Beijing has been better able than Moscow or Washington to balance its ends and means in both Central Asia and Afghanistan. Even so, this strategy is vulnerable to potential adverse developments beyond Beijing’s control that could make regional conditions less conducive to its success.

For example, many of the fears about Afghan Taliban or Islamic State terrorism spreading to Central Asia have yet to occur. There has been Islamist-related violence in Central Asia, but it looks overwhelmingly homegrown. However, this could easily change in the future depending on how the situations in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan progress. It remains doubtful whether the Russian military can apply sufficient resources to maintain a stabilizing force in Central Asia considering its preoccupation with the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts and Russia’s weakened economy.

Given these challenges, Beijing and Washington could intensify their cooperation regarding Central Asia. The United States retains important economic and security goals in the region, but its means of achieving them have been declining in accordance with the reduced U.S. economic assistance and military presence in Central Asia.

Last month, John Kerry became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit all five Central Asian countries in one diplomatic tour. He pledged to help these governments strengthen their borders and counter violent extremism. Kerry also highlighted U.S. support for region-wide economic integration, ecological protection, and cultural and humanitarian cooperation. The recent announcement that U.S. military forces would remain in Afghanistan beyond 2016 helped make these pledges more credible to local elites.

However, there were no major agreements or blockbuster initiatives announced during the visit. Achieving enduringly positive results in Central Asia and Afghanistan could require the next U.S. administration to work with China on deepening economic integration, countering terrorism, and fighting narcotics trafficking while managing differences regarding democracy promotion, human rights, and Russian activities in the region.

Chinese and U.S. diplomatic collaboration to promote Afghan peace negotiations could prove mutually beneficial should conditions ever become more conducive to a peace settlement. Beijing and Washington might also reconcile their preferred security architectures for Central Asia. China remains excessively concerned about NATO’s activities in the region while the United States has yet to develop a coherent policy regarding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose prime ministers just met in Zhengzhou. In the humanitarian domain, Central Asians are interested in expanding their knowledge of foreign languages beyond Russian to include both English and Chinese and in increasing their access to both U.S and Chinese cultural products.

The potential for cooperation appears highest in the economic sphere. The Chinese economy is in a weak state while the U.S. government is still under strict budgetary constraints, so pooling resources where mutually beneficial makes sense. The Chinese are still prepared to finance massive public infrastructure projects sought by Central Asians that the U.S. government cannot afford and private U.S. companies typically eschew. On the other hand, U.S. businesses have superior niche capabilities and demand strong anti-corruption measures.

It is true that Washington does not welcome China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and that the two governments also back potentially rival energy pipeline networks. Nonetheless, Chinese officials have characterized their Silk Road Economic Belt for the region not simply as an augmented economic partnership, but as a greatly expanded regional cooperation initiative that can support U.S. goals. Although U.S. and Chinese companies have competed over the production and export of Central Asian oil and gas supplies, more often they have focused on developing different projects.

In any case, current U.S. policy sees China’s economic activities in the region as helpfully balancing against Russian-backed regional integration schemes. Both governments generally see their foreign direct investment and other economic activities in Central Asia as promoting the region’s political stability, which will be increasingly challenged in coming years due to the impending presidential transitions in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the intensifying war in Afghanistan, and the potential resurgence of regional terrorism.

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