The International Crisis Group (ICG) has published an insightful study of “China’s Central Asia Problem” that underscores Beijing’s vital economic and security interests in the region as well as the challenges to them. Given that the United States has a strong interest in securing Beijing’s help in managing the region as the United States withdraws its combat forces from Afghanistan next year, Washington should study its recommendations closely as well as help China to implement them.
China has increasingly brought Central Asia within its economic orbit. Its trade with the five Central Asian countries increased 30-fold between 2000 and 2010, from some $1 billion in 2000 to almost $30 billion in 2010. Energy, precious metals, and other natural resources flow into China from the region,” the report notes. “Investment flows the other way, as China builds pipelines, power lines and transport networks linking Central Asia to its north-western province, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.”
In contrast, China’s security role in Central Asia is considerably less. For the most part, Beijing is quite comfortable deferring to Moscow’s lead, except for very sensitive issues such as helping Central Asian governments refuse to recognize Russia’s use of military force to separate Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Tbilisi’s control. Like the Central Asians, the Chinese government does not want to legitimize separatist drives when many Eurasian borders misalign with ethnic and religious ties.
But China’s Central Asian strategy has a clear security dimension. Beijing strives to strengthen economic ties between Xinjiang and Central Asia in order to raise the welfare of its ethnic Uighurs, thereby weakening one potential source of their alienation from Beijing. And since political instability is bad for business, by enhancing Central Asia’s economic and political conditions, China is pursuing a virtuous circle and increasing its own political-economic opportunities.
The report notes that Central Asians benefit from Beijing’s growing presence in their region–they receive Chinese investment and trade and some security assistance such as training. The Chinese build large infrastructure projects and invest in challenging economic conditions that other potential foreign partners shun.
However, the ICG cautions that some Chinese corporations pursue business practices that locals see as exploitative, ranging from contributing to local corruption to harming the health of local workers and their environment. This resentment is compounded by unease regarding China’s potentially overwhelming demographic and economic presence in the region. The ICG properly urges Chinese officials to correct both any misperceptions that might have arisen as well as any bad commercial practices that might genuinely occur.
More seriously, the Chinese analysts interviewed for the study expressed alarm about both domestic developments in the Central Asian countries and the regional context—“the risk of spillover from Afghanistan or a repetition in Central Asia of the ‘Arab Spring’.”
China’s regional experts fear that the Central Asian governments have proven unable to provide sufficiently widespread economic benefits to their populations, curb corruption and criminality, reduce religious extremism, strengthen their local security forces, or address other potential socioeconomic tensions. Thus far, the Chinese government, in line with its policy of non-interference in foreign countries’ domestic affairs (except for extremely sensitive issues related to China’s territorial integrity and national security), has not pressed them to reform.
Chinese analysts also doubt Russia’s ability to counter transnational terrorism and other threats to these regimes. Furthermore, while Chinese officials are uncomfortable with an enduring Western military presence in the region and fear Western-backed regime change could worsen regional instability, from Beijing’s perspective, NATO is withdrawing its combat forces from Afghanistan too quickly given the Alliance’s failure to leave a satisfactory security structure in its place.
As a result, the Chinese nightmare is that Islamist terrorists will regain control over much of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan and use their bridgeheads to support Uighur terrorists and other militants who will threaten China’s regional interests by subverting Beijing’s Central Asian allies as well as seeking to separate Xinjiang from Beijing’s control.
According to the ICG, Chinese leaders have developed at best a partial strategy to respond to these challenges. The government is providing copious economic and other assistance of Central Asia and Afghanistan. It is trying to buttress their security forces through training and other support. Beijing is using its good relations with Pakistan to promote trilateral initiatives to improve Islamabad’s strained ties with the Kabul government. Finally, Chinese officials employ Pakistan and other channels to communicate with the Taliban not to attack China’s regional economic interests or support anti-Beijing Uighur militants.
In this endeavor, Beijing employs both bilateral and multilateral instruments, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). But the ICG concurs with Chinese analysts who worry that even Beijing’s lavish aid may prove insufficient to overcome these problems while the SCO has demonstrated few achievements beyond containing Sino-Russian differences over Central Asia. The ICG believes China may need to increase its direct diplomatic and perhaps even military presence in the region to manage these threats more effectively.
The United States can help China to improve its strategy and benefit itself in the process. Washington should make clear to Beijing that, rather than collude with the Taliban or establish its own military bases in the region, China should more directly and extensively with NATO on these issues. The United States and other Western governments want to maintain a security and economic presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia beyond 2014, and Beijing would benefit from helping it do so. Americans and Chinese share an interest in preventing Islamist terrorism from spreading throughout Eurasia, to everyone’s detriment.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.