China’s civilisational journey is a tale of unimaginable
accomplishments and extraordinary national ambitions. The Indian monk
Vajrabodhi, who travelled to the Tang ruler’s court in 720 AD, where he taught
Buddhism and received the title Guoshi (Teacher of the Realm), mentioned
China’s ambition to send merchants, missionaries and students westward to
conquer new territory.
John A. Hobson, the English economist and critic, in 1902 opined that with its enormous territory, diverse climatic conditions and natural resources, hard working people and ancient civilisation, China had the material basis for self-sufficiency. He said the Chinese strove to dominate the region and dictate terms.
Early Europeans regarded with awe the luxury goods that reached them along the Silk Road, which created the impression of a land of fabulous wealth. So the search for an alternative route became an obsession. As a result Christopher Columbus sailed west, Vasco da Gama south, and Ferdinand Magellan cruised south-west of Europe. Their discoveries changed the world.
The geographer H. J. Mackinder in his article “The Geographical Pivot of History” in The Geographical Journal of April 1904 wrote that by 1900 geographical exploration was nearly over. It took 400 years to complete outlining the map of the world with approximate accuracy. There was no possibility of further dramatic discoveries. But in this time the race for empire was fierce, to settle whatever was discovered and available. Seafaring nations like England, The Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Spain and France dominated the waters and colonised vast portions of the globe, except for the heart of the Asian continent.
Of all the world’s geographical regions, central Asia offered more geostrategic and economic dividends than any other, Mackinder believed. Whoever controlled central Asia—the great pivot—would emerge as the most powerful state. Central Asia, being the heart of the Silk Road, is an anthropological encyclopaedia with interactions and cultural exchanges between all the great civilisations down the ages.
Recorded history interprets the 2,200-year-old Silk Road as the essential network connecting ancient China, ancient India, Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan and the fringes of Europe. Countless authors have written how lucrative India’s trade with China was on the Silk Road and how religious traffic became a two-way affair with Chinese Buddhists heading for Khotan, Kashmir and beyond in search of texts, relics and spiritual guidance. The Silk Road, apart from a brief Mongol interregnum, was always identified with China.
Contemporary “Central Asia” is just the five post-Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Historical central Asia on the other hand, a confluence of geography and culture, started from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to Korea in the east, and the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Himalayas in the south.
Arid, dry and distant from the sea, central Asia was nothing more than a seasonal home of nomads for a long time, until the Mongols burst out of their homeland in the 13th century to conquer vast swathes of the new Muslim lands to the west and then, eventually, imperial China.
It became a region of great power contention only in the 16th century—long after the Mongols—when Tsarist Russia and China’s Qing dynasty entered in force. Russian expansion towards Afghanistan in the 19th century was a recurrent nightmare for the British Empire as it threatened their greatest prize, India. That was the origin of the Great Game. Although Russia gobbled up much of central Asia, the Great Game hobbled its southward advance and Afghanistan became a buffer between the two. China by then was a marginal player. More than a century later its spectacular economic advance has again pushed it to centre-stage and it is set to be the dominant player in the region.
There are several reasons for this, apart from Chinese economic power and proximity. The region contains immense reserves of fossil fuels, indispensable to China’s industrial machine. It is also believed to contain the last unexploited trove of minerals, in Mongolia, north Afghanistan and the other “stans”. But the key to China’s growing ambitions lies in the eclipse of the Soviet Union.
y the 1917 Revolution, Tsarist Russia had incorporated all of central Asia barring Mongolia and Afghanistan into its fold. That situation continued until 1991 when the state collapsed. In the chaos, the five central Asian states became independent.
Under the Soviet Union, these autonomous republics were closed and the region was inaccessible to the world. Its demise opened up the region to China, Iran and Afghanistan. The new states needed their neighbours, especially China, as the Soviet retreat also meant the disappearance of skilled manpower and other resources. The area became an administrative challenge for the new governments.
Their borders also disrupted existing trade, disturbed human links and weakened critical but vulnerable region-wide water and energy systems. At the same time, opportunities arose to revive old trade routes and build new energy routes to export gas and oil to neighbours and the world markets.
Independence is not an unmixed blessing. The region is afflicted by poverty and poor human development and is waiting for a rescuer. China has the prerequisites: an industrious population, economic and strategic stability, ability to exploit natural resources and provide cheap consumer products. This last is a crucial part of the equation. Geographical proximity has enabled China to outpace its competitors as it bids fair to be the clearest winner in the new Great Game.
The Soviet collapse changed regional geography. While China has borders with three states (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), Russia’s direct access is confined to Kazakhstan. Exploiting this dividend, China has augmented its interactions, gradually claiming patron status in all five central Asian states.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is its gateway to central Asia’s vast oil and gas reserves. Xinjiang is also important as the old Silk Road runs through it and the region will be the springboard for Chinese trade expansion into central Asia and onwards to the Caspian region, the Middle East and Europe.
The Autonomous Region is strategically located; it has borders with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, a small sliver of Russia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Xinjiang will thus not only be the hub of the energy pipelines from neighbours but also a transit point for consumer goods bound for central Asia.
hina’s thirst for energy is unquenchable. Its economy accounts for some 20 per cent of world energy consumption. For the world’s factory, further progress depends entirely on a constant and uninterrupted flow of energy. In the Soviet era, it could not think of sources to its west as its communist rival sat on them. But 1991 changed all that and the immense central Asian trove of fossil fuels and minerals was open to all. Naturally enough, Beijing established diplomatic contacts with the new states, signalling a new era in foreign policy.
At present China imports 51 per cent of its energy from the Middle East including Iran; 24 per cent from Africa; three per cent from Asia-Pacific and 22 per cent from other countries including in central Asia. The Middle Eastern and African oil comes by sea, long routes along unstable countries and is a source of constant worry about security. China always wanted to replace its far flung suppliers with its western neighbours.
Thus its pipeline politics and oil and gas trade in central Asia is a conscious endeavour to avoid shipping vital energy products along vulnerable routes such as the narrow, 800-kilometre Strait of Malacca. To reduce its dependence on distant uncertain sources, China has zeroed in on three regions—central Asia, Myanmar and Pakistan. But there are bounties as well for the suppliers.
For central Asia, it is the Silk Road Economic Belt (SERB), a $40 billion project. It will touch 60 countries covering the entire Eurasian landmass. In September 2013, President Xi Jinping announced SERB during his visit to Astana, capital of Kazakhstan.
The initiative is considered the biggest, most ambitious foreign policy gamble, with consequences as far-reaching as America’s Marshall Plan. It has also developed offshoots in the Maritime Silk Road, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China will import oil and gas through Myanmar and Pakistan while Central Asia will be secured through direct pipelines.
The US Energy Information Administration predicts that by 2035, China may import 75 per cent of its oil. It is no secret that its economy in future will be driven by foreign energy. So the effort is to ensure less hazardous routes and reliable suppliers. Central Asia offers the advantage of proximity, internal lines of communication and no worries about disruption from strategic rivals. Two pipelines are already in operation—Central Asia-China, also known as Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline, and the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline. Considering the growing US clamour over sea routes, China is contemplating a pipeline to Arab oil terminals in the Gulf. Many observers feel China also sees central Asia as the strategic crossroad for its land route to trade with the Gulf and Europe as well.
ndia by contrast has no opening to central Asia. This lack of direct access is a body-blow to its strategic vision as well as economic ambitions. India is nowhere in the competition as its trade with central Asian countries is just two per cent of China’s. New Delhi can only be Beijing’s junior partner so far as central Asia is concerned. There is, however, one encouraging development. Its recent signing of the much-delayed Chabahar port deal with Iran means it can overcome the physical barrier with Afghanistan and central Asia.
Once the port is operational, India is expected to get direct access to Afghanistan and by extension central Asia. Pakistani intransigence then becomes irrelevant. India proposes to build a railway from Chabahar to the Afghan city of Zaranj and link up with Afghanistan’s Zaranj-Delaram highway that it constructed in 2009. The port will cut transport costs and freight time from India to central Asia and the Gulf by about a third. But the question is which port, Pakistan’s Gwadar or Chabahar, will be the preferred entry to central Asia.
In 2012, India initiated its vague “Connect central Asia” policy to augment interaction with central Asian states. It intends to build the $7.6-billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, touted as the peace pipeline. But the fate of TAPI (construction is scheduled to be start this year) is in limbo because of Turkmenistan’s internal problems and reluctance.
The “Connect central Asia” policy is vocal on non-significant and non-economic issues such as people-to-people cooperation, counter-terrorism and cultural cooperation. At the present pace of strategic and economic endeavour, India is a thousand years behind China.
The biggest handicap, apart from its strategic-bureaucratic-political inertia, is geography. India needs to shed its age-old inertia and expedite indirect access through Iran and Afghanistan and make the trade profitable for both sides. India can supply consumer goods, military hardware, farming know-how and information technology for energy. It needs to move swiftly with a clear vision; China and the world will not wait.
hina plans not only to ensure energy security for itself but also to act as the arbiter of energy supply in the region, which includes India, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. It is taking a huge risk in this remarkable reorientation of foreign policy in a region where angels fear to tread. Beset with political instability, ethnic tensions, separatism, terrorism and dictatorship, central Asia is a byword for volatility. So troubled is the region that the US never considered a presidential visit to any of the five in their 25 years of independence.
While the US and the west shudder at the turmoil and are loath to offer financial aid or humanitarian assistance, China has forged ahead boldly, eclipsing everyone else in central Asia.
That is partly because it understands the region better than anyone else, and it is leveraging its proximity to the hilt. The Chinese gambit is based on the premise that central Asia cannot resist its goods or its expertise in infrastructure development in exchange for oil and gas no matter who rules or dominates. Beijing is aware of the endemic instability but considers the disorder less dangerous than depending on the volatile Middle East and uncertain sea routes.
This gung ho attitude is based on the fact that the country
has a $3.8 trillion foreign exchange reserve, the world’s highest. It can spend
billions without blinking. A stable currency regime, large surplus and robust
financials make for a sharp contrast with other emerging economies hit by the
crisis. The risk is worth taking as the potential rewards are
The China National Petrol Company (CNPC) has invested heavily in Kazakhstan’s oil sector. With Turkmenistan, one of the world’s largest gas exporters, China signed a deal soon after Turkmen independence to build a gas pipeline. In Uzbekistan, 65 Chinese companies have been investing to set up more than 380 ventures. Uzbek President Islam Karimov in September 2013 announced that China was the locomotive of the world economy.
In all the years of Uzbek independence, China has never linked bilateral co-operation with any political or other conditions. In December 2014, the third branch of the gas pipeline to China was completed. The Uzbekistan-China gas pipeline is the section of the larger line that runs through Uzbekistan. It will take gas from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to China.
hina has been involved in Afghanistan since 2007, when the Metallurgical Corporation of China and Jiangxi Copper Corporation agreed to make the single largest foreign investment in Afghanistan to date—$4.4 billion. They won a tender to develop what geologists believe is the world’s second largest undeveloped copper deposits at Aynak in Logar Province, 35 kilometres southeast of Kabul. Apart from this, CNPC is investing in Afghanistan’s oil sector.
During his September 2014 visit, President Xi announced that China would invest $20 billion in India in the next five years. In April, he announced a $46 billion investment in Pakistan—of which $37 billion is for the power infrastructure to address chronic shortages that have crippled the economy. Other than country-specific investment, China is also investing in the Silk Road project to break the bottleneck in Asian connectivity and provide inter-connectivity training for some 20,000 citizens of member-countries through 2019.
Crude oil and gas aside, central Asia’s uranium reserves account for around 25 per cent of the world reserve. China is planning 30 new nuclear plants and is looking to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for uranium. Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels thousands of miles to Australia and Canada for uranium while China finds it in its backyard of central Asia.
So vital does it consider Central Asia to its future that China, before any other country could step in, formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
While the emergence of the five central Asian states testified to waning Soviet influence, that vacuum is being filled by China, considered one of the stabilising forces in the region. The US registered its presence in four of the five central Asian states to fight its war against terror. Its presence is negative in nature and does not go down well. US negotiators have also asked their central Asian partners to choose between US investment and Chinese and Russian interest. In the early years after 9/11, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan signed a number of strategic and military cooperation agreements with the US.
slamic extremism is rampant in the neighbourhood, affecting nearly all countries in some way. Therefore, China has encouraged SCO members to face the Three Evils “separatism, extremism and terrorism” collectively. As the US is left with a small number of troops in Afghanistan, a new security framework for intelligence sharing among SCO countries has come up in the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure with headquarters in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.
But this arrangement is not working too well as each member assigns different priorities to the Three Evils. In addition, China and Russia seem to be less than forthcoming on sharing sensitive information. That is why the security framework is unlikely to lead to useful real-time intelligence sharing among SCO members.
China’s 1,520-kilometre border with Kazakhstan, the presence of a large number of Uighurs in the country’s south-east, the affiliation of Uighur separatists in Xinjiang with the Kazakh Uighur and the infiltration of Islamic extremism into Xinjiang is a cause of concern. China has no previous experience of Islamic extremism as its foreign policy is based on the Five Principles, which bar interfering in other states’ internal affairs.
Considering its naïveté in dealing with Islamic extremism, China’s grandiose investment plans and uninterrupted economic forward movement in Pakistan, Afghanistan and central Asia look a bit foolhardy. From this angle its course is even riskier as there is no conceivable formula to overawe the sword of Islam. So it is possible that its investment in time and money will go up in smoke. But Chinese planners are more optimistic while acknowledging the dangers. At the worst foreign reserves will take a small hit, they feel.
The large US footprint in central Asia has prompted China to accuse it of having a larger strategy for global domination. The Chinese media say the US intends to squeeze and press Russia; encircle Iran and Iraq; control south Asia and march all the way down to the Indian Ocean, all to contain the rise of China.
The American press on the other hand explains that China is a potential enemy and as central Asia is in its backyard, the region’s significance cannot be discounted. If the US succeeds in controlling central Asia, China will be sandwiched from east and west. Thus its rise could be contained. Its presence in central Asia is a challenge to Chinese foreign policy strategists.
China has pushed back by offering real-time economic benefits and presenting itself as a reliable security partner, providing a viable alternative to security and military alliances with the United States. Immediately after 9/11, China augmented strategic cooperation with central Asia. It started security collaboration and joint military exercises with Kyrgyzstan in 2002-03, concluded a Sino-Kazakh Mutual Cooperation Agreement in 2003 and initiated a number of bilateral security-related agreements with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in September 2003.
It has kept the central Asian states from getting too close to the US. At the SCO conference of 2005 the heads of state declared that members states consider it necessary that the anti-terrorist coalition set a final timeline for the temporary use of infrastructure and stay of their military contingents on the territories of SCO member states.
US interference was criticised and Uzbekistan cancelled its agreement on American military use of the Karshi-Khanabad air base. As a further barrier against US influence, in 2006 China convinced SCO members to accord observer status to Iran, India, Pakistan and Mongolia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has assured the observer countries that they will be inducted during the SCO Ufa summit on July 9-10, 2015, when Russia takes the chair.
America is a latecomer in the central Asian game but it would be foolish to underestimate its power, reach or allure for all aspirational individuals.
Still, everything considered, Chinese dominance seems all but assured for the present in this geographical pivot of history.