In a speech last September at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, China’s President Xi Jinping coined a new strategic vision for his country’s relations with Central Asia, calling for the creation of a Silk Road Economic Belt. Coming at the culmination of a sweep through Central Asia during which he signed deals worth $56bn and touched down in four out of five capitals, the declaration may be something that has now received a new moniker from President Xi, but the economic and geopolitical reality that it characterizes is one that has been underway for some time.
President Xi’s declaration of the Silk Road Economic Belt needs to be understood within a wider context, particularly in his October 2013 speech at a work conference on diplomacy in which he set out his first formal statement on foreign policy. There he highlighted the priority he wanted his administration to place on border diplomacy: “We must strive to make our neighbours more friendly in politics, economically more closely tied to us, and we must have deeper security cooperation and closer people-to-people ties.”
The emphasis has continued and China has placed great store by the events it is hosting which focus on regional coordination and connectivity: the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) was elevated from being an unheard-of conference to a spectacle of international importance; whilst the Heart of Asia process (focused on re-connecting Afghanistan to its region) is being hosted in Tianjin later in August to equal fanfare. On the international stage, China has prioritized creating a new development bank to reflect both its increasing rejection of the old global financial structures, but also to increase its ability to influence growth and development in the world.
The clearest expression of the Xi administration’s newly attentive border diplomacy, however, can be found in the focus on economic corridors. The declaration of the Silk Road Economic Belt has been matched by an enhanced focus on three other major economic corridors emanating from China: the Maritime Silk Road, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor.
Talk to Chinese officials or experts and they will talk of these corridors as strings of the same instrument, highlighting the focus on economics, connectivity and the stability that flows from prosperity as the end goal of this ‘corridor’ diplomacy. Officials talk of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy that focuses in particular on the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt as the two core elements.
For President Xi’s administration, the aim is to recreate China as the heart and hub of regional politics and economics, to develop China’s poorer border regions and to provide prosperity and opportunity for Chinese firms that are increasingly being pushed to go out into the world. In diplomatic terms, it is the beginnings of a realization in Beijing that it can no longer sit by and let international affairs happen in its neighborhood without taking any role. But as with all Chinese initiatives, it starts by focusing on confidence-building measures, discussion and economics.
China’s rise in Central Asia at the expense of Russian influence and power is not new, but has been underway for almost a decade. President Xi’s visit to Astana came off the back of a number of regional visits by his predecessor President Hu where China had signed a number of huge deals and demonstrated that it was the coming power in Central Asia. As Russian influence has stagnated and infrastructure rotted, Chinese firms have moved in to secure energy fields and mining concessions, as well as rebuilding Central Asia’s physical infrastructure.
Travel along the routes from Kashgar or Urumqi in Xinjiang into Central Asia and you will find roads and rail links that have been refurbished or newly built by Chinese firms. Pipelines from Kazakhstan’s oil fields in Atyrau or Turkmenistan’s super-giant Galkynysh gas field have been built in record time to bring the fuel back to China. Mining concessions across Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been snapped up by Chinese firms, while Chinese companies burrow roads and rail links through mountains in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Visit downtown Dushanbe in Tajikistan, and you will now find a city that has had its main roads refurbished in time for a national anniversary by Chinese firms, a Presidential home and library built by Chinese companies, a CCTV traffic system paid for by a China Development Bank loan and built by Huawei, fields of cranes manned by Chinese workers erecting new buildings around the city, and all of this powered by a giant thermal electricity plant built by PowerChina that ensures that Dushanbe’s power shortages during winter are a thing of the past.
China’s relationship with Central Asia can no longer be caricatured as being built on extracting mineral wealth to feed insatiable Chinese factories. Chinese companies build infrastructure and are increasingly becoming regional energy suppliers, as well as supplying Chinese goods into Central Asian markets. From Kyrgyzstan’s southern entrepots of Kara-Suu and Osh to the Caspian Sea at Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan, Chinese goods fill the markets.
Talk to young students at the Confucius Institutes in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere and they will often speak of learning Mandarin at their parents’ demand to help them cut better deals in Chinese markets in Urumqi or Guangzhou. Language training at a more formal level extends to officialdom in Kyrgyzstan, with scholarships offered to bureaucrats in the Presidential administration, ministry of foreign affairs and ministry of the interior. Beijing, Shanghai and Urumqi universities are full of Central Asian officials’ children who are learning Mandarin. When Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov visited Beijing in November 2011 he was greeted by around 1,000 Turkmen students on scholarships at Chinese higher education establishments.
These scholarships are part of the Chinese soft power push into the region, one that is matched with strong political relations that are advanced at a bilateral basis as well as through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). And as this multifaceted push develops, its economic force and gravity becomes a draw for random Chinese traders and adventurers seeking prosperity.
One couple in Bishkek reported initially arriving as officials working for a state owned firm and as a travel agent: 15 years later, they owned stalls in Kyrgyzstan’s markets, a Chinese restaurant in Bishkek, as well as a biscuit factory outside the city. In downtown Dushanbe, a generous Chinese businessman who had been in the country for about seven years proudly showed off the factory into which he had designed purpose-built flats for Chinese workers coming into the country. His main industry was a fireworks factory and on his wall he displayed a calendar with pictures of himself with senior leaders and events at which he had supplied the fireworks.
The drive behind all this activity is both directed and haphazard. The latter is mostly the product of industrious Chinese following the economic gravity in the region. At a more directed level, however, the effort is part of a longstanding effort by the Chinese government to increase development and prosperity in the under-developed western regions. Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province that accounts for a sixth of the nation’s land mass, has an under-developed infrastructure with an angry Uighur minority who are increasingly expressing their anger through attacks against state institutions.
The Chinese government’s solution to this is a heavy-handed security response matched with focused economic investment. But for landlocked Xinjiang to be able to prosper it will require trade links through Central Asia to Russian and ultimately European markets, or through Afghanistan or Pakistan to Arab and Iranian markets or to the Indian Ocean.
The push in this direction has been in existence for some time. It was late 2011 when Peking University’s dean of international studies, Wang Jisi, first floated his ‘March Westward’ concept. And it is one that President Xi Jinping appears to have harnessed as one of the cores of his foreign policy direction as he looks out at the world.
Building on the success of this drive into Central Asia and its economic and trade push, with politics and security coming as secondary consequences, the model is now being replicated elsewhere, with the four corridors fundamentally echoing the New Silk Road that had been underway for some time.
For anyone trying to understand China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping, it is in Central Asia that the first glimmers of understanding can be found. The larger focus on border diplomacy and its short and medium-term impacts and consequences can all be found in Central Asia where China is rapidly becoming the most influential player on the ground.
The region is being re-wired so that all roads go to China, and the economics are slowly becoming increasingly dependent on China. The longer-term implications of this shift have yet to be completely understood, but they will likely strike a path that we will slowly see China following along its other economic corridors.