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Chinese turn to Eurasia

The strategy "One belt, one road" makes it possible to understand what is the future of China in Eurasia.

The Eurasian borders of the People's Republic of China (PRC) have again become an important factor in Beijing's foreign policy. Xi Jinping's recently announced One Belt, One Road (OBOR) strategy, which includes an initiative to strengthen economic ties between Eurasian states through the creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR), effectively makes Eurasia “the main front and the center "of modern Chinese foreign policy. In this regard, some experts considered that Beijing is in the process of "turning" towards Eurasia, which will have far-reaching strategic consequences.

Chinese turn to Eurasia
Matthew Burrows and Robert Manning recently stated that this "pivot to Eurasia is an attempt to turn the vulnerable 14-country border into a strategic asset." If this process is successful, it will become a nightmare for the United States, as China's economic and strategic power will attract a weakened Russia into an alliance with it in order to stabilize and modernize Eurasia on the basis of "authoritarian capitalism with a large state role." Geoffrey Payne, on the other hand, replies that such fears "should be put aside," as Beijing will not only have to face a region of unpredictable and uncontrollable political forces, but also with mutual hidden suspicions on the part of Russia.

Advanced Context

However, these views provide neither an adequate assessment of the motives for Beijing's “European turn”, nor the broader regional context in which China's policy should be viewed. First, OBOR can be seen in part as China's response to the "turnaround" or "rebalancing" in Asia that took place during Barack Obama's rule, as well as to the relative weakening of Russia's position in Central Asia. Secondly, the OBOR concept (mainly its SREB component) is related to the problems of China in domestic politics to the same extent as to the main strategic priorities. Of serious concern in this regard is the extent of China's influence in those generally turbulent regions that border Eurasia, such as Xinjiang and Tibet. While the decline of Russian and US influence in Central Asia provided Beijing with a strategic opportunity to strengthen its power, the rise of Uyghur and Tibetan oppositions, which began in 2008, underlined the need to strengthen economic development and modernize these regions as a key way to achieve their integration into modern China. state.

Prominent Chinese scholar Wang Jixi argues that the Chinese "march to the West" (that is, the creation of the OBOR concept) is a "strategic necessity" because "a change in relations with the East" in the strategic sense of the Obama administration (known as "rebalancing") threatens turn Sino-US relations in East Asia into a zero-prize game. If the "march to the west" is successful, "the potential for US-China cooperation" in many areas will increase "and the risk of a military conflict between the two countries will practically disappear." As Wang notes, throughout almost its entire history, the PRC remained strategically oriented to the East due to the "traditional advantages in development" of the country's eastern provinces and the fact that strategic and military threats came precisely from the side of China's maritime borders. Now, however, the "march to the west" is necessary to make sure that "harmony and stability" in Xinjiang and Tibet are not threatened by "extremism, terrorism and other hostile external forces"; "The supply channels for oil and other important goods to the west of the Chinese border will remain open"; and that China will be able to expand its economic interaction (including the provision of economic assistance) with "all the states of West Asia."

From this point of view, Central Asia becomes a strategic security valve for expanding China's influence, especially given the aforementioned decline in US influence and level of interests after the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. The Maritime Silk Road complements these strategic changes, allowing for greater economic ties between China and landlocked countries in Southeast and South Asia and the Middle East. Beijing is convinced that a decisive factor in the success of the concept will be the potential to provide a more convenient and safer route for the delivery of gas and oil from Central Asia and the Middle East that both sea and land versions of the Silk Road can offer.

Additional interests

The fact that SREB partially complements the interests of the Central Asian countries also played into the hands of Beijing. First of all, China is focusing on more convenient inter-economic ties by improving key infrastructure - oil and gas pipelines, railways and highways, as well as telecommunications networks, which correlates with the long-standing desire of energy-rich Central Asian countries (for example, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan) diversify export flows of oil and gas. In addition, several Central Asian countries have decided to make diversification of their own economies a top priority for their future economic well-being, moving away from a model that only exports resources. The $ 40 billion that China has poured into the Silk Road Fund to help develop the necessary infrastructure is seen by the Central Asian states as a confirmation of China's seriousness with the project.

Central Asia's apparent susceptibility to Chinese initiatives must be viewed in light of the changing understanding of the role of the United States and Russia in the region. The Obama administration's approach to Central Asia has become hostage to the dilemmas it faces in Afghanistan. That Washington viewed the region through just such a lens is not surprising given the introduction of an additional 30 thousandth contingent of forces to Afghanistan in July 2009; and the withdrawal of the main forces of the United States and NATO by 2014. For the Central Asian states, the presence of US troops in the region since 11/XNUMX has been beneficial, but the diminishing US focus on the region leaves them with the prospect of being caught between a growing Beijing and a weakened but still assertive Russia.

As a result of Washington's "Afghan-centric" approach, the concept of "Central Asia" has turned into an amorphous "Greater Central Asia" that includes not only five post-Soviet states, but also Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iranian province of Khorasan and Chinese province of Xinjiang. For many politicians and experts in Washington, starting at the end 1990-x years, and especially since 2001, the apparent instability of Central Asia was caused by the refusal to integrate with the global liberal order (both in the economy and in politics). This became apparent with the launch of the New Silk Road Initiative (NSRI) in 2011, which aimed to promote trade liberalization, economic cooperation and “citizen-to-citizen ties” in Central and South Asia.

This initiative was the fruit of the Obama administration's desire to set the conditions for the consolidation of an independent and stable Afghanistan after the withdrawal of American troops. US Undersecretary of State for Economic, Agricultural and Energy Affairs Robert Hormats noted that “the basis for the 'new Silk Road' will be Afghanistan, firmly embedded in the economic life of the region, which will be able to attract new investments, capitalize on its resource potential and offer growing economic opportunities and hope for my people. " The main step towards such changes should be the US assistance to the states of the region in reorienting their key infrastructure (roads, railways, telecommunications networks, etc.) in order to interact with the states of South Asia and help in “removing bureaucratic barriers and other obstacles to the free movement of people and goods. ".

Its success will also serve a broader spectrum of goals, as the establishment of a compliant regime in Afghanistan will allow Washington to create links between north and south Asia as opposed to the east-west ties developed by China and Russia. These ties should ultimately serve a perennial American geopolitical interest in making sure that no one force or group of forces dominates Eurasia. However, this initiative was initially undermined almost from the very beginning of its implementation - the changed priorities of the administration, the weak economic integration of the Central Asian countries and the "rebalancing" of foreign policy priorities towards the Asia-Pacific region. The latter, from the point of view of the Central Asian elites, means a weakening of US attention and interest towards the region compared to their peak in the first half. 2000-x Years.

Post-Soviet space

While China's initiatives in Central Asia stemmed from economic and strategic power, Russia's initiatives stemmed from weakness. Indeed, the global financial crisis has become a catalyst for Russia's renewed interest in integration projects in the post-Soviet space. 2008-2009 years and its impact on the resource-based economic growth of the country. When the Russian economy reached significant levels of growth in 1999-2007 years, having increased 6 times from 200 billion to 1.3 trillion, and having raised the level of GDP per capita to 7 thousand dollars, it remained very dependent on the export of energy resources, primarily to Eastern Europe. The financial crisis not only "showed the limits of such a strategy," but also led to the persistent decline in economic growth in Russia prompting Moscow to use the resumption of integration in the post-Soviet space as a means of mitigating the effects of the crisis. Russia's trade with Central Asia also began to weaken by 2007, when China began to take its place as the region's main external trading partner. To the middle 2000-x Russia has also begun to focus again on its major advantage in Central Asia - a dominant role in the energy sector - both as a means of maintaining its traditional position in the region and domestic energy demand. Moscow's attempts to maintain control over exports from Central Asia did not stem from the need to increase oil and gas exports, "rather because it wanted to re-export oil products for a profit." Thus, "the energy market in Central Asia essentially supported the Russian market thanks to cheap energy, while sales to Europe were carried out at a much higher price." The demand from European states that fell after the crisis, however, finally undermined the viability of this strategy.

This is the context in which President Vladimir Putin attempted to revive the idea of ​​a “Eurasian Union” (originally voiced by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1994) in his October 2011 column in Izvestia, in which he called it a “supranational association”. which will “coordinate economic and monetary policy” as a means of providing a “new post-crisis” development model. However, Putin's attempt to create a Eurasian Union that includes not only Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, but also Ukraine, has jeopardized the entire project. The decision of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to abandon the trade agreement with the Eurasian Union in favor of joining the European Union led to an uprising that overthrew him and led to the annexation of Crimea to Russia. The consequences of the Ukrainian crisis in the post-Soviet space were very painful for Russia and its partners in the Eurasian Union. The imposition of sanctions on Russia by the West undoubtedly affected Kazakhstan and Belarus as well. For example, in January 2015, the Kazakh government lowered its forecast for GDP growth by 1.5 percent (the previous one was 4.8%), which meant that Nazarbayev recognized the effect of Western sanctions and lower oil prices. With all due respect to him, one of the Kazakh experts noted that trade with Ukraine before the crisis exceeded trade with all Central Asian countries, but since then it has dropped by a third from the maximum of 4 billion a year.

Moscow's partners have also begun to question the project's economic viability. So, Kazakhstan doubts that it is worth attracting such states as Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to the union, which Russia really wants. Kazakhstani expert Sultan Akimbekov, for example, said that she is more interested in making a political statement, turning the Eurasian Union into an “umbrella” brand that should unite a large number of states in the post-Soviet space “as a demonstration of its own strength and influence weaker neighbors In addition, he doubts that the creation of the Eurasian Union really brought tangible economic benefits to Kazakhstan, stressing that the volume of Kazakhstan's exports to Russia in 2012 was almost exactly the same as in four years earlier, however, within the framework of the union, Kazakhstan is becoming "an increasingly important market for Russia and Belarus."

Politically, the Ukraine crisis has fueled fears in Minsk and Astana that they are important on Putin's agenda. Statements by the Russian president, in accordance with which it is Moscow's duty to protect ethnic Russians as a justification for the annexation of Crimea, in particular revived fears in Kazakhstan about a possible revanchism by Russia towards the northern territories of the Central Asian country. Russia’s rhetoric has not greatly mitigated such concerns since then. For example, Putin's words during his speech at the pro-Kremlin youth camp on Lake Seliger near Moscow in August 2014 that “until 1991 Kazakhstan never had statehood” and that the country is therefore part of the “Russian world” , expectedly irritated in Astana. Nazarbayev appeared on national television and stated that "Kazakhstan has the right to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union" and "Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to its independence." This position of Moscow prompted Nazarbayev to announce plans to officially celebrate the establishment of Kazakh statehood by the khans Kerey and Janibek in 1465, while the Astana Times spoke about the history of the legitimate statehood of the Kazakh people.

Challenges for Beijing

At the moment, SREB and developing bilateral economic relations with Beijing are not cloudless for Central Asia. The latter, despite recent protests from the Russian-speaking population, is opposed to Moscow's protectionist policies within the EAEU, while Beijing is clearly focused on facilitating and simplifying economic interaction in Central Asia. One analyst noted that the "real problem" for Russia with regard to SREB is "the Chinese business-is-business" approach, which differs "both from the Western political background of economic decisions and from serious geopolitical influence in the case of Russia." As noted by the renowned Chinese regional scholar Wu Shengzhu, the deeper problem for Beijing is that “if China strengthens its economic penetration into Central Asia, the countries of the region, in the interests of maintaining political and strategic autonomy, will most likely prefer to strengthen strategic cooperation with other forces as an attempt insure yourself against political risks caused by economic dependence. China's "invasion" of the Central Asian region could create another example of the separation of economic ties and political relations. "

At the heart of this direction of China's policy, however, are issues directly related to the key regions of the country lying on the Eurasian border, which include Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Historically, these boundaries marked the edge of the "Inner Asian Zone" of Chinese expansion. These regions were ethnically and geographically buffer zones that fenced off Han China from the Turkish and Mongol civilizations, which were not only beyond the control of the emperor, but also posed a threat in the form of invasions. Over the past three decades, Beijing has developed a coherent strategy towards these regions that should completely transform these historical relationships. When Deng Xiaoping began the "policy of reform and opening up," one of its main tenets was that promoting economic development and modernization would "buy" the loyalty of non-titular nationalities such as the Uighurs and Tibetans.

The economic development of border regions was initially considered a matter of national importance as part of the Great Western Development Campaign, formally launched by former Secretary General Jiang Zemin, which involved the transformation of regions such as Xinjiang into industrial and agricultural bases and trade and energy corridors linking the Chinese economy with the South and Central Asia. In this respect, China is ahead of American initiatives (for example, NSRI) by almost twenty years. Rafaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen noted that "the network of connections that China is forging throughout the region ... is the implementation of the New Silk Road project, announced by the US Department of State, but focused primarily on Xinjiang."

With ongoing turmoil in Xinjiang and Tibet (and even terrorist attacks in the first) in recent times, it is no surprise that these regions are seen as playing key roles in OBOR. Thus, in the statement of the Chinese Commission for National Development and Reforms dated March 28, 2015, it was unequivocally noted that “we must use the geographical location of Xinjiang and its role as a window to the West with deepening cooperation with the countries of Central, South and West Asia, and the region will become a key transport, trade, logistics, cultural, scientific and educational center, and the main area of ​​the economic belt of the Silk Road. "

The main challenge for Beijing is that Eurasian ties, which the establishment of OBOR should improve, while increasing the potential for expanding China's influence along its Eurasian borders, could create opportunities for the movement of people, goods and objects (for example, associated with radical Islamists) who will hinder the main goal - to consolidate their power in areas such as Xinjiang. The existence of a small number of Taliban-backed Uyghur fighters near the Afghan-Pakistani border and the increased flow of Uyghur refugees into Southeast Asia are just two examples of the region's political problems.

Burroughs and Manning's assessment of China's turn to Eurasia admits the possibility of creating a "new bipolarity" with "China, Russia and several authoritarian states of Central Asia on the one hand and the United States, the EU and their Asian allies on the other," ignoring those challenges in domestic politics. which the implementation of the "One Belt, One Road" concept puts before China. Payne's position is that the US can afford a strategic retreat from Eurasia. It is supported by the following argument: "The United States is trying to act as a state trying to balance different forces", which conflicts with the geopolitical interest that determined the US global strategy after World War II - no power should dominate Eurasia.

US policymakers cannot afford to rely on views that exaggerate China's geopolitical weight in Eurasia or carelessly neglect the fact that the US will still play a role in the region's future. A correct understanding of the motives of the Belt and Road strategy and the obstacles to its implementation will help to better understand the likely future of Chinese influence in the region.

This article was written by Dr. Michael Clarke, Professor at the College of Homeland Security. Author of Xinjiang and China's Strengthening in Central Asia.
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