America’s entanglement in Middle East has given China the perfect ploy to increase its footprint in Asia. The much-hyped Asia Pivot is in doldrums, with no policy framework or strategy to manage China’s rise. China clearly senses that its power projection in the Pacific is limited by the vast US presence and its network of allies, but in Central Asia, a viable power vacuum gives it the opportunity to expand its presence and influence. Central Asia is critical for China in three sectors, mainly trade, energy supplies and the fight against terrorism emancipating from Xinjiang.
Energy Heaven and Russia’s Backyard-
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chinese companies ran into Central Asia to chart out energy deals to secure China’s growing energy demands. Most of Oil and Gas Pipelines run through Caspian Sea, Central Asia and Xinjiang, deep into China. Russia continues to be the main geopolitical player in the region, with negligible US presence. But off late, it has been facing subtle yet stiff competition from China. With economic sanctions in place, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Russia to ward off China’s economic power play. China-Central Asia trade was valued at 50 billion dollars in 2014, a figure exceeding Russia’s for the first time. The China-Central Asia network of pipelines could supply up to 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China every year, or more than half of China’s total gas imports.
Increasing terrorist activities in Xinjiang has put China on a high alert. Influx of the majority Han Chinese in the region termed as ‘Hanification’, and failure of developmental projects has angered the ethnic Muslim population to rise against Xi’s ‘Strike Hard’ campaign. Since most of the oil and natural gas pipelines pass through this region, China is concerned about the security of its investments, and has in recent years, tried to subvert the religious practices of the people in Xinjiang. Uyghur separatists used to move around the porous borders with other Central Asian states to reach Afghanistan, though in recent years their movements have been highly regulated due to increased Chinese clampdown. China’s domestic law enforcement agencies are coordinating with their counterparts in the region to capture the terrorists and bring them to justice. Stability and security is the buzzword in this region. China maintains a premium on stability, and will go at lengths to protect its trade interest in the region. After the killing of a Chinese hostage by ISIS, China has stepped up its counterterrorism efforts. Pakistan has also played a critical role in assisting China. Andrew Small’s ‘The China Pakistan Axis-Asia’s New Geopolitics’ provides a detailed description of their coordination on selective counterterrorism.
Trade is a very important factor in China’s geoeconomic calculus in the region. President Xi Jinping unveiled the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative in 2013 to maximize trade and commerce between Europe and China, with Central Asia acting as a critical transit point. EU-China trade is worth around 580 billion dollars, with much of the trade traversing through Central Asia, a replica of the old Silk Road. During ancient times, China had become the most prosperous nation entirely out of trade with Europe and Middle East, and is using the old route to reemphasize its benefits to other nations. Furthermore, China wants to decrease its dependence on the lengthier sea route for trade with Europe, and hence has increased investment in infrastructure projects in the region. For this purpose, China has setup three institutions to fund the vast developmental projects in the region. AIIB, Silk Road Infrastructure Fund and New Development Bank will pool in a total of around 100 billion dollars, with the Silk Road Fund alone providing 40 billion dollars. They will mostly concentrate on connecting China to Europe through railway lines, roads and energy infrastructure. With slowing economic growth and output, OBOR is highly essential for China to succeed and provide the necessary impetus to bolster growth in coming years.
India is slowly engaging itself in Central Asia with oil deals and gas pipelines, the most notable being TAPI. But it continues to lag behind China in terms of investment and influence. India-Central Asia trade pegs at 800 million dollars, which would have been higher, if not for Pakistan. Lack of direct access to Central Asian region continues to be a hindrance in terms of trade, energy security etc for India. And as the Chinese say, India is still 2 decades behind them, more so in this region. Let’s see if India will be able to better engage itself in Central Asia, with its growing economic clout and energy demands. Prime Minister Modi visited all 5 Central Asian states in order to increase security cooperation and trade. As the TAPI pipeline finally materializes for India, another option for India is to let the pipelines pass from Xinjiang region through the disputed territory of Aksai Chin, though it is very less likely to get traction among policy makers on both sides. In choosing lesser of the two devils, China is a better option than Pakistan for energy trade.
Piyush Singh is Junior Research Associate at Takshashila Institution and a student of law at Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur.He tweets at @Piyushs7