PRESIDENT OBAMA’S late 2011 announcement of his administration’s pivot to Asia marked a sea change in America’s geopolitical posture away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific Rim. Reflecting the growing strategic repercussions of China’s rise, the move presages a new era of great-power politics as the United States and China compete in Pacific waters. But is the United States looking in the right place?
A number of American strategists, Robert D. Kaplan among them, have written that a potential U.S.-Chinese cold war will be less onerous than the struggle with the Soviet Union because it will require only a naval element instead of permanent land forces stationed in allied countries to rein in a continental menace. This may be true with regard to the South China Sea, for example, or the Malacca Strait. But it misses the significance of the vast landmass of Central Asia, where China is consolidating its position into what appears to be an inadvertent empire. As General Liu Yazhou of China’s People’s Liberation Army once put it, Central Asia is “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.”
For most of its unified history, China has been an economically focused land power. In geopolitical terms today, China’s rise is manifest particularly on land in Eurasia, far from the might of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Washington’s rimland allies—and far also from the influence of other Asian powers such as India. Thus, Western policy makers should be dusting off the old works of Sir Halford Mackinder, who argued that Central Asia is the most pivotal geographic zone on the planet, rather than those of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the great U.S. strategist of sea power. Greater attention needs to be paid to China’s growing presence in Central Asia if the United States is to understand properly China’s geopolitical and strategic rise.
Indeed, to the extent that China is able to challenge America’s naval position in the Pacific, it will be because it has consolidated its land position in Central Asia and feels more secure on that flank to confront the United States at sea. As Kaplan has written, “Merely by going to sea in the manner that it is, China demonstrates its favorable position on land in the heart of Asia.”
Looking at the arc of Chinese history, China has never been a naval power. Aside from the fifteenth-century explorer Zheng He’s naval expeditions, Chinese empires have traditionally focused on their land power. And even Zheng He, for all his skills as a naval adventurer, was eventually shored by the Haijin edict that marked China’s retreat from the sea. The focus for Chinese imperial dynasties was maintaining the integrity of their massive state.
This fixation with territorial authority is something that persists to this day with the current Chinese Communist Party’s preoccupation with domestic economic growth. This is mostly a survival mechanism to prove the party’s capacity for effective governance and therefore justify its continued dominance. But it also has had the effect of somewhat warping Chinese foreign policy to serve domestic interests.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Central Asia, where China’s steadily developing policy toward the region has been focused on securing natural resources. This has further developed recently into a strategy to create a more prosperous neighborhood with which China’s restive westernmost province, Xinjiang, can trade. Far from the center (everything in Xinjiang operates two hours later than Beijing, though the official time is the same as in Beijing), rich in natural resources but largely empty and burdened with minority tensions that periodically spill into violence, Xinjiang long has been a concern to decision makers in Beijing’s governing complex of Zhongnanhai.
These concerns surged anew in July 2009 when rioting in the provincial capital of Urumqi led to more than two hundred deaths. Sparked by protests in the city against reports of Uighur workers in Guangdong Province being abused, the trouble quickly escalated into rioting in which mobs of Uighurs marched around the city beating hapless Han to death. The next day angry Han staged counter-riots directed at the Uighurs as well as at the Han authorities’ inability to protect them or resolve the province’s long-standing problems. Chinese president Hu Jintao quickly departed a G-8 summit in Italy to take charge of the situation.
In the wake of the violence, Beijing decided it was time for a new approach. Senior leaders in Urumqi’s security establishment were fired, and in April 2010 the long-time local party boss Wang Lequan was eased out of his position. Replacing him was Zhang Chunxian, the former governor of Hunan Province, who had received plaudits for his work in bringing economic development to that province. The capstone of this revitalized strategy toward Xinjiang was a May 2010 work conference that produced a number of key decisions related to the province. Richer provinces were given responsibility for parts of Xinjiang; national energy companies exploiting Xinjiang’s rich hydrocarbon wealth were ordered to leave more money in the province in the form of taxes; and “special economic zones” were established in Kashgar (in southern Xinjiang Province) and Khorgos (a land crossing with Kazakhstan). Emphasizing external trade for provincial development, decision makers upgraded the annual Urumqi Foreign Economic Relations and Trade Fair to the far grander China-Eurasia Expo.