But a landlocked province such as Xinjiang can be developed only if its immediate periphery is stable and prosperous enough to trade with it. Bordering Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia, Xinjiang is in the middle of a rough neighborhood. This means China has a keen interest in economic and security developments in Central Asia—stretching from the five post-Soviet Central Asian states to Afghanistan.
THIS CONCERN is reflected in a combination of security, economic and cultural efforts China has instituted across the region. Interestingly, these efforts don’t seem to be a product of a complete and considered strategy. But, taken together, they show a picture more comprehensive than is often appreciated. It isn’t clear that even China grasps the incidental impact of its regional activity in reshaping Central Asia or how it is perceived by regional states, as Chinese actors are simply so focused on developing Xinjiang and extracting what they want from Central Asia. With Russia’s influence in the region at a historically low ebb and the widespread perception across Central Asia that the United States will strategically abandon the region once most combat troops have withdrawn from Afghanistan, Beijing has carved out an inadvertent empire. Lacking a clear strategy and attempting to keep a low profile (a characteristic Chinese approach), China has become the most consequential actor in Central Asia.
Hallmarks of this approach are heavy investments in natural resources; infrastructure development; the establishment of Confucius Institutes, nonprofit institutions sponsored by the Chinese government that promote Chinese language and culture; security exercises; and the establishment of a multilateral regional organization. China also is bolstering cross-border traders who are the economic lifeblood of the old Silk Road. Sitting atop it all is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which offers an umbrella for China to demonstrate that its regional activities are undertaken with the acquiescence of neighboring powers.
The driver is economics, seen most clearly in China’s heavy purchasing of large mineral and hydrocarbon sites across the region. In Kazakhstan, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has gone into partnership with the local, state-owned enterprise (SOE) KazMunaiGaz to secure 4 percent of China’s oil imports from Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan currently accounts for almost a third of China’s imported natural gas—mostly coming through the speedily built China-Central Asia pipeline, which in 2011 brought some 15.5 billion cubic meters (BCM) of gas to China. CNPC aims to send 24.1 BCM this year and eventually get the flow up to 65 BCM. Further, CNPC secured the rights to develop an oil field in Amu Darya in northern Afghanistan, upriver to a project it already is exploiting in Turkmenistan. According to Kabul analysts, this field, a small one for a company as large as CNPC, is a kind of toe in the water for the Chinese SOE to prepare for future contracts in the hydrocarbon-rich area.
It is not only oil and gas that Chinese firms see in Central Asia. State-owned mining firms Jiangxi Copper and the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) partnered to invest near $4 billion to exploit the Mes Aynak copper mine southeast of Kabul. And while Chinese firms have been less visible on recent mining tenders in Afghanistan, they doubtless noted the U.S. Geological Survey’s estimate of nearly a trillion dollars worth of minerals in the country. Furthermore, Chinese mining firms have won concessions to mine for gold in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
But while this natural wealth will help feed China’s insatiable demand for resources, it won’t necessarily help develop Xinjiang. That will require the development of infrastructure across Central Asia. Crippled by aging Soviet infrastructure, the region is a blank canvas for outside developers. China is not the only player around. South Korea has a notable presence in Uzbekistan, while Turkish and French firms dominate the Turkmenistan market. But it is notable to see Chinese firms developing roads leading in and out of Xinjiang. The road from Kashgar to Osh in Kyrgyzstan through the Irkeshtam Pass was built by the China Bridge and Road Company. Chinese workers in distinctive green military greatcoats with shiny buttons could be found earlier this year directing trucks of dirt to complete the road’s final stretches. Other roads can be found in Tajikistan with crews of Chinese repairing parts from Dushanbe toward the Afghan border. Dual-language Russian-Chinese signs mark the workers’ presence. More notable in Tajikistan is the only toll road in the country, going north from Dushanbe to Khujand, built by a Chinese firm and broken up by a shoddily designed Iranian tunnel at the Shahriston Pass. This soon will be replaced by a Chinese-built tunnel.
China also has sought to help develop the region’s rail systems. A train line is being built from China through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. Other train networks are being developed to strengthen links with Kazakhstan, including a high-speed train to be exported there from China. Other infrastructure elements are being spearheaded or supported by Chinese firms, including gas metering in Uzbekistan, telecoms across the region and hydropower developments in Tajikistan.