Potentially related, CNPC has announced plans for the fourth string of the Central Asia-China natural-gas pipeline to be routed from Turkmenistan through northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan to Chinese territory—an alternative to the current route through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This may be motivated in part by transit disputes between Astana and Beijing, but Chinese officials loudly touted the development benefits to Afghanistan. The third string of the pipeline has yet to be completed, so the route for the fourth probably depends on the relative stability of Afghanistan’s northern provinces over the next couple years.
Despite a track record of operating in difficult political climates and conflict zones around the world, Chinese companies in Afghanistan manifest a moderate risk tolerance. Like Afghanistan’s neighbors and many elements within the country, Chinese actors look to the period after the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops to determine their strategies there. Given the close Chinese-Pakistani relationship, Beijing likely will look to Islamabad for guidance. Still, Afghanistan remains a significant part of China’s inadvertent empire in Central Asia. Beijing’s search for natural resources and its eagerness to build infrastructure to get those resources efficiently to China have given it a political role in the country and a geopolitical profile in the region.
THIS IS the story across Central Asia. Although various Chinese actors focus on individual parts of the overall regional engagement, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Strategists in Beijing may not have a coherent strategy for Central Asia, but no other outside force is as comprehensively involved, as dynamic in its engagement or as committed to the long term in all six Central Asian states, including Afghanistan. Seeing this, Central Asian government and business leaders increasingly throw in their lot with China. Kyrgyzstan does so because it must. Turkmenistan, courted by many other countries, does so because it wants to. In the rest of the countries, the situation is somewhere in between.
But the web of connections that China is forging across the region is of global consequence. It is the realization of the “New Silk Road” vision articulated by the U.S. State Department and the Asian Development Bank but with the connections oriented largely toward Xinjiang. The resources made accessible by these connections are headed for Chinese consumption. Questions remain about whether India or the states across the Caspian will be linked in as well. Russia may find itself less integrated into the new web, which could lead to greater Chinese-Russian tensions or increased Russian pugnacity in the region.
The SCO may stem some of the great-power rivalry between Beijing and Moscow, and so far Russian leaders have reacted to China’s inadvertent empire with quiet acquiescence despite attempts at a “Eurasian union” or customs agreements entailing rather feeble tariff barriers against Chinese goods. Beijing and Chinese business leaders are not fazed by either effort. While severely lacking in institutional capacity, the SCO is at the moment emerging as the most inclusive and respected international organization in Central Asia, and it is quietly expanding its geopolitical influence. It recently welcomed Turkey as a “dialogue partner,” an illustration of the emerging cross-continental partnership between China and the other dynamic economies of Central Asia. The SCO’s real test will be how it addresses the future of Afghanistan, and here China’s role in Central Asia most affects U.S. interests.
Neither China nor the SCO is likely to take responsibility for Afghanistan should events not run smoothly once U.S. combat troops withdraw in 2014. Chinese investments, security concerns regarding Xinjiang and Beijing’s close relationship with Islamabad, however, will almost certainly shape the direction of the country in the coming decade. In the long term, China’s inadvertent empire in Central Asia will have geopolitical consequences for U.S. and Western influence in Mackinder’s most pivotal geographic zone on the planet. Should Washington become preoccupied with the Asia-Pacific in its China policy, it not only will be missing the more profound manifestation of China’s global posture but also could find it far more difficult to cultivate relationships with the countries of Central Asia. China may not be seeking an empire in the region, but it is the only power active in a comprehensive, long-term manner. If other outside powers do not also engage, China’s lock on Central Asia, to the exclusion of the United States, will be not only inadvertent but also inevitable.
Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West (Praeger, 2011). This article is the result of a year of research across Central Asia, including Afghanistan, and is part of a larger book project. Their joint work appears at www.chinaincentralasia.com.
Image: Robert Thomson