Red Star over Central Asia

Slowly, steadily and quietly, China gathers influence in the heart of Eurasia.

As the United States and Russia continue to be in a relative deadlock over what should be done to resolve the Syrian crisis, Europe is increasingly focused on Moscow’s attempts to lure both Ukraine and Armenia into its projected Eurasian Economic Union. In this context, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s ten-day journey to Central Asia that ended on September 13 in Kyrgyzstan, where this year’s summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization took place, went largely unnoticed. Even the Russian media, usually attentive to key developments in the post-Soviet space, wrote and talked more about the Geneva meeting between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov than about Xi Jinping’s meetings in Central Asia. However, it is these very meetings that can change the strategic face of the region to Russia’s dissatisfaction, with broader implications for other regional players, including the United States and the European Union.

While Central Asia plays a marginal role in both international trade in general and China’s foreign trade in particular, it also pales in comparison with most of its neighbors in demographic terms, since the combined population of the five Central Asian republics, known as the “stans”, is under seventy million people, fewer than in Iran alone. However, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are located in what U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski once called the “Eurasian Balkans.” This comparison seeks to account for Central Asia’s strategic location at the crossroads of civilizations and the intrinsic instability caused by weak state structures and constant competition for primacy among great powers.

Apart from the geographic advantages that the region offers due to its positioning as a land bridge between Europe and Asia, Central Asia is also home to vast energy reserves. In the late 1990s, the mineral riches of Kazakhstan alone were famously compared by the U.S. State Department to those of some Persian Gulf countries, leading some officials to speak of Kazakhstan as a second Saudi Arabia. Likewise, neighboring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan quickly drew the attention of major international oil and gas companies after the proclamation of their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Even the region’s poorest states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, are thought to have considerable but yet untapped oil, gas, and gold deposits. Both of them will need massive investments in the years to come, and this is where China’s readiness to pour in billions of U.S. dollars from its enormous foreign-currency reserves is particularly pleasing for the local regimes.

At a time when the eyes of the international community are riveted to the U.S.-Russian balancing act over Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Beijing is further strengthening its hand in Central Asia with as much pragmatism as Chinese diplomacy has always had. On September 4, Xi Jinping and his Turkmen colleague, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, launched production at the world’s second-largest gas field at Galkynysh, with estimated reserves up to 21.2 trillion cubic meters. The two leaders had earlier signed a formal agreement on the construction of an expanded gas pipeline between Turkmenistan and China’s Xinjiang. In December 2009, Xi Jinping’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, and the presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan inaugurated the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline, which can now carry some 40 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year after its extension. As China plans to increase its gas purchases from Central Asia to over 65 billion cubic meters by 2020, Beijing is increasingly viewed by the local leaders as a privileged economic partner, ahead of Russia or any other foreign player.