China's Inadvertent Empire

China's Inadvertent Empire

Mini Teaser: Beijing has quietly strengthened its position economically and diplomatically in Central Asia, perhaps the most pivotal geographic zone on the planet. This development has powerful implications for America and the world.

by Author(s): Raffaello PantucciAlexandros Petersen

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.

Various forms of funding have emerged. Primary among them is the use of linked loans or lines of credit provided through China Export-Import Bank. Often granted with provisions guaranteeing that Chinese firms get the contracts, these loans are breeding a growing number of Chinese train carriages in the region as well as Chinese road crews. In addition, Chinese firms often are the winning bidders in projects tendered by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Regional ADB officials openly praise the Chinese companies and their work. The ADB’s Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation program dovetails with China’s road-building aim of connecting the underdeveloped region with its wealthier neighbors. But China wants this infrastructure to be oriented in its direction rather than toward Afghanistan, as the ADB would prefer.

The fruits of this road and rail construction are seen in the markets of Kara-Suu in Kyrgyzstan, Barakholka in Kazakhstan or as far as Türkmenabat’s bazaars in Turkmenistan, just across the border from Uzbekistan. Sprawling fields harbor truck trailers with doors cut in them so merchants can peddle goods to local buyers. Traders in Uzbekistan report using Chinese roads and rail links to get goods from Guangzhou and Urumqi to their markets, while in Dushanbe the aptly named Shanghai Market offers a shrunken version of this model focused mostly on home construction. This trade includes such goods as air conditioners, televisions and knickknacks of the kind commonly associated with China. Xinjiang traders and truckers are largely responsible for this back and forth, which is helping expand China’s market presence in Central Asia, opening up Xinjiang’s markets and providing employment in the region.

TAKEN AS a composite, this may appear to be a coherent strategy, but there is little evidence that it was developed consciously as a grand plan in Beijing. Beyond the Xinjiang development program, the other main area of Chinese concentration has been the SCO, a somewhat half-baked organization initially formed to resolve regional border disputes. For Beijing, the ideal would be for the organization to become a vehicle through which it can direct China’s economic investments in the region. Beijing policy makers have advanced notions of creating an SCO development bank and an SCO free-trade zone. At the latest summit in Beijing, China pledged $10 billion in regional support through the organization. But this eagerness is not shared by other SCO members—in particular Russia, which sees China’s rise in Central Asia as a direct threat to its interests. Regional powerhouses such as Kazakhstan also fear being overwhelmed by the Chinese economic machine.

This fearful undertone of economic dominance runs throughout Central Asia. Uzbekistan looks at Kyrgyzstan with concern, nervous of its fate if Chinese goods take over Uzbekistan’s economy in the same manner that they dominate Kyrgyzstan. The fact that Chinese firms entering Central Asia often bring their own workers from China raises fears of employment deprivation and eventual Chinese regional dominance. Conscious of this, China has made efforts to develop cultural links with the region to dispel such concerns.

These efforts involve sending cultural delegations to Central Asia, including Chinese orchestras and theater troupes. But the Chinese government also has sought to import the Chinese language through a network of Confucius Institutes. In Kyrgyzstan, institutes and affiliate organizations can be found in Bishkek, Osh, Jalabad and Naryn. In Tajikistan, a main institute in Dushanbe has a single satellite in a city near Khujand. In Uzbekistan, the institute offices are poor competitors to the local Chinese-language educational system, a leftover from Tashkent’s historical role as the region’s educational and economic leader. But even there, local university Chinese departments rely on professors from China to help them teach locals. In Kazakhstan, institute offices are in Astana and Almaty, based out of local universities and providing Chinese education in Kazakhstan’s growing educational system. Turkmenistan has no Confucius Institute presence, although a pair of Chinese teachers reportedly work out of the Turkmen National Institute of World Languages. And in Afghanistan, the institute office at Kabul University is run by an earnest, young Afghan Mandarin speaker while Beijing-sent teachers wait for the country to stabilize. Institute students largely plan to become traders or help their parents trade. A number have been recruited by Chinese firms operating regionally that seek managers or translators.

China also has welcomed Central Asian students at its universities, offering scholarships through the Confucius Institutes and other outreach efforts. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but there are at least a thousand Turkmen students in China, and in 2010 nearly eight thousand Kazakh students studied in China. Some of these Central Asian students participate in the SCO university program, a network of fifty-four universities across member states that sends groups of students across borders for course work. The long-term effect of these educational links is that China increasingly is building a profile as the power of the next generation in Central Asia. It is difficult to project, but the impact will be felt once today’s student generation begins to dominate the workforce and hold positions of power. This is not a centralized effort by China, but local knowledge of Chinese language and familiarity with Chinese culture ultimately will come to shape the future of China’s inadvertent empire.

THE COUNTRY’S engagement in Central Asia naturally pulls attention to the SCO. As the only regional organization set up and led by China, it is a symbol of the importance Beijing places on the region to its west. The SCO’s makeup of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan poses a natural rivalry with Russia’s regional organizations: the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Community and the largely dormant Commonwealth of Independent States. There is also intense bilateral competition among member states: Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, China and Russia. It is notable, however, that of all of the multilateral organizations in the region, the SCO is the one that Tashkent, for example, seems to take most seriously, participating at high levels at summits and contributing forces to military exercises. Uzbekistan’s 2012 withdrawal from the CSTO reflected not only dissatisfaction with Moscow but also a willingness to draw closer to China as a strategic partner. This does not necessarily imply the perception of a reduced threat from China. It may be that states in the region are adjusting to the inevitable: China will dominate the region economically, even as Russia remains the most pugnacious outside power there.

The SCO’s official statements would suggest it is an anti-Western and in particular an anti-American organization. In 2006, the United States sought to become an observer country but was rejected. The 2005 SCO summit issued a statement calling for NATO and the United States to set a timetable for withdrawing their military presence from SCO -member territory. Official Chinese coverage of the event interpreted the statement as calling on the United States to cease security cooperation in Central Asia so the SCO could “safeguard” the region. But these statements square neither with the broader foreign policies of the member states nor with the actions and capabilities of the SCO as an institution. They reflect the wariness toward the West of the organization’s two heavyweights, China and Russia, but not the studiously multivector foreign policy of Kazakhstan or the intensely flexible foreign policy of Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan has maintained a U.S. military presence since 2005, while Tajikistan is increasing its cooperation with the United States as the combat-troop withdrawal in Afghanistan draws nearer. Uzbekistan recently reengaged with Washington after six years of keeping its distance. But not even Beijing and Moscow have lived up to the SCO’s confrontational rhetoric. Russia helps significantly in the resupply of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and China has aided U.S. efforts there in more quiet ways.

That poses two questions: How will the SCO grapple with the changed security environment in Central Asia after the U.S. combat-troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014? And will its anti-Western pronouncements lead to concrete actions? Currently, the SCO is ill equipped to live up to aspirations of regional collaboration, much less lofty goals of safeguarding Central Asia. The SCO has held regular “peace missions,” military exercises that combine the armed forces of some or all member states, although the vast majority of forces are from China and Russia. These have been notable as the first opportunities in decades for Chinese forces to practice operations outside China’s borders. The exercises also allow China and Russia to showcase military equipment that they hope other member states will procure. But until recently such joint training exercises have been beset by troublesome language barriers. The language problem reportedly now has been remedied, so it will be worth observing future exercises to evaluate the extent to which they serve as effective joint training to combat what the SCO terms the “three evils”: terrorism, separatism and extremism.

Image: Pullquote: 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.Essay Types: Essay