Geopolitics

China in Central Asia: Controlling the Narrative
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Issue Vol. 32.1 Jan-Mar 2017 | Date : 13 Apr , 2017

China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) of which the SREB is one part has generated apprehension in many of its host countries. There is often an extreme lack of transparency in many deals under the BRI framework and strong concerns that China is exporting obsolete and polluting industries outside its borders. The impression has gained ground that BRI projects are more a case of subtle Chinese economic and political coercion than genuine collaboration with host countries. China appears more invested in supply chains onwards to larger markets in Europe and not so much in production or value chains within Central Asia itself. China is, at this point, engaged more in trade than in actual investments in the region.

The primary objective for China is, of course, the maintenance of stability in Xinjiang…

China is deepening its ties with Central Asia through the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) initiative. Cooperation with the Central Asian Republics (CARs) that was already quite intense in the field of trade, especially in the energy sector, is broadening into infrastructure development with an eye on strengthening the region’s role as a transit hub for Chinese products moving to the more prosperous and bigger markets of Europe.

The primary objective for China is, of course, the maintenance of stability in Xinjiang, which is a key Chinese province and actor in the SREB. Despite all the troubles in Xinjiang, however, the province is today considerably better off economically than most of its eight neighbouring countries. Beginning in the 1990s, China-CAR trade through Xinjiang has expanded and today, several companies from the province have a strong presence in Central Asia. For example, the Xinjiang-headquartered Chinese enterprise TBEA that has promoted connectivity in Central Asia by building power transmission lines in Kyrgyhzstan and Tajikistan. It is also noteworthy that there is a flight from Urumqi to every CAR capital and to many other cities as well. Indeed, many of these countries are connected to each other by air not directly, but via the Xinjiang capital.

However, there are several other challenges that the Chinese both face and can potentially run into while implementing the SREB in Central Asia. These include the murmurs of protest and disaffection with regard to Chinese economic activities in the region, the inevitable passing from the scene of the CAR’s long-ruling dictators, the ever-present threat of Islamic radicalism and, of course, India’s own soft power in the region and desire to challenge China’s political dominance. In addition to pursuing economic dominance and stability in its political and security relations, China has, in response, begun efforts also to control and direct historical and political narratives in the region.

The fact is that political opposition in many CARs is being weakened or stifled…

Political Challenges

China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) of which the SREB is one part, has generated apprehension in many of its host countries. There is often an extreme lack of transparency in many deals under the BRI framework and strong concerns that China is exporting obsolete and polluting industries outside its borders. The impression has gained ground that BRI projects are more a case of subtle Chinese economic and political coercion than genuine collaboration with host countries. China appears more invested in supply chains onwards to larger markets in Europe and not so much in production or value chains within Central Asia itself. China is, at this point, engaged more in trade than in actual investments in the region.

The Chinese counter to such concerns is to state in a rather oblique manner, that the fields in which China is cooperating with the CARs, are getting wider and broader. Energy cooperation, for instance, is just one aspect; large-scale infrastructure development projects are increasing under the SREB accordingly and this construction is matched with the development needs of the CARs in terms of industrialisation and modernisation. As a result, Chinese scholars contend that all five CARs actually hold positive attitude towards the SREB.

On the political front, the strongman-centered regimes of the CARs, while at once allowing Chinese SOEs easier access with lesser accountability than in the developed West, also create risks of generating hostility to Chinese activities from disaffected populations as well as potentially unfriendly successors to these strongmen. The fact is that political opposition in many CARs is being weakened or stifled and actually possibly weakens also secular politics in the region and consequently creates a still stronger inclination towards Islamist radicalism.

The security side of the Chinese response to the potential challenges from Islamic radicalism-driven security challenges is well known…

In formal interactions, however, Chinese think-tank scholars appear rather sanguine about these issues. They point out that the CARs had their own culture and political traditions. If after independence, they chose Westernised democratic institutions and if Presidents in these countries got elected by up to or over 90 per cent of the vote, it only meant that the Central Asian people saw their leaders and systems as working for them. At the same time, referring to the experiences of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan as having followed the ‘colour revolutions’, the Chinese seem to suggest that not all change is a good thing. In noting that the CARs had a history of just over 25 years of independence, they seem to imply that the Central Asia nations had to be given more time to find their feet. From the Chinese point of view, more important than the issue of leadership transition itself was the ability of the successors to the long-time rulers of the CARs to have the ability to maintain stability.

India in the SCO

The security side of the Chinese response to the potential challenges from Islamic radicalism-driven security challenges is well known. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is a very useful multi-lateral aegis that China helped found under which takes place both regular meetings between security officials and anti-terror exercises. In this context, it is useful to examine more closely the meaning of China’s agreeing to India’s membership of the SCO.

New Delhi has, of course, for long aspired to be a member of the SCO and it is seen as something of a coup for India that it was able to gain entry while keeping the Chinese out of formal membership of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), something which the Chinese too, have long aspired for.

This narrative is perhaps only what the Chinese wish the Indians to believe. Consider the reality. India’s lack of direct geographical access to Central Asia has not changed and does not look like it is about to change either, given India’s strenuous objections to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) on the grounds that it passes through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. New Delhi has, in effect, turned down the only possibility for the moment at least, of physical road and trade connectivity with Central Asia. Perhaps, the Chinese anticipated this self-defeating behaviour from India while agreeing to the SCO membership. Pakistan, that also became a member of the SCO along with India is, by contrast, poised to exploit the benefits of the linkages between the CPEC and the SREB.

New Delhi has, of course, for long aspired to be a member of the SCO…

Next consider what India can actually bring to the table in so far as working in the SCO framework is concerned. To questions about how specifically India and China could cooperate in the Central Asian energy sector, a Chinese scholar at a conference in Beijing last year pointed out that capital and technology requirements in Central Asia were quite high and that China, the European Union or the United States could not meet the demand by themselves and so India could well contribute. However, no one can be unaware that neither capital nor technology in this sector is among India’s strengths.

Again, the Chinese highlighting the fact that their interests in the CARs were more security-oriented than economic and that China was willing to help without expectations of profit, only shows up India’s shortcomings. The wide gap in economic resources between the two countries means that such a generous approach is not possible for India beyond a point.

The attempts at setting or directing the narrative for India in the SCO do not end here. Chinese scholars have suggested that the SCO provides a platform for India and Pakistan to help resolve their bilateral problems, as it did for Russia and the CARs to resolve their boundary disputes with the Chinese. The ‘spirit of SCO’ they claim, has helped in resolving difficult problems through ‘equal dialogue and mutual discussion’. In other words, the SCO provided a platform also to help resolve Indo-Pak issues and it was not just the heads-of-government meetings but also commercial and other platforms that could be used for this end.

India’s lack of direct geographical access to Central Asia has not changed and does not look like it is about to change either…

The onus however, always seems to be on India to play a more active and constructive role. Perhaps, this is only fair given its larger size, resources and strengths vis-à-vis Pakistan. But the problem is also that the Chinese narrative on what constitutes terrorism is at variance with India’s as is evident from its repeated blocking of Indian efforts to declare Pakistan-based terrorists on the UN sanctions list. What is more, it is unlikely that New Delhi will have any purchase for its views on terrorism at the SCO especially with Pakistan also as a member.

Thus, if the Chinese statements are to be seen in their totality, then it is evident that despite the rhetoric of an Indian role in Central Asia, the Chinese do not really see India as having the potential to do anything concrete. Their rhetoric, however, is useful diplomatic cover.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Jabin T Jacob

Assistant Director & Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

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