China needs a clear strategy for Central Asia

Posted: September 13, 2013 in Oriental Morning Post
Tags: , , , , ,

A slightly belated posting of a piece I wrote for the Chinese newspaper I occasionally contribute to, 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post), looking at Xi Jinping’s still ongoing trip through Central Asia. More on this soon as the subject remains one I am working actively on. As with other pieces I write in Chinese, I have posted the English I submitted above, with the the published Chinese below.

China needs a clear strategy for Central Asia

Two major themes have emerged as key during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Central Asia: economics and Afghanistan. The economics is made all the more relevant with the concurrent China Eurasian Expo where senior leaders from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan attended alongside businessmen from across Central Asia. The focus of the Expo is to attract investment and prosperity to Xinjiang, something that is seen as being inextricably intertwined with Eurasia and is captured in the Expo’s tagline this year of ‘common development.’ From Beijing’s perspective, developing Xinjiang is a crucial goal if the violence that has peaked once again this year is to finally be brought under control. And in order to do this properly, Beijing needs to have Xinjiang surrounded by an area of prosperity, or at the very least a region which has good roads through which goods from China can pass on to the more lucrative European and Russian markets. This is the ‘Silk Road economic belt’ that President Xi spoke of in Kazakhstan.

Central Asia is also appealing because of its wealth of natural resources: Chinese firms are one of the only ones able to extract hydrocarbons (in the form of gas) from Turkmenistan and CNPC recently successfully pulled off a major coup when it was able to buy into Kazakhstan’s giant Kashagan oil field. In Kazakhstan, China’s Development Bank has made major investments into firms extracting copper and other minerals from Kazakhstan’s rich mines. Elsewhere, Chinese companies are on the ground in Kyrgyzstan seeking out the country’s gold mines in the north of the country. And hanging over this all is the potential mineral wealth in Afghanistan, estimated by the US Geological Survey of being potentially as large as $1 trillion, including massive Lithium reserves and rare earths, as well as copper and oil fields already being developed by Chinese companies.

And sitting atop all of this bilateral activity, China has been pushing to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to move in a more economic direction. Ideas like the SCO Development Bank, an SCO Free Trade Area, greater cross-border currency usage and greater economic integration across the region are fundamentally driven out of Beijing while the other members of the organization grow concerned about Chinese economic dominance. It is here that President Xi’s visit to Uzbekistan in particular was interesting. Long the heart of Central Asia, it retains the most developed industrial infrastructure and largest population – all of which make it tempting for China but also a country that is wary of Chinese economic inroads, seeing the potential for it to undermine the nation’s capability to develop its own economy to a greater degree. Talking to Uzbek businessmen, the perception is that China is both an excellent potential partner, but also one that raises some concerns among officials who worry of succumbing to Chinese economic dominance.

All of this helps explain China’s interests in Central Asia. But the problem is that does not address the two major missing components in China’s regional approach: first is a clear strategy for the region and second is a vision for what role China sees for itself in post-2014 Afghanistan. Clearly the other key aspect of President Xi’s visit to the region, Afghanistan featured as a topic of conversation in most capitals and as part of the strategic partnership agreements and discussions that were held. But while President Xi spoke to the Central Asians about Afghanistan, it remains unclear how exactly the Chinese strategy towards the country is going to dramatically change. It remains to be seen whether we are now going to see the emergence of a clearly developed and pragmatic approach to ensuring security and stability in Afghanistan post-2014.

The absence of a clearly developed strategic vision for Afghanistan is only part of a larger problem in Central Asia, where it is equally unclear that Chinese strategists have developed a holistic approach and strategy that encompasses the full spectrum of national interests – both from a Chinese perspective and Central Asian. All of the Central Asians trade with China and seek out Chinese investment, but public opinion is not usually in China’s favour. People worry about China’s regional aims, fearing that they are about to be subsumed into becoming vassal states of China. And outside powerful elites, few feel they are really benefiting from the influx of Chinese investment. Angry publics in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in particular have attacked Chinese nationals and interests, and in Tajikistan there was a substantial public outcry when it was revealed that large pieces of territory were being leased to Chinese agricultural companies for development. In the absence of clear explanation, public opinion tends towards conspiracy and paranoia, something that can have practical implications for Chinese companies and operators on the ground. China needs to finds ways to master its strategic communications and ‘soft power’ projection in the region.

On Afghanistan, the picture is a complicated one, though it is clear that chaos in the country has the potential to upset Chinese investments and efforts across Central Asia and Xinjiang. Currently, all that is understood of China’s interests and efforts in Afghanistan can be seen in the increasingly complicated process of the Aynak copper mine where companies MCC and Jiangxi Copper are now seeking to re-negotiate the terms of the deal. Afghans, already sceptical of China’s interests in their country, now see this as a situation where the Chinese firms are doing nothing more than impeding their capacity to benefit from their natural resource wealth. The absence of any efforts by China to support the security situation further strengthen this perception, with few in Afghanistan seeing China playing a positive role in their country. The reality is of course that China is doing something in the nation (though on security, it remains a very limited presence at training a few hundred police), but it lacks a clear strategic vision and push. It appears limited, reactive after much external pressure in a very limited way and driven by large state owned companies focused on mineral resource extraction.

Like it or not, China is going to be a major player in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The time has come for Beijing to develop a coherent regional strategy and approach that finds ways of accepting this responsibility and living up to the promises towards Afghanistan that China continues to say it is making. President Xi’s trip highlighted China’s acknowledgement that Central Asia is worried about Afghanistan: as the big player at the table, it is time to take some leadership and more from rhetoric to pragmatism.

 潘睿凡

特约撰稿人

正当第三届中国-亚欧博览会在乌鲁木齐盛大召开之际,习近平也开始了他就任中国国家主席之后的首次中亚之行。时间上的重叠既凸显了中亚对于中国的重要性,也投射出了双方关系的复杂性。就中国而言,重视对中亚的政策与中国的内政密切相关,同时也与当下一些最错综复杂的国际安全问题紧密相连。问题在于外界对于中国在中亚到底有没有一个成熟的或者清晰的战略视野尚不清楚,即使从一开始中国就参与了围绕中亚的战略博弈。

习近平此访的两项优先议程是经济合作与阿富汗问题。与第一项议程直接相关的就是刚刚落幕的中国-亚欧博览会。出席博览会的除了来自中亚的商界人士,还有吉尔吉斯斯坦总理和塔吉克斯坦第一副总理。博览会的主要目的是为新疆招商引资,从而促进新疆繁荣昌盛。这是因为新疆的发展一直被视为与欧亚大陆的命运难解难分,这从今年博览会“共谋发展”的主题中也可见一斑。从北京的视角来看,如果要抑制新疆的暴力恐怖活动,发展新疆就是至关重要的抉择。而要达到这个目标,北京就需要为新疆塑造一个繁荣的外部环境,至少要有一条稳定的通道将中国的商品运往更有利可图的欧洲和俄罗斯市场。这一点对于吉尔吉斯斯坦尤为重要,因为各方资料均显示对中国商品的进口和再出口如今占到了这个中亚最贫困国家国内生产总值的三分之一。

中亚的吸引力还在于其丰富的自然资源。中国企业是少数能够从土库曼斯坦开采到天然气的外国公司。中石油最近又成功参股哈萨克斯坦的卡沙甘(Kashagan)油田。中国国家开发银行还向哈萨克斯坦企业提供贷款,帮助它们在本国开采铜矿和其他矿物。除此之外,中国企业还在吉尔吉斯斯坦北部开采金矿。更令中国企业兴奋的是,根据美国地质调查局的估算,阿富汗潜在矿藏的价值可能高达1万亿美元,其中包括大量的锂矿和稀土,以及中国公司已经在中亚其他地区开采的铜矿和油田。

除了上述双边合作项目,中国正在力推上海合作组织(SCO)成为一个更加偏重经济的区域组织。无论是上合组织开发银行、上合组织自贸区还是更大规模的区域经济一体化方案,基本上都是出自北京之手。习近平此番对乌兹别克斯坦的访问特别引人瞩目。乌兹别克斯坦最吸引中国企业的地方在于它拥有中亚最发达的工业基础设施和最庞大的人口,长期以来都是中亚的中心国家。但另一方面,这个国家中的有些人也担心中国的经济影响力可能会削弱其发展本国经济的能力。根据笔者同乌兹别克斯坦商界的交谈,他们认可中国是不可多得的潜在合作伙伴,但也有政府官员担心将来会受制于中国的经济控制力。

所有这些都可以帮助解释中国在中亚的利益。但中国的中亚政策还有两个重要的组成部分有待补全:一是清晰的地区战略,二是2014年以后中国在阿富汗发挥什么作用。

缺乏一个清晰和成熟的地区战略可以解释中国与中亚国家之间时不时出现的小摩擦。尽管所有的中亚国家都与中国做生意并渴望中国的投资,但坦率地说,在这些国家的公众眼中,中国并不一定总是讨人喜欢。当地总有些人担心中国在中亚的真正意图,个别人甚至害怕它们将来会沦为中国的附属国。由于缺少清楚的解释,这些国家的舆论倾向于相信阴谋论,并对中国在当地的企业及其经营者疑神疑鬼。中国不妨想办法改善战略沟通,并在该地区投射“软实力”。我们高兴地看到,习近平在哈萨克斯坦的有关中亚政策的演讲已经开启这一进程。

阿富汗问题非常复杂。目前显而易见的是该国的混乱局面可能会破坏中国在中亚和新疆的投资与努力。当前中国在阿富汗的利益和努力可能比较集中在形势越发复杂的艾娜克(Aynak)铜矿。习近平主席此行与他访问的中亚国家都就促进阿富汗的安全、和平和发展达成了一致,这表明中国开始意识到是时候在中亚地区事务中发挥大国的作用了。

中国正在成为中亚和阿富汗的主要行为体,这是不以他人的意志为转移的。不过,由于战略视野和动力尚待进一步清晰,中国和该地区的关系显得既棘手又复杂。习近平选择出访中亚凸显了该地区对中国的重要性,让我们期望他此行的演讲和与中亚国家领导人的会晤能为一个更加清晰的地区视野寻找到一个新的表述。(胡勇 译

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