China’s Inadvertent Empire: Welcome to Sinostan

Posted: September 10, 2022 in Diplomat
Tags: , , ,

Another belated posting related to book promotion, this time with a lovely inversion of the book’s title in the article’s title in the excellent Diplomat. Many thanks to the wonderful Catherine Putz for doing the interview.

China’s Inadvertent Empire: Welcome to Sinostan

Containers are seen near cranes at the Khorgos Gateway, one of the world’s largest dry dock in a remote crossing along Kazakhstan’s border with China near Khorgos, on April 2, 2018.
Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

In “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire,” Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen take readers into the heart of Eurasia for insight into Beijing’s rise. Over a decade of travel, research, and writing went into the book, which charts the growth of Chinese power and presence in Central Asia. It was in Kazakhstan where, in 2013, newly minted Chinese President Xi Jinping first laid out the vision we now call the Belt and Road Initiative. And it is in examining China’s forays into Central Asia that we can truly grasp the means and motives of China’s global rise. 

Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. Petersen was an academic, writer, and geopolitical energy expert; he was tragically killed in a 2014 restaurant bombing and attack in Kabul, Afghanistan.

In the following interview, Pantucci explains the linkages between Xinjiang and Central Asia, which stand at the heart of Chinese efforts in the region, dives into the implications of China’s involvement in Eurasia for other powers, from Russia to the United States, and discusses much more.

The book starts with Chinese road workers in Kyrgyzstan in 2011. How important has physical infrastructure, like roads, been to both regional engagement with China and broader Chinese aims in the region?

Physical infrastructure has always been a core component of China’s engagement with Central Asia. Looking back at [Chinese Premier] Li Peng’s grand tour of the region in 1994 (where he visited all of the capitals except Dushanbe, which was wracked by civil war), there were two core issues that he focused on during the trip: separatists and building new silk roads. At the time, however, the routes that were being discussed flowed from Central Asia across China to Japan. More recently, these have flowed the other way, and in fact the first big infrastructure in the region were pipelines from Kazakh fields to China. Chinese firms and funding have been subsequently used to refurbish roads, build additional pipelines from Turkmenistan’s munificent gas fields to China, as well as build tunnels, rail, and roads around the region. All of this is in addition to a range of other pieces of infrastructure that have been built, like power stations, ancillary energy infrastructure, airports, buildings of all sorts and more.

This is important for broader Chinese aims as it helps connect Xinjiang to the world, one of the key interests China has in Central Asia. The region in China is infrastructure poor, and the region outside of China is equally limited, and yet if China is going to make Xinjiang prosperous (the long-term answer to the instability Beijing sees in Xinjiang), then it is going to need to be better connected. 

Ultimately, what has been happening in Central Asia for more than the past two decades is in many ways the foundational concept which has been globalized under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is no accident that President Xi first announced his lasting foreign policy idea at a speech in then-Astana in 2013 when he laid out his vision of a Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), which was then joined by the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) in a speech in Jakarta a month later, to become the wider BRI. The whole concept of infrastructure as a foundation for a vision for foreign policy comes from what was going on in Central Asia and was built on the logic that more infrastructure and connectivity meant more economic prosperity which would lead to more stability. This is a pattern which China has observed delivered success at home, and sees as the answer to issues elsewhere as well as a positive concept to use to engage with the world. 

Does China have a comprehensive strategy for Central Asia? Are its engagements just ad hoc developments in bilateral relationships?

We asked a lot of senior Chinese experts and officials about whether Beijing had a strategy for the region, and we were uniformly rebuffed and ridiculed. But then in the early years on our work on this project, President Xi went to the region and announced the creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). But while this laid out a vision, it did not specify a plan. Our conclusion was that it was not a specific strategy that was laid out saying, we need to do a, then b, then c, and then our goal will be achieved. But rather, a wider vision was laid out, and the Chinese system followed. This meant all of the institutions moved forwards in their own ways to try to articulate and play their part in the wider vision that the leader had laid out.

But it was never clear that China had a comprehensive strategy. It has a far clearer strategy for Xinjiang, and in some ways Central Asia plays out as an extension of that, but this is incidental to the core aim of the vision which is to stabilize Xinjiang. As a result much of China’s vision for the region is a series of bilateral engagements that when taken together can be described as looking like a strategy (especially as they are so similar in each case), but it is not clear that there is a comprehensive strategy for the region (except insomuch as the BRI can be described as a broader foreign policy strategy for China).

The only other thing to mention in this context is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which was born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and a grouping called the Shanghai Five which was aimed at helping delineate borders and establish security relations between China and the newly minted countries it shared borders with. This is sometimes described as something which is the vehicle for China’s strategy, but in fact it seems more like an umbrella for everything China does which runs in parallel often to China’s specific interests which are addressed at a bilateral level.  

In what ways is China’s strategy in Central Asia an extension of its strategies and policies in Xinjiang?

Beijing has long worried about stability and security in Xinjiang. Remote from the capital (two hours’ time difference, if China used regional time zones, and about five or six hours by plane), China has struggled to maintain control. At times this has spilled over into violence and even in much earlier years, instances of separatism. The most recent turning point came in July 2009 when rioting in Urumqi led to at least a couple of hundred deaths and the embarrassing specter of the leader of the country having to leave a G8 Summit in Italy to come home and stabilize the situation.

After this we see a push to change things along two axes: first, a heavy security presence, something that was imposed through “strike hard” campaigns – which had extensions into Central Asia from the reality that there have been attacks on Chinese interests and individuals there, as well as the fear that groups of dissident Uyghurs might use the region as a base to attack China. Second, was a heavy economic investment into the region which is the long-term answer from Beijing’s perspective to make Xinjiang stable.

But to make the region prosperous, you need to encourage prosperity and connectivity in its neighboring region. Xinjiang is in many ways the sixth or seventh Central Asian country (depending on if you also include Afghanistan). This is not to deny that Xinjiang is part of China, but to make the point that Xinjiang is deeply intertwined with the region – there are large ethnically Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Kazakh populations in Xinjiang, in much the same way there are Uyghur, Han, and Dungan (ethnic Hui) populations living in Central Asia. This highlights the fact that the region is tied into its neighborhood, but also that Xinjiang is as far from the coasts and global maritime trade routes as any of the Central Asian countries. 

So any economic development in Xinjiang is only going to come when you open up routes across Central Asia to Europe, Russia, and elsewhere, as well as trying to get into the opportunities and markets in Central Asia itself. And of course, finally, Central Asia’s mineral wealth is something that the insatiable Chinese economic machine will constantly need. All of this highlights the importance of the region to China, but critically to Xinjiang (in China’s conception).

What are the implications of Chinese strategies in Central Asia for Western countries, like the United States and in Europe?

The region is not a current priority for Europe or the United States. At various moments in recent times it has risen up in the rankings of priority regions for the West – for example, the U.S. used routes through the region to help supply forces in Afghanistan during their long war there, and during the evacuation last year, European powers in particular relied on regional support to get their people out. Depending on who holds the reins of power in Brussels, Europe is engaged, though overall the European Union has constantly discussed the region as one that they want to focus on but Brussels often struggles to maintain its focus. In large part focus is driven by which power is holding the rotating presidency of the Union. Separately, the U.K. has a strong footprint across the region, and interesting links to a number of countries, but the region is (sadly I might add) not a priority for London.

At the same time, all are significant players in economic and aid terms in the region. They are eager to try to coax the countries of the region into becoming more open, transparent, and accountable. But the lack of focus means this goal is followed to a limited degree by senior levels. This is in contrast to China or Russia – Moscow which takes a traditional paternalistic view to the region and has repeatedly shown itself willing to deploy forces to help deal with local security threats with President Vladimir Putin expressing himself and meeting regional leaders. And China is the coming power in economic and strategic terms in the region, but continues to pay its respects to all of the regional leaders. All of this will serve to crowd out Western interests and approach, as while the region would like to play the various sides off each other and have the West as an option, the reality is the West does not seem as engaged – or their interest is sporadic. China and Russia are constant, and China in particular ascendant through sheer economic force alone.

This means this region is increasingly going to find itself sucked into China’s thrall. This will make it harder for the U.S. or Europe to advance their goals. It also means that much of the Eurasian heartland will increasingly fall from Western influence leaving it to China and Russia. And if historical British geographer Halford Mackinder is to be believed, this means losing control of the “world island” and therefore power and influence on the planet.

How does China’s strategy in Central Asia compare with those of other major players in the region, like Russia, and those further afield with important interests, such as the United States, Turkey, Japan, etc.?

There are many similarities, in terms of seeking to offer investment and opportunity, as well as worrying about security issues through engagement with locals. But at the same time, there are some critical differences. Russia does not so much see Central Asia as a neighboring region, but more an extension of self. Not all in the same way as Russia views parts of neighboring countries with Russian populations (though of course this does apply in Kazakhstan’s case), but more in terms of how economically and socially tied Russia is still to these countries. This is not only through the web of institutions that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union – like the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), or the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – but also through the sense that the region is Russia’s soft underbelly with the potential risks and threats that emanate from Afghanistan coming through the region to threaten Moscow. This is different to Beijing’s more transactional approach which is less interested in being in control or seeing itself as responsible, but is instead focused on its own interests and how they are affected by the region.

Other powers, like Japan, Turkey, India, or South Korea, have varying degrees of interests in the region and tried slightly different things. Turkey has long called upon its Turkic heritage to develop relations across Central Asia, but these have often failed to deliver to the hoped for results. Turkey is an alternative place for migrant labor to go to from the region, there are some Turkish companies and goods that are very well received in the region, and Istanbul has actively sought to cultivate its soft power links through education and culture. But it struggles to deliver the same impact as others. Japan and South Korea have both engaged in the region, though to different degrees of attention – both use policy banks and their own firms to try to build infrastructure or access resources in the region. And both have advanced visions for engagement, but the reality of geography means this will only really work if their relations with Central Asia’s neighbors are good. 

Similarly, India has always sought to engage with the region. All of the recent Indian leaders have done big tours of Central Asia after which they have spoken of their interest and focus on the region. And India has historically had some air force footprint in Tajikistan. But this has always stumbled in the follow on – in part due to the complexity of geography (with Afghanistan and Pakistan in between, and Chabahar Port in Iran being an awkward route from Central Asia to India), but also due to strategic concerns with China, as well as the reality that India is not a command driven economy and tends to drift in its foreign policy focus (except with Pakistan). All of these contrast with China’s very focused and growing attention which geography favors and is something that they are able to do without ruffling too many Russian feathers at the moment.

Many discussions about China focus on its rise both globally and in the Indo-Pacific, with a heavy focus on the maritime space. Is landlocked Eurasia overlooked in those conversations? If so, why is it important to pay attention to China’s “inadvertent” empire in the heart of Asia?

It is a great disappointment to me that many of the Indo-Pacific strategies focus almost solely on maritime power. This misses out the vast and rich hinterland that exists in the Eurasian heartland. An area replete with opportunities, ancient civilizations and culture, but also a region which has sadly created problems for the West in the recent past. September 11, 2001 emanated from Afghanistan, and more recently we can see that this is a region of great strategic importance to both of the main Western adversary powers – China and Russia (and even Iran). By developing strategies towards Asia that almost entirely exclude the Eurasian heartland, the West is missing out on an opportunity in many ways. As mentioned before, according to Mackinder, whoever controls this region, controls the world. But stepping away from grand geopolitics, this is a region with which Europe is contiguous, meaning what happens there is likely to resonate. To simply abandon it to its fate misses a regional opportunity, but also misses out on understanding how Chinese foreign policy actually works in practice in an area which Beijing cannot simply walk away from.

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