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China’s Central Asia Policy; By K. Jennie Tresa

C3S Paper No. 0129/ 2015

China under President Xi Jinping follows a Central Asia policy which focuses on the region’s economic potential; this contrasts with the policy followed by earlier regimes in China which was exclusively shaped by the conflict in Afghanistan. The apparent shift in China’s approach is due to the fact that the country’s current administration has, in response to the perceived fresh policy priorities, adopted a regional integration approach based on economic interests;    it especially manifests in the desire to take advantage of the impending changes in Afghanistan after the NATO withdrawal.

Contours of China’s economic-interests based Central Asia policy prominently emerged during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kazakhstan in October 2013 when he announced the Silk Road Economic Belt proposal. Put together with his 21st century maritime Silk Road vision, and the initiative to establish a USD 40 billion Silk Road Fund as well as an Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), the picture points to China’s grand strategy to create  trade corridors connecting China and Eurasia; it includes opening transit through rail, road, air, sea and pipelines.  It is clear that the strategy would encourage economic development in China itself, particularly in Xinjiang region, and boost Chinese exports to Central Asia. With expanded land transit channels available for import of resources,   China seems to believe that it will be in a position to reduce its dependence on the piracy-prone and the US controlled sea supply routes. The strategy is at the same time creating some fears about a possible increase in China’s political clout in the regions including Central Asia, which so far have remained under US and Russian influences.  China’s competition with US and Russia in Central Asia is likely; the US is very hesitant to accept a China-led AIIB and Russia may feel concerned with the Chinese infrastructure projects in the region by passing it.

With regard to China’s Central Asia policy, appearing notable is the momentum being witnessed in recent years in exchanges of high level visits between China and the concerned regional nations. In September 2013, President Xi was in Kazakhstan to introduce his country’s Silk Road Initiative.  During his visit to Uzbekistan in September 2013, the developmental dimension of strategic partnership between the two nations was emphasised. 31 documents were signed on the realization of projects in Uzbek sectors such as oil, gas, and uranium production amounting to a total of USD 15 billion, implying that the total size of agreements between the two countries has reached USD 20 billion. China also reiterated its principles on the occasion to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries of Central Asia, enhance mutual understanding and cooperation by regular meetings and friendly contacts in different levels and fields, support Central Asian countries in choosing the roads suitable for their own conditions in development, and deal with international and regional affairs through mutual support.

 At the 14th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit (Dushanbe, September 12, 2014), Xi called upon the Central Asian nations to play a bigger role in jointly dealing with threats and challenges and promoting common development.  The Chinese President again came to Kazakhstan in May 2015 when the two sides agreed to align their countries’ development strategies and cooperate in areas such as infrastructure, energy, finance, security and culture.

India has high levels of interests in Central Asia. It realizes that Central Asia’s resources cannot be accessed without political influence; for the moment India is unable to equally compete against China.   India can gain much by co-operating with China in Central Asia, in terms of security concerns. India’s need for closer co-operation in Central Asia can be helped if it joins the SCO as a full time member.

Conclusion

The growth of Chinese presence in Central Asia seems unstoppable. In most of the fields, such as energy, industry, culture, infrastructures, security, China has gained noticeable influence in the region.  It is a result of a successful strategy adopted by China towards Central Asia since in 1991. The treaties signed between China and Central Asian nations have helped in giving a legal shape to the old friendship between the two sides. As said earlier, the US and Russian interests in Central Asia may compete with that of China, sooner than later; India may also face challenges as China’s presence in the region increases. The China policy of Central Asian nations would also play a role in future power equations in Central Asia.

(K.Jennie Tresa is an intern with Chennai Centre for China Studies. As a statutory requirement of her academic course in Stella Maris college, she is required to carry out research in a think tank on identified issues in China under the guidance of the members of C3S. The views expressed in this article  however are of the author. E-mail: jennietresar15@gmail.com )

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