The US pivots east, China marches west

As the U.S. shifts its attention to Asia, China in turn seeks increased influence in and access to Central Asia

January 8, 2014 8:00AM ET
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev clink glasses during Xi's state visit to Astana on Sept. 7, 2013. China has shown increased interest in Central Asia as it seeks safe passage for rail lines carrying oil and commodities eastward. The U.S. is also poised to lose its foothold in the region, if it cannot renew its lease on an air base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan.
Ilyas Omarov/AFP/Getty Images

In November, when the U.S. sent two B-52s defiantly through China’s newly proclaimed air defense identification zone, it seemed no more than move and countermove. In fact, it was the first clash of two ultimately clashing policies —the United States’ so-called “pivot” east, representing the U.S.’s shift in military and diplomatic attention toward Asia, and China’s economically driven march west into Central Asia, where the U.S. has been very active since launching its global war on terrorism.

For China, at least, the march west has roots that go back more than 2,000 years. Ancient Romans wore togas of Chinese silk. The Middle Kingdom and the Mediterranean were connected by the Silk Road, actually a complex pattern of caravan routes, some passing through Central Asia, others branching off to India.

Now the Chinese are promoting the idea of a New Silk Road to transport energy and other commodities from Europe and Central Asia and into western China. When visiting Central Asia in September, President Xi Jinping waxed poetic on the subject, saying in a speech reported by The China Post, “I can almost hear the ring of the camel bells and smell the wisps of smoke in the desert.”

But the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party tend to the pragmatic rather than the poetic. China has powerful economic and geopolitical incentives for creating new networks of trade and influence across the Central Asian heartland. Though increasingly aggressive, China is not yet ready to directly challenge the U.S. pivot east. As most fully articulated (PDF) in October 2012 by China’s influential international-relations scholar, Wang Jisi, China prefers to strengthen its western flank by projecting power into central Asia. They call their policy march west

No quiet on the western front

Energy security is one of Beijing’s highest priorities. Most oil that China receives from the Middle East must pass through the Strait of Hormuz, which is always subject to the iffy political conditions of the Persian Gulf. Tankers must then pass through the pirate-infested Strait of Malacca or take detours to avoid it. Moreover, China does not have long, unobstructed coastlines like the United States. A glance at a map shows what an obstacle course ships sailing to and from China must run. There are several countries not exactly friendly to China — South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines, not to mention Taiwan, which Gen. Douglas MacArthur called “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” off China’s coast.

March west is thus designed to offset China’s vulnerability at sea; however, there is another good reason for China’s westward pivot. The western regions of China have not profited from the economic boom as the eastern and coastal ones have. Xinjiang, where the Muslim Uyghurs live in an autonomous region, is especially significant because of its continual resistance to repressive Chinese rule. Most of the increased commerce on the New Silk Road — pipelines, rail lines, highways — will pass through Xinjiang.

If the Uyghurs of Xinjiang do not benefit from the increased economic activity in their region, not only will they have one more reason to resent the Chinese government, but they will also have new and important targets for venting their rage. The only alternative for Xi is to craft a genuinely intelligent and humane solution to this problem, one that includes the Uyghurs’ economic and cultural interests. Nothing else will work.

It would appear that the United States has lost its only Central Asian foothold just as the Great Game of the 21st century starts to get interesting.

The only other power in the region is Russia, whose interest in Central Asia is clear: It wants to reassert some of its lost Soviet imperial influence, include the Central Asian nations in Russian-dominated treaties and the Customs Union and protect its southern, Islamic flank from terrorism. China, too, wants to inoculate Xinjiang against, as the government puts it, the “three evils”: extremism, separatism and terrorism. Neither China nor Russia wants a U.S. presence in Central Asia.

There are no outstanding issues between China and Russia, though with Russia’s nearly empty far eastern regions attracting migrant workers from China’s heavily populated north, there could be problems down the line arising from the population imbalance. 

Inland leverage

China’s march west doctrine is the counterpart to the United States’ pivot east. But U.S. policy is necessarily vague: Russia could be an enemy for the U.S. but never a rival. China could be both. China’s future is particularly difficult to predict: The equation is so dynamic, the variables so numerous. Everything from collapse to a great civilizational flowering seems possible. China could also become arrogant and aggressive in reclaiming the islands off its shores, which, if that included Taiwan, would test U.S. commitment to that democratic island.

A U.S. policy of hoping for the best and preparing for the worst would require its Pacific fleet to counter China at sea and a base in Central Asia to monitor and pressure China from the west. The base cannot be in Uzbekistan, which evicted the U.S. in 2005 after it protested the slaughter of unarmed demonstrators. Nor can the base be in large, wealthy and stable Kazakhstan, which would see no advantage in hosting an American force. Tajikistan derives almost 50 percent of its GDP from remittances from Russia and would hardly jeopardize that. That leaves tiny, impoverished, mountainous Kyrgyzstan, the only nation in Central Asia that could be described as relatively democratic (it is positively Athenian by Central Asian standards) and where, as good luck would have it, the U.S. already has an air base.

Unfortunately, under pressure from Russia, which also has a base there, the Kyrgyz government has flatly refused to renew the U.S.’s lease at Manas air base, which expires in July 2014 — that is, when the United States will be in the middle of the logistical epic of withdrawal from Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan wants to build a civilian transit hub at the existing facility. The U.S. has already begun relocating to a base in Romania. It would appear that the U.S. has lost its only Central Asian foothold just as the Great Game of the 21st century starts to get interesting.

But wait! This all might be nothing more than haggling at the bazaar. The Kyrgyz engaged in all sorts of chicanery over the air base in the past — threats of a shutdown of the base, abrupt price hikes. Kyrgyzstan can hardly afford to lose the $60 million in rent the U.S. pays, plus all the other dollars that flow into the economy. So are the Kyrgyz just holding out for more money? In a recent interview, the prime minister said, “From the American side, there has been no offer that would interest Kyrgyzstan.” Sounds as if their price has not yet been met.

If no deal is reached, the United States’ pivot east and China’s march west will, for better or worse, intersect only on the open seas. The mightiest military in history will have marched out of Central Asia under a banner reading “Lost our lease.”

Richard Lourie is the author of the forthcoming book “King of the Wolves: Vladimir Putin and His Russia.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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