Speaking on September 7th in Astana, Kazakhstan, Chinese President Xi Jinping sketched out a plan for a “Silk Road” economic belt between China and Central Asia, marking the first time that Beijing has officially proposed such an ambitious economic tie.
In a trip to Central Asia that included visits to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgzystan among appearances at the G20 and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summits, Xi made strong moves to further develop the New Silk Road amidst a turbulent global economic climate.
Xi was quoted as saying that the new economic belt “boasts a three-billion population and a market that is unparalleled both in scale and potential.” In fact, trade between China and the major five Central Asian countries has expanded from $460 million in 1992 to an impressive $46 billion in 2012 due in large part to the growing trade ties between the regions in recent years.
But with the Chinese economy now slowing down after three decades of rapid expansion, Chinese leaders aim to develop central and western areas in the country further. This includes the Xinjiang region bordering several Central Asian states.
Xinjiang’s stability is still threatened by a number of security concerns including ethnic tensions, Uighur uprisings, and violent separatist attempts. Xinjiang Ribao reports that “Xinjiang’s stability has a bearing on the stability of the whole country and Xinjiang’s development has a bearing on the development of the whole country.”
With this in mind, Chinese leaders are pushing for the New Silk Road as a means to strengthen Xinjiang economically while enhancing ties with Central Asia, making the national economy less export-dependent and more consumption-driven.
Xi expressed his desire for the New Silk Road to be as extensive as the original Silk Road, an 11,000 kilometer-long series of trade routes reaching from China to the Mediterranean Sea during the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BC.
The term “New Silk Road” began to be circulated by international policymakers, journalists, and scholars in the 1990s, when China adopted a “going out” strategy to build pipelines and trade routes in the Central Asian region in order to satisfy its mounting energy needs. In turn, Chinese policymakers have co-opted this term and used this narrative to fortify historical sentiments in the region while bolstering trade.
But China’s aggressive “look west” New Silk Road development policy may not be so warmly welcomed by other powers looking to have influence in Central Asia, namely Russia and the U.S.
Though China has labeled the SCO, created in 1996 and with Russia as a member, an “all-win situation,” fostering “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diverse civilizations and seeking common development,” in an atmosphere of “non-alliance, non-confrontation and not being directed against any third party,” Russian and American policymakers still look at the regional powerhouse with a skeptical eye.
In fact, the complicated triangular relationship between the U.S., China, and Russia in competition for control of Central Eurasia is part of the larger “New Great Game,” what analysts describe as playing out between the U.S., UK and other NATO countries against Russia, China, and other SCO countries for “influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus.”
Who the real allies and adversaries in the New Great Game are is still up in the air, however.
China and Russia formally acknowledged their mutual interest in the Central Asian region with the creation of the SCO in 1996, but it was seen as a deliberate move against the U.S. and its economic interests.
Following the September 11th terrorist attacks and American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the SCO was forced to take a back seat to the American agenda.
Simultaneously, rising concerns about Chinese hegemony has caused many Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, to reconsider China’s potential dominance across the Asian continent.
In 2004, Professor Stephen Blank of the Strategic Studies Institute stated, “President Vladimir Putin has expressed displeasure recently with the ministry’s performance, carrying out a personnel reshuffle and warning that Russia’s dominant role in the Commonwealth of Independent States is endangered. Not only is the West encroaching on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, China is also making substantial economic inroads, especially in Central Asia.”
While Putin’s public comments following the SCO summit of 2013 were outwardly positive, observers wonder if Moscow’s privately planning its next regional chess move, viewing China as more of an adversary than an ally.
As for U.S. interest, among various regional concerns for the global superpower are those of securing oil resources alongside China’s similarly voracious oil appetite.
Beginning in 1993, China became a net importer of oil. By 1995, it was reported that the country was using about 400,000 barrels a day. By 2010, its consumption was at about 3.6 million barrels a day. And by 2012, that number had reached 10.3 million, making China the number two consumer of oil behind the United States.
The U.S., on no shortage of occasions, has made its discomfort with China’s ascending geopolitical position known, however, it’s not just China that the U.S. is trying to outbid in the developing Central Asian region but Russia, as well.
Hillary Clinton, when serving as U.S. Secretary of State, had laid out the U.S. “New Silk Road Initiative” saying, “Turkmen gas fields could help meet both Pakistan’s and India’s growing energy needs and provide significant transit revenues for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tajik cotton could be turned into Indian linens. Furniture and fruit from Afghanistan could find its way to the markets of Astana or Mumbai and beyond.”
Yet the U.S., currently mindful of unnecessary government spending, has essentially backed away from these initiatives.
While the U.S. cautiously considers its position in the Central Asian steppe and Russia goes through the motions of cooperation with China, it’s clear that President Xi’s New Silk Road push in Kazakhstan is a big step in China’s march to economic development and regional stability.
How the New Great Game continues to play out in the future, and who’s bluffing whom has yet to be seen.