In recent years, China is slowly returning to its former glory as the “Middle Kingdom” as it was once was during the 6th century. Unlike the isolationist China of the past, President Xi Jinping’s China is a resurgent dragon looking to connect with the rest of the world. In other words, China is not only open for business, it is also making business possible.
Winning Central Asia
China’s annual growth, still around 7%, has forced it to seek new markets. None are more important than Central Asia. As U.S. presence endures in the Middle East, China is increasingly looking westward and claiming geopolitical wins.
For example, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is the only foreign company that has direct access to Turkmenistan’s onshore gas fields — including the world’s second-largest gas field, called Galkynysh. Since 2009, China has been importing close to half of its gas from Turkmenistan. Given Turkmenistan’s general unwillingness to open up to other foreign companies, China has won a gas export market few states have been able to penetrate.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also opened up to China namely due to investment into developing infrastructure. Pouring money into improving critical infrastructure is not only crucial to winning over foreign governments, but also the hearts and minds of the people – something Russia still hasn’t been able to achieve. The result of this gradual outreach has been the Central Asia gas pipeline (CAGP) – a mammoth 1,830 km gas pipeline stretching from the Turkmen-Uzbek border city of Gedaim through central Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan before reaching Horgos in China’s Xinjiang province. A fourth line from Turkmenistan through Krygyzstan and Tajikistan is currently under construction that will add even greater capacity to the 50 billion cubic metre per year pipeline. The “New Great Game” has seen its first checkmate courtesy of the “New Middle Kingdom.”
The Malacca Strait Jacket
In his best-selling 2009 book, The Next 100 Years, American political scientist and author George Freidman underscores the advantage of U.S. naval supremacy: the U.S. controls all the major seas and is the first superpower to do so in history. It is also true, however that China is doing everything to neutralize that advantage.
Although Central Asia accounts for close to half of Chinese gas imports, natural gas accounts for only about 4% of China’s overall energy consumption. (Coal and crude oil still remain China’s two main sources of energy.) With oil accounting for close to 20% of China’s energy consumption, and most of these imports coming from the Middle East, it is imperative that China not only diversify energy imports but also diversify trade routes. China currently relies on the Straits of Malacca, a narrow, 805 km stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, to supply close to 40% of its oil. Given the U.S. Navy presence in the region and the threat of piracy, an alternative route is essential.
The Myanmar-China oil pipeline now provides this alternative, allowing China a new avenue to import Middle East oil. In fact, the pipeline and other Chinese interests such as the Myitsone Dam were deemed so important that China broke from traditional foreign policy practice by mediating between Kachin rebels and the Myanmar government. With a similar natural gas pipeline going online in 2013, China’s mediation may be paying dividends. Natural gas pipelines may receive the lion’s share of the media focus, but for China’s burgeoning energy needs, securing safe passage for crude oil is essential.
These developments are part and parcel of an overall plan connecting China to the West by land and sea, more commonly known as the Silk Road Economic Belt. The Yiwu-Madrid rail line, that connects the northeastern city of Yiwu in China to Madrid, perhaps best encapsulates what the “New Silk Road” is trying to achieve. China is not only trying to circumvent U.S. naval superiority but is also striving towards greater business efficiency between Asia and Europe. This again involves Chinese investment into states that lack infrastructure, with full knowledge that offering to revive fledgling economies is an offer few states in the developing world will refuse.
China’s critics point out that this coincides with the existing “String of Pearls” strategy that aims to surround India and neighboring states. In this way the “New Silk Road” may have a dual purpose – first to create land and sea-based interconnections to promote and advance trade, and secondly to create spheres of influence to prevent other regional and world powers from threatening Chinese interests.
Fighting the ISIS threat
The third and perhaps most important reason for the “New Silk Road” is to develop the strategic Western province of Xinjiang. In order to prevent Chinese ethnic Uyghur Muslims from falling into extremism, China must create economic opportunities in this region. However, the ISIS advance threatens to destabilize China’s efforts at creating East-West linkages. With Uyghur Muslims fighting alongside ISIS and more willing to enter Syria to fight the Assad regime, the threat is too close for comfort. Given that ISIS has also declared Xinjiang as part of its caliphate is all the more reason for China to take an active stance against the terrorist group.
This is where China may have to shift its traditional policy towards Xinjiang and empower the Uyghurs as opposed to seeing them as an obstacle to a greater purpose. Migration of ethnic Han Chinese into Xinjiang has been a major roadblock in creating a harmonious relationship. Clamping down on religious practices and culture may only further energize and embolden radicalization. Just as China has been building goodwill externally by building infrastructure or by mediating conflicts, perhaps it is time China did so within its borders by empowering ethnic Uyghurs and providing the Muslim minority a level of religious and cultural autonomy. This will give Uyghurs less reason to join groups like ISIS, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
With China gradually entering a stage of economic maturity, it may also be time for a change in policy to account for changing circumstances. China is at a place in history where it has too much to lose, and political flexibility may be a small price to pay for continued prosperity.