Central Asia as the New Arena in Sino-U.S. Relations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 9

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, China has reemerged as a major player in Central Asia. Given China’s geographical proximity, security and economic interests, and the needs of the Central Asian states, China’s presence in the region will only increase in the future. Underscored by the events of September 11, 2001, the United States also has a range of vital strategic and economic interests in Central Asia. This confluence of interests may present a unique opportunity for Washington to engage Beijing in the next several years, not only to more effectively achieve American goals in the region, but also to strengthen the current Sino-U.S. rapprochement and mitigate any tensions caused by the continued presence of U.S. military and political influence throughout the former Soviet states.

China skillfully built strong relationships with the different Central Asian countries after the collapse of the USSR. Beginning with negotiations regarding border demarcation and demilitarization, this relationship has evolved into one based on significant counter-terrorism and security cooperation, as well as growing economic and trade ties. The seriousness China places on this evolution was clearly demonstrated in August of 2002, when China held its first military exercise since the 1970s with Central Asian neighbor Kyrgyzstan. This was followed with a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) wide multi-day exercise held in both Kazakhstan and China in August 2003. But, to be sure, China is currently only a second tier power in Central Asia. The United States and Russia exercise substantially more influence with the Central Asian governments and have much more freedom of action. This may change, however, over the next decade.

China’s relationship with Central Asia took a major turn with the official launch of the Secretariat of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in January of 2004. The SCO is a Chinese initiated multilateral institution that includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and has existed in a looser format since 1996. Born from the demarcation and demilitarization process of the post-Soviet border, this organization is the focal point of Chinese counter-terrorism cooperation with Central Asia and the main avenue by which China promotes a wide assortment of its regional interests. With the imminent launch of the SCO’s Regional Antiterrorism Structure (RATS) this summer in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the organization – as well as China itself – is poised to play a more active role in the day-to-day activities of the region.

Chinese interests in Central Asia are well documented and tend to be of a vital and strategic nature. Importantly, though, China has used a comparatively benign form of diplomacy in pursuing these interests. Although there are some enduring tensions relating to the evolution of the SCO, the settlement of border disputes, and even the sale of shoddy Chinese military equipment, China has generally built up a reserve of good will in Central Asia and has demonstrated a flexibility and creativity that is becoming the hallmark of what some have called the “maturing” of Chinese foreign policy.

The war on terrorism, the volatility in the world energy market, and the goal of exporting democracy worldwide has created a similar set of strategic interests for the United States. Most importantly, ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and the search for Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and other terrorist groups in Central Asia propel the region to the forefront of U.S national security priorities. It has become increasingly clear that the U.S. military presence in Central Asia will have to be maintained for a considerable length of time. Additionally, the continued economic imperative created by the demand for Caspian energy makes long-term political and economic ties with Central Asia important for the United States.

Cooperating with China in Central Asia offers the United States an important opportunity to utilize the resources Beijing has built over the last decade in achieving U.S. objectives. However, it must be recognized that China also has strong ties with Russia in the region and will be “very careful not to win one partner while losing the other partner.” Any engagement with China should therefore take Russia into consideration.

Utilizing Chinese resources is most promising in the area of security cooperation, though there is an economic component. On the security front, China, Central Asia, and the United States all share the same concern about the rise of Islamic and separatist terrorist groups in Central Asia. From Beijing’s perspective, these groups 1) threaten China’s control over the restive province of Xinjiang and its Turkic Uighur minority, and 2) threaten the governments of Central Asia and the stability China currently enjoys and depends on in its strategic rear. Because of these concerns, China has built up several mechanisms of cooperating with Central Asia in the counter-terrorism sphere. These include intelligence sharing, military cooperation, and the supply of security equipment to Central Asia.

China was actively involved in combating terrorism and drug trafficking in Central Asia during the lull in U.S. interests seen after the Afghanistan campaign in the 1980s. China’s human intelligence resources can aid the United States as it tries now to reenter the region. Moreover, with the United States, Russia, and China all contributing aid dollars and equipment to the cause of Central Asian security, coordination of this aid in the most efficient way possible, especially in the area of border security, seems reasonable. China has been a boon to the Central Asian countries in helping them control their own borders and has even taken over some of the border guard responsibilities from Tajikistan along the China-Tajik border.

Also, China can help U.S. counter-narcotics and counter-proliferation goals in the former Soviet Republics. The SCO has listed counter-narcotics and counter-proliferation as among its agenda items while the Central Asians have been trying to make the region a “nuclear-free zone.” Though the United States has had a tough time engaging China in counter-proliferation, it may have more success in Central Asia. Moreover, the drug trade is a recognized threat to China’s security and the SCO is attempting to step up counter-narcotics activities.

In terms of possible Sino-U.S. cooperation in the economic realm, both Beijing and Washington have the ability to encourage Central Asian nations to pursue economic and trade policy reforms along WTO-recommended lines. Currently, China and Kyrgyzstan are both members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and other Central Asian countries of the region are continuing to push forward on the path to economic reform. Joint American and Chinese efforts to provide technical assistance and capacity building to these burgeoning Central Asian economies will facilitate the needs of China, the United States, the region, and the global trading community. This convergence of security and economic interests between the United States and China in Central Asia can be used to fulfill the mutual interests of the parties involved.

That being said, the United States and China have potentially divergent long-term interests over the political development of Central Asia and the extraction of oil and gas from the Caspian Basin. China does not have a promising track record when it comes to promoting democratic evolution unless it is in its national interest. Beijing is more likely to encourage stability over change, especially if any change or steps towards pluralism might threaten the security of the region, its influence in the local governments, or the role of radical elements in governing these nations. Additionally, China’s rising energy demand has fueled significant investment in the development of Kazakh oil fields and the construction of a pipeline to bring these resources directly into China. When Caspian oil and gas finally come fully online, expect China to fight hard for its share of these resources. This demand, combined with continued distrust in China over the deployment of U.S. military forces near its western border, has the potential to lead to future tensions between the United States and China.

Alone, tensions in Central Asia are unlikely to derail the overall shape of Sino-U.S. relations. However, a downturn in the relationship as a whole could spark a confrontation in Central Asia. By the end of the decade, Central Asia could be a flashpoint in Sino-U.S. relations that could further destabilize a possibly struggling relationship. This, in particular, is why engaging China now in Central Asia is so important. By building sustained links and trust today, future tensions may be alleviated and conflicts avoided.

By following a pragmatic agenda of engagement with China, the United States can fulfill its vital interest in Central Asia while simultaneously ensuring a more stable relationship with China over the long term. There are some lingering problems, though, that will have to be addressed over time. These include making the Central Asians comfortable with the organized cooperation of the external powers. This must be done at the same time as convincing China that cooperation with the United States, particularly intelligence sharing and increased transparency, is in its own national interest. This will not be an easy task, but it is a necessary one if future tensions, both in the regional and global arenas, are to be avoided. Action should be taken expeditiously, though, as the window of opportunity will quickly close as China becomes a more established played in Central Asia.