Barring a radical destabilization of Xinjiang or fundamental shifts in Central Asian countries and their relations with major power centers abroad, Beijing will “very likely” establish a network of its own military bases in the region over the next five years, according to Dmitry Zhelobov, a China specialist at Russia’s Urals Federal University. He recently argued, in a widely reposted interview with the Moscow-based Regnum news agency, that Chinese steps toward acquiring those bases are driven by a desire to expand its regional influence as well as to ensure that neither Russia nor the United States are able to limit China’s cross-continental trade with Europe (Regnum, March 28).
At one level, of course, this assertion simply echoes similar warnings that have lately appeared in Western media. But more importantly, Zhelobov’s specific statements to Regnum reflect Russian thinking about Chinese intentions and about the relationship between soft and “hard” or military power. His remarks appear intended both as a warning to the former Soviet republics of the dangers ahead and a wake-up call to Moscow about trends that are undermining Russian influence in central Eurasia. As a result, his argument merits closer analysis.
For the last two decades, the Russian government has defined the challenge it faces as preventing any expansion of US influence in the five countries of Central Asia. To that end, Moscow has largely viewed Beijing as a regional ally, supporting the creation of the essentially Chinese-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which originally brought together their two governments as well as four of the five Central Asian republics (since expanded to also include India and Pakistan). Indeed, China does not want the US to be able to approach its borders from the west. Moreover, Russia appreciates the fact that, heretofore, China’s expansion in the Central Asian region has been limited to the economic and cultural spheres—ones that Moscow believes, either because of geography or history, it is in a position to counter. Moscow has given remarkably little consideration to the possibility that China will build on its soft power in Central Asia to establish security relationships or even bases and thus accelerate the decline of Russian influence there.
On the one hand, Zhelobov posited, Moscow’s understanding is reasonable. Beijing views the countries of Central Asia “above all as transit territories” rather than as ends in themselves, and its use of soft power there has sometimes backfired. Yet, on the other hand, the Russian expert continued, China is assuming an ever more “dominating position in the post-Soviet space” due to the fact that soft power alone has proven inadequate to protect these transit routes. Establishing a military presence in the region in the form of bases, he suggested, is thus a logical and indeed an almost inevitable development (Regnum, March 28).
That said, the shortcomings and frequently counter-productive failures of Chinese soft power in Central Asia have often been obscured by its more widely publicized successes—a misinterpretation caused by the general lack of attention to what Beijing is doing in Central Asia. But a new article by Kyrgyz commentator Taalaybek Asanov (Kyrgyztoday.org, April 2) provides a useful corrective and offers compelling reasons why Beijing may soon decide it has no choice but to move from soft to hard power in the region—as Zhelobov suggests it already has.
Asanov writes that China’s success in using soft power has been most obvious in its ability to influence the countries of Central Asia to back away from their earlier criticism of Beijing’s repressive handling of the Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, many of whom are co-ethnics of Central Asian nations. But that success has not blocked the rise of anti-Chinese attitudes in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where heavy-handed actions by Chinese government and business groups—including the open corruption of elites and discrimination by Chinese firms against local people—have offended many and led to both protests and even local pogroms.
Part of China’s problem, the Kyrgyz analyst says, is that it lacks expertise on Central Asian countries and thus has adopted a one-size-fits-all approach, which does not work and, indeed, backfires. That has been true both in Beijing’s economic and political work with the region’s governments and with its soft power initiatives.
In some sense, those initiatives look impressive: there are now five Confucian Institutes in Kazakhstan, four in Kyrgyzstan, and two each in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan; and Chinese universities have attracted 13,200 students from Kazakhstan, 5,000 from Uzbekistan, 11,000 from Kyrgyzstan, and several hundred from Tajikistan. And yet, Asanov argues, in the broadest terms the initiatives often fail. Not only do the Chinese often offend Central Asians who visit the Confucian Institutes, but students who go to China discover that the Chinese generally know little or nothing about their countries and cultures and look down on them. Thus, Central Asians do not become the Chinese loyalists that Beijing hopes for, and consequently, China’s government has resorted to ever more heavy-handed tactics to press its interests (Kyrgyztoday.org, April 2).
Zhelobov explicitly and Asanov implicitly clearly hope that Moscow will wake up to what is happening and exploit Central Asian unhappiness with Beijing lest China succeed in securing military bases in the region. Both analysts obviously believe such an outcome would not be in the interest of Russia or of the five Central Asian republics. The time to act is now, Zhelobov underscored (Regnum, March 28). After all, five years is not a particularly long time, and China may move even sooner.