The world is agonizing over the happenings in the western extremities of the Greater Middle East, the Levant and eastern Mediterranean shores of Syria, while China will be wading into the vast expanse of its eastern extremities — Central Asia.
Is America missing the plot? Without fastening Inner Asia, what is “rebalancing” worth? Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tour of Central Asia (September 3-13), which was announced in Beijing on Monday, promises to be a turning point in that region’s “post-Soviet” history. Beijing is intensely conscious of it, as evident from the advance notice that Xi will be “expounding” China’s foreign policy toward Central Asia during his tour.
To be sure, meticulous planning has gone into Xi’s Central Asia tour. Foreign Minister Wang Yi went in an “advance party” to the region three weeks ago. Wang pegged the regional tour on a Shanghai Cooperation Organization event — and so will XI — which once agains flag how effectively China switches between the mutually reinforcing regional and bilateral tracks.
Wang gave a keyhole peep into what China is working toward in the Central Asian region — a) strict non-interference in the “specific national conditions” existing in the region and unconditional endorsement of the regional states’ policies to “maintain stability and develop economy”; b) providing “long-term assistance”; c) “deepen strategic mutual trust and cooperation” riveted on the region’s appreciation of “Beijing’s huge influence in regional and international affairs as a responsible world power”; d) elicit, in turn, “firm support” of the region for China’s efforts “to safeguard national reunification and combat the ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism”; e) expansion of economic cooperation, especially in economy and trade, communications, energy, railways, road transport, mining, agriculture and tourism; f) impart “new vitality” into the SCO through “pragmatic cooperation” and by “boosting efforts to safeguard regional peace and stability.”
The mantra is three-fold: mutually beneficial cooperation, “common security” and people-to-people ties. Clearly, the emphasis is on state-to-state, government-to-government relations.
Xi’s tour obviously means that China doesn’t foresee the spectre of Arab Spring stealthily marching into the Central Asian steppes. As a Chinese scholar from the Academy of Sciences’ SCO Research Centre wrote this week, here, although in “some way”, the situation in the Middle east and Central Asia is similar, “there are substantial differences that mean an ‘Arab Spring’ is unlikely to take place in Central Asia.”
Xi’s tour is a confident statement of China’s leadership role in Central Asia. With the US influence (and fame) at its lowest point, perhaps, in post-Soviet Central Asia’s transition and given Russia’s growing inability to preserve its big influence and presence, China’s shadows are lengthening.
Beijing is also becoming conscious of its tryst with Central Asia’s destiny. Thus, Beijing takes it seriously when some one says that China is as much a stakeholder as Russia or the US in regional stability in Central Asia; nods in agreement when an Indian tells them that India cannot hope to compete with China in that region; and, most certainly, is delighted when a westerner gives fulsome praise that “Central Asia’s most important city is not in Central Asia,” but is in China — Urumqi — justifying the words of a PLA general that “Central Asia is the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.”
– August 28, 2013