Has China Shanghaied Central Asia?

In the run up to the 13th Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited four Central Asian countries to discuss bilateral cooperation initiatives. The political and financial value of the agreements he reached reflect China’s growing influence in the region, primarily at Russia’s expense.


It should also be no surprise that the SCO summit issued statements that appeared to reflect China’s foreign policy views without necessarily calling for any action. Pre-summit discussions, while originally meant to focus on post-2014 Afghanistan, were dominated by the Syrian conflict. The Bishkek Declaration echoed previous Chinese statements on Iran, North Korea, and Syria, calling for political resolutions. On Iran’s nuclear program, the SCO said that the threat of military force and unilateral sanctions against Iran were unacceptable. SCO heads of state also came out strongly in favor of a negotiated settlement over North Korean nuclear issues. On Syria, the SCO issued a statement firmly opposed to any military action and to the “loosening of internal and regional stability in the Middle East,” similar to China’s previous statements that instability in the region would adversely affect the global economy and oil prices. Militarily, the SCO summit primarily reaffirmed its members’ concern for internal security and the threat of terrorism. With China, Russia, and Iran recently increasing their military cooperation and conducting joint military exercises, there are signs that the SCO may become more militarized over time.


China’s growing clout in the SCO — and, by extension, in Central Asia — is coming largely at the expense of Russia. As the Vilnius summit on the Eastern Partnership approaches, Russia has intensified its efforts to convince countries in its neighborhood to join the Eurasian Union, a Russo-centric integration project that President Vladimir Putin hopes will promote his legacy for a “greater Russia.” To do this, Russian officials have abandoned traditional, behind-closed-doors diplomacy and in many cases have started to openly bully neighbors like Ukraine or Moldova. While Central Asian states have also been asked to join the project, many simply play along with Russia, while developing stronger ties with China.


The SCO summit in Bishkek clearly affirmed China’s ambitious intentions and strategy for the SCO. As policy, China appears to be using multilateralism as a tool and a tactic, and not as an intergovernmental mechanism or institutional arrangement. According to Professor Song Xinning of Renmin University, “Since the 1990s, China has used multilateralism to solve bilateral issues — to this end, multilateral meetings are a useful platform to negotiate bilaterally. But we are still uncomfortable with multilateralism, and prefer bilateralism and multi-polarity.”


This attitude fundamentally differs from the Western and Russian approach that considers international and regional organizations primarily as tools to promote their own values and rules. Unlike Moscow, Beijing does not bind itself to restrictive trade policies or seek to influence political outcomes from behind the scenes that could be viewed as meddling in internal affairs. Unlike Washington, Beijing does not press Central Asian leaders to agree to a timetable and agenda for internal reform. And unlike the European Union and NATO, SCO members lack common values, so China evokes a “Shanghai Spirit” or “Silk Road Spirit” to foster internal cohesion while allowing Central Asian autocratic regimes a degree of autonomy.


In a speech that invoked Zhang Qian, the Han Dynasty envoy who supposedly first travelled the Silk Road, Chinese President Xi Jinping attempted to foster economic cooperation and called for the creation of a “Silk Road Economic Belt.” This economic belt would promote free trade, energy projects, connectivity, and currency circulation, mostly in China’s renminbi. Indeed, this New Silk Road is already being literally paved with highways, railways, fiber optics, and pipelines. While U.S. and EU policymakers have long pressed for multiple pipelines to transport Central Asian gas to European markets — such as the disputed Nabucco-South Stream route — it is China that has made the Central Asian states’ goal of diversification a reality by quietly funding and constructing pipelines eastward to China’s market. Apparently the Western vision of the New Silk Road, which is mostly vertical — from India to Afghanistan — and primarily addresses the needs of post-2014 Afghanistan, drastically differs from China’s vision. This difference allows the Chinese government to aggressively push business projects, while the West and its partners delegate the implementation of such projects to bureaucrats.


For now, China has an interest in maintaining the political status quo in Central Asia and retain access to the region’s energy reserves. But the dual threat to its power of political Islam and Western-backed democratic reforms has only further cemented its relationship with Central Asia, ultimately extending its sphere of influence.

Temuri Yakobashvili is Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Washington, DC and Georgia’s former ambassador to the United States. Christina Lin is Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, a GMF initiative.