A Multipolar World? China's Role in Central Asia

As Marxism fled the Soviet Union, Central Asia became the next set of partially developed states to be sought by the major powers. Central Asia remains significant due to its oil and natural gas reserves, and, just as important, the pipelines from Russia and Iran crossing the area. Whoever controls this region will become one of the globe’s energy brokers.

China crated the “Shanghai Cooperation Organization” in 2001 to institutionalize its role in Central Asia, and has Russia and most Central Asian states as members. Its purpose is to create the conditions for economic coordination and cooperation among its signatories and eventually, to create a single large trading bloc.

Both the Chinese and the Russians are active in the region, but Russia has the upper hand due to the fact that the Central Asian states were at one time a part of the Soviet Union. Political science professor Chien-peng Chung writes that the Chinese government seeks influence, if not control, in this region to battle the “three evils” of international politics: fundamentalism, separatism and terror. Given the large Islamic populations of these areas, such fears are not entirely unjustified.

At the same time, the Chinese are very concerned about terror attacks in the west of the country, a part of china that is largely Islamic and underdeveloped. The Chinese government has regularly accused terror groups of coming into the country from Central Asia with a separatist agenda. The Chinese, according to Chien-peng Chung, are primarily concerned with a pan-Turkish nationalist movement that seeks a unified Central Asian superstate at the expense of Chinese territory and security.

For their part, the Central Asian states seek their own interests. Uzbekistan loves the idea that two major powers are jockeying for position in the area, and seeks to balance the competing powers in the region, in good realist fashion. The United States also seeks influence in the region for the sake of “combating terrorism.” The Chinese see this as merely an excuse for intervention to control the transportation of oil and gas. To a great extent, both Russia and China would like to keep the United States out of the region permanently.

What worries the United States is an alliance among Russia, China and Iran. Not only would a formal alliance be immensely powerful, but very large territorially and potentially very wealthy. Such an alliance could, for better or worse, destroy American influence in the region and create an alternative oil producing and transport organization that could use its power against the west.

Ultimately, both China and Russia seek a Central Asia that they can at least influence, for the minimal project of keeping the Americans out. The creation of a “multipolar” world, where regional hegemons, rather than a single powerful economy, can exercise governance and influence in the worlds regions.

References:

Chung, Chien-peng. (2004) “The Shanghai Co-Operation Organization: China’s Changing Influence in Central Asia.” The China Quarterly, 2004: 989-1009

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