(From Nikkei Asian Review)
By Raj Kumar Sharma
China’s aggressive actions and claims in the South China Sea on its eastern flank are being contested by its neighbors and the U.S. However, China’s advance in Central Asia on its western flank looks unhindered for now, due to the geopolitical realities of the region.
With the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan underway since last year, and the Russian economy under sanctions for its role in the Ukraine crisis, China appears comfortably placed to pursue its interests in the region.
China’s Central Asia policy is part of its “March West” strategy, at term coined by professor Wang Jisi of Peking University in 2012. Wang said that as the U.S. pivots to the Asia-Pacific, China needs to utilize its development space to the west.
Central Asia came under Russian rule during the second half of the 19th century. China’s relations with the region were interrupted due to the Soviet Union’s rift with China in the 1960s, and the border between the two was heavily militarized.
Things changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. China took the initiative to create the “Shanghai Five” in 1996 and signed treaties with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan aimed at securing peaceful borders and reducing its military presence there. The Shanghai Five later became the Shanghai Cooperation Organization when Uzbekistan joined in 2001.
Since then, China has made rapid strides in enhancing its Central Asian presence through energy pipelines, trade, investment and infrastructure development. With annual trade of $50 billion, China has emerged as the largest trading partner of the Central Asian countries overtaking even Russia, the traditional power in the region.
China has both security and economic interests in Central Asia. China’s primary security interest relates to its largest province, Xinjiang, officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang have been demanding independence ever since the area once known as East Turkestan was taken over by China in 1949. Read more