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Marching West: Regional Integration in Central Asia

Emily Feng examines China's new clout in Central Asia.

As the United States continues its pivot to the Pacific, China seems to be turning westward.

With the much-anticipated Third Plenum now over, China experts everywhere are scrambling to decipher the conference's implications. The Plenum seems to have largely been concerned with market reforms and heightened national security mechanisms. Hidden among statements about economic growth in the meeting's official report, however, was the clause, "opening to those that border China inland." This short phrase was the document's only acknowledgement of a decade-long push to create stronger ties with the Central Asian countries that lie beyond China's western provinces. Despite its brevity, the clause highlights an immensely important aspect of Chinese geopolitical strategy.

In an October 2012 policy paper, Wang Jisi, former director of the influential China Academy of Social Sciences and a highly visible strategic thinker, exhorted Chinese leaders to "march westwards." In the paper, Wang argues that Chinese policymakers should focus on developing China's economic and diplomatic ties with its western allies as their American counterparts look to expand the U.S.'s influence in the Far East. "The great power cooperation mechanisms and rules of cooperation and competition have yet to be established in this region," Wang wrote, giving China a golden opportunity to solidify its international presence in the region. Central Asia may very well be the biggest target of a Chinese effort at regional integration, as China looks to shrug off American influence and deepen its influence on the Asian continent.

Xi Jinping's recent tour of the Central Asia was a major step in realizing this unofficial "March West" policy. Xi embarked on a whirlwind tour of the region from September 3rd to 13th, paying official visits to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Amidst the usual handshaking and posturing, Xi also signed a number of significant rapid-fire deals. On September 4th, Xi inked a deal with the Turkmen government to supply an additional 25 billion cubic meters of gas annually by 2020, on top of preexisting agreements, from Turkmenistan's Galkynysh oil fields. Three days later, Xi closed a group of contracts valued at $30 billion with Kazakhstan in exchange for an 8.33 percent stake in the Kashagan oil project. Then, two days after that, Uzbek president Islam Karimov and Xi signed off on nearly $15 billion worth in agreements in Uzbek oil, gas and uranium projects.

Xi's tour signaled a move to consolidate China's access to abundant reserves of hydrocarbons in Central Asia, which remain relatively untapped and reliant on Russian pipelines for delivery. China National Petroleum Corp., China's biggest state-owned oil company, is playing an instrumental role in providing the technological support for the projects by pledging almost $3 billion to finance KazMunaiGas, a Kazakh state-owned oil company, for second-phase development of the oil fields. CNPC will also become the sole service contractor for second-phase development of Turkmenistan's Galkynysh oil fields, which includes a planned oil pipeline from Galkynysh to China. Turkmenistan is presently the fourth largest holder in the world's oil reserves.

Simultaneously, China has strengthened its diplomatic ties with the Central Asian countries. It has beefed up its involvement in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an organization established in 1996 to promote political, economic, and military cooperation between Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and China.

Underlying all these agreements has been the issue of security, as China's "March West" strategy has merged with schemes for development in western China itself. Initiated in 2000, the Western Development Program seeks to improve western China's economic and infrastructural development, using China's eastern seaboard as a model. China hopes to placate its restive western provinces like Xinjiang and Tibet, where ethnic tension and separatist movements have continued to cause headaches for Communist leaders. Raising standards of living through economic development will hopefully tie China's west closer to its east, or so the official thinking goes.

Afghanistan looms large in the minds of Chinese policymakers. As the United States military plans to withdraw from the area by next August, China has become increasingly worried that Afghan forces will be unable to contain radical groups. When Xi met with the other five members of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan immediately following his Central Asia tour, he lauded SCO's commitment to combating the three forces of "terrorism, separatism, and extremism." Li Xin, a Russia and Central Asia specialist at the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Studies, stated that "it's vitally important for China's development to have prosperity, peace and stability in Central Asia."

Increasing Chinese presence in Central Asia has blocked Russia's traditional influence in the region. Over recent years, oil-rich Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have been increasingly driven into China's arms, particularly due to Russia's use of Central Asian reliance on its oil pipelines to buy oil at below-market prices. Instead, Chinese trade with Central Asia has increased 100-fold since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, reaching $46 billion last year. Russia seems to have accepted a backseat position in the midst of China's Central Asia maneuverings, hoping instead to "reap all the benefits a third party can expect in such a situation," according to Vassily Kashin, a Russian China expert.

Some go so far as to claim that the "March West" strategy will improve U.S.-China relations by both detracting from potential conflict in the Pacific region and strengthening ties on the front of terrorism, energy and security issues. In a 2011 speech, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared a "new Silk Road" centered around Afghanistan and consisting of "a web of economic and transit connections that will bind together a region too long torn apart by conflict and division." Whether the U.S.'s vision for Central Asia and the Middle East will complement or clash with China's "March West" strategy is uncertain.

"For China to take on any specific diplomatic issue will always offend some countries; China needs to preserve a delicate balance" wrote Wang Jisi in a Global Times op-ed. As integrative policy in a region historically troubled by discord normally goes, however, this is easier said than done.

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Emily Feng is a junior at Duke University, where she studies public policy, English, and Chinese. She co-directs an annual conference on US-china relations, the China Leadership Sunmit, and is currently writing a thesis about Chinese migrant education. Contact her at emily.z.feng@gmail.com.

This article also appears in China Hands.

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