China Moves Toward Another West: Central Asia
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
LASHANKOU, China — With its dozen blue-roofed villas, a brand-new sauna house, casino and three-star hotel constituting the heart of what this frigid outpost at the border of Central Asia fancies as downtown, this would seem an unlikely spot for the economic and political reordering of an entire region.
An agreement this month to build a oil pipeline through this tiny hamlet makes it the center of an explosion of economic activity in what only recently was one of the most backward corners of China. The pipeline will traverse Alashankou as it snakes its way past the snowbound mountain ranges of Central Asia, still filled with tribal horsemen driving herds of goats and camels, on its way to China's industrialized east.
China's western ambitions do not end with the purchase of huge amounts of energy, the main products that Central Asia has to offer, international political analysts, Chinese and regional officials agree. Beijing's bid to secure vital fuel supplies is part of a bold but little noticed push to increase its influence vastly in a part of the world long dominated by its historic rival in the region, Russia.
China's thrust into Central Asia comes as an almost natural extension of its ambitious efforts to populate and develop Xinjiang, a far-western region the size of Texas with 18 million people, which seems underpopulated compared with much of China. In doing so, China hopes to neutralize a threat of separatism by the region's Uighur minority, whose Turkik language and Islamic faith draw them toward kinsmen in Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics of the region.
With Russia in sharp relative decline, a booming China looms as the economic locomotive, and even the model, for the entire region. That means China finds itself in a position to call the tune in a way that it has scarcely felt confident about in the past. Most immediately, this means being able to hold China's neighbors to pledges not to support Islamic militancy or Uighur separatism.
Increasingly, there are signs that Chinese influence is spreading. In November, at an international conference on Kazakhstan's financial reforms, representatives of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank found that the governor of the People's Bank of China was the most sought-out guest.
Recently, analysts say, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have followed the Kazakh example in looking toward China, rather than to Western-dominated international financial institutions, for new economic thinking. China's authoritarian politics and central planning also have a strong appeal for many of the former Soviet republics of the region.
Meanwhile, China has been busily building new security relationships in Central Asia to match its growing economic ties in that region, an area of increasing strategic competition involving China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. The United States has not been absent from this competition, having acquired a military base, known as Camp Stronghold Freedom, in Uzbekistan, as well as a presence in Afghanistan.
"Everybody is trying to secure access to this region's oil," said Stephen J. Blank, a professor of national security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the United States Army War College, in Carlisle, Pa. "The Chinese are very nervous about American bases in the region. The Russians are trying to set up an OPEC-like cartel to tie down gas in Central Asia, and the Indians have acquired a base in Tajikistan.
"It is not Kipling's `Great Game' yet," Dr. Blank said, "but it is a hell of a contest in its own right: military and economic and everything else."
China has increased its security ties through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a six-member group founded in 2001 that includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. China has committed itself for the first time to a regional collective security agreement focused on enforcement of borders. Beijing has followed up with joint military maneuvers with Kyrgyzstan, and with the continued development of rapid deployment forces based in western China, which could be used to put down trouble in Tibet or Xinjiang, or to help enforce border security along with other members of the Shanghai group.
Beijing's growing security involvement to its west is something of a change for a nation that has tended to look inward. China has tried to allay the suspicions about its intentions, among far weaker neighbors, by focusing on antiterrorism as a common goal, and it has worked hard in official rhetoric and in diplomacy to promote a view of itself as a new kind of superpower, one supposedly lacking aggressive intent.
"There is a big difference in the size of our economies," said Zhang Deguang, secretary general of the Shanghai group, in an interview at his Beijing headquarters. "Tajikistan, for example, is a very small country, but even Russia's economy is only a third the size of ours."
The difference in gross domestic products "shouldn't be reflected in relations between us, however," he added.
Elaborating on a theme that has become a mantra among China's leaders, Mr. Zhang spoke of his country's "peaceful rise," which he said would create "benefits and opportunities for China's neighbors."
Bates Gill, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said of China's push into the region, "The Chinese are sending people all the time to meet prime ministers and presidents and generals and all the way down the diplomatic ladder."
"This is all about soft power, and strategic and diplomatic relationships," Mr. Gill said. "Central Asia is a fantastic lens, or model for what China is trying to do all over its periphery: reaching out and settling old scores, and trying to establish a benign kind of hegemony."
Other experts say China's approach is as much dictated by realism as any idealistic notions of a new-style superpower. "Many Central Asians still feel a visceral hatred for China fed by old Soviet propaganda about Mongol and Chinese hordes and about Chinese `intentions' toward the region," said Dru C. Gladney, an expert on China at the University of Hawaii. "The Central Asians are poor and weak. They are very sensitive to China elbowing them around on issues like borders, terrorism or water."
Acknowledging a bitter past, which included a fierce, if brief, border conflict between China and the Soviet Union that intruded on Kazakh soil in 1969, a diplomat at the Kazakh Embassy in Beijing said bad feelings toward China were mostly forgotten, eased in part by fast growth in bilateral trade.
"China is now regarded as a friendly country in Kazakhstan," said the diplomat. "You have concerns when you don't know the other party, but in the case of China, we have more and more shopping tourists, who come here to buy goods and sell them back home." Along with the pipeline, Kazakhstan agreed this month to build a $3.5 billion, 1,900-mile rail project linking China to Western Europe.
"We are destined to become a very important region," said Hua Dingchuan, a trade official in Bole, a city that 10 years ago had virtually no private cars, and now is as densely developed and busy as any American suburb. "Our neighbors have the same kind of opening-up policies that we do. They love Chinese money, Chinese products, Chinese expertise and Chinese technology." ...Link