Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia

By Alexander Cooley | Go to book overview

5
The SCO and Beijing’s Great Leap
Westward

Russia’s strongest competitor for regional influence lies not to its west, but to its east. China’s increasing sway in Central Asia is nothing short of remarkable, though it is less frequently commented on than the U.S.-Russia regional “Great Game” dynamics. Like the United States, China has engaged with Central Asia with the primary aim of stabilizing an adjacent region—China’s own Western province of Xinjiang. Beijing has sought to clamp down on the activities of Uighur groups, enlist regional cooperation for its security agenda, and promote economic links as a means of spurring regional economic development.

From this strategic starting point, China’s engagement with Central Asia swiftly has expanded and deepened, with Beijing proving itself the most nuanced and skilled of the great three powers in its regional diplomacy; over the course of a decade, Beijing successfully transformed an area that it considered at the start of the 2000s to comprise weakly governed states, lingering border disputes, economic underdevelopment, and uncontrolled transnational threats into a region of strategic partnership.1 At the same time, Beijing has tailored its engagement to each of the Central Asian countries. Thus, in Kyrgyzstan, the only fellow WTO member in Central Asia, China has established a major trade and reexport hub to the rest of the region, while in Tajikistan, Beijing has focused on upgrading electricity transmission and distribution and improving direct road links. In Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, the region’s most important hydrocarbon producers, China has carefully and deliberately cultivated partnerships and has built major new pipelines that will provide oil and gas to the Chinese market for many decades.

As in other parts of the developing world, China has sought to convince the Central Asian states that it seeks “win-win solutions,” a “harmonious region of peace and prosperity,” and non-interference in their domestic affairs, while it has tirelessly sought to reassure Russia that it harbors no regional hegemonic ambitions and continues to recognize Moscow’s claim to be the region’s privileged

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