The New Silk Road Diplomacy: China’s Central Asian Foreign Policy Since The Cold War

The New Silk Road Diplomacy

Author(s): Hassan H. Karrar

ISBN:          978-0-774816939

Publisher: UBC Press

Year:          2009

Price:         $35,95

Review by Pang Yang Huei, Singapore University of Technology and Design

Hasan H. Karrar’s The New Silk Road Diplomacy is a timely and important contribution to our understanding of China’s relations with the Central Asian Republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It rightly draws our attention to another aspect of modern China’s international diplomacy – its western neighbours. As the world’s attention is repeatedly focused onto China’s wrangle in the South China Sea disputes, especially with ASEAN’s recent embarrassing inability to address the thorny issue in July 2012 (Wall Street Journal, 15 July 2012), one needs a healthy alternative perspective such as Karrar’s to highlight the broader strategic concerns of Beijing. Karrar makes no attempt to comment on China’s maritime diplomacy, but his analysis raises for this author many interesting perspectives.

On many levels, the stark contrast of China’s treatment for its western and eastern neighbours is instructive. While Beijing allows the Central Asian Republics to engage China via a mixture of multilateral platforms and bilateral engagements, it insists on only bilateral negotiations for each of its Asean neighbours. Similarly, China’s rhetorical output vis-a-vis Central Asia’s relationship with Washington is relatively muted, but it is strident in criticizing any US involvement in the East China and South China Seas.  This review will discuss the various succinct observations made by Karrar before making any further comments on the book’s bearing on contemporaneous events shaping China’s international relations.

Karrar’s central thesis is the Central Asia Republics’ independence in the 1990s complicated China’s “territorial cohesiveness” and its national rhetoric as a “harmonious, multi ethnic state.” (pg. 6)  Especially pertinent in China’s calculations were how developments in the Central Asian Republics would impact Beijing’s control in Xinjiang. Karrar starts off by giving a useful overview of China’s interest in Central Asia. This stemmed from the Qing Dynasty’s final defeat of the Zunghar Mongols (1757) which granted it dominance over Xinjiang.  From this point onwards, control of this peripheral region is dependent on the health of the central government in Beijing. A myriad of historical challenges such as Russian expansionist designs, resurgent Islamic rebellions, ethnic antagonism, and perennial smuggling gangs all contributed to the Chinese government’s cautious approach.

Building upon the warming Sino-Russian ties in the 1980s, China followed Russia’s lead in its diplomacy with the Central Asia States. Such an adroit and low key approach had the advantages of allowing Beijing to be inconspicuous in its search for Central Asian oil resources. It also allowed Beijing to concentrate its energies on Xinjiang and to cultivate its relations with the newly independent Central Asia states. Moreover, the independence of Central Asian states brought a host of new problems such as drugs and Pan Turkic movements which China needed time to deal with.

In the post-Cold war era, the struggle over the Central Asian states was coloured by the intense rivalry between Russia and the US. China preferred to remain at the background. While China utilized a measured evolutionary approach via the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001 for its Central Asia foreign policy, its response was firm and swift towards Xinjiang’s domestic unrest. For China, Xinjiang will be its conduit to Central Asia trade and energy resources. Xinjiang’s strategic role dictated Beijing’s heavy handed responses in 1996 and 1997.

To counter any perceived US unilateralism in Central Asia, China set about patiently organizing and strengthening the SCO.  However, 9/11 and US subsequent war on terror inadvertently upset China’s best laid plans as Washington had the perfect reason to expand its presence in Central Asia. Karrar details how China persisted with the SCO as it recognized its fundamental strategic interests lay with strengthening ties with its neighbors.

Finally, how does Karrar see the prospects of China in Central Asia? A couple of fundamental issues are at work. Although the SCO has emerged as a fully functioning organization, it does not mean that China has succeeded in utilizing regional multilateralism in gaining an upper hand over the Americans in Central Asia. Karrar points out that bilateralism is very much alive, as shown by China’s deal with Kazakhstan in securing an oil pipeline by the end of 2005. Undoubtedly, this energy coup shifted the global competition for energy into higher gear.  Yet, to conclude that China would go to war over energy issues seemed at this stage improbable. The author rightly notes out that the “life and death issue” is still the Taiwan question. A better perspective would be a China that actively seeks to diversify its energy supplies which explains its diverse energy partners such as Iran and Sudan.

Similarly, over the issue of terrorism, the US and China converge in significant areas. According to Karrar, most Central Asia movements revolted against the state not primarily out of religious and ideological reasons; a fact not readily acknowledged by the SCO members and the United States. Accordingly, all terror incidents were the work of a coherent and singular terror body (al-Qaeda), which coordinated and offered logistical and ideological assistance. While there was some success in countering terrorism, the same set of assumptions greatly impedes a united effort in stemming the narcotics flow from Afghanistan which is a function of official corruption in Central Asia.

The political ability to project control over the periphery is a power barometer of the Chinese government. At the same time, its national strength is edifying to its increasing nationalistic and vocal citizenry. The manner in which power projection is carried out nonetheless depends very much on China’s relative strategic position and perception. Towards the Central Asian Republics, as Karrar has amply shown, China is necessarily flexible and amenable. As there are more geographical and strategic challenges, these seem to call for careful multilateralism. Moreover, Russia has permanent strategic interests in that part of the world which China tacitly acknowledges.  So long as Xinjiang is firmly within China’s territorial control, it is willing to play second fiddle to Moscow on issues pertaining to the Central Asian Republics.

In contrast, China’s actions appear conflicted in the South China Sea. On the one hand, it wishes to project a picture of national self-confidence albeit via “peaceful rise.”  On the other hand, Beijing engages in a whole slew of reassurances and confidence-building schemes with Southeast Asian countries. Yet it has to contend with a gaggle of nervous Southeast Asian neighbours who literally jump at every sneeze. To Beijing, it seems that the seeds of Chinese “sincerity” are cast on barren ground.

Ironically, China only began to reconsider the South China Sea  as its bailiwick in the aftermath of Imperial Japanese armies’ aggressive claims from the mid-1930s onwards (Tønneson, 2001; Kawashima, 2009).  Informed by a popular praxis of “humiliation” and “patriotic” literature about China’s one hundred years of national suffering which permeated  its education system (Zheng, 2009), it is small wonder that China obdurately pounds away about its legitimate claims in the South China Sea and feels genuinely aggrieved at any Southeast Asian counter-claims.  

Karrar’s brilliant account of the formation of the SCO appears to hold much promise for Southeast Asia. Why does China not transfer its knowledge and enterprise in multilateral engagement elsewhere? Simply put, SCO is a plan designed by one who has a weaker hand in Central Asia. Moreover, the situation at South China Sea is different according to China’s self-perception. It sees itself as having a paramount strategic interest in this region. This accounts for the Kafkaesque phenomenon despite numerous efforts by Asean such as Asean+3, East Asian Summit, Asean Regional Forum and Track Two, Beijing’s stance is alarmingly consistent with its earlier positions.

Undoubtedly, the furor at the July 2012 ASEAN ministerial meeting at Phnom Penh over the South China Sea issue will not displease China. But it is a setback which Asean could ill afford. (Chong, 2012, July 21) In retrospect, such an outcome seems at odds with China’s prevailing rhetoric of “Harmonious Society.” Just as the grand King of Chu during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) had learnt that humiliating a smaller country was neither wise nor dignified from Yanzi 晏子(d. 500 BCE), the statesman from the smaller kingdom of Qi, Beijing should similarly refrain from forcing its neighbours in using the proverbial “small side door” to interface with China. The logic of this simple historical example is familiar to most Chinese students and educators. It stands to reason that similar methods such as the SCO model may well be a win-win solution for China to resolve the South China Sea issue with its Southeast Asian neighbours.  

Chong, W. (2012, July 21). Healing the rifts in Asean. The Straits Times, pp. A40.

Kawashima, S. (2009). China’s Re-interpretation of the Chinese “World Order”, 1900-40s. In Anthony Reid & Zheng Yangwen. (Ed.), Negotiating Asymmetry : China’s Place in Asia, (pp. 139-158). Singapore: NUS Press.

Tønneson, S. (2001). An International History of the Dispute in The South China Sea. EAI Working Paper No. 71.

Zheng. Y.W. (2009). The Peaceful Rise of China after the Century of Unequal Treaties: Will History Matter?. In Negotiating Asymmetry, (pp. 159-191).