Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Window on Eurasia: China Replacing Russia as ‘Elder Brother’ in Central Asia, Moscow Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 12 – Beijing’s economic role and political  influence in Central Asia are growing so fast and now occupy such a prominent place that many of the elites of those countries now describe China rather than Russia as their “elder brother,” according to Moscow specialist on the region.

            In an article in the current issue of “Oborona,” Ivetta Frolova, a senior scholar at the Moscow Center for Asia and the Near East of the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, says that China’s role over the last 20 years has grown from barter deals at the border to “partnership and cooperation” that point to “the intensification of competition” between Moscow and Beijing (

            Six years ago, China become the third largest foreign trade partner of the Central Asian countries, behind only Russia and the European Union, and in the years since it has continued to expand its presence.  Between 2000 and 2010, for example, Chinese investment alone in Central Asian markets grew from 20 to 40 percent in the countries of that region.

            This Chinese economic expansion “completely corresponds to the geo-strategic interests of China,” Frolova says, because China is seeking to “guarantee political and social stability” in areas near Xinjiang, to develop “a strategic rear” given its competition with the United States for primacy, and to use Central Asia as a more secure transit route for oil from the Middle East.

            The last factor is especially important in Chinese calculations, the Moscow analyst suggests. China already imports more than half of its oil, and it will import an even greater share as its economy grows.  Instability in the Middle East, the problem of piracy in the Indian Ocean, and efforts of other powers to dominate the Straits of Hormuz and Malucca are among Beijing’s chief worries.

            If China can develop the energy infrastructure in Central Asia, Frolova argues, it can provide itself with insurance against these problems elsewhere, and that is exactly what Beijing seeks.  But its economic penetration of the reigon is not limited to oil and gas refining and transit.

            Instead, it is interested in Central Asia as a market for its goods.  In 1992, trade turnover between the Central Asian countries and China was 527 million US dollars; in 2000, it reached one billion US dollars, and by 2009, it had expanded to 25.9 billion US dollars. As a result, officials in these countries “view [China] as a new ‘elder brother.’”

             In addition to building pipelines and promoting trade, China has been extremely active inn developing railways and highways.  One of the largest rail projects is the construction of an Uzbek-Kyrgyz-Chinese line, but most striking is that Beijing is now planning to build 12 high-speed highways through Xinjiang up to the borders of Central Asian states.

            “Thanks to the realization of the strategy of the rebirth of the Great Silk Road and the development of  the northwest regions of China,” Frolova says, “Xinjiang is being converted into a major transportation and energy hub” not only for western China but for Central Asian countries as well. And it is increasingly supplying transporation equipment to them.
            China currently “is devoting great importance to the building in Central Asia of a security system which will guarantee stability and the development of the transportation and transit function so the region.”  If Russia is to maintain its position there, Frolova says, it must focus on “the development of humanitarian cooperation” and domination of the training of the next generation of Central Asian elites.

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