China eyes Silk Road all the way to the US

Asia Times

This report was first posted on Asia Times Online on June 15, when a portion of the text was omitted. It is reposted here in full.

BEIJING - At first sight, it looks like a new beginning of the Great Game to control Central Asia, and from there the whole Eurasian continent. At a closer look, though, things appear quite different, as if China is now trying to gain a second sea rim on the shores of Europe, facing the American East Coast.

The recent summit in Shanghai between the heads of state of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan saw an upgrade of the Shanghai Five into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The reasons for the upgrade are two-fold. Uzbekistan has joined the group, and the sixth Shanghai Five summit saw the grouping develop a new cooperation agreement in terms of which, as the Chinese press reported on Thursday, all members will have equal status.

Furthermore, in July, President Jiang Zemin will visit Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to sign a pact of good-neighborly friendship and cooperation.

SCO members were scheduled on Friday to sign two documents, one establishing the grouping as a "multilateral regional organization", the other boosting cross-border cooperation. Both appear to stress political and military cooperation as they will focus on the fight against "terrorism, separatism and extremism" - all highly political issues with little room for economic development.

Yet it is clear the SOC will only be able to stand on its feet and develop if it has a strong economic base. And such as base can only be provided by China, working as a locomotive pulling development in the region. Investment from the United States is certainly important for Central Asian countries, but despite the Internet and air transportation they can't leapfrog the physical constraints of the territory, so they now trade mainly with China.

China is also clear about the inherent value of economic development in bringing about political stability. A sound, growing economy is certainly not the only way to create this stability, but it is an important factor. Interestingly, as China has been developing trade ties with Kazakhstan, it has been able to pressure the country into expelling militant Uighurs groups planning anti-Chinese actions from the safe haven of Almaty.

The Chinese necessity to project its economic might into Central Asia also reflects internal needs. Beijing has been campaigning for years for the development of its western regions, but this can only succeed if goods from the east coast travel further west and create a de facto new "shore" between Xinjiang and Central Asian countries. In other words, underdeveloped Chinese western regions must trade both east and west to make full use of their geographic position. If they were to develop only eastwards, they could soon think of moving east - businesses and workers would be physically attracted to the east and nobody would want to live and work in their own region.

Chinese economic expansion into Central Asia also coincides with the interests of those countries. They want to gain more independence from Moscow, which less than 10 years ago was their capital, and they can do this by courting both Beijing against Moscow. This also is why Beijing is keen on appeasing Moscow, it does not want to ruffle any more feathers with the neighbor with which it has uneasy relations on the eastern border. Near Vladivostock, there are a couple of million Russians who are extremely nervous about the hundreds of millions of Chinese pressing against their western border.

Chinese economic interests are even clearer if we look at possible transportation routes. Russia wants to develop its old train route through Siberia, and it would like to see Chinese freight trains on it. Beijing has been cool to the idea, favoring rather a southern route through Xinjiang and across Central Asia until, possibly, Turkey and the Mediterranean. It would be the classic Silk Road, it would produce real development and it would give China's western regions a new geo-strategic importance.

In a way, such as move would not simply expand Chinese influence from Xinjiang to the Caspian Sea, as has occurred many times over the centuries. It would project China into the Middle East, the Mediterranean as well as South Asia, including India. The proposed Chinese railway from Qinghai in the far west to Tibet will not only link the restive Tibetan region to the rest of China, it will also link China's economic heart to India, through roads and railways that could one day move passengers and goods from Lhasa to New Delhi.

To achieve this aim, which is at the same time domestic and international, China is betting on having very good neighborly relations with its greatest potential enemy, Russia, which occupies the northern Chinese border home of millennia of invaders to the Chinese plains. Beijing wants to say to its neighbor that Chinese economic expansion should not be regarded as a threat to Moscow.

For this reason, China for the first time in the SOC promoted a multilateral agreement. It has previously preferred bilateral pacts. Perhaps in the future China could join a quadrangular agreement with Japan, Korea and Russia that could help defuse tension in Northeast Asia.

And it wants also to say to the US that there is plenty of room to get into a win-win situation with it. If China and Russia in fact can establish such good relations with each other, despite their reciprocal smoldering fears, even more so the two could separately do it with the US.

Despite the many differences of opinion between the US and China on the role of Xinjiang separatists, all SOC countries, the US and Europe share a common concern over the spread of the heroin trade and cultivation in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Then again, differently from the past, the terminal customer of the commodities on the new Silk Road is not Europe, but the American East Coast. The Atlantic Ocean is closer if travelling West from Kashgar, on the Western Chinese border, then travelling east from Beijing. (2001-06-18 Asia Times)


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