US vs. China: Rivals or Partners

US vs. China: Rivals or Partners

Written By : Zahra Zafar Chohan
Many analysts who write on Central Asian energy wealth, often focus their concentration on plight of Afghanistan solely, which has made CARs vulnerable, due to the insecurity prevailing in Afghanistan more like a domino effect. At the critical juncture of their independence the Central Asians were fearful as they lost Soviet backing, their security provider.

1. Introduction. The terminology of Great Game was initially coined by Rudyard Kipling. He brought world’s attention towards the rivalry for a region between two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. The region for which they were competing holds its importance even today. Much has altered since that traditional rivalry and competition has thwarted. The Soviet empire dismembered and the United Kingdom had to abandon its colossal empire following WWII. While both Czars and British feared each other and desired to keep Afghan territory under their influence, the nature of current context is far more complicated. The New Great Game is a strife among many powers, regional and global, as well as, great and small. Russia, China and the US are the key players. The Central Asia is a large and resourceful area as compared to barren, mountainous Afghanistan. The economic disposition of conflict makes it remarkable. The region comprises the Central Asian Muslim dominant states, bordering the Caspian basin. What makes the Caspian basin and adjoining territories so attractive is the presence of oil. The oil in general has become a source of political tussle among the states. The West has huge dependency on Middle East. Desperate to wean its dependence on the powerful OPEC Cartel, the United States is pitted in this struggle against Russia, China and Iran, all competing to dominate the Caspian region, its resources and pipeline routes. Complicating the playing field are transnational energy corporations with their own agendas and the brash new Wild West style entrepreneurs who have taken control after the collapse of Soviet Union. Dossym Satpayev, a political analyst, believes that within next ten years China will dominate the Central Asia’s political, economic and military spheres, mainly through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Its main rival will be less affluent Russia, whose historic dominance has left it with the habit of trying to boss former Soviet republics. The Chinese leaders have managed to advance far beyond the largely ceremonial co-operation of “friendship treaties”, without resorting to Russian tactics. According to Mr. Satpayev, “China does not only buy loyalty with documents, but with money given at a low percentage”. Then there comes intense US involvement in the region, which according to some analysts have disturbed the traditional balance of the region. Its global war on terror (GWOT) has come under intense criticism due to fake accusations of WMD in Iraq. Afghanistan on hunt for Al Qaeda is a drab drag.

2. US vs. China. When it is asserted that America and China are rivals and partners simultaneously, it is here argued that this phrase has a paradoxical impact. An emerging power has to establish cordial relations with an established one. They are rivals at various fronts, however they do avoid any direct clash and act as partners on various matters and forums e.g. the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The Central Asia presents an altogether distinct and multifaceted battleground. China can neither out rightly oppose a hegemonic presence, nor can it ascertain friendly gestures and proclaim policy statements favoring a “sole superpower’s” huge presence in its backyard. This article will focus on United States (US) and China’s individual interests in the region as well as the competition to outdo each other. China’s surging demand for reserves is now a fact of life. “Welcome to the oil business of the 21st century”, says a senior executive at a major US oil producer, “this is the new world”. But the history of oil industry teaches that money is sometimes the only part of the plot. Power and geopolitical influence are oil’s handmaidens. Daniel Yergin; Chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, says that as Chinese companies “try to get in on new deals, occasionally commercial rivalry will get caught up in larger foreign policy issues”.

3. The New Great Game. The New Great Game seems more like a haunted version of the previous game. It’s much more multifaceted and complex. China’s involvement is due to region’s reserves, nevertheless at the same time there also lies a big concern for kinship ties of its restless Xinjiang. If China’s geographical position is analyzed, China shares borders with turbulent Tajikistan, Kyrgyz and the Kazakhstan states. During the cold war, the Central Asia, being part of Former Soviet Union (FSU), was solely used by the Soviets. However the Chinese stance under went no apparent change during the initial years of the region’s independence in 1990’s. The Chinese apprehensions revolved around the theme that these states were part of Russian sphere of influence. Later subsequent events revealed an altering scenario and the Chinese were compelled to carve out their policy goals regarding the region. Hence China was now ready to establish bilateral ties with the nascent states. Analyzing no apparent danger could emanate from the Central Asian republics (CARs), which could threaten China, the latter embarked on an economic policy, investment and trade, every single feature being an ingredient of its soft power image.

4. China. China could offer major trade opportunities as well as modest amounts of capital and technology to the economically weak Central Asian republics. By doing this, Chinese leaders could justifiably assure themselves that they were strengthening republic’s economies and responding to what Central Asian leaders consider their most basic need. The Chinese clearly agree that economic development offers the region the only possibility of limiting future ethnic and religious conflict. Hence economic prosperity can be used as a tool to fuel not only its rapidly growing economy but also can bring subsequent potential stability to the region. China has its own versions of a “new silk route” These Chinese policies may be cause of concern for its old communist boss, the Russian federation. As these policies may diminish latter’s notable grab over the volatile states. Despite harboring deep suspicions for each other’s motives, China and the Russia, have adopted accommodation, and rapprochement policy visibly culminating in Shanghai cooperation organization. One can infer that China’s slow and consistent ascendancy in world politics will help it in exhibiting tremendous influence over its bordering countries. Having viewed China’s success, the Central Asian leaders always had economic interests in mind. Official invitations were issued and Central Asia’s presidents and foreign ministers went to the Chinese capital eager to satisfy their curiosity about the nature of economic miracle that the Chinese were experiencing. The Chinese engagements with the Central Asian states characterize border agreements with Kyrgyz and Kazakh republics. In 1998 there was considerable progress in delineating both the Kazakh and Kyrgyz borders with China. A joint statement by President Akayev and President Zhiang Zemin made during Akayev April 1998 trip to Beijing kicked off a period of intensive negotiation. In June 1998 Kazakhstan and China also signed an agreement dividing 944 square kilometers of disputed border territories with nearly 6O percent of the land remaining in Kazakh hands. The critics of the agreement however see that China got the most valuable bits. Some of the significant economic maneuvers by Chinese also included in 1997, the Chinese national Petroleum Company (CNPC) won a tender and a 60 pc stake – in the Zhana Zhol and kenkiyak fields in Aktobe, Kazakhstan. The Chinese were committed to build a $9.6 billion pipeline, but then scaled down the project by late 2001, to less than $200 million. The Chinese government is also interested in the development of transit links that would allow the Central Asian states to better use the Chinese highway, railroad system and ports to shift transit trade away from Russia, an interest they share with the Central Asian states. Nazarbayev paid a visit to Beijing in May 2004, he and Chinese president Hu Jin Tao signed an agreement for joint exploration and development of oil and gas resources in the Caspian sea. China’s role in Central Asian energy sector has steadily increased. This is so because Middle East has been a precarious region due to its unsettled disputes and warring and aggressive policies of the turbulent parties involved. Also the resources which symbolize the famed region are undergoing depletion. Hence the New Great Game is a diversion from the volatile Middle East and China intends to secure alternative oil and gas supplies. Besides the economic interests, the long enduring separatist movement in the Xinjiang, the Chinese Muslim dominated province, has been a key factor driving Chinese policies. A lasting peace for her internal security is pivotal. The Xinjiang is inhabited by Muslims, many of Turk origin, who have well-established ties with their kins in CARs. The ties between the populations of Xinjiang and the Central Asian states are strong and there has traditionally not been a clear border between the people in Central Asia and Xingjian, aside from the theoretical border given on maps. The Muslims in Xinjiang desire for an independent state “East-Turkestan”. Although none of the governments in Central Asian republics support such a standpoint of Xinjiang people. There has been constant effort by people, and their aspirations have often culminated into military activity. For this reason China mounted military effort in the province. The neighboring Afghanistan has been a fomenting force behind as the following paragraph better illustrates. During the year 2000 the Chinese armed forces in Xinjiang claim to have confiscated 4100 kg of dynamite, 2723 kg of other explosives, 604 illegal small arms and 31,000rounds of ammunition in comparison to much lower confiscations in 1990’s.

5. Pakistan and Afghanistan. The South Asian region comprising Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal belt (referred to as Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA) had been in war since the late 1970s. The drug trafficking, the weaponry, the recruitment bases, the training centers and other contrabands characterized the region. The atmosphere was productive and a beneficent facilitator to wage a guerrilla war. Then there was a direct spillover effect of the war on the Central Asian region, especially those adjoining directly to chaotic Afghanistan.

6. Following 9/11. The long American presence in the war weary Afghanistan has been distasteful for Russia and China (regional powers) as it is diminishing their role in the region. However the American presence has stipulated inducement to both Russians and Chinese, in their response to Chechens and Uighurs respectively, hence legitimizing their forceful actions. Entering into the tenth year of the bloody struggle in Afghanistan, the North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO) forces and Taliban scramble for control continues and it gives the impression in 2011 that a stalemate is evolving. The domino effect of the situation is sensed all around the region especially in China’s Muslim dominated province and the Central Asian Muslim republics. The Chinese expansion in Central Asia slowed down somewhat after Sep 11, 2001. Yet after 2002 the economic interaction, between Central Asia and China has increased immensely. America has a great deal to offer and that most of the states in the region would prefer to cooperate with America rather than Russia or China. Many states, in contrast, are also aware of the fact that Americans will probably leave, while neighbors will stay. This makes China a crucial actor in the region and a long-term counter-balance against Russia. 

7. China and Africa. China has been the world’s largest and rapidly growing economy with its growth rate stable and sustainable for the past few decades. China is also investing heavily in Africa. This Chinese policy comes under criticism from major powers due to poor human rights record of certain African regimes. The Chinese have bought oil fields in neighbors e.g. the Chinese national petroleum company (CNPC), bought in Kazakhstan oil fields for USD 5 billion. Also China has finalized several construction agreements with Kazakhstan to build pipelines to an estimated cost of USD 9 billion. The China petroleum corporation (Sinopec) agreed on March 12, 2003 to pay British gas USD 615 million for a stake in an oil and gas field in Kazakhstan which came four days after China’s third largest oil company (CNOOC) bought 8.33% of the British gas north Caspian Sea project for the same sum. To this a pledge from China Petroleum Corporation to invest USD 4 billion in Kazakhstan’s oil industry should be added.

8. China and Iran. China is also developing close commercial relations with Iran, an oil rich state of the region and a close neighbor of the Central Asian republics, to gain from its precious reserves. China’s cooperation with the stern Iranian regime has been aching factor in the US policy circles. A Sino Iranian network of oil pipelines, which has already been initiated, would be a substitute to the current Russian and American networks and give the Central Asian states an alternative route for oil trade which would decrease their dependence on Russia. The Chinese engagements with the Central Asian regimes vary from political to military and trade to investment.

9. CARS. The Central Asian regimes are structurally, militarily, and financially disadvantaged. The regimes are autocratic, dictatorial and their political systems not framed according to true liberal democratic norms. The resource-rich and strategically important region of Central Asia has some of the world’s worst dictatorships. • The Uzbekistan is widely regarded as having one of the most brutal dictatorships on the planet with corruption, religious and political persecution and state-sanctioned torture including boiling alive of prisoners. • The Turkmenistan is seen as a little better. • The regimes in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are less cruel but remain in the complete control of powerful dictator presidencies. Secondly their militaries are neither trained nor equipped appropriately as following lines better illustrate. The three of the Central Asian states (Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan) have no military forces worth the name. All five states have sufficiently good relations with Russia. The only potential threat to Russia from Central Asia comes from the possibility of a mass radical Islamist uprising in the Ferghana Valley, especially in the event of a NATO failure in Afghanistan that may perhaps result in the Taliban’s return to power there. In that case, Khramchikhin argues for joining forces with Kazakhstan to keep the radicals in the south while leaving the governments of the other Central Asian to survive as best they can on their own. 

10. Economic disposition of region. The economic position of Central Asian states presents a status quo situation owing to scramble being played out in its south. The Central Asia is continuously recognized as • An important stakeholder in the Caspian energy game • A conduit to Chinese energy security, • A playground of Russian power politics, • A transit area for criminal activity and religious fervor that is played out to its extreme in Afghanistan. Central Asia is part of several struggles that intermittently see external actors competing for their attention. This competition is often exemplified in bilateral or multilateral economic as well as military agreements which are negotiated with the Central Asian states. However these external actors also dictate the terms of engagement. Access to resources and infrastructure has become prioritized as soft power tools of Russia, China and US through which they increase their regional influence. On the other hand regional elites are also powerful. They know that they can leverage competing interests to their (often personal) advantage. As a result rule of law, corporate governance and transparency in commercial operations are often considered to be nonessential in the national interest. Also these regimes strive to extract maximum aid and armaments from Russia, China and US.. In nutshell Beijing with its interests primarily secured from Muslim Central Asia, Muslim Middle East and Iranian Muslim regimes cannot alienate them by turning hard on to Uighur in Xinjiang. The Uighurs are Sunni Muslims. Many analysts believe that America and China are probably the only two key players in the region since Russia is embroiled in its domestic problems.

11. The Source of Attraction/ the wealth distribution. The natural resource that has attracted the attention of American, Japanese and other foreign investors to Central Asia is energy – oil and natural gas. It is worth mentioning here that cross country differences vis-à-vis the ultimate distribution of immense wealth is striking. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the unlucky neighbors of energy rich Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan’s principal underground wealth is oil. By contrast Turkmenistan, rich in oil deposits, is also proud possessor of the word’s third largest reserves of natural gas. Uzbekistan’s known oil and gas reserves are modest in comparison. Even with greater exploration Uzbekistan, at best, can expect to become a modest net energy exporter. The gold is another resource, Central Asia has plenty of. If oil, gas and gold are what make foreign investors salivate over this region then Central Asia, which most experts write about, excludes Tajikistan and perhaps even Kyrgyzstan.

12. Independent Evaluation and Assessment. Ariel Cohen, in a detailed study of old politics in the Caspian region, has opined that after the Soviet disintegration, the Russian military and security services intended to restore Moscow’s control over the region and its pipeline routes. In his view the US should not allow Russia to play a dominant role in Caspian, otherwise Moscow will have almost monopolistic control over these vital energy resources, thus increasing western dependence upon Russia. Another analyst Federico Pena also observed the Russian role in the Caspian. He opined that US seems anxious for collaboration in the Caspian region through partnership with Russian companies, asserting that Caspian was strategically important for the US and that the US companies were playing a leading role in the region. This is evident from the multiple pipeline strategy that the US has been promoting in Caspian, which in effect, has reduced the role of Russia’s northern route in exporting oil from this region. America wants to secure supply not only for itself, but also want western firms to equally invest in Central Asian projects. This would reduce Europe’s acute oil and gas dependence on Moscow. Washington champions two pipelines that would circumvent both Russia and Iran. One would run from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. The construction has already begun for a $3.8 billion pipeline from Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, via neighboring Georgia to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan (BTC) project. The BP, its main operator, has invested billions in oil rich Azerbaijan and can count on support from the Bush administration, which stationed about 500 elite troops in war torn Georgia. Ariel Cohen, in his article titled “The New Great Game: Oil Politics in the Caucasus and Central Asia,” has mentioned certain steps and diplomatic maneuvers to be undertaken by US to ensure unrestricted supply. • Firstly US should strengthen its ties with Caucasus and Central Asian states, assuring that these states get fair share of revenue in exploration projects and transit fees. • Secondly US should not adopt policy of ruling out Moscow’s gas companies from exploring rights. • Thirdly the conflicts arising in the region must be resolved with determination. Also instead of derogating these Muslim republics US must assist to create free market economies, give them access to European market, and support governments that respect democracy and political pluralism. Various international projects especially the US sponsored (BTC) project, decreases the potential dangers associated with former pathways i.e. the Bosporus straits which are also the busiest in world shipping. • The strategic goal of the West should be the creation of a level playing field, allowing Russian and western corporations to participate in the development of Eurasian energy resources on an equal footing. If cooperation from Russia is not forth coming, the US should oppose attempts by the Russian security establishment to impose a single direction for the pipelines i.e. north via Russian territory. If Russian preponderance and geopolitical diktat continues it would give Moscow an unacceptable level of control over the flow of oil to western markets and could make the west vulnerable to Russia’s political whims. • Nevertheless the US cooperation in region comes with doubts as various International Non Governmental Organizations (INGOS), NGOs and think tanks that effect US policy makers look down upon these regimes due to their poor human rights record, shameful practices of treating prisoners, poverty and a heavy handed approach of regimes towards their indigenous people. The region, in actual fact, is in dire need of economic development, as many sinister and evil deeds are a result of poverty. The primary source of instability throughout the region is neither religious extremism nor ethnic conflict but lack of economic opportunity.

13. US and China as Rivals. The key rival challenging US supremacy in the region is China. In 2009 for the first time China’s net trade with Central Asia exceeded that of Russia and the trend is likely to persist in future, says Alexander Cooley, a political scientist at Columbia University. He says China is stealing a march on the two cold war era superpowers. In December, a consortium, led by the China national petroleum company won the rights to develop Turkmenistan’s south Yolotan field, one of the world’s most prized gas fields. China is also active in uranium and oil projects in Kazakhstan (the region’s largest economy) and has been building modern roads that will transport Chinese goods to impoverished Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and beyond. China has renewed its traditional vassal relations with the region and the Chinese relations with the people in region have traditionally been the relationship of peace, war, trade, deception and marriages, all the ingredients for a good story. It is only in the last 100 years during the Russian and Soviet occupation that China has been excluded from the region. China has traditionally viewed Central Asia as its personal trading area and a region heavily influenced by Chinese cultures. The trade between China and Central Asia has always been crucial and favored by both sides, as it is today. The only change today is that the traders have replaced jade, tea, silk and rhubarb with oil, weapons and infrastructure. Oil and gas have emerged as the most important financial reasons for China to engage with the Central Asian states to the degree that it has done. The Chinese leaders have been anti US hegemonic displays and its unilateralist stance. Whether it is China’s alliance with Iran or a platform of SCO, the main policy imperative is to restrain US growing influence in region. The Iranian Shiite regime has not been a threat to the Sunni dominated Central Asian states. Washington may be reluctant to admit it, but in the new Great Game in Eurasia, the Tehran-Beijing axis spells out the future: Multi polarity.

14. Conclusion. One may consider this conception of “new great game” to be bogus or sham, as remonstrated by some thinkers, yet one cannot reckon the very notion of a renounced Realist thought “National self interest”. This is the chief driver behind this game directly or indirectly as the case may be. The illustrious “new great game is a perilous quest. It may be hazardous because the path pursued by some states is treacherous, producing adverse consequences for the people, henceforth oblivious. A glance at a map and a little knowledge of the region suggests that real reasons for Western military involvement may be largely hidden. Afghanistan is adjacent to Middle East. And though Afghanistan may have little petroleum itself, it borders both Iran and Turkmenistan; the countries with the second and third largest natural gas reserves in the world (Russia being first). Turkmenistan is the country nobody talks about. Its huge reserves of natural gas can only get to market through pipelines. Until 1991, it was part of the Soviet Union and its gas flowed only north through Soviet pipelines. Now Russians are planning a new pipeline, north. Chinese are building a new pipeline, east. The U.S. is pushing for "multiple oil and gas export routes." High-level Russian, Chinese and American delegations visit Turkmenistan frequently to discuss energy. The U.S. even has a special envoy for Eurasian energy diplomacy. Rivalry for pipeline routes and energy resources reflects competition for power and control in the region. Pipelines are important today in the same way that railway building was important in the 19th century. Ever since the economic reforms, in China, by Deng Xiao ping in late 1970’s the demand for oil has increased. The dependence on the Middle East had reached 50 percent of crude imports in 1996, and the decision was made to diversify away from the Middle East rather than assume that the Gulf region will become peaceful. The Chinese energy security would be better assured by access to Russian and Central Asian sources as well as to new sources of crude oil imports from Angola and Vietnam. China is operating equally along side Russia in devouring energy deals. This provides an equal clientele to the Muslim Central Asian republics. This Chinese policy is far more attractive than facing Russian monopoly as previously. China offers a useful counterweight to Russia. A network of pipelines between Central Asia and China is gradually taking shape, and Russia appears to be realizing that China is not just a useful partner for keeping west out of Central Asia – it is also a competitor. However, as European energy growth slows, Russia too needs alternative markets for its oil and gas, and China has managed to secure preferential treatment there as well. Many analysts who write on Central Asian energy wealth, often focus their concentration on plight of Afghanistan solely, which has made CARs vulnerable, due to the insecurity prevailing in Afghanistan more like a domino effect. At the critical juncture of their independence the Central Asians were fearful as they lost Soviet backing, their security provider. These weak and fragile states were the onlooker of Taliban civil strife in the decade of 1990’s dreading the spillover effect and that seems the same today. In 2011, the consequential effect of US war in Afghanistan is haunting the Central Asian regimes. The drug trafficking, smuggling, narcotics, human trafficking and arms trade etc is delaying their economic well being and becoming cause of derailment and frustration for many opportunists.