China’s Great Game: In Russia’s backyard

The handful of shiny new buildings sprouting out of a barren landscape of dusty steppe and rusting shipping containers is an incongruous sight. One of them, a sparkling tower of marble and glass, is empty aside from a duty-free shop on the ground floor. Next door, a shop sells Russian honey and Chinese ladies’ shoes, displayed side by side.

This is Khorgos, the dividing line between China and Kazakhstan. And while it may not look like much now, China has ambitions to transform this border point at what was once the edge of the Russian empire into a new gateway to the west.

“East meets west. It’s here. This is the linking point,” says Hicham Belmaachi, commercial director of a newly-built dry port at the border, designed to speed up the transit of Chinese goods via Xinjiang on their way to central Asia, Europe or the Middle East.

Khorgos is just one of a ribbon of projects across the region designed to help realise China’s dreams of a new Silk Road — a plan backed by President Xi Jinping that would firmly stamp his country’s authority and influence from Xi’ian to Europe.

With promises of tens of billions of dollars in investment, the Chinese strategy, if realised, could reshape the former Soviet economies of central Asia, which have been battered by falling commodity prices and recession in Russia.

But increasing economic dependence on China at a time of uncertainty over the health of its economy is not universally popular in the central Asian states. And the launch of a regional integration drive has put Beijing on a collision course with Moscow, which has been lobbying countries to join its Eurasian Economic Union. It also raises the stakes for Beijing: as China invests more in this fragile region bordering Afghanistan, it is finding it harder to resist being drawn into political and military affairs.

“This is China’s inadvertent empire. It’s a part of the world where they are clearly becoming the most significant geopolitical player,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a specialist on the region at the Royal United Services Institute. “I don’t think they’ve given consideration to what that means in the longer term.”

Two years ago, Mr Xi stood in Kazakhstan’s futuristic capital of Astana and invoked the memory of Zhang Qian, the diplomat who helped open China’s trade with the world in the 2nd century BC.

“As I stand here and look back at that episode of history, I could almost hear the camel bells echoing in the mountains and see the wisp of smoke rising from the desert,” the Chinese leader said. Describing Kazakhstan as a “magic land”, he called for the creation of a new “economic belt” along the old trade routes.

“The ancient Silk Road has gained fresh vitality,” he said.

Others see parallels with a more recent period in history: the tussle for influence between the Russian and British empires in the 19th century. As China expands its influence in parts of the former Soviet Union, central Asia could become the focus of a new “Great Game” between Beijing, Moscow and possibly Iran, Turkey and western countries.

But as western interest in the region recedes with the military drawdown from Afghanistan, and Russia’s ability to invest is curtailed by its own economic recession, the Great Game in the region may turn out to be one-sided. Over the past two decades China has quietly become the pre-eminent economic power in the region; now many central Asian governments greet the prospect of Chinese investment as their last chance to stave off a downturn that could threaten political stability.

Trade between China and the five post-Soviet central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — has risen from $1.8bn in 2000 to $50bn in 2013, according to IMF data, before dropping slightly amid the decline in commodity prices. That means China has surpassed Russia in recent years to become the region’s single largest trade partner.

“If you look at investment needs in the region, then Chinese participation is very important to say the least,” says Agris Preimanis, central Asia economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a major western investor in the region. “They are increasingly active in all sectors and you just cannot see western capital or Russian capital taking their place.”

In Kazakhstan, Chinese companies own somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of the country’s oil production — about the same proportion as the national oil company. In Turkmenistan, holder of the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, China has replaced Russia’s Gazprom as the dominant buyer of Turkmen gas, accounting for 61 per cent of exports last year. Much of that shift is thanks the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, opened in 2009, which provides the region’s energy-rich economies with a major export route not controlled by Moscow. In the region’s poorer countries, China has also become an economic power. Chinese companies have invested in oil refineries and cement plants in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and in roads and tunnels across the region.

Data on the scale of Chinese investment are sketchy, as much is done at a bilateral level between Chinese state banks, such as China Development Bank or China Eximbank, and central Asian governments or state companies.

But in one example, the Tajik deputy finance minister last year told the FT that Beijing would invest $6bn in Tajikistan over the next three years — a figure equivalent to two-thirds of the country’s annual gross domestic product.

This economic dominance means that often it seems that China, not Russia, is now the most important patron of central Asian governments. After Kazakhstan allowed its currency to float freely in August, triggering an immediate devaluation of more than a fifth, its first priority was to reassure Beijing.

“Where is the first visit of the Kazakh president after this decision? Where was the first commitment that all the investments are in place? China,” says Kairat Kelimbetov, the central bank governor.

When Tajikistan, the region’s poorest country, was running low on central bank reserves this summer, it signed a swap agreement with the People’s Bank of China worth Rmb3.2bn ($500m).

It is not always smooth travelling on the new Silk Road. In a region that has traditionally felt greater cultural affinities with Russia and Turkey, politicians are frequently suspicious of China. A proposal for China to lease a large area of land for agriculture triggered rare public protests in Kazakhstan in 2010.

Dosym Satpayev, a Kazakh political scientist who heads the Almaty-based Risk Assessment Group, warns: “Any attempt by China to increase influence in Kazakhstan will awake more anti-China sentiment.”

While many see the new Silk Road as more of a formalisation of China’s presence in the region than a specific plan, the fanfare surrounding it has raised hackles among those who see central Asia as part of Russia’s “sphere of influence”. Zhao Huasheng, director of the Centre for Russia and Central Asia studies at Fudan University, says that when the Silk Road strategy was announced, Russian officials saw it as a challenge to Moscow’s own regional integration project, the Eurasian Economic Union.

“China provided a lot of explanation,” he says. “China sees the projects developing in parallel, in a co-operative way.”

In the past, Russia blocked attempts to increase the reach of another Chinese-led regional group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which includes all the central Asian states apart from Turkmenistan.

Yet when Mr Xi visited Moscow in May, the two countries signed a declaration on co-operation between the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road project. Alexander Gabuev, senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think-tank, says the deal was the result of “painful internal discussions” in Moscow. Analysts say the unspoken agreement between Moscow and Beijing appears to be that Russia will cede economic dominance in central Asia to China, but maintain its military and security heft in the region.

“What the Kremlin is hoping for is a division of labour between Moscow and Beijing in central Asia,” says Mr Gabuev. “In this grand scheme, China will be the major driver for economic development, while Moscow will remain the dominant hard security provider.”

Liu Yazhou, a general in the People’s Liberation Army, called central Asia “a rich piece of cake given to today’s Chinese people by heaven” in a 2010 essay that became a kind of manifesto for China’s expansionist policy in the region.

Analysts see two broad motivations behind the dramatic increase in Chinese investment in the region that started in the 1990s.

First, as China’s commodity consumption skyrocketed, central Asia was a nearby source of oil, gas, uranium, copper and gold supplies. Second, Beijing wanted co-operation from the newly-independent states to keep its restive Xinjiang region in check. Xinjiang’s native Uighurs have much in common with the cultures, languages and religion of central Asia, and there is a large Uighur minority in the region.

But China may find it hard to stay out of security matters as its economic interests in the region increase. It has already started providing some military aid to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. “Even though this is an economic project it could create political impact or influence,” says Prof Zhao. “I think China will get more involved in security in the region. But it doesn’t mean China will be involved in that region militarily.”

General Liu writes of the cultural affinities between Xinjiang and the peoples of central Asia, noting: “The advantageous factor is that they all derive great benefits from economic co-operation with China.”

With the launch of the new Silk Road, analysts see a shift in investments towards infrastructure and other sectors. “If before Chinese investment was directed at the oil and gas sector, now it will be in infrastructure, industry, agriculture, tourism and other areas,” says Ding Xiaoxing, director of central Asia studies at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, a government-linked think-tank.

At Khorgos, the Kazakh-Chinese border crossing, this shift is becoming reality. Rows of gleaming new railway tracks stretch into the distance, ready to handle ever-increasing volumes of Chinese cargo. Mr Belmaachi boasts that his team can shift a trainload of cargo from a Chinese to a Kazakh train — the two countries’ railways have different-sized gauges — in just 47 minutes.

The state railway company, Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ), has invested 245bn tenge ($900m) to build the dry port, which started operations in August and launches officially next Monday. China’s Jiangsu province in September announced an agreement to invest $600m over five years in logistics and industrial zones around Khorgos.

Darryl Hadaway, a former regional head of Deloitte who is starting a logistics business focused on Kazakhstan, says Khorgos can become a hub for regional and international trade, serving the role that Atlanta does in the US.

Already, the number of containers travelling by train between China and Europe via Kazakhstan has increased 18 times between 2011 and 2014, and is on track to double again this year, according to KTZ. The route is attractive to electronics companies such as HP — which has helped to pioneer it — for whom the shorter transit time compared to shipping by sea is worth paying for. The journey from China to Europe takes 14-16 days, compared with a month or more by sea, although the cost of shipping one container is some $9,000 compared with $3,000 by sea.

KTZ is hoping to capture 6 per cent of the trade between China and Europe by 2020; currently 98 per cent goes by sea.

“Companies in Europe and China have never studied this option in detail. People were really busy shipping by sea and not focusing on this route,” says Mr Belmaachi. “I really think this is the next big thing for the supply chain.”

Increasing the number of trains plying the route may also help to open up new trade routes for perishable products, like fruit and vegetables, says Mr Hadaway. “There is a whole range of products coming out of Asia that have never been able to access this market.”


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