Much was made about “people power” and the coming of democracy to Central Asia when the repressive government was toppled by street protests in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. While I am a firm believer in the great power of freedom, and predicted a successful Iraqi election, I am uncertain whether such optimism is warranted in Central Asia. What is more compelling is that the recent events in Kyrgyzstan reflect a continuing power vacuum that has existed in the region since the dissolution of the Soviet empire.
While both Russia and the United States maintain bases in the area, neither has a clear grip on the region. Russia still retains a significant influence, but Moscow is far away — its attention is often fixated on closer flashpoints like Ukraine and Chechnya. The United States, on the other hand, has some interest in the area of late, but lacks expertise, resources and history there.
China’s role in Central Asia is often neglected in the Western media. Kyrgyzstan, for example, shares a 533-mile border with China. Neighboring Kazakhstan has an even longer border facing China. China’s influence and merchandise have been infiltrating the region with alacrity since the Soviet demise. China and Central Asia also share an ancient history of trade, cultural exchanges and war — in both directions. The future Chinese strategy toward this power vacuum is, thus, a big question mark.
In the 1930’s, the strategic planners of the Imperial Japanese military forces considered the future direction of their expansion and asked themselves a simple question: north or south? “North” meant the vastness of Soviet Siberia and Central Asia, abundantly endowed with resources, but sparsely populated. “South” meant European colonies of Southeast Asia, also rich, but perhaps more strongly defended by established European powers.
Fate intervened in the Japanese decision in any case. The Japanese army met unexpected difficulties in border skirmishes with Soviet forces (most notably at Nomonhan where Marshal Georgi Zhukov, later the Soviet hero of the war against Germany, first proved his mettle). Hitler invaded Western Europe and gravely weakened the European colonial powers in Asia. The die was cast, and the Empire of Japan went “south,” thereby coming into the fatal conflict with the United States.
Although China is not quite the militarily expansionist force that Imperial Japan was in the 1930s, its strategic situation is perhaps analogous. Will China choose north or south?
Today much of the attention regarding China is on the “south.” It is assumed in the West that China naturally looks toward the South China Sea and beyond to the waters of Southeast Asia and perhaps even the Indian Ocean. The region is economically vibrant. There are commercially successful ethnic Chinese enclaves all over the area, controlling much of the national wealth in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. Furthermore, the area serves as a vital conduit of foreign trade for China, taking Chinese products westward and bringing much needed natural resources like petroleum through the strategically important Straits of Malacca. Expecting China’s strategic influence to head south is a good bet.
Still, the possibility that China could press northward should not be entirely discounted. There are some good reasons why China may do so. Russia remains weak both in economic and military terms in the region and will be so for the foreseeable future. The area is vastly endowed with natural resources, especially energy that China’s growing and hungry economy enviously eyes. At the same time, the region is largely unpopulated, an attractive condition for over-populated China.
Southeast Asian nations, though generally friendly toward China, also have relatively strong, stable governments that jealously guard their sovereignty whereas Central Asian countries often lack cohesion or even a strong sense of national identity. Any overt move to flex Chinese muscle in Southeast Asia will, just as Imperial Japan experienced, likely bring China into a devastating conflict with the United States, with increasingly security-conscious Japan in tow. This potential conflict is something that China wishes to avoid at almost any cost for some time to come.
In addition, there is the Islamic angle to consider. Though often unacknowledged to outsiders or even to its own people, China faces a radicalized Uighur Muslim insurgency in Xinjiang, a northwestern frontier province. Formerly an ethnic-national liberation movement against Han Chinese colonization in the province, the insurgency is increasingly co-opted by infiltration of Arab and Wahabbi influence. In the near future, China may feel compelled to extend its power northwestward to forestall instability to Xinjiang.
This is not to predict Chinese territorial expansion, particularly toward Central Asia. But a power vacuum often invites temptations and, thus, conflicts, and a tenuous and uneasy balance of power exists now in Central Asia. Combined with growing Chinese economic and military prowess as well as a longstanding Chinese desire to become the Asian hegemon, the potential for a Chinese “north” strategy should not be dismissed lightly. Such an appreciation should also lead Russian leaders to reconsider their allergic reaction to any increase in American influence in Central Asia, given Russia’s strained ability to counter Chinese influence there today.