China vs America Beyond Trump: the Eurasia Theater

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In the Age of Trump, the temptation to regard the Sino-American geopolitical contest purely in mercantilist-competition terms is strong and growing. For those of us with a more than cursory interest in international political economy (IPE), however, such monomaniacal attractions are fatal.

I intend therefore to remind colleague students of IPE to remain focused on the enduring elements of the Sino-American struggle for a neohegemonic world order by resurrecting less fashionable topics such as the tussle over Central Asia.

The ongoing ruckus in Kazakhstan[1] is as good an excuse as any to bring this fascinating region of the world back to the analytical center stage.  My goal here is to provide a brief overview of of the strategic relationship between China and the United States in the Central Asian arena today entirely from the perspective of a mid-ranking Chinese Strategist. For dramatic effect, I shall even be speaking in the voice of such an actor. Here goes.

[Static. Static clears. Crisp tones. Chinese mid-ranking strategist is in mid-flight.]

Apart from them constituting, collectively, a critical lynchpin in our broader Eurasian strategy, the five Central Asian states are also critical poles of growth in their own right as sovereign owners of large unexplored mineral reserves.

We know of course how diverse these countries are – from increasingly liberal Kyrgyzstan, flirting with Western rapprochement, to virtually unreconstructed pseudo-Soviet Turkmenistan. But despite their critical differences, it is their similarities that matter most for the upcoming analysis. In the rest of this analysis, I shall be referring to the Central Asian arena and any others bearing strong similarity to them within our international sphere of interest as the “Prime Theatres”.

Our Core Leader in his latest exposition on the evolution of the Scientific Outlook of Development, which expands the Three Represents into a durable notion of a homegrown Chinese Dream, has advised us to be “globally-minded” when evaluating evolving conditions in the world system. [2]

This exhortation is not limited to current affairs. It extends as much, my friends, to world history. We cannot evaluate important international developments solely from the perspective of Chinese history and Chinese civilizational constructs.

In looking therefore at the current interplay of forces in the Central Asia arena, against the bigger picture of Eurasia, my proposition is that we learn broadly from great historical shifts. This is very much in line with our contemporary Bing Jia philosophy, in keeping with our nature as the most heterodox of this country’s great schools of strategy; guided constantly by the CCP line, but always seeking to enrich and expand the ethos of Chinese strategy formulation in policymaking.

I must from the outset re-emphasise that our overriding goal should not be the attenuation of American influence in the Eurasian Prime Theatre. If the Americans come to that ignominious end by their own hand, all well and good. But our policy needs not be concerned with expediting that outcome, even if in ever shriller tones so-called China watchers in America continue to accuse China of seeking to supplant American imperialism, wherever traces of it can be found.[3] We must not be distracted.

Instead our goal should be to match – not to displace – and to exceed – not to diminish – America’s influence in Eurasia. The historical and contemporary realities of Central Asia, in many ways the most complex part of Eurasia from our perspective, require some forbearance in any effort to “own” the grand economic and political outcomes in this geography. In the course of our various endeavours, our mere positioning as an “alternative pole” offers valuable optionality to the governments of these regions, thereby boosting our standing without commensurate expenditure of material resources.

Some have accused us of pursuing General Wang’s “Empty Fortress” strategy. Clearly those who hold such a view did not properly read their Qi Shu. It has not been, and it should not be, the goal of our policy to implement “access denial” to American interests, whether overtly or through subterfuge. Our abiding interest has been, and should continue to be, that Asian priorities shape the engagement of any non-Asian powers in these parts. And that includes Russia, India and the European Union.

Despite the obsession of third-rate Western analysts with such framings, the evidence has always been amply clear; as far as Central Asia is concerned, our best minds concur on one thing: the Eurasian corridor is the real prize.

Eurasia is of course a vast geopolity. To avoid costly overreach and strategic drift, we must be careful to align with regional momentum, whilst developing the capacity to differentially engage with the individual countries on the basis of deep appreciation of their domestic dynamics, going beyond elite facades to feel the pulse of the strong undercurrents shaping their economies, socio-political transformation and worldviews.

Our present efforts notwithstanding, it is in these latter respects that we have fallen short, and thus failed to conclusively position ourselves as the credible alternative for meeting the most important ambitions of the five Central Asian states. We should nevertheless be wary of investing in grand alliances. They are rarely the useful instrument of geopolitics that they are held up to be. America’s tactical retreat from the region has conferred it with advantages, a counterintuitive result that is only obvious once close attention is paid to the shifting dynamics. We must be contingent in our strong engagement, applying emphasis to specific concrete outcomes and downplaying fanciful notions of the construction of a new grand hemisphere.

In this brief attempt at a broad-strokes analysis, my goal is to situate the concrete expressions of our strategy – the $100 billion Asian Infrastructure Bank, the $40 billion Silk Road Fund, the $3 billion earmarked allocation for modernisation of defence cooperation, financing for minerals exploitation, scientific installations, industrial investments etc. – inside an ideational framework that shows the perils of grand alliances in this context of Sino-American relations. My approach is to draw on contemporary analysis but with salient lessons from world history constantly in the backdrop.

In summary, our success in the Prime Theatres will depend on how well we are able to respect the following key principles:

  • Our preferences must evolve as our capabilities evolve.
  • We must not create the impression of fixed bargains. Our engagers must understand that the relationship would be reset with changing times and as the strategic environment transforms. We are allied for specific outcomes not on the basis of eternal values.
  • Win-win does not mean that on every transaction both parties get the same payoffs.
  • Tactics is the permanent resolution of temporary problems. Strategy is the temporary resolution of permanent constraints.
  1. The “Operational Challenge” of Agility

As we pursue the legitimate objectives of our national energy security and trade expansion across the Eurasian expanse, Central Asia shall continue to matter greatly for the success or otherwise of our strategy.

We must remember however that the US does not face the energy calculus that confronts us. Today, it is a net exporter of refined petroleum products and 90% self-sufficient in its energy demand profile. Its capacity to play a long game and show greater flexibility in the manner in which it inserts itself into the play for Central Asia’s considerable energy and geographic resources is more assured than diminished precisely because of its tactical retreat from the region and the abandonment of the New Silk Road Initiative pushed by the declining forces of international neoliberalism in the American administration.

If we do not exercise care, our need to secure supplies and to build launchpads for new logistical experiments supporting our export growth policies shall be successfully misrepresented by American provocateurs as a “grab”, and our every move reinterpreted as steps to convert the Eurasian corridor into a tributary serving our selfish interests. Episodic protests against the presence of Chinese migrants and the activities of our companies in the places like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are, alarmingly, recurring at a growing frequency.

We have for long been found wanting in the use of private consulting entities, international norm setting agencies, civil society organisations and NGOs, and academic entrepreneurs, as vanguard elements to intubate the societies in which we operate and thereby better enhance the flow of our interests. This “technical backwardness” has been made into a virtue to inoculate us against one form of the Athenian[4] disease: the hubris of regional moral arbiter. We have so far avoided the impression of being the grand adjudicator of interstate grievances.

But as the troubles in Xinjiang and the instabilities on our western front take on an increasingly regional dimension, and as our counter-terrorism capabilities grow in sophistication, we find ourselves sucked into an American paradigm: the idea of a borderless war on terror. Our recent decisions to restrict the emergence of a free-ranging Islamic diaspora of Western Chinese Muslims by detaining ethnic Kazakhs for re-education in ideological rehabilitation centers has sparked off an unusually loud series of protests from various Kazakh government agencies.[5] We are increasingly having to intervene in border security arrangements in neighbouring Central Asian countries than has ever been necessary.

Even as, under the current administration in Washington, America’s aspirations and expectations for pan-global cooperation on anti-terrorism and assorted similar security initiatives grow more and more modest.

We build giant pipelines from the steppes to cart precious fossil fuels to light up our thirsty industries in the great hinterlands as indeed we should. But by so doing we increase several-fold the surface area of security threats.[6]

With international jihadists continuing to gain footholds in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and their eyes fixed firmly on Xinjiang, Qinghai and Ningxia, we find ourselves impelled by sheer necessity to dictate terms to hapless governments in the region on how to contain these threats and prevent them from spilling over.

The general incompetence that has been on display in Uzbekistan in the handling of the IMU matter has resulted in the broadening of the nexus of terror taking root in parts of the region into the dreaded prospect of cross-fertilisation with Middle Eastern militancy. It has thrown the paradox of non-interference and shared risk into stark relief.

There are aspects of these security manoeuvres that are beyond our skill, and acknowledging them is the first step towards a clear-eyed reconfiguration of our strategy.

The decision to promote the growth of private security companies and deepen the civilian defence contracting space[7] has received strong endorsement from our Core Leader and as a sign of the seriousness with which the Politburo under his leadership takes the issue, we now have the Central Commission for Integrated Military & Civilian Development.

We have begun to co-opt disgruntled American private military contractors, given them the attention they crave so much but have been denied by their own leaders, and are steadily integrating their capabilities into our mercantile security agenda. We now have close to 6000 private security companies, many of whom are on course to follow the few dozen that have already been integrated into Chinese external security and reconnaissance-surveillance infrastructure, despite some niggling unease amongst the PLA General Staff. Since many of these companies are in their infancy, we expect that mistakes shall be made, but our investments in international expertise, particularly in former American-run entities like the Frontier Security Group[8], should help us rapidly mitigate the effects of inexperience. Unlike directly “running” former American security officers, the ability of American counter-intelligence to react[9] is quite limited.

By continuing to invest in the coordination of state-private security interests, we greatly reduce the frigidity of overt military diplomacy. And, without a doubt, the agility that such operational auxiliaries would confer on the asset fortification objectives of our economic expansion is truly precious. It should enable us to achieve security for our fast accumulating assets abroad without having to deal with the optics and consequences of having state personnel in Chinese uniforms manning arsenal across the steppes, the Caspian and soon the Baltic straits. Private defence contractors, provided we keep their leashes taut, should help us deal firmly with these emerging tactical constraints before they become strategic impediments. Best of all, their camouflaged mobility comes with no diplomatic deadweight.

 

  1. The “Existential Problem” of Resentment

We must, nevertheless, not trip over the same stumbling blocks that America neglected, and beckon to our own 9/11 moment. If we attract provocations that go to our honour, strategy may dissolve into a series of distractions.

It is critical that in addition to operational agility we also consider the existential risk of “great power resentment”, a permanent problem that we must solve continually, vigilantly. Aided by strategy, and informed by the wisdom of history.

Let us be reminded of the follies of the Hapsburg Philip II who conflated the existential risk of freethinking faced by his catholic imperialism with operational security challenges, and then blundered across Europe even as in his own backyard, anti-dogmatic forces were gathering to seal his doom. When eventually these forces found a centrifugal core in the person of the Lutheran William the Silent, Prince of Orange, an unstoppable chain of events would be unleashed, eventually toppling the rule of the Habsburgs in the low countries. The Spain that survived into the next century was not the thriving and ascendant Spain of yesteryear.

In nurturing and guiding regional alliances against terrorism, we cannot avoid the shadow of America, both as an example of the risks wrought large and as a very real physical presence in many of these situations around the region.

Bogged down in a protracted war with no discernible objective contours, the United States in Afghanistan is in a sorry state. The puppet regime it installed in Kabul is at this point losing bases and considerable amounts of materiel to a resurgent Taleban.

Across the peripheries of this conflict, along thin stretches of land connecting Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, our undisclosed forward-operating bases in Bakadhshan, Warkhan and the Fergana should enhance the PLA’s reaction time to incidents in any of the proliferating flashpoints.

With growing strength and confidence, China’s capacity to provide security cover to its far-flung economic undertakings should continue to be carefully calibrated without fanfare. Official silence on all planned base construction activities should continue to be our standard policy. By denying narrational form to tales of our ascendancy we diffuse the concentration of news coverage that create popular perceptions. Popular perceptions in America, long beholden to demagogic forces, inevitably trump the sagely wisdom of elite conclaves.

But it is not only the Americans we have to contend with when it comes to physical extensions of our security cover. In South Asia, we have seen aggressive lobbying by India to prevent Chinese naval presence in what it considers its “sphere of interest”, such as in Sri Lanka. Russia – despite all the overtures we have mutually extended to each other; our obvious need to collaborate on the great, and mightily expensive, Eurasian integration project; and our shared concerns about America’s continued meddling in the region – continues to exert enormous pressure on client governments in Central Asia to deny China any space to erect military installations. The stronger the popular perception of Chinese ubiquity the quicker resentment shall transform into paranoia.

Except in some narrow trade matters, every strategic engagement we have with the Americans, every geopolitical framing we give to the relationship, has this complex, multilateral, character. Our deep and hydra-headed interconnections across every arena in which we play have imposed this canvas upon both of us. And the situation cannot be different when we zoom in on local and trans-local issues in the Central Asian states themselves.

 

  1. Beware the Delian Symmachy

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the five Central Asian states suddenly found themselves burdened with independence. Their natural tendency, as was the trend across the Global South, particularly in those areas where soviet domination had been strongest, was to look to the Washington Consensus for re-socialisation into the new world order under American and European tutelage. It did not take too long for disillusion to set in, albeit at a different pace for each country.

Like the Aegean City-States in the period before and in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, Central Asian nations have evolved a geopolitical worldview under the shadow of imperial threat. Their “Persia” has been at various times, Persia itself, the Mongolian horde, America, the USSR, and Russia, depending on which power was doing the fear-projection and what interests are at stake.

The years of vassalage, marked by varying degrees of subjection, and the memories of having been the main site of many of the Soviet gulags, have induced a distrust of great powers in this corner of the Eurasian Prime Theatre.

Today, we are engaged in a contest for minds and treasure that is not too dissimilar from the period in the lead up to the Peloponnesian War. Whether we are Athens, and America, Sparta; and whether Russia fits well in the robes of Corinth are all questions with evolving answers. The episodic conduct of each great power will put them in whichever Peloponnesian garb fits best for the situational analysis at hand. But whether the endgame is war or not is hardly the most poignant issue here. Because an essential difference between the Peloponnesian context and the context I am discussing is that “Persia” is very often also at every table, and not merely arraying its latest armada across the straits between Piraeus and Salamis.

What, therefore, is primarily at issue is the structure of the alliances that emerge and whether the character of these alliances will breed resentment rather than friendship.

Athens did not lose the war to Sparta merely because it underestimated Sparta’s strengths whilst overinflating the importance of its own naval capabilities. It lost the war because it forced a framework of alliances whose structural purpose once defunct could only become a spigot for toxic resentment and an engine perpetuated by chronic exploitation[10].

The descent of the Delian league into a cesspool of anomie and grievance is a cautionary tale against the pursuit and perpetuation of grand alliances as if they are ends in themselves, and in the belief that once they have settled on a rhythm then they acquire legitimacy purely by striking the same rhetorical notes over and over again.

When a growing power strikes a friendship with weaker neighbours, the power imbalance, so long as there is a continued divergence in growth, shall always remain the fundamental feature of the relationships.[11]

Unless such relationships are purposively steered to achieve the purpose of collective expansion of some kind, to harness the energies of the allies towards productive ends, the symbiosis very quickly always turns to cannibalisation, either in reality or in perception. Every alliance can fall prey to this. But what history teaches us is that the scale of the initial delusion matters. There is a particular class of alliances that deserve even closer scrutiny.

 

  1. Grand Alliances – Not Always so Grand

The temptation to try and solve multiple, disparate, problems with one uniform tool is very tempting. And of all temptations, the allure of “Grand Alliances” is the most intense.

Throughout history – from the time of the degeneration of the Delian League to the conflagration of the Belle Epoque in the crucible of the Triple Alliance –  even the greatest and savviest political leaders have often misunderstood the purpose of alliances as a means of amplifying the reach of power through synergies where possible and misconstrued them, especially when hallmarked by their scale and pomposity, as trophy symbols.

Instead of regarding and framing alliances as instruments for building power they have been treated as evidence of power and channels for using that alleged power. Yet, like all systems that generate power, alliances become highly flammable when they malfunction due to misconfiguration or misuse.

Few examples from history are as poignant as those that dot the daguerreotype of World War I.

A close look at the pacts underlying the alliances before the war – from the Entente Cordiale to the Ausgleich – reveals their underlying purpose as based on decisions to address specific sore points in the historical relationships amongst these powers. It is not clear at what point the wise and powerful rulers of Europe determined that alliance pacts are mechanical devices for the automatic production of friendship. Rather than the contrivances they indeed are for freeing inter-state relations from historical deadweight to allow future cooperation to proceed unhindered on the merits of clear forward-looking opportunity.

Once locked into these sub-optimal arrangements, every petty folly became magnified by their refraction through outsized geopolitical prisms. War was thus made inevitable by the rigidities imposed through the alliance system.

Neither Germany nor the United Kingdom really needed these wars. The former’s rapidly accelerating industrial capacity and the latter’s far-flung mercantile empire were all that were necessary to free them from the tight constraints of the European theatre so that they could embrace the emerging hyper-globalisation of means and ends.

But bogged down by Europe’s alliance system they unleashed against each other terrifying armaments and masses of soldiery that were impossible to contain in one war. Inevitably a second war was necessary, and by the end of it all both Germany and the United Kingdom had become second-rate powers.

The account above suffices to illustrate the risks of grand alliances. But, once again, it is not the endgame of war that should interest us the most. Even with the entanglements across Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Central Asian states being witnessed today in the Fergana Valley. Even with the interlocking of more nuclear and aspiring nuclear powers across this one range than anywhere else in the World – India vs Pakistan, Taleban vs Iran, China vs India, America vs Russia, etc. – war is not the overarching concern. Not because war is not important, but because when the permutations are run, war drops out far less frequently than many other plausible scenarios. At any rate, Great Power competition among China, Russia and America is remarkably benign due to an unusual coincidence of threat perception than is the case elsewhere (such as for instance, the Indo-Pacific).[12]

The more important takeaway from the historical lessons of World War I is the need to avoid declaratory gestures of comity that serve to signal exclusionary zones of operation. In simple words, to avoid blood oaths, open-ended commitments to collaborate for the attainment of vague and loose prospects.

When we participate in initiatives like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, our aim should not be the creation of interlocking bulwarks against some perceived set of interests, particularly American interests.

Our approach should, instead, focus on the ease with which such diplomatic instruments enable us to quicken the pace of contingent arrangements to achieve our real goals of dotting Central Asia with productive infrastructure to facilitate the next great leap of our economic progress, which if successful should boost overall regional economic capacity, as has happened across the Pacific Rim and elsewhere in East Asia.

Such “instrumental” alliances are indeed critical to opening a new front in our outward economic expansion so crucial to the domestic effort of turbocharging socially inclusive growth again.

 

  1. America’s Game of Hastening Slowly

As you are already aware, friends, comrades, the US decided a few years ago that maintaining troops in Central Asia is not essential to sustaining its influence in the broader region. As with energy, so, it would seem, with military bases: the US has the luxury of temporary depriorisation.

It is important to remind ourselves that the idea of an integrated Caucasus, paid for by the proceeds of enhanced regional economic synergy, was originally American. Much of the content of their New Silk Road Initiative (NSRI) sits today in the One Belt One Road program, our signature, counterhegemonic, initiative. Rather than gloat over America’s seeming fall from grace, we must study the circumstances of their withdrawal to test them for alignment with the classical doctrines of feigned retreat in the Qi Shu.

When the decision to scale down military exposure to Afghanistan downgraded the command importance of Central Asia, America abandoned the thinking behind NSRI to focus on specific, concrete, opportunities, without any qualms about the longer timelines involved in utilizing its imperialist fronts. Examples abound, but CASA-1000 is as good as any to illustrate this logic.

When American instruments of global economic imperialism – like the USAID, OPIC and EXIM – invest in infrastructure and other economic development projects, they drill down to minutiae to maintain project control.

Their near-hegemonic influence in multilateral financial and economic institutions like the World Bank and the IMF helps distribute project risks, reinforce western legalistic thinking and so-called “corporate governance”, while at the same time increasing the rigour of project design. Strict rules on procurement prevent political capture and incentivises bureaucratic excellence. This approach is indeed slow, and as prone to the risk of resentment as are the fears of “neo-colonial grabbing” we usually have to deal with.  The World Bank-husbanded CASA-1000, for instance, has been nearly a decade in the making, and yet to transmit a single MW of power.

However, there are clear advantages to such methods of holistic penetration. It is important that “soft infrastructure” not be confused with “values” and then dismissed with cynicism. Standards and governance systems have concrete impact on hard outcomes.

For instance, minimising graft not only helps conserve resources, it can also help avoid risks of project failure. Properly aligning market incentives and state priorities ensure commercial sustainability of large-scale infrastructure projects.

CASA-1000 for instance has progressed far beyond the securing of rights of way for the physical infrastructure of gridlines and transformers. It has penetrated deeply into the institutional design of regional electricity markets, slowly altering the landscape for energy investments in the region. Through extended consultations and because of the extensive availability of information, the project has been building sockets for private sector participation across the supply chain. America is not worrying itself with the need for elaborate alliances anymore. It is focused on marketing one core capacity: governance and the technologies to deliver it, to whomsoever is interested.

China’s relative incapacity to execute this kind of institutional penetration has forced many of our programs to suffer considerable atrophy. Our Khorgos Gateway projects are seeing uptake far below expectations. The Turkmenistan-China pipeline complex has become a byword for confusion, following the cancelling of Line D. The failure of the KGMI energy deal in Kazakhstan, after much funfair, has considerably embarrassed the government there. It is clear that money alone is rarely enough in economic power projection.

Whilst much is often made of the fifty-fold growth in our trade volumes with Central Asia, few seem to have noticed that the European Union actually out-trades us. Even tiny Italy currently outperforms us in Kazakhstan, the biggest of the regional economies, by a multiple of nearly two. So long as the region exports natural resources, any country is as good as another on the other side of a trade. Until ongoing efforts deepen the sophistication of these economies, thus giving an overwhelming edge to proximal partners with the stomach for complex execution risks and high rewards, our alliances shall fail to bear full fruit.

All of these facts point to one core reality: our economic position in Central Asia is far from ascendant, and a re-engaged, increasingly more mercantile, America could easily start to unbalance our vantage point for effective manoeuvring. We need as a country to continue to advert our minds to some fundamental shifts currently underway in the region which we can only ignore at our peril.

 

  1. Our Rendezvous with America

The pieces of the shaken kaleidoscope are still in flux. When they settle, what picture of engagement shall be painted of our strategic face-off with America in Central Asia over the prize of Eurasia?

I have no doubt in my mind that the two powers shall be judged by the degree to which the effects of their direct, perceptible, investments are seen to align with the growing aspirations of younger people, especially the growing middle class of professionals and entrepreneurs.

Throughout the region today, with only marginal differences from place to place, a general sense of disenchantment with the direction of society is pervasive in every country. A strong consensus has been building up that Central Asia has been mismanaged for far too long that any major development is just another in a long line of “reforms” or “transformations” that simply fail to materialise. Cynicism runs very deep in the society. A number of additional factors explain the apathy and anomie.

The contiguity of territorial and national identity of these five states is of more recent vintage than that of most African and Asian states, with the current sovereign boundaries dating only to 1936. A greater proportion of the nepotism, corruption, cronyism and state incompetence we see across these countries stem from this lack of strong national and social cohesion. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s characterisation of the region as the “Eurasian Balkans” was apt in that regard.

On top of this, important environmental challenges, such as the ongoing desiccation of the Aral, have been almost completely ignored, creating conditions that may exacerbate the population pressures in parts of the region in years to come.[13]

The most worrying aspect of the plight of Central Asia, however, is the stagnation of the economic system. Nearly three decades since their independence, the economies of these countries continue to remain shackled to the ups and downs of Russia’s resource sector. Between two-fifths and a full half of the GDP of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is estimated to be driven primarily by remittances from their diaspora in the Russian Federation. Desperation at home continues to drive many Tajiks, Kyrgyzstanis, and Uzbeks to Russia, where too many of them slave away in poorly paid jobs under appalling conditions.

These problems make partnerships with great powers fraught with the fear of epimachia, the old Athenian tributary system that was meant to foster regional development but ultimately degenerated into plain exploitation.

Should China be perceived as merely reinforcing the natural resource extractive economy that only benefits the small elite at the top, any expansion of our economic footprint shall increase the appetite for Washington Consensus type reforms and so called “governance transformation”.

Recent democratic shifts are moreover heralding some fundamental shifts in attitudes, generating more optimism, and increasingly fuelling an unprecedented degree of political transparency that is turning resignation and fatigue into agitation, with corresponding demands for a new kind of more surgical reforms. And, unfortunately, China is not very well aligned with the trends in social sentiment.

The massive corruption still being uncovered in Kyrgyzstan following the departure of former leader, Almazbek Atambayev, regularly feature complicit Chinese institutions. Take the Bishkek HPP refurbishment project, for instance, where at least 30% of the $386 million in loans from our Exim Bank were misapplied with the clear connivance of Chinese contractors we imposed. Or the recent mess in Uzbekistan where the daughter of deceased President Islam Karimov, has been implicated in corruption scandals involving large sums of money, with Huawei mentioned at every turn as having facilitated kickbacks. The line that Huawei is a private company is hard to push when the record clearly shows how aggressive we have been in inserting it into technology infrastructure projects across the region.

And who, at every turn, has shown up just when media coverage of these “scandals” are at their peak? The United States of America, with a coterie of multilateral institutions, such as the OECD, in tow, offering help with “governance reforms” and training programs for officials to improve upon “public procurement” and contracting.

Which country is sponsoring so-called think tanks in the region to promote ideas about the dangers of “low diversification” and offering “leadership training programs” for the next generation of entrepreneurial public and private sector leaders? The United States.

Whilst big screen coverage of grand contests may miss these somewhat more subtle undercurrents, I am completely convinced that going forward the strategic context for our relationship with the United States shall be shaped more by these trends than any other.

 

Final Conclusions & Recommendations

Before I sign off, comrades, allow me to reiterate the key points I have made throughout this brief note:

  1. The success or failure of our Central Asian strategy shall be dependent entirely on how we can influence the emergence of economic synergies at a scale sufficient to underwrite the $1 trillion commitment we have made to the Eurasian integration project. Eurasia is indeed the Prize.
  2. Few opportunities around the world have this scale, occur within our immediate neighbourhood, and open up unexplored prospects with clear win-win payoffs as well as the Eurasian integration project.
  3. Our current alliance building efforts should be contingent on clear performance and should never degenerate into trophy-symbol “grand alliances”. History affords us much insight into the pitfalls of misconfiguring alliance strategy.
  4. In every dimension of each of the above objectives, America’s tactical retreat from the region provides them with exceptional scope to re-enter with better clarity about the opportunities and unbalance the elaborate architecture we are putting in place to drive the corridor integration project.
  5. Should we bungle the alliance framework and fail at genuine partnerships synced with the times, the US is likely to re-enter the fray utilising a Sparta-type monist strategy around the one theme that resonates with the ascendant, aspirational, classes of these countries: “better governance”. Our Delian league shall crumble on charges of symmachia. This is however far from a battle over “values” per se; this is about the control of objective conditions.
  6. Better “governance” is not merely a resuscitation of tired liberal democratic hopes. It is instead “developmentalist” in its own way. In many ways, the ongoing campaign that our Core Leader has launched domestically is buoyed by the same logic, and appeals to similar classes of people at home.

The battle is thus, without any doubt at all, a battle over concrete outcomes in development, state actualisation and political maturity.

It is in short a contest over who can mobilise alliances not just of elites but of whole populations. And victory, in Eurasia and elsewhere, shall not be handed to China on a silver platter. We must win the right to influence the determination of what success looks like in this most vital of strategic theatres.

 

NOTES:

[1] Gleeful coverage in the elite Western media is indicative of the persisting recognition of the region’s role in the general calculus of the Sino-American relationship. See: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-spy-case-exposes-chinas-power-play-in-central-asia-11562756782 (last accessed, 12th July, 2019).

[2] Those who are poorly schooled in the analysis of the rich innovation of our “Marxian localisation” tradition, especially those with Western audiences, tend to overanthropologise what are clear political economy constructs. See, for example, Xing, Lu & Simons, Herbert. 2006. “Transitional Rhetoric of Chinese Communist Party Leaders in the Post-Mao Reform Period: Dilemmas and Strategies.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 92:3, 262-286

[3] See, for instance: McReynolds, Joe. 2017. “Doctrinal Sea Change, Making Real Waves: Examining the Maritime Dimension of Strategy.” The Jamestown Foundation. Though we must admit that some of our own scholars have also been equally grandiose in their formulations. Example: Liao, Yonghe. 1995. “The Right and Wrong of the ‘America in Decline’ Theory.” Dangdai Shijie. But the majority have been very clear-eyed. See: Xu, Jin. 2008. “The Financial Crisis Will Not Upset the ‘One Superpower and Many Powers’ Structure.” Shijie Jingji yu Zhengzhi.

[4] Referring to the ancient, 5th Century, Athenian empire.

[5] A careful view, albeit with a Western lens, is presented in this work:

Gladney, Dru. 1996. “Relational alterity: Constructing dungan (hui), uygur, and Kazakh identities across china, central Asia, and Turkey, History and Anthropology.” 9:4, 445-477. And an Asian perspective:

Weiqing, Song. 2013. “Feeling safe, being strong: China’s strategy of soft balancing through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.” International Politics 50:5, pages 664-68

[6] These are dynamics that are not obscured from even the most blinkered observers. See, for instance: Ericson, Richard. 2009. “Eurasian Natural Gas Pipelines: The Political Economy of Network Interdependence.” Eurasian Geography and Economics, 50(1), pp. 28–57.

[7] See: Nouwens, Meia, and Helena, Legarda. 2018. “Guardians of the Belt and Road: the Internationalisation of Chinese Private Security Companies.” China Monitor, Mercator Institute of China Studies. Also on the www at: https://www.merics.org/en/china-monitor/guardians-of-belt-and-road (last accessed: December 11, 2018)

[8] FSG has even won contracts from the PLA, and has been permitted to invest in a defence academy that has trained thousands of PLA personnel to date.

[9] Cf. the Ron Hansen case. See: https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2019/03/18/spying-for-china-former-us-intel-officer-army-vet-pleads-guilty-to-attempted-espionage/ (last accessed, 12th May, 2019).

[10] See: Kallet, Lisa. 2013. “The Origins of the Athenian Economic ARCHE. The Journal of Hellenic Studies.” 133, 43-60.

[11] The tendency towards symmachia is of course widely appreciated amongst careful observers. See: Swanstrom, Niklas. 2005. “China and Central Asia: a new Great Game or traditional vassal relations?” Journal of Contemporary China, 14:45, 569-584

[12] For instance, both China and the United States agree on the need to fortify Pakistan against Indian bullying. Whilst some fret over concerns about China displacing America from Pakistan’s affections, it is not a situation fraught with danger. Iran distrusts both the Taleban and the Islamic State of Khorasan with equal passion, but to the extent that an agreement can actually be made with the Taleban, but not with the apocalyptic Daesh, its objectives may seem to be misaligned with American interests. The truth however is that Iran’s posture in Afghanistan continues to remain defensive. India has historical sound relations with Russia, and, as you know, comrades, they have fought a number of wars with us over territorial issues. But they also distrust American intents for the region as deeply as we do, and are just as rattled by Russia’s growing military engagement with Pakistan as we are. In short, no configuration of enmity is stable enough to prompt a necessary war.

[13] UN data projects a combined cumulative growth exceeding 170% for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan this century. See: http://data.un.org/Data.aspx?d=PopDiv&f=variableID%3A47 (last accessed December 11, 2018).

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