Alexander Cooley, Columbia University
Central Asia as Part of Greater Eurasia? Prospects and Challenges
And it’s a pleasure to be here once again. This is, I think, one of the highlights of the academic calendar for all Central Asia buffs and Eurasia buffs. It’s a true pleasure to be here, to be here on this distinguished panel. This year I wanted to focus on developments in the Russia/China relationship, but place them within the context of this Greater Eurasia concept that is now being floated in Russian official and academic and policymaking circles. Talk about Greater Eurasian integration. Does it resolve Russian/Chinese types of interactions and tensions in Eurasia and especially Central Asia, and what might we expect in terms of some of the salient issues that are out there yet. I don’t have a lot of answers. I have more questions than answers, but maybe you can help think through some of these issues with us.
So the concept was floated by President Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2016 and the Greater Eurasia represents a common space between Europe, Russia, and Asia, where Russia could play the role of a center for integration between the rising Asia and Europe. So it’s this idea that the Eurasian land mass itself could become this geopolitical bloc between Europe and between Asia. You might say: Well, how is this different than what Russia has advocated in the past? I see the main difference as scaling up, right, to Eurasia as a whole as opposed to Russian-controlled, regional architecture, so Russian-led regional architectures, right? So we went through this period through which Russia was and still is to a certain degree pushing Russian-led blocs, such as the CSTO in security and the Eurasian Economic Union in economics as being the main vehicles for promoting regional integration. Right? And so for me, looking at a Greater Eurasia, its open adoption is—accomplishes three things at the moment. For Russia, it continues to provide a concept to hedge against the West, right, and against the EU and NATO, so it’s positing a concept to then be in a position of geopolitical and geo-economic strength.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, to me this is an actual, official acceptance of China’s asymmetric economic power. Right? For a while we toyed with the idea that we could have tough negotiations between the Eurasian Economic Union and Development Road, that there could be mutual concessions on side, that we could sort of integrate the two, but actually to me this is Moscow’s deferral that it is willing to accept the Belt and Road as if it were in Russia’s interest. Right? And I think this is a key point sort of conceptually. Third, the Greater Eurasia concept is very consistent with Moscow’s promotion, this idea of a post-Western global governance, right, a changing international order promoting non-Western, regional security and economic institutions as the SCO, EEU, and so forth. The Greater Eurasia concept really does those three things.
Just in terms of the chart I always trot out at presentations, here you see China is in blue, Russia is in red. These are volumes of trade with Central Asia. So China surpasses Russia as the region’s main trading partner in the great financial crisis. It really peaks in 2012, 2013 and then afterwards you see both Chinese and Russian trade fall off. And that’s more of a function of regional, economic crisis, devaluation in a lot of sort of headwinds. But nevertheless, you see that massive gap that’s opened between China and Russia. In a sense, this is Russia’s acknowledgment of Chinese economic position. Then, of course, different kinds of Belt and Road maps that show the overall integration of the region within sort of, you know, China’s designs, Eurasian pipelines and infrastructure projects including the recommencement, now, of line D of the Central Asia–China pipeline that will now go into Tajikistan, so it passes through China, will now connect a gas grid across all the Central Asian countries. And then railways and corridors are being discussed, too. So all this connectivity … The China/Pakistan economic corridor for initially $46 billion. Now that’s gone up to $62 billion to commit energy and construction projects.
And then these are some of the architectures that we’ve been talking about. That’s the logo of the Eurasian Economic Union; the AIIB, which Russia joined, actually did an about-turn after the Ministry of Finance initially rejected it, then joined on the Kremlin’s directive; Belt and Road Forum; and then the SCO. Interestingly enough, the SCO is now an expanded SCO with China and India in there too. So part of the analytical challenge here is: Is this geopolitical division of labor in Central Asia both Beijing and Moscow talk about, is it sustainable in a Greater Eurasia concept? The “division of labor” is that China is said to do the economics and investment and Russia provides the security and the politics, right, and that the two are perfectly compatible, there’s no tension, any kind of talk of tension is actual sort of Western propaganda.
What I want to explore with my remaining time is this question of: Can China’s role as an investor, just as an economic partner, be bound within this Greater Eurasia framework? I’m actually very skeptical, for three reasons. I think the political and economic tensions that are going to be caused by the Belt and Road, China’s growing role as a holder of regional debt and its political implications of that, and then what I see as China’s growing security footprint and interest in the region. So let’s just spend a little more time on each of those.
So the political challenges of the BRI, so I’ve talked about this in other contexts, but the Belt and Road sort of rests on this assumption, which is almost axiomatic in Chinese thinking, that spending on infrastructure leads to economic development, which in turn economic development fosters political stability. Right? That’s the calculus, that’s the equation, and also behind certain patterns in Xinjiang and so forth.
The question is: Why? That might actually be true in certain regions, in certain decades, in certain contexts, but you could also analytically tell a story of why you expect large investments in infrastructure projects to produce distributional conflicts, to solidify in-group patronage networks, to exacerbate ethnic tensions, right, where one ethnic group is perceived to be the primary beneficiary over the other. And in fact, you’ve seen a number of political flashpoints around the world surrounding Chinese investment, places like Baluchistan in Pakistan, Northern Myanmar and not to mention parts of Xinjiang itself. So it’s not at all clear that political stability is the outcome out of all of this connectivity. In fact, we have an interesting test case at the moment. Here are these reactions to the proposed Chinese–Uzbekistan railway, right, which initially was going to go across Southern Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz were really concerned about this in that it would maybe inflame ethnic tensions or fuel what they consider to be separatist settlements amongst the South and Uzbekistan, so then they said they wouldn’t have a stop in Kyrgyzstan.
The counter proposal was: Take the railway and go up further north. Of course, that didn’t make sense in terms of where the Chinese wanted the railway to get to. So the point being that infrastructure is actually never apolitical. Right? And I’m not sure how we got to this idea that somehow connectivity is just connectivity. That’s never been the case. We go back and read the political economy development in the ’70s when we look at things like dams and infrastructure and so forth. There’s huge political economy aspects to this. Now this doesn’t mean it’s not going to get resolved, doesn’t mean there’s benefits, but certainly the sort of social divisions that are likely to be fed are there. Let’s talk a little bit about debt and influence in the Belt and Road. There was this prevailing idea out there that China doesn’t do conditionality the way Western IFIs do. We don’t … China doesn’t demand macroeconomic changes or human rights criteria or political conditions.
But that’s always not quite been the case in the sense there’s no implicit conditions regarding issues of Chinese territorial integrity. And I think the new political science research on this is looking at the emergent links between our economic ties specializing in RMB, swaps, trade levels, aid, and support for China at the UN. We’re finding more and more correlations between economic dependency on Chinese loans and investments and voting behavior. That’s one strand of research. But I think the key question to ask in regards to the Central Asian context are: Are the most dependent countries on the Belt and Road most likely to back China and China’s policies? And how will China manage its position as a creditor in these re-negotiations? What has China done in the past with highly embedded countries? And there’s a number of answers here.
One is it just forgives debt. And so, this is sort of the story in Africa, so the three rounds of debt cancellation throughout the 2000s, but the debt tends to be … The debt that we’re talking about tends to be pretty small, right, so $1.3 billion in the 2000, around a little bit less than $4 billion in 2009. So that’s one strategy, but the question is: What do you do with sums like this? Venezuela $56, a nice figure from Financial Times. Ecuador, $5 billion, and actually China subsidizes Ecuador’s budget. Sri Lanka I’ll talk about in a sec. Myanmar. So if you can’t write that off, what do you do? Do you demand greater equity? Do you demand re-negotiations of the terms of something that’s already been agreed with, or are there implicit demands for political support on other types of issues? Right?
So one really interesting case is China’s relationship with Greece at the moment and how Greece has actually tended to take a very soft line on anti-Beijing EU votes, so things like human rights, cremating, and so forth. Greece vetoed that for the first time ever. There’s a question about what is going to happen in these cases. And we have a really interesting comparative case in Sri Lanka, sort of protests last year of China’s industrial zone and against the leasing of a port city for 99 years as a partial debt relief package to the government that was paid off there. And so the question is: Will we have same degrees of social backlash, political tensions against China, in Central Asia? The three countries, I think, that are most of interest: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. So Kyrgyz infrastructure, we are looking at a situation where Chinese share of Kyrgyz infrastructure of the next few years is going to be the majority in GDP itself. We’ll go over that critical 75 percent level.
Tajikistan wrote off a lot of debt, but now it’s accumulating it again and so part of the question if, again, China finds itself in control of a lot of, sort of, Tajik debt, will it make demands, say, on territorial re-negotiations? One of the big memes out there was that in 2001 the Tajik parliament approved a territorial adjustment that ceded mountain territory to China, it is said, in for an exchange for certain debt relief. Then, as we were talking about in the session this morning, we don’t know how much Turkmen debt there is to China, but it’s a lot. We don’t know its terms. Luca, I think, will talk about this more. Again, is this debt? Is this investment? How sustainable is it? China provided eight billion dollars worth of loans during the great financial crisis that were to be repaid with gas deliveries. It’s not at all clear that Turkmenistan is fulfilling those obligations. What does China do vis-à-vis Ashgabat?
And then finally, China’s growing security interest. This is, to me, really challenges this narrative that China’s not interested in security, it doesn’t do security. For the most part, in the 2000s, China’s security interests co-existed with Russia’s, because they were interested in very different things. Right? Russia was especially interested in being the symbolic provider of security in the region, right: having military bases with flags openly pushing against the Western military presence and Western political influence. And China focused mostly on the Xinjiang issue, right, and especially on Uighur groups and clamping down on these trans-national incursions and border problems and so forth, mainly through the SCO. I think that’s changing. I’m not sure that was actually ever the case, but it’s changing in a couple ways. One, last September we had a suicide bombing in Bishkek of the Chinese Embassy, right, which took the question of regional security at a whole different level and dimension and also initiated an investigation amongst Chinese authorities with Kyrgyz authorities on what happened there.
And now what we’re seeing is a more and more active interest of China having an actual regional military presence in this ring, and there’s sort of an interesting convergence here of reported Chinese military activity with three partners in Greater Eurasia. One is in Afghanistan. So you might have been following the reports of Afghan officials going on the record with rumors of a negotiation between China, Afghanistan over constructing a military facility in the Wakhan Corridor, that China would be able to use. Chinese officials have denied it, but a number of Afghan sources have said that those talks are in advance stage. Then we have reports of China’s cooperation with Tajikistan in constructing and upgrading border posts and this sort of training center in the region. Regardless of the status of this, the point is to get through the Wakhan Corridor, China’s going to have to have access through Tajikistan too. So the question of Chinese access in Tajikistan is paramount, both in terms of Afghanistan, but also separately on these corridor issues too.
Finally we’ve had the recent acknowledgement by Chinese officials that there will be a second naval military base in Gwadar, Pakistan, in addition to the Djibouti facility. So we have, in the period of- really since this Greater Eurasia concept has been out there, sort of details about three bilateral security partnerships: China/Tajikistan, China/Pakistan, China/Afghanistan. Now, interestingly enough, there is an actual international organization that was also a regional security organization that was founded in 2016, called the Quadrilateral Cooperation Coordination Mechanism that joins together Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. I think one of the really interesting … And Russia and the U.S. are of course excluded. And one of the interesting declarations on its missions purpose from the summit declaration of 2016 is that- is to coordinate with, support each other in a range of areas, including: Study and judgment of counter-terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence-sharing, anti-terrorist capability-building, joint anti-terrorist training, and personal training.
So for me, the framework justifying these Chinese activities is already there. And no matter how robust this cooperation actually is, the legal basis for a Chinese presence, I think, has been sort of set. So just to sum up: The concept of a Greater Eurasia underscores Central Asia’s regional position within a number of these new, emerging architectures. But far from settling the issue that now we’re going to have Eurasian integration, I think it leaves a lot of open questions. Now, certainly there are some factors that are pushing towards Eurasian integration and that’s the good news side. I think Sean Roberts will talk about changes in Uzbekistan today. You know, that’s certainly really important when we talk about actual connectivity in the region and so forth, but Greater Eurasia also really neglects the emerging social, political, geopolitical tensions that are unleashed by high profile-integration processes, and for me China’s growing regional influence are going to be rooted in the Belt and Road, its role as a creditor, and its new security footprint that are generated in the region.
It will be interesting to see how Moscow reacts to this, right? Until now, the reaction has been: There’s no daylight between us, we do different things, there’s a division of labor. But again, how much are these economic and Chinese security concerns going to translate into political influences? Is Moscow going to be okay with that? Thanks.
Jeffrey Mankoff, CSIS
Whither the Eurasian Economic Union?
So this is actually a good segue into what I wanted to talk about, which is the Eurasian Economic Union. When we talked about Eurasian integration four or five years ago, this would have been the first thing that came up. The Eurasian Economic Union, Putin announced it in an essay that he wrote for Izvestiya in October 2011, right before his reelection the last time around, and there was this huge debate that the announcement of the Eurasian Economic Union sparked in the West. If you looked at articles in the American press, in magazines like The National Interest, just all kinds of stories about the Eurasian Economic Union. I may have written some of them. And what it might mean.
Hillary Clinton famously or infamously said that this was an attempt to re-Sovietize the region, and it was something that we, the United States, were going to try to prevent. But it was 2011, 2012. Here we are six, seven years later, we don’t care a whole lot about the Eurasian Economic Union. So I was interested for the presentation today to figure out what happened to it, and what it’s doing and where it might be going.
Now the Eurasian Economic Union does exist, and it has some concrete impact on the political and economic relationships between Russia and a number of the Central Asian and other post-Soviet countries, but I think the takeaway from what I’m gonna say is that it’s not the bogeyman that some of us in the West may have made it out to be, and it hasn’t, at the same time, fulfilled some of the larger geopolitical aspirations that Putin and some other Russians perhaps may have had for it at the time.
So in the 2011 article that I mentioned that Putin wrote, he talked about the Eurasian Economic Union as being, quote, “a powerful supernational association, capable of becoming one of the poles of the modern world, serving as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asian Pacific region. This project also implies transitioning to closer coordination in economic and currency policies in the customs union and the common economic space, establishing a full fledged economic union.”
Within the paper that Putin wrote, there was a lot of reference to the EU. The Eurasian Economic Union—at the time it was just going to be the Eurasian Union—was supposed to be based on the experience of Europe, ever-closer union, moving towards some kind of supranational structure, and of course that also implied that the ultimate goal was going to be to have a relationship of equality between the Eurasian Economic Union, on the one hand, and the European Union, on the other, something that the EU never had a lot of appetite for, but never mind, this was the aspiration.
Now of course, there are some differences between the planned Eurasian Union and the actual European Union. One of which is that it took the European Union 40 years to come into existence between the signing of the Coal and Steel Community and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. And it was also done in a democratic framework, with elections and the like, ratifying participation, in some cases, like the UK, deciding not to participate before eventually changing its mind and then, well, now changing its mind again, apparently.
At the same time, it was clear that the Eurasian Economic Union—at the time it was called the Eurasian Union—also had larger geopolitical goals. In fact, Putin laid some of them out in his essay. “Capable of becoming one of the poles of the modern world, a bridge between Europe and the Asia-Pacific.” So this was in some way an aspiration to create a- what I would argue is a Russia-centric bastion of integration. The view of the world becoming increasingly … not bipolar, but maybe tri-polar or multi-polar, and the aspiration to position Russia and a series of countries within its orbit as being one of the poles within that system, and interacting with these other poles, whether that’s the EU, the West, China-led Asia-Pacific, or whatever it was going to be, on the basis of some kind of equality.
And of course, well, over the course of the last six or seven years, something different has happened. Well, so why did something different happen? Well, one thing that happened in the intervening period, of course, was the Maidan Revolution and the conflict in Ukraine. One of the key drivers of the original Eurasian Union aspiration was to further tie Ukraine to Russia’s economic and security orbit. And so of course, the conflict in Ukraine was driven very much by these competing and incompatible integration projects. One the one hand, Ukraine’s aspiration to sign an association agreement with the European Union, on the other hand, Russia’s push to bring Ukraine into the Eurasian Economic Union.
Because of the customs requirements of a free trade agreement, essentially these were two incompatible projects for integration, and Ukraine was in the position of being forced to choose one or the other. And when it— against even the will of president Yanukovych—decided in late 2013, under substantial Russian pressure, to go if not into the Eurasian Economic Union, then at least to eschew the signing of the association agreement with Europe, that of course was the spark that touched off the Maidan, the revolution that overthrew Yanukovych, and then ultimately Russia’s intervention in Ukraine later on.
As a result of which it became clear that Ukraine was not going to be a member of anything like the Eurasian Economic Union. And that’s not only the position of the current government, but I think any Ukrainian government no matter how more or less pro-Russian it might be, is now basically inoculated against the idea of participation in some sort of Russian-led integration process.
The other thing that happened in the intervening period, as Alex was alluding to, was the elaboration of a competing Chinese-led project for Eurasian integration that had a very different underlying logic to it, and a lot more money behind it as well. So now not only was Russia in the position of trying to bring these countries into its orbit and inure them, or immunize them, against the influence of the West, it was also now competing with China in a way that it was in economic terms largely unable to do. And so there was a degree of adaptation that had to take place—and I think Alex covered that very well—about how these countries were going to have to preserve their relations with Russia at the same time that they were in the process of developing economic and other ties with China.
And then the third development that I would argue limited the ambitions of what ultimately became the Eurasian Economic Union was the backlash, in a number of the smaller countries in the post-Soviet region, to Moscow’s regional ambition. Again, if the model that Moscow was operating from was the European Union, there was a big different here. One, of course, was the balance of power within the two institutions. The largest European economy is Germany, which makes up somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the EU’s GDP. Russia makes up something around 85 percent of the Eurasian Economic Union. At least in the early years, there was a concern that whatever multilateral bodies were going to be created within the context of the Eurasian Economic Union were going to be dominated by Russia and by Russian officials.
And so you had concern in Astana, in Minsk, and in a number of other capitals about the Eurasian Economic Union turning into a tool for Russian economic and geopolitical dominance, which in some ways it arguably was. And so as a result, you had pushback, not only in Ukraine—where of course it led to revolution and war—but also, more subtly, in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere. And so when the agreement establishing the Eurasian Economic Union was in fact signed in 2015 (the Astana Treaty), it walked back some of the more ambitious provisions that had been laid out in Putin’s original discussion of what the Eurasian Union was going to look like.
And the provisions of the Astana Treaty are interesting and instructive in some ways. So for one thing, it makes clear that there’s no aspiration for statehood. That this isn’t an attempt to recreate the Soviet Union. At the same time, in terms of the actual operation of the Eurasian Economic Union, the focus is more on intergovernmentalism rather than supranationalism. For those of you who are EU wonks, you understand the distinction. Basically, this is an agreement between countries themselves that are responsible individually for executing the agreements that they undertake. There’s not a big supranational structure that takes on a lot of the roles for facilitating integration or for interacting with the outside world, the way that you have within the EU, for example.
So under the Astana agreement, individual states undertake to- or rather, they pledge to undertake certain steps that they agreed to as part of this treaty. It basically operates more like a treaty than as a multilateral supranational organization. The enforcement powers that adhere to the Eurasian Commission and the Eurasian Court are much lower than what was initially proposed and lower than what you have, for example, in the European Union. International agreements—for example free trade agreements signed between the Eurasian Economic Union and outside states like Vietnam—are adhered to and executed by the individual states rather than by the EEU as a body.
Now that’s not to say that the Eurasian Economic Union has been without impact, it actually has. The most notable impact has been on customs tariffs, which is unsurprising giving the origins of the Eurasian Economic Union in the Customs Union. It harmonized the external tariffs among its member states and abolished internal customs borders while elevating decisions about tariffs to the top. So this is one area where there is sort of supranational governance, if you will. It also created elements of an architecture, notably within this the Eurasian Development Bank, which, although it has a lot less capitalization than things like the AIIB, at least is available to finance infrastructure projects, but perhaps more importantly to serve as a lender of last resort. So if there’s going to be a financial crisis in one of these countries, this is a way for pooling resources and potentially bailing them out.
Also, the relaxation of customs barriers within the Eurasian Economic Union means that it should ease the movement of goods and people. And in fact the impact has been most significant on the movement of people, which was one of the major reasons why Kyrgyzstan in particular and Armenia to a lesser degree agreed to join in the first place, because Moscow made the continued access of its labor market to people from these countries in part contingent on their agreement to join the Eurasian Economic Union.
And the effect on goods, on trade and goods has been a little bit more ambiguous, in part because lots of other things affect levels of trade between countries within the Eurasian Economic Union.
The key takeaway though is that trade among member countries continues to operate very much on a kind of hub-and-spoke model. So there’s a lot more trade between Russia and Kazakhstan and between Russia and Belarus than there is between Belarus and Kazakhstan. That’s perhaps not surprising. At the same time, some of the efforts to lower barriers to trade, the impact has actually been not as robust as perhaps the proponents of the Eurasian Economic Union might have hoped. But again, the negative impact on trade, a lot of it is driven by external considerations. Russian’s economy has not done particularly well over the last several years, the ruble has been devalued relative to where it was when the Eurasian Economic Union was sort of being discussed, and these developments also have an impact on trade.
Now, because the ruble is cheaper, that means imports from Belarus and Kazakhstan to Russia are more expensive, so they’ve lost export markets in Russia and they’ve become more vulnerable to imports of goods from Russia. Kazakhstan tried to deal with this vulnerability by devaluing its own currency in a way that was not coordinated with Russia, which again points to the limits of coordination within the Eurasian Economic Union. Of course Russia is also implementing unilateral protectionist measures, especially in the context of its conflict with the Ukraine and the West. So Russia decided to impose counter-sanctions on the European Union over the sanctions that the EU imposed for Russian intervention in Ukraine. These counter-sanctions were not imposed with the consent or acknowledgement of Belarus, Kazakhstan, or the other Eurasian Economic Union members—and in fact those countries have taken steps to circumvent the Russian sanctions. So this is where you get the famous stories about Belarusian salmon being sold on the Russian market. If you look at a map, you’ll know that Belarus is landlocked, nevertheless it’s importing salmon to Russia, because it’s salmon that is caught in the European Union, imported to Belarus, subjected to minimal reprocessing, and then stamped “Made in Belarus” and exported to Russia under the provision of the Eurasian Economic Union.
So that’s kind of where we are today. What does the future hold for the Eurasian Economic Union? According to the agreements that exist among the member countries, there are a number of common markets that are going to be established and developed over the course of the next eight years, by 2025. Common markets in energy, common transport space, common agricultural policy—I hope that one turns out better than the EU’s—and a single financial market. Discussion of signing additional trade agreements with India, China, Israel, Singapore, possibly others. There’s been some talk of expanding the Eurasian Economic Union, not only within the post Soviet space but more broadly. Both foreign minister Lavrov and Putin have talked about potential for other countries to join the Eurasian Economic Union. In fact, Lavrov pointed out that unlike the TPP, the Eurasian Economic Union is open to everybody. It’s not a matter of who we invite, it’s who wants to join. Now whether it becomes attractive enough or not is another question.
Of course, a lot is going to depend on Chinese aspirations and the development of relations among other potential members with China. Russia has tried to sell the Eurasian Economic Union idea to China and to countries that depend on China as being in their interest, because if you have a single customs space across the entire geography of the Eurasian Economic Union, in theory that facilitates trade between China, on the one hand, and Europe, on the other. If it’s only a single customs frontier that you cross when you go from China to, say, Kazakhstan, and then another when you cross from, say, Belarus into Poland, it should facilitate the movement of goods throughout this entire space.
Russia, I think, is also trying to use the Eurasian Economic Union as a way to influence the development of Chinese infrastructure projects within this territory to ensure that China has a stake in the Eurasian Economic Union and thereby help direct where things like railroads and roads that China’s interested in building actually go, so that Russia itself doesn’t end up getting bypassed.
A lot in terms of the future and future membership remains very much up in the air. So at the end of the day, Eurasian Economic Union is there, it functions, it’s had a real impact in some way, but if you think about the larger geopolitical aspirations that Putin laid out in 2011, that people like Hillary Clinton got very worked up about, here it’s fallen a little bit short. And today, it’s not surprising that you don’t hear as much about the Eurasian Economic Union, and when you do, it’s often for reasons that don’t inspire a lot of confidence. For example, last year, prime minister Medvedev appointed a new CEO of the Eurasian Development Committee, the development institution they talked about. Well, it turned out this was a guy who had been disgraced, caught up in a scandal, finding millions of dollars stashed away in his apartment, they were looking for a way of kind of easing him off the Russian political scene, so they parked him at the Eurasian Development thing.
This is not exactly the kind of move that tends to inspire confidence. But nevertheless, I think the Eurasian Economic Union is there, it’s going to continue to be there, it’s going to continue to have an impact, even if it’s not the stuff of Putin’s dreams or Hillary Clinton’s nightmares.
Sebastien Peyrouse, The George Washington University
A Sustainable Attractiveness? China’s Projection and Construction of Soft Power in Central Asia
Thank you. Thank you very much. So I’m going to talk today about China’s soft power in Central Asia. I mean, I guess all of you know that China’s been trying for at least 10 years now to gain even more and more influence in Central Asia, and also- and has been doing that not only through hard power but also through soft power. In this presentation, I will use the term of “soft power” as it has been defined by Joseph Nye, that is, I quote, “The ability to get what you want through traction rather than coercion or payments, or, in a way, to win the hearts and minds.” I will confront this definition to how soft power is sought by China in Central Asia. So I will have three main points. First, “What is China’s soft power?” Second one: “How is that manifested? How is that materialized in Central Asia?” And third, the main question I treat is, “Is it working?”
For more than a decade, the Chinese government and Chinese scholars have been elaborating on what should be the Chinese soft power. And as in any other country, in China, soft power is a contested kind of concept. I don’t have time, of course, to elaborate a lot on that, but three main points are very regularly mentioned in Chinese official speeches and in Chinese expert analyses on the strategic importance of Chinese soft power.
First is that soft power might be critical to achieving the long-term strategic success in a world where the USA wields overwhelming military power. The second is that soft power enhances Chinese aspiration to become natural leader of the developing world. And third, that Chinese leaders understand that they need to counter fears of China as a new superpower, especially in neighboring Asian countries and especially in Central Asia.
So how does this Chinese soft power materialize in Central Asia? China has used three main tools: political, economic, and cultural.
Let me start with the political one. This political tool consists first and foremost in promoting values that are different from those advocated by the West, such as civilizational diversity, harmony and prosperity, respect for sovereignty, and non-ideological reactions, in contrast to the perceived Western values of liberal democracies: freedom, human rights, and the right to protest. This is, of course, not specific to China, Russia, or even Malaysia or Singapore. They’ve been doing that since the 1990s. But what is interesting is that this approach has meant a little bit more than non-interference in the civilizational diversity or domestic affairs. This has actually manifested and materialized in support of authoritarian regimes in the region.
This has been done in various ways. First, by adapting or mimicking democratic forms that, in many ways, serve as the mirror image of democratic soft power. It includes, for example, “zombie” election monitoring. For example, the SCO, the Shanghai Corporation Organisation, has sent purported monitors to polls across Eurasia and has endorsed fraudulent elections, with the aim of clouding the assessments made by established monitoring organizations, such as the OSCE. Second, by challenging political changes, especially along the lines of color revolutions, China has devoted a lot of attention to the concept of color revolutions, which are viewed a new form of warfare invented by Western governments, trying to remove independently-minded national governments in favor of ones controlled by the West. And this is also done through parliamentary exchanges between Chinese and Central Asian politicians.
The second tool is the economic instrument, and there are two possible approaches to this end. First, by advertising the success of the Chinese development model as a kind of superior achievement to anything that USA or its allies could offer. So this Beijing consensus is presented as antithesis of the Washington consensus. I mean, it would not believe in military solutions for every situation. It would not favor one big shock therapy leap, but instead it would emphasize development built on a country’s own characteristics. And two, this economic tool means engaging in economic diplomacy through aid and investments. And here it’s interesting to see the Chinese approach of soft power is actually broader than Joseph Nye’s one. Now, Joseph Nye’s, at least originally, excluded investment and aid, and China has, as you know, invested a lot of money in Central Asia, enabling resident governments to set terms or standards of kinds of transparency and accountability required by the established international financial institutions.
And finally, some projects with a fundamentally economic development are also expected to show to Central Asian people and governments China’s contribution to local economic development. Here, of course, one of the best examples is the OBOR, which is here to show the economic power of China, but also its contribution to what China views as a future prosperity of the region.
Last tool—last instrument—is cultural. So, for example, you have more and more- you have thousands of Central Asian students in China. I mean, something like 10,000 Kyrgyz students and 13,000 Kazakh students studying now in China. China is also sponsoring some Chinese departments in Central Asian university. A relatively new phenomenon is that China is opening some Chinese schools in Central Asia. They opened a Chinese school in Bishkek and it’s planning to- it’s intending to open a Shanghai International School in Tashkent this year. Another, of course, very, very important element is the Confucius Institute, which are trying to reach a wider audience. We have about 15 Confucius Institutes now in Central Asia. China is also trying to have influence through CCTV—I’m not talking about the monitoring camera. I’m talking about the Chinese TV—and through the Xinhua News Agency. China is also sponsoring exhibitions on China, sponsoring conferences, even books on China, written sometimes by local scholars.
Considering all this initially, is China winning the hearts and minds of Central Asian people? Here is, I think, what is one of the Chinese government’s main mistake: counting is not enough. The fact is that discussions on the soft power of China—like, by the way, those of American soft power—generally treat it as empirical question. So rather than counting, for example, bombs and bullets, as it is done with hard power, analysts measure the expansion of China’s global media platforms or, for example, the growing number of Confucius Institute. I’m not saying, of course, that these metrics are useless, but they do not tell us much, actually, about the message China’s target audience have absorbed, whether views actually have changed or the density of views. Why? Because soft power is not only a material entity that can be measured. It is also- it is more a social persuasion. This has, of course, a huge impact on how the soft power is perceived in Central Asia.
For example, is Chinese economic involvement convincing in Central Asia? What we see is that you have plenty of narratives worrying about China’s economic involvement in the region. People complain, for example, that even if China says a lot about its investment details over [inaudible 00:10:08] investments are deliberately kept vague. Another example is that some of this economic tool can be, in a way, counterproductive. To illustrate this, the huge investments supposed to be brought to Central Asia by the OBOR and presented by China as an exceptional way to bring the region to prosperity are seen as turning the region into a vast transit corridor, opening up the countries’ rich resources for exploitation by China, and making the countries a kind of dumping grounds for China’s surplus production, and, more generally, making all the region a vessel of China’s economic expansion.
Very briefly, because I will have to finish, but the impact of Chinese cultural tool remains very limited here in Central Asia. For sure, there are more and more Confucius Institutes or more and more Central Asian students studying in China, but Central Asian youth seems extremely interested in learning Chinese, for that’s sure, but not necessarily in learning about China. The great number of students in China does not mean that their students love China, but rather that they see it as a tool for their job and their business, and you add to that—I don’t really have time to elaborate on that today—but you have plenty of phobias on China, of growing phobias on China in Central Asia.
So, conclusion. The question, “Is China attractive?” Yes. That’s very important. I’m not saying- I don’t want to say in my presentation today that China is systematically viewed in a negative way. No. For many people, China is a way to find a job, it’s a way to make money, to start, for example, a company, especially for young people. It can also be viewed as a counter-balance to the growing influence of Russia or to the influence of Western countries that many Central Asians are disappointed about. Now, is this attraction soft power? At least according to Joseph Nye’s concept in “winning the hearts and minds of people,” I think we have to remain much, much more cautious.
There are at least three obstacles to China’s soft power in the region. First, for sure, a sign of the reactions I was talking about occur not only in Central Asia. You have that- in most of countries where China is investing, you have plenty of reactions like that, for example, in Africa. But the difference is that, in Central Asia, the territorial contiguity of three states with China, I think combined with the states’ low demography, significantly increase the phobias. The second point is that the materialization of the Chinese soft power is considerably different from that proposed by Joseph Nye, in the sense that Chinese soft power is almost exclusively exercised by the state and the state structures. A fundamental element of Joseph Nye’s soft power is that it must not come only from norms established by the state, but also by civil society and by non-state actors. So the authoritarianism of the Chinese power considerably reduces the capacity to develop its soft power. This is all the more important, I think, that despite admiration of part of the population for Chinese economic success, many Central Asians do not admire the Chinese political system.
Last point: the Chinese government lacks proxies in the region. Their main allies are actually local allies, local political elites and those who make profits on Chinese business, but these elites and their so-called Sinophilia are not necessarily far from that accepted by the rest of the population. Beyond those elites, the Central Asian elites, intelligentsia to promote a positive image of China remain very limited. For example, the field of Sinology in Central Asia remains extremely limited. Even the Central Asian specialist on China not necessarily the Sinophile, and second because many people who are working with Chinese—for example, traders—are not necessarily Sinophile either. Does that mean that China’s soft power is designed to fail? No. I mean, I’m not saying that, but China is still facing many issues, and just like any other country, Beijing will have to deal with a real marketplace of ideas, of influences … For example, the growing nationalism in Central Asia, the appeal of Western norms, the remaining effects of Soviet norms and mindsets, and Russia’s resurgent media space and soft power. I think that China still has a long way to go to gain a real intransigible soft power in the region. Thank you.
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