On 9 May 2015 took place an impressive military parade in Moscow to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The parade was presided by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, and by its guests, dozens of heads of state and government. At his right hand were seated Xi Jinping, President of the Popular Republic of China, and Pranab Mukherjee, President of India (“Russia stages massive WW2 parade despite Western boycott”, BBC News, 9 May 2015).
Western governments were not represented during the parade itself, because of the tensions about the situation in Ukraine.
Two months later, President Xi Jinping, the Indian Prime Minister Rajendra Modi and President Putin held talks about the development of the relations during the 7 July 2015 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS Summit in Ufa, Russia (“After BRICs, Putin hosts Shanghai Cooperation organization summit in Ufa”, Radio Free Europe, Radio liberty, July 10 2015).
On 2 September 2015, in Beijing, President Xi Jinping attended the Chinese military parade of the Victory, also to commemorate the end of the Second World War. More than thirty heads of state and government attended the ceremony, and, chiefly among them President Vladimir Putin, as well as the presidents of Central Asian governments (Jonathan Kaiman, “Who’s who (and who isn’t) at China’s big parade”, Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2015).
These meetings are only the most prominent in an uninterrupted series of multiple talks between the leaders of China and Russia over the last few years (Alexander Gabuev, “Eurasian Silk Road Union: towards a Russia-China consensus?”, The Diplomat, June 05, 2015). The density of their relations is related to the multiplying projects and deals of an Eurasian scale between the two countries, creating a power nexus around the Chinese “New Silk Road” initiative in Central Asia.
This concept of nexus comes from the way China and Russia are reactivating in Central Asia the complex geopolitical and economic dynamics, known as “the Silk Roads”, which have been knitting together the countries spanning the Eurasian continents from China to the Europeans Balkans, from the Antiquity to the modern days (Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads, a new history of the world, 2015).
In this article, we shall focus on the meaning of the deployment of the New Silk Road in Central Asia for China and examine how it revivifies a geopolitical reality rooted both in the history of Eurasia and in the project of China to suit its own interests for the 21st century.
This will allow us to understand how the nexus of “New Silk Roads”, combined with Russian politics, transforms the strategic landscape of Central Asia.
Furthermore, we shall study how this very powerful dynamic articulates itself through the mutual empowerment of China and Russia via the New Silk Road nexus.
The nexus of 21st century Silk Roads
In 2013 in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, the Chinese President Xi Jinping officially launched the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, also called the “New Silk Road” initiative (Michelle Witte, “Xi Jinping calls for regional cooperation via new Silk Road”, The Astana Times, 11 September 2013).
This Chinese strategy is aimed at creating a planetary wide “attraction system”, necessary to channel the mineral, energy, and food resources needed by China in order to keep developing while ensuring the social cohesion of its 1400 billion strong population (Jean-Michel Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road, from oil wells to the Moon … and beyond!”, The Red Team Analysis Society, July 6, 2015.
The “New Silk Road” is an immense process for the development of land and maritime transportation, as well as energy, mineral and cyber infrastructures. It is accompanied by legions of commercial contracts and political deals between the Chinese public and private sector and its counterparts in the different countries and continents crossed by the “One Belt, One Road” (Shannon Tiezzi, “China’s New Silk Road” vision revealed – a new series in Xinhua offers the clearest vision yet of China’s ambitious “New Silk Road””, The Diplomat, May 09, 2014). The New Silk Road is conceived as being a gigantic “loop” spanning from the centre of the “Middle Kingdom” to Rotterdam and from the port of Quanzhou in Fujian to Kenya and to Egypt and Europe (Tiezzi, ibid).
The choice of Astana to launch this “initiative” is composed of multiple layers of political significance. In effect, since the 2nd century BC, the system of land and maritime roads between western Europe and China has been dubbed “the Silk Road” because of the weight taken by silk in the exchanges between the European and the Mediterranean world and China and India (Peter Frankopan ibid). Silk was not only extremely appreciated in Europe and in Central Asia, but it was also used as a product for standardized forms of barter for other precious products, such as spices, jewels, weapons, etc. Thus, this Chinese product became the support of a continental system of exchanges, of which China was the centre during hundreds of years (Peter Frankopan, ibid).
The system composed of these continental long roads has been the medium of exchanges between the East and the West in Eurasia, and thus has been the cradle out of which the Eurasian civilization emerged, through the permanent circulation and exchanges of goods, ideas, faiths, cultures, technologies, armies, and political power, between Eastern and Western countries, empires and spheres of influence (Etiemble, L’Europe Chinoise, T.1, 1988 and Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads, 2015).
For the Chinese political authorities and their Kazakh counterparts, this seminal speech in Kazakhstan has been a way to inscribe the “New Silk Road Initiative” in the multi-millenary history of the Silk Roads.
By choosing Astana, capital of a country that links China, Russia, Central Asia, and the Caspian Sea by land, as well as Iran and the Middle East and the “Far East” of Europe by this interior Sea, Xi Jinping expresses the fact that China needs the countries concerned to adhere to the immense Chinese geopolitical initiative, through the offer of a common interest (Witte, ibid). This understanding of an international Asian common interest becomes the political basis for this multi-continental strategy. Reciprocally, China becomes a support of the development of the countries home to the Belt and Road (Deng Yaqing, “A Shared Path”, The Beijing Review, July 10, 2014). In fact, the New Silk Road is conceived as being a loop, or even a continental wide “virtuous circle”, composed of national interests that support each other. This approach is deeply rooted in the Chinese philosophy that integrally permeates the New Silk Road project: the finality of the Initiative is to ensure Chinese development by supporting the development of its partners, which become the supports of China.
This philosophy is the under-current that links the New Silk Road initiative with the new 2015 Five Years plan (“Highlights of proposals for China’s 5 years plan”, Xinhuanet), a roadmap some observers call the “third industrial revolution” because it aims at recreating a healthy balance between the pace of the economy, social development, and a better environmental management (Sidney Leng “How the next five-year plan will change China: blueprint for nation’s development explained”, South China Morning Post, 03 November, 2015).
Thus, it is intrinsically linked to the fundamental Chinese concept of harmony (Marcel Granet, La Pensée Chinoise, 1934), as well as to the project of enriching the Chinese people. For the Chinese political authorities, this is a necessary step to achieve social cohesion, and the modernisation of China. In the same time, it renews the legitimacy of the Chinese communist party and of the government (Loretta Napoleoni, Maonomics, 2011).
So, the New Silk Road is becoming a very important process to ensure the stability and the politically desired evolution of this great power, while answering to the material and immaterial needs of its giant population (Dambisa Moyo, Winner take all, China’s Race for resources and what it means for us, 2012).
The New Silk Road goes to Central Asia … and Russia
In accordance with this major political project, and over the last few years, the building of the different segments of the “One Belt, One Road” has started, following both south-west and north-west directions (starting from China).
As we have seen in “China and the New Silk Road: the Pakistani strategy” and “Iran, China and the New Silk road”, (The Red Team Analysis, 18 May 2015 and January 4, 2016), the south and south-west part of “the Road” are deployed through a series of transportation and energy infrastructure, which not only connect Pakistan and Iran to China but also Pakistan to Iran and Iran to Pakistan. These infrastructures are developed in order to support Iran’s and Pakistan’s development, which, by feedback, supports China’ s.
As for the north-west direction, the segments of the New Silk Road are built through the adhesion of Central Asia countries to the development of major projects of transportation infrastructures. Chief among them is the launching by Kazakhstan of a China-Europe railroad, which transports goods from western China throughout immense Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Poland, before arriving in Berlin, Germany. It is a 10.800 km and two weeks journey from Chongqing, in south-west China, to the Ruhr (Raushan Nurshayeva, “Kazakhs launch “silk road” China-Europe rail route”, Reuters, 10 June 2013).
This first line is connected to other Kazakh and Chinese ones in order to multiply connections with inner China. The transported annual freight in 2013 was 2.2 million tons and is expected to reach 15 million tons in 2020. A new railway segment is to be built to link to the Russian Trans-Siberian line. (Pepe Escobar, “Go West, young Han, As Washington “pivots” to Asia, China does the Eurasian pirouette”, TomDispatch, December 16, 2014 and John C. K. Daly, “Why Kazakhstan is key to China’s Central Asia Strategy”, Silk Road reporters, July 14, 2015).
This dynamic of rapid development also affects the mining sector, given the richness of the Kazakh sub-soil. For example, Kazakhstan has 12% of the world uranium resources and, since 2009, has become the first world producer (“Uranium and nuclear power in Kazakhstan”, The World Nuclear Association, updated January 2016). Since 2006, the national company Kazatomprom has signed a fifty/fifty joint venture with the Russian company Atomoyexport.
Since then, Kazatomprom has created privileged relations with Russia, China and Japan (World Nuclear Association, ibid). Knowing that Russia has developed a major uranium refining industry (Marin Katusa, The Colder war, How the Global energy trade slipped from America’s grasp, 2015), and that Kazakhstan does not have, for now, that kind of industrial capability, the Kazakh uranium production is largely integrated in and by the Russian nuclear industry. Given the world status of Kazakhstan as a uranium producer, this status is shared by the Russian Atomoyexport company and thus by the Russian state.
As it happens, the economic boost of rich oil and minerals Kazakhstan coupled with its opening to the European market and its integration to the New Silk Road dynamic becomes, thus, de facto combined with the historic and massive influence of Russia in the country and, generally, on Central Asia (Michel Heller, Histoire de la Russie et de son empire, 2015).
The Great “New Silk Road” Russo-Chinese convergence
In effect, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are important gas producers in Central Asia. However, their energy production is mostly transported through pipelines, which belong to Gazprom, the Russian national gas giant company (Marshall Goldman, Oilopoly, Putin, Power and the rise of the new Russia, 2008).
In other terms, the Central Asian members of the New Silk Road are still deeply dependent on the Russian system of infrastructures inherited from the Soviet Union, and integrated in the Russian strong system of political, economic and military influence, which goes from the Caspian Sea to China (David Teurtrie, Géopolitique de la Russie, Intégration régionale, enjeux énergétiques, influence culturelle, 2010). Furthermore, these countries are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Kazakhstan also plays a central role in the built-up of the Russian strategic influencing, by hosting the space launch facility of Baïkonur, and, as such, plays a crucial part in the making of the Russian space power (William E. Burrows, This New Ocean, The story of the first space age, 1998).
Let us also remember that the presidents of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are former Soviet officials, and, as such, have a profound experience of the Russian capabilities of influence in the region (Teurtrie, ibid). Furthermore, there are Russian military bases installed in these countries, which create a Russo-Central Asia network of influence.
The dominance of Russian political influence is hardly diminished by the U.S. influence in Central Asia, which has been challenged by the departure of the U.S. military from Iraq, by the nuclear deal with Iran, and by the “long defeat” in Afghanistan (Jason Burke, The 9/11 wars, 2011, and Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, “Are we losing Afghanistan again?” The Long War Journal, Oct. 21 2015). Indeed, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have hosted U.S. military bases used for the American force projection in Afghanistan and Iraq. The latter countries constitute the outside rim of the region where the strong U.S. presence, henceforth its influence on Central Asia, has been diminishing since the military withdrawal from Iraq.
The military dimension of Russian influence in Central Asia has been recently reasserted with the missile strikes launched from vessels of the Russian Caspian Sea fleet against the Islamic State in Syria at the start of the Russian air campaign in Syria in October 2015(“Russian missiles hit IS in Syria from Caspian Sea”, BBC News, 7 October 2015). These strikes have given a new visibility and a renewed weight to the fact that if the Caspian Sea oil is being exploited by Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as by Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran (James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello, The Oil Road, Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, 2012), the dominant political and strategic presence and influence in the region is nothing but Russia.
So, in Central Asia, the New Silk Road Initiative is interwoven with the multiple forms of Russian power and influence, from which emerge the regional sphere of influence of Russia.
Russian presence and influence are further asserted through the multiplication of the Russo-Chinese large-scale energy deals, signed between Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) for the extension of the western section of the “Power of Siberia” pipeline towards inner China (Sergei Blagov, “Russia seeks to strengthen energy alliance with China”, Asia Times, 18 December 2015).
The deal involves also an eastern new pipeline from Siberia to China, and comes after the first giant natural gas deal signed on 26 May 2014, when the Russian and Chinese governments signed an energy agreement, according to which Beijing agreed to pay 400 billion dollars during the next thirty years for Russian natural gas (Ding Ying, “A Gas bond, energy cooperation will serve as a new link between China and Russia”, The Beijing Review, 22 May, 2014). With this deal, Russia agreed to have their giant state company Gazprom supply the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) with 1.3 trillion of cubic feet of gas a year, during the next thirty years, which amounts to about a quarter of the current Chinese gas consumption.
To understand the political and strategic meaning of these deals, we must keep in mind that energy issues are not “simply” about economics, but are crucial strategic issues: it ensues that these developments are major political choices. They turn Russia into a fundamental energy provider for China, i.e. for the Chinese energy production needed to insure both the daily life of the giant population of the Middle Kingdom, and its economy, supported by the world deployment of the new Silk Road.
In other terms, China launches the New Silk Road Initiative throughout Central Asia in order to turn the different Republics of the former Soviet Union into a support for the Chinese economic development, while the immense energy needs the scale of the Chinese development generates become a mammoth support for the power and influence of Russia in the same region (“Putin’s Beijing visit to boost Russia-China trade”, Russia Today, 2 September 2015).
This means that the Chinese New Silk Road empowers China, and that the Chinese gigantic global needs empowers Russia, thus creating a dynamic not only of co-development, but also of co-empowerment (Ding Ying, “Realizing Chinese and Russian Dreams, China and Russia are determined to promote bilateral relationships to make both countries safe, strong and prosperous”, Beijing Review, March 28, 2013).
This gigantic dynamic that spans the two-thirds of the Eurasian continent has massive unintended consequence: it is becoming a formidable engine of resilience for Central Asia, after the massive political, economic, social, military and ecological shocks it suffered from the start of the 20th century to the start of the 21st century.
This resiliency process is installing Central Asia as a fundamental place for the Sino-Russian power nexus.
This will be the object of the next paper of this series.
To be continued.
Featured image: Статуя Конфуция в ШПУ – Conference 2011 by Savkovich Y [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.