Features | Diplomacy | Central Asia | East Asia

China’s Pivot West

China has begun “Marching Westwards” in Asia. The consequences could be huge.

Ankit Panda

Here at The Diplomat, we’ve devoted extensive attention to covering China’s many sources of friction in the Asia-Pacific region, ranging from Japan, to the Philippines and, of course, to India. Fortunately, it may have been the case that booming trade and economic promise have been the glue keeping the Asia-Pacific largely peaceful for so long despite the rise of China: an often-assertive superpower.

Nonetheless, experts hardly manage to get through a conversation on China’s relationship with Japan, South Korea, ASEAN or India without referring to what these countries might be doing to “hedge” against a potential downturn in relations with China. On the contrary, China’s “hedge” in the region is less well understood and it is best captured in its “Marching Westwards” policy – its very own pivot to Eurasia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is fond of the Silk Road; he was born in Shaanxi province, its easternmost node. In his October 3 speech before ASEAN leaders, Xi spoke of the “seaway that bridges China and foreign countries” as being as “prestigious as the Silk Road that connects East and West.” This speech came a month after he visited the actual old Silk Road during a four-country tour of Central Asia. He opened a crucial energy pipeline with Kazakh President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev that will feed Caspian gas into China’s coastal cities in the future, traversing Turkmenistan where it will feed into another jointly developed pipeline.

Unfortunately for China, geography has been unkind to it in a way that it never was to the United States with its vastly unconstrained oceanic access. China's strategic access to the east – into the Pacific Ocean – does not leave it among unwavering friends and allies. With the exception of North Korea, and perhaps Myanmar, China can count few states among its all-weather strategic friends along its vast southeastern rimland: from the north-easternmost point of Manchuria to Tibet and Aksai Chin, China’s rise has not been perceived as unthreatening or as an overwhelmingly positive development for regional stability and security.

One of China’s greatest strengths when it comes to foreign policy and business is its willingness to go everywhere and do almost anything. It has become a formidable “all-weather” partner to many countries. China does this best when messy topics like Asian history, nuclear weapons, and territorial disputes are left out of the equation. This is where the flip side of China’s vast geography is of interest. The regional outlook to China’s west might not offer the same level of economic sophistication as its east, but it does offer massive strategic prizes that will grow increasingly important in the 21st century.

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China has given its Eurasian strategy the rather-assertive moniker “Marching Westwards” – a phrase that might keep American China hawks awake at night until they realize that this westward march halts at the Caspian Sea. None of this is a hushed secret, but it is underappreciated, particularly among Euro-American strategic analysts that may privilege naval power in the footsteps of men like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Nicholas John Spykman. It is prudent not to understate China’s attempt to modernize its navy, but this is more a response to its threat environment than anything else.

Wang Jisi, a prominent Chinese international relations scholar at Peking University and a recent research scholar at Princeton University, articulated the policy in late 2012 but many failed to pick up on it thanks to the acute flare-ups around territorial disputes in East Asia. Yun Sun of Brookings clarifies the strategic logic of Wang’s proposal:

"The logic of “March West” is rather simple and reflects the complex regional quagmire China is in. As Washington rebalances to Asia, the relation between the U.S. and China has become increasingly contentious and “zero-sum.” In Beijing’s view, deeply embedded in the rebalancing is Washington’s profound concern about China’s rise in the region and a determination to curtail its expanding influence. Under this overarching theme, Beijing sees a comprehensive policy of Washington to block China’s rise in the East through strengthened military alliances, “sabotaging” China’s ties with ASEAN and undercutting China’s effort to lead the region economic integration by pushing U.S.-centered and China-free Trans-Pacific Partnership. Since both Beijing and Washington are seeking to expand their influence in East Asia, as Wang argued, if China continues to push forward, more problems, even a head-on military confrontation with the U.S. (such as over Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute), would be inevitable."

While Wang’s article was published in the Global Times in October 2012, the trend westwards in Chinese strategic thought began much earlier. Readers of The Diplomat will be familiar with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – founded in 2001 by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in an attempt to codify Eurasian multilateralism. The SCO has cooperated heavily on security matters, and has conducted vast war games and military exercises, much to the concern of the U.S. and China’s eastern neighbors. According to the European Council of Foreign Relations, "some [Chinese] analysts hope it will become a quasi-military alliance that could veto an UN-based intervention in the region and carry out its own security actions, including against future terrorist threats."

China’s westward march is not entirely frictionless, however. Its “Xinjiang problem” is particularly pronounced in this region. The cultural proximity between the Central Asian members of the SCO and Xinjiang’s oppressed Uighurs could raise suspicions of China. Nonetheless, China pitches itself as a “good neighbor” to the region and as a source of much-needed investment, and Central Asian governments have been more than happy to buy into this vision.

China’s strategic focus on Central Asia is bookended geographically by Russia to its north, and Pakistan in its south-west. Vladimir Putin’s continued leadership of Russia has demonstrated that Russia’s future will not be European or Transatlantic, but “Eurasian.” The wounds of the Sino-Soviet split have long-since healed, and Russia and China have strategically converged. While Putin laments that the collapse of the USSR was a tragedy, he would settle for a sort-of G2 primacy of the Asian heartland, beside China. Energy buttresses this relationship and if the current trend of interactions between Russian and China state-owned oil companies is any indication, China will have much to gain from maintaining Russia as an all-weather partner.

Underlying China’s “western pivot” is the geopolitics of energy. Given its less-than-rosy interactions with its neighbors to the east, and its reliance on maritime traffic that traverses sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean, almost entirely out of its control, China has recognized the far more favorable risk involved with importing its energy over the land. Nevertheless, its relationship with Pakistan is a crucial node in balancing its move to the west. Besides their common strategic distrust of India, China sees in Pakistan its entryway to the Arabian Sea–almost at the mouth of the ever-more strategic Strait of Hormuz. Its investment in Pakistan’s port at Gwadar crystallizes this vision.

Does any of this mean that China is expecting to devote the majority of its strategic energy to its northern and western neighbors, or that it will privilege the development of its land power? In all likelihood, no. On a global scale, the struggle for Pacific primacy will play out between the United States and China, and for this, China continues to devote considerable attention to the modernization of its navy and to its relations with East Asia’s rimland states.

The PLA hasn’t suddenly been convinced by John Mearsheimer’s theory on the primacy of land power; the westward march is premised primarily on mitigating energy-access risk. As a corollary, a China-friendly Central Asia is a considerably favorable bulwark against greater domestic instability on China’s western front. Ultimately, China’s attention to its western frontier is a strategic response to external developments in East Asia, and to the U.S. pivot, and one that will continue to have important consequences in the story of China’s rise.

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Ankit Panda is Associate Editor of The Diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter at @nktpnd.