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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.
Ankit Panda is Associate Editor of The Diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter at @nktpnd.