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The Coming US-China Competition in Central Asia

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The Coming US-China Competition in Central Asia

Washington signals a new pushback against China in the former Soviet republics.

The Coming US-China Competition in Central Asia

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with family members of ethnic Kazakh-Chinese who are detained in Xinjiang, China, in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, on February 2, 2020.

Credit: State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha

While Washington focused on impeachment and the fall-out from the Iowa caucuses, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was touring Central Asia, proclaiming the strength of the administration’s commitment to the region, and pitching the merits of partnering with American firms. Visiting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as part of a trip that included Ukraine and Belarus, he repeated a consistent message that amounts to this: beware Chinese influence and remember what the United States has to offer.

“When American companies show up, we’re good neighbors,” he declared in Kazakhstan. “We come, we hire people from the local towns and villages and cities, we don’t pollute, we care about the environment, we treat people the right way.” He delivered the same pitch, almost verbatim, in Tashkent the following day, “When American companies come to places like Uzbekistan, we show up, we create jobs for local people, we obey the local rules, we don’t pollute their neighborhood, we’re good citizens, we’re good neighbors.” In other words, he was effectively saying, we’re not China.

Ahead of the United States’ new Central Asia strategy, unveiled in a Washington event on Wednesday, Pompeo announced a “new era of strategic partnership” with Uzbekistan and promised that “the sky is the limit” for American investment in Kazakhstan. Further underlining his message, he met with the families of ethnic Kazakhs being held in mass internment camps across the border in Xinjiang, calling on China to end its repression of the country’s mostly Muslim Uyghur minority.

The reason for this sudden surge of interest in the former Soviet republics is simple. The Central Asian countries occupy key locations along what China calls the Silk Road Economic Belt, part of its amorphous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with the region shaping up to be a critical nexus of great power competition between the United States, Russia, and China.

While Vladimir Putin has so far praised the Belt and Road project and insisted it is compatible with Russia’s own Eurasian Economic Union, China is increasingly making inroads into a region Moscow has long considered part of its own sphere of influence. Meanwhile, tensions between Beijing and Washington have only intensified, despite the two sides signing the first phase of a trade deal back in January. Pompeo recently described the Chinese Communist Party as “the central threat of our times.”

The feeling appears to be mutual. After the United States halted flights to China and imposed a travel ban in response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese Foreign Ministry accused Washington of spreading fear and violating civil rights. Pompeo’s comments on Xinjiang, meanwhile, were denounced as “slander” by the country’s embassy in Uzbekistan. Noting that the two nations were now unable to cooperate even when confronted with a global health emergency, an editorial in the influential Chinese news outlet Caixin concluded that U.S.-China relations had now crossed the Rubicon into open hostility.

This is not an isolated view. As the most recent U.S. National Defense Strategy concluded, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” with China topping a list of threats that includes Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Furthermore, there is a sense in some quarters in the United States that Washington is in danger of losing that contest to China in the Asia-Pacific.

Testifying before a U.S. Congressional Commission, Ely Ratner, executive director of the Center for a New American Security, warned, “The United States is losing this competition in ways that increase the likelihood not just of the crumbling of the U.S.-led order in Asia, but also the rise of a China-dominated region.”  In such a scenario, he cautioned, “the region will be less free, less open, and less inclusive than it is today,” and it would take “generations (at least) to revive central elements of today’s liberal international order.”

This is the context in which Pompeo’s visit, and the new U.S. Central Asia Strategy, must be understood – as the start of a concerted American pushback against China in the region. Preliminary moves are already underway. The new BUILD (Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development) Act was signed into law in 2018 with broad support in both the House and the Senate, creating a new agency to help secure private sector financing in developing countries, in part as a response to the BRI. The United States has also been promoting its “Blue Dot Network,” in conjunction with Australia and Japan, intended to certify “global trust standards” for new infrastructure projects, even if the details have been criticized for being “a bit fuzzy.”

These initial steps are unlikely to trouble Beijing, which has secured a decisive head start and a receptive market for its no-questions-asked investment model. Still, the new moves signal growing, bipartisan appetite for the coming confrontation with China and an acknowledgement that Central Asia will be an important battleground in that contest.

Katie Stallard-Blanchette is a Fellow with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. She was previously based in Beijing and Moscow as a foreign correspondent for the British broadcaster, Sky News.