The Road Well-Traveled

    First proposed by Xi Jinping in late 2013, the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative covers a wide range of objectives, aiming to “instill vigor and vitality into the ancient Silk Road, connect Asian, European and African countries more closely and promote mutually beneficial cooperation to a new high and in new forms,” according to the text of the policy itself. As a development strategy, OBOR creates two main directions of the expansion of China’s international influence as Beijing seeks the authority, strength, and respect required to become a world power. “One Road” refers to a maritime Silk Road, which strives to connect Chinese trade with South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. One Road pushes Chinese investment in these countries not only with the goal of diversifying China’s export market but also with hopes of spreading China’s sphere of influence to new regions. Where One Road looks to the sea, “One Belt” — the Silk Road Economic Belt—pushes Chinese investment in countries along the historic land-based Silk Road, stretching through Central Asia to the Middle East and even to Africa. Despite the initiative’s romanticizing of an ancient tradition, One Belt can be seen as a continuation of China’s highly successful Central Asian development strategies implemented over the past fifteen years, strategies that would not have succeeded without the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Utilizing the SCO, China has diminished Russian influence in Central Asia over the past decade and a half, meeting its needs for economic development and providing the basis for OBOR.        

   The SCO evolved from the Shanghai Five, a cooperative organization formed in 1996, when China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan sought a means of defusing tense border relations in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Agreements signed by the five countries ensured that each member would demilitarize its borders to a minimum level while promising mutual nonaggression, a process which has helped to stabilize Central Asia. Professor David Schneider of the University of Massachusetts Amherst argues in American Diplomacy that a stable Asia is what every Chinese regime since the Zhou dynasty in the 11th century B.C.E. has required in order to maintain control over its western frontier.  Schneider further argues that without secure borders China cannot ensure sustainable growth. The People’s Republic of China helped secure its Western border with the founding of the Shanghai Five, thereby allowing for economic growth and subsequently pushing the group’s focus towards economic cooperation.

   With Uzbekistan’s entry to the group in 2001, the group was reborn as the SCO with a new objective of combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism within its six member states. Greater cooperation between member states via intelligence sharing, treaty-backed support for each state’s sovereignty over breakaway regions, and a still-growing membership has led to a more stable Central Asia and further expansion opportunities for China.

   The framework established by the SCO has allowed China to diversify its energy imports while increasing its economic presence in Central Asia through investment. Bilateral agreements signed during the last decade ensure a steady flow of fossil fuels from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan into China, fueling development while reducing reliance on coal. Besides bailing out Kazakhstan following the 2008 financial crisis, China has become both Uzbekistan’s second-largest trade partner and the largest investor in its transportation sector, with bilateral trade between the two countries increasing 60 percent year-on-year during the first half of 2013. In exchange, Chinese products flow into Central Asian markets to meet increased demand, making China a key economic player in the area.

   Since OBOR’s implementation, the SCO has become an even more critical component of China’s policy in Central Asia. Just after launching OBOR, China deepened its commitment to the region in 2014 by announcing the allocation of USD $5 billion worth of available credit for further joint ventures with member states. OBOR adds a new facet to this expansion, seeking to extend China’s cultural influence into Central Asia using the indispensable economic ties set up under the SCO. In December 2014, the Chinese Ethnic Cultural Foundation under the Ministry of Culture and the Kazakh People’s Spiritual Civilization Development Foundation launched the Silk Road International Forum in Astana, Kazakhstan as part of OBOR. Launched with the blessing of Zhang Hanhui, who in addition to being China’s Kazakh ambassador also represents the SCO in that country, the forum focuses on international cultural exchange and development between countries historically along the Silk Road, ranging from Asia to Africa.

   Part of this cultural exchange initiative includes granting Chinese government scholarships to 30,000 students from all SCO member states, attracting foreign students such as Achmed Dauev to China. Dauev currently studies at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an, having chosen to come to China over France, South Korea, and Malaysia in part due to China’s presence in his native Kazakhstan. “There are a lot of Chinese companies [in Kazakhstan]. So [if you study in China] you can easily find a job with a high salary,” he says.  While not a Chinese scholarship recipient himself, Dauev says that many of his fellow Kazakh classmates receive scholarships from the Confucius Institute or the Chinese government directly.  With greater numbers of students from Central Asia bringing money into China and bringing Chinese culture back home, China’s presence in Central Asia grows each year. Dauev has developed a great appreciation for China over his four years in the country and says he actively engages in cultural exchange by bringing Chinese gifts back for friends and family in addition to cooking Chinese food at home. While one student may not make a marked impact on China’s cultural presence in Central Asia, the influence of more than 30,000 cannot be ignored.

   As China fills the vacuum left by the Soviet Union in Central Asia, Russia is striving to maintain its presence in the region. Most of Moscow’s response has occurred in the energy sector, with Vladimir Putin shifting the SCO’s focus towards energy in 2006 where Russia holds an upper hand. As a part of this shift to energy trade, Putin proposed that SCO member states only make energy deals with each other in order to strengthen regional trust and economic exchange. This move had limited impact on China, which imports most liquid fuels from Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. However, Russia’s proposal also lays the foundation for a Russian energy monopoly on natural gas and gasoline, while at the same time deterring China from turning towards alternative sources like Afghanistan for potentially lower prices. While Beijing no doubt benefits from the energy trade, as a net energy importer China is beholden to its sources of natural gas and petroleum, which gives Russia potential leverage to check Chinese expansion in Central Asia.

   More recently, Russia has responded to OBOR within the confines of the SCO as well.  The SCO Energy Club, first proposed by Russia in 2006, has recently become a functioning arm of the organization, with the stated aim of deepening energy cooperation among both member and non-member states while bolstering energy security. The club may give energy suppliers among participating states–Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Iran–an economic advantage over the consumers via consensus on price setting, tariffs, and transportation, but for now, the body is too young to have any substantial impact. What will come of Russia’s response to China’s success with OBOR remains to be seen, but it may prompt preemptive action from China to keep energy prices low. It may also provoke China to erode Russia’s cultural presence with initiatives like the Silk Road International Forum, which not only instructs  Central Asian students in Chinese, but also seeks to revive pride in Central Asian ethnic languages. By emphasizing the development of traditional folk art and culture along the Silk Road,  the forum hopes to inspire these countries to take pride in their historic cultural heritage and move away from their recent Soviet history.

   OBOR is a natural extension of China’s Central Asian development strategy over the past decade and a half. Facilitated by the SCO, Beijing has sent waves of investment into Central Asia to aid in infrastructure and economic development, stimulating demand for Chinese goods while establishing business ties in the region at the same time. One Belt seeks to further develop these strategies to increase Beijing’s cultural presence in Central Asia, while One Road seeks to apply them further afield. As a result, China has continued to prosper while Russia has been dealt the losing hand despite its maneuvering in the energy sector. The SCO will play a key role in the coming years.  SCO laid the groundwork for OBOR, allowing Beijing to fully flex its economic might while simultaneously building a cultural presence in Central Asia. Russia, in turn, has used the same organization to make gains in the energy sector and resist Chinese expansion, but these tactics have yet to show concrete gains. China’s global presence will likely continue to spread under OBOR, keeping the SCO relevant fifteen years after its birth and worthy of close examination as its membership grows.

Jakob is Fulbright Student Researcher at Heilongjiang University.  He can be reached at jakob.lengacher@yahoo.com.  

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