Why Washington Needs to Integrate the New Silk Road with the Pivot to Asia

Why Washington Needs to Integrate the New Silk Road with the Pivot to Asia

by Andrew C. Kuchins
July 15, 2013

This is one of eight essays in the book review roundtable on Alexander Cooley’s
Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.

Alexander Cooley’s Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia is a must-read strategic primer of the challenges and opportunities for any aspiring great power in Central Asia. His analysis tracks the varying successes of the United States, Russia, and China in Central Asia since 2001 and the onset of the war in Afghanistan. The events of September 11 dramatically increased Washington’s interests in the region and shifted them predominantly to support the war in Afghanistan. During this past decade under Vladimir Putin, Russia—recovering from its loss of empire and the economic disaster of the 1990s—has sought to reassert its influence through various bilateral policies and multilateral institutions. China’s regional influence has grown principally through economic means, and its favored multilateral security and economic institution is the aptly named Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

But while great powers may have grand designs, the real story of Cooley’s book is how effectively regional leaders have been able to manipulate and play off the economic and security interests of the great powers to strengthen the sovereignty of their states, as well as increase their political and economic leverage over domestic political competitors. If a state is unwilling to play by local rules, achieving other policy goals will be met with a mounting parade of obstacles. In the case of the United States, for example, this meant quieting objections to human rights violations and democratic shortcomings for return for support in Afghan war efforts. Of course, such trade-offs offend the high morals that Americans like to claim in U.S. foreign policy. I recall several years ago a State Department official telling me with a straight face that our engagement of Central Asian states in the Northern Distribution Network, a set of new transit corridors to support U.S. troops in Afghanistan, would increase our ability to support the cause of defending human rights in Central Asia. Suffice to say, there has been no evidence in the past three years to support this contention.

The track record of the Russians since 2001 has been mixed at best. After more than one hundred years as part of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, Central Asian states remain very sensitive to initiatives from Moscow, whose likely goal is to erode their sovereignty or interfere on one side or another in their domestic politics. Russia, as a provider of public goods, strikes Central Asian elites as almost oxymoronic. Regional perceptions of the United States as a provider of public goods may be higher, but Washington’s credibility suffers from being viewed as a “short-timer” whose interests can be ever so fickle. Cooley argues that in this triangular competition over the past decade or so, China has probably “won on points,” as Beijing is viewed as only interested in economic ties that increase jobs and build infrastructure (p. 165). However, the accelerating shift to a genuinely multipolar environment in Eurasia increases the options for Central Asian states to partner with outside countries, including India, Turkey, Iran, and others; thus, the competition grows for access to the region’s assets, be they military, strategic, economic, or otherwise.

Certainly, from a U.S. standpoint, we are at a crossroads with Central Asia. As the United States withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, U.S. interest and influence in the region, as Cooley suggests, is bound to decline. After more than a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, the mantra “No more land wars in Eurasia” reverberates from the White House to Foggy Bottom to the Pentagon. The new strategic buzz in Washington is the “pivot to Asia,” which essentially boils down to the management of the rise of China’s power and influence in the years and decades to come. But the Obama administration’s conception of Asia goes back more than a hundred years ago to that of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, the United States’ first great strategic thinker. Mahan regarded Asia as consisting of East Asia, or the area from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia. Thus, Washington’s focus has been on the Asia-Pacific region for over a century, as evidenced by wars with Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

China’s historical and cultural interpretation of Asia is not surprisingly very different, as it includes eastern areas of Russia to its north, Central Asia and Afghanistan to its west, and Pakistan and India to its southwest. Just as the Obama administration announced its pivot to Asia, leading Chinese strategic thinkers, such as Wang Jisi at Beijing University, began to increasingly advocate for China’s march to the west through Central Asia to Iran and the greater Middle East. [1] This is not to suggest that China views these regions to the north, west, and south as its territory—although China is engaged in a long-standing territorial dispute with India and also made a small claim in July 2012 to seventeen kilometers in the Altai region, despite a 2004 border treaty with Russia that was to resolve the issue forever. Wang is not suggesting a military march, of course, but rather a continued expansion of Chinese economic influence and power to the west.

While it may be politically incorrect to use the word “containment” in regard to U.S. policy toward China, containment is certainly how the pivot to Asia is understood in Beijing. So the Chinese response will be to continue to build high-speed trains, highways, and pipelines from western China to the greater Middle East, as well as to ports on the Indian Ocean, as their trade and investment ties accompany this strategic goal. I should not overstate this since China’s highest strategic and economic priorities will lie to its east for a long time to come. But increasing access and influence to the north, west, and southwest are significant and natural strategic goals as well. There is a strong argument for Beijing to do so, as a westward push could provide transcontinental shipping routes for oil, gas, and other goods that would be far removed from the purview of the U.S. Navy.

This brings us back to the theme of Cooley’s book: the way in which the jockeying of Russian, U.S., and Chinese great-power designs among the Central Asian states enhance these states own sovereignty and domestic political power. Beijing’s economic power in this part of the world will continue to grow, absent an economic meltdown in China. Chinese companies, unconstrained by anything like the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or shareholder reporting, will continue to line the pockets of local, regional, and national officials in Central Asia to strengthen their access to the region’s mineral and hydrocarbon resources and will build more transit infrastructure to ship these goods to the Chinese market. Ever since the financial crisis, China, with its more than $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, has been on a global buying spree that increasingly raises concerns, especially among its mineral-rich neighbors. Chinese domination of Mongolia’s rapidly growing economy (the second-fastest growing economy in the world right now) reached such a point that the parliament in Ulaanbaatar recently passed legislation that requires legislative approval of any foreign investment over $70 million. [2] Even in Central Asia’s largest and most wealthy state, Kazakhstan, there is considerable concern about the increasing Chinese stakes in Kazakh oil and gas resources, as well as about illegal Chinese migrant workers. Russia is also concerned that its eastern regions, which are rich in hydrocarbon and mineral wealth, will be gobbled up by Chinese companies, effectively eroding Russian sovereignty.

The best defense for the Central Asian states, Russia, and all of China’s neighbors is improvement of their investment environments to make them more attractive to a wider set of bidders. But this requires improved governance, transparent and effective rule of law, strengthened property rights, and all of those good things that attack the foundations of patrimonial authoritarian systems. If China’s economic presence is viewed as too heavy-handed or pervasive, there will be increasing public opposition to it that local leaders will have to address. The China factor was not the main reason behind the riots in Zhanozhen, Kazakhstan, in December 2011, but it did play a role.

Probably the most potentially effective policy strategy that the United States has in this region in the coming years is the so-called vision of a new Silk Road: a regional economic cooperation strategy for Afghanistan and its neighbors that emphasizes strengthening both hard and soft trade and transit infrastructure to link the “heart of Asia” with the greater Middle East, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Russia, and Europe. Although the region certainly needs more railroads, roads, modern airports, and the like, the biggest obstacle to moving goods rapidly and predictably to multiple markets in all directions is bureaucratic and institutional—what both I and Cooley call “borders acting as toll booths” (p. 154). As virtually all studies conclude, reduction of graft and red tape at the borders will do more to strengthen regional economic connectivity and increase the variety of market options for Central Asian states than any other policy action. Cooley is right to conclude that, so far, the internal nature of the regional patrimonial states is the biggest obstacle (see pp. 149–61), but if national sovereignty in the region feels under greater threat, perhaps reviving the network of transcontinental transit corridors that Washington calls the new Silk Road may achieve a more positive response from albeit reluctant regional leaders. The United States would benefit from viewing support for this initiative as a key part of the strategic pivot to Asia.


[1] See Wang Jisi, “Marching Westwards: The Rebalancing of China’s Geostrategy,” International and Strategic Studies, no. 73 (2012).

[2] See Oliver Backes, “China at the Gates: China’s Impact on Mongolian Natural Resources and Investment Policy,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 6, 2013, http://csis.org/blog/china-gates-chinas-impact-mongolian-natural-resource-and-investment-policy/.

About Asia Policy

Asia Policy is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal presenting policy-relevant academic research on the Asia-Pacific that draws clear and concise conclusions useful to today’s policymakers. Asia Policy is published quarterly in January, April, July, and October and accepts submissions on a rolling basis. Learn more