By Willy Lam
East-Asia-Intel.com, September 11, 2013
President Xi Jinping has sought to kill several birds with one stone through his proposal of forming a “Silk Road Economic Belt” with five Central Asian states.
The Chinese supremo visited Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan in the run-up to and after attending the G20 summit in St. Petersburg earlier this month.
The world’s newest Free Trade Area (FTA) will cover these four states plus Tajikistan. Trade between China and these five countries ballooned from $460 million in 1992 to $46 billion in 2012.
The official Xinhua News Agency quoted Xi as saying in Astana, Kazakhstan, that the new economic belt “boasts a 3-billion population and a market that is unparalleled both in scale and potential.”
Moreover, given that a substantial part of the trade between China and these countries will be in renminbi, this FTA will further boost Beijing’s bid to speed up the internationalization of the Chinese currency.
However, the Economic Belt will also serve political purposes. Much of the funds and weapons being funneled into underground Uighur separatist groups in the restive Xinjiang Autonomous Region have made their way into western China through Central Asia.
That is why Xi, who is also China’s commander-in-chief, called upon leaders of the five countries to “jointly crack down on the ‘three evil forces’ of terrorism, extremism and separatism, as well as drug-trafficking and transnational organized crimes.”
The five states are rich in oil, gas and other minerals. Promoting energy cooperation with Central Asia will lighten China’s dependence on Russian oil and gas.
It is also significant that China has not invited Russia to join this Economic Belt. This is despite the fact that China, Russia as well as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which was founded in 2001.
Despite the fact that Beijing has characterized its relations with Russia as an “all-weather strategic partnership,” the two erstwhile socialist allies harbor deep-seated mistrusts over a host of issues.
For example, the Xi administration has fretted over the fact that Moscow has been reluctant to sell China state-of-the-art jetfighters and submarines.
The formation of the Silk Road Economic Belt amounts to Beijing telling Russia that it has the wherewithal to boost its influence in the latter’s traditional sphere of interest.
The Economic Belt is also geared toward thwarting what Beijing deems Washington’s anti-China containment policy.
During the Afghan war, the U.S. secured airbases in a couple of Central Asian countries. Its lease on the Manas Airbase in Kyrgyzstan, which has a common border with Xinjiang, is set to expire in July next year.
Through boosting ties with the members of the Silk Road Economic Belt, Beijing hopes to banish American influence from its northwestern backyard.
The new FTA will also facilitate the formation of what Xi called a “strategic regional thoroughfare” from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, thereby fostering a network of transportation between Eastern, Western and Southeast Asia.
This is seen as a leap forward in Beijing’s long-standing goal of enhancing power projection to some of the world’s fast-growing economic regions.
Willy Lam is a Hong Kong-based China scholar and journalist specializing in Communist Party politics and foreign policy. He is author of the authoritative book, The Era of Jiang Zemin. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0130837016/worldtribuncomyo