Central Asia serves as the confluence for a number of regional issues with global implications, including energy supply, drug trafficking, and the future of Afghanistan. Given that Central Asia is buttressed by China and South Asia, these players are increasingly essential to the process of integration and conflict mitigation within the region. The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy hosted former ambassador Robert O. Blake, Jr., U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, and a panel of Chinese experts to discuss the increasing importance of Central Asia in relations among China, India, and the United States. Paul Haenle introduced Assistant Secretary Blake and Lora Saalman moderated the event, the fourth in the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center’s “China-South Asia Dialogues” seminar series.
Regional Interests and Actors in Central Asia
- Challenges Facing the Region: Central Asia has a vital role as a crossroads, with China and India increasingly playing a role in a revitalized “Silk Road,” said Blake. He highlighted a number of challenges that continue to plague the region, including instability and terrorism—which are heightened by a young population facing diminished economic prospects. Given that Afghanistan and Pakistan face similar challenges, Blake added that increased engagement with these countries would benefit all parties involved, particularly in the economic sphere.
- The United States and the Region: Blake expressed his desire for wider U.S.-China cooperation in the region, pointing to the thriving U.S.-India partnership as a model. He added the U.S. relationship with India is not undertaken at the expense of relations with China. The United States does not see its cooperation with either China or India as a zero-sum game.
- China and the Central Asian Crossroads: Ye Hailin, chief of the editorial department of the journal South Asia Studies at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), stated that China’s primary goals in the region are:
- resource and trade route security;
- entry into new markets;
- promotion of stability within Xinjiang;
- resolution of territorial disputes.
- China and Pakistan: Ye stated that Pakistan is an integral partner to China, noting that Pakistan’s geostrategic position allows it to serve as a hub among Central Asia, the Middle East-North Africa, and Xinjiang.
- Energy Security: Wang Haibin, an assistant professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management, argued that the behavior of China’s energy companies—including state-owned enterprises—does not always reflect the will of the Chinese government. The China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline and China-Turkmenistan natural gas pipeline are two examples of this.
- India’s Integration into Central Asia: Ma Jiali, executive deputy director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the China Reform Forum, argued that India’s main regional interests are Pakistan and energy security. He and Lou Chunhao, research assistant at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), both stressed how India’s growing energy needs can only be met by growing imports, especially from Central Asia. Cheng Ruisheng, former Chinese ambassador to India and Myanmar, added that India wants to become a “Central Asian country” and a regional player.
- Trans-regional versus Regional Powers: Su Hao, director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at China Foreign Affairs University, noted that China, like the United States and Russia, is a trans-regional power, while India—like Germany, Japan, and Brazil—is a regional power. Su argued that India seeks to be a trans-regional power and is currently making this transition in part through its strategic partnership with the United States. While the trans-regional and regional powers of Russia, China, and India share a common ground when it comes to Central Asia, they nonetheless are bound to play different roles due to their dissimilarity in geopolitical reach, Su argued.
Afghanistan and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
- Afghanistan and Stability: China does not view Afghanistan as a part of Central Asia and it has not been greatly factored into the mission of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), said Cheng and Ye. Nonetheless, Ye asserted that Afghanistan’s internal instability poses the greatest threat to the region. Cheng agreed, stating that while China has not played a part in U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, it continues to advocate stability and prosperity in the region. When Cheng expressed skepticism over the long-term goals of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Blake responded that the United States has no intention of establishing permanent bases there; its main goal now is to train Afghanistan’s security forces. He added that the United States favors a political, rather than military, resolution of the conflict.
- China’s Involvement in Afghanistan: Blake advocated greater Chinese engagement in Afghanistan, citing investment in the country as a positive outlet. Saalman asked whether China would be more comfortable dealing with these issues in a bilateral context or as part of a multilateral organization. Cheng argued that China continues to favor bilateral engagement on Afghanistan, South Asia, and even on a number of economic issues within the SCO.
- SCO Framework: Given the importance of Central Asia as a source of resources and communications, Ye argued that the SCO framework should be improved to help it better respond to crises. He cited insurance of domestic stability and safety in Xinjiang as one such factor in China’s interest in the region, along with the issue of investments and resources. Lou argued that China still sees Russia as the most important actor in the SCO. He asked whether the United States—given its history in setting up multilateral organizations—might seek to establish a new mechanism to compete with or supplant the SCO. Blake responded that the United States has sought cooperation rather than competition with the organization.
- U.S. Participation in the SCO: Li Li, research associate at the Institute of South Asian and Southeast Asian Studies at CICIR, brought up two other issues facing the SCO: First, whether to allow the United States to participate in the organization as an observer and, second, whether India’s role should be increased from that of an observer to a full-fledged member. Cheng and Su both voiced their support for U.S. participation in the SCO as an observer. While not pursuing observer status for the United States, Blake advocated exploring some form of expanded cooperation with the SCO.
Discussants: Cheng Ruisheng, Ma Jiali, Su Hao, Ye Hailin, Li Li, Yang Xiaoping, Lou Chunhao, Wang Haibin, Song Haixiao, Long Xingchun