China's Strategic Direction
was made about "people' power" and the coming of democracy to
Central Asia when the repressive government was toppled by street
protests in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. While I
am a firm believer in the great power of freedom, and predicted
a successful Iraqi election, I am uncertain whether such optimism
is warranted in Central Asia. What is more compelling is that
the recent events in Kyrgyzstan reflect a continuing power vacuum
that has existed in the region since the dissolution of the Soviet
both Russia and the United States maintain bases in the area,
neither has a clear grip on the region. Russia still retains a
significant influence, but Moscow is far away -- its attention
is often fixated on closer flashpoints like Ukraine and Chechnya.
The United States, on the other hand, has some interest in the
area of late, but lacks expertise, resources and history there.
China's role in Central Asia is often neglected in the Western
media. Kyrgyzstan, for example, shares a 533-mile border with
China. Neighboring Kazakhstan has an even longer border facing
China. China's influence and merchandise have been infiltrating
the region with alacrity since the Soviet demise. China and Central
Asia also share an ancient history of trade, cultural exchanges
and war -- in both directions. The future Chinese strategy toward
this power vacuum is, thus, a big question mark.
the 1930's, the strategic planners of the Imperial Japanese military
forces considered the future direction of their expansion and
asked themselves a simple question: north or south? "North" meant
the vastness of Soviet Siberia and Central Asia, abundantly endowed
with resources, but sparsely populated. "South" meant European
colonies of Southeast Asia, also rich, but perhaps more strongly
defended by established European powers.
intervened in the Japanese decision in any case. The Japanese
army met unexpected difficulties in border skirmishes with Soviet
forces (most notably at Nomonhan where Marshal Georgi Zhukov,
later the Soviet hero of the war against Germany, first proved
his mettle). Hitler invaded Western Europe and gravely weakened
the European colonial powers in Asia. The die was cast, and the
Empire of Japan went "south," thereby coming into the fatal conflict
with the United States.
China is not quite the militarily expansionist force that Imperial
Japan was in the 1930s, its strategic situation is perhaps analogous.
Will China choose north or south?
much of the attention regarding China is on the "south." It is
assumed in the West that China naturally looks toward the South
China Sea and beyond to the waters of Southeast Asia and perhaps
even the Indian Ocean. The region is economically vibrant. There
are commercially successful ethnic Chinese enclaves all over the
area, controlling much of the national wealth in countries like
Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. Furthermore, the area serves
as a vital conduit of foreign trade for China, taking Chinese
products westward and bringing much needed natural resources like
petroleum through the strategically important Straits of Malacca.
Expecting China's strategic influence to head south is a good
the possibility that China could press northward should not be
entirely discounted. There are some good reasons why China may
do so. Russia remains weak both in economic and military terms
in the region and will be so for the foreseeable future. The area
is vastly endowed with natural resources, especially energy that
China's growing and hungry economy enviously eyes. At the same
time, the region is largely unpopulated, an attractive condition
for over-populated China.
Asian nations, though generally friendly toward China, also have
relatively strong, stable governments that jealously guard their
sovereignty whereas Central Asian countries often lack cohesion
or even a strong sense of national identity. Any overt move to
flex Chinese muscle in Southeast Asia will, just as Imperial Japan
experienced, likely bring China into a devastating conflict with
the United States, with increasingly security-conscious Japan
in tow. This potential conflict is something that China wishes
to avoid at almost any cost for some time to come.
addition, there is the Islamic angle to consider. Though often
unacknowledged to outsiders or even to its own people, China faces
a radicalized Uighur Muslim insurgency in Xinjiang, a northwestern
frontier province. Formerly an ethnic-national liberation movement
against Han Chinese colonization in the province, the insurgency
is increasingly co-opted by infiltration of Arab and Wahabbi influence.
In the near future, China may feel compelled to extend its power
northwestward to forestall instability to Xinjiang.
is not to predict Chinese territorial expansion, particularly
toward Central Asia. But a power vacuum often invites temptations
and, thus, conflicts, and a tenuous and uneasy balance of power
exists now in Central Asia. Combined with growing Chinese economic
and military prowess as well as a longstanding Chinese desire
to become the Asian hegemon, the potential for a Chinese "north"
strategy should not be dismissed lightly. Such an appreciation
should also lead Russian leaders to reconsider their allergic
reaction to any increase in American influence in Central Asia,
given Russia's strained ability to counter Chinese influence there
J. Na is a senior fellow in foreign policy at Discovery
Institute in Seattle and runs the "Guns
and Butter Blog." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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