The OBOR initiative unveils Beijing’s ambitions in Central Asia

The OBOR initiative unveils Beijing’s ambitions in Central Asia

Since the launch of the China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative, China has focused its efforts on the expansion of its economic and strategic presence in Central Asia.

In 2013, during his address to the Nazarbayev University, President Xi Jinping launched the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR), based on two strategic frameworks: Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk-Road. The OBOR is considered one of the most ambitious tools ever designed to enhance trade, energy and infrastructure networks, allowing Beijing to massively expand its influence overseas. Embracing 4.4 billion people and a collective annual GDP of US$ 2.1 trillion (equivalent to 30% of global wealth), the scale of the OBOR initiative is huge.

Yet, the Chinese leadership’s efforts remain focused on the expansion of economic and strategic activities in Central Asia, the most critical area for Beijing’s economic and strategic interest. Central Asian leaders have enthusiastically welcomed the OBOR as a major economic and strategic imitative. It is expected to boost the level of connectivity with Europe, East Asia and Middle East represented by the revival of the ancient Silk Road under Beijing’s auspices.

The emergence of China as a global actor is characterised by Beijing’s determination to project its economic, political and military power beyond its own borders. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has rapidly become a critical area for China’s strategic interest. In the last decade, Beijing has started to impose itself in the region, slowly replacing the Russian Federation’s traditional sphere of influence.

China has started cultivating economic, trade and security relations with the five Central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, who are accommodating toward Beijing’s regional development agenda. Through the recently founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), coupled with the presence of State-Owned Enterprises, Beijing has redefined its role as a leading actor in the region.

Energy and security: priorities for the OBOR

While China has contributed to the regional economic development through significant investment in infrastructure across a wide range of sectors, Beijing’s security engagement has become one of the most critical. In the last decade, China’s influence has grown tremendously in the region.

Under the leadership of President Xi, China’s economic and strategic advancement has followed the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation, a CCP plan to restore China’s power. China’s need for energy has been growing enormously and is projected to continue to grow in the coming two decades. Central Asia is a key area in China’s energy security strategy.

Securing future energy supplies for continued growth in China is vital

The orientation toward energy sources located in Central Asia is one the most important priorities for the Chinese leadership. Beijing’s aspirations could be compromised if energy fall short, therefore it is a critical concern for the Chinese leadership to secure supplies. China is willing to reduce the reliance on the Strait of Malacca, reorienting the access of their supply lines routes through Central Asia. Inability to secure sources of energy might not only represent a hindrance for Chinese industry, but also jeopardise the stability of the CCP. Central Asia is an important source of oil for China, and maintaining strong ties with countries such as Turkmenistan is imperative.

Turkmenistan provides more than half of Chinese natural gas imports transported via two pipeline networks: the Kazakhstan-China Oil Pipeline and the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline, which crosses Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan. Economic ties between China and Kazakhstan have been strengthened by massive FDI, which represented two thirds of all Chinese foreign direct investment in the region in 2012. The volume of the Chinese trade with Kazakhstan vigorously expanded reaching $26 billion dollar in 2012, and it is expected to double by 2020.

The opportunity for Beijing to expand its influence in Central Asia is partially explained by the declining interest of the United States and partially by Moscow’s embracing attitude toward China’s emergence in Central Asia, which is considered highly advantageous for the Russian economy and Russia’s own strategic interests in the region. While Central Asian republics have not been seriously affected by the destabilisation in Afghanistan, China remains vigilant for potential threats of separatism and terrorism.

In order to fulfil the leadership’s ambitions, China needs to prioritise  geopolitical stability and energy security. The lack thereof could not only prevent the OBOR initiative from reaching its full potential, but also jeopardise Beijing’s great vision of shaping a new regional order, as exemplified by the central strategic and economic role of China in Central Asia.

About Author

Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito is a London-based analyst. He is also a GRI analyst and regular contributor for the Foreign Policy Association, where he writes mostly on the Koreas ‘blog. He holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, Japanese politics and Chinese foreign policy. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito.