By Anuraag Khaund & Saai Sasidhar Patri
THE recent weeks in May saw a churn of geopolitical calculations unfolding in the global stage as two important summits happened simultaneously or close to each other− the China- Central Asia Summit in 19 May, 2023 and the Group of Seven (G7) with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) summit in the side-lines on 21 and 22 May. Along with these two summits, for the purpose of the article, one can also add the third Forum for India- Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) summit held in Papua New Guinea on May 22. Given the geographical areas covered by the three summits mentioned earlier− Eurasia and Indo- Pacific, it is hard to discard the timings of the latter as mere coincidences. One way, it can be interpreted as the attempt by great powers, notably US, China, and India to outline and solidify their influences in these geopolitical hotspots.
For China, Central Asia has been a region of threats as well as opportunity. While the historic Silk Roads bringing the reaches of West Asia and Rome passed through the region at the same time, nomadic communities such as Xiongnu as well as the Tibetan empire have often launched their invasions into mainland Chinese dynasties through the routes of Central Asia. Coming to the current era, Central Asia has again recaptured the Chinese geopolitical imagination as a land of threat and opportunity. Neighbouring the restive Xinjiang province, any form of instability or rise of Islamic extremism in the Central Asian Republics (CARs) have the potential to spill over into the former thereby challenging the tense Chinese grip. In addition, the CARs with their reserves of oil and natural gas as well as a market for Chinese goods, hold an immense economic value in the eyes of Beijing. This can be gleaned from the important place held by these countries in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), especially the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) which was announced in September 2013 from the city of Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan.
The China- Central Asia Summit can be seen as an attempt at further strengthening of Beijing’s influence in the region. This can be gleaned from the slew of initiatives announced at the Summit to further cement China- Central Asia relations such as the setting up of meeting mechanisms on foreign affairs, economy, trade, and customs as well as a business council. Along with these there were other prominent announcements such as the strengthening of the energy cooperation and trade between Beijing and Central Asia through the China- Central Asia Gas Pipeline and establishment of a China- Central Asia energy development partnership; enhancing connectivity through investing in the trans- Caspian corridor and increasing the capacity of the China- Kyrgyzstan- Uzbekistan and China-Tajikistan- Uzbekistan highways; the setting up of ‘China- Central Asia Technology and Skills improvement scheme’ and the ‘Cultural Silk Road’ for improving cooperation in the fields of science and technology and culture respectively. The areas mentioned in the preceding statement− energy, connectivity, science and technology and culture− especially energy and connectivity are some of the crucial factors behind China’s strategy towards Central Asia. A stable Central Asia (along with Afghanistan) is key to the success of the BRI’s flagship project the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as well as Beijing’s outreach to Europe and West Asia through the New Eurasian Land Bridge and the China- Central Asia- West Asia Corridor of the BRI. More importantly, during the summit, the Central Asian countries were roped in to be a part of the Beijing-centred Global Development Initiative (GDI), Global Security Initiative (GSI) and the recently announced Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) by focusing on the themes of ‘common development’, ‘universal security’, and ‘everlasting friendship’ respectively. From here, one can identify the other important function served by the CARs− as a testing ground for Chinese ideas of global institutions and investment projects. Hence, scholars Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen in their examination of Beijing’s policies in Central Asia in Sinostan claim that in Central Asia ‘one can see an outline of what China’s future foreign policy is going to look like’.
Another major thrust behind the China-Central Asia Summit was the February visit of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for the C5+1 Ministerial Representative meeting as well as the strengthening of US led measures such as the Economic Resilience Programme launched in 2022 for the CARs in order to shore up the latter’s support for Washington in the aftermath of the Russia- Ukraine War in 2022 and the fall of Kabul in 2021. Any strengthening of US presence in the region would have been viewed as detrimental to China’s own strategy and security calculus which might have led to the above summit aimed at forming a ‘China- Central Asia community of shared future’. Moreover, with the decline in Russia’s stature as a result of the quagmire in Ukraine and Moscow being increasingly pushed to depend on Chinese support, the Summit also provides Beijing to consolidate its standing among the CARs who have traditionally been regarded by Kremlin as falling within their own ‘sphere of influence’. Thus, one can conclude that China’s primary attention has been drawn by its land boundaries which have for centuries been the main source of its insecurity and whose stabilisation has ensured the internal stability of its empires and now the current People’s Republic of China (PRC). Indeed, Pantucci and Petersen identify the Central Asian region as ‘Sinostan’ or China’s ‘inadvertent empire’ in the sense that Beijing is compelled by geographic, security, political and economic factors (especially security and political) to establish and consolidate its influence and stronghold in the CARs.
As China was hosting the Central Asian leaders in Xian, India was engaged in strengthening its influence in the Indo- Pacific under the rubric of initiatives such as QUAD and the FIPIC. This was evident in the QUAD summit held on the sidelines of the G7 in Hiroshima where the member states including India sought to streamline and institutionalise the nascent grouping’s focus towards forming ‘a free and open Indo Pacific that is inclusive and resilient’ through launch as well as strengthening already existing numerous initiatives such as the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), Indo- Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), Quad Health Security Partnership, Indo Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), Quad Investors Network (QUIN) etc covering areas of infrastructure, economy & clean energy, health & vaccine development, maritime knowledge and investments in strategic technologies. These efforts are aimed at countering Chinese attempts to dominate the provision of the above public goods to littoral countries of the Indo- Pacific through the Maritime Silk Route of the BRI and thereby limit Beijing’s influence in the Indo- Pacific region, of which the Indian Ocean is seen by India as vital to its own security and strategic interests. The centrality of India in the Indo- Pacific region was also highlighted in the QUAD Joint Statement’s realisation of the importance of initiatives such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Forum for India- Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) of which India forms an indispensable part. The aligning and merging of QUAD’s efforts with those of the IORA and FIPIC, along with ASEAN (as intended in the Statement) would provide more opportunities for India to strengthen its footprint in the Indian Ocean region.
On the Pacific front, the FIPIC is an attempt by New Delhi to make its presence in the maritime region beyond the Indian Ocean given the close link between the ‘peace, stability and freedom of navigation’ of both the Indian and Pacific realms. In addition, the Pacific Islands hold an important geo-strategic value in terms of being located in proximity of critical shipping lanes as well as in the middle both the Asian and American continents. It was this advantage which China had sought to exploit by trying to forge a security and economic pact with the Pacific Island Countries (PIC) in 2022. Keeping the above context in mind, India as well as the other QUAD powers like US and Australia have stepped up engagement with the PICs as seen during the visits of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and PM Modi to Papua New Guinea (PNG) recently in May. The importance of the PICs for India was highlighted in PM’s opening statement which referred to the former as ‘Large Ocean Countries’, thereby underlining their centrality in New Delhi’s Indo- Pacific calculus. By highlighting the values of the Voice of Global South Summit and India’ role in bringing up the issues of the PICs in forums such as G20 and G7, New Delhi has sought to consolidate its image as a reliable leader of the Global South as well as a trustworthy friend of the Pacific Islands. This image was further buttressed by laying emphasis on India origin initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance (ISA), CDRI , Sustainable Coastal and Ocean Research Institute (SCORI) of which the PICs form an integral part as well as the provision of development assistance and humanitarian assistance thereby portraying New Delhi as a viable and reliable partner than Beijing.
Both Central Asia and the Indo- Pacific have drawn the focus of policy makers and strategists in New Delhi and Beijing. Yet China seems poised to emerge as the hegemon in Eurasia with a declining Russia and Beijing’s pervasiveness being entrenched through the BRI as well as the SCO which has become a ‘Sino-centric’ organisation. With uncertainty surrounding the Chabahar Port and the INSTC, should India focus more on the maritime domain or the Indo- Pacific? This question is worth exploring as India slowly tries to come out of its ‘maritime blindness’ by realising the strategic advantage offered by its long seaboard as well as the Andaman & Nicobar Islands near the Straits of Malacca while investing in initiatives such as the Indo- Arab- Mediterranean maritime corridor from Mumbai port to Piraeus in Greece. If China has been focused on its continental space throughout much of its history, we should not forget the ‘Maritime Asia’ from Red Sea to the ports of Song dynasty when Cholas ruled the waters of Indian Ocean.
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
- Anuraag Khaund is a student of International Politics (IP) in Central University of Gujarat (CUG) and Saai Sasidhar Patri is a senior teacher at Neev Acadaemy, Bangalore
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