CHINA - Chinese President Xi Jinping's recently concluded tour of Central Asia was not just an ordinary list of state visits; it was a victory lap through the region. China has won the competition with Russia over who will have the upper hand in Central Asia.
It was an epic tussle which took over two decades and whose outcome was determined as much by Russia's tactical mistakes as by China's strategic ingenuity. But it is now largely over, with profound implications for global security arrangements. Seldom before has a battle of such importance been conducted so quietly, but with such decisive results.
China's policymakers largely ignored the vast, four million sq km area which stretches from the Caspian Sea to Mongolia, known generically as Central Asia, during the Soviet era. Even when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Chinese continued to ignore this region.
A major reason for this attitude was that Beijing had few experts who knew anything about Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the five countries which emerged out of the Soviet empire. But Chinese policy planners did know that all five newly independent Central Asian states were Muslim, that all were relatively poor though some possessed considerable energy resources, and that their governments exercised a very tenuous control over their national territory.
The fear in Beijing was that the Central Asian republics would become a hotbed for Islamic fundamentalism, threatening China's Xinjiang province.
It was only in 1997 that the first Chinese agreement to develop oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan, the biggest Central Asian republic, was signed. And it was only in 2000 that China began investing in Central Asia. It has since made up for lost time: trade went up from a paltry US$1 billion a year in 2000 to US$30 billion in 2010 and US$115 billion (S$144 billion) today.
China's new opportunity
In the process, China also changed its approach towards Central Asia. Instead of viewing it as a problem which needed to be cauterised, it began to treat the region as a business and political opportunity. Many of the infrastructure and economic cooperation projects China financed in Central Asia emanated or were connected to Xinjiang, on the principle that by giving Central Asian nations a direct stake in China's sensitive and often unruly province, Beijing avoided further trouble.
To start with, the Chinese encountered many obstacles. The political elites in all five Central Asian nations remain essentially unchanged from the old Soviet days and largely regard China as a potential new colonial power just waiting to rob the region of its raw materials. There was - and still is - considerable popular resentment at the arrival of illegal Chinese immigrants who end up dominating cross-border markets trade.
But the most important obstacle to China's regional advance was Russia, which remained determined to maintain its old sphere of influence and initially enjoyed considerable advantages in the region.
The militaries of Central Asia were umbilically tied to Moscow and so were the region's security services, the mainstays of local regimes. All local rulers spoke Russian, and all laundered their considerable personal fortunes through Russian banks. It was to Moscow that they looked for advice on how to resist Chinese advances.