BEIJING – Armed with tens of billions of dollars in investment deals and romantic tales of ancient explorers, Chinese President Xi Jinping spent much of September and October promoting his vision of two new “Silk Roads” to connect his country to the West and secure its energy supplies — one by land and another by sea.
In the process, he has eclipsed an American vision of a “New Silk Road” that was advanced with much fanfare by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton two years ago and was supposed to revitalize Afghanistan as the link between Central and South Asia.
The contrast between the two visions — one with huge sums of money on the table now, the other struggling to get off the ground — only underlines how China’s ever-growing clout in Asia is challenging the influence of the United States.
In Central Asia in particular, China’s leader has taken advantage of Russia’s relative decline and the planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan to expand its influence, experts said.
“China is making a pretty bold move,” said Chris Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Xi Jinping sees a huge gaping hole in terms of trade and economic opportunities that the U.S. has so far failed to take advantage of.”
Dating back more than two millenniums, a web of trade routes linking oasis towns brought Chinese silks and other products from across Asia to the West.
In his call for a new Silk Road, Xi was underlining the importance of China securing its energy supplies — overland to the gas and oil fields of Central Asia and beyond, and by sea through Asia’s contested waters and via the busy Straits of Malacca.
In September, Xi traveled to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and signed tens of billions of dollars worth of new investment deals, taking a share in a major Kazakh oil field and expanding gas imports piped from Turkmenistan.
In Astana, Kazakhstan, where deals worth $30 billion were inked, he talked wistfully of almost hearing “the ring of camel bells echoing in the mountains” and seeing “the wisp of smoke rising from the desert.”
He spoke of the travels of Han dynasty envoy Zhang Qian to the region more than 2,100 years ago, but more substantively, he proposed the establishment of a “Silk Road economic belt” to boost trade and transport links and strengthen regional policy coordination from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea.
As well as the geo-strategic energy play, China also sees economic benefits in moving goods from the west of its own country, which has lagged its booming east coast, through Central Asia.
China’s courting of the Central Asian republics has drawn comparisons to the Great Game, the 19th-century rivalry between Russia and Britain in the region.
Viewed as a race, China is ahead, eclipsing Russia as the largest trading partner of four of the five Central Asian republics.
Xi was the third consecutive Chinese president to visit the former Soviet Central Asia region, countries that no U.S. president has ever visited. There are tremendous business opportunities in the area for U.S. companies in telecommunications, oil and roads. But at the moment, China is “coming out on top in the region,” according to Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Xi has also trained his sights further east. Early in October, Xi was in Malaysia and Indonesia, wrapping up tens billions of dollars in business deals and promoting trade and military ties. He mentioned historical links, with tales of the Chinese navigator Zheng He, who made seven visits to “the Western Seas” in the 15th century. Xi also spoke of building a “maritime Silk Road.”
The majority of China’s oil imports pass through the Straits of Malacca, one of the world’s most important shipping lanes. Flanked by Indonesia and Malaysia, the seaway narrows to less than two miles across near Singapore.
China’s efforts to befriend its Asian neighbors are complicated by a series of maritime territorial disputes. Tensions run particularly high with Japan and the Philippines.
But Xi seemed to have toned down some of the overt nationalism that had unsettled China’s neighbors in recent years, Johnson said. Instead, he reverted to an older policy of using cheap money and economic deals to try to buy influence.
President Barack Obama’s goal of rebalancing U.S. foreign policy towards Asia is seen here partly as an effort to contain China through U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines — something Beijing is quietly countering with its moves in Central Asia.
Nevertheless, China’s Silk Road strategy is never going to replace the economic importance of its ties to the more developed countries of the Asia-Pacific region, said Ely Ratner, of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
Inevitably, perhaps, newspapers in China gloated when Obama failed to turn up at two important Asian summits because of the U.S. government shutdown. His absence, the papers said, underlined Washington’s waning clout in the region.
But experts in Washington and Beijing said the point should not be overstated, with many of China’s neighbors still wary of its intentions, despite the obvious economic advantages of good relations.
“The influence of China [in Southeast Asia] is growing faster than the U.S. in recent years, but it is still not as strong or as popular as the United States,” said Zhang Mingliang at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at Jinan University. “Most Southeast Asian countries welcome the U.S. strengthening its presence in the region.”
In 2011, Clinton had talked of revitalizing trade from the Great Wall of China to the Bosphorus in Turkey as part of an effort to boost Afghanistan’s economy, with a key element being a long-delayed gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India.
But instability in Afghanistan, as well as mistrust between India and Pakistan, has dogged that vision. China’s Silk Roads, by contrast, largely bypass Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, State Department spokeswoman Emily Horne played down any notion of competition, saying Xi’s comments “mirror our own thinking on the New Silk Road.”
The U.S. strategy had brought tangible benefits to the region, but China’s cooperation was welcome. “China and other countries in the region have an important role to play in the development of peace, stability and prosperity in the least-economically integrated region in the world today,” Horne said.