by Reza Akhlaghi
China’s mega gas deal with Russia last March underlined, among other things, the country’s confidence in its future economic growth and the significance of diversifying its energy resources to ensure the growth remains uninterrupted. The country’s gradual move toward building a domestic-driven growth economy is another contributing factor in Beijing’s efforts to secure energy resources.
But domestic security also weighed heavily in China’s mega gas deal with Russia as the project will entail massive development projects in China’s strategic Xinjiang province, a restive province with a Muslim majority population neighboring Muslim states of Central Asia and susceptible to separatist and religious extremist movements, including the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Xingjiang is where Chinese Uighur Muslims come from so its proximity to hotspots of Islamic extremism is a key national security concern for China. Taking a page from the recent and still evolving turmoils in the Arab world otherwise known as the Arab Spring, China’s power elite are well aware of what social and economic marginalization could mean for its Muslim populations in its westernmost provinces neighboring Central Asia. China wants to ensure that its investment in extractive industries in Russia and Central Asia will benefit its Muslim population and contribute to the development of a vibrant economy and a subsequent improved security environment. The last thing Beijing wants to see is extremist groups outside China posing a threat to the country’s western provinces.
From the perspective of Chinese strategic security priorities, a potential spillover of Islamic extremism into its western provinces could stoke flames of radicalism and separatism that could plunge the region into political instability and subsequent economic disarray. Therefore, a stable Central Asia with an educated workforce, a developed infrastructure, and a dynamic economy is an important component of Chinese national security interests.
Investments by jewels of China’s state own companies are good indicators of not only Beijing’s economic vision but also its national security outlook. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has made huge investments in Afghanistan’s nascent extractive industries, mainly in Mes Aynak copper deposits and in oil fields of Sar-e-Pul province in the country’s north. CNPC plans to integrate its Afghan oil projects with the well-known Amu River basin that covers parts of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. The basin is known for its yet-to-be-developed reserves estimated to have two billion barrels of oil.
Development of a Chinese-led interdependent energy infrastructure and market with Russia and Central Asian states also works to the benefit of Chinese security interests in that China decreases its reliance on international sea routes dominated by the U.S. Navy and its exposure to potential future energy shocks from the Persian Gulf region.
The largely Chinese-led evolving energy network in Central Asia is in line strategically with Russia’s security interests as both Moscow and Beijing seek prosperity and uninterrupted economic development in Central Asia and stand firm in their efforts to push back what they believe to be Western aspirations to democratize the region.
As China pushes ahead in bringing economic prosperity to its largely Muslim western provinces, it remains to be seen how Beijing will contain and respond to the aspirations of Uighurs in having a voice in the economic development of their region and decision making, and whether Beijing can end the Uighur sentiments of being subjected to discriminatory practices by Beijing’s ruling elite.