In November, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma, and the first to visit Cambodia. As part of his administration’s pivot to Asia, Obama has ratcheted up his diplomacy with the region. Besides Southeast Asia, which is moving closer to the United States at the cost of its relationship with China, Obama has also re-emphasized his security relationship with China’s rival Japan. But as the United States pivots out of the Middle East and Afghanistan and into East Asia, Beijing is debating a pivot of its own: a grand strategic proposal to shift its attention from East Asia and rebalance its geographical priority westward to Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.
The strategy, called “Marching West,” was recently articulated by Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University and one of China’s most important strategic thinkers, in an October article in the Global Times newspaper. The proposal has passed the stage of academic research, and the front-runners of Beijing’s foreign-policy apparatus have been mobilized to study feasibility, implementation, and potential reactions. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China’s most prominent think tank, will be holding an internal conference to study Marching West, according to a Beijing-based scholar. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing is quietly investigating Marching West, according to several people who spoke with U.S. officials about the strategy.
It’s a bold idea. As Washington rebalances to Asia, Wang sees the relationship between the United States and China growing increasingly contentious and zero-sum. He argues that because both powers are seeking to expand their influence in East Asia, a head-on military confrontation with the United States might become inevitable. Beijing thinks Washington is trying to block China’s rise in the East through strengthened military alliances, sabotaging China’s ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and undercutting China’s effort to lead the region’s economic integration by pushing the U.S.-centered (and China-free) Trans-Pacific Partnership. In response, Wang advocates enhancing China’s presence, resources, diplomatic efforts, and engagement in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.
While Wang see threats in the waters to the east, the region to China’s west bears no such risks. The area lacks a U.S.-dominated regional order or a pre-existing economic integration mechanism. Unlike Western Europe or East Asia, it has not and will not form an American-led military alliance, says Wang. The only true U.S. allies in that region are Israel and Saudi Arabia; compare that with East Asia, home to several powerful countries that have deep trade and security ties with the United States, from Australia to Japan.
The logic of Marching West reflects China’s complex regional quagmire — but also untapped opportunity. Unlike in East Asia, where China and the United States are often at loggerheads, to the west they share common interests. Both want stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, an end to hostilities in Syria, a curbing of terrorism and regional nonproliferation, and a constant flow of oil. Marching West would offer Beijing additional strategic leverage against Washington, which “is desperate for China’s assistance in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Wang writes.
Just as the U.S. pivot to Asia does not mean Washington intends to abandon the Middle East or the rest of the world, China’s proposed western shift doesn’t mean it’s giving up East Asia. Chinese leaders are well aware of the rapid deterioration of China’s external environment in that region. But Wang’s policy does call for yielding in certain areas. Indeed, China now appears to be more willing to cooperate with the United States on North Korea; it supported a U.N. resolution in January tightening sanctions against the country and has used harsher-than-normal tones against Pyongyang.
There are already signs that China is beginning its pivot. In September, Zhou Yongkang, then a member of China’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, went to Kabul — the highest-ranking official to visit in almost 50 years. While there, he made the unprecedented pledge to assist in “training, funding, and equipping Afghan police.” In previous years, China’s western adventures were focused on fighting Uighurs (a restive minority who live mostly in the region of Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan) and natural resource investment, like the $3 billion Mes Aynak copper mine, set to be operational in 2014 — not on Afghanistan’s internal security. But this January, China held its first consultation with Pakistan about the situation in Afghanistan, and in 2012 China organized two “trilateral consultations” among the three countries. The move signals a significant policy shift, from a hands-off approach to active engagement to stabilize its turbulent neighbor.
In fact, China has been looking west since at least 2000, when it launched the “Grand Western Development” program, a national strategy designed to right the imbalance between the western and eastern halves of the country. China’s west accounts for 71 percent of the country’s territory, but only 27 percent of its population and 18.7 percent of its GDP, according to 2010 figures. There’s clearly opportunity to be found there. In his essay, Wang says that from 2001 to 2011, China’s trade with South Asia and Western Asia grew more than 30 times, while its trade with the rest of the world over the same period grew seven times. The wealthier and more stable that Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and the other countries to China’s west are, Wang notes, the easier it is to promote economic development in the west. In pursuit of this end, Beijing must speed up the construction of its trade and communication links with Central Asia and beyond — what it calls a “New Silk Road”– to ensure the smooth flow of energy supplies and commodities into western China and to enhance economic cooperation with the region. Going back even further, China saw itself as a significant Central Asian power, with territory stretching to Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan, as recently as the 1860s, when Beijing lost 170,000 square miles of territory to Russia. AndWang isn’t the first prominent Chinese strategic thinker to argue for a strategic shift west: People’s Liberation Army Gen. Liu Yazhou proposedthat China “seize for the center of the world [the Middle East]” as early as 2004.
The policy is not yet strategic doctrine — it’s unknown what incoming president Xi Jinping and the current Politburo Standing Committee think about it. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, strengthened the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional body composed of China, Russia, and most Central Asian countries, but has not elaborated on his view for China in the region. Wang, at the end of his essay, stressed — modestly — that he isn’t advocating that his strategy become “clear-cut foreign policy.” Yet it seems influential enough that Wang’s proposal has met with opposition from strategists such as Rear Adm. Yang Yi, who hasargued that China’s expansion into the Pacific and Indian oceans is a prerequisite for the country to call itself a global great power.
Washington would be wise, however, to start thinking hard about Marching West. The strategy could provide China with an alternate realm of influence, one free from U.S. dominance. By returning to its roots as a continental power, China might avoid further confrontation with the United States in East Asia, foster stability, and build a better relationship with Washington through cooperation in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of Chairman Mao Zedong’s famous military strategy: “Where the enemy advances, we retreat. Where the enemy retreats, we pursue.”
This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy, on February 7, 2013.