China’s Eurasian Ambitions

Ground Realities of Great-Power Competition

Daniel Markey’s new book on China’s outward reach, China’s Western Horizon, is significant for the agency it recognizes in local actors.

This piece was originally published in a book review roundtable in Asia Policy 15.3.

Much of recent academic and policy literature on China and its global ambitions has focused on Beijing’s activities abroad, its motivations, and U.S. response options. Western analysts have largely emphasized the component projects of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), analyzing their viability, risk, and potential security implications while seeking to understand how this expanded reach will impact China’s rise through the lens of great-power competition. When third countries are mentioned, they are typically invoked as cautionary tales, such as Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, which was leased to China for 99 years by local authorities desperate for debt relief. BRI’s eastward-facing maritime projects have received relatively more attention than its westward continental aims given their immediate impact on U.S. allies and interests in the Indo-Pacific. Works that have examined China’s growing involvement across its western periphery have tended to concentrate on individual countries or subregions rather than provide a broader, comparative analysis.

Daniel Markey’s remarkable and timely new book, China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia, helpfully supplements these approaches in three key ways. First, Markey situates local actors at the center of his analysis, recognizing their roles as agents able to shape the scope and impact of Chinese regional investment. By placing these third-country powerbrokers and the ground-level dynamics in which they operate in the foreground, he is able to effectively trace the trajectories of China’s relationships across the region and better assess the implications and likely future directions of Beijing’s engagement. This approach provides a deeper understanding of how local actors direct and exploit Chinese resources for their own personal and political aims, which in turn impacts the course of individual projects and BRI in the aggregate. This focus also allows Markey to assess the complex ways in which China’s role is likely to develop in individual states, subregions, and across Eurasia as a whole. Situating Chinese engagement in the context of pre-existing governance, economic, and security challenges reveals how Beijing could accelerate or upset existing trends with concerning implications for regional, Western, and, indeed, Chinese security interests going forward.

Second, Markey centers his analysis on Eurasia, a region less frequently studied in the context of Chinese engagement and one often artificially divided by Western analysts into its constituent parts—South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. 1This approach follows on the work of Nadège Rolland. See Nadège Rolland, China’s Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2017). In so doing he does not make the claim that the United States should treat Eurasia as equally vital to its interests as it does the maritime Indo-Pacific. Rather, he recognizes the historical and geopolitical importance that Eurasia holds from Beijing’s perspective as the “Greater Middle East” (Da Zhong Dong) and makes a compelling case for its study as a broader unit. The book argues that China has historically understood itself as a western-looking continental power over and above its maritime role, a tendency that today is accentuated by security concerns in Xinjiang province. With this focus in mind, Beijing seeks to both encourage stability in its restive west through economic development across Eurasia and mitigate external threats that could further stoke domestic insecurity.

Third, Markey takes a comparative approach that helpfully pulls together threads from existing state- and regional-level studies of Chinese engagement to reveal common trends across these linked contexts. 2See, for example, Andrew Small, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); and Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Niv Horesh, eds., China’s Presence in the Middle East: The Implications of the One Belt, One Road Initiative (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017). Without arguing that these domestic and subregional dynamics necessarily align, he demonstrates where and how China has more or less successfully navigated local and regional realities. This approach is particularly useful for local officials seeking to learn from the experiences of similarly situated states along this new Silk Road as well as Western policymakers calibrating an appropriate response to China’s Eurasian overtures. Accordingly, Markey calls for greater tailoring of U.S. policy responses based on a deep understanding of both local and regional dynamics and of perceptions of China and its engagement in each country. A one-size-fits-all approach would risk overcommitting the United States in areas where it lacks a clear national interest, under-engaging in other areas more critical to U.S. objectives, missing potential opportunities for collaboration with China, and overlooking specific emerging threats beyond the broader U.S.-China competition. Markey finds that, overall, “China tends to make America’s job harder throughout Eurasia,” and offers thoughtful response options ranging from “peaceful accommodation” to “militarized competition” to U.S. policymakers managing this challenge (pp. 178–84).

Along with these valuable contributions, it is worth noting a few areas in which the book leaves room for future research. First, Markey rightly highlights Beijing’s widely touted principle of noninterference in the domestic affairs of BRI partner countries, but could have gone further in considering the implications of potential divergences from this approach. Given that China’s claims of noninterference appear less threatening to illiberal regimes than the United States’ democracy- and governance-centric approach, the prospect of China straying from this restraint raises questions about how Eurasian states would respond. Markey points, for example, to Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior under the “constructive engagement” rubric in protecting its overseas personnel and assets—itself a framing that provides plausible deniability given its ostensible focus on safeguarding Chinese investments and workers rather than threatening host country interests.

In its role holding the purse strings on significant investments, Beijing has both used funding to tip the domestic political scales in favor of preferred leaders and selectively withheld support from governments over governance concerns, as it did with Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari (p. 55). Should similar issues emerge in other recipient countries, Beijing could attempt to use its funding to shape political systems to its liking. As Western efforts to build good governance demonstrate, however, success is far from guaranteed, and excessive meddling could sour Eurasian leaders on engagement with China. While the scale of Chinese investment and lock-in effects from existing projects are likely to limit any full-scale reversal, Pakistan’s review of projects in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) following the 2018 election of Prime Minister Imran Khan is instructive. As Markey notes, China worked to assuage Khan’s misgivings by emphasizing “job creation, industrial cooperation, and broad socioeconomic uplift” in CPEC’s second phase (p. 53). Such initiatives, however, will only draw China further into Pakistan’s domestic political-economy, making greater interference inevitable going forward and raising questions about potential push-back within Pakistan and across Eurasia.

A second area for additional focus is the question of how China will manage the intersection of partner country interests across Eurasian subregions. Markey, by necessity given length and scope constraints, focuses his analysis on Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran in describing regional dynamics and rivalries in South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East, respectively. While an effective means to highlight key cases, this approach limits the book’s analysis of dynamics among these three states and subregions. Pakistan, for example, appears in passing in the Central Asia chapter as a member of a proposed grouping alongside China, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan (p. 113). It is also cited as one of Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s destinations following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (p. 142) and as a potential conduit for the transfer of Chinese warheads and delivery systems to Saudi Arabia (p. 155). Should Islamabad resist providing such assistance to Saudi Arabia, given Pakistan’s shared border with Iran and sizable Shia Muslim population, for example, Chinese objectives in one subregion could increasingly conflict with its interests (or those of its partners) in another. It would be worth further exploring whether and how China could manage the added complexity of this and other scenarios while avoiding choosing sides.

A third area for further inquiry involves the extent to which broader U.S.-China great-power competition will constrain each side’s approach in third countries. Particularly in the wake of mutual recriminations over the Covid-19 pandemic, China’s aggressive posture in Hong Kong and elsewhere, and U.S. policy responses, prospects for U.S.-China cooperation appear limited. While Markey helpfully details a range of options for U.S. policymakers to choose among in responding to China’s engagement in Eurasia, some of these approaches are premised on limited cooperation (or at least nonaggression) remaining viable. A further, troubling prospect is whether gaining ground in the overarching bilateral competition will come to outweigh U.S. or Chinese interests in third countries, eliminating the possibility of less adversarial approaches. Despite their differences, Beijing and Washington do share interests in Eurasia, including stability in Afghanistan and on the subcontinent, which might not be assured should their rivalry intensify. Were Beijing to frustrate U.S. aims in Afghanistan or counter perceived U.S. support for India during a crisis with Pakistan, the consequences for U.S. and regional security interests could be severe. While unlikely given China’s own proximity and aims, such a scenario is not out of the question.

The contribution of China’s Western Horizon to the study of China’s outward reach is significant for the agency it recognizes in local actors shaping BRI’s scope, for the focus it brings to Beijing’s continental aims, and for common tensions it draws together across a broad region. The future of China’s engagement on in Eurasia will be largely determined by the confluence of these factors, as much as by the overall trajectory of U.S.-China relations. Analysts and policymakers in Washington and Beijing—as in Nur-Sultan, Islamabad, and Tehran—would do well to take heed.

This piece was originally published in a book review roundtable in Asia Policy 15.3.

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