China looks to Central Asia, by Paulo Duarte

The geopolitical and geostrategic importance of Central Asia

For centuries, Central Asia has been the crossroads of Eurasia. Indeed, it is the point of confluence of four civilizations that have, concurrently, controlled and been controlled by the Central Asian peoples. On the other hand, according to XiaojieXu (1999), the civilizations that dominate the region have been able to exert their influence in other parts of the world.

Central Asia is bounded by the Caspian Sea, Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet and the Hindu Kush. It is an inner region, surrounded by a huge land mass that covers a vast territory of steppes, deserts and mountains, occupying an area larger than Western Europe and about the half of ​​the United States.

The economic structure of Central Asia, as well as its political features, are strongly marked by its geographical location, specifically by the difficult access to other parts of the world. On the other hand, as XiaojieXu (1999) notes, the survival of Central Asian states depends mainly on the maintenance of several corridors.

With regard to international geopolitics, Central Asia is one of the most important regions of the world, given its impact on the politics and economics of the great powers. As Zhao Huasheng (2009) refers, it forms a buffer zone between great powers, although Russia keeps special relations with the countries of the region. In the opinion of many analysts, Central Asia remains a key player in the ‘chess game’ of world power (Edwards, 2003). One of the most famous examples in this regard is due to Zbigniew Brzezinski, who suggested a post-modern version of the geopolitical doctrine Mackinder/Haushofer. Referring to Central Asia – “the Eurasian Balkans” – as geopolitically significant for energy reasons, socio-political instability and potential domain of power, Brzezinski states that the main U.S. interest should be to ensure that no power gains control over this geopolitical space (Edwards, 2003). Indeed, the fact that Eurasia occupies a central position in the planet leads the author to argue that whoever controls this space, will dominate the world, linking, on the other hand, the durability of U.S. hegemony to the policy of Washington in the region.

One characteristic of Central Asia consists on being a place of competition and rivalry between great powers, influencing this way, the international structure that emerged after the Cold War. Geopolitics provides, of course, one explanation for this fact, as it is largely determined by the dimensions of a region (Huasheng, 2009). Indeed, the major powers need to acquire a large land mass to exert influence in the international scene (Huasheng, 2009). Several authors do not hesitate, therefore, to attribute to Central Asia a prominent position in the context of a new world order (Xu, 1999).

China in the race for power in Central Asia

The energy issue is a driving force of the economic relations between Beijing and the Central Asian republics. In the origin of this premise lies another one: China is thirsty for energy. The country needs raw materials for its economic growth and seeks to diversify imports, by increasing trade with its Central Asian neighbours. Beijing’s strategy consists basically in reducing the “geopolitical vulnerabilities” of a trade based on energy imports, which depends on the sea lines, and may for that very reason, prove to be unsafe in the event of a maritime blockade. As Henry J. Kenny (2004) explains,as more than three quarters of China’s oil imports will pass through the Strait of Malacca by the year 2025, China has been looking for alternatives. Due to its geographical proximity and also given its great potential for oil and natural gas, Central Asia is not surprisingly, seen by Beijing as a good opportunity in terms of imports of energy resources.

Enlightening, the figures show the enormous energy potential of the region. In terms of percentages, the five countries bordering the Caspian Sea have about 21.6% of total world proven oil reserves and 45.6% of total proven world reserves of natural gas (Amineh and Houweling, 2007).

Now speaking of the importance of Central Asia to China’s energy supply, we should fit it in a broader context that has to do, basically, with the issue of energy security, indispensable component of the security of any state.

Other factors help us understand how the Central Asian Republics see China’s interest in the region. The Chinese government, unlike other governments, is able to provide a large financial assistance to these countries, which is absolutely vital to the development of their economies. On the other hand, Chinese economic support is not subject to any democratic requirement, nor to the respect for human rights, contrarily to the ‘Western impositions’.

Thirdly, China’s presence in Central Asia provides a useful counterweight to the Russian presence. Indeed, for Central Asian states, the existence of two major regional powers, competing for access to oil and gas, is surely more ‘interesting’ than having to be subject to a Russian monopoly,as has been the case. In this regard, it is worth to mention that a network of pipelines has been taking shape and that Russia seems to understand that China is not only a ‘useful’ partnerto limit Western influence in the region. China is also a competitor.

Furthermore, the partnership between China and the Central Asian republics is well-regarded by such states, as they -except perhaps Kazakhstan- are militarily weak and face various threats to their security. China, in turn, has a very strong interest in preventing insecurity in the region, particularly with regard to separatist movements. The Russian military support to Central Asia isobviously not new, but Beijing has demonstrated in this field an active interest in training the Central Asian armies and in contributing to the improvement of their military equipment. All this pleases, of course, those states, as it shows, as explained above, a counterweight to Russian influence (which is not only military) in the region.


AMINEH, Mehdi, HOUWELING, Henk (2007). “Global Energy Security and its Geopolitical Impediments – The Case of the Caspian Region”, in PGDT 6.

EDWARDS, Matthew (2003). “The New Great Game and the new great gamers: disciples of Kipling and Mackinder”, in Central Asian Survey, 22 (1).

HUASHENG, Zhao (2009). “Central Asian Geopolitics and China’s security”, in Strategic Analysis, Routledge, Vol.33, No.4.

ISERI, Emre (2009). “The US Grand Strategy and the Eurasian Heartland in the Twenty-First Century”, in Geopolitics, 14: 1.

KENNY, Henry (2004). “China and the competition for oil and gas in Asia”, in Asia Pacific Review, Vol. 11, No.2.

XU, Xiaojie (1999). “The oil and gas links between Central Asia and China: a geopolitical perspective”, in OPEC review.


Paulo Afonso Brardo Duarte is a PhD student in International Relations at Instituto Superior de Ciências Sociais e Políticas – ISCSP, Lisbon. He is a researcher at Instituto do Oriente in the same city (

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