The battle for Central Asia

Central Asia, with its oil and gas resources, is fast becoming more important in geopolitical terms and references to a rerun of Kipling’s Great Game are cropping up more and more in the media. The BBC has a piece about how China is influencing the vast state of Kazakhstan, which borders the western Chinese province of Xinjiang and from whose Kashagan and Tengiz oil fields China hopes to be able to at least partially quench its thirst for oil. 

In 2001 Russia and China signed up for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – an economic and security pact with all Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan – and it’s these two powers which are most active in the region. The US also has a presence, through its oil companies and military bases in Uzbekistan which were established as a springboard for the invasion of Afghanistan. US oil companies are often forced to hold back, however, due to the diplomatic difficulties of getting the oil to markets from landlocked Central Asia; this is tricky because the most secure routes for oil and gas pipelines often go through Iran (under a US sanction regime), and ex-Soviet states are reluctant to go through Russia or regional rivals in many cases. 

So what’s the problem? Some say that all that matters is that the oil gets on to the market. If China snaps up all the oil in the region, this frees up oil from other sources, though this can create an overdependency on Middle-East oil for the US.

The problem with China

As far as the EU is concerned China is taking away any influence in the region that the Union might have had. Why? Basically because of China’s no-questions-asked attitude when setting up trade and aid deals. Whereas the EU will always make trade and aid conditional on improvements in human rights, democracy, institutions, press freedom etc., China just goes in and slaps the money on the table. Of course, China demanding democratic improvements is like Paris Hilton going around telling people to take it easy on the cocaine, and this is the problem for the EU.

Though China has finally got tough on Sudan over Darfur, this was largely a response to its own interests (the showcase 2008 Beijing Olympics taking a hit) and this is an extreme case; there is no moral element to China’s foreign policy and it doesn’t see itself as having a responsibility to change the behaviour of other States. The EU, on the other hand, has set out its stall as a defender of democracy and already gets enough stick over its relations with Russia. It’s thus unlikely to embark on relations with other states which have no interest in improving democratic accountability, and as China spreads its influence around the world, the EU is going to find itself ever more getting knocked back as it seeks to secure more influence.

Individual EU States can of course get involved in Central Asia, as Germany is doing, and France and the UK can still limit China’s global actions through their seats on the UN Security Council, but the EU as an organisation with international clout is still something of a bedroom fantacist.

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~ by Daniel on August 2, 2007.

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