By Lauren Dickey, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Lauren Dickey is a research associate with the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are her own.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to China last week was the capstone on weeks of strategic agreements for Beijing. The successes of Putin’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Shanghai – most notably a $400 billion gas deal to transport 38 billion cubic meters of gas yearly into China beginning in 2018 – were preceded by equally significant meetings between the Chinese leadership and their counterparts from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. But while these bilateral meetings point to Beijing’s commitment to the development of the Silk Road economic belt, they also speak to something even more important – China’s interest in bolstering regional security.
In the lead up to the Shanghai Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) the first central Asian leader to signal the strategic depth of central Asia’s ties with China was Turkmenistan’s president, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. A week before Berdymukhamedov’s mid-May visit to China, China opened a new $600 million processing plant at Bagtyarlyk gas field, the location of a major China-bound pipeline. Turkmenistan’s gas exports to China have increased in recent years, with officials aiming to reach 40 billion cubic meters by 2016 thanks to China’s financial backing of Bagtyarlyk. Upon arriving in China, Berdymukhamedov signed a gamut of deals with Beijing, formalizing Turkmenistan’s ascension as the last central Asian nation to sign onto a “strategic partnership” with Beijing. The two countries agreed to strengthen cooperation in areas ranging from natural gas extraction to cross-border infrastructure development and cultural exchanges.
Next to have a strategic tête-à-tête with President Xi was Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Like his Turkmen counterpart, Nazarnbayev signed a series of energy agreements and agreed to further strengthen bilateral security cooperation, with particular attention to the situation in Afghanistan. In addition to mutual support for the peace, stability, and development of both Afghanistan and the region, Nazarbayev expressed Kazakhstan’s enthusiasm for providing energy support to China’s economic development, welcoming any resulting Chinese investment in his country. Memorandums of understanding were signed between China’s ExIm Bank, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), and state-owned investment company CITIC Group for development loans and pipeline construction. China even reiterated an interest in helping Kazakhstan acquire warships.
And, a day before China signed nearly fifty agreements with Putin, Xi met with Azerbaijan’s President Llham Aliyev to ink deals on energy, infrastructure, technology, and banking. Azerbaijan, like the other central Asian nations, is a key transit country linking Asia to Europe and is currently building the largest port on the Caspian Sea, the International Trade Seaport, in Alat near Baku. Once complete, this port will increase the volume of cargo ultimately to 20 million tons per year, no small number for Chinese eying markets in Europe and elsewhere.
So what does this series of meetings and strategic agreements mean?
It is hardly surprising that Putin continued his pivot eastward, pushing through the Gazprom-CNPC deal and 49 other agreements with Beijing. Were Putin to have declined agreements with the Chinese on trade and economic issues, in particular, he would have effectively been cutting off Russian access to the Silk Road economic belt. Now, Beijing and Moscow are positioned to increase bilateral trade to $100 billion by 2015 (and $200 billion by 2020) as well as expand local currency settlement and cross-border investment and deepen mutually beneficial macroeconomic policies.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s agreements with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Russia are exactly what is needed to make the Silk Road economic belt a reality for China. But the Silk Road renaissance is ultimately about more than just trade. The new goal? Beijing is looking to its neighbors to help defend against the threats of terrorism, ethnic separatism, and religious extremism. In recent months, as terrorist attacks allegedly led by Uighur separatists have increased in number, the Silk Road economic belt has been taking on a new role as a regional security mechanism.
For Beijing, the economic belt leverages regional energy cooperation to ensure energy security and sustainable economic growth while helping it combat threats to Chinese domestic stability. But while the Central Asian countries involved are no doubt focused on the economic potential of these latest deals, the view from Beijing is slightly different. After all, in signing up, they have now become pieces in their massive neighbor’s grand strategy.