Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island. Their research is available at China in Central Asia.
Central Asia's magisterial valleys, like the Fergana or the high plateaus of the Pamirs, have long been thought to be the location of the mythical Shangri-La.
This idyllic hidden valley, where peace-loving people age only ever so slowly, not only inspired James Hilton to write his eponymous book but also Southeast Asian billionaire Robert Kuok to found the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore. And the luxury hotel has lent its name to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Asia Security Summit, regularly attended by defence ministers from the region and the US Secretary of Defense.
For most Asia Pacific powers, the Shangri-La Dialogue is seen as the major security summit of the year. The high-level American attendance reassures regional powers, offering them an opportunity to interact with counterparts from the US and to understand better their interests and activity in the region.
Despite this unspoken focus, high-level Chinese officials have attended Shangri-La regularly in recent years, elevating their presence each time. This culminated in last year's attendance by Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie.
At this year's Summit, held late last month, guests and media covering the event were abuzz about a no-show from China. Many interpreted this as Beijing throwing down the gauntlet concerning US-led multilateral frameworks in the Asia Pacific. Others pointed out that Liang felt mistreated at last year's Summit; that other representatives had ganged up on him. Still others theorise that the no-show was a reflection of recently embarrassing Chinese domestic politics that have left officials wary of scrutiny in public fora and concerned about their positions at home.
But amid the hullabaloo, most have missed what might be the most telling explanation: General Chen Bingde, the Chief of the General Staff, was somewhere else. He chose instead to visit the real Shangri-La: Central Asia.
Ahead of the China's own high-level regional summit in early June, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Beijing sent a major security-oriented delegation to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. While in Tashkent, General Chen prepared the ground for President Islom Karimov's much anticipated visit to Beijing, where China and Uzbekistan agreed to sign a strategic partnership.
In Dushanbe, Chinese officials set about organising Peace Mission 2012, the SCO's annual joint military exercise, in which Chinese troops practice maneuvers on Central Asian territory. And Beijing has signed a further agreement with Turkmenistan to steer more of that country's rich hydrocarbon supplies to China.
We have been conducting research on China's increasing emphasis on Central Asia for the past year. So far, while China is increasingly the most consequential outside actor in the region, we have found that its influence seemed more the consequence of the sheer momentum of the Chinese economy and its growing global geopolitical presence, as well as the proximity of Central Asian states to burgeoning Xinjiang province.
Despite China's growing profile, there has not been a concerted Chinese strategy for the region. This is reflected on the ground in all five Central Asian states, where there are very different perceptions of China with varying levels of interest, focus and attention from China.
But Beijing's choice to skip Singapore for Central Asia may well have been the beginning of the enunciation of such a strategy. The SCO Summit in Beijing this year may turn out to be a watershed moment, not necessarily for the organisation itself but in regard to decisions to focus on the future of Afghanistan, a greater outreach to rising power Turkey and the delineation of a longer-term future for the SCO.
The decision during this year's SCO Summit to admit Afghanistan as an observer and the signing of a China-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement signaled a clear political intent towards that country. Parallel agreements reached with President Karimov of Uzbekistan, as well as the subsequent announcement of a new gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, all show that China is interested in Central Asia.
This is not to exaggerate the SCO's power and influence in the region, but China's intent in clear. Beijing is starting from a very low base, but it may start to look more towards Eurasia for political partnerships and security cooperation, especially as relations in the Asia Pacific cool off over disputes in the South China Sea. This will serve a geopolitical goal but also a practical goal in helping secure Chinese access to the rich natural resources in the region, as well as routes to European markets and warm water ports in the Gulf.
It has been decades since Halford Mackinder first called Eurasia the 'pivot' of history, but the region has lost none of its importance. For Chinese strategic thinkers it is clearly still a concern, and one that is going to become an increasing focus as the West makes its slow retreat from the region. America may be looking east, but China is casting its eye west.
Photo by Rafaello Pantucci.