In the American imagination, China is often considered linked to, but separate from, Eurasia. Hence the title of one relatively well-known academic international relations journal: The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly. That “and” joins two discrete entities. By tradition, Eurasia includes Central Asia, Mongolia and Russia (what Russian’s consider Eurasia – essentially the boundaries of the Soviet Union), while others might also include the Persian world (Iran and Afghanistan. British adventurers and novelists of the 19th century primarily meant Afghanistan when they spoke about Central Asia). The ambiguity reflects the fact that “Eurasia” – as a place, as a political possibility and as an idea – remains poorly defined and understood.
But geographically, at least, China is part of the Europe-Asia landmass, and with time, it is expanding its interests and activities into the more definitively Eurasian countries. It isn’t hard to find mention of China’s pipelines, roads and railways linking it to both Mongolia, Asiatic Russia (Eastern Siberia) and Central Asia. China may even be stealthily funding a pipeline connecting itself to Iran via Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But what is more striking to me is that China is also more or less literally expanding into Central Asia by both obtaining land-use rights and the outright acquisition of more territory through concessions.
In the last year, China has twice gained land from neighboring – and very poor – Tajikistan. In the first instance, China and Tajikistan finally resolved a long-standing land dispute such that the smaller country conceded 1,000 sq km of mostly unexplored and potentially mineral-rich land to the larger; then, just a few days ago, Tajikistan’s parliament leased a further 20 sq km to Chinese farmers. Although initially only Tajiks were to be permitted to work the Chinese-leased land, the government in Dushanbe subsequently reversed that decision and will allow Chinese to farm directly.
The Chinese proposed a similar arrangement in Kazakhstan several years ago: Beijing wanted to lease 10,000 sq km from Astana for 99 years. Uncharacteristically, Kazakhs took to the streets in response, and the government backed away from the deal. Therefore, China is quite concretely, if slowly, becoming a Eurasian country.
In other ways as well, China’s presence is increasingly felt throughout Eurasia. The bazaars of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are flooded with cheap Chinese-made goods, and Chinese laborers build and rebuild roads, pipelines and other infrastructural projects throughout the region. Moreover, now that Kazakhstan and Russia are joined in a tariff-free Customs Union and Russia has joined the WTO (similarly, WTO-member Kyrgyzstan may soon join the Customs Union), it seems the Chinese goods may soon gain easy entry into Kazakhstan – and capitals as distant as Kiev and Minsk. Therefore, China is also expanding economically – and notionally – across the corpus of traditional Eurasia.
I am unaware if modern China has ever thought of itself as a Eurasian empire or whether there is a Eurasian school in China as there has been in Russia. Russian Eurasianism, for all its Russian exceptionalism, was and is rooted in a Euro-centric mode of thinking. Its aim, as I understand it, was to alter Russians’ perceptions of themselves as European by reorienting their sense of place vis-a-vis neighboring countries and cultures. By contrast, a Chinese Eurasianism would naturally be anchored in the East and urging the Chinese to shift their identity towards the West. The important question is: if so, is Chinese expansion into Eurasia imagined as conquest or collaboration?
On the one hand, although Genghis Khan’s Mongol conquests were undoubtedly brutal, they created a massive Eurasian empire that stimulated trade and movement across great distances and many cultures; certainly the influences of the Central Asian and Persian worlds were felt in Eastern China. One material example is the import of lapis lazuli, with which Ming dynasty ceramicists were able to achieve the stunning hues of blue-and-white pottery. One imagines that this fundamentally transformed East Asians’ sense of their placement on the globe and tied them much more to the cultures to their west. Much later, in the 1920s, Chinese reformist thinking also looked very much to recreating China in the image of the Euro-American West.
However, I feel it is perhaps too optimistic to imagine that a Chinese Eurasianism advocates a syncretic harmonizing of different cultures, of East and West, that one finds in the mystic (if patronizing) elements of Russian Eurasianism. The logic of “the Middle Kingdom,” China’s control of McKinder’s geopolitical “pivot” (Central Asia and Tibet) and contemporary nationalism each in their own way suggest the expansion of China’s political and cultural influence is likely to be conquest.
Which is why many Central Asians (although far from all) are afraid of China’s growth. Not everyone here is convinced they have a place in China’s potential Eurasia.