Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

How a seminal paper in 2012 predicted our world today

  • Professor Wang Jisi’s ‘go west’ thesis not only anticipated and articulated the rationale of the Belt and Road Initiative, but also warned of the tensions and confrontations between China and the United States today

If you ask real experts who are “in the know’ to list the top 10 most influential international politics publications in the last decade, Wang Jisi’s 2012 seminal paper, ‘‘Going west, rebalancing China’s geostrategy”, will almost certainly rank high.

Published exactly a decade ago, it not only formulated the economic and geostrategic rationale for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but also accurately predicted the tensions and confrontations between China and the United States today. Whether it’s the evolving partnership with Russia, anti-terrorism in Xinjiang and Tibet, rising risks of military confrontation with the US in the Far East, the need for an alternative expansionary policy in Central Asia, and the growing importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Wang’s paper provides a big-picture framework to understand the increasingly dangerous world we live in today.

Rare is a piece of contemporary writing, especially in fast-changing international relations, which has not only avoided being dated, but become even more relevant as the years go by.

Why go west?

There are numerous versions of the paper by Wang, who is president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University and is one of the country’s most influential advisers to the official foreign policy establishment. Here, I will use the one he first published in Global Times in October 2012 because that’s the only one not behind a paywall. There are various English language versions but you will have to subscribe and pay for them.

Here is a series of choices and dilemmas China faced and still faces: being a land power and/or a sea power; rich coastline provinces in the east and south vs poor or underdeveloped provinces in the west; and how to respond to the US pivot in the Pacific and its withdrawal from Central Asia, particularly Afghanistan. In the South and East China seas, China’s maritime ambitions are checked by the US, its allies and partners.

Increasingly, the risks of a hot war are becoming real, especially across the Taiwan Strait. How can China mitigate risks in the east (East Asia) with opportunities in the west (Central Asia)? That was the question for Wang.

A landmark project under the Belt and Road Initiative, the 1,035-km China-Laos Railway connects China’s Kunming with the Laotian capital Vientiane. Photo: Xinhua

His paper weaves all these different strands into a coherent economic and strategic programme. A year after its publication, the Belt and Road Initiative was announced. Wang was the first one to admit what he proposed was not intended to form “an integrated national-foreign policy”. But it does articulate clearly what he called “the context of constant changes in the world’s geoeconomic and political sectors [and] the need for a new, overall, land-power and geostrategic ‘rebalancing’ to go hand in hand with sea power”.

The importance of Russia

In a word, the westward expansion is a hedge against potential disaster or at least setbacks in East Asia. While China faces profound hostilities and opposition in the Far East, it’s much easier to make friends in Central Asia. But the region, whether in reality or merely notionally, remains within Russia’s sphere of influence. Even if the balance of power between China and Russia has profoundly shifted, Beijing clearly thinks it needs Russia’s support and partnership in the region.

This is one of the keys to understanding China’s position on the war in Ukraine. Whatever the outcome of the war, China’s strategic calculus will not change.

“Russia regards the Caspian region and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries in Central Asia as its ‘backyard’ and is eager to maintain its traditional status,” Wang wrote in 2012. “The Caspian Sea region and Central Asia have become the main directions of EU energy diplomacy.”

CIS membership and that of the SCO overlap. Such states are not only crucial to the belt and road, their cooperation is essential to containing restive Xinjiang and Tibet and their potential transborder terrorism and secessionism.

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However, while economies in the Far East are mostly rich and developed, Central Asia does not offer the same. Wang anticipates problems and opportunities. “‘Going west’ has both opportunities and risks,” he wrote.

“Risk 1: The west (Central Asia) is far from being a sunny paradise. The politics of many countries are not stable; they are relatively impoverished; and ethnic and sectarian conflicts are ever present dangers. Once you’re as deeply involved as some Western countries, it’s hard to get out …

“Risk 2 is that relationships between countries in the west [Central Asia] are complicated … China’s diplomatic stance on any specific issue will offend certain countries, and a delicate balance needs to be maintained.

“Risk 3: It is impossible for China to ‘go west’ without causing doubts among other major powers. We must try our best to prevent them from joining forces to crowd out China. We must not appear to be aiming at hegemony, power, profit and competition.

“Risk 4 is that it is easy to be labelled as ‘grabbing resources’ and ‘neocolonialism’. It is necessary to pay attention to environmental protection standards, people’s livelihoods and employment where the investment is made. It is necessary to improve consular regulations as soon as possible, and to care for and protect both local Chinese and overseas Chinese, but also to manage and educate them.”

Cooperating with the US?

It may be difficult to imagine it now, but at the time of his writing, Wang was still thinking of cooperation or at least a convergence of interests with the United States in Central Asia, particularly with maintaining stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

After all, in late 2012, Beijing signed security and commercial pacts with Afghanistan, including a programme to “train, fund and equip the Afghan police”. That was during the height of the US presence in the country and the Chinese initiatives could not have gone ahead without at least the tacit approval of Washington. Even as late as 2018, the US accepted or at least tolerated a moderate programme to train Afghan troops on Chinese soil.

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Compare those with Washington’s latest almost hysterical reactions to similar security and commercial deals signed between China and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.

But Wang’s thesis still holds. Even if the US won’t cooperate, it still offers far less resistance in Central Asia than its outright hostility and sabre-rattling in the Far East.

Chinese history and geography

The legendary travels of Admiral Zheng He in the Ming dynasty have fascinated Western scholars, leading many to speculate that China could have been a maritime power. But that may be a Eurocentric view because the greatest Western powers had been sea-based.

In contrast, China had been more of a traditional land power. One reason was that the southern coastal regions had always been difficult for the central power in the north to control. But for more than a millennium, the Silk Road extended the China trade to the Middle East (the Near East) and Europe and was only shut down by the Ottomans. The most successful emperors had always been those who could control the northwest, and secured borders with foreign tribes.

Similar demands are being made on China’s leaders today, where Chinese history is repeating itself. Marching westwards has always had a strong hold on the imagination of Chinese strategic thinkers. Retired PLA general and military analyst Liu Yazhou, for example, has long proposed the move in “seizing for the centre of the world”.

His argument is reminiscent of the world’s “heartland” theory proposed more than a century ago by British geographer and strategist Halford J. Mackinder, who claimed whoever controlled the Eurasian land mass would control the world.

But if we take Liu as the thesis, retired admiral Yang Yi offers the antithesis, as he has argued that China’s strategic priority must lie in the east and with the sea. The nation’s rise as a global power rests on mastery over the Pacific and Indian oceans. China’s west is at most a strategic backyard, pursued for stability, not strategic advancement.

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If so, then Wang’s is the synthesis. He allows for China’s pivot in the west, but not at the expense of the east. The westward quest on land may carry lower risks with lower rewards, but it is still a good hedge against the high risks with high rewards in maritime Asia. In the worst-case scenario, should the US and its allies complete the encirclement of China in the Far East, the country still has an escape hatch westward, in Central Asia. This vision has been translated into official policy.

Last week, Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on member states of the SCO to strengthen unity and cooperation, to oppose external interference, and support each other’s development against US and Nato challenges.

But that was a peculiar appeal as most SCO member states are in Central Asia while Nato and US expansions aim at the Pacific and East Asia. To understand better, the minister is in fact channelling Wang Jisi’s idea – to strengthen China’s hand in the west to rebalance risks and challenges in the east.