Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Are Chinese and American Interests Mutually Exclusive in Eurasia?
Are Chinese and American Interests Mutually Exclusive in Eurasia?

Are Chinese and American Interests Mutually Exclusive in Eurasia?

In Review: Daniel S. Markey, China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

The People’s Republic of China’s growing global footprint has generated an expanding body of literature on the nature and scope of Beijing’s strategic intentions, and its expansive ambitions toward other countries. Much of this commentary has focused on China’s designs across Eurasia because of the highly publicized Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in which Beijing is investing in economic integration and infrastructure projects stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans. The potential prospect of a Sino-centric Eurasia, in which Beijing dominates a swath of countries that have imported the Chinese Communist Party’s model of governance and economic development, has fueled concern—and even alarm—about the implications of China’s extension of influence into and beyond its backyard.

Scholar and former policymaker Daniel Markey makes a significant contribution to this literature by addressing a widely neglected perspective: that of the countries that China is targeting in its pursuit of a Eurasian sphere of influence. Too much commentary focuses heavily or even exclusively on Beijing’s goals, strategies, and tactics without recognizing the corresponding goals, strategies, and tactics of the other countries—and the complex and diverse local circumstances in which the Chinese are operating. As primarily a South Asia specialist, rather than a Sinologist, Markey is amply qualified to offer this perspective, which is a valuable corrective to the apparently prevailing view that the countries of South and Central Asia and the Middle East are putty in China’s hands. On the contrary, Markey observes, Beijing “cannot simply have its way with the smaller states of the region.” An accurate understanding of the geopolitical dynamics underway there requires considering “local and subregional realities alongside China’s goals and policies.” This focus involves an intricate web of domestic political and economic conditions and myriad actors, all with their own geopolitical agendas in engaging with China—which include using Beijing as much as Beijing seeks to use them.

Markey tells this story by considering three subregions in turn—South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East—and profiling case studies in each: China’s respective dealings with Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran and Saudi Arabia. Although each case study yields country-specific findings, the analysis is clearly applicable not only to other Eurasian countries, but also to other countries around the world where China engages.

Markey offers a succinct summary of Beijing’s strategic objectives in Eurasia and how they have evolved since the end of the Cold War—driven by China’s growing energy needs, thirst for markets and investment projects, concerns about Islamic extremism along its western border, and its emerging strategic competition with India, Russia, and the United States. These factors have coalesced and accelerated over the past decade under Xi Jinping’s leadership. He launched the BRI and has retreated from Deng Xiaoping’s post-Cold War admonition that China should “hide its capabilities and bide its time” by refraining from an activist foreign policy or intervention in other countries’ politics. (Deng himself, however, almost certainly would have retreated from that approach by now in response to changes in the global environment that have reinforced both the need and the opportunities for Beijing to do so.) This activism has been manifested in China’s burgeoning economic statecraft, military engagement, and multifaceted diplomatic activities and “influence operations” across Eurasia (and worldwide).

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