Faced with Donald Trump’s unprecedented disruptions to US foreign policy and Kim Jong-un’s roller-coaster ride (from repeated provocations in 2017 to a diplomatic offensive in 2018), Xi Jinping parried the blows to burgeoning Sinocentrism in Asia. In response to Trump, he presented China as the defender of globalization and free trade, claiming it to be the steadier hand in support of regional security and economic growth. In turn, Xi both joined UN Security Council resolutions putting pressure on Kim Jong-un and met repeatedly with him to reinforce his wariness of any deal sidelining China. Bolstering Vladimir Putin’s growing hostility to the United States and its allies while nudging both South Korea’s Moon Jae-in to edge away from US regional policy and Japan’s Abe Shinzo to pursue a summit with him, Xi did not show any sign of yielding the initiative in Northeast Asia. Further south, he basked in the heyday of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), gaining economic leverage and aiming to extend it to political and strategic advantage. Not only did he capitalize on Trump’s rejection of both the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and multilateralism, Xi felt emboldened to pressure India militarily and Australia with “wolf warrior” accusations as well as economic pressure. Even if Trump and Kim Jong-un garnered most of the headlines for their behavior, Xi Jinping followed the most consistent, opportunistic foreign policy to transform the regional architecture. He was making headway in Central Asia, too.

Xi reinforced Putin’s belligerence, even boosting talk of a Sino-Russian alliance, although that was a bridge too far. He welcomed Kim’s rejection of the US offer at the Hanoi Summit, giving the North Koreans reason to expect that sanctions pressure would be relaxed as they further expanded their missile capabilities. When the COVID-19 demons were unleashed from China, Xi combined pugnacious accusations against others for daring to question his handling of a crisis with triumphant declarations on how China’s superior system had enabled it to emerge much better off than other countries. Capitalizing on Trump’s ill will to US allies, Xi appealed for new economic agreements and applied pressure on them not to join a US-led framework on the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Although regional diplomacy slowed after the Hanoi Summit and even more with the pandemic, China’s “wolf-warrior” rhetoric only intensified, as Xi continued to take the offensive, confident that the US was in retreat and Sinocentrism was on the march.

Four challenges to Xi’s agenda appeared far more under control by 2021 than four years earlier. First, the US challenge centered on TPP, US moral leadership, the tilt of South Korea toward the US and Japan in 2016, and the possibility of a US-led regional security architecture had dimmed under Trump. The chaos of Trump’s response to the pandemic and of US political leadership by 2020 worked strongly in China’s favor. Second, Russia had moved much further toward China’s embrace through 2020, losing leverage over China in an increasingly asymmetrical relationship. While putting all his eggs in China’s basket, Putin had turned sharply against Japan and had lost any recourse to standing with India as Xi acted at will. Third, the critical situation on the Korean Peninsula had turned decidedly in China’s favor, as Kim Jong-un in 2019 turned hostile to both the United States and South Korea, while Moon Jae-in still feared alienating China at the price of losing both diversified diplomacy and his cherished outreach to North Korea. In his first year in office Moon had tilted toward China by promising the “three nos,” and he feared pulling back. Fourth, in the absence of the TPP and any alternative, US-led, multilateral strategy, China gained new ground in Southeast Asia, especially from a shift in the Philippines, as it put increased pressure on states bordering the South China Sea. Trump pushed back by joining Abe in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” initiative and made a start in institutionalizing the “Quad” with India as well as Australia and Japan, but these nascent steps left Xi clearly on the offensive.

It was only in 2021, under Joe Biden, when the United States launched concerted, pushback measures, in 2022 when Russia’s war in Europe tainted China in the eyes of many Asians too, in 2022 also when the new Korean president Yoon Sook-yeol tilted sharply to the US side, and in 2023 when the security dimensions of the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework took root. Through 2020, Xi appeared to be riding high, having blunted recent initiatives by other leaders.

At the root of Chinese thinking about the United States over the period 2017 to 2020 was a failure to grasp the divide between Trump’s chaotic and extreme moves and rhetoric and US security establishment concerns over China’s behavior and proliferation threats. A sharp gap in Chinese and US establishment views of the danger of North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons development is at the heart of Chinese misperceptions in 2018, the critical year of deteriorating relations. The US security community was skeptical of Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea, intent on keeping up the pressure, and doubted driving a wedge between China and North Korea. Missing in Chinese analyses was US thinking about China’s behavior in the South China Sea and elsewhere, ignoring reasoning centered on defensive responses to China. 

Yun Sun, “China’s Strategic Thinking toward the US Role in the Indo-Pacific, 2017-2020”

The Chinese became convinced that Trump single-handedly reversed the engagement policy pursued by the previous six presidents and intentionally redirected the focus of US national security strategy from the war on terror to great power competition with China. Chinese were greatly alarmed by this new geopolitical definition in China’s periphery and especially US efforts to improve relations with India in order to draw Delhi closer. The Chinese were also intrinsically skeptical of the effectiveness of such a broad definition especially given the tremendous differences among the members of regional security architectures such as the Quad. China saw US attempts to lead the region in an anti-China coalition as a fundamental threat to China’s national security as well as its desired leadership role in the region. The diverse membership of countries in the region also suggested abundant opportunities that China could exploit. The events during the last year of the Trump administration, vividly characterized as the “free fall” of US-China relations, reinforced the Chinese conviction of the undesirability of a conflict with the US, but that does not mean willingness to yield on China’s paramount priorities.

Influential Chinese found the election of Trump to be a pleasant surprise because they believed that Trump, being a businessman, would be more transactional than most of the American presidents with whom China had dealt. Trump’s love of “deals” opened tremendous opportunities to negotiate and bargain with him, which in their view should have made the bilateral relationship better rather than worse. What they did not anticipate was Trump’s habitual strategy to suppress his counterpart’s negotiating position and push them into a corner. They also did not expect Trump to fail to honor what they understood to be his offers once he got his way, such as his transactional approach to progress on the North Korea issue and trade deals for China.

Because of Trump’s vow to put “America first” and “make America great again,” the Chinese sensed the uncertainty and skepticism of US allies very early on. This was not entirely wrong, as the Chinese believe that Trump temporarily but fundamentally shook Japanese, Korean, and European confidence in the alliances with the United States and its security commitments. For example, without the Trump presidency the Chinese do not believe that Abe would have joined China’s BRI under the framework of “China-Japan cooperation on third countries.” What the initial optimism over Sino-US relations under Trump manifested was a critical inability to conceive of relations going beyond the range defined by perceived mutual complementarity despite the competition. When they did, the tectonic shift in the fundamental definitions and directions of bilateral relations posed China with the biggest challenge in its external relations since the beginning of the reform and opening up in 1979.

Trump first proposed his Indo-Pacific Strategy during his trip to the region in November 2017. Although it caught some attention in China, most would rather have believed that the timing and the hasty introduction of the strategy was more about Trump differentiating his regional strategy from that of the Obama administration’s rebalancing to Asia strategy than anything else. The fact that Trump also visited Beijing during the same trip and was welcomed by Xi was reassuring that Trump “was looking for a deal instead of a fight.” As the nature of the strategy grew clearer—the United States had defined itself as an intrinsic, embedded actor in the Indo-Pacific region—in the Chinese view, the vast coverage of the Indo-Pacific region greatly intrudes on China’s BRI, where Beijing has been vigorously trying to push the United States out or at least further away from its border. This was clearly a declaration of a war of competition over China’s sphere of influence. More worrisome was framing the strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific region as one between “two different ideologies and development models represented by liberalism versus authoritarianism and by free-market economy and state-dominated economy.” Once the competition became ideological, the dichotomy would make coexistence much more difficult. It
rang the alarm bells in Beijing that the ultimate US goal in this competition was the delegitimization of the Chinese Communist Party and therefore regime change. Such an assessment fundamentally rendered coexistence, let alone cooperation, impossible, many said.

The Quad’s focus on infrastructure development, coordination in maritime affairs, and especially the international order, demonstrated to China that the United States was upgrading the regional coalition to diversify its coverage from political and security affairs to economic and ideological domains. And these are domains where China used to enjoy financial resources and inspirational advantages among developing countries. Chinese saw the Trump administration’s exploitation of China’s rift with maritime Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea posing China as the single largest security threat to these nations. The counterbalancing was comprehensive, manifested through political, military, economic, security, infrastructure, development, diplomatic, and ideological domains.

For the first year of the Trump administration, Beijing’s primary goal was to test out the nature of Trump’s China policy and exactly how transactional Trump could be on issues China deemed as important. The Chinese were pleased with Trump’s demonstrated interest in “managing differences,” and a sense of “business as usual” was quite prevalent by the end of the Mar-a-Lago summit.  What bothered the Chinese the most, however, was the uncertainty associated with Trump’s North Korea strategy. To extract Chinese cooperation on North Korea was a key component of Trump’s “maximum pressure” on North Korea. Combined with the fact that China-North Korea relations had deteriorated to a historical low by 2017, China did deliver unprecedented cooperation on North Korea that no previous US president had been able to convince China to deliver. By the time Trump embarked on his first trip to Asia in November, including a state visit to Beijing, the US-China relationship was in a relatively positive place. The Chinese were relatively reassured that Trump was, after all, “a businessman.”

In the second year of Trump’s tenure, in the Chinese view, once Trump established the direct channel of communications with Kim Jong-un and a face-to-face meeting was planned, he quickly moved onto pushing China on the trade front. By the end of summer 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce already termed the encounter as “the largest trade war in the history of global economy.” The emerging concept of “economic decoupling” was beginning to have an impact. Initially, the Chinese were dismissive of the concept because they could not imagine what it would mean and how it could happen, let alone the astronomical costs it would impose not only on the Chinese economy but also on the US economy and market. The Chinese thought they were leveraging the North Korea issue for the betterment of US-China relations, playing the role of the bad cop through the UN sanctions, the Trump administration’s direct engagement with North Korea triggered fear of exclusion. It attested to Trump’s duplicitous exploitation of China’s influence and role on North Korea, only to dump China afterwards, but China was ultimately able to mend ties with North Korea. For China, the curtain of the new cold war was thrust open by Vice President Pence in his October 4 speech. From suspected interference in American politics to China’s stomping on the freedom of its own people, Pence issued a long list of alleged offenses in a single public indictment. Chinese attention was quickly drawn to the concept of a “new cold war,” heavily imbued with not only a security dilemma, but an ideological divide.

In the third year, looking back, people realize that Trump’s buildup of tension, tariffs, and trade war through 2019 were most likely a strategy to maximize his pressure and negotiating position with the goal to reach the optimal trade deal in the following year for his reelection campaign. But at that time, what Beijing perceived was relentless escalation from Washington to put more pressure on the Chinese economy and bilateral trade, exacerbating Chinese anxiety and hostility. In 2019, Taiwan emerged with a special role in the US Indo-Pacific strategy, which hit Beijing’s most sensitive nerve. The Indo-Pacific Strategy report in June more clearly defined Taiwan’s role in the region from the perspective of the United States and listed Taiwan alongside US partners. Additionally, Beijing believed that the United States and Taiwan collaborated to arouse the tension and public protests in Hong Kong against the Chinese central government.

The most fitting description of US-China relations in 2020 was “free fall.” Never before had the Chinese witnessed such severe deterioration of relations with the United States. By the middle of 2020, senior-level official communications were almost entirely suspended. From the suspension of travel at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to blaming China for its failure to manage the pandemic domestically, the Trump administration launched an extremely harsh campaign to punish and counter China throughout the year. According to Chinese observers, between May and July, senior administration officials released statements and speeches to attack China from political, economic, ideological, and security perspectives, sending the signal that the US engagement policy toward China since Nixon had changed to a policy of pressure and confrontation, but also that the United States felt the need to challenge the Chinese political system and push for “regime change.” During the last two months of the administration, the United States lifted restrictions on Taiwan interactions, declared China’s Uyghur policy “genocide,” and imposed visa restrictions. The impact of these policies persists.

The US role in the Indo-Pacific, in the Chinese view, had turned into the organizer, orchestrator, and leader of a roadmap to turn the region into a battlefield for influence as well as fertile ground to build an anti-China coalition. From North Korea to the South China Sea, from Australia to India, everywhere China looked, the Trump administration had a plan to undermine China’s role and relationships. Regardless of whether they wanted to admit it, a new iron curtain had descended.

Gilbert Rozman, “Repulsing Challenges to Sinocentrism in Northeast Asia, 2017-2020”

Repeatedly, over the period 2017 to 2020, China’s leaders felt challenged over their agenda for Northeast Asia, with plans for other arenas also disrupted. The THAAD deployment, the Trump phenomenon, the Kim Jong-un decisions to resort to unprecedented provocations followed by unprecedented diplomacy, the vague signs of a backlash in Russia against Sinocentrism, and the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and its handling all were regarded as disruptive forces. Xi Jinping navigated successive alarms not by passively waiting on the sidelines but by aggressively repulsing perceived challenges. Chinese strategic thinking grew clearer through such responses.

In contrast to the strategic clarity characteristic of 2013-16, the following four years abounded in strategic disruptions. No one year was like another. is diplomacy with each of the leaders of the five other states active in Northeast Asia played a huge role in shaping how the region rode out the disruptions. Overall, through the course of four years, Xi Jinping tested Trump and then crafted a strategy to counteract the United States. Xi pressured Kim Jong-un and then adopted an approach to keep him close without relenting on China’s demands toward North Korea. As for Putin, Xi conceded ground on symbolic matters while ploughing ahead with behavior at odds with Russian desires. Xi offered two-sided responses to Moon Jae-in and Abe Shinzo: dangling summit diplomacy as a lure, while reissuing warnings steeped in historical arrogance against crossing implied red lines.

In early 2017, China’s agenda for Northeast Asia appeared to be in danger. THAAD deployment, Abe’s strategic breakthroughs such as “collective defense, Trump’s defiance of past taboos over Taiwan, Kim Jong-un’s destabilizing bellicosity, and even strains in coordinating Putin’s “Turn to the East” and the BRI, all cast doubt on how Xi Jinping could regain the initiative. Priority over the rest of 2017 and first part of 2018 centered on cutting these losses. Yet, the 2018 diplomacy involving North Korea only deepened the impression that things were getting out of hand. In these circumstances, various options for China were aired before clarity was finally realized.

In 2013 to 2016, economics had taken primacy in rhetoric about Putin’s “Turn to the East” and the barriers to overcome in Sino-Russian relations, as well as in proof of South Korea’s need to strike a new balance between China and the US. Economic ties led naturally to wide-ranging integration in Chinese thinking about Northeast Asia and beyond. In 2017-18 a transition was under way. Although Trump put trade in the spotlight, he rejected economic globalization and led an administration intent on geopolitical and ideological competition with China. Meanwhile, the North Korean whirlwind from 2017 to early 2019 turned the focus away from economics to instability and the danger of war. After the Hanoi Summit, there was no return to the old narratives. Chinese perceived a dramatically transformed regional and world order. Xi played an active role, steering Kim Jong-un as best he could, collaborating with Putin, and testing Trump with challenges to the existing order. China’s tone had shifted, manifested in “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

Polarization intensified in 2019 with Abe and Moon making last-ditch attempts to reverse its course. The critical dividing line over four years came between mid-2018 and early 2019. Against the backdrop of China’s marginalization in North Korean diplomacy, the emergence of Indo-Pacific strategizing in the US, and Abe and Moon reaffirming US security leadership, Xi doubled down on his close partnership with Putin and put a floor under his relationship with Kim Jong-un. Xi could not make a lot of progress toward Sinocentrism in Northeast Asia, including spreading the Belt and Road Initiative to the north as he was doing to the south. Yet, he managed to repulse the key threats to it. When the pandemic struck, he fended off accusations against his agenda.  

The 2018-19 transition proved more significant than both the 2017 Trump impact and the 2020 pandemic effect. Why? Russians recognized a sharp shift in Chinese thinking toward the US with spillover to views of Sino-Russian relations. Reaction to the trade war, which intensified in 2018, appeared to be the cause, but it actually did not change commercial interactions much. Three explanations deserve attention: (1) the impact of US-North Korean diplomacy; (2) early signs of a US Indo-Pacific strategy; and (3) internal “wolf warrior” trends in China itself. Neither Japan nor South Korea figured much in the Chinese epiphany, but Northeast Asia as a whole, played a central role. Alarmed at China’s marginalization in the talks under way with North Korea, China saw the danger emanating from the United States in a new light and set a more hostile course.

The consensus reached in China held firm through 2020. It dismissed the notion that US power was greater than expected in favor of the conclusion that Trump and anti-China policies showed US weakness, in securing talks North Korea had forced the US to back down, and tightening ties to Russia as well as shoring up North Korean resolve best strengthened China’s hand. As values centered on anti-communism overcame Trump’s transactional inclinations, Xi kept reinforcing civilizational and socialist identity themes, drawing sharp contrasts. Modest improvements in ties with Tokyo and Seoul did not mean “new thinking” but keeping up the rhetorical pressure.

In retrospect, this four-year period of solidified Xi control over China reconfirmed the direction of Chinese policy toward Northeast Asia. If at times Trump, Moon, and Abe had raised hopes of some sort of breakthrough with Xi Jinping, they were soon squelched by the reality of sharp differences over economic relations, security concerns, and national identity orientations. The one issue with the greatest potential for finding common ground—North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs—became the symbol of the breakdown of security cooperation. By 2020 the lines between two clashing camps were firmly drawn, although on one side North Korea opted for self-imposed solitary confinement aided by continuing streams of Chinese energy, and on the other South Korea failed to improve Japan ties and longed for renewed talks with the North.

Conditions proved advantageous for Xi Jinping to indulge his arrogance and flex his muscles in 2017 to 2020. Donald Trump gave the impression that a G2 was on the horizon, undercutting one US alliance after another and seeking a grand bargain. If no deal was reached, the image of US decline only hardened. Vladimir Putin essentially abandoned other Asian partners, pleading for China to embrace his Cold War thinking. If he still wavered on joining the BRI, boosting the SCO in Central Asia, and economic integration desired by China, Xi’s leverage only kept growing. Kim Jong-un’s belligerent turn in 2017 posed a risk of Trump’s “fire and fury,” and his diplomatic turn in 2018 could have left China on the margins, but as expected, Kim’s ambitions could not be met by Trump. The upshot was an upgrading of Sino-DPRK ties with Xi no longer inclined to consider US appeals. Moon Jae-in gave Xi further reason for optimism, not because of his wooing of Kim, which by 2019 had been exposed as hopeless, but due to his drag on Trump’s Indo-Pacific plans and on US-Japan-ROK trilateralism. Infusing one more jolt of confidence, Xi in 2020 saw Trump flail about in the face of the COVID pandemic, while Xi shifted blame for causing the outbreak into arrogance for proving superiority in controlling it. China appeared to be on a roll into 2021. Not only had Xi parried perceived challenges, he had emerged with an unprecedented swagger.

Danielle Cohen, “China’s Strategic Thinking toward India, 2017–2020”

China–India relations from 2017 to 2020 fluctuated dramatically against a rapidly changing global environment. The period was bookended by two territorial disputes which drove bilateral relations to depressing lows: the 2017 Doklam incident and the 2020 border crisis in the Ladakh region. In between, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi attempted to set relations on a more promising path through repeated high-level visits. During these eventful years, Chinese analysts of India often focused on three main themes. The first was the development of the “Indo-Pacific” concept and the evolution of the Quad. Chinese analysts studied differences in the various countries’ understandings of the “Indo-Pacific” and carefully assessed India’s support for the US Indo-Pacific strategy, closer bilateral relations with the United States, and the Quad. The second theme was the BRI; China hoped for, but never received, Indian support for its regional development strategy. The final theme was India’s new assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and beyond, which increasingly brought India and China into competition for regional influence.

Against the backdrop of the new Trump administration and its emerging Indo-Pacific policy, China–India relations reached a nadir in 2017 for more local reasons. As 2017 began, bilateral relations had already been damaged by China’s successful efforts to block India from joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2016. In April 2017, India allowed the Dalai Lama to visit the contested region of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as part of Tibet. But relations really hit their nadir in June, when India intervened on behalf of its close ally, Bhutan, in Bhutan’s border conflict with China. During the two-month-long Dolkam crisis, India deployed troops to block the Chinese military from building a road in territory claimed by Bhutan. In the midst of a terrible year for China–India relations, one potential bright spot was India’s entrance to the SCO.

Chinese analysts observing China–India relations in 2017 focused on several key themes. The first was how to respond to India’s lukewarm attitude toward China’s flagship BRI. A second key theme was India’s more assertive goals in the Indian Ocean and the concerns this shift raised for greater competition with China, particularly given India’s growing ties to the United States. Chinese analysts saw Chinese interests as fundamentally at odds with Indian efforts to translate growing Indian economic power into greater influence over the Indian Ocean as part of their “Great Power dream.” A third theme was India’s relations with the United States, as well as with Japan and Australia. Overall, analysts were pessimistic about the direction of China–India relations in 2017, seeing the two countries as potential competitors, with limited mutual trust. Given long-term geopolitical trends and the sudden shock of the Doklam incident, Chinese observers were not optimistic about China’s relationship with India.

As 2018 began, the Chinese and Indian leadership sought to bring the bilateral relationship back from the brink. These efforts to warm up the bilateral relationship took place against the backdrop of the pivotal November 2017 decision to resume the Quad dialogue. Reacting to the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” region, Chinese found the goals to be: to restrain China’s naval ambitions and prevent it from gaining influence in the Indian Ocean, to maintain the dominant US role, and to increase Indian capabilities. As Chinese analysts thought about China–India relations in the context of the renewed emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region and the formal resumption of the Quad, the strategic importance of the two countries’ competition in the Indian Ocean continued to draw their attention. Underlying Chinese assessments of Indian interests in the Indian Ocean, but not always explicitly stated, was the understanding that India’s focus on enhanced naval capabilities and strengthened ties with other concerned states was likely to conflict with China’s increasingly expansive naval objectives. Analysts worried that the popularization of an “Indo-Pacific” concept and the resumption of the Quad would impede their implementation of the BRI. In 2018, the role of the South China Sea became more prominent in Chinese analysis of India.

Modi’s re-election in 2019 ensured the continuation of India’s interest in the Indo-Pacific and in a more assertive position in the Indian Ocean. With Modi advancing a more assertive Indian foreign policy and the Quad dialogue quickly picking up its pace, Chinese analysts writing in 2019 highlighted the potential for regional competition between China and India. They focused not only on India’s increasing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean, but, importantly, on the ways in which India’s growing push through the Indian Ocean toward the South China Sea brought it into increasing competition with China’s push from the South China Sea toward the Indian Ocean. This expansion of Indian maritime ambition brought China and India into competition for the same partners in Southeast Asia. This focus on India’s push toward Southeast Asia further raised the salience of the South China Sea in Chinese analysis of Indian policy. However, bilateral relations were significantly improved from the nadir of 2017. Given the centrality of the BRI to China’s regional policy, China was eager for India to join and wary of its efforts to counter the BRI through closer cooperation with the members of the Quad.

As much of the world was distracted by the massive upheavals of the early Covid-19 pandemic, skirmishes erupted between India and China in the Ladakh region beginning in early May in response to India’s decision to eliminate the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 and to build up its roads along the border as China had already done. As the two countries rushed thousands of troops to the border, brawls in mid-June resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers, the first fatalities since 1975. The crisis lasted into January 2021 and halted any progress toward rebuilding the bilateral relationship after the 2017 Doklam dispute. As India’s relationship with China deteriorated rapidly, India continued to strengthen its relationships with members of the Quad. The frequency of the Quad meetings—and the decision to regularize meetings at the foreign minister level—marked a significant institutionalization of the Quad framework. The US Indo-Pacific strategy continued to loom large in China’s perceptions of India. Even as Chinese analysts saw India as embracing an Indo-Pacific, they noted that the Indian conception of the “Indo-Pacific” was not identical to that of the United States. Chinese analysts continued to debate whether India was maintaining its traditional non-alignment or tilting toward the United States. Since India was the weakest link in the Quad, the extent of India’s willingness to draw close to the United States was of perennial interest to Chinese observers.

Despite high-level efforts to salvage the bilateral relationship after the 2017 Doklam crisis, the eruption of border skirmishes in 2020 undid any progress. Meanwhile, India moved closer to the United States and, despite its initial hesitation, became increasingly supportive of the Quad. These shifts were driven by Indian concerns about China, both because of longstanding issues such as the border disputes, and by newer fears that China was intruding on India’s traditional sphere of influence. As two large and rapidly developing neighboring states, China and India were increasingly jostling against each other, with China continuously more interested in expanding its influence beyond the Pacific and India reaching outside South Asia to build stronger relations with the three most powerful Pacific democracies.

Gaye Christofferson,China’s Strategic Thinking toward Central Asia, 2013-24”

China’s thinking toward Central Asia is encapsulated by its BRI, a grand strategy that has evolved over the past decade although Beijing has warned Chinese writers and officials never to call it a strategy. Three challenges stand out over the decade-long history of advancing the BRI. First is managing the division of labor with Russia, which deems Central Asia to be critical to its sphere of influence. Second is coping with autonomous foreign policy aspirations of newly sovereign states wary of overdependence on one state, whose long-term intentions may be threatening. Third is fine-tuning a strategy in stages that suits China’s objectives without alarming others.

While the story of the SCO is mostly about the challenge of coordinating Chinese and Russian approaches to Central Asia (complicated by the addition of more members in recent years), the story of the northern leg of the BRI (SREB) is largely about China’s autonomous moves in Central Asia, watched warily by Russia. Chinese analysts view Central Asian states after independence as undergoing a process of de-Russification, localization as they shaped national identities, and internationalization of foreign relations as they practiced multi-vector diplomacy. Expecting that the process of de-Russification would allow a Chinese presence to expand, they understood that a transitional period would be required.

Strategic thinking toward Central Asia is embedded in strategies for peripheral diplomacy. Xi’s contribution has been to make itthe top priority in China’s foreign policy framework, displacing major power relations. Xi has also strived to give the strategy a political framework that would solidify economic relationships developed under the BRI into stronger political and diplomatic relationships. It was implicit that China hoped a process of Sinification would take place in Central Asia based on “Asianness” while the region shifted away from Russia and the West. A year after the BRI was declared, Russians felt dependent enough on Beijing not to try to block the BRI, but Russia did not join what is a geopolitical strategy to create a Sinocentric regional order using seemingly innocuous terms such as “community of common destiny.” Despite promises, Xi does in fact promote the China Model for developing countries in Central Asia, referring to it as Chinese style modernization.

Kazakhstan deserves to be considered the core country in the SREB portion of the BRI, most important in Russian calculations, most conspicuous in its pursuit of diplomatic diversity, and central to Xi Jinping’s initiatives, beginning in 2013. In 2024 it is on the frontlines between the Russian assault on Central Asian sovereignty and China’s infringement of Russian prerogatives. It is also the prime test of China’s pursuit of a sphere of control and resistance seeking autonomy. Events of 2022 led to Chinese rethinking security relations in Central Asia. Tokayev requested Russian troops to help quell January 2022 protests. Chinese were left out and felt marginalized. Being the economic leader in Central Asia did not get Beijing included in security issues.

While cultivating China’s sphere of influence in Central Asia, Beijing has seemingly supported Kazakh initiatives to strengthen Central Asian autonomy such as CICA. In June 2002, Chinese president Jiang Zemin attended the first summit of CICA held in Almaty, noting that China would be an active participant. In 2006, President Hu Jintao encouraged CICA to construct a regional security architecture. Under Xi Jinping CICA gained new prominence, as Asia for the Asians.

Beijing underestimated Astana’s capacity for acting independently because the Chinese concept of sphere of influence does not include middle powers following multi-vector diplomacy. Astana has managed to bend BRI to support its own development plans, and to use China to implement its multi-vector diplomacy. It does not follow Beijing and Moscow’s anti-Western positions.

Although the SCO began as a security organization negotiating borders and fighting the “three evils,” Beijing has always sought to develop the SCO as an economic organization. Russia, however, believed its role in the SCO was enhanced if it focused on security and has resisted an economic function for the group. The SCO provided an institutionalized framework for the Sino-Russian partnership in the region, internationalizing it, without which Moscow and Beijing would have had separate non-transparent channels with Central Asian capitals that would have increased suspicions. Over time, Beijing sought a greater political voice. Xi was concerned that the BRI has no political framework and has searched for ways to construct one. In June 2018, at the SCO Qingdao summit, Xi proposed the SCO be incorporated into the BRI. Beijing’s BRI White Paper had noted that BRI would pull various organizations into itself such as the SCO. Existing multilateral organizations such as the SCO would provide a political framework that the BRI lacked and would help institutionalize China’s political leadership within the BRI. Blocked, this left the BRI in Central Asia with an institutional deficit which combined with China’s soft power deficit created uncertainty in Beijing’s sphere of influence. Marginalized during the January 2022 Astana protests, Xi Jinping would try again at the September SCO meeting by introducing the Global Security Initiative (GSI) and urging the SCO to build a security architecture. He announced the expansion of China’s security involvement in Central Asia and China’s greater security leadership role, presenting it as a responsibility of the two major powers.

China’s security leadership in Central Asia diminished Russia’s traditional role of security guarantor and appeared to challenge the old Central Asian division of labor that assigned security leadership to Moscow. The 2022 SCO meeting issued the Samarkand Declaration, which stated that member states consider Central Asia the core of the SCO, challenging the presumed dominant role of China and Russia. It promoted sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity of states, concepts Beijing seemed to support but Moscow did not.” The GSI would provide the political framework for the BRI in Central Asia that Xi Jinping had been seeking for a decade. The GSI challenges the US-led world order as Beijing builds a sphere of influence in Central Asia

Chinese analysis noted that the SCO had expected to have Sino-Russian dual leadership but, since the Ukraine war began, Moscow had been distracted and overwhelmed, giving Beijing a larger security role in the SCO. Beijing had incrementally expanded its security role in Central Asia, undermining the logic of the old Central Asian formula of Chinese leadership in economics and Russian leadership in security.  There had been signs throughout 2022 that China was slowly edging into more of a security role in the region displacing Russia’s traditional security role in Central Asia. This trend has continued. In June 2023, Xi Jinping hosted the first C5+1 China-Central Asian summit in Xian, celebrating the BRI’s ten-year existence in Central Asia, and reaffirming all five Central Asian countries commitment to it. The C5+1 summit gave Xi a platform to push for greater institutionalization. Foreign analysts took it as a sign of China’s security role when Xi stated that China would support Kazakhstan in safeguarding national independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Astana had become alarmed at Putin’s comments that Kazakhstan was not a real nation-state similar to how he spoke about Ukraine.

At the end of the year, Chinese Ambassador to Russia, Zhang Hanhui, published an article for Russian audiences continuing the narrative of joint Sino-Russian leadership in Central Asia, claiming China and Russia are “both influential powers on the Eurasian continent, and the Eurasian region is the common strategic periphery of China and Russia.” Zhang noted the Eurasian region was the starting point of the BRI and continues to be a pilot demonstration area. He further noted that Beijing and Moscow “should continue to serve as leaders of cooperation in the Eurasian region.” Zhang’s article gave little agency to the Central Asian states themselves. Zhang did not mention the old division of labor formula that had previously given China leadership over economics and Russia over security. They were now equal partners.

Despite Chinese obfuscation over BRI and its strategy for Central Asia, the record of the decade from 2013 through 2023 demonstrates continuity of objectives along with frequency of moves to deflect concerns. The paramount Chinese goal was a Sinocentric sphere of influence, putting economic integration in the forefront, gaining increasing political clout, and establishing a firm security presence. Central Asian states were wary, led by Kazakhstan’s pursuit of multi-vector diplomacy. Russia was suspicious, deflecting the SCO becoming a vehicle for Chinese efforts at economic integration. Yet, as Russo-Central Asian ties grew tenser, China gained an opening. The purpose of explaining BRI through comparative advantage was to present the initiative as something that had emerged naturally and organically rather than by design.

China’s strategy for Central Asia that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union was always based on a vision of China as a major power leading a region of smaller, dependent countries. This vision, which led to placing priority on China’s peripheral diplomacy rather than major power relations, went beyond bilateral exchanges to construction of a Sinocentric regional order which the region and Russia have resisted. Despite Xi Jinping’s repeated efforts to create a political framework for the BRI, or to co-opt an existing organization such as the SCO as the political framework, this strategy has not yet been successful. Central Asian countries, notably Kazakhstan, have retained their political autonomy, incompatible with Xi’s “China Dream” of a sphere of influence stretching across Central Asia.

Russia is losing ground to China as its soft power in Central Asia declines primarily because of its war in Ukraine. After the Ukrainian War in 2022. China is perceived as more reliable, Russia less so because of Russian statements undermining and threatening the sovereignty of post-Soviet states. Despite sources of competition, Sino-Russian relations have remained stable in Central Asia through a process of adaptation and accommodation during the past decade of the BRI. Xi’s emphasis on peripheral diplomacy in Central Asia has not led to smaller countries on its periphery bandwagoning with Beijing against Washington. Xi’s repeated efforts to provide BRI with a political framework have not had support from Russia or Central Asian states, yet over the years, he has continually tried different approaches without success. Nevertheless, the Chinese media continues to celebrate the BRI and its achievements.

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