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Research Questions

  1. What is driving the People's Republic of China's (PRC's) Central Asia and South Asia policies, especially its policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan?
  2. What is China's overarching strategy in Central and South Asia?
  3. What economic, diplomatic, and military activities has China engaged in in these regions?
  4. What are the implications for the United States?

This study analyzes what is driving China's Central Asia and Afghanistan-Pakistan policies, identifies China's overarching strategy, examines the extent of Chinese activities in the region, and assesses their implications for the United States. The authors contend that China's response to the complex challenges on its western borders during the past two decades has been to adopt an "Empty Fortress" strategy, whereby China boldly projects an image of considerable strength in Central and South Asia to mask serious frailty. They conclude that China is not a major threat to U.S. interests in Central Asia, Afghanistan, or Pakistan and is unlikely to pose one in the near future.

Key Findings

Four Drivers of China's Central Asia Policy

  • Beijing is consumed by insecurity and the goals of ensuring domestic stability and protecting national unity. China is especially preoccupied with suppressing internal unrest among ethnic minorities in its western regions.
  • Beijing is driven to maintain peace, predictability, and secular governments in the countries of Central Asia, as it fears linkups between internal challenges and external threats, notably the Uighur Diaspora that spills across national borders.
  • China seeks to increase influence in Central Asia and thereby limit the influence of other powers.
  • China seeks to promote its economic interests in Central Asia and enhance energy security.

China's Relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan

  • China has friendly relations with Afghanistan and has become the largest investor in the country, but it has been a bystander to Western military activities in the country.
  • Pakistan is probably China's closest and most enduring ally of the past half-century, but its strategic importance to China has decreased since the end of the Cold War.
  • The future of Chinese influence in both these countries is uncertain.

China's Empty Fortress Strategy and Its Implications for the United States

  • China's westernmost regions are poorly defended and vulnerable to internal dissent and external threats. China has boldly projected an image of considerable strength in in these regions to mask serious frailty — known as an "Empty Fortress" stratagem in the annals of Chinese history.
  • China's Empty Fortress strategy is exemplified by its promotion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The SCO gives the outward appearance of potency and activism but is in fact a loose collection of states incapable of resolute collective action.
  • Currently, China is not a major threat to U.S. interests in Central Asia, Afghanistan, or Pakistan and is unlikely to pose one in the near future.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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