Re-centering Central Asia: China’s “New Great Game” in the old Eurasian Heartland
© 2018, The Author(s). China’s President Xi Jinping’s Central Asian tour in fall 2013 marked Beijing’s unprecedented (re)turn to Central Asia as a lynchpin of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” of the globally ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s BRI positions Central Asia as the crucial nexus for the cross-regional long-distance loops of trade, investment, and infrastructure development. By revisiting the classical geopolitical theory about the original Eurasian Heartland and its contemporary offshoots, we extract some insights for understanding the new China-Central Asia transboundary regional nexus. In a double-pronged empirical analysis of China’s development strategies regarding Central Asia, we examine: (1) the construction of oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia to transmit energy all the way to China’s east coast, and (2) the launch and expansion of the Eurasian Railroad to transport goods from China’s manufacturing bases in both coastal and inland regions to Europe and Central Asia. In synthesizing the findings from this coupled analysis through classical and contemporary theoretical lenses, we discuss how China’s growing influence in Central Asia via the BRI can reshape the region’s diverse national interests, development opportunities and constraints while fostering closer China-Central Asia bilateral cooperation across multiple national boundaries. In light of the analysis, we also offer an updated view and critique of the classical Heartland/Rimland theories and discuss how a China-centric “New Great Game” differs from its original nineteenth century antecedent while pointing to similar underpinnings.