CSR Blog: China’s Western Horizon: Interview with Professor Daniel Markey

By Jacob Larsen

Daniel Markey is a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He also serves as the academic director of the Johns Hopkins SAIS Global Policy Program. Dr. Markey’s latest book, China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia (Oxford University Press, 2020), assesses the evolving political, economic, and security links between China and its western neighbors. 

Below is an interview between Dr. Markey and Jacob Larsen of the SAIS China Studies Review. Dr. Markey discusses the origins of the book, how its findings relate to the Biden administration, and how competition on China’s Western Horizon has been impacted by COVID-19.

Book Summary

Under the ambitious leadership of President Xi Jinping, China is zealously transforming its wealth and economic power into potent tools of global political influence. But China’s foreign policy initiatives, even the vaunted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), will be shaped and redefined as they confront the ground realities of local and regional politics outside China. In China’s Western Horizon, Dr. Markey previews how China’s efforts are likely to play out along its “western horizon:” across the swath of Eurasia that includes South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Drawing from extensive interviews, travels, and historical research, Markey describes how perceptions of China vary widely within states such as Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran. Powerful and privileged groups across the region often expect to profit from their connections to China, while others fear commercial and political losses. Similarly, Eurasian statesmen are scrambling to harness China’s energy purchases, arms sales, and infrastructure investment. These leaders are working with China in order to outdo their strategic competitors, including India and Saudi Arabia, and are simultaneously negotiating relations with Russia and America. Markey anticipates that China’s deepening involvement will play to the advantage of regional strongmen and exacerbate the political tensions within and among Eurasian states. To make the most of America’s limited influence in China’s backyard (and elsewhere), he argues that US policymakers should pursue a selective and localized strategy to serve America’s specific aims in Eurasia and to better compete with China over the long run.


JL: Professor Markey, Thank you for joining me for this interview, I really appreciate your time and I look forward to hearing more about your book. My first question is, could you talk about how you decided to write this book?

DM: So the book, in a way, is a follow on from research that I’ve been doing really since around 2005, 2007. My last book [No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad] came out in 2013 on US-Pakistan relations. As I was working on that, I began to think that considering China’s relationship with Pakistan was going to be an interesting new way to approach the US-Pakistan relationship. I was also doing some work for parts of the US government on thinking about systemic change at the global level in terms of power relations and how that might affect South Asia. That led me fairly quickly into asking questions about the rise of China, US-China competition, and how that might play into a Cold War-like setting in South Asia.

Having done some research on the history of the Cold War in South Asia, and talking to Pakistanis and Indians, there was some concern that we could revert back to a similar type of situation where geopolitical competition, this time between the United States and China, would translate into a reinforcing mechanism for competition in South Asia between India and Pakistan. So I started thinking through those questions, some of which I addressed in my last book. Then, I realized thereafter that the rise-of-China story wasn’t going anywhere. Not only was it significant for South Asia and Pakistan in particular, but it would also be really interesting to try to extend that thinking into other parts of continental Eurasia – both as comparative cases to the South Asian case, and also to think about the region as one broader sweep of territory where it would make sense to think about Chinese activities holistically.

JL: What impact do you hope China’s Western Horizon will have?

DM: One thing that I’d like readers to come away with is greater understanding of and appreciation for what’s happening on China’s western horizon. For people who are interested in US-China competition or the rise of China, or international politics more broadly, there is a strong tendency in the United States to focus on what’s happening on China’s eastern front. That’s what gets the bulk of the news and interest – what’s happening in the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea and so on. But there is much less understanding of what China is up to in its west and how those countries are responding.

The other big takeaway is to not just think of the world as a playground for US-China competition, but to think of the interests and aspirations of the states themselves. I really want to focus on that local agency, both in terms of how states think about what’s happening internally and how they relate to other states. That’s the core analytical and empirical insight that I take away from this book.

JL: Could you summarize the central message of the book?

DM: I guess it would be to observe that, empirically, China’s rising wealth, political power, and military power is affecting its neighbors, and that includes its western neighbors. If you think about China’s rising power as a tide of water that is seeping into every aspect of its neighborhood, then you begin to see how it’s ubiquitous, how everything from business arrangements to security operations, to politics, will be affected by China, one way or another.

But we must also think about the area into which China’s rising power is flowing. As a rising tide meets a shoreline, different venues will be more or less accommodating to China’s power. Some places will push back, we can think of India or to a lesser extent, even Russia in this respect. Other places will be more accommodating or welcoming of Chinese influence, and we see that as well in places like Pakistan. And lastly, it is not just that the different states around China create a zone for China to operate. These states also see China has an opportunity. And they seek to harness China to their own domestic political, economic, and commercial ends, but also strategic ends in their existing competitions with other regional and international powers.

JL: Thank you for that summary. Having read the book myself, those messages definitely come across persuasively.

You mentioned some suggestions for future research towards the end of the book. What are some future research questions that could be addressed by building off of your research in this book?

DM: As I wrote the book, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t really sufficient to think about what was happening in terms of state level responses to China internally – that you needed more of a two-level analysis. You do need to start domestically and ask “Who wins and who loses from greater Chinese involvement inside any given state?” But then you also need to think about how China’s greater involvement in these countries has affected their relations with other regional actors. For example, how Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia has been affected by closer ties with China.

The two step analysis is relatively simple, but I think it can be applied effectively to lots of other countries around the world. And I think, unfortunately without a systematic approach, there’s a tendency when you tell the story of say, Sri Lanka, to only tell a part of the story or to tell it in a kind of a slipshod or messy fashion. That could be improved if you begin to bring this two-level analysis. What I’d like to see is similar approaches used in lots of other countries, including some of the countries that I didn’t have time for but I’d be quite curious about.

I spent some time during my research in Israel. I think that’s an area where an increasing number of scholars are asking similar questions about Israel-China relations. Similarly, Turkey is a country I haven’t had a chance to spend time in to do research but that I think is critically important. If I had to add a chapter in a book like this, Turkey might have been a really good additional case to add. There are others doing work in Latin America and Africa and elsewhere, so similar types of efforts can be pursued.

JL: Moving on to some questions about the Biden administration. Firstly, how would you evaluate the Biden administration’s engagement strategy with Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the countries you highlighted in your book?

DM: Look, it’s early days, so I don’t want to give too much of a report card to the Biden administration after a matter of weeks. It’s obvious, having seen Biden’s first press conference, that his focus is domestic – particularly on COVID and, responding to the public health and economic consequences of the pandemic, and that’s as it should be.

I would say that none of the states that I focus on in this book, except for China, even rise to a secondary level of priority, maybe with a partial exception of Iran. But China is definitely in the first tier and I give the Biden administration very good marks on its out-of-the-gate handling of the relationship with China. Pakistan and Kazakhstan are indirectly relevant to more second tier policy priorities, having to do with Afghanistan or Russia.

I’d say the Biden administration has taken a tough approach toward China at the outset, combined with clear and pointed outreach to partners and allies in Asia and elsewhere with the clear strategic observation that though China is growing and quite powerful, the United States is still wealthier and more powerful. When combined with its allies, it is much bigger in just about every way that you can measure. That’s going to be the source of American leverage in this relationship. The Biden administration knows that. The last administration did not know that.

JL: I have a question about US engagement in the world:

In your book, you focus on the agency of local actors and the BRI recipient countries, and how they shape the form and function of Chinese investment and engagement in their countries. What efforts have you seen or do you expect to see in the future, from Eurasian states as they work to shape US engagement in their countries? Are these efforts different under the Biden administration as opposed to the Trump administration?

DM: A lot of the logic that I lay out in the book is in terms of how less powerful countries try to harness their relationship with China to serve their own ends. You could very readily turn similar arguments around and say that’s what they do, or have done with the United States over decades. In other words, just because there’s an asymmetrical power relationship between a more powerful state and a weaker state, that asymmetry doesn’t necessarily mean that the weaker one accepts all that the more powerful one does. Sometimes that asymmetry can be flipped around, and the weaker power can have leverage.

So, all the countries that I look at – Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, and Russia – in one way or another, sought to advance their own interests by using the United States as a point of leverage to achieve their strategic aims, just as I observe they’re trying to do with China.

If you think about Pakistan, its Cold War history was to leverage American wealth and, to some extent, American arms in its competition with India.

Kazakhstan, during the period after 9/11 and after the Cold War more broadly, also saw a great opportunity to engage with the United States. It sought out American investors, extended a warm and welcoming hand to the United States in an attempt to bolster its own autonomy in the face of a traditionally dominant Russian hegemony in the region.

Iran, of course, has had great difficulties with the United States, so its ability to harness or use the United States has been limited, but it’s clearly seen an interest at times in negotiating with us. Sometimes, using its very weakness and the threat of what it might do in the region because of its sense of insecurity, presumably, as a threat to the United States. All of them have tried to use American power for their own ends and I anticipate they will continue to do so.

One thing that is different with the Biden administration is that the President has repeatedly observed that democratic liberal values are the bedrock of American interests in the world, and will be a defining feature, in how the United States relates to other states. This is a significant shift from what we were hearing from the Trump administration, and in some ways, is a shift even from what we heard from the Obama administration.

Most of the countries that are focused on in this book are not liberal democracies. I think some of these states will recast their outreach to the United States as at least not threatening American values, if not necessarily supporting them. That will be considerably more difficult, say for Saudi Arabia, than it was during the Trump administration.

JL: I want to zero in on Pakistan because I know you have a special set of knowledge there. Could you talk about Pakistan’s efforts to shape Chinese involvement in Pakistan and American involvement in Pakistan vis-à-vis the 2020 border clashes between India and China?

DM: Interestingly, Pakistan was actually quite restrained in how it responded to the clashes between China and India, and did not take advantage in ways that some of us, myself included, had expected. Why?  Again, you have to look at not just what’s happening between India and China and the United States, but what’s happening inside Pakistan. Pakistan has been very occupied domestically with political divisions, management of the COVID-19 crisis, economic freefall or the threat thereof, and also, an exceedingly uncertain security situation along its own western border with Afghanistan. All of those things are crowding the minds of top Pakistani leaders, so it is understandable why they wouldn’t want to see another conflict with India.

I’m still very much on the fence about how Pakistan may play the future of China’s greater involvement in the region, because historically we have lots of reasons to be concerned that Pakistan will see China’s backing as an opportunity to play tough with India. But to be fair to Pakistan, we haven’t seen that playing out in quite that way.

JL: You just mentioned the COVID response in Pakistan. Could you talk about how COVID-19 has affected China’s engagement in Pakistan as well as in the other Eurasian states you focused on in your book?

DM: First of all, COVID-19 has led to tremendous economic uncertainty. What we’ve seen has been a need to rely on the forbearance of the IMF, particularly in a country like Pakistan, or on other international creditors to allow them to delay repayments. China has also been willing to also delay repayments so that these countries wouldn’t face a further economic and fiscal crunch at the same time as they’re facing this public health threat. That doesn’t resolve their underlying economic fragility, it simply delays some of the worst consequences.

Simultaneously, China has been attempting to extend its vaccine diplomacy throughout this region in ways that play into the question of the presence or absence of the United States as an international leader. During the Trump administration, our absence from international leadership, when it came to public health and responding to the COVID crisis, was ceding the ground to China. China has been willing, and to some extent, able to do that with certain Chinese vaccines. They have been first on the scene, particularly in countries like Pakistan or Kazakhstan, throughout Central Asia, and obviously in countries that have terrible relations with the United States like Iran.

However, that opportunity is not entirely closed to the United States. We’ve seen stories about how Chinese manufactured vaccines may or may not be as effective as those made in the United States – how they may or may not be as safe, may or may not have been as thoroughly tested. I think there’s still a great opportunity and a responsibility on the part of the United States to show international leadership in all of these places. There is still an opening to contribute to vaccination campaigns, to outcompete China on public health and vaccination diplomacy.

JL: Thank you for that answer. You’ve actually found your way to my next question.

In the concluding chapter of your book, you recommend a selective approach to US competition with China in Eurasia. First, could you briefly summarize what that approach means? Then, could you address what role health diplomacy might play in this selective competition?

DM: My core observation in this book is that we should be careful not to fall into the trap of competing with China on China’s terms. China’s terms are symbolized by the BRI. The BRI is principally seen as an infrastructure investment initiative, then one thing the United States ought not to do is to think, “Well, if China is building stuff in these countries, we need to build stuff too.”

The first order of business is to recognize that China is pretty good at building stuff and in many cases is better than the US at physical infrastructure – major projects like roads and rails imports and so on. We shouldn’t be throwing money into that type of competition, particularly since we already know, after decades of overseas investment and development efforts, that the governance and technical sustainability of major infrastructure projects is often more important than the initial construction itself.

The US knows how to build in a sustainable way, and we have determined that oftentimes it’s better to do it through multilateral institutions like the World Bank, or with international partners like the Japanese and also through other institutions like the Asia Development Bank (ADB). Then you can get more sustainable and better quality outcomes.

The United States shouldn’t try to ape Chinese activities. The other thing that we need to do is appreciate, as I tried to do throughout the book, that the countries themselves and even localities know best what their needs are. Only by reaching out to leaders either at the national level within these countries or even at the provincial or municipal levels can we begin to understand what they actually want and how our policies might benefit them. Quite often what I found is, what they may want are things that we can actually be quite good at: educational opportunities; science and technology opportunities; support to individuals, groups and institutions that are seeking to speak truth to power; to study freely; to write freely;  to assemble; etc.

This is a way in which the US is unlike China, in a way that China, unless it fundamentally changes, can never compete with us. We should be consistently looking for areas where our advantage is supported and where China is in fact at a disadvantage.

On public health diplomacy, the US has advantages as well. We have scientific studies that will transparently share how our vaccines actually perform, whereas the Chinese might be more inclined toward being opaque in assessing the effectiveness and the safety of their vaccines. That’s precisely the kind of opportunity we should take advantage of. The US should be the natural partner for countries looking to help their people. We should seize that opportunity when it avails itself and avoid being distracted by trying to meet China one-for-one in every initiative that it proposes, because that’s likely not to play to our advantage.

Jacob is a first-year M.A. student at SAIS and is concentrating in China Studies. His primary interests are U.S. relations with China as well as China’s relations with other nations. Besides these subjects, he is an enthusiastic follower of renewable energy, electrified transportation, and climate policy. Jacob plans on working to develop nuanced and effective U.S. policy towards China to achieve goals in national security, climate policy, and other areas. In his free time, Jacob enjoys playing strategy board games and reading science fiction.

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