Chinese Activity in Central Asia; beyond Trade, Transport and Economy
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Research Associate , VIF
Background

China has invested in energy, infrastructure, transportation, railways and roads, communications etc. in Central Asia. Recently, Chinese Huawei has signed around one billion deal with Uzbekistan for digitalization of the country.1 This indicates that China has left no stone unturned to get its strong foothold in every sector of the Central Asian states mainly through its Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI). Through its economic activities, Beijing has secured a strategic position in Central Asia.

China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang shares borders with three of the Central Asian republics, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Uyghurs, an ethnic Turkic speaking group, belong to Xinjiang and have ethno-cultural linkages with Central Asian region. During the Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Muslim Uyghurs were forced to relinquish their religious and cultural practices. China’s suppression of Uyghurs continues to date and even more forcefully. Uyghurs are being detained in the large internment camps in Xinjiang to which China claims as vocational training centers.2 Uyghurs are also not allowed to wear traditional clothing or to have a beard. Beijing has termed them as a significant threat to China’s security. And their ethno cultural linkages with Central Asia have made China more apprehensive. Therefore, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China seemed resolute to have cordial relations with the post-Soviet Central Asian states.

Shanghai five (1996) to solve the border issues with Central Asia and Russia was intended to materialize the Chinese aspiration of reconnecting with the region keeping in mind its security and economic imperatives. 3 Later Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) formed in 2001 has further advanced Beijing’s strategic game play in this region.4 Through the SCO, China launched its fight against “three evil forces’: terrorism, separatism and extremism. China has conducted multiple joint anti-terrorist military exercises with Central Asian countries.5 Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of Russia led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia-China competition in Central Asia has been transformed into strategic cooperation after western sanctions against Russia in 2014. There is a visible China-Russia cooperation in Central Asia which does not seem to be fading very soon. Turkmenistan remains inactive due to its closed internal political and military affairs, and it is also not a part of SCO but is a major exporter of natural gas to China.

Tajikistan shares a long and porous border with Afghanistan; therefore, it is crucial for the security of the Xinjiang region. Since 2017, Chinese troops are present in the Gorno-Badakhshan region of Tajikistan.6 According to reports, China has built security infrastructure similar to a military base in Badakhshan region of Tajikistan. On the related question, both Chinese and Tajik authorities denied the existence of a Chinese military base in Tajik territory.7 China held several joint anti-terrorism military exercises with Tajikistan. In August 2019, Sino-Tajik joint military exercise in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region was held. Tajikistan’s air, ground and air-defence forces took part in this exercise. This was not the first case of Chinese troops having military drills with their Tajik counterparts. Previously the two countries held similar exercises and training in Tajikistan in 2006, 2015 and 2016 respectively.8 Also in 2016, China, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan formed a “Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism in Counter-Terrorism”.9

China’s Interests in Central Asia

China’s relations with each of the Central Asian Republics are different and driven by the internal political and socio-economic environment of these republics. Based on its economic and political involvement in each of these countries, the general perception of China’s influence in the region also varies. The Republic of Kazakhstan remains the significant economic and trade partner of China in the region.10 Since 1996, China had high ambitions of importing oil and gas from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. China-Central Asia pipeline between these stakeholders is operational and is responsible for almost 70 per cent of Turkmenistan’s gas and around 40 per cent of Kazakh oil. Uzbekistan also exports gas to China.11 Besides this, Central Asia is also crucial for China’s BRI.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have no mineral resources but are very important for Chinese foreign policy because both of these countries provide suitable markets and an excellent source for Chinese investments. They are also vital for security point of view because due to poverty and unemployment; they are more susceptible to terrorist activities. This could have a direct impact on Xinjiang. Turkmenistan is a closed economy and has adopted political isolation since its independence in 1991. Even though China is the largest energy importer but political and local perception about China is not much debated in this country. It has been observed that Turkmenistan is pushing for the Trans Caspian Gas Pipeline to export its gas to Europe as well because it wants to reduce its dependency on China.12 Uzbekistan has adopted economic reforms after the death of its founder president Islam Karimov, and this had gone well with Chinese ambitions. Uzbekistan has sought China for more significant economic investment in the country, and it has been emerging as a reliable partner of China in the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given another opportunity to China to prevail over anti-Chinese narratives in Central Asia. Through its medical diplomacy during these difficult times, China is trying to garner the support of many developing countries. It has provided medical and humanitarian assistance to the pandemic hit Central Asian republics. Through its diplomatic efforts and coordination with countries in need, China will produce much needed soft power, which will further make the developing countries such as Tajikistan more dependent on it. In return, countries like Tajikistan will extend its support to build a pro-Chinese narrative against the western criticism of China.

Challenges

While talking about the Chinese influence in Central Asia, it has been witnessed that in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan there is no question of having a sincerely mixed debate on increased Chinese influence or any other policy issues related to international or domestic spheres. However, socio-political life in the other Central Asian states does permit for a suitable space for differences of opinion on the issue related to the national security and socio-economic condition influenced by the external pressures especially Chinese influence.

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, there has been a consistency in anti-Chinese protests in recent times in Central Asia. There are two primary reasons for the anti-Chinese sentiment emerging amongst the local populations. Firstly, with the ongoing project of Belt and Road, Chinese firms bring Chinese workers who create a sense of insecurity within the local populations, and persistently it resulted in intense protests and demonstrations. Secondly, Chinese oppression of its ethnic minorities such as ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz living in Xinjiang by putting them in internment camps have also garnered serious anti-Chinese sentiments in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan is dependent heavily on China for loans and grants, and it is estimated that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are the most Chinese debt trapped countries of Central Asia. Overall, in Central Asia, there are two types of perceptions formed concerning Chinese influence in Central Asia, political leaders and elites have a slightly pro-Chinese inclination while the local population is mostly being Sinophobe.

The ruling families of Central Asian leadership, whose members are often directly linked by trade with China, play a crucial role in forming a positive perception about Chinese activities. China being directly involved with the heads of these governments required no mediators to put forward its projects towards decision-making bodies. Still, it was self-interests of some individuals who belonged to the ruling family of Central Asian states who played a part in it.

China’s increasing influence in Central Asia had also raised several controversies ranging from issues of national integrity to economic questions. Consequently, Sinophile (Pro-China) and Sinophobe (Anti-China) groups have been formed rapidly. China’s existence in Central Asia is dependent on the approaches and attitudes of the Central Asian states and their national and foreign policy interests.

The concerns arising from the dependence of these Central Asian states on China are primarily debt and anti-China sentiments amongst the local populations. In a recent decision, Kazakhstan government has recently announced that up to twenty thousand new jobs will be created as part of the implementation of joint projects with China in Kazakhstan, 95% of which will be occupied by Kazakhstanis. Kyrgyzstan has also been long pending some of the Chinese projects. Tajikistan, on the other hand, has asked China to provide grants instead of loans to balance its Chinese debt. Russia being a close ally of Central Asia had financial constraints. Therefore, its trade and economic involvement in Central Asia has become almost secondary to China.

The economic conditions arising from coronavirus pandemic will restrict Central Asian republics’ ability to repay Chinese debt. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are under Chinese debt repayment stress. Kyrgyzstan has asked for debt relief as it struggles with the economic consequences of the pandemic. This requires Beijing to explore avenues to give debt relief to low-income economies of Central Asia. 13 China, while engaging with debt service suspension initiative of G20 has announced the suspension of debt repayments for over 70 developing countries. 14,15 However, there is no confirmed list of the countries being benefitted from China’s announcement including Central Asian countries.

Conclusion

China’s role in Central Asia has increased gradually. Except for the Kyrgyz Republic, other Central Asian countries are authoritarian regimes and are relatively emerging economies. China is perceived in a favourable light in central Asia because of two prominent factors; first, contrary to the western agenda, China does not question the authority of Central Asian authoritarian rulers and secondly, the Chinese investments and infrastructure development. Also, Chinese initiatives help Central Asian leaders to meet the challenges arising internally; for example, China helps Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to build a smart city putting in place digital surveillance systems. However, even being at the quite favourable position in Central Asia, China has been facing several challenges in recent past. China’s role in COVID-19 pandemic in Central Asia will also positively work for Chinese interests in the region.

Endnotes
  1. ‘Uzbekistan Approves Huawei 5G After Receiving CDB Loan, Deal Follows “Smart City” Contract’, RWR Advisory Group, July 30, 2019.https://www.rwradvisory.com/uzbekistan-approves-huawei-5g-after-receiving-cdb-loan-deal-follows-smart-city-contract/
  2. Francisco Olmos, ‘Pleasing China, appeasing at home: Central Asia and the Xinjiang camps’, Foreign policy center, November 29, 2019. https://fpc.org.uk/pleasing-china-appeasing-at-home-central-asia-and-the-xinjiang-camps/
  3. Ayjaz Wani, ‘India and China in Central Asia: Understanding the new rivalry in the heart of Eurasia’, Occasional Paper, Observer Research Foundation, February 17, 2020. https://www.orfonline.org/research/india-and-china-in-central-asia-understanding-the-new-rivalry-in-the-heart-of-eurasia-61473/
  4. Ibid.
  5. Joshua Kushera, ‘Report: Central Asia Key Site For Chinese Military Training’, Eurasia net, December 9, 2015. https://eurasianet.org/report-central-asia-key-site-for-chinese-military-training
  6. Stephan Blank, ‘China's Military Base in Tajikistan: What Does it Mean?’, CACI Analyst, April 18, 2019. https://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13569-chinas-military-base-in-tajikistan-what-does-it-mean?.html
  7. Gerry Shih, ‘In Central Asia’s forbidding highlands, a quiet newcomer: Chinese troops’, Washington post, February 19, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-central-asias-forbidding-highlands-a-quiet-newcomer-chinese-troops/2019/02/18/78d4a8d0-1e62-11e9-a759-2b8541bbbe20_story.html
  8. ‘China and Tajikistan kicks off joint counter-terrorism exercise’, China Military Online, August 12 2019. http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/view/2019-08/12/content_9587478.htm#:~:text=The%20China%2DTajikistan%22Cooperation%2D,2006%2C%202015%20and%202016%20respectively.
  9. Stephan Blank, ‘Sino-Tajik Exercises: The Latest Chinese Encroachment Into Russia’s ‘Sphere of Influence’, Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 107, July 25, 2019. https://jamestown.org/program/sino-tajik-exercises-the-latest-chinese-encroachment-into-russias-sphere-of-influence/
  10. Akmaral Berdalina, ‘Kazakh President’s Visit to Japan Focuses on Business Ties, Global Security’, Astana Times, November 8, 2016. https://astanatimes.com/2016/11/kazakh-presidents-visit-to-japan-focuses-on-business-ties-global-security/’
  11. Fakhmiddin Fazilov & Xiangming Chen, ‘China and Central Asia: A Significant New Energy Nexus’, Global Economy, The European Financial Review, April – May 2013. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265048273_China_and_Central_Asia_A_Signiicant_New_Energy_Nexus/citation/download
  12. Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, ‘Geopolitics of Trans–Caspian Gas Pipeline’, Article, Vivekananda International Foundation, January 20 , 2020. https://www.vifindia.org/article/2020/january/20/geopolitics-of-trans-caspian-gas-pipeline
  13. ‘Who pays? Central Asia and China’s debt dilemma’, Foreign brief, June 4 2020. https://foreignbrief.com/former-soviet-union/who-pays-central-asia-and-chinas-debt-dilemma/
  14. ‘China suspends debt repayment for 77 developing nations, regions’, Global times, June 7 2020. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1190790.shtml
  15. Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu Briefs on China's Participation in International Cooperation in COVID-19 Response, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, June 8, 2020. https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/t1787197.shtml

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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