In the virtual summit held between China and Central Asian countries in January 2022 commemorating 30 years of diplomatic relations between the two sides, Chinese President Xi said the past three decades have witnessed the launch of several development projects, strategic partnerships, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as the establishment of a new type of international relations.
During his speech, Xi presented a host of proposals that could contribute to strengthening the relations between China and Central Asian countries, including strengthening solidarity and mutual trust to achieve shared development and prosperity and opposing any attempts by external forces to destabilize these countries or foment color revolutions in them. Xi pointed out the role of central Asian countries in the BRI, noting that efforts are underway to develop transport corridors and railway projects (including the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project) and continue to hold the China-Central Asia economic and trade cooperation forum, to increase the trade size between China and Central Asia to $70 billion by 2030.
Xi touched on a set of external threats that necessitate strengthening cooperation with Central Asia in areas of border management and control, combating terrorist use of the internet and collaborating to strengthen the regional security network. In this respect, he made reference to Afghanistan and expressed China’s support for Kabul in establishing an open and inclusive political structure through dialogue and consultation. Xi included Covid-19 among these threats, noting that it goes beyond the support provided by China, represented in providing vaccines and establishing medical centers and announcing that China will offer 5,000 seminar and workshop opportunities to help Central Asian countries train professionals in health and poverty reduction.
In view of the above, this article sheds light on the key pillars of China’s interest in Central Asia within the framework of the BRI, China’s relations with Russia, and its willingness to secure its western borders.
Go West: Pillars of the Chinese Interest in Central Asia
Beijing’s strategy towards Central Asia was based on a set of principles that has taken shape through several phases, targeting achieving several goals, including:
- Maintaining Stability of the Western Borders: China sought to calm tensions in the western region of Xinjiang (that has been impacted by Turkey and radical Islam) through economic development. For Beijing, controlling over Xinjiang requires dominating the border areas. Towards that, China worked to promote good relations with Central Asian countries and obtain commitments from those countries not to support the Uyghur independence movements. To serve this purpose, China signed a confidence building agreement with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 1996.
While the economic development in Central Asian countries will help ease social tensions and decrease the visibility of radical Islam, this could have negative repercussions as Xinjiang had the lowest access across 28 border crossings with Central Asian countries which reinforced a sense of exclusion in the region, which is considered the largest province in China covering one-sixth of the total area of the country, has economic importance producing one-third of Chinese cotton, and has the largest reserves of oil and gas in the country.
- Collapse of the Soviet Union: China’s relations with the five Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) have grown over the past 30 years since Central Asia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, China succeeded in resolving border disputes with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and the Russian Federation. This eventually gave rise to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), established by China to address issues of common interest as regards combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism.
In the 1990s, China’s strategy of consolidating its influence in Central Asia was limited to the strategic diplomatic aspect. However, following the September 11 attacks and the resulting strategic situation in Central Asia, Beijing moved to focus on promoting cooperation with these countries, particularly in the economic sphere.
- Establishing Strategic Partnerships: China has bilaterally entered into strategic partnerships with Central Asian countries. However, these partnerships haven’t been completely materialized except for the one signed with Kazakhstan given its geographical proximity and sensitivity of the border situation with Xinjiang. Partnerships with other republics were less strategic and had varied nominations, such as “Partnership of Friendly Cooperation” with Uzbekistan, “Partnership of good-neighborliness, friendship and cooperation” with Kyrgyzstan, “Partnership of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation directed towards the Twenty-first Century” with Tajikistan, and “relations of friendly cooperation for the 21st century on the basis of equality and common interest” with Turkmenistan.
- Meeting the Growing Needs of Energy: Against the growth of the Chinese economy over the past decades, China’s need for energy sources increased, causing it to become the largest consumer of energy in the world. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China is the world’s sixth-largest natural gas producer, the third-largest consumer, and the second-largest importer.
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects that China, in 2050, will consume nearly three times the amount of natural gas it consumed in 2018, which amounted to 280.30 billion cubic meters. Before the outbreak of Covid-19, the share of natural gas in Chinese energy consumption was expected to reach 14 percent by 2030. However, expectations suggest that this share will increase given the economic recovery from the pandemic and China’s move towards improving air quality amid growing calls for using natural gas that has a lower carbon footprint to serve the goal of “carbon neutrality” that China pledges. China’s consumption of natural gas is expected to peak in 2040, causing the country to become the largest exporter of fossil fuels in 2050.
While China ranks first amongst the largest importers of US liquefied natural gas, it does not depend primarily on it. Therefore, Central Asia was crucial for China to diversify sources of energy imports. To that end, Beijing worked to develop energy diplomacy with Central Asia towards maintaining a more stable and closer source of energy, particularly given the fact that Central Asia has about 4 percent of global energy reserves. Besides, developing energy links with Central Asia helps China maintain stability in Xinjiang.
Central Asia in the Belt and Road Initiative
President Xi’s visit to Central Asia in 2013 marked a re-inclusion of Central Asia in the BRI as one of its main axes. China’s development strategy with regard to Central Asia involved the construction of oil and gas pipelines to transport energy to the eastern coast of China and the expansion of railways to transport goods from manufacturing bases in China to Europe and Central Asia. In effect, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan gas pipeline and the China-Tajikistan highway have been established. Additionally, the railway linking China with Europe, passing through Central Asia also witnessed remarkable growth.
China also launched its “Go West” plan aimed at boosting development in its interior and border regions by channeling surplus capital from coastal regions. Analyzes indicate that China set foot in Central Asia with a geo-economic strategy to promote trade, secure energy supplies, and build infrastructure across borders. China scaled the heights in this and managed to become the key partner or one of the key trading partners of each Central Asian country and the largest trading partner for Central Asia, outstripping Russia.
Data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China indicates that the size of trade between China and Central Asian countries increased more than 100 times over the past 30 years. In 1992, the trade volume between China and Central Asian countries amounted to $460 million and it is now projected to exceed $40 billion. Further, China’s direct investment in Central Asia exceeded $14 billion, which is indicative of the existence of an integrated bilateral trade structure between the two sides.
With the accession of the five Central Asian countries to the BRI, mutual trade is expected to increase in the upcoming years, after overcoming the lack of transport logistics services, particularly refrigerated transport services. Beyond this, the BRI will also contribute to expanding cooperation in the digital economy, green economy, and investment.
For instance, regarding the green economy, China invests in the 100MW Zhanatas Wind Power Station in Kazakhstan with a total investment of $150 million. This project is considered the largest of its kind in Central Asia. It will reduce the annual consumption of coal by approximately 110 million tons, which contributes to environmental protection in Kazakhstan.
Agricultural trade contributed significantly to increasing bilateral trade between China and Central Asia over the past three decades. Central Asian countries have proved valuable in satisfying China’s needs of agricultural products following the change in the structure of China’s imports amid the ongoing trade war with the United States and Australia, which were major sources of agricultural products for China.
China’s Security Presence in Central Asia
China strived to exercise military diplomacy in central Asia by establishing a strategic foothold there through influencing countries of the region and providing them with advanced technologies and training military officials, which will have an impact on the formation of the military leadership in Central Asia in the future. China’s motives behind its military diplomacy can be elucidated in the following points:
- Averting the Western Threat: With the 3,500 km long border between China and Central Asian countries, Central Asia has served as a buffer zone between China and both Russia and the hardline Muslim countries such as Iran and Afghanistan, where China also exercises influence to maintain its security interests. Central Asia serving as a support base for China has prevented NATO from expanding eastward beyond the borders of Central Asia, which helps China influence the multilateral security arrangements in the region and this explains why the region is of a security priority for China.
- Association between Security and Economy: Upon the United States’ withdrawal of its bases from Central Asia (in 2005 from Uzbekistan and in 2014 from Kyrgyzstan), China worked on promoting its security interests to protect its expanding economic interests. The association between the economy and security was made clear in 2015 when the Chinese president emphasized the importance of military diplomacy as a key foreign policy tool. The attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in 2016 marked a turning point as it established motives for China to defend itself against the perceived threats in Central Asia, i.e. attacks on infrastructure or citizens involved in the BRI, drug smuggling, and the spread of terrorism in Xinjiang province with the Taliban possible inability to confront terrorist groups for long.
- Establishing Military Bases and Increasing Weapon Exports: China opened its military base in Tajikistan in 2016, which included 11 border points and a border guard training center. China has worked to increase its military exercises and arms sales in the region, and its share in the arms market in Central Asia increased to 18 percent in the period from 2015 to 2019, up from 1.5 percent from 2010 to 2014, overtaking Russia to become the second largest supplier of arms to Turkmenistan after Turkey. However, this did not reduce Russia’s market share, which remained stable at about 60 percent. The continued growth of the Chinese exports may, however, cause the situation to change and the Russian market share may be affected.
- Conducting Military Exercises: The first military exercise between China and Kyrgyzstan to counter terrorism was conducted in 2002. With time and within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a military exercise was conducted in 2016 with Tajikistan with the participation of 10,000 troops. In the same year, China established the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) which included Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and aimed at addressing the security issues and counter-terrorism.
- Exchange of Security Expertise: China has also had a role in training security experts from Central Asian countries. In addition to the growing number of officers that have been trained in China since the early 2000s, China established the China National Institute for SCO International Exchange and Judicial Cooperation (CNISCO), in which nearly 300 officers from the SCO countries were trained in less than four years. In 2016, a Chinese department was established at the National Defense University in Kazakhstan. As part of the educational exchange programmes, the National Defense University of People’s Liberation Army cooperates with the Academy of the Armed Forces of Uzbekistan and the university offers higher salaries for technological and scientific innovations of Central Asian students.
The Chinese People’s Armored Police collaborated with respective forces in Central Asian countries on joint counter- and cross-border terrorism operations within a series of exercises that came to be known as Cooperation-2019. Beyond this, Chinese private security companies had also maintained a presence in Central Asia in the quest to provide forms of non-traditional security for Chinese industrial sites and transportation networks, particularly those linked to the BRI. Further, these companies play a role in shaping the domestic and foreign policies of countries such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
What about Russia?
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia regarded Central Asia as its sphere of influence, being the only country that provides Central Asian countries with a formal security guarantee within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and that has a network of military bases across the region. Even if China has overtaken Russia’s commercial domination thanks to the investment opportunities that the BRI provides, Russia will continue to have a comparative advantage given the linguistic and cultural ties developed with Central Asian countries under Soviet rule.
Through their partnership, Russia and China established that Russia remain the dominant security partner to Central Asia while China takes the lead in economic affairs, i.e. “Russia protects – and China invests”. Public declarations from both sides consider the BRI to be profitable for both powers even if China remained the top economic power in the region. This has been evidenced by statements of Russian President Vladimir Putin who stated in the 2019 BRI forum that the BRI complements Moscow’s efforts to strengthen its economic relations with the region within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union.
While China and Russia share the desire to limit the US influence in Asia and despite their joint drills in Central Asia from 2014 to 2019 and their affirmation to make efforts to contain one another, their interests remain increasingly divergent, allowing for external military involvement in the region which could disrupt the Sino-Russian balance, notwithstanding the fact that China is respectful of the Russian role in the region and had consulted with Moscow before opening its base in Tajikistan.
Although Russia’s share of Central Asia arms imports has remained constant at 60 percent over the past ten years, China may start to affect this share, given the development of China’s domestic arms industry and its efforts to open export markets. Therefore, China’s security involvement could become an increasingly important source of competition with super powers on regional influence.
Even if Russia is unlikely to interpret these actions as hostile, coexistence between Russia and China will be put to the test amid the growing Chinese security role. The Russian military operation in Ukraine may affect the Russian-Chinese relations in terms of the expansion of power. However, such impacts may not show in the short term as China will likely avoid direct involvement.
Overall, China’s interest in Central Asia is driven by strategic, security, and economic motives. On one hand, China wants to maintain stability and security in the western Xinjiang region so that it doesn’t represent a source of threat to the BRI in surrounding countries. On the other hand, it aims to keep Central Asia away from Western hegemony that would provoke Russia in one of its spheres of influence, especially in light of the recent developments in the Ukrainian crisis, which is a consequence of provocation and a threat to Russian national security.