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During the last three decades for which an independent Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have existed, China has become a key partner for each of those countries. The region’s future development is now impossible to imagine without cooperation with Beijing.
Through trade, investment, infrastructure projects, and other vehicles, China is laying the foundation in Eurasia for a scenario in which a “Pax Sinica” will dominate every aspect. This process is not going as smoothly, however, as the Chinese leadership would like: the public in Central Asian countries harbors a deep fear of Chinese expansion, which sometimes manifests itself in the form of protests or conflicts with Chinese workers and businesspeople.
The public would like to know: is their country’s relationship with China really built on a win-win principle, as proclaimed from the podium? Or is the cooperation in China’s favor? Might Beijing be taking advantage of the weak political regimes in Central Asia and the lack of economic muscle there to create a zone of Chinese economic dominance?
The leaders of Central Asian countries are trying to address these questions. The region’s growing dependence on China is prompting more and more concern and behind-the-scenes discussion about how to effectively counterbalance Beijing’s influence.
At first glance, China’s strategy in Central Asia does not appear to have changed in the last few decades. Beijing continues to adhere to three main principles: not to interfere in the countries’ internal affairs or in problems in their relationships with each other; to focus on economic cooperation; and to work on improving its reputation.
This strategy has been extremely successful in Central Asia. China has become a convenient partner, since in exchange for active economic cooperation, it demanded only support for the principle of “one China” (recognizing Taiwan as an inseparable part of China), and for the war against three evils: terrorism, extremism, and separatism. Everything else is dealt with in a traditional Eastern way: through unspoken rules.
China’s interests in Central Asia are linked to the region’s three main specifics. First, the region acts as a buffer zone between two volatile territories: Afghanistan and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region within China. Second, the territory of the Central Asian countries is rich in natural resources. As the world’s biggest consumer of oil and gas, China could not fail to notice the region’s energy value. Third, Central Asia is geographically located at the center of the Eurasian continent. The region has major potential to become an overland transit hub for the entire continent.
For China, security interests come first, but for a very long time, it had no military presence in the region. Beijing advocated for its interests via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and relied on the Russian military presence there. Now, however, China’s behavior is changing.
The first Chinese military base appeared not so long ago, in the Murghob district of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, not far from the Afghan and Chinese borders. Officially, it is a border guard station for Tajik troops built using Chinese funds. The Tajik and Chinese governments signed an agreement back in 2016 to build seven border posts and training centers along the Tajik-Afghan border. The Chinese allocated grants for that purpose, and built three garrison headquarters, five border guard stations and posts, and one training center.
It’s too early, however, to speak of a Chinese military presence in the region. The soldiers reported by a journalist on the Tajik-Afghan border were representatives of the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force, an internal paramilitary force similar to Russia’s National Guard Service that is responsible for maintaining public order and combatting terrorism during peacetime.
In other words, they likely have a specific task at the border, linked more to Afghanistan than to Central Asia as a whole. That task can easily be explained: it consists of preventing the spread of terrorism within the region and beyond, to Xinjiang. Fighters could enter western China via the Wakhan Corridor: a narrow and poorly monitored mountainous region of Afghanistan that separates Tajikistan and Pakistan and stretches to China. The corridor is of great importance to stability in western China due to its strategic significance. China pays particularly close attention to Tajikistan’s security because of the country’s geographical and strategic specifics. In 2016, China initiated the creation of a new regional mechanism that included Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Since then, the four countries’ chiefs of general staff have held regular meetings.
China’s role in ensuring the region’s security is not limited to attempts to establish military sites there. Military diplomacy is flourishing, with 102 meetings held with the countries’ senior defense officials from 2003 to 2016.
In addition, since 2002, China has conducted military exercises involving the armies of Central Asian countries, both within the framework of the SCO and on a bilateral basis. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) held its first joint exercises with Kyrgyzstan in October 2002. From 2003 to 2016, the Chinese army carried out a total of thirty-nine drills together with the countries of Central Asia. Of those, the most joint exercises were held with neighboring Kazakhstan (sixteen), Tajikistan (eleven), and Kyrgyzstan (ten).
Since 2016, the PLA has conducted seven exercises with the national armies of Central Asia, two of which were carried out with the participation of the SCO. The Chinese People’s Armed Police Force plays a major and ever-greater role in China’s military diplomacy in the region. In 2019, China launched a new format of military exercises dubbed “Cooperation 2019” between the countries’ paramilitaries: this format was used in May with Uzbekistan’s National Guard in that country’s Jizzakh region, and in August with Kyrgyzstan’s National Guard in the Chinese city of Ürümqi in Xinjiang.
In addition, China is today a major producer and exporter of military equipment. The arsenals of both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan include Wing Loong-1 military drones made by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). Tajikistan owns Chinese armored carriers and patrol vehicles, while Turkmenistan has surface missiles, QW-2 third-generation man-portable air defense systems, and mobile radar from China.
The armies of China and Central Asian countries also cooperate by sharing experience, and through the training offered by the PLA to the region’s militaries: from 2003 to 2009, sixty-five Kazakh officers, and thirty Tajik and thirty Kyrgyz military specialists underwent training at Chinese academies. In 2017, the Academy of the Armed Forces of Uzbekistan signed an agreement on cooperation in military education with China’s PLA National Defense University.
China also provides the countries of Central Asia with assistance in military technology. There are no official or transparent statistics on the volume of this assistance, so the scale can only be gauged by media reports on the subject.
Central Asia’s economic growth largely depends on China, though the situation varies from country to country. For Turkmenistan’s budget, for example, China was virtually the only source of foreign currency for three years. Russia’s gas behemoth Gazprom did not buy any gas from Turkmengaz for more than three years, after tearing up a twenty-five-year contract at the beginning of 2016 over a pricing dispute. While Ashgabat and Gazprom sued each other and tried to reach an agreement on the gas price, nearly 80 percent of Turkmenistan’s exports (worth $8.1 billion) went to China. By October 2019, a total of 252.1 billion cubic meters of natural gas had been delivered from Turkmenistan to China.
Exporting energy resources is also an important source of budget revenue for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Imports from those two countries and Turkmenistan together account for 3.4 percent of China’s total energy imports.
According to data from China’s customs service, in 2018, the trade turnover with the five Central Asian countries was in excess of $41.7 billion. While Central Asia accounts for 0.8 percent of Chinese imports and 0.9 percent of Chinese exports, the region’s dependence on China is growing. China is now the destination for about 22 percent of all Central Asian exports, and the source of 37 percent of their imports. The countries of Central Asia are in an asymmetrically dependent trade relationship with China.
No discussion of the role of China in Central Asia would be complete without mentioning the Belt and Road initiative was launched by Xi Jinping in 2013 in Kazakhstan. The countries of Central Asia are at the center of the overland part of the Silk Road Economic Belt project. From an ideological perspective, the Belt and Road could not have come at a better time: the historical importance of the region in the development of Eurasia is a key component of the national political culture of each of the countries in Central Asia. But has the initiative proved useful from an economic perspective?
According to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in 2018 the volume of foreign direct investment in the five countries of Central Asia reached $14.7 billion (1.2 percent of all Chinese investment in Asian countries). In 2013, that figure had been 40 percent lower ($8.9 billion).
It wouldn’t be entirely accurate, however, to link that growth in investment to the Belt and Road initiative alone. There was already interest in major investment projects focused on energy and adjacent sectors of the economy before the appearance of Belt and Road: an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to China was launched in 2005, before the initiative was even announced. Uzbekistan has also seen a spike in investment in recent years, but that is more likely connected to the improvement in the country’s investment climate that has followed the transition of power there.
The backbone of cooperation with China in the region is the Central Asia–China gas pipeline, which was also built in 2009, before the appearance of the Belt and Road initiative. In fact, problems emerged after the project’s announcement. Line D of the pipeline was due to be launched in 2016, but its construction was repeatedly delayed. It seemed as though it would never be built, but persistence from Uzbekistan apparently brought the project back to life, and construction of the first tunnel was completed in Tajikistan at the end of January 2020.
A large proportion of Chinese exports to Central Asia (more than 28 percent in 2018) are goods with a high added value: machines and equipment, electronics, and spare parts.
The authorities of the Central Asian nations make no secret of the fact that they are also interested in China’s experience of social credit systems, which reward citizens for good behavior, and punish them for misdemeanors, relying heavily on networks of surveillance cameras. During a state visit to China in April 2019, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited Huawei’s R&D center in Beijing. Among the technology on show were such Safe City solutions. At an intergovernmental committee meeting in September that same year, China announced it would allocate $1 billion for the introduction of a Safe City system to Uzbekistan’s regions.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev visited another Chinese tech company—Hikvision—during his two-day state visit to China in September 2019. Upon returning to Kazakhstan, the president pledged to learn from China’s experience in digitalizing data about its nationals. Just one month later, the capital was testing a new payment method on its buses—FacePay—using passengers’ biometric data.
Tajikistan also has its own Safe City system, installed by the Chinese company Huawei back in 2013. In 2019, it was announced that the system would be modernized. According to the Safe City center’s deputy head Furkat Shoimardonov, its AI-powered software will now help to find wanted persons more rapidly.
Kyrgyzstan tried to establish a Safe City system back in 2011. The first contractor looked set to be the Russian company Stilsoft, but the tender was canceled, the deal fell through, and lawsuits ensued. Later—in 2018—Huawei was prepared to assemble the system, but that agreement fell through as well. In the end, the tender was won by another Russian company, Vega.
Building on Vega’s equipment, the Kyrgyz government agreed with China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation (CEIEC) to install a program for identifying individuals or groups of people.
Another Chinese company, Shenzhen Sunwin Intelligent, is working on the second stage of Kyrgyzstan’s Safe City project, which entails the installation of new cameras both in the capital Bishkek and across the entire country.
Despite the big trade figures, investment flows, and purchasing of technology, the Central Asian public knows little about contemporary China. In countries in the region that have not managed to cultivate a generation of China experts, the decisionmakers (with some exceptions in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) have a poor understanding of Chinese interests. China is aware of this, and so is working to create the right image for itself in the region.
From 2000 to 2017, there were a total of 722 official visits by Chinese government representatives at both a provincial and national level to the countries of Central Asia, and vice versa. Chinese experts such as Justin Yifu Lin have been recruited as government advisors.
The main symbol of Chinese soft power is the Confucius Institute and its China studies classes. The organization has thirty-seven branches in Central Asia. The career opportunities that knowledge of the Chinese language opens up make it a magnet for young people in Central Asia. Kazakhstan has 14,000 students studying at five Confucius institutes, while in Uzbekistan 1,500 students per year study at the Confucius Institute within Tashkent State Institute: the oldest branch in the region.
In addition, China’s Education Ministry and the Chinese Language International Council have not skimped on issuing grants for students who wish to obtain their degree in China. In 2010–2018, more than 5,000 study grants were given to applicants from Central Asia, and as of 2017, there were nearly 30,000 students from Central Asia studying in China.
China’s economic inroads into the region are leading to an increasing number of conflicts and scandals. China’s growing influence on the region’s economy, which has raised concern among the public and elites, has combined with corrupt practices and the incidence of unsuccessful projects involving the Chinese to lead to an outburst of anti-Chinese sentiment.
In November 2019, thousands of people protested against contraband and corruption at the border with China. The protests were sparked by the publication of joint research by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Radio Azattyk (RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service), and the Kyrgyz news site Kloop.kg. The report described in detail a complex scheme for doctoring documents on the Kyrgyz-Chinese border. According to the journalists, those profiting from the criminal schemes included public officials right up to the now former deputy chair of Kyrgyzstan’s State Customs Service, Raimbek Matraimov (aka Raim-Million).
Similar cases have occurred on the Kazakh-Chinese border, and Kazakhstan’s biggest criminal case—the Khorgos case—is a notable example of this. During an investigation in 2013, forty-five employees of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee and Customs Service were implicated in trafficking goods from China.
On the borders of the Central Asian countries with China, corruption and other problems have existed since the mid-2000s and are exposed by comparisons between Chinese and Kazakh or Kyrgyz statistics. The trade turnover between China and Kazakhstan in 2018 was $19.9 billion according to Chinese statistics, and $11.7 billion according to Kazakh data. Kyrgyzstan estimated its trade turnover with China at $2 billion, while the Chinese figure was $5.6 billion.
China is a key investor in the region, but along with the growth in joint projects, Central Asia’s debt is growing too. Sri Lanka is a classic Chinese debt trap scare story. In 2017, Sri Lanka leased out its Hambantota port to China for ninety-nine years in order to reduce its debt by $1.1 billion. Could something similar happen in Central Asia?
The countries most at risk are Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Forty-five percent of Bishkek’s external borrowing (worth $1.7 billion) is from China, along with 52 percent of Dushanbe’s foreign debt ($1.2 billion). The debts of both countries to China are greater than 20 percent of their GDP. The situation is better in the other countries of the region: Turkmenistan owes China the equivalent of 16.9 percent of its GDP, Uzbekistan owes 16 percent, and Kazakhstan owes 6.5 percent.
Dushanbe is already struggling to pay back its debts, and the country’s leadership is looking for ways out of the situation. The Chinese company TBEA received gold mining concessions for Tajikistan’s Eastern Duoba and Upper Kumarg mines, and is entitled to keep them until the $331.5 million loan issued by the Export-Import Bank of China in 2016 for the construction of the Dushanbe-2 power plant is paid back.
The situation is exacerbated by corruption scandals and a lack of transparency in the agreements made between Chinese and local companies. The upgrading of the Bishkek power plant is an obvious example of these problems. In January 2018, in the depths of winter, there was an accident at Bishkek’s only heat and power plant, which had recently been upgraded by China’s TBEA. During the investigation into the accident, it emerged that various Kyrgyz officials had lobbied for the interests of Chinese companies, and that 90 percent of the materials bought to upgrade the plant had been purchased at inflated prices, among other things. This turned the accident into a political scandal which was used by supporters of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov to get rid of associates of his predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev. No lawsuit was brought against the Chinese companies that carried out the work.
A similar scandal erupted in Kazakhstan over the construction of the Astana light rail transit project. But unlike the Bishkek scandal, just 15 percent of the project in the Kazakh capital was realized, while the funds were embezzled, and the Chinese side was taken to court. An investigation into the scandal was completed at the end of January 2020, with the former deputy mayor of the capital Nur-Sultan (then known as Astana), Kanat Sultanbekov, named among the chief suspects.
In Tajikistan, China Nonferrous Gold paid the president’s son-in-law, Shamsullo Sakhibov, $2.8 million for a gold mining concession, according to media reports.
Informal connections with decisionmakers allow Beijing to promote its interests in the region effectively and resolve commercial issues. The main conduits for Chinese interests in Central Asia’s countries are the elites: decisionmakers and their associates, senior officials, and major businessmen.
The same OCCRP report that detailed machinations on the Kyrgyz-Chinese border described informal ties between a Uyghur businessman, Khabibula Abdukadyr, and Kyrgyz officials. Not only was Abdukadyr close to the influential Matraimov family in Kyrgyzstan, he also personally knew former president Atambayev, and was invited as a guest of honor to the inauguration of Atambayev’s successor Jeenbekov.
Because of these informal connections, the Chinese presence in Central Asia is not fully institutionalized: after all, why should Chinese companies spend time and money on using institutions as conduits when they are already in direct contact with the people who decide everything? On the other hand, the reason for this approach by the Chinese lies in the peculiarities of the political regimes of Central Asia. It’s impossible to be economically active in the region without securing the support of influential members of the elites. Institutions often play a purely decorative role, and have no real power. This trait is not, however, unique to the region: China uses similar methods in Africa.
At the same time, there is no quality analysis of China in Central Asia by which the region’s governments could potentially be guided. The strong schools of Uyghur studies inherited from the Soviet Union by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan fell into decline in the turbulent 1990s. The consequences are clear today: Central Asia lacks the methodology and training for the systematic study of China, as the region’s China specialists themselves admit.
But despite the region’s domestic policy specifics, all the problem areas, public scandals, and so on primarily harm China’s reputation. The Chinese leadership is keen to preserve its image. China’s suddenly undeniable economic dominance means that any major initiatives focused on the region are met with trepidation, and the ill-defined Belt and Road project elicits fears precisely because of its huge scale and vague outline. It prompts the question of whether this is not in fact a strategy to dominate and subjugate.
Since 2013, virtually all of Beijing’s activity in Central Asia has automatically been viewed as part of the Belt and Road. A competition of electricians from SCO countries, an art exhibition in Dushanbe, a porcelain show in an Uzbek museum, and conserved camel milk produced in Kazakhstan have all turned out to be part of the same brand as Belt and Road and its multimillion investments.
This situation suits Beijing just fine so long as organizations using the Belt and Road brand don’t damage its reputation. If that should occur, the company involved can expect a fine and inclusion on a blacklist. It is, however, impossible to monitor the enormous quantity of projects, events, conferences, and research work that is under way.
The issue that has caused the most damage to China’s reputation in Central Asia is, however, the Chinese Communist Party’s policy in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The persecution of Muslims there particularly angers impoverished and strongly religious parts of the population. They believe that the Chinese see all Muslims and Turkic peoples as nothing more than a source of terrorism and extremism. The lack of independent media and public policy in Central Asia creates an ideal environment for spreading rumors and false information via social media and messaging apps.
In addition, there are about 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs, 180,000 ethnic Kyrgyz, 50,000 ethnic Tajiks, and 10,000 ethnic Uzbeks living in Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia. There are also Kazakh and Kyrgyz nationals among those arrested and sent to China’s “reeducation” camps. Their relatives have held frequent pickets outside the embassies of China in Bishkek and Nur-Sultan for several years now.
Although anti-China protests periodically flare up in various cities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, it’s too soon to speak of universal Sinophobia. In Kyrgyzstan, the protests were led by nationalist groups whose demands included the expulsion of all Chinese migrants from the country. Protests against “Chinese expansion” in Kazakhstan last fall were supported by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the exiled leader of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement, which the country’s government has labeled extremist. Then there are the repatriated Kazakhs (Oralman), who have suffered more than anyone else from China’s policy in Xinjiang. From 1991 to 2015, more than 350,000 people moved to Kazakhstan from China as part of a program to resettle the Oralman. They and their supporters make up the core of anti-Chinese sentiment in that country.
In other words, if the Sinophiles in Central Asia have something in common (their proximity to power), the Sinophobes are disparate groups of nationalists, ethnic Uyghurs, repatriates, deeply religious Muslims, opposition-minded citizens, and other small groups.
The authorities have found themselves in a conundrum. On the one hand, they are inclined to share the public discontent. But criticizing China’s domestic policy could cause problems. People who have escaped across the border from Xinjiang pose a constant dilemma to the authorities.
In 2018, Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh, was prosecuted in Kazakhstan for illegally crossing the Chinese border to get there. The Chinese requested her extradition back to China, but broad public opposition prevented that from happening. The Kazakh authorities were not so brave, however, as to go further and give the woman refugee status there.
Another high-profile legal case over a similar incident concluded in January 2020. Two ethnic Kazakhs, Murager Alimuli and Kaster Musakanuli, were sentenced to a year in prison for illegally crossing the border. Their lawyer described the sentence as a victory, since they had at least not been deported back to China.
While the religious part of society in Central Asia fears that Chinese methods of battling extremism will spread to their territory, the secular population is frightened by its Big Brother. The social credit system China is constructing has plenty of potential appeal as a model for a twenty-first-century technocratic autocracy.
China is gradually laying down the foundations for the construction of a Pax Sinica in Central Asia. This is particularly successful in certain niche sectors of the economy, but Beijing’s policy has come up against constraints both within Central Asia and outside of it.
Within the region itself, the public does not want to see their country get too dependent on China. Protests there increasingly lead to real consequences: in Kazakhstan, following riots over land in 2016, the authorities introduced a moratorium on selling land to foreign nationals and legal entities with a foreign component, while protests in Kyrgyzstan in February 2020 prompted a Chinese company to cancel its plans to invest $280 million in the construction of a trade and industry logistics center in the Naryn region.
There are also other important players in Central Asia. Many people see Russia as China’s main rival in the region. Moscow’s political influence is undeniably large, as it has shown during various events in the region. At the very least, local elites keep the Kremlin abreast of what is going on there, or ask for help during conflicts among the elites. Nor should Russia’s economic influence be ignored: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the region’s joint trade turnover with Russia is in excess of $25 billion.
But Russia cannot compete with China in Central Asia: Russia’s economic structure is too similar to that of Central Asia to allow Russia to become a major buyer of raw materials from the region. If anything, Moscow is in competition with Central Asia.
Moscow’s primary role in the region is that of a military stabilizer. The leaders of Central Asian countries would like to preserve Russia’s influence to counterbalance Chinese interests, resulting in the following formula: China is largely responsible for economic development and mining resources, while Russia remains the main security guarantor via the Collective Security Treaty Organization and its own power. This setup not only suits the region’s countries; it even suits China. Moscow and Beijing’s interests in Central Asia generally concur more than they conflict with one another.
Central Asia has always felt the need to maintain a balancing act between the various external players, and has tried to achieve that. Today, many countries have their own format of cooperation with the region: there is the C5+1 (the five Central Asian nations and the United States), the EU strategy on Central Asia, India’s Connect Central Asia policy, the Central Asia plus Japan dialogue, South Korea’s Eurasia Initiative, and the Turkey-based Turkic Council.
The United States, once an important player in the region, is today only able to react to events taking place there: Washington no longer has a proactive foreign policy in place. An official visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at the start of February 2020 only demonstrated that yet again. This was the first visit to the countries by a senior U.S. diplomat in five years, and it was almost entirely focused on China. Pompeo warned the Central Asian countries to be wary of Chinese investment and influence, and called on them to speak up louder against Chinese policy in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region. Pompeo also promised to allocate $1 million to Uzbekistan to help reform its financial sector. “We are doing all this because the United States are Uzbekistan’s real partner and friend,” he said at the press briefing following the talks in Tashkent. At the same time, grants issued by China to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in 2016 exceeded $1.5 billion.
EU countries and the United States are not in a position to play the role of an alternative to China in terms of either trade or investment (although the EU is currently one of the main investors in the economy of Central Asia, that balance is gradually shifting in China’s favor). Nor can Western countries develop a military presence in the region: such actions would encounter resistance from both Moscow and Beijing. In any case, the local authorities view a Western military presence with caution. There is suspicion that NATO’s presence in Central Asia in the 2000s was driven by competition with Russia. The NATO countries are geographically distant from Central Asia, and therefore have less interest in the region’s stability than the Russians or Chinese.
The growth of Chinese influence in the region and its spread from the economy into different areas (security and—via soft power—culture) is provoking rejection of it and concern, both within the region and outside it. The more Beijing tries to expand the borders of its influence in the region, the more resistance it will encounter. As a result:
This publication is part of the Sino-Russian Entente project carried out with the support of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
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