China’s rising security footprint in Central Asia is causing concern among regional and global stakeholders. As Beijing expands its economic and political influence in Central Asia, its security footprint has become increasingly visible, with ramifications for stability, human rights, and regional security dynamics. In this context, evaluating the forces driving China’s security engagement in Central Asia, its methods to security cooperation with regional partners, and the ramifications of its increasing footprint for the region and beyond is essential.
Central Asia is a strategically significant region for China, with rich natural resources, key transportation routes, and a shared border that is critical for China’s security. China views Central Asia as an important region for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to create a vast network of infrastructure and trade links between China and countries worldwide. After the erstwhile Soviet Union’s disintegration, China’s relationship with Central Asia was built on economic cooperation. Beijing has invested heavily in the region’s infrastructure, including building roads, railways, and pipelines and financing energy and mining projects. China as the region’s largest trading partner, has sought to deepen economic ties by establishing free trade zones and providing loans and grants to support regional development. This economic engagement has been accompanied by increasing security cooperation as China seeks to protect its economic interests and manage potential security threats.
One of the main drivers of China’s security engagement in Central Asia is the perceived threat of terrorism and extremism emanating from the region. China has long been concerned about the potential for instability in Xinjiang, its westernmost province with a border with Central Asia. The Chinese government has accused Uyghur ethnic minorities of separatists and religious extremists carrying out terrorist attacks in Xinjiang and other parts of China. Chinese authorities have cracked down heavily on the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region. As Central Asian countries share ethno-cultural similarities with the Uyghurs, China sees Central Asia as a potential source of support and sanctuary for anti-Chinese activities operated by Uyghur separatists and extremists. Therefore, it has sought to build closer security ties with the regional governments to counter this threat.
China’s security cooperation with Central Asian countries has taken several forms, including military training and equipment provision, intelligence sharing, and joint exercises. China has also established a new regional security forum, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes China, Russia, and the four Central Asian states as its founding members. The SCO has been touted as a platform for regional security cooperation and has held joint military exercises and counterterrorism operations. China has also established bilateral security agreements with individual Central Asian countries, including a strategic partnership with Kazakhstan and a security cooperation treaty with Tajikistan. One of the key features of China’s security engagement in Central Asia is its focus on border security and counterterrorism. China has provided military equipment and training to Central Asian countries to help them patrol their borders and prevent the infiltration of terrorists and extremists. China has also provided intelligence support to Central Asian countries.
In the three decades following the erstwhile Soviet Union’s collapse, the Russian Federation and China have pursued contrasting goals in post-Soviet Central Asia. While Moscow strives to maintain its strategic influence in the region; Beijing’s soft power has risen, bolstered by its expanding economic cooperation with Central Asian republics. Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in his Nowruz message to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon that China was preparing a splendid plan for strengthening relations with Central Asia. President Xi sent a similar message to Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
China’s rising security footprint in Central Asia has fuelled speculation that it could eventually overtake Russia as its dominant security provider. While Russia has long dominated the Central Asian security setting, China’s growing economic and political influence has given it a bigger stake in regional security dynamics. While Russian influence in post-Soviet Central Asian countries continues to wane, China is expanding its economic and political clout. China is making progress in the security domain in Central Asia. Over the previous five years, it supplied 18% of the region’s arms, a considerable rise over the 1.5% of Central Asian arms imports it contributed between 2010 and 2014. China built its first military bases in the region in 2016, high in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains, and has begun projecting its paramilitary troops’ operational capabilities into the region. While Moscow holds a strategic advantage over Beijing, the gap is shrinking, and if current trends continue, Moscow’s dominance may be eroded in the future.
While Russian influence in post-Soviet Central Asian states has been declining as a result of its ignorance of the Central Asian region, the region remains a critical source of hydrocarbons as well as a critical transit point for China’s BRI in support of China’s rising economic interests there. As a result, Beijing and Moscow have been secretly competing to extend their regional control at the expense of the other. However, with the changing dynamics in the region following the Ukrainian crisis, Beijing is undoubtedly gaining strategically.
On the other hand, it is important to note that China’s security engagement with Central Asia is still relatively new and is largely focused on counterterrorism and border security, while Russia has a long history of military and security cooperation with Central Asian countries. It has been a key player in regional security affairs since the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union. As China’s economic influence in the region continues to grow, its security footprint will also likely expand. Still, it is unlikely to completely displace Russia as a key player in regional security affairs.