Recently, Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic, hosted a momentous summit between the European Union and Central Asia. The event brought together the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, alongside a delegation from Turkmenistan, with the presence of European Council President Charles Michel.
Notably, this summit followed a historic meeting just two weeks prior, which united the leaders of the five Central Asian republics with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This development is significant as it occurs amid China’s growing influence in the region, traditionally under Russian influence. Beijing has been seizing opportunities created by the Russia-Ukraine war and the strained relations between Russia and the West, expanding its influence beyond its borders and encroaching on Moscow’s traditional spheres of influence.
The Chinese media has been describing the Central Asian region as the gateway to the Belt and Road Initiative that Xi launched in Kazakhstan in 2013. Moreover, China has become the main creditor for the countries in the region, as China’s loans to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan account for more than a fifth of its gross domestic product (GDP).
While these countries achieved independence from the Soviet Union, they maintained close ties with Russia, their traditional partner. However, Moscow was dragged into the crisis in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions have created a need for the Central Asian republics to diversify their partnerships. So, they were looking for an alternative to Russia and China has emerged as an alternative partner for the Central Asian republics due to various factors.
At the end of 2022, the volume of trade exchange between Central Asian countries and China exceeded $70 billion, an increase of more than 40% compared to the previous year. China is the largest trading partner of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, the second largest trading partner of Kazakhstan and the third largest partner of Tajikistan. In 2022, China’s imports of agricultural products, energy and minerals from Central Asian countries increased by more than 50%, while exports of engineering and electronic products to countries in the region increased by 42%. According to information from the Chinese People’s Daily, the total Chinese foreign direct investment in the region reached $15 billion in 2022.
Among the priorities of cooperation between China and Central Asian countries is the development of transport and logistics infrastructure. The two parties are promoting cooperation in the fields of agriculture, new energy, e-commerce, green and digital economy, and high technologies, creating new growth points for cooperation. As of the end of 2021, there were 7,700 Chinese companies operating in Central Asia.
However, in exchange for economic cooperation and loans, China is seeking security support in the region. This is particularly crucial as three states share borders with China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where clashes between the Muslim population and authorities have occurred in the past decade. Moreover, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan has raised Beijing’s concerns about the potential infiltration of extremism into Xinjiang. As a result, a significant question arises regarding the willingness of China’s partners in the Islamic Central Asian republics to engage with the Chinese military and security forces. The answer to this question remains uncertain for the time being.
Weakening Russian influence
Another issue, no less important than the above, is the subject of increasing discussion, the issue of Russia’s weakening influence in Beijing, and its gradual removal from Central Asia. It is clear that future agreements between China and the Central Asian republics are likely to serve as public declarations of their main areas of cooperation. These agreements are expected to align with the objectives outlined in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Simultaneously, China engages in bilateral security cooperation with these countries, acting as a significant supplier of weapons and providing training to their armed forces. Joint military exercises are also conducted to enhance mutual capabilities and coordination.
China is seeking to expand its influence beyond the economic field in the region, aiming for a broader role that extends beyond the economic dimension. Beijing is actively pursuing strategies to increase its hegemony over these republics, employing various tactics such as bolstering arms sales, providing training support, and establishing new border guard forces. Additionally, China strives to bring the countries in the region into its sphere of influence through its development projects and leveraging debt diplomacy.
The Chinese shift can be seen in arms deals with Central Asian governments. According to a mid-2020 report by the Kennan Research Institute at the Wilson International Center, over the past five years, Beijing has increased its share of military equipment that it sells to those republics to 18%, compared to 1.5% in 2010-2014.
Beijing built the first military facility in the region, paving the way for its security presence in Tajikistan, a country whose border with China stretches 476 kilometers (295 miles). In 2019, The Washington Post discovered a small Chinese military facility on the territory of Tajikistan, along with individuals from this country. The Wall Street Journal in the same year quoted sources citing a secret agreement between China and Tajikistan that gives Beijing the right to “repair or build up to 30-40 security posts on the Tajik side of the border with Afghanistan.”
Russian arms sales in Central Asia have fluctuated around 60% in recent years, and this means that the expansion of China’s share of influence in this field did not happen due to the decrease in Russia’s share, but this may change in the coming years, given the repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis, which is now affecting most countries. Today, it is clear that Beijing wants to commit itself to securing its investments in the infrastructure of Central Asia by expanding its security influence.
In customary fashion, China engages in comprehensive negotiations with regional partners, encompassing infrastructure, economic, humanitarian, and security aspects. Particularly, security will play a significant role this time, given the need to respond to the United States’ growing presence and activity in Central Asia. These negotiations typically result in the adoption of a comprehensive document that addresses various facets of the partnership.
There was a common theory about labor sharing in Central Asia, according to which Russia was responsible only for security, while China was only responsible for the economy. Today, this theory is no longer relevant to reality. In fact, China plays an important role in regional security. But not everything is so easy, as anti-Chinese sentiment spread in the region, influenced and fueled by the religious factor, the events around the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the historical memory of China’s invasion of East Turkestan, and these sentiments are fueled by religious groups and the West.
As for talking about China’s distancing of Russia from Central Asia, which cannot be certain, the politicians in these countries are more interested in supporting the various powers, and the multi-directional foreign policy, and of course, they seek to maintain support from Russia.
Source : Daily Sabah