An Analysis of China’s Growing Role in Central Asia

  • Oct 26, 2020
  • Daily Times

During last 15 years, China has emerged as leading investor, trade partner and strategic stake-holder in Central Asia. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) mega project was also launched from Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, in 2013. A number of BRI projects on ICT, rail, road, energy and transport are being carried out or completed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. Besides, after closing its airbase in Kyrgyzstan and the ongoing withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, US influence in the region has declined enormously. Then, China’s share in the Central Asian arms market has also hiked from 1.5% to 18% in last five years, though Russia’s market share has remained constant at 60% during last 10 years. This increased Chinese involvement in Central Asia stirs the questions; whether China’s policies are beneficial or costly for the regional governments and people; how China’s increased engagement is affecting relations with Russia and how China’s role me evolve in future.

Let us have a close look at the various dimensions of this rising role of China in Central Asia that is viewed sometimes with apprehension and fear.

1. A core Chinese interest in the region is energy-based cooperation. China accounts for 20% of world energy consumption that is still growing at high speed. Its massive manufacturing requires coal and oil in huge quantities. From no private car country to the largest auto market of the world, China has dramatically accelerated petrol consumption. Hence, given its limited domestic supply of oil and gas, China has turned to Central Asia that is cheaper source of energy compared with the Gulf and USA. Chinese share in Kazakhstan’s oil production is about 24% and around 13% in gas production. Turkmenistan is China’s largest natural gas supplier, as about 30 billion cubic meter gas goes annually through Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China gas pipeline. Another gas pipeline is being laid along the “Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan-China” route that would raise gas supply for China to 65 billion cubic meters of gas. About 90% of Turkmenistan’s total exports are in the form of natural gas to China. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan each sell 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China. Central Asia’s economic growth in the last decade has largely been driven by energy exports to China. Being previously dependent on the Russian energy routes, Chinese investments and pipeline networks have provided diversification to Central Asia’s energy exports.

2. An inherent weakness of Central Asia is its landlockedness i.e. lack of access to sea. The Caspian Sea bordering Kazakhstan is itself landlocked and largely frozen. Central Asian states have been aware of this structural challenge reflecting non-linking to sea, remoteness and isolation from world markets, despite having a strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) presents marine outlet to the landlocked Central Asian states with access to deep sea port of Gowadar in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan. CPEC is a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that was inaugurated in 2015. With over US$ 62 billion investment, Gowadar port is main attraction of the project that provides shortest route to the much needed warm waters for Central Asian states. Gowadar port of Pakistan links overland to Chinese city Kashgar in western province Xinjiang that borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. CARs have wonderful opportunity to realize their dreams of regional connectivity, economic diversification and sustainable growth by conducting marine trade through Gowadar port.

3. It is generally believed that conflict and instability in Afghanistan has inhibited peace and progress in the region. The ongoing peace accords on the withdrawal of NATO forces and power-sharing moots of Afghanistan are very likely to bring about the cherished peace and stability. Afghanistan is a transit hub that would ensure the connectivity of Central Asia and South Asia. Therefore, US withdrawal, in fact, expands China’s role of maintaining stabilization of Afghanistan as well as providing security to Central Asia. Being cognizant of this responsibility, China is already a major export partner of Afghanistan in deals worth US$ 7.4 billion for extracting minerals and copper from Afghanistan. Then, under the movement of data connectivity projects include Digital Silk Road and the fibre optic link with China through Wakhan Corridor. Certainly, Chinese involvement in Afghanistan would bring regional integration and viable peace.

4. Again, there is a persistent myth in the Western countries on the silent Sino-Russian rivalry in Central Asia. But the ground realities hardly justify this, since the cooperation between Beijing and Moscow has increased in recent times. There is a deeper alignment of interests, though Russia has used its security and economic dominance over the years to influence the region’s geo-politics. Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) establish Central Asia to be a Russian sphere of influence. However in 2013, mega Chinese project Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched from Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. So far, 261 Chinese projects in Central Asia are being implemented with an aggregate investment of US$ 136 billion on trade and industrial development, rail and road connectivity, energy connectivity and people-to-people projects. Then, early resolution of border disputes with neighboring states of Central Asia led China to form Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and India to address their common interests in combating terrorism, separatism and extremism. Cooperation in Sino-Russian defense-industrial relations is also at high level. Russia’s strength in the electro-magnetic sphere and China’s prowess in the electro-fibre sphere complement each other. Putin has announced to help China in developing early missile warning system. Joint military exercises and deepening cooperation on surveillance technology are other examples of cooperation. At second Belt and Road forum in Beijing in April 2019, Putin proposed a “Greater Eurasian Partnership” by linking BRI with EEU. These developments reflect the establishment of a long term robust relationship between China and Russia, based on a desire for a multipolar world.

5. Xinjiang, the western province with 18% of total land area of Chine and shares 3700M km long border with Central Asia states of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Chinese measures to contain terrorism and extremism in accordance with the law to safeguard the human rights of all the ethnic groups in Xinjiang are often misunderstood as potential security threat spillover to Central Asia. Such unfounded propaganda is politically motivated and biased. Rapid economic development in Xinjiang has lifted per capita income. Geographical position of Xinjiang makes it a gateway to Central Asia. Khorgos Dryport having an area of 450 hectare is situated on Kazakhstan border as a special economic zone that is connected to Urumqi and Kashgar. So, the vicinity of Chinese Xinjiang province is not a security concern but a convenient route for Central Asia’s global trade and commerce.

6. Further, the trend of Chinese private security contractors along BRI investment projects and sites is also adversely viewed. But it is ignored that during last two decades the global security has become precarious. China is justified to beef up security of its worldwide investments in billions of dollars.

In nutshell, Central Asia is region of great geostrategic and economic significance for China. To a great extent, Chinese involvement in Central Asia is a case of economic inter-dependence. In sharp contrast to the western hard power with elements of coercion, war, conquest and empire, China is the exponent of soft power characterized by ‘shared prosperity’, economic cooperation, regional connectivity, diplomatic engagement, social and cultural exchange. The term ‘Sino-phobia’ is biasedly contrived by the adversaries of China. Russia well perceives that China’s role in Central Asia enables in defending larger common interests towards a multi-polar world and Asia’s century.

The writer is Country Manager of a Pakistani bank in Kazakhstan, with interest in Central Asian studies. He can be reached out at [email protected]