January 2024


What prayers can’t preclude

At a recent Democracy Forum discussion, the panel assessed Beijing’s current role in the Central Asian region, and whether a new reciprocal relationship is emerging

As the ongoing war in Ukraine weakens Russia’s influence in Central Asia, has a vacuum emerged for another regional power – China – to step in? This was one of the points for discussion at a recent virtual seminar hosted by The Democracy Forum, titled ‘China and Central Asia: A new dependency’.

Introducing the event, TDF President Lord Bruce spoke of the May 2023 summit at Xian, during which China’s President Xi made an undisguised attempt to demonstrate regional leadership, announcing a package worth $3.8bn, including trade deals and technology transfer, and unveiled plans to set up a C+C5 secretariat, thus moving away from the long-established tradition of working bilaterally with Central Asian countries. China is by far the biggest trading partner of the region, added Lord Bruce: the value of its bilateral trade is expected to grow to $70bn by 2030, and it is already involved in over 90 industrial projects across Central Asia. As well as being a key trade and investment partner, China is also an important source of loans, with 45% of Kyrgyzstan’s external borrowing and 52% of Tajikistan’s foreign debt coming from China, while Turkmenistan owes China the equivalent of 16.9% of its GDP, Uzbekistan 16%, and Kazakhstan 6.5%. Beijing is also pushing ahead with technology transfer initiatives across Central Asia and although China and Russia both have an interest in unlocking, transporting and controlling the mineral wealth of the region, it is President Xi who has offered to construct a pipeline to take gas eastwards from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – Turkmenistan alone accounts for 70% of Chinese annual gas imports.

Panellists at TDF’s Dec. 13 discussion, ‘China and Central Asia: A new dependency’
Panellists at TDF’s Dec. 13 discussion, ‘China and Central Asia: A new dependency’

As the war in Ukraine continues to drain Russia, it faces becoming increasingly dependent on China and unable to resist Beijing’s growing influence in Central Asia. For its part, China continues to value Russia’s role as a partner in challenging the US, while Central Asian countries face serious challenges in managing great-power tensions. China exports a style of governance to Central Asia which encourages authoritarian practice and discourages transparency, said Lord Bruce, and its investment in soft power is also prodigious. In recent years Chinese government representatives have paid 722 official visits to all countries of Central Asia and established 37 branches of the Confucious Institute. China also actively discourages Central Asian countries both from pursuing political reform and from applying for international development assistance from the US and EU donors which is conditional on reform. Thus the challenge for America and its allies is to offer China’s neighbours ever more ways to hedge. For Xi, the question is more existential: can China accept relations with its neighbours in which it is anything less than pre-eminent? Citing the editor of Central Asia Barometer Yunis Sharifli, Lord Bruce concluded that China’s problem in Central Asia is ‘not about hard power butsoft power’, as those living in the region may want China’s technology and investment but are ‘concerned about China’s presence

China’s problem in Central Asia is ‘not about hard power butsoft power’

Geographies can be confusing rather than explanatory, said journalist and author MJ Akbar, – who pondered what we actually mean by the term ‘Central Asia’, as the five ‘stans’ are closer culturally and historically to their neighbours across the Caucasus than they are to their western neighbours. He also highlighted how Iran, as the link nation, is vital to China’s diplomacy in the region, and considered the Chinese sense of both sides of the Himalayas as belonging to China, which remains a major strategic problem for India. This vision of itself means China has had a war with almost every one of its neighbours, added Akbar, while the new China-Russia bonhomie has emerged, not as an extension of national interest, but as a partnership against a common foe, the US. Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has weakened its ability to provide an ‘umbrella’ to the five ‘stans’, which are not yet in a position to exercise the kind of strategic independence that they should.

Giving a brief history of empire and the rise of the nation state, Akbar added that the one old empire that has not reconciled itself to the modern nation state is China, which is why Mao took possession of Tibet. Regarding its mission to become a pre-eminent superpower in the world, China will need resources such as those in Siberia, which will thus remain a zone of contention between China and Russia

It is not prewritten that China will fill the vacuum caused by the war in Ukraine

For Reid Standish, a correspondent and author of the ‘China in Eurasia’ briefing at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the current upheaval brought about by the Ukraine war was a main point of focus. This war is one of the most significant events in decades to shape Central Asia’s relationship with China, he said, and its triggering of a tougher than expected response from the West has brought political and economic knock-on effects that have reshaped Central Asia’s relationship with Russia. A diplomatic spotlight has sought out Central Asian states as the region looks to balance itself more with Russia, and engagement has been stepped up with India, Turkey and Middle East nations, as well as EU players such as France and Germany. However, China has been the biggest factor – even before the war, President Xi Jinping chose Kazakhstan as his first post-Covid visit. Beijing has entered a new era in the region, and with the Russian economy stalling, Central Asian countries have been looking for ways to diversify and build new economic relations.

But does this mean China is rising at Russia’s expense? Not really, argued Standish, adding that the truth about China’s trajectory in the region is more nuanced. We need to understand what Russia’s role in the region is as a result of the war – it has become toxic – yet Russian assets there remain, such as intelligence services, while Russia has a deep understanding of Central Asia’s domestic politics in a way that China does not. Central Asia is a key transit ground for ensuring the flow of goods to Russia, so the region is not dramatically tilting away from Russia, and we should avoid the notion that Central Asian governments are pawns – they have a lot of individual agency. China’s interest in Central Asia, Standish concluded, is to some degree about security;but Beijing does not want to take on the security mantle from Moscow,, as its interests lie more in the area of business and trade.

REGIONAL LEADERSHIP: China’s President Xi at the May 2023 summit in Xian
REGIONAL LEADERSHIP: China’s President Xi at the May 2023 summit in Xian

Dr Anastassiya Mahon, an Associate Lecturer in Security Studies at Aberystwyth University, and the Founder of Unlimitedpolitics.com, considered the security aspect of the China-Central Asia relationship, specifically delving into the perception of Chinese influence in Central Asia and emphasising the potential necessity for China to reconsider its approach in light of Russia’s shifted attention and increased interest from the US and UK in the region. She saw an increased Chinese presence in Central Asia as a window of opportunity for Beijing to expand its sphere of influence there, as Russia’s resources and political will are mostly directed at the war in Ukraine, which gives other major international players a chance to reconsider their role in the region. However, Russia’s distraction in Ukraine does not automatically mean that China will succeed in filling the vacuum, as there are obstacles. For example, said Mahon, there is a disparity in how Central Asia’s elites view China’s presence there, and how the general public perceives it. Given a basic public mistrust of Chinese influence in the region, China needs to present itself in such a way as to not cause extra domestic problems for Central Asian countries, as this would slow cooperation. Also, China would need to balance its interests in the region against those of other major actors such as the US and UK. And it is important to see that an increased Chinese presence is not seen as fully positive, Mahon argued – for example, the presence of China brings greater security concerns.

Another concern vi-a-vis an increased Chinese presence in Central Asia is the Chinese crackdown on Islam within its own borders. With Islam a central part of many Central Asian countries’ identities, China might not be viewed favourably. In conclusion, Mahon said it is not prewritten that China will fill the vacuum caused by the war in Ukraine, and that China would prefer bilateral relationships with Central Asian countries, as this would make it easier to avoid too much transparency and accountability.

Stefan Wolff, Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, underscored the impact of Western re-engagement in the region and how this might affect Chinese considerations. He pointed to two parallel sets of developments – an increased interest in the region across the world, and at the same time a bottom-up dynamic, with far more intra-regional, trans-Caspian assertiveness, as there is more space for regional countries to do things on their own. He also addressed the prospect of a real hegemonic transition from Russia to China – not something Central Asia will look forward to. Great powers still matter, said Wolff, hence the relationships between them also matter, and so it would be a mistake to ignore these wider interests. Wolff considered whether the greater trans-regional assertiveness and renewed interest in Central Asia is driven by the dynamics of a new Great Game, adding that the region has huge mineral, wealth, which makes it very interesting to other nations. Yet, since the Kremlin’s influence in the region has waned, Central Asia has a chance to hedge against one single great power having huge influence.

Wolff also looked at various issues relating to regional nations, such as the problems of violent extremism and drug trafficking, and highlighted the need to manage risks associated with climate change, such as water scarcity and climate-induced migration, which could create instability. Therefore, a shared priority across most Central Asian states, and outside players, must be to prevent instability and disruption of trade routes and supply chains.

In his closing remarks, TDF Chair Barry Gardiner MP pointed to the apparent reasons behind the creation of the C5 + 1in 2015: regional security, economic development and political stability in Central Asia. But the raw truth, argued Gardiner, was that it was seen as a way for the US containment policy to reduce Russian influence in the region and to counteract the growing presence of China. Russia and China have a common interest in keeping the US out of their Central Asian back yard, but the C5 provides a perfect trade route through Central Asia, to undermine Western sanctions against Moscow and re-export Chinese goods to Russia. Gardiner concluded that China is carefully watching America’s response to the Russia-Ukraine crisis to guide future efforts diplomatically, informatically and economically. and China will take advantage of weaknesses in the Western alliance to sow division.


MJ Akbar is the author of several books, including Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj, and Gandhi: A Life in Three Campaigns

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