With China, the European Union (EU), India, Russia, Turkey and the U.S. – all involved as the stakeholders in Central Asia’s five countries namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the Central Asia is increasingly becoming a global geopolitical and geo-economic hotspot. Although multiple state-players and international-blocs are involved in Central Asia, currently China and Russia are having an upper hand over the region with their various regional, extra regional and global mechanisms in place, including Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank (AIIB), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), New Development Bank (NDB) of BRICS bloc, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the grand Eurasian Silk Route passing through the Central Asia into Europe, and so on.
China shares a 3300 kilometer common boundary with the Central Asian region. While China gives Central Asian countries safe and secure passage to the Pacific Ocean, the Central Asian countries might become useful to China in establishing inland transportation corridor from China to Europe and West Asia.
Russia’s influence over the Central Asian region (which comprises a large part of the Eurasia) is dependent on CSTO, EEU, SCO and various other mechanisms. The Cold War era witnessed the whole region coming under the umbrella of Soviet Union. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, understandably it is Russia that considers itself the big brother in the region. While Central Asia was firmly under Russian control for more than a century, Russia, which is currently plagued by economic sanctions, now seems incapable of fully exercising its influence over the region. For the moment, Russia is making way for China to grow its presence in Central Asia for countering the U.S.’s entrance into the region.
China’s interest in the region
While China intends to employ several mechanisms in Eurasia, especially in Central Asia, the most important ones among them are the SCO and the One Belt One Route initiative (otherwise known as the Silk Route Economic Belt). Central Asia has a unique place in China’s foreign policy, mainly because: (i) Central Asia is an ideal exporting destination for Chinese manufactured products, (ii) Central Asia is a next door energy importing destination (an alternative to the volatile Middle East) for fulfilling China’s hunger for energy, (iii) China and Central Asia share common security concerns, & (iv) Central Asia is a critical component to China’s One Belt One Route initiative aimed at more closely integrating Europe and Asia via land and maritime infrastructure.
The energy resources, metals, leather goods, other commodities, raw materials and markets of Central Asia are very important for China. China’s industrial, consumer and agricultural products hold a strong attraction for the Central Asian countries. Central Asia’s rich natural resources includes: (i) oil, natural gas and non-ferrous metals of Kazakhstan, (ii) gold and uranium of Uzbekistan, (iii) oil and natural gas of Turkmenistan (iv) rich gold and uranium deposits as well as abundant water power resources in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Central Asian countries have ambitious plans to exploit and export these natural resources, and natural resource is just the obsession that China is craving for. Therefore, it seems China’s hunger for natural resources and Central Asian countries’ desire for finding ‘natural resources export destination’ coincides with each other, making China and the Central Asian countries the ideal partners in this regard. China and the Central Asian countries have already begun cooperation in the energy sector.
As for regional security, China and the Central Asian countries share common security interests. The actions of ethnic separatists, the threat of transnational crime and regional conflict are mutual concerns. China and the Central Asian countries have conducted bilateral and multilateral cooperation, and made remarkable progress in the fight against the separatist movements. Establishment of the SCO has created favorable conditions and new opportunities for developing Sino-Central Asian relations. The SCO grew out of the “Shanghai Five,” which grew out of the strengthened border confidence and disarmament agreements among China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. With observer states included, the SCO affiliates account for half of the human race.
Central Asian countries strongly desire to build the modern-day Silk Route that would extend from East China to Europe and include railways, highways, pipelines, airlines, energy cables, etc. The new Silk Route would be longer than the ancient route and would be of greater economic significance. Not only would this improve traffic conditions, but it would also help the Central Asian countries establish widespread economic relations with other Eurasian countries. The governments of China and of the aforesaid Central Asian countries have been already working in this regard on international railways, highways and airways, including on using China’s seaport at Lianyungang to transit Kazakhstan’s goods, on using Chinese land ports for commercial use to Central Asia, on China’s Nanjiang (South Xinjiang) railway connecting with the railways of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and so on.
U.S. in the region
While the U.S. under Obama administration has been attempting to encircle China by various mechanisms, including the TPP and military presence in South China Sea, China has been clever enough to look westward at the vast Eurasian region for new sources of economic growth and potential geopolitical allies, and in this process, successfully avoided head-on confrontation with the U.S. in the western Pacific.
The U.S. influence in Central Asia has long been very little. The U.S. has attempted to establish its influence in the region by occupying Afghanistan in the name of war on terror and by making a military base in Kyrgyzstan. While the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited five Central Asian countries and the Obama administration seems to be shoring up its influence in the region, China and Russia have already tagged the region’s interests with their interests by successfully making economic ties and involving in security cooperation with these regional countries.
Criticisms against China
Western countries have been the main source of accusations that China’s silence on human rights abuses by Central Asian governments may impliedly encourage the Central Asian regimes to continue their abuse. They accuse that the influx of Chinese workers in Chinese projects in Central Asia would take away local jobs, similar to what happens in Chinese projects in Africa. There are accusations that Central Asian (and also African) markets have been harmed by low-cost Chinese-made products, which put great competitive pressure on local industries and businesses.
- While the EU and the U.S. attach the conditions of maximizing democratic reform and human rights with their terms of investment in the Central Asian countries, China never attaches any such conditions. Hence, the “regimes” (not people) of these countries have slowly started to take China for granted as a non-interventionist power. This has resulted in increase in economic and financial impact of China over the region.
- However, it is true that China’s silence on human rights abuses by Central Asian governments may impliedly encourage the Central Asian regimes to continue their abuse. Had China voiced its concern on such abuses, the Central Asian governments would have taken China’s such concern seriously as their interests are currently very much tagged with those of China.
- Although Russia, for the moment, is making way for China to grow its presence in Central Asia in order to counter the U.S.’s entrance into the region, there is every possibility that Russia and China may become rivals in the region in the distant future, partly because of the growing conflict of interests within the region between them and partly because of the West’s shadowy moves to ignite rivalry between these two Asian powers.
- Central Asia’s growing population comprises of more than 100 ethnicities. Strong ethnic and tribal sentiments may be a factor leading to instability. Moreover, with the growing Chinese influence in the Central Asian region, the security threats are also on rise. China’s mode of response to these threats would ultimately determine the sustainability of Chinese influence not only in this region, but also in global stage. China’s harsh response might well be met with harsher retaliation, while its attempts to solve things peacefully would likely to receive a peaceful response.
Bahauddin Foizee is an international affairs analyst, and writes on Middle Eastern, greater Asia-Pacific & European geopolitics. Also a campaigner for environmental and social awareness, Bahauddin Foizee occasionally writes on environment and refugee issues.