China steps up game in Central Asia

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Besides all the lofty words and pontification, Wang Yi highlighted that no matter how the international landscape may evolve China will always firmly support Central Asian countries in safeguarding their sovereignty and independence and building an independent Central Asia, writes Aditi Bhaduri

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has opened up new windows of opportunity for different countries in various ways. As an immediate neighbour of Russia, China is trying to quickly reap as many benefits as it can. The obvious gain of course is in provisioning cheaper energy imports from Russia, which, sanctioned by the western countries, is exporting majorly to its eastern neighbours and allies.

Simultaneously, China is also seeking to widen its footprint in Central Asia, Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. So far, the unspoken arrangement has been a cozy one – Russia has taken care of security, while China has been active in the economic sphere.

Unveiling its Belt and Road ambitions in Kazakhstan in 2013, with its promises of giant investments and credits, as well as much sought after connectivity for the five Central Asian Republics that are almost all landlocked, China’s Xi Jinping quickly got all of them to sign on to the initiative. In the ensuing years, however, familiarity bred contempt. Bordering a number of them – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, it was inevitable that China clashed with them territorially.

All of them ceded land to China in order to peacefully delineate their international borders. There were still other irritants, which almost routinely follow Chinese investments and infrastructure projects abroad – for instance, friction between Chinese expat workers and locals, discontent at opaque deals political elites sign with the Chinese and so on. While another point of friction was China’s persecution of Xinjiang’s Muslims, which included ethnic Uighurs, also ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz people, Covid-19 bred further discontent.

Nevertheless, Chinese investments and funding have been hugely alluring. For instance, after Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest and richest state, has been the second largest recipient of all Chinese overseas investments – a whopping $21.4 billion. So has Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest state, which has been a regular recipient of Chinese investments, thanks to its strategic geopolitical location – bordering both Afghanistan and China. Kyrgyzstan, another poor Central Asian state has also been wooed equally by China – it has the largest number of Chinese Confucius Institutes at the primary education level. China has emerged the top destination for Turkmenistan’s energy exports. Vaccine diplomacy also helped China assuage partial discontent. Now, with Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine, and Central Asian countries are uncomfortably confronting the question of territorial sovereignty in the post-Soviet space, China sees a new window of opportunity opening up for itself in the region, and not just in the economic space.

While observers have noted that China’s usual approach to the Central Asian Republics (CARS) has been on a bilateral basis, it now has instituted a more regional approach. Interestingly, it is India that has spurred this, with Delhi’s plans to invite the five CARS leaders to grace its Republic Day celebrations this year in January. Because of a Covid resurgence those plans had to be scuttled and a virtual summit settled for. However, India’s move galvanised Xi Jinping so that for the very first time China convened a summit of China+C5 leaders right on the eve of India’s summit. Xi pledged $500 million in grants to Central Asian countries within the next three years and 50 million more doses of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines this year.

On their part, Central Asian states, already having pledged to follow a multi-vectoral policy, both to diversify their foreign policy and strategic partnerships, as well as to strike a balance between big powers jockeying for influence in the region, are now looking even more to alternatives to Russia. More recently in June, Kazakhstan hosted Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi who arrived for a third round of China + C5 foreign ministers convened in Nur Sultan, where they pledged to build a “China-Central Asia community with a shared future”. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and of course host Kazakhstan enthusiastically participated in the meeting.

While on the table were the usual issues – regional stability, post-Covid economic recovery, concerted fight against the three ills of extremism, terrorism, and separatism, and of course the perennial problem of Afghanistan – there was also focus on connectivity and infrastructure. Hoping to bypass Russian territory and thereby dependence on it, China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan have pledged to speed up the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway project; countries are also banking on the Trans-Caspian International Transport Corridor, or the “Middle Corridor” which will connect China with Europe via Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Romania, and Poland as the European Union sanctions Russia.

The pitch is to transform the landlocked states into “landlinked ones” as well as decrease their dependence on Russia. According to Kazakh political analyst Iskandar Akylbayev, “In this respect, China has its own vision towards Central Asia, as it is a transit road to Europe. And if Europe has its very negative relations with Russia, it certainly affects the supply chains of all networks, and the trade, people to people exchange, on the common and political sense. So, in this respect it’s a very important time for China and Central Asian republics to find a new format to increase its economic ties, to play a stabilising role for the peace in Ukraine as well.”

Tajikistan is another CAR which is firmly on China’s radar. China is setting up a security zone here, currently being refurbished by the Chinese special police force, apparently to keep an eye on Afghanistan, and Uighur extremists. Tajikistan, which is firmly inside the Russian orbit, has also taken a range of measures to fortify its troubled borders with Afghanistan and shore up security. President Emamoli Rahmon is stridently anti-Taliban and has allowed the Resistance Front of Ahmed Massoud on its territory, though a while ago he dispatched an envoy to Kabul. China has offered to increase investments and encourage Chinese companies to invest and do business in Tajikistan, as well as build infrastructure and connectivity projects. Bilateral trade between the two have soared this year. Tajik transport minister Azim Ibrohim described China as a “great, friendly neighbour” and Tajikistan’s most important partner for trade and investment. Tajikistan is one of those that has eagerly signed on to the BRI.

Most interestingly, besides all the lofty words and pontification, Wang Yi highlighted that no matter how the international landscape may evolve China will always firmly support Central Asian countries in safeguarding their sovereignty and independence and building an independent Central Asia. Of course, all countries in the region, China included, have faced at some time or are facing separatist forces. However, coming in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the sovereignty and independence of these former Soviet republics assume special significance. With Russia firmly dependent on China, the status quo may be changing. China may be stepping up its role from the economic to the security sphere in the region.

One of the important and significant outcomes of these meetings as I expect should be certainly a signal to the whole parties, for Central Asia and China that the most important thing is stability – I’m not only talking about political stability, but also economic stability, stability in terms of security, in terms of energy, and that should be the very big outcome that will symbolise regional cooperation in action.”

(Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist specialising in Eurasian geopolitics. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)

(The content is being carried under an arrangement with indianarrative.com)

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