What is China looking for in Central Asia?
A joint statement issued during Xi’s visit to Russia in March said that Moscow and Beijing would work together to support Central Asian countries in ensuring their sovereignty and national development.
An upcoming China-Central Asia summit, the first of its kind, is a clear sign that China is increasingly attaching importance to its ties with Central Asia. China’s foreign ministry has described the meeting as a milestone in the China-Central Asia relations. This diplomatic language tells us that a lot can be expected of the event scheduled to be held in the Chinese city of Xi’an.
Central Asia matters to China in many aspects. First and foremost, this region is where China finds like-minded partners.
Since diplomatic ties were established in the early 1990s, China has never attempted to interfere in Central Asian countries’ internal affairs. During last year’s summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) where all Central Asian countries are members, President Xi Jinping called for working together to prevent “external forces” from promoting color revolutions. To put it bluntly, the US is an elephant in the room when it comes to the “external forces”. For instance, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US government via the State Department, USAID, Radio Liberty, and Freedom House provided aid to the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. The CIA also played a role at the time, according to a recent report jointly released by China’s National Computer Virus Emergency Response Center and cybersecurity firm Qihoo 360. Installing chaos in a country in the name of supporting democracy is something that China unequivocally stands against. In the meantime, China has been supporting the territorial integrity of Central Asian countries, refraining from taking a side in regional conflicts. This can be seen from Beijing’s stance on the border dispute between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
China’s diplomatic approach to Central Asia represents genuine fairness and justice in international relations today. In return, countries in the region have treated China in the same manner. On its eastern front, China is arguably encountering growing hostilities due to US attempts to shore up Indo-Pacific alliances to contain China. This is in contrast with China’s western front that borders Central Asia. Central Asian countries rarely point fingers at China over its so-called authoritarianism or the so-called human rights violations in Xinjiang, not because they don’t dare to take on China, but because they are well aware that these issues are the tools used by certain countries to demonize and weaken China. So, it’s natural that China is looking to strengthen ties with Central Asia. After all, who doesn’t love an environment where partners respect each other’s concerns and core interests?
Sharing a similar worldview is not the only reason behind China’s increasing diplomatic engagement with Central Asia. China, especially Xinjiang, has a huge stake in the region’s security. This is why the security-focused SCO is so important to China, which can be seen from the fact that part of Xi Jinping’s first foreign trip after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic was to attend an SCO summit in Uzbekistan. Under the SCO’s framework, there is comprehensive security cooperation between China and Central Asia. In one example, Central Asian officials are frequently invited to participate in training programs in China through which they are familiarized with China’s security system.
In the aftermath of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Central Asia’s security is facing more complexity. In a recent trilateral China-Pakistan-Afghanistan foreign ministers’ dialogue, a key talking point was exploring engaging Afghanistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a signature project under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). If the CPEC could bring prosperity and security to Afghanistan, it would be another channel, though somewhat indirectly, for China to contribute to the security of Central Asia.
In an economic lens, Central Asia and China represent great opportunities for each other. Two-way trade hit $70.2 billion in 2022, an increase of 40% from the previous year. In the realm of cross-border e-commerce, last year saw a 95% surge in value. Immediately after China bid farewell to stringent Covid restrictions, the Xinjiang government sent a business delegation to Central Asia in a bid to restore the lost ties and seek new opportunities. This move is in and of itself a reflection of the tremendous business potential to be explored between China and Central Asia.
Of course, the trade imbalance in which China exports more to Central Asia than it imports from the region is something that needs to be dealt with. China’s purchase of agricultural products from the region grew more than 50% last year, which is a sign that trade diversification from energy and minerals is already taking place. From a big picture, it’s probably not a coincidence that, during a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013, Xi Jinping first raised an idea that later morphed into the BRI. The OECD suggests that, between 2016 and 2030, infrastructure investment take up 6.8% of Central Asia’s GDP in order to meet its development need, but the reality is that currently this ratio is only around 4%. That’s partly why China has made a lot of infrastructure investment in the region under the BRI. Better infrastructure networks help upgrade industrial capacity, which in turn will enable Central Asia to produce and transport more value-added goods for exports. With that in mind, it’s certainly encouraging that the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, yet to be constructed, came back to life earlier this year after years of delay.
A common Western narrative is that China’s growing influence in Central Asia comes at the expense of Russia. Frankly, the mentality behind this thinking is fundamentally wrong, and those who suggest so have suspicious intentions.
First of all, it’s questionable that Russia is in decline in the region. According to Central Asia Barometer, a non-profit institution, 76% of Uzbeks have a favorable opinion toward Russia. In Kyrgyzstan, this rate is 85%. Russia is the absolute top destination for Central Asian migrant workers, and their remittances play a key economic role in their home countries. Russia’s trade with Central Asia has increased since the start of the Ukraine war, as Russia moves to navigate its loss of the European market.
Putting aside whether Russia’s influence is waning, there is no such thing as China-Russia competition in Central Asia. In fact, both Russia and China view their regional presence as cooperative and complementary. A joint statement issued during Xi’s visit to Russia in March said that Moscow and Beijing would work together to support Central Asian countries in ensuring their sovereignty and national development. China has a lot of antipathies to the zero-sum mentality. From China’s perspective, it is precisely this mentality on the US part that has inflicted a huge damage to the China-US relations. There’s no reason why China should view an aspect of its relations with Russia, one of China’s most important partners, with this mentality.
In essence, regardless of how other powers view Central Asia, China’s intention is pretty simple. Just like towards any other region, China wishes to contribute to peace, security and prosperity in the region, and that’s all.