ZOiS Spotlight 11/2023

A Shapeshifting China in Central Asia

by Beril Ocaklı 31/05/2023

For the first time since establishing diplomatic relations three decades ago, China and the Central Asian heads of states have come together at a summit. China has been expanding its influence in the region for years – a development that is not welcome by everyone.

In May 2023, the Chinese city of Xi'an hosted the first ever China-Central Asia summit. IMAGO / NurPhoto

Central Asian heads of state and Chinese president Xi Jinping met on 18–19 May in the Chinese city of Xi’an for an inaugural China–Central Asia summit. Xi’an was a symbolic choice for the first in-person meeting since China and the Central Asian countries established diplomatic relations three decades ago. A contemporary industrial and commercial hub that once marked the eastern end of the ancient Silk Road, Xi’an was chosen by China to reiterate the poetics of a shared future with Central Asia.

The summit was without doubt a milestone in China–Central Asia relations as they become institutionalised through China’s regional cooperation framework of ‘multilateral bilateralism’ and outside the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which includes Russia. At the same time, the more than 100 cooperation agreements signed at the summit will likely have a range of social and environmental ripple effects in Central Asia. While Beijing might have not delivered on its promise of a new blueprint for China–Central Asia relations, incomplete blueprints are integral to China’s modus operandi. It is up to Central Asian countries to decide how to complete and animate the plans for their futures.

Central Asia takes centre stage

Russia’s war against Ukraine has rendered Central Asia attractive for European raw materials and energy security as well as a desirable Middle Corridor – an alternative to northern transit routes through Russia. Yet, China has been paying attention to Central Asia since long before the war. Starting in the early 1990s, China has been slowly transforming itself from a good neighbour that donates buses and tractors into a better friend that provides military and financial aid and builds patchy public infrastructure in the region. By the end of the 2000s, China had overtaken Russia as the region’s leading trade partner, with investments in key sectors such as energy, extractive industries, manufacturing, and infrastructure.

Through its trillion dollar global mega-infrastructural endeavour, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched at the Nazarbayev University in Astana in 2013, China has pursued projects in places where no other foreign partner dared or cared. In Central Asia, the initiative has focused on advancing regional transport and energy infrastructure through railways, highways, ports, power plants, and dams.

A decade on, China is using the summit with Central Asia to signal that it is open for business again and ready to claim the post-pandemic spectacle with Central Asia by its side. A joint summit declaration and a slew of cooperation agreements ceremoniously announced a steady continuation of the Chinese presence in the region, with financial pledges from Beijing worth $3.8 billion. Central Asian governments endorsed China’s proposal to build a community with a shared future based on the four principles of mutual trust, common development, peace and security, and everlasting friendship. Beyond interfacing with national development strategies of its Central Asian partners, with these principles, China has convinced Central Asia to endorse Beijing’s evolving global paradigm for development, security, and people-to-people exchanges.

The list of joint future activities is as long as it is concrete. Among the highlights are the acceleration of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project, the construction of a Kazakhstan logistics centre at Xi’an, increased military exercises with Tajikistan, and a new China-Kyrgyzstan investment fund. In addition to deepening cooperation in traditional areas of connectivity and trade, the parties intend to establish 19 channels of direct engagement for expanding cooperation in manufacturing, e-commerce, digital trade, and the green economy. The joint declaration is striking as it underscores the countries’ commitment to closer cooperation in implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and sustainable development.

The world needs a stable Central Asia

‘The world needs a stable, prosperous, a harmonious and an interconnected Central Asia,’ President Xi stressed in his opening keynote. Summitry aside, China’s palpable presence in Central Asia’s oil fields, gold mines, and planned logistic hubs has however entrenched fears in the region of losing sovereignty, jobs, and traditions to China, fuelling Sinophobia and distrust among Central Asians of their own states. Most notably, in 2016, people took to the streets across Kazakhstan to protest against the government’s now-abandoned plans to amend the land code to allow for privatisation and possible leasing by foreigners – moves that were perceived by the protesters as looming land grabs by China. Three years later, worries over China’s alleged plans to relocate polluting industries to Kazakhstan ignited a new wave of protests that spread across the country.

Likewise, in parts of Kyrgyzstan, fears of economic and environmental exploitation by Chinese gold-mining companies have regularly sparked clashes between local residents and company workers as well as protests demanding the closure of mining operations. Mounting debt owed to China, particularly by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, has also prompted fears about states’ irreversible dependence on China.

Beyond environmental and social anxieties, Beijing’s sense of stability, territorial integrity, and sovereignty has invoked further grievances among people while adding to outbursts of anti-China sentiments in the region. Muslim ethnic minorities living in and with ties to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have been subjected to state repression and mass incarceration by Chinese authorities. Under the pretence of protecting China from the three evils of terrorism, extremism, and separatism, Uyghurs as well as ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz have been detained. Ethnic Kazakhs who demonstrate for the release of their relatives in Xinjiang face further repression and surveillance from the Kazakhstani state.

What does Central Asia want?

China’s intensifying engagement in Central Asia has come at best with mixed sentiments, at worst with destabilising effects and trauma. Over the years, Chinese investors and contractors have learned to reshape their social behaviour and corporate governance to reduce the risks of their operations and protect their reputations. Yet, China conveniently respects the political and economic circumstances and cooperation frameworks set by the ruling elites in the host countries, as they increasingly converge.

Who will benefit from the new era of China–Central Asia cooperation depends on whether Central Asian governments will listen to their own people and allow room for civic participation in the planning and implementation of that cooperation. If the Xi’an summit means more of the same, we can also expect more of the same problems and protests.

Dr Beril Ocaklı is a researcher at ZOiS, where she heads the project China, the EU, and Economic Development in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.