China and Central Asia: Charting a New Course for Regional Cooperation

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 3

China established close relations with Central Asia as early as 2,000 years ago, largely through their interactions along the Silk Road. While the Central Asian region became increasingly isolated during the late 19th and 20th century, the disintegration of the Soviet Union allowed Central Asia to open its doors once again to the outside world. In January 1992, only one month after the founding of the new Central Asian countries, a Chinese delegation led by then-Minister of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation Li Lanqing visited five Central Asian states and in just five days signed a series of agreements to establish diplomatic relations with all of them, preempting any move by Taiwan.

Since then, political relations and security cooperation between China and Central Asia have made significant progress. All Central Asian leaders have visited Beijing, and China’s counterparts have in turn traveled to the Central Asian countries. In April 1996 and April 1997, two agreements for security and disarmament along the borders—the “Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions” and the “Treaty on Reduction of Military Forces in Border Regions”—were signed by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. These two agreements marked the beginning of the Shanghai Five-SCO process and indicated the strengthening of security cooperation between China and her Central Asian neighbors. Under the framework of these two agreements, all of the disputes regarding the western section of the former Sino-Soviet border of more than 3,000 kilometers—a region that bred instability and conflict for centuries—were completely resolved within just six years.

At the same time, the Shanghai Five-SCO process has provided a solid structure for China and Central Asia to cooperate closely in combating terrorism, extremism, and separatism as well as various other cross-border criminal forces. The primary target of China’s anti-terror campaign is the “East Turkestan” (ET) terrorist group. Evidence recently disclosed reveals Osama bin Laden telling the ET terrorists: “I support your jihad in Xinjiang” [1]. From the perspective of Beijing, it is of particular importance that China is able to—within the framework of the SCO—count upon the support of its Central Asian neighbors in its campaign against the ET extremists. Similarly, Central Asian countries also receive support from China in combating their own terrorist and extremist groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (the Islamic Party of Liberation). Moreover, China and Central Asia also support each other’s efforts to frustrate other conventional or non-conventional security threats and eliminate or resolve external disruptions to domestic stability and development.

Economic relations between China and Central Asian countries have also developed very rapidly. Overall levels of trade have grown from a meager US$500 million in 1992 to $8.5 billion in 2005, an increase of more than 16 times in 14 years [2]. Among the bilateral trade relations between China and the Central Asian countries, Sino-Kazakh trade is the largest, reaching $6.8 billion in 2005 [3]. After several years of construction, the oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to China (Aterlao–Kenjiyaker-Atasu-Alashankou) finally began to carry oil in late 2005 [4]. The handling capacity of the pipeline is 20 million tons per year, which will be a significant increase from the annual amount of 500,000 tons currently shipped via railways. Gas pipelines from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to China will also be constructed. These pipelines, intended to have an annual handling capacity of 25-40 billion cubic meters, will help to increase the small percentage of gas employed by China’s current energy structure.

If connected with the Xinjiang-Shanghai Gas Pipeline, the pipelines will also contribute to the implementation of China’s West Development Strategy and Energy Eastward Transportation Program. Japan and South Korea, both of whom can take part in this project, will be entitled to a portion of the gas transported by the pipelines. This development will usher in a new chapter in energy cooperation between China and Central Asia, and even between East Asia and Central Asia. It should be noted that Central Asian energy supplies—unlike Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, African or Latin American supplies—do not require maritime security. Given that China has yet to develop a navy robust enough to protect its energy supplies transported along sea lines of communication, this alternative is of crucial strategic significance for China’s energy security and overall development. Likewise, for the first time in their history, Central Asian countries are able to obtain an eastward energy pipeline—bypassing Russia and the Caucasus—that crosses China and reaches the Pacific.

Confucian, Islamic, Slavic and Indian civilizations have converged in Central Asia for millennia. Yet, throughout this period, religious and cultural differences have often underlain the ethnic, religious and sectarian conflicts in the region. The tragic destruction of the Bamiyan Statue—the symbol of Buddhist culture in Afghanistan—by the Taliban regime is evidence of such friction between the various religions of the area. Terrorist and extremist forces have also used these religious and cultural differences to incite disunity and manufacture turmoil. It is significant to note that against this background of history, cultural cooperation has been stepped up between China and the Central Asian countries. In the short run, the focus of such cooperation is to highlight the spirit of the Silk Road by enhancing the mutual communication and understanding among the different civilizations and nations in the region, strengthening the emotional ties between Chinese and Central Asians and paving the way for comprehensive Sino-Central Asian cooperation.

China has played a pivotal role in catalyzing this cultural cooperation. President Hu Jintao remarked, “We shall, by effective measures, conduct and deepen our cooperation in culture, disaster relief, education, tourism, journalism, etc. Human resources capacity building should be another area of cooperation, and China will set aside a special fund to train 1,500 management and professional talents in different fields from other member states within three years” [5]. One should note that this project, which is geared at training young professionals from Central Asia, has been progressing very well.

In looking into the future, it is necessary to highlight the fact that relations between China and Central Asia still face several major issues that deserve urgent attention. First, a breakthrough in Sino-Central Asian economic cooperation is needed. In order to realize this aim, participants should be pragmatic when articulating goals and implementing measures. Empty promises and a lack of specific goals will not result in concrete achievements, especially regarding economic issues. Countries must also be willing to abide by market rules, such as creating a level playing field, ensuring mutual openings and using a combination of both bilateral and multilateral approaches. Such bilateral and multilateral cooperation can be mutually enhancing, as evidenced by the oil pipeline between Kazakhstan and China, which is also giving rise to the triangular energy cooperation involving other Central Asian countries. While investments from all countries will certainly be necessary, they should be properly regulated and monitored to avoid unnecessary and redundant investments. Additionally, the banking consortium should be allowed to effectively play its role and encourage cooperation with international financial institutions.

As quite a few cooperative programs are simply held up by the lack of funds, the effective operations of the banking consortium, together with its foundations, could provide the badly needed funds for the planned projects. In this regard, China is now playing a leading role. President Hu Jintao declared at the SCO Astana summit in 2005, “China attaches great importance to the implementation of the $900 million buyer’s export credit promised in the Tashkent Summit. China has decided to offer more preferential treatments in terms of the interest rate, the time limit and the guarantee qualifications of the loan, so that the funds can be used as quickly as possible for SCO cooperative projects in the interest of all member countries concerned” [6]. The fulfillment of China’s promise of the $900 million of buyer’s credit will certainly promote economic cooperation between China and Central Asia. At the same time, the SCO mechanism of Interbank Cooperation, the first step to the SCO Development Bank, is expected to provide a financing platform for the major projects in Central Asia and facilitate greater economic cooperation between China and Central Asian countries [7].

Second, there is an obvious need for the expansion of security cooperation between all countries. A joint advantage of China-Central Asia cooperation in the near future will still be in the security area. Yet, there must be a deepening of cooperation in this aspect if both sides are to make headway. Since the beginning of 2005, there has been a wave of “election-related turmoil” or so-called “Color Revolutions” in Central Asia, with terrorist and extremist forces often fishing in troubled waters. Afghanistan has witnessed the resurgence of Taliban and al-Qaeda in the wake of a new wave of terrorist attacks following the Iraq War. More severely, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other extremist groups are quickly winning popular support in Central Asia, particularly in the poverty-stricken Fergana countryside, bespeaking a reemerging grim security situation in the region that poses new challenges to both Central Asian countries and China.

Facing such a serious situation, several practical steps should be adopted. The SCO Regional Anti-terrorism Structure should be quickly consolidated to work more efficiently. Furthermore, cooperation must be stepped up in the drafting of an SCO list of wanted terrorists and terrorist groups and joint anti-terror exercises should be regularized. The proposed Central Asian Nuclear-Free Zone (CANFZ) program should also be furthered so that the region avoids a nuclear arms race and any proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Additional campaigns should be launched to crack down on drug-trafficking, arms-smuggling, illegal immigration and other cross-border crimes. In this regard, China and Central Asian countries should specifically accelerate their participation in international efforts to form “anti-narcotic belts” around Afghanistan and provide assistance to Kabul in order to stabilize the volatile social, economic and humanitarian conditions. Only after these practical steps are taken can Sino-Central Asian cooperation play an indispensable role in maintaining security throughout the entire Central Asian region.

Third, cultural cooperation should continue to be encouraged. The existing bilateral cultural cooperation should be expanded into multilateral cultural cooperation, which calls for organizational coordination, financial support and professional programming. In the near future, cooperation will specifically unfold on these fronts: exchanging mutual visits by cultural, artistic and sports groups, hosting joint art festivals and exhibitions, dispatching and accepting more exchange students, promoting visits by high-level experts and scholars, providing professional training in various fields, increasing cultural exchanges among the youth and facilitating culture-oriented tourism along the Silk Road. The first and second SCO Cultural and Art Festival held in Astana and Shanghai are evidence of such specific achievements in this field.

If Sino-Central Asian relations are to continue along the successful path that they have been taking, the following points merit special attention. Regional cooperation must be steadily institutionalized and be guaranteed by relevant international or regional laws and regulations. At the same time, the discrepancy in rules and regulations between the domestic and regional agreements should be sorted out in a careful manner. Moreover, regional security cooperation must be based on “comprehensive security” with the handling of conventional security threats combined closely with the handling of non-conventional threats. Finally, the maintenance of regional security and stability is a precondition and a guarantee to the facilitation of regional economic and cultural cooperation. Economic and cultural cooperation can in turn constitute a solid basis for political and security cooperation throughout the region.


1. Information Office of the P.R.C. State Council, “East Turkestan” Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Their Offences, Beijing, January 1, 2002.

2. Website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of PRC.

3. Website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of PRC.


5. Hu Jintao, “Strengthening Solidarity and Cooperation to Promote Stability and Development: A Speech at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Astana Summit Meeting,” July 5, 2005.

6. Ibid.

7. Joint Communiqué of the Meeting of the Council of Heads of Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Shanghai, June 15, 2006.