China Makes Its Move in Central Asia
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 84
At the recent China–Central Asia summit on May 18 and 19, Beijing presented a comprehensive plan for expanding cooperation with the Central Asian states that would usurp Russia’s position in the region (Newscentralasia.net, May 20). The convening of this summit underlined the fact that, at least in Central Asia, the repercussions of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine are now making themselves felt. It has been clear for some time that Russian power, influence and leverage in the region has been on the decline. While this hardly means that Russia has lost all means of influencing local governments, the erosion in its ability to do so has long been visible. Since nature and world politics abhor a vacuum, China has quickly stepped in to supplant Russia as the regional Ordnungsmacht (“power that enforces order”) and “security manager” of Central Asia. And this Chinese projection of power was on full display at the recent summit in Xian.
For the past 15 years, China has been the preeminent economic power in Central Asia. Thus, it is natural that the summit provided Beijing with an opportunity to expand its economic horizons still further. In Xian, China presented a campaign to strengthen its relations with the Central Asian states through the Belt and Road Initiative, promising to expand highways, railroads, ports, connectivity links, investment, energy ties and infrastructure in the forms of pipelines and technological development (Fmprc.gov.cn, May 19). Similarly, before the summit, Beijing had signed bilateral agreements with each government in the region, and key players, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, had expressed their desire for upgraded ties with China (Astana Times, May 14; Global Times, May 16; China Daily, May 18). Other major agreements were also signed at the meeting, as China offered 26 billion yuan ($3.68 billion) in new infrastructure investments to the governments of Central Asia (Cctv.com, May 19).
While these efforts are likely to increase Chinese influence in each of the Central Asian countries, the true significance in these moves is manifested in Beijing’s efforts to supplant Moscow as the primary security guarantor in the region. To begin with, in his keynote speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated, “The sovereignty, security, independence and territorial integrity of Central Asian countries must be upheld; their people’s choice of development paths must be respected; and their efforts for peace, harmony and tranquility must be supported” (Fmprc.gov.cn, May 19). This statement represents a veiled, but nonetheless clear, attack on Russian officials and media personalities who have frequently raised the question of invading Kazakhstan and seizing Northern Kazakhstan, alleging the region to be Russian territory. Xi had previously defended Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and integrity, but this statement enlarged his frame of reference to include all of Central Asia and implicitly declared China as the principal security manager in the region (TASS, September 14, 2022).
Xi then proceeded to expand on this assertion. The Central Asia he envisions undertakes these developments in conformity to Beijing’s major foreign policy programs—namely, the Belt and Road, Global Development, Global Civilization and Global Security Initiatives—to forestall color revolutions as well as enhance security and common prosperity (China Daily, May 19). All this constitutes an attempt to subordinate the independence of the Central Asian states to the larger demands and concepts of Chinese foreign and security policy. In that context, Xi then proceeded to present what, arguably, may be the most radical and far-reaching innovation in Chinese policy in the region—that is, the willingness to provide mechanisms of so-called “hard security,” defense and cooperation in law enforcement. Specifically, he stated, “China is ready to help Central Asian countries strengthen capacity building on law enforcement, security and defense, support their independent efforts to safeguard regional security and fight terrorism, and work with them to promote cybersecurity.”
This gambit clearly demonstrates Beijing’s intention to displace Moscow as the key security provider for Central Asia. Given the lack of confidence and mutual trust between the Central Asian governments and Moscow due to the war in Ukraine and the multiplying signs of Russia’s growing economic, political and military dependence on Beijing, some analysts have discussed the idea of Russia becoming a “vassal” of China (YouTube, March 24). Xi obviously sees the road to be clear in confirming Moscow’s subordination to Beijing by usurping Russia’s prerogatives and simultaneously expanding China’s means of leverage over Central Asia.
Yet, none of this guarantees that China will ultimately succeed. Some initially positive attitudes on the Belt and Road Initiative have soured, as it largely has not lived up to its lofty expectations and is mired in problems (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 2, 2022). Moreover, the Central Asian states seem to be more attached to maintaining their sovereignty and independence, rather than to developing a dependence on China’s largesse. Additionally, the war in Ukraine has presented the West with multiple opportunities to exhibit its superior economic power to cultivate increased cooperation through programs of sustained large-scale investment, which will likely be welcomed in the region. In other words, while the regional governments all need and want sizable Chinese investment, they prefer to maintain a multi-vector approach to foreign relations.
Nonetheless, if China is able to monopolize the space and close out all its rivals, then the closure of that window will be due mainly to Western inattention and failure to take advantage of the vacuum left by waning Russian influence. Beijing’s big move here reflects its intention to seize that opportunity and ultimately exclude all other contenders. Assuredly, this will not be the last move in this contest. And, certainly, the West does not want to see a Chinese empire arise out of the ruins of the Russian one.