Like most outside powers who have come to Central Asia, China has sought to treat the region as a single whole, a place from which it can extract natural resources and sell its own goods at a profit. The region represents a blank slate on which Beijing can develop infrastructure for its own needs with little regard for the diverse populations there. But the increasing diversity and growth of the five countries in the region, as well the conflicts between and among them over land, water and access to the outside world, are undercutting Beijing’s methods. This has forced it to shift to a more country-specific approach, something that by itself is forcing a modification of China’s Belt and Road Initiative links between Asia and Europe. That in turn is forcing changes in Beijing’s relations not only with the Central Asian countries but also with Russia, Afghanistan, Iran and the South Caucasus. However, even Beijing’s new, more country-specific approach is causing problems, as Chinese activities in some countries are leading to complaints that China is abusing its position, and in others, Beijing is favoring some over others thereby exacerbating tensions.
Since the countries of Central Asia became independent in 1991, and especially over the past decade, Beijing has dramatically expanded its activities in the region, promoting the development of transportation infrastructure linking China to the West, bypassing Russia; seeking to extract resources, including oil, gas and especially water; and crowding out other countries where possible to become the most influential outsider in the region. In doing so, China adopted a region-wide approach based on using its economic leverage, willingness to buy off elites and assertion of military power to achieve its interests (see EDM, March 25, 2021; March 2; see China Brief, October 19, 2020).
Some of China’s moves in the region have brought enormous successes, including the construction of new rail lines and transport hubs (see EDM, April 23, 2020); a dramatic expansion in trade, though not as much as Beijing claims (Eurasianet, July 19); the introduction of Chinese military and private military forces in some countries (see EDM, March 25, 2021); and a growing sense that China, not Russia, is becoming the paramount power in Central Asia (Asiais.ru, April 27, 2021; see EDM, December 7, 2021).
But as China’s presence has expanded, its problems have also multiplied; and ever more evidence suggests that its future in the region is far less bright than many in Beijing had hoped. Not only have anti-Chinese riots broken out in several Central Asian countries (Ia-centr.ru, accessed October 24; Globalaffairs.ru, September 7, 2020), but Beijing has also been drawn into two serious territorial clashes in the region. The first involves the territorial dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There, China had been forced to deny that it has anything to do with the conflict but has now declared that it supports Kyrgyzstan’s territorial integrity—a position that undercuts its standing in Tajikistan (24.kg, September 20). The second involves the situation in Tajikistan itself, where conditions have deteriorated in the Gorno-Badakhshan region along the Afghan border, precisely the area where China has opened military facilities and promised to help stabilize the situation (Fergana.agency, March 14; see EDM, May 24).
Three additional issues may cause even more problems in the coming months. First, China, which suffers from water shortages in its western regions, has blocked the flow of water to Kazakhstan and made arrangements with Tajikistan to import water, even though the entire region is facing a drought. These actions have sparked alarm in all the countries of the region, which see the moves as threatening their futures (Ritmeurasia.org; Stanradar.com, June 13 2021). In response, China, like all other outside powers, has called for increased regional cooperation, but experts in the region doubt that will be possible and even suggest that Beijing’s involvement has made conflicts among the region’s countries more difficult to resolve (Stanradar.com, March 8, 2021).
Second, the burgeoning populations of the Central Asian countries, which might be expected to become an expanded market for Chinese goods, are reacting in ways that China did not anticipate and that makes Chinese involvement in the region less profitable than Beijing had hoped. Until this year, China had been importing gas from Uzbekistan, but in September 2022, Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced that his country would no longer export either cotton or gas due to the needs of its own population (Kun.uz, September 22). Other countries in the region are likely to follow suit as their populations expand and as they find alternative markets to China, something that will limit Beijing’s aspirations in the region.
And third, as Beijing has been compelled to adopt a more country-specific approach, it has clearly favored some countries at the expense of others. Perhaps most dramatically, this concerns Kazakhstan, for which the Chinese authorities have decided to issue a Kazakh-language edition of Beijing’s People’s Daily. That may win China some friends in Kazakhstan, but it will likely spark questions in other Central Asian countries as to why Beijing is doing that for the Kazakhs and not for them—a reaction that will not help China gain increased access to the region (365info.kz, September 4, 2021).
As these issues percolate through the diverse political systems in the region, there is likely to be even more discussion about Chinese repression of Turkic peoples in Xinjiang and its imperialist policies in Tibet and elsewhere more generally—something that will severely limit Beijing’s ability to expand its influence in Central Asia by complicating relations with individual countries and the region as a whole. Nevertheless, China is pressing ahead, even seeking to expand ties with largely isolated Turkmenistan (Turkmenistan.gov.tm, September 21; Eurasianet, March 25). Even so, it is difficult to escape the conclusion now being offered by some that China’s victorious “long march” in Central Asia has run into trouble and may not lead to the victory Beijing desires (Eurasianet, September 27).