Military Cooperation between China and Central Asia: Breakthrough, Limits, and Prospects

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 5

Chinese troops training near the border of Central Asia

In just a few years, China has emerged as an indispensable economic partner to the Central Asian states. Beijing is on track to surpass Moscow in its trade flows with Central Asia: In 2008, trade between China and Central Asia exceeded $25 billion, while trade between Russia and Central Asia was $27 billion [1]. On the security front, the Chinese authorities have managed to maintain security along its borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan through the demilitarization of the former Sino-Soviet border, the birth of a collective security framework through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and increasingly frequent meetings between high-level officers. The risk of a Uighur secessionism funded from behind Central Asian borders has also been largely erased [2], even if the events of 2008 and 2009 in Xinjiang confirmed that some diasporic groups, in particular based in Kyrgyzstan, were able to make known their disagreement. China remains alarmed about the security challenges in the region, including the risk of political instability, Islamist insurgent movements, the growth of drug routes, and U.S. presence at the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan. The strategic partnership with the governments in Central Asia is therefore a key element for Beijing, although military cooperation per se remains limited. Yet, the long-term impact of the Xinjiang riots, which remains unknown, Al-Qaeda’s announcement that it will attempt to target China, and the possibility that Islamists will try to transform Central Asia into a zone of unrest (Daily Time, February 21), can only lead the Chinese leadership to get more actively involved in the securitization of Central Asia.

Joint Exercises as a Foundation of Collective Military Operations

Military cooperation between China and Central Asia is overwhelmingly dominated by joint exercises, conducted in a bilateral or multilateral manner.

At first, the exercises conducted within the framework of the SCO were bilateral. In 2002, the first joint exercises between China and Kyrgyzstan were held. It was not until August 2003, in eastern Kazakhstan and Xinjiang, that the first multilateral military exercises took place, involving thousands of Chinese, Russian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik military personnel. All member states, except Uzbekistan, participated. In 2006, the East anti-Terror exercises in Uzbekistan were held, in which all the security services were involved (Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst, April 5, 2006). The same year, in the Kuliab region, Sino-Tajik military exercises against terrorist groups in the mountainous areas brought together 300 members of Tajikistan’s armed forces and 150 members of China’s military. Similar exercises were held that year in Kyrgyzstan (East Time [Russia], January 22, 2009). In 2007, two joint military exercises were organized. The first, called “2007 anti-Terror Issyk-Kul” took place in late May on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul and brought together SCO soldiers, as well as officials from the CSTO, and representatives of the security agencies and special services of each member state. Terrorist attacks inspired by those that took place in 1999 and 2000, including exercises in mountainous terrain and hostage scenarios, were simulated. From August 9 to August 17, 2007, Russia hosted in the Chelyabinsk region a new “peace mission” that included all SCO members [3]. In 2009, there were joint exercises in the northeast of China with more than 3,000 soldiers in a naval scenario likely related to Taiwan or North Korea. In total, since 2002, China has participated in more than 20 bilateral or multilateral military exercises with other SCO members.

In 2010, exercises will be held on the Matybulak polygon in the Semirechie region of Kazakhstan, where a number of military experts from China and Russia have already prepared the simulations, as well as in Russia (Rian.ru, April, 29, 2009; Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, January 15). Despite the emphasis on cooperation, these exercises are not always undisputed and reflect the distrust that exists between officers, especially Russian and Chinese ones, and the tensions among the Central Asian states. In 2009, Tashkent, for example, refused to participate in the anti-terror exercise conducted in the framework of the SCO in Tajikistan near the Afghan border, as a way of manifesting the Uzbek discontent at Dushanbe, at a time when the crisis between the two capitals on the matter of the construction of hydroelectric stations reached its highest pitch.

Chinese Military Assistance to Central Asia

Bilateral cooperation is mainly oriented toward technical support from China to the Central Asian militaries and aid for training.

Given a strong growth of trade between China and Kazakhstan, the latter remains the preferred partner of Beijing in the region. Since 2000, both countries have signed agreements for Chinese material and technical equipment worth one million dollars, intended in particular to “buy” Kazakhstan’s struggle against Uighur separatism and religious extremism [4]. In total, between 1997 and 2003, Astana has received 30 million Renminbi (RMB) ($4.5 million) of technological aid, communications equipment, and transportation (e.g. Jeeps) (Rian.ru, April 28, 2004). Kazakhstan has clearly expressed its intention to obtain more military equipment from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and hopes to take advantage of free transfers of decommissioned military assets when the Chinese army engages in modernizing its equipment (See ““Sino-Kazakh Relations: A Nascent Strategic Partnership,” China Brief, November 7, 2008). Under the joint counterterrorism operations, Kazakhstan wants to take advantage of the expertise and experience of China, which has strengthened its special forces in this area (Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst, May 9, 2007). This cooperation was initiated in the framework of the Tian Shan operations in 2006. The new Kazakh military doctrine presented in 2007 attaches special importance to the bilateral security relationship with China, but without taking away Russia’s prominent role [5]. Given growing drug trafficking, border cooperation is a priority area. Since 2008, the two countries have conducted several joint operations against traffickers.

Aid to the other states is more modest. During a meeting between the defense ministers of China and Turkmenistan in 2007, it was decided that China would equip the Turkmen army with precision equipment and uniforms for officers and soldiers, offering a $3 million loan for its military needs [6]. This decision, taken less than a year after an agreement by which Ashgabat provides 30 bcm of gas to Beijing, reflects China’s concerns regarding the ability of the Turkmen army to prevent any attacks against its energy supplies.

Beijing is also trying to expand its military cooperation with its two immediate neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In 2005, an official visit of the Chinese minister of defense to Dushanbe led to the signing of several military cooperation documents, although they are limited in scope. The two countries are expected to share intelligence in the fields of terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime (See “China quietly Increases Military Links with Tajikistan,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 21, 2005). Between 1993 and 2008, Beijing has provided 15 million dollars in aid to Tajikistan (Ni-hao.ru, May 15, 2008). Moreover, in April 2009 Beijing pledged $1.5 million to Tajikistan’s military, the latest in a series of financial aid packages for the region’s armed forces (Eurasianet, May 4).

Under an agreement signed in 2002 in Bishkek, China has also provided technical military assistance to Kyrgyzstan worth $1.2 million. In August 2008, China delivered military equipment to the Kyrgyz border services (vehicles and computers) for a sum of about $700,000 (Novosti Kyrgyzstana, August 13, 2008) [7].

With Uzbekistan, relations are more complex. In 2000, China made a first step on to the Central Asian arms market, delivering sniper rifles to Tashkent. In 2009, the two countries signed a new agreement whereby Beijing provides $3.7 million to the Uzbek authorities to equip its border crossings with mobile scanning systems [8]. For the Central Asian governments, equipment and training from the Peoples’ Liberation Army is another welcome balance to the supplies of outdated Soviet hardware which is sometimes offloaded by Moscow.

Finally, training aid is attempting to develop, however modest. For example, exchanges have been organized to train military cadres, but the language barrier hinders prospects. All courses for Central Asian officers in Chinese military academies are taught in Russian, Chinese instructors are not able to speak the Central Asian languages, and Central Asian officers cannot speak Chinese. Between 1990 and 2005, only 15 Kazakh officers were sent to China for training. Yet this cooperation has grown– between 2003 and 2009, 65 members of the Kazakh military took courses in Chinese institutions (Trends Kazakhstan, December 25, 2009; Atyrau, January 26, 2009). Further negotiations in this area were organized between the two countries at the beginning of 2009. Thirty Kyrgyz officers also received training in China (Centrasia.ru, July 12, 2004) [9]. In 2008, 30 members of the Tajik army also trained in Chinese military academies [10].

The Areas of Future Sino-Central Asian Military Cooperation

In the coming years, four areas seem destined to boost military cooperation between China and Central Asia.

The first concerns the fight against drug trafficking. Although for the moment bilateral Sino-Kazakh operations constitute a unique and undeveloped case, it is likely that such a system will also be implemented in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the most fragile countries of Central Asia, the ones with the most porous borders and with numerous drug routes spanning their territories that aim increasingly at the Chinese market. One can also assume that Beijing will try to build on the momentum of the CSTO in the field, with the institutionalization in 2009 of the annual anti-drug operation “Kanal,” which appears to satisfy all member states. China would indeed like to reproduce this model, at least partially, by organizing limited bilateral operations (Sino-Kazakh, Sino-Kyrgyz, and Sino-Tajik) rather than multilateral ones in the fight against drug trafficking.

A second theme pertains to the possibility of creating collective peacekeeping brigades mainly to go to Afghanistan. The persistent requests from Moscow and Beijing to be better consulted by NATO and the United States require that the SCO may in the near future offer some form of humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan [11]. The Afghan authorities themselves support such projects. The increasing engagement of China and Russia in this country and their growing economic interests there would push for the creation of such a force. This could have a symbolic function, like the Kazbrig in Iraq; however, it would signal the strengthening of Sino-Central Asian cooperation and confirm the ability of political actors to establish collective action toward Kabul.

It is probable that China aspires to develop its cooperation with Central Asian governments on counter-terrorism, but so far this cooperation has remained chiefly at the level of declarations of intention. Cases of Uighur dissidents being expelled from Central Asia at China’s request seem to have been extremely rare. However, the fresh upsurge of Islamist activism in Central Asia following recent developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the renewal of tensions in Xinjiang might push Beijing to request more joint action. Yet, the Central Asian governments do not want this cooperation to become an argument for Beijing’s interfering in their internal affairs. Until now, the Chinese authorities have remained cognizant of the reticence harbored by Central Asian governments and have not sought to hurry cooperation on extremely sensitive issues relating to national security.

Last but not least, the fourth area of cooperation pertains to the protection of Chinese energy assets in Central Asia. This domain is probably the one expected to grow most rapidly and with the least political resistance, since the objective is clearly economic. The inauguration of the gas pipeline between China and Central Asia in December 2009 gave China a new argument in favor of such a line of cooperation, which strengthens already existing concerns about the safety of the Sino-Kazakh pipeline. The December 2009 meeting between Vice President of the Central Military Commission Guo Boxiong and Kazakh Minister of Defense Adilbek Dzhaksybekov confirms that discussions on this subject were conducted in high places. Unlike Western countries, China has not yet developed strategies to protect its interests (pipelines and companies) and expatriates overseas. The Central Asian authorities do not wish to let the Chinese military secure Chinese interests on their territories, for obvious reasons of national sovereignty [12]. Everything thus leads toward the establishment of mixed brigades for monitoring and protection, probably for the pipelines first of all and then Chinese companies in a more distant future.

Conclusion

The ability of China to strengthen its military cooperation with the Central Asian states is limited. Central Asian officers remain suspicious of their Chinese neighbor, doctrinal traditions are very different, and the language gap may take generations to overcome. Furthermore, it is difficult to supplant Moscow in this realm, since Russia remains largely in control of the training of Central Asian officers and oversees much of the military operations of Central Asia within the CSTO, the CIS Anti-Terrorism Center, and the CIS Council of Border Guard Agency Commanders. In addition, Moscow sells weapons at domestic market prices and China remains one of the largest customers of the Russian military-industrial base (Note: Vietnam became Russia’s biggest arms client in 2009 in terms of new contracts, having ordered six diesel-electric submarines and 12 Su-30 fighter jets, according to the calculations of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST)). Central Asia has more interest in preserving its interaction with Russia than on the Chinese market for weapons, which is still too weak. Yet, the situation will change in coming decades, when the Chinese army frees itself from Russian technology (the trend is leading there). For now, military cooperation between China and Central Asia is limited to the organization of joint exercises, which can display superficial collaboration, and Chinese material support of Central Asian armies via technology requests (computers and scanners) or even just uniforms and cars.

The exchange of strategic information and weapons sales is minimal, and each state continues to see its security primarily in national terms. The Central Asian governments do not want the opening of any Chinese military bases on their territory and are unofficially concerned about the presence of the Chinese secret services. Declarations made by a senior Chinese military leader about the possibility of intervening in Central Asia (Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], September 24, 2009), have not been officially commented on by the Central Asian capitals, but the latter’s silence is revealing of local unwillingness. The ruling elites are doubly concerned by possible Islamist destabilization, which would be dangerous for their internal stability, but which might also serve as an argument for Beijing to establish itself militarily in the region, and thus force the Central Asian states to revalorize the Russian counterweight. Yet, new areas of cooperation are emerging in regard to nontraditional threats, requiring that conventional state frameworks be surpassed: the protection of Chinese economic interests in Central Asia; joint struggles against drug trafficking; and potential humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan.

Notes

1. See the European Union’s statistics, http://ec.europa.eu/trade/trade-statistics/, October 2009.
2. K. L. Syroezhkin, Mify i real’nost’ etnicheskogo separatizma v Kitae i bezopasnost’ Tsentral’noi Azii [Myths and Realities of Ethnic Separatism in China and Security in Central Asia], Almaty: Dajk-Press, 2003.
3. R. N. McDermott, “The Rising Dragon. SCO Peace Mission 2007”, Jamestown Occasional Paper, Jamestown Foundation, 2007.
4. O. G. Mirutina, “Perspektivy razvitiia sotrudnichestva Kitaia i Kazakhstana i ego znachenie dlia Rossii”, Omsk University Thesis, 2003.
5. Ibid.
6. A. Paramonov, O. Stolpovskii, “Kitai i Tsentral’naia Aziia: sotrudnichestvo v sfere bezopasnosti”, op. cit.; French Embassy in Turkmenistan News Digest, January 22, 2009.
7. Ibid.
8.  “Voennoe sotrudnichestvo Uzbekistana i Kitaia”, China Embassy in Uzbekistan, no date, http://chinaembassy.uz/rus/dtxw/voennoe-sotrudnichestvo-uzbekistana-i-kitaya.htm.
9. “KNR,” http://www.mcds.ru/default.asp?Mode=Review&ID_L0=4&ID_L1=44&ID_L2=431&ID_L3=1502&ID=&ID_Review=62617.
10.  “Kitai i Tadzhikistan rasshiriat voennoe sotrudnichesto”, op. cit.
11. This issue was discussed at the 9th Conference of Central Asian & Shanghai Cooperation Organization, organized by the Shanghai International Culture Association, Shanghai Center for International Studies and the Center of SCO Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Shanghai, July 17-19, 2009.
12. See Central Asians’ point of view in S. Peyrouse, M. Laruelle, China as a Neighbor. Central Asian Perspectives and Strategies, op. cit.