The Role of PSCs in Securing Chinese Interests in Central Asia: The Current Situation and Future Prospects

(Source: National Interest)

Executive Summary

  • Despite China`s growing presence—especially in the realms of business and trade—in Central Asia, anti-Chinese sentiments and the overall level of suspicion toward Beijing have been on the rise. Frequently, this leads to public protests that sometimes result in instances of violence. To protect its nationals and property, China is considering the increased use of private security companies (PSCs). On some occasions, the employment of these companies within Central Asia have been confirmed. In the future, China will most likely increase its reliance on these actors.
  • Due to economic dependency and an exorbitant level of indebtedness, two main candidates for hosting or increasing the level of engagement with Chinese PSCs are Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, though other countries should not be ruled out.
  • While China might attempt to increase the use of its PSCs in Central Asia, multiple risks are associated with this approach, including the danger of growing Sinophobia and anti-Chinese protests.
  • As of today, Chinese PSCs in Central Asia should be viewed as being more of a “continuation of business by other means” rather than military-political tools or instruments of geopolitical competition.

 

Central Asia plays a vital role for China’s growing economic, business and geopolitical ambitions. In addition to the region’s abundance of essential natural resources, such as hydrocarbons and rare earth minerals, Central Asia is situated in a strategic geographic location, securing Beijing’s direct access to the European and Middle Eastern markets and their resources. Yet, despite its resource wealth and strategic location, as well as China’s growing business presence, challenges abound with Beijing’s ambitious plans for the region. On one hand, the outbreak of violence in the Middle East following the Arab Spring has become a destabilizing factor that has negatively affected the greater Middle East region. Given the relatively low living standards, high levels of unemployment across Central Asia and the region’s geographic proximity to local hotspots, radicalization has penetrated the region, posing a serious challenge to both local regimes and foreign investors.

Meanwhile, China’s determination to increase its presence in the region—combined with the reported mistreatment of its own Muslim population—has resulted in growing Sinophobia, which sometimes takes hostile forms. Both these factors pose a viable challenge to Chinese plans and ambitions in the region, leading Beijing to ponder means and measures to protect its presence without exacerbating suspicion among locals. Among other measures, Beijing is considering, and in some cases employing, using private security companies (PSCs) as an instrument of tacit presence. As stated by Raffaello Pantucci in an interview[1]:

I think you are going to see China continue to push its PSCs in Central Asia. In large part because they are useful as protective security, but also because the region would be a useful testing ground for these companies going out into the world, something we have seen China do repeatedly in the region. They are also a structure that provides the Chinese state with some extra security “eyes” on the ground, which helps in all sorts of ways. I sense they might start appearing more. But at the same time, Beijing will be careful to push down discretion on the companies as there is no desire to ruffle feathers too much, and in many of these countries, there is deep resistance to Chinese (or any other foreign) PSCs.

Overall, this report will discuss China’s current and prospective use of PSCs in Central Asia, taking a country-by-country approach. In addition to using a wide pool of local and English-language sources, two interviews with world-renowned subject experts have been conducted: Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute,[2] and Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and research fellow at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek.[3]

 

China in Central Asia: Past and Present

Central Asia, comprising four Turkic (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) and one Persian-speaking (Tajikistan) former Soviet republics (with the autonomous Chinese region of Xinjiang and Afghanistan also sometimes included[4]), has played an instrumental role in China`s trade and geo-economic initiatives. For instance, the region was the key pillar of the ancient Silk Road trade route.[5] However, following a series of historic events, including the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 542 CE that shook the Byzantine Empire; the weakening of China in the late 9th century; the Mongolian invasion in 1216–1221; and the beginning of the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, Central Asia came to forfeit its role as a key commercial transit route.[6]

Later, with Russia`s conquest of Central Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries and its subsequent incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1924, the region forfeited its sovereignty, remaining under Moscow’s thumb until 1991. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lost its exclusive right as sole stakeholder in the region, while the role of other actors, such as Turkey, Iran, the United States and, perhaps most notably, China, became much more prominent. Importantly, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Beijing included Central Asian countries in two of its major strategic initiatives aimed at dramatically increasing China’s foreign economic presence and revitalizing its economically underdeveloped regions—one being the “Go Out” policy (走出去战略) and the other the China Western Development strategy (西部大開發).[7] These initiatives placed high importance on Central Asia due to its role as a key logistical route and as a factor for domestic security and stability.

Unlike other foreign actors, whose policies either did not fully consider local cultural specificities, as was the case for the West, or took a dismissive, and to some extent pejorative, approach, such as Russia, China’s strategy is distinctly different. This approach is premised on three main pillars: (1) not interfering in the region’s internal affairs and relations between countries in the region; (2) fully concentrating on economic cooperation; and (3) relying on the promotion of Chinese soft power as a propaganda tool to build a positive image of China.

Yet, despite the benign image Beijing has attempted to create for itself, Chinese policies in Central Asia have drawn criticism from the European Union and to a much greater extent the US, whose leadership accuse China of multiple transgressions, including the use of so-called “debt trap” diplomacy; violating key principles of environmental and social sustainability; fostering corruption and bad local governance through the construction of political vanity projects and kickback schemes; objectionable security cooperation practices; and Beijing’s handling of the “Xinjiang problem.”[8] Importantly, within the countries of the regions themselves, despite massive economic investment and a relatively flexible approach, Chinese policies sparked the rapid growth of anti-Chinese sentiment and Sinophobia accompanied by occasional sparks of violence. As a result, Beijing began to seriously consider strengthening its security presence in the region through PSCs, among other measures.[9]

The Chinese Presence in Central Asia: Key Areas  

According to Temur Umarov, the Chinese presence in Central Asia could be conditionally divided into the following four main areas:[10]

  1. Military Presence—China has exhibited particularly strong cooperation with Tajikistan. Notably, the Tajikistani and Chinese governments signed an agreement back in 2016 to build seven border posts and training centers along Dushanbe’s border with Afghanistan. Beijing has also been deepening its military relationship with Kyrgyzstan, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) holding its first joint military exercises with Kyrgyzstan in October 2002. In 2019, China launched a new format of military exercises, “Cooperation-2019” (协作-2019), the scope of which included exercises with Uzbekistani[11] and Kyrgyzstani paramilitaries in the Jizzakh region of Uzbekistan and in Xinjiang, respectively.[12] The strengthening of military ties between China and the countries of the region is a matter of key geopolitical importance for Beijing’s relationship with Central Asia. China’s view is perhaps best expressed in the Chinese strategic formula: “stabilize in the east, gather strength in the north, descend to the south, and advance to the west” (东稳, 北强, 南下, 西进), which perceives Central Asia to be a strategic theater for geopolitical advancement.[13] As noted by Kubanychbek Toktorbayev, a senior researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies of the Kyrgyz Republic, “The Chinese leadership quickly realized that the Central Asian region would play the role of a ‘strategic home front’ [for China]. … Beijing has recognized the importance of Central Asia as a resource provider for the Chinese economy.”[14]
  2. Trade and Import of Natural Resources (Primarily Hydrocarbons)—This has remained China`s key priority. However, rare earth minerals and metals constitute another branch of Chinese economic interests. For example, China imports 21 percent of its zinc and more than 20 percent of its lead from Central Asia. Meanwhile, China is strategically interested in exporting its goods with high-added value to the region. For instance, Chinese cameras and surveillance systems have been actively imported across the region.[15] Overall, for the past 30 years, trade between China and Central Asian countries has grown by more than 100 fold.[16]
  3. Investments—According to Chinese sources, regional investments have experienced major growth. By 2020, total Chinese investment in Central Asia had reached $40 billion. By various estimates, almost half of this sum went to Kazakhstan.[17] About 7,700 Chinese firms were reported to be operating in the region by the end of 2021.[18] Importantly, in terms of trade, logistics and investment, China’s strategy is inseparable from its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Demonstrating the region’s importance to the project, its inception was officially proclaimed in 2013 in Astana. Specifically, the China–Central Asia–West Asia Economic Corridor (CCAWAEC), which links China with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey, exemplifies the region’s importance. Moreover, the Chinese side aims to connect domestic producers with European markets through a complex network of highways and railways running through Central Asia. Out of six proposed mega transportation arteries that are to form the land-based part of the BRI, namely the New Eurasian Land Bridge, the China–Mongolia–Russia Economic Corridor,[19] the aforementioned CCAWAEC, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, Central Asia plays a crucial role in four of them.
  4. Soft Power—China strives to promote its soft power in the region through several channels. For instance, as demonsrated by Umarov, between 2000 and 2017, Chinese governmental representatives paid official visits to Central Asia on 722 occasions. Moreover, Chinese experts, such as Justin Yifu Lin, have been recruited as government advisors. China has been quite active in promoting its culture and projecting influence via the Confucius Institute network, with a total of 37 branches being opened in Central Asia. China has also actively provided study grants for the most-talented students from the region, especially in the realms of information technology and new technologies.[20] The strategic importance of the region is highlighted not only by the attention given to it by Chinese government agencies but also by the existence of more than 30 large research institutions—including those under the umbrella of China’s largest and most reputable universities—specifically tasked with researching and monitoring developments in Central Asia.[21] 

 

Figure 1. China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Source: OECD.

 

China’s Concerns in Cooperating With Regional Actors

Despite massive economic investments and growing trade networks, China has faced multiple risks and challenges in Central Asia. To begin with, Beijing has had to deal with a growing negative image in the region. As demonstrated by the recent Central Asia Barometer Survey, a biannual large-scale research project that measures social, economic and political atmospheres in Central Asia, the perception of China in the region is becoming increasingly negative.[22] As a result, Sinophobia has been rapidly spreading in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.[23] In part, this results from routine conflicts between Chinese nationals and locals that stem from inequalities such as pay conditions, unequal treatment and instances of abuse found within Chinese-owned businesses. While this is by no means a new phenomenon,[24] these tendencies have increased so much so that some local sources called 2019 “the year of anti-Chinese moods in Kazakhstan.”[25]

Another reason for growing Sinophobia is linked to developments in Xinjiang. In addition to its ethnically Turkic Uyghur population, Xinjiang is home to ethnic Kazakhs (1.5 million), Kyrgyz (180,000), Tajiks (5,000) and Uzbeks (10,000). Revelations about Xinjiang’s massive network of labor camps for Muslims[26] have triggered protests in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, accompanied by demands to rid these countries of Chinese influence. Furthermore, anti-Chinese feelings accompanied by protests have also grown as a result of corruption in the border control areas, of which local Kyrgyzstani and Kazakhstani authorities have been implicated in corruption-related scandals involving document forgery and bribery connected to China.[27]

In addition, worsening security-related challenges, such as the growing potential for conflict[28] and the growing threat of terrorism, pose a range of complications for China. Growing security issues have led some in Beijing to express concerns about Central Asia potentially becoming a base of support for the so-called “Three Evils” (or “Three Forces”;  三股势力) of terrorism, separatism and extremism. Chinese media and officials have identified terrorist organizations and religious extremists operating in Central Asian states (e.g., the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jamaat Ansarullah and Islamic Jihad Union) as threats to Chinese nationals both inside and beyond China.[29] To address these challenges, between 2015 and 2020, Beijing made significant investments in security in Central Asia, expanding its share of arms deliveries within the region to 18 percent. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has also strengthened security coordination measures with Central Asian countries at the regional level.[30]

With that being said, however, joint training and arms supplies might have limited applicability given the frequently non-conventional nature of threats faced by China in the region. For this purpose, in addition to more conventional traditional measures, the PRC is also considering alternative ways to protect Chinese BRI investments in Asia that include the greater use of PSCs.[31]

 

China’s Security Cooperation With Select Actors: Prospects for the Use of PSCs

Kazakhstan

Given its size, geography and economic potential, Kazakhstan occupies a key position in the Central Asian segment of the BRI. However, China is currently facing two main challenges in the country. First is the threat posed by Islamic radicals and their potential ties to ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2019 alone, the Kazakhstani authorities detained 500 alleged members of the Islamic State and their families and sentenced 14 citizens for their participation in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.[32]

The second major concern is the spread Sinophobic tendencies within Kazakhstan. As noted by political commentator Dosym Satpayev, “Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country that has always had anti-Chinese sentiments.”[33] Anti-Chinese sentiments in 2019 culminated with demonstrations in the western oil-producing city of Zhanaozen. Anti-Chinese demonstrations have sometimes grown openly hostile, especially in the western part of Kazakhstan around the North Troyes oilfield and the town of Atyrau.[34] One 2019 conflict triggered by a payment dispute between locals and Chinese workers resulted in a harsh, first-of-its-kind warning – when a Chinese official harshly criticized local protestors and implicitly made a point about inaction of the local authorities – by Geng Liping (耿丽萍), the PRC’s consul general in Almaty. Local sources construed this as a sign of Beijing’s growing dominance in the country, believing that it could potentially result in “[Chinese] police or security forces [deployed to Kazakhstan] under the pretext of protecting Chinese private property.”[35]

To address these challenges, the PRC relies on two main mechanisms. First, 16 joint anti-terror military exercises between China and Kazakhstan have been conducted since 2002.[36] The drills in 2019 included the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to detect, round up and destroy hypothetical terrorist groups entering Kazakhstan under the guise of migrant workers from the territory of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.[37] As part of its anti-terrorism policies, Beijing is also actively promoting the intensification of academic exchanges and knowledge transfers, building a steady link between Chinese and Kazakhstani military academies and institutions.[38]

The second mechanism involves arms deals and military aid. Chinese arms deals with Kazakhstan deserve attention for two key reasons. To begin with, the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Astana has allowed Kazakhstan to acquire increasingly sophisticated weapons systems. For example, in 2016, China supplied a number of Wing Loong-1 (翼龙-1) strike-capable drones, comparable to the US-manufactured MQ-1 Predator.[39] Furthermore, the PRC appears to have supplanted Russia as Kazakhstan’s primary arms supplier, and this trend is likely to grow in the future. China is supplying the Kazakhstani military with platforms analogous to models produced in Russia and the Soviet Union, such as the Y-8 (运-8) transport aircraft, a copy of the Antonov An-12.[40] These two factors demonstrate differences in Chinese military aid to Kazakhstan, in contrast with the nature of Beijing’s aid to Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan. Military sales and assistance in the latter two countries, such as the transfer of 30 heavy trucks,[41] plays a less significant role in the development of bilateral relations.

However, beyond these two primary mechanisms, a third alternative path could include the employment of PSCs by Beijing. Importantly, some of China’s paramilitary state organizations, such as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (新疆生产建设兵团), are already reorienting their services toward serving the needs of the BRI. Local sources in Kazakhstan have also speculated about the potential deployment of Chinese PSCs in the country, such as the Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group (先丰服务集团).[42] This is a sensitive issue, given the reality of growing weariness toward China alongside the expanding presence of Chinese businesses in the countries. Leading Kazakhstani politicians, including Dariga Nazarbayeva, have voiced categorical disapproval of any PSCs, either foreign or domestic, operating in the country.[43]

Temur Umarov, meanwhile, stated in an interview that, in its attempts to employ PSCs on Kazakhstani territory, China may encounter a fundamental challenge. Kazakhstan (along with Kyrgyzstan) is one of two countries in Central Asia where public discontent is best heard. Thus, the use of PSCs would become audible instantly and might trigger a wave of discontent and further escalation of Sinophobia. As noted by Rafaello Pantucci, even though the obvious candidates for the use of PSCs within the region are Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, “I think you will also see them appearing in Kazakhstan as it is an environment where there is a friendly government that they can work with, and it therefore provides an environment where these companies can start to learn their trade in a foreign, relatively secure, environment. Most of the clashes they would be dealing with would be among workers which should be easier clashes to resolve.”

Uzbekistan

The Uzbekistani government, which has seemingly embarked on a more reformist path after the 2016 death of long-time leader Islam Karimov and subsequent election of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has viewed the BRI and cooperation with China as a chance to become an integral part of the CCAWAEC. Tashkent’s aspirations in this regard have been welcomed by Beijing, with the Chinese state-managed Silk Road Fund (丝路基金) agreeing to provide Uzbekistani state-owned oil and gas corporation JSC Uzbekneftegaz with a $585 million loan.[44] Similarly, the PRC-dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (亚洲基础设施投资银) declared its readiness to grant a $165.5 million loan (81 percent of the total cost) to pay for the Bukhara Road Network Improvement Project, to be completed by 2025.[45]

The main threat to Chinese investors in Uzbekistan comes primarily from the activities of violent jihadists, many of whom have gained international experience fighting in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. For instance, the Taliban, since taking control of the Afghan government in 2021, has carried out operations near the shared Afghan-Uzbekistani border.[46] A network of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which had known cells in five different parts of the country, was reportedly uncovered in the Fergana region of eastern Uzbekistan.[47]

Similar to Kazakhstan, China relies on a few main instruments to deal with this challenge, in addition to the use of PSCs. First, joint military exercises have recently begun to occur between Beijing and Tashkent. In December 2017, discussions between then–Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan, then-Uzbekistani Minister of Defense Abdusalom Azizov and President Mirziyoyev produced agreements for closer security cooperation. This culminated in the emergence of “Cooperation-2019” (合作-2019), a joint anti-terrorism exercise between the Chinese People’s Armed Police (中国人民武装警察部队) and the Uzbekistani National Guard, which took place in May 2019.[48] According to PLA exercise commander Wang Ning, China views Uzbekistan as “an important strategic partner” in achieving peace and stability in Central Asia.[49]

Second, while Uzbekistan is not a top priority for China in terms of arms exports, some notable changes have taken place since 2014, when Uzbekistan became the first Central Asian state to acquire the PRC-manufactured Wing Loong I drone.[50] Later, it was reported that Uzbekistan allegedly acquired an unnamed number of Pterosaur I drones, a variant of the Wing Loong.[51] Subsequently, Tashkent purchased and successfully tested the FT-2000, an export version of the Hongqi-9 (紅旗-9), which is similar to the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile system.[52] The most recent Chinese weaponry acquired and tested by the Uzbekistani Armed Forces was the QW-18 (前卫-18) shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile system, which entered Uzbekistan’s inventory in 2019.[53]

Third, China has established non-standard forms of cooperation with PSCs, represented by the China Security Technology Group (中国安保技术集团) already offering services in Uzbekistan, albeit without an official local office.[54] The Frontier Services Group has also announced plans to deploy in Uzbekistan due to the country’s growing involvement in the BRI,[55] and it is likely that PSCs will continue to expand their operations there. The majority of Uzbekistani policymakers, similar to their Kazakhstani counterparts, frown upon the idea of Chinese private security personnel operating in Uzbekistan. Given Uzbekistan’s growing economic dependence on BRI-related initiatives and its acute need for foreign investment, this position may be subject to change in the future.

Additionally, military journalism and propaganda plays a key role in the Sino-Uzbekistani military partnership. In 2019, a delegation from the Uzbekistani Defense Ministry visited the PRC to study organizational and operative principles of the Chinese military media. During the trip, the delegation visited the head office of the People’s Daily and the School of Journalism at the Renmin University of China.[56] Reflecting on the use of PSCs in Uzbekistan, Temur Umarov stated that, for China, this prospect could be limited. He added that, despite recent political changes, Uzbekistan remains a police state, where militia and security services are able to control various aspects of public life. Thus, the use of foreign PSCs, given the relatively stable domestic security environment, is by and large redundant.

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan has a policy of state neutrality, which for decades has kept it in isolation under the helm of its extravagant leadership and beset by problems of ethnic nationalism. At the same time, it has hoped to occupy a leading role in the BRI and reap benefits from Chinese economic investments. An October 2017 book written by then-President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov—filled with legends, historical descriptions and local folklore and titled Turkmenistan is the Heart of the Great Silk Road[57]—underscored these high aspirations. Turkmenistani authorities have primarily vested their BRI hopes in two major infrastructure projects: The China–Kazakhstan–Turkmenistan–Iran Railway and the Turkmenbashi International Seaport (completed in 2018), which links Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan (Baku), Kazakhstan (Aktau) and Russia (Astrakhan). The port serves as an integral part of the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, facilitating the transportation of goods between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.[58]

Although the PRC’s ties with Turkmenistan are not as close as those with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Beijing has increased both economic and security-related contacts with Ashgabat in recent years. Chinese military experts have always viewed Turkmenistan as a weak state in terms of military capabilities.[59] This year, China overcame Russia to become the second-largest arms supplier to Turkmenistan by selling weaponry in return for natural gas payments. China has monopolized exports of Turkmenistani natural gas to such an extent that gas has been used as a de facto form of currency in economic contacts between the two countries.

China now supplies 27 percent of Turkmenistan’s foreign arms purchases, behind only Turkey.[60] Between 2016 and 2018, Turkmenistan acquired HQ-9, Kai Shan-1 (凯山-1) and FD-2000 missiles from China.[61] However, cooperation was strained in 2018 when the price of natural gas on the Chinese market skyrocketed. An ensuring disagreement resulted in China blacklisting Turkmenistan and putting a de facto temporary ban on all major types of security-related cooperation. Later, in the final months of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s leadership and the subsequent accession of his son Serdar (in power since March 19, 2022), relations with China started to change.

In November 2021, Turkmenistan (represented by Serdar Berdimuhamedov) and China signed agreements in the political, diplomatic, trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian spheres.[62] The Chinese side argued the need to “elevate China-Turkmenistan cooperation to a new level to bring more benefits to the two countries and peoples” and mentioned that “the two countries should make progress in energy cooperation and jointly forge a strategic energy partnership that covers the entire industrial chain.” Of particular importance was an allusion by the Chinese officials to the fact that “the two countries should enhance political mutual trust and jointly safeguard the security and stability of the two countries and the region.”[63] Given the fact that Turkmenistan is rapidly becoming a “regional energy powerhouse”[64] that aims to double natural gas exports to China[65] (a development that became clear after Ashgabat and Beijing reached an agreement on developing the second stage of the Galkynysh gas field in southeast Turkmenistan[66]), cooperation between the two countries will be additionally strengthened.

Finally, it needs to be mentioned that, during the meeting between Serdar Berdimuhamedov and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Chinese side confirmed its readiness to strengthen cooperation with Turkmenistan within the “China+Central Asia” mechanism, paying special attention to the implementation of the Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative,[67] which may result in the strengthening and additional enhancement of security ties between the two countries.

Tajikistan

Chinese interests in Tajikistan are primarily based on two interrelated elements. The first is related to geo-economic calculations, in which Tajikistan is viewed as an essential part of the “Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordi­nation Mechanism,” a framework established in 2016 consisting of China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This arrangement was intended to grant China access to the Indian Ocean.[68] The second element involves security-related concerns, which Beijing sees as connected to the aforementioned “Three Evils.” As such, Tajikistan occupies a key buffer region for China and is seen as an integral part of resolving these concerns.[69]

In June 2019, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and Tajikistani President Emomali Rahmon agreed to further deepen the two countries’ “comprehensive strategic partnership,” which included strengthening bilateral cooperation “in combating the ‘Three Forces’… as well as transnational organized crimes [and] cyber security.”[70] Chinese concerns related to the situation in Tajikistan, and potential repercussions for the BRI, have been amplified by reports that around 400 militants—associated with ISIS, Jamaat Ansarullah and the Turkistan Islamic Movement—have attempted to establish a new terrorist base on the territory of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in the country’s east, along the border with China.[71]

To effectively deal with these challenges, Beijing is relying on four main pillars. The first of these is fortifying Tajikistan’s physical security infrastructure. The logic of creating military infrastructure in Tajikistan has been summarized by Beijing-based military expert Li Jie, who noted that, if Chinese forces wish to “eliminate the so-called ‘Three Forces,’ they need to go to their bases of power and take them down. But since the PLA is not familiar with the terrain … bilateral cooperation is the best way to get win-win results.”[72] The foundation for this policy was set in October 2016, when Beijing and Dushanbe reached an agreement on modernizing security infrastructure in their border regions, which reportedly included plans for 11 “outposts of different sizes” and a training center for border guards.[73]

The second pillar is the direct presence of Chinese forces in the country. Tajikistani authorities have repeatedly denied rumors regarding the existence of Chinese military bases in the country.[74] However, in the Murghob District of the GBAO, a Chinese military base (officially a Tajikistani base built to protect Chinese investments) has been operating there for at least four years.[75] Locals have claimed that several hundred Chinese soldiers have been deployed at the base.[76] Further investigations have revealed that the “Chinese soldiers” are in fact representatives of the Chinese People’s Armed Police (中国人民武装警察部队), or PAP.

The paramilitary PAP is responsible for internal security, riot control, antiterrorism, disaster response, law enforcement and maritime rights protection,[77] operating as a rough analogue to Russia’s Rosgvardiya (National Guard). Crucially, in 2021, it was reported that the Tajikistani Interior Ministry and Chinese Public Security Ministry had reached an agreement to go ahead with the construction of a Chinese military base on its border with Afghanistan in the GBAO “to boost regional security.” According to the report, the new base will be owned and operated by Tajikistan’s special forces, the Rapid Reaction Group, with the estimated $10 million in costs financed by China.[78] As noted by Tajik political scientist Parvis Mullojonov in a related comment,

China has a strategic vision. The possibility that it could use these bases for its army in the future cannot be ruled out. For the time being, however, these border posts are there for Afghanistan. … China’s political interests in neighboring countries are the reason why it strives to secure its investments.[79]

Incidentally, Temur Umarov noted in an interview with this author that to protect its interests in the country, China is likely to opt for “power bases.” He noted that talks have progressed on the prospective deployment of between seven to 11 such bases in the country, instead of the direct use of PSCs.[80]

The third of Beijing’s pillars of cooperation with Dushanbe consists of training and military support, which is intended to serve a dual purpose. In addition to dealing with Islamic militants, it also increases China’s influence in the country. Given the state of Tajikistan’s economy and the near-complete collapse of its armed forces and defense industry after 1991, this is especially true. According to local analysts and military experts, Tajikistani military capabilities are still inadequate for the range of challenges faced by the country and therefore require foreign assistance.[81] The intensification of Chinese-Tajikistani military cooperation reached another landmark in 2016, when combined military exercises involving 10,000 men were held in the Pamirs region in the Ishkashim district of the GBAO.[82] A three-day military exercise was repeated in the same area in 2019,[83] which led some international observers to comment that Dushanbe was “increasingly outsourcing its security needs to Beijing.”[84] Furthermore, among the Central Asian states, Tajikistan is the largest recipient of uncompensated Chinese military aid, which now also extends to the construction of military facilities and apartments for Tajikistani military officers.[85]

The fourth Chinese pillar for increasing security (and influence) in Tajikistan is the use of PSCs, a phenomenon likely to grow in significance as China’s BRI projects continue to expand throughout the region. As noted by Lu Guiqing, general manager of the Zhongnan Group, “When you ‘go out,’ safety is the most important.”[86] While there is no firm evidence to indicate that Chinese PSCs are currently operating in Tajikistan, analysis of the Chinese PSC industry points to China Overseas Security Group (中国海外保安集团) and Frontier Services Group as the enterprises best suited for deployment to the country.[87]

In light of a controversial 2011 agreement that reportedly put 1 percent of Tajikistani territory under de facto PRC control, as well as the huge debts owed by Dushanbe, Beijing has significant opportunities to boost its military and paramilitary presence in the country. These opportunities in turn will open up valuable inroads to Afghanistan.[88]

Kyrgyzstan

The range of challenges faced by China in Kyrgyzstan is similar to those found in Tajikistan, with the prospects of terrorism and public unrest being the two main challenges faced in the country. In addition, one must mention anti-Chinese sentiment, which is sometimes accompanied by violence.[89] The incident with arguably the greatest impact on Chinese security perceptions in Kyrgyzstan was the 2016 terrorist attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, which vividly exposed the weaknesses of the Kyrgyzstani security system. As noted at the time by Li Lifan of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, “The attack will almost certainly have security implications for many Chinese projects in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian nations as they become the new linchpin of the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative.” Another commentator, Li Wei of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, predicted that security conditions would worsen “due to collusion between local fundamentalist movements and the exiled Uyghur Muslim extremist groups.”[90]

To deal with these challenges, the Chinese side is likely to rely on two main tools. The first of these consists of exercises and military aid to boost local security capabilities, which were seriously weakened after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Similar to a parallel effort in Tajikistan, the PRC has sponsored an aid program for the construction of apartments for local military officers.[91] The first combined Sino-Kyrgyzstani anti-terrorism exercises were launched in October 2002 near their shared border at the Irkeshtam crossing and involved Kyrgyzstan’s border forces and approximately 300 Chinese troops from Xinjiang.[92]

Later, anti-terrorism training for the Kyrgyzstani Armed Forces was placed primarily under the framework of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization. However, Beijing has maintained a significant role, with ten joint Kyrgyzstani-Chinese training exercises and events being held between 2003 and 2016, and this has been accompanied by the growth of Chinese military aid.[93] A critical milestone was reached in 2019, when a bilateral counterterrorism exercise titled “Cooperation-2019” was launched at a training base in the Xinjiang region, involving members of the PAP and the National Guard of Kyrgyzstan.[94]

Furthermore, the Chinese are likely to employ and put PSCs to test in Kyrgyzstan.[95] Given the lower level of risk in Kyrgyzstan as compared to neighboring Tajikistan, and the general weakness of Chinese PSCs, Bishkek offers a promising testing ground for these companies. Voices arguing for the use of PSCs to protect Chinese nationals in Kyrgyzstan became louder after the outbreak of mass protests, accompanied by violence, in the centrally located Naryn region.[96] These incidents revealed explicit anti-Chinese sentiment and vividly demonstrated difficulties that Chinese businesses have had with protecting their employees and property.[97] In addition to a harsh official statement issued by PRC officials that demanded improved security for Chinese nationals in the country, Chinese businesses have unofficially asked for permission to employ PSCs.[98]

Local commentator Mederbek Korganbayev has written that “in the future China might be able to lobby— through the Kyrgyz Parliament—for a law allowing Chinese investors to use PSCs on the territory of Kyrgyzstan.” The author also presumed that the personnel of Chinese PSCs will be equipped with “ordinance weapons as well as special means [spetsredstva].”[99] Kyrgyzstani officials denied these assertions, calling the article’s assertions “lies” and promising to severely punish those spreading such information.[100]

However, given overall trends, including the growing privatization of security, this prospect does not seem totally unfounded. One of the largest Chinese state-owned enterprises operating in the country, China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation, has concluded an agreement with the Kyrgyzstani government regarding public surveillance. According to local sources, cameras and other gadgets could be used by China “for protection of its interests in case of outbreaks of anti-Chinese demonstrations and provocations aimed against Chinese nationals.”[101]

According to some experts, China Railway Group, the company involved in the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan Railway project, relies on Zhongjun Junhong (中军军弘安保集团), one of the largest Chinese PSCs, which has had a branch in Kyrgyzstan since 2016.[102] This PSC has reportedly secured more than 20 Chinese clients in Kyrgyzstan. In addition to China Railway Engineering Group, these clients include Sinohydro, Huawei Technologies and Sanmenxia Luqiao Construction Group.[103]

However, speaking about the prospects of Chinese PSCs, Temur Umarov pointed to a certain duality that could direct their development within Kyrgyzstan. On the one hand, he noted that the use of PSCs in Kyrgyzstan—a country that has a track record of public protests and the undeniable readiness of the local population to openly voice its discontent with governmental policies—might prove to be somewhat challenging for China down the road. He also noted that in the event of new protests, there is no guarantee that local security and police forces would not join the protesters. At the same time, however, Umarov argued that the local political elite, an important factor in attracting Chinese capital and large infrastructural projects, may be willing to turn a blind eye to Beijing`s interest in using its PSCs within the country.

 

Conclusion: Prospects for China’s Use of PSCs in Central Asia

In early 2019, prominent Russian Sinologist Alexey Maslov argued that, for the time being, the PRC is experimenting with building military facilities abroad, remaining cautious of international deployments of its PSCs. However, according to Maslov, the Chinese “are not good in either element … [and only after] they have acquired the necessary skills … will it be possible to talk about full-fledged large-scale actions.”[104] That being said, more recent studies paint a more complex picture. While the total number of Chinese PSCs operating in Central Asia remains unknown, some studies suggested that, in 2021, at least six Chinese PSCs were known to be operating in the region. Information pertaining to activities of Chinese PSCs in Kyrgyzstan published by The Oxus Society analytical center is worth mentioning in this regard.[105]

 

Table 1. Chinese PSCs Operating in Kyrgyzstan

Client-Company

Physical Location and Area of ResponsibilityName of Chinese PSC
ZijinTaldy-Bulak (Kyrgyzstan), Gold and Copper DepositsZhongjun Junhong[106] (中军军弘保安服务有限公司是大功) (Specific Services Are Unknown)
China National Gold CorporationKuru-Tegerek (Kyrgyzstan), Gold and Copper DepositsUnknown
Shaanxi Coal and Chemical IndustryKara-Balta (Kyrgyzstan), Oil RefineryUnknown
Xinjiang Guoji ShiyeTokmok (Kyrgyzstan), Oil RefineryUnknown
Tebian Electric ApparatusMajor Projects for Chinese EximbankUnknown
Central Asia Gas Pipeline Company (Branch of China National Petroleum Corporation)Line D of the Central Asia–China Gas Pipeline, Trans-Tajik Gas Pipeline CompanyUnknown
Jufeng Industry GroupResearch and Exploration of Gold/Rare Earth Metals

Zhongjun Junhong

 

Based on this information and previous studies, it would be reasonable to argue that the activities of Chinese PSCs in Central Asia are likely to increase, potentially covering new geographic locations and becoming more sophisticated in terms of those sectors they will be involved in. While the countries in the region and their political elite may indeed be worried about the expansion of PSCs’ operations in their countries and thus may be prone to adopting laws to curb such operations, Chinese PSCs will most likely try to use “names that conceal their real functions.”[107]

Meanwhile, two additional factors should not be downplayed. First, the aforementioned strategic and growing economic dependency on China, coupled with overarching indebtedness, make the Central Asian states increasingly dependent on China in the economic sphere. Given the growing number of large economic projects (which now extend beyond the hydrocarbon sector) and security-related challenges faced by the region, the proliferation of Chinese PSCs in the region should be expected. Second, in terms of security, the configuration of the post-1991 informal “arrangement,” by which China operates as an economic power and Russia as a security guarantor in the region, is likely to change. Moscow’s humiliating military performance in the first months of its war against Ukraine has exposed multiple weaknesses and gaps in Russia’s defense complex and security architecture. Irrespective of the outcome of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s focus will undoubtedly shift to postwar reconstruction and overcoming the imminent socioeconomic challenges posed by its growing isolation, thus leaving Central Asia off the scope of the Kremlin’s vital interests. While Russia’s presence and influence in the region has been progressively eroding since 1991, Moscow’s war against Ukraine and its accompanying developments will only accelerate this process, granting more room for maneuver to China.

 

Notes

[1]Raffaello Pantucci, written interview with author, November 4, 2022.

[2]Pantucci, written interview with author.

[3]Temur Umarov, video interview with author, October 19, 2022.

[4]According to many experts, “Inner Asia” includes Mongolia, Manchuria and parts of Iran.

[5]Joshua J. Mark, “Silk Road,” World History, May 1, 2018, https://www.worldhistory.org/Silk_Road/.

[6]Morris Rossabi, “Central Asia: A Historical Overview,” Asia Society, accessed on 1 October, 2022, https://asiasociety.org/central-asia-historical-overview.

[7]China Through a Lens, “The Development of Western China,” accessed on 15 September, 2022, http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/38260.htm#:~:text=In%202000%20China%20started%20a%20develop-the-west%20campaign.%20The,made%20the%20western%20region%20a%20hot%20investment%20spot.

[8]Susana A. Thornton, “China in Central Asia: Is China Winning the ‘New Great Game?,’” Brookings Institution, June 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/FP_20200615_china_central_asia_thornton.pdf.

[9]Paul Goble, “Beijing Expanding Size and Role of Its ‘Private’ Military Companies in Central Asia,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 18, no. 115 (July 20, 2021), https://jamestown.org/program/beijing-expanding-size-and-role-of-its-private-military-companies-in-central-asia/.

[10]Temur Umarov, “China Looms Large in Central Asia,” Carnegie Moscow, March 30, 2020, https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/81402.

[11]Gazeta.uz, “Foto: Uchenija Natsgvardii Narodnoj militsii KItaja,” May 7, 2019, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2019/05/07/gvardiya/.

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[80]Umarov, video interview.

[81]StanRadar, “Tajikskoj armii ispolnilos 27 let: dostizhenija I slabyje mesta,” February 25, 2020, https://stanradar.com/news/full/38444-tadzhikskoj-armii-ispolnilos-27-let-dostizhenija-i-slabye-mesta.html.

[82]“Kitaj I ego rol w bezopasnosti w Tsentralnoj Azii”, 22 April, 2020, https://riss.ru/smi/67400/.

[83] Ibid.

[84]Eurasianet, “Tajikistan, China to Hold Another Joint Military Drill in Pamirs,” July 9, 2019, https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-china-to-hold-another-joint-military-drill-in-pamirs.

[85]President of the Republic of Tajikistan, “Otkrytije Doma oficerov Ministerstva oborony Respubliki Tajikistan,” May 5, 2016, http://www.president.tj/ru/node/11653.

[86]South China Morning Post, “Security Firms to Cash in Protecting China’s ‘New Silk Road,’” April 24, 2017, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2090033/security-firms-cash-protecting-chinas-new-silk-road.

[87]Sergey Sukhankin, “Chinese Private Security Contractors: New Trends and Future Prospects,” China Brief 20, no. 9 (May 15, 2020), https://jamestown.org/program/chinese-private-security-contractors-new-trends-and-future-prospects/.

[88]Vesti.kz, “Tajikistan otdal Kitaju odin procent svojej zemli,” October 4, 2011, https://vesti.kz/polit/tadjikistan-otdal-kitayu-odin-protsent-svoey-zemli-93785/.

[89]Forbes.kz, “’Odin pojas, odin put’: Strany Tsentralnoj Azii zagoniajut w lowushku dolgov,” September 18, 2019, https://forbes.kz/process/expertise/odin_poyas_odin_put_stranyi_tsentralnoy_azii_zagonyayut_v_lovushku_dolgov/.

[90]Shi Jiangtao and Liu Zhen, “The Weakest Links: Bishkek Attack Exposes Security risks for Chinese projects in Central Asia,” South China Morning Post, September 1, 2016, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2011911/weakest-links-bishkek-attack-exposes-security-risks.

[91]Sputnik, “Kyrgyzstan poluchit ot Kitaja $14,5 millionov w kachestve wojennoj pomoshi,” March 22, 2017, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/asia/20170322/1021908111/kyrgyzstan-poluchit-kitaya-voyennuyu-pomoshch.html.

[92]“China and Kyrgyzstan Launch Anti-Terrorism Exercises,” October 11, 2002, http://www.china.org.cn/english/international/45570.htm.

[93]Joshua Kucera, “China Boosts Military Aid To Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,” Eurasianet, September 4, 2014, https://www.refworld.org/docid/5486fe6e4.html.

[94]Xinhua, “1st China-Kyrgyzstan Joint Counter-Terrorism Exercise,” August 7, 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-08/07/c_138290561.htm.

[95]Sukhankin, “Chinese Private Security Contractors.”

[96]“Kyrgyzstan: Violent Protest in Naryn Region August 5,” August 6, 2019, https://crisis24.garda.com/alerts/2019/08/kyrgyzstan-violent-protest-in-naryn-region-august-5.

[97]Knews, “SMI: Malenkije ‘armii’ bojtsov iz KNR budut okhraniat kitajtsev w Kyrgyzstane. Wozmozno li eto?,” August 26, 2019, https://knews.kg/2019/08/26/smi-malenkie-armii-bojtsov-iz-knr-budut-ohranyat-kitajtsev-v-kyrgyzstane-vozmozhno-li-eto/.

[98]Forbes.kz, “’Odin pojas, odin put’: Strany Tsentralnoj Azii zagoniajut w lowushku dolgov,” September 18, 2019, https://forbes.kz/process/expertise/odin_poyas_odin_put_stranyi_tsentralnoy_azii_zagonyayut_v_lovushku_dolgov/.

[99]“Kitajskije ‘spetsy’ zajmutsia okhranoj interesov KNR w Kirgizii,” August 25, 2019, https://centralasia.news/4802-kitajskie-specy-zajmutsja-ohranoj-interesov-investorov-knr-v-kirgizii.html.

[100]Kaktus Media, “Wooruzhennyje kitajcy budut okhraniat interesy investorov w KR?,” August 26, 2019, https://kaktus.media/doc/396801_vooryjennye_kitaycy_bydyt_ohraniat_interesy_investorov_v_kr_faktchek_kaktus.media.html.

[101]Andrey Kniazev, “Kitajtsy sami budut okharniat svoi objekty w Kyrgyzstane: Pravda ili fake?,” Ia-centr.ru, September 1, 2019, https://ia-centr.ru/experts/andrey-knyazev/kitaytsy-sami-budut-okhranyat-svoi-obekty-v-kyrgyzstane-pravda-ili-feyk/.

[102] “《中国保安》专题报道:“一带一路”倡议下,“走出去”的中军军弘!”, [“China Security” Special Report: Under the “Belt and Road” Initiative, the Chinese Military “Going Out” Junhong!], April 26, 2019, https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/skdYlbURnwn1sJP2QgMHZw.

[103]Yan, “Chinese Private Security Moves Into Central Asia.”

[104]Afghanistan.ru, “Aktivnost vblizi Afghanistana stala priznakom peremen w politike Kitaja,” February 25, 2019, https://afghanistan.ru/doc/127080.html.

[105]Tazabek, “’Strazhniki Podnebesnoii’ – Kak chastnyje wojennyje kompanii zashishajut kitajskii kapital w Tsentralnoii Azii,” August 15, 2022, https://www.tazabek.kg/news:1798580.

[106]Zhongjun Junhong Security Service, “Overseas Security Guardians: About Us,” accessed November 19, 2022, https://www.zjjhgroup.com/en/.

[107]Paul Goble, “Chinese ‘Private Military Companies’ Now So Active in Central Asia that Many are Going Under Cover to Avoid Detection,” Window on Eurasia, August 25, 2022, https://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2022/08/chinese-private-military-companies-now.html.