On June 15, People’s Republic of China (PRC) Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng (乐玉成) held consultations via video with Turkmenistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Hajiyev. During the meeting, two main topics were discussed: the first was reaffirming the strategic nature of bilateral ties between the two countries, and the second consisted of Hajiyev expressing Turkmenistan’s commitment to further promote the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Belt and Road News, June 15). Earlier in March, PRC State Councilor and former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪) stated during a trip through Central Asia that China and regional countries had reaffirmed their determination to deepen cooperation through the BRI. He specifically highlighted the determination of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to “push forward cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative and further increase economic connectivity” (Belt and Road News, March 6).
The PRC clearly views Central Asia as a key region for the BRI, its cornerstone foreign policy initiative. Beijing’s ambitious plans in the region—one that holds a key strategic geopolitical location, as well as abundant natural resources—could be hampered by a number of different factors. Among these are security-related concerns that might jeopardize China’s massive economic and diplomatic investments in the region. The region is diverse, but the main advantage for Beijing—which historically prioritizes an individual state-to-state approach to foreign relations—is that it is dealing with five countries who are weak and disunited politically, militarily, and economically. 
This article—the first in a planned short series—will examine why Central Asia is so strategically important for the realization of Beijing’s goals in the land-based countries of the BRI, as well as considering some of the perspectives expressed within Central Asian countries themselves.
Beijing’s Views on the Geopolitical Importance of Central Asia
Beijing’s view of Central Asia is best expressed in a 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 / dong wen, bei qiang, nan xia, xi jin), which perceives Central Asia to be a strategic theater for China`s geopolitical advancement (Xinhua, December 18, 2012). The strategic importance of the region is highlighted not only by the attention given to it by PRC government agencies, but also by the existence of more than thirty 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 (CAA Network, June 27, 2019).
In summarizing the role of Central Asia in Beijing’s plans—and the region’s role in the BRI, in particular—three main categories of concerns may be identified. The first of these is natural resources: Beijing’s geo-economic calculations in Central Asia are premised on the region’s abundance of mineral and other raw materials instrumental for China’s economy. As noted by Kubanychbek Toktorbayev, a senior researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies (NISS) of the Kyrgyz Republic, “The Chinese leadership quickly realized that the Central Asian region would play a role of a ‘strategic home front’ [for China]… Beijing has recognized the importance of Central Asia as a resource provider for the Chinese economy” (Iwep.kz, September 9, 2019).
Second, the PRC is reliant upon Central Asia as the main land corridor in the BRI. The region is a critical transportation hub and a bridge to other lucrative markets, including Western Asia, the Gulf Region, Russia, and the European Union (EU). The Chinese side aims to connect domestic producers with these markets through a complex network of highways and railways. Out of six proposed mega transportation arteries that are to form the land-based part of the BRI—the “New Eurasian Land Bridge” (NELB), the “China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor” (CMREC), the “China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor” (CCWAEC), the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC), the “China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor” (CICPEC), and the “Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor” (BCIMEC)—Central Asia plays a crucial role in four of them (Xinhua, May 9, 2017; Belt and Road News, April 16).
China’s Focus on the “Three Evils” and Regional Security in Central Asia
The PRC’s third area of focus is that of national security, wherein Beijing fears that Central Asia could become a base of support for the so-called “Three Evils” (or “Three Forces”) (三股势力, San Gu Shili): terrorism (恐怖主义, kongbu zhuyi), separatism (分裂主义, fenlie zhuyi) and extremism (极端主义, jiduan zhuyi). PRC media and officials have identified terrorists and religious extremists operating in Central Asian states—to include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jamaat Ansarullah, and Islamic Jihad Union—as threats to Chinese nationals both inside and beyond China (Belt and Road News, February 18, 2019).
Beijing views with alarm militant activity in Central Asian countries. According to one Chinese researcher, Kazakhstan has more than 23 terrorist/extremist groups; Kyrgyzstan has detained approximately 520 radicals, while Tajikistan has detained more than 13,000, and Uzbekistan has detained 18,000; and in Turkmenistan, approximately 360 nationals have taken part in the Syrian Civil War and Iraq War. This trend could increase due to economic challenges and alarming trends in unstable Afghanistan, where many members of Central Asian extremist groups are undergoing training in terrorist camps (Zouchuqu Daohang Wang, April 22). Tajikistan, in particular, is seen as a buffer zone between the PRC and Central Asian militant groups, as well as between war-torn Afghanistan and China`s own potentially rebellious Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The PRC perceives Tajikistan as a vital “stronghold” against these threats (Polit-asia.kz, August 16, 2018).
Beijing has sought multiple means to address this threat. Between 2015 – 2020, China made significant investments in security in Central Asia, expanding to 18 percent its share of the region’s arms deliveries.  The PRC has also strengthened security coordination with Central Asian countries through events such as the “Cooperation-2019” (协作-2019, Xiezuo-2019) anti-terrorism exercise, which was held in August 2019 between Chinese and Tajik forces (CCTV, August 16, 2019). The PRC is also considering new measures for the protection of Chinese BRI investments in Asia, to include the greater use of private security companies (PSCs) such as the Frontier Services Group (FSG), which has been constructing a training camp in Xinjiang (Polit-asia.kz, October 13, 2019; China Brief, May 15).
Viewpoints in Central Asia—and the Growth of Anti-Chinese Sentiment
Many commentators in Central Asia, particularly Tajik and Kyrgyz experts, have issued positive assessments of the BRI and its benefits to their countries. However, others have raised concerns. For example, Bakhtiyor Ergashev, director of the Ma’no Research Initiatives Center in Uzbekistan, stated in 2017 that:
[Much] has been said…about mutually beneficial solutions, equality and non-interference in domestic affairs as key principles of Chinese policy, but this has got nothing to do with reality. We can see that Chinese private military companies are securing deposits [of natural gas] in Turkmenistan… It is now openly discussed that Chinese special forces are to protect zones of the Kashgar-Gwadar route.  This is a blow against national sovereignty… I hope that this will not happen in Uzbekistan, and that Chinese PMCs will not be allowed to work on our territory (Expertonline.kz, August 24, 2017).
Konstantin Syroezkin, a prominent Kazakhstani Sinologist and a Senior Research Fellow at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies (KISI), has argued that Chinese advancement in Central Asia is “[B]ased on geopolitical calculations that clearly prevail over economics… I have not seen a single [example of] Chinese research proving economic profitability [of the BRI]” (Expertonline.kz, August 24, 2017).
Amid increasing Chinese presence, Sinophobia has been rapidly spreading in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan (Polit-asia.kz, September 11, 2019). Part of this results from routine conflicts between Chinese nationals and locals—sometimes accompanied by violence—that stem from inequalities (pay conditions, unequal treatment, instances of abuse) found within Chinese-owned businesses. While this is by no means a new phenomenon (Diapazon.kz, September 23, 2010), these tendencies have increased so much that some local sources have called 2019 “the year of anti-Chinese moods in Kazakhstan” (Central Asia News, January 17).
Anti-Chinese sentiments (and actions) in Central Asia have grown even more in the wake of developments in Xinjiang. In addition to its Uyghur population, Xinjiang is a 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 (China Brief, May 15, 2018) have triggered mass protests in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, accompanied by demands to get rid of Chinese influence (Ca-portal.ru, October 14, 2019). Furthermore, anti-Chinese feelings (accompanied by protests) have also grown as the result of corruption in the border control areas, in which local (Kyrgyz and Kazakhstani) authorities have been implicated in corruption-related scandals (document forgery, bribery, etc.) connected to China (Occrp.org, December 25, 2019; Carnegie.ru, March 25).
By betting on Central Asia as a key land-based route of its extremely ambitious BRI project, China is facing a range of challenges and tough choices. Without adequate security measures, Chinese economic engagement in this highly unstable region is very risky. At the same time, Chinese attempts to increase military and other security cooperation with regional players will be viewed with growing uneasiness and apprehension by many local actors. Maintaining an equilibrium will be difficult to achieve, but necessary if the continental Asian corridor of the BRI is to become fully functional.
Dr. Sergey Sukhankin is a Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, and an Advisor at Gulf State Analytics (Washington, D.C.). He received his PhD in Contemporary Political and Social History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. His areas of interest include Kaliningrad and the Baltic Sea region, Russian information and cyber security, A2/AD and its interpretation in Russia, the Arctic region, and the development of Russian private military companies since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. He has consulted or briefed with CSIS (Canada), DIA (USA), and the European Parliament. He is based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
 Kamran Gasanov, Problemi Obespecheniya Bezopasnosti Marshruta ‘Novogo Shelkovogo Puti’ Cherez Tsentralnoaziatskii Region [Problems with Securing the ‘New Silk Road’ Route through the Central Asian Region], Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN University), Postsovetsike Issledovaniya, Vol.3, #2, Moscow (2020).
 This sharply contrasts with the PRC’s 1.5 percent share in the region’s arms market during the antecedent five-year period (2010 – 2014). See: Bradley Jardine & Edward Lemon, “In Russia’s Shadow: China’s Rising Security Presence in Central Asia,” Wilson Center (May 2020). https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/kennan-cable-no-52-russias-shadow-chinas-rising-security-presence-central-asia.
 Those talks amplified after an attack committed by the Baloch Liberation Army against Chinese nationals in early 2019. See: Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “Balochistan Liberation Army Launches Fresh Attack on Chinese Interests in Gwadar”, The Economic Times, May 12, 2019. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/baloch-liberation-army-launches-fresh-attack-on-chinese-interests-in-gwadar/articleshow/69297997.cms.