After the collapse of the Soviet Union the newly independent countries of the Central Asian region for the first time in their modern history looked beyond the iron curtain with which they were isolated from the world within the Soviet era. They quickly remembered that in ancient times they were an important part of what today can be called a global system of communication and trade – the Great Silk Road, which connected China to Europe through the Eurasian continent. Central Asian countries desperately needed to break their newly land-locked status. Forming a trade path from East to West was part of their unique selling point. However, such a position is not merely their geographical destiny. It is also a geopolitical condition due to the fact that unlocking the region depends largely on neighboring great powers – namely China and Russia. But interestingly, the opening and unlocking of Central Asia appears to be a more complicated and protracted process than expected, in which the ‘Modern Silk Road’ needs to balance multiple national interests. Continue reading →
It’s often received wisdom that Chinese companies mainly employ Chinese workers on their projects in Central Asia (for example David Lewis of Exeter University recently on the Majlis podcast). This view fails to recognise that Chinese companies have been localising for some time, and that old narratives on Chinese labour practices in Central Asia need to be reexamined.
There is significant evidence of Chinese companies employing Central Asians, particularly in labouring, clerical and interpreting jobs. Criticism of a lack of opportunities in management and technical positions is probably justified but some companies, such as Huawei, offer opportunities at that level too.
Chinese firms are acutely aware of the public relations benefits of hiring (or being seen to hire) locals. Most of the big Chinese projects now purport to employ a significant number of Central Asians. For example, Xinjiang Zhongtai claims that it will employ more than 3000 locals at a textile park it is constructing in Dangara, Tajikistan. These kind of statements are repeated again and again on cement plants, mining companies and oil refineries etc. Continue reading →
On Li Keqiang’s recent visit to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the economic emphasis in discussions was China’s objective of helping to increase the countries’ “production capacity.” Building up production capacity is crucial to Central Asia’s ability to boost exports. This will facilitate the trade promotion that accompanies all China’s engagement on the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which will be key to the projects’ long-term success. This is particularly true if China is serious about the project being “win-win.”
During past interviews in Central Asia with experts examining the SREB, concerns were repeatedly raised regarding the lack of clarity on how Central Asian populations will benefit from the project. There is a perceived risk that the “corridors” of China’s overall BRI will mainly provide China with benefits through the transport of resources to China or Chinese goods passing through Asia. It may also benefit political elites, who negotiate many of the deals with Beijing, and who may be in charge of the large state-owned enterprises participating in them. If tangible benefits are not identified and communicated to local populations, then the SREB will not only fail to reach its full potential; it could also raise suspicions that this is more of a geopolitical project than China says, with China benefiting far more than the Central Asian populations and gaining further leverage over the region’s political elites through economic influence. Continue reading →
The recent terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan, considered to be the most stable and prosperous state in Central Asia, followed by the assault on the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan exposed the vulnerability of the domestic and regional security environment. In addition to that, the ongoing power transition in Uzbekistan and Taliban activity near the Afghan-Tajik border raise serious security questions among geopolitical heavyweights such as Russia and China. Continue reading →
There has been much speculation on the role of the Silk Road Fund (SRF) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in China’s outward investment push.
They are both instruments created by Beijing to provide economic firepower and bring international credibility to the ‘Belt and Road’ vision that has become President Xi Jinping’s keynote foreign policy concept. But in reality they have both undertaken a series of investments that, while substantial and linked to ‘Belt and Road’ countries, pale in size next to China’s overall outward investments.
While the AIIB has quite clearly been subsumed into the ‘Belt and Road’ project, the SRF has so far largely focused on commercial projects which are focused on profit rather than national strategy. Continue reading →
Back in the late 1990s, then-PRC President and Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin noticed that the country was facing an imbalance. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had opened up the coastal cities, transforming them into beacons of international industry and development. Cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou were on their way to becoming international hubs. And yet looking inland, the difference was stark, with parts of the centre or border regions with neighbouring Southeast, South and Central Asia remaining poor and underdeveloped. Seeking to rectify this, and in part to help Chinese companies go out, Jiang Zemin instigated a ‘Develop the West’ or ‘Great Western Development’ strategies.
Academics like Zheng Xinli came back from their travels along China’s borderlands with southeast Asia with ideas of developing multilateral institutions that would help address one of the key problems in the region, a lack of infrastructure to help accelerate trade between parts of the world that were already deeply economically interdependent. To China’s west, the problems were political and had a security bent to them thanks to the proximity of Afghanistan, historical conflicts with Russia and an angry resident Uighur population. As the Soviet Union fell apart, China accelerated a process of border demarcation going on between itself, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into a process called the ‘Shanghai Five’ – named after the city in which they met. The priority was largely to define what China’s borders were, with a later attempt to move the discussion towards other economic and political goals. Continue reading →
Islam Karimov’s death is the realisation of a regional concern that many have long worried about: succession amongst leaders of the Central Asian states. The question of who comes next has been a persistent concern, particularly in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Beijing is not immune to these worrries. On every visit to Beijing in which Central Asia has been a focus of discussions, there have been inevitable conversations with Chinese Central Asia analysts who have been particularly perplexed about what might happen in a post-Karimov Uzbekistan. Yet, now that this scenario has arrived, China seems unperturbed and experts spoken to seem equally unconcerned. Seen from Beijing, Uzbekistan post-Karimov is a case of business as usual.
The vast Chinese northwestern frontier region of Xinjiang may serve as a useful early indicator of how Beijing’s much-touted “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) is supposed to work – and how successful it may become.
The region, which is home to several muslim minority peoples, has been wracked by ethnic turmoil for decades, prompting Beijing to seek to nurture social stability by driving economic development through hefty investments.
But for this strategy to gain traction, Beijing realised that it needed to boost development in the region around Xinjiang by building commercial corridors to neighbouring Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Thus, Xinjiang was key motivator behind the BRI concept.
But so far the results have been underwhelming. In the three years since the forerunner of the BRI was launched, Xinjiang’s trade volume has not increased and it still constitutes an unchanging portion of total Chinese trade with Central Asia (see chart). This discrepancy between action and results raises questions about whether the BRI is a turning point in Chinese economic policy or simply old wine in a new bottle.
At the end of May 2016, Kazakhstan experienced unexpected protests sparked by proposed amendments to the Land Law adopted in 2014 that were to enter into force in June 2016. The changes would have allowed foreigners to rent agricultural land for 25 years, up from the previous 10. There was some misunderstanding over an assumption that the amendments would allow foreigners to own land, which officials say is not the case. It is unlikely, however, that these changes to the law were the primary cause for the protests, instead reflecting underlying discontent with government actions and a popular fear of growing Chinese economic influence in the country.
A major underlying reason for popular discontent was the state of the economy, given that the price of oil had crashed and the Russian economy with it. This led to the devaluation of the Kazakh tenge, and a reduction in the value of savings, salaries, and social benefits. This, along with historical Kazakhstani fears of a more powerful China that might expand its territory into Central Asia under the cover of land deals, were the main significant contributing factors that led people to the streets. The amendments to the national law simply snapped the patience of Kazakhstanis with the state of economy and unsatisfactory government service. Continue reading →
In March 2016, RUSI, in collaboration with the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) hosted a workshop in New Delhi to discuss the challenges of connectivity facing China’s strategic Belt and Road vision, which aims to connect Central Asia and develop strategic economic corridors across the region.
The workshop covered the different economic corridor concepts initiated by China and India and their aim of enhanced connectivity in Central and South Asia, how such visions will be realised and how they could enhance the security and economic development of the region.
The report summarises these discussions and provides insights into co-operation between China and its regional partners.
China’s rise in Central Asia marks one of the most consequential changes in regional geopolitics since the turn of the century.
China announced that it intended to be a major player in Central Asia back in September 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech in Astana that inaugurated the “Belt and Road” vision — the most dominant expression of Chinese foreign policy from his administration. Yet this declaration notwithstanding, it remains unclear whether Beijing has a coherent vision for Central Asia. Instead, Beijing continues to grow into a role of regional prominence without a clear plan to manage the ramifications of its growing role.
The narrative of spreading Chinese influence throughout the region is not new. Indicators of China’s influence are plentiful. Markets are full of Chinese products, infrastructure is heavily built by Chinese firms with Chinese loans, leadership visits — either Chinese to the region or regional to China — are followed by announcements of massive deals being signed, and increasingly China is playing a more prominent role in regional security questions. Even so, China remains a hesitant regional actor, and is keen to continue casting itself as subordinate to Russia. Beijing is also eager to avoid becoming embroiled in inevitable regional economic and political complications.
Most recently, these complications have manifested themselves as protests in Kazakhstan, where locals have expressed anger at the government’s decision to change legislation governing foreigners’ ability to rent land for lengthy periods of time. Public anger is rooted mostly in concerns that Chinese firms will exploit this legislation to slowly lease ever larger tracts of Kazakhstani land. Such problems have arisen in the past. In 2009, for example, when President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced a leasing arrangement, Chinese and Tajik censors blocked references in the media to a similar deal in Tajikistan in 2011. Continue reading →
In November of last year, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao visited Kabul to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and China. The most senior level visit to Kabul by a Chinese official since the now-defenestrated former Politburo member and security minister Zhou Yongkang visited in 2012 the visit showed China’s continuing commitment to Afghanistan, whilst also highlighting its limits. Sitting awkwardly in President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision, Afghanistan remains a foreign policy conundrum to China who continues to see the potential risks from the neighbouring country, but that Beijing understands it has a particularly central potential role to play and whose proximity negates a completely detached approach. The result has been a hedging policy in which China continues to show some level of commitment towards Afghanistan whilst not going so far as to taking on the mantle of leadership.
The Belt and Road
One of the central topics of conversation during Vice President Li’s visit to Kabul was the ‘Belt and Road’ concept. In official read-outs from the meetings, both sides agreed to work on cooperatively to help develop Afghanistan’s role in the vision and thereby deepen the link between China and Afghanistan. ‘Belt and Road’ is the term used to describe the vision laid out by President Xi Jinping that is on its way to becoming his defining foreign policy legacy. First publicly raised during a visit to Astana, Kazakhstan in September 2013 when President Xi coined the term ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ to describe the trade, infrastructure and economic corridor emanating from China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang through Central Asia ultimately to European markets. The next month during a speech at the Indonesian Parliament he built on this characterization to announce the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road that recreated the land model advanced across Eurasia out from China’s ports to the seas. Over the next few months these trade corridors proliferated as a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, China-Mongolia-Russia corridor and a New Eurasian Landbridge were all increasingly discussed. In fact, the Pakistan corridor was one that had been agreed prior to the September speech and had been raised during a visit by Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Pakistan in May 2013 and signed in MoU form on a return visit by President Nawaz Sharif in July 2013. But the corridor was only later identified and absorbed under the logic of the grander vision. The logic of these various routes was largely the same and drew from the same structure as the Silk Road Economic Belt laid out in Astana, but over time was increasingly all captured under the rubric of the ‘One Belt and One Road’ (OBOR) and is now abbreviated to the ‘Belt and Road.’ Continue reading →
The Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) builds on China’s long-standing economic investment in Central Asia, and it has the potential to further develop Central Asian economies. However, China’s historical track record of investment engagement in the region raises concerns that the SREB could instead exacerbate economic inequalities and poor governance.
China has long been a key driver of infrastructure investment and construction in Central Asia, covering a wide range of sectors. It has invested heavily in the region’s natural resource extraction, with gas, oil, uranium, gold and copper making up key exports from the region. Continue reading →
Despite the significant rise of China’s economic influence in the region, Russia continues to maintain its political leverage in Central Asia. In contrast to China, it explicitly states its intention to keep its grip on this influence, as highlighted by Medvedev’s speech in 2008. This declared commitment to preserving Russia’s ‘spheres of privileged influence’ certainly includes Central Asia. The key aim for Russia is to ensure, at least in theory, loyalty to the Russian government, seeking countries it can depend on for support. The various alliances Russia plays a crucial role in alongside the Central Asian states, such as the EEU, SCO, CSTO and CIS, also have a utility of legitimizing Russia’s position in a visibly multipolar world. Indeed, the SCO is a platform shared with China, but they all act as a way of overtly demonstrating structural equivalents of Western-dominated organizations such as the EU and NATO.
The Ukraine crisis has undermined Russia’s legitimacy by raising suspicions for both Central Asia and China about Russian intentions in the region. The prevention of color revolutions, which was enshrined in the recently updated version of Russia’s Military Doctrine, has potential implications across the former Soviet space. Indeed, Russia’s commitment to protect Russian- speakers and ethnic Russians abroad causes concern for Central Asians. Although Russia has almost exclusively acted on this in the more Western-leaning post-Soviet countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia, a speech by Putin that addressed Kazakhstan was provocative in light of events in Ukraine. Not only did Putin praise Nazarbayev, but he also highlighted that Kazakhs realized the value of being part of the “greater Russian world,” which raised alarm bells in Astana. Russia has proven it has no issues in leveraging its position over former Soviet states for certain self-interested strategic purposes. Continue reading →
China’s rise has been the major change to the Central Asian foreign policy environment over the past decade. Yet despite China being a major trader, investor and source of aid for the region, specialist knowledge of China among Central Asian governments, business people and academics remains limited. There are signs that this is changing somewhat in business, but much more slowly in government and academia.
For the last three months I have been in Central Asia, interviewing government officials, scholars, and business people about China’s influence in the region. The lack of China specialists was most clear in academia. Every scholar I interviewed openly acknowledged that there are very few China specialists working in Central Asia. There are several identifiable Sinologists in the region, such as Constantine Syroezhkin at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies in Astana, but they remain small in number. During an interview in Tajikistan, an academic responded to the question “Is Tajikistan prepared for China’s rise?” by saying “we don’t have a clue…how could we?” On another occasion I asked an interviewee in Bishkek to help set up interviews with China specialists. The answer: “Sure…but who to ask.” Continue reading →