China’s Strategic Presence in Central Asia

By Sarah Lain

First published by IHS Jane’s, August 2014

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Russia-China joint anti terror training October 20, 2014. Photo by China Central TV

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of IHS Jane’s)

China’s northwestern Xinjiang province has again made headlines in 2014, largely because of a number of brutal attacks carried out by militants within the province’s Muslim Uighur population. Among the most notable attacks, 29 people were killed in a 1 March knife attack at a train station in Kunming; on 22 May, 39 people were killed in a market attack in Xinjiang’s capital, Ürümqi; and in July, the Chinese authorities reported that 59 “terrorists” and 37 civilians had been killed in Shache county during an attack on a police station, followed by the murder of a Uighur imam.

The death toll among the militants may, in reality, be much higher as a result of the authorities’ hardline security response. Although the Chinese government interprets such attacks as a product of religious extremism, many Uighurs view them as protests against the discrimination they experience at the hands of the authorities.

In an attempt to address the problem, Chinese President Xi Jinping has articulated an economic and security policy centred on Xinjiang. The province is to become the economic gateway to Eurasia, as part of a grand vision of trade and infrastructure links eventually stretching to Europe. The Central Asian countries are crucial to this plan.

The promotion of economic and security cooperation between China and Central Asia is not a new concept. Neither, in reality, is this economic relationship exclusively focused on Xinjiang: Central Asia offers a significant market for Chinese consumer goods, such as footwear and clothing, and also supplies much-needed oil and gas to the Chinese powerhouse as a whole.

However, China’s long-term strategic relationship with Central Asia services the main focus of its approach to settling Xinjiang’s problems: prosperity, and thus stability, are the objectives that should result from the dual approach of economic development and strengthened security. A similarly wealthy and secure neighbouring Central Asia would be necessary to facilitate this.

China has already invested heavily in the energy and transport infrastructure of the five Central Asian countries. Chinese state-owned oil and gas company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) built the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline, bringing gas from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. CNPC also helped to build and fund the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline. Both of these networks enter China through Xinjiang.

China has also been active already in developing Central Asia’s transport infrastructure. It upgraded Tajikistan’s Dushanbe-Chanak highway with a USD 280 million Chinese loan. Despite this existing investment, Xi has rhetorically re-emphasised and reinforced Central Asia’s strategic importance. This has been expressed within the framework of China’s new foreign policy vision, dubbed the Silk Road Economic Belt.

In September 2013, Xi completed a tour of four of the five Central Asian countries. During this trip he signed 38 long-term trade and infrastructure development deals worth approximately USD 51 billion. Some of these included building on existing economic projects, such as construction of the fourth branch of the Central Asia–China gas pipeline.

Xi also framed these trade and investment deals as part of a broader regional cooperative effort to construct the Silk Road Economic Belt. Articulated in a speech at Nazarbaev University in Kazakhstan on 7 September 2013, the essence of this Belt is to build far-reaching infrastructure and trade routes, enhanced by cultural understanding, aimed at maximising prosperity in the region. Xi emphasised the importance of Central Asia’s role in China’s vision by saying “it is a foreign policy priority for China to develop friendly cooperative relations with the Central Asian countries”.

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Xi Jinping unveiled the Silk Road Economic Belt concept last year at Nazarbaev University. Photo by Xinhua News Agency

Apart from economic relations, the second part of China’s two-pronged strategic approach to Central Asia relates to security. China is concerned about any instability emanating from Central Asia that could influence Xinjiang. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have their own Uighur communities, with organisations such as Ittipak having an active presence in Kyrgyzstan to preserve Uighur culture and to promote Uighur rights. China views such solidarity with Uighur grievances outside China as potentially inflammatory to domestic Uighur activism.

A more overt threat emanates from militant organisations such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). China fears that such groups could provide military support to the Uighurs, who share their religion and willingness to use violence to express their disillusionment with the status quo. A key concern for Beijing is therefore the use of Central Asia as a springboard for disruption in Xinjiang. The perception of the threat such organisations pose to both Central Asia and Xinjiang will become more pressing with the potential instability resulting from the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan after the end of 2014.

Both ETIM and the IMU have a presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which border Xinjiang and a number of Central Asian countries. The IMU claimed responsibility for the attack on Karachi airport in June that killed 36 people, and is rumoured to have moved some of its fighters back into Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is therefore in both China and Central Asia’s interests for a cooperative, regional front against the shared threat of terrorism.

Some Central Asian countries have already felt China’s influence on the direction that domestic counter-terrorism and collective security measures should take. The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, which is housed in Tashkent and operates as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), stipulates that all members will cooperate in the fight against the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism.

As part of this cooperation, both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have in the past extradited members of the Uighur community to China based on China’s allegations that they have been involved in terrorist activity. This has met with protests from local and international activists such as Human Rights Watch.

On 16 June, the SCO announced that it had set up a new anti-terrorist structure to examine the role the internet plays in spreading terrorist material to China, in light of the intensification of attacks within China. China can thus use its influence under the umbrella of collective security to ensure Central Asia supports its domestic fight against terrorism.

Although such overt influence is not welcomed by all Central Asian states, such as Uzbekistan, China’s expectation for its neighbours to cooperate on counter-terrorism is likely to increase in line with unrest in Xinjiang. Moreover, China’s leverage on this question in the region will simultaneously increase as long as it provides such significant economic and infrastructure investment.

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China’s Vice-Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei (second right) observes SCO training operations in Kashgar. Photo by People’s Daily Online

In the long term, the levels of economic cooperation, investment, loans and Chinese companies and contractors present in Central Asia will increase. In contrast to some of Central Asia’s more traditional economic investors, such as Russia, China’s economic strategy in the region to date has been one of no apparent “political strings” attached to financial support, with Xi claiming that “China will never intervene in the internal affairs of Central Asian countries, seek leadership in regional affairs, or operate a sphere of influence”. However, China’s ultimate strategic involvement in Central Asia is likely to lead to its more visible influence there, particularly in relation to security.

Although regional security will continue to be a key element of China’s relations with Central Asia, a broader issue that will become more urgent is the strategy for approaching changes in Afghanistan. Despite repeated discussion in the SCO, there does not appear to be any agreed consensus on stabilising Afghanistan. The solution is likely to require more direct Chinese involvement to prepare some of the Central Asian states, particularly the weaker ones militarily, for dealing with the potential overspill of instability.

China has recently been taking steps in this direction. In January, Beijing agreed to provide CNY40 million (USD6.5 million) in military-technical assistance to Kyrgyzstan. In April, Chinese minister of defence Chang Wanquan pledged “hundreds of millions of dollars” to supply military uniforms and training to the police for Tajikistan. Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan is notoriously porous, creating a significant security threat.

As Chinese influence increases in the region, a key strategic challenge for Beijing will be to address local resistance to perceived Chinese dominance or interference, countering strong sentiments of Sinophobia in parts of the region. This is a result of China’s frequent failure to connect with host countries when investing, coupled with local fears of a Chinese takeover, since infrastructure projects funded by Chinese companies are usually accompanied by Chinese contractors and management who do not necessarily take into account local rules or customs. This has often led to local protests and attacks on Chinese workers

Overall, China will continue to cement its economic investment and security cooperation with Central Asia. In doing so, it may use its economic leverage to influence security policy in the region. With the NATO drawdown looming, it will need to assist its Central Asian neighbours to ensure the internal stability and border security that China itself needs for Xinjiang.

Furthermore, it may have to take a more active role mediating disputes in Central Asia itself. Some of the more ambitious infrastructure projects that China is planning have met with huge opposition from neighbours, such as Kyrgyzstan’s resistance to a railway line planned from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Uzbekistan. With Central Asia being integral to China’s strategic policy embodied in the Silk Road Economic Belt, Beijing may well find itself rethinking its official position of non-interference to achieve such a policy.


Sarah Lain is a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, focusing on the former Soviet Union and China’s influence in Central Asia.


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