By Raffaello Pantucci
First published in Eurasianet, June 20 2016
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.