24.03.2016 Author: Vladimir Odintsov

China’s Strategic Presence in Central Asia

345345222Reinforcement of its strategic presence in Central Asia is not a new concept for Beijing. This region is very important for China as it is not only a significant market for Chinese goods, a source of oil and gas for power stations in China, but also a national security instrument, especially in terms of finding a solution to the problem of Xinjiang. Over the past year President Xi Jinping has repeatedly drawn additional attention to the need to strengthen this policy in order to enhance security in Northwestern China. In particular, he has directly emphasized that China’s successful participation in economic development, and political, military and strategic cooperation with the Central Asian States should both contribute to the settlement of the Xinjiang issue, as well as transform Xinjiang into an ‘economic gateway’ to Eurasia as a part of ‘ambitious vision of Chinese trade and infrastructure links extending to Europe.’

While cooperating with CA via the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the SCO, China is building long-term partnerships separately with each country in the region, in view of the unsolved intra-regional problems. In March at the session of the NPC of China there was a new development strategy promulgated, where the implementation of the project of the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the concept of ‘going beyond its limits’ took the centre stage. This means that in the nearest future the plans for the further transfer of Chinese enterprises into the countries of Central Asia will be implemented more actively. The G20 Summit, planned to be held in September 2016 in the city of Hangzhou, will also certainly evidence the new growing role of China in Central Asia.

In order to hit these targets, China has invested heavily in the energy and transport infrastructure of the five Central Asian countries. Thus, the Chinese State Oil and Gas Company «China National Petroleum Corporation» (CNPC) has built a Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which transports gas through the route Turkmenistan – Uzbekistan – Kazakhstan – China. In addition to the existing three pipelines, providing a supply of 55 billion cubic meters, launching a new one will increase the volumes of gas from Central Asia to China by 30 billion cubic meters, i.e. 20% of China’s projected consumption by 2020.

The same CNPC company was also involved in the construction and financing of the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline.

Both of these projects connect Central Asia and China though the Xinjiang territory.

China actively participates in the development of the transport infrastructure in Central Asia, having provided, in particular, a loan of 280 mln US Dollars for the construction of the Dushanbe-Chanak highway in Tajikistan, while implementing a new foreign policy concept, entitled the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’.

Out of the $27 billion of Chinese direct investment in the largest CA economies that have been accumulated by 2015, $23.6 billion went to Kazakhstan, 98% of which are related to the fuel complex, i.e., the production and transportation of oil and natural gas.

The volumes of mutual trade between China and Tajikistan, and Chinese investments in the country are also growing. In particular, major infrastructure projects such as the construction of the Dushanbe-2 thermal power station, the Vahdat-Yavan railway tunnel, the Khatlon Agricultural Scientific Centre. In order to reinforce its strategic presence in the country, China plans to use the complicated relations of Tajikistan with some neighbouring countries of Central Asia (which sometimes escalate to a transport blockade), with its involvement in the construction of the railway, which will connect China and Tajikistan.

China actively participates in the development of the transport infrastructure of Uzbekistan as well. Thus in the form of the loan that amounted to $350 million, China partially financed the construction of the electrified Angren-Pap railway line, connecting the Fergana Valley with the rest of Uzbekistan. The new line, as well as the 19 kilometre tunnel under the Kamchik Pass built at the expense of the Chinese company China Railway Tunnel Group, will connect the global network of logistic routes of China and Uzbekistan, as well as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of PRC with the Persian Gulf States.

However, with its trade, economic and investment policy in Central Asia, Beijing is focused on the implementation of its own interests in the region, rather than at support of local producers. The latter, in particular, is related to the fact that the management of Chinese companies operating in Central Asia, prefers to employ Han Chinese rather than local residents. In addition, Beijing is intensifying the lobbying of the interests of its national Companies in Central Asia, ‘encouraging’ local senior officials to give preference to Chinese companies at the expense of domestic Companies, which leads to an increase of corruption in the Central Asian countries.

Besides the economic relations, the development and deepening of cooperation in matters of security and military-technical sphere are a very important part of the Chinese strategic approach in Central Asia. China is concerned with any instability emerging from Central Asia, which could affect the situation in Xinjiang, as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have their own Uyghur communities and organizations (in particular, “Ittipak” in Kyrgyzstan), which stand up for Uyghur rights. Beijing views this ‘solidarity’ outside China as a potential threat that contributes to domestic Uyghur activism. China also considers militant organizations such as the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’ (ETIM) and the ’Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’(IMU) a direct threat to national security, and is wary of their military support of the Uyghurs, who share their religion and readiness to violence to express their dissatisfaction with the current government of the PRC. In these circumstances, China is committed to deepening cooperation with the Central Asian countries in the sphere of extradition of the individual members of the Uyghur communities to China. In particular, these actions have already been taken by Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan on the basis of China’s claims that the some members of the Uyghur community “have been involved in terrorist activity”. However, such acts have caused protests by local and international activists, such as «Human Rights Watch».

Beijing considers the development of cultural relations, particularly by teaching Chinese language to the locals in the region, though the actively expanding network of branches of the Confucius Institute, as a very important tool for strategic penetration and anchorage in Central Asia. An indication of the success of such a policy, in particular, may be evidenced by the recent statement of Dariga, the daughter of Kazakh President N. Nazarbayev, who currently holds the office of the Deputy Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, that besides Kazakh, Russian and English, the Kazakhstan people “will also need to speak Chinese in the near future”.

In addition to educational and cultural programs in Central Asia, China is creating its positive image via the media. The Chinese State Television CCTV broadcasts on the territory of a number of Central Asian republics; the State Channels regularly show programs on China, and the Chinese Official Press Agency “Xinhua” news blocks are also often distributed there.

However, such extremely active rapprochement of China with the countries of Central Asia and

the increase in the number of migrants from China is causing concern among locals in the region. With the increasing Chinese influence in Central Asia, the local opposition to the ‘Chinese domination’ or ‘Sinophobia’ in some parts of the region is becoming a key strategic challenge for Beijing. The negative local feeling is a result of China’s efforts to get closer with the host countries when investing, including the usage of corrupt leverage, combined with local concerns of the ‘the Chinese takeover’. These concerns are also elevated by the fact that infrastructure projects funded by Chinese companies are, as a rule, also accompanied by Chinese contractors and management, which do not always take local regulations into account. This often leads to local protests and assaults on Chinese workers.

Vladimir Odintsov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.