Over the last decade, China cemented its position as a consequential actor in Central Asia. Motivated to increase regional connectivity, diversify sources of energy imports, and safeguard its western territories, China invested heavily in trade and infrastructure projects in Central Asia. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, became the cornerstone of China’s rising power in the region. The COVID-19 pandemic, which upended many regional economies, offers China an opportunity to reevaluate its overall strategy. China’s post-COVID plans for Central Asia will need to not only consider its ability to push forward with the BRI, but also wrestle with obstacles that have hindered its progress in recent years.
In the post-pandemic era, Chinese influence in Central Asia vis-à-vis other powers will only increase. No other regional or global power will be capable of matching China’s capacity to invest in the region. Faced with no real alternatives to Beijing’s lending power, Central Asia’s dependency on China will only increase. Taking advantage of the situation requires ironing out existing issues linked to anti-Chinese sentiments in the region. While Sinophobia is on the rise in Central Asia, it is not necessarily a game-ending problem. As a first step forward, the challenge for China is to reevaluate its policies in Xinjiang. Finally, after two decades of peaceful coexistence with Russia in the region, Beijing risks upsetting this balance if its security role in Central Asia continues to grow. However, if history is anything to go by, it is likely that the two will find common ground once again.
Central Asia’s Economic Dependency
While the coronavirus pandemic had a big impact on China’s economy, its leading position as an economic hegemon in the region is cemented. For Beijing, the post-COVID 19 period offers an opportunity to bring Central Asia further into its orbit and push forward with the BRI. As cases of COVID-19 continue to soar across the region, local governments are demonstrating general mismanagement of the situation. Poor hospital conditions, lack of testing and access to drugs, and underpaid medical workers are some of the symptoms of dysfunctional health care systems, corruption, and government ineptitude. Meanwhile, economic problems continue to mount. The expected decline in GDP and other economic indicators of the Central Asia states underscore the dire economic situation. As a result, Central Asia will increasingly rely on international help to fight the virus and foreign investments to keep their economies going.
International financial organizations and individual governments have been providing Central Asia with much needed help, such as the EU’s $3.4 million program to fight COVID-19. However, a long-term economic recovery from the pandemic will require much more. With the global economy in turmoil, China remains one of the very few states capable of large-scale investments. On June 18, during a Belt and Road International Cooperation video conference in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi acknowledged the adverse effects of COVID-19 on many BRI projects abroad, and reaffirmed China’s position to “get key Belt and Road infrastructure projects restarted as early as possible, keep industrial and supply chains secure to provide a solid underpinning for the economic recovery of all countries.”
Despite popular unrest against China’s projects in the region, local governments have no alternative but to welcome Chinese investments. Even prior to the pandemic, it was increasingly difficult for Central Asian states to leverage the interest of other regional players. It appears that the United States has diverted its attention away from the region, while the EU, despite being one of the main investors in the economies of Central Asia, does not have the resources to compete with China in trade and investment. Russia, on the other hand, continues to exercise political and economic influence in Central Asia but faces serious economic problems of its own following the pandemic. No other external actor is capable of matching China’s economic capacity and investment potential in the region. Economic dependency on China already left Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan at high risk of debt distress, while Turkmenistan depends almost entirely on China, which buys nearly 80 percent of its gas exports.
Central Asia’s simmering anti-China sentiments are a well-documented phenomenon. Fear of China manifests itself in many ways, from dubious and scaremongering rumors in the media of Chinese workers coming to Central Asia to marry local women for land ownership to concrete government measures to restrict the number of foreign workers out of national security considerations. The latest instance of violent ethnic clashes in Kazakhstan between Kazakhs and ethnic Dungans, a group of Chinese origin, demonstrates the need to address the issue. While the Central Asian governments are keen to get China’s investments, Sinophobia is a force capable of slowing down that progress. There are instances of canceled Chinese projects that followed large-scale protests, such as the suspension of a Chinese oil refinery in Kyrgyzstan.
However, existing studies on public attitudes toward China suggest that Central Asians are still more likely to approve than disapprove of Beijing. While there may be several explanations of this paradox, Central Asia’s simmering anti-Chinese sentiments can be linked to several important factors. Much has been said about the need for the BRI to be more transparent. According to Eric McGlinchey, a professor at George Mason University, “Central Asian elites’ dependency on and corrupt use of Chinese development loans constitute only one potential driver of anti-Chinese sentiment in the region.”
One of the biggest issues for Beijing, however, is rising ethno-nationalism across the region caused by China’s “reeducation camps” for Uyghurs, as well as ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz minorities in Xinjiang. While the Central Asian governments have either backed China’s actions in Xinjiang or remained neutral, they actively try to suppress reporting and discussion of the persecution of Muslim minority groups in China out of fear of social unrest. If China wants a long-term and stable relationship with Central Asia, this may prove to be one of the most crucial issues that needs to be solved.
Finally, China’s post-pandemic policy in Central Asia needs to address the elephant in the room — Russia. How would Moscow react to Beijing’s presence in its former Central Asian backyard? Despite the anticipation of tension between the two giants over the years, Moscow and Beijing have managed to solve most of their outstanding issues peacefully. While China has the upper hand in its dealings with Russia, Beijing has been very sensitive to Moscow’s strategic and political interests in Central Asia. Russia, on the other hand, had to loosen its economic grip over the region. Whether by choice or out of necessity, the Russia-China tandem continues to peacefully coexist. Institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) became an integral part of this framework. Although there are questions of its effectiveness, the SCO has become a discussion platform that involves Central Asia, Russia, and China.
Much has been said about China’s increasing role in providing security in Central Asia, which may upset the balance in Russia-China relations. While China’s military presence in the region is not an ideal scenario for Russia, it is unlikely to turn the two against each other. Russia-China military cooperation is only gaining momentum. It is in the interests of both countries to continue this trend. Considering Russia’s defense industry dependence on China and poor economic performance, Moscow is not in a good position to confront Beijing. China, on the other hand, has strong incentives to continue its economic, military, and diplomatic cooperation with Russia, and would not risk upsetting this balance. Russia still has the upper hand in Central Asia for its historical and cultural links to the region. Although Russia’s monopoly over Central Asian culture is slowly fading, it remains the most important external actor for regional security with strong influence over Central Asian political elites. Most importantly, Russia and China managed to overcome their differences and find compromises in the past and seem set on doing so in the future. Regional security remains a priority for both states, which necessitates cooperation.
Overall, China finds itself in a very good position to consolidate its economic control over Central Asia. However, Sinophobia remains an obstacle. The current practice of Central Asian governments to suppress popular dissent against China’s economic activities cannot be sustained indefinitely. Street demonstrations and violent clashes will continue to put a damper on progress. China’s policy toward its ethnic minorities only serves to fuel anti-Chinese sentiments in Central Asia. At the same time, continued cooperation with Russia ensures that Central Asia’s security remains stable.
Aleksey Asiryan is a PhD candidate in International Relations at York University (Toronto). His research interests include International Relations and Regionalism in Central Asia, Foreign Policies of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and Sino-Russian Relations.