China’s Central Asia Problem
Asia Report N°244
27 Feb 2013
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China and its Central Asian neighbours have developed a close relationship, initially economic but increasingly also political and security. Energy, precious metals, and other natural resources flow into China from the region. Investment flows the other way, as China builds pipelines, power lines and transport networks linking Central Asia to its north-western province, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Cheap consumer goods from the province have flooded Central Asian markets. Regional elites and governments receive generous funding from Beijing, discreet diplomatic support if Russia becomes too demanding and warm expressions of solidarity at a time when much of the international community questions the region’s long-term stability. China’s influence and visibility is growing rapidly. It is already the dominant economic force in the region and within the next few years could well become the pre-eminent external power there, overshadowing the U.S. and Russia.
Beijing’s primary concern is the security and development of its Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which shares 2,800km of borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The core of its strategy seems to be creation of close ties between Xinjiang and Central Asia, with the aim of reinforcing both economic development and political stability. This in turn will, it is hoped, insulate Xinjiang and its neighbours from any negative consequences of NATO’s 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan. The problem is that large parts of Central Asia look more insecure and unstable by the year. Corruption is endemic, criminalisation of the political establishment widespread, social services in dramatic decline and security forces weak. The governments with which China cooperates are increasingly viewed as part of the problem, not a solution, as Chinese analysts privately agree. There is a risk that Central Asian jihadis currently fighting beside the Taliban may take their struggle back home after 2014. This would pose major difficulties for both Central Asia and China. Economic intervention alone might not suffice.
There are other downsides to the relationship. Its business practices are contributing to a negative image in a region where suspicions of China – and nationalist sentiments – are already high. Allegations are growing of environmental depredation by Chinese mines, bad working conditions in Chinese plants, and Chinese businessmen squeezing out competitors with liberal bribes to officials. Merited or not, the stereotype of China as the new economic imperialist is taking root.
Beijing is starting to take tentative political and security initiatives in the region, mostly through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which, however, has shown itself ineffective in times of unrest. The other major external players in Central Asia are limited by their own interests or financial capacity. The speed of the U.S. military pull-out from Afghanistan is causing concern in Chinese policy circles, and though Russia claims privileged interests in Central Asia, it lacks China’s financial resources. It is highly likely in the near- to mid-term that China will find itself required to play a larger political role.
China’s well-trained and well-informed Central Asia specialists are among those who fear that a disorderly or too rapid withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan could lead to serious regional unrest – civil strife possibly, the dramatic weakening of central governments, or the escalation of proxy battles among Afghanistan’s neighbours leading to their destabilisation and, most worryingly, Pakistan’s. They are critical of Central Asian leaders’ corruption and lack of competence, as well of the criminalisation of political establishments in the region, and privately express great concern about the long-term prospects for the two weakest states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They are as anxious as the West, probably more so, about the region’s vulnerability to a potential well-organised insurgent challenge, from within or without.
This concern has led Chinese policymakers to consider engagement with elements of the Taliban, in an effort to induce them to scale back their perceived support for Uighur separatist groups, such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The depth of Beijing’s worry over possible threats emanating from Afghanistan was demonstrated when it sent its then security chief, Zhou Yongkang, to Kabul in September 2012, just before China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Zhou, the most senior Chinese official to visit in 50 years, pledged reconstruction assistance and limited security help in the form of police training. Though publicly they support Central Asian leaders and express confidence in their political viability, Chinese policy makers have yet to come up with a clear plan to work toward stability in both Afghanistan and Central Asia.
China has unambiguously ruled out any sort of military intervention in its uneasy Central Asia neighbourhood, even in a case of extreme unrest. In the coming years, however, events may force its leadership to make difficult decisions. It will almost surely need to use at least more active diplomatic and economic engagement to grapple with challenges that pose threats to its economic interests and regional stability.
Bishkek/Beijing/Brussels, 27 February 2013