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Apr 27, 2016 | 09:30 GMT

China's Long March Into Central Asia

(VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • China's military role in Central Asia will increasingly focus on arms sales, counterterrorism and bilateral initiatives outside the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
  • The country's regional security efforts will reflect the need to protect growing Chinese economic interests, including the Belt and Road Initiative.
  • Beijing will promote Chinese language instruction in Central Asian countries to mitigate linguistic barriers and boost cooperation.
  • China's military influence in the region will continue to trail behind Russia's but will ultimately weaken Moscow's presence in the long term.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, an unexplored frontier opened up for China to its west. Central Asia offered Beijing new sources of raw materials and new markets, as well as a major transit zone for exports, to feed China's growing and globally integrating economy. But China did not have the military means to buttress its economic position, nor did it want to unnerve Russia, a power wary of rising Chinese influence, especially in its former Soviet periphery. With these concerns in mind, Beijing carefully shaped a military and economic strategy for Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Though weak upon independence, the countries retained strong security ties to Russia. Consequently, China opted to promote economic involvement in the region complemented by a subtle, unimposing military engagement, mainly as a courtesy to Russia in exchange for stable Chinese-Russian strategic cooperation.

Internally, China's economic development was and continued to be skewed. While the east coast industrialized and thrived thanks to its booming manufacturing sector, the western interior remained largely poor and undeveloped. To build up its hinterland, placate its restive Uighur population in Xinjiang province, improve its ties in Central Asia and foster interregional economic links, China sought to expand its economy westward. Not only would the move increase China's power, but it would also hedge against U.S. and Japanese efforts to contain its expansion east into the Asia-Pacific region.

China worked quickly. Starting in 2008, the country displaced Russia as Central Asia's largest trading partner and became a major lender and investor, especially in energy. By 2013, China's trade with the five Central Asian states increased from about $1.5 billion in 2001 to approximately $50 billion, compared with Russia's $31.5 billion. And even when Central Asian trade fell to $32.5 billion in 2014 because of China's slowing economic growth, the country still promised the region $64 billion in infrastructure investments. It also announced an additional $46 billion as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to build and expand land and maritime energy, trade and transit infrastructure while offloading China's excess industrial production capacity.

Furthermore, pipelines, roads and rails traversing the region — many built by China — now bring natural gas, uranium and other resources to the country, which increasingly relies on Central Asia as a trade route to the Middle East and Europe. Meanwhile, Russia's investments in the region have been lacking, and remittances from Central Asian migrants working in Russia have declined significantly, largely because of Russia's economic downturn and Western sanctions on Moscow. In short, China's Central Asian economic strategy is succeeding despite mounting domestic challenges related to slow economic growth.

Military Designs

But this growing regional economic stake has required an expanded security and military role. By 2025, the annual volume of trade between China and countries along the Belt and Road Initiative is projected to be $2.5 trillion, making it crucial that China develop its military and security partnerships worldwide, including in Central Asia. Beijing has sought to boost its counterterrorism and counternarcotics capabilities, provide for security in Xinjiang, mitigate risks resulting from instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and ensure security in the region overall. In these endeavors, China strives, to the best of its abilities, to fill the security gaps that Russia, the United States and other countries are no longer capable of filling.

To that end, China has been quietly ramping up its military influence in Central Asia without upsetting the region's military balance, which disproportionately favors Russia — for now. Beijing has increased its counternarcotics, counterterrorism and special operations trainings and exercises, both inside and, more important, outside the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). An economic and security body comprising China, Russia and the Central Asian states (except Turkmenistan), the SCO is used by its members to manage cooperation and competition in the region.

Over the years, China has also increased its military aid to Central Asian countries, primarily providing uniforms along with communications and border monitoring equipment. In 2014, China agreed to provide $6.5 million in military assistance to Kyrgyzstan and promised hundreds of millions of dollars to Tajikistan for uniforms and training. Similarly, in 2016 China agreed to send almost half a billion dollars in aid to Afghanistan's armed forces. Since 2002, it has also participated in more than 20 bilateral or multilateral military exercises with the Central Asian republics. Between 2003 and 2009, China hosted 65 Kazakh officers in addition to 30 Kyrgyz and Tajik officers in 2008.

Moreover, as it continues its military modernization, China is poised to transfer more decommissioned military assets to these countries — transfers Central Asian states covet. In 2013, for example, reports surfaced that China had delivered unmanned aerial vehicles and medium- and long-range HQ-9 air defense systems to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in exchange for reduced natural gas prices. If the reports are accurate, this transaction represents a major first step toward China's goal of becoming a viable global manufacturer of sophisticated, higher-end weapons systems.

Yet in the past few years, China and Central Asian states have agreed to enhance bilateral armed forces cooperation even further, with a view to protecting China's regional investments and supply networks, especially along the Belt and Road Initiative. Some of these emerging frameworks do not involve Russia — a sign of China's increasingly assertive foreign policy. In March, Beijing and Dushanbe reportedly discussed opening a joint counterterrorism center in Tajikistan. China also proposed a counterterrorism mechanism with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan to promote regional security in the face of militant threats, including those from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. As regional opportunities grow, criminal organizations and militants will spread out more and engage in disruptive activities, making it important for China and its Central Asian partners to safeguard their economic and security interests.

Barriers to Cooperation

Nonetheless, China's regional military influence still trails far behind Russia's. Unlike Russia, China does not have military bases in the region, nor has it declared any intention to establish them. Beijing reportedly considered opening a military base in southern Kyrgyzstan, but both Bishkek and Beijing denied the claim. This is not to dismiss suggestions that China could take unilateral military action in the region to contain militancy. If the Chinese military were to intervene, it would be to protect Chinese citizens working on the numerous economic projects in the region, safeguard energy and supply networks, or address security risks arising from a state's potential collapse.

But China is simply unable to deploy and sustain its military forces overseas for extended periods, and, regardless, it cannot rival Russia's powerful and entrenched presence in Central Asia. Furthermore, heads of state in Central Asia are suspicious of China's economic and future military role, worrying that the country seeks to dominate the region. Additionally, different doctrines, weapons systems and language barriers constrain interoperability and cooperation with Central Asia. To overcome the linguistic hurdle, at least, China is funding the establishment of Confucius Institutes and language study programs in universities across the region.

As Beijing steadily expands its regional military influence in Central Asia, it will focus on arms sales, counterterrorism and bilateral initiatives, many outside the confines of the SCO. Protecting its economic interests will be an especially notable component of its strategy. And though Moscow has a military advantage in the region over Beijing for now, China's efforts will undermine Russia's military influence in the long term, potentially derailing the two countries' strategic partnership in the process.

Lead Analyst: Roman Muzalevsky

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