Why China is coming to Central Asia?

Dr. Janja Avgustin

Although China is a very important trading partner[i] for the former Soviet republics of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), those same five countries together make up for only around 1% of all of China’s trade.[ii] Regarding trade, China[iii] mostly imports metals and mineral products (mainly petroleum gas and crude petroleum)[iv] and exports machines and textiles (mainly cotton)[v]. In both cases, Central Asia does not represent a significant source of import and export for China, even if trade has been steadily growing. So, why has China been attempting to enhance its relations with this region with a more assertive foreign policy, devising the so-called New Silk Road?[vi] The following paragraphs will briefly examine what scholars say about this.

Zhi (2016, 69) believes that the “New Silk Road Strategy provides an opportunity for China and the U.S. to cooperate in the region and reconsider their relationship within the context of their individual interests and strategy across the continent.” However, Rolland (2015, 4) argues that the “birth of a transcontinental economic corridor, as envisioned by the Chinese authorities, could change the global landscape, shifting the focus of strategy and commerce to the Eurasian landmass from the waters surrounding it and reducing the significance of U.S. naval supremacy. This corridor could further intensify intra-European divergences over Asia policy, cause deep differences between the United States and its European allies, and sharpen commercial rivalries.” A decade earlier Shambaugh (2005, 93) had already warned that “the United States views the increasing closeness between China and ASEAN with the same uncertainty that Beijing views the growing U.S. ties with India, Pakistan, and Central Asian states.”

Similarly, some point towards China’s fluctuating relationship with Russia. Odgaard (2017, 41), for example, finds that the “increased mutual concern for continued regional stability has encouraged Beijing and Moscow to coordinate their policies across a wide range of issue areas. Stability allows them to focus attention and resources on each of their different geostrategic priorities.” However, the difference in their priorities might take over making “future competition between Russia and China,[vii] as well as Russian and Chinese integration projects in Central Asia” indeed highly likely “due to their ambiguous bilateral relationship that involves close cooperation and intense competition simultaneously” (Muratshina 2017, 97). Samokhvalov (2018, 42) believes that “open conflict was prevented by close personal relations between Xi Jinping and Putin and signs of respect displayed by China to Russia in other spheres.”

From the perspective of Central Asia however, as Naarajärvi (2012, 113) concludes, “the actions and presence of China and Russia in Central Asia, together with inherently inauspicious characteristics of the region when compared to the post-Cold War new regionalist thinking, hinder the overall regionalisation in the area.” Also, “Central Asian states are at once desirous of the growing Chinese presence, wanting to take advantage of its economic dynamism and geostrategic influence, but also fearful of its potential demographic and cultural clout” (Peyrouse 2016, 14).

Stability[viii] of the region has been the cause of concern as well as a targeted aim.[ix] According to Rolland (2015, 2), “Beijing aims to build railways that will connect the Xinjiang region to its Kazakh and Kyrgyz neighbors, and then westward to the Middle East and Europe, in the hope that economic development brought by building infrastructure will enhance the political stability in these areas.” In fact, Musharaf and Manzoor (2017, 244) state that stability and security in the region is the only shared interest between China, Russia and the US. Naarajärvi (2012, 113) also points out that “regionalisation, hopefully in time leading to greater regional cooperation in Central Asia, is very much in the interests of Europe and the European Union (EU) as a potential peaceful way forward in the development of the region.” However, in his study Kavalski (2007, 855) predicted that “the inconclusive inference that the complexity of Central Asian interactions makes it unlikely to infer whether China, India or the EU would prevail as the model to be emulated by regional states. However, the likelihood of an extended rivalry (rather than cooperation) is something that is already apparent.”

It would seem that even though China’s strategy in Central Asia is clear, the existing complexity of relations, geostrategic importance of the region, and the political instability of the five countries makes it particularly difficult to gauge the consequences, impacts and possible combination of outcomes due to the diversity of actors and interests. Undoubtedly, the presence of China in Central Asia has been on the rise and while most look at the region from the perspective of interplay between China, US and Russia,[x] it is important to stress that in Central Asia itself there “is a predominant suspicion that China still has imperial designs on Central Asia and merely wants to conceal or delay them” (Peyrouse 2016, 22).

Janja is Academic Research Consultant at Nepal Matters for America.



[i] For more information on trading partners see https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2061.html and https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2050.html

[ii] In 2016, all of China’s imports amounted to $1.32T and all its exports to $2.06T.

[iii] For more information, see the visualizations provided by the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC, MIT Media Lab) at https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/

[iv] China controls large portions of the oil and gas fields in the region and is behind a large share of the investments in the region (Swanstörm 2005, 584).

[v] As Ma et al.  (2017, 45) confirm, “With regard to the export of agricultural products from Central Asia to China, we find that cotton is the top export product, which accounts for 64.32% of total agricultural export value.”

[vi] The idea of a new “Silk Road economic belt” was launched by President Xi during his tour of the Central Asian republics in October 2013 (Rolland 2015, 1).

[vii] Russia is promoting its integration policy in the region primarily through the Eurasian Economic Union and the Eurasian Development Bank, while China uses the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (Muratshina 2017, 97).

[viii] As Ferdinand points out, there aren’t only possible political risks of instability in Central Asia, but also “the danger of an increased Chinese presence in neighbouring regions stimulating fears about Beijing’s long-term intentions” (2016, 952).

[ix] Historically, the “PRC has done little to influence Central Asia, partly due to its own instability along its periphery, and internal problems in the Chinese heartland” (Sheives 2006, 205).

[x] As Musharaf and Manzoor (2017, 243) put it: “The energy rich newly independent Central Asian Republics became bone of contention among the world states in general and Russia, China and United States in particular.”


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