(Analysis) China’s push for influence in Central Asia

Will Wain-Williams

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has fallen largely under Russia’s sphere of influence. However, China has had its eye on the region in recent years and is increasing efforts to dominate the land mass as part of its narrative of rebuilding its historic glory as the “Middle Kingdom”.

Last year, with Russia’s attention diverted by the crisis in Ukraine, China held a summit in the ancient capital Xi’an, highly symbolic of this ancient Silk Road connection. This is only the most recent of many pushes into the region. The summit saw regional leaders discuss potential railway lines connecting China to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan. China has several initiatives in the region focused on infrastructure, regional security and connectivity, which will be discussed below.

China held a summit with Central Asian leaders (Image source: East Asia Forum)

The Belt and Road Initiative

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a global infrastructure project adopted by the Chinese government since 2013 and it is considered a centrepiece of president Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. The project includes several land and sea routes, one of which runs through Eurasia, linking China to Europe. The name of the BRI harks back to the Silk Road, which was a series of land and sea trade routes linking ancient China to Rome. The Belt and Road Initiative aims to reincarnate this old-world trading model under modern Chinese leadership. Central Asia plays a key role in this narrative, as historically, several civilisations flourished due to their strategic position along these ancient routes. Aside from trade, an important part of the historic Silk Road was the flow of ideas; Buddhism spread from India through the region and onto China, and later Islam was brought in via Persia and Arabia.

The symbolic importance of this history was demonstrated when Xi Jinping announced the project while on a state visit to Kazakhstan. Of more concrete importance for China is the strategic location, as Central Asia is a profitable way to link up its economy with Europe and offer an alternative source of revenue from the sea routes. This is advantageous as much of the oceans around China are potential flashpoints with the US and its allies, making sea trade vulnerable to geopolitics.

Central Asia also provides access to energy, and natural gas is becoming a flashpoint in the China-Russia competition for regional influence. China requires greater security for its energy needs, and it is accelerating the building of a pipeline to source gas from Turkmenistan while Russia’s push to lay a second Siberia pipeline into China is seemingly stalled by the Ukraine war.  

China has been pushing to lay pipelines in Turkmenistan (https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-seeking-new-markets-to-check-dependency-on-china)
China has been pushing to lay pipelines in Turkmenistan (Image source: Eurasianet)

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

When it comes to political, economic, security, and defence collaboration, in 2001 China established the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which is the world’s largest regional organisation in terms of geographic scope and population. The organisation originated from a former group called the Shanghai Five, which was China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan intending to be a political stabilisation mechanism of its West Asian borderlands. The SCO now contains most of Eurasia, and summits are held annually, with the most recent one held in India. The organisation has been dubbed “an illiberal club of growing significance” by some, as it vies to be an alternative to NATO.

The organisation was traditionally focused on reducing American influence in the region, which was a result of the conflict in Afghanistan. From there it evolved to align Chinese and Russian interests, although, with China’s increasing push into the region, the dynamic between the two powers could be now shifting. With Russia visibly weaker since its invasion of Ukraine, China may move to a more dominant position in the relationship, which would also facilitate a waning of Russian influence.

Considering the region is known for authoritarian regimes, China’s hands-off attitude towards countries’ domestic policies is likely to make it a popular candidate for regional hegemony. Indeed, Beijing’s model of a state-driven market economy under a one-party state with a weak civil society is much in line with many Central Asian regimes’ own values. One example is Tajikistan, whose president Emomali Rahmon has served since 1994. He eventually overcame Islamic and democratic opposition during the Tajikistan Civil War and has ruled society with little civil liberties since. Rahmon is vocally opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, and much like China, places heavy restrictions on religion in the country.

This echoes the situation in China’s Xinjiang region, where the local ethnic Uighurs are living under close surveillance with restrictions on their social and religious liberties. Both Tajiks and Uighurs have been found fighting as part of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other similar groups. Hence, curbing religious extremism is of interest to both China and the Central Asian states, especially as they are concerned about extremist spillover from the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

China has shown interest in engagement with the Taliban, which it hopes may stabilise the country and alleviate security concerns in its backyard. If Beijing can successfully pacify the Talibs, the Central Asian states may see that in a positive light, as it is one less regional concern. Thus, in this aspect, China can appear more attractive than Russia, which tends to be more prone to direct conflict than negotiation. The recent Iran-Saudi peace deal brokered by China may serve as a potential example.

CPEC

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) describes itself as a framework of regional connectivity that has linked north and south Pakistan by highway and rail, providing inland regions easier access to ports. While CPEC is focused on Pakistan, it claims to be of benefit to the greater region of Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan. Projects like this ensure that Beijing is well embedded in the region and offer strong financial incentives for those states to maintain closer ties to China than Russia or other powers. Much of its existing projects are focused on infrastructure and energy, something which no developing country would turn down.

There is also talk of building a Trans-Afghan railway since the US exited Afghanistan. The project is cited to be an extension of CPEC and would see the Pakistan highways and railways link through to Afghanistan and eventually link up with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Such a project would link Central Asia with South Asia and see China playing a central role in facilitating its rollout.

China is also keen to develop Pakistan's railway network (https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202111/1240207.shtml?id=11)
China is also keen to develop Pakistan’s railway network (Image source: Global Times)

Conclusion

With Russia’s economy in ruins due to the war in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions against it, it looks plausible that Chinese influence is only set to increase in the region, both in the near term and the long term. Central Asia is China’s best option for an alternative to the Pacific Ocean for its trade routes. China has the resources and capacity to gain influence in Central Asia while Russia is preoccupied with Ukraine. It will take Russia decades to rebuild its economy and appear an attractive partner. The apparent stalemate in Ukraine, as well as the Wagner Group’s rebellion, have only served to make Russia appear even weaker, undermining its reputation and sway.

Central Asia will be one component of China’s multi-pronged effort to diversify trade and supply lines to mitigate reliance on the maritime routes in the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia; an area in which China must compete directly with the US for influence and access.

While China’s infrastructure projects in the region may be attractive to leaders, Russia has one major advantage in wielding influence in the region, and that is a common language that can facilitate people-to-people connections. Russian is commonly spoken throughout Central Asia and acts as a lingua franca between states/ethnic groups. China is attempting to increase the level of Mandarin literacy in the region, with attractive scholarships encouraging youth to study in China, with initiatives such as the Confucius Institutes also found throughout the region. However, the scope is incomparable to how prolific the Russian language is.

Russia is still a popular choice for migrant workers from the region too. Many citizens of Central Asian states utilise their Russian language skills to take both skilled and unskilled jobs in Russia and send money back to their families. On the contrary, employment opportunities in China for foreign nationals are incredibly limited.

While China is making headway with governments and leaders, its people-to-people connections are still much weaker than Russia’s, and the question remains of what concrete benefits will these large infrastructure projects really bring to the people of the region.

Suggested Readings

The First China-Central Asia Summit. International Institute for Strategic Studies. October 2023.

China and Russia’s Overlapping Interests in Central Asia. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 22 February 2024.

Explaining China’s Central Asia Pivot. Lowy Institute. 26 May 2023.

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(Analysis) China’s …

by Will Wain-Williams time to read: 6 min
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