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How Far Will China Go In Central Asia?

A Chinese worker of Asia Gas Pipeline (AGP) walks along the pipe of the Kazakh stretch of the new 1,833-kilometer (1,139-mile) Turkmenistan-China pipeline at Otar gas station. (file photo)
A Chinese worker of Asia Gas Pipeline (AGP) walks along the pipe of the Kazakh stretch of the new 1,833-kilometer (1,139-mile) Turkmenistan-China pipeline at Otar gas station. (file photo)

China's rapid expansion into Central Asia has changed the balance of influence among outside players there. The Middle Kingdom's return to the neighboring region, after more than 1,000 years, has been vigorous, sweeping aside most of the recent external players in Central Asia, and to some extent Beijing has even supplanted the recent traditional power in the region, Russia.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to discuss China's influence in Central Asia, how far it could expand, and what China's presence in Central Asia means to the geopolitics of the region.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating in the discussion were Reid Standish from Foreign Policy magazine in Washington, Galym Bokash from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service (Azattyq), and Bradley Jardine from Glasgow University, currently an intern at RFE/RL. As always, I joined the conversation as well.

China has used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as its vehicle to enter Central Asia. The SCO was founded in 1996 (called at the time simply the Shanghai Five) as a confidence-building measure that obligated China and the four former Soviet republics bordering China -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia -- to withdraw the bulk of military personnel and hardware away from the Sino-CIS border. That agreement worked so well that the group evolved its purpose to include trade and, later, security. Uzbekistan joined in 2001, giving China access to four of the Central Asian countries via SCO agreements.

Jardine started the discussion by offering a striking example of how quickly China has moved in Central Asia, noting that trade between the Central Asian states and China amounted to some $1 billion in 2000 and by 2013 it had risen to $50 billion. Since then China has signed new deals with the Central Asian states, notably agreements inked with Kazakhstan in late March that are worth some $23 billion.

Economically, China seems to be all over Central Asia. Bokash mentioned the presence of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) in Kazakhstan. "China is visible everywhere in Kazakhstan," Bokash said. "You can see a CNPC sign in almost every oblast of Kazakhstan, oil stations, gas stations."

China has successfully used trade to win new friends in Central Asia. But it was pointed out that Beijing's primary interest in Central Asia is natural resources. China imports oil from Kazakhstan; natural gas from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan; uranium from Kazakhstan; operates gold mines in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; and is searching for rare earths in Tajikistan. Much of the infrastructure projects Beijing has financed in Central Asia -- the roads, railways, and pipelines -- lead back to China.

Certainly the Central Asian states benefit from these projects, especially considering they could not realize these projects on their own and there are still relatively few foreign investors in the region outside the oil, gas, and metals sectors.

Standish pointed out that Central Asia also stands to gain from China's Silk Road Initiative. "If you look at what China is doing in the bigger picture in the Silk Road, you can see Central Asia is very much a launching pad connecting by land China to Europe," Standish said.

Other countries and international organizations have announced their own Silk Road projects over the years but these have yet to make a major impact in Central Asia.

Not everyone in Central Asia is comfortable with Chinese economic expansion into the region. Bokash said some people in Kazakhstan "are quite suspicious about any Chinese activities in the private sector, in business, especially in Almaty, big urban centers." Bokash described the view of China among some in Kazakhstan as being "a mixture of fear and fascination."

Jardine recalled that in Tajikistan, China financed construction of the Dushanbe-Chinak highway linking the two countries but after the road opened "toll booths started appearing from these opaque companies [involved in construction] which were charging local Tajiks to use it. So they [Tajik citizens] weren't even able to use these roads once they were built as part of China's infrastructure strategy."

And many bazaar merchants in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have complained that Chinese merchants gained access to bazaars near the border and sold goods subsidized by the Chinese government at lower prices than local merchants could match, putting the locals out of business.

Beijing does have some programs to try to win the friendship of Central Asia's people. Standish explained that China is just starting its soft-power strategy. "China doesn't have the same type of soft-power credibility that a country like Russia or even the United States has in Central Asia and that's not something that can be built overnight. It's not something that $40 billion in roads and railways can create; it's something that needs to get built over time. We'll see over the coming decade whether China can translate its economic influence into something more tangible and long-term."

Bokash drew attention to China's courting of Kazakhstan's youth. "Confucius centers are functioning in Kazakhstan as well in all the biggest centers -- regional centers Almaty, Astana -- and are quite popular," he said. "Around 2,000 grants are given by the Chinese government to Kazakh students to study Chinese or anything in China."

"Year-by-year," he added, "Chinese universities are kind of pushing Russian universities from the way and getting more popular."

The rivalry that has developed between Russia and China was a prime topic during the discussion. After the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991 and "newly independent" Central Asian states emerged, the competition for influence in Central Asia was mainly between Russia and the West -- the United States partnered with the European Union.

Chinese influence in Central Asia is now far greater than Western influence, a trend that looks to continue as Western states withdraw from Afghanistan and recede, to some extent, from Central Asia as well.

As Standish said, "Russia is not going anywhere." But Russia is at a big disadvantage and the Kremlin's policies are to blame for at least some of that.

Even during the years of the last decade when the Russian economy was strong, Moscow was having a difficult time matching Chinese investment in Central Asia. Russia's recent economic problems have provided China with new opportunities and Beijing has again moved in quickly.

But Russia's reputation in Central Asia has suffered due to the Ukraine crisis. Moscow might deny any role in Ukraine but the Central Asians are certainly apprehensive. "In the last year there's been a lot of suspicion of Russia's actions, especially in Ukraine." Standish noted. "You know, [amid] alarmist rhetoric about Kazakhstan not being a state, some people have been looking eastward a lot more."

The discussion dealt with these topics and others in greater depth. A full recording of the roundtable can be heard below:

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.