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Too big a brother. China has been helping the countries of Central Asia for years. What will he demand in exchange for his support?
Material posted: Publication date: 11-01-2023
Central Asia entered the sphere of China's interests immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have long considered the Celestial Empire as a key partner ready to distribute generous loans and finance economic projects of any complexity. Trade, investment, large construction projects and the joint fight against terrorism have created a solid foundation for China's dominance in the region. In 2022, this trend was reinforced by anti-Russian sanctions, which made it difficult for Russia to cooperate with the former Soviet republics. As a result, China gets the opportunity to "tame" the Central Asian elites and start implementing the global project of the "new Silk Road".

A matter of principles

Since the end of the 20th century, China's approach to cooperation with other states has been based on three unshakable principles: not to interfere in the internal affairs of partners and their relations with each other, to focus on economic cooperation, and to strive to improve its reputation.

Such a strategy, at first glance, proved to be excellent in Central Asia. China has always had an extremely wide range of tools to strengthen its influence in the region — from investments in the development of mineral resources and the construction of modern infrastructure to assistance in the modernization of the armed forces and the fight against terrorism.

Shadow of the Dragon

China's interests in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are quite clear. Firstly, as the world's largest consumer of oil, gas and many other resources, China understands the energy value of the region. The countries of Central Asia are rich in minerals, and the growth of production capacity depends on their constant influx.

Secondly, the desire of the Chinese to expand cooperation with the European Union (EU) for the sale of national products requires the emergence of new transport corridors. For example, the megaproject "One Belt, One Road", implying large—scale construction of roads, trade hubs and logistics infrastructure on the way to Europe, affects the territory of all Central Asian countries. China has spent more than a trillion dollars for these purposes by 2022.

Thirdly, the southern part of the region, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, act as a kind of buffer zone between Afghanistan and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Security in this space is vital for the country to prevent the spread of terrorism at home.

The Gift economy

In addition to direct investments and loans, China periodically allocates money to its allies free of charge. In 2022 "for the implementation of socially significant projects" Beijing sent Astana, Bishkek, Tashkent and Dushanbe 500 million dollars.

In addition, the PRC allocates generous quotas for free training of Central Asian specialists in educational institutions and industries. In 2022, their number was about five thousand.

If there's a war tomorrow

China is a major manufacturer and supplier of weapons. And although the capacities of its military-industrial complex and sales volumes to Central Asia are significantly inferior to Russian ones, the former Soviet republics periodically purchase military equipment from their eastern neighbor.

In 2021, the Armed Forces of Tajikistan had Chinese armored cars and cars. Uzbekistan buys military drones from the People's Liberation Army of China (PLA), Turkmenistan — anti-aircraft missile systems, Kazakhstan is negotiating the purchase of transport aircraft and also acquires UAVs. The Chinese supply Kyrgyzstan with equipment for free.

In addition, these countries periodically conduct joint anti-terrorist and military exercises with Chinese soldiers. This is happening both within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and on a bilateral basis. China is building up the closest cooperation in this regard with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Time to pay

But the main instrument of soft power, with the help of which the PRC is able to influence the policy of the post-Soviet countries of the region, are loans, debts on which all countries, except Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, are growing rapidly. Tajikistan's total debt to Chinese banks is about 35 percent of GDP, Kyrgyzstan — 22 percent, Uzbekistan — about 20 percent.

Because of this, Central Asian governments are often forced to transfer their infrastructure, mining and production facilities to the PRC. For example, in 2021, the President of Kyrgyzstan Sadyr Zhaparov directly admitted that if the authorities could not find new sources of debt financing, they would have to transfer a large thermal power plant and several important roads to China. In Tajikistan, Chinese companies indirectly control about 80 percent of gold mining enterprises.

Threat to sovereignty

But sometimes the economic dependence of the republics on the "big brother" results in much more serious consequences. So, in 2011, Tajikistan transferred about a thousand square kilometers of its territory to China under a new border agreement. This site was located in the Pamir Mountains and accounted for about one percent of the republic's area.

Officially, the lands were donated as part of the settlement of territorial disputes. However, the opposition claimed that this step was prompted by the government's proposals for new loans and investments, as well as the inability to pay off old debts.

Their vs

Concessions to China as the main partner in the countries of Central Asia are manifested not only in foreign policy issues. In case of conflicts between the population and numerous Chinese companies, the authorities of the republics prefer to side with the latter.

This naturally causes indignation of the locals. Anti-Chinese protests are becoming a routine of political life. So, in the pre-pandemic years 2019-2020, more than 40 major protests against Chinese expansion took place in the region.

The agenda is different: from solidarity with the persecuted Uighurs in China to demonstrations against the transfer of land to Chinese companies for long-term lease. The protesters criticize not only China, but also their own elites, who, in their opinion, have sold out to Beijing.

Shadow schemes

But the loyalty of the Central Asian elites rests not only on fear. China has long understood how much informal arrangements and personal guarantees are valued in Central Asia, and willingly uses this tool.

As already written "Tape.<url>", almost all loans issued to Kazakhstan were obtained through private negotiations at the personal level of the heads of countries, companies and departments. Now China is turning into the main source of shadow income for some of the region's elites, which binds them even more tightly by mutual responsibility.

Old friends

In parallel with the growth of Chinese influence, Russia's ability to promote its interests in Central Asia is noticeably declining. A clear example of this is the compliance of the republics with part of the anti-Russian sanctions, or at least the unwillingness to contribute to mitigating their effect.

For example, Central Asian banks do not accept Mir cards, governments have begun to consult more actively with Western diplomats about compliance with restrictions so that their own economy does not suffer, as well as to work out logistics routes bypassing Russia.

In addition, against the background of a special military operation, Russian businesses and banks began to invest less abroad in principle, not to mention loans in foreign currency.

Not always together, never against

However, there is no reason to claim that China has entered into a confrontation with Russia for control over Central Asia. China still relies on Russia's military presence in the region and actively discusses with it countering common threats, usually within the framework of the SCO.

Nevertheless, the reorientation of the former Soviet republics to the big eastern neighbor is clearly visible. Russia needs to look for new solutions in this regard, while integration opportunities still allow it to be done.

Mikhail Kirillov


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