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Rising Influence

Forecasting Chinese expansion into Central Asia

25 April 2024

In early April 2024, China signed a two-year enhanced security cooperation agreement with Uzbekistan, which was reached during a meeting between Chinese Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Interior Minister Pulat Bobojonov in Tashkent.

Some believe this pact was prompted by escalating international and regional competition for Central Asia, mainly because it came amid moves by international and regional powers in the five countries. 

Moreover, as China expands activities in this region to capitalize on cooperation potentials and opportunities, its influence in the five Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, is steadily rising, mainly encouraged by Moscow's preoccupation with its war in Ukraine. The development is raising questions about the future of China's presence in Central Asia in the coming years.

Implications of the Timing

The security agreement between Beijing and Tashkent coincides with several dynamics related to competition for influence in Central Asia:

1. American and European activity:

Washington has long sought cooperation with Central Asian countries in energy, security, economy, and the environment. As Washington believes that regional integration and global interconnectedness are a means to loosen Russia and China's grip on the five countries, the US Agency for International Development chose Central Asia to celebrate World Water Day in March 2024. Furthermore, Washington is making concerted efforts to persuade these countries to join Western sanctions against Russia, which would open a new front against Moscow. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has assisted former Soviet republics in Central Asia to reduce their dependence on Russia.

The European Union is also working to bolster its influence in Central Asia. In addition to hosting the Global Gateway Investors Forum for EU-Central Asia Transport Connectivity in Brussels in January 2024, the EU is working on a strategy towards Central Asia. The European Parliament called for developing a cooperation strategy with Central Asian countries to maximize benefits amidst geopolitical changes in the region following the Russian-Ukrainian war.

3. Chinese expansion:

Beijing seeks to impose its influence in Central Asia by pressing regional countries to cooperate across all sectors to institutionalize their relations. In late March 2024, China and the five Central Asian countries launched a mechanism for cooperation, which, according to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, shows the determination of the six countries to work together towards more robust development and cooperation, including in security and military areas. This encompasses providing advanced surveillance technologies, military aid, and professional military training. As part of these efforts, China is investing in building the military capabilities of Central Asian armed forces in the long run through military education programs. 

Economically, Beijing aims to benefit from cooperation with Central Asia in all areas and is planning to build a railway port with Kyrgyzstan to serve as a key point in establishing relations between China, Central Asia, and Europe.

Additionally, trade between Beijing and Central Asian countries reached USD 89 billion in 2023, a 27% increase from the previous year, with Chinese exports exceeding USD 60 billion.

4. Turkish interests:

Ankara has recently increased its attention to its interests in Central Asia, particularly enhancing national and border security. Turkey's engagement in Central Asia became even more evident in its efforts in January 2024 to mediate between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to conclude a border agreement successfully. Ankara has not overlooked its economic interests in Central Asia, notably the Middle Corridor, which it has long touted for its benefits to Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Middle Eastern countries.

Interconnected Implications

China's recent moves to enhance its security and military influence in Central Asia carry interconnected implications, which can be highlighted as follows:

1. Competition with the US over Influence in Central Asia:

China's recent maneuvers in Central Asia reflect Beijing's desire to offset Washington's efforts to solidify US influence in the region. In this context, US President Joe Biden held the first-ever C5+1 Presidential Summit with the leaders of the five Central Asian countries on September 18, 2023, on the sidelines of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. This summit falls under the C5+1 dialogue, aimed at enhancing relations between the United States and the five states.

It should be noted that China has surpassed the United States diplomatically in several regions, including Central Asia, Africa, East Asia, and Pacific Island countries, according to the Lowy Institute Global Diplomacy Index 2024.

2. Building on China-Central Asia Summit:

The security agreement between Beijing and Tashkent builds on the first China-Central Asia Summit, held in May 2023 in May 2023. During the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged his country's readiness to assist the five nations in building their defense capabilities to enhance investment agreements with them. This agreement coincided with the launch of the mechanism for cooperation between China and Central Asia, which was also agreed upon during the summit.

3. Capitalizing on Russia's distraction:

Over the past two years, Russian influence in Central Asia has been waning. For instance, representatives from the operational command staffs of five South Caucasus and Central Asian countries' Ministries of Defense decided to conduct the Unity-2024 exercises in July 2024 at the Oymasha training facility in Kazakhstan and Cape Tokmak in the Caspian Sea for the first time without Russia's participation. Some interpret this as evidence that Central Asia is no longer Russia's backyard. The development could be attributed to Russia's preoccupation with the war in Kyiv.

Potential Future Scenarios

Competition to enhance influence in Central Asia has gathered significant momentum. The most prominent future scenarios for this competition include:

1. Stronger Chinese influence:

This scenario suggests that China's influence in Central Asia would escalate, driven particularly by Russia's preoccupation with its war with Ukraine and as the West and the Middle East shifted attention to the war in Gaza. This possibility might be further bolstered by the fact that in Central Asian countries, uncertainty and risks have risen amid ongoing conflicts, shipping disruptions, and reduced oil production, according to the International Monetary Funds' Regional Economic Outlook for the Middle East and Central Asia, released in April 2024.  Hence, China is investing in enhancing the economies of those countries through solar and wind energy projects, especially in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Moreover, China possesses significant potential for cooperation with Central Asia, as stated by Nikolai Podguzov, Chairman of the Management Board of the Eurasian Development Bank, which is already seeking collaboration with China's financial institutions.

2. Regional tensions:

This scenario anticipates heightened competition between influential Central Asian actors, which might lead to regional tensions. A possible crisis between Moscow and Beijing could break out, according to some assessments suggesting that Central Asia could write the final chapter in the Russian-Chinese alliance, especially after China's exports to Russia fell 16% in March 2024, marking the first year-on-year decline since mid-2022, amid growing US threats of reprisal sanctions against Beijing if Chinese goods aid Moscow's war on Ukraine. Moreover, China is still hesitant about building a new natural gas pipeline from Russia because it continues to rely on gas imports from Central Asia with plans to increase the volume.

3. Maintaining "policy of balance":

This scenario envisions that Central Asian countries will maintain a policy of balance and neutrality, which they have long pursued to enhance their stability and security. This could bring about a new balance in the region during the upcoming period, especially considering the recent security agreement between China and Uzbekistan, which coincided with NATO experts conducting training sessions for the Uzbek army, indicating Uzbekistan's balanced policies. This is particularly due to the significant concerns of Central Asian countries about destabilization, especially in Afghanistan, where recent armed groups in northern provinces are feared to undermine security and stability in both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In conclusion, given the current state of international and regional competition to enhance influence in Central Asia, it's likely that the coming period will witness concerted Chinese efforts to strengthen influence within this region. This could potentially lead to a possible dispute between Beijing and Moscow, the latter viewing Central Asia as a traditional sphere of influence due to historical, geographic, demographic, security, and other ties. Furthermore, the United States and European countries will not relinquish their growing interests in that region.