China’s influence in Central Asia spreads with the US lagging behind

According to some observers, US influence has lagged behind as China strengthens its ties with Central Asian countries.

U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia has been shaped by Russia’s strong influence in the region, but China’s growing presence in Central Asia has forced Washington to adjust its strategy through the lens of competition from Beijing. I started to focus again. An expert speaking at a recent webinar sponsored by the Caspian Sea Policy Center said the US should not make competition with China the sole focus of its Central Asia strategy.

China and five Central Asian countries recently agreed to sign additional cooperation agreements at a meeting called the China+Central Asia Summit scheduled for May, according to Chinese state media.

Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to connect China to the world through land and sea routes, infrastructure and technology, is a U.S. response to economic dependence and unsustainable infrastructure projects around the world, including countries such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. exacerbating concerns.

Wilson Center analyst Robert Dale said, “China has a relatively easy time in the region due to its geographic features, market attractiveness, status as the region’s largest trading partner, and connectivity offerings. I am doing a good job,” he said.

FILE – Workers install wires to the “Golden Bridge of the Silk Road” structure on a platform outside the National Convention Center, the venue for the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, April 18, 2017 To do.

boon from china

China’s CGTV quoted China’s Commerce Minister Wang Wentao as saying China’s trade volume with Central Asia had increased by 22% in the first two months of the year. “Cross-border e-commerce between China and Central Asia will grow by 95% year-on-year in 2022, with nearly 300 Central Asian companies joining China’s e-commerce platform,” Wang added. .

According to the American Enterprise Institute, China Global Investment TrackerBeijing’s investment from 2005 to 2022 will be $850 million in Kyrgyzstan, $1 billion in Tajikistan, $1.56 billion in Uzbekistan, $1.79 billion in Turkmenistan and $19.86 billion in Kazakhstan. went up.

Chinese observers have noted that China’s strategy on the Belt and Road has changed and the pace of new investment has slowed, but many Central Asians still view China and the Belt and Road positively, There are benefits to the region, including China’s support in developing public capital, education, research and research. technology transfer.

“Even telecom and ICT [information and communications technology] considered to be a great advantage. Supporting trade and industrial development and service development through diversification through investment in agriculture, industry, banking and free trade zones, as well as mining and traditional resource extraction. Everyone sees it as a positive feature of Belt and Road construction,” said Johannes Lin of the Brookings Institution.

Brian Todd, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, said China’s security activities in the region have also increased, particularly bilateral and multilateral exercises.

“We know that [Chinese uniformed personnel] Being in Tajikistan means that the government of Tajikistan invited them, ”she said.

Presence of China

BRI investments have fallen dramatically in Central Asia, especially Kyrgyzstan. There are no new projects, and rail transport from China to Europe via Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan remains on paper for now.

Lin said China is not always effective in Central Asia. “They have seen Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in conflict and Kazakhstan in chaos. I was left out of these events without being able to.”

Elizabeth Wischnick, a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analysis, said anti-China sentiment does exist.

For example, clashes between local residents and workers, including Chinese mining operations, have led the Chinese government to rely on Kyrgyzstan’s private security firms.

In Kazakhstan, a recent survey showed China to be the least favored partner, Wishnick noted. “That does not mean that Kazakhstan will not engage with China.

FILE - Russian soldiers participate in joint exercises by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Khujand, Tajikistan, June 9, 2012. The exercise involved personnel from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.  (Xinhua News Agency via AP)

FILE – Russian soldiers participate in joint exercises by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Khujand, Tajikistan, June 9, 2012. The exercise involved personnel from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. (Xinhua News Agency via AP)

Some Central Asians worry about being exploited and overrun by China’s land use. There are also concerns about China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic groups, including Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in Xinjiang, Dale said.

Other potential downsides to China’s presence that Lin points out include excessive debt, China’s exploitation of natural resources in the region, unfair and opaque revenue sharing, and underinvestment in weaker areas of infrastructure. , including concerns that the transport infrastructure of the Belt and Road is directed toward China. Global markets, data security sovereignty, lack of sufficient attention to climate change, agricultural land issues, over-reliance of Chinese investors on Chinese employees, and the resulting migration challenges.

“The lack of transparency in BRI investments and show projects, such as the presidential palace and sports arenas, is causing financial corruption,” Lin said.

USA and Central Asia

Amid China’s complicated relationship with Central Asian nations, analysts at the Caspian Sea Policy Center said the United States lags far behind China when it comes to influence.

“Beijing’s emphasis on development, its status as an energy market, and its interest in agriculture and water projects all limit what the US can really bring to the table, even if China fails to deliver,” said Dale. said.

Todd does not believe the United States can compete with China economically and militarily in Central Asia.

“I don’t think it should be a goal because I know it’s not achievable in terms of economic or security interests,” Todd said. “Certainly, we would like to have relations with all the countries of Central Asia, but they should have a broader base and have everything from economic development to people-to-people exchanges with these countries. is.”

A key question for Todd is how US interests align with regional interests.

FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, September 16, 2022. (Sputnik via AP)

Equilibrium between China and Russia

Observers said there are also considerations that, despite Russia’s dedication to war in Ukraine, are still “very present” in the region.

Wishnick said Russia remained active in the region “despite being considered toxic”. Specifically, Kazakhstan “is trying very hard to maintain relations with the other so as not to aggravate relations with the other.”

Central Asia’s geographic location requires a balancing act between China and Russia, experts say.

“All of these countries are facing an energy transition, potentially affected by climate change, and stuck in a pipeline connecting Russia and China, which is at a standstill,” Wishnick said. I’m here.

Dale said the US government shouldn’t demonize everything China and Russia are doing in the region, but it needs to understand the needs of people in Central Asia.

He said the best long-term strategy should be to give the region more options. China’s influence in Central Asia spreads with the US lagging behind

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