Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

Chinese Expansion in Central Asia: Problems and Perspectives

By Dr Catherine Owen.

Over the past two decades, China has been slowly but substantially increasing its presence in Central Asia. Most recently, it has initiated the ambitious new project, the Silk Road Economic Belt, which aims to connect Chinese and European markets via Central Asia. Having surpassed Russia as Central Asia's largest trading partner in 2009, China has invested billions into the economically ailing region and is the largest creditor to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

This short article summarises research into Chinese activity in the region, conducted on the ESRC-funded grant, 'Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia' led by John Heathershaw at the University of Exeter. The research team conducted approximately 50 interviews with cultural and political elites in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan between 2013 and 2015. Specifically, we wanted to find out how Chinese economic incursions into Central Asia are perceived locally and the extent to which they are countered or embraced. After summarising China's interests and activities in the Central Asian region, the article highlights both physical and discursive attempts by locals to undermine Chinese activity. It suggests that although nascent Chinese soft power initiatives have had some positive effects, on-going improvements to relations could be threatened by the economic downturn in China.

The Logic behind Chinese Interests in Central Asia

Although Chinese government rhetoric is unreservedly effusive about the growing cooperation with the region, two caveats are worth mentioning. First, Central Asia occupies a significantly lower status in Chinese foreign policy-making than other strategic areas such as the ASEAN and the South China Sea. Secondly, Chinese scholars and officials are aware that Central Asia forms part of Russia's area of special interest and that Russia is deeply mistrustful of Chinese activities in the region. Yet although its footprint is softer in Central Asia than elsewhere in the world, China has three very concrete reasons behind its interest in the region.

The first reason concerns energy security. China is the world's largest energy consumer but only has 1% of global reserves. According to the US Department of Defense, China has invested in the energy-related projects in over 50 countries. However, China has become dependent on politically unstable countries in the Middle East and Africa, which in 2014 supplied over half of its crude oil imports. Central Asia represents a more stable and more convenient source of energy for China's mushrooming domestic markets.

Secondly, China's interest in Central Asia stems from its desire to ensure stability in its restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The region is plagued by ethnic tensions between the Uyghur Muslim and Han Chinese populations, and is home to a number of Uyghur independence movements. According to China's development logic, economic investment improves security by rendering separatist call less attractive. As such, the Central Chinese government has promised to invest nearly $25 billion in infrastructural projects in the troubled region in 2016.

Thirdly, China's expansion into Central Asia takes on a new significance as a means to sidestep US containment policies in the South China Sea. Russia has expressed support for China's stance vis-à-vis the US on this issue, and the joint desire to see a reduction of American influence in the Far East may facilitate greater collaboration in Central Asia. With the Chinese media of the view that tensions between the US and China are likely to increase in the short-term, the Central Asian region, now free from US influence since 2014, appears a relative playground.

China's Central Asian Projects

China's flagship project in Central Asia is the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), that is, the land-based component of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative (the other component being the Maritime Silk Road). Conceived in 2013, the SREB is an ambitious project to connect East Asian and European markets via Central Asia, increasing trade and connectivity, with Xinjiang seen as its core region. Currently, Chinese products are shipped 26,000 miles through the Suez Canal to Europe, a journey that takes up to 45 days. The SREB aims to reduce that journey time to less than two weeks and cut the mileage to 6,500. The SREB will be financed by the newly-created intergovernmental Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and by the Chinese venture, the Silk Road Fund.

There are too many individual China-funded infrastructural and energy projects already underway in Central Asia to list here. However, notable projects include the development of the Galkynysh oilfields in Turkmenistan; the Central Asia-China gas pipeline that runs from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Xinjiang; the Datka-Kemin electricity power line in Kyrgyzstan that allows the country energy independence from Uzbekistan; and the Khorgos Gateway on the China-Kazakh border, a key logistical hub for the SREB. This is in addition to the development of oil refineries in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the construction of a plethora of roads across the region. In the year to May 2015, total trade between China and the five Central Asian states totalled $41.7 billion. Central Asians have thus witnessed an enormous increase in the number of Chinese companies, workers and settlers in the region, with Chinese restaurants and cafes and springing up near construction sites, and other small businesses opening in the towns.

Local Reactions to Chinese Expansion

Although local Central Asians generally saw the financial aspect of Chinese presence as a positive thing, many struggle with a deep-rooted fear of their large neighbour, instilled from infancy. One Bishkek resident explained, 'In my childhood, if we didn't eat the food that our grandmother prepared, she would scare us by saying that the Chinese will come.' This Sinophobia manifests itself in Central Asia both physically and discursively.

Firstly, unfortunately, as Chinese presence increases, so do incidences of violence. Local media outlets have noted a wave of criminal attacks on Chinese businesses, often targeted by gangs demanding protection money. High profile cases include the 2013 murder of the owner of Bishkek-based Chinese optician for refusing to pay extortion fees and the 2014 deportation of a group of Chinese workers from Kyrgyzstan for rioting over a pay dispute. Ethnic violence has also periodically broken out, both in terms of larger-scale conflicts and attacks on individuals, in particular near Chinese construction projects. In April this year, protests erupted across Kazakhstan over land reforms allowing foreigners to rent Kazakh land for up to 25 years. Protestors cited fears that Chinese investors will purchase the land and never leave.

Secondly, conspiracy theories of Chinese intentions in Central Asia abound both online and in face-to-face discussions, and mostly consist of variations on the idea that China wants to 'take over' in Central Asia. For instance, the development assistance given by China in the south of Kyrgyzstan, such as hospitals and televisions, are 'all part of a plot to exploit some piece of land in Osh that the Chinese know about and that others do not'. There is a perception that a lot of outward migration from China is occurring, both through promotion by the Chinese government and illegal border crossings. Many locals fear that immigration to the region is 'out of control', and that Chinese men arrive in Central Asia with the aim of marrying local women to thereby 'dilute' the region. Some believe that Kyrgyzstan will eventually become the PRC's most westerly province. Others suggest that Russia and China are planning to take over the region together, which Russia providing the security and China the finance.

Despite these problems, there is room for optimism regarding everyday relations between Chinese and Central Asians living in the region. For instance, local Chinese soft power initiatives are generally well received: the Kyrgyz language Chinese television channel is highly regarded and the Confucius Institutes are seen to provide exciting opportunities for students to obtain internships and travel abroad. The Chinese language is becoming an increasingly popular subject for study at university, and growing numbers of Central Asian young people are travelling to China on exchange or language programmes. Students invariably return with positive stories of their time in China, often surprised at the level of development in the country. This suggests that longer term investment by China in education and cultural exchange could reduce the fear and ignorance of China in the region.

However, perhaps the most important question for local China-Central Asian relations concerns the nascent economic downturn in China. Although, Chinese construction companies will benefit from new building opportunities and, once completed, the SREB will substantially reduce transit costs for Chinese goods, the initiative requires a vast amount of capital injection to get the project off the ground: indeed, the China Development Bank recently revealed plans to invest $900 billion in a slew of projects connected to OBOR. However, Chinese premier Xi Jinping has indicated that he wants to check debt-fuelled growth. It is argued that a multi-trillion dollar bailout is required in order for the Chinese economy to stay afloat. And given that the South China Sea dispute takes clear precedency, in the event of a crisis, SREB funding will be the first to be cut. Will the ambitious vision for the region reach completion and enter operation, or will Central Asia begin to resemble the outskirts of a Chinese city: mile after mile of empty high rises and abandoned construction projects. If the latter turns out to be true, the level of discontent among Central Asians will, quite reasonably, be look set to rise.

July 2016