The story of president Xi Jinping choosing Kazakhstan as the first location for presenting his revolutionary foreign policy plan – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – has now become a common tale of China’s international relations. However, it is a story worth retelling, as it marks the starting-point of a new era in China-Central Asia relations.
Back in 1992, a year after the Soviet Union fell and five independent states were established on China’s doorstep, then-president Jiang Zemin rushed to settle China’s western borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the country’s brand-new neighbours. At the same time, Jiang started diplomatic relations with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in an effort to come to terms with all the new independent states that had emerged in the region. His striving to normalize relations with Central Asian states is one of Jiang’s main foreign policy achievements, despite often being overlooked among the long list of accomplishments that form his legacy to the country. A tragic oversight, as it was Jiang’s actions that paved the way for Xi’s current approach towards Central Asia.
The region has become a strategic crossroads for China’s global trade relations since the launch of the BRI in 2013. Indeed, three out of the five BRI corridors traverse Central Asia. First, the New Eurasian Land Bridge Economic Corridor (NELBEC) connects China’s coastal regions to Germany. Second, the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCAWEC) deviates from the NELBEC in northwest China and crosses the Middle East towards the Port of Piraeus in Greece. Third, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), one of China’s flagship projects, connects China’s northwest to the Arabian Sea, providing direct maritime routes to ports in Kenya, Sri Lanka and Europe.
Since the BRI was launched, Central Asia has received roughly US$ 25.5 billion from China, a figure that comprises both BRI and non-BRI financing from private and state-owned enterprises, and that supported 42 projects. Fifty percent of these funds (about US$ 12.8 billion) were used to launch fifteen energy projects, while around twenty-two percent (around US$ 5.6 billion) was devoted to eight projects in the transport sector. Both these sectors reflect China’s strategic interests in Central Asia, as they fall into China’s energy security strategy. Indeed, after the fall of the USSR, the geographical and mineral conformation of these new states were unfamiliar to most global powers (including China) except Russia. At that time, China’s levels of industrial modernization presented unprecedented energy demands and Central Asia was regarded as a promising ground for the country to satisfy its energy needs. It was at this particular point in time that the two criticalities of China’s potential approach to Central Asia became the files rouges of the country’s strategy towards the region before the BRI was launched. In order to approach Central Asia, China required guidance, as Beijing had no prior knowledge of or experience with how to engage the area. At the same time, Russia’s role in the region had remained crucial even after the disaggregation of the Soviet Union. China’s autonomous approach to Central Asia might have been perceived as a challenging act to Moscow’s lingering influence. In contrast with the other post-Soviet countries, most Central Asian states have been maintaining close political and trade relations with Russia.
Due to these criticalities, China turned to Russia as a proxy to gain access to Central Asia’s energy resources. By establishing multilateral frameworks of cooperation with Central Asian states, jointly led by China and Russia, Beijing was able to gain access to Central Asian markets and, at the same time, avoid any potential competition with the region’s former hegemon. This strategy proved particularly successful after the experimental framework of the Shanghai Five – i.e., an informal forum of cooperation established in 1996 between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – which formally institutionalized in 2001 into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO witnessed the addition of Uzbekistan among its members and fostered increased coordination in areas of common strategic interest (such as counterterrorism). The organization continued to be led by both China and Russia, with the former in charge of economic issues and the latter of security.
However, with the launch of the BRI and China’s expanded role as global power, Beijing’s approach to the region gradually moved away from its traditional model of engagement to an approach that sees China (and China alone) as the major pole in relations with Central Asian states. Indeed, as China has acquired the levels of knowledge and expertise necessary to deepen relations with its Central Asian partners, Beijing has now moved beyond the need for Russia’s mentorship. On the one hand, China’s new model for Central Asia is exemplified by its more assertive tones in the SCO, especially concerning the organization’s agenda that is now gradually prioritising the economic, tourism and education sectors instead of security. On the other, Beijing’s frameworks of bilateral/regional cooperation with Central Asian states is another demonstration of China’s new autonomous strategy for the region. For instance, the mobility programmes devoted to Central Asian students made Kazakhstan score among the top countries of origin for exchange students in China, and Mandarin Chinese among the most studied languages in the region. While Central Asia had at first been exempted from China’s soft power strategy, the region has now been inserted into China’s traditional models of external engagement. Nonetheless, Russian continues to be the only lingua franca in Central Asia and its populations are still linked to a Russian cultural model.
Although the best-funded sectors of the BRI show that energy relations remain among Beijing’s topmost priorities for Central Asia, the toolbox the country has adopted to engage the region has moved away from relying on Russia’s mediation to adopting a more independent and variegated approach. At the same time, China and Russia are now experiencing a wider convergence of interests, which is helping Beijing and Moscow to overcome those contradictions that had the potential to exacerbate animosity over power relations in Central Asia. As China’s objectives for the region remain rooted in utilitarianism, Russia’s striving to regain a role in the international system remains untouched, thus ensuring that competition for Central Asia will not necessarily escalate into a crisis between the two newly found partners.