Debating China in Central Asia

Will China continue to defer to Russia in Central Asia’s international security relations?

By John Heathershaw (Text and photocredits)

Revised: 2 November 2015

What kind of great powerSONY DSC is China in Central Asia?  It was this question that animated our discussions in October as colleagues and new contacts of ExCAS gathered in Shanghai and London to discuss China’s emerging role in the region.  Prompted by ongoing research and the recent report by our partner Saferworld (who wrote their own summary here), we asked whether Chinese power will remain primarily economic and whether China will continue to be a singular actor in the region.

On 14 October, several of us associated with the ESRC Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia research project met in Shanghai to discuss conflict and security questions in Central Asia and China’s current role as the region’s main trading partner and foreign investor.  This event was co-organised between the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies (SIIS) and Saferworld. Participants included: Chen Dongxiao, President,  SIIS; Aisher Khamidov, Independent researcher, Kyrgyzstan; Li Lifan, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences; Bernardo Mariani, Saferworld; Anna Matveeva, Kings College London; Yang Cheng, East ChSONY DSCina Normal University.

The following week, on 23 October, a few of the participants – including Yang Cheng, Anna Matveeva and myself -reconvened in London to consider China relations with Russia including in both Central Asia and the Russian Far East.  We were joined by Bobo Lo of Chatham House, Caroline Humphrey of the University of Cambridge, Alexei Maslov of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and Marcin Kaczmarski of the Centre for Eastern Studies, Warsaw.  The event was co-organised between the universities of Cambridge and Exeter and hosted by the Royal Institute of International Affairs Chatham House.

Several core questions reoccurred across the two events.  These included:

SONY DSC1.  Is China’s role in Central Asia similar to its role in its other neighbouring regions, including the somewhat comparable Russian borderlands, or is qualitatively different?

2. How does China’s relations with other great powers, especially Russia, affect its role in Central Asia?  Are these relations shifting from formally ‘equal partners’ to subservience of Russia to China?

3. How will the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) strategy with an estimated $50 Billion of investment and associated strategic engagements transform Central Asia?

4. Is China a singular actor in Central Asia where all Chinese governmental, state-owned enterprise (SOE) and private business in the region act consistently according to a single policy from Beijing (or is something more complicated afoot)?

SONY DSC5. How can China remain an overwhelmingly economic power in the region (as its own rhetoric claims) when history suggests that rising powers always seek wider political and security roles in their neighbouring region?

6. Will China continue to defer to Russia as the security guarantor for Central Asia?  Will China continue to play a passive or very indirect role in the management of minor armed conflicts in the region, particularly with the recurrent political violence surrounding the increasingly authoritarian regime in Tajikistan?

With a variety of views expressed in the workshops, I was struck by the sense of flux in China’s current position in the region.  Central Asia remains of less importance to China than any other region.  This is reflected in the knowledge and understanding of the region in Chinese academia and the  think-tank world.  We were fortunate to have two of the most knowledgeable Chinese experts in Li and Yang with us in Shanghai and London but such researchers with field experience of Central Asia are few and far between.  Our workshop in Shanghai also included experts on the Americas, Europe, South Asia and the Middle East echoing the reality that Central Asian is often seen through the prism of these regions – where China has estbalished political and security roles.

How far will this change under OBOR and the ‘drive West’?  In other regions, as the research of Lee Jones and Shahar Hameiri shows, China becomes not just a political and security player but a decentred one as SOEs and private businesses begin to pursue agendas distinct from that of Beijing.  Tensions between ministries may emerge.  Lack of knowledge and interest, along with the relativeness newness of Chinese engagement, means that most Chinese investors presently follow Beijing’s lead in infrastructure and trade agreements.  As Central Asia is considered a ‘frontier’ region this may continue for some time.  An added complexity is the ‘Sinophobia’ apparent in Central Asia.  It is unlikely that this suspicion of China will change rapidly even as more Central Asians go to China as students and traders.  One important factor will be whether Chinese companies become significant employers of the local labour force.  The current impression – not entirely unjustified – is that Chinese businesses employ their own, pay their workers poorly, and keep themselves to themselves.   This may soon change as Chinese and Central Asian governments seek to generate real economic growth in the region to meet the ambitions of OBOR.  But impressions often last long.

In this dim light, China’s potential security role in the Central Asian republics seems distant indeed.  However, a glance across the border to China’s emerging role in Afghanistan suggests that a more activist foreign and security policy make just be a matters of the eventfulness of international politics.  History and logic also suggest that China is unlikely to allow Russia gate-keeping rights over security cooperation in Central Asia for perpetuity.  It is China which borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan after all, despite Russia’s claim to its ‘near abroad’.  Such deference would be rather like early 20th century America allowing a foreign power to be the security hegemon for Mexico or the Caribbean states (something which had already ruled out with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, of course).   This is a problematic historical analogy – as the US was reacting to European colonialism, not a post-colonial world, and the America were its primary neighbour – but at a certain level it is telling.  Geopolitics is a constructed phenomenon not a pattern which emerges from simple physical and political geography.  It may be constructed in a manner which belies the supposed eternal truths of political realist thought.  But it would be surprising, perhaps unprecedented, if China did not internalise classical geopolitical discourse and play a more assertive role in all its borderlands, even the most distant from the populous East.

The question is made the more urgent by the multiple incidents of minor armed conflict which have taken place in one of China’s Central Asian neighbours since 2008.  Tajikistan has experienced no fewer than six serious incidents of political violence over that time, largely involving senior officials or former officials and mid-ranking security officers.  In addition, it saw the head of its special forces Gulmurod Halimov defect to ISIS/ISIL in March 2015. Losing both Halimov and the recently promoted deputy defence minister Abdulhalim Nazarzoda to rebellion in the same years must say something about the (in)stability of the Tajik state.  More particularly, it tells us that it is the regime which is producing these rebellions as it seeks to narrow its circle and expel all those whose absolute loyalty it doubts.  Will China stand by if a future rebellion causes wider instability?  Its notable 8 September statement in support of political stability, following the violence associated with Nazarzoda on 4 September, suggests it is watching closely.

A greater security role for China in Central Asia – beyond its formal cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – may be far off.  But rather than strategy dictating we may expect events beyond Beijing’s control to play a profound role.

 

 

 

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