The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Stability in Central Asia is crucial for China’s broader strategic plans.

Central Asia has long held strategic, political, and economic significance for major global players like the United States, China, and Russia. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Central Asia found itself endowed with abundant natural resources, such as oil, gas, and minerals. In the current era, major powers are aggressively vying for access to Central Asia’s natural wealth. However, the allure of Central Asia goes beyond its resources; its geographical location also makes it a strategic pivot for these global giants.

For instance, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the United States established military bases in Central Asia, utilizing Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as logistical hubs to target Islamist militants in Afghanistan. As a consequence, the region has become integral to American foreign policy. Similarly, Central Asia has emerged as a key theater in China’s foreign policy calculus. Under the aegis of its Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has committed billions of dollars to development projects in Central Asia.

These Chinese undertakings encompass infrastructure construction, railway development, and gas pipeline installations. The Belt and Road Initiative not only aims to bolster trade between China and Central Asia but also to promote regional cohesion. Through these development projects, China has effectively interwoven itself into the economic, political, and strategic tapestry of Central Asia. Moreover, China has leveraged its soft power and cultural assets to maintain and extend its influence over the region. It has actively engaged in cultural, media, language, and educational initiatives, thereby crafting a favorable image and expanding its regional influence. Additionally, China has offered loans to developing countries in Central Asia, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, to reinforce its diplomatic ties, thereby solidifying China’s dominant role in the region.

The oil and gas reserves of Central Asia remain largely untapped, partly because Moscow is focusing on exploiting the reserves of Russian Siberia. This dynamic sets the stage for a complex interplay of interests among Russia, China, and the United States, as well as regional powers like Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and India. China has capitalized on this situation by investing in development projects aimed at facilitating resource extraction and trade. Central Asian countries, being landlocked, often rely on expensive transportation through neighboring nations; China’s investments in highways, airports, and railways serve to mitigate this logistical hurdle, offering benefits in critical sectors such as energy, transportation, and telecommunications.

Trade relations between China and Central Asian countries like Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have significantly improved. Furthermore, Beijing has been expanding trade with other Central Asian nations, including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. During the 2008 financial crisis, China surpassed Russia to become Central Asia’s most significant trading and strategic partner. In the first half of 2023 alone, China exported goods worth $26.4 billion to Central Asia while importing $13.5 billion in oil and gas.

In terms of military and security alliances, China and Central Asia have extended their cooperation through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This organization allows China and Central Asian countries to collectively address the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Frequent military exercises and financial support, such as China’s $1 billion allocation to Uzbekistan in 2019 for urban safety, indicate China’s vested interest in maintaining regional stability.

However, China faces internal and external threats from terrorist organizations active in Central Asia. Such organizations have perpetrated attacks in Xinjiang and other Chinese regions. Beijing is particularly concerned about the potential spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Xinjiang, which shares borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. There exists a direct link between extremist organizations and separatist movements within China, making stability in Central Asia crucial for China’s broader strategic plans.

From an economic standpoint, China’s vast infrastructure loans in Central Asia are becoming a double-edged sword. Accumulating debt, especially in countries like Kyrgyzstan, poses the risk of financial instability, which could, in turn, impede China’s regional projects.

Meanwhile, Russia views Central Asia as its traditional sphere of influence and remains wary of China’s increasing clout in the region. Although Beijing and Moscow are strategic partners, balancing these interests is a diplomatic tightrope. The United States is also keen on fortifying its Central Asian partnerships to counterbalance both Russian and Chinese influence, a development that adds another layer of complexity. Furthermore, U.S.-funded NGOs, active in advocating human rights, could pose potential challenges to China’s regional ambitions.

Thus, China’s increasing influence in Central Asia presents both an expansive set of opportunities and a complex array of challenges. As China further entrenches itself in the region, it must adroitly navigate a geopolitical landscape teeming with rival interests and inherent risks.

Waleed Feroz is currently pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Social Sciences at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology in Islamabad, Pakistan. His academic interests are centered on understanding the complex dynamics between nation states and their foreign policies. Specifically, his aim is to focus on geopolitics and social issues.