19 June 2023

China and Central Asia: Ambitions and Great Power Signalling

In his speech at the first China-Central Asia Summit at the leadership level held in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, on May 18 and 19, China’s President Xi Jinping laid out an ambitious blueprint for deepening ties between China and Central Asian countries. On the sidelines of the Summit, the leaders of five Central Asian countries- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also paid state visits to China. The event comes after China hosted the fourth meeting of foreign ministers of these countries in the last week of April. The summit reflects China’s increasing attention to and ambitions in the region.

It might have been a mere coincidence that the summit was hosted at the same time the G7+ and the Quad summits took place in Hiroshima, Japan. The G7 Communique focused on issues concerning China, including Taiwan, the South China Sea and economic coercion. The overlapping timings and the contents of the G7 communique raised the significance of the China-Central Asia summit, as it was no longer perceived as a regional summit. Instead, the China-Central Asia summit was seen as one of the platforms that signalled China’s prominence in Asia, particularly in its neighbourhood, and the intensifying geopolitical competition with the US and its allies.

During the summit, China offered $3.7 billion as grants and aid. In addition, the proposals to enhance investments, trade, development of the Trans-Caspian transport corridor (connects China with Europe), and the construction of Line D of the China-Central Asia gas pipeline signal a renewed push to deepen economic and energy ties. China also proposed establishing various dialogue mechanisms pertaining to different policy areas, such as agriculture, educational exchanges, party-to-party relations, industry, and transportation for institutionalising economic relations.

In the last few years, China has increased its influence beyond the realms of soft power, economics and energy into security exchanges and arms exports, thereby cutting into Russia’s predominance in the region. China is filling the regional geopolitical vacuum, as a prolonged Russian engagement in Ukraine undermined Moscow’s capabilities to fulfil the security and arms export needs of the Central Asian countries. China has increased security exchanges, military aid and cooperation in training and counter-terrorism, while its arms exports to the region have picked up rapidly since 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea.

But Russia will not be indifferent to the Chinese inroads into the region, which could negatively affect their relationship. Chinese policymakers seem to be fully aware of such a possibility. Official statements have underscored that China’s relationship with Central Asia is not targeted at any third country, which shows China is taking potential Russian reactions seriously. 

In a striking departure from the official position that China does not want to export its political-economic model to other countries, at the summit, Xi Jinping emphasised that “China is willing to strengthen exchanges with Central Asian countries in modernisation concepts and practice, synergise development strategies, and make joint efforts to promote modernisation.” The idea of Chinese modernisation figured prominently in Xi’s report to the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) 20th Party Congress held in October 2022. Broadly, it emphasises that countries have different socio-economic conditions and hence, different countries should follow their respective paths to modernisation. 

The concepts of varied paths to modernisation figured prominently in Chinese foreign policy discourses during Xi Jinping’s period since 2012. Such narratives seek to critique Western modernisation and democracy and legitimise China’s authoritarian political system. By outlining the willingness to synergise ‘modernisation concepts and policies,’ the statement underscores China’s intention to scale up the ideological battle with the US. 

Central Asia is strategically and economically significant for China’s security, especially for Xinjiang, a restive province with a majority Uyghur Muslim population. Over the years, China has focused on developing cross-border economic links and connectivity infrastructure to stabilise Xinjiang. However, China is also worried about political stability in Central Asia and the possibility of ‘colour revolutions’ in the region. Therefore, Xi Jinping’s assertion that “no one has the right to sow discord or stoke confrontation in the region” reflects Chinese worries about US influence in the region.

The instability in Afghanistan and its security implications for Central Asian countries and Xinjiang constitutes a critical factor behind China’s efforts to upgrade ties and its proposals to strengthen the ‘state capacity’ of these countries. Such Chinese efforts include providing military aid, defence training, and joint exercises to fend off potential terrorist violence and radicalisation in its western neighbourhood. The withdrawal of NATO forces in August 2021 from Afghanistan added impetus to China’s efforts. 

China’s efforts to upgrade the dialogue at the summit level come at a time when Central Asian countries seek investments and security aid to boost their domestic political stability when Russia is increasingly unable to play its conventional role in these areas. China foresees an opportunity to gradually crave a greater role in these areas. In addition to Central Asia, over the years, China has hosted regional summit meetings with African, Latin American, Middle Eastern and Central and Eastern European Countries. Hosting countries from a region at the summit level is now an established diplomatic practice for Beijing, and it is a Chinese way of signalling its great power status.


Originally published in Politeia Research Foundation on 14 June 2023