China plays a key role in Central Asia
Peace and prosperity are in short supply across much of Central Asia. Afghanistan's ailments have a grave effect, as do misgovernance, poverty and border disputes. But China's growing influence through energy and mineral projects, investment and trade offer a chance for the stability and wealth that has eluded most of the region's 65 million people. President Xi Jinping's visits to four of the five countries reaffirms the importance of the relationship.
Xi has signed hundreds of billions of yuan in deals so far this month during state visits to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The only Central Asian republic not on his itinerary was Tajikistan, which along with the latter three, Russia and China, forms the economic, military and political grouping the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. He will attend its annual two-day summit, which opens tomorrow in the Kyrgyzstani capital, Bishkek.
Russia's weakening grip, and a lack of involvement by the US and the rest of Europe, have left a development gap in the formerly Soviet Central Asia. China has been gradually stepping into the breach since the late 1990s, its interests being securing energy supplies, ensuring stability in neighbouring Xinjiang and the land route to Europe. China National Petroleum Corp has carved a major role in helping attain these goals through the Central Asia-China gas pipeline from Galkynysh in Turkmenistan to eastern provinces, with spurs to the other key energy producers, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Xi secured more gas shipments and strategic partnerships during his visits.
Such agreements are highly sought after by the governments; CNPC is not just sourcing energy for China, but also distributing it throughout the region. Chinese companies are also building sorely needed infrastructure such as roads, bridges and railway lines, and trade is growing. Of the countries, only Kazakhstan is well governed and wealthy; Tajikistan is close to becoming a failed state; political instability is rife in Kyrgyzstan; Turkmenistan is unpredictable; and stability in Uzbekistan remains nominal. Further clouding prospects are poor relations among the five, with rivalry between Uzbekistan and both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over disputed territory.
China's economic might offers hope where little else is apparent. Its foreign policy of non-interference is attractive to the region's rulers. Through building on the links, the countries have a chance of attaining prosperity and stability.