As instability brews in Central Asia, can China’s investment diplomacy in region still work?
- Uncertainty on the rise as five Central Asian countries struggle with looming civil war, riots and possible confrontation with Russia
- Coming summit in Uzbekistan could indicate how Beijing will seek to protect economic, security interests in region to counter Moscow’s influence
But now, internal tensions as a result of economic woes and external pressures from transnational terrorism and criminal organisations have created a tinderbox.
These adversaries include the ever-widening range of militant groups in the region, such as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, the Turkestan Islamic Party in the Badakhshan area, and the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.
While the European Union is focused on Ukraine and the United States is trying to juggle the Russian invasion and the Indo-Pacific, Beijing is in full crisis management mode along its “near abroad”. Next month’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, to be held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, will amplify how the Central Asia region is a source of worry in China, other Asian countries, and the Middle East.
While Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were previously considered the weakest links in the area due to civil war and economies that have struggled to take off since independence, Kazakhstan – once regarded as the region’s poster boy – is now on shaky ground. Civil unrest early this year saw the deployment of more than 2,000 foreign paratroopers, mainly Russian, from the Collective Security Treaty Organization to stabilise the situation.
One step could be advancing the two-decade-old railway project linking Kyrgyzstan with Uzbekistan along the China-EU East-West connection axis. At the same time, further investments from China could accelerate the construction of the North-South axis linking the railway connection to Iran and the Caucasus, providing access to sea lanes of communication to landlocked Central Asian countries.
Time is running out for such economic measures, however. The World Bank’s June 2022 Global Economic Prospects report says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a humanitarian crisis, set back economic growth in Europe and Central Asia and beyond, and heightened global geopolitical instability.
Growth is expected to be weakened in most Central Asian countries because of the region’s close links with the Russian economy – the figure is projected to halve in 2022 from 2021, falling to 2.4 per cent. Though the report says rising commodity prices could help Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the benefits are likely to be limited.
Considering that China’s previous investments in the Belt and Road Initiative have not shown the promised results, Beijing is likely to double down on its investment in the region to avoid local unrest. It has few other options. Increasing its security footprint, for instance, is not on the table. A stable Central and South Asia is a must for China, as it allows the country to keep its neighbourhood stable and focus on the Indo-Pacific without distractions.
For China, the region is central to its energy and trade connections. The SCO summit could see money from China and the Middle East – the United Arab Emirates, for example, is bidding for membership in the organisation – pouring into Central Asia.
This sets up a situation which could see the region thrown back into its former role as a geopolitical pawn, with possible consequences for the “partnership without limits” between China and Russia.
The Samarkand summit will thus bear watching: the size of Chinese investment announced then – which will have direct bearing on the growth of its influence – could foretell if Beijing’s urgent security and economic interests in Central Asia brush up against the Kremlin’s cultural and ideological vision for the region, with possibly disastrous repercussions.
Dr Alessandro Arduino is the principal research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. He is the co-director of the Security & Crisis Management International Centre at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and an external associate at Lau China Institute, King’s College London.