January 11, 2013, by China Policy Institute

Don’t forget about Central Asia: Local voices on China-Central Asian relations

china central asia flagsBy Elzbieta Maria Pron and Bin Wu.

Discussion surrounding future prospects for China’s international relationship with its neighbours for 2013 is overwhelmingly centred on the increasing tension and potential military conflicts in China’s East (with Japan for Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands) and South (e.g. Huangyan Island/Panatag Shoal with the Philippines). In contrast, less consideration is given to the uncertainties of Sino-Central Asian relations and their implications for China and the international community in the near future.  

Central Asia plays a triple role for Beijing. It is a platform for big-power balancing with Russia –the historical ally of the region – and with the US, who use Central Asia as a transportation corridor and outpost for its operations in Afghanistan. Central Asia is also an important part of China’s energy strategy. Turkmenistan possesses the fourth largest gas reserves in the world, followed by Uzbekistan, while Kazakhstan accounts for the eleventh largest global oil deposits. China’s investments in Central Asian energy sector brought into being two large-scale projects – the Central Asia Gas Pipeline linking Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and the Atyrau-Alashankou oil pipeline from Western Kazakhstan to China. Central Asia is also the region where China established its first international organization – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The SCO, officially devoted to further regional cooperation on security matters, is assessed by China analysts as the “new model of regional cooperation” and a “case study of new thinking in China’s foreign policy”.

Although China has made great inroads in Central Asian economies and security, Beijing’s position is neither consolidated in the region nor dominant. China is facing serious challenges to its stability, foreign policy principles, security of energy supply and relations with the US and Russia. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, for instance, are expected to have a political power transition in the near future with unpredictable outcomes for China.

The forthcoming US pull-out from Afghanistan, furthermore, may have a significant impact on regional safety and bring this security issue to Beijing’s attention. For instance, it may cause a reconnection between Taliban and Xinjiang independence militants and forcing China to take more radical steps towards Kabul. The SCO 2012 admission of Afghanistan as its fifth observer state reflects China’s consideration of Afghanistan’s place in regional security.

Nonetheless, since 2010, China’s impact on this region has been undermined by Russian establishment of Customs Union, including Kazakhstan and Belarus. Customs Union aims at strengthening regional economic integration and removing customs borders, eventually creating a single economic space. While Kazakhstan and Belarus see political and economic interest in the CU, cental asia mapTajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are attracted by the free movement of people (labour migration to Russia is one of the main incomes in both states). The benefits of the CU are confronted with its disadvantages  – the CU resulted in strict new regulations on cross-border trade with China. Further escalation of this situation will likely result in riots in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as their populations are as dependant on the Russian job market as they are on cheap goods from China.

Given the complexity and uncertainty of the Sino-Central Asian relations which vary country by county, the best way to understand their nature and possible consequences is to bring local voices into academic and policy analysis. For this purpose, we are very pleased to have a chance to bring a group of experts, journalists and political analysts from all Central Asian countries together to discuss their opinions, perceptions and predictions about changes in the Sino-Central Asian relationship in the near future. Nine short articles have been selected and will be published as a special issue of CPI blogs with the broad theme of China in Central Asia. The weekly publication will cover, but not limited to, the following topics: power succession in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, cross-border migrations, small trade trends and cooperation in the hydro-power sector. With coming challenges for Beijing, scrutiny of the popular voice and experts’ views on Sino-Central Asian relations allows for predictions of China’s future in the region and beyond. A cooperative and Sino-friendly Central Asia is a precondition for China’s economic and energy security, internal stability and relations with great powers.

Elzbieta Maria Pron is a PhD candidate with a research focus on China-Central Asian relations, Dr. Bin Wu is  Senior Research Fellow and Captain of the CPI Blog. Both are based in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors

Posted in International Relations