Friday, 6 March 2015

The Growing Influence of China in Central Asia

Central Asia has over the years often been regarded as a backwater in the international community. Yet since September 11, 2001 Central Asia has become a darling to the movers and shakers in the international community.

The United States until very recently was pouring tens of millions of  dollars into the coffers of Central Asian leaders and utilizing military bases throughout the region for its War on Terror. Russia likewise still seeks to enforce its big brother role in the region through either economic or military initiatives in each of the five states.

Yet the all out star of the rush for Central Asia has been China. Across the board Central Asian states are drawing closer to their communist neighbour through deepening economic and political ties.  In 2005 Kazakhstani officials confirmed that the state’s Canadian-based oil company 
PTROKAZAKHSTAN had been sold to China’s national oil company China’s National Petroleum Company (CNPC). In the $4.18 billion dollar deal CNPC International agreed to pay $55 per share for complete ownership of PTROKAZAKSTAN. According to Paul Sampson, senior correspondent for London-based Energy Intelligence Group the willingness of China to pay such a high price reflects China's desire both to secure energy and to cement ties within Central Asia.[1]

Certainly Kazakhstan and China’s bilateral relations are deepening. According to figures released last year Kazakhstan has become China second biggest trading partner in the CIS following Russia with a record US$ 6.8 billion dollars worth of trade in 2005[2]. This will of course only intensify with the establishment of a signed agreement for a "strategic partnership” which seeks to extend the already extensive regional security, energy, high-technology, transportation, agriculture and telecommunications co-operation[3].

One illustration of the increasing relations in the year 2006 is the opening of the Kazakh –China oil pipeline which although not fully operational until 2007-2008 will deliver an estimated 20 million tonnes of oil per annum  to China’s Xinjiang refineries. Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, Kasymzhomart Tokaev, has recently announced that Kazakhstan also plans to deepen its commitment to fuelling China by developing a gas pipeline with Turkmenistan thereby providing much needed gas and oil to the Chinese economy[4].

However, Kazakhstan is not the only Central Asian nation linking itself to China. Across the five states all are choosing to move towards China and the economic rewards it can bring. Likewise China is also pushing for increasing ties to this neighbouring region.  From consumer infrastructural projects like shopping complexes built by Chinese nationals to financial aid programs which allow Central Asian governments to purchase large amounts of Chinese consumer goods with Renminbi. Or infrastructure projects like the new Eurasian railway and loans for governments like Uzbekistan, ostracised from the western world due human rights abuses, China is investing heavily in each of the Central Asian states and as this economic power grows so to does the political leverage.


Theorists like Niklas Swanstrom argue that

“The Sinofication of the Central Asian economy has gone so far that the Central Asian states have become dependent on Chinese investments and Beijing has in turn been able to dictate the Central Asian states policies toward ‘terrorists’ ie Uyghur rebels from Chinese Xinjiang.” [5]

This influence has not been an overnight phenomenon. Starting early in the first rough years of Central Asian independence China  initiated a regional co-operation framework which has become known as the SCO or the Shanghai Co-operation Organization.

Colloquially called the Shanghai Six it has enabled China to push for the region’s international affairs perspective to be in alignment with its own. One example of course was last year’s SCO reprimand of the United States military presences in the region. The ejection of US forces from Uzbekistan highlighted that this reprimand was no idle threat and has forced the US to rethink its strategy toward Central Asia and the Shanghai Six.  The United States has also been seeking, unsuccessfully, to gain observer status in the SCO who at present have allowed four other countries observer status including Mongolia, Iran, India and Pakistan

Nevertheless Central Asian leaders are not without a hand in the matter. Many of them view China as a balancing force to Russia and the United States. They also welcome the billions of dollars China can throw at the region raising the standard of living for many in these developing states. Radio Free Asia reports indicate recently that many Kazakhstanis are also pleased with the Chinese involvement in their economy due to the new job opportunities which are opening up from this influx of investment[6].

However many Central Asian elites are concerned with the growing Sino-Central Asian relationship. Many are apprehensive of the growing numbers of Chinese merchants and businessmen in each of the states. Some are concerned that like Indonesia or the Solomon Islands and many other South East Asian countries the strong Chinese diaspora will create competition for the  native merchants to gain access to the establish paths to economic resources and political power..

They argue that in states where patronization is a key part of everyday life and economic resources are utilized as part of such dealings.  Thus the sinozation of the economy would also allow ethnic Chinese unprecedented access to political elites, thereby hindering the local patron-client relationships and giving the Chinese influence over national political affairs.

Yet , it appears that Central Asian leaders are aware of the danger of allowing China too much access.   As Kazakhstan’s Foreign minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev enunciated in a recent interview with online journal

China plays a very important role [in the region]. A number of enterprises operating in Kazakhstan are Chinese. They are expanding their status and sustain the balance of major powers. However, we also would like to see other countries [coming in to the region]. For example, we are negotiating with India. The general balance of interests must be thoroughly sustained.” [7]

As such it appears that Central Asian leaders have realized that reliance upon one dominant superpower is not a favorable situation for development. Instead a system of multiple alliances with international players provides more scope for their own growth.

Security the Real Issue?

Suspicion is growing though, that China’s interest in the region is far from just economic and resource based. Political security is another motivating factor for Chinese Communist authorities. A recent article from the Washington Times entitled China’s Color Coded Crackdown argues that Central Asia is now a target for Chinese authorities due to the recent democratic revolutions have swept across the Caucasus and Central Asia[8]. In the article it is claimed that  in the Hong Kong based Open magazine ’a report by Chinese President Hu Jintao, titled "Fighting the People's War Without Gunsmoke", is guiding the Chinese Communist Party's "counterrevolution" offensive. The report, disseminated inside the party, outlines a series of measures aimed at nipping a potential Chinese "color revolution" in the bud.[9]

According to Yuanbing author of the article China’s Colour Coded Crackdown from Foreign Policy. com President Hu has asked that ‘experts be dispatched to Central Asia to study how those colour revolutions first sprung roots.’[10] Thus it appears that China’s CP authorities are concerned that these coloured revolutions which have swept into power opposition leaders will permeate the border and encourage open acts of dissention in repressed areas like Xinjiang. 

If this is the case then China’s involvement in Central Asia is not just driven by the need for oil or economic resources. It is part of a longer term strategy for Chinese political security. That is by keeping their neighbouring states entwined through regional bodies, bilateral trade agreements and commercial enterprises they are assured of their western flank’s security and their own political position.

[1]Macdonald, J, 2005, ‘China has Deal to Buy Kazakh Oil Firm’ in The Seattle Times Online Edition,     http//, last accessed on 20/05/06.
[2], 2006, “Bilateral Trade Relations’, Online Newswire,
[3] Hu Qihua, 2005, ‘Sino-Kazakh Strategic Partnership set up’ , China Daily Online Edition, 2005-07-05 06:02, last accessed on 20/05/06.
[4] Mevlut Katik , 2006, ‘Kazakhstan has "Huge Plan" To Expand Energy Links with China’, Online Journal, , last accessed on 20/05/06.
[5] Swantstom, N, 2001, ‘China conquers Central Asia through Trade’, The Analyst Online Journal,  last accessed 20/05/06
[6] Radio Free Asia, 2004, China’s Growing Influence in Central Asia, Part 1 A Major Player in Need of energy’, in Radio Free Asia Online Journal,, last accessed 21/05/06.
[7] Mevlut Katik , 2006,Kazakhstan has "Huge Plan" To Expand Energy Links with China’, Online Journal, , last accessed on 20/05/06.
[8] Engdahl, F. W, 2005, China Lays Down the gauntlet on the Energy War’ , Asia times Online, , last accessed on the 21/05/06
[9] Yongding, 2005, ‘China’s Colour Coded Crackdown’, Foreign Policy. com, , last accessed on the 21/05/06.
[10] Ibid

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