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navigating china's path to engagement in central asia

Navigating China's Path to Engagement in Central Asia

Author: Meray Ozat


China's expanding geopolitical interests in Central Asia and its aspirations to supplant Russian influence following the Ukraine conflict have become increasingly conspicuous. A key evidence of the growing Chinese influence was the May 2023 China-Central Asia Summit held in Xi’an, resulting in over $3.7 billion in investments from China to Central Asia. With these new investments, the total number of Chinese projects in Central Asia surpassed $63 billion. The substantial influx of Chinese capital has been instrumental in bolstering regional development, and it has positioned China as a standout partner among Central Asian trading counterparts.

Since the summit, China has continuously engaged in Central Asia and enhanced its involvement. Among recent contributions from China, its impact on Central Asia’s energy sector has been especially influential through its involvement in energy renewables and infrastructure. A leading Chinese company involved in photovoltaic mounting systems, Antaisolar, recently signed its largest solar deal in Central Asia, committing to supply a 470 MWp Solar Tracking System to Enter Engineering, an Uzbekistan-based engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contractor. Upon completion in December 2023, the project will enable the transmission of 600 million kilowatt-hours of clean electricity, concurrently curbing carbon emissions by an annual 600,000 tons. This trend can be observed also in Kyrgyzstan, with a $3 billion joint project with China to build four hydropower plants with a total capacity of 1160 MW, marking the largest project of its kind in Kyrgyzstan. 

Beyond these ambitious projects, bilateral trade between China and Central Asia also has been mounting. All Central Asian countries experienced a significant surge in trade volumes with China. According to the data released by the General Administration of Customs of the Republic of China, the trade turnover between China and Kazakhstan and between China and Kyrgyzstan in the first six months of 2023 recorded a 26.8% increase compared to the same period last year. Trade volume with Uzbekistan increased by a similar 27.6%, while Turkmenistan experienced a 12.3% increase, and Tajikistan marked the most substantial growth, with an increase of 84.7%. Despite the dramatic increase, the trade turnover between China and Tajikistan is still the lowest among Central Asian countries with a total value of $2 billion. Kazakhstan remains the largest trading partner of China with a total trade turnover of $18.25 billion in the first half of the year, followed by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

To foster bilateral trade, Central Asian countries and China have also implemented measures to streamline road transport. One of the noteworthy initiatives is a Memorandum of Cooperation reached between China and Kyrgyzstan that resulted in the augmented quota for goods transportation. The road transportation capacity, estimated to accommodate 20,000 units in 2023, is poised to triple to 60,000 units in 2024. Similarly, the trade route between Kazakhstan and China is also advancing after the reactivation of Xinjiang border ports, especially with the heightened activity in Khorgos since the beginning of 2023. 

On July 28, the first freight train from China to Central Asia departed from Guizhou, China, to Almaty with over 1500 tons of goods and will return with 1300 tons of agricultural products. Until July 20, the freight trains passing through Khorgos exceeded 8000, transporting 200 varieties of goods, while cars carrying goods passing through Khorgos reached 50,000. The reopening of Xinjiang border points has unlocked additional avenues for bilateral trade between Central Asia and China. 

Diplomatic engagements represent another significant stride in increased Chinese involvement in the region. Reciprocal visits between government representatives and entrepreneurs from both China and Central Asia have been a recurring feature. These meetings have focused on domains such as defense, trade, energy, infrastructure, and education. This trend of frequent interactions is set to continue, highlighted by the impending high-level visit from China to Kyrgyzstan, led by Premier Li Qiang of the Chinese State Council in October 2023. In parallel, Kyrgyzstan is preparing a reciprocal visit to the Xinjiang region, led by Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers, Akylbek Japarov. These bilateral engagements are geared towards assessing the progress of joint initiatives, prominently the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project.

In a broader context, China's influence in the region can be categorized into three pivotal spheres: investment, trade, and diplomacy, with a primary focus on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. With substantial funds and persistent efforts, China has offered more tangible benefits than any other partner of Central Asia, significantly contributing to the development of the region. 

China's growing influence and its pragmatic aid, though seemingly beneficial, threaten the geopolitical landscape of Central Asia, undermining their ability to pursue a multifaceted foreign policy. While China's attractive and concrete benefits capture the attention of the Central Asian countries, this assistance might inadvertently subject them to significant geopolitical vulnerabilities, ultimately exposing them to the gravitational pull of China's influence. 

This dilemma arises from Central Asia's limited external support options. Because Western investment and collaboration avenues are limited, Central Asia has been forced to embrace China's opportunities. Consequently, Central Asia must prioritize attracting diverse external powers into the region to restore equilibrium in the existing prevalence of Chinese influence and safeguard their broader strategic interests from being overshadowed by a single dominant force.

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