China Adopts Aggressive Approach in Central Asia
Jul 6, 2022
On June 7, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid an official visit to Central Asia to jumpstart the third meeting of the China+Central Asia Foreign Ministers (C+C5) format. Wang arrived in the region intending to discuss its geopolitical rivals, underscoring China’s willingness to adopt a more aggressive approach to the region, thus thrusting Central Asia into the limelight of China’s foreign policy agenda. China has been ramping up its investment portfolio and financial gains in the region. As tensions between Beijing and Washington have heightened over critical issues such as Taiwan, trade relations, and the South China Sea, China is aiming to increase strategic relations with the Central Asian states to prevent other countries from making inroads in the region.
Wang’s visit comes less than a month after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu’s tour of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. During his visit, Lu underscored the vitality of the C5+1 format. On the other hand, the Chinese announcement of Wang’s bilateral meeting with Kazakhstani President Kassym Jomart-Tokayev resembled a jab at its competitors: “China has never sought geopolitical interest in Central Asia, and never allows non-regional forces to stir up trouble in the region.” Wang’s comments allude to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s accusation that China poses the “most serious long-term challenge to the international order.” As U.S.-China relations reach their lowest point since the 1960s, Central Asia will experience the brunt of the rivalry.
The United States is not China’s only geopolitical competitor in the region, traditionally dominated by Russia. In late April, Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe traveled to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Oman to push for more frequent military exercises and strategic communication among the countries. All four countries are situated along the International North South Transit Corridor (INSTC). The INSTC is a multinational transport corridor linking Mumbai with European cities via Central Asia and the Middle East. India envisages a network of ports, railroads, and roads that can carry Indian goods to foreign markets by bypassing its bitter geopolitical rival, Pakistan. Wei’s strategic trip brought him to multiple vital nodes of the INSTC, including the Duqm special economic zone in Oman.
China and India are also competing for screen time with the Central Asian leaders. In January 2022, both Beijing and New Delhi hosted their own virtual summits with the Central Asian states. On January 25, Chinese President Xi Jinping led a virtual meeting with the five Central Asian leaders to emphasize their shared security interests, promote Urumqi as a regional hub, and mull aid distribution initiatives. Two days later, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi echoed similar stances at the virtual India-Central Asia Summit. The almost concurrent summits evince China’s eagerness to establish itself as the key economic development partner for the region.
The Central Asian governments are taking advantage of China’s promises to offer economic development. At the most recent C+C5 meeting, China and Kazakhstan agreed to open additional consulates in each other’s countries to advocate for bilateral trade and manage barriers to trade, like COVID-19-related shutdowns in China, bottlenecks at border crossings, and inflation. China will open its consulate in the western Kazakhstani city of Aktobe. Kazakhstan’s new consulate will be in Xi’an, which is often the launching point of trains destined for Europe via Central Asia.
Central Asian governments are hoping to avoid the bitter geopolitical rivalry in their own neighborhood by shifting conversations towards economic advancement and infrastructure development. Still, the region is becoming a hotbed for geopolitical competition to play out. As China grows its footprint in a region that was historically aligned with Russia, other countries like the United States, India, and Iran seek to become larger players. However, China’s promises of hard infrastructure development, simple financing procedures, and quick deliveries are more attractive among the Central Asian governments. Washington should shift its strategy to incorporate more hard infrastructure projects with streamlined approval and implementation processes in meetings with Central Asian leaders. In doing so, the United States can serve as another financial outlet for the region and counter China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the region.