When Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced his flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, he chose to do so in Astana, Kazakhstan. Beijing’s decision to launch the project here should come as no surprise. Kazakhstan was once the central point of the ancient Silk Road trade route that carried goods and ideas between the great civilizations of the East and West. Today, due to its unique geographic location, the Central Asian region more broadly is seeking to resume its historical role as a vital link in global commerce.
China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) of the BRI aims to create an outlet for exports, secure a route for energy imports and utilize its excess industrial capacity. Central Asia is a vital partner in this. Turkmenistan is China’s largest natural gas supplier – supplying almost a quarter of China’s natural gas imports. Kazakhstan has significant oil reserves and is the only country (apart from Russia) that can supply China with oil by direct pipeline. It is also regarded as “the entrance door the west” and is seen as a “strategic buffer” between the two major Eurasian powers. A main axis of the SREB’s land corridor runs through the country, which, if obstructed, would significantly undermine regional connectivity. Central Asia is also viewed by Beijing the last buffer between it and the instability that is rocking much of the Muslim world at a time when Russia’s security sector is stretched thin by multiple military conflicts. The initiative also forms part of China’s “periphery diplomacy”, designed to improve sentiment and attitudes towards China in its neighbourhood.
Struggling to establish viable economies and replace the deteriorating infrastructure of the Soviet era, landlocked Central Asian countries are in need of large-scale investment. The five Central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – aswell as Pakistan, all feature heavily in the land component of the BRI. With an absence of other countries able and willing to offer a grand investment strategy to fill the vacuum of infrastructure needs, Central Asia’s increasing reverence towards China – despite growing popular anti-Chinese sentiment in the region – is not surprising. Moreover, unlike the West, China makes no demands for political reform from autocratic Central Asian governments, and unlike Russia, Beijing is seen so far as a less coercive and paternalistic partner.
Central Asia is uniquely positioned to assist China as it expands economically and its cooperation on security issues is vital to these ends. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan share a 3,300km border with China’s restive Xinjiang province. As such, they have been enlisted as major security partners with China as it attempts to alleviate threats emerging from the “three evil forces” – terrorism, separatism and extremism – which China views as emanating from the province – particularly from its Turkic Muslim Uyghur population.
Yet Kazakhstan is also home to the largest Uyghur diaspora population – around 160,000 people. Meanwhile, the largest overseas Kazakh community – about 1.6 million – reside in Xinjiang. Since late 2018, reports have been circulating over the widespread incarceration of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz alongside the estimated 800,000 to 2 million arbitrarily detained Uyghurs. The crackdown in Xinjiang, which has deeply affected ethnic groups with family ties to Central Asia, has served to deepen local skepticism about China’s goodwill towards the region and its people and fueled protests and rallies in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Chinese investments in these states have built strong incentives for Central Asian governments to adhere to China’s policies towards these minorities. However, the view that China’s increasingly repressive policies may disenfranchise the Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim communities in Xinjiang and Central Asia has elevated concerns about the vulnerability of infrastructure projects and Chinese nationals to potential attacks. Particularly vulnerable are oil and gas pipelines, which stretch across thousands of kilometers. This is the case with the entire western route of the US$62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The flagship BRI project links Gwadar port in Baluchistan with Kashgar in Xinjiang and runs through some of the world’s most volatile and lawless territories. In some BRI member states, Chinese Private Security Companies (PSCs) are providing security for BRI projects to deal with this vulnerability. However, the presence of PMC’s across Central Asia may further alienate already suspicious host country populations.
Attacks on Chinese interests and nationals in the region are not unprecedented. In 2016, the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was attacked by what has largely been blamed on a Uyghur militant from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). In November 2018, Baluch separatists, aggrieved with China’s exploitation of their resources through BRI projects, attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. This was one of twelve attacks the group carried out on Chinese interests in Pakistan that year. Outside the region, in February, the Chinese Embassy in Turkey warned its nationals in the country to be more vigilant and pay attention to their personal security amid a row between the two countries over China’s brutal crackdown on its Turkic Muslim population. Similar and more frequent attacks could prove disastrous for both China and the Central Asian government’s ambitions for the region.
The reports emerging of the situation in Xinjiang which describe arbitrary arrest, torture-like conditions in internment camps and the forced renunciation of one’s Islamic faith are also likely to embolden the narrative deployed by extremist groups in Central Asia, including the ETIM and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) to encourage recruitment. The Islamic State of Khorasan Province has already invoked the Uyghur plight and utilized the narrative of oppression to call for attacks on Chinese interests. In 2014, ISIS listed China among countries where “Muslim rights are forcibly seized” and in 2017, ISIS vowed to “shed blood like rivers” in attacks on Chinese nationals abroad, directly citing Beijing’s oppression of Uyghurs.
By virtue of the wide geographical reach of BRI projects, China is inevitably exposed to a wider array of threats, responding to the various grievances of militant groups. However, the intensified securitization of Xinjiang and the populations residing there in political reeducation camps risks not only intensifying this vulnerability but also deepening the general discontent in Central Asian societies and increasing contempt for a growing Chinese presence in the region. It is also leading to a growing gap between elite and popular visions of what Central Asian-Sino cooperation should entail.
China needs Central Asia not as mere customers of its BRI, but as allies who ardently support and promote its implementation and cooperation. While power asymmetries clearly exist, the strategic properties of the region and Kazakhstan in particular, enable it to exercise considerable agency in shaping the contours of the SREB development on the ground. Given that Central Asia would like the BRI projects to prosper, it is thus in their interests to raise concerns about Beijing’s treatment of its Turkic Muslim population, leveraging their strategic vitality as the cornerstone of Beijing’s ambitions of the land-based ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ elements of China’s BRI to do so.
Hannah Green is currently undertaking a Master of International Relations at the University of Sydney. As a Deans Scholar during her undergraduate degree, Hannah majored in International Relations and Politics. While studying in Canada at the University of British Columbia, Hannah began to direct her studies towards international conflict management and post-conflict environments. She is currently a senior correspondent at the Organisation for World Peace and a project volunteer for the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS). Hannah would like to continue to direct her research towards the promotion of more humane refugee policies in Australia and contribute to the creation of more effective humanitarian support for individuals in conflict and post-conflict settings. Hannah is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.
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