In the two most recent U.S. presidential administrations, Central Asia has been caught up in Washington's "strategic competition" with Beijing, experts say.
And, they add, that under the presumption that Central Asians share Washington's concerns, the United States, highlighting human rights violations in China's western region of Xinjiang, has insisted the countries in the region reevaluate their relations with Beijing, underplaying the issues that drive policies in Central Asia and China.
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, head of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh, said Beijing's interests mainly reflect its own focus on security, especially in Afghanistan.
China "does not want terrorism or extremist activity to spill over from Afghanistan into China. It wants to prevent terrorism from destabilizing the region," she said.
Murtazashvili told a recent hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) that China's engagement with the Taliban should not be mistaken for support. She argued that Washington's failure to achieve its political and military objectives in Afghanistan over 20 years "rattled its more powerful neighbors, especially China, Russia, Iran and Uzbekistan."
"Rather than bringing stability, U.S. intervention in Afghanistan spawned the growth of terrorist groups including Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K). China saw this growing instability in the north as creating space for terrorist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an organization it accuses of fomenting separatism and terrorist attacks inside of China," Murtazashvili told the commission, and it is that belief that drives Chinese policy and regional engagement.
While China sees the ETIM as a Uyghur terrorist organization, the U.S. does not, having revoked its designation as such in October 2020.
Murtazashvili does not see China rushing to invest in Afghanistan, adding that some of its business projects, including the Mes Aynak copper mine, "have been plagued by problems and have mostly been on hold for years."
"First, China wants to make sure that Afghanistan has a functioning government," she said.
For long-term investments, Beijing wants Taliban guarantees, not least securing its shared border, preventing violent extremists from entering its territory, and protecting its interests.
"This means that the Taliban must give up some members of ETIM to China … and demonstrate that they have a monopoly on violence in Afghanistan. This objective seems increasingly difficult at the current moment as the Taliban face increased threats from IS-K," Murtazashvili said.
She emphasized differences between these two Islamist movements: the Taliban claims its focus is only Afghanistan; IS-Khorasan seeks to build a global caliphate.
While condemning China's treatment of Uyghurs, Washington ironically shares some of China's goals for fighting terrorism and violent extremism in Afghanistan, Murtazashvili said. Yet Chinese policies, including its treatment of Uyghurs, which the U.S. and rights groups have labeled as genocide, make it impossible for Washington to collaborate. Still, she said, Washington has options.
"With a distracted Russia and the de-Americanization of the region, Central Asians have greater agency than at any time in recent history. Thus, a path towards greater U.S. engagement in the region could be through Afghanistan and China's neighbors who are looking for another party that will allow them to continue to play larger powers off against one another. This would help build autonomy of local actors and recognize their increasingly independent foreign policies," said Murtazashvili.
Niva Yau, senior researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, told USCC that Beijing believes Uyghur movements "must be completely eliminated, even across official borders, for it endangers unity of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) political system and its functioning as a unified Chinese state."
"In Central Asia, this required local law enforcement efforts to disintegrate these networks scattered around the region," Yau said.
She noted that China's security interests had been matched by economic enticements. It is the leading provider of cheap loans and grants, including to the region's "weak economies such as Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic."
In a January 25 virtual summit commemorating three decades of diplomatic ties between five Central Asian countries and China, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech, "No matter how the international landscape may evolve or how developed China may grow, China will always remain a good neighbor, a good partner, a good friend, and a good brother that Central Asian countries can trust and count on," reported Chinese state news agency Xinhua. Xi also said China would "firmly support them (Central Asia) in playing a bigger role on the world stage."
In terms of economy, Kazakhstan is Central Asia's largest, making up at least half of the region's trade with China, with Central Asia exporting raw materials such as minerals and crude oil while importing Chinese-made consumer products.
"In the past 15 years, exports have been "dominated by two state-managed pipelines: the China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline and China-Central Asia gas pipeline," said Yau.
Chinese oil imports from Kazakhstan and gas exports from Turkmenistan to China have grown consistently, but other Central Asian exports, such as gold, copper and coal, are much smaller in scale and often managed by private companies.
"The PRC (People's Republic of China) has invested at least $20 billion into the Kazakh oil and gas sector, at least $17 billion into Turkmenistan's, and at least $2 billion into Uzbekistan's," Yau said.
With Russia's invasion of Ukraine, she said, Central Asians want to "transition away" from reliance on Russia — which has traditionally been a customer of energy and other raw materials along with a source of remittances from Central Asian migrant labor in Russia — without fostering dependence on Beijing as the price, if China becomes the region's principal client.
Where US can step in
They need alternatives, so "Central Asian states, who desire regional integration and integration into the global system, should be supported and empowered" by Washington. Without the U.S., Central Asian countries will have to bargain with China from a position of relative weakness. But because Beijing seeks security cooperation, the region has leverage to demand higher-quality investments from China as well as in fulfilling other local development needs.
Central Asian states "should be empowered to rethink their transactional relationship with the PRC," Yau argues, including through collaboration with America's Asian allies. "Japan and South Korea already have strong presence in Central Asia."
Yau encouraged Washington to support local media and ensure the presence of reliable international news outlets. Both would help provide Central Asia with more credible sources of information and help citizens pressure governments to seek better deals from China while countering Russian disinformation.
She also urged Washington to avoid isolating Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. "While it is important to continuously highlight human rights problems and terrorism threats that are associated with the Taliban leadership, the United States will benefit from engaging in a new dialogue with the Taliban under these new regional circumstances."
If Uzbekistan and other Central Asian neighbors can accept the prospect of long-term Taliban leadership, Yau suggested, the U.S. should also embrace the vision that a stable Afghanistan could pave the way for enhanced Central and South Asia connectivity, including the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, which India hopes will help plug gaps in its energy supply. Infrastructure and market linkages in the fast-growing markets of India and Pakistan would help these countries diversify their economic partners and further reduce dependence on Russia and China.