As China strengthens its relations with Central Asian countries, U.S. influence has fallen behind, according to some observers.
U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia has been shaped by strong Russian influence in the region, but China’s growing presence in Central Asia has caused Washington to refocus its strategy through a lens of competition with Beijing. Experts speaking at a recent webinar sponsored by the Caspian Policy Center said the U.S. should not make competing with China the sole focus of its Central Asia strategy.
China and five Central Asian countries recently agreed to sign additional cooperation agreements at a gathering expected to take place in May called the China+Central Asia Summit, Chinese state media reported.
Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative — which aims to link China to the world through land and sea routes, infrastructure and technology — has exacerbated U.S. concerns about economic dependence and unsustainable infrastructure projects around the world, including in countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
“China has a relatively easy task in the region by virtue of its geography, the attraction of its markets, its status as the number one trade partner in the region, and its offering of connectivity,” said Wilson Center analyst Robert Dale.
Benefits from China
China’s CGTV quoted Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao as saying that China's trade volume with Central Asia grew by 22% in the first two months of this year. Wang added, “The cross-border e-commerce between China and Central Asia increased by 95 percent year-on-year in 2022, and nearly 300 Central Asian enterprises joined China's e-commerce platforms."
According to the American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker, Beijing’s 2005-2022 investments totaled $850 million in Kyrgyzstan, $1 billion in Tajikistan, $1.56 billion in Uzbekistan, $1.79 billion in Turkmenistan and $19.86 billion in Kazakhstan.
While China observers have noticed the country’s strategy on BRI is changing and the pace of new investments has been decelerating, many Central Asians still see China and BRI positively, with benefits to the region that include China’s help in human capital development, education, research and technology transfers.
“Also in telecoms, ICT [information and communications technology] is regarded as a major benefit. Diversification by investing not only in mining and traditional resource extraction but also in agriculture, industry and banking, and free trade zones in support of trade and industrial development and service development. All regard that as positive features of BRI,” said Johannes Linn at the Brookings Institution.
There also have been increased Chinese security activities in the region, specifically bilateral and multilateral exercises, said Brianne Todd, professor at the National Defense University in Washington.
“We know that [Chinese uniformed personnel] are present in Tajikistan, meaning that the Tajik government has invited them," she said. "They're doing everything from border security to counterterrorism.”
BRI investments have dropped dramatically in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan. There are no new projects, and envisioned rail transit from China to Europe via Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for now remains on paper.
China is not always effective in Central Asia, Linn said. “They've seen Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in conflict, unrest in Kazakhstan. ... China was left outside of these events not really understanding what was going on or being able to contribute meaningfully to resolution.”
Some anti-Chinese sentiment does exist, said Elizabeth Wishnick, senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses.
Clashes between local residents and workers, including in Chinese mining operations, have pushed Beijing to rely on private security companies in Kyrgyzstan, for example.
In Kazakhstan, a recent study showed China as the least preferred partner, noted Wishnick. “That doesn't mean Kazakhstan is not going to engage with China. It will, but unwillingly, leave opportunities for others,” she said.
Some Central Asians worry about being exploited and overrun through Chinese land use. There is also some concern about China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples, including Kazaks and Kirgiz in Xinjiang, said Dale.
Other potential downsides to Chinese presence noted by Linn include excessive debt owed, Chinese extraction of natural resources in the region, unfair and nontransparent revenue sharing, little investment in the soft part of infrastructure, concerns about BRI transport infrastructure being directed more toward China than to world markets, data security sovereignty, lack of adequate attention to climate change, agricultural land issue, heavy reliance of Chinese investors on Chinese employees and migration challenges stemming from that problem.
“The lack of transparency in BRI investments and show projects, such as presidential palaces and sports arenas, finance corruption,” said Linn.
US and Central Asia
Amid complex relationships between China and Central Asian countries, analysts at the Caspian Policy Center said that when it comes to influence, U.S. has fallen far behind China.
“Beijing’s emphasis on development, status as a market for energy, interest in agriculture and water projects, all dwarf what the U.S. is actually able to bring to the table even when China underdelivers,” said Dale.
Todd doubts the U.S. will ever be able to compete with China economically and militarily in Central Asia.
“I don't think that should be the goal, because we know that is not attainable in terms of financial or security interests,” Todd said. “Certainly, we want to have relationships with all the countries in Central Asia, but they should be more broadly based and have everything from economic development to people-to-people exchanges with each of these states.”
For Todd, the key question is how U.S. interests align with those of the region.
Balancing China, Russia
There is also the consideration that Russia is still “very present” in the region despite its preoccupation with the war in Ukraine, observers noted.
Wishnick said Russia remains quite active in the region, “despite being viewed as toxic.” Specifically, Kazakhstan is trying “very hard not to inflame relations with one while engaging with the other.”
Central Asia’s geographic location necessitates a balancing act between China and Russia, experts say.
“All of these countries are facing energy transition, suffering potentially from climate change and are stuck dealing with Russia and China because of the fixed pipelines that connect them,” said Wishnick.
Dale said the U.S. government should not demonize everything China and Russia do in the region but has to understand Central Asians’ needs, “because they are still open to other ideas and connections.”
The best long-term strategy should be to give the region more choices, he said.