What Does Xi Jinping’s Visit Tell Us About China’s Relationship with Central Asia?

On September 14, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Nur-Sultan (the once and future Astana) on a state visit to Kazakhstan. It was Xi’s first overseas trip since the outbreak of COVID-19 in January 2020. This was swiftly followed by Xi travelling to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit – a gathering of a regional bloc increasingly defined by a triangle of China-India-Russia.

The visit comes amid a setback to the Russian military efforts in Ukraine – with the Russian retreat in Kharkiv viewed by some as a turning point, and by others as logical point of continuity in the ongoing frozen conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Yet for all the talk about Sino-Russian relations and the implication of the SCO meeting, what remains neglected in mainstream discourse is the role played by Central Asia – itself a heterogeneous region of competing countries, forces, and interests – in the grand plans of Chinese foreign policy.

Central Asia is shaping up to be a vital linchpin in China’s “March West” strategy (a term first coined in 2013 by political scientist Wang Jisi, paving the way for Beijing’s roll-out of the Belt and Road Initiative in the subsequent years), and, indeed, a crux of contestation between the two ends of the Sino-Russian dynamic. But more than that, the region has also become a powerful embodiment of the agency of medium states in relation to great power politics – and the limits of that agency. As we have argued previously, the medium-state diplomacy exhibited by Kazakhstan should not be underestimated.

From Economic-Financial Alignment to ‘Holistic’ Cooperation

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Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan occurs against a backdrop of mixed returns for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which (not coincidentally) was first announced in Kazakhstan back in September 2013. On one hand, China has made significant inroads into the Middle East and Central Asia with respect to market access, development aid, and bilateral trade – with vast improvements in the quality and quantity of transit and logistical infrastructure in Central Asia and rapidly warming relations over oil supply in the Middle East.

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On the other hand, more general concerns over returns on investment; slipping approval ratings among economic elite (hyped up by the fundamentally unrelated yet seemingly ignominious effects of the scheme in Sri Lanka and Pakistan); and a natural readjustment and decline to Chinese FDI during the course of the pandemic have cast shadows over the BRI’s viability among countries in Southeast Asia and East Africa. Thus China’s ability to prosecute deepened and more dynamic penetration of Central Asian markets and natural resources constitutes a vital pillar of its geoeconomic strategy in 2022.

It is tempting to pair the growing Chinese interest in the region with argument that Russian’s presence in the region is gradually waning, in order to justify the conjecture that China’s regional presence in Central Asia is on an inevitable rise. One variant of the argument for Russia’s regional weakness turns toward the economic – that the Russian budget for foreign investment and aid in Central Asia has shrunk in light of its invasion – yet the evidence for this remains limited. Economic engagement had never been Russia’s primary modus operandi in the region; it is instead its military provision and security presence, which have persisted. If anything, Russian weakness is best evidenced by its decreasing grip over elite and decision-making politics across the five Central Asian republics.

Broader skepticism among the elite toward Russia has certainly increased, especially given concerns, especially in Kazakhstan, that Russia could replicate its actions in Ukraine elsewhere. There has been growing pressure from the pro-Kremlin media outlets over Kazakhstan’s reluctance to support Moscow’s claims over Ukraine. Speaking at the 25th St. Petersburg Economic Forum on June 17, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev refused to recognize the independence of two Russian-backed breakaway republics, emphasizing the importance of territorial integrity of Ukraine. Overall, however, Central Asian states have also sought to offset the potential antagonism induced by their distancing from Russia over the conflict in Ukraine by offering rhetorical platitudes concerning Russia’s regional interest.

Given the potential opening and space for continued deepening of its influence over the region, it is thus understandable that China has been eager to extend olive branches – and signal its prioritization of the region – through its diplomatic outreach. Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan came after a series of visits by senior Chinese diplomats to the region, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s attending the China + Central Asia (C+C5) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in June. In the June 8 Foreign Ministry press release, phrases such as “deepening cooperation of connectivity” and “safe and stable operation of the China-Europe freight train” signify China’s long-standing economic preoccupations in Central Asia, while “coordinating positions on the situation in Afghanistan” and “maintaining security in traditional and non-traditional areas” hint at China’s increasing interest in engaging Central Asian states as partners in both global and regional security.

Indeed, in Xi’s pre-visit op-ed for the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, he declared, “In the face of complex regional and international landscapes, only by embracing unity and cooperation can we overcome difficulties of our times and resolve challenges in security governance.” Much of the language denotes China is valuing Kazakhstan increasingly as a partner in cooperation across more weighty and fundamental matters – including security.

This is no surprise: Kazakhstan serves as a critical bridge between China and Europe and the Caspian Sea, as well as a growing prime supplier of natural gas to China, alongside Turkmenistan (though the latter has struggled with meeting its pledged volumes). Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are engaged in an ongoing railway project (CKU) with China – a prime corridor of infrastructural mega-projects that could in fact yield significant returns. Tajikistan remains the least heavily involved partner to China in the region, but with Wang’s recent visit in August, this may well be changing.

The upshot of all this engagement is the broadening of China’s historically investment- and commerce-led presence in the region to include strategy-security-military dimensions too. Such “holistic” cooperation arises from the gradually tipping balance of power between China and Russia in the region, but also – as we see below – the autonomous volitions of leaderships.

Cornerstone of China’s Selective Decoupling-Recoupling Strategy

Much has been written on China’s purported endeavor to “decouple” from global supply chains in face of rising geopolitical tensions – yet such observations suffer from two defects. First, that narrative over-emphasizes China’s agency vis-à-vis decoupling, kickstarted by Western multinational corporations and governments’ “reshoring” of strategic industries in friendly and nearby states that are more aligned with their foreign policy prerogatives and long-term economic calculus. The second defect is that it under-estimates the extent to which China is prepared to recouple and deepen trade ties – selectively – in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The actual phenomenon that could be observed is a selective decoupling-recoupling strategy. While there is indeed evidence that China is seeking self-sufficiency across areas ranging from semi-conductors and chips to energy, this must be viewed in conjunction with the evidence that it is engaging in wider and quasi-asymmetrical relation-deepening in relation to “friendlier” states.

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A prime exemplar would be the states in Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan which has become progressively more ambitious and expansive in its geopolitical outreach under Tokayev. Promises of economic reforms have compelled the current administration to place a heavier emphasis upon tightening and improving investor protection laws and growth-driven economic strategies, which in turn heavily feature China, as both a substantial market and source of developmental capital.

Uzbekistan – playing host to the SCO meeting at Samarkand – has become a site of transportation- and infrastructure-driven heavy investment from Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and lenders. Xi Jinping recently pledged to increase the volume of China-Uzbekistan bilateral trade up to $10 billion a year, demonstrative of a fundamental willingness to open up China’s own markets and press for increased market access to the region.

Central Asia alone would be helpful – though inadequate – in meeting China’s sizable energy, resource, and market demands. As China seeks to transition away from what Xi dubs “a moderately prosperous society” toward “national rejuvenation” – a state of economic prosperity, strength, and self-sufficiency – it is apparent that Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern states, with their distinctive economic strengths and virtues, would also come into play.

Those who posit that China is withdrawing into isolation from the rest of the world, would perhaps benefit from rethinking the conception of “the world” beyond countries that have indeed become increasingly skeptical towards and opposed to China, for a variety of reasons. Xi’s visit to Central Asia signals an increasingly muscular but also dynamic and hedged foreign policy from China – one that pairs distancing from and reprobation toward non-allies and “unfriendly forces” with deepening ties offered as a prospective reward for states that take China’s side along ideological, geopolitical, and international trade matters.

None of this is to say that China will necessarily succeed. This recoupling-decoupling model remains nascent and comes off the heels of a difficult period in China’s economic trajectory. The extent to which it delivers dividends would turn on both whether China’s offerings could outmatch and outclass the structural wherewithal that the West has to its disposal (despite Russia and China’s headstart in the region), but also the efficiency and productivity of Chinese investment at large – a perennial issue long plaguing parts of the BRI.

The Strategic Autonomy of Central Asian Powers

In international geopolitics, the strategic autonomy of powers with considerable regional presence is often under-stated and slighted. The conventional argument is that they could only serve as rule-takers or, worse yet, effective extensions of larger powers. Yet medium powers could also be rule-setters, given the correct conditions and regional dynamics. That Central Asian powers are concerned with Russia’s security and military preferences over the region does not guarantee an automatic pivot toward China.

First, Central Asian states have sought to cultivate increasing unity and alignment between themselves – by no means a straightforward task, given historical tensions and territorial disagreements (hence the stalemate in the recent gathering of leaders at Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, which saw the five Central Asian presidents meeting together), but perhaps an instrumentally valuable start to a process of accumulating more bargaining capital vis-à-vis Russia, China, and the United States. While intra-regional unity remains elusive, it is clear that national administrations have been actively contemplating how they could leverage the increasing importance of Central Asia to supply chains and commercial routes as a means of extracting more favorable terms and greater concessions from “greater” powers.

Second, Central Asian states are strategically dynamic. Take the Sino-Russian relationship, for one – in relation to both Moscow and Beijing, the five Central Asian government have each individually embraced strategies of balancing (e.g. all five states taking economic and financial aid and investment from Beijing, with military and security backing from Russia) and band-wagoning (e.g. three states, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, speaking out publicly against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine and calling for a commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity; all five states siding with China over the latter’s “national security” approach) as a means of hedging against potential downside risks of absorption and assimilation by one of the two greater powers. Such dynamism enables the political leaders in charge to retain a surprising autonomy over domestic affairs.

China, the U.S., and Russia are not resting on their laurels when it comes to engaging and courting Central Asian states. While strategic autonomy may wane and wax in accordance with the level of attention paid to the region, it is certainly the case – for now – that the region enjoys a heightened level of salience as a result of Russia’s large-scale military activities. Beijing’s increasing influence over the region is not a foregone conclusion – it turns on the reactions and autonomous directives of the states in question, whether China can indeed offer a compelling economic pitch in exchange for greater influence across a “holistic” range of areas, and, last but not least, Russia’s plans. How China juggles its expanding ambitions in the region with its complex attitudes of concurrent alignment and guardedness toward Russia remains to be seen. Watch this space.