Concern is being expressed by regional and international parties over China’s expanding security presence in Central Asia. Beijing’s security footprint has grown more apparent as it increases its economic and political influence in Central Asia, with implications for regional security dynamics, stability, and human rights. It is crucial in this situation to assess the factors influencing China’s security involvement in Central Asia, its strategies for security cooperation with regional allies, and the effects of its expanding presence on the area and beyond.
With its abundant natural resources, vital transportation connections, and crucial shared border for China’s security, Central Asia is an area of strategic importance for China. For China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which intends to build a huge network of infrastructure and commerce linkages between China and nations across the globe, Central Asia is seen as a crucial area. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s ties with Central Asia were based on mutually beneficial economic exchange. Beijing has made significant infrastructure investments in the area, including the construction of roads, trains, and pipelines as well as the funding of mining and energy ventures. As the major commercial partner in the area, China has worked to strengthen connections by building free trade zones and offering loans and grants to promote regional growth. As China looks to safeguard its economic interests and control possible security risks, this economic involvement has been followed by an increase in security collaboration.
The perceived danger of terrorism and extremism coming from the area serves as one of the primary motivators for China’s security commitment in Central Asia. The possibility of unrest in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost region with a border with Central Asia, has long worried the country. The Uyghur ethnic minority has been charged by the Chinese government as being separatists and religious fanatics responsible for terrorist incidents in Xinjiang and other regions of China. The Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang area have come under harsh Chinese repression. China views Central Asia as a possible source of support and a haven for anti-Chinese operations carried out by Uyghur separatists and radicals since the region has ethnocultural commonalities with the Uyghurs. To address this danger, it has aimed to forge deeper security links with the local governments.
China has provided military equipment and training, shared information, and joint exercises to Central Asian nations as part of its security cooperation. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was founded by China, Russia, and the four Central Asian nations, has also been formed by China as a new regional security forum. The SCO has hosted cooperative military drills and counterterrorism operations and has been hailed as a forum for regional security cooperation. A strategic partnership with Kazakhstan and a security cooperation pact with Tajikistan are only two examples of the bilateral security agreements that China has formed with other Central Asian nations. Focusing on border security and counterterrorism is one of the main aspects of China’s security involvement in Central Asia. To assist them in policing their borders and preventing the entrance of terrorists and extremists, China has given Central Asian nations military weapons and training. China has aided Central Asian nations with intelligence gathering as well.
In the three decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, China and the Russian Federation have had different objectives in post-Soviet Central Asia. Moscow works to maintain its strategic sway in the area, but Beijing has grown in soft power as a result of its developing economic ties with Central Asian nations. Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China was putting up an excellent strategy to improve ties with Central Asia in his Nowruz greeting to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan received a similar communication from President Xi.
Speculation that China would ultimately surpass Russia as the region’s major security provider has been fueled by China’s expanding security presence in Central Asia. While Russia has traditionally controlled the security environment in Central Asia, China now has a greater interest in the security dynamics of the area as a result of its expanding economic and political power. China is increasing its economic and political impact while Russian influence in the post-Soviet Central Asian nations continues to decline. China is advancing in Central Asia’s security sector. It provided 18% of the region’s weapons during the past five years, a significant increase over the 1.5% of Central Asian arms imports it contributed between 2010 and 2014. High in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan, China established its first military outposts there in 2016, and it has since began pushing the operational capabilities of its paramilitary forces into the area. The strategic gap between Moscow and Beijing is closing, and if present trends continue, Moscow’s supremacy may be threatened in the future.
Despite the fact that Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet Central Asian republics has been waning due to its lack of understanding of the area, Central Asia continues to be an important source of hydrocarbons and a crucial transit hub for China’s BRI in support of China’s expanding economic interests there. As a consequence, Beijing and Moscow have been quietly vying with one another to gain more influence over the area. However, Beijing is clearly benefiting strategically as a result of the shifting dynamics in the area as a result of the Ukrainian issue.
While Russia and Central Asian nations have a long history of military and security cooperation, China’s security involvement with the region is still relatively young and mostly focused on counterterrorism and border protection. Since the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, it has played a significant role in regional security concerns. China’s security presence will probably increase as its economic clout in the area rises. It will probably never fully replace Russia as a major actor in regional security matters, however.
Indian aspirations in the area are impacted by China’s expanding security presence in Central Asia. India is worried about how the BRI has enabled China to strengthen its grip over Central Asia’s politics, economy, and security. China’s economic endeavors in Central Asia have the potential to reduce the ability of these nations to pursue independent policies by making them reliant on China. Nations in Central Asia have previously suffered from China’s debt trap strategy. Low-income countries in Central Asia like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are suffering because of their debt. Beijing has acquired control of the mining rights and territorial gains in these countries as a result of their refusal to repay the Chinese loan.
India is concerned about China’s growing sway in Central Asia, but there are also advantages for Delhi. India is seen by Central Asian nations as a strategic counterweight to China. Other problems with the Chinese BRI exist in addition to the debt trap. These include a lack of coordination between the involved local governments, private enterprises, and state-owned corporations in China, poor risk management, and a disdain for details. Instead, India’s connectivity initiatives, including the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chabahar Port project in Iran, are unmotivated by politics and fully support regional connectivity.
India’s extensive engagement with Central Asian nations has lately intensified in an effort to counterbalance China’s expanding influence in the area. India has also attempted to increase its security cooperation with Central Asian nations by supplying military equipment and training to those nations’ armed forces. India formed a Joint Working Group (JWG) on Afghanistan, a JWG on the Chabahar port, and monthly meetings of the national security advisors of India and Central Asian countries as a result of the First India-Central Asia Summit in January 2022. These three actions are in line with India’s updated Central Asia policy, which seeks to strengthen collaboration on regional security, Afghanistan, and connectivity. According to the report, a proactive Indian presence in Central Asia is necessary to counteract Chinese dominance in the area.