According to the 2022 European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) report, COVID-19’s negative effects on the social and economic fabric of the five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — have been contained. These economies are showing strong resilience, with the EBRD expecting the region’s GDP to grow by 4.3 per cent in 2022 and 4.8 per cent in 2023.
At the same time, security uncertainties weigh against Beijing expanding its economic engagement in the region. In January 2022, protests engulfed Kazakhstan and the overall security situation in South and Central Asia, which Beijing considers the near abroad, worsened.
In 2021, the Taliban returned to power in what is now the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The worsening humanitarian crisis affecting Afghanistan’s local population is exacerbated by the risk of terrorist organisations using the country as a springboard for violent actions in Central Asia. The threat posed by the Islamic State in Khorasan, which explicitly incites attacks on Chinese targets, is a case in point.
The crisis in China’s near abroad is a bad omen for its Belt and Road (BRI) global connectivity plans. It is not by chance that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit outside China since the pandemic was to Kazakhstan, followed by a hop to the Uzbek city of Samarkand for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit. Born in 2001 as a conference of China, Russia and former Central Asian states, the SCO has become a prominent platform to promote Beijing’s vision for a multipolar world order and counter Western influence in Asia and the Middle East.
In 2013, when Xi launched the BRI at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan was a different country and Central Asia a different region. During the September 2022 state visit to Astana, it was not the still-influential former president Nursultan Nazarbayev who welcomed Xi, but President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Kazakhstan’s politics has been in recovery mode since the bloody January 2022 riots.
The region’s balance of power has also changed, with China having the opportunity to play a leading role in place of a much-diminished Russia. Kazakhstan’s ethnic Russian minority has been seen as a potential pretext for Russian interference since independence from the Soviet Union. It is little surprise that Xi, during his meeting with Tokayev, reiterated offers of economic and security cooperation, and stressed China’s support for its neighbour’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
At the same time, Beijing is not providing the five Central Asian countries with a security umbrella they can confidently rely upon. Tajik President Rahmon’s unprecedented outburst while addressing Putin at the Central Asia-–Russia summit in Astana, bemoaning his lack of respect for Central Asian nations, leaves little doubt about the perception of a regional power shift, yet Beijing is not stepping in as the region’s security guarantor.
Supporting the status quo and fighting the ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism, and extremism is still on Beijing’s agenda. During Xi’s opening speech of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on 16 October, the role of the SCO was presented as paramount for the region’s stability. No other inklings on Beijing’s plans for Central Asia are apparent.
With Washington shifting its focus to the Indo-Pacific and the ongoing war in Ukraine, Central Asia is looking eastward for support. In this respect, Beijing is still expanding the region’s connectivity. There is a renewed railway project that will link Kyrgyzstan with Uzbekistan. Another railway connection — to Iran and the Caucasus — will provide access to sea lanes for landlocked Central Asian countries.
Beijing’s expansion of its security footprint is limited to bilateral cooperation aimed at promoting border control and security. This is especially so with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — two states with porous borders exploited by extremist groups and transnational criminal organisations whose smuggling activities involve narcotics, arms and people.
Beyond the SCO annual security exercises, Beijing endorses joint border patrols and military training programmes linked to military equipment transfers. The role of Chinese private security companies (PSCs) in protecting Chinese personnel and infrastructure along the BRI deserves special attention. From Pakistan to Central Asia, Chinese PSCs are expanding their presence as a security alternative when Beijing is unwilling to deploy the People’s Liberation Army outside national borders.
Today’s Great Game is no longer the 19th-century chess match between British and Tsarist empires, but a game of Weiqi (also known as Go). In Go, it is not necessary to kill the adversary’s king to win — Instead, a player takes their time to encircle their opponent and choke any further movements.
Dr Alessandro Arduino is the Principal Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore and an Associate Lecturer at Lau China Institute, King’s College London.