China’s Influence in Central Asia:
Though PRC engagement in Central Asia predated the unveiling of the Belt and Road Initiative in Kazakhstan in 2013, spending and cooperation have certainly increased since that point.
By 2018, FDI from the PRC in the five Central Asian countries had amounted to nearly $15 billion – a 40% increase over pre-BRI levels.
China is the destination for roughly 22% of Central Asian exports and is the source of 37% of their imports, rendering the five Central Asian countries extremely dependent on trade with the PRC.
In June 2020, Beijing announced a new transportation route that will stretch from the PRC’s western border through Kyrgyzstan and on to Uzbekistan.
- The intention is likely to then continue the route to Europe through the Caspian and Black Sea, deepening the PRCS’s access to European markets.
- It remains unclear if the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan corridor project will be a success; it signals the PRCS’s desire to deepen inroad into Central Asia which has, and will continue to, receive pushback from Russia.
China’s Failed Foreign Investment in Central Asia:
In 2013, a PRC SOE (TBEA) was selected to overhaul a power plant in Bishkek due to pressure from the Chinese government.
- The plant broke down in the middle of January 2018, rendering the city without heat during winter.
- This erupted in a domestic political scandal and criminal case, yet somehow no blame fell on TBEA.
In 2018 the China Development Bank halted financing for the aspirational Nur-Sultan Light Rail project.
- Following an embezzlement scandal, Kazakhstan repaid the China Development Bank the roughly $200 million that was owed to Chinese contractors, but only 15% of the project had been finished
China’s Investment in Central Asia’s Mining and Energy Sectors:
After a Turkmenistan-Gazprom price dispute in 2016, 80% of Turkmen gas was redirected to the PRC.
- By late 2019 over 250 billion cubic meters of gas, valued at over $8 billion, had gone to China and is used to service Chinese loans.
In 2022, Turkmenistan was China’s largest supplier of gas by pipeline in the period January-April, with $2.9 billion worth of gas. Kazakhstan sent $270.6 million worth.
In August 2021, China’s state owned CNPC started work to set up new wells at Turkmenistan’s natural gas fields in exchange for future gas supplies. Under the deal with CNPC, Turkmenistan will pay its services by supplying 17 billion cubic meters (600 billion cubic feet) of gas a year for the period of three years to a total of 51 billion cubic meters (1.8 trillion cubic feet) of gas.
Uzbekistan’s primary gas market is also China. Uzbekistan stopped exports to China briefly in 2022 due to shortages in its domestic market but resumed those exports shortly thereafter.
Until Tajikistan pays back a $331.5 million loan to Export-Import Bank of China for the Dushanbe-2 Power Plant, TBEA is entitled to licenses for two gold mines in Eastern Duoba and Upper Kumarg.
The Central Asia-China pipeline is another key project for the PRC in the region, with multiple lines in development across all five countries to bring Turkmen gas to Western China.
- Line D of the pipeline, passing through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, has been delayed numerous times and likely will not reap the profits those countries anticipate – the PRC is likely to take profits as payment for construction.
China’s Security Assistance in Central Asia:
China is the second largest provider of military equipment to the countries of Central Asia, being only surpassed by Russia as a source of arms imports.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are the most dependent on Chinese military equipment, receiving more than 20% of their arms from Beijing since 2013.
In 2015, the PRC gifted Kazakhstan 60 heavy duty trucks and trailers worth $3.2 million.
- Kazakhstan has also purchased Wing Loong-1 military drones from the PRC.
Uzbekistan engages in joint exercises with the PRC and has also received Wing Loong-1 drones.
- The Academy of Armed Forces of Uzbekistan and the PLA National Defense University also signed an agreement for military education cooperation in 2017.
Kyrgyzstan has also received upwards of $30 million from the PRC since 2014 to upgrade weapons and build military accommodations.
Per a 2016 agreement with the Tajik government, the PRC developed a military installation along the strategic Wakhan Corridor which connects Afghanistan with Western China.
- This installation is manned by the People’s Armed Police Force.
- Tajikistan has also received military equipment from the PRC, including armored carriers and patrol vehicles.
Turkmenistan has received surface missiles, QW-2 man-portable air defense systems, and mobile radar from the PRC.
China’s Security and Law Enforcement Support in Central Asia:
PRC surveillance technology has been introduced throughout the region.
Kazakhstan began testing biometric payment systems called FacePay following a presidential visit to the PRC in 2019, and there is now PRC surveillance technology in many of its major cities.
The PRC announced it would allocate $1 billion for a Safe City surveillance program in Uzbekistan after a state visit in 2019.
- This Safe City program is expected to be implemented throughout all of Uzbekistan by 2023.
- Huawei was already well established in the Uzbek telecom network, having signed a $18 million deal in 2011 to develop Uzbekistan’s 5G network; this was in part financed by the China Development Bank.
Dushanbe, Tajikistan had a “Safe City” system installed by Huawei in 2013 and they announced modernizations would be made in 2019.
Kyrgyzstan has an agreement with China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation to install a system to identify individuals in Bishkek.
- Shenzhen Sunwin Intelligent is also working on implementing a second stage of the “Safe City” project in Bishkek, building on existing Russian equipment.
China’s “Soft Power” in Central Asia:
The PRC has established 27 Confucius Institutes in Central Asia.
- These institutes are focused on teaching Chinese languages and improving the perception of Chinese culture throughout Central Asia
- Additionally, between 2010 and 2018 over 5,000 study grants were given to applicants from Central Asia to study in the PRC.
- Chinese has quickly become the second most studied foreign language after English in Central Asia.
There is a long history of Sinophobia dating back to Soviet propaganda and anti-Chinese protests are increasingly occurring throughout the region.
- Resentment over losing jobs to workers from the PRC, the PRC’s treatment of Uighurs and ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, and concern over losing land and control of natural resources contribute to Sinophobia in the region.
- In Kazakhstan, protests outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty have become more frequent as more citizens demonstrate to demand the release of relatives held in Xinjiang; some of these protests resulted in arrests, with the Kazakh government citing violations of laws on mass gatherings.
*Last Updated: 10/25/2022