The Eurasian Connection: Central Asia edges towards China

China’s One Belt One Road infrastructure initiative offers former Soviet republics an opportunity to reduce Russian influence, but Central Asian countries could pay a high price.

One Belt One Road

The Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road strategy, more commonly known as One Belt One Road (Obor), is a string of infrastructure projects linking China to Central Asia and beyond by rail and sea. The vaguely connected projects aim to link more than 60 countries. The stated goal is to improve China’s trade relations, and its unstated one to increase China’s strategic importance.

China claims Obor is politically neutral, but it has major implications for the former Soviet Union

Although China claims the project is politically neutral and purely to promote trade, the project has major geopolitical implications for the countries of the former Soviet Union.

China has already built two rail routes from the city of Lianyungang to Kazakhstan, the richest country in Central Asia. A high-speed railway is also planned to link China to the Caspian Sea through Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Another project would begin in China’s western Xianjiang province, traverse Kyrgyzstan and end in Uzbekistan, the most populous Central Asian state (not including Afghanistan). These projects, China claims, will improve infrastructure and trade across the region.

Reducing Russian influence

While Obor offers many potential opportunities to Central Asian countries, it largely bypasses Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has lavished praise on the project and has emphasised Russia’s involvement, but privately it is a major source of concern for the Russian government.

Countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus have steadily increased their trade with China since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992. For Georgia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, China is now a more important export destination than Russia, which has only a tenth of China’s population. This reflects Russia and Europe’s lack of commitment to the region in the 1990s and early 2000s, at the same time as China began to invest.

China will try hard to minimise friction with Russia

Chinese companies control more than a fifth of Kazakhstan’s oil production and import more than half of Turkmenistan’s gas exports. As Russia struggles with its own domestic economic downturn, it is unable to invest in its traditional sphere of influence, leaving Central Asia open to China.

China will try hard to minimise friction with Russia. President Xi Jinping has insisted that Obor is not aiming to ‘replace existing mechanisms’, a reference to the regional strategies proposed by Turkey and Russia. This includes the Sino-Russian Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which Russia hopes to use as a mechanism to assert its interests in Central Asia.

Russia’s vision for the region is the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The EEU, founded in 2015, is inward-looking while China’s Obor seeks to open the region. Russian officials also openly admitted that the EEU was a political project while Chinese authorities insist that Obor is purely economic. This perhaps explains why the infamously insular Uzbekistan has refused to join the EEU but has signed up to Obor projects. It remains fiercely protective of its sovereignty and deeply suspicious of Russian projects. In fact, only Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have joined the EEU alongside Russia. In contrast, all of the countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia, apart from Turkmenistan, have signed co-operation agreements with China to facilitate Obor. These range from agreements on customs checks to loans for infrastructure projects.

Regional relations

However, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are concerned that Obor will simply mean that China will replace Russia as the chief threat to their national sovereignty.

Uzbekistan has not only maintained distance from Russia since its independence; it has also been wary of Chinese investment. Until September 2017, it maintained tight currency controls, limiting investors’ ability to convert its so’m into any other currency. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has slowly opened up the country to foreign investment since coming to power in December 2016, but the government remains hesitant to rely on China. It is particularly worried that it will become little more than a transit country for Obor, with few opportunities to improve the domestic economy.

Brawls have broken out between local and Chinese workers over issues from pay discrepancies to allegations of attacks on Kyrgyz women

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, resistance to Chinese investment has become a security issue. The Kazakh government introduced sweeping amendments to the land code in 2016, allowing foreigners to rent agricultural land. This prompted extremely rare protests, with many demonstrators shouting anti-Chinese statements. A 2012 survey revealed that 33 per cent of Kazakhs viewed Chinese people negatively, compared to less than 20 per cent harbouring negative views of Russians.

Official figures likely greatly underestimate the number of Chinese migrants in Kazakhstan, particularly since thousands of ethnic Kazakhs living in China moved back across the border in the 1950s and 1960s, but Chinese migrants number in the hundreds of thousands, in a population of 17.8 million. In Kyrgyzstan anywhere between 20,000 to 120,000 people have migrated from China, while in Tajikistan, there are at least 80,000 Chinese workers in a country of 8.7 million.

Unskilled Chinese migrant workers often undercut the wage rates of local labourers by huge margins, while Chinese management staff earn far more than their local counterparts. Though Turkmenistan has a 70 per cent quota for local workers and Uzbekistan bans low-skilled Chinese workers altogether, in reality, the legislation is not uniformly enforced.

In Kyrgyzstan, where there is a much more obvious presence of Chinese labour, mass brawls have broken out between Chinese migrants and locals over issues from pay discrepancies to alleged attacks on Kyrgyz women and children.

Similar fights have taken place between Turkmen and Chinese workers, notably in 2009 in eastern Turkmenistan, when Turkmen employees working on a gas pipeline complained that Chinese workers were being paid more for the same tasks.

In Tajikistan, market traders became so concerned about cheap Chinese labour and goods that in 2011, the government agreed to open an agency to monitor the presence of Chinese migrants in the country.

Chinese businesses and projects will continue to be targets for unrest and violence. This will be a more pressing concern for countries with a larger Chinese community. There is a deep-rooted fear amongst the sparsely inhabited Central Asian states that mass migration from the densely populated western Chinese regions will upset the delicate ethnic balances.

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