In recent years China’s political influence in Central Asia has been growing steadily. With Russian preeminence in the region being somewhat challenged, China has showed its willingness to manoeuvre through regional party elites when necessary. At the end of the day however, China’s promise to reshape the world might lead to something unexpected.
In 2013, the then recently-appointed chairman Xi Jinping unveiled the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative. While promising “a brighter future” by enhancing connectivity and friendship between Asian nations, this new initiative nostalgically looks back on the ancient Silk Road, and the crucial role China played on it.
In the build up to the Silk Road Summit of next year, the Chinese communication apparatus has been flooding Western media outlets in order to hype the initiative and portray it in the brightest possible light. Party officials have constantly denied that the project has a political agenda. However, while OBOR fits in with China’s promotion of Confucian values such as harmony, peace and prosperity, it may also provoke another turn of the screw of their infamous “GDP-ism” policy (i.e. “grow now, face it later”).
An example of this would be the Chinese government’s intentions to build on its strategic position in Xinjiang without having offered any solution to the ever-deteriorating conditions of the Uyghur minority inhabiting the area. Up until now, imminent political issues in the area have been restrained, a pattern that will probably continue into the future.
OBOR is indeed a huge business deal, but at the same time it is chairman Xi’s brainchild. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that there is more to the idea than building a multibillion-dollar enterprise for China to expand to markets beyond its borders. Operating in one of the most impoverished parts of Asia, in a series of landlocked economies that are considered to belong to Russia’s sphere of influence, OBOR may not deliver on its promises of prosperity to economies that are structurally flawed.
Through OBOR, China builds connections and infrastructure which are used to export Chinese products on regional as well as international markets. Simultaneously the Chinese government is building banking systems that allows consumers to pay for these products. An inherent problem with this strategy – especially for Central Asia – is that the “loans and goods may not come from the needs of Central Asia”, but are rather originated from the chronic “overcapacity of the Chinese economy”. In the short run, this indeed offers some dynamic to tepid economies. In the long run however, pouring money on poorly developed countries might not necessarily yield any results.
As of 2018, Kyrgyzstan mostly relies on foreign aid to fuel its economy. Thus, the inflow of Chinese currency won’t alter the dynamic of foreign dependency. At the end of the day – with the exception of Kazakhstan, the Central Asian economies cannot repay the Chinese loans. To make up for this, Kyrgyzstan has signed away mining rights, effectively turning its deal with China to a barter system where China supplies the cash and then demands its counterpart to sign-off the rights to raw materials. Tajikistan has followed a similar path – even Turkmenistan will probably not be able to repay the debt.
Will China demand a diplomatic concession at the UN or in other international forums further down the road? Political commentator Alex Chang has warned that the OBOR initiative “is more than just about infrastructure”. A geopolitical map in which Kazakhstan with its oil, and Turkmenistan and Tajikistan with its gas end up belonging to China is not inconceivable, especially so since their governments seem set on trying to move further away from their political independence on Russia.
Chairman Xi recently minted the phrase “Asia for the Asians”, a phrase that might rub some if its neighbours the wrong way. Predictably, Russia does not seem too happy with China’s latest moves in the region. Xi Jinping appears to have taken advantage of the fact that Russia’s economy is weakened, as well as the aspiration of the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia to pivot away from their former metropolis.
In the context of a Chinese government eager to assert its own geopolitical importance under the pretense of reshaping the world, the current Chinese push in Central Asia may spill over to other regions and have unexpected results.
Luis Felipe Sauvalle Torres holds a BA in History at the Catholic University of Chile and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in EU – Russia Studies at University of Tartu, Estonia. His research focuses on the European Parliament, supranational identity, and transnational accountability. He has also authored three fiction books.