Here’s the latest of my Central Asia series of Oxford Analytica briefs. This one is from late February.
In shaping its relations with Central Asian states, Beijing has primarily focused on developing energy imports and forging economic ties in other areas. At the same time, China faces several security concerns emanating from the region, most importantly, Islamic radicalism and regional separatism. Beijing has been attempting to address these concerns via multilateral and bilateral cooperation with Central Asian states. The conflicts and tensions are likely to become more acute as NATO begins to withdraw from Afghanistan.
- China’s desire to avoid alienating Russia has prompted it to de-emphasise military ties in favour of economic and trade relations.
- Most Central Asian states prefer the focus on trade relations with China, although Uzbekistan has recently sought to increase military ties.
- Chinese leaders favour multilateral initiatives, which countries in the region regard as less threatening than bilateral approaches.
Although China has long sought to increase its influence in Central Asia, it has sought to do so largely through economic and trade relations, rather than in the security sphere. As a result, China’s military ties with Central Asian states are relatively limited. This is due to a combination of factors:
- Beijing is keen to avoid alienating Moscow, which continues to see itself as the primary guarantor of Central Asian security.
- Central Asian leaders are concerned that China is already enjoying a disproportionate degree of influence in the region. This has led them to be extremely cautious in extending military cooperation.
- China is reluctant to become the region’s main security guarantor, due to a combination of its long-standing policy of non-interference abroad, and more significant security challenges elsewhere, especially in its maritime region.
The primary mode of interaction between China and the Central Asian states in the security sphere revolves around multilateral initiatives organised through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). These are closely related to China’s desire to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism. As a result, most multilateral security activities in the region that involve China revolve around counter-terrorism.
Peace Mission exercises
The Peace Mission series of counter-terrorism exercises have been held since 2003. The most recent took place in Tajikistan in June 2012 and included participants from all of the SCO member states except Uzbekistan. This was the smallest of the eight exercises held to date, highlighting the lack of emphasis on the military component of regional cooperation within the SCO. Uzbekistan has consistently refused to participate in the SCO exercises. The Uzbek leadership’s fear of domination by external powers — Russia, in particular — has made it keen to avoid any possibility that potential conflicts among Central Asian states might be internationalised.
China has also established a regional organisation dedicated to fighting terrorism. The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) of the SCO is dedicated to coordinating the anti-terrorist activities of member states, with a particular focus on radical Islamist organisations. RATS was established in 2004 and is headquartered in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. In recent years, it has expanded its activities to include counter-narcotics coordination.
Kazakhstan is the most significant partner in China’s bilateral security activities in Central Asia. The two countries have had regular military exchanges since 1993 and have engaged in numerous, though mostly small-scale, military exercises since 2002. As with the multi-lateral activities, China’s military engagement with Kazakhstan focuses on non-traditional threats such as terrorism and drug trafficking. China provides a significant amount of military assistance to Kazakhstan, but it is limited almost entirely to non-lethal equipment.
China’s security relations with Kyrgyzstan are more limited and opaque. They are focused primarily on countering Uighur separatist networks. Beijing has also provided equipment to the Kyrgyzstani security forces, but as with Kazakhstan, this has been limited to non-lethal goods such as vehicles and computers.
Turkmenistan and Tajikistan
Security relations with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are not a priority for China. With Turkmenistan, the basis of the bilateral relationship is natural gas exports. Security assistance is provided by Beijing in order to ensure that pipelines and other energy infrastructure are protected. China’s interests in Tajikistan are also very limited due, in part, to the widespread hostility towards the Chinese in Tajikistan, which is largely driven by the success of a recent Chinese effort to renegotiate the border between the two countries.
Uzbekistan withdrew from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in June 2012, not long after President Islam Karimov had signed a strategic partnership agreement with China on the sidelines of an SCO summit. These circumstances, in conjunction with a prior visit to Tashkent by the chief of the Chinese General Staff, have led to speculations that Karimov decided to strengthen the security partnership with China at the expense of the traditionally strong ties with Russia’s military and security establishment. So far, China has not given any indications that it is eager to make this relationship deeper than its security relations with the other four Central Asian states.
Beijing is concerned with the potential spread of Islamic radicalism and political instability in Central Asia in the aftermath of NATO’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is particularly worried that instability in Central Asia would negatively affect its ability to import energy. The potential for the instability to spread to Xinjiang is an important secondary concern. Both of these threats may be realised if Afghanistan returned to a state of civil war or if the Taliban came back to power and began to export its ideology and methods of governance to Central Asia.
China will continue to tread cautiously, since the political reservations that limited its military involvement in Central Asia are equally relevant for Afghanistan. It will seek to ensure that its security initiatives in the region remain largely multilateral.
China will continue to emphasise economic relations with Central Asia while soft-pedalling military ties, which will largely focus on the security of Chinese energy imports and continued stability in Xinjiang. Despite increased security concerns in the aftermath of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, China will not attempt to become a regional security guarantor. It will leave that role primarily to Russia and focus instead on establishing its economic dominance in Central Asia.