What’s Behind China’s Growing Presence in Central Asia’s Security
the 22nd meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 16, 2022 (Credit Image: © Iranian Presidency/APA Images via ZUMA Press Wire)
the 22nd meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 16, 2022 (Credit Image: © Iranian Presidency/APA Images via ZUMA Press Wire)

In Central Asia, there are many concerns associated with the Chinese presence, which regularly lead to mass protests throughout almost the entire region. However, despite the problems and obstacles in relations, China’s influence in the region is increasing, even in the sensitive sphere of security.

The two main drivers of this process are the following. Firstly, since gaining independence, the countries of Central Asia have sought to diversify their ties with the world as the main goal of their foreign policy in order to reduce their historical dependence on Russia. Secondly, as China rises, so does its need to expand its security umbrella, with Central Asia falling under it due to its geographic location.

These two factors are not highly dependent on external shocks, since it is difficult to imagine an event that would force the countries of Central Asia to abandon their multi-vector foreign policy, or China to strengthen its security umbrella. Therefore, the rapprochement between China and Central Asia on security issues is a long-term trend. And it will only intensify over the years.

To gain an understanding of the direction this partnership will move in the future, it is necessary to have an idea of how it looks today.

Fundamental questions

When it comes to China’s presence in Central Asia, the Chinese economy is often mentioned. Indeed, the People’s Republic of China is one of the main, or in some cases, the main economic partner in the region.

According to 2021 data, China is the second main trading partner for Kazakhstan ($18.2 billion), Uzbekistan ($7.4 billion), and Kyrgyzstan ($1.5 billion), and the third main partner for Tajikistan ($839.3 million) and Turkmenistan ($1 billion). By 2020, China’s cumulative investment in Central Asia had exceeded $12 billion (three times more than Russia’s investment of $4.1 billion).

It is widely believed that the increased security partnerships seen in recent years (e.g. news of the emergence of a second Chinese “military base” in Tajikistan) is the result of dynamic economic cooperation. It is also widely assumed that previously China was only interested in economic expansion into the region, and preferred to rely on Russia for security matters, but now this is beginning to change.

However, the reality is different. The very first steps that China took towards Central Asia immediately after the formation of independent countries was focused precisely on the security sphere. This is primarily due to the fact that after the collapse of the USSR, the PRC found itself in an uncomfortable position. Instead of one state on the border of China, many new ones have appeared. Therefore, in the early 1990s it was still not clear for Beijing what the political regimes of the new states would turn out to be, what path of development they would choose.

The situation was complicated by the fact that a region of five independent countries of Central Asia arose on the border with the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Beijing’s main fear was that the example of its neighbors in gaining independence would give a new impetus to separatist sentiments in Xinjiang, which is ethnically, culturally and linguistically close to the Central Asian countries.

Therefore, Beijing needed to first make sure that the states that emerged here would not support activists from various movements for the independence of East Turkestan, but would rather cooperate in combating any beginnings of separatism.

These questions were initially discussed at the highest level. For example, during PRC President Jiang Zemin’s first official tour of Central Asia in 1996, a consensus on countering any separatist sentiment was put on paper, along with commitments to “strengthen mutual trust in the military sphere.”

The political regimes of Central Asia, in turn, also needed to establish new contacts and enlist the support of large neighbors.

At the initial stage, separate local attempts were made to support Uighur activists. According to some estimates, about 500,000 ethnic Uyghurs live in Central Asia, some of whom tried to open branches of the East Turkestan Independence Movement there. However, at the state level, there was no talk of any support for Uighur separatism. The leaders of the Central Asian countries understood that their support would not be able to seriously change the situation of the Uyghurs and Muslims in China, but their unsuccessful attempts would only anger Beijing. Moreover, some Central Asian leaders associated themselves more with Beijing than with XUAR: for instance, Tashkent faced similar problems in Karakalpakstan, Dushanbe in the Pamirs.

In addition, the forerunner of multilateral security cooperation between China and Central Asian states emerged from the solution of territorial issues through the format of the “Shanghai Five” (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). In 2001 this format became the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Today, the SCO is the main platform that the PRC uses for multilateral security cooperation with the countries of Central Asia.

The third important aspect of China’s cooperation with the countries of Central Asia arose in the wake of the global fight against terrorism after the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York. Around the same time, China combined separatism, extremism, and radicalism into a single “three evils” formula, and Central Asia became a buffer between the Chinese west and “dangerous” Afghanistan. In 2021, with the Taliban seizing power in Kabul, this role of Central Asia has become even more relevant for Beijing.

All the economic activity that can be observed between the PRC and Central Asia would not be possible if the countries did not come to a consensus on the above aspects of security cooperation. And partly, involvement in the economic development of the region is also dictated by the desire to stabilize the situation in the XUAR. Different regions of the PRC felt the effect of the Chinese “economic miracle” in different ways: if the coastal provinces have prospered over the past decades, the northwestern ones have turned into relatively depressed regions. This contrast in well-being only exacerbated the existing problems. An example of the most ambitious plan to smooth out the contrast in the development of different regions is the Belt and Road Initiative, the land part of which (the Silk Road Economic Belt) was launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping almost 10 years ago in Kazakhstan.

Protection of interests

Substantive cooperation between China and the countries of Central Asia in the field of security began to be implemented in the 2000s after the parties agreed to resolve territorial disputes, and also reached an understanding on the inadmissibility of supporting separatism. In the 1990s the parties mainly established contacts, found common ground through active military diplomacy.

In total, from the beginning of the establishment of diplomatic relations until 2020, the number of meetings of officials at various levels, at which security issues were discussed, reached almost 300 (76 between China and Kyrgyzstan, 66 with Tajikistan, 59 with Uzbekistan, 51 with Kazakhstan, and 24 with Turkmenistan). From the early 2000s to 2020 there’ve been conducted about 150 meetings of high-ranking representatives of the Chinese defense departments with colleagues from the Central Asian countries.

In the 1990s the main issue was the fight against separatism. To strengthen the stability of the newly formed political regimes, both from within and from outside, it was more profitable for the countries of Central Asia to cooperate with Beijing in the fight against separatism in the XUAR. The more closely the countries of Central Asia cooperated with the PRC, the more difficult the life of the Uyghur diaspora in the region became: the authorities banned the activities of any Uyghur organizations, even those not connected with politics; some separatist activists were found dead at that time, others were persecuted or fled the region. In some countries (like Uzbekistan) they refused to recognize the Uighurs as a national minority at all.

Later, in the 2000s, the parties began to focus on the fight against terrorism and radical Islamism (so called “the three forces of evil”). In practice, it meant the launch of joint military exercises and the close interaction of law enforcement agencies. The People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) conducted its first ever bilateral military exercises with the Central Asian country (with Kyrgyzstan in October 2002). Since then, the PRC has conducted more than 12 bilateral military exercises with all the countries in the region. In addition, China and the countries of Central Asia held multilateral military drills under the SCO umbrella. Since 2003, more than two dozen of them have been organized.

The main scenarios that the Chinese security forces play out together with the Central Asian ones depend on the country and circumstances. For example, exercises in cyberspace have recently become more frequent, the militaries trained jointly to identify extremist materials on social media and exchange data on terrorist groups operating on the Internet.

After 2016, scenarios for the liquidation of terrorist groups began to be worked out more frequently, since this particular year was a turning point in China’s relations with the countries of Central Asia. In August 2016, a terrorist attack took place at the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, a suicide bomber rammed the gate and blew himself up. None of the Chinese representatives were injured, but this event had an important psychological effect on the PRC’s policy in the region. From that moment on, the traditionally discussed partnership in the fight against the “three forces of evil” began to be supplemented with issues of ensuring the safety of Chinese citizens in Central Asia.

In addition to the terrorist attack, the PRC’s attention to the security of its citizens is also due to the fact that the level of dissatisfaction with Chinese influence has begun to grow in the societies of the Central Asian countries. In the spring of 2016, fears of a Chinese takeover of Kazakh land led to mass anti-Chinese rallies, same events repeated in Kazakhstan in the fall of 2019. For the most part, such actions were peaceful, but some led to violence. For example, in 2018, protesters set fire to a Chinese gold refinery in Kyrgyzstan.

In addition to dialogue with the authorities of the Central Asian countries, the PRC began to encourage the work of Chinese private security companies in the region. Today, there are dozens of cases of Chinese facilities in Central Asia being guarded by Chinese private security companies, mainly in Kyrgyzstan.

Conflict with Russia?

The basis of China’s presence in the security sphere of Central Asia is connected with the most important national interests of Beijing. However, this does not mean that cooperation cannot go beyond the boundaries of these interests and develop in new directions.

Despite Beijing’s increased activity on certain issues, China is not going to replace Russia as the main guarantor of regional security in Central Asia. So far, the Chinese presence cannot be compared with the Russian one. No one but Moscow has legal tools for an open military presence in Central Asia (via the Collective Security Treaty Organization or CSTO) and the Kremlin demonstrated this ability in January 2022 in Kazakhstan. Also, no one has military installations in Central Asia in the same numbers and scale as Russia.

At the same time, it is difficult not to notice the growing influence of China in this area. This is especially evident in the statistics of trade in arms and military equipment. Russia is still the dominant supplier, having sold about $4 billion worth of arms and military equipment to Central Asia since 1991. At the same time, while the countries that are members of the CSTO import almost all of their weapons from Russia, the situation is different for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Tashkent is the only one that since 1991 has bought more weapons in terms of money from China than from Russia. Adhering to the foreign policy of neutrality Turkmenistan from 2014 to 2018 also bought fewer weapons from Russia than from China (but it should be emphasized that the main supplier of weapons to Turkmenistan is Türkiye).

On the other hand, this state of affairs can be explained by the different specialization of Moscow and Beijing in the military equipment market. So, the countries of Central Asia are mainly armed with Chinese attack unmanned aerial vehicles Wing Loong I, armored vehicles and patrol vehicles, ground-based missiles, QW-2 third-generation man-portable air defense systems and mobile radar stations. Everything else, including air military equipment and heavy land equipment, is purchased from Russia.

The same specialization can be seen in the military exercises between the PRC and the countries of Central Asia, when compared with Russian ones. For example, most of the exercises with Russia (65%) are organized by the Russian armed forces, while the participation of China is being held by various law enforcement agencies, as well as special forces.

On other issues, China is acting in the same vein as Russia. For example, it offers training courses for officers from the countries of Central Asia. Since the year 2000, more than 1,000 officers from the region have been trained on various programs in China.

China is emerging as a prominent security player in Central Asia, and many believe this is a sign of the coming rift between Beijing and Moscow. Especially a lot of such discussions arose after the news about the appearance of a new “military base” of the PRC in Tajikistan in 2021. However, in the foreseeable future, a Russian-Chinese conflict in the region seems unlikely, and here’s why.

Of all the countries of Central Asia, Tajikistan is the only one that simultaneously cooperates closely with Russia and China, as well as with other states, on security issues. For example, there are reports that the Indian Air Force has access to Tajikistan’s Farkhor Airport on the border with Afghanistan. In April 2021, Tajikistan agreed to establish a joint defense committee with Iran, and regularly conducts military exercises with the United States. Such a diversified set of security partners is essential for the political regime in Tajikistan, which is considered to have the weakest military in Central Asia. Therefore, there is nothing surprising in the fact that both Russia and China are present in Tajikistan at the same time.

For the PRC, Tajikistan is important, as it is the only country in the region that borders both Afghanistan and China at the same time. In Tajikistan, the risks of terrorism and local radicalism are also relatively high, and one of the drug trafficking routes to China passes through the Tajik-Afghan border. Moreover, all these problems have only worsened with the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan.

However, it is too early to talk about a Chinese military presence in the region. Formally, there is no Chinese military presence in Central Asia: according to Tajik documents, the facilities are “police academies” for the Tajik Interior Ministry. One has already been built, and the second will be located in the Ishkashim region near the Tajik-Afghan border. Both sites are located in the Wakhan Corridor.

It is also important to understand that the facilities in Tajikistan are being built not by the People’s Liberation Army of China, but by the People’s Armed Police (internal paramilitary units), which in peacetime are engaged in law enforcement.

China is increasing its global military presence precisely through its armed police. Its powers are gradually expanding and intersect more with the military. Under the law of 2015, the People’s Armed Police is responsible for the fight against terrorism, and since 2018 it has ceased to be subordinate to civilian structures, coming under the full control of the Central Military Council (the supreme command body of the armed forces, which is headed by the President of the People’s Republic of China). Also, according to the law on land borders of the PRC, starting from 2022 the functions of the border service are also assigned to the People’s Armed Police. Since the 2000s the People’s Armed Police officers are sent to participate in UN peacekeeping missions.

Also, the armed police conducts regular exercises with foreign partners. In pre-pandemic times, the Chinese armed police launched a new type of exercise “Cooperation-2019” with the paramilitary forces of the Central Asian countries.

In other words, it is wrong to define China’s actions in the region as a “military presence” or to equate the increase in Chinese military influence in the world with American or Russian. By calling this process a “military” presence, we are simplifying reality. Turning a blind eye to the nuances of the Chinese security presence in Central Asia may overlook its specifics. Namely, the involvement in cooperation not of the armies, but of the internal forces of the countries of the region.

Another important aspect in relation to Central Asia is that such a close partnership cannot be imagined without demand for it from the region itself. The notion that all important decisions for Central Asia are made by large and influential neighbors is erroneous. In reality, the states of the region have never been as independent as they are today.

All this casts doubt on popular predictions about the coming clash between Russia and China in the struggle for Central Asia. The countries of the region, squeezed in the depths of the continent without access to the sea, do not benefit from one influential neighbor ousting another.

テムール・ウマロフ。ウズベキスタン出身。中国と中央アジア問題研究の専門家。カーネギー・ロシア・ユーラシア・センターのフェローでもあります。 カーネギー清華青年大使プログラムおよびカーネギー中央アジア未来プログラムの卒業生。国家経済行政ロシア大統領府アカデミー(RANEPA)で中国研究の学士号を、モスクワ国際関係大学(MGIMO、ロシア外務省付属の公立大学)で国際関係の修士号を、北京対外経済貿易大学(UIBE)で世界経済学の修士号を取得。 Temur Umarov. A native of Uzbekistan, he is an expert on China and Central Asia, and a fellow at Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. He is an alumnus of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Young Ambassadors and the Carnegie Central Asian Futures programs. Temur holds a BA in China Studies from the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), an MA in International Relations from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), and an MA in World Economics from Beijing University of International Business and Economics (UIBE).