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Why China is likely to focus more on Central Asia as US rivalry intensifies

China will step up engagement with Central Asia as part of efforts to stabilise its western border and focus on its strategic rivalry with the US in the Indo-Pacific, observers said.

This came as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrapped up a four-day visit to Kazakhstan, where he met President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and held separate meetings with his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as the transport minister of Tajikistan.

He also attended a summit in Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan with ministers from the five Central Asian nations, all former Soviet republics with close ties to Moscow. The meeting ended with pledges of greater cooperation in areas ranging from anti-terrorism, security and humanitarian mediation in neighbouring Afghanistan, energy supplies and transport links, to infrastructure, data security and vaccine production.

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The week before, Beijing had suffered a setback in its plans for a sweeping trade and security deal with 10 nations in the South Pacific, with some of them raising objections despite Wang's whirlwind tour of a region that has increasingly emerged as a front line in the China-US geopolitical rivalry.

Srdjan Uljevic, an associate professor with the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, said that as rivalry with the United States in the Indo-Pacific intensified, China was looking to increase its engagement with Central Asia, a resource-rich region significant to Beijing in both security and economic terms.

"Given that Beijing needs stability on its western borders so it can focus on strategic rivalry with the US in the Indo-Pacific, we should expect more involvement from China in this regard," Uljevic said.

Extending from the Caspian Sea to western China's Xinjiang region, Central Asia comprises former Soviet states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - with Russia to its north, and Iran and Afghanistan in the south.

The oil- and gas-rich steppes have traditionally been seen as Russia's sphere of influence, but China's growing economic presence in recent years under its Belt and Road Initiative has boosted its clout in the region.

It was during a visit to the Kazakh capital in 2013 that Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced the belt and road plan, his signature strategy to revive the medieval Silk Road to the Middle East and Europe through Central Asia.

A goods train to Central Asia leaves a container station in eastern China. Photo: Xinhua alt=A goods train to Central Asia leaves a container station in eastern China. Photo: Xinhua>

China is a major source of foreign investment for Central Asia and the region's largest trading partner, with total trade soaring from US$460 million in 1992 to US$38.6 billion in 2020, according to official figures from Beijing.

Temur Umarov, an expert on China and Central Asia at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said Russia's influence in the region, particularly in security and domestic politics, remained strong, even though Moscow was locked in one of the most intense confrontations with the West over President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

"Russia enjoys its position thanks to its heritage of the Soviet Union," Umarov said. "It has its assets like military bases in Central Asia, while it is still the only country that has trust among political elites in Central Asia."

"These are assets that China doesn't enjoy.

"Beijing understands it needs Russia's help in Central Asia," he added. "I would not underestimate the cooperation between Beijing and Moscow in Central Asia."

Uljevic said Russia's influence in the region would decrease only if the war in Ukraine continued for a longer period.

"A politically, military and economically weak Russia would not be able to maintain the current level of engagement with the region," he said.

Sanctions on Russia might also render it a less reliable, or even wanted, partner "in future projects addressing many of the problems Central Asia is facing", Uljevic added.

The US and its allies have imposed some of their toughest sanctions on Russia since Putin sent his forces into Ukraine on February 24. Central Asian economies, already battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, fear that their business, logistics, trade and financial ties with Russia would expose them to secondary sanctions.

"They may want to diversify their ties," Umarov said. "There are other options as well, like Turkiye and Iran, but China is the top option."

While there are no signs that China's role in the region has changed in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, as Beijing's economic presence in the region continues to expand, so will its political influence, analysts say.

Regional leaders meeting Wang at a China+Central Asia summit in Nur-Sultan on June 8 pledged to respect China's "core interests". Wang later said they also agreed to set up a meeting mechanism for their heads of state - a first for the six countries.

"This reflects the mutual trust between the two sides and a need to strengthen coordination," said Zhao Long, senior research fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies' Russian and Central Asian studies centre.

"China doesn't want to replace or push aside anyone in Central Asia," he said.

While Central Asian countries, with their traditional ties with Russia, have not condemned Moscow's military operation in Ukraine, they have not supported it either, Zhao pointed out. However, as the war continued, Russia may seek to strengthen its efforts to pivot to the East with Eurasian integration, in which Central Asia was a crucial player, he said.

"Russia may seek to strengthen its ties with Central Asia in the political and security sphere, but I don't think it would contradict Central Asia's diverse and balanced diplomacy," Zhao said.

In a likely reflection of Moscow's efforts to push its eastward regional integration, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov recently suggested Putin was no longer opposed to a China- Central Asia railway project. The project to link Xinjiang with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, under discussion for more than two decades, may start construction as early as next year, Japarov said.

"If Russia wins the Ukraine war, Central Asian countries may be more determined to go along with this process of regional integration that Russia wants to promote," Zhao said. "But if Russia fails, this will of course affect the overall strategic and diplomatic reorientation of the Central Asian countries."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.