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Central Asia warily welcomes China's Belt and Road Initiative

Fears over Chinese aims linger, while Russia sees tectonic shift underway

| China

China's Belt and Road Initiative is making some leaders in Central Asia nervous as they welcome economic engagement with Beijing but remain wary of potential problems the project could unleash. Russia is not all happy, either.

Central Asia is strategically important for China's trade and energy interests as well as for security in Uighur-dominated Xinjiang Province. The Silk Road Economic Belt, the overland portion of the BRI, was announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 in Kazakhstan. It aims to connect Chinese and European markets through infrastructure and transport links, oil and gas pipelines, and communications networks via Central Asia and Russia. 

Regional worries

However, Central Asia remains suspicious about China's real intentions, which seem focused on the region's natural resources. This is reminiscent of Tsarist Russia, when its need for cotton resulted in imperial control over much of Central Asia.

Beijing's political and economic policy is likely to benefit the regional elites rather than ordinary people, leading to social discontent that could impede the BRI. Experts are already questioning the validity of the setup, seeing few benefits beyond transit fees for Central Asian countries. 

The region's policymakers also feel that China's investments have already peaked, with little to come in the future. For example, China's mega energy projects have already been built, and there do not appear to be many more in the works.

Due to strict nontariff trade barriers, Central Asia is one of the most trade-unfriendly regions in the world, and it is questionable whether this can be changed by externally funded infrastructure projects.

Some Central Asian experts believe the BRI will not aid local production. They see it as a tool for China to import natural resources from the region and to increase exports to Central Asia, hurting fragile local manufacturing industries.  

Chinese projects are not known for increasing local employment, a fact not lost on Central Asia. To assuage local fears, Turkmenistan has fixed a 70% quota for local employment, while Uzbekistan restricts Chinese workers to management personnel, disallowing laborers. 

Examples from Myanmar and Pakistan demonstrate that Chinese investments exacerbate ethnic tensions and distributional conflicts. This could hinder BRI projects in Central Asia as clan, regional and ethnic identities play an important role in domestic politics.

In addition, the populations of China and Central Asian countries are vastly different, and the idea of Chinese expansion into the region is frequently discussed in Tajik, Kyrgyz and Kazakh newspapers. Massive protests against a rumored land lease to Chinese farmers recently occurred in Kazakhstan. The 2011 China-Tajikistan land deal has also been mired in controversy as its details are veiled in secrecy.

Clashes between locals and Chinese laborers in Kyrgyzstan have been reported in the media. In 2014, 25 Chinese migrants working illegally at an oil refinery in the northern city of Tokmak were deported after they took several Kyrgyz employees hostage during a clash.

Against this backdrop, Central Asia is still struggling with the negative environmental impact of Soviet-era development initiatives. China's current projects in the region seem to aggravate this problem. Cement plants built by China in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have increased pollution, while locals complain about refineries built or operated by Chinese companies. 

Another potential challenge for the BRI is the looming generational change coming in Central Asia. New leaders may not keep the agreements signed by a previous leader, instead choosing to follow their own path -- one not dictated by China. 

The new great game

Russia, the traditional security force in Central Asia, is facing its own economic problems, and the BRI has caused concern in Moscow. China has overtaken Russia as the biggest trade partner of the Central Asian countries, and, financially, the Russians cannot compete with the Chinese, who have very deep pockets. 

Russia's own post-Soviet economic integration initiative, the Eurasian Economic Union, has failed to generate the expected results, and the BRI is challenging that framework. That is likely why Russia and China agreed to link their initiatives in 2015, but problems persist. 

Organizational differences between the two initiatives exist. The EEU is a regional organization with a regulatory and legal framework as well as membership criteria. The BRI, on the other hand, has a light institutional architecture and remains an amorphous idea. 

EEU members are wary of Russia dominating negotiations over the BRI and want an equal voice. Aware of this division, China has been leaning toward bilateral negotiations with EEU nations, to Russia's disadvantage. 

With its high external tariffs, the EEU is designed to stimulate internal trade. It does not have the outward-looking focus of the BRI. Russia and the Central Asian countries have long resisted Beijing's attempts to create a free trade area under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, fearing it will flood their markets with cheap goods. Moscow is also averse to the idea of the SCO Development Bank, as it is anxious about the institution being a vehicle for Beijing to further increase its political clout in the region.  

The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway is yet another example of Russia's reservations over Chinese influence. First envisaged in 1997, the project has not materialized due to Moscow's opposition. Highlighting the competition between the two powers over railway projects is rail gauge -- China's standard is 1435mm against Russia's 1520mm.

Some quarters in Russian policy circles also fear that the Silk Road Economic Belt will become the main land transit route between Asia and Europe at the expense of Russia's Trans-Siberian railway, in which Moscow plans to infuse billions of dollars to reinvigorate it. Russia wants to ensure the planned rail link connecting China and Europe passes through its territory, instead of circumventing it and passing through only Central Asia.

China's energy pipelines directly from Central Asia have broken the Russian monopoly over regional energy resources, decreasing their dependence on Moscow and pointing to a future in which China's growing profile will come at the expense of Russia. 

Currently, there is division of labor between Russia and China in Central Asia, as Moscow is the security provider while Beijing is the preferred economic partner. However, of late, China is breaking out of Russia's shadow and stepping up its security presence in the region. China conducted bilateral military exercises with Tajikistan late last year, and it will also build 11 outposts for Tajik guards on the Tajik-Afghan border.

China has also inked an anti-terror alliance with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, excluding Russia. Moscow made an attempt at a similar agreement with the three countries in the past, and there were several meetings between the nation's leaders from 2009 to 2012, but nothing materialized. 

A news report in the Russian newspaper Izvestia quotes Andrei Serenko, an expert at the Center for Modern Afghanistan Studies, Moscow, saying that Russia's focus on Ukraine and the Middle East means it is losing ground in Central Asia. He added that Beijing could be building an alternative to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and if Russia does not join this new initiative, it would reveal that China does not see Russia as an ally in Central Asia.

China denies any political agenda behind the BRI, but the fact remains that this massive project will allow Beijing to bypass Russian political and economic influence in Central Asia. As China's power grows in the region, Central Asia could well become the area where latent differences between Russia and China come into focus in the long run. 

Raj Kumar Sharma is an academic associate at the Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi, and holds a doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed here are those of the author.

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