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Issues & Insights Vol. 17 – No. 5 – China’s Role in Central Asia

Central Asia has become an area of interest in Eurasian affairs and is likely to play a major role in determining Eurasia’s future. During Soviet domination, it was effectively isolated from the outside world. Over the last 25 years, the region has experienced expanding economic activity. China, the European Union (EU), Iran, India, Russia, and the United States (US) are among the actors seeking partnership opportunities. Potential trade agreements leveraging the region’s vast energy resources promise to raise living standards for domestic audiences. Furthermore, its position among north-south and east-west trade routes provides a ready-made incentive for foreign interests to pursue economic ventures in Central Asia. The inherent benefits of engagement with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – including natural resource availability, their value as transit routes, and their untapped markets – are clearly displayed through China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. As Beijing looks to mature its partnership opportunities with Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, Central Asian states offer important assets in providing an efficient and secure transit route for goods traveling across Eurasia. Developing economic opportunities for partnership in the region offers further benefits for states such as China already seeking to move products through the region. Given the geographic advantages of partnering with capital cities Bishkek, Dushanbe, Ashgabat, and Tashkent, states from throughout the eastern hemisphere will seek opportunities to cooperate.
Analyzing the approaches of Beijing, Moscow, and Washington to advance thier own interests in the region would reveals opportunities for China-US cooperation. Specifically, from Washington’s perspective, reviewing Beijing’s approach with an eye toward developing joint ventures in Central Asia is prudent. China’s successful implementation of soft power measures and mechanisms demonstrates a mutually beneficial avenue for Beijing and Washington to engage with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The approach taken by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) lies in stark contrast to the more assertive and domineering tack taken by Russia, one that risks alienating indigenous population(s). When considering how the Kremlin has successfully compelled membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), time is of the essence for both Beijing and Washington. Curtailing Russia’s mounting influence must be a major consideration for both China and the US. If Beijing and Washington do not respond to Moscow’s advances, they may both find themselves in a disadvantageous position in the region. Neither can afford such a development given the Kremlin’s efforts to fortify its influence across the international community. Momentum gained in Central Asia would embolden Russia elsewhere, which, given the Putin administration’s realist approach, would be to the detriment of both China and the US.
From Washington’s perspective, developing cooperative mechanisms with Beijing offers the best opportunity to stem Moscow’s advance. However, identifying the best means to partner with China requires careful analysis of how the PRC has worked to achieve its own objectives in Central Asia. Equipped with a more comprehensive knowledge of where China and the US may partner is prudent given the complex nature of trilateral relations among Beijing, Moscow, and Washington, particularly given potential changes associated with the Trump Administration. Ultimately, strengthening ties with the PRC and the four Central Asian states to counter Russian aggression is within reach but will require comprehensive analysis and a strategic approach that leverages Chinese and US strengths.