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Friday, December 22, 2023

Dragon in Central Asia: The Security Dimension

With abundant natural resources, critical transportation corridors, and a shared border that is critical to China’s security, Central Asia is a strategically important region for Beijing. Central Asia is also a key region for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that intends to build a huge network of infrastructure and trade linkages between China and nations across the world. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, China’s relationship with Central Asia is based on economic cooperation. Beijing has made significant investments in the region’s infrastructure, including the construction of highways, railroads, and pipelines, as well as the investing in energy and mining projects. As the region’s major trading partner, China has attempted to strengthen economic ties by establishing free trade zones and offering loans and grants to aid regional growth. In a bid to protect its investments, economic interests, and security risks China is now using its growing economic engagement in Central Asia to expand its security presence.

The possibility of unrest in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost region with a border with Central Asia, has long worried China. The Uyghur ethnic minority has been charged by the Chinese government as being separatists and religious fanatics responsible for terrorist incidents in Xinjiang and other regions of China. Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang have come under harsh repression from Chinese authorities. China viewed Central Asia as a possible source of support and a haven for anti-Chinese operations carried out by Uyghur separatists and radicals since the region has ethnocultural commonalities with Uyghurs. Consequently, it has worked to forge stronger security relationships with the central Asian regimes to curb this threat.

China has provided military equipment and training, shared intelligence, and joint exercises to Central Asian nations as a vital component of its security cooperation. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which was founded by China, Russia, and the four Central Asian nations, has also been formed by China as a new regional security forum. The SCO has hosted joint military drills and counterterrorism exercises and has been regarded as a platform for regional security cooperation. In addition, China has signed bilateral security agreements with a number of Central Asian nations, including a strategic partnership with Kazakhstan and a security cooperation arrangement with Tajikistan. Focusing on border security and counterterrorism is one of the main aspects of China’s security engagement in Central Asia. Beijing has offered military weapons and training to Central Asian countries to assist them in patrolling their borders and preventing terrorists and extremists from infiltrating. Also, several Central Asian nations have received intelligence assistance from China.


Impact on Moscow
China’s growing security presence in Central Asia has raised concerns that it would eventually replace Russia as the region’s main security provider. Moscow has long controlled the Central Asian security environment, but its clout in post-Soviet Central Asian countries is dwindling as China’s economic and political might increases. Moreover, China is advancing in Central Asia’s security domain. It provided 18% of the region’s arms over the past five years, a significant increase over the 1.5% of Central Asian arms imports it contributed between 2010 and 2014. In the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan, China established its first military installations in 2016, and stationed its paramilitary soldiers there.
With regard to their influence in Central Asia, the strategic gap between Moscow and Beijing is closing, and if present trends continue, Moscow’s supremacy may be threatened in the future. It is also important to highlight that whereas Russia has a long history of military and security cooperation with Central Asian nations, China’s security involvement with the region is still relatively young and mostly focused on border protection and counterterrorism. Although, China’s security presence will probably increase as its economic clout in the region rises but it will probably not be able to fully replace Russia as a major actor in regional security matters in Central Asia.


India as a Counterbalance to China
India’s relations with Central Asia have also gained momentum recently. New Delhi views Central Asia as its “Extended Neighbours,” and is concerned about China’s growing influence in the region. Nevertheless, it also offers New Delhi opportunities. India is seen by Central Asian nations as a strategic counterbalance to China. The Chinese BRI has several problems in addition to the debt trap. These include a lack of coordination between the involved local governments, private enterprises, and state-owned firms in China, poor risk management, and a disdain for details. Instead, India’s connectivity initiatives, including the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chabahar Port project in Iran, are unmotivated by politics and fully support regional connectivity.

To counteract China’s expanding regional influence, India has recently expanded its engagement with Central Asian countries. New Delhi has also attempted to increase its security cooperation with Central Asian countries by giving military equipment and training to their soldiers. The First India-Central Asia Summit in January 2022 resulted in the formation of an India-Central Asia Joint Working Group (JWG) on Afghanistan, a JWG on the Chabahar port, and regular meetings of India’s and Central Asian states’ high level security officials. These three steps are in line with India’s revised Central Asia policy, which intends to increase partnership on regional security, Afghanistan, and connectivity. Based on the findings, it is possible to conclude that a proactive Indian presence in Central Asia is critical for balancing Chinese interests.

Dr. Pravesh Kumar Gupta,
Associate Fellow VIF

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