Covid-19 has driven significant changes in major geopolitical hotspots worldwide, creating new strategic balances in zones of changing power. Washington’s setbacks in handling the pandemic, along with Beijing’s mask diplomacy assertiveness and Russia’s decline as a regional benchmark, all point to a considerable change in Central Asia. In the new ‘Great Game,’ Central Asia has become less and less hospitable to the U.S. and become less subservient to Russian geopolitical interests. Together with multiple systemic challenges, we have two significant regional developments: the gradual withdrawal of American forces from Kabul and China’s growing economic and political influence.
In 1904, the English geographer Mackinder identified control over Central Asia as a prerequisite for global domination. He was arguing: “he who rules the Heartland (referring to Central Asia as the heart of the Earth) commands the islands of the world, and he who rules the islands of the world commands the world.” Mackinder was probably on point in his view of 19th-century colonialism regarding the newly formed governments of Central Asia. However, the goal has never been to achieve control of the Heartland, but to survive without being crushed by their bulky neighbours. Maintaining a balance between Russia and China, between the guarantor of regional military security and the main actor in international economics, seems to be the only option for such small and isolated countries.
Although Moscow’s ability to contain China’s conquest of Central Asia is limited, Russia itself is economically dependent on Beijing’s growth, and Xi Jinping has never openly challenged Putin. Xi Jinping has preferred to act from behind the scenes. China already has enough foreign policy issues to deal with to be dragged down into unnecessary struggles, and Beijing cannot contemplate building an anti-status quo multipolar world order without Russia’s support. Cooperation, even if just on a formal level, seems to be the best option for both sides, as no foreign enemy would dare to contradict not one but two superpowers at one time. On the other hand, just as for the ASEAN countries, an experience similar to that of European integration would not be sustainable in Central Asia. Unlike Europe, these states are young political entities striving to protect sovereignty, having no interest in sacrificing it in the name of greater regional integration.
Economically, the volume of cooperation between the Stan-countries is still much lower than the one they have created with foreign countries. This was partly due to the economic structure based on natural resources and the outdated Soviet transport network, which did not facilitate integration. However, the increasing loss of human capital in the Stans should also be considered, with 3.4 million migrants moving to Russia in 2019 alone. This has also meant that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are two of the most remittances-dependent economies in the world. Accordingly, the large-scale penetration of foreign capital into these countries’ energy-centric economies has placed the Stans under the control of foreign owners. It has resulted in technological deficiencies, hyper-dependence on the hydrocarbon trade, and strong social polarization.
In this context, China’s involvement has not promoted regional empowerment but has, instead, intensified some critical issues already present in the Stans’ economic systems. Here, Beijing has conducted its mask diplomacy as in the rest of the world but has started well in advance. Chinese interests in the Stans are grafted on the construction of the BRI. This has provided an excellent testbed for refining Chinese hegemonic aspirations and the methods by which to pursue them, being optimal for testing the limits of Russian patience and U.S. interventionism. For example, Chinese credit has increased economic activity and facilitated trade growth in Central Asia and made the region dependent on Chinese know-how, essential to maintain and develop the infrastructures built under the programme. Besides, Chinese enterprises’ comparative advantages have undermined the competitiveness of local enterprises and fuelled a stronger demand for Chinese imports. Not only has China plundered the Stans, but it has also effectively disposed of its surplus production while making them financially dependent.
With the BRI and its turnover, estimated at around 1 trillion U.S. dollars, China was on track to become the most critical trading partner for the Stans ever since 2013. According to data from the IMF, at the beginning of the millennium, this volume was only 1,8 billion dollars, while, in September 2019, it reached 23.7 billion dollars. Beijing is successfully transforming the region into a vast continental transport hub, a useful crossroad connecting domestic producers with the most profitable markets of West Asia, the Gulf region and the European Union. Through a complex network of highways and railways, including Nelbec and the CCAWAEC economic corridors, Beijing increases its local presence from every angle. For example, on July 16, China held its first separate meeting with the Stans, avoiding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s involvement, in enemy-ally Russia participates.
This indicates how interested Beijing has in putting the whole Central Asian territory under its exclusive influence. Yet, here China is viewed with suspicion through the prism of Sinophobia. These anti-Chinese reactions have grown in Xinjiang’s wake of developments, one of China’s supposedly autonomous regions. In reality, Beijing has absolute authority over Xinjiang and, for decades, it has oppressed the Muslim-majority people inhabiting it. According to Human Rights Watch, the Chinese government considers a wide variety of harmless religious behaviour extremists, including fasting during Ramadan, wearing a headscarf and even growing a beard. Revelations about Xinjiang’s massive network of labour camps for Uighurs have also sparked mass protests in Central Asia, with people strongly demanding a reduction in Chinese influence. Yet, Beijing’s economic and political partnerships have forged in recent years have managed to silence any opposition to its repressive practices, avoiding eventual uprisings.
In conclusion, what is essential to remember is that Chinese aid is conditional; that is, it is disbursed in packages that mix together soft loans, trade agreements and investment agreements. These include more or less explicit but strict requirements. For example, the beneficiary countries have to claim that the people’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government (not recognizing Taiwan) and import not less than half of the materials, technology, and services purchased under the contract from Chinese industries. This type of aid differs from the Western equivalent both in its content and purpose, is defined by experts as a perfect example of predatory aid. The promise of new infrastructure and a tacit agreement of mutual non-interference has convinced the Stans to turn both eyes blind to Xinjiang’s situation. In this way, Central Asia is mortgaging its future on the shameful suffering of 2021 concentration camps.
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