Beijing has chosen a triumphant moment: How China takes advantage of Russia's war — opinion

15 June, 04:25 PM
Beijing (Photo:johnnycui / pixabay)

Beijing (Photo:johnnycui / pixabay)

Beijing strengthens its expansion into Central Asia and systematically fills the vacuum created by Russia, which has been weakened by the sanctions the West has placed on it in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

The war against Ukraine inevitably causes led to Russia’s rejection by other post-Soviet republics and former colonies of Russia. They have become afraid of the possible loss of their sovereignty and independence. To distance themselves from Russia, the countries of Central Asia are looking for support from China.

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Beijing has chosen a triumphant moment for its expansion into Central Asia. It systematically fills the vacuum created by Russia, which has been weakened by the sanctions the West has placed on it in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

Central Asia has become the key to China's trillion-dollar "One Belt, One Road" initiative, a defining geopolitical project for President Xi Jinping. About 150 countries have received Chinese funding for constructing roads, ports, railways, hydroelectric power plants, and other infrastructure. Their trade with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan reached $70 billion in 2022.

Russia's war in Ukraine has further shifted the dynamics in favor of Beijing — forcing many in the region to question their long-standing ties to Moscow and seek economic, diplomatic, and strategic guarantees elsewhere.

China is actively increasing its political influence in the region in addition to its economic power. Notably, they held the first China-Central Asia summit with the leaders of China and five Central Asian states in Xi'an, China, where the old Silk Road began.

In attendance were Presidents Tokayev of Kazakhstan, Sadyr Japarov of Kyrgyzstan, Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, Serdar Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan, and Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, and of course, Xi Jinping himself.

Russia's war in Ukraine has further shifted the dynamics in favor of Beijing

Together, they planned cooperation in the fields of security, infrastructure, and development, including the reconstruction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway for 6 billion dollars and the expansion of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline.

The Russian war in Ukraine pushes Central Asian countries deeper into China's embrace. However, China's entry into Central Asia has not always been popular.

In 2019, protests erupted in Kazakhstan, which called itself an essential link in the "One Belt, One Road" project, over Chinese expansionism in the country. In 2020, a Chinese investor who planned to invest nearly $300 million in a trade and logistics center in Kyrgyzstan pulled out of the project due to local protests.

Beijing says the initiative aims to deepen friendly trade relations, especially with the developing world. But China has long been accused of luring low-income countries into debt traps by offering huge, unaffordable loans.

China has developed a so-called "One Belt, One Road" rescue system to help recipient countries avoid default and continue to service their debts for the project.

Beijing's significant investments fuel fears that their economic influence may lead to interference in domestic politics.

China's development in the Central Asian region is seen as a model to follow, but there are concerns that Beijing's approach is fundamentally extractive. It concerns increasing exports of agricultural, mineral, and other products from Central Asia to China.

In exchange for expanding economic cooperation, China will seek support in ensuring security in the region where three Central Asian countries border Xinjiang, the western region of China that is home to about 12 million Uighur Muslims. Xinjiang is another source of conflict where Western governments accuse Beijing of repressions. Over a million Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities have been placed by the Beijing authorities in forced re-education camps under the pretext of suppressing religious extremism. Uighur ties with Central Asia are deep, and their shared religious and ethnic heritage means that their fate call upon broad sympathy in the region and fuels anti-Chinese sentiment.

China is more popular among the elites in Central Asia than among the people, as their policies desperately require investment, which is not always supported by the population. Citizens' concerns are partly related to China’s immense size and the economic asymmetry between them and their far larger neighbor. The lack of employment opportunities for locals in China-funded projects and the already high indebtedness to China also causes outrage.

Chinese initiative "One Belt, One Road" is criticized as Beijing's tool to expand its influence in the world, and in particular, create a debt trap by burdening countries with debt for projects they cannot afford. Beijing is already the main creditor of Central Asian countries, with Chinese loans to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan making up more than a fifth of their GDP.

It remains unknown whether massive economic inflows will alleviate existing concerns about China.

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