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Putting Central Asia back on the map: the pragmatic politics of BRI

As Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) wraps itself around the Central Asian region which lies to China’s immediate west, it poses as the crucial link to Europe and beyond. With Russia apathetic toward its role as the major trading partner to the significant region, China has swooped in with relative ease, forging a string of increasing diplomatic trade relations.

The BRI is China’s audacious project to connect itself to much of the world with an elaborate network of railways, roads, maritime routes, and ports. The projected BRI is a reimagining of the old Silk Road, the ancient trade route from east to west dating back centuries. Originally dubbed the New Silk Road, before being renamed the Belt and Road Initiative, this new spin on a historically whimsical period of global connectivity is a well-crafted instrument of modern foreign policy. The belt aims to stretch westward through China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang and into Central Asia. It is for this reason that there has been a notable spike in Chinese investment in the region.

China has been open in its intentions to court Central Asian favour. It was no mistake that the first utterance of the now world renowned BRI occurred in the Kazakhstani capital of Astana in 2013. Since then, China has invested heavily in the region, assisting in the procurement of vital railroads, as well as constructing crucial energy pipelines in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.

China’s approach to bilateral trade agreements largely suits the governments of Central Asia. Beijing’s strategy focuses on the creation of investment projects in infrastructure that will assist developing economies. Also crucially on an ideological basis, the CCP does not attempt to intervene in the domestic politics of their trading partner. This pure economic relation appeals to Central Asia over the traditionally moralistic stance taken by the US, as most of Central Asia is considered to be run by façade democracies with questionable democratic qualities.

That Central Asia shares a close proximity to the Chinese province of Xinjiang is also pertinent. China’s north-western region is home to a minority group known as the Uyghurs, who have cultural ties with parts of Central Asia. The management of Xinjiang and its Uyghur population has been a point of constant concern for the CCP. With a history of separatist movements and terrorist activity, the Chinese government has turned Xinjiang into a police-state, rolling out large-scale security efforts in an attempt to quash any anti-government movement. Most recently foreign journalists have published concerning accounts of re-education facilities, where more than one million Uyghurs have reportedly been held against their will in an attempt to counter extremism.

The Uyghurs share a cultural and linguistic heritage with other ethnic groupings located in Central Asia, which makes facilitating good relations within the region all the more important for the CCP, as their governments can play a crucial role in blanketing the issue. Where previously the fringe area of the Soviet Union had played a role in supporting Uyghur independence movements, the now independent states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have turned a blind eye to the Chinese treatment of the Uyghur minority. An organisation such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) helps China to arrest control on issues such as these, using its investment tactics as bargaining for political favours.

Often left out in discussions of regional security and trade in both the Asian and European context, the ‘stan’ states of Central Asia and their fledgling lowly economies are tucked away in what is often considered an undesirable patch of the grand Eurasian landmass.

The common assumption is that given the shared soviet history between Russia and most of Central Asia, that comprehensive economic support is a given. However, in practice, Russia has been far more reluctant to invest in the development of these states, as it looks to maximise its economic capabilities in other regions, and by other means. In 2016 Russia ceased Turkmen gas imports, leaving China the only foreign importer.

It has taken one of the most ambitious pieces of foreign policy in modern history, but finally, it seems decent development is happening in the Eurasian heartland. China appears quite clear in its desire to play the part of big brother in the region, and for the most part, the region appears quite happy to oblige. The handling of BRI projects and public attitudes to the treatment of Uyghurs will be crucial to the sustainable future of the relationship, however, it seems with the current trend of Russian acquiescence, this cluster of Central Asian nations will have little option but to hitch a ride on China’s new Silk Road.

Oliver Martin Lees is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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