"China does not threaten, but strengthens its position in Central Asia"
    Kazakh expert on Caliber.Az

    INTERVIEWS  16 May 2023 - 11:48

    Vadim Mansurov
    Caliber.Az

    Caliber.Az presents an interview with the leading researcher of the Institute of Philosophy, Political Science and Religious Studies of the Kazakh Science and Higher Education Ministry, Candidate of Political Sciences Talgat Ismagambetov.

    - How significant is China's political and economic impact on Central Asian countries today? Is it really true that, as some political experts claim, Beijing's opinion is taken more seriously in Central Asian countries than the Kremlin's point of view?

    - A new geopolitical reality is being formed based on past trends. What was Central Asia like after the collapse of the Soviet Union? A raw material appendage and a strategic rear for Moscow. China in those years did not care about the security of the Central Asian republics, it was provided by Russia. Even in such key, bloody moments as the civil war in Tajikistan, which ended in 1997. But the gradual build-up of China's economic, financial and credit presence was changing reality, which had to affect China's foreign policy somehow.

    The situation changed when Russia's "special operation" in Ukraine in 2022 created wariness among the governments and peoples of Central Asia, especially after the aggressive statements of such Kremlin propagandists as [pro-Kremlin Russian TV presenter Tigran] Keosayan and others about why you, they say, do not support our special operation. Statements that the northern regions of Kazakhstan previously belonged to Russia also added anxiety to Russian-Kazakh relations. Especially now, when Putin is looking for allies when European countries have turned away from him, Finland and Sweden have decided to join NATO, and Helsinki has already been accepted, Moscow needed more active political, and preferably military support. At the same time, the Kremlin's appeal to China for support has certainly strengthened the authority of Beijing's actions in the region. But when a geopolitical vacuum arose and it became clear that Russia, distracted by other problems, another war, could not ensure the security of the countries of the region, and it was still unknown whether it would be strong after this "special operation", what results the war would bring to it, China began to fill the void in the region in terms of security. The withdrawal of the United States and NATO from Afghanistan and the activation of the PRC in Pakistan also contributed to this.

    So, if, as they say, the call of "Comrade Xi" to the Central Asian leaders is an important factor in their decisions, then now Beijing's opinion is becoming decisive not only in the economic sphere but also gains strength in politics.

    - Today, interest in Central Asia has noticeably increased from the West. Isn't this going against China's policy?

    - Of course, now the EU and the USA are showing much more interest in the region than before. The growing importance of the region can also be explained by the fact that the East-West corridor network is becoming more and more in demand, and this fits perfectly into the concept of the Chinese initiative "One Belt, One Road". In fact, there is a revival of those land trade corridors between Europe and the East that existed before the era of Great Geographical Discoveries of the late XV century. The only difference, perhaps, is that then Central Asia had its own agenda, although more backward than the European one, and now the states of the region do not have it in many areas. For example, there is no general security loop, which forces you to rely on external players.

    Do not forget that in the Middle Ages, the trade of Central Asia with China flourished - at first it was conducted with Sogdian merchants, and then it concentrated in the hands of Muslim merchants. So we can say that the current reality of transit corridors is a repetition of the forgotten ancient history of the region. But if a new common agenda emerges, a new regional superpower may also emerge. There are also such forecasts. Russian orientalists, for example, have repeatedly thought that Central Asia has rarely entered the external world arena as an independent player. The last time this happened was when Timur united the countries of the region while leaving the Middle and Southern routes for trade and destroying the cities of the Volga region when he saw that the Golden Horde was threatening competing trade routes in the north. So history seems to repeat itself, copying a certain pattern of events of the past.

    - In this context, what does the prospect of cooperation between the states of the region and the countries of the South Caucasus look like – a direction that is increasingly being called decisive for the Central Asian countries?

     - As for the peoples of the South Caucasus, the Central Asian countries are now, of course, very interested in cooperation in this direction, on alternative, so to speak, routes - trade, transport, pipeline. For a long time, Russia's cautious position prevented this. Now the Kremlin's grip has weakened, but we do not yet see a pronounced movement by China to work out this direction, although it is clear that the "Middle Corridor" is becoming practically the key one. However, this is also a feature of China's policy – to catch the right moment and only then put a decisive point.

    - What is the prospect of China's increasing influence in Central Asia and are there any advantages to such a development?

    - If we talk in general about the strengthening of China's regional influence, it is rather a penetration, and it has been happening gradually and for a long time - over the past decades. Analytical centres of the People's Republic of China are scattered throughout the country and study the soil very carefully before sowing seeds in it. They methodically studied the Central Asian region for years before starting to act and gained knowledge of the culture, economy, and interests of the region's elites. While the Soviet elite of Central Asia, being replaced only by the fact of their biological demise, nevertheless managed to adapt to work with the leader of another generation – Putin. But everything changed after the start of Russia's "special operation" in Ukraine when it became clear that the Central Asian countries could be threatened with the loss of independence.

    And China never imposes conditions, it does everything calmly, which is very impressive to the leadership of the Central Asian republics, or, as [former Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbayev said: "The West always talks about some democratic norms, and China gives loans without any mention of democracy, but it rigidly demands repayment." For example, as repayment of the debt, China took part of the territory from Tajikistan, which now causes internal problems, because these lands belong to the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, and according to the Constitution, this requires the consent of the Mejlis of the autonomous entity. So for non-fulfilment of debt obligations, China always demands that the countries being credited give something important as compensation. Again, I repeat, the Central Asian countries have the opportunity to change their foreign policy, to make it more independent. But this is if they have a common agenda, a common vision of the regional problems. At the moment, this is hindered by a certain obsession with narrow-national problems and disregard for the commonality of history, which is interconnected with each Central Asian country.

    The growing influence of Beijing can be judged at least by how many conferences, briefings and other events related to the discussion of prospects for cooperation with China are being held in Kazakhstan alone. So we can say that China is not threatening – China is gently but convincingly strengthening its position in Central Asia.

    Caliber.Az

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