Central Asia, where the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was started back in 2013, has witnessed fresh momentum of the Chinese projects after the visit of Chinese President along with other leaders at two multilateral forums. Namely, the 19th meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held in Bishkek on June 12-14, 2019 and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushanbe on June 14-16, 2019 were the reasons of Xi Jinping’s stay in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. During the stay, the Chinese leader had bilateral meetings with the country heads, discussed the implementation of ongoing projects and signed joint statements on further deepening of the comprehensive strategic partnership with both hosting states [Hui Lu, 2019].
Meeting with Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in their own lands happened after the recent gathering at the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on April 25-27, 2019, which both Kyrgyz and Tajik heads of states attended and met with the Chinese counterpart. Accordingly, the last visit further strengthened the importance of the implementation of ongoing and planned projects within the BRI, also emphasized the importance of the political trust between China and Tajik and Kyrgyz sides. By admitting that both the SCO and CICA are important platforms for Chinese diplomacy, President Xi during the multilateral forums exchanged views on the implementation of the achievements of the Second BRI Forum, on the promotion of regional connectivity and reached an extensive consensus on that. President Xi strengthened its interest in putting a further impetus into the high-quality joint construction of the Belt and Road projects [Desheng, 2019].
Meanwhile, 261 projects with Chinese participation are implementing in the Central Asian region within the BRI or bilaterally that attracts more than $136 mln investments in the region. Specifically, according to CADGAT report, Kyrgyzstan has been implementing 46 projects, Tajikistan 44 projects, Uzbekistan 43 projects, whereas Kazakhstan has the largest penetration of Chinese investments with 102 project in comparison with 26 in Turkmenistan that has the lowest number of projects in the region. Overall, there are 237 bilateral and 24 multilateral projects has been carrying out in Central Asia with Chinese investments, out of which 209 are local and 52 are regional projects [CADGAT, 2019a].
As for Sino-Kyrgyz ties, both sides expect that the recent visit of Chinese leader to Bishkek will further deepen bilateral ties. The largest projects on which Kyrgyz side has major expectations within the BRI are the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railways and the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline, both crossing the Kyrgyz territory. In addition, within the BRI, Chinese are implementing a number of transportation projects, including the construction of the alternative North-South Road that will connect geographically separated north and south of the country, simultaneously providing connectivity with Kazakhstan and Russia in its north and Tajikistan in its south, which allows to create Russia-Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan route bypassing Uzbekistan. The project has two phases, at present 66% of the first phase of the construction has been completed. Similarly, Osh–Batken–Isfana highway will provide connectivity between China, Kyrgyzstan, northern Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia that is also under construction [CADGAT, 2019b]. Concerning the bilateral projects, China has been supporting numerous important social projects in Kyrgyzstan, including the construction of a cement plant in Jalal Abad Oblast, a plant for the production of household appliances in Osh, modernization of the thermal power plant in Bishkek, modernization of high voltage power lines, reconstruction of the irrigation system of Kyrgyzstan [CADGAT, 2019b]. Nevertheless, it should be noted that China is the largest creditor of Kyrgyzstan since 2012 and are among the countries that a more vulnerable to be caught in the “debt trap” of Chinese investments [Vakulchuk, Indra, 2019]. Either way, during the visit, Kyrgyzstan and China signed 19 documents that will further deepen the penetration of Chinese money to Kyrgyz market [Sputnik.kz, 2019].
Tajikistan, despite its $1.3bln debt to China that is over 40% of its external debt, during the visit of Chinese President, was ambitious to attract more Chinese loans, including for the constructions of Rogun dam. Tajikistan’s relations with China has been growing dynamically during the last decade, overlapping Russia’s investments, which was the major financial partner of the country [Asia-Plus, 2019]. Meanwhile, Tajiks were among the first, who received funding from the AIIB within the BRI to rehabilitate Dushanbe – Uzbekistan border road, in addition to other BRI projects including the Central Asia Road Links Program that aims to increase transport connectivity between Tajikistan and neighbors. In other spheres within the BRI are implementing various projects, such as the cotton processing plant in Dangara district, agreements on the establishment of the industrial zone of Tajikistan and China in the mining field, heat and power plants, whereas major Chinese investments are attracted to the development of non-ferrous metal deposits [CADGAT, 2019b]. Noteworthy, during the visit, sides signed an agreement on the construction of the parliamentary and governmental complex, on which China agreed to grant $350 mln. Besides, parties concluded 18 agreements that also expected not only to develop bilateral ties, but also will be a significant output to the development of Tajik economy [Asia-Plus, 2019].
Overall, the priority direction of the recent visit was put into agricultural and husbandry fields, since the agricultural products of Central Asia could import to the large Chinese markets products as soybeans and grains [Desheng, 2019]. China is likely to remain among the major investor in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan due to its connectivity and raw materials potential. However, several issues might risk the successful implementation of agreed projects. Among them is the Sinophobia, regarding the active participation of Chinese money and labor in the local markets. In particular, the anti-Chinese sentiments are well tracked in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, because of the debt dependency and the risk of loss of sovereignty of the countries. However, if Kyrgyz society reacts rather negatively on Chinese expansion, including cultural, which cause a series of clashes between locals and Chinese workers, the Tajik population considers China as the second most attractive political and cultural partner after Russia. Besides, the difficulties of adoption of technical standards and norms, the gauge difference and Chinese requirements to provide a deposit in a form of access to natural resources are among the major issues in implementing bilateral cooperation between China and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan [Vakulchuk, Indra, 2019].
Either way, it could be summarized that the frequent engagement of relatively small Central Asian states with the leader of the second-largest economy of the world proves the considerable interest of the latter to be involved in the Central Asian regional affairs. Even though the bilateral relations with both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are not provided for China sufficient economic gains or have a relatively small scale, the multilateral initiatives such as the SCO and CICA plays a major role as an important instrument of implementation of China’s global strategy. Moreover, China’s support of the chairmanship of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the SCO and CICA proves China’s endorsement of Central Asian leaders in developing inter-regional ties in order to improve dialogue in Asia and to strengthen cooperation within the BRI.
CADGAT (2019a). BRI in Central Asia: Overview of Chinese Projects. Aminjonov Farkhod, Abylkasymova Alina, Aimée Anna, Eshchanov Bahtiyor, Moldokanov Daniyar, Overland Indra, Vakulchuk Roman. Central Asia Regional Data Review 20. pp.1–5.
CADGAT (2019b). BRI in Central Asia: Rail and Road Connectivity Projects. Aminjonov Farkhod, Abylkasymova Alina, Aimée Anna, Eshchanov Bahtiyor, Moldokanov Daniyar, Overland Indra, Vakulchuk Roman. Central Asia Regional Data Review 21. Pp.1–18.
Desheng Cao (2019). Pacts mulled in president’s visit to Central Asia. Retrieved from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201906/11/WS5cfea2d2a310176577230622.html. Accessed on 9.07.2019.
Hui Lu (2019). Spotlight: Xi’s Central Asia trip cements neighborhood friendship, regional cooperation. Retrieved from http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-06/16/c_138148183.htm. Accessed on 4.07.2019.
Asia-Plus (2019). What does Tajikistan expect from Xi Jinping’s state visit to Dushanbe? Retrieved from https://news.tj/ru/news/tajikistan/economic/20190611/tadzhikistan-zhdet-novih-investitsii-v-ekonomiku-ot-gosvizita-si-tszinpina-v-dushanbe. Accessed on 9.07.2019.
Vakulchuk, Roman and Indra Overland (2019). “China’s Belt and Road Initiative through the Lens of Central Asia”, in Fanny M. Cheung and Ying-yi Hong (eds) Regional Connection under the Belt and Road Initiative. The Prospects for Economic and Financial Cooperation. London: Routledge, pp. 115–133.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dr. Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow at the Eurasian Research Institute of Akhmet Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. During her studies, Albina received fellowships from institutions in China, India, the USA, the UK, Germany, and Switzerland. Her primary research interests cover Central, East, and South Asian affairs; intraregional and interregional cooperation of Central Asian states; China-India relations; and Central Asian politics.