The Effects of Regional Arrangements on China’s Foreign Policy in Central Asia

Document Type : Research Paper


Associate Professor of Diplomacy and International Organizations, SIR of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamic Republic of Iran


Forty years of Chinese reforms which started in the globalization process and were the results of trade liberalization, foreign direct investments, made China the world’s top exporter and the second global economy after the United States. Beijing adopted an aggressive realistic foreign policy to obtain the political weight equivalent to its economic presence in the international order. The Neighborhood Policy prioritized East Asia and Central Asia, to manage security and religious challenges and to optimize energy resources, transit routes to Europe, and take advantage of the infrastructure weaknesses. The objective of this research is to analyze Chinese relations with Central Asian countries by responding to this question “How China follows and secures its foreign policy objectives and national interests in Central Asia?” The hypothesis of the research consists that “China seeks its national interests in bilateral agreements and economic relations with Central Asian countries, while at the same time use regional arrangements and initiatives to encourage Central Asian governments to participate and cooperate in regional political and security arrangements. A descriptive-analytical methodology has been employed to respond to this question and prove the hypothesis.
The Chinese reform process was a unique experience that could strike a balance between communist ideological values and new liberal economic and trade policies. China’s accession to the World Trade Organization caused a trade revolution in the country and cash financial resources enabled Beijing to assist other countries. The gradually increasing attractiveness for Chinese investments encouraged Central Asian countries to consider a more receptive approach towards cooperation with Beijing, despite their political-security concerns.
China also started to reconsider its relations with neighbors located on its western borders by signing economic agreements in their infrastructure projects. Multiple reasons influenced this trend. Firstly, the vicinity of Central Asia with the Muslim province of Xingjian poses a potential security challenge, since those republics could destabilize any country with their fundamentalism, human and drug trafficking, weak political structure, and corrupt politicians. For example, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan host the Taliban, Al-Qaida, and Daesh in their southern frontiers. The participation of 4000 Central Asians and 1000 Xingjian residents in Daesh operations and their return to their motherlands pose a serious regional threat. China has signed security agreements with all Central Asian countries in the 21st century and its proposal to form a quadrilateral military alliance between Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan among others are measures to have a secure environment in Central Asia.
Secondly, the Caspian Sea-rich energy resources could respond to the big Chinese thirst for oil and gas. In Xi Jinping’s trip to four Central Asian countries in 2013, different agreements in the fields of oil, gas, coal, water, and electricity were signed and Chinese firms have invested an average of 10 B/USD$ per year in oil projects in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and hydroelectricity in Tajikistan ever since.
Thirdly, the huge demands of investments and trades encouraged Central Asian countries to balance the Russian dominance through making partnerships with companies of other regions. Tajikistan and Kirghizstan could have access to the huge Chinese market because of their proximity to Western China. Beijing soon became Kirghiz’s first trade partner and the landlocked undeveloped country got access to free see-through Karakoram expressway and Pakistan. Kazakhstan is China’s biggest trade partner and has received a considerable amount of investments. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are far from Chinese borders and have their eyes on American and European companies. However, they have never rejected a Chinese proposal for the sake of economic security. Water distribution, electrification, energy, and health projects have a stabilizing effect on the regional economy.
At the same time, regional frameworks were used to create a suitable network for defense and security cooperation. Regional frameworks like the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) were either initiated or promoted by Beijing to secure its regional supremacy. Proposals and plans like “Procurement of Asian Security by Asians” in CICA are clear evidence of Beijing’s intention to advocate an Asian framework on security with no accountability to Washington. The idea of an Asian defense and security identity has been presented by other leaders. Xi’s desire for the establishment of an “Asian Security Operative Structure”, Putin’s quest for an “Increased Economic Integration”, Rowhani request to “Adopt common position against unilateral and illegal acts of other countries” and Erdogan recommendation for a “More proactive ownership of CICA by member countries” show the determination of Asian leaders for a more independent approach in international arena and enhancement of regional cooperation. This trend strengthens even more Beijing’s position to fight against extremism, separatism, and terrorism in Central Asia, making in this way its western borders safer and controlling Xingjian ethnic and religious unrest.
Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is another security mechanism with a strong presence in China. With more than 45% of the world population, 23% of world territory, 25% of world GDP, two permanent UN Security Council members, two energy suppliers, and three energy consumers, it could be considered as the most important Chinese-led international organizations. Established in 2001 and expanded in 2017 with the entry of two Asian nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, the SCO is distinguished from other security arrangements for its fight against extremism, separatism, and terrorism; whose only permanent body is the Anti-Terrorism Structure. Other subjects of importance are arms business; drug trafficking, immigration, and organized crime. The SCO doesn’t intend to become a military block or even a security union, but rather an organization to contribute to regional peace and stability. The 2nd priority of SCO is socio-economic development which is being pursued by China through big investments, infrastructure projects, and transport corridors. During the international financial crisis, SCO poorer countries received up to 10 B/USD$ Chinese soft loans to finalize Russia, the Kazakhstan-Kirghizstan expressway, and the China-Kirghizstan-Uzbekistan railroad. The traditional ideological rivalry between Russia and China has been faded and both sides signed a 400 B/USD$ contract of oil and gas supply by Russia to China for 30 years, enabling Moscow to breach American and European sanctions. It could be mentioned that the SCO is a division of labor between Beijing and Moscow, the first taking care of the economic and financial needs of members, while the second will be in charge of the security interests of member states. The recent accession of India puts it in a balancing position in SCO between China and Russia, taking part in events based on national interests.
In the economic field, the Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Silk Road Fund (SRF) are regional arrangements to persuade Central Asian countries to benefit from Chinese financial resources and know-how to respond to their development needs. The Belt and Road Initiative could not be realized without transit through historical routes of Central Asia towards Europe. The 6500 Km Caspian Transport Corridor, from China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to Europe reduced the 60 days maritime travel to only 14 days land transport. Kazakhstan Strategy for 2050, Almati-Urumchi railroad and Kazakhstan access to the Chinese port of Lianyungang are projects of interest to Chinese companies. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is an effort to expand Chinese relations with its eastern neighbors, while Belt and Road Initiative is allocated to Central and West Asian partners. This is the way Chinese Guanxi helps the government to strike a balance between its bilateral and regional relations in Central Asia and how former foes could become friends, to jointly fight third adversaries.


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