The Global Change of China in Central Asia

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction:
  • Linking Central Asia with Chinese Domestic Stability:
  • Increasing Chinese Influence and Limiting Others:
  • Promoting Economic Interests:
  • China’s Security Engagement in Central Asia:
  • Conclusion:


The end of 20th century has been a witness to many major global events which have drastically shaped the spectrum of world politics. The collapse of Soviet Union ended the era of bipolarity and saw United States emerging as single superpower power in the world. On the other hand, it also saw an emergence of China on the global scenario. Since 2001 after China’s induction in WTO, China has sought to increase its role in the global affairs using its economic front. In the case of Central Asian region, in the Post-Soviet era, China has been actively engaged in having enhanced relations with countries of Central Asia which include Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The focus of Chinese policy in Central Asia depends on certain factors. One of the foremost of them is China’s intention to maintain its domestic stability and ensuring national unity. Despite China’s rise as major economic and military power, China has been considerably occupied with certain internal issues, Uighurs of Xinjiang which China perceives as a kind of threat and which can link the internal and external issues as mentioned earlier, the issue of Uighurs which can spill over borders.

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Secondly, as much as China has been actively engaged in Central Asia to increase its influence, it also seeks to reduce and limit the influence of other powers in the Central Asian region. For that purpose, China has modelled the idea of Shanghai Cooperation Organization through which China seeks to alter the power competition in Central Asia. In the case of economic prospects, which remains the driving factor of Chinese policy. China has been taking numerous economic initiatives in Central Asia which is evident from the fact that China has surpassed Russia as a trading partner of Central Asian states. China has also constructed an oil pipeline in Kazakhstan and a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to quench its energy requirements.

Linking Central Asia with Chinese Domestic Stability:

While the demise of Soviet Union has had certain prospects for China, it also has opened up the western border of China for new dimensions. With new neighbours on the Western front, although China was relieved of a great power threat but it also opened new security dimensions. This can be better understood b explaining the fact that the bulk of Chinese population in concentrated in its east which is why major share of China’s security realm is concentrated on Eastern front. However, there has been an increasing shift in China’s policy to deal with its western part which connects to Central Asia. There has been enhanced interest in how the Western front can be a gateway to have further links with Central Asian region. China believes that the stability of Central Asia is directly linked with the domestic stability of Western China. In this context, the issue of Uighurs has been a challenge to China. Also after the collapse of Soviet empire, China considers central Asian region as a path for Radical Islamic terrorism and nationalist rebels to find their way towards China. The Uighurs which are approximately 11 million in number, out of which around 10 million reside in China majorly in Xinjiang province. The rest of around 1 million are situated in Central Asian states. Although China’s key focus remains its internal stability, it also considers Central Asia a key proponent in this matter. That is why since the inception of central Asian states in post-soviet era, China has looked to strengthen ties with neighbours in Central Asia.

Increasing Chinese Influence and Limiting Others:

While China seeks an advanced role in Central Asia, it also hopes to reduce other powers influence as well. Historically, Russia has remained a dominant power in the region. But since 1991, role of Russia has led to a considerable decrease in the region. Owing to its weak economic stature, Russia has also lost its security affluence as well. China has banked on this opportunity and jumped right in. China has been quite careful in this regard. While on one hand China considers Russia as its counterpart in Central Asia, it also finds it convenient to avoid any kind of enmity with Russia. But there are also some areas where Russia and China seek to work together. For example, in the hope of countering United States in the region, both powers share convergent views.

The United States presence in this part of the world has been a primary concern for China. United States military presence has been seen by China as a step to encircle it by establishing military bases in Central Asian states. However, since the US campaign has not been seen as quite successful in Afghanistan, US has been finding was to exit from here on respectable terms. But somehow China is sceptical of such US claims and rightly so because US has always considered Central Asia as a very important strategic region. But in the case of a decreasing US role in the region, China seems steady to replace US but entirely militarily.

Promoting Economic Interests:

Reliance on the economic forefronts remains Chinese tool for extending its influence. In the case of Central Asia, China has adopted state led model for promoting economic relations, increasing trade and investment. The economic objectives of China in Central Asia are multipurpose. While on one hand China wants to increase its economic relations with Central Asian states, it also looks to meet its energy needs through region’s natural resources. The region of Central Asia is prominent for China too because of its geographic proximity. Since China’s major dependence has been on Middle Eastern resource imports but with its growing population and dynamic economy, China has been shifting its economic needs onto Central Asian region owing to the fact that this region is one of the largest natural resource producer region of the world. Kazakhstan alone has oil reserves of 9 to 40 million barrels. On the other hand, Turkmenistan has 600 million proven reserves of natural gas. The major drawback that these countries have is the lack of infrastructure and capital investment. Since 1991, China has been actively engaged in developing infrastructure in these states and investing capital for economic development.

With the passage of time, China is shifting its resources needs from Middle East to Central Asia. In doing so, China’s bilateral trade has also increased with Central Asian countries particularly Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. As of the latest, the bilateral trade between China and Kazakhstan has reached to 12 billion US dollars with an annual growth rate of 14 percent. China has already invested more than 20 billion US dollars in sectors of transportation, energy etc.

With Turkmenistan, China developed its diplomatic relations in 1992. The annual trade between both states have exceeded 10 million US dollars which was merely 4.5 million in 1992, thus making China the largest trade partner of Turkmenistan. According to a bilateral contract signed between China and Turkmenistan, China has agreed to buy 30 million cubic of natural gas annually from 2009 to 2039. As far as other countries of Central Asia are concerned, China has also increased trade relations with them. With China’s growing interests in hydropower generation, China has established partnerships with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for construction of power lines.

China’s Security Engagement in Central Asia:

Despite China’s enormous economic investment in Central Asia, China’s role in the security settings of region has been limited. China has stated not to deploy its military in Central Asia despite the fluctuations of regional security arrangements due to issues like domestic instability, terrorism etc. However, it is still not clear what China’s response would be if any of its economic activity is disrupted or halted because of any security issues.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is the only intergovernmental organization which involves China relating to security issues in Central Asia. Through the platform of SCO, China hopes to further its political ties with Central Asian states by creating a common narrative on different non-traditional threats that Central Asia face. At the very first meeting of SCO in 2001, the member countries signed the Shanghai Convention for combating terrorism. Separatism and nationalism. Since then, members of SCO have signed various agreements to combat common threats.

China’s military cooperation with other SCO countries focuses mainly on bilateral and multilateral counter-terrorism exercises, which are conducted on a regular basis. The first took place in 2002 with Kyrgyzstan and was followed by more than 20 bilateral and multilateral exercises with other SCO members. For example, in the autumn of 2010, a joint anti-terror exercise involving 1,000 Chinese army and air force officers and soldiers took place at the Matybulak base, near Gvardeisky in Kazakhstan, as part of the SCO’s Peace Mission 2010. More recently, on 11 August 2013, China and Kyrgyzstan held a joint anti-terror drill, under the auspices of the SCO. The exercises took place along the border between the two countries. Around 460 armed police from both countries took part, practising new weapons and manoeuvres. The drill aimed to improve both countries’ abilities to cooperate in their response to terrorist threats.

However, it is often a circulated debate that the role of SCO has been limited in the regional security affairs and is mostly restricted to declarations and statements and not actions that are needed to implement them. This argument is seen valid due to particular instances like there has been no significant and collective effort from SCO to reduce the drug trafficking in the region. Similarly, the organisation remains absent from solving the different water disputes that remain contested in the region. Moreover, the silence of SCO on the unrest in Kyrgyzstan during 2010 raises quite questions on the future deliverance of organisation in the region.

It is quite a query to predict that what the future holds for SCO in the region. With Russia’s resurgence and growing integration with Central Asia states, the future of SCO depends on the Sino-Russian relations which have made quite strides in the last two decades. Evidently so, both powers share a common concern which is to keep US out of the region. But on the other hand, Russia also has its own geopolitical motives in the region and there is no doubt in the fact that Russia sees Central Asian region as a foreground for its domination. This can be one of the points where Russian and Chinese interests might clash keeping in view the arrangement of Central Asia. Although Russia is a founding member of SCO, it also uses Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) as a tool for furthering its political and security interests in the region.

China has been quite clear on its stance regarding its military presence in the region. However, in case of any military development by Russia or US or of any other power in that matter, it remains dubious what will be China’s response given its huge economic engagement in the region.


China’s main interests in the Central Asian region are driven by economic ambitions and the pursuit for natural resources. The active indulgence of China in the regional affairs has often been prescribed as the beginning of a ‘New Great Game’ where interests of Russia, US and China might collide. Despite this, it remains a win-win situation for China which benefits its resources needs and also proves a catalytic factor for Central Asian states for their economic growth. As mentioned earlier, China’s limited and modest involvement in the security affairs of the region has not been on par with its economic engagements and this is a concern shared by many in China. Central Asia is a region which is home to issues like radical terrorism, domestic instabilities, ethnic and national conflicts. In the case of any insurgent activity in the region, given China’s unwillingness to intervene in security related affairs, it will become inevitable for China to develop a more proactive strategy in the region to protect its political and economic interests specially preserving regional stability and its billions of dollars’ economic investment.

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