China is relaunching its massive infrastructure projects in Central Asia with a summit this week aimed at filling the void left by Russia, the region’s traditional power, now weakened by sanctions as a result of the war in Ukraine. It is done.
The former Soviet republics of Central Asia play an important role in the Chinese initiative called the New Silk Road, also known as the Belt and Road.
This pharaonic program promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who launched it in 2013, seeks to build roads, ports, railways and infrastructure overseas with Chinese money.
In Central Asia alone, China says its trade with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan reached $70 billion (€64 billion) last year and will grow 22% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2023 Went.
Analysts say the war in Ukraine has further intensified the pro-Beijing trend as some countries question their traditional ties with Russia and look elsewhere for economic and diplomatic reassurance.
“After the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the Central Asian republics began to fear for their sovereignty,” says Ejaz Wani, a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank.
Xi Jinping will host leaders of five countries in the region on Thursday and Friday in the central Chinese city of Xi’an, at the former eastern end of the Silk Road, for a summit that Beijing describes as “extremely important”.
– “consistent” approach –
The summit should be an opportunity to advance some infrastructure projects, including the $6 billion China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway line and the expansion of the Asia-Pacific oil pipeline. Middle and Chinese.
The region is linked to China by shared borders and a long history, and Beijing is now seeking to play a bigger role.
“China’s approach to Central Asia has been very consistent,” says Nargis Kasenova, director of the Central Asia Program at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
Casanova cites Beijing’s long-standing ties with these countries in terms of security, infrastructure and development.
He says that the war in Ukraine has only “pushed Central Asian countries into the arms of China.”
However, Beijing’s growing influence is not always welcomed.
Anti-Chinese protests began in Kazakhstan in 2019, amid a feeling among some of the population that China’s control had become too strong.
A year later, a Chinese company that had planned to invest some $300 million in a commercial and logistics hub in Kyrgyzstan withdrew after protests.
The fear that China will use its influence to change national policy “has fueled a growing phobia,” says Sébastien Pairous, a professor at George Washington University in the United States.
Chinese investments “are not aimed at developing local production, but at creating favorable conditions for the export of Chinese products and the import of raw materials,” he says.
Another source of tension is the treatment meted out to Uighurs in the Chinese region of Xinjiang (northwest), where many Western governments accuse Beijing of repression, resulting in the internment of more than one million of its members in re-education camps. Would have happened and other Muslim minorities.
The cultural and linguistic closeness of the Uyghurs to most Central Asians has contributed to fueling anti-China sentiment.
– “Oddity” –
Analysts say China is more popular among Central Asian governments – seeking investment to develop their countries – than among their populations.
“This is partly because of the great disparity, demographic and economic, between them and China,” says Lee-Chen Sim of the US think tank Middle East Institute.
It says there is also popular resentment over the “lack of jobs reserved for locals in projects financed by China” and the “high level of indebtedness” with Beijing.