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Central Asia: A problem for Russia and an opportunity for China

When in Beijing for attending the celebrations of the 70th year of China’s victory over Japanese occupants, the Central Asian leaders signed a number of big economic contracts, which has become one more proof of China’s active expansion into Central Asia.

The enthusiasm they displayed when invited to attend the celebrations was a sign that they were going to Beijing for something more important that just celebrating the anniversary. And they were not disappointed.

President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev and President of China Xi Jinping agreed to set up as many as 45 joint ventures and signed contracts worth a total of $23bn on 25 of them. “This is a turning point in our relations,” Nazarbayev said joyfully.

Kazakhstan will supply China with wheat, metallurgical and chemical products and fertilizers. “Even though the Chinese have all this, they have agreed to enlarge the imports. This means that we are good partners,” the Kazakh President said. It was due to this very attitude that Kazakhstan and China enlarged their trade from $337mn to $22bn in just 2-3 years.

The countries also have grandiose plans bidding them both economic and geopolitical dividends. One of them is the Western China-Western Europe Road Corridor. As many as 6,000,000 containers are carried from Europe to Asia-Pacific and back each year. Most of them travel by sea. The East-West road will be much shorter. “This strategic advantage may become a firm basis for a transnational transit alliance between Kazakhstan and China,” Nazarbayev said.

Close economic ties are always a basis for strong political contacts. So, both Nazarbayev and Jinping are committed to harmonize their attitudes towards many international issues. This will hardly be a problem for the Kazakhs as for the time being they have no insurmountable contradictions with their key partners, China, Russia and the United States – at least, they are trying to avoid ones.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev also signed a number of documents during his visit to Beijing, particularly, agreements on border partnership, economic cooperation and interaction between the foreign ministries. But the key document was the cooperation program for 2015-2025.

Atambayev asked Jinping to consider ways to mate up the Eurasian Economic Union project with China’s Silk Road initiative.

Jinping promised Atambayev to help in almost all economic sectors and to invest in the Kyrgyz economy as much as it needs.

The achievements of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon were a bit less remarkable: China is ready to allocate $100mn for Tajikistan’s agriculture and to import more Tajik fruits and vegetables. But Rahmon was still happy as for a country like Tajikistan each yuan is precious.

President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov made it clear that his country had already achieved most of what its neighbors were seeking from China. “Our cooperation covers all directions of spheres like politics, economy, trade, industry, finance, construction, science, education and culture and is steadily developing on the basis of documents like the joint strategic partnership declaration and the friendship and cooperation treaty,” Karimov said.

Even if there were some exaggerations in what the Uzbek president said, they were not too big as Uzbekistan actually has a number of large investment projects with China, like the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, the Angren-Pap railway, the Navoi, Jizak and Angren special industrial zones and Chinese stakes in over 500 Uzbek companies. The trade turnover between the countries amounts to $6bn. Jinping expressed commitment to deepen economic ties and to invest money in whatever sector Uzbekistan liked.

Only Turkmenistan is silent. It is not known if it has signed any documents with China, nor is it even known if its leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was in Beijing during the celebrations.

In view of this Chinese expansion into Central Asia, the logical question is, will Russia be able to defend its geopolitical interests in that region?

In an interview to EADaily, Director of the Kazakh Risk Assessment Group Dosym Satpayev said that unlike Russia, China has a detailed strategy on Central Asia. In recent year, the Chinese have set up lots of research centers on Central Asia as a whole and on each Central Asian nation separately. “This means that the Chinese are going to be very active in Central Asia and not only in the economy but also in the politics. As a result, they may form loyal political elites in that region. This system has already been tested by the United States. So, it is clear that all this is being done for a specific purpose. No coincidence that along with the Silk Road Economic Belt, the Chinese have launched a series of training projects for students from Central Asia,” Satpayev said.

According to him, China’s advantage is that it has long-term goals and serious financial resources for achieving them. And it is also trying to avoid conflicts with the nations showing some anti-Chinese moods. “In other words, they will use the aikido technique – they will not clinch with their opponents in Central Asia but will use indirect methods to gradually shape necessary public attitudes. Their key weapons here will be economic cooperation and actively lending policy. Even if at first they lose in terms of economics, in the long run, they will earn in terms of politics as they will gain political loyalty,” Satpayev said.

The second task of the Chinese is to cooperate on national security as this will guarantee them comfort in the region.

And their third goal is culture and ideology. “Here they have more financial resources than the Russians have. Russia’s key problem here is that it has no specific and pragmatic policy on Central Asia. In fact, it has nothing to offer except for some situational solutions. The Russians know that for them Central Asia is a problem they have to solve but they don’t know how to do it. For the Chinese Central Asia is not a problem but an opportunity. This is the key difference. Besides, today Russia is focused on Ukraine and is neglecting Central Asia. In the meantime, the Chinese are actively expanding into that region as it is crucial for their projects like Silk Road Economic Belt,” Satpayev said.

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