LOOKING FORWARD: The Future of China-Central Asia Relations
Establishing political background
In the 90s, since Central Asian nations declared their independence from the Soviet Union, China border negotiations were a priority and on the way. The China-Tajik agreement that was ratified in January 2011 and based on a prior accord between the two governments in 2002 that was reiterated in 2010—cedes about 1,000 square kilometers, or about one percent of Tajikistan, in the sparsely populated Pamir Mountains to China. Tajikistan is concerned that Chinese historians will raise ‘Chinese territories’ in Tajikistan Badakhshan Autonomous Region again as earlier. Tajikistan’s government defined this as a win-win because China previously claimed some 28,000 square kilometers and settled for only about three and a half percent of its claims. Then Presidential Center for Strategic Studies Director, late Suhrob Sharipov, said “if we hadn’t decided to transfer the land, we would not have been able to resist China’s pressure”. It is believed that this solves its border problems with China and ensures its political and economic stability “for decades to come”. Due to its considerable investment in the area, Tajikistan is becoming increasingly dependent on China economically. Tajikistan represents only the latest example of border rectifications in China’s relationships with Central Asia. Central Asian resentments about the border negotiations and uncertainty about Chinese intentions remain close to the surface. Meanwhile, its policy of non-support for Uyghur activities in China continued.
Warm Welcome of China ‘help’ in Central Asia
Central Asian states were initially excited about expanding relations with China. Central Asia welcomed China’s tech-driven approach to security by, for example, adopting Safe City’ development models and projects with hundreds of cameras in their large cities. They deployed facial and numberplate recognition technology, relying on Chinese software and hardware. Some projects, such as Dushanbe’s safe city traffic system, are implemented using official Chinese loans disbursed through the SCO mechanism to purchase Chinese products. While tools such as these are increasingly significant in major cities worldwide, the key question is where the collected data is stored and how it may be used for China’s national security.
Uzbekistan is no more in isolation
During the Karimov era, Uzbekistan stood directly against China’s regional economic initiatives and created direct blocks on some of the projects. Uzbekistan’s perspective was gradually changing. It sought to take advantage of the Chinese economic boom while retaining tight reins of control. This resulted in some illicit or grey trade, while the government slowly allowed China into some market sectors. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have always maintained a certain level of ambivalence, although they have tended more towards seeking to attract Chinese money. As poorer countries, they were grateful for any investment and economic attention, while on the other, they were wary of the unfettered flow of Chinese products.
All member states of the SCO recognize digitalization as an essential step to development. SCO member states have thus welcomed China’s eagerness to share and sell its tech-driven practices and insights. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has made digitalization one of his most urgent tasks and focused on emulating the Chinese model. Kazakhstan praised China’s success. Pointing to a specific Chinese company, Hikvision, he said the company’s techniques “have gone far ahead, they deeply digitalized all major cities. You click on the screen, the data on the person comes out, including literally everything. When he graduated from university, where he goes in his free time, and so on … We need to go in this direction. This is a global trend. I set this task just before our capital’s leadership”. Countries are set on a long-term path of reliance on Chinese technologies, with limited development of local capacity. In a worst-case scenario, this reliance – combined with a lack of local capacity – exposes Central Asian countries to deep potential national security problems, with the little domestic capability to manage these things themselves.
It is trendy in the age of digitization to move the economy to green color, investing more in green and self-sustaining development projects. For example, European countries are interested in investing in green energy, and Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic are rich in water resources and could self-sustain in the coming decades if investing in their development now. Overburdening developing countries with large loans as the Sri Lanka experiment showed, does not bring any good.
Umedjon Majidi – Author of the blog series, Expert/Research Consultant, Civic IDEA