We live in a competitive era, where countries are engaged in wars to establish influence over other countries through coercion. China has planned to influence countries through trade, loans, technology, development initiatives, and soft power. Now, China is on the way to becoming an economic power, and its economy is flourishing. By 2023, China is the 2nd largest economy in the world, following Japan, Germany, and India. The gross domestic Product (GDP) of China exceeds 20 trillion dollars.
China handsomely trades with countries like Pakistan, India, Japan, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. During the recent visit of Xi Jinping to Saudia Arabia 34 agreements worth 29 billion dollars were signed, to bolster the relationship between China and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, China is set to be the world’s largest economy by 2030.
Central Asia, which has emerged as a vital region after the disintegration of Russia, shares a border on the north with Russia, and on the south with Iran, Afghanistan, and China. Sir Halford Mackinder, the founding father of modern geopolitics, describes Central Asia as the political center of the world because it enclosed more frontiers than any other region. Previously, central Asia was merely known as Silk Road, because it connected Europe with Asia. The discovery of maritime vanished the importance of central Asia’s silk route, which was once the only center of trade between Europe and Asia.
China has been pursuing its development programs under its significant Belt and Road Initiative in central Asia. As China rises as a global economy, it promotes multilateralism. Beijing has invested billions of dollars in development projects in central Asia, under belt and road initiative. Beijing has also planned to construct a gas pipeline and railway line to enhance trade between Central Asian countries. These pipelines would help China to access the natural resources of central Asia. The region’s enormous natural resources of oil and gas were untapped during Soviet rule because Moscow preferred to exploit the natural resources of Russian Siberia. The enormous reserves of oil and gas in central Asia entice the attention of the rising economic power of China. Beijing needs an abundance of oil and gas to nourish its industries, so it had to turn its eyes towards Central Asian states.
The quid pro quo brought China and Central Asia on one page to expand their economies. China needs oil and gas for its flourishing economy, while Central Asia needs foreign exchanges for the survival of their regimes.
After the disintegration of Russia, the main concern of the great power was to exploit the abundance of oil and gas in central Asia. However, then it moved to other concerns such as; how to maintain stability in the region, and how to avoid the threats that terrorist organizations posed in central Asia. The purpose behind China’s engagement with Central Asia is not merely about development projects, but also to stabilize the western province of China Xinjiang, which has always been a controversial area for China because it shares a border with Central Asian states. Extremism and terrorism are two diseases that ignited in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is home to 11 million Uighur Muslims, primarily Turkic ethnic groups. Through the 1980’s Xinjiang was greatly enjoying stability, peace, and development and was also establishing healthy relations with other ethnic groups, and for times, it used to be a role model for other scattered groups in the region. The region was promoting local culture among other cadres and also promoting enduring development projects. Uighur movements first emerged in the 1990s and carried out several bombing attacks in Xinjiang and central Asia. China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region faced a threat from central Asia- based Uighur organization, seeking greater autonomy from the Uighur minority.
Terrorist organizations operating in central Asia have moved towards Xinjiang, to further proceed with their doctrine of terrorism and extremism in China. Xinjiang has always been a significant area for China because of its natural resources, agriculture, and live stocks.
Terrorist organizations like East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Hizb ut Tahrir (HT), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), East Turkestan Liberation Organization (ETLO), and Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), started their movement in Xinjiang. These organizations have carried out attacks in Uighur and other parts of China. Previously, the founding father of (IMU) Juma Namangani had recruited people from Uighur and sent them to Afghanistan for training under the Taliban’s leadership. They incite people to combat China, seek independence, and have their sovereign state which they called “Turkestan”. Moreover, the training of Uighur militants in Syria and Afghanistan polished their capabilities and established great skills to combat anyone in the region. Their key aim is to create instability in China’s autonomous region and damage lucrative development initiatives to make suffer both China and central Asia. If they succeed in doing so, they will eventually succeed in creating instability throughout China, which will sabotage development initiatives in central Asia. Eventually, this would tumble China’s economy.
China’s heavy investments and infrastructure projects in central Asia under the BRI could be in danger from regional instability. Most of the projects of BRI have been passing through central Asia and Xinjiang which connected them to Europe.
Uighur nationalist and Islamist militants operating from Central Asia posed a serious threat to development initiatives and Chinese workers operating in Central Asia. Chinese workers and construction assets would be vulnerable to attack, from organizations like (ETIM). Since it specifically targets China’s interests. China should be concerned about the terrorism, extremism, and separatism movements in Uighur. Uighur movements are getting highlighted day by day on global platforms. Central Asian regimes are also concerned about these movements, due to their strong cultural bonds with Uighurs.
China must tread carefully because Russia considers central Asia as its “influence of sphere”. Moscow would seek to interest in pursuing its status of “great power” in the region. Russia has great influence in central Asia because of its profound post-imperial bonds. Russian military and secret services have co-operated with Central Asian regimes. Tellingly, central Asian migrants are working in Moscow and earning great remuneration which plays an important role in Central Asia’s economy. Central Asian states remain wary of changing geopolitics dynamics. They seek to balance ties with great games and keep options open. Like, As Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov did with the U.S., as, he decree the U.S. to leave K2 (Karshi- Khanabad) bases to appease their suitor Russia.
The author is pursuing a degree in social sciences at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, Islamabad, Pakistan. His academic interests are centered on understanding the complex dynamics between nation-states and their foreign policies. Specifically, His aim is to focus on geopolitics. He Tweets @WaleedFeroz5