Not just the economy. How China is building up its power influence in Central Asia

Raffaello Pantucci

China is changing tactics in Central Asia. Instead of relying on local security officials or Russia, he tries to solve problems on his own. Of course, no one refuses to help the local authorities, but in general, Beijing is now pursuing such a line to be able to solve security problems in Central Asia at its own discretion.

For a long time, the analysis of China’s policy in Central Asia was based on the erroneous assumption that there is a kind of division of labor between China and Russia in the region. They say that Beijing deals exclusively with the economy, and trusts Moscow in military matters. However, such perceptions do not fit well with the image of a strong China, which Xi Jinping has been increasingly building up in recent years. It was not yesterday that Beijing began to interfere in security issues in Central Asia, but now its intervention is reaching a qualitatively new level.

Kabul incident

The recent episode in Kabul is a prime example of what China is doing with regional security and what problems it leads to. It was in December 2020, and only the Indian media reported about it. Afghanistan’s National Security Directorate (analogous to the Russian FSB) arrested about ten Chinese in different parts of the capital. The Afghan authorities accused them of trying to establish contacts with extremist groups.

Many details of the incident remain unconfirmed, but it appears that the Chinese special services were trying to create a fake extremist cell to lure into Afghanistan Uyghur activists from China who are causing problems for Beijing. After the awkward situation with the arrest of the Chinese agents, they were taken to Beijing on a private plane.

Only the Indian media wrote about this story – it is likely that the Afghan special services themselves leaked information to put Beijing in an uncomfortable position and draw attention to its illegal actions in Afghanistan. China did not react to the incident, and the Afghan authorities publicly denied everything.

The incident looks rather strange also because Afghanistan has always officially supported China in the fight against Uighur groups, because it itself fights with them because of their ties with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Nevertheless, if in general terms everything was as described, it means that the ambitions of the Chinese special services have reached a new level. Until now, it was believed that in Afghanistan, the Chinese intelligence services were busy trying to prevent local threats from spilling over to China. Thanks to Chinese investments, Tajikistan has strengthened posts on the border with Afghanistan, Pakistan has strengthened its border troops in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, and the Afghan army is building a base near the entrance to the Wakhan Corridor that links China to Afghanistan.

The People’s Armed Militia of China (??) even acquired their own counter-terrorism bases in Tajikistan and, according to rumors, Afghanistan. All this can hardly be called an aggressive military expansion of the Chinese in the region. Rather, on the contrary, such actions by Beijing are aimed at preventing Afghan problems and threats from spreading across the border to neighboring countries, including China.

Local solutions

However, the Kabul incident shows that China is now seeking not only to stop threats on its border, but also to deal with the source of problems on the spot. At the same time, more and more Chinese private security companies began to appear in Central Asia – this is contrary to local legislation, but under pressure from Beijing, local authorities resigned themselves to their presence.

China is becoming more assertive in other matters as well. Last year, at the first meeting with the new Kyrgyz foreign minister, Ruslan Kazakhbaev, Chinese Ambassador to Bishkek Du Dewen (???) said that ensuring the safety of Chinese citizens and companies should be a priority for the Kyrgyz authorities. Usually, the transcripts of such meetings are very restrained, but this one emphasized not only the ambassador’s complaint, but also the minister’s humble response.

It is noteworthy that the security issues in Central Asia from the Chinese side are not dealt with by the army, but by the police. It is she who, according to media reports, strengthens border posts in Tajikistan and patrols the borders together with Afghan and Tajik forces.

Chinese police have also agreed to conduct joint patrols in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In December 2018, the female detachment of the elite unit of the Chinese militia “The Hunting Falcon” organized preparatory courses for their Uzbek colleagues, and in August 2019, joint anti-terrorist exercises of Chinese and Kyrgyz special forces were held in Urumqi.

Judging by the fact that the Chinese militia is primarily engaged in cooperation with the Central Asian countries, China believes that Central Asian security is directly related to the country’s internal problems. After all, the militia is not an army, it deals with internal affairs. So this approach raises a lot of questions about how China is going to deal with security problems in neighboring countries.

Changing course

Beijing is also using Central Asia to fight the Uyghur underground. In 2019, a story surfaced about how Turkey arrested a group of Uighurs and extradited them to China via Tajikistan. At the same time, the arrested were given Tajik passports in order to transfer them across the border without unnecessary fuss.

The leaderships of other Central Asian countries are also cooperating with Beijing on security issues. This can be seen, for example, in the way the authorities in Kazakhstan suppress anti-Chinese protests.

In a sense, none of this is news. The Uyghurs of Central Asia have been a long-standing headache for Beijing. When the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was founded in 2001, one of its main goals was the fight against the “three forces of evil” (terrorism, extremism and separatism). Earlier, in 1994, during his famous tour of the region, from which the idea of “One Belt – One Road” later grew, the then head of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China Li Peng spoke about the Uyghur problem at every step.

It was later rumored that China was persecuting Uyghurs in Central Asia, and local authorities stifled any attempts by fugitive Uyghur activists to gather into communities. Periodic attacks on Chinese businessmen and officials in Bishkek reminded Beijing of the risks in the region. But in response, China only demanded greater security guarantees for its citizens from local authorities and forced the Central Asian authorities to persecute those it did not like.

Now China appears to be changing tactics. Instead of relying on local security officials or Russia, he tries to solve problems on his own. Of course, no one refuses to help the local authorities, but on the whole, Beijing is now pursuing such a line to be able to solve security problems in Central Asia at its own discretion.

The influence of China in the region is also added by the fact that the security services of the Central Asian countries in large quantities purchase Chinese technological equipment and build their IT infrastructure on its basis.

China is increasing its influence in the security sphere of Central Asia not in order to oust Russia from there.

This has nothing to do with the “Great Game” of the times of the Russian-British competition for the region. Rather, China is simply seeking to better defend its interests, which is not surprising.

However, it should be noted that we are talking about a serious change in the country’s policy, which in words has always supported the independence of local authorities and declared its non-interference in the internal affairs of the region. Now, on the contrary, China is interfering with them more and more actively.