China Strengthens Ties with Central Asia Russian Media Fiercely Slam Beijing for Interfering in Internal Affairs

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has increased the focus on security issues in Central Asia. China has used the newly established “5+1” mechanism to increase interaction with Central Asian countries, but pro-official Russian media have sharply criticized China for interfering in the internal affairs of Central Asian countries. As anti-Chinese sentiment rises in some Central Asian societies, a new law in Kazakhstan officially bans the sale and lease of agricultural land to foreigners.

China establishes new mechanism Security situation will challenge Central Asian energy supplies

The foreign ministers of China and five Central Asian countries met in Xi’an on May 12. This was the first face-to-face meeting between China and the five Central Asian foreign ministers, using the newly established “5+1” mechanism platform. The first meeting between the foreign ministers of China and the 5 Central Asian countries was held online by video last year because of the epidemic.

The United States, Japan, South Korea and other Central Asian countries have long established the 5+1 mechanism, and Russia has also begun using a similar platform. China used to interact with Central Asian countries either bilaterally or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) platform. But the expansion of the SCO to include India and Pakistan as new members has brought various conflicts and rivalries into the organization, making China’s use of this platform much less effective.

Turkmenistan, which is not a member of the SCO, joined the 5+1 mechanism this time. In Xi’an, Turkmenistan’s foreign minister stressed in particular that Turkmenistan will ensure energy supplies to China.

Turkmenistan is the main supplier of Central Asian gas to China, and the export of gas to China is also an important source of income for Turkmenistan. But Turkmenistan borders Afghanistan. After the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, the issue of security surrounding Turkmen gas deliveries to Xinjiang is on the agenda.

Protecting Gas Pipelines Russia, China and Central Asia will face security issues themselves

One of the focal points of the Xi’an Foreign Ministers’ meeting was the situation in Afghanistan. For 20 of the 30 years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Central Asian states, the U.S. and NATO troops were stationed in Afghanistan, thus ensuring the security of the Central Asian region, as well as the security of Russia’s southern border and western China. China has even taken advantage of the peaceful environment in Central Asia today to vigorously promote the Belt and Road project.

Some analysts believe that with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it marks the end of an era for the Central Asian countries, China and Russia. These countries will have to directly confront and address Central Asian security issues themselves. China will likely face a more serious challenge, because in addition to the security pressures in Central Asia that will hit Xinjiang, China will also need to consider how to protect the security of the Central Asian gas pipeline.

Russia has likewise begun to make moves. Russia currently has the 201st Infantry Division stationed in Tajikistan. Russian forces held large-scale joint military exercises with Tajik forces last month, with several locations adjacent to Afghanistan. Russian Defense Minister Shoigu also recently visited Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which share a border with Afghanistan.

China’s Growing Interest in Central Asia China Expands Its Influence in Various Ways

Russian scholar on Central Asia Grozin says that the interaction between major powers and the Central Asian region will be further strengthened in the future.

ACT-1, Grozin: “All this shows that there is an increased interest in Central Asia. I think one of the main reasons for this is that it is closely linked to security issues, which are now becoming more and more real there.”

Grozin said Central Asia is also now becoming an arena of games and competition between major powers.

The Xi’an foreign ministers’ meeting resulted in a joint declaration and statement and the signing of several documents that refer to cooperation in response to the epidemic. After the outbreak, China did not miss the opportunity to expand its influence in Central Asia, using aid for vaccines and medical supplies.

Although there is a large number of Uyghurs settled in Central Asian countries, the topic of Xinjiang was not mentioned at all at this Xi’an Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

The Central Asian foreign ministers also held a series of bilateral meetings in Xi’an, including a meeting between the foreign ministers of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to discuss the resolution of border tensions, demonstrating that China is exerting influence behind the scenes. Russia has similarly stepped in to mediate the border conflict between the two countries. After Putin’s recent meeting in Moscow with visiting Tajik President Rahmon, the Kyrgyz president will soon visit Moscow as well.

The recent border clashes between Tajiks and Kyrgyz have even used armored vehicles, helicopter gunships, artillery and other heavy weapons, resulting in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. The Central Asian gas pipelines to Xinjiang both transit Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The choice of Xi’an as the venue for the P5+1 foreign ministers’ meeting is considered to be symbolically important. China refers to Xi’an as the starting point of the ancient Silk Road. Central Asia is a key region for China’s land-based Belt and Road Initiative. China has invited many students from Central Asian countries to study in recent years, and many of them are concentrated in Xi’an and Shaanxi. Foreign ministers from Central Asian countries met separately with local authorities in Shaanxi to discuss further strengthening of cooperation.

Russia wary of China’s expanding influence

China’s use of new institutional platforms to strengthen its ties with Central Asia has raised concerns and alerts in Russia. Russia’s leading newspaper, The Independent, said on May 14 that China is concerned about security in Central Asia after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and that China is consolidating its influence in Russia’s backyard.

Just a day before the Xi’an Foreign Ministers’ meeting, the leading pro-Kremlin Russian online media outlet published a lengthy article in particular, fiercely attacking China for actively interfering in the internal affairs of Central Asian countries, making it more challenging for Moscow to help Central Asian countries defend their sovereignty and weaken Chinese influence.

The report said that China’s influence in Central Asia, which in the past was usually considered to be focused on the economy, while security and politics in Central Asia were manipulated by Moscow, could be upset as the U.S. withdraws its troops and China wants to settle the Xinjiang issue once and for all.

Russian Media: China Spends Money to Buy Central Asia’s Powerful, Local Anti-China Sentiment Heats Up

The report said that China has been paying big bribes to buy local powerbrokers in Central Asia, which has contributed to rampant corruption there. China’s loans to Kazakhstan are all under-the-table deals between the two sides. When laying gas pipelines, China cooperated with the Kazakh president’s son-in-law. When it came to gold mining in Tajikistan, China cooperated with the son-in-law of the Tajik president. All the Central Asian powerbrokers made a lot of money as a result. The relatives of the new Kyrgyz president and many of his surrounding cronies have even deeper ties to China and generally have a pro-China background.

This time in Xi’an, the new Kyrgyz foreign minister particularly emphasized his support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Reports say there are as many as 40 anti-China protests and demonstrations in Central Asia between 2019 and 2020. Some involve Uighur issues, but the latest trend in these demonstrations is dissatisfaction with local ruling power elites colluding with China to sell out national interests.

Russian media cited a report by the Central Asia Barometer, a non-governmental organization, that 35 percent of Kyrgyz society and 30 percent of Kazakh society are antiChina.

Kazakhstan officially bans sale of farmland to foreigners amid anti-China atmosphere

Kazakh activists plan to hold another anti-China protest demonstration in the main city of Almaty on May 15. Large nationwide protest demonstrations against China erupted in Kazakhstan several years ago, leading to a decision by authorities to freeze the sale and lease of land to foreigners from 2016.

Kazakh President Tokaev signed a new law on May 13 that further solidifies this measure. The law prohibits the leasing and sale of agricultural arable land to foreigners, foreign companies, and joint ventures with foreign capital. The law also stipulates that foreigners who lease agricultural land before 2016 will not renew their leases when they expire and the land will be nationalized.

It is unclear whether anti-China activities in Central Asia are linked to Russia. Although Russia has been operating in Central Asia longer than China, some Central Asian countries are equally concerned about threats from Russia, especially Kazakhstan, which shares a long border with Russia.