Research News

Statecraft in the Steppes: Central Asia’s Relations with China

February 16, 2023

Dr. Li-Chen Sim says post-Soviet Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — and China enjoy a mutually beneficial, albeit hugely asymmetrical, relationship. In an article published in the Journal of Contemporary China, Dr. Sim, with Dr. Farkhod Aminjonov, National Defense College UAE, highlights the varying ability of leaders in Central Asia to manage and negotiate their relations with China as an often under-appreciated evolving approach. 


Op-ed by Dr. Li-Chen Sim


Post-Soviet Central Asia and China enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. Trade has skyrocketed from US$1.7 billion in 2000 to almost US$40 billion in 2019 thanks to the region’s role as a key energy and commodity pillar of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). Consequently, China is the largest trade partner and among the largest investors in these countries. At the same time, Central Asian leaders have, on rare occasions, signaled concerns about China’s outsized impact on their sovereignty and regime security.


The impression of Central Asia as a hapless policy-taker permeates many conventional analyses of the region. It is typically perceived as a “battleground,” a “geostrategic playground of the world’s major civilizations,” or as an arena that facilitates the development of strategic convergence between Russia and China.


We argue that some Central Asian states possess the resources and capabilities to exercise agency vis-à-vis their relations with China more often than is generally recognized in the literature. We think that “hedging” becomes a viable foreign policy option for countries in Central Asia arising from domestic considerations (such as governance deficits, limited economic reforms) as much as from external pressures.


“Hedging” has become an increasingly established concept in international relations. It is most often deployed by small and medium states to maximize the twin imperatives of security and autonomy in the face of relatively circumscribed material capabilities. It can be considered a “fence-sitting” position — a set of strategies that cultivate a middle ground under situations where security and autonomy need to be balanced. We think it’s more than fence-sitting: It is the concurrent and selective pursuit of two mutually opposite or countervailing policies where one set pleases a big power while the other action defies the same power.


When considering the Central Asian states, we categorize them as “heavy” and “light” hedgers: The former have more political will and possess the material capacity to leverage advantageous structural and exogenous conditions to engage in selective hedging behavior more effectively than the latter. In this regard, Kazakhstan is a relatively heavy hedger with regard to China; Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, which were traditionally pro-Russian, may be described as light hedgers; while Uzbekistan appears to be evolving into a heavy hedger. These countries employ a range of hedging strategies that leverage on economic, diplomatic, military, and cultural pathways.


Ultimately, it is the interaction of system-, regional-, and unit-level factors that drive the propensity of some Central Asian states to selectively engage in hedging behavior.


China’s engagement of Central Asia rests on several pillars. First, as a land-based transit corridor, the region is “central” to China’s Eurasian ambitions to link China’s west to South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. It provides a valuable alternative to maritime routes that carry the bulk of China’s merchandise trade but largely lie outside its control. Second, the region’s hydrocarbon and mineral resources fuel and sustain China’s economic growth and prosperity.


Central Asian leaders appear equally committed to deepening relations with China. First, as noted earlier, Chinese-funded physical connectivity is expected to boost access to export markets. Second, Chinese loans, companies, and investments are critical for the growth of local economies in one of the poorer regions of the world. Towards this end, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are negotiating with China to align local economic-development visions (Nurly Zhol in Kazakhstan or Taza Koom in Kyrgyzstan) with the BRI. Third, Central Asian-China relations balance against the demands of the former’s traditional hegemon, Russia. For Central Asian leaders, realization of these goals will ultimately strengthen instrumental legitimacy and regime resilience, particularly if their key domestic constituencies are beneficiaries of Chinese largess. At the same time, there are deep-seated worries that are rarely voiced publicly by leaders about what China’s rise implies for security and autonomy.


A cursory glance at the material capabilities between Central Asia and China reveals a large and obvious power asymmetry. This has not stopped the former from attempting to hedge, that is, to concurrently defer to and selectively defy China.


Central Asia is not simply a region to be controlled and pulled inexorably into China’s sphere of influence. The region is represented in some cases by increasingly assertive leaders who can, on selective issues, leverage structural, exogenous, and domestic considerations to manage and negotiate their relations with China. Although Central Asian regimes possess different resources and capabilities, hedging beyond mere diversification of partners appears to be the strategy of choice to minimize economic and security risks while maximizing the political benefits of reinforcing legitimacy. The claim here is not that leaders in Central Asia are effective or proficient hedgers akin to some countries in Asia, but that to varying degrees they are beginning to use hedging as part of their statecraft to interact with China.


Going forward, although Central Asia’s engagement with China will continue to be hugely asymmetrical, the hedging capabilities will evolve. Various world challenges impact on the policy space for hedging in opposite ways and hence bear watching. 


Jade Sterling
Science Writer
16 February 2023