As China’s economy picks up steam again, leaving behind the worst phase of the pandemic, desperate Central Asian countries may find that their economic and political future is tied to an even more assertive Beijing.
China, which has reported relatively few coronavirus infections to date, appears to be the first major economy in the world to recovered from the devastating effects of the pandemic.
But the virus continues to rage in Central Asia, where the economy has been hit hard by large falls in commodity prices, declining remittances from migrant workers, and a global economic downturn that could lead. according to the World Bank, to a reduction in the region’s gross domestic product to 5.4 percent by the end of the year.
In this situation, Beijing becomes the main source of assistance for Central Asia.
– There is no sign that the pandemic has distracted China from its long-term goals. Beijing still sees China rising to its zenith and views the current turmoil over the virus as a way to achieve that goal, Nadezh Rolland, a senior researcher at the National Bureau of Asian Studies and a former adviser to the French Ministry of Defense on strategic issues with China, told Radio Liberty.
China held its first videoconference meeting with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian countries on July 16. The discussion focused on cooperation in the fight against coronavirus and the development of the region’s economy.
An unprecedented challenge
Although China has long been one of the dominant players in Central Asia, this narrow format heralded Beijing’s new approach to the region, with countries favoring bilateral ties or larger alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
The meeting came at a time when Central Asia faced an unprecedented challenge from the rampant spread of COVID-19, which showed how deplorable the state of health care in the region is, multiplied the burden on the economy and put international relations to the test.
In addition to new avenues of cooperation with Central Asia that were announced in July, since the start of the pandemic, Beijing has forged relations with high-profile humanitarian and medical missions and by promoting its digital technologies as a way to limit the spread of the virus.
China has also engaged the SCO to help advance its methods of fighting COVID-19, and looks set to further pull Eurasia into its orbit with the initiative. “One Belt – One Road” Is a general term for a multi-billion dollar foreign policy pillar of Chinese President Xi Jinping, aimed at expanding influence through infrastructure and investment.
But the pandemic is also fueling broader trends that could trigger new shocks in Central Asia. This is especially true of the deepening confrontation between China and the United States.
New Cold War?
In the past few months, tensions have escalated over the situation in Hong Kong, the South China Sea, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and a long-standing slow trade war.
Washington has also made strides in its campaign to force countries to ban technologies developed by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei as threatening national security. This month, the United Kingdom announced it would ban Huawei from its fifth generation (5G) networks, while France said it intends to drastically restrict the use of Chinese technology on its own networks.
The countries of Central Asia are used to balancing between major powers and distributing their interests between Beijing, Moscow and Washington. But as a new reality begins to emerge in Central Asia, with a preponderance in favor of China, maintaining the old balance may become more difficult.
“Chinese policy is still biased towards the United States, which means that the region is increasingly viewed through this lens. Central Asian countries will never want to choose sides, but in a world divided in two, it will be difficult to hedge. This means that they will always lean towards the Chinese orbit, Rafaello Pantucci, a researcher at the Royal Institute for Defense Research in London, told Radio Liberty.
Not the best games
China’s new way of engaging with Central Asian foreign ministers, unveiled on July 16, is not the first such arrangement in which an external geopolitical player interacts with five countries.
Similar agreements already exist with Japan, South Korea, the European Union and the United States, which resorted to this format in February during a trip to the region by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
It was during this trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that Pompeo sharpened its focus on China’s presence in Central Asia, expressing concerns about corruption, overwhelming debt and abuse in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government reportedly imprisoned over 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim groups in internment camps.
But the visit to the region by a US Secretary of State for the first time in five years also demonstrated the constraints facing Washington in the region.
American interests and involvement in Central Asia have been on the rise and fall after the collapse of the Soviet Union, strengthening after the invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing anti-terrorist military campaigns. Region again gets more attentionas Washington increasingly views China and Russia as its two main rivals on the world stage. Despite this, Central Asia is not a political priority for the United States.
In comparison, Xi Jinping has visited states on numerous occasions since taking power in 2012 – most recently last year, and when he announced the launch of the Belt and Road Program in Kazakhstan in 2013.
Since then, China has become the largest source of development finance in Central Asia, as its state-owned banks supported high-cost construction projects in risky markets, expanding Beijing’s influence and creating new opportunities for its companies.
It is through this mechanism that China seeks to capitalize on the chaos created by the pandemic to achieve its goals and deepen its influence in Central Asia and beyond.
China’s state-owned media have already taken up this challenge. Numerous articles talk about using the Belt and Road project as a vehicle accelerating global economic recovery.
According to Nadezh Rolland, this initiative has always been perceived by China as a means of promoting its views and increasing its influence in the developing world, and the pandemic opens up even greater opportunities for it.
– This is not a Cold War with well-defined ideologies and geographic alliances, it is more like highly responsive spheres of influence. China is not yet chasing global hegemony, but rather seeks to create a subsystem in which Beijing will have an environment of countries receptive to its views, she said.
China’s influence in Central Asia could also grow as Russia – another of the region’s major external players – is struggling to recover from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic and falling energy prices.
In recent years, Moscow and Beijing have become closer to each other and are trying to divide spheres of influence in Central Asia, but China intends to strengthen its position, as it is ready to continue to expand beyond infrastructure projects into other areas.
“For many years, China has been dealing with economic issues and Russia with security issues, but we are increasingly seeing that these areas can overlap, and the boundaries between them are beginning to blur,” an expert on Sino-Central Asia relations at the Carnegie Temur Moscow Center told RFE / RL. Umarov.
Bumpy silk road
Although China’s economy has begun to recover from the pandemic, the pace remains uncertain.
Beijing faces growing calls to renegotiate loan repayment terms for transport hubs, power plants and transport links that look overwhelming as economies around the world – from Latin America to Africa to the Middle East – are going through a difficult period and globalization is slowing down.
A June survey by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs found that 20 percent of projects “One Belt – One Road” were “seriously affected” by the pandemic, another 30-40 percent were “partially affected”.
Concerns about a global recession have prompted China’s partners to take a different look at the viability of these projects in their countries, which could lead to their revision or even cancellation.
However, until now, none of the major contracts of the One Belt One Road program has been terminated due to the pandemic, an initiative too important for Xi Jinping – and for China – to be shelved.
But how Beijing handles projects amid pandemic challenges around the world will be a key test of its international diplomacy skills.
“Even before the pandemic, concerns about mounting debt and corruption were mounting, and the financial environment is now exacerbating all of this. I think we are looking at a future in which Chinese officials will mostly renegotiate deals rather than chase new ones, ”Jonathan Hillman, director of the Asia Reunification project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE / RL.
China’s state-owned media have begun to promote less expensive global technology and health initiatives rather than high-profile infrastructure projects.
China has also already capitalized on this pandemic to focus on digital initiatives such as e-medicine, commerce, payments and education, and analysts believe Chinese companies have ample opportunity to expand these destinations in Central Asia.
Moreover, despite a more cautious approach to the One Belt One Road program, China remains one of the few sources of funding that could bring Central Asian governments closer to China.
“This is an opportunity for China, and they will use it to their advantage. But I wouldn’t expect such a big construction boom as I used to. This will be a new stage for Beijing, Hillman said.
By Reed Standish
Translated from English by Alice Valsamaki