China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia: A New Formula for Regional Success Guaranteed

Since the very start of China’s Belt and Road (BRI) project, Central Asia has become the core element of its implementation from the geostrategic and infrastructural points of view.

Strategic partnerships with the Central Asian states laid a solid foundation for the further promotion of China’s initiative in Eurasia. However, after the start of ‘conjugation’ of the BRI with the local development plans in the Central Asian states, a number of threats to the latter counterbalancing the opportunities have increased, such as an excessive dependence on Chinese loans, imports, investments, and raw material markets, as well as the disturbing labour migration from China.

Belarus-China Park. Photo by Maria Danilovich.

The recent signs of regional engagement in Central Asia suggest that the process of new institutional designing for the region has been officially launched. Therefore, the main challenge for China is to provide a delicate balance between its own interests and the newly articulated interests of the states in the region involved in the BRI.

While China’s ambitious project promises to foster regional and interregional cooperation, I explore the factual correlation between the multilateral and bilateral interaction of the Central Asian states with China, and the implications of the current regional developments for the shaping of China’s policy in Central Asia. I also try to assess the actual space and limits faced by the Central Asian states for setting the rules of their further interaction with China, with regard to the existing agreements, the established cooperation practices, and the current international environment. So far it can be observed  that the implementation of China’s BRI in Central Asia is to a large extent  a continuation of China’s previous strategy in th region, adjusted for China’s new Eurasian  ambitions. 

The BRI as a framework which practically relies on prevailing  bilateral ties,  does not contain the secret of the future success of the rgion as a possible “buckle” on the Belt itself, as by its nature it is  oriented on China’s national interests and is aimed at solving China’s own problems. And extensive competition  between the Central Asian states over the possibility to become a major logistic hub in the region between China and Europe  may become harmful for the  cooperation within the region.

 The key to success of the Central Asian countries as politically, culturally, economically independent states  lies in the region itself. As the recent signs of regional engagement in Central Asia show,  there are still chances for closer, constructive and non-chaotic, regularized  and institutionalized relations between these  states. The scope to which such an engagement can be developed, and the possibilities of an active role of the Central Asian states in shaping their region is still questioned. However, the first steps to normalization have been made.

Mountain Pass, Tajikistan. Photo by Maria Danilovich.

If we ask ourselves whether it is still possible for CA states to  avoid further increase of China’s influence, and whether it is possible to do this without unbalanced overweight to other players, it is again difficult to give a definite answer. However, such a balancing may become more real with establishing a well-functioning regional mechanism of cooperation and promoting regional self-identification in order to create a situation when China (and other players)  have to provide a more delicate balance between its own interests and the newly  articulated interests of the Central Asian states.

Written by: Maria Danilovich (IRES Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University)

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