Central Asia and China after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan

Central Asia and China after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan

Over the last decades, Central Asia has gradually become a significant geography for China. Recently, this region has also been more frequently discussed in international platforms, with the approach of the 2014 NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. From the Chinese point of view, the NATO drawdown may pose numerous risks in the region from both security and economic aspects. The critical issue for China is whether the region will become unstable after NATO’s drawdown in Afghanistan. West China is especially a historical and geographical part of the Central Asia. China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang has a considerable population of Kazaks, Tatars, Uzbeks etc. The main concerns of China are reported to be separatist organizations operating in the country whose members are trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the possibility of facing Islamic insurgencies within its borders.

There are powerful actors with military bases across the region, namely Russia and the U.S. Russia has dominated Central Asia over a hundred years. The U.S. also has provided development aid toward the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The U.S. supports NGOs and civil society by means of foreign assistance toward the region. The Chinese view the “colored revolutions” in the region as occurring partly as a result of the reinforcement of the U.S. As they had watched these revolutions unfold, they worried that the colored revolutions in the region could have a potential to spread toward China’s western borders.

For China there are two issues of concern with regards to Central Asia, both of which will become increasingly acute subsequent to NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan: economy and security. From the economic aspect it is clear that China and Central Asia have close economic relations: It is well established that economic activities raise stability. On the other hand, China has a double engagement with the region in terms of economy. First, China has serious investments in the fields of social and economic infrastructure of Central Asian states. Therefore amicable relations with the regimes in the region are an indispensable interest for China. Second, Central Asian states have some disadvantages as Chinese workers are also present in the region. Nevertheless Chinese economic engagement contributes hugely in Central Asia and the outcome is to Central Asia’s own well-being. At the end of the day, if there are any instances of instability in Central Asia, Chinese economic interests will be affected seriously.

Regarding the security issue, China is worried about Afghanistan becoming a base for separatists in West China. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is an important tool for assessing the significance of this issue for China. China provides military aid toward Central Asia by means of SCO; yet its capacity is limited when compared to Russia. Although Russia is a member of the SCO, it undertakes to influence the SCO while using another organization in the region, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In the coming years, if not decades, it will be very interesting to see what kind of behavior both SCO and CSTO will exhibit in their engagement in Central Asia. For now, Beijing contends that boosting China-Central Asia-Russia cooperation economically and financially is the best solution for this unclear picture; and sees that keeping SCO intact would be in favor of Beijing.

Nevertheless, China is strictly in favor of stability in the region. SCO was founded to fight against terrorism, radicalism and separatism. Therefore, the interests and the targets of Russia and China primarily coincide. China will seek to maintain stability in the region regardless of whether it is through CSTO or SCO. Not necessarily concerning itself with the question of whether next-door Central Asian states are to be democratic or authoritarian regimes, China’s main interest lies in its economic activities in Central Asia. The principle is to protect and maintain its currently established power in the region. Again currently, Russia and China are cooperating in order to counterbalance the United States, as new Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first foreign trip to Russia has demonstrated. However, the future is unclear. China may multiply its economic power and become the new leader of the global system. And the question of how it will behave then remains uncertain.

Gülay Mutlu is a researcher at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).