During China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) forum on October 17-18, Chinese President Xi Jinping used his Beijing-led conference to highlight China as an alternative to the United States in global leadership. Central Asia plays a key part in China's efforts to increase its global influence. However, there is now uncertainty regarding the future of the region’s role in China's political ambitions as a result of the increasing risks associated with China's debt-trapping BRI project.
On October 17, China inaugurated its 'One Belt, One Road' forum in Beijing, coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the Belt and Road initiative's launch. The event centered on China’s most ambitious foreign policy strategy, an initiative that funnels investments into foreign economies to develop economic strengths that complement China’s own. With this program, China has sent one overruling message to the Global South: "We will hold the West accountable for its unequal investments in the past and offer an alternative." For leaders of countries struggling to progress in the U.S.-dominated global economy, this provides them with a convenient scapegoat and an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to steering their economies in a new direction.
Nearly 150 leaders from around the world, including Central Asia, traveled to Beijing for this two-day forum. Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Turkmenistan’s former president, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, all attended the event to strategize the BRI’s path forward in their respective countries.
China used this summit to lay out its plan to enlarge its influence in the so-called Global South, using the BRI’s backbone of infrastructure projects to counter Western opposition. And for Xi, the birthplace of the BRI, Kazakhstan, holds a special significance. As a main Eurasian transport hub, 85% of cargo transported over land from China to Europe passes through Kazakhstan. Astana signed over 30 agreements totaling more than $16 billion, including deals related to Beijing's development of the Middle Corridor, underscoring China's strong commitment to its ambitions in Kazakhstan. President Xi promised to strengthen China’s “coordination with Kazakhstan and push forward a deep practical cooperation between China and Central Asia”.
China also extended its influence to other Central Asian countries. Uzbekistan and China agreed to increase their trade turnover from an estimated $10 billion in 2023 to $20 billion by 2028. The two countries have increased their trade turnover by 36% from January-October 2023, compared to the same period of 2022.
As Central Asia gains new geopolitical importance amid an era defined by great power competition and shifting loyalties, President Xi Jinping asserted his “firm opposition to interference by external forces in the internal affairs of Central Asia.” For this reason, China’s attempts to enlarge its influence in Central Asia shouldn’t only be seen as a simple expansion of Chinese economic power, it should be seen as a counter-offensive against Western economic and strategic interests.
In response to China’s surge in Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) and infrastructure investments abroad, earlier this year, the United States and the G7 group launched the US$600 billion Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment-- an initiative that aims to “develop a values-driven, high-impact, and transparent infrastructure” in middle-income countries. And although China has stressed that economic issues should not be “politicized,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated, “We may as well compete internationally who can build more roads, railways and bridges for developing countries.” China’s “most ambitious” forum yet can be interpreted as a strike back against the G7’s new global investment initiative.
Widening this divide between Western leadership and Chinese ambitions, unlike the previous BRI forum in 2019 when officials from Europe attended, this year’s forum has been snubbed by most of Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the only representative from the European Union (EU) to attend the forum. Europe’s absence is largely due to the West’s rising geopolitical rivalry with China, and Xi’s disregard for international norms and standards. Italy, the only participating G7 member in BRI, has announced it is also planning to exit after the expiration of its membership at the end of 2023.
Yet, it remains uncertain whether Central Asia will endorse China's evolving geopolitical objectives that position the region as an offensive front in the great power competition. While Central Asia has reaped economic advantages from the initiative, the region might choose to curtail the influence of the BRI if China continues to exploit the region to further its political goals.
A decreased Chinese influence in Central Asian engagement can be already observed, with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, two of China’s neighbors, absent from the forum. While it's possible that leaders were preoccupied with ongoing negotiations regarding a longstanding border dispute, this explanation may not hold as the BRI forum in Beijing was announced months in advance Another factor that might have contributed to their reduced motivation to sign new agreements is the substantial debt owed to China by both countries. It is an interesting choice for both countries, which have played a significant role in China’s BRI, to not attend this two-day forum.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Central Asia may see China as a more reliable partner than its traditional partnership with Russia. At the same time, China has capitalized on Russia's diminishing Western partnerships by bolstering its ties with Moscow, conveying to Central Asia that it may not necessarily serve as an alternative to Russia. Instead, a new global coalition appears to be taking shape among countries that have felt sidelined by the West, including Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and India. China's aim may not be to supplant Russia in Central Asia, but rather to cooperate with Russia, as long as Russia's economic demands don't become too burdensome.
China’s welcoming treatment of Putin puts this emerging coalition on full display. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is internationally recognized as a war criminal, was treated as a guest of honor at this year’s BRI forum. This is Putin’s second visit abroad since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on suspicion of war crimes. Putin and Xi greeted each other with a friendly handshake, referring to one another as “old” and “dear” friends. Xi also called for closer coordination between Russian and Chinese security strategies. Therefore, the deepening relations between China and Russia have raised concerns among Central Asian countries, prompting questions about China's reliability as an alternative partner to Russia.
Furthermore, while China has prioritized trade with Central Asia, the trade volume remains significantly low compared to other regions of the world. China’s total trade turnover with BRI member countries amounted to $2 trillion, while trade with Central Asia only accounted for 3% of the total amount. According to China’s State Council Information Office, Africa, and Europe hold greater significance than Central Asia in terms of BRI.
Central Asian nations are reluctant to be caught in the crossfire of the geopolitical competition between China and the United States. Taking sides is not a path they wish to pursue. While they benefit from economic ties with both China and Western states, Central Asia prioritizes diversified economic relationships and enhanced regional collaboration without heavy reliance on any single country.
In addition, the influx of Chinese economic investments poses the threat of a debt trap for Central Asian countries, as is already the case. With growing debt burdens, Central Asia's reliance on China escalates, and their ability to repay these debts diminishes. In fact, the inability to meet these debt obligations could lead to them ceding control to China.
Xi’s “project of the century,” once viewed as a chance for economic prosperity, has now evolved into a tool challenging Western economic dominance through surrogate nations in Central Asia and the Global South. Over the last decade, China has consistently maintained its belief that it can provide an economic alternative for countries feeling marginalized by the existing global order. For Central Asia, the initiative seemed like a path to expedite development after nearly a century of isolation under the Soviet Union's policies. However, the initiative is changing shape with growing political ambitions and unfulfilled promises. Its shifting objectives have raised concerns among Central Asian countries regarding their future partnerships with China and forced them to reevaluate their roles in this “great power competition”.