The Future of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia
Author: Caspian Policy Center
Apr 5, 2023
Washington, D.C., On April 4, the Caspian Policy Center hosted policy and regional experts to share their insights on the future of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Central Asia, and the implications and opportunities that have emerged from it.
Ambassador (ret.) Richard Hoagland, a Caspian Policy Center Board Member, opened the event with some opening remarks, focusing on the expanding role of China in Central Asia and how this has prompted a challenge for states in the region and competing powers.
Dr. Marsha McGraw Olive, also a Board Member at the Caspian Policy Center and moderator of this event, honored the participating speakers; Johannes Linn, a Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Global Economy and Development, Center for Sustainable Development, Brookings Institute; Robert Daly, the Director of Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States; Brianne Todd, a Professor of Practice for the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University; and, Elizabeth Wishnick, a Senior Research Scientist for China Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses.
Starting off with some statements from Robert Daly, it was noted that China’s BRI investments in Central Asia and globally have slowed in recent years, and currently, “China faces a secular slowing in its own economy that will cause it to reconsider the scale of its BRI.” He added that “We (the United States) should focus on Central Asian nations and their aspirations on institutional level”... “we should do that by providing scholarships, emphasizing judicial training, and promoting the rule of law.”
He added that the United States and U.S. partners “need to take care in our diplomacy to not demonize China and Russia, and we have to be careful not to demonize Central Asian relations with China.”
Brianne Todd commented on U.S. relations in Central Asia, adding that the United States “will never be able to compete on the scale that we see China in the region; economically and with infrastructure, but that shouldn’t be the goal.” She expanded on this, adding that the United States does, in fact, "want relationships in Central Asia, but it should be more broadly based.”
Johannes Linn focused on the economic implications of China’s BRI, and how the United States and other regional partners can become more connected with the region. He commented that China’s BRI has not been without benefits, in fact, “the BRI improved connectivity... infrastructure, human capital development, training, and joint university research.” However, it has also brought risks with “Transparency, employment, migration, and coordination, along with issues on the impact on social and environmental aspects.”
Elizabeth Wishnick added that we should not completely discount Russia. In fact, “Russia is very much there, despite being viewed as toxic by the society, it’s still a preferred partner for the region... For legal migration, language, academia, and even in government in Kazakhstan. Russia is there to stay, and I don’t think China is trying to remove Russian influence.” However, when discussing China’s investments, she added that “From the point of view of Central Asia, there are also risks assuming benefits: the issue of hidden debt, the environmental impact, lack of transparency around investments both from China and Kazakhstan, and data security.”
However, Elizabeth Wishnick also pointed out that, for the United States, there is great potential for cooperation in the area of the energy transition and green energies.