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In the early years of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and Central Asian countries (roughly 1992-1999), bilateral security discussions strictly focused on the then-looming influence of a Uyghur-led independence movement in Xinjiang. Chinese officials directly asked Central Asian states to not support the East Turkestan Movement, orienting the issue as a regional mutual security interest. While concerns for stability in Xinjiang continue as the foundational drive towards deepening security relations with Central Asian states, new security interests have entered discussions since the late 2010s as expanded bilateral trade brought new issues, such as investment security and corruption-fuelled anti-China sentiment. Also, domestic issues in Central Asia, concerning leadership transition, economic decline, and nationalism, expanded the Chinese discussion of the role of Islam in politics and implications on Xinjiang’s stability.
To address these interests, Chinese security engagement in Central Asia has steadily expanded. Within and beyond the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), multilateral dialogue on security issues have been regularized among all ranks of Central Asian security officers. The SCO has conducted annual security exercises since 2010, though the size of deployment, focus, and scope have changed. Between 2010 and 2019, the SCO created five expert groups to coordinate regional law enforcement agencies in order to address specific security issues.
However, in comparison, bilateral security engagement remains more diverse. The number of meetings is increasing, and their formats are becoming more efficient. There are joint patrols and operation, regular military exercises pre-pandemic, short-term training and long-term military degree programs in China, transfer of security equipment, construction of security infrastructure, and the presence of Chinese private security companies. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the two most responsive countries towards welcoming these initiatives. In addition to multilateral and bilateral security engagement, the PRC has increased its military capacity in its western region. More emphasis has been placed on increased combat readiness, as well on the condition and human capacity on the border.
While some areas of existing security cooperation are productive in meeting security goals, such as consensus over non-tolerance of Uyghur independence supporters and tightening illegal cross-border activities, two problems persist. First, while the PRC to an extend desires a regional approach to security, deliverables are more visible as the outcome of bilateral cooperation in Central Asia. These regional efforts are meant to deter any Central Asian governments from making independent assessments and forming their own foreign policy on Xinjiang without PRC participation. Second, language remains the most difficult operational obstacle to overcome. The dominance of the Russian language cements a substantial cultural and operational gap between the armies.
So far, Central Asia-PRC cooperation has been a pragmatic, opportunistic choice—a choice that Central Asian leaders made due to the absence of comparable committed engagement from other major powers. Moving forward, in order to balance PRC security engagement, Central Asia’s strategic significance must be independently considered outside of its role in securing Xinjiang for the PRC.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent independence of Central Asian states shocked Beijing. The 3,000-kilometer border that the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region shares with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan is mountainous and was porous in the early days of Central Asian independence. Security discussions quickly dominated bilateral meetings when the People’s Republic of China first established diplomatic relations with these newly independent countries in 1991, reflecting concerns from the PRC towards Central Asia’s security situation. The PRC quickly began to engage with the Central Asian political and security sectors, gradually achieving and sustaining its core security goal of no regional support for Uyghur independence by early 2000s. Together with heightened domestic security management, there has been no spillover of security issues of any kind from the Central Asian side to the Chinese side.
This report sets out to provide an overview of the PRC’s security management towards Central Asia by analyzing open-source information in the Chinese and Russian languages from 1993 to 2020. This research aims to map what has been done as a result of consistent emphasis and talk of insecurity and threats between Central Asia and the PRC. Security management is understood in this report as the group of activities carried out with the aim of addressing particular security concerns, such as law enforcement training programs and equipment transfer for improving Central Asian capacity in managing terrorism threats.
This report begins by discussing Chinese security interests in the region by analyzing 265 official records of high-level meetings conducted with Central Asian states, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, between 1993 to 2020, where security topics were discussed. These security concerns evolved over time, from emphasis on Uyghur political movements to security of Chinese investments and anti-Chinese sentiments in Central Asia. Then, it details the PRC-led multilateral, bilateral, and domestic security activities carried out towards addressing these security concerns. It studies publicly available records of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Chinese and Central Asian militaries, law enforcement agencies, local media, and other relevant sources in the Chinese and Russian languages. It ends with a short assessment and conclusion.
The existing literature and public discussions in Central Asia mostly describe the role of the PRC in the region as strictly an economic one. This argument suffers from several problems. First, from the Chinese commercial standpoint, a positive environment for business is needed. Maximizing economic cooperation cannot be achieved through building political ties by exclusively working with elites. In the case of Turkmenistan, for example, economic cooperation is narrow, and profitability is limited in the absence of market principles. A positive environment for business is also needed, one that balances factors, such as political stability and predictability, a high ease of doing business, standardized logistics and customs, availability of market information, skilled workers, and innovators. Most of these factors call for strong performance in other sectors, such as media and education. Out of economic interest, the PRC must provide assistance towards these sectors, and indeed this is precisely what Beijing has attempted to do in Central Asia. Second, from a strategic standpoint, it begs the question why economic cooperation is beneficial to bilateral relations. Domestically, economic growth in the PRC is used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to provide regime legitimacy. Abroad, this economic leverage is used to ensure global stability and stability of relations with which the PRC utilizes to achieve political interests connected, or not connected, to domestic goals. Similar to how Beijing invested its domestic economic success back into its society, it follows that Chinese economic influence will spillover to other sectors in Central Asia and beyond.
This report identifies Beijing’s goals and influence in the security and military sector in Central Asia. It supports a counterargument that the PRC is actively engaging and increasing its presence regionally beyond the economic sphere. It shows that security interests concerning Xinjiang have been the foundational drive from the Chinese perspective in building and deepening relations. Primarily written as the first step to allow further analysis of the effectiveness of these activities and trends, this report mainly offers information and evidence to showcase Chinese security engagement in Central Asia.