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A nation must think before it acts.
The existence of the Republic of China in Taiwan as a separate entity from the People’s Republic of China in Beijing is the single largest threat to the survival of the Chinese Communist Party. For years, Beijing has pursued steps to create global conditions favorable for “reunification”–including a military scenario. If a war breaks out over Taiwan, China will be unable to secure energy supplies by sea.
To withstand the economic disruption caused by a conflict in the Western Pacific, China has turned its focus to Central Asia as part of Chinese strategic thinking.
Beyond increasing its military capacity, China has put serious attention to the decoupling scenario with the West. To avoid economic disruptions, it has been promoting the global use of the Chinese currency, setting up its own multilateral financial institutions, and deepening ties with regimes in critical developing countries for strategic resources. Central Asia offers a land-based trade and energy route alternative to the sea-based international political economy foundational to the current geopolitical environment.
Xi in Central Asia
On September 14, General Secretary Xi Jinping made Kazakhstan his first foreign visit since the start of the pandemic. In a letter published by a local Kazakh media, Xi praised the success of Kazakhstan in establishing itself as the key connectivity hub in Eurasia, that the country made “important contributions to ensuring stability of the global supply chain.”
Since Central Asian states became independent in 1991, China eyed this opportunity to make steps toward building such Eurasian land-based logistics routes for its trade and energy needs in case of a conflict in the East. Talk of “reviving the old Silk Road” was started by then-Premier Li Peng when he toured Central Asian states in 1994. He proposed a number of large projects–such as oil and gas pipelines, railways, and highways–that has created regional connectivity and economic integration between China and Central Asian states.
The China-Europe train system for example, which exits China at separate locations along the Russian or Kazak border, has been operational since 2011. While it has faced obstacles, such as the different gauges of Chinese and Kazakhstan and Russian railroads, poor port governance, and international management of cargo transit, this Eurasian train system is undergoing expansion and continuous performance upgrades that will make it a valuable strategic asset for China’s long-term geopolitical goals.
As shown during the pandemic, the trains have drastically increased their capacity in the past decade. They are developing towards being able to absorb a serious number of containers opting away from sea-based and air-based shipping. In 2021, the China-Europe train managed to run over 15,183 trains carrying 1.46 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), compared to 171.1 million TEUs operated via sea. This is up from only 1,702 trains in 2016, 8,225 trains in 2019, and 12,406 trains in 2020.
Immediately after Russia started its war on Ukraine, the incidence of Chinese cargo trains opting to bypass Russia by going through Kazakhstan (then to Azerbaijan via ferry on the Caspian Sea) increased six times. In 2020, the two main cargo transit hub on the border of Kazakhstan and China, Alashankou and Khorgos, saw a 41.8 percent and 37 percent increase in volume compared to pre-pandemic. Now, a third transit hub on the border is under construction. Kazakhstan is planning to increase cargo transit capacity on the Caspian Sea to two million tons by next year. The possibility of constructing a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad gained new traction this year as Uzbekistan eyes connecting its trade to South Asia.
Chinese governmental representatives have begun emphasizing the efficiency of the “Middle Corridor,” linking Kazakh rail to Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, and onwards to Europe. A 2021 report on the China-Europe train by China Railway lists “ensuring security of the global supply chain” as one of its priorities of development, directly spelling out the role of the trains as “emergency measures” stabilizing unexpected events affecting sea-based trade.
When Xi left Kazakhstan the next day for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, he again raised the role of the region in stabilizing global supply chains, and urged regional countries to increase connectivity. Xi announced that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will create a forum dedicated to this next year.
The opportunistic timing for China to consolidate this land-based trade and energy route across Eurasia has now reached its peak as regional countries are facing economic disruptions due to the Russia-Ukraine War. Many in the region, particularly Uzbekistan, have come to view connectivity as a matter of survival and are supportive of China’s route diversification plans.
This also includes gradually incorporating Afghanistan into the regional transit system. Beijing perceives the return to Taliban leadership in Afghanistan as a first step to the desired stability necessary for a regional trade network connecting Central and South Asia. Back in 2016, Afghanistan and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate in the Belt and Road Initiative to boost the construction of this Eurasian land-based logistics network.
While these plans will take time to realize their full transit potential, Beijing expects the Taliban to mature in their governance. Beijing hopes that with the help of Chinese aid and incoming support towards post-war reconstruction, including building roads connecting cities and townships and putting up energy and resource supply lines, the Taliban leadership can legitimize its politics in Kabul, and begin to build trust and open cooperation with its neighbors. In exchange, sitting in the heartland of Asia, the Taliban’s Afghanistan offers vast opportunities for drastic geopolitical change in Beijing’s favor, including the expansion of the Eurasia rail network.
The Afghan landmass offers the single most viable path for Central Asia to be connected to South Asia. The current state of the Central Asian logistics network is horizontal, with Kazakhstan monopolizing regional trade transit of products traveling between China and Europe. To fully envision a land-based trade and energy route that can offset the importance of the current sea-based system, for Beijing, connecting South and Central Asia is the alternative that could drastically change the trade and political dynamic of land-locked Central Asian states, increasing the importance of this region in the world economy. All of this plays a part in China’s Taiwan militarization game plan.
The Xinjiang Factor
China’s policies toward Xinjiang (East Turkestan), and how those policies are interpreted and received in Central Asia, directly impacts Beijing’s ability to sustain these policies and continue to project influence in the region. Sharing a 3,000-km border with Xinjiang, Central Asia is the most crucial region requiring constant maintenance from Beijing to ensure there are no cross-border sympathizers to those opposing its extreme policies in Xinjiang. Over the past twenty years, Central Asian governments have designated the majority of Uyghur groups as terrorist organizations. This has reached new heights now that the international community has condemned Beijing’s oppressive policies in Xinjiang—the European Parliament in June 2022 passed a resolution describing Beijing’s policies as amounting to crimes against humanity.
This background makes Xi’s visit to Central Asia among the most demanding and important diplomatic trips since the start of his presidency. China continues to stand with Russia on the war in Ukraine despite regional voices condemning Russian aggression. Central Asian states no longer find comfort in using China to balance Russia, but are now looking for new partners, particularly in South Asia and the Arab states.
Looking back, Central Asian states will find their history and culture inseparable from Xinjiang. With time, Central Asia may recognize its own experience with the Russian Empire no different than the experience of Xinjiang under Chinese rule. If Beijing mishandles Xinjiang, it could reverse the few Chinese inroads made in the region in the past thirty years, opening a real space for a regional re-think on Xinjiang.
From China’s perspective, Taiwan and Central Asia (and Xinjiang) are linked. A war over Taiwan would cause a severe economic disruption for Beijing, and the country would need to turn to Central Asia for energy and to keep important supply chains open. At the moment, Central Asian states have a minimum understanding of their significance in China’s grand strategies and are hopeful for regional integration with the global economy via this land-based trade route simply out of economic interest. Building connectivity with South Asia and the Arab states is the best strategy for Central Asia to avoid being further entangled in China’s geopolitical designs over Taiwan.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.