China in Central Asia: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

China in Central Asia: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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China in Central Asia – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

1. A brief look of China’s economic presence in Central Asia 2. The Repercussion of China’s Growing Economic Influence in Central Asia
3. What China Should Do to Deal with those Challenges?

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Central Asia countries have abundant oil, gas and nonferrous metal reserves; at the same time they also have great potentials in hydroelectric power. The location of Central Asia area makes it a bridge between Europe and Eastern Asia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China started to develop economical and political relationships with five Central Asia countries. With its neighboring location and an economy that has big appetite for raw materials, China has unique advantages over other countries in terms of economic and trading with Central Asia countries. In this article, first, the China’s economic presence in Central Asia will be analyzed. Second, the repercussion from other countries due to China’s growing economic presence in Central Asia will be shown. Third, the strategy China could use to hedge those repercussions will be proposed.
1. A brief look of China’s economic presence in Central Asia
China’s economic influence over Central Asia grows substantially over the years. Especially in recent five years, China makes various investments in five Central Asia countries. There are four characteristics that can describe China’s economic activities in Central Asia.
The first one is that the volume of trading with Central Asia countries is accelerating. Since the independence of Kazakhstan, the two countries started to develop border trading, and the amount of trading has been steadily increasing since then. As can be seen from Figure 1, which uses the data from China Customs, the bilateral trading volumes between China and Kazakhstan grow from 365 million US dollars in 1992 to 20.3 billion US dollars in 2010. And the growth rate has been accelerating since 2002. This acceleration of growth owes largely to the establishment of Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Between 1992 and 2002, before embarking the energy cooperation between China and Uzbekistan, the bilateral trading volume of the two countries fluctuated between 50 million and 200 million US dollars. After President Hu Jing Tao’s state visit in 2004, the two countries signed several investment and credit contracts (including 600 million US dollars worth oil and gas contract); the trading volume has been growing dramatically. In year 2010, the bilateral trading volume grew to 2.5 billion US dollars. China’s trading with Turkmenistan is also natural resource driven. And the trading volume grows from around 125 million US dollars between 1992 and 2005 to 663 million US dollars in 2010 (China Customs, 2010). China’s trading relation with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan follows roughly the same trajectory.

Figure 1 China-Kazakhstan bilateral trading volume

The trading structure between China and Central Asia countries is relatively stable: China exports finished products, and imports raw material from Central Asia countries. According to data from Kazakhstan Customs and as shown in Figure. 2 (), the structure of export commodities is rather single; there are only around 200 export goods. Among them, the percentage of revenue from raw material is around 80% to 90%; at the same time, the imports from China are mostly finished goods, including food, cosmetics, garments, electronics etc., among around 5000 different types of merchandizes. According to China Customs, the exports to Uzbekistan are mainly home appliances, computers, food, shoes, communication devices, etc.; and the imports from Uzbekistan are mainly cotton, plastic and petroleum products. In 2008, the trading volume between Kyrgyzstan and China was 772 million US dollars. Among them, the amount exports to China is 44 million US dollars, and the amount of imports from China is 728 million US dollars. The exports from Kyrgyzstan to China are mainly primary commodities and raw materials, including leather, cotton, metal, vegetables and fruits; the imports from China are mainly consumer products and electronics. The exports from China to Tajikistan are mainly electronics, mechanical products, textile and furniture; the imports from Tajikistan include aluminum and its products, metal, cotton and so on.

Figure 2 Exports and Imports structure of Kazakhstan
China is active in building infrastructures, such as energy pipelines, transportation, electricity and communication, in Central Asia area to promote trade. With funding from both public and private entities from China, the energy pipelines in Central Asia grow rapidly. China involves in the construction of three energy pipelines: China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline, Central Asia natural gas pipeline, and China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline. These pipelines have transported millions of tons of oil and hundreds of millions of cubic meter of gas to China. In 2009, China signed a contract to provide 10 billion US dollars of credit to Kazakhstan to support various infrastructure projects. In Kazakhstan, Chinese companies is involved in building the most modernized hydroelectric plant, which is the first hydroelectric project Kazakhstan embarked after independence. China also involves heavily in the infrastructure construction, digital communication network and electricity plant in Kyrgyzstan.

2. The Repercussion of China’s Growing Economic Influence in Central Asia
With China growing economic influence in Central Asia, the changing power dynamic in the region also trigger some repercussion, especially for powers like Russia and the United States.
Russian are worrying that China’s growing power would challenge its dominant position in Central Asia. Russians think that China’s economic presence in the region has already surpassed them. So they insisted to place the importance of economic cooperation functions of Shanghai Cooperation Organization below military cooperation (Eder 2014). But it should be seen that Russians couldn’t do too much about China’s growing economic presence in Central Asia. Americans believe that China does not coerce Central Asia countries in anyway and has no sign of deploying military in the region, so they do not have many doubts on China’s intention in Central Asia. Americans are generally open to the fact that China has economic dominance in CA (Mankoff 2013).
There are also some repercussions in CA countries. With increasing investment in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, some politicians and scholars are worrying that China is plotting to colonize their country. Some worries that China’s grand scale of purchasing raw materials in Central Asia would make them China’s energy client states. Generally speaking, China’s economic activity in Central Asia is welcomed, and it should be realized that due to geographic and economic factors, some repercussion is inevitable (Ibraimov, 2009).

3. What China Should Do to Deal with those Challenges?
The attitude of Russia, America and Central Asia countries will have great impact on China’s economic relation with Central Asia countries. Central Asia is important to China. Economically, it’s not only an important source of energy and raw materials but also one of the most stable and direct markets for Chinese goods. From national security point of view, Central Asia is China’s strategic backdoor; the safety of Central Asia would directly impact China’s border security. Based on the importance of Central Asia and the challenges China face, it is important to form and consolidate a mutually beneficial relationship with Central Asia countries.

In order to do so, China needs to establish and consummate its economic risk management mechanism. Chinese companies and businessmen suffered several sever losses during Kyrgyzstan’s political turmoil. In Libya war, China Petroleum suffered most losses among all international companies. With such painful experiences, China must learn from them and establish a more swift and solid risk mitigation mechanism. Especially in political unstable region like Central Asia. Second, China needs to strengthen its policy coordination with Russia and American to avoid unnecessary friction over interests (Cooley 2012). Third, China needs to make the most out of Shanghai Cooperation Organization. SCO is getting mature and increasingly becomes a platform for Central Asia countries to communicate with other countries. Fourth, China should present more of its soft power to mitigate the negative perception of China. In order to do so, China needs to create opportunities to develop the cooperation with Central Asia countries in areas of culture, science and education.

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