In recent years, China has pursued a comprehensive information policy in Central Asia, trying to improve its image and increase its influence over Russia. However, since the lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, relations with the Central Asian states appear to be increasingly suffering. Adina Masalbekowa, China expert at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, explains the connections.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese foreign propaganda in Central Asia tended to focus on education and culture, scholarships for students and media professionals, and travel for officials. These activities had an impact on young people who were eager to study, learn the language and experience Chinese culture in China before the pandemic.
However, with the start of lockdowns in Spring 2020, China’s appeal as a study destination has diminished, as have other opportunities to visit the country. Still, China has not given up hope of developing deeper cultural ties with the Central Asian region. For example, the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan actively organizes meetings with authorities, the media and universities to discuss the importance of bilateral relations and the maintenance of peace and stability.
Kyrgyzstan as a Chinese transit corridor and investment market
In general, relations between Kyrgyzstan and China deserve special attention. Although Bishkek is not a significant energy partner for Beijing in the region, it plays an important role as a transit corridor and even as a testing ground for testing new technologies and approaches to Chinese diplomacy. The Chinese influence on security in Kyrgyzstan, as well as in the wider Central Asian region, is also becoming increasingly evident. For example, there are precedents of private Chinese military companies guarding investments in Kyrgyzstan.
Overall, the government and political elite in Kyrgyzstan are very interested in cooperation. The broad masses also see economic advantages in this, for example in retail. However, China is also Kyrgyzstan’s largest creditor with a total of $2 billion in external debt (out of $5 billion in total). Because of this economic dependency, good relations with China are particularly important for Kyrgyzstan.
Apart from the foreign debt, the construction of a railway line from China via Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan is also being discussed. The Chinese side is always careful to ensure security in the Central Asian region and to guarantee the security of its Chinese companies operating there. While China is often criticized by the people of Central Asia, its influence is growing, although there is another key political player in Russia.
Goal of regional stability
Chinese policy in Central Asia has not been one of retreat until recently. On the contrary, Beijing was interested in regional stability. However, this approach also has its limitations, and China’s political leaders have expressed skepticism about initiatives for closer cooperation solely between the five Central Asian states. Therefore, immediately after intensifying regional integration in 2018, China began promoting the C+C5 format (China and Central Asian countries). In this way, China was able to interact with the countries of the region without Russia, i.e. not within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization ( SCO). The SCO platform was and is generally geared towards ensuring dialogue in the region and thereby maintaining peace among the member states.
In addition, the Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping made his first overseas visit to Central Asian countries after the long pandemic. First he visited Kazakhstan, then the SCO summit in Samarkand, and during these visits bilateral meetings were held with all Central Asian presidents. This shows that Central Asia is already a priority in Chinese foreign policy.
Security policy and China’s own interests in the region
All of these factors have transformed China’s security role and importance in Central Asia. In security policy and defense industry, a complete replacement of Russia is still difficult to imagine. At the same time, it is evident that Russia’s security monopoly is gradually declining, which is clearly visible in Tajikistan, where the authorities are increasingly cooperating with China in the military sphere.
In recent years, China has increasingly provided military equipment and hardware to Central Asian partners. While it is too early to say that this cooperation can replace Russia in the security field, China’s role is becoming increasingly important.
Of course, this approach is not only selfless: China supports projects to install surveillance cameras and equipment, for example, or conducts military training. These (fictional) scenarios often involved the fight and capture of terrorist groups that might invade from Xinjiang , for example. The Chinese side emphasizes that the security task is the fight against separatism and terrorism and that against separatists from Xinjiang.
In autumn 2022 , an independent investigation into the Uyghurs was carried out on the basis of a UN resolution and research was carried out into whether ethnic minorities are being oppressed in Xinjiang. While Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were basically neutral on the current situation in Xinjiang, this changed after Xi Jinping’s visit: the two states now voted against the UN resolution, i.e. for the Chinese side. All of these factors show how China operates in the region, but also on a global level.
Mechanisms for image improvement and increased cultural influence
China is actively trying to improve its image in Central Asia. This happens, for example, via television stations such as Dolan TV or the magazine Kontimost, which operate as private media companies in the region. That is, they are registered here but have direct ties to the People’s Republic of China Propaganda Department and are also supported by the Chinese government. With the New Silk Road Observatory, there is also a Chinese media company that broadcasts in Russian.
This local media presence of China reinforces a favorable image. Great importance is attached to a positive image of China for the Central Asian audience. Chinese embassies are also very active in providing information to local media. This cooperation means that China has a large degree of control over how information about the country is disseminated. Since embassies are direct representatives of the Chinese side, it is often emphasized that only they can provide reliable information and that other sources, especially foreign media, are unable to do so.
China has given, and continues to give, many scholarships to students and even media professionals to help them report positively about China and spread good propaganda for their big neighbor to the east. In the age of social media, this works much faster, so that visibility is already higher than it was 10 years ago. Finally, those who have already studied in China are an important factor. The experiences brought with them can also influence the image of China positively (but also negatively).
Confucius Institutes and other Chinese cultural and language centers have existed in the countries of Central Asia for many years . However, they have never developed into important centers, and at the same time Chinese education is becoming less and less attractive. The educational opportunities in China are all apolitical and are generally heavily controlled by the state. Many students prefer other options – and they tend to see these in western countries.
Future relations with China
How should the Central Asian states deal with these facts and what are the problems? First of all, there are too few analysts in the Central Asian states who could provide analysis and advice to the presidential administration or other authorities. As a result, many agreements and initiatives are the result of bilateral meetings with the Chinese side.
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Unlike Russia, China never forgives its Central Asian debtors of any debt. In addition, the prevailing opinion is that China is the largest investor in Central Asia, but hardly anyone takes into account the support of the European Union or the USA. These are mainly social development projects. These are therefore not economic investments, but have a direct impact on the local population. So that we owe a lot to China is not the whole truth. Rather, work should be done to build alternative relationships. This means that the more connections and diverse cooperation with other countries there are, the less dependence on one or two countries becomes.
Finally, in recent years there has been greater integration of Central Asia – the war in Ukraine has accelerated these processes. Such Central Asian integration could significantly reduce dependency not only on China but also on Russia, and would help strengthen individual countries in the region.