Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China and its Central Asian neighbours have developed a close relationship, initially economic but increasingly also political and security. Energy, precious metals, and other natural resources flow into China from the region. Investment flows the other way, as China builds pipelines, power lines and transport networks linking Central Asia to its north-western province, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Chkeap consumer goods from the province have flooded Central Asian markets. Regional elites and governments receive generous funding from Beijing, discreet diplomatic support if Russia becomes too demanding and warm expressions of solidarity at a time when much of the international community questions the region’s long-term stability. China’s influence and visibility is growing rapidly. It is already the dominant economic force in the region and within the next few years could well become the pre-eminent external power there, overshadowing the U.S. and Russia.
Beijing’s primary concern is the security and development of its Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which shares 2,800km of borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The core of its strategy seems to be creation of close ties between Xinjiang and Central Asia, with the aim of reinforcing both economic development and political stability. This in turn will, it is hoped, insulate Xinjiang and its neighbours from any negative consequences of NATO’s 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan. The problem is that large parts of Central Asia look more insecure and unstable by the year. Corruption is endemic, criminalisation of the political establishment widespread, social services in dramatic decline and security forces weak. The governments with which China cooperates are increasingly viewed as part of the problem, not a solution, as Chinese analysts privately agree. There is a risk that Central Asian jihadis currently fighting beside the Taliban may take their struggle back home after 2014. This would pose major difficulties for both Central Asia and China. Economic intervention alone might not suffice.