China’s One Belt, One Road project (OBOR) anticipates revolutionizing trade throughout Asia and parts of Africa. The explicit objectives are prosperity for underdeveloped areas of China, increased connectivity and economic development along Eurasian land and sea routes, greater integration between China and its periphery, and Chinese energy security through import diversification. The project currently comprises 67 countries and six economic corridors. These encompass 60% of the world’s population and 33% of the world’s wealth. OBOR leaders anticipate spending over 900 billion USD on infrastructure investments throughout the project’s lifespan. Such lofty promises and objectives present Beijing with positive and negative opportunities.
OBOR is pursuing many opportunities in Central Asia. Although trade with Central Asian states comprises less than 1% of aggregate Chinese trade, Central Asia offers more than a market for Chinese goods. Given the region’s location in the heart of Eurasia, developed infrastructure would support considerable Chinese trade between East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
A historically pro-Russian region, Central Asia has a strong connection to Moscow. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Central Asia has been set adrift in a turbulent diplomatic landscape. The five Central Asian states are searching for their next benefactor. While Vladimir Putin’s Russia is reexamining geopolitical opportunities in the region, Xi Jinping is also looking to China’s peripheries for security and commerce.
Central Asia is one of the poorest regions in Asia. It does not offer China the same level of commercial integration as Northeast, South, or Southeast Asia. However, Beijing’s rocky relationships with each region prevent the economic integration and peaceful rise Xi is pursuing. In order to connect more deeply with distant, potential growth markets, China longs to promote a “pan-Eurasian effort” through which the entire Eurasian community develops. The road to interconnectivity and continental trade lies through Central Asia.
China has been active in Central Asia over the past decade as well. In 2005, China conducted $5.5B in trade with the region. By 2014 it had grown to $51B—an explosive growth of 927% in nine years. These gains were possible through Chinese investment such as the Central Asia-China gas pipeline stretching 3,666km, an updated railway connecting Almaty, Bishkek, Osh, and Urumqi, and the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline.
China’s integration in Central Asia is expected to continue as Beijing works to turn the region into a commercial hub. In Khorgos, Kazakhstan, various Chinese investment agencies have already invested $600M in its dry port development projects. This is just one project in a region China where has promised to invest “tens of billions of dollars.” Given the small share of Chinese trade Central Asia controls, this is an inordinate amount of OBOR resources.
These Chinese expansions herald future clashes with Western interests across Eurasia. Indeed, China is already preparing for potential diplomatic and trade skirmishes. In 2015, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi harshly dismissed OBOR comparisons to the Marshall Plan stating, “[OBOR] is the product of inclusive cooperation, not a tool of geopolitics, and must not be viewed with an outdated Cold War mentality.” Beijing understands that OBOR is the largest investment project ever attempted. Quelling global concerns and suspicions will be increasingly difficult, given China’s poor history with development projects in Africa and the Middle East. For example, Chinese oil development projects in Darfur undermined years of Western human rights work in the region. Beijing is often accused of exploiting resources and communities in undeveloped regions in Africa, leading to protests and a severely tarnished image on the continent. It is a safe assumption that China may pursue similar investment strategies in Central Asia, which is already suffering from various human rights issues.
The West should take notice of events and development in Central Asia. Some Western powers are benefitting from the new Central Asian infrastructure. This gives ample opportunity to hold Beijing to proper development and investment standards in the region. These standards are not alien in Beijing—many are required through membership in multilateral organizations where China is a member, such as the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and Asian Development Bank.
For Eurasian states and particularly Central Asia, it is good news that China is taking a strong interest in the region. Central Asia needs outside capital and development to hoist itself out of widespread poverty. As a commercial hub, Central Asia would benefit from economic and political integration. There is, however, a specter of Chinese self-interest that would inhibit Central Asia’s future. Western nations should ensure Central Asia is not manipulated and exploited by China. The states do not have strong diplomatic capabilities and will need support. If the West can be that support, Beijing would spend the money, but the West would get the influence. That is a strategy worth pursuing.