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China’s cooperation in Central Asia and the implications for peace and stability

A recent event brought together Chinese scholars and experts from the UK, Russia and Kyrgyzstan to discuss China’s engagement in Central Asia and what it means for security in the region.

A seminar addressing China’s cooperation in Central Asia and the implications for peace and stability was held in Shanghai on 14 October 2015, co-hosted with Shanghai Institutes of International Studies (SIIS).

During the seminar, Chinese scholars and international specialists from the UK, Russia and Kyrgyzstan focused on development and security issues in Central Asia, and sought to identify the implications of China’s engagement, as well as the opportunities for both internal and external actors to support peace and stability in Central Asia.

It was recognised that the five states in the region – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – share a range of internal threats to their stability. This includes poor governance, weak rule of law, poverty, societal divisions, disputes over natural resources and borders, extremism, and organised crime such as drug trafficking. The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, followed by the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force, makes peace and security in the region yet more fragile.

Minor armed conflicts have been spreading in the region over the last two decades. During the seminar, the general features of conflict management in the Central Asian states were summarised as: not liberalism but authoritarianism; less the strategy of statebuilding and more the process of state formation; not just top-down management by the state but also bottom up conflict where state factions are the main parties to the conflict. As such, it is state formation processes that lead to rebellions. In some cases, actions by the countries’ regimes prompt other political leaders – who often hold positions elsewhere in the state – to outbreaks of violence. It was also expressed that although external actors like Russia and China share interest in conflict management, their present role is rarely direct and therefore non-strategic.

It was acknowledged that while Russia, the traditional power in the region, is still the current pre-eminent military and political influence in Central Asia, China’s engagement in recent years is notable. China’s investment in natural resources and infrastructure in the region is growing quickly. It was also suggested that instability in Central Asia may affect China’s own internal security and territorial integrity. Therefore, it was debated whether China’s engagement is driven primarily by its economic development needs or by security concerns; whether Sino-Russia relations lead to more cooperation or competition in the region; whether the current mechanisms regarding dispute resolution (in water conflicts for example) between China and neighbouring Central Asian states are effective; and how investment and aid from external actors could help to improve governance. It was acknowledged that although China hasn’t played a leading role in conflict management in Central Asia, its expanding interests in the region may prompt willingness and opportunities for further engagement. China is expected to play a greater role in regional security efforts, and it was suggested that China’s engagement in the Afghanistan peace process might provide an entry point for China’s constructive engagement and dialogue with Central Asian states and other powerful external actors such as the US, and the EU.

For all actors, including China, understanding local contexts and taking a conflict-sensitive approach is vital to avoid increasing tensions among local communities and undermining stability. In order to further promote peace and security in Central Asia, more opportunities for engagement should be unpacked. In addition to official-level engagement and public diplomacy there needs to be dialogue amongst actors at a range of different levels.

In 2013-14 Saferworld undertook research into China's growing engagement in Central Asia, as well as the changing role of Russia. We analysed how this affects  and may affect in the future – the regional economic and security context. In a report, Central Asia at a crossroads, we consider how the relationship between Russia and China in Central Asia is likely to evolve – whether one of continued pragmatic cooperation or of increasing rivalry and possible conflict. The report summarises the findings of Saferworld's research and the implications for peace and stability in Central Asia.

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For all actors, including China, understanding local contexts and taking a conflict-sensitive approach is vital to avoid increasing tensions among local communities and undermining stability.

Saferworld