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China offers rays of hope for Central Asia

Jan 16 , 2015

From Beijing to Washington, those observing events in Central Asia knew that 2014 serves as a pivotal year. Stemming largely from the drawdown of the International Security Assistance Force troops in Afghanistan, bringing the war to a formal close, the region looked set for a concomitant drawdown in interest from the West.

But this retrenchment was not the only geopolitical pivot in 2014. Between the revanchism from Moscow, the flop of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the rise of the Islamic State, Central Asia experienced a litany of geopolitical shudders over the past year.

As Russia’s construction and services sectors begin receding, remittances from migrant labor, the main pillars of GDP in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are set to see a considerable drop. While some newly unemployed migrants will seek work elsewhere, many more will return home, unable to support themselves or their families, and more than willing to redirect their discontent toward incompetent government officials.

In 2015, Central Asia can expect decreased economic fortunes, growing populations of the discontented and the jobless, and the increasing appeal of those pushing anti-state extremism. However, if there is an over-arching reason for optimism in the region, it comes from Beijing. Central Asia presents the lone stretch of warm relations with China, at least on a governmental level. Territorial concerns are largely non-existent, while the autocrats of Central Asia have been more than willing to take Chinese largesse, which often comes without any of the humanitarian prerequisites the West requires.

Indeed, China’s ability to act as a centering presence in the region has already borne fruit. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Silk Road Economic Belt envisions Central Asia as a necessary conduit to European markets. As such, China has expended both time and resource toward offering projects that would bring the region together.

Beijing would much rather see Central Asia working in harmonic unity for mutual benefit. This approach, thus far, has paid dividends, and will likely continue to do so, especially as it pertains to infrastructural development. Tajikistan, for instance, is expecting a $6 billion investment from China in the near future. While this will likely not be enough to offset the decline in remittances, it will help soften the blow, and could well lay the groundwork for future investments in the country and the region.

Further examples of China’s regional successful focus can be found within the China-Central Asia pipeline network, which funnels Kazakh, Uzbek, and Turkmen gas to Beijing. Coming expansion will also include Kyrgyz and Tajik operations. Such investments extend to further infrastructure projects, especially rail.

Whether it is willing or capable remains a question worth following. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, two of the nations along China’s western border, look to be the hardest hit by Russia’s downturn, posing potential security threats to both respective governments as well as to stability in China’s western reaches.

Beijing has worked for years to solidify the security situation in Xinjiang, and beyond. This coming year will show just how committed Beijing truly is to stability in Central Asia. China has shown a willingness to help Central Asia integrate into a single network, and will likely continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

Casey Michel  is a graduate student at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. 

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