China’s rise as a regional power in Central Asia is nothing short of remarkable. Over the course of a decade, China has concluded border agreements with all of the Central Asian states, secured their cooperation in combating Uighur groups in Xinjiang, surpassed Russia as the region’s leading trade partner, concluded a number of energy agreements and built supporting pipelines eastward, and established new soft power instruments. It did all this while couching most of its activities in the multilateral framework of a new-style regional organization—the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan)—that, unlike its Western counterparts, officially does not infringe on the sovereignty of its member states.
Yet, Western analysis of China’s rise in Central Asia has remained strangely muted. On the one hand, some commentators have denied that Chinese activities even constitute “soft power” or significant regional influence, pointing to the region’s traditional ties with Russia and the distrust of Central Asian publics about China’s regional ambitions. On the other hand, U.S. policy generally remains guided by the post-Soviet framework of the 1990s, adhering to the principles of strengthening the “sovereignty and independence” of the Central Asian states, a slogan connoting reducing the region’s dependence on Russia. From this perspective, U.S. policymakers have mostly welcomed China’s challenge to traditional Russian influence in the region, despite the public image of a regional Russia-China “strategic partnership.”
However, as this memo contends, China’s rise is not uniformly positive for either Central Asia or for U.S. interests and values across the region. Indeed, the emergence of a U.S.-Russia-China strategic triangle in Central Asia has ushered in a multipolar system of external influence, in which strategies are more contextual and partnerships more pragmatic than we are accustomed to thinking about. In support of this claim, this memo unpacks China’s rise in two areas traditionally supported by Western policy: the energy sector and as an emerging external donor. In both cases, Chinese engagement brings significant benefits to the region, but its actions also have unintended consequences that can even undermine U.S. goals. […]