More than just about Belt and Road: does China hold territorial ambitions in Central Asia?
11 Sep 2017|

During a speech at the National Press Club in August, the political leader of the Tibetan diaspora, Lobsang Sangay, speculated that China may use the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to seize territory in the same way that it used a road project in Tibet as the first step in taking control over the country.

While Sangay’s claim was likely intended to draw attention and sympathy to Tibet, it provides an interesting perspective from which to assess China’s relationship with its Central Asian neighbours and the scale of BRI investments in the region.

As noted by Geremie Barme, a former head of the ANU’s Centre for China in the World, in a rebuttal of Sangay’s comments, for China ‘Tibet was about resources, while it sees most of the rest of the world as markets’. China is investing heavily in BRI projects across Central Asia, and much of that investment is focused on exploiting local resources and developing critical transportation hubs, rather than pursuing domestic markets. Thus, Central Asia potentially fits Barme’s ‘Tibet’ characterisation rather than the ‘market’ model.

But China’s investment in Central Asia carries significant risks, and those risks give rise to questions about China’s risk calculus in Central Asia. Barme’s riposte to Sangay—which contained an interesting point on the extent of China’s imperial ambition and China’s willingness to pay the price associated with such ambition—potentially sheds some light on what China’s risk calculus may be.

China clearly profits from the status quo of its relationship with its Central Asian neighbours, and it has been long recognised that China’s policy of ‘non-interference’ is bearing dividends in the region.

But if China’s interests in the region come under threat from political or social instability, it’s possible that China may take more direct action to protect those interests.

China has already demonstrated a belligerent willingness to challenge other neighbours on land and maritime borders. China’s confrontation with India in Doklam in August has shown its appetite for brinkmanship in seeking to establish control over strategically valuable territory. Similarly, China has shown in its maritime boundary disputes across Southeast Asia that it’s prepared to adopt an incremental approach to establishing control over disputed territory that has significant strategic and resource value. Since the end of World War II, China has been ‘redrawing its maps, redefining borders, manufacturing historical evidence [and] using force to create new territorial realities’.

China has clearly not advanced territorial claims in Central Asia as it has elsewhere. Most of China’s borders with its western neighbours were finalised by the late 1990s through a series of agreements that saw Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (newly independent from the Soviet Union) concede to China some 16,000 square kilometres of what had been their territory during the Soviet period.

Surprisingly, that outcome has been seen as concessionary by China, given that the land transferred represented only a small percentage of what China had wanted. China had initially sought 22% of the total surface area of Central Asia, including almost all of Kyrgyzstan. However, China agreed to those borders at a time when it was seeking allies in the region, and since then it has continued to push its neighbours on border agreements, in what is part of a pattern of increasingly assertive behaviour in the region. Locals opposed to renegotiations have also claimed that their national governments actually conceded more territory to China than they have admitted, and there is legitimate public concern that China will seek renegotiation on territories in future decades when the power differential is even further in China’s favour.

China has also pursued a strategy of significant land acquisition (and associated labour migration) through leasehold that predates the BRI. In 2009, China sought to lease 1 million hectares of land from Kazakhstan for soy production. That move attracted significant controversy in Kazakhstan, particularly because implicit in the deal was the inclusion of Chinese workers to work on the leased territory. Similar agreements have been reached in Tajikistan. One 2,000-hectare parcel of land leased to China in 2011 was expected to accommodate 1,500 expatriate Chinese farmers, and another 6,000 hectares of arable land was earmarked for lease to China (and exploitation by Chinese farmers) in 2012. Those developments in Tajikistan were accompanied by increases in labour migration from China, which had already increased from 3,000 Chinese expatriate workers in 2006 to 82,000 in 2011.

As BRI projects in Central Asia gain momentum, it’s likely that China will seek further concessions on access to land for agriculture and resource exploitation as part of its global strategy for resource and food security. It’s also likely that China will continue to use those projects as a ‘release valve’ for its own labour force, which will mean further increases in Chinese labour force migration to Central Asia.

China’s BRI investments in Central Asia clearly provide it with significant leverage over the region, and its associated land acquisition and labour migration lend a ‘colonial veneer’ to its engagement. China’s venture in Central Asia also carries significant risks from institutionalised corruption, authoritarianism and a potential for Islamic militarism. But what if China has already accounted for those risks because it has been planning an imperial project in Central Asia all along?