The dragon’s cuddle

China’s security power projection into Central Asia provides a blueprint for how it might engage with Belt and Road Initiative countries in a similar fashion.

The dragon’s cuddle AFP Photo/ Uwe Anspach/DPA Picture-Alliance

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to deliver one of the speeches announcing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Kazakhstan was not incidental. It highlighted the centrality of Central Asia in Beijing’s thinking about the initiative. Consequently, it is useful to examine China’s behavior in Central Asia in some detail to understand better the longer-term consequences of Chinese influence and investment in regional countries under the BRI.

In the security space, Central Asia has been traditionally considered an area of Russian influence, but over time China has gradually increased its interests using five pillars for engagement: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), training and joint exercises, military aid, military sales and private security companies. Chinese security engagement in BRI countries should be understood in a broader context than military sales. Instead, a continuum of security activity should be considered, encompassing training and multilateral engagement as well as military sales. External powers seeking to understand or counter Chinese influence in this space need to engage in a range of security actions. China is investing considerable resources into educating and developing the next generation of security leaders in Central Asia. The longer-term consequences of these efforts may take decades to play out but will likely require a more sophisticated level of engagement from outside powers. The SCO is often considered an impotent institution that has failed to deliver any clear action. However, China and other members appreciate the consistent forum for engagement that the SCO provides, and the forum offers China opportunities to influence the norm. 

There is a persistent narrative about Central Asia that Russia leads on security issues while ceding economic leadership to China. This analysis is based on the historical view that Russia’s post-Soviet links in the region mean that the country will remain dominant in the security space. This is then translated into a view that China (historically the weaker security power) will abrogate its security interests in the region to Russia. Yet China is an increasingly consequential actor in Central Asia, rewiring the region with longer-term consequences for Beijing’s influence. This trend is increasingly reshaping the regional security apparatus, suggesting that the growing role that China is playing in other domains in Central Asia is extending into the security space. This gradually expanding security role is emblematic of China’s growing influence in the region – to Russia’s detriment. It also provides an interesting case study for how China’s security relations with the BRI countries might develop over time and a series of indicators to observe in order to better understand China’s longerterm influence in the security domain.

This essay examines China’s increased security activity in Central Asia and assesses the implications for its future engagement with countries under BRI. It will do this through exploring four of five pillars of China’s security relations with the five Central Asian countries to show how these relationships have evolved over time. The omitted pillar is private security companies. I conclude that China is expanding its security role in Central Asia to protect its interests in the region and is increasingly unwilling to abrogate security entirely to either local security forces or Russia. By doing so, Beijing is demonstrating an approach that could be read as a blueprint for how China might advance its security relations in other BRI countries.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization Much of China’s security activity in Central Asia is captured in the public imagination through the rubric of the SCO. Founded in the embers of the Cold War as a grouping focused on regional border delineation, the SCO was the first regional security institution outside United Nations structures that China joined. Originally made up of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it is an institution whose heart lies in Central Asia. The SCO has now expanded beyond these confines to include India and Pakistan as full members, while Afghanistan, Belarus and Iran are formal observers and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are dialogue partners. The initial logic of joining the SCO varied from country to country. China saw it as an umbrella organization to provide cover for its economic interests in Central Asia. Russia saw it as a way to control and contain Chinese activity in the region, while the Central Asian countries saw it as a way to extract more opportunity from their large neighbors. All of them saw the SCO as an easy way to build on the positive momentum that had accumulated through the Shanghai Five grouping and realized the benefit in establishing alliances in an increasingly UScentric world where NATO was expanding and the push toward democratization was encroaching on their borders. All six of the initial member states were at the moment of the SCO’s inception controlled by leaders with authoritarian leanings and strong links to their recent pasts as members of the Communist bloc.

The establishment of a grouping in which all members had equal power of determination, and all could find common ground on what they regarded as threats (specifically, anti-state elements), provided them with an alternative to the post-Cold War US order that was emerging. For China, however, the purpose of the SCO was much more sophisticated. The organization provided a way for the country to embrace its neighbors in a manner that gave them a sense of ownership, but it also provided a forum in which Beijing could test foreign policy tools. It was an opportunity for China to see how international institutions could be built, while also advancing its interests in its immediate neighborhood. This path could be interpreted as similar to the route that it has subsequently taken with BRI, which started as a series of speeches building out of foreign policy thinking in Beijing, and ultimately has evolved into a biennial forum and strategic concept that China uses to engage with the world. While BRI may lack the defined structures of the SCO, the SCO shows what the path from discussion forum to institution can look like.

Beijing has yet to realize its goal of transforming the SCO into a regional multilateral economic vehicle, as repeated attempts to create an SCO free trade area, development bank or joint account have all been stymied. The closest structure to have been developed in this direction is the SCO Interbank Consortium, which was established in October 2005 and brings together regional development banks. China has also not been able to direct the SCO to be an active force in dealing with its security concerns regionally – something reflected in the bilateral activity that it undertakes independently of the SCO and in the formation of the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism (QCCM), which will be discussed in greater detail later.

Nonetheless, Peace Missions and other exercises that the SCO undertakes on a semiregular basis provide an opportunity for China to test out its military hardware in quasi-kinetic environments involving foreign powers; learn from experienced armies, especially the Russian Army; and gain greater influence over Central Asian armed forces. These exercises also give Beijing an opportunity to see how equipment survives under fire, as well as to showcase it to a potential customer base. This is an interesting usurpation of a role previously dominated by Russia in the SCO and of other regional security exercises Moscow controls under institutions such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization. In the early days of Peace Mission exercises, the format was heavily influenced by Moscow. Russia had the most experience of all the forces involved and could interoperate easily with the Central Asian forces, sharing a language, equipment and a history of joint training.

Chinese forces, by contrast, often struggled to field enough soldiers who could interoperate with Russian-speaking partners. Over time, Beijing has sent a growing cadre of officers who speak Russian to participate in the exercises and has increasingly used the Peace Mission format as an opportunity to try out (and showcase publicly) new equipment. During the 2010 Peace Mission, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force undertook its first long-range cross-border bombing run in neighboring Kazakhstan, with a detachment of H-6H bombers and J-10 fighters using in-air Chinese refueling capabilities before bombing a target in Kazakhstan. In 2014, China debuted its Wing Loong unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which has the capability to shoot missiles at targets, as part of the exercise in Zhurihe, in Inner Mongolia. Two years later, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan completed the purchase of some of the platforms, while more recently Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are potential buyers. This trend mirrors broader Chinese approaches in BRI countries, where investment is often followed by Chinese standards and equipment. This incremental change is visible in other institutions as well. The SCO has developed many different structures and mechanisms, including educational institutions, a student exchange program and ministerial gatherings at numerous levels across all manners of member state national institutions (from women’s organizations to health care). One of the more significant security institutions is the China National Institute for SCO International Exchange and Judicial Cooperation at the Shanghai University of Politics and Law.

The groundbreaking ceremony for its campus was held in 2014 and co-hosted by then-Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev and then-Chinese head of security Meng Jianzhu. Funded and developed by the Ministry of Public Security and aimed at border guard and interior ministry forces, the institution provided various training courses to SCO members. The courses lasted a few months and gave these forces experience in China as well as an understanding of its interpretation of international rules and norms regarding counterterrorism legislation and practice. In terms of practical utility, this institution in some ways supplants the Regional Anti- Terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent. Moved to Uzbekistan from Bishkek in 2004 to strengthen Uzbek participation and highlight the importance of counterterrorism as a unifying issue, RATS has not delivered much in terms of practical support to the SCO. Although it has provided a forum in which Beijing can continue to advance its rhetoric of countering the “three evils” (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) and has facilitated information exchange among SCO members on terrorist groups, RATS has not delivered on many practical goals. On two separate visits to the secretariat, this author struggled to obtain any specific clarification about an operation or specific project RATS had led within the SCO.

Nevertheless, it provides another useful structure to help socialize Chinese security norms and build links with Central Asia. Yet, even as China continues to see the SCO as a useful vehicle in some areas, it has moved beyond the organization in terms of how it is trying to manage certain regional security concerns, particularly with Afghanistan. For example, China established the QCCM structure, a grouping that brings together the chiefs of army staff of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China to discuss border security and counterterrorism. The very existence of this new regional minilateral institution in many ways highlights the failures of the SCO to deliver on China’s regional security concerns.

The fact that the SCO was unable to deliver any direct or actionable security outcomes or tools to help manage security questions in Afghanistan – one of the major concerns for almost all members – reflects the failure of the institution. Chinese experts and officials repeatedly disregard the SCO as a useful partner in this respect, yet at the same time they make the point that this is not the function of the SCO, which they value for its convening power. China created the QCCM after years of seeking to focus the SCO as an institution more on Afghanistan, first through the establishment of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group and then later through bringing Afghanistan in as a formal observer. But none of this has moved the organization to focus its unified attention on that country. From Beijing’s perspective, the establishment of the QCCM has filled this gap. It also provides a useful structure for the PLA to formally connect and cooperate with China’s neighbors.

Beyond this mechanism, China has engaged Afghanistan through a range of multilateral institutions and minilateral formats. These include trilateral forums with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and other regional security institutions such as the Conference on Interaction and Confidence- Building Measures in Asia, the Istanbul Process and the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (with the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan). More recently, the current round of peace negotiations are led by the trilateral group of the United States, Russia and China, and bilateral dialogues with countries such as the United States and India. The key point is that all this activity is taking place beyond the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and, from Beijing’s perspective, to some degree is a result of that institution’s failure to address the security challenge in Afghanistan.

This highlights the pragmatic and utilitarian approach that China takes toward the SCO. Rather than being primarily a tool for the management of security issues, the SCO is a tool for Chinese soft-power projection into Central Asia, while Beijing focuses on alternative institutions to manage its hard-power security concerns. This trajectory of the SCO highlights a number of lessons for the Belt and Road.

First, the use of rhetoric about shared security threats shows China appealing to local leaders’ security concerns and fears as a way to create a web of institutions to engage them, ultimately delivering a comprehensive economic, political and security outcome rather than solely the security one that is publicly articulated. Second, China is willing to create multiple formats for engagement and continually look for new structures and ways to influence regional countries. This has the effect of creating multiple forums for engagement, while also flooding other systems with activity. Finally, the preceding discussion shows how China used security institutions, structures and rhetoric over a nearly 15-year period to spread its norms and even standards throughout a region. Such consistent engagement has
delivered results in terms of building strong relationships with complicated neighbors to such an extent that it is hard to find expressions of displeasure between them.

One can see a similar pattern emerging with the BRI as China uses this initiative to brand a range of activities and institutions. This point was most recently affirmed to the author at the Tsinghua University World Peace Forum in Beijing in July, during a panel that included experts from Chinese think tanks. The contact group was first proposed during the 2005 Moscow summit and was formally announced during the 2006 Shanghai summit.

Training and joint activity

It is not just with respect to Afghanistan that China has created structures beyond the SCO that appear to usurp the expected roles for this organization. Beijing has for some time been providing training in China for Tajik and Kyrgyz border and interior ministry forces in the form of 11-month language courses, as well as scholarships for senior officers and officials to attend schools. These courses serve to build a web of links for China through important institutions in neighboring countries. In addition, a growing number of Central Asian military officers pass through the PLA National Defense University. In September 2018, officers at the PLA Academy of Military Sciences joked about the fact that recent Central Asian delegations had included numerous senior officials who had been through their educational establishments.

Looking beyond the military arena, China has established outreach programs for senior policymakers in Central Asia. For example, it has a training program in Kyrgyzstan that focuses on connecting with members of the country’s ruling elite and giving them experience in China. It is unclear whether similar programs exist elsewhere, but given the growing number of elites who have had some didactic experience in China – for example, new Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev – it seems as though Beijing is achieving this goal. Beyond the SCO Peace Mission exercise, China has undertaken a range of bilateral exercises with Central Asian powers, mostly focused on addressing bilateral security concerns. In 2002, it undertook its first bilateral exercise with Kyrgyzstan; in August 2006, it held the Tianshan-1 exercise with Kazakhstan (a bilateral antiterrorism exercise that stretched from Almaty to Yining); and finally, in September of the same yearthe PLA held its first joint exercise with Tajikistan.

China has reportedly been undertaking joint exercises with Uzbek security forces focused on counterterrorism efforts between the People’s Armed Police and the National Guard of Uzbekistan. China’s first training exercise with Russian forces under the auspices of the SCO was held in 2005 and dubbed the first Peace Mission. This order of priorities reflects the importance that China apportions to bilateral exercises with Central Asia, as opposed to its broader SCO engagements or efforts with Russia. Since 2005, China has further undertaken numerous bilateral training exercises, expanding its focus to include border forces. In 2016, it undertook a large joint training exercise with Tajikistan involving some 10,000 troops near the border with Afghanistan. This was not the first time Chinese and Russian forces had trained together. The two sides have been training with each other since October 1999, when Russian naval vessels visited and exercised with Chinese counterparts in Shanghai.

While China still likely views its bilateral exercises with Russia as a learning opportunity, the dynamic of its exercises with Central Asian countries is different. Beijing sees these exercises as a mechanism for increasing its influence and ensuring that its security concerns will be adequately addressed. This, again, provides a longerterm example of how security engagement under the BRI is likely to play out. From a security perspective, China is still principally focused on its own interests such as borderconcerns, rather than larger regional questions. This is something that is particularly relevant in a region like Central Asia that is physically adjacent to China. Looking further afield, China’s security interests within BRI countries are likely to remain equally narrow and focused on avoiding entanglement in local conflicts. This is important to note within the context of BRI. Given that the BRI routes often traverse regions of conflict, Beijing is unlikely to step forward proactively to be a peace broker unless its direct interests are affected.

Military aid

China has steadily increased its military aid to Central Asia. While absolute numbers are hard to calculate due to a lack of information, funding flows appear to have commenced in the 1990s. Clear Chinese support for Kyrgyzstan emerged with the signing of initial bilateral agreements at around $750,000 per annum. Tajikistan reportedly received a similar level of support in the 1990s, with reports suggesting that around $15 million was given between 1993 and 2008. Aid was provided through grants from the Ministry of National Defense or the Ministry of Public Security and covered uniforms, communications equipment, night-vision devices, office furniture and machinery, and unspecified vehicles.

Support further increased in 2014 to include the construction of officers’ quarters and barracks in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This marked the beginning of a noticeable growth in military aid from China to both countries, with Defense Minister Chang Wanquan announcing that China was to give hundreds of millions to Tajikistan and $16 million to Kyrgyzstan. In 2017, then chief of joint staff Fang Fenghui announced another large gift of $14.5 million to Kyrgyzstan on a visit to Bishkek. There have been similar reports of China providing aid to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Between 1997 and 2003,
Kazakhstan received around $4.5 million in technological aid, communications equipment and vehicles. Details of aid to Turkmenistan are almost impossible to verify, but experts and diplomats based in Ashgabat have reported at various times Chinese support for Turkmen security structures.

The Afghan border has been an additional source of attention for Chinese military aid and support in Tajikistan. China has reportedly built border posts for Tajik security forces. For example, an article in the Russian press quoted the Turkmenistan defense minister as saying that the country had received a loan of $3 million. There are established bases on both sides of the border in Badakhshan. From these locations, Chinese forces reportedly have engaged in joint patrols and provided training (in addition to the training China provides in Xinjiang).

China has also given military aid to Afghanistan, including for base construction, training and the provision of broader security supplies such as airport security gates, uniforms and communications equipment. While Chinese experts in the past largely denied such reports, now they openly acknowledge military aid, explaining that it reflects China’s natural interests in the region.

The lessons for the Belt and Road can, again, be seen in the incremental growth over time of China’s military support for and influence in BRI countries. Recognizing local needs, Beijing is willing to provide targeted military support that also addresses its own security needs and concerns. The focus of this aid is not on broader local security issues but rather on narrow Chinese interests. This is a useful point to keep in mind when considering how China might increase its security efforts following BRI investments and how the economic and security dimensions of its relationships with regional countries might interact with each other. What is significant is the degree of influence that military aid provides China in key areas of these countries’ security structures.

Military sales

The final pillar covered in this essay is a more recent addition to China’s security contribution in Central Asia. In some ways, it reflects the fact that the continuum of China’s engagement with the region must be considered and underscores the need to consider how this interacts with China’s own growth. From being a country whose economy was relatively poor and similar to its Central Asian neighbors (especially in Xinjiang, the adjacent region), China has now leapfrogged into a position from which it is playing the most significant economic role in Central Asia. China is increasingly becoming an important security partner to regional countries, not only in terms of engagement, aid and diplomatic status, but also in terms of military sales.

This is an issue of concern for Russia, which is losing market share to China. Military sales are an important aspect of the development of China’s longer-term influence across the region and provide another example of how Chinese influence could spread in BRI countries. One of the most prominent examples of China’s growing role in the region’s defense sales is the biennial Kazakhstan Defense Expo. Initiated in 2010, the event is an opportunity for the burgeoning Kazakh defense industry to show its wares, while also providing a platform for key regional players to showcase their platforms to a regional customer base.

Although China has participated in the expo since the first iteration, its presence and reporting around the event have increased. Despite this trend, there is limited evidence of substantial military sales by China to Central Asian countries, though the quality of the sales that are known is very high. Currently, the most information is available about Chinese sales to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has purchased Wing Loong UAV platforms as well as Y8F200W military transport Minnie Chan. China is helping Afghanistan set up a mountain brigade to fight terrorism, according to the South China Morning Post.

Turkmenistan has purchased UAV platforms, HQ-9 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and the portable equivalent of SAM systems, man-portable air-defense systems, from China. Finally, Uzbekistan has bought higher-end sniper rifles, an HQ-9 SAM system and UAVs. Tashkent has also reportedly even managed to broker a deal for some knowledge transfer through the development of a local factory to assemble and make UAVs. Working with locals in sensitive areas or providing opportunities for regional investment that helps develop the industrial base are exactly the sorts of assistance that Central Asian governments are seeking.

Uzbekistan, for example, is the regional hub for Huawei and ZTE. Both companies have long established factories in the country and have used them as a base for regional sales. While these facilities mostly produce commercial software and hardware, they have helped build national telecommunications systems and rail and oil infrastructure.

More relevant to security is the development of “safe city” programs, mostly by Huawei, in Dushanbe and reportedly Astana (now Nur-Sultan). Such projects have also long been discussed in Bishkek and Osh. The status of the Kyrgyz projects is unclear, given local pushback, and some local reporting indicates that Huawei and the Kyrgyz government have parted ways. China is thus one of the most significant (and increasingly influential) technology providers across Central Asia and sells regional countries equipment with both civil and military uses. Although Russia remains the pre-eminent provider of military hardware, with vestigial Soviet links still dominating procurement structures, China is increasingly becoming the supplier of the future and provides the region with communications technology, UAV platforms and some bigger-ticket items like missile systems.

As China continues to gradually move up the value chain, it is possible that this procurement pattern will similarly change in Beijing’s favor. China’s military sales to Central Asia set a clear precedent for the BRI, particularly in terms of technology provision. The Digital Silk Road is the cyber and digital articulation of the initiative, and as Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision and other companies commit to investments and projects along BRI routes, China will slowly become a more significant provider in this space. Given the obvious dual-use military, domestic security and civilian applications of such technology, it is hard not to see a pattern of activity in which China becomes increasingly influential in key sectors across BRI countries. This trend has already started within Central Asia, and it is likely to continue to play out in a similar fashion in other regions.


China’s approach to Central Asia has been characterized by incremental growth. This includes the defense and security sector, where Beijing has quietly but consistently increased its engagement across a variety of areas. In many ways, this trend simply reflects China’s expanding role in the region, but it has consequences that are far-reaching. Specifically, it provides an interesting blueprint for how China’s BRI strategy might play out in the longer term in other contexts. What is particularly significant for the broader BRI narrative is the blend of hard and soft power that China deploys in the defense and security sector.

This illustrates how influence in this sector need not only grow through obvious means such as joint training or military sales, but rather can cover a gamut of activities that cumulatively have the effect of helping rewire a region away from traditional security providers and partners. The long-term impact of this approach is far deeper in some ways than traditional defense and security relationships, which
are focused on mitigating specific threats or problems. China’s investment in and development of regional communications infrastructure whose defense and security importance is only likely to increase over time reinforces a connection between hard and soft power that is likely to have profound consequences in the long run.

The broader consequences for BRI of this ever-tightening security embrace of Central Asia are to show how China can use the defense and security sector to create a web of links and dependencies in the sensitive area of national security in such a way as to ensure its long-term influence and presence. What Beijing is seeking to achieve will of course vary from region to region, but this approach is one that ensures a gradual but influential future role for China, which will continue to act to displace traditional influencers such as the United States and Russia.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.

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