In the ‘Great Game’ of Central Asia, China’s Leader Seeks the Advantage
BEIJING — As Xi Jinping, China’s leader, visited Central Asian countries this week, he stepped off planes to rousing performances by rows of dancers, musicians and ceremonial guards. Uzbekistan’s leader called him “the greatest statesman,” Chinese state media declared, while the leader of Turkmenistan praised his “wise leadership.” They draped him in medals.
For Beijing, the pomp and fanfare that greeted Mr. Xi, as well as the effusive rhetoric of his counterparts, served to show that China is not isolated despite coming under pressure from the United States and much of the West for its human rights violations and threats to Taiwan. Such messaging by China’s propaganda apparatus carries more urgency as Mr. Xi prepares to extend his power and elevate his authority at a Communist Party congress next month.
In the narrative presented by Beijing, Mr. Xi is the reliable global leader that other countries look to for support in a world made turbulent by American hegemony. Even Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s autocratic leader, seemed almost deferential in his meeting with Mr. Xi on Thursday, acknowledging that China had “questions and concerns” about Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But the pageantry also demonstrated China’s growing sway in Central Asia — a vast, resource-rich region of mountains and steppe once considered Russia’s domain, where great powers have long vied for influence.
In Mr. Xi’s meetings with several Central Asian leaders, they were quoted as using phrases and political slogans coined by the Chinese Communist Party, praising him for “building a moderately prosperous society” and advancing toward China’s “great rejuvenation.” Mr. Xi was described by his counterparts as “the core” of his country, for instance, and the single person responsible for China’s successes — a narrative Beijing has intensified in recent months.
“The words from the president of Uzbekistan are exactly like the local governors in China use when they have the chance to praise the current leader — they use that script,” said Peidong Sun, a Cornell University associate professor of contemporary Chinese social and cultural history.
The image China’s propaganda outlets are cultivating is partly an exaggeration. Uzbekistan’s leader, in presenting Mr. Xi with an award, had expressed respect for him “as a statesman,” according to the president’s website, and not “the greatest statesman.” Many Central Asian nations welcome Chinese investment but are wary of becoming dependent on Beijing. In countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, people share linguistic, cultural and in some cases family ties with groups in Xinjiang, a region in China’s far west. Many have been concerned about the vast crackdown there that has ensnared Central Asian people.
But China’s extensive reach in the region has reshaped the landscape in undeniable ways.
Beijing has long seen Central Asia as a critical frontier for the country’s trade expansion, energy security, ethnic stability and military defense. China has built railroads, highways and energy pipelines and expanded educational exchanges throughout the region.
While the former Soviet republics of Central Asia are still connected to Moscow by roads, rail lines and other infrastructure, their trade is now increasingly with China. The end of the American military presence in Afghanistan last year reduced the role of the United States as a geopolitical counterweight to Moscow and Beijing. Mr. Putin’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine, followed by a series of humiliating defeats of the Russian army, may give Beijing room to gain an edge.
One complication for Mr. Xi’s ambitions in the region is his alignment and personal bond with Mr. Putin, the Russian leader whose invasion of Ukraine drew unease in the region. Mr. Xi has often described Mr. Putin as his “best friend,” and in February he hailed a friendship that had “no limits.” On Thursday, Mr. Xi appeared to distance himself, at least in public, saying nothing about Moscow’s position on Ukraine and offering reassurances to Central Asian leaders that China would support their sovereignty.
The region’s concerns about Russian expansionism were most evident when President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, an ally of Mr. Putin’s, said at a forum in June in St. Petersburg, Russia, that he would not recognize the “quasi states” that Russia has set up in occupied Ukrainian territory. The pushback against the Kremlin was striking because in January, Mr. Putin sent troops into Kazakhstan at Mr. Tokayev’s request to quell an uprising and stabilize his government.
“These are resource-rich countries, relatively sparsely populated, and if Putin’s grip on them weakens, China has been clever and opportunistic,” said Harry Broadman, a former American trade official and a World Bank specialist in Central Asia and China.
The region is familiar with walking a tightrope between powers. The Great Game, a term popularized by Rudyard Kipling, was the 19th-century competition between Russia and Britain for control over Central Asia. Russia’s influence peaked in 1979, with the Soviet miliary occupation of Afghanistan, then waned with the breakup of the Soviet Union 12 years later.
In what has become a new version of the Great Game, China, with nine times the population of Russia and 10 times as large an economy, has also long been viewed with wariness in Central Asia. Countries there have responded over the years with stringent limits on immigration from China and other measures. They have also sought investment from the United States in projects like a factory that builds locomotives in the capital of Kazakhstan.
But Mr. Xi accelerated China’s efforts to expand its influence in Central Asia, starting in 2013 the so-called Belt and Road Initiative, a program of railway, port and highways along the land and maritime Silk Roads that linked China to Europe and the Mideast for centuries.
“China’s impact and influence in Central Asia has been increasing for a decade or so,” said Chen Dingding, a professor of international relations at Jinan University in Guangzhou.
William C. Kirby, a Harvard professor of Chinese history, said that Chinese influence in Central Asia may now be reaching levels not seen since the peak of the ancient Silk Road during the Tang dynasty, which ruled China from 618 to 907.
Russia has been the main threat to the independence of Central Asian republics since Peter the Great, the czar in the early eighteenth century. China seems less threatening right now by comparison.
“The greatest danger for them is to become once again drawn too tightly to Moscow’s orbit,” Mr. Kirby said.
China’s courtship of Central Asia is aimed in part at drumming up support on the global stage for its interests. In meetings with Mr. Xi on Thursday in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ahead of a Chinese-led security conference on Friday, one leader after another pledged support for China’s territorial claim to Taiwan, a self-ruled island democracy.
But there appeared to be some limits to Beijing’s sway. Mr. Xi made little headway on an issue at the heart of the security conference on Friday: support for his hard line policies in Xinjiang. No Central Asian leaders joined China in publicly denouncing a United Nations report that found China may have committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, though Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan referred generally to backing China’s stance on the region.
“Central Asian countries don’t want to deal with this, they would really like to stay out of this,” said Niva Yau, a senior researcher at the OSCE Academy, a research center and graduate school in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. In that respect, she said, “China failed a bit on this trip.”
Li You contributed research.