The Challenges to China’s National Rejuvenation – Part Three: The Lure and Threat of Central Asia

1 July 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme Download PDF

China’s deteriorating international relationships could see countries work with the United States to curb China’s ability to use the South China Sea, or provide basing and logistical support to the US, or both, leaving China prevented from importing its sea-borne energy requirements and exporting its manufactured goods. Beijing, therefore, needs to be able to access its energy sources from Turkmenistan and Iran via overland routes that run through Central Asia, and to export its manufactured goods along them. Those routes need to be securitised, however, requiring China to extend its influence over Central Asia. That objective could encounter some severe challenges.


Key Points

  • China faces looming demographic issues that could hinder its plan to increase domestic consumption, forcing it to continue to depend on its exports to maintain economic growth.
  • It also appears to have over-estimated its capability to design and manufacture computer semiconductors, which will hinder its drive towards technological hegemony.
  • Beijing’s aggressive behaviour has, simultaneously, caused its relationships with its democratic neighbours and liberal democracies in North America and Europe to deteriorate.
  • Several of those countries are now modernising their militaries, focusing on China as a potential adversary and conducting military exercises in the South China Sea.
  • China must, therefore, develop energy and trade routes through Xinjiang, manage its western neighbours to ensure its continued access to energy supplies, remain the regional hegemon and prevent Islamism from spilling into Xinjiang from Muslim-majority Central Asia.



As the first part of this paper showed, China’s planned “dual-circulation economy”, its strategy to reduce its overwhelming economic dependence on exports to fickle Western markets by increasing domestic consumption, is at heightened risk of failure due to its falling birth rates. That strategy is also predicated on the manufacture of high-value goods, such as semiconductors. By manufacturing semiconductors in large volumes, China could become the global hegemon in that field, thereby allowing it to influence those countries that have a greater dependence on semiconductors, i.e., the richer developed countries in North America, Western Europe and Asia. That endeavour is also at heightened risk of failure. Beijing’s challenges are compounded by its hubris, mercenary approach to commerce and overall aggressive behaviour, which is evident around the world. The Western countries on which China is dependent for its exports are now hardening their individual stances against it. They have not only issued statements that reject China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, for instance, but now join the US in conducting “freedom of navigation” operations within that body of water by sailing their warships through it, as the second part of this paper showed.

China’s relationships with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines have deteriorated, just as they have with India and Australia. Beijing recognises that those countries could combine with the US to curb its ability to use the South China Sea, or provide basing and logistical support to the US, or both. That situation would prevent China from importing its sea-borne energy requirements and exporting its manufactured goods to its remaining markets, thereby curbing its ability to wage war. China would be hard-pressed to secure the East and South China Seas, let alone the wider Indo-Pacific region, forcing its navy to play a defensive role within those seas. Beijing, therefore, needs to be able to access its energy sources from Turkmenistan and Iran via overland routes that run through Central Asia, and to export its manufactured goods along them. Beijing needs to securitise those routes, however, requiring it to extend its influence over Central Asia. That objective could face some severe challenges.



China needs to pay close attention to Central Asia. As a previous FDI paper noted:

While the Pacific region unequivocally remains Beijing’s top priority, Central Asia’s strategic significance to China must not be underestimated for several reasons. First, China has much to gain from access to Central Asian markets, resources, transit corridors, ports and security partnerships, all of which offer China potential power projection capabilities across a vast transcontinental plain. Second, westward expansion offers China a means to escape the confines of its eastern front – thereby encountering less resistance from the US and its allies in East Asia.

That demands explication. Beijing realises that it cannot rely entirely upon its maritime access to import its energy supplies and export its manufactured goods. The “Malacca Dilemma” – the realisation that it depends to a very large extent on energy imports that transit the Strait of Malacca chokepoint, the same feature that could be blockaded by, say, India during a conflict thereby reducing its ability to defend itself – figures prominently in its geostrategic calculus. It needs, therefore, to establish alternative routes to ensure its energy supplies. Those alternative routes need to be terrestrial, spanning from the Middle East to its western province of Xinjiang. Those same routes could act as an alternative to move its exports to its Middle Eastern and African markets, as the graphic below shows. Xinjiang, therefore, plays a very important strategic role in China’s thinking about its ability to sustain itself economically. Xinjiang is, however, dominated by the Uighur and other Muslim-majority communities, all of whom are ethnically, socially, linguistically and religiously different from the Han Chinese of eastern China. Those are differences that the Chinese Communist Party cannot countenance since they pose a potential threat to China’s economy. Beijing needs to ensure, therefore, that it commands complete and absolute control over Xinjiang and its people.


To be clear, China could increase its imports of Iranian energy via its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor pipelines. In the case of a conflict, however, India may align itself with the US so as to rid itself of its perceived China threat and could attack those pipelines. Under the Modi Government, India has previously indicated its willingness to strike at targets beyond its borders, notably in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, in Pakistan itself and in Burma/Myanmar, whenever it felt those attacks to be necessary. If New Delhi were to take part in a conflict waged by the US against China, it is more than likely that it would strike at the pipelines in Pakistan that carry energy products to China. That would leave China almost completely dependent upon Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for its energy supplies.

China and Russia entered into a US$400 billion ($534.6 billion) agreement with Russia in 2014 for the supply of natural gas. Neither the US nor any of its allies is likely to attack those pipelines. China would, nevertheless, be very hesitant about having to rely almost solely on Russia for its energy supplies. While their bilateral relationship is progressing smoothly, at least superficially, that progress being brought about by a common antipathy towards the US, at a deeper level, things are not going so well. China, which requires advanced technology for its submarines, recently conducted cyber-attacks on Russia’s Rubin Design Bureau, using an image file with malicious software embedded inside it via a specific tool that has become a hallmark of multiple entities linked to the Chinese Government. The Rubin Design Bureau is the organisation responsible for the design of the ultra-quiet Borei-class ballistic missile submarine, the unique Belgorod and Losharik special missions submarines and the Poseidon nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ultra-long-range “doomsday” torpedo. In any case, China is trying to wean itself off its dependence on Russian military systems. It has developed a fighter aircraft engine, for instance, that is based on a Russian engine that it previously imported. It remains unknown, however, if Russia would assist China in case the latter found itself in a conflict with the US. As a previous FDI paper showed, Russia and China are not natural allies and suspect, more than trust, each other’s motives. That suspicion is the more apparent among ordinary Russians who distrust China’s actions in eastern Siberia, its claims to Lake Baikal and its intent to reclaim Russia’s only warm-water port of Vladivostok (also here). It is possibly those claims that led President Putin to announce, while saying in a clear reference to China that some countries with over a billion people want to take Siberia, that ‘If They Try To Bite Russia, We’ll Knock Out Their Teeth So That They Cannot Bite!’. In other words, Russia’s “friendship” with China goes only so far and no further. China, in short, cannot rely on a Russia that distrusts it.

The suspicions of China that the Russian people hold are shared by the people of Central Asia, who remain fearful of Chinese expansionism. That fear manifests as protests or conflicts with Chinese workers and businesspeople in the region. It is underlined by China’s aggression. That is the situation that obtains in Kazakhstan. Bilateral trade between China and Kazakhstan grew from US$368 million ($491.8 million) in 1992 to $28.5 billion ($38.08 billion) in 2013. It fell to $21.8 billion ($29.1 billion) in 2019, a consequence of China’s economic downturn, which was brought about by reduced demand in the West for its exports. Kazakh oil has fallen as a proportion of China’s energy imports, reducing from 11.98 million tons in 2013 (4.25 per cent of China’s total oil imports that year) to 3.23 million tons in 2016 (0.85 per cent of China’s total oil imports).

Despite the falling energy exports to China, Beijing pays special attention to Nur-Sultan. Beijing saw Kazakhstan as a vital overland link to its markets in Europe. It consequently financed the expansion and modernisation of the border town of Khorgos in Kazakhstan and constructed a sister city, also called Khorgos, on its side of the border. Beijing planned to make the twin cities an inland transport hub and a vital link in its Belt and Road Initiative. Whether those plans will fully eventuate, now that the EU is restricting China in Europe, remains to be seen.

As it has elsewhere, China’s relationship with Kazakhstan has been darkened by Beijing’s hubris and aggressive behaviour. The people of Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia have been made all too aware of China’s atrocities against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Province that were conducted as a matter of policy by the Chinese Government, as a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists demonstrated (see also this report, here and here). As is now standard operating procedure, the Chinese Government set about deleting all records on the camps in the wake of those leaks. Beijing had good reason to carry out the clean-up. As another report noted:

Torture methods used during interrogations and as punishment included beatings, electric shocks and stress positions. They also included sleep deprivation, being hung from a wall, or being locked in what’s called a “tiger chair”, a steel chair with affixed leg irons and handcuffs that render the body immobile, often in painful positions.

One former detainee told Amnesty he witnessed the torture of a cellmate who he believed was being punished for pushing a guard, and who was made to sit in a tiger chair in the middle of their cell, restrained and immobilised, for three days. He said he was expressly forbidden to help the man.

“Two [cuffs] were locked around his wrists and legs… A rubber thing attached to the ribs to make the person [sit] up straight… He would [urinate and defecate] in the chair…We told the guards. They said to clean him. His bottom was wounded. His eyes look unconscious”, he is quoted as saying in the report.

The former detainee also told Amnesty he later learned the man had died in the camp.

An estimated forty per cent of the people of Xinjiang belong to the Uyghur community; they are ethnically Turkic and mainly Muslim. They are, as was noted above, different from the majority Han population of China in their social structures, traditions and language, besides their religious ideology. As a consequence, the Chinese Communist Party, which does not countenance social differences that it feels threaten its legitimacy and rule, has sought to diminish Islam’s influence and raise its own in the province in order that the Uyghurs pledge their allegiance primarily to the Party and only secondarily to Islam. In order to effect that change, the Party has carried out (and continues to carry out) draconian measures in Xinjiang that directly target the Muslim people in it.

Apart from resettling Han Chinese in large numbers in Xinjiang, the Communist Party has imposed severe restrictions on the Uyghurs’ practice of their religion and their freedoms; mosques are destroyed, around 16,000 according to one estimate; there are restrictions on the names that may be given to babies; the Muslim traditions of veils for women and beards for men are banned and access to civil amenities for those who do not comply are curtailed; the city of Karamay promulgated, for instance, an ordinance that banned bearded men and women wearing burqas or hijabs from travelling on public buses; Uyghur drivers are often stopped and their identification papers and those of their passengers examined; their mobile phones are searched for content and applications that are deemed, arbitrarily in many instances, to be a threat to national security; Uyghur civil servants, students and teachers are prevented from fasting during the Ramadhan period and restaurants are forced to remain open. Schools are forced to conduct lessons in Mandarin and not Uyghur. These restrictions and often blatant violations of the rights accorded to other Chinese citizens have rankled in the Uyghur community, a situation that is not helped by Western corporate greed or desire to comply with Beijing’s mandates.

Arguably worst of all, the Communist authorities offer the Uyghur people cash and other incentives to intermarry with Han people, leading to a commonly-held perception in the Uyghur community that it is a blatant attempt to breed it out of existence. The claims of human rights abuses were examined by the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in conjunction with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, earlier this year. A panel of experts, convened by those organisations, applied the articles of the 1948 Genocide Convention to the ongoing treatment of the Uyghurs in China and reported their findings in “The Uyghur Genocide: An Examination of China’s Breaches of the 1948 Genocide Convention”. Their findings aligned very closely to those of Human Rights Watch, which published its own report, “Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots’: China’s Crimes against Humanity Targeting Uyghurs and Other Turkic Muslims”. Ethnic Uyghurs in Australia have not been spared China’s human rights violations, either, as this story demonstrates.

It is in that environment that the case of Sayragul Sauytbay and her description of conditions inside the concentration camps that Beijing describes as “re-education camps” in which more than a million Uighurs, Kazakhs (the second-largest ethnic group in the region) and other mostly Muslim people who belong to China’s ethnic minorities are incarcerated comes into its own. Ms Sauytbay trained as a doctor, learned to speak Mandarin fluently and then re-trained as a teacher. She taught Mandarin to Kazakhs and other minorities in Xinjiang. Witnessing the growing curbs being placed on minorities in the province, she and her family decided to emigrate to Kazakhstan but delayed the move. In the interim, tensions between ethnic Kazakhs and the Chinese military led to clashes between them. As a public sector worker, however, she had to turn in her passport. In July 2016, her husband and children emigrated to Kazakhstan while she tried to get her passport back and join them. Because her husband and children had emigrated to Kazakhstan, she believes, she was accused of being a spy, violently interrogated and instructed to divorce him. She then realised that she was being held back in Xinjiang as a hostage. In November 2017 she was taken, with a hood over her head, to teach Chinese in a camp to the inmates. Her contract said that breaking the rules would be punished with the death penalty. She was forbidden from talking to the prisoners, to laugh, cry or answer questions without permission.

As an ethnic Kazakh, she was interrogated several times and eventually informed that she would be held in a camp as an inmate, not a worker. She fled to the Chinese side of Khorgos and then into Kazakhstan, where she was reunited with her husband and children after more than two years. Under Chinese pressure, she was arrested by Kazakh secret police who beat her and informed her that she would be deported to China, while her husband would go to prison and her children to an orphanage. While incarcerated, however, a video about her went viral in Kazakhstan and, in a court hearing, detailed her experiences in Xinjiang. The court ordered her to be set free.

While her troubles did not end there – her mother and sister in Xinjiang were, for instance, arrested and incarcerated because she had fled the country – her story highlighted the treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang by the Chinese Communist Party. China is viewed with heightened suspicion and anger by ordinary Kazakhs in Kazakhstan as a consequence. The Canadian House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development also used her case in part to highlight China’s atrocities, as did the Uyghur Human Rights Project in its report titled “The Government Never Oppresses Us”: China’s proof-of-life videos as intimidation and a violation of Uyghur family unity.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan pose another set of problems for China. These two Muslim-majority countries that border Xinjiang Province have recently witnessed conflict over water rights that have resulted in at least thirty-five deaths and displaced several thousands of people from their homes. China recognises that the success of its Belt-Road Initiative depends on the political stability of the countries through which the elements of that project pass.

China ought, therefore, to be concerned about that conflict. In 2014, it signed an agreement with Tajikistan on the so-called Line D Project, the branch route of its Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline network to move liquid natural gas from Turkmenistan to China. Beijing also entered into a currency exchange with Tajikistan in 2015 in order to buoy the somoni, Tajikistan’s currency. That move has increased China’s influence in the country, which Beijing sees as the shortest route to resource-rich Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries and, consequently, a key neighbour. It seeks, therefore, to increase its influence in the country. While China has invested around US$3.2 billion ($4.27 billion) in the Line D section of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which connects western China with Turkmenistan’s gas fields via Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, it has also invested in developing Tajik roads and cement-production facilities.

China fears that its treatment of its Muslim minorities in Xinjiang could foment anger against it in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which could lead to combined or co-ordinated Muslim efforts to subvert China’s agenda in that province. It also fears that returning Muslim Islamic State fighters who have honed their fighting skills in Iraq and Syria could begin operations against its forces in Xinjiang. China has already witnessed attacks by Uighur fighters who have been trained and experienced conflict in Syria (also here). The Chinese Communist Party’s topmost goals are, first, to remain in power and, second, to maintain peace (it uses the term “tranquillity”) in order to focus its efforts on economic development, which would provide it with the legitimacy that it craves and quell social unrest. It fears a Muslim backlash, therefore, and seeks to influence its neighbouring countries in large part to prevent any Muslim unrest from spilling over into Xinjiang. It is only a matter of time, however, before groups such as Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Turkistan Islamic Party and the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement focus on China’s actions against Muslims in Xinjiang.

It is likely that combination of factors, along with its deteriorating relationship with India, that has led Beijing to upgrade its existing airfields and construct new ones in Tibet and Xinjiang. As the image below shows, China is hardening and expanding its existing air force bases in those two regions and constructing at least one new air base in Xinjiang and two more in Tibet.

The three air force bases in Xinjiang will likely be tasked with maintaining an aspect of security in the province, guarding it from illegal access from Central Asia, keeping watch over India’s own military base upgrades in the union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and extending, ultimately, China’s reach into Central Asia and India, if that becomes necessary.

It is in Afghanistan, however, that China is likely to face its greatest opportunities and challenges. History demonstrates that Afghanistan has never been successfully conquered and held by a foreign power. Alexander the Great failed to subdue the local tribes, choosing instead to marry a local chieftain’s daughter in order to gain a degree of influence, and Great Britain won its wars against Afghanistan in the nineteenth century but could not win the peace, just as the Soviet Union and the US failed to do in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. By withdrawing the US from Afghanistan, Washington likely hopes that, among other things, the country will become China’s Vietnam. China will be drawn to Afghanistan for several reasons but whether it succeeds or fails to win over Afghanistan remains to be seen, as the final part of this paper will show.


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