Central Asian countries regret allowing PRC infrastructure investments

Central Asian countries regret allowing PRC infrastructure investments

The backlash against foreign investments and expansionism by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to grow worldwide. In Central Asia, resentment of the PRC presence is growing especially quickly.

A series of anti-PRC protests, for example, erupted in recent months in Kazakhstan over the construction of Chinese factories, according to The Washington Postnewspaper. Meanwhile, in Kyrgyzstan in August 2019, about 500 local citizens entered a construction site run by a Chinese mining firm and fought with Chinese workers and seized equipment because the gold mining company allegedly contaminated the environment, killing livestock. Dozens of people were injured in the incident, according to Radio Free Europe. (Pictured: People protest the construction of Chinese factories in Kazakhstan during a rally in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on September 4, 2019.)

Chinese President Xi Jinping stoked anti-PRC sentiments in Central Asia in 2017 when he called for a “great wall of iron” to contain unrest in Xinjiang, China, Reuters reported.

Human rights groups assert that the instability in Xinjiang is in response to repressive activities by the PRC, especially against Turkic minority groups, according to Reuters. The PRC has cracked down on the groups, detaining as many as 2 million Muslims in internment camps in Xinjiang, including ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and Krygyz, according to a United Nations human rights panel.

Central Asia provides a key link in the PRC’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) scheme. The PRC, through OBOR, seeks to build and control a ground and sea network connecting Europe and Asia for economic, political and other purposes.

Many analysts worry that the PRC’s OBOR plan in Central Asia may contain a hidden agenda to expand the PRC’s territory in the region. Kazakhstan and Tajikistan share a more than 3,200-kilometer border with China’s Xinjiang province, over which the PRC seeks to maintain control.

Analysts are concerned the PRC, as it gains global influence, may revise existing border agreements established in the late 1990s with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to favor PRC interests.

In recent years, the PRC has increased its leasing of farmland in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that will be farmed by Chinese workers, which has also fueled resentment by local citizens.

Moreover, to achieve OBOR, the PRC has targeted nations under financial stress. Of the 68 countries the PRC has lent money, 23 have a high debt risk, including Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, The Washington Postreported. The PRC holds about 50% of Kyrgyzstan’s U.S. $4 billion in foreign debt, a large amount for a country with an annual gross domestic product of U.S. $7 billion. The PRC also holds nearly half of Tajikistan’s U.S. $2.9 billion in foreign debt, the newspaper reported.

As the PRC advances its OBOR projects in Central Asia, “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,” Connor Dilleen, aresearcher and former Australian foreign affairs official, wrote for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s commentary and analysis website, The Strategist.

The PRC’s Central Asian OBOR projects “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?” Dilleen asked.