Resistance along the Silk Road: How the Belt and Road Initiative is Fuelling Anti-Chinese Sentiments
The article discusses how the Belt and Road Initiative, particularly in Central Asia states- Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and how the Belt and Road Initiative is generating anti-China sentiments, despite massive Chinese economic investments.
Following the Cold War, the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan gained a central role in China’s ambition to bridge together Eurasia under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), owing to their strategic location and natural resources endowment (Dave & Kobayashi, 2018; Han & Ghobadian, 2020).
Since 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the former Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) in Kazakhstan, China has invested billions of dollars in constructing and upgrading transport infrastructures across the five Central Asian nations (Dave & Kobayashi, 2018). Nevertheless, recent years have witnessed the rise of anti-Chinese sentiments across these nations, as China’s economic and diplomatic influence in the region has grown dramatically (Niyazbekov, 2020).
This article will commence by outlining Chinese investment in Central Asia over the past decade, with an emphasis on Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan - two of the most crucial nations in China's regional ambition. It will then examine the emergent anti-Chinese sentiments across the region, before indicating how these may constrain China's future engagement. This will conclude that the rise of anti-Chinese sentiments may prompt China to reconsider its approach within Central Asia to maintain its presence without exacerbating dissent.
Chinese Investment in Central Asia: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan
Due to their importance to the BRI, Central Asian nations have attracted significant Chinese investments over the past decade. China has become the principal economic power in the region, as the value of its trade with Central Asia has climbed from $1.8 billion in 2000 to over $30 billion in 2015 (Indeo, 2018). As highlighted by Mukhammadsodik (2023), China has emerged as the main source of foreign direct investment (FDI) across Central Asia, holding the status of the largest investor in Kazakhstan. Although there are no precise figures, some sources indicate that China was also the largest investor in Turkmenistan in 2021 (Mukhammadsodik, 2023). As for Tajikistan, approximately 62 per cent of total FDI was contributed by Chinese investment. Meanwhile, Beijing’s investment in Kyrgyzstan accounted for 27 per cent of the country’s FDI.
In response, all five Central Asian countries have welcomed Chinese investment and sought to maintain lively economic relationships with China. From their perspective, China’s substantial investment is central to their economic growth, since it promotes regional connectivity through infrastructure development and opens up trans-regional transport networks, which provide expanded market access for these landlocked countries (Dave & Kobayashi, 2018). More crucially, the new transport infrastructure enables these countries to replace the pipelines, roads, and railways inherited from the Soviet era, which were originally designed to cater to the needs of the Russian hub of the Soviet economy (Indeo, 2018).
Through the BRI, China attempts to resurrect the ancient Silk Road trade route, thereby strengthening Central Asia’s historical significance. To achieve this, China has financed a wide range of infrastructure projects across Central Asia, with the main focus placed on Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan respectively (Han & Ghobadian, 2020; Kyzy, 2020; Rashid et al., 2022). The strategic prominence of Kazakhstan is worth emphasising, as the nation is crossed by two of the crucial BRI land corridors, and its border city, Khorgos, is perceived as the main commercial and logistic hub of Eurasia (Indeo, 2018). Pouring almost $30 billion of infrastructural investment into Kazakhstan, China has sought to take advantage of the country's location (Han & Ghobadian, 2020). The most noticeable project is the Khorgos Gateway which is a dry port situated on the Kazakh-China border in the Khorgos Eastern Gate Special Economic Zone. Operating since 2015, this dry port serves as a major hub for the transportation of goods between the two nations, providing a quicker and more cost-effective alternative to maritime transport (Han & Ghobadian, 2020).
Likewise, Kyrgyzstan has also become a central destination for Chinese investment. The majority of Chinese FDI in Kyrgyzstan has gone towards the mining sector, yet China is also a significant contributor to the nation's import market and holds almost half of the Kyrgyzstan government's debt (Jones, 2023; Sheraliev, 2021). On top of that, imports from China amounted to $736 million in 2020, making China a significant contributor to Kyrgyzstan's import market (Jones, 2023). The most important Chinese-funded project is the Bishkek Thermal Power Plant, in which over $350 million has been invested to modernise and expand the plant, to boost its capacity and efficiency (Jones, 2023). The project is expected to improve energy security and provide job opportunities for Kyrgyz locals (Niyazbekov, 2020).
However, as will be discussed in the following section, these Chinese-funded projects have sparked socio-environmental concerns among the local communities despite the economic opportunities they have generated, contributing to rising anti-Chinese sentiments across Central Asia.
Fuelling the Dissents: The Rise of Anti-Chinese Sentiments
Although the BRI has provided Central Asian countries with economic benefits, it has also brought about a plethora of socio-environmental ramifications. Examples of these impacts are well-cited. Sidle (2020) indicates that the Chinese-built mountain roads across Central Asian countries, like the Pamir Highway, have resulted in detrimental environmental issues such as noise, pollution, landslides, and road closures. Furthermore, Jones (2023) shows that Chinese investment projects in Kyrgyzstan have caused environmental degradation and the contamination of rivers and crops on which local communities rely. Jones (2023) further illustrates that the Chinese-financed power plant in Bishkek is associated with the increasing pollution in the city. As such, the socio-environmental repercussions brought by Chinese investment represent a driving force behind the rise of anti-Chinese sentiments.
In addition, the conversation about China’s pursuit of ‘debt trap’ diplomacy towards Central Asian countries has contributed to rising discontent with Chinese investment. In other words, there has been a burgeoning debate that China has sought to trap countries in debt, to then turn this debt dependence into geopolitical influence. A good example is Tajikistan where hundreds of Chinese-backed companies invest in large-scale infrastructural projects like the Dushanbe-Uzbekistan Border Road Improvement Project (Rashid et al., 2022). In 2017, the nation’s debt to China accounted for almost $2.5 billion, which is above half of its foreign debt (Dave & Kobayashi, 2018). This figure surged to over $3.3 billion in 2022, which seems significantly disproportionate to the size of the nation’s economy (Dzamukashivili, 2022). Therefore, whether Tajikistan could repay this huge debt remains questionable. Concern about the Chinese debt trap is also present in Kyrgyzstan, where China has invested in the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and the China-Central Asia gas pipeline (Kyzy, 2020). Further, as mentioned earlier, half of Kyrgyzstan’s government debt was held by China in 2021 and, for this reason, the public's perception of Chinese investment is largely negative, with scepticism about the country's ability to pay back these loans (Jones, 2023).
Another cause of the growing anti-Chinese sentiments lies in the maltreatment of Uyghurs, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and other Muslim minorities living in the Chinese-governed Xinjiang (Niyazbekov, 2020). This year witnessed the death of Baqytkhan Myrzan, an ethnic religious scholar, in the correctional camp in Xinjiang - exacerbating the resentment among Central Asian communities (RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, 2023). Maizland (2022) indicates that since 2017, approximately 800,000 to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslims, which include ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been imprisoned. This Chinese effort to ‘re-educate’ Kazakh and Kyrgyz Muslim minorities has resulted in a surge of anti-Chinese demonstrations in Central Asia, protesting not only Chinese investment but the mass imprisonment of their ethnic communities (Kyzy, 2020). Woods and Baker (2022) cite the survey conducted by The Central Asia Barometer between 2017 and 2021, which indicates that respondents from Kazakhstan displayed a more negative perspective of China, yet the number of respondents from Kyrgyzstan who indicated that they had a "very unfavourable" opinion of China increased with each subsequent survey.
With these driving forces in mind, many locals in Central Asia have expressed opposition and discontent with Chinese investment in various forms. These have included protests, social media campaigns, vandalism, and boycotts of Chinese goods and services (Gerber, 2022; Jardin, 2019). For example, in March 2021, hundreds of people gathered across cities in Kazakhstan to protest the Chinese growing influence in the country and condemn China’s violent policies towards Kazakhs and Uyghurs in Xinjiang (Maizland, 2022). Similarly, in February 2019, hundreds of people rallied near the At-Bashy in Kyrgyzstan’s central Naryn region to protest Chinese plans to construct a logistics centre (Jone, 2023). Despite this, the Central Asian governments continue to downplay this issue and welcome Chinese investment. Hence, the voices of anti-Chinese sentiments remain unheard or, to a great extent, are eclipsed by the economic benefits China offers.
To summarise, as China's economic and diplomatic influence in Central Asia has grown significantly in recent years, there has been a rise in anti-Chinese sentiments across the region. People are becoming increasingly concerned about the ‘debt trap’ posed by Chinese investment, the detrimental socio-environmental impacts of Chinese-funded projects, and human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. As will be briefly discussed, this growing antipathy has wider implications.
The rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia has broad implications for both China’s ambition to gain influence worldwide and stability in Central Asia. Two main consequences should be noted.
Firstly, the rise in discontent with China’s growing influence in the region could affect relations with its regional competitors, Russia, which has similarly sought to strengthen its footholds in Central Asia in several ways (Dave & Kobayashi, 2018). That said, the growing attitudes against Chinese presence could provide room for Russia to increase its economic and diplomatic influence in the region. This may also fuel the rivalry between the two giants in Central Asia, further complicating their relations.
Secondly, anti-Chinese sentiments could potentially worsen the tensions among the ethnic and religious groups in the region. Central Asia is a region characterised by diverse ethnic and religious communities, with a long history of tensions and conflicts due to the distinct cultures, beliefs, and traditions of each group (Helf, 2020). Considering the growing ethnonationalism in all five Central Asian countries, there are concerns that the rise of anti-Chinese sentiments could further complicate these dynamics (Helf, 2020). For example in 2020, the Dungan, an ethnically Chinese Muslim minority, were attacked by the ethnic Kazakhs in southern Kazakhstan, which resulted in fatalities and over 100 injuries (Lillis, 2020). As such, the growing discontent with Chinese presence has incited resentment between ethnic groups and Chinese Muslim minorities, undermining stability in the region.
It is indisputable that the five Central Asian nations have become a focal point of China’s grandiose project to connect Eurasia by reviving the ancient Chinese Silk Road. Yet, despite the economic benefits brought by Chinese investment in the region, this article has demonstrated that there has been a rise in anti-Chinese sentiments over the past few years. This rise has resulted from growing concerns about the socio-environmental consequences of Chinese investment, including human rights violations and the increasing dependence of Central Asian countries on China.
These rising dissents could not only obscure China’s future engagement in the region but also lead to regional instability in the coming years if left unaddressed. Consequently, Chinese strategic and economic interests would be jeopardised. Therefore, China may need to reconsider how to maintain its presence in the region while avoiding exacerbating these emergent tensions.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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