For much of the last decade, China has been steadily increasing its ties with Central Asia, displacing Russia as the region’s biggest trade partner in 2008. As its economic interests in the region have grown, so, too, have its security interests. China has established strategic partnerships with all five Central Asian countries, and it has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to help ensure security in the region. Beijing, for instance, has sold weapons and air defense systems to Turkmenistan. In February, China announced that it was in talks to open a counterterrorism center in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, and in September Beijing unveiled plans to finance more outposts along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan. With so much at stake in Central Asia, China seems to be redoubling its security initiatives in the region, but its presence there can only grow so much.
For a long time, China’s main security priority in Central Asia was mitigating the threat of Uighur separatist groups operating in the region. The country has been carrying out an aggressive and decadeslong campaign to assimilate its Uighur population, provoking a low-level insurgency against Beijing’s rule from among the minority group. In response, Beijing has cracked down further, forcing many Uighur groups — violent and nonviolent — to flee the country. Many sought refuge in Central Asia, which already had small indigenous Uighur communities. Consequently, most of China’s joint military exercises with Central Asian armed forces have involved fighting separatists and terrorists. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — a regional group that also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — focuses its security efforts in Central Asia on combating terrorism, extremism and separatism.
Beyond the Uighur threat, Beijing is also increasingly concerned with protecting its energy and infrastructure projects in Central Asia and stemming the influx of drug traffickers and militants returning from the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. Joint military exercises to enhance border security have become common along the Chinese-Kyrgyz border. In early August, Beijing inaugurated a new quadrilateral cooperation and coordination mechanism with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan to coordinate counterterrorism and promote intelligence sharing and joint training programs.
A recent incident in Kyrgyzstan has given China even greater cause to up its security presence in Central Asia. On Aug. 30, a suicide bomber targeted the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan. Such incidents have been rare in Central Asia, though Chinese institutions and expatriates in Kyrgyzstan have been the targets of smaller attacks. (In 2010, for instance, rioters in Bishkek targeted Chinese merchants and stores.) After the embassy attack, Kyrgyz officials said the perpetrator was Uighur, a revelation that could prompt Chinese leaders to adopt an even more active security and military posture in the region.
Even so, China’s security initiatives in Central Asia can only expand so much. Despite Moscow’s concerns that China is becoming too assertive in the region, Beijing will be cautious not to encroach on Russia’s sphere of influence. In fact, the two countries could join forces to ensure security in Central Asia; after all, neither wants terrorist activity or instability to increase. More important, Central Asians are wary of China’s growing involvement in their economic and military affairs, as evidenced by recent mass protests in Kazakhstan. Though China will continue to pursue its security objectives in Central Asia, it will not be able to rival Moscow’s position.