Is China Replacing Russia in Central Asia?
Beijing may be an appealing partner, but that doesn’t mean the region is breaking with Moscow.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Chinese President Xi Jinping holds a summit with Central Asian leaders in Xian, China, U.S. President Joe Biden suggests a thaw in U.S.-China relations, and Beijing authorities censure a Chinese standup comedian for a joke about the People’s Liberation Army.
Xi Meets Central Asian Leaders in Western China
Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Central Asian leaders in Xian, a city in western China, last Thursday. Most of the public discussion centered around trade, but Xi also spoke of helping countries in Central Asia improve “law enforcement, security, and defense capability.” This rhetoric is part and parcel of China’s increasing focus on global security, which seems largely directed at the United States.
The Xian summit sparked concerns among U.S. pundits about a Chinese push into Central Asia while Russia is distracted by its war in Ukraine. During the meetings, Xi made a point to highlight that China supports state sovereignty in Central Asia. In doing so, he likely intended to undo the damage done by Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye, whose recent ill-considered remarks questioned the legitimacy of post-Soviet countries.
Although Central Asian countries are seeking a reliable security partner in the absence of Russia, they’re not seeking one that is against Russia. What regional governments want isn’t protection against the great powers but a security guarantee against domestic rebellions—long the chief military purpose of the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Russia was once a key guarantor of domestic stability. In January 2022, it sent thousands of troops to Kazakhstan to help put down an anti-government uprising. Post-Soviet ties once made Russia seem more appealing than China in much of Central Asia, but the war in Ukraine has changed those calculations. In addition to questions of capacity, Russia’s growing unpopularity in the region makes the presence of Russian troops more fraught. (For example, Kazakhstan’s public strongly supports Ukraine, and its government has spoken out in favor of Kyiv.)
All of this makes China an appealing alternative. Beijing isn’t really in the business of shielding other states against Moscow. In Central Asia, it seeks to keep the United States out, buttress autocratic governments (which it finds easier to woo than democratic ones), and bring Chinese companies further into the fold. China also presents itself as strongly opposed to so-called color revolutions, which it sees as U.S.-backed plots. So do many political elites in Central Asia.
At the Xian summit, Central Asian governments—and especially neighboring Kazakhstan—continued to express their support for China’s position in Xinjiang, where Beijing has portrayed alleged human rights abuses and cultural-religious oppression as “antiterrorist” measures.
In backing China on Xinjiang, Central Asian states are no different from other governments in Muslim-majority countries, which have chosen ties with Beijing over solidarity with the Uyghur Muslim minority. But this position is more tricky for neighboring states, which have worked behind the scenes to secure the release of their citizens (or members of other ethnic groups, such as Kazakh or Kyrgyz people) from camps and prisons in Xinjiang while maintaining public support for Beijing. Central Asian states now increasingly crack down on cross-border activism.
The turn toward China may not play particularly well with Central Asian publics. There is still enthusiasm for trade with China, as well as for expanded energy projects, but the presence of Chinese troops within the borders of any Central Asian state would rapidly shift sentiment against Beijing. There is already an undercurrent of fear about China taking over economically, or even reasserting premodern claims in the region. And while governments would welcome the expanded surveillance that comes with Chinese trade packages, their constituents may not.
Given this, the Xian summit does not seem to represent any real break between Russia and Central Asia. China has carried out many cooperation programs in the region before, and Russia is still part of many regional groups like the SCO. There is a perennial fantasy among some Western thinkers that Russia and China will split, without any actual evidence. As proof of this prediction, in an interview with the Economist, Henry Kissinger offered that Chinese and Russian officials spoke disparagingly of the other to him. They were likely telling him what he wanted to hear.
As long as both governments see Washington as their enemy, a relatively peaceful contest for influence won’t split up a Beijing-Moscow partnership, even in Russia’s backyard.
What We’re Following
Biden hopes for U.S.-China thaw? At a press conference in Hiroshima, Japan, on Sunday, U.S. President Joe Biden said that a thaw was coming in U.S.-China relations; he also said the United States would continue to help Taiwan to defend itself against China. I hope Biden’s claim about a coming thaw isn’t just wish-casting and that he has access to information that justifies it, but from the publicly available evidence, there is no sign of tensions easing from the Chinese side.
As I noted last week, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs attacks the United States on a near-daily basis, China churns out pro-Russian propaganda, and U.S. firms remain the target of punitive actions from Beijing. Meanwhile, the Biden administration seems to seek a quasi-reset with China by using different language (such as “derisking” over decoupling), but officials in Beijing aren’t picking it up.
I suspect the shift in tone is also a response to pushback from establishment institutions that U.S. policy was becoming too hawkish—a debate that feels more about liberal sensibilities than any consideration of the Chinese leadership’s actions or ideology.
Beijing can’t take a joke. A Chinese comedian’s mild joke about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) last week led to a $1.9 million fine for his entertainment company. Li Haoshi, a stand-up comedian known as “House” onstage, joked that watching his dogs chase a squirrel reminded him of the PLA slogan “Fight to win!” Beijing authorities intervened after audio was shared on social media, fining the company that represents Li and confiscating the profits of weekend shows. Li is now under investigation for insulting the PLA and causing “bad social impact.”
Any complaints about the harshness of the measures against Li online were quickly drowned out by censorship and nationalism. Around the same time, China suspended the Weibo and Bilibili accounts of a popular British Malaysian comedian after he made a joke about Chinese surveillance. One of the reasons that Chinese censorship has become so petty is that years of crackdowns under Xi quashed most dissident content years ago. The authorities must now go after the inconsequential to justify their own existence.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- Russia’s Convict-Soldiers Have Their Own Brutal Rules by Kristaps Andrejsons
- Why Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’ Has Egypt up in Arms by Sara Khorshid
- How to Understand Brazil’s Ukraine Policy by Oliver Stuenkel
Tech and Business
Chip wars. China has fired a fresh salvo in the battle over semiconductor production by banning companies dealing with sensitive information from buying chips made by U.S. firm Micron Technology. Micron makes advanced memory chips, one of the sectors where Chinese production is relatively competitive. Domestic producers will probably be able to fill the gap, which could cost Micron as much as 10 percent of its revenue. The move was anticipated after Beijing announced an investigation of the firm in early April.
Meanwhile, South Korean manufacturers will also likely move into Micron’s space. Washington requested that Seoul try to prevent that in the event of a ban, but the South Korean government has no clear legal mechanism to restrain its firms. U.S. chip manufacturers might hope that the United States relents on its policies toward Chinese-made chips, but that seems unlikely. China isn’t just acting in retaliation; it’s also trying to create the conditions to boost domestic chip production, a long-standing goal.
Previous Chinese efforts to do so largely failed—resulting in wide-ranging purges—but industry experts I’ve spoken to recently suggest that China will eventually succeed by throwing money at the industry.
Fast fashion on the chopping block. Some of the most successful Chinese firms in the United States in recent years have been fast-fashion companies: Shein and online retailer Temu are both among the most downloaded apps in the United States. Chinese online logistics is world-class, and the highly competitive atmosphere in China in the 2010s created companies honed to outperform global competitors.
However, Shein and similar e-commerce companies also face accusations of ethical problems ranging from the use of coerced labor to environmental issues, not to mention customer complaints. As Caixin Global explains, those concerns are now turning political. A comprehensive and damning report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission looks set to be the basis of congressional and regulatory actions later this year.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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