China’s Military and Security Presence in Central Asia

 By Danish Yousuf
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Abstract

In the complex realm of global geopolitics, Central Asia has emerged as a crucial arena for the strategic interests of major powers. China’s growing support for Central Asian nations, particularly through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has drawn considerable scrutiny regarding its impact on regional politics and security dynamics. However, less attention has been paid to China’s increasing involvement in military and security diplomacy. This includes the supply of advanced surveillance technologies, military aid, and collaboration in professional military training. Focusing specifically on Central Asian nations, this article delves into how these countries perceive and engage with China’s services. It also examines the regional consequences of China’s expanding role in areas traditionally dominated by Russia. 

Key Words: Central Asia, Urban Security, Surveillance, China, Private Security

China and the Security Realm

China’s expanding influence in Central Asia goes beyond physical infrastructure development to encompass a range of services, particularly in the domain of military and security. This involves the provision of public services, including cutting-edge technologies and security assistance (Strange, A, 2023). Unlike tangible infrastructure, these services are inherently asymmetric, relying on knowledge and skills rather than material resources.

The proliferation of Chinese services in Central Asia is evident in various domains, including private security, bilateral military drills, and police training programs (Zanini, 2022). China’s security engagement in Central Asia stems from its perceived threats, driven by expanding national interests necessitating corresponding security measures (Gupta, 2023). This shift from purely economic to economic and security interests became evident in 2015, with Xi Jinping emphasising military diplomacy as a foreign policy tool (Sinaga, 2020). China’s concerns in Central Asia include safeguarding its BRI infrastructure and Chinese personnel involved in projects, along with countering the potential spread of terrorism in the Xinjiang region (Zhang, 2022).

One feature of this is offering smart technologies for urban security and providing military education to regional counterparts (Artigas, 2017). The deployment of smart technologies for urban security purposes by Chinese firms is reshaping public spaces and perceptions of safety across Central Asia. Surveillance technologies, often branded as components of smart city projects, are becoming ubiquitous, with companies like Huawei leading the charge (Yan, 2019). These technologies have immediate implications for how residents interact with their urban environments and perceive public safety. However, their widespread adoption also raises concerns about privacy and civil liberties. There is little understanding of how data is used and by whom, as well as concerns about potential backdoor access to these technologies. While these technologies may be framed as tools for maintaining public order, their deployment also have broader geopolitical ambitions.

The typical route for expanding surveillance technologies in urban areas often involves high-ranking officials such as ministers, or mayors being invited to China, where they are impressed by the cutting-edge technologies showcased at companies like Huawei or Hikvision (Marat, 2021). They are then offered opportunities to install similar technologies back home. There is a global prestige associated with innovating urban spaces, and cities like Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Tashkent are striving to become innovative and modern.

Domestic demand also plays a significant role in driving the expansion of surveillance technologies in urban areas. Urban middle-class residents in Central Asia, like elsewhere in the global south, demand public order and ensure safety, particularly due to the influx of new migrants (UN ESCAP). They seek solutions to detect and punish disorderly and criminal behaviour in public spaces, leading to a demand for surveillance infrastructure.

Chinese private security firms are increasingly expanding their operations in Central Asia, particularly in countries like Kyrgyzstan where there’s a growing demand for security services due to perceived risks, such as the 2016 Chinese embassy bombing in Bishkek. Zhongjun Junhong, a prominent Chinese private security company, has rapidly gained traction in Kyrgyzstan since its establishment in 2016, attracting clients from various Chinese enterprises investing in the region, including infrastructure projects like the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway (Yan, 2019). This trend is driven by the vulnerability of Chinese investments in politically unstable countries.

Military Programs

Simultaneously, China is investing in the long-term capacity-building of Central Asian military forces through military education programs. Chinese universities are offering specialised training to regional military officers, laying the groundwork for deeper defence cooperation and interoperability in the future (Marat, 2021). While the immediate impact of these educational initiatives may not be apparent, they represent a strategic investment in China’s influence in the region over the long term. In recent times, China has increased its military influence in Central Asia through various means, including conducting military exercises, providing training to military personnel, increasing arms assistance and exports, and enhancing military infrastructure development.

Since 2002, China has intensified its military exercises in Central Asia, including bilateral and multilateral drills within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Notably, China and Russia held 10 bilateral exercises in the region from 2014 to 2019 (Jardine & Lemon, 2020). Demonstrating its military capabilities, China engaged in a large-scale exercise with Tajikistan in 2016, involving 10,000 personnel in the Gorno-Badakhshan region (Zanini, 2022). In response to perceived limitations in steering the SCO, China established the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) in 2016 with Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, focusing on regional security (Kucera, 2016). In 2019, military exercises in the Gorno-Badakhshan region led to observations that Dushanbe increasingly relies on Beijing for security. China continued its engagement in bilateral counterterrorism exercises, such as “Cooperation-2019,” involving Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) alongside Kyrgyz National Guards and Uzbek police forces (Zanini, 2022). Chinese media presents cooperation events with Central Asian countries, such as Tajikistan, in a predominantly positive light.

The Long Term Issues

China’s expanding footprint in Central Asia’s military and security landscape presents both opportunities and challenges for the region. While the adoption of smart technologies promises improved urban security, concerns about surveillance and privacy linger. Similarly, while Chinese military education initiatives offer potential benefits for regional defence capabilities, they also raise questions about long-term dependencies and strategic alignment. 

Central Asian states have various reasons/motivations for accepting Chinese military assistance. For some, such as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, limited access to resources from other security alliances like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) makes China an attractive alternative partner. Meanwhile, countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan seek to strengthen their security forces to address internal security challenges like organised crime and terrorism.

However, the extensive Chinese military assistance also raises concerns about its long-term political implications for Central Asia. One key concern is the potential consolidation of authoritarian regimes in the region, as governments utilise Chinese support to reinforce their coercive apparatus and suppress dissenting voices under the pretext of maintaining public order.

Conclusion

The extensive Chinese military assistance in Central Asia underscores the region’s strategic importance to China’s geopolitical ambitions. While it may provide short-term security benefits, its long-term implications for political stability, governance, and sovereignty in Central Asia remain subject to ongoing debate and scrutiny. As Central Asian countries continue to engage with external partners, they must carefully assess the trade-offs and risks associated with their security cooperation arrangements to ensure the preservation of their national interests and autonomy.

While India may not wield the same level of influence as China in the region, yet it can capitalize on concerns regarding potential overexploitation of the region. There is a growing apprehension toward China’s increasing debt burden in the region, especially considering its loans often come with conditions and the perception of being debt traps. In contrast, India’s programs are primarily grant-based, emphasising mutual benefit and sustainable development rather than financial leverage. By highlighting this difference in approach, India can position itself as a more reliable and equitable partner. This strategy not only fosters goodwill but also enhances India’s soft power and diplomatic standing in the region, potentially opening up avenues for deeper economic and strategic cooperation.

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