The Dragon's Cuddle
China's Security Power Projection into Central Asia and Lessons for the Belt and Road Initiative
This essay examines how China’s growing security engagement with Central Asia provides a blueprint for how China might engage with countries through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in a similar fashion.
Xi Jinping’s decision to deliver one of the speeches announcing BRI in Kazakhstan was not incidental. It highlighted the centrality of Central Asia in Beijing’s thinking about the initiative. Consequently, it is useful to examine China’s behavior in Central Asia in some detail to understand better the longer-term consequences of Chinese influence and investment in regional countries under BRI. In the security space, Central Asia has been traditionally considered an area of Russian influence, but over time China has gradually increased its interests using five pillars for engagement: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), training and joint exercises, military aid, military sales, and private security companies (PSCs). Given the analysis of PSCs elsewhere in this report, this essay will focus on the first four pillars in order to better understand the long-term consequences of China’s security engagement in Central Asia and survey options for policymakers seeking to address China’s growing influence.
- Chinese security engagement in BRI countries should be understood in a broader context than military sales. Instead, a continuum of security activity should be considered, encompassing training and multilateral engagement as well as military sales. External powers seeking to understand or counter Chinese influence in this space need to engage in a range of security actions.
- China is investing considerable resources into educating and developing the next generation of security leaders in Central Asia. The longer-term consequences of these efforts may take decades to play out but will likely require a more sophisticated level of engagement from outside powers.
- The SCO is often considered an impotent institution that has failed to deliver any clear action. However, China and other members appreciate the consistent forum for engagement that the SCO provides, and the forum offers China opportunities to influence the normative space.
Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.