Iran in Central Asia - Future Obstacles for Chinese Economic Dominance in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan?

Elizabeth Woods and Thomas Baker

Kyrgyzstan Kazakhstan Uzbekistan China Iran 25.04.2022

China was among some of the first countries to recognize the independence of the nations of Central Asia in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, quickly establishing diplomatic ties with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan in the first week of January 1992. Skipping forward thirty years, China has propelled itself to the position of Central Asia’s leading economic partner; in the process, investing previously unthinkable sums of money in the region and beyond. In contrast, Iran, whilst currently unable to compete with China in Central Asia on almost all fronts, has repositioned itself towards fostering engagement with the former Soviet ‘Stans. Tehran, combining its sizeable religious and ethnic affinity with many parts of the region and its access to vital seaports and security priorities in Afghanistan, has leveraged a more-than cordial level of rapport with the countries of Central Asia. To this end, Iran has implemented a new “Look East” policy to engage Central Asian countries on a selective, bilateral basis, which contrasts with China’s hegemonic approach of pumping billions into Central Asia, viewing the region as a vital ingredient to its global infrastructure and soft power agenda.


The Central Asia Barometer (CAB) Survey is a biannual large-scale research project which measures social, economic, and political atmospheres in Central Asian nations by conducting interviews with 1,000-2,000 respondents in each country from 2017 (Wave 1) to 2021 (Wave 10). Data collected by CAB points to a steady decrease in public sentiment towards China from respondents surveyed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Iran, on the other hand, is seemingly perceived as unknown - unproven, untested, and unfamiliar. Whilst Iran and China possess wildly divergent economic capacities and foreign policy objectives, Iran could later see itself considered as a possible supplementary partner on the horizon, offering a different set of opportunities for Central Asia as well as a potential alternate set of challenges for the region.


China


Launched in 2013 by Premier Xi Jingping in Kazakhstan, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or “New Silk Road” project is the most ambitious mass infrastructure project ever conceived. Chinese policymakers envisage both a land and a maritime-based silk road economic belt consisting of development and investment projects stretching from South East Asia to Europe, including parts of Africa. The BRI is modeled on the ancient Silk Roads of the westward Han Chinese Dynasty expansion of 206 BCE- 220 CE which established thousands of miles of trade routes through modern-day central Asia towards Europe, and southward to India and Pakistan. Under these plans, Xi’s flagship foreign policy undertaking sees Chinese companies and banks funding and building roads, 5G networks, power plants, ports, railways, and fiber optic cables around the world, significantly expanding Beijing’s political and economic clout through growing dependence.


1. Public Sentiment towards China has Consistently Decreased


Within Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, respondents have held an increasingly negative view of China from 2017 to 2021. Kyrgyzstan has remained more consistently negative - with the number of those who indicated that they had a “very unfavorable” opinion of the nation steadily rising with each subsequent wave. 


2. China Remains the Region’s Dominant External Partner Amid Declining Public Sentiment


The sentiment of Kazakhstanis, Uzbekistanis, and Kyrgyzstanis towards China has followed a recent downward trend. At the same time, Chinese investment has dramatically increased.


Total Chinese investment in Central Asia was valued at USD40 billion at the end of 2020, with over half having been funneled into Kazakhstan. The press service of the President of Uzbekistan also reported a sharp increase in investment from Beijing beginning in 2018, with the total volume increasing steadily up to USD9 billion by the end of 2021. Moreover, in 2019, China invested a total of USD301 million in Kyrgyzstan. Has this massive investment in the BRI project affected the mood of Central Asian citizens regarding China?


Across the five-year data period of survey waves collected by Central Asia Barometer for Kazakhstan, a significant decrease in public sentiment towards China is present, particularly regarding those who reportedly viewed China as ‘somewhat favorable’. A possible key explanation for this trend can be found in the Kazakhstani response to Chinese human rights violations in the Chinese region bordering Kazakhstan - Xinjiang. The treatment of ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz peoples in China’s largest region has sparked a huge number of protest events, particularly in the major cities of Almaty and Nur-Sultan. On March 27th, 2021, hundreds gathered in the aforementioned cities in addition to Oral, Shymkent, and Aktobe to protest the creeping Chinese influence and the mass incarceration of indigenous Turkic-speaking communities in Xinjiang. Later, on December 4th, 2021, relatives of individuals detained in China staged a protest outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty for the 300th consecutive day, demanding their freedom.


For many Kazakhs with family members detained in Xinjiang, the specter of Kazakhstan boosting economic ties and relations with China is unacceptable. Nur-Sultan must tread a delicate line between the delivery of vital investment from China, whilst also ensuring that domestic discontent regarding the government’s response to events in China does not boil over into the levels of unrest seen in January of 2022. This explanation sheds light on the array of reasons for the drop in public sentiment of Kazakhstanis towards China. Many Kazakhs do not want to be aligned with China in part due to this and view President Tokayev and his government as being complicit with the persecution of Turkic groups due to Kazakhstan’s massive economic dependence on Beijing. 


With Chinese investment, come Chinese workers and Chinese tech. Kazakhstanis remain staunchly opposed to these facets of Chinese influence. Concerns over China developing energy infrastructure in Kazakhstan, crowding out the job market with local workers, and forcing an increase in national debt are dominant within the population.


In April of 2016, up to 2,000 individuals took to the streets in several cities to denounce planned changes to the land code which allowed foreigners to rent land for 25 years. Whilst the government ultimately banned the sale of land to foreigners in 2021, the events clearly demonstrated public opposition to such proposals to be strong.

 

Similarly, for those in Uzbekistan, sentiment towards China has nosedived in recent years. Those who viewed China in a ‘somewhat favorable’ light dramatically decreased from a 70% high in Wave 3 down to just 32% in Wave 10, the most recent installment of the CAB Survey.


Between 2019 and 2022, the most extensive Chinese investments into the country have been injected into the cement sector, including multiple plant projects worth in some cases over USD150 million in the Tashkent and Jizzakh regions. By 2020, Chinese debt owed by Uzbekistan grew to USD3 billion, or 20% of total foreign debt. Concerns of ‘debt trap diplomacy’ and creeping Chinese expansion in Central Asia under the veneer of honest development policies, being voiced in the U.S., particularly, have grown progressively louder. For not just Uzbekistan, but all nations involved in the BRI, governments run the risk of pursuing a policy of over-reliance on one primary creditor. In doing so, these governments may become victims of the creditor pursuing financial and economic levers of manipulation to pursue their own interests. 


President Mirziyoyev has pushed on with the policy of playing great powers off against each other through a balanced engagement policy with the US, China, and Russia, building on the policy of his predecessor and first president, Islam Karimov. Where the foreign policy of the two leaders differs is in the scale and intensity of cooperation executed by Mirziyoyev. China’s economic ties in Uzbekistan go far beyond any previous scale of foreign economic activity in the country’s independence era. Perhaps the dwindling opinion of Uzbekistanis on China stems in part from a perception of Mirziyoyev 'overstepping’ the mark and diverging from the values of the nation’s founding father in allowing one nation to gain such a dominant position. Economic dependence on China firmly goes against Uzbekistan’s historical policy of international neutrality and suspicions of any additional regional players.


The number of Kyrgyz citizens who perceived China in a ‘somewhat favorable’ light across all survey waves remained consistently low, but without the steep high-to low declines of their Kazakh and Uzbek counterparts. Almost 50% of global Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Kyrgyzstan comes from China, with approximately 80% of this being diverted into gold extraction and metallurgy projects.


Chinese investment has the potential to transform the critically undeveloped infrastructure system of the Kyrgyz Republic. The dire need for transport modernization and development is highlighted by the fact that rail transport accounts for just 5% of passenger and freight traffic across the nation. The proposed Kyrgyz-Uzbek-China railway, which currently only China could provide, would be a vital boost for Kyrgyz domestic and regional connectivity but would enshrine economic dependence on China even further. When asked about China’s infrastructure efforts to date, former Transport Minister Berdaliyev said the tunnels and flyover bridges constructed were ‘unlike anything Kyrgyzstan has seen before’. Perhaps considerations such as these played a role in shaping respondents’ opinions of China. 


Similar to Kazakhstan, respondents in Kyrgyzstan may also have a negative view of China due to the latter’s treatment of ethnic Kyrgyz within the Xinjiang region. Activist groups have sprung up also in Kyrgyzstan, advocating for the safety of their relatives trapped across the border and demanding that the Kyrgyz government and outside powers intervene on their behalf. Despite the light which these activist groups and their protests have shed on this issue, Bishkek, much like Nur-Sultan, has opted to not address these allegations of human rights abuses. It appears that China’s efforts to provide Kyrgyzstan with much-needed improvements to the nation’s infrastructure have trumped the need to provide aid to ethnic Kyrgyz in Xinjiang. 


Iran


Iran is a nation that possesses deep historical ties to large parts of Central Asia, given the cultural and linguistic legacy which sprawling Persian empires left upon the region. Even today, Uzbek cities such as Samarkand and Bukhara boast large Persian-speaking populations, while Tajikistan remains a majority ethnically and linguistically Persian nation. However, only recently has Central Asia become a foreign policy priority for Tehran, which now sees this region as a potential “bridge” between Iran and the East. The “Look East” policy constitutes a key aspect of Iran’s approach to international relations, and it has sprung engagement with nations within the region on an individual, bilateral basis - in particular, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.


3. Public sentiment toward Iran Remains Low and Uncertain


Surprisingly, many in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan remain ambivalent in their sentiments towards Iran. Despite a large Persian legacy in sections of Central Asia and recent efforts by Tehran to establish a stronger presence within the region, Iran is just simply not on the radar for many.


When asked their opinion on Iran, around one quarter and above of all respondents from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan replied with the answer “Don’t Know” over several different waves of the Central Asia Barometer study. 

In addition, the number of those who report a very unfavorable opinion of Iran has steadily risen from 2017 onward. Perhaps residents of these nations are hesitant to accept another large external partner within the region, given the influence which China and Russia already wield. It is conceivable that Central Asian policymakers would consider the possible implications that the Iranian exportation of the Islamic revolution could have upon their own populations. Central Asian nations have fought to establish themselves as independent states both politically and culturally in the wake of the Soviet Union.


The potential for Iran to foster strong religious affinity and shared civilizational ambitions with the nations of Central Asia may be viewed as a threat to the hard-earned stability seen in the lion’s share of Central Asia.


4.  Iran as a Potential Future Supplemental External Partner


Kazakhstan is a nation that has become linked to Iran through their joint participation in international conflict resolution, with the former often serving as the host for Iranian nuclear negotiations. Trade has also increased between these two nations as well, with the introduction of the East Caspian Rail Corridor in 2014 which provides a faster and cheaper route for moving goods, and potentially passengers, along a route meaningfully linking Iran and Kazakhstan. 


Despite Uzbekistan’s previous reluctance to develop a relationship with Iran, bilateral relations between these nations have begun to flourish. Potential transit corridors have been discussed amid Uzbekistan-Iranian trade having increased exponentially, namely in fruits and vegetables and wider agricultural production. Both nations collaborated during the Afghan peace process; an issue of especially high priority for Iran, which had set its sights on an enhanced role in regional security. By working with Uzbekistan, a major power within the region, Iran has inserted itself into a position where it is perhaps overperforming when you consider the catastrophic challenges Tehran faces domestically - perhaps foreshadowing a future mandate to grapple with such large-scale issues on a grander scale in the future. 


Kyrgyzstan was the sole nation in the region to successfully sign a 10-year cooperation deal with Iran in 2016 and was the first to acquire dock space in Iran’s Gulf of Oman Chabahar port in 2007. Such access to the sea is especially important for the land-locked Central Asian nations, who are vying for such trade routes and facilities. Interestingly, India also helped secure access to Chabahar for Turkmenistan, opening a gateway for trade to the region through Turkmenistan as well. It appears that Iran and India are directly addressing this practical need, bolstering relations and further opportunities for collaboration in the future as well.


With attitudes towards China waning throughout Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, it appears that there is perhaps room for a future, supplementary external partner within the region. Despite the level of negative sentiment surrounding Iran held by residents of these countries, there are quite a few who have planted themselves firmly in the middle - unaware of this nation and its priorities at all. Iran remains unproven and unknown, but its priorities for the region - in particular, security and access to water - are highly salient for the growth of individual Central Asian nations. Will Iran’s repositioning towards Central Asia allow Tehran to contribute to a new multipolar environment to challenge China’s economic hegemony within the region? While Iran is unlikely to become a direct rival of China in the short term, Tehran’s “Look East” policy could provide a new set of opportunities for Central Asia. Looking forward, Iran must continue to engage the nations of Central Asia on a bilateral basis, determining the most mutually beneficial avenues for meaningful rapprochement. Tehran should also look to sell its economic vision for the region through enhanced collaboration with regional economic integration projects. Iran has received preliminary approval to become a full member of the Russian-Sino-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and under the chairmanship of Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union penned a major preferential trade deal with the Middle Eastern country. Continuing along this path and in the process raising its profile beyond an unknown and alien actor in the eyes of ordinary citizens in Central Asia would present both Iran and Central Asia with a unique position.