Chinese military assertiveness in Asia has often been viewed as an effort to strike balance, either with the United States, India, or other powers across the region. But for decades, Chinese military might was not built on strictly Chinese technological prowess. Since coming to power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has engaged in various military reforms, including allowing civilian companies to invest and modernize the military technology industry. Together with a grand national strategy to create a hyper tech-based society, the Chinese military technology industry is becoming a serious leader, especially in the field of military-use telecommunication.
One region that features prominently in this development is Central Asia. In Russia’s backyard, but increasingly a Chinese security interest, Central Asia provides a critical glance at the expansion of Beijing’s military assertiveness.
While China’s military technology industry has arguably grown, Russia’s has put little effort into innovating its military technology industry. The close to nonexistent manufacturing sector for military parts in Russia continues to give China an upper hand in producing traditional components as well as new military-use telecommunication components. In 2015, 186 types of Russian military equipment needed components from manufacturers in Ukraine. On top of all this, huge debt in the Russian military industry will only make cheaper Chinese alternatives more and more attractive.
Since 1999, the Chinese PLA no longer supervises military technology companies, as part of an effort to eliminate military-related corruption. The Chinese State Council has therefore been able to directly exert a party-driven ideology in research, production and sales of military equipment. Arm sales to Central Asia, then, can be cast as a deliberate party decision to strategically position China, among other plans, to balance Russian influence at the Chinese doorstep.
At the breakup of the Soviet Union, Central Asia was actually one of the sources of China’s military technology. In 1998, China bought 40 Shkval torpedoes from Kazakhstan. Today, the Chinese military supplier industry is filling a market gap for cheap equipment that fits the region’s existing gear.
Chinese military equipment, after all, does not come with Chinese characteristics.
The Soviet origins of modern Chinese military equipment make Beijing’s kit conveniently attractive for Central Asian states. Many arms are designed to fit universal Soviet ammunition, such as NORINCO’s VT-4 and VN17.
In September 2018, Kazakhstan purchased Y-8 a military plane, a copy of the Antonov An-12, from China’s CATIC. In January 2018, Turkmenistan purchased the QW-2 Vanguard 2, similar to the Russian 9K38 Igla, from China’s CASIC. In March 2016, a military exercise in Turkmenistan revealed a purchase of the HQ-9 air defense system, similar to the Russian S-300, from China’s CPMIEC. The HQ-9 is also reportedly present in Uzbekistan.
Many Chinese arm transfers to Central Asia are labelled as donations. Donations to foreign armies are made behind closed doors, and are not regulated under the 2002 Chinese regulation on arms exports.
As early as October 2010, over $600,000r worth of equipment was donated to the Tajik police. Another donation was made in January 2014 to both the Tajik police, and the Kyrgyz police. The same company, China Jing’an Import & Export Corporation, a leading Chinese company in policing equipment, built a new anti-drug trafficking building in Kulyab in March 2016, a main southern town on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan. In December 2018, at an undisclosed form of transfer, Tajikistan showed off its VP11 patrol vehicles, made by China’s NORINCO.
The clear escalation of Chinese assertiveness in Central Asia indicates a breakdown of the assumed traditional Sino-Russian economic-military division of labor in the region. Russia has often been understood as the region’s security guarantor, while China has increasingly played a critical economic role. Yet, even with a de facto Russian green light, Chinese military technology providers struggled for years to find their footing in Central Asia.
In Central Asia, beyond outright donations, gas is often exchanged for military equipment. The HQ-9 transfer to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is part of Chinese payment for natural gas via the Central Asia-China gas pipeline. Military equipment is further entangled in the picture as a Chinese loan was provided for Turkmenistan in a purchase of arms, to be repaid with natural gas, in January 2015.
In December 2017, Turkmen gas export to China fell sharply. By February 2018, China’s domestic natural gas price jumped 40 percent. Sino-Turkmen relations seem to have worsened. In January 2019, China put Turkmenistan on a military blacklist, ceasing all future military exports to the country. Turkey was recently also blacklisted for turning down the HQ-9 deal.
For Turkmenistan, in recent years selling gas to China was its only choice. China financed Turkmenistan’s pipelines and other customers — like Russia and Iran — were problematic for reasons of sanctions and politics. Since 2018, the Turkmen have reportedly put up their prices in fear that the ongoing U.S.-China trade war could result in sanctions against China, complicating its gas transfers further. In 2019, Turkmenistan began selling gas to Russia again. In August 2019, Turkmenistan negotiated a pipeline to sell gas to the European Union during the Caspian Sea Economic Forum.
For Chinese military technology suppliers, developing their position in Central Asia is not an easy task. To maintain a presence, almost all have had to diversify into civilian businesses such as pipelines.
NORINCO, one of the seven Chinese companies with state approval to export arms, first sold pipes and natural gas cylinders to Central Asia in 2007 and 2009, when the Central Asia-China gas pipeline began construction. Operator on the Kazakh KAM oil field, NORINCO also transferred technology to Kazakh Atobe Steel Production to build the biggest Iron Ore Concentrator in Central Asia, in June 2017. Gathering intelligence while doing business, Poly Tech, another military technology supplier with backing from high profile politicians, such as Mao’s son-in-law, transferred a tire factory operation to Uzbekistan in June 2017.
For years, China has been using the Uyghur separatist discourse to induce a military dimension at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). At the heart of Chinese semantic obsession with the “three evils” — terrorism, separatism and religious extremism — and the largest military exercise between China and Central Asia in 2014, is the population of 11 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The same language that seeped into SCO discourse, is the same kind of wording that justifies military donations and further military cooperation between China and Central Asia.
Earlier this year, a Washington Post report highlighted a potential Chinese military base in Tajikistan, alleging it has operated for at least three years. The Chinese government has said little about such a base, except that it built several buildings for anti-drug trafficking efforts elsewhere along the Tajik-Afghan border. But increasing cooperation with Afghanistan will continue to justify a Chinese presence manning Tajikistan’s borders, especially in the far east.
Indeed, with the collapse of a purported Sino-Russian economic-military division of labor, a growing economic interest in Central Asia as a main corridor in the Belt and Road Initiative, and an on-going anti-Uyghur separatist discourse, Central Asia is an obvious choice for a Chinese foreign military base.
Yau Tsz Yan is a researcher on China in Central Asia affairs at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek and a graduate from the University of Hong Kong. She can be reached on Twitter @nivayautszyan