As hip Chinese businessmen sip on beverages in Dushanbe, halfway to Murgab, at nearly 12,000 feet, in Tajikistan’s remote Pamir region where Afghanistan lays literally a stone’s throw away across the Panj river, rugged but equally confident Chinese foremen direct the operators of monster-looking excavators expanding the region’s unnerving narrow cliff-side roads. In this part of Central Asia, these narrow tracks have remained the only means of connectivity for over a century and a half, initiated during Russia’s imperial expansion in the second half of the 19th century, and expanded through the early years of the Soviet Union.
Chinese companies working on Pamir roads are paid with money lent by Chinese banks to Tajikistan’s government. Concessional loans are common in other Central Asian states, too, and it appears that if anybody can sort out major gaps in Central Asian infrastructure, it would be Chinese firms.
However, China’s presence is kept in check by strong Central Asian governments. Moreover, China’s domestic economic concerns and preoccupation with political matters elsewhere may slow China’s engagement in the region. Yet, China has long understood the potential of Central Asia as a region and has aimed to develop this potential through a number of initiatives.
As Russia’s position wanes in Central Asia, and China’s waxes, if American interests are to be maintained, Washington has to find ways to tap into the region’s potential.
The 430-mile trip between Dushanbe and Murgab took three days in the middle of August. Luckily, Tajikistan’s president was flying into Khorog, the regional center, and the road, which is usually closed for blasting during the day, was open so his entourage could drive in to set up for the banquet. The fastest way between Dushanbe and Murgab is actually though the Fergana Valley and southern Kyrgyzstan, but the Tajik-Kyrgyz border had been closed since the 2022 border clashes between the two states.
At the end of July, the Kyrgyz government opened a border crossing for third-country nationals only. This small fraction of pragmatism in the tense Tajik-Kyrgyz relationship allowed a slow influx of extreme travelers – motorists, cyclists, and even hitchhikers. As they trickled into Gorno-Badakhshan, they delivered a small source of income to settlements whose economic struggles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic had been exacerbated by increased isolation that followed the border hostilities. Yet, a handful of paying foreigners could hardy substitute for a steady stream of local economic activity, which used to flow between Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan and southern Kyrgyzstan.
The Fergana Valley, in the heart of Central Asia – where Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan interlace and where in the Soviet era goods and people moved freely – has seen borders closed between each of the states at various points in the last 30 years. Even when open, most borders take between several hours and several days to cross. Passenger cars often share lanes with cargo traffic. Tajikistan’s border stations lack basic electronic equipment, and information is often recorded in notebooks by hand. Uzbek border guards go through lengthy bureaucratic procedures and extensive searches for each vehicle entering from Tajikistan, precautions justified by the incredibly porous nature of Tajik-Afghan border. But aside from closures during the pandemic, the general situation in the region has seen a major improvement since 2016, when the isolationist and deeply suspicious Uzbekistan president, Islam Karimov, died.
The south-north direction of regional transportation routes stands as a reminder of Russian imperial rule and the subsequent Soviet legacy. Key roads, many of which were rehabilitated by Japan, South Korea, or Turkey, run south-north as well. China’s major east-west projects have often stalled. Work on the notoriously rough and dangerous Pamir “highway” is slow and is often paused, though Chinese firms certainly have the ability to build a highway, which they demonstrated at even higher altitudes in the Karakorum Mountains on the border with Pakistan. However, if completed, the strategic road through the Pamirs would easily connect China to central Tajikistan and subsequently to Uzbekistan with access to Afghanistan, which is not easily accepted by Tajikistan or its traditional patron, Russia.
Similarly, a long overdue railway through southern Kyrgyzstan would connect Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang with Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan and subsequently with Andijan in Uzbekistan and the rest of Uzbekistan’s railway system. The project has been discussed since the mid 1990s, and every several years the Chinese, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek parties express their agreement to complete the railway. The latest such agreement was reached in Xi’an in May 2023 during the China-Central Asia summit. But some Chinese diplomats aired the news with a dose of healthy skepticism. They smile and say that it is always nice to reach an agreement. The same smile appears when they say that there is no China-Russia competition in Central Asia.
The apprehension of Chinese “expansionism” runs deep in the region, even though the last time China controlled the areas west of its current borders was during the Tang dynasty, over a thousand years ago. This long-term memory comes at odds with a comparably favorable attitude toward Russia, which conquered Central Asian in the second half of the 19th century, and continued with heavy-handed (and bloody) suppression of ethno-religious nationalism during the early years of the Soviet Union.
In recent decades, Russia has not been a reliable partner to the Central Asian states, pursuing its own self-interest, manipulating energy prices, bailing on projects, disregarding its institutional commitments to the Eurasian Economic Union, changing conditions for Central Asian migrant laborers, and most recently recruiting Central Asian nationals to fight in Ukraine. Yet pro-Russian moods are still strong among some of the regional elites, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which kept Russian as an official or national language. Noticeably, views of Russia are much more critical in more religiously conservative and autocratic Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which took de-Russification seriously in the early days of independence.
Uzbekistan under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been opening up to its neighbors and warming up to the West, too. Uzbekistan stood as an American partner during the 2001 start of the war in Afghanistan, hosting U.S. forces until 2005 when tensions related to human rights concerns and the Andijan events drove a wedge between them. More recently, Uzbekistan has been critical in developing relations and establishing some sort of dialogue with the Taliban government, and the United States has been discussing Afghanistan issues with Uzbekistan, too.
In the middle of blasting August heat, U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan Jonathan Henick visited cultural relics in Termez, on the border with Afghanistan, likely to discuss more than just archeological wonders of the hottest city of the region.
Neighboring Tajikistan is critical of the Taliban government, which underrepresents the large ethnic Tajik minority in Afghanistan. Yet, Tajikistan’s long and porous border with Afghanistan makes it a crucial state in regional stability. The Central Asian underbelly, mistakenly referred to as “soft,” provides a solid natural barrier of inhospitable terrain that works nearly as well as Uzbekistan’s short fortified border with Afghanistan. While Tajikistan’s porous border is notorious for opium trafficking, the Uzbek-Tajik border serves as an effective deterrent for drug trafficking. Increased cooperation on this border would benefit all the regional actors.
As elsewhere, Central Asia’s potential can only be realized through multilateral efforts. China has long since realized this. Ignoring the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s consensus-based ineffectiveness, China followed through with other multilateral initiatives. The gas pipeline that runs from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is managed by a Beijing-run coordination committee, which includes representatives of all the states involved. The 2023 Silk Road Summit in Xi’an was preceded by underpublicized multilateral meetings with Central Asian representatives hosted by China from as early as 2016. Some of these were organized by China’s International Department of Central Committee. Russia is excluded from these events. In the past the exclusion was subtle. The Silk Road Summit of 2023, however, demonstrated that China now can afford not to worry about providing face for Russia.
In July 2023 China surpassed Russia as the main trade partner of the region’s largest economy, Kazakhstan, even though only slightly, by less than half a percent, which is humbly reiterated by Chinese officials. Typical Chinese humility is prevalent among diplomats in Central Asia, and comes in sharp contrast to emerging “wolf warrior” diplomacy elsewhere. Yet at least some Chinese officials no longer deny that economic influence is bound to lead to a certain degree of political influence. China’s economic impact is substantial. The $50 million worth of aid pledged by the United States for trans-regional initiatives in 2022-23 is negligible compared to over a billion in bilateral agreements signed between China and Central Asian states in the same period.
Yet, economic input is not the main consideration for Central Asian leaders. Seasoned regional journalists remember how in the early post-Soviet years the first Kyrgyz president, Askar Akayev, addressed Islam Karimov, only slightly older, as aga – older brother, a deferential note of respect. Much younger at the time, Emamoli Rahmon showed visible annoyance with Karimov. The early post-Soviet Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations remained stable while Uzbek-Tajik relations hit rock bottom. More recently, now the oldest of the five sitting Central Asian leaders, Rahmon demanded respect from Putin at an official multilateral meeting.
In the early post-Soviet years Russia inherited some understanding of the intricate nature of Central Asian diplomacy. This understanding has degraded under the glare of Russia’s imperial ambitions. China, sensitive to the styles of regional governance, has patiently and subtly secured its position in the region. Even though Chinese goals have not been fully met, Beijing has been carving its way through. If the United States is to defend its interest in Eurasia, it needs to learn to participate using regional norms, too.