More Could Be Done To Dispel ‘China Threat’ Theory In Central Asia

One Belt, One Road Stimulating Great Cooperation Between States

In recent years, the “China threat” theory has been prevailing in Central Asia. In late April, a land reform program triggered nationwide protest in Kazakhstan as the program allows foreigners to rent farmland for 25 years. During the protest, the “China threat” was hyped.

The “China threat” theory in Central Asia is reflected in different forms. First, local people believe Chinese are grabbing their land. Some people in Kazakhstan think that Chinese people have leased a large area of their land, which is a form of “land grab.” But it is other Central Asian countries and Russia that have taken a major share of the land Kazakhstan rented to foreign citizens.

Second, they believe that Chinese are exploiting local resources. There are concerns that the One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiated by China would turn Central Asian countries into transit points for China’s raw materials. In the theory, it seems that China has control of a large share of energy production in Central Asia, and some small countries in the region have become China’s “economic affiliates.”

Third, there is worry over Chinese population expansion there which holds that the presence of a large number of Chinese workers in Central Asia and transnational marriage are a form of population expansion.

Finally, Chinese are blamed for ecological damage. Some Central Asian media hype up Chinese threats to water resources in certain countries in the region, saying that construction of water conservancy facilities and increase of water consumption in upstream lead to less water downstream, which in turn results in ecological problems such as water pollution.

There are several reasons for China’s economic activities and civil exchanges in Central Asia being viewed as a “threat.” For starters, this is a normal reaction toward rising Chinese overseas investment. The problems presented in the “China threat” theory not only exist in Central Asian countries but also in African and Southeast Asian countries which have a large amount of Chinese capital. In developing countries, it is a normal trend that the introduction of external capital will invoke concerns in local communities during economic development. This is mainly due to China’s and Central Asian countries’ economic gap and a lack of communications.

Besides, worries about China’s “threat” are closely related to the history of Central Asia. In the past, Central Asia witnessed many battles, most of them initiated by external forces. Countries in the region attach high importance to sovereignty after their independence, spawning the sentiment of nationalism and ethnic extremism. Worries about big powers have become more prominent among the elites in Central Asia.

In addition, Central Asian countries have lacked awareness of market economy, and complete understanding of investment and cooperation. Despite governments in the region having a high regard for the introduction of foreign capital, the grassroots in Central Asia view all normal frictions during the process of foreign investment flow as threats to their life.

Last but not the least, political reasons that hype the “China threat” theory have produced the most severe consequences. The puzzles and misunderstanding toward China at the economic and social level can be considered as normal frictions during China’s contacts with Central Asian countries. Nevertheless, some political forces in the region or external political forces deliberately fabricate opinions, manipulate media to hype China’s “threat” in Central Asia, promote populism and nationalism, and even use extreme forces to attack Chinese citizens in the area.

What is most worrying is that the “China threat” theory is spreading among Central Asian grassroots. In the case of lacking comprehensive understanding of Chinese investment in the region, local rumors can become the source of China’s “threat.” Such rumors are often led by forces with ulterior motives and evolve into the “China threat” theory.

In the construction of OBOR, public communication will be a focus as well as an obstacle for China. As a responsible country, China should consider issues from the perspective of Central Asian countries when dealing with the “China threat” theory. Both the Chinese government and Central Asian governments should pay more attention to this issue and have more talks at the official level. Media in the region should provide more factual coverage. Furthermore, cooperation, personnel exchanges and public communication ought to be promoted. Chinese enterprises should also offer more projects that benefit locals.

By Su Chang

The author is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European & Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.