China Must Be Wary Of Corrupt Nations Along Trade Route
China’s Belt and Road Initiative might reshape Central Asia and its place in the era of globalisation. The Initiative harbours an extraordinary transformative capacity. In the last two decades, the neighbouring region of Xinjiang has probably changed more than in the previous five centuries, and this Chinese Initiative might entail a similar pathway for the landlocked Central Asian republics. Unlike other schemes and previous initiatives led by other actors, Beijing’s will and financial muscle strengthen its credibility and prospects. China has a lot to offer in terms of investment, development and access to its vast market, three elements that Central Asia desperately needs. But simultaneously, China’s stature raises expectations as well as concerns. Seen from the other side of the border, China is overwhelmingly impressive.
Traditionally, Central Asian concerns are related to China’s economic capacity, military might and demographic weight. All combined trigger fears of “colonisation” among Central Asian citizens. Needless to say, fears tend to be overstated and not necessarily fact-based. However, perceptions matter, and local ones are sceptical when it comes to China, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – i.e. the two Central Asian republics with long borders with China. Both feel vulnerable in front of China: Kyrgyzstan sees itself as a small country – accurate only in Asian terms – whose social stability is under threat due to its poor economic performance while Kazakhstan’s self-perception of economic success has cooled down with the recent oil prices collapse. Astana tends to perceive its sparsely populated territory as a risk or strategic vulnerability.
In recent times, there is also a growing concern related to Chinese impact in the already-poor governance of Central Asia. Chinese multinational companies are becoming highly competitive in the formerly Russia-dominated region where Beijing infrastructure projects are consistently transforming the political landscape and economic development. However, Chinese businesses have also been allegedly entangled in the corruption schemes involving Central Asian political elites. Crisis Group’s assessment in 2013 highlighted bribery practise among Chinese investors to influence local officials.
Additionally, Beijing’s strategy to manage its relations with each Central Asian country in “government-to-government” format may not be sufficient to deal with risks that are associated with corruption scandals involving local officials and Chinese companies. In one instance, alleged meddling of a Chinese mining firm in a dispute related to a rare-earth metal project triggered a $118 million arbitration lawsuit against the Kyrgyz government. Canadian mining company Stans Energy accused the “Chinese government-backed rare-earth company” of orchestrating deliberate efforts through Kyrgyz officials to “block, and possibly take over, Stan’s rare earth producing and processing facility in Kyrgyzstan”.
Similar views of China’s policies in Kazakhstan brought the masses out to stage nationwide protests in 2016 when the Kazakh government announced land reform. Unprecedented demonstrations in relatively stable Kazakhstan were partly driven by popular mistrust toward the Chinese companies and a culture of corruption in the Kazakh state. The former Kazakh ambassador to China, Murat Auezov, told RFERL in 2009 that the “Chinese are masters in the art of bribery on different levels. But what kind of China asks Kazakhstan to make available 1.2 million hectares of land to grow soybeans? …This is the China that gave Kazakhstan $10 billion in credit during one of the [Kazakh] president’s recent trips.”
Essentially, Beijing is facing a risk of associating itself with rampant corruption in the autocratically ruled countries of Central Asia despite positioning this Initiative as China’s successful foreign policy achievement abroad. The Belt and Road summit in Beijing will display China’s growing confidence and ambition. And there are good reasons to do so. The “Belt and Road Initiative” might entail the redefinition of the so-called Eurasian space and transform the Europe-Asia framework, setting Beijing as the main engine. Nevertheless, Beijing should take local concerns into consideration. As Chinese authorities rightly repeat, only local ownership would guarantee the success of the overall plan. And Central Asia is a key but fragile chain in this ambitious and visionary Initiative.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition