Rashid Ghani Abdullo: Tajikistan and the “Economic belt” of the Great Silk Road
“Tajikistan is objectively interested in Chinese projects more than any other country in Central Asia, at least, because the difficulties experienced by the Russian economy significantly reduced the volume of remittances sent by Tajik migrant workers in Russia to their homeland. Chinese investment is almost the only major source of compensation for these losses”, said political scientist Rashid Ghani Abdullo in his article written exclusively for Cabar.asia (Dushanbe, Tajikistan).
The initiative of the establishment of the economic zone of the Silk Road suggested by the President of China Xi Jiping, which has been widely discussed nowadays, could contribute to the economic development of the entire Central Asian region. However, the complex relationships between the countries of the region and the lack of dialogue between the different parties prevent from taking advantage of the Chinese initiative.
The essence of the initiative is that it is necessary to revive not just the ancient Silk Road, but also to create an economic zone along it. The initiative is rapidly taking a shape of a project, often referred to in the media as “one belt – one road” covering virtually the entire world by its land and sea components. It was first publicly announced by a Chinese leader during his speech in Astana, at Nazarbayev International University on the 16th of September 2013. But at that time, it was perceived somewhat more locally – as a new form of deepening the cooperation of China, Central Asia and Russia. (see Lukin A.V. “Idea “ekonomicheskogo poyasa Shelkovogo puti” i evraziiskaya integratsia” [The idea of an “economic belt of the Silk Road” and the Eurasian integration], “Mezhdunarodnaya jizn” [“International life”], №7-2014, http://igpi.ru/bibl/other_articl/1406820606.html).
China’s presence in the vast territories of neighboring Central Asian countries, which began a little over two decades ago, after gaining their independence, has led to active bilateral relations, particularly successful in economic terms. It will not be a big mistake to say that the most important parts or segments of the planned economic belt within the revived Silk Road are already taking place in Central Asia. They serve well the current needs of both China and Central Asian countries. The latter can not only solve their economic problems, but also to strengthen their independence through this initiative – they receive additional and alternative sources of political support, investment and economic output to the outside world.
The logic of development dictated the Chinese the need to take another big step in the desired direction – to connect all these different parts and segments into a single well-functioning system and to ensure its further development. The initiative of the head of China Xi Jiping, aimed at the formation of the economic belt along the new Silk Road, is just such a step.
The initiative of the Chinese leader has been positively received by the Presidents of the Central Asian states. They believe (not without reason) that it’s realization will cause a broad stream of Chinese money into the economy of their countries, and that Chinese investment will make the country more prosperous and more stable, and the population will be satisfied with their situation. Taking into account the fact that the institution of presidential power in the countries of the region, by virtue of possessing the necessary set of features, has a determining influence on all aspects of life here, the reality which cannot and should not be ignored, the likelihood of success of the initiative “one belt – one road” is quite large in this part of the modern world.
Problems with the implementation of the project “The economic belt of the Great Silk Road”
At the same time, the initiative may face challenges, which, if ignored, could adversely affect its full-scale implementation in Central Asia and thus call into question not only regional, but also broader expectations, hopes and calculations.
In this context, it is legitimate to ask two questions. Firstly, is it possible to connect the already mentioned various elements and segments into something that can be defined as the aggregate Central Asian segment, through the implementation of this initiative? Secondly, is it possible to transform the existing infrastructure into a full-scale Central Asian transport corridor between China and the outside world beyond the northern, southern and western borders of the region?
In principle, from a financial and technical point of view, the answer to both questions can be only one – “yes”. It is clear that China has the necessary means and, as the initiator of the project “one belt – one road”, is ready to become a major sponsor of its implementation in Central Asia. The financial infrastructure, through which Chinese money will be allocated for specific projects within the framework of this initiative, is also available. It includes both Chinese national financial institutions (Exim Bank that is already widely involved in financing projects in Central Asia involving Chinese companies; China’s State Development Bank of China, and others.) and multinational financial institutions, for example, the recently created $ 100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the founding members of which were 57 countries. Having the financial resources and enough scientific, technical and technological competence in China and Central Asian countries, there are not any purely technical problems that cannot be successfully solved.
However, no matter how good the co-development projects are, a positive attitude of the leaders of the Central Asian countries to this initiative is still not enough to implement them. One of the factors that can greatly hinder the realization of the initiative is the complex relations between the countries of the region.
For example, we cannot say that the relations between Tajikistan and its immediate neighbors – Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – are smooth and harmonious. These problems have a negative impact on the Tajik-Chinese relations. Taking into account the rejection by Uzbekistan of hydropower projects in Tajikistan, especially large ones, the Chinese, are doing everything possible to evade participation in their implementation. We can also assume that China’s hesitant attitude to the planned construction of a new railway, which should provide it with an additional exit to Central Asia and beyond its borders in various directions through Tajikistan, is also due to the influence of the same factors. Exactly the same can be said of China’s reluctance to participate in the construction of hydropower stations in Kyrgyzstan and, in general, in any large projects in both republics, which can be regarded in Uzbekistan as contrary to its interests.
Throughout the years of the rule of President Askar Akayev, relations between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were better than ever. Also, they were not bad during the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Unfortunately, the relations between two countries have worsened during the recent years, mainly due to the territorial-border, water, transport and communications disputes. Of course, these disputes and problems existed during all the years of independent existence of both republics. However in recent years, they have become aggravated and even transform into collision, accompanied by riots, even armed violent actions.
Certain problems overshadow the relations of Kazakhstan with Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and of the latter with all the neighbors in the region, sometimes just because Uzbekistan is the only country that has a common border with all the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and the relations between neighbors, as you know, are always fraught with conflict.
It should be emphasized that the problems that darken the relations between the countries of the region have an objective character. They are a direct result of the painful process of transformation of the region from an integrated part of the former superpower – the Soviet Union – into independent states. In varying degrees, all of these problems, the occurrence of which was inevitable, could seriously complicate the practical implementation of the above-mentioned initiative.
Ambiguous attitude of the Central Asian elites and communities to the Chinese initiative
It would be overly optimistic to assume that the initiative of Xi Jiping was welcomed by everybody in the region. Yes, it has supporters, but it has opponents, too. The exact ratio of both is unknown, for there are not any objective measurements of public opinion on this issue. At least in Tajikistan, there has not been any relevant survey. In any case, there are enough people who seem reluctant to accept the initiative, and to the question of the Chinese presence in the region, which, judging from the experience of previous years, will continue to grow.
Supporters of the initiative stress that its implementation will give a powerful impetus to the economic development of each of the Central Asian countries and the region as a whole. Chinese investment will promote the emergence of new industrial, transport and communication and other facilities, new jobs and prosperity in the region and the growing prosperity of everyone. The Chinese investment will transform Central Asia into a huge transport corridor linking China with great outside world. The corridor, which in addition to allowing the countries of the region to enter the big world with their own products, will be a source of endless income from the collection of transit, transport, customs and other duties and fees.
Those who are reluctant to accept the Chinese new initiative, are insisting that its implementation will lead to even greater growth of China’s economic presence in the region, which can quickly develop into its vast and political domination here.
They emphasize that Chinese companies that are agents of the Chinese government already control the most important sectors of the national economies of the region, such as oil and gas industry in Kazakhstan and the mining industry in Tajikistan.
According to them, some countries in Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan, are in the unenviable position of those heavily indebted to China. The implementation of the new Chinese initiative will lead to even greater worsening of this situation.
Opponents of the Chinese initiative “one belt – one road” insist that the hopes on the rapid creation of new jobs for local people, associated with its implementation, are absolutely groundless. The actual practice of the Chinese companies shows only one thing – if the Chinese companies create jobs in Central Asia, they do it only for their compatriots, i.e. Chinese citizens.
Those who see China’s growing presence in Central Asia as a very disturbing phenomenon also point to the fact that the main and direct beneficiary of this presence are certain people in political circles and business structures, who have successful business with China, in other words, a relatively narrow stratum of society and a small part of the population.
In other words, a substantial part of the societies of Central Asia, at all levels and “floors”, is confident that the Chinese initiative “one belt – one road” serves the interests of China itself rather than the interests of the states in the region.
It should be emphasized that the alarmist statements of opponents of the Chinese initiative are louder than the words to support it. Anyway, this is the situation in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
Supporters of the initiative, in particular, the top management of the Central Asian states, counting on the flow of Chinese investment in their economies, diversifying markets for their goods and transport exits to the outside world, are challenged to overcome this alarmist approach and also to the growing presence of China in Central Asia, generally.
China in its efforts to promote its initiative, at least in Central Asia, is focusing almost exclusively on the provision of support for their initiatives and projects by official circles in the region and media structures related or close to them. It largely avoids the manifestation of any serious attention to the potential of civil society in the region, first and foremost, of the independent media.
The reality in Central Asia clearly shows that such a strategy does not work in the region, at least, in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – China’s immediate neighbors. And it definitely will not work in an environment where independent media play an important role, compared with official circles and related media structures, in shaping public opinion and approaches to everything, including the question of the Chinese presence in the region.
As for the Central Asian states themselves, they do not make any serious effort in this direction at all.
Tajikistan is more interested in Chinese projects that other countries
Tajikistan is objectively interested in Chinese projects more than any other country in Central Asia, at least, because the difficulties experienced by the Russian economy significantly reduced the volume of remittances sent by Tajik migrant workers in Russia to their homeland. Chinese investment is almost the only major source of compensation for these losses.
China needs and will need to import energy. Tajikistan, having vast renewable hydropower resources can be of great interest for China. China wants Central Asia to become a developed transport corridor for it. Tajikistan is interested to become a part of this corridor, in order to finally get out of the transport impasse, in which it has been for two decades. Naturally, in order to transform this interest into a reality, there must be appropriate specific projects. It should be stressed that Tajikistan has such projects, and it has proposed China to take part in their implementation many times. However, the progress in this direction is delayed, as the complex relations of the republic with neighboring Uzbekistan stressed it above.
Taking into account this fact, Tajikistan needs to do everything possible to convince Chinese partners to revise the Chinese position as only an observer of what is happening in the region and change it to something essentially different. China may already take another position, the position of an active intermediary who is interested in the positive resolution of problems, which not only have a negative impact on the relations between the countries of the region, but also can bring these relations to a stage of really serious conflicts. China can assume the position, which is usually associated in the world with the United States, Russia, even the European Union, but not with China. Increased Chinese mediation in smoothing the contradictions between the countries of the region will fully meet the interests not only of Tajikistan, but also of Central Asia as a whole and China itself.
The fact that no consensus on the initiative of Xi Jiping to establish an economic belt of the Silk Road has been established between the leadership of the republic and the civil society of the country, whose integral part is the independent media, does not allow Tajikistan to more effectively take advantage of emerging potential opportunities. This requires a dialogue of various Tajik parties on issues and concerns in the implementation of the Chinese initiative. It will help reach a consensus on the most rational position of the Tajik side on this issue. This will allow the country to maximize the benefits and reduce the costs of implementing the Chinese initiative to the maximum extent.
Rashid Ghani Abdullo, a political scientist
The views of the author do not necessarily represent those of CABAR