Central Asia: China’s Influence through the New Silk Road

Silk Road is the historical trade road used by traders between the eastern and western world since ancient ages, flowing from China to southern Europe. It served for the cultural, political, economic or religious purposes through the history and today’s purpose is not different from the past ones. The New Silk Road is used by China as a soft power tool in foreign policy, but also to secure the economy, which depends on the export of every imaginable commodity used in a globalised world. New Silk Road, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was announced in 2013 by Chinese president Xi Jinping, with the aim to develop regions and areas around the former Silk Road through the investments in local industry, economy and infrastructure. Region of Central Asia more or less played the key role in Silk Road, and the region is also the object of Chinese interest today as part of the initiative. This article provides a short look into how is the People’s Republic of China using its New Silk Road soft power tool in Central Asia, namely in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Map of BRI initiative:

Source: Page, J. (2014). China sees itself at the center of new Asian order. The Wall Street Journal. 09. 11. 2014 (https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-new-trade-routes-center-it-on-geopolitical-map-1415559290).


The country of Uzbekistan historically played a key role within the Silk Road, because the main road passed through the today’s territory of the state. Why this country played a key role is described by the UNESCO in one clear sentence: “Uzbekistan’s territory is characterized by fertile land that is intensively developed by humans, by diversity of raw resources, presence of developed city culture, high level of handicraft industry and commodity-money relations” (UNESCO, 2020). The peak of its popularity and development was during the ancient times and early medieval ages, in the times of great empires that existed around the area, and cities of Samarkand and Tashkent are legacy to these ages (UNESCO, 2020).

In the recent years, with the change in leadership, Uzbekistan experienced rapid economic growth with the transition from state-led economy to the free market, also with the help of foreign investments, mostly from Eurasian countries. According to the official agency of Ministry of investments and foreign trade of Uzbekistan, there are “more than 300 enterprises with participation of Chinese investments, including 52 with 100% Chinese investment” divided between all the sectors of the economy (Ministry of investments and foreign trade of Uzbekistan, 2020). Another source claims there are actually 1,652 enterprises in Uzbekistan with Chinese investments, covering mostly the oil and gas, textile, telecommunications, agricultural, pharmaceutical, the chemical industry and building materials. The number of enterprises with 100% Chinese ownership is more than 120. China, together with Russia are the main trade partners of the country, what can be seen on the percentage of export and import with both countries – in 2019, 18,2% foreign trade with China (Limanov, 2020).

Development of the New Silk Road in Uzbekistan started in 2016 when the investments and loans from China begin to flow only after the death of previous isolationist leader Islam Karimov. With the exponential rise of investments from China, taking ownership of the country´s business with resources, there is also a rising concern about the situation within the Uzbek society. According to polls, Uzbeks grew more sceptical towards China, from 75% support of their investments in 2019 to only 60% in 2020. This growing concern can be a problematic issue and play a role in the next elections and BRI initiative development (Trilling, 2020).


The territory of today’s Kyrgyzstan is rich in heritage and experience with the ancient Silk Road, with main trade routes going right through the territory. Many historical sites connected to the road serve this fact together with various cities developed during the ancient and medieval times as a result of active trade. It was also a place of intercultural relations and religious contact with everything documented by various monuments in the region belonging to different religions and cultures. In the Ancient times, the key role played the Northern road (Fergana), which was continuously used until the modern age because of its supporting factors such as the presence of nomads using trade for their living. Today’s territory of Kyrgyzstan is, out of the four countries covered within this article, the one with the greatest amount of heritage connected to the old Silk road, and it should also play a key role in a New Silk Road initiative of China (UNESCO, 2020).

Common relations between the China and Kyrgyzstan are challenged by the terrorism in the country. This could be seen in an attack on the embassy of China in Bishkek in 2016, but this issue was somehow pushed into the background by the common military exercises and policies (Sukhanin, 2020). For Kyrgyzstan, China is a key partner in both, the trade, security and policy matter, but in recent years an anti-Chinese sentiment started to grow within the population of Kyrgyzstan, leading to few protests and even clashes between natives and Chinese migrants in Naryn region, where the Chinese side invested huge amount of money, especially in the mining sector (Putz, 2020). The Chinese propaganda described the outcome of the BRI initiative in the country as fruitful, especially praising the infrastructure cooperation, where the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) is developing roads and tunnels across the country. There are also other programs, such as Datka-Kemin power transmission and transformation project, through which Kyrgyzstan established an independent power grid system, or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan highway (Zhonghua, 2019).

Historical connection of the country to the Silk Road is indisputable, together with the question of its future role in the New Silk Road initiative. China is the main trade partner and the country invested a lot into the Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz population, however, after a few years found itself in rising anti-Chinese sentiment, what together with inner turmoil in the country after last elections can be a huge setback in the development of BRI and their relations with China. On the other hand, China is able to put pressure on the country through the loans made by Kyrgyzstan, and also there is the issue of Uyghurs from Xinjiang, where shared borders possess a terror threat to the Chinese government.

Kyrgyz workers protests: Source: Pantucci, R. (2019). China´s complicated relationship with Central Asia. eastasiaforum.org. 30. 10. 2019 (https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/10/30/chinas-complicated-relationship-with-central-asia/).


The Silk Road in ancient times ran also through the territory of today’s Tajikistan, consisting of three major trade routes: ”the Sogdian, or North route between Samarkand and Kashgar; the second one was the Karategin route between Termez and Kashgar and the third one was Pamir route linking Balkh and Tashkurgan,” (UNESCO, 2020). The heritage of these ages is similar to the other three states, where we can find various monuments or cities that rose across the trade routes.

Projects connected to the BRI initiative in Tajikistan are mostly about the infrastructure such as roads, railways, pipeline or power plants. China has already overcome Russia as the biggest investor in the country, but the results are met with the controversy over the hiring of Chinese instead of natives, with higher salaries. Tajikistan also signed away 1100 square kilometres to China containing gold and uranium deposits. The newly built power plants were followed by rights for China’s Tebian Electric Apparatus (TBEA) to operate two gold mines (Reynolds, 2018). Chinese propaganda claims that around 300 Chinese-funded enterprises are operating and paying taxes in Tajikistan as of 2019, also praising finishing of the Vahdat-Yavan railway, with a message of the deeper future development in 2020, which was then halted by the pandemic of COVID-19 (CGTN, 2019).

Situation of Tajikistan has been already problematic, because of how the actual transactions were made and how the interdependence with China is for now. Tajikistan, as another underdeveloped country in the region, became dependent on China, and similar to the Kyrgyzstan, the government can be pressured on by communist party in future issues to occur.


Compared to the rich heritage of the Road in other countries, the state of Turkmenistan is rich, but not as interesting as in the previous cases, even though the road went right through the territory. However, there are still some connections to the ancient concept of the road. In ancient times, the cities of Merv and Serakhs played a role on the road as a local trade centre. They became famous for woven bright crimson carpets, which are still popular and deeply connected to the national heritage (UNESCO, 2020).

The Turkmen authoritarian president wrote a book called “Turkmenistan is the Heart of the Great Silk Road” in 2017, full of legends and local folklore connected to the heritage of the old Silk Road. Mutual cooperation in BRI lies in two major projects: the China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan–Iran railway and the Turkmenbashi International Seaport, both being finished already for some time (Sukhankin, 2020). The major buyer of the natural gas from Turkmenistan is China, according to numbers provided by China’s side. From the Turkmen side, the information is sparse, but numbers provided by China claim that 33.2 bcm of natural gas was received by China in 2019, compared to the 10 bcm from Kazakhstan. It can be concluded that China is now critically important trade partner for the country, which experiences various crises at once, and this situation can deepen the common relations through some new investments from China in the future (Hashimova, 2020).

Looking at the lack of evidence, information and statistics, the Turkmenistan seems to be just a transit country for China’s products to the Middle East or Europe, with reserved relations. Reasons for this are various, such as multiple inner crises within the country, authoritarian leadership, state-led economy and isolationism. All of these mentioned factors are blocking bigger investments from China. This situation could be positive because in case the government and policy in the country changed, they wouldn’t be dependent on China through the various loans and ownership of strategical industry as a satellite state.

Author’s Final Opinion

China’s BRI initiative in Central Asia is developing pretty much in favour of Chinese officials, with only one problematic country – Kyrgyzstan, where the population openly stood up against their investments. On the other hand, the BRI initiative as a soft power tool can be seen here also almost as economic imperialism, where through the investments, debts and ownership of local business and resources, China is able to put pressure on countries and achieve whatever their goal can be in the region and state. Central Asia, as a region traditionally in the sphere of influence of Russia, is now in the economic sphere of influence of China, with political future depending on the character of China, whether it stays in terms of borders the same as now, or it will try to annex or implement these countries into itself. The New Silk Road is an effective tool of Chinese foreign and economic policy, but the question is whether the BRI initiative is really for common benefits and development as claimed by Chinese authorities, or economic imperialistic tool of China?

Author: Richard Straka


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