Chinese initiatives in Central Asia: claim for regional leadership?
Being neighbors, China and Central Asian states face common problems, which require collective response and leadership. In this article, we explore to what extent China’s increased engagement in the region since the dissolution of the USSR has included attempts to lead cooperation to address some of these common problems. We answer our research question by exploring observable leadership efforts, such as institutional development, financial support, moral or belief supply, and unilateral exemplary activities. The analysis shows that in three selected issue areas, namely counter-terrorism, infrastructure development, and water management China has made certain efforts to lead, but the scope and character of its efforts have varied significantly between different issue areas and over time. This variation can be explained in the light of China’s evolving foreign policy interests, the specificities of the Central Asian states, and the role of Russia as the other prominent external actor. While earlier China’s initiatives focused on Central Asia and Russia, the more recent ones either include Central Asian states among other members or focus only on some of them. Joining China’s projects helps Central Asian states to improve their international standing and diversify their foreign relations, but also affects regional geopolitical structure.