Since coming to power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has embarked on a campaign to enhance the country’s military prowess. This has been carried out by pursuing a two-pronged strategy. On one hand, China has been investing heavily in its military infrastructure by modernizing its technological capabilities with more state-of-the-art equipment. At the same time, they have been building their influence by expanding their place as a military power in Asia, particularly Central Asia, replacing Russia as the dominant hegemon in the region.
China has engaged in various military reforms, including allowing civilian companies to invest and modernize the military technology industry. Together with a grand, national strategy to create a hyper tech-based society, the Chinese military technology industry is becoming a serious participant, especially in the field of military-use telecommunication.
Since 1999, the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) no longer supervises military technology companies, as part of an effort to eliminate military-related corruption. The Chinese State Council has therefore been able to directly exert a party-driven ideology in research, production, and sales of military equipment. Arms sales to Central Asia can be cast as a deliberate party decision, among other plans, to strategically position China to counter Russian influence at China’s doorstep.
In the 21st century, China has made a sharp departure from its traditional reliance on Russia for technology. At the breakup of the Soviet Union, Central Asia was actually one of the sources of China’s military technology. In 1998, China bought 40 Shkval torpedoes from Kazakhstan. Today, the Chinese military supplier industry is filling a market gap for cheap equipment that fits the region’s existing gear.
Since 1999, the Chinese PLA no longer supervises military technology companies as part of an effort to eliminate military-related corruption. The Chinese State Council has therefore been able to directly exert a party-driven ideology in research, production, and sales of military equipment. Arms sales to Central Asia, then, can be cast as a deliberate party decision to strategically position China, among other plans, to balance Russian influence at the Chinese doorstep (thediplomat.com/). In August of this year, China debuted its first military maritime medical aid simulation training system. The system, jointly developed by the Sixth Medical Center of the People's Liberation Army General Hospital and a number of other institutions, aims at improving medical personnel's capability of providing medical aid in naval battles (english.chinamil.com.cn/content_9599611.htm).
In preparation for potential plateau warfare, China recently used, for the first time, some of its most powerful weapons and equipment, including Type 99A main battle tanks and battlefield robots on a snow-covered plateau in combat exercises. Weapons and equipment, including Type 99A tanks and battlefield robots used for mine sweeping and reconnaissance, were deployed for the first time in a plateau (eng.chinamil.com.cn/content_9594625.htm).
China’s technology revolution has not just been for its own domestic benefit. In September 2018, Kazakhstan purchased a Y-8 a military plane, a copy of the Antonov An-12, from China’s CATIC. In January 2018, Turkmenistan purchased the QW-2 Vanguard 2, similar to the Russian 9K38 Igla, from China’s CASIC. In March 2016, a military exercise in Turkmenistan revealed a purchase of the HQ-9 air defense system, similar to the Russian S-300, from China’s CPMIEC. The HQ-9 is also reportedly present in Uzbekistan. The Soviet origins of modern Chinese military equipment make Beijing’s kit conveniently attractive for Central Asian states. And, many of its arms are designed to fit universal Soviet ammunition, such as NORINCO’s VT-4 and VN17.
In Central Asia, beyond outright donations, gas is often traded for military equipment. The HQ-9 transfer to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is part of the Chinese payment for natural gas via the Central Asia-China gas pipeline. Military equipment is further involved in the picture when in January 2015 a Chinese loan to be repaid with natural gas was provided to Turkmenistan for a purchase of arms.
In December 2017, Turkmen gas exports to China fell sharply. By February 2018, China’s domestic natural gas price jumped 40 percent. Sino-Turkmen relations seem to have worsened. In January 2019, China put Turkmenistan on a military blacklist, ceasing all future military exports to the country. Turkey was recently also blacklisted for turning down the HQ-9 deal (thediplomat.com/). China’s arms business is not relegated solely to Central Asia.
The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) has signed a contract to procure a Type 071E (Yuzhao)-class landing platform dock (LPD) from China. The deal was signed in Beijing on 9 September and is reportedly worth THB4 billion (USD130 million) (janes.com/update-thailand-signs-for-chinese-landing-platform-dock). China’s military support of these nation-states has not been solely relegated to providing weaponry and technological upgrades.
This summer, the “Cooperation-2019” China-Tajikistan joint counter-terrorism exercise was successfully completed at the Jilondi training range in Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan. Participating troops of both sides conducted exercises on joint reconnaissance, comprehensive control, rescue, and fire strike. The Chinese air force, special operations force, aviation units and the Tajik artillery, special operations force and mountainous infantry, cooperated closely in accordance with the instructions from the Joint Command Department and conducted precise integrated air-ground control and strike against the “terrorists”.
The Joint Command Department ordered the Chinese aviation helicopters to carry out aircraft landing with soldiers of Tajik special operations force once the targets were locked. The exercise culminated in special operations forces of both sides conducting a joint assault on the rescue area quickly by assault vehicles, and Chinese Air Force fighters, fighter-bombers, and UAVs carrying out deterrence and precision strikes against concentrated terrorist hideouts. This was but one of a series of joint operations exercises the two countries have carried out (eng.chinamil.com.cn/content_9592237.htm).
On Aug. 17 Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, met with Kim Su Kil, director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army Saturday in Beijing. Highlighting the traditional friendship between China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Zhang said the Chinese military is willing to work with the DPRK side to strengthen communication and promote cooperation and mutual support, so as to contribute to the consolidation and development of bilateral relations and regional peace and stability. Kim said the DPRK side is ready to strengthen friendly exchanges between the two armed forces in various fields, mutual learning, and promoting the relations between the two countries and the two armed forces to a higher level (eng.chinamil.com.cn/content_9593174.htm).
China’s role in Central Asia is becoming more significant. The clear escalation of Chinese assertiveness in Central Asia indicates a breakdown of the assumed traditional Sino-Russian economic-military division of labor in the region. Russia has often been understood as the region’s security guarantor, while China has increasingly played a critical economic role that has now extended into a military one. Chinese military assertiveness in Asia has often been viewed as an effort to strike a balance, either with the United States, India, or other powers across the region.
While China’s military technology industry has arguably grown, Russia has put little effort into innovating its military technology industry. The close to nonexistent manufacturing sector for military parts in Russia continues to give China an upper hand in producing traditional components as well as new military-use telecommunication components.
In 2015, 186 types of Russian military equipment needed components from manufacturers in Ukraine. On top of all this, huge debt in the Russian military industry will only make cheaper Chinese alternatives more and more attractive. Although in Russia’s backyard, but increasingly a Chinese security interest, Central Asia provides a critical glance at the expansion of Beijing’s military assertiveness. (thediplomat.com/). It is inevitable that China will surpass Russia as the dominant power in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Two outcomes coming from this situation that will affect the U.S. in both positive and negative ways. On one hand, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia have long been seen as volatile hotbeds of Islamic radicalism. China’s growing involvement in the region will inevitably result in it becoming more invested in the security of the region including counterterrorism and stability. Since China borders so many of these countries, it will be in a geographically advantageous position to relieve the U.S. of much of the responsibility it currently assumes around the world. At a strategic security level, China can become an important ally in the fight against Islamic radicalism.
A negative perspective is that China’s encroachment into Central Asia has allowed it to replace Russia as the dominant force in the region. This gives China access to vast natural resources that it will exploit for its own purposes as well as opening up numerous additional markets for its products.
This is also dangerous because China is positioning itself as an economic alternative to the U.S. who has used sanctions as a way of dealing with hostile countries. As China expands its economic influence and develops relations with countries the U.S. is embargoing, it will erode the power of those sanctions.