China's economic dominance in Central Asia grows
by Vladimir Rozanskij

Ties strengthened with Turkmenistan. Energy and regional security are the main areas of cooperation between Beijing and Ashgabat. Fears over the Taliban advance in Afghanistan. The Chinese are better positioned than the US and Russia in the "great game" for Central Asia.



Moscow (AsiaNews) - Yesterday the popular Turkmen television programme "Dunja Turkmenleri" (Turkmen in the world) presented an extensive overview of relations between Turkmenistan and China. The report particularly emphasised Beijing's growing economic dominance over the whole of Central Asia.

Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited several countries in the region: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The tour, which had been planned for some time, coincided with the escalating crisis in neighbouring Afghanistan, which is of great concern to the Chinese leadership.

On 12-13 July, Wang held talks with Turkmen President Gurbangul Berdymuhamedov and Ashgabat Foreign Minister Rašid Meredov. The parties agreed to intensify mutual relations. The situation in Afghanistan was discussed, highlighting China's desire to play an important role in regulating the conflict. For the time being, the Chinese giant is limiting itself to acting as a back-up for the Central Asian nations, without entering directly into diplomatic skirmishes.

With Turkmenistan, China is putting the energy issue, be it nuclear energy or natural gas, first. However, Beijing emphasises the importance of offering "all kinds of traditional or non-traditional support in the field of security", as Radio Azatlyk reports.

The Chinese government wants to get involved in all aspects of Turkmen social life, not just the economy, starting with the exchange of data between the two countries' investigation and security services. In the first place, given the situation on the border with Afghanistan, there is information on the presence of Uyghur extremist groups on Afghan territory and in Central Asia.

Turkmenistan appears to be a privileged ally of the Chinese. Ashgabat is not a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Despite bilateral agreements with China, the Turkmen do not even participate in the Chinese-influenced Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. 

With the support of the Berdymuhamedov regime, Beijing is beginning to be a serious competitor to the US and Russia in the arms trade in Central Asia. Wang stated that "China supports Turkmenistan's state of neutrality, and condemns any attempt to meddle in Turkmenistan's internal affairs". The Chinese envoy's statement reflects China's own profile of its Turkmen partner, which often emphasises the rhetoric of 'Chinese neutrality' in the global arena.

Not surprisingly, on 14 July, during the 47th session of the UN Human Rights Council, the Turkmen representative supported the Chinese government regarding the situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Ashgabat expressed its opposition to pressure on China, which is accused by Western nations of violating human rights.

With their statements, the Chinese intend to condemn Washington's policy, which is militarily active in Afghanistan as in many other parts of the world. Together with countries such as Iran, China has in past years criticised the presence of US troops in Central Asia. Now Beijing is attacking its US rivals for having decided to withdraw its forces from the Afghan powder keg, giving the Taliban a new lease of life.

After the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, China is increasingly entering the "great game" of Central Asia, as it has been defined since the 19th century, and where until a few years ago the main players were Russia, the United States and Europe. Washington is redefining its objectives and aims to reopen military bases in the region to keep the Russians and Chinese under control. Thanks to massive investments in their economies, however, Beijing seems to be able to control the Central Asian countries much more effectively than the other powers 'in play'.