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China-Central Asia Defence Relations by K. Jennie Tresa

C3S Paper No. 0108/ 2015

Khublai Khan and the Mongols had a resounding military success in 1279 C.E in China. The Mongols had organised a navy in order to cross the Yangtze River and move into South China. This was a complete failure, and it lead to the weakening and eventual fall of Mongol empire in China[i]. Likewise China faced many invasions later on. It drove the country to strengthen its military. Despite the past, China established military relationship with Central Asia.

The last few decades have seen a gradual expansion of military co-operation between China and the neighbouring Central Asian states, especially on the basis of counter-terrorism and confidence building measures.This is necessary as most of the Central Asian states are insecure and unstable. Also there is a risk that Central Asian “jihadis” are fighting beside the Taliban, which would be a major problem for both China and Central Asia. Economic relations can be affected by these developments.

China, shaping its relations with Central Asia, focused on developing energy imports and economic ties. On the other hand, China faces several security concerns in the region, such as, Islamic radicalism and regional separatism. China is attempting to address these concerns by multilateral and bilateral military cooperation with Central Asian states.

China’s Military Ties with Central Asian States

China’s security relations with Kyrgyzstan are very significant. They are focused primarily on countering the Uighur separatist movement.China claims that the Uighur separatist movement is supported by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. However militants enter China via a complex route.They are believed to travel from Kunduz in Afghanistan via Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Kashi in Xinjiang[ii]. This makes Kyrgyzstan central to the struggle against the“three evils”[terrorism, fundamentalism and separatism].

In Kyrgyzstan China has also provided equipment to Kyrgyzstan security forces. In 2004 China promised USD 16 million as military aid to Kyrgyzstan. The fund was directed towards upgrading of weapons and equipment. Yet Kyrgyzstan seems to move closer to Russia in the military sphere[iii]. This shows Russia’s strong influence in the region, whereby China and Russia can work together in their shared interest.

As Turkmenistan lacks a strong military,China and Turkmenistan both pledged to enhance co-operation between their armed forcesin 2013. In addition, in 2015 Turkmenistan sought U.S.A’s help for military aid to address the Afghanistan border issue. This shows that China accepts multilateral co-operation in the region. Turkmenistan acts as a transit hub for drugs smuggled from Afghanistan, which may reduce China’s military support to an extent.

Tajikistan is located at the cross roads of Russia, Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan and China and has been influenced by each. Russia, China, and India are interested in restraining Islamic fundamentalism in Tajikistan. On the other hand Iran and Pakistan want to reinforce the country’s Islamic identity.  This difference in approach gives room to conflict. Because of its isolation Tajikistan relies more on Russia than China.

China and Uzbekistan, in accordance with Shanghai Cooperation Organisation [SCO], signed the China-Uzbekistan agreement on co-operation on combating the “three evils”. They further adopted powerful measures to fight against all forms of terrorism[iv].

One unique factor differentiating China’s relationship with Kazakhstan from the other Central Asian countries is the two countries’ similarity in ethnic population. An ethnic group of about 180, 000 Uighurs reside in western Kazakhstan. China has supplied Kazakhstan defence equipment, military training and intelligence information regarding terrorist threats. The National Security Commission of Kazakhstan and the China’s Public Security Ministry, regularly conduct joint anti-terrorist exercises in the border region. They also collaborate against trafficking in narcotics and weapons. But most of their security co-operation occurs within the framework of SCO[v].

As Kazakhstan requires military up gradation, China provides significant amount of military assistance to the country.The two countries have had regular military exchanges since 1993, though mostly small-scale, military exercises since 2002. China’s military engagement with Kazakhstan focuses on non-traditional threats such as terrorism and drug trafficking[vi]

On a similar note, Uzbekistan has recently sought to increase military ties with China.Despite the extent of military cooperation, China prefers to focus on trade relation with the region. Chinese leaders favour multilateral initiatives, which is less threatening than bilateral approaches. In 2005 Russia had initiated an aggressive strategy to regain its lost economic influence. Much of the Russian economic setback is due to high levels of competition from China[vii]. China wants to avoid Russia’s influence and thus de-emphasise military ties in favour of economic and trade relations. In addition, conflicts and tensions in the region are likely to become more acute as NATO begins to withdraw from Afghanistan.As a result, China’s military ties with Central Asian states are relatively limited. This is because, China accepts Russia as the primary actor for Central Asia’s security. U.S.A, Russia and China have a common interest in combating the threat of Islamic extremism.

The primary goalof China’s involvement in Central Asia is the need to stabilise the situation in Xinjiang. China aims to decrease the economic marginalisation of Xinjiang’s ethnic Uighurs. This is to secure China’s western borders, from Islamic fundamentalists and the separatist movement in the province.The military relation with Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is not primary for China when compared to other Central Asian states.

SCO and the Peace Initiatives

Despite the extent of military cooperation, China enjoys high levels of economic influence in the region. However China and Central Asiahave multilateral security initiatives organised via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO]. The SCO is closely related to China’s desire to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism. As a result, most multilateral security activities in this region involve China against counter-terrorism.

SCO conducts annual Peace Missions on counter-terrorism since 2002 for combating the “three evils”. The first bilateral exercise was held in 2002 with Kyrgyzstan. Between 2002-2010 China participated in more than 20 bilateral and multilateral exercises with the other SCO members. The first multilateral exercise was held in 2003 in east Kazakhstan. In 2006 China conducted military exercises with both Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. The most recent multilateral exercise took place in Tajikistan in June 2012 which included all SCO member states except Uzbekistan. The small size of the exercisereflects the lack of emphasis on the military component of regional cooperation within the SCO. Since then military exercises have been held every year. But Uzbekistan has consistently refused to participate in the SCO exercises because it fearsdomination of external powers,particularly Russia.

Earlier, SCO had not significantly expanded its military exercises. However,after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in U.S.A, theCentral Asian countries supported U.S.A’s “war on terrorism”, without consulting China. U.S.A and the Central Asian countries cooperated via trade opportunities, overflight rights, and economic packages[viii]. This helped to preventterrorism from fostering.

China’s response to terrorism via its Central Asia policy

China responded by establishing a regional organisation to fight terrorism-The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure [RATS] of the SCO. It coordinates the anti-terrorist activities of member states, with a particular focus against radical Islamist organisations. RATS was established in 2004. In recent years, it has expanded its activities to include counter-narcotics coordination[ix].

Implications for India

India has traditionally attached great importance its relation with Central Asia, but unfortunately this historical and cultural relation has not progressed further significantly. The key constraint India faces is the lack of direct access to Central Asia. Besides the unstable situation in Afghanistan and the problematic Indo-Pak relations, makesit difficult for India to reach Central Asia. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India [TAPI] pipeline would be a game changer if it materialises[x]. There are some positive developments like signing of inter-governmental agreements. It is also important for India to ensure its interest in Central Asia. India needs to carefully watch any strategic gain to Pakistan in this region. Finally India should focus on a policy of economic diplomacy towards Central Asian Region’s [CARs].

India’s relation with Tajikistan has more weightage than the other CARs. These relations originate from 1990. Both the countries supported Anti-Taliban resistance forces. Security ties between India and Tajikistan strengthened further when they signed a bilateral defence agreement in 2002. In response to that the first Central Asian military exercise with Tajikistan was held in 2003. In addition to that India donated Tajikistan with two Mi-8 helicopters, along with trucks and other vehicles [xi]. Most importantly India has funded for refurbishment of Tajikistan’s military base in Dushanbe. The military base has crucial implications for India’s strategic interest in this region.

Despite increasing close political and economic ties, India’s economic co-operation with Tajikistan remains low. As India wants to be a strong player in Central Asia, its defence and security ties with Tajikistan should be matched with economic co-operation and financial support. Without achieving that India can only be a marginal player in Central Asia.


The primary focus of China and the Central Asian states was to combat the “three evils” [terrorism, fundamentalism, separatism]. This led to the formation of SCO, which further strengthen the relationship. China and Central Asia together under SCO has organised many peace initiatives. To add on, in response to the U.S.A’s global war on terror China has come up with RATS as a subdivision of SCO. India who wishes to be part of the Eastern international community is taking efforts in terms of economy, military, cultural, education and political relations.

Apart from India and China other countries have interest in the region. In order to combat threats, the Central Asian states have initiated several measures for military reform with the help of the super powers. This international military assistance will help to counter Islamic insurgency. China’s military modernisation will endanger regional security, especially if it’s not set in the broader framework of effective military reforms.To China security and stability in Central Asia matters a lot, for the safety and protection of its own investment. Besides, China is concerned about the spill over effect that might have over Xinjiang. Despite China’s involvement in the region’s security, it prefers to leave the leading role to Russia. It focuses primarily on establishing its economic dominance in Central Asia. The oil and gas sector in the region attracts China’s security interests. China can’t solve alone any future crisis in Central Asia, for this reason it welcomes Russia’s partnership in the region. This was seen when in April, 2015, the 6th Meeting of Leaders of SCO Anti-Drug Agencies was held in Moscow. It will be interesting to observe how China balances its security and economic interest in Central Asia in the coming decades.


[i] Morris Rossabi, “The Mongols in China, Beginnings of Mongol collapse: Military success and failures”, (Accessed on May 04, 2015)

[ii] Qin Jize and Cheng Guangjin,”China, Kyrgyzstan to boost relations”, Chinadaily, December 05, 2012. (Accessed on May 03, 2015)

[iii] Joshua Kucera, “China Boosts Military Aid To Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan”, Eurasianet, September 04, 2014, (Accessed on May 03, 2015)

[iv] Sebastien Peyrouse, “Military cooperation between China and Central Asia: breakthrough, limits, and prospects”,  Jamestown, March 05,2010, (Accessed on May 03, 2015)

[v] David Harrison, “Kazakhstan’s defense cooperation with China”, China in Central Asia, February 26, 2015, (Accessed on May 04, 2015)

[vi] “The underappreciated China-Kazakhstan partnership”, chinausfocus, March 01, 2012, (Accessed on May 03, 2015)

[vii] Dmitry Gorenburg, ”External support for Central Asian Military and security forces”,, January, 2014, (Accessed on May 03, 2015)

[viii] “China’s Central Asia problem”, crisisgroup, February 27,2013, (Accessed on May 03, 2015)

[ix] Dmitry Gorenburg, “Energy concern drives Central Asia defense ties”, Russian Military Reform, russiamil.wordpress, May,22,2013 (Accessed on May 03, 2015)

[x] Arvind gupta, “ India and Central Asia: need for a pro-active approach”, Institute for defense studies and analyses, October 14, 2013,     (Accessed on May 03, 2015)

[xi] Alexander sodique, “India’s relation with Tajikistan: beyond the airbase”, Tajikistan monitor, February 28, 2011,   (Accessed on May 03, 2015)

(K.Jennie Tresa is an intern with Chennai Centre for China Studies. As a statutory requirement of her academic course in Stella Maris college, she is required to carry out research in a think tank on identified issues in China under the guidance of the members of C3S. The views expressed in this article  however are of the author. E-mail: )

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