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China In Eurasia Briefing: What 2023 Means For China


Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 6.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 6.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. To subscribe, click here.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

What 2023 Means For China

After a 2022 that brought upheaval for Beijing, China is looking to shore up its strategic flank in Eurasia and focus on economic growth at home. But doing so is easier said than done.

Finding Perspective: With Chinese leader Xi Jinping's international isolation over and the Communist Party abandoning its COVID-zero policies, a series of leaders were welcomed in Beijing recently, including Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov.

As I wrote here, the visit was important, as Turkmenistan is one of China's leading providers of natural gas, but it's a dynamic leaning increasingly in Beijing's favor.

China has an ever-expanding appetite for energy, but it has courted a diverse set of suppliers across the world. The reclusive Central Asian country, meanwhile, is faced with a deepening dependence on China as its main market, which looks set to continue well into the future.

Why It Matters: China's growing gravity across Eurasia was a major theme of 2022 and that will carry through into the coming year. But much of this expanded influence was from Russia's comparative decline due to fallout from its invasion of Ukraine.

Across Central Asia, governments are walking a tightrope over how to distance and insulate themselves from Russia, without provoking any blowback. This makes China, which is already an economic force in the region, appealing because of its close ties to Moscow.

Will 2023 Be Another Big Year For China In Central Asia?
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But what other unexpected turns could 2023 bring? And how might Beijing, especially amid reports that Xi is looking to reset many of its foreign and economic policies, try to adapt?

Looking deeper in 2023, this complicated balancing act will continue to take shape. One interesting thing to watch will be how Beijing manages to showcase itself as a leader to Central Asian states and not hasten any more feelings in the Kremlin that China is encroaching on its turf.

As Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and the author of No Limits: The Inside Story Of China's War With The West, told me, ensuring that Moscow feels respected has been a central part of its strategy with Russia.

"If they treat Russia as an equal -- even if they don't think they are -- then this will pay dividends for China, and that's been a growing part of how Xi has approached this entire relationship."

Read more

● Want to know more about where the China-Russia relationship is headed? Read my look ahead here.

● For more about Turkmenistan and what's at stake for the Central Asian country, read this article by my colleague Chris Rickleton and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service about the new $1.5 billion city it's building in the desert amid a grinding economic crisis at home.

Expert Corner: China And The Czech Republic's Next President

Readers asked: "Czech President Milos Zeman chased close ties to China during his tenure. As the country prepares to elect a new president, what can we expect for the relationship with Beijing?"

To find out more, I asked Martin Hala, a China expert at Charles University in Prague and the director of Sinopsis, a project that tracks Chinese influence across Europe:

"The role of the Czech president in foreign policy is meant to be largely ceremonial. Zeman was only able to pursue his own pro-Beijing course because he had been facing a series of feeble governments that he could manipulate with relative ease. His 'economic diplomacy' with China had already collapsed back in 2018 with the demise of the notorious Chinese company CEFC, hailed by him as 'the flagship of Chinese investments.' The other driving force of this policy -- the commercial interests of the richest Czech financial conglomerate, PPF -- also faded away amid tightening regulations in the Chinese financial sector.

"The only remaining pro-Beijing factor now in Czech politics is a more general anti-Western populism. Among the eight presidential candidates, former Interior Minister Jaroslav Basta represents this best, but has a slim chance to make it to the second round of voting. Among the three main contenders -- who currently poll around 25 percent -- former Prime Minister Andrej Babis has clear populist inclinations. But his kind of populism isn't anti-Western, let alone pro-Beijing.

"As prime minister, Babis largely complied with Zeman's China agenda, but seemingly only because he needed his support to stay in power amid his many controversies. Babis would be Zeman's chosen successor in many ways, but that does not mean he would necessarily inherit his China mantle. The other two favorites, Petr Pavel and Danuse Nerudova, have been openly critical of the Chinese Communist Party and Beijing, so one way or another, the heydays of Chinese influence in the Czech Republic seem to be over."

Do you have a question about China's growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I'll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. China's Gene Giant In Serbia

China's BGI Group -- the world's largest genetic-research company -- is grappling with U.S. sanctions and facing investigations in Europe over its alleged links to the Chinese military. But as Mila Djurdjevic from RFE/RL's Balkan Service reports, the corporation is receiving a warm welcome in Serbia.

What You Need To Know: Many of the charges against BGI stem from the findings of a 2021 investigation by Reuters that showed BGI was using prenatal tests that were developed in collaboration with the Chinese military to collect genetic data for sweeping research on the traits of populations.

BGI has denied the allegations, but the reporting launched a series of investigations across the European Union and the company has also been hit with sanctions by the United States.

In Serbia, however, its footprint is growing. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and BGI representatives announced in November 2022 that the Chinese company will play a central role in a new research hub in Belgrade.

BGI already runs a center in the Serbian capital that conducts tests and manufactures products for the regional market, including the same prenatal tests from the Reuters investigation.

2. Escaping Xinjiang

Zhanargul Zhumatai, an ethnic Kazakh journalist and musician residing in Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Province, says that she is under pressure by local authorities and now she's looking for help to get out to neighboring Kazakhstan.

The Details: RFE/RL Central Asia correspondent Chris Rickleton reported on Zhumatai's case.

She says that local security services have told her that she faces arrest for communicating with Serikzhan Bilash, a well-known Kazakh activist who now lives in the United States, and that she can "save herself" if she signs into a psychiatric hospital.

Beijing has interned more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang in a vast camp system where it has been accused of widespread abuses.

Zhumatai claims to have spent time in one of these facilities, which is supported by leaked Chinese police records that show she was arrested in 2017.

It's a difficult spot for Kazakhstan to navigate as Zhumatai tries to leave China for the country. She claims to have already contacted the Kazakh Embassy, but Astana has suppressed activism over Xinjiang in the past and will be cautious about getting caught in the crossfire with Beijing.

3. A Journey Along Montenegro's $1 Billion Highway

It took eight years of construction, delays, and controversy, but Montenegro's $1 billion highway -- financed and built by the Chinese -- is open.

Check out this photo essay from my colleague Amos Chapple and myself about how locals feel about the scandal-laden project, which features some excellent pics from Amos.

What It Means: The road project has also brought long-term economic risk by saddling Montenegro with debts to China that totaled more than one-third of the annual state budget, with the highway also becoming a lightning rod for local corruption concerns.

Despite this controversy, polls have shown that only a minority in Montenegro see China or the financial risk brought by the highway as a concern, with many instead hoping that both will provide an economic boost to the country.

The highway is made up of three sections and so far, only the initial 41-kilometer stretch has been completed, with the future of the remaining 122 kilometers still up in the air.

Across The Supercontinent

Demoted?: Le Yucheng, who until recently was a deputy minister of foreign affairs and considered one of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's leading Russia experts, has been reshuffled and is now deputy head of the National Radio and Television Administration.

It's a notable downward move, especially for someone that some China watchers considered a potential next foreign minister. Could it signal internal friction over how to deal with Moscow?

Supply Side: Officials in eastern Kazakhstan say exports to China from the area's only natural-gas producing facility were halted on January 1 amid an expiring agreement and complaints from locals over shortages, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports.

Another Small Step: Slowly, but steadily, developments for the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway are taking shape.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports that a project office for the venture will soon be opened in Bishkek and that a feasibility study will be available by the summer.

Balkan Inroads: China's vaccine diplomacy during the heyday of the pandemic and investment in local media is bearing fruit in North Macedonia, Vladimir Kalinsky from RFE/RL's Balkan Service reports.

One Thing To Watch

China's sudden change in COVID policy continues to make ripples at home and around the world, with overflowing hospitals inside the country and new restrictions targeting arrivals from China abroad.

As more travelers from China begin visiting international destinations for the first time in three years, the World Health Organization has said that a true understanding of the situation is obscured by insufficient data.

Expect infections to rise further this month, especially in the run-up to heightened travel during the Lunar New Year holiday in late January.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every other Wednesday.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

About The Newsletter

China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.

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