Arms sales opportunity: China moves into Central Asia as the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan

As the security situation deteriorates in Afghanistan after the US military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents move into the neighboring countries, Chinese foreign minister has scheduled visits to three Central Asian countries upon invitation, and will discuss with Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) officials about the situation in Afghanistan, learned GDC citing CCP run media Global Times.

Despite the shadow cast by Afghanistan’s new situation, it propels regional countries, including China, to gaze closely into it. Analysts said there are both challenges and opportunities for China to sale arms to Afghanistan’s neighbors. By including the Afghanistan issue into the SCO agenda, Beijing can sale more weapons to Central Asian countries replacing Russia as the major arms dealer in that region. The U.S. withdrawal left the power vacuum in Afghanistan, but will also push ties between China and other Central Asian countries closer, Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is visiting Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan between July 12 and 16 on the invitation of foreign ministers of the three countries, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin announced on Friday.

Wang Yi is also scheduled to attend the meeting of foreign ministers of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, where he will exchange views with other SCO member states and his Afghan counterpart on promoting regional security and stability, advancing the process of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, and deepening cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan, Wang Wenbin said.

The visit will provide a platform for China and the three countries to cooperate on regional security and China may offer financial credit for arms purchase for the countries that face challenges in securing border areas, analysts said.

Arms Export

China is making significant inroads in the security sector. It has provided 18 percent of the region’s arms over the past five years, a significant increase from the 1.5 percent of Central Asian arms imports that it provided between 2010 and 2014. In 2016, China constructed its first military facilities in the region, high in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains, and in recent years, it has begun projecting the operational capabilities of its paramilitary units into the region. While Moscow retains a strategic edge over Beijing, the gap is closing, and, if trends continue, Moscow may find its influence undermined in the coming decade.

Uzbekistan Army test fires Chinese-made FD-2000 missiles

Since 2000, according to the SIPRI Arms Database, China has exported $444 million worth of arms to Central Asia, with 97 percent of those sales occurring after 2014. SIPRI’s dataset is somewhat limited, however, missing key large-scale transfers that push China’s total exports to the region above $717 million.

In 2015, Kazakhstan received 30 Jiefang J6 heavy-duty trucks and 30 large-load trailers worth $3.2 million as a gift from the People’s Republic.

Since 2014, China has ramped up arms transfers to the region. In 2015, Kazakhstan received 30 Jiefang J6 heavy-duty trucks and 30 large-load trailers worth $3.2 million as a gift from the People’s Republic. In September 2018, Kazakhstan bought eight Chinese Y-8 transport airplanes, modelled on the Russian Antonov An-12. This activity has also led to a diminishing lead for Russia in the supply of advanced weapons systems. For example, Turkmenistan purchased a QW-2 Vanguard 2 portable surface-to-air missile, modelled on Russia’s 9K38 Igla 2018, from the Chinese military technology company CATIC. In November 2019, Uzbekistan’s Air Defense Force successfully tested China’s FD-2000 medium-range air-defense system on a target drone. The China Ordnance Industry Group Corporation Limited donated VP11 patrol vehicles to Tajikistan in 2018.

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PLA solder and Uzbek soldier arms wrestle in Uzbek border. Source Uzbek MoD.

China is also dominating in sectors where Russian technology continues to lag. In recent years Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have all received armed drones from China, a strategic global market once the preserve of the U.S. and Israel. The most well-known and used Chinese drones are the CH-3, CH-4, CH-5, and the Wing Loong. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have purchased a number of Wing Loongs, and Turkmenistan operates the CH-3.

In addition to purchases and direct donations, Central Asia also procures Chinese weapons systems by bartering its substantial petrochemical resources. Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan used gas to obtain their HQ-9 missile defense systems from Beijing. But this agreement broke down. By January 2019, China had placed Turkmenistan on a military blacklist, ceasing all military exports to the country after Ashgabat struggled to pay back a loan issued by Beijing after its gas production plummeted. In the wake of COVID-19, China’s slowing energy demand and falling gas prices may lead to loan repayment issues in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the other major suppliers for China, with similar implications for their arms industries.

Yang Jin, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Sunday that the three Central Asian countries are facing the foremost security threats as Afghanistan’s neighbors.

China’s consistent position on the Afghan issue is to respect Afghanistan’s historical and current conditions, and to help but not interfere, which is also what separates  China from the US in the region, noted Yang.

Virus Diplomacy

On April 2, a plane carrying 500 kilos of testing equipment and PPE from China landed in Almaty. A similar flight landed in Tashkent on March 30 and a team of 10 medical specialists from China arrived in Kyrgyzstan on April 21. Not to be outdone by China’s “virus diplomacy,” Russia has donated 17,000 test kits to Kyrgyzstan and 2,000 to Tajikistan. These latest moves in response to COVID-19 are part of an ongoing struggle between Russia and China over influence in Central Asia.

China plans to supply free covid-19 vaccines to the Central Asian countries as part of diplomatic and political gain in the region.

As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, during his visit to the Central Asian countries, Wang Yi will also attend multilateral events including the SCO foreign ministers’ meeting and have exchanges with foreign ministers of other participating countries. Wang will discuss the situation in Afghanistan with SCO officials.

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