The Belt and Road Initiative continues to grow in importance as it shapes the landscape in Central Asia. Cobus van Staden, senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs and cohost of the China in Africa Podcast, delivered a seminar earlier this year on the lessons to be learned by Central Asia from the impact of the BRI in Africa.
- The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is fostering connectivity between China and different parts of the world, including Africa and Central Asia, creating shared and relevant experiences in these distant regions.
- There are important similarities between African states and Central Asian countries. They are hungry for foreign investment and determined to build new infrastructure. They are generally resource-rich. At the same time, they are constrained by weak institutional capacity and poor governance. These structural factors account for similar arrangements and dynamics in their relations with China.
- However, what the more granular analysis of different case studies shows is that the role of agency should not be underestimated. African governments are not powerless in relation to China; they take decisions and set parameters for projects. The same is true for other governments in the world, including those in Central Asia. It is important to understand how agency works in the BRI space.
- Agency is crucial when we consider the export/import of authoritarianism. For example, several African countries are adopting China’s facial recognition software. A study of a number of authoritarian and democratic countries in Africa has shown that Chinese companies were happy to provide whatever the governments wanted: a centrally controlled authoritarian high surveillance system or a version with built-in limits on surveillance. This lesson puts a burden on Central Asian societies to make sure that the imported digital governance systems do not further erode human rights in the region.
- An issue to keep in mind is the question of ownership of data collected with facial recognition technology. Examples of disputes between Chinese companies, Chinese authorities, and African governments can be instructive for Central Asians.
- China is exporting its domestic governance model to African countries via its large-scale training programs and scholarships. This is a potentially powerful instrument of influence to watch and analyze.
- In Africa and other regions, including Central Asia, BRI projects are getting pulled into local and national political contestation. They fuel protests and become part of political races.
- At the regional level, there are efforts underway to develop a coherent agenda for relations with China in the frame of the African Union. However, they have been undercut by tensions between smaller and bigger states, with the former worried that they would be pushed out of negotiations with China by larger members, and the latter not wanting to lose some of their control over their own relations with China. There is no Central Asian union, but we might expect similar dynamics if countries of the region try to develop a regional approach to China’s BRI.