Project #Regionalism, Open-Source Research Proposal §1: Belt and Road in Central Asia – Schism Between Chinese Domestic and Foreign Ecological Modernization?

Teodor Kalpakchiev

Central Asia is a meso-region that stands at a crossroad for various actors and initiatives – spatial (Belt and Road), economic integration (Eurasian Economic Union), regional cooperation (Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation, Organization of Islamic Cooperation), security community (Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Collective Security Treaty Organization, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), as well as projected external governance (the European Union). Analyzing it would therefore need to encompass both the normative (legal) landscape, regime actors (power holders, change agents, aid delivery and oversight bodies), as well as their relation niche problems (e.g. drought4), solutions which can be upscaled5. This necessitates an analysis centered on institutions and instruments, while making the best use of the extensive trade- related research by Russian-speaking scientists that confirms a trend for transition from territorial to flow-centred governance6 at the juncture of geography and international relations.

According to Liu et al., „Telecoupled systems are hierarchically structured, so the telecoupling framework takes a multilevel analytic approach. At the telecoupled system level, it includes an interrelated set of coupled human and natural systems (sending, receiving, spill-over) that are connected through flows among them“. Telecoupling traces the causal linkages between effects of social (e.g. institutional instruments in trade, aid, development) and ecological (land use, food security, labour stability, environmental degradation) systems, as the first often trigger negative externalities, subsequent outbreak of international attention and corrective feedback stabilizers. As an integrated analytical framework for flows of policies, goods and effects, it provides ample possibility for analysis and fills an interdisciplinary literature gap.

As a transit route, Central Asia would comprise the spill-over system where most effects are manifested. Its local actors (municipalities, NGOs, companies) would be critically reviewed from the prism of multi-level governance networks, “which are considered to self-organize, resist governmental steering, develop own policies and exchange resources (…) guided using subsidies, coordination and facilitation”8 and in contrast to mono-centric state hierarchy (as seen in China). As EU’s engagement in Central Asia cannot count on financially underpinned leverage, its normative transfer (political and economic governance, rule of law, absence of violence) is fragmented. It counts much more on a hybrid form of transgovernmentality that aims to foster bottom up transitions through societal and business links and appropriating “these channels to integrative transgovernmental networks”, resp. engaging elites in regionalism and region-building through, e.g. an agency-principal relationship with other organizations it sponsors such as the Asia-Europe Meeting. Thus it seeks a level of multi-level harmonization of practices, transfer of experience, patterns of coordination and ultimately reciprocal interdependence of autonomous networks that solve governance problems9. Elites are engaged through an institutionalized and central locus of authority (parliamentary delegations, diplomatic visits, ministerial exchange), counting on non-hierarchical incentives, which are nevertheless non-legally binding. Hence, the EU will be viewed as a multi-level, multi-arena polity10 that engages horizontally in forms of „hybrid multilateralism“, thus effectively substituting traditional multilateralism.

EU-China Foreign Trade Instruments (Author Work)

Central Asia

Central Asia plays a vital role of the BRI economic belt due to its geographical position, low bargaining options, as well as rich resource base. A typical example is the fact that near total dependence on Russian gas has triggered substantial gas diversion towards China, which nevertheless acts as repayment of Chinese loans for the construction of the new pipelines (50% of the total cost), thus not contributing to the local economy.

The aid within the BRI does not conform to OECD conditionality and is oftentimes described as rogue or predatory due to practices such as tied aid (usage of Chinese goods or expertise), or predatory/rogue aid, as the loans and investments it consists of result in debt hikes, esp. in small countries. China also engages in predatory lending – e.g. construction of power plant for lease over two gold mines for 50 years in Tajikistan, as well as in Angolan aid model delivery – as it ties debt repayment to preferential resource imports – e.g. the oil in Kazakhstan13. Chinese aid suffers from inefficiencies, as 30-80% of it is lost along the actor chain due to embedded interests in the awarding of (land) exploitation rights, procurement, joint ventures between elites, hiring of working staff, tax collection, subsidies, customs licensing, etc.

Although BRI is intended to respect the country’s chosen path14, the state-promoted discourse over “religious tolerance, multi-nationality, and multiculturalism; openness for investments; and willingness to cooperate with any multinational organization (e.g. SCO, EU, OECD)” has minimized anti-Chinese sentiments in Kazakhstan. This has also been made possible also due to the metallurgy lobby (Alexander Mashkevich’s “Eurasian Group”), yet there are legitimate public concerns over having to renegotiate some territories in the decades to come in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, that Chinese goods of low quality have made Xinjiang richer than poor Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek households. In Tajikistan, which is largely reliant on export of cotton, aluminium and labour, Chinese land acquisitions are often opaque and have altered traditional subsistence closer to local diets, thus changing regional land based identities, an element of nation-building after the unsuccessful separation from the Soviet Union. In Kazakhstan land lease for farming is 99% state-owned and cannot be subleased, but (proposed at G20) when moves 51 plants in Kazakhstan (1.9$bn in 19 projects, 1.2$ in oilseeds, a type of biofuel) as an investment to gain land rights, it would also be moving polluting factors that use toxic fertilizers.

There is a schism between the domestic accelerated ecological moderanization (logging bans, renewable energy, leadership in voluntary standards such as ISO 14001, strengthened property rights over natural resources, thresholds protecting specific landscapes, a cap-and-trade system, environmental compensation system) and its foreign policy strategy, as China has not externalized its domestic policies (the BRI documents do not contain guidance on green development). BRI partners are eager to receive FDI and without the absence of external pressure (e.g. the Bretton Woods investment banks – ADB, EBRD, WB standards, plus the multilateral AIIB) they are not in the position to demand improvements. China is also not a pioneer in inclusive policy-making when it comes to environmental governance, as CSOs are disengaged from the process due to the destabilization they might cause. Altogether, this paves a way for carbon leakage through the relocation of CO2 intensive industries (such as cement in poor Tajikistan, where production has increased fivefold), thus dumping the ecological footprint of modernization abroad, while exploiting the resource base (fossil fuels, land, forests).

Hence it is worthwhile to investigate the effects of institutions and the externalities of Chinese BRI, by focusing on land acquisition in Southern Kazakhstan and Tajikistan due to its importance for spatial projections, the tradition in local corruption it entails, as well as the expected displacement effects on people and trade flows. Secondly, it will investigate the moving of heavy industry, notably concrete and coal processing in the two countries, as this results in carbon leakage, while making best use of available resources. The choice would lie in the idea to compare an EU and non-EEU case and investigate two fundamental resources – land and concrete, which have strong repercussions onto human, food and environmental security.

Used literature

1 Roberta Panizza, The Principle of Subsidiarity, Fact Sheets on the European Union – 01/2018

2 Markus Jachtenfuchs, Nico Krisch, Subsidiarity in Global Governance, Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 79, 2016,

3 Peter Dauvergne and Jennifer Clapp, Researching Global Environmental Politics in the 21st Century, Global Environmental Politics 16:1, February 2016, p.4

4 Miyan, A; Droughts in Asian Least Developed Countries: Vulnerability and sustainability; Weather and Climate Extremes 7, 2015, p.9

5 Wieczorek, A., Sustainability transitions in developing countries: Major insights and their

implications for research and policy, Environmental Science and Policy 84 (2018), 204-2016

6 As claimed by Verburg et. Al., Land system science and sustainable development of the earth system:

A global land project perspective, Anthropocene 12 (2015), 29–41

7Liu et al. Framing Sustainability in a Telecoupled World, Ecology and Society 18(2): 26

8 Sol et. Al., Reframing the future: the role of reflexivity in governance networks in sustainability transitions. Environmental education research (2017), 3

9 Mugyenzi, J.; EU External Governance: Regionalizing Multilevel Networks of Governance; Journal of European Integration, 37:3, p. 354-6

10 Challies et al., Governance change and governance learning in Europe: stakeholder participation in environmental policy implementation, Journal Policy and Society, Volume 36, 2017 – Issue 2

11 Bäckstrand et al., Non-state actors in global climate governance: from Copenhagen to Paris and beyond, Journal Environmental Politics Volume 26, 2017 – Issue 4

12 Farkhod Aminjonov (2018) Central Asian Gas Exports Dependency, The RUSI Journal, 163:2, 66-77

13 M. Laruelle, „China’s OBOR in Central Asia“, G. Washington University (2018)

14 Tim Summers (2016) China’s ‘New Silk Roads’: sub-national regions and networks of global political economy, Third World Quarterly, 37:9, p.1637

15 Yu-Wen Chen & Olaf Günther (2018): Back to Normalization or Conflict with China in Greater Central Asia?, Problems of Post-Communism, p.4

16 Sebastien Peyrouse, Discussing China: Sinophilia and sinophobia in Central Asia, Journal of Eurasian Studies 7 (2016) 14–23

17 Irna Hofman (2016) Politics or profits along the “Silk Road”: what drives Chinese farms in Tajikistan and helps them thrive?, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 57:3,


18 M. Laruelle, „China’s OBOR in Central Asia“, G. Washington University (2018)

19 Elena F. Tracy, Evgeny Shvarts, Eugene Simonov & Mikhail Babenko (2017)

China’s new Eurasian ambitions: the environmental risks of the Silk Road Economic Belt, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 58:1, 56-88


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