The need for long term and contextualised research on China’s relations with Central Asia: an example of good practice

Frank Maracchione is a social researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield who has been contributing to our Central Asia Research project. In this week’s blog, he argues that the region is best studied when calling onto local and specialist researchers.

The popularity of research on China in Central Asia is growing, and it is becoming fundamental to address China’s role to understand the modern political landscape in which Central Asian states operate. Research on Central Asia has traditionally had an important Russia-bias, as most social scientists focussing on the region came to work on Central Asia via Russia studies and due to the region’s post-Soviet past. Therefore, enormous attention has been paid to Russia’s influence on Central Asia while the slow but steady process of China’s entry in the region started to become a central focus only in the last decade, after the announcement of China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative. Global Partners Governance’s project on the effect of the invasion of Ukraine on China’s and Russia’s role in Central Asia, funded by the British government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) is the result of this turn that prompted experts on Central Asia and the CIS area to involve China specialists with cultural, historical and language knowledge of China and East Asia to join research groups on Central Asian international politics.  

My involvement in the project arises from my double expertise on China and Central Asian studies and my knowledge of both worlds. Starting from my master’s thesis for the MA in International Relations at the University of Bologna up to my present PhD project at the University of Sheffield, China’s relations with Central Asia, and particularly Uzbekistan, have been the topic of my academic research. Yet, endeavours like our project, very large and general in scope dealing with five very different countries in their relations with two continent-sized powers, underline the need for large collaborative efforts. The real strength of the GPG project, as opposed to other types of research I have been involved with, is that it involved a stellar team of researchers, who for the majority already were working on China’s relations with Central Asia in the past, and therefore have pre-existing ties with local stakeholders connected with China’s efforts in the region.

When working on China’s foreign relations, the issue of access comes to the fore. Even more so in countries’ whose political and economic elites are not subjected to the same amount of public scrutiny that we are used to in Western liberal democracies. The involvement of local researchers with unique networks and knowledge of local politics, markets, and social fabric, as well as of China’s role in these has been central for the success of our project and made my role one of coordination and support in at least three of the four countries where we conducted active research. In Uzbekistan, where I actively conducted interviews with my own contacts, the support of local researchers from the University of World Economy and Diplomacy has been pivotal for reaching out Uzbekistani respondents. Any researcher that worked in Central Asia knows how peculiar communication and networking patterns are in the region, with a preference for oral communications over written ones that makes the job harder for non-native researchers.

Together with China/Central Asia expertise and the presence of local researchers, a further strength of the GPG China project is that it distilled contemporary trends through accessing longer-term research on China in the region. The importance of not starting from zero in producing a research report cannot be overstated. If creating networks in Central Asia is hard, accessing foreign stakeholders in the region is even harder, particularly in the case of Chinese entities. Networking in China happens through long term engagement with professional partners in academia as well as business, to create the so called guanxi (关系, connections) that are at the base of Chinese business, academic and political networks. Creating these connections requires extensive knowledge of Chinese cultural habits including language, food, drinks, and culture, and last but least a long time. It is therefore required for research efforts on the region to be long term. What one could wish for the future is for brilliant team like this one to keep working together and keep merging networks and expertise to provide a more detailed picture of the complexity of China’s engagement with the region.

While data-based desk research can give important insights on Central Asian foreign relations, particularly on the economic side, the scarcity and biased nature of the reporting based on statistical data in the region is common knowledge. A common example is that data from the PRC and data from Central Asia on trade and investment tends to be strongly divergent. It is hard to accept that objective data-based analyses are often not possible on some issues and that time consuming contextualised research is the only way to interpret diverse data sets and to read societies through local perceptions and biases. It is here that the academic perspective enters the picture in that what is normally accepted as hard proof in journalistic reporting such as a nice graph or a trend, is only accepted as evidence in certain traditions of research, and specifically in those that try to abstract the context and provide universal solutions. For a researcher like me that does not subscribe to these universal theorisations, it is good to see governmental institutions and development organisations such as GPG working in the direction of elevating the relevance of context and of producing detailed and nuanced accounts of trends by engaging with local stakeholder. 

Finally, I would also like to recognise the role of GPG’s leadership in facilitating our research, particularly during fieldwork. Many of our meetings and arrangements would not have been possible without the coordinating role of Project Coordinator Madina Myngaiymbek. At the same time, the presence of GPG’s Director Emily Death and Head of Research and Analysis Müjge Küçükkeleş during fieldwork provided us with constant support from the organisation during the research project. The attention of the leadership to understanding the context by living it in first person and meeting local team members made the experience of working with GPG a real pleasure.