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China In Eurasia Briefing: What To Watch In 2024

Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a rare admission about the dire state of the country's economy during his speech on New Year’s Eve.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a rare admission about the dire state of the country's economy during his speech on New Year’s Eve.

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

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

Listen to the Talking China In Eurasia podcast

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What To Watch In 2024

It’s that time again. As a new year begins, here’s a look ahead at the big things that I’m following for the upcoming year for China across Eurasia.

But before unpacking all of that lower down, let's examine two big issues that will shape China’s year as a whole: its struggling economy and Taiwan.

Finding Perspective: 2023 was mostly bad news for the Chinese economy.

The post-pandemic recovery never really took hold. Adding to that is a property crisis that has real estate giants on the brink of collapse, foreign direct investment leaving the country at an alarming rate, and widespread disillusionment among the population now that the days of uninterrupted high growth are over.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a rare admission about the dire state of the country's economy during his New Year’s Eve speech.

Acknowledging the “headwinds” facing the country, Xi admitted in the televised speech that “some enterprises had a tough time. Some people had difficulty finding jobs and meeting basic needs.”

“All these remain at the forefront of my mind,” Xi said in his remarks, which were widely circulated by state media. “We will consolidate and strengthen the momentum of economic recovery.”

The comments were the first time Xi has mentioned economic challenges in his annual New Year’s messages since he started giving them in 2013.

Xi also used his speech to talk about Taiwan, which Beijing believes should be reunified with the Chinese mainland, ideally peacefully, though it does not rule out force.

The Chinese leader said that Taiwan would “surely be reunified” with China, which he added was part of the “same family” as the island nation.

Why It Matters: Those comments from Xi follow a similar line to past remarks, but they hold new weight with Taiwan’s presidential election set for January 13.

Current Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te, who serves under President Tsai Ing-wen and is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), holds a narrow lead in the polls.

His election could lead to even starker cross-strait tensions. Lai is strongly opposed to the Chinese Communist Party, and while he won’t call for formal Taiwanese independence, he’s also said that Taiwan’s sovereignty is “a fact.” It’s for these reasons that Beijing harshly criticizes him as a secessionist.

Beijing has stepped up its rhetoric ahead of the election, and a Lai victory would likely prompt aggressive moves from Beijing, including naval maneuvers and airspace intrusions. How Beijing reacts will shape its year and have an impact on its economy and its relationship with the United States.

Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden’s November summit in San Francisco brought a cooling-off period to the relationship, but structural tensions mean that a new crisis could quickly heat things up again.

One school of thought says that, given the internal difficulties facing China, Xi won’t look to create new problems.

Xi is hoping to slow U.S. curbs on tech exports that are hurting the economy, while Beijing is in the midst of a charm offensive across Europe aimed at taking advantage of European worries about another Trump presidency. A mini-crisis over Taiwan’s election could jeopardize that and sour any goodwill for China in the process.

But Taiwan is also an intrinsic issue for Beijing, and Xi may feel that he has no choice but to react strongly in a way that will force the world to take notice.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. China’s Eurasian Momentum

2023 followed up 2022 as another year of the strengthening of the China-Russia partnership, but 2024 looks to change things further as Chinese exports help fuel the Russian economy and both countries’ relationships with Central Asia enter a new era.

The Details: China’s position is becoming increasingly dominant.

Beijing has proven to be a vital partner for Moscow on the global stage, and China has filled a critical import need for Russia after many European and U.S. companies shunned the country after its February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

This cross-border trade has included many civilian items that have a secondary military use, but also large-quantities of consumer products that have allowed China to corner large sectors of the Russian economy.

One key example is the rise of Chinese car exports to Russia, with sales of both luxury and affordable Chinese vehicles soaring. According to GlobalData Automotive, Chinese carmakers now hold 55 percent of the Russian market, compared to only 8 percent in 2021.

This lends to momentum behind China becoming an even greater force in Eurasia, especially in Central Asia, where the country hosted a landmark summit in 2023 with the region’s leaders.

It points to the slow-motion trend that has accelerated due to the war in Ukraine, with China’s economic and political gravity becoming greater each year.

China has been the trade leader for the region for several years, and that looks set to continue. Year-end data released by Kazakhstan’s National Statistics Bureau shows China accounting for 21.3 percent of Kazakhstan’s total foreign trade, while Russia only amounted to 18.6 percent.

2. Don't Count Russia Out Just Yet

But China’s growing economic dominance and Russia’s shrinking share doesn’t mean that Moscow is getting nudged out of the region or that Central Asia is simply swapping one dependence for another.

What You Need To Know: There’s no denying that Russia’s war in Ukraine has drawn resources and limited the country’s ability to project power across Central Asia.

The five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – have found extra breathing space diplomatically by engaging in landmark meetings with Western nations and by deepening their ties with other players, like Turkey.

But Russia still reached new gas deals with Uzbekistan in 2023, and Moscow is expected to be a competitive bidder to build new nuclear plants in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in 2024.

That’s not to mention the important role that Central Asia, specifically Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have played in helping Russia bust Western sanctions.

Chinese and Russian influence aren’t zero sum games, and both Beijing and Moscow have shown a willingness to respect one another’s interests when it comes to Central Asia.

All of this points less to a story about China’s rise and Russia’s decline but of Central Asia recalibrating its ties with both powers, a trend that will continue to play out in the coming year.

3. Beijing's Electric Vehicle Boom

China has been positioning itself as a leader in the electric vehicle (EV) market, with sales by BYD, the country’s dominant automaker, topping 3 million last year, including 1.6 million fully battery-powered cars.

Looking to 2024, Eurasia looks to be an important part of China’s push to lead the EV market.

What It Means: Chinese automakers are believed to have sold about 9.4 million electric vehicles and hybrids in 2023, an increase from 6.9 million in 2022, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. The organization said it expected sales in 2024 to rise again, this time to 11.5 million.

China rules the supply chain for battery-powered cars and has been aggressively expanding its global factories. In December, BYD announced that it would build an assembly plant in Hungary, its first production facility for battery-powered cars in Europe.

In Uzbekistan, China’s Henan Suda signed a deal earlier in December with Uzbekistan’s Energy Ministry to build upwards of 50,000 charging stations for electric vehicles around the country by 2033.

The global competition for the EV market also looks to intensify, with Brussels investigating China’s state subsidies for its companies, a step that could lead to tariffs imposed by the European Union.

Across The Supercontinent

New Defense Minister: Beijing announced on December 29 that Admiral Dong Jun, a naval commander with experience in the South China Sea, would be its new defense minister.

The appointment comes after the disappearance and removal of the previous defense minister, Li Shangfu, as well as the top two commanders of the Rocket Force, which controls China’s nuclear missiles, in 2023.

From Movement To Party? Kazakhstan has been a window into Beijing’s crackdown on Xinjiang since the camp system took hold in 2017. My colleague Chris Rickleton profiles Atazhurt, a civic group in Kazakhstan involved in lobbying for the rights of former detainees and their families, as it tries to become a political party in the Central Asian country.

The Ukraine, Gaza Tightrope: In nearly two years of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Beijing has pushed to portray itself as a public peacemaker, while channeling the voice of the non-Western world across the Global South.

Here’s my report on how the war in Gaza has given it another opportunity.

A History Of Tashkent And Beijing: China has emerged as an increasingly important country for Uzbekistan and an alternative to Russian influence.

Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, traces how relations with Beijing have evolved over the years and where China stands today as the country’s principal investor with a growing footprint in Uzbek media, education, and the arms trade.

One Thing To Watch

China also pulled ahead in the global solar energy market.

According to a new report from the consultancy Wood Mackenzie, China's domestic solar additions in 2023 were double those of the United States and the EU combined. China now holds 80 percent of global manufacturing capacity and will account for over 50 percent of the global power supply by 2050.

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

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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.

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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.