The China Knowledge Gap in Central Asia

A textile processing park being built by a Xinjiang firm in Dangara, Tajikistan
A textile processing park being built by a Xinjiang firm in Dangara, Tajikistan

By Dirk Van Der Kley

China’s rise has been the major change to the Central Asian foreign policy environment over the past decade. Yet despite China being a major trader, investor and source of aid for the region, specialist knowledge of China among Central Asian governments, business people and academics remains limited. There are signs that this is changing somewhat in business, but much more slowly in government and academia.

For the last three months I have been in Central Asia, interviewing government officials, scholars, and business people about China’s influence in the region. The lack of China specialists was most clear in academia. Every scholar I interviewed openly acknowledged that there are very few China specialists working in Central Asia. There are several identifiable Sinologists in the region, such as Constantine Syroezhkin at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies in Astana, but they remain small in number. During an interview in Tajikistan, an academic responded to the question “Is Tajikistan prepared for China’s rise?” by saying “we don’t have a clue…how could we?” On another occasion I asked an interviewee in Bishkek to help set up interviews with China specialists. The answer: “Sure…but who to ask.”

The dearth of specialist knowledge limits the range of analytical approaches taken by Central Asian scholars studying China, particularly when compared to their analysis of the region’s other major power, Russia. For example when discussing Russian foreign policy in Central Asia, several interviewees shared in-depth knowledge of a range of relevant foreign policy actors from Russia, such as the security services and Gazprom, and how much influence they may (or may not) have over Putin’s decision-making towards Central Asia.

Such depth of knowledge of foreign policy decision-making processes was largely absent during discussions on China’s foreign policy. Most interviewees described China’s activities solely in terms of Chinese national interest without mention of specific policy actors. This may be a realistic analytical approach given the opacity of the Chinese state decision-making process, but the spectrum of views was noticeably narrower on China than Russia.

In government too, very few senior officials have worked, studied or lived in China. There are some prominent exceptions. The Kazakh Prime Minister, Karim K. Massimov, was educated in China. Another China hand, Muratbek Imanaliev of Kyrgyzstan, was formerly Secretary General of the Council of Heads of SCO member states. But these remain exceptions rather than the rule.

On the one hand maybe it does not matter – Central Asian governments have proven themselves effective at extracting finances from China. They also have some input over the type of financing offered. Several government officials in Tajikistan indicated to me that the recent USD 500 million currency swap between Tajikistan and China was first suggested by the Tajik side. Similarly, in Kyrgyzstan, a prominent figure at a government-affiliated think tank described China as a “stable and reliable partner” who listened to the requests of the Kyrgyz side. But this is matched by a perception that China strongly influences negotiations to its sole benefit – the same Kyrgyz analyst added that China “always protects its interests.”

Moreover, it could be argued that government officials operate with blinkered views. China is routinely seen as a source of finance and imports, not a market (except for hydrocarbons). Officials in Tajikistan, for example, told me that they are trying to expand agricultural exports. They hoped that China can provide the finance to support the growth of agribusiness, but they viewed Russia and Europe, not China, as potential markets. This is at a time when Chinese agricultural imports are booming. China is also much closer than distant European markets.

The lack of people with China experience in Central Asian academia and government is not due to a lack of Central Asians studying in China. According to the People’s Daily (quoting Kazakh sources) there are 12,000 Kazakh students studying in China in 2016. Another report suggests 3000 Kyrgyz students are studying in China. Raffaello Pantucci also contends that many children of the Central Asian elite are studying in China.

My anecdotal evidence suggests the bulk of these graduates enter into business upon their return. Some are hired by Chinese companies in sectors such as telecommunications, mining or road construction. Others join Central Asian companies, often trading enterprises, which import goods from China. A visit to Dordoi Bazaar, one of the main transit points for Chinese goods located on the Northern outskirts of Bishkek, reveals that some Chinese traders employ locals with Chinese language ability.

However, there are limitations on Central Asian businesses engagement with China. They are predominately focused on importing goods from China or winning contracts from Chinese companies in the region. Exports, outside of hydrocarbons, remain difficult. IMF trade statistics show that hydrocarbon-poor Central Asian states (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) export very little to China and that the value of exports to China from both countries has almost halved since 2012.

So while business has performed better at attracting people with experience in China, it still suffers from structural constraints that limit engagement. Government and academia, on the other hand, have not only structural constraints but also knowledge gaps. And this is blinding Central Asian countries to opportunities that China offers.

Dirk is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies, Australian National University

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