Category: Central Asia

Local Tensions Trump Beijing’s Power in Southern Kyrgyzstan

By Casey Michel

Jalalabad school gates

Kyrgyz school children hang around the main entrance of school in 2011, the broken iron gates are a result of the violent riots in 2010. Photo by Sue Anne Tay.

Khairulo Mamadaliev talks in trajectories. He talks about the linkages of southern Kyrgyzstan, especially of Jalalabad, where Mamadaliev, an ethnic Uzbek, has spent most of his 43 years. He talks of the region’s past, to its directions shifted and ethnicities sifted. It’s an area he’s immensely and gregariously proud of, and he has no problem taking visitors through and narrating the shape it has taken.

But reaching the recent stretch of that narration is not a part he enjoys sharing. He’ll light up about Babur’s march through Osh on his way to beginning the Moghul Empire in 16th-century India, or the centuries-old Chinese artifacts found in the region. But anything recent, anything following 2010 ethnic riots between majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks that saw nearly 500 citizens – mostly Uzbeks – die, and his voice coarsens.

“You see that?” he asks as we drive down Jalalabad’s Lenin street. We slow down as he points to a small beige building, roof caved, fenced off from passersby. “Uzbeks lived there. Uzbeks built that. And the Kyrgyz burned it to the ground.” Continue reading


Kyrgyzstan: Exporters of Chinese Goods against Kremlin’s Regional Arrangements

By Erica Marat

Kyrgyz workers loading Chinese TVs

Kyrgyz traders in Karasuu bazaar, Osh region, loading a shipment of televisions that came in from Xinjiang. Photo by Sue Anne Tay

China’s economic influence in Kyrgyzstan has been growing rapidly over the past decade. Thanks to Kyrgyzstan’s early membership in the WTO and its generally free economic environment, the country became a major importer, re-exporter and transporter of Chinese goods. As a result, bazaars have become major economic lifelines for Kyrgyzstan, concentrating great amounts of wealth and benefiting hundreds of thousands of people.

Although Chinese economic presence in Kyrgyzstan (and the wider region) is yet to translate into political influence, there are indirect political consequences for Kyrgyzstan. Over the past few years, shuttle traders importing Chinese goods have been at the forefront of the debate as to whether or not Kyrgyzstan should join the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union (CU). There are mixed feelings towards the union.

Kyrgyz traders warn the government that if Kyrgyzstan joins the CU, Continue reading


Conceptualizing Chinese Continentalism

By Kendrick Kuo

Wang Jisi March West

People have used a variety of phrases to describe the emerging phenomenon of Chinese relations with Eurasia and the Middle East. The most prominent to emerge from China itself was Peking University professor Wang Jisi’s “March West” (xijin) strategy (pictured above). This vision was outlined in a widely read Global Times essay in October 2012, which highlighted the benefits of Chinese engagement with Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East as the U.S. withdraws from the region. What is missing, however, is an overarching phrase to describe such geopolitical shifts. The purpose of this piece is to propose the idea of ‘Chinese Continentalism’ as a way of describing China’s unfolding relations with its western neighbors on the Eurasian landmass. Chinese Continentalism as a concept will hopefully be both a theoretical contribution to the way international relations scholars think about China’s engagement in the Eurasian landmass and a framework for understanding the changing dynamics in the region.

Kent Calder Chinese Continentalism is a nod to Kent Calder and his work The New Continentalism, where he outlines the post-Cold War geopolitical logic of multilateral configurations in Eurasia. Calder posits that economic growth in Asian economies has created a symbiotic relationship with energy producers in the continent’s western regions. Geographic proximity was not enough to draw these partners together because of Cold War divisions; but with the Soviet Union’s collapse came a reshaping of the continental order.

In a similar vein, Chinese Continentalism describes the logic behind Beijing’s turn toward its Eurasian backyard. Chinese Continentalism cannot be explained merely by Continue reading


A Roadmap for Sino-Indian Co-operation in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci, Shisheng Hu, and Ravi Sawhney

First published by RUSI, July 16, 2014

As NATO and Western powers begin to take a backseat in Afghanistan’s future, one of the most pressing questions is what role regional powers, particularly China and India, can play in helping the country to become a prosperous and stable nation.


Download the paper here (PDF)

Numerous efforts are already underway through multilateral and bilateral forums, yet the key to regional co-operation in securing Afghanistan’s future lies through closer interaction between Beijing and New Delhi.

This paper – which draws on a research project spanning a number of workshops in Beijing, New Delhi and Qatar, and involving influential thinkers and experts from China, India, the UK and Afghanistan – maps out specific ideas that policy-makers in Beijing and New Delhi can explore as avenues for co-operation.

Post-2014 Afghanistan will remain a major regional concern for at least the short to medium term. The earlier that China and India can develop workable collaborative undertakings, the sooner they can forge a stable and prosperous neighbourhood.

The paper is co-authored with Dr Shisheng Hu, Director of South Asia and Oceania Studies at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations and Lieutenant General (Rtd) Ravi Sawhney, Distinguished Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation. Many thanks to RUSI colleague Edward Schwarck for his support in drafting this paper.


Letter from Bishkek: How Visible is China’s Economic Hegemony in Kyrgyzstan’s Capital?

By Casey Michel

For all of the discussion of China’s economic hegemony in Central Asia it remains nonetheless surprising that the visual evidence of China’s influence can appear so lacking in Kyrgyzstan. Traipsing through Bishkek, skirting through as many Turkish and German and Moldovan restaurants as your stomach will allow, you realize that Bishkek boasts a surprising international reach. In comparison, visual signs of Chinese presence is, on the whole, markedly lacking. Save for the rare Chinese restaurant, there are no Chinese cultural centers standing tall in downtown corners or much visible evidence of Chinese words on posters or shop fronts highlighting their presence.

Language classes in Bishkek

In spite of Kyrgyzstan’s economic and geopolitical trajectory, if you were walking through Bishkek, Chinese influence would seem an afterthought. In comparison, Turkish flags can be seen flying outside the Hyatt and plastered around the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University. Advertisements for English lessons, taught by British and American nationals, are offered at nearly every major intersection. And the Soviet legacy lingers with each passing block, both in architecture and in every passing conversation. Russia remains dominant in the country. Continue reading


Kazakhstan Defies Russia over Eurasian Economic Union

By Sarah Lain

Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev and Russian president Vladimir Putin shake hands after signing the treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union Photo:
Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev and Russian president Vladimir Putin shake hands after signing the treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union Photo:

On May 29 Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia signed into existence the Eurasian Economic Union (“EEU”), set to come into force in January 2015. The EEU’s aim is the economic integration of ex-Soviet countries, based on a European Union-style collective model. It builds on the Customs Union, signed in 2010, which implemented a common customs territory and removed internal border controls between the three states. Against the backdrop of a shifting geopolitical landscape sparked by events in Ukraine, and strengthening Russian and Kazakh bi-lateral relations with China, the original vision of the EEU may no longer be viable. Although they wish to show they have a diversified partner base, Kazakhstan and Russia also want to avoid perceptions of any overt economic threat to its shared Chinese partner. This is particularly relevant to Kazakhstan, which has in fact suffered economically from the initial implementation of the Customs Union, as laid out below.

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Transition in Afghanistan: Filling the Security Vacuum – The Expansion of Uighur Extremism?

By Raffaello Pantucci and Edward Schwarck

First published by CIDOB, May 2014


This paper aims to map out as clearly as possible the current threat from Uighur extremist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and ascertain whether these groups will develop into a regional threat over the next few years.

It will be argued that Uighur Sunni-jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan are unlikely to be able to fill the security void in either country after the West’s withdrawal. Traditionally, these groups have struggled to gain traction within the global jihadist community. China has also done an effective job of building regional relationships that means local governments would block their ascension into power. Furthermore, the number of Uighur militants remains marginal, suggesting that, at worst, they might be able to take control of some small settlements.

The paper will outline what is known about the current state of the Uighur Sunni-jihadist community in Afghanistan and Pakistan; present the available information on their operations; highlight what the Chinese state is doing regionally (and – briefly – at home) to mitigate the threat, and offer concluding thoughts on the likelihood of a major Uighur threat emerging in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, post-2014.

The complete paper can be found here.



China’s Role in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci (潘睿凡)

First published in 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post), April 28, 2014

(published Chinese above, English translation below)

维护阿富汗稳定的责任 或将落到中国身上
早报记者 黄翱 发表于2014-04-28 07:06







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China in Pakistan: An Awkward Relationship Beneath the Surface

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published by RUSI Newsbrief, 15 Jan 2014


Characterised by soaring rhetoric, at first glance the China–Pakistan bilateral relationship appears to be one of the world’s closest. Yet below the surface calm bubble concerns, with policy-makers in Beijing particularly worried about the implications of the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan for stability in Pakistan. Western policy-makers should not, however, be optimistic that these concerns will soon translate into Chinese willingness to somehow assume responsibility or leadership in helping Pakistan to develop in a way favourable to the West. Rather, Chinese concerns should be seen within the context of a regional relationship that is likely to grow in prominence as time goes on, ultimately drawing China into a more responsible role in South Asia at least.

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China and India: Time to Cooperate on Afghanistan

by Raffaello Pantucci

First published in The Diplomat, October 23, 2013

Two Asian giants met in Beijing this week, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making a reciprocal visit to Beijing. The focus of the trip was economic cooperation and plans to get China-India trade to $100 billion by 2015, although it was the border disputes – and in particular the signing of a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement designed to defuse tensions – that captured the public attention.

What was missing from the agenda, however, was Afghanistan, a country in which Beijing and Delhi both have substantial mutual interests and where the two Asian giants could demonstrate their ability to responsibly manage the regional order.

Continue reading


Security and Borders

by Sue Anne Tay

Xinjiang bus towards Khorgas Border with China

Zharkent, Kazakhstan: A long-distance sleeper bus with Xinjiang, China license plates in the town of Zharkent, the last outpost before the Khorgos border with China. The journey from Almaty in Kazakhstan to Urumqi in Xinjiang province can take up to 24 hours. Passengers, made up of largely Chinese, Uighurs and Kazakhs, stock up on drinking water and food supplies in Zharkent before the crossing which could involve long waits at the border.

Road leading to new Khorgas Border on Kazakh side

Khorgos, Kazakhstan: New smooth roads lead to a new custom crossing in Khorgos which remains under construction on the Kazakh side, and is expected to speed up inspection process. The area around Khorgos is set to become a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), with 30-day visa exemptions for businessmen operating in the zone.

Trucks line up for inspection at Khorgas border

Khorgos, Kazakhstan: Container trucks parked on the Kazakh side of the Khorgos border awaiting customs inspections before being allowed to cross into Xinjiang province in China. Bribery and complicated customs procedures are often cited as reasons for long waits at the borders and rising import/export costs.

China Bridge Road Corporation Irkeshtam Kyrgyzstan

Southern Corridor highway, Kyrgyzstan: An outpost of the China Bridge and Road Corporation (CBRC) responsible for repaving the Southern Transport Corridor highway from Osh through Sary Tash to the Irshketam Border Pass with China. The sign says “Go to work happy (L); return safe and sound (R).”

Chinese companies paving Southern Corridor

Southern Corridor highway, Kyrgyzstan: Chinese construction workers paving new highway roads near the Irshketam Border Pass. Due to the extreme cold in the mountains, Chinese engineers and workers only work between April and October and travel back to China for the rest of winter.

Trucks at Irshketam border

Irshketam border, Kyrgyzstan: Chinese and Uighur drivers on the Kyrgyz side of the Irshketam border waiting to fuel up and rest ahead of their days-long journey at a slow pace through winding highways towards key trade bazaars in southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.


Southern Corridor highway, Kyrgyzstan: Trucks carrying coal in Chinese-made trucks along the Southern Corridor highway on the way to the Irshketam Border Pass with China. It is one of the key trade routes from China into the region.

Khorgas Border Almaty

Khorgos, Kazakhstan: A Sinooil petrol station near the Khorgas Border Pass with China which is a key trade route between the two countries.

Zharkent  Wooden mosque

Zharkent, Kazakhstan: Zharkent town’s central and unique mosque was built around 1887 by a Chinese architect, Hon Pik, who was hired by a local Zharkent merchant. Note the Chinese-styled pavilion in typical traditional Chinese colors of vermillion red, yellow and green. The interior design of the mosque is a mix of Chinese, Tsarist Russian and Central Asian influences.


by Sue Anne Tay

Uzbekistan Women at Registan

Uzbek women stand in Registan, the centre of Samarkand which is known as the cradle of Islamic civilization in the region, one of the oldest cities in the world and link along the Silk Road. Three landmark structures stand in Registan, he Ulugh Beg Madrasah (1417–1420), the Tilya-Kori Madrasah (1646–1660) and the Sher-Dor Madrasah (1619–1636).

Islamic architecture of Miri-Arab Madrasah, Bukhara

The intricate and stunning Islamic architecture of Miri-Arab Madrasah in Bukhara, seen as Bukhara’s best architectural structures built in the 16th century.

WWII Memorial in Independence Square Tashkent

An eternal flame burns at the World War II memorial in Tashkent’s Independence Square, constructed in 1999 to honour of the 400,000 Uzbek soldiers who died during the World War II. Uzbeks lay flowers and wreaths on yet another anniversary.

Uzbek family portrait Independence Square Tashkent

A family portrait in Independence Square in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital.

Uzbek girl at Samarkand Ulugh Beg's Observatory

A young Uzbek girl poses outside Ulugh Beg’s Observatory in Samarkand which was built in 1420s. Ulugh Beg was one of the most famous Islamic astronomers of his time.

Uzbek wedding in Samarkand

A young Uzbek couple pose for pictures with show pigeons for their wedding in Samarkand.

Tourists at Shah-i-Zinda Samarkand

In Samarkand, Uzbek tourists listen to their guide as he takes them around the Shah-i-Zinda which includes mausoleums and other ritual buildings of 9-14th and 19th centuries.

Tashkent streets

A Uzbek girl walks by a row of public housing in Tashkent.


by Sue Anne Tay

Central square of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University

Students stroll through the central square of the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Alamaty. A large poster featuring President Nursultan Nazarbayev and university students hang against the side of a key administrative building.

Kazakh steppes

Typical Central Asian steppe landscape along the highway from Almaty to Khorgas, the border town with China.

Central Mosque Almaty

The Central Mosque in downtown Almaty is built in the Timurid style of architecture and accommodates up to 7,000 worshippers.

Kazakh bride outside Central Mosque

A Kazakh bride in traditional dressing poses with her family outside the Central Mosque in Almaty.

Almaty street scene

A mother and her children walk by shops in Almaty.

Play at the Theatre of Young Spectator

A play based on local Kazakh folk lore concludes at the Kazakh Theatre of the Young Spectator in Alamaty.

Kazakh waitress in cafe

A Kazakh waitress takes orders in a buffet-style cafe in downtown Almaty.

Sale of Kazakh dolls

Kazakh dolls dressed in traditional costumes on sale at Barakholka Bazaar, Almaty’s largest and busiest wholesale trade bazaar.


A trendy school girl in the streets of Almaty.


by Sue Anne Tay

Ala-Too Square Bishkek

Two men stroll through Ala-Too Square, Bishkek’s main square in the city centre.

Kyrgyzstan Turkish Manas University

The entrance to one of the campuses of the Kyrgyzstan Turkish Manas University which is strongly supported by the Turkish government.

Bishkek Osh Highway

Horses race along the Bishkek-Osh highway that runs north to south from the country’s capital to the second largest city in the south.

Jalalabad Market Russian Salads

A ethnic Russian Kyrgyz boy stands in front of a colorful array of cold salads in a food bazaar in Jalalabad, a southern city in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan Presidential Palace Bishkek

A view from outside the Kyrgyzstan Presidential Palace in Bishkek. During the Tulip Revolution in 2005, opposition forces protesting corruption, stormed the palace, forcing out the then-President President Askar Akayev.

Osh Presidential Candidate

A political rally is underway in Osh city in southern Kyrgyzstan in October 2011. The candidate was a Osh official, Bakir Uulu, a candidate seen as a soft-Islamist and eager for the US to move its military presence out of Kyrgyzstan.

Jalalabad Market Osh Blue Woman

An elder woman strolls through the back alleys of the trade bazaar in Jalalabad, a southern city in Kyrgyzstan.

Market Scene in Osh

A typical market scene in Osh, the southern and second largest city in Kyrgyzstan.

Interview with Kyrgyz politician Bishkek

A Kyrgyz politician is interviewed by a correspondent for a local television station.

Confucius Institutes 孔子学院

by Sue Anne Tay

Competition My China Dream Tashkent

Tashkent, Uzbekistan: A young Uzbek university student gives an impassioned speech entitled “My China Dream” as part of the “Chinese Bridge” (or han yu qiao) – a global Chinese language proficiency competition - in 2011. Candidates are coached by their Chinese teachers to recite lyrical speeches as part of the competition which also include a Q&A on Chinese history and culture and a cultural performance.

Uzbek student in Yunnan minority dress

Tashkent, Uzbekistan: An Uzbek university student rehearses ahead of the cultural performance section of her ”Chinese Bridge” (or han yu qiao) competition. She wears a Yunnan ethnic minority ceremonial dress as part of her act.

Tashkent Hanqiao Winners Chinese ambassador

Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Chinese ambassador Zhang Xiao, a fluent Russian speaker, was the guest of honor at the ”Chinese Bridge” (or han yu qiao) competition. Here, he poses with the winner and runners-up of the language proficiency contest, along with their Chinese teachers. The winner heads to Beijing to compete in the semi-finals with other international winners of the Chinese Bridge competitions held world-wide.

Students at Jalalabad Confucius Centre

Jalalabad, Kyrgyzstan: Uzbek students study Mandarin at a Chinese language centre in Jalalabad University. The Centre is paired up with Xinjiang Normal University and is in the process of upgrading to a Confucius Institute which would allow it to officially apply for more funding and resources. Jalalabad is a major trade city in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Confucius Centre Bishkek

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: A Kyrgyz graduate student of the Bishkek Humanities University does her Chinese homework in the Confucius Institute located within the university campus. In the background, a figurine of Confucius hangs on the wall. The television is hooked up to Chinese satellite to receive more Chinese channels than the limited array of CCTV channels (in Russian and English) available in the city.

Chinese Kyrgyz Textbook Hanban

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: A Chinese-Kyrgyz textbook sits atop boxes of education supplies shipped from Hanban, the Beijing-based headquarters of Confucius Institutes worldwide. Early teaching materials were mainly Chinese-Russian translations due to the pervasiveness of Russian spoken among the educated classes in Central Asia. However, Hanban has dedicated special effort in translating pedagogical materials in local languages like Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Tajik.

Bishkek Humanities University Confucius Centre

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: Professor Wang of the Confucius Institute at the Bishkek Humanities University converses with a Chinese-Kazakh language teacher and a Kyrgyz graduate student. He was sent by the Xinjiang Normal University to Bishkek. Confucius Institutes abroad are usually paired up with a Chinese university for teachers and pedagogical materials are dispatched from Hanban in Beijing.

Confucius Institute in Almaty

Almaty, Kazakhstan: A Chinese teacher at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University’s Confucius Institute shows off a framed photograph of the China Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo held in 2010.

Confucius Centre Kazakh National University

Almaty, Kazakhstan: A Kazakh student studies in a brightly decorated language training centre in Al-Farabi Kazakh National University’s Confucius Institute.