China’s rise in Central Asia marks one of the most consequential changes in regional geopolitics since the turn of the century.
China announced that it intended to be a major player in Central Asia back in September 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech in Astana that inaugurated the “Belt and Road” vision — the most dominant expression of Chinese foreign policy from his administration. Yet this declaration notwithstanding, it remains unclear whether Beijing has a coherent vision for Central Asia. Instead, Beijing continues to grow into a role of regional prominence without a clear plan to manage the ramifications of its growing role.
The narrative of spreading Chinese influence throughout the region is not new. Indicators of China’s influence are plentiful. Markets are full of Chinese products, infrastructure is heavily built by Chinese firms with Chinese loans, leadership visits — either Chinese to the region or regional to China — are followed by announcements of massive deals being signed, and increasingly China is playing a more prominent role in regional security questions. Even so, China remains a hesitant regional actor, and is keen to continue casting itself as subordinate to Russia. Beijing is also eager to avoid becoming embroiled in inevitable regional economic and political complications.
Most recently, these complications have manifested themselves as protests in Kazakhstan, where locals have expressed anger at the government’s decision to change legislation governing foreigners’ ability to rent land for lengthy periods of time. Public anger is rooted mostly in concerns that Chinese firms will exploit this legislation to slowly lease ever larger tracts of Kazakhstani land. Such problems have arisen in the past. In 2009, for example, when President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced a leasing arrangement, Chinese and Tajik censors blocked references in the media to a similar deal in Tajikistan in 2011. Continue reading →
Xinjiang will soon see the launch of its first high-speed railway train that will run from Lanzhou city in neighboring Gansu province to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The government has hailed this as a significant move that will boost Xinjiang’s economy through more open trade, tourism and connectivity into Central Asia as part of the leadership’s vision of the new Silk Road Economic belt. Yet, the Guardian has countered that the high-speed railway in Xinjiang may end up exacerbating the growing economic inequality in the province.
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.
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 →
Though it has received comparatively little attention, one of the most profound geopolitical trends of the early 21st century is gathering steam: China’s pivot to Central Asia. As American military forces withdraw from Afghanistan and gaze toward the Asia-Pacific, and while Washington’s European allies put NATO’s eastward expansion on the back burner, Central Asia has become China’s domain of investment and influence. The Washington policy community finally woke up to this reality in September, when Chinese president Xi Jinping swept through Central Asia, signing tens of billions of dollars worth of deals and generally treating the former Soviet republics as if they were in China’s sphere of influence. Continue reading →
Alexandros Petersen is interviewed by The Gadfly on April 16, 2013
The Gadfly: You have referred to China’s growing influence in Central Asia as an “Inadvertent Empire.” Could you explain what you mean?
Alexandros Petersen: It’s an inadvertent empire in the sense that China is already the most consequential actor in the region and will soon be the dominant actor in a number of different areas. It already is the dominant actor in the economic sphere and definitely so in the energy sector, which is actually quite a significant accomplishment given Russia’s traditional role in that area. China has also become the go to place for loans and investments. One of the key needs in Central Asia is investment in infrastructure, and that requires funds. Russia doesn’t have the money; the United States doesn’t have the money in some cases and simply doesn’t care in others; the European Union is not comfortable giving money because of the nature of some of the regimes in the region, so China is really the only option to provide funding as well as institutional capacity building. So, it’s an empire in the sense that China is the player to watch and will be the dominate player in the future, but it’s inadvertent, in the sense that China doesn’t really have a strategy for the region. China doesn’t want an empire. As Seeley would say, it has an empire “in a fit of absence of mind.” Continue reading →
On April 2, 2013 Alexandros Petersen conducted an interview with Chris Rickleton, a Bishkek-based analyst and Instructor at the American University of Central Asia.
You have conducted in-depth research into Chinese plans for a refinery at Kara Balta in Kyrgyzstan. What exactly are these plans and on what sort of timetable are they to be carried out?
The refinery is already behind schedule, but is expected to be built by July of this year, and operating at full capacity by September. Local media reported some tough talk in January between Chu Chan, the director of Zhongda, the Chinese state-owned firm that will run the refinery, and Kyrgyz Prime Minister Jantoro Saptybaldiyev. Saptybaldiyev was clearly very keen to see the refinery working as soon as possible and asked Chu why the facility still hadn’t been built. Chu referred to “misunderstandings” having led to the wrong equipment being delivered to the site. Chu also wanted the “sanitary zone”, which governs the distance residential homes can be from the refinery, reduced from 500 metres to 300 metres, which would have helped the company out in some of its compensation battles with local residents. When Saptybaldiyev rebuffed this offer, Chu reminded him that the company have already paid something like $4,000,000 in taxes and that they will have invested $250 million into the project by the time it is up and running.
In the gravelly, uncertain road coursing through Kyrgyzstan’s picturesque Alay Valley, it does not take long to stumble across the Chinese road workers’ camp. Though just a dusty collection of prefab dormitories, the camps nevertheless proudly display the company’s name, logo and various slogans in large red Chinese characters. A Kyrgyz security guard is fast asleep on his cot, and the camp is deserted except for a young engineer from Sichuan. He explains that they work six months out of the year, when snow doesn’t block the passes. Next year, the road will be finished. He says his friends that work on Chinese-built roads in Africa get a better deal.
Further down the road, amid bulldozers and trucks full of dirt, are the road workers. They’re slowly reshaping the mountains, molding them into smooth inclines and regulation grades. Then there are the trucks; hundreds of them, crowding at the Chinese/Kyrgyz border, all engaged in the increasingly active trade between the two countries. One of the truckers, a member of China’s Muslim Uighur minority, is eager to chat. The roof of the world is his workplace. It takes three days to drive a 30 ton load from Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang province, through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. He and his colleagues bring 100 such loads across every week. Continue reading →
The way Central Asian states will turn — to Russia’s Eurasian Union or to China — is the test for influence in the region. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia/IvaNdimitry
If one turns enough of a blind eye, it is easy to be optimistic about Central Asia. Wily diplomats from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are masterfully playing off the great powers. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are turning into hubs in their own right – and nobody can tell plucky Uzbekistan what to do. This is nobody’s backyard, and attempts by neo-imperialists in Moscow, Washington and Beijing to play games in the region are only strengthening the hands of the Central Asian states themselves. This is a comforting picture – which is why Western policymakers love it – but it looks increasingly false as President Putin tightens the screws.
Why a Eurasian Union matters
Russia’s desire to strengthen its sphere of influence in Central Asia seems to be intensifying. The first sign came in October 2011 when Russia’s ‘national leader’ published his vision for a Eurasian Union in the Gazprom-Media owned daily Izvestia. Here Putin stated that the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan that would come into force on 1st January 2012 was just the beginning – and that it would expand ‘by involving Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Then, we plan to go beyond that, and set ourselves the ambitious goal of a higher level of integration – a Eurasian Union.’
In the last two years, China has emerged as the most consequential outside actor in Central Asia. As we have described in other writings, China’s ascension to this role has been largely inadvertent . It has more to do with the region’s contemporary circumstances and China’s overall economic momentum than a concerted effort emanating from the Zhongnanhai. The implications for United States and NATO policy are nevertheless profound. Not only have the geopolitics of Eurasia shifted in ways little understood in Washington and Brussels, but the socio-political and physical undergirding of the post-Soviet space from Aktobe to Kandahar is being transformed.
Official Chinese policy in Central Asia is quiet and cautious, focused on developing the region as an economic partner with its western province Xinjiang whilst also looking beyond at what China characterizes as the “Eurasian Land Bridge…connecting east Asia and west Europe” (Xinhua, September 4, 2012). Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are active throughout the region on major infrastructure projects, but it is not clear how much they are being directed as part of some grand strategy as opposed to focusing on obvious profitable opportunities. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the main multilateral vehicle for Chinese regional efforts and reassuring engagement is a powerfully symbolic, but institutionally empty actor. Many smaller Chinese actors—ranging from shuttle traders to small-time entrepreneurs to schoolteachers and students posted to Confucius Institutes throughout the region—are the gradual vanguard of possible long-term Chinese investment and influence. Continue reading →
In what can only be described as a cosmic coincidence or evidence of some deeper significant trend that I can only guess at, on either sides of the Irkeshtam Pass between China and Kyrgyzstan we found Japanese backpackers. The surprising part was that our visits to each side of the border took place some five months apart from each other. Ardent Japanese travellers aside, there were few other obvious similarities on the two sides of the border. In fact, what differences there were seemed to be weighted in favour of the Kyrgyz side, where the road was in better shape than its Chinese counterpart.
Chinese Ambassador Wang Kaiwen with the Kyrgyz Premier
Kyrgyzstan’s recent peaceful presidential elections did not feature China as a campaign issue. For the most part, they focused on domestic issues and where foreign policy seeped in, it was mostly in the positive light that most Kyrgyz see Russia and separately its regional customs union, or perennial whipping boy the U.S. “transit hub” at Manas airport, outside Bishkek. Subsequent to the elections, the winner Mr. Atambaev declared: “In 2014 the United States will have to withdraw its military base from the ‘Manas’ international airport” (www.regnum.ru, November 1). China was not mentioned at all, even though a series of conversations and interviews up and down the country in the weeks prior to the election revealed a strange sense of unease about Kyrgyzstan’s growing dependence on China. Continue reading →
The Chinese government, via China Aid, donated more than 50 public buses manufactured by Yaxing Motor Coach company to Bishkek in 2009 with commitment for more in 2011. Each bus has a China flag and China Aid logo on the side, and the words “Chinese-Kyrgyz Friendship Bus” written in Chinese and Cyrillic. Photo by Sue Anne Tay
In the midst of a relatively calm election season, we have been travelling to Kyrgyzstan’s cities, villages and border posts to track the rise of China in Central Asia. The atmosphere around this election is less tense than in previous years, when governments have been ousted by street revolutions and transfers of power have yielded ethnic violence. But Kyrgyzstan’s new government will not alone decide the country’s fate.
Kyrgyzstan is a place between powers, and not just geographically. This is reflected in Jalal-Abad University, located in the country’s third-largest city, where respective wings of the central administrative buildings are run by the U.S. embassy-sponsored American Center and a Chinese government-funded Confucius Center subsidiary. In between sit Kyrgyz administrators.
Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of what appears to be a lively democratic election campaign. Rushing to meetings around Bishkek and then driving to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city, big political posters adorned bridges, tollbooths and places in between. So it was with little surprise that we came across a large-scale rally at the stadium adjacent to our hotel in Osh. Continue reading →
An outpost of the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) responsible for repaving the Southern Transport Corridor highway in Kyrgyzstan from the city of Osh through Sary Tash to the Irkeshtan border with China. Photo by Sue Anne Tay.
BEIJING — Traffic around Tiananmen Square was even worse than usual last week as President Vladimir Putin rolled through town to cement the supposedly flowering Chinese-Russian relationship. A series of high-level deals were signed between Chinese and Russian state-owned enterprises and China announced a substantial infusion into the new Russian Direct Investment Fund.
While cordial, an unspoken undertone to the meetings was Russian concern about growing Chinese influence in the former Soviet Union and particularly Central Asia.