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Another piece on Xinjiang for the new year, this one for Jamestown’s China Brief providing a bit of an overview of what has been happening in violent terms in the past year. Some editorial choices I would not have made, but it is something I am going to be writing more about going forwards. Around New Year’s day, I was quoted for a piece for the South China Morning Post about one of the violent incidents to close the year.

Tiananmen Attack: Islamist Terror or Chinese Protest?
Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 1
January 9, 2014 05:21 PM
By: Raffaello Pantucci

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2013 was a violent year for China and Xinjiang. On December 30, at 6:30 in the morning, a group of individuals believed to be Uighur attacked a police station in Shache County (or Yarkand) near Kashgar with “explosive devices” (Xinhua, December 30). According to official reports, no security officials were killed in the incident, in which eight were killed and a ninth arrested. The official government report stated that the group was led by Wusiman Balati and Abuduaini Abudukadi (also written as Usman Barat and Abdugheni Abdukhadir), a pair who “held successive gatherings” since August in which they watched “violent terrorist videos” discussed “religious extremist thought” and formed a group that raised money, made explosives, tested these explosives out and planned violent activities (Xinhua, December 30, 2013).

The high point came on October 28, when a jeep crashed into railings in front of the iconic statue of Mao Zedong in the middle of Tiananmen Square. The incident was attributed to a Uighur named Usmen Hasan (Xinhua, November 26). Usmen, as well as two passengers reported to be his wife and mother, were killed, along with a Filipino tourist and a domestic Chinese tourist from Guangdong. Several more Filipino and Japanese tourists were also injured in the incident (Xinhua, November 3, 2013). The incident was praised in mid-November by Abdullah Mansour, believed to be the current leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) (Reuters, November 23, 2013).

While these incidents were both connected to Xinjiang in some way, a double bombing outside government offices in Taiyuan in the first week of November demonstrated that terrorist-like violence in China is not always linked to the province. The Taiyuan bombing was ultimately attributed to a taxi driver “angry at society” for unspecified reasons (China Daily, November 9, 2013).

Context in Xinjiang

Subsequent to the incident a series of five arrests were made of individuals from Hotan, Xinjiang. The group was alleged to have gathered some 40,000 RMB in advance of the incident and had conducted three reconnaissance trips to the Square. They had established their group in September and came to Beijing by SUV and train on October 7 (Xinhua, November 1, 2013). Xinjiang military commander, Peng Yong, was also fired from the province’s Communist Party Standing Committee (Caixin, November 4, 2013). The sacking, while not officially linked to the incident in Tiananmen Square follows a pattern of dismissals in the wake of major security lapses. In the wake of the Urumqi riots in July 2009, Party Secretary Li Zhi and Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (PSB) head Liu Yaohua were dismissed in September, while under a year later province governor and long-time boss Wang Lequan was shunted sideways to be Deputy Head of the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee in Beijing. Explicit links to the trouble in province were not made, though the intent was clear.

The incident came in the wake of a long, brutal summer in Xinjiang that was marked by flare-ups involving multiple deaths and casualties. An unofficial tally by the author places the total number of deaths in the triple digits, though it is unclear whether this is a total accounting of what had taken place. [1] Videos have emerged showing Uighurs or Chinese-speaking individuals on battlefields in Syria. [2] In July 2013, the Global Times reported the case of Memeti Aili, a 23-year-old Uighur who claimed to have been studying in Istanbul, Turkey when he was approached by radical groups and recruited to fight in Syria. Memeti Aili was arrested as he tried to return to Xinjiang to complete his assigned mission to “carry out violent attack and improve fighting skills,” a task he had reportedly been given by ETIM (Global Times, July 1, 2013). The exact nature of his plot was not revealed, but it was held up as a specific instance of how the fight in Syria was becoming a direct problem for China.

It is clear from magazines, statements and videos showing people training and fighting somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s badlands that a group exists outside Xinjiang that threatens Chinese authorities—calling itself the Hizb al Islami al Turkestani (Turkestan Islamic Party, TIP). Occasional reports surface of individuals dying in drone strikes or of plots linked to networks around the group internationally (Dubai, July 2008 and Oslo, July 2010), and al-Qaeda leaders will mention the plight of the Uighurs in some of their speeches. [3] Most recently, their plight was highlighted in a video released by the Somalia-based militant group al-Shabaab, with the group contrasting the Uighurs’ plight and the international focus on Tibet as evidence of the West’s not caring about Muslim suffering. But there is little direct evidence that outside groups have much direct connection with the incidents that take place in the province. In one incident from 2011, an individual identified as being involved in an incident by the Chinese authorities was shown in a video released by Islam Awazi (TIP’s media wing), while more recently the group praised as jihad an incident in which 15 security officials were killed in the province though they stopped short of claiming the incident.

The government has not stopped linking the group to the threat, offering as evidence videos or other radical material in the possession of individuals involved in incidents. In the most recent case, authorities claimed the group had been watching extremist videos—presumably ones linked to the group or other al-Qaeda affiliates. But the directional link has been somewhat limited in its evidence, with incidents often seeming to have some local spark, though it is certainly notable that the manner in which these incidents break out is often similar.

The specifics around the group who ended up in Tiananmen remain equally unclear. According to government accounts, they were linked to ETIM and were in possession of radical material (Xinhua, November 26, 2013). Highlighting the degree to which the government continues to see ETIM and other Central Asian groups as a threat, news emerged shortly before the incident that China had pushed the Pakistani government to proscribe ETIM, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) (BBC Urdu, October 23, 2013). The concern for China is that these groups may be drawing on their common Central Asian heritage and language to plot together—efforts so far mostly felt in Afghanistan, but that might be redirected towards China in the wake of NATO withdrawal. No released evidence about the Tiananmen incident demonstrated any specific link or direction from outside groups, but the proximity of the statements in the Pakistani press and Meng Jianzhu’s categoric declarations about ETIM’s links to the Tiananmen incident illustrate a willingness by China to draw links between instability at home and anti-state groups in China’s near neighborhood.

Violent Petitioners

A divergent account of the causes behind the incident emerged from an account in Radio Free Asia (RFA), that drew primarily on an interview with a former village chief from Yengi Aymaq village in Akto County, who claimed that the attack had taken place exactly a year from the time when Chinese authorities had torn down a mosque in the village. According to former village chief Hamut Turdi, the attack was revenge for the local authorities destruction of a mosque that the community had raised money to build, which was torn down when the government claimed it was an “illegal extension” to an existing prayer room (Radio Free Asia, November 6, 2013). Others cited in the RFA report claiming to know Usmen Hasan said that he had lost a family member during the bloody July 2009 riots and another that his younger brother had died in a “mysterious traffic accident” that had been “blamed on the majority Han Chinese or the Chinese authorities” (RFA, November 6, 2013). None of the accounts were independently corroborated.

In the account supplied by RFA, the logic is that Usman was drawing on a Chinese tradition of petitioning the Emperor as a result of injustice at the hands of local authorities. This longstanding tradition is one that countless others have called upon through setting themselves on fire. To give only examples from the majority Han ethnicity: a group of five believed to be linked to Falun Gong set themselves alight in January 2001, a man from Anhui complaining about forced relocation did so in September 2003, and, most recently, in November 2011 a man from Hubei set fire to himself in anger “over the outcome of civil litigation” (Xinhua, September 15, 2003; Daily Telegraph, November 16, 2011). Tiananmen Square is also a draw for angry or deranged individuals of other sorts too. Two days prior to the jeep incident in Tiananmen Square, an argument in a staff canteen in the Forbidden City adjacent to the Square led to one man stabbing two colleagues before trying to kill himself (South China Morning Post, October 25, 2013). This followed a summer in Beijing in which a man went on a stabbing rampage in Carrefour killing one and injuring four (Xinhua, July 22, 2013) as well as another who had killed an American and a Chinese national in another shopping mall in the city (Agence France Press, July 18, 2013).

High profile incidents that might elsewhere be described as terrorism, in China are instead seen as forms of petitioning. In July, Ji Zhongxing, a wheelchair-bound man, detonated an explosive outside the arrivals gate in Beijing International Airport’s third terminal. Injuring only himself and a police officer, Ji claimed to be angry at the fact that he had not been adequately compensated for a beating by Guangdong authorities that had left him paralyzed in a wheelchair. He was later jailed for six years (Xinhua, October 15, 2013; BBC, October 15, 2013). In July 2011, disgruntled farmer Qian Mingqi detonated three large devices outside official buildings in Fuzhou, Jiangxi leading to four deaths (including Mr. Qian’s) (Xinhua, May 31, 2011, 2013). This is the context in which Chinese media and the public viewed the attack in Taiyuan, in which a coordinated set of bombs armed with ball bearings were detonated outside an official building in the heart of the city.

China’s Response

Random individuals with the ability to build and effectively detonate multiple explosives in a coordinated and lethal manner might seem to be more menacing than an attempt to drive a car into a crowd. But from the perspective of the Chinese state, such “lone wolf” terrorism is less dangerous than Uighurs’ attempts to speak for a community. Even without clear ties to an organized group, they offer a potential alternative source of legitimacy and an alternative power base.

For Beijing, the problem is clearly a complicated one. On the one hand, it is undeniable that some Uighur extremists exist and are connecting to global al-Qaeda-affiliated or -inspired networks. But it is not clear that these groups and networks are able to launch large-scale attacks within China. The incident in Tiananmen Square may have been substantial in its impact, but no evidence of external direction has been provided. But external direction or not, the growing tempo of violence emanating from the province in the past year highlights a domestic problem that seems to be growing worse rather than better.

In parallel to this, China faces a problem of petitioners angry at the state who are using increasingly violent means to express their rage—from random acts of self-immolation, to random stabbings, to massive explosions that have so far killed mercifully few. In some ways these seem similar to the Xinjiang-related incidents, but the background context is fundamentally more alarming to authorities given the potential for a single incident related to Xinjiang to be seen as part of a broader separatist movement. Thus, the Chinese government seeks to distinguish between violent protest and terrorism, and ensure that the response is one that is moderated in ways that do not simply inflame tensions in Xinjiang further.

Notes

  1. The author has been maintaining an unofficial tally based on official reports that can be provided on request.
  2. One video showed a possibly Uighur individual: < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjrUhb7Lx1o >. Another highlighted ethnically-Han Bo Wang talking directly to the Chinese people in Mandarin: < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maccGe9MSMY >
  3. On the Dubai and Oslo plots, see Terrorism Monitor, July 22, 2010; and “Manchester, New York and Oslo: Three Centrally Directed Al-Qa’ida Plots,” CTC Sentinel, August 1, 2010.
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And more late posting, this time a piece I wrote for Jamestown’s China Brief looking at the recent grim events in Xinjiang. A topic that is only going to become more relevant as time goes on given the depth of tensions. Of course, this all also feeds into the larger project I am working on looking at China in Central Asia.

Xinjiang’s April 23 Clash the Worst in Province since July 2009

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 11
May 23, 2013 04:16 PM Age: 4 days

A People’s Armed Police Patrol in Xinjiang, from here

On April 24, reports emerged from Xinjiang that 21 people had been killed in what was reported as a “terrorist clash” in Bachu County, Kashgar Prefecture (Xinhua, April 24). The incident came as U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke was undertaking the first visit to the province by a senior U.S. delegation in 20 years as part of Beijing’s push to attract foreign investment to the province (Xinjiang Daily, April 25). The juxtaposition of the two events highlighted Beijing’s persistent difficulties in taming the province’s tensions. They call into question Beijing’s economics-based strategy while illustrating the ongoing questions about the drivers of radicalization in the province.

Initial descriptions about the events in Selibuya village in Bachu County (also known as Maralbexi) just outside Kashgar, suggested the incident was the product of a “violent clash between suspected terrorists and authorities” (Xinhua, April 24). Three community workers were described as entering a property and finding suspicious individuals with knives. They managed to alert others, but were killed before help could arrive. This lead to a larger clash in which a total of 15 police and community workers were killed while six so-called “mobsters” were shot to death (Xinjiang Daily, April 24; Shanghai Daily, April 24). The 15 dead were heralded later as “martyrs” and identified by their ethnicities as 10 Uighur, three Han and two Mongolians (Xinhua, April 29). Grim pictures released in the days after the funerals seemed to show females identified as cadres with their throats slit (CCTV13, April 30).

Xinjiang government spokeswoman Hou Hanmin quickly blamed the incident as being the work of terrorists (Reuters, April 24). Two days later after U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell refused to call it terrorism, an editorial lashed out at U.S.  “double standards,” something felt all the more keenly in the wake of the Boston bombings in which a Chinese student was killed (Xinhua, April 26). A few days later, security forces announced they had arrested a further 11 suspects for involvement in the incident, bringing the total number of captured individuals to 19 (Xinhua, April 29). In making this announcement, the government laid out its claim that they had disrupted a terrorist cell headed by Qasim Muhammat (also spelt Kasmu Memet) that had been founded in September 2012 and was in the process of planning “something big” this summer in Kashgar (Xinhua, April 29). The group allegedly would gather at cell member Muhanmetemin Barat’s house where they would do physical training, watch extremist videos, read the Koran and practice making explosives (Xinhua, April 29). The group was in the process of making explosives at the house when the three community workers came visiting leading to the incident (Xinhua, April 29).

According to an official timeline released by the government, one of the members of the cell, Musar Aisanjon, had first come to security officials’ attention in July 2007 when he was questioned by authorities linked to unspecified charges. Three years later, he is alleged to have met Qasim Muhammat, who subsequently went on to recruit the other members of the cell (China Daily, April 30). By September 2012, the group was formed and under Qasim’s lead were gathering regularly to train, listen and watch radical material and make knives. By the time of the incident, they allegedly had tested explosives five times. When authorities subsequently raided the properties, they uncovered knives, combat training equipment, illegal religious material and three jihadist flags along with at least one identified as being an “East Turkestan” banner (Xinhua, April 29; China Daily, April 30). Nevertheless, a few days later spokeswoman Huo Hanmin went on record saying that the incident and individuals involved “had no connection with foreign forces” in contrast to many previous incidents where external influences were blamed (China Daily, May 2).

This official version of events was disputed remotely by dissident groups through Radio Free Asia, where they called for independent coverage of the story (RFA, May 3). A BBC crew was able to get to Selibuya and spoke to locals who said a family that was at the center of the clash had “a long-standing dispute with officials.” Apparently very religious, the family was under pressure to shave their beards and for their women to unveil themselves—something that was apparently in accordance with local laws. The family refused and something snapped on April 23 leading to the brutal incident (BBC, April 26). Little of this account beyond the end result was corroborated by official Chinese reports, leaving observers in the usual frustrating state of confusion when observing such incidents in Xinjiang.

Waters were further muddied when RFA—citing Uighur websites, local sources and dissident groups—reported that there had been a further incident in Hotan, Xinjiang during which two more community workers were killed and three cars burned in an incident sparked off by clampdowns in the wake of the Selibuya deaths (RFA, April 26). No further information has emerged about this incident. Other incidents reported by RFA in subsequent days (and not corroborated elsewhere) showed tensions between Uighur and Han across the country. One report indicated there had been a clash between Uighur and Han students at Beijing’s Minorities University leading to the authorities separating the two communities on campus (RFA, April 29). Meanwhile in Shanghai, a group of Uighur women protesting their being banned from selling products outside the Changde Lu Mosque, reportedly were moved along violently by local authorities (RFA, May 3). It is unclear if there is any connection between all of these events and whether these are anything more than usual intra-ethnic tensions. They do, however, highlight a persistent issue.

A contact in Kashgar at around the time of the incident reported no particular local coverage of events, with locals suggesting they return to Urumqi rather than press on toward the borders near Kashgar. Another report indicated that the government had re-issued laws regulating possession of SIM cards in the region (RFA, April 30). Such laws had been issued previously in conjunction with other rioting when it was believed that dissemination of pictures of Han or Uighur brutality against each other had exacerbated tensions. By having people registering SIM cards against ID cards, the belief was that individuals could be tracked.

While possibly sensible from a security surveillance perspective, such measures are impediments to rapid transfer of information. Something that when taken in conjunction with the confusion that permeates the official accounts of the events in Selibuya suggests that the government is going to continue to have a difficult time in attracting the external investment that it is looking for to develop the province. External investors will be both alarmed by the security situation, but also the heavily watched environment and the impediments to obtain SIM cards.

According to 2012 trade figures, during the first 11 months of 2012, Xinjiang attracted some $396 million in foreign direct investment (FDI)—a figure up 30.8 percent year-on-year—but still paltry when put in the context of the $100.02 billion that China overall attracted during the same period (Xinhua, December 21, 2012). Eager to attract foreign firms, the Xinjiang government has been proactive in bringing foreign companies out to the province. It has signed a cooperation agreement with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI); Volkswagen has established a joint venture car factory outside Urumqi; French waste management firm Veolia is taking on the modernization of Urumqi’s wastewater infrastructure; Coca-Cola is opening a plant in the province with its bottling partner Cofco; IBM is working with authorities in Karamay to develop a “smart city”; Danish wind power manufacturer LM Glasfiber setting up a factory in the Urumqi Economic and Technological Development Zone; and Turkey signed an agreement in 2011 to develop a Sino-Turkish Development Park outside Urumqi (www.cbi.org.uk, January 28; China Daily, November 14, 2012; South China Morning Post, April 3, 2012; China Daily, August 16, 2011; http://www.finance.veolia.com, September 1, 2005). More recently, the U.S. delegation visiting with Ambassador Locke had representatives from GE, the Aluminium Company of America (Alcoa), DuPont, Cummins and Peabody Energy Corporation (Xinjiang Daily, April 25).

All of this activity, however, does not seem to be translating into a huge pay-off on the ground as external investment remains relatively low. Foreign firms wonder about the prospects in the wake of incidents like that in Selibuya as well as practical concerns like the province’s still underdeveloped infrastructure and its distance from any bodies of water or markets. The annual China-Eurasia Expo held in Urumqi in September, for example, is intended as a further FDI booster, but most of the deals done are between Chinese firms. During the 2011 Expo, $29.14 billion in deals were signed with Chinese firms versus $5.5 billion in foreign trade contracts (Xinhua, September 3, 2012).

What does seem to have changed, however, is the government’s willingness to blame incidents like that in Selibuya on outside actors (something attested to by Huo Hanmin’s earlier clarifications). In a number of discussions over the past year, the author has heard Chinese scholars suggest that incidents in Xinjiang are at root domestic problems rather than external ones [2]. Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian published an article in Seeking Truth following the wake of the Bachu incident in which he laid out the current context and strategy for developing Xinjiang. Hinting at a slight adjustment in the degree to which authorities are eager to blame outside forces, Zhang described the security problems in terms of social stability and development rather than blaming foreign elements (Qiushi, May 16). In keeping with the reported paranoia of the security services, an anonymous Xinjiang security official, however, said “The ‘three evil forces’ of separatism, extremism and terrorism have long been using mobile phones and the Internet to incite terrorist attacks in China” (Xinhua, May 17). The party secretary’s article stands in contrast to statements in response to previous incidents where outside groups were accused of directing plotters and infiltrating operatives.

Further confusing matters, at around the time of the incident, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) released its latest batch of videos through Islam Awazi, including one in which a now believed dead senior al Qaeda ideologue, Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti provides “advice for the Muslims of East Turkestan” (jihadology.net, May 4). At no point in these videos is there any mention of recent incidents in Xinjiang or of any specific direct threats against targets in China. Something suggestive of a disconnect between what Uighur groups operate in Waziristan and their ethnic brethren in Xinjiang. The narrative of this incident further emphases this discontent, pointing in the direction of being a domestic clash with no external instigation.

The fact that government has chosen to release such detailed information about this incident would suggest an effort to get their side out with as much detail and openness as possible. This reflects the growing desire of propagandists to have official government bureaus be the most authoritative source on breaking events (Study Times, May 6). This public relations approach seems to be part of a broader effort to shift the messaging about who is to blame for such incidents. Who this is directed at, however, is unclear: the international community, Chinese residents elsewhere in the country or residents of Xinjiang? Whichever the case, given their previous history of opacity and conflicting views from the ground, much more still needs to be done for Beijing’s views on events in Xinjiang to be taken at face value.

Notes:

  1. Author’s Communication with Foreign Visitor in Kashgar, April 24, 2013.
  2. This is a perspective the author has heard at conferences at official think tanks in Beijing and Shanghai and has been corroborated by other foreign scholars in discussions with Chinese experts looking at terrorism questions and South Asia.

A kick-off to the new year with Alex on China-Central Asia with an overview for Jamestown Foundations’ China Brief. This is part of our ongoing project looking at China in Central Asia about which we have a number of large publications coming this year.

China and Central Asia in 2013

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 2
January 18, 2013 05:10 PM Age: 1 days

China’s Gateway to Central Asia, Khorgos, picture from here

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 [1]. 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.

China’s engagement in Afghanistan is growing as U.S. and Western involvement wanes. Whether Chinese companies and diplomats remain in the event of a surge in violence and country-wide destabilization is a question that will be answered post-2014. For the moment, however, Chinese SOEs Metallurgic Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper are invested heavily in one of the world’s biggest copper mines at Mes Aynak (just southeast of Kabul) while China’s energy giant China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is pumping oil in Afghanistan’s northern Amu Darya Basin. Currently, the firm is trucking the oil across the border to refineries in Turkmenistan, although plans are in place to develop a refinery on the Afghan side of the border. Plans also are moving forward for the construction of another string of the Central Asia-China pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang to pass through northern Afghanistan (Xinhua, June 6, 2012). CNPC and its subsidiaries already have cut deals with local authorities to ensure security in their operating areas. Should Afghanistan once again be split between a Pashtun south and a Tajik and Uzbek north, Chinese companies may have the relationships to continue operations under the protection of a new Northern Alliance. It seems that plans for the natural gas pipeline include distribution to local communities in northern Afghanistan [2].

Next door, at the source of the gas in Turkmenistan, CNPC and the Chinese government have carved out for themselves an envious position as one of the most influential outside players in Ashgabat, at least when talking in energy terms. The Central Asia-China pipeline, one of the most impressive feats in energy infrastructure construction, was completed in 18 months and now is slated to bring 60 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas per year to China in the coming decades (Platts, August 31, 2011). These immense volumes—four times that planned for the Trans-Anatolian pipeline from the Caspian to Southeastern Europe—may require up to three different routes for the project’s separate strings. This route planned to traverse northern Afghanistan will offer an alternative to the more costly route through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan [3].

Turkmenistan’s main energy and foreign policy priority at the moment is the realization of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) pipeline southeast across Afghanistan to markets in Pakistan and India. During the project’s recent international road show, CNPC and Sinopec reportedly expressed interest in the project, even if it was unclear in what capacity [4]. For the sake of diversity, Turkmenistan’s leadership would almost certainly prefer non-Chinese companies investing in TAPI. During the Petrotech conference in New Delhi in October 2012, the acting Minister of Oil and Gas Industry and Mineral Resources Kakageldy Abdullaev made overtures to Indian firms to come and invest in Turkmenistan (Business Standard, November 27, 2012).

Further downstream in Uzbekistan, the government started to pump its own gas down the pipeline traversing its territory in September. The move was part of a 2010 agreement signed between the two countries for Uzbekneftegas to send some 10 bcm per year to China (Platts, September 24, 2012). In historically energy-poor Tajikistan, CNPC partnered with Total to purchase a share each of Tethys find in Bokhtar, at the eastern end of the Amu Darya Basin (Bloomberg, December 21, 2012). In Kyrgyzstan, a Chinese firm also has agreed to build a refinery in the Chui Oblast whilst acting Kyrgyz Economy Minister Temir Sariyev reported “China is interested in the construction of Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-China oil pipeline and a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via the south of Kyrgyzstan” (Azer News, December 4, 2012; Central Asia Online, April 27, 2012).

Beijing and Chinese companies have long cultivated a close partnership with Kazakhstan as a regional power and source of valuable resources (“Sino-Kazakh Ties on a Roll,” China Brief, January 18). While Western companies suffer in their attempts to bring offshore projects online in Kazakhstan’s Caspian waters, China steadily has become the largest outside energy investor onshore. China’s sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corporation (CIC) is set to buy into Kazakhoil Aktobe, Kazakhturkmunai and Mangistau Investments—a deal which according to some estimates will give Chinese companies control over 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil production (TengriNews, January 8). The Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline—completed in a number of stages throughout the last decade—is slated to operate at its full capacity of 20 million tons per year (tpy) by 2014 (EnergyGlobal, November 9, 2012).

Nevertheless, this rosy picture has another side. According to analysts spoken to in Astana, the fields to which China has access are older ones that have been exploited for years. Furthermore, local Kazakhs with whom the authors spoke do not have particularly positive perspectives on their Chinese employers. At a grander scale, the slow progress with the Kazakh side of the free trade zone at Khorgos on the border between the two countries just northeast of Almaty is further evidence of these tensions. Analysts and officials asked either side of the border have vague responses about delays with the site. Currently, the Chinese side teams with new markets, corporate offices, hotels and customs buildings, but the Kazakhstani side still has some way to go in bringing its infrastructure on par with its neighbor [5]. Khorgos is the crossing point from China into Central Asia for three developments: a Central Asia-China pipeline from Turkmenistan; a new highway that is under construction linking Almaty, Astana, the Caspian shore and Russia; and a second train connection between China and Kazakhstan that opened last month (Xinhua, December 22, 2012). A key component of China’s so-called “New Eurasian Land Bridge,” the Khorgos passage is one of the main arteries in the chain connecting China’s eastern coast with Western Europe through Russia and the Black Sea-Caspian region.

These difficulties are even more evident in Kyrgyzstan where there have been a spate of clashes between locals and Chinese workers. In October, reports emerged from a gold mine managed by the Zijin Mining group in Taldy-Bulak that locals had threatened to burn down a company office after the company allegedly was killed a local horse (RIA Novosti, October 22, 2012). Then, in January, a fracas broke out between Chinese and local workers after Chinese workers allegedly caught a local stealing. In the ensuing clash some 100 people were involved and 18 Chinese workers were injured, two seriously (Xinhua, January 11). Whilst Kyrgyzstan is a notoriously difficult environment for foreign investors with many other nation’s countries also experiencing problems, China seemed to respond with particular attention this time around. In response to the first incident, the head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Kyrgzystan, Li Deming, wrote an op-ed stating “Kyrgyzstan still a mine field for investors” (Global Times, October 28, 2012). In December, during an SCO Prime Ministers’ Meeting in Bishkek, Premier Wen Jiabao met with his counterpart and reinforced this message encouraging “Chinese enterprises to expand investment in Kyrgyzstan” (Xinhua, December 4, 2012).

A much larger, potentially strategic, threat to Chinese investments in Central Asia, however, lies in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union. Most recently announced in October 2011, when President Putin laid out his plan in an article in the Izvestia newspaper, the notion has its roots in the Customs Union that was first proposed in the 1990s by President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. While slow to accept the idea, President Putin now has embraced the idea wholeheartedly to create a regional organization that would coordinate “economic and currency policy” between the countries of the former Soviet Union (Reuters, October 3, 2011). Currently, the Union is made up of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, but, in Central Asia, both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have expressed an interest in joining. What is not entirely clear is whether this is something that is taking place as a result of Russian pressure or whether this is a choice. In his annual statement to the Duma in December 2012, President Putin spoke of tightening requirements for the citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to enter Russia with passports rather than simply ID cards as is the case at the moment. He left open the caveat, however, that free access would continue to be allowed for citizens of countries members of the Union (RIA Novosti, December 12, 2012). The potential implication to remittance-reliant Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan is clear, creating an instant obstacle for the masses of young men from those countries who work in Moscow to send money back home to their families.

The issue for China is what impact this will have on China’s trade relationship with these countries. In particular, Kyrgyzstan is one of the key routes for Chinese goods into the region and for onward re-export—Ambassador Wang Kaiwen, China’s man in Bishkek, places the figure at $5 billion per annum. In commenting, Ambassador Wang also placed Kyrgyzstan’s trade with China in a broader context. As he put it, “trade between China and Kyrgyzstan is $5 billion, and China’s foreign trade is $3 trillion…so this [joining the union] is not a big problem” (Knews.kg, November 30, 2012). The point is that this is a relatively limited problem for China, but the repercussions in Bishkek are uncertain and potentially more substantial.

In many ways, this uncertainty places China’s 2013 in Central Asia in its appropriate context. It is increasingly clear that China is the most consequential regional actor that is making all the right moves to consolidate its interests. The regional impact and the reactions of both the Central Asian states and Russia to this growing preponderance remain to be seen. For Beijing, the relationship is an important one if they are to effectively develop Xinjiang, but their growing perceived dominance is something that is met with ambivalence regionally where nations like China’s money, but worry about its dominance. The dragon has clearly risen in Central Asia, but how the region will decide to respond still remains unclear.

Notes:

  1. Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen, “China’s Inadvertent Empire”, The National Interest, October 24, 2012,chinaincentralasia.com/2012/10/24/chinas-inadvertent-empire/
  2. Author interviews, November 2012
  3. Author interviews, October 2012
  4. Author interviews in Ashgabat, September 2012
  5. Author observations at Khorgos, April 2012; and interview January 2013

Latest piece for Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief on mine and Alex’s China in Central Asia research. We have now done pieces on China’s relations with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan for China Brief, and are hoping to get a complete set by the time our research is done! A few longer papers in the pipeline on all of this at the moment.

Shifts in Beijing’s Afghan Policy: A View From the Ground

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 21
November 5, 2012 03:22 PM Age: 1 days

Zhou Yongkang with Afghan President Karzai in September

In a clear but still gradual shift over the past year, Chinese policymakers have changed their stance on Afghanistan from cultivated disinterest to growing engagement. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal in 2014 comes into sharper relief, Beijing has come to realize that it will have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. As with China’s engagement in Central Asia as a whole, Chinese activity in Afghanistan is less a part of a grand strategy for the region and more the sum of number of disparate parts. Nevertheless, the sum of these parts could have major consequences for Afghanistan and the region’s trajectory as it signals a growing realization by Beijing of the role it will find itself playing in the future.

The most visible and significant element of China’s renewed focus on Afghanistan was marked by the visit in late September of Politburo member and security supremo Zhou Yongkang to Kabul (Xinhua, September 24; China Daily, September 24). This was the first visit by a Politburo-level Chinese official to the country since 1966 when President Liu Shaoqi visited the country just prior to being purged during the Cultural Revolution. It marked, however, the latest in a growing series of high-level visits and meetings marking China’s more focused attention on Afghanistan. This attention dates back to February 28, 2012, when Beijing hosted the first Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral dialogue. Held at the level of foreign ministry director-general positions (or rough equivalents), the meeting was given a senior stamp of approval when the group was met by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi a day after the discussions (Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 28). Then in June, as China was hosting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Beijing, President Hu Jintao signed a bilateral “strategic and cooperative partnership” agreement with President Karzai as well as welcoming the country to becoming an official SCO observer (Xinhua, June 8). President Karzai thanked President Hu for helping facilitate the SCO upgrading, saying “without your support, we cannot do this” (Xinhua, June 8). Just over a month later on July 27, this was followed by a further high level meeting between China’s Central Military Commission Vice Chairman General Guo Boxiong and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak. The focus of the meetings was to “enhance strategic communication and strengthen pragmatic cooperation in order to contribute to bilateral strategic cooperation” (Xinhua, July 27). The full impact of relationships established during this visit, however, may have been undermined by Wardak’s resignation after a no confidence vote in Kabul just over a week later (Reuters, August 7). Whatever the case, the growing importance China accords to the bilateral relationship would have been emphasized again in late September by Zhou Yongkang’s visit.

The importance of Zhou’s visit was not only the symbolism of a senior Chinese visitor to Kabul, but also the emphasis that his presence casts on China’s interests in Afghanistan. Within the (now outgoing) Politburo, Zhou is responsible for security matters, primarily domestic, something that highlighted China’s interest in Afghanistan’s potential as a safe haven for militants. With an eye toward the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat forces in 2014, China increasingly has expressed concern about the possible spillover of militancy from Afghanistan into China’s western Xinjiang province. Notwithstanding its proximity to Kashgar—a city China is trying to develop into a regional trade hub—China keeps its border with Afghanistan tightly closed, with locals in Xinjiang reporting that authorities encouraged them to help monitor any movements across the border [1]. Afghanistan has asked repeatedly for China to open the Wakhan Corridor that links the two countries, but been rebuffed by Chinese security concerns (China Daily, October 16, 2010). When the authors visited earlier this year, there was little evidence the border was about to be opened.

Chinese security concerns are further visible in announcements made during Zhou’s visit about China agreeing to train some 300 Afghan police officers over the next four years (“Zhou Yongkang’s Trip Highlights Security Diplomacy,” China Brief, October 5). Previously, China has provided training for various Afghan technical personnel and officials with Foreign Minister Yang declaring in July 2010 they had trained some 781 Afghans so far with a further 200 trained that year. In May, China and the United States jointly hosted a two-week training session for a group of some 15 young Afghan diplomats (Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 17; July 21, 2010). China’s current willingness to explore training security personnel also highlights the growing importance of this aspect of their relationship.

Judging from the June SCO Summit in Beijing, China clearly is aware of the potential implications of deterioration in Afghan security and the implications for the broader region and within this context. During the summit, Beijing focused heavily on persuading Russia and Central Asian member states to coordinate commitments (at least those within the SCO) toward Afghanistan to some degree, and provide aid to contribute to Afghanistan reconstruction and stabilization. As is usual with SCO endeavors, this looked more like a multilateral vehicle for Chinese bilateral activities. The “strategic partnership” signed was between Beijing and Kabul and the 150 million yuan ($23 million) in aid promised to Afghanistan came from China, not the SCO as an organization (Xinhua, June 8). Nevertheless, Afghanistan will benefit from an increased profile and upgraded role to observer within the SCO. It may be asked to contribute information on militants to the SCO’s Regional Antiterrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent and presumably also will be able to benefit from others’ contributions. Overall, the summit was symbolically important for both China and Afghanistan. Beijing announced it will be engaged in Afghanistan’s future and Kabul gained commitments from a regional power to bolster its post-2014 prospects.

To examine Afghanistan from a broader perspective, China’s main concern with Central Asia is the importance of the region in helping Xinjiang develop by providing trading partners as well as routes to Russian, European and Middle Eastern markets. Security concerns emanating from Afghanistan are clearly a major potential obstacle to this. Thus, Zhou’s visit and China’s attention more generally can be said to have both a security and economic dimension that links Xinjiang and the broader region. This economic dimension for Afghanistan in particular was emphasized by the fact that pictures of Zhou’s visit showed him being met at his plane by Afghan Commerce and Industry Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahady (Xinhua, September 22). Furthermore, Zhou is a graduate of the Beijing Petroleum Institute and spent most of the 1960s and 1970s working in the oil sector, including a period as General Manager of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC)—a company that has made a number of investments in Afghanistan and that has encountered problems in the country as well. It seems probable that these topics would have been on Zhou’s agenda in Kabul.

In mid-October, CNPC started extracting oil from its field in Afghanistan’s northern Amu Darya basin. At 1,950 barrels per day, the project is a relatively small one, but is being promoted by the Afghan government as a model for how Kabul can raise revenues and wean itself off of foreign aid (Reuters, October 21). Completed at CNPC’s signature blistering speed, plans call for the Amu Darya project’s oil to be refined across the border in Turkmenistan until the Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) builds a refinery close to the site in two to three years. CNPC won the tender for the project partly due to its very generous terms: 50–70 percent of profits will go to the Afghan government together with a 15 percent royalty on top of a 20 percent corporate tax (Reuters, October 21). While Chinese aid to Afghanistan is relatively low—partly due to domestic intolerance of sending funds abroad—projects such as the oil extraction in the Amu Darya basin appear to be an indirect form of “corporate aid.”

The relatively small oil project, however, may well be a foot in the door for access to major natural gas deposits in northern and northwestern Afghanistan. It was CNPC geologists from Turkmenistan with the world’s fourth largest natural gas reserves that scouted out the Amu Darya oil project and they have their eye on gas formations that straddle the border [2]. With possible recent major gas finds close by in Tajikistan, CNPC is positioning itself to reap the natural resource benefits of a long-neglected area. In June, it announced plans to run a fourth string of the Central Asia-China pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang through northern Afghanistan (Eurasia Daily Monitor, June 19). CNPC also reportedly expressed interest in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline at the project’s Singapore roadshow event in September [3].

Whether or not CNPC moves forward with these projects, the prominent Chinese SOE is signaling that they see northern Afghanistan as a stable area going forward (Cnpc.com.cn, June 7). Until a few months ago, militias loyal to Afghan Army Chief of Staff and local warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum harassed Chinese workers in the area, but a deal seems to have been struck where these incidents have ceased (Reuters, June 11). Should CNPC move forward with its announced plans for a natural gas pipeline, it will likely find itself working closely with Dostum and other warlords.

In contrast to the opportunities blossoming in northern Afghanistan, just southeast of Kabul in Logar province the once highly touted Aynak Copper mine project is languishing. Described by President Karzai as “one of the most important economic projects in Afghan history,” the project led by Chinese SOEs Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper was valued at around $4 billion and was the largest investment project in Afghanistan (Xinhua, May 22, 2011). It, however, has been beset by problems, including an archeological dig atop the site, security concerns and now financial troubles at the parent company MCC. One report from late September stated Chinese workers had been spooked by security concerns and had left the country with only a skeleton crew left to watch over equipment (Reuters, September 27). This state of affairs seems to have reinforced skepticism of Beijing’s commitment to the project—and possibly even to Afghanistan itself—among Kabul-based officials and experts [4].

A final element that has not been sufficiently analyzed are the implications of China’s growing relationship with Kabul and its interactions with historical ally Islamabad. Whilst it is clear that China sees the importance of Pakistan in any long-term solution in Afghanistan, it is also increasingly clear that Beijing is concerned about how security in Pakistan continues to deteriorate. It thus seems likely that China’s growing focus on Afghanistan is at least in part out of recognition that it can no longer simply abrogate its strategy toward Kabul to Islamabad—a default setting Beijing previously employed. As the security situation in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) continues to muddle along in a negative direction, Beijing now has realized that it must do more to stabilize its restive neighbor. Zhou Yongkang’s visit is merely the culmination of this new focus on Afghanistan that is going to continue to develop as the 2014 deadline approaches. Whether this new attention translates into new policy resources, however, remains to be seen and probably will have to wait until after next March’s National People’s Congress, when China’s leadership transition will be completed.

Notes:

  1. The authors visited Tashkurgan, Xinjiang (near the Sino-Afghan border) in May 2012.
  2. Authors’ Interviews in Kabul, May 2012.
  3. Authors’ Interviews in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, September 2012.
  4. This is a key topic of conversation with interviewees with whom the authors spoke, including local analysts, foreign diplomats, international donors and journalists who all reached similar conclusions. Author Interviews in Kabul, May 2012.

A new piece for Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief as part of my ongoing research on China in Central Asia with Alex. This one focuses on China-Uzbekistan. I was also interviewed by the Italian Linkiesta on energy politics in Central Asia (for those who can read Italian), and did a presentation or two that haven’t shown up online. I have been a bit quiet of late as I have some large pieces in the pipeline and have been travelling a lot, so please forgive me. But keep an eye on this space, some very interesting stuff coming soon!

Uzbekistan’s Balancing Act with China: A View From the Ground
Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 14
July 19, 2012 03:30 PM Age: 2 days
By: Raffaello PantucciAlexandros Petersen

Presidents Hu and Karimov in Beijing (pic from here)

The exact reasons for Uzbekistan’s decision to withdraw from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) at the end of June remain unclear (Xinhua, June, 29; Russia Today, June 28, 2012). However, while Tashkent seems to have soured on the Russian-led regional organization, President Islam Karimov took time in June to pay a state visit to Beijing that included attending the Chinese instigated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In addition to attending the SCO Summit, President Karimov held separate bilateral meetings with President Hu Jintao, signed a strategic partnership agreement and approved a raft of new measures to strengthen Sino-Uzbek relations (Gov.uz, June 8; Xinhua, June 7). At this high level, relations are clearly moving in a positive direction. The view from the ground, however, is far more complex with Uzbekistan’s traditional vision of itself as a regional powerhouse and industrial power potentially at odds with China’s growing influence in Central Asia.

A Strategic Partner

The main public take-away from the June 2012 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Beijing was the organization’s decision to admit Afghanistan as “observer” member and Turkey as “dialogue partner” (Xinhua, June 7). When taken alongside the news that China and Afghanistan were to upgrade relations to a strategic partnership, the main international focus was on what this might mean for China’s future involvement in the war-torn country. This news story somewhat overshadowed the other big announcement to emerge on the fringes of the SCO Summit, the bilateral meeting between President Islam Karimov and President Hu Jintao during which the leaders signed a “Joint Declaration on the Establishment of Strategic Partnership Relations” (Xinhua, June 8). This came in the wake of a visit to Tashkent by General Chen Bingde, Chief of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff, who paid a bilateral visit to the capital during a regional trip that culminated in a pre-Summit meeting of military heads to plan future joint military exercises (Xinhua, June 4; PLA Daily, June 4). Although these sorts of regional summits and meetings are often more notable for the empty statements that are produced, the signals sent are loud and clear when read within the context of Uzbekistan’s regional diplomacy.

Karimov’s very presence at the summit was important, given that he makes a point of not attending similar Russian-sponsored summits or other multilateral get-togethers.  Tashkent’s foreign policy is fiercely independent—something emphasized in the decision to withdraw from the CSTO, where Uzbekistan had long resisted a number of the largely Russian instigated efforts to deepen integration. Consequently, the combination of President Karimov’s attendance at the SCO summit, the military meetings prior and the signing of a formal strategic partnership most likely signals genuine intent.  While the strategic partnership agreement itself covers areas from military exchanges to tourism programs, it is Uzbekistan’s willingness to allow China more access to its economy that stands out most.  Plans call for the development of joint special economic zones and greater Chinese involvement in the natural resource extraction, aviation and transportation sectors (Xinhua, June 3; September 23, 2011).

Even within the SCO, while Uzbekistan is resistant to get too involved at a military level, it still has permitted the establishment of the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) in the capital Tashkent. Opened on January 1, 2004 and headed by an Uzbek Major General, RATS has an executive committee of officials drawn from each member state’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior Affairs or State Security (RATS SCO, November 30, 2004) [1]. While it is hard to discern how active the institution is, local analysts highlight its presence as significant within the context of Uzbekistan’s independent streak [2]. This is not to overplay Uzbekistan’s involvement of course—Tashkent has so far refused to participate in anything but an observer role in the biannual “Peace Mission” joint exercises (Eurasia Daily Monitor, June 19).

Beyond the SCO there are further tensions visible between China and Uzbekistan on security affairs. According to Tashkent-based analysts, the Uzbek government does not always feel that Beijing shares its concerns about international terrorism. The implication is that, while Uzbekistan views terrorism as a potentially existential threat, China considers it a secondary concern [3]. Furthermore, when focusing on Afghanistan, the main regional security challenge, Uzbekistan prefers to focus its relations and efforts at a bilateral level. This allows the country to concentrate its efforts through preferred local partners, such as Uzbek-Afghan general Rashid Dostum, rather than work at a government level. Relations between Kabul and Tashkent are currently on an awkward footing—something explained to the authors as the consequence of a high-level spat between leaders [4].

Investment at Arms Length

Tensions between China and Uzbekistan are also visible at a bilateral investment level. Uzbekistan boasts the only real manufacturing base in Central Asia and is protective of its factories and labor force.  According to several local businessmen who worked both with China and other countries, high tariffs are levied against many imported consumer goods with Chinese goods often targeted in particular [5].  Mid-level entrepreneurs interviewed and seen in Tashkent seemed to be doing a brisk trade in Chinese-made products that were modified or assembled in Uzbekistan to mask their origin. In contrast, large-scale Chinese imports or rentals of equipment—such as heavy machinery, agricultural and transport equipment—are encouraged as a way to boost Uzbekistan’s production [6].

Recent high-level meetings also have focused on Tashkent’s plans to reroute more of its natural gas, traditionally exported through Russia, into the China-Central Asia pipeline. During the recent meeting in Beijing, the two sides were reportedly “energetic and enthusiastic about the project,” though foreign observers have questioned the viability of some of the numbers being spoken about (Gov.uz, June 8) [7]. In particular, it is not entirely clear how they will achieve exports of 10 billion cubic meters to China in 2013 without missing quotas for export elsewhere or domestic demand (Reuters, May 17). One possible alternative being explored is the deepening of bilateral cooperation between China and Uzbekistan on solar energy and solar furnaces. Reportedly, the two sides have signed a bilateral memorandum of understanding to go into joint production [8]. In August 2011, the Xinjiang Garson Sun Wind Power Technology Company opened an office in Uzbekistan, part of a larger regional push (China Daily, August 16, 2011). A Chinese firm, the Holley Group, also have agreed to work with Uzbek partners to upgrade the Uzbek metering system (MeteringChina.com, June 14). Beyond energy, China has provided some infrastructure development in Uzbekistan, with China Road and Bridge Company (CRBC) participating in road projects alongside South Korean firm Posco (UzDaily.com, April 9).

Although this paints a picture of enhanced cooperation—and one that is seemingly deepening in the wake of the recent bilateral meetings between President Hu and President Karimov—there is an undercurrent of uncertainty. Chinese firms, while clearly present in Uzbekistan, have a relatively low visibility and encounter the same difficulties getting profits out of the country as other foreign firms. One way around this is to reinvest the profits generated from selling back office technology into the country, something that Huawei and ZTE—two of China’s largest telecommunications companies—currently are doing to make handsets in Uzbekistan.

From an Uzbek perspective, the priority is clearly to maintain a manufacturing base while living close to the world’s factory, China. Uzbeks have watched as neighboring states Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan slowly have found themselves overly dependent on China and are wary of falling into a similar position [9]. There is some evidence of this already taking place in Uzbekistan. One example given to the authors was that cotton packaging had been altered to meet Chinese demands specifically—something Beijing was able to impose because they are the largest consumers of Uzbek cotton [10]. Some in the country, however, have highlighted the potential for the state to profit from China’s increasing labor costs. Uzbekistan’s relatively developed manufacturing base, educated workforce and good infrastructure offer themselves as good alternatives. During a speech in Tashkent July 2011, World Bank Senior Vice President and Chief Economist Justin Yifu Lin spoke of Uzbekistan being in an excellent position to profit from the fact that countries like China, India and Brazil were slowly moving up the value chain (Blogs.worldbank.org, July 13, 2011). Foreign diplomats interviewed mentioned how they were taking business delegations around the country and at least one textile firm apparently was considering moving its manufacturing from China to Uzbekistan [11].

East Asian Balancing

Uzbekistan’s most prominent East Asian investment partner, however, is not China but South Korea.  With over $10 billion in total direct investment (as opposed to just over $5 billion from China), South Korea may not have the same geopolitical clout as China, but the relationship allows Tashkent to avoid relying too much on China and Russia (Korea Times, June 6). The partnership began just after independence with familial and small business links between the Soviet Koreans of Uzbekistan and their counterparts on the Korean peninsula.  It further blossomed into high-level investment partnerships and close personal ties between President Karimov and a succession of South Korean presidents.  It is not uncommon for Uzbeks who emigrate to find jobs and business opportunities in South Korea and the government in Seoul has provided direct aid—often linked to investment projects—to Uzbekistan (Korea Times, February 10, 2010). When driving through Navoiy Province in southern Uzbekistan, newly paved roads lead to a prominent cargo airport and to new factories and office buildings of the sprawling special economic zone developed by Korean companies as part of a Korean-Uzbek partnership.

Uzbek analysts and officials openly say that Karimov views South Korea and other Asian Tigers, such as Malaysia, as models for Uzbekistan’s development [12].  In doing so, he is not only crafting an economically positive narrative for the country’s future, but he also is balancing against China conceptually. Aware of the difficulties in using China’s growth pattern as a model to emulate, Uzbekistan sees countries like South Korea  as a more sound model to follow. The Asian Tigers are nearer in size to Uzbekistan and have managed the shift from a closed economy with authoritarian government to a more liberalized market economy well-integrated into the global economy. In keeping Uzbekistan’s economy relatively closed, Tashkent is not only maintaining a tight control over its economy, but it is also trying to forge a relationship with China that is not overly dependant with the giant to the east.  So far, cautious diplomacy, protectionist economic measures and strategic diversification have allowed Uzbekistan to be the master of its own destiny without overly antagonizing any of its regional partners.

Conclusion

Unlike in other countries in Central Asia visited by the authors, the general perception of China in Uzbekistan is far more positive [13]. When asking generally about the Chinese presence in the country, Uzbeks are curious and positive with none of the vicious rumors heard in neighboring countries—such as Tajik rumors that the work crews sent to work on construction sites are prisoners and that Chinese men are marrying local women. In part, this is likely due to the absence of a direct border with China, meaning the fears of annexation and mass Chinese immigration are less. Uzbeks spoken to at Beijing-sponsored Confucius Institutes or those learning Chinese at local universities were learning about China and its language out of curiosity, a desire for work or an eagerness to travel. Chinese businessmen reported finding success and establishing roots. At the same time, however, Chinese firms have the same problems faced by other foreign firms in Uzbekistan, including difficulties with getting profits out of the country and an awkward local bureaucracy. Uzbekistan is not instinctively hostile toward China, but rather is quite closed to the outside world more generally.

What is interesting to note is the gradual geopolitical alignment that is increasingly visible between China and Uzbekistan, though it is one that from the outside seems more balanced toward trade than security matters. While clearly part of a larger Uzbek balancing strategy; from a Chinese perspective, the result is a net positive one that accords with a vision that has its eye on the longer-term. For Beijing, a stable and prosperous Central Asia is the goal, allowing for trade as well as providing China with natural resources. To achieve this, China is willing to play whatever game is required. Beijing is able to accommodate Uzbekistan’s tendency to behave as a cautious actor, investing and forging a relationship with the country at a pace that fits with Uzbek concerns and that looks beyond artificial deadlines. In this way, China is able to offer Uzbekistan a partnership that stands in contrast to the fickle Western approach that oscillates between friendship and condemnation, something that helps belie underlying Uzbek concerns of competition from the rising Asian giant. Hardly a partnership of equals, Beijing’s approach has ensured that it has continued to be able to focus relations with Tashkent on its interests in the country.

Notes:

  1. Author Interview, RATS Headquarters, Tashkent, May 10, 2012.
  2. Author Interview  with Uzbek Official at a Foreign Organization, Tashkent, May 8, 2012.
  3. Author Interview with Foreign Observer, Tashkent, May 11, 2012.
  4. Author Interview with Uzbek Analysts, Tashkent, May 10–11, 2012; Author Interviews, Kabul April 30, 2012. Direct flights between Kabul and Tashkent are impossible and flights pass through Dubai or elsewhere. The authors flew Kabul-Dushanbe and then drove through Oybek border post to Tashkent.
  5. Author Interviews with Local Businessmen, Tashkent, May 2012.
  6. Author Interviews, Tashkent, May 9, 2012. The authors also saw numerous large Chinese-made trucks and other mobile machines at various locations in Tashkent and Samarkand.
  7. Author Interview with Foreign Official, Tashkent, May 10, 2012.
  8. Author Interview with Local Analyst, Tashkent, May 7, 2012.
  9. Author Interview with Local Analyst,  Tashkent, May 8, 2012.
  10. Author Interview with Uzbek Analyst, Tashkent, May 7, 2012.
  11. Author Interview Tashkent, May 11, 2012.
  12. Author Interview Tashkent, May 10, 2012.
  13. In conducting research on China and Central Asia, the authors have visited Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, KyrgyzstanTajikistan and Uzbekistan.

More research from my recent trip to Central Asia, this time a detailed piece on China and Tajikistan’s budding relationship for Jamestown’s China Brief. Very interesting to compare Tajikistan with regards the other countries, where China clearly has more invested. Lacking a market and much connectivity into Chinese routes to Europe or to ports in Iran or Pakistan, the country is clearly a secondary priority. As ever, for more on this research, please see the site I co-edit with Alex my co-author on this piece: China in Central Asia.

Beijing Lays the Groundwork in Tajikistan: A View from the Ground

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 11

May 25, 2012 03:17 PM Age: 1 days

The Chinese and Tajik Foreign Ministers Meet in Beijing in Early May

Meeting on the fringes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Beijing on May 11, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohon Zarifi and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi made the usual affirmations of good bilateral relations (Xinhua, May 11). Part of a raft of bilateral meetings between China and Central Asian states that have taken place on the fringes of the various SCO meetings occurring in the run up to the June Summit in Beijing, the encounter is hard to distinguish from the others taking place. As the single predominantly non-Turkic state, Tajikistan however has always been an outlier in Central Asian terms. This extends to Chinese interest, although, for China, it is the absence of large volumes of natural resources and an obstructive mountain range making direct road transit difficult that make it the least interesting among the Central Asian states. While clearly key in ensuring that the entire region becomes developed, Dushanbe lacks the immediate appeal of its surrounding states to Beijing and as a result seems something of a lower priority for Chinese policymakers. Nevertheless, seen from the ground, China clearly is making a few strategic decisions that show it is committed and interested in helping Tajikistan’s development. As a foreign analyst based in Dushanbe put it to us on a recent trip, in contrast to China in the other Central Asian states, ”China’s influence in Tajikistan is delayed” [1]. Many of the long-term concerns that can be found in other Central Asian capitals towards China are reflected in Tajikistan where people are suspicious of China’s long-term ambitions.

Infrastructure and Roadways

Tajikistan’s infrastructure is in need of a massive overhaul.  The crumbling Soviet hulks of the 1980s require fixing, and the country’s transport sector barely runs on a combination of inexistent roads and non-functioning air links, interspersed with badly conceived or unfinished aid projects from the last two decades [2].  The most notorious of these is a north-south tunnel at the ShahristanPass completed by Iranian engineers in 2010 (Asia Plus, July 1, 2010). Due to its less than sterling construction, the tunnel floods periodically and these authors observed that it has collapsed in parts and has a heavily-potholed road running through it. Other more limited projects in parts of the Pamir Mountains have been sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation. The Asia Development Bank also has funded a road Dushanbe-Kurgan-Tyube-Dangara-Kulyab as well as ongoing projects “to rehabilitate the Dushanbe–Kyrgyz Border–China road corridor ($118 million in loans and grants); and a $120 million grant, approved in 2011, to upgrade a vital road linking the capital Dushanbe with the Uzbekistan border (Tursunzade)” [3].

On the ground, however, it is often Chinese firms that are actually carrying out the work. When the government wanted the prestige project of the main Rudaki Avenue in Dushanbe re-done in time for September 2011’s independence day celebrations, they turned to Chinese firms to do it rapidly [4]. This rather small project was preceded by the road linking the Tajik road network into the Kyrgyz one from Saray-Tash (the first big Chinese project in the country), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) funded road projects to link Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Dushanbe to the border through Khojand) and Dushanbe to Dungara, which is described as being the first part of the Tajikistan-China highway [5]. Undertaken by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CBRC), these projects have been proceeding at a relatively rapid pace, though it seems clear that the priority is to develop the road from Dushanbe to Uzbekistan rather than the China-Tajik connection. Managed by Innovative Road Solutions (IRS) a company housed in the British Virgin Islands, the Dushanbe-Uzbekistan road is a well-functioning toll road (the only one in the country and dogged by questions of where the money is going) with one remaining piece, the Shahriston tunnel, currently under development by CBRC [6]. Initially slated for opening in September 2011, the tunnel is now expected to open in time for National Unity Day on June 27 (Asia Plus, March 19). When seen by the authors this month, however, it did not appear to be nearing conclusion.

In contrast, the Dushanbe-Kulma Pass road, which would connect China to Tajikistan directly, was perilous and for the most parts a mud or stone track. The road immediately out of the capital (toward Dungara—President Rahmon’s home province) was well developed as was a Chinese-built portion along the Afghan border that had been funded by the Asia Development Bank (ADB), but the rest of the road was virtually impassable to all but large trucks and high performance four-wheel drive SUVs [7]. Chinese road crews were visible on the portions of road near Dushanbe—working with signs in Chinese and Russian—but for the most part, the road was destitute, highlighting its relatively low priority in Chinese terms. For China, the priority was to develop Tajikistan’s links through Garm to Saray Tash and Osh in Kyrgyzstan, tying the country’s routes to Uzbekistan (also Chinese built as previously indicated) into the road network linking Kyrgyzstan to China directly through Irkeshtam and the Torugut Pass (“China’s Slow Surge in Kyrgyzstan,” China Brief, November 11, 2011).

Tajik officials interviewed were keen to boost the profile of a potential rail connection from China through Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan to Afghanistan and eventually Indian Ocean ports—either Chinese-developed Gwadar in Pakistan or Bandar Abbas in Iran. This project however is still apparently undergoing feasibility studies and it is unclear that there is major political will behind it [8].  The economic benefits it might bring to Tajikistan are partly hostage to future developments in Afghanistan. Connecting China and Tajikistan by rail would not make economic sense in and of itself. While there are some Chinese markets in the country, they pale in comparison to the behemoths of Kyrgyzstan’s Dordoi and Kara Suu or Kazakhstan’s Barakolka. Prospective Chinese commercial interests in agriculture and electricity generation in Tajikistan are notable, but would not require the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars that would go into rail construction in the country.

Political Ties

Largely due to the country’s immense need for outside aid and investment, Tajikistan’s government generally operates an “open-door” policy in its relations with major powers. Dushanbe’s relationship with Moscow is currently strained over tough negotiations on Russian troop presence in the country, while links with the United States and Western actors are largely predicated on Afghanistan. Tajikistan’s traditional ethnic and linguistic affinity with neighboring Iran is often more rhetorical than substantive. China’s approach of offering investment with few obvious strings attached is appealing to the leadership in Dushanbe, which has received considerable sums of loans for various projects from Beijing as well as support in building a number of key landmark buildings (like the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Library and a park surrounding the world’s tallest flagpole in the middle of the city) (Reuters, March 30, 2011).

A large volume of funding has come under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—Tajikistan is the largest recipient of loans provided through the organization. Tajikistan’s policymakers are keen to support the SCO as it provides the opportunity for equal-status dialogue with more wealthy Central Asian neighbors as well as Russia and China (Xinhua, September 9, 2011). Dushanbe also is the largest beneficiary of Chinese aid through the SCO, receiving in total over $600 million [9]. Despite the SCO’s origins in the Shanghai Five border delimitation agreements, however, the ratification in 2011 of the border delineation between China and Tajikistan was decided on a bilateral basis outside SCO structures. Local authorities and analysts proudly point out that Tajikistan only gave way on 3.5 percent of China’s land demands (approximately 0.7 percent of Tajikistan’s territory) in contrast to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that ceded much larger percentages of Chinese demands.

More controversial than this agreement, however, are a pair of deals for agricultural land that were undertaken at a government-to-government level, involving, on the Chinese side, the state-owned China National Agricultural Development Group. These concern a pair of pieces of agricultural land—the first plot is about 6,000 hectares, the second plot is of unknown size—that were given over to Chinese developers. Solid information about the project is hard to find, but, according to local analysts as well as local and foreign officials interviewed, the land was reported as being heavily salinated and therefore unusable. Given China’s agricultural expertise, the government gave this to China to develop with the understanding that for the first three years all products used would be sold in Tajikistan. Local concerns however preponderate with people pointing out the numerous Chinese workers who have been sent over. Some estimates are as high as 1,500-2000 Chinese farmers coming over (“Revising the Border: China’s Inroads into Tajikistan,” China Brief, July 29, 2011). When asked, Chinese officials stated only 30 percent of the workers were Chinese and that the real controversy was a product of the fact that the Tajik side had understood that more equipment was going to be sourced locally. The success of the project currently is unclear with locals complaining it has not been performing according to plan [10].

Culture and Language Exchanges

At a public level, China is not that visible in Tajikistan. While there is evidence of Chinese businessmen and others walking around Dushanbe as well as Chinese restaurants and a Chinese hospital offering traditional Chinese remedies, the majority of the Chinese in the country are work crews. They however work on infrastructure projects and live in camps near their sites—one popular if unfounded rumor is that these work crews are made up of Chinese prison laborers. At a cultural level, however, the heart of China’s cultural and linguistic links in Tajikistan is the Confucius Institute based at Tajikistan National University.

Managed by Xinjiang Normal University with a team of some 4 teachers sent from China, the Institute estimates it has taught some 1,800 students from high school to university in the past year. This figure is an increase from the year before and continues a  steady expansion over the past four to six years. They have established a subsidiary branch in Penjikent at local request, aimed at helping local high schoolers to learn Chinese. Unlike other Confucius Institutes in Central Asia (such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), the Institute lacks many support materials. The only current Tajik-Chinese dictionary is a small one done by a Tajik who spent some time in China, and they have no direct language textbooks to help them. Instead, teachers operate using a mix of Chinese, Russian and English materials—something replicated in the classroom environment where students would flicker between all three languages. At a cultural level, the Chinese Embassy reported they held some six cultural events per year in the country bringing over dance, music and theater troupes—the most popular ones apparently were groups from Xinjiang [11].

Conclusion

Tajikistan is clearly a secondary priority for China. While groundwork has been laid that could be turned into influence down the road, Beijing’s immediate interests in the country are limited. Whether or not this changes depends very much on what happens in Afghanistan. Should China’s investments there, such as at the Aynak copper concession or the Amu Darya gas fields, see substantial development in a relatively stable Afghanistan after the 2014 Western withdrawal, then Tajikistan’s importance as a throughput between Xinjiang and Afghanistan will grow. Further deterioration in Pakistan’s domestic situation also would enhance Tajikistan’s value as a logistical pathway. This would likely bring with it more Chinese engagement and investment in Tajikistan’s isolated Gorno-Badakhshan region as well as in the more populous west of the country. This however depends on Afghanistan’s uncertain future.

It is more likely that Chinese investors will remain cautious in a highly uncertain and probably unstable Afghanistan over the next ten years. For Tajikistan, this means that it will remain one of multiple routes for Chinese interests to crisscross the Eurasian continent and reach ports in the Indian Ocean. As it is now, it will remain less important than Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in terms of the flow of Chinese goods and the direction of Chinese investments. Tajikistan also will remain behind Turkmenistan in terms of Chinese energy interests. Its importance will stem from its role as a redundant route, useful for diversity’s sake if political unrest erupts amongst its neighbors. The one project that could change this calculation would be the rail route through Tajikistan’s north from Kyrgyzstan and into Afghanistan to reach the Indian Ocean. So far, this has not gathered significant political or financial momentum, but, if it does, then Chinese exporters, investors and policymakers in Beijing probably will reassess Tajikistan’s strategic importance.

Notes:

  1. Author interviews with foreign NGO, Dushanbe April 2012.
  2. The authors traveled these routes: Dushanbe-Khorog-Murghab-Kulma Pass and Dushanbe-Sharistan-Khojand-Oybek.
  3. Aga Khan Foundation in Tajikistan 2012, Aga Khan Development Network,www.akdn.org/publications/2012_tajikistan_akf.pdf; Tajikistan Fact Sheet, Asian Development Bank, December 31, 2011, www.adb.org/sites/default/files/pub/2012/TAJ.pdf
  4. Author interviews with foreign NGOs and local analysts, Dushanbe, April 2012.
  5. Author interview with local journalists and analysts, Dushanbe, April 17, 2012; “Build a Bridge for the China-Tajikistan Friendship,” China Road and Bridge Corporation Press Release, August 29, 2011.
  6. Author interviews with local and foreign analysts, diplomats and journalists, Dushanbe, April 2012.
  7. Author interview with ADB officials, Dushanbe, April 26, 2012.
  8. Author interviews with Tajik officials, Dushanbe, April 2012, and foreign NGOs and diplomats, Kabul, May 2012.
  9. Author interviews with local analysts and official think tanks, Dushanbe, April 2012. According to reports in the press this number may be as high as $700 million (Reuters, March 30, 2011). Official sources in Dushanbe, however, stated the number was in fact $605 million.
  10. Author interviews with local journalists and analysts, foreign diplomats and official think tanks, Dushanbe, April 2012.
  11. Author interviews with Chinese officials and local academics, Dushanbe, April 2012.

Another piece on China-Kyrgyzstan, this time for a new outlet within Jamestown Foundation, their China Brief. Lots of on-the-ground detail from my recent trip, with even more to come in the following weeks and months.

China’s Slow Surge in Kyrgyzstan: A View from the Ground

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 21November 11, 2011 02:54 PM Age: 4 hrs
By: Raffaello Pantucci, Alexandros Petersen

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.

The paradoxical and unfocused nature of this concern was best exemplified in a pair of interviews conducted in Bishkek with a former cabinet-level minister and a young Kyrgyz e-businessman. The former official spoke in concerned terms of Kyrgyzstan’s “economic dependence” on China and the fact that “all small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the country had to deal with China” [1]. The businessman on the other hand saw China as a giant opportunity: one has to “just look at a map” to see how important the country is going to be for Kyrgyzstan [2]. While exact figures are hard to come by, a visit to a number of Kyrgyzstan’s large bazaars in Bishkek, Osh and Jalal-Abad all show high volumes of Chinese goods and, in some, long-term Chinese traders from as far away as Fujian province. While income from the U.S. airbase is important (according to the Congressional Research Service, accounting for some $501.5 million or 5 percent of GDP in 2010) and remittances from Kyrgyz in Russia or Kazakhstan remain a key provider of income in the country; it seems increasingly clear that China is bringing Kyrgyzstan into its economic sphere of influence [3]. The question that seems to bother some Kyrgyz is what the potential implications are in the longer term.

China has taken a three-fold approach to Kyrgyzstan, accompanied by an informal fourth pillar and the overarching umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In the first instance, it has focused on economics and facilitating trade between the two countries, including infrastructure development. Roads linking Kyrgyzstan to China are being redeveloped by Chinese state-owned enterprises like the China Road & Bridge Company (CRBC), that won the tender in 2007 to complete a project partially-funded by China to develop the road from Osh to the Irkeshtam Pass with China [4]. Due to be completed next year, a drive along it in September confirmed this schedule was being kept with the road almost completed. In other instances, the Chinese government has offered development in exchange for local mining concessions (www.24.kg, August 26). A practice emulated at a more local level by smaller Chinese mining firms south of Jalal-Abad (Reuters, September 21). The question of a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan train line continues to go unresolved, with skeptical observers interviewed in Bishkek pointing out that similar Chinese projects elsewhere overcame their difficulties rapidly, while officials tell the press that difficulties are focused on the question of how to rationalize the different gauges that would need to be deployed (AKI Press, October 12).

In parallel to this infrastructure development and trade encouragement, China has started to make a soft-power push in the region. This has come in the form of establishing a pair of Confucius Institutes in Bishkek with subsidiary branches in Osh and Jalal-Abad. Part of the international network of Confucius Institutes, they are focused on teaching Chinese language to young Kyrgyz, using Kyrgyz-Chinese text books and leveraging faculty and administrators brought in on two-year cycles from partners Xinjiang University and Xinjiang Normal University. Based on a recent count by a teacher at a university in Bishkek, the authors were told the Confucius Institutes and teaching stations had somewhere in the region of 4,000 students in total at every level across the country—a number that pales in comparison to the number of young Kyrgyz able to speak Russian or English. This large and growing figure probably reflects the opportunities that young Kyrgyz see in China or with Chinese firms in Kyrgyzstan. While the Confucian Institutes focus on language learning to prepare students to use Chinese in a business setting, teachers appear eager to stimulate their students’ interest in other aspects of China’s culture and history giving informal classes in tai chi, paper cutting and Chinese dressmaking.

There are other aspects to China’s cultural influence in the region. In early 2009, the Kyrgyz government accepted a Chinese offer of 20,000 television receivers for individual homes in the Batken Oblast in southern Kyrgyzstan. Given the mountains and distance between Bishkek and certain isolated southern areas, locals were using antiquated receivers for their televisions and consequently getting news from Uzbekistan that painted the Bishkek leadership in a bad light. According to a senior foreign ministry official spoken to in Bishkek, part of the exchange that the Chinese government extracted for the receivers was to allow CCTV Russian to be broadcast directly into the country [5]. In addition to this, however, locals in Osh report they are able to receive Xinjiang Television on their receivers without cable packages and are often surprised to find Kyrgyz language broadcasts included in the daily programming [6]. At a more practical level, the Chinese government has donated Yaxing buses and tractors for Kyrgyz farmers to use (Xinhua, July 30) [7]. In June 2011, the Chinese Ambassador announced a donation of some $14.3 million to Kyrgyzstan to fix roads, power stations, and to support the construction of the railroad in the country (AKI Press, June 20).

The third pillar of Chinese interests in the country is far more opaque: China’s security interests in Kyrgyzstan. Primarily focused on security threats directly linked with Uighur terrorist networks in China, the Chinese government has focused these relations at a very secretive and direct level and little is known publicly about how China has conducted its relations in this field. Stories and rumors abound of China seeking extradition of specific Uighurs (IRIN News, January 29, 2004). In one case recounted to the authors by a Kyrgyz official focused on religious affairs, at the Chinese government request, police in Bishkek aggressively suppressed a protest by Falun Gong supporters outside the Chinese Embassy. It was unclear if this was before or after the Kyrgyz court decision to revoke Falun Gong’s registration in the country (Associated Press, February 26, 2005).

A fourth informal pillar also exists to Chinese-Kyrgyz relations: the growing community of cross-border traders and the smaller local Chinese SMEs that are focused on developing interests in Kyrgyzstan. From a Chinese perspective, this community is one that needs to be assisted occasionally, such as when the Chinese government arranged buses and airplanes to evacuate Chinese citizens caught up during the riots in southern Kyrgyzstan last year (Xinhua, June 17, 2010). Chinese academics spoken to in Shanghai have expressed some concern about the number of Hizb ut Tahrir members amongst this community of traders, but this does not seem a live concern on the ground where there is little evidence of extreme religiosity amongst the Chinese traders found in Osh, Jalal-Abad or Kara-Suu bazaars. Chinese SMEs are focused in the mining industry and also have invested in a cement factory in Kyzyl-Kyia. In some cases, these firms have encountered local problems with accusations of poisoning and environmental despoliation, or with local groups expressing anger at outsiders coming in and taking what they see as their natural wealth. According to numerous local officials and foreign observers, however, this anger is not directed specifically at Chinese firms, but is a more general rage against all outside investors in the extractive industries [8].

Overlaying China’s bilateral relationship is its regional multilateral framework, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). For Kyrgyzstan, the SCO is primarily an international opportunity. Though almost universally regarded by ordinary Kyrgyz and foreign ministry officials alike as an exclusively Chinese vehicle, it is cautiously welcomed as a balance against Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Moscow-led regional Customs Union that is actively courting Bishkek [9]. That said, Kyrgyz spoken to are quick to note that the SCO very loudly did nothing when political violence and ethnic strife rocked their country in 2010 (Xinhua, June 21, 2010). Its supposedly bringing together of China, Russia and the Central Asian states (except for Turkmenistan) to jointly combat the “three evils” of separatism, terrorism and extremism rings hollow when residents of Osh look at their half-empty, burnt out market. In interviews, Kyrgyz inside and outside the government wondered why China does not assert itself more politically through the SCO, though few would welcome such an eventuality [10].

Perhaps most important for a small state like Kyrgyzstan is the regular opportunity the SCO provides for dialogue on a range of issues with neighboring Central Asian states, especially Uzbekistan [11]. With a closed border and the ever-present fear of perceived bullying from Tashkent, the SCO’s regular head-of-state, ministerial and expert-level meetings provide a venue in which to reduce tensions. Having been beaten by Pakistan for the rotating seat on the UN Security Council, Bishkek will welcome the international attention it receives as the SCO chair and the host of its summit in 2013 (24.kg, June 16).

The real test for the SCO will come once Western forces begin to withdraw in earnest from Afghanistan and the region. The year 2014 is bandied about in Kyrgyz political discourse as the moment that Kyrgyzstan will be abandoned to the great powers of the region or the restitution of Kyrgyz sovereignty once the United States leaves the Manas airbase (Associated Press, November 1). It is an open question what role the SCO could play in a post-Afghan withdrawal environment with officials, academics and foreign observers met in Beijing and Bishkek concluding the SCO was not going to do much [12]. Aside from Russia’s historical baggage with Afghanistan and a general lack of capacity from the Central Asian SCO members, a key reason behind this lack of action is a Chinese unwillingness to become too visibly involved in either local political disputes or larger geopolitical games.

For Kyrgyzstan, this contributes to a sense of uncertainty, bordering on foreboding, about China’s presence in the country and the region. With China on the other hand, it is not clear what the nation wants or has the capability to do in Afghanistan, though its larger regional strategy is clearer. In the medium and longer-term the priority for China in Central Asia remains ensuring stability and development—something that is going to require more effort with Kyrgyzstan specifically given the nation’s poverty and lack of natural resources. Typical of Beijing’s cautious approach to international relations globally, China probably will continue to increase its presence and influence slowly. This will help develop the region abutting China’s restive western province Xinjiang (both in economic terms locally, but also as a transit route for Chinese goods to elsewhere) and hopefully, from a Chinese perspective, increase prosperity there too. This ultimately is the key to understanding Chinese involvement in Central Asia where the priority remains developing the region with a view to helping development in Xinjiang.

For Kyrgyzstan in particular, the main threat and difficulty to China comes in the form of the nation becoming a failed state that provides a shelter for separatist and terrorist networks seeking to launch attacks within China. Currently, it seems China has established strong connections and is willing to provide funding to prevent such groups from developing much capacity in Kyrgyzstan. In terms of becoming involved in fixing ethnic tensions within Kyrgyzstan, China however has expressed little interest in becoming involved, focusing instead on providing aid and reconstruction support when it is useful or requested. Typical of China’s approach to international relations elsewhere, this is all conducted in a quiet manner, something that will likely do little to improve local confidence in Chinese aims. Kyrgyzstan will continue to seek to assert its independence in policymaking by balancing the great powers off each other, but China’s slow surge has an ever-larger impact on the policy agenda even if it is not part of the public discourse.

Notes:

[1] Authors’ interview with former cabinet level minister, Bishkek, October 19, 2011
[2] Authors’ interview, Bishkek, October 19, 2011
[3] Jim Nicols, “Kyrgyzstan: Recent Developments and U.S. Interests,” Congressional Research Service, May 11, 2011
[4] Sebastien Peyrouse, “Economic Aspects of the China-Central Asia Rapprochement,” Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Silk Road Paper, September 2007
[5] Authors’ interview, Bishkek, October 20, 2011
[6] Authors’ interview, Osh, October 25, 2011
[7] Yangzhou Yaxing Motor Coach Company Press Release, September 3, 2009, http://www.yaxingkeche.com.cn/en/News.aspx?id=9e5e7e19-76cc-47e5-8e8b-7d16ab378210
[8] Authors’ interviews, Bishkek and Osh, October 2011
[9] Authors’ interview, Bishkek, October 17, 2011
[10] Authors’ interviews, Bishkek, October 2011
[11] Authors’ interviews with foreign political observers, Bishkek and Osh, October 2011
[12] Authors’ interviews, Bishkek and Beijing, October 2011