Posts Tagged ‘China in Central Asia’

A new piece for an excellent source on all things on Eurasia, appropriately enough called Eurasianet. It is part of a series they have been running this week looking at China in the region, and have run a number of other excellent pieces after this. More on this topic as ever soon, and be sure to check out China in Central Asia for the bigger projects I continue to do on China’s push into Eurasia.

China’s Place in Central Asia

Xi Nazarbayev

First of a Five-Part Series

EurasiaNet is running a series this week looking at the state of relations between China and the five nations of former Soviet Central Asia. China expert Raffaello Pantucci opens the series with a survey of China’s role in the region. 

China’s rise in Central Asia marks one of the most consequential changes in regional geopolitics since the turn of the century.

China announced that it intended to be a major player in Central Asia back in September 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech in Astana that inaugurated the ‚ÄúBelt and Road‚ÄĚ vision ‚ÄĒ the most dominant expression of Chinese foreign policy from his administration. Yet this declaration notwithstanding, it remains unclear whether Beijing has a coherent vision for Central Asia. Instead, Beijing continues to grow into a role of regional prominence without a clear plan to manage the ramifications of its growing role.

The narrative of spreading Chinese influence throughout the region is not new. Indicators of China‚Äôs influence are plentiful. Markets are full of Chinese products, infrastructure is heavily built by Chinese firms with Chinese loans, leadership visits ‚ÄĒ either Chinese to the region or regional to China ‚ÄĒ are followed by announcements of massive deals being signed, and increasingly China is playing a more prominent role in regional security questions. Even so, China remains a hesitant regional actor, and is keen to continue casting itself as¬†subordinate to Russia. Beijing is also eager to avoid becoming embroiled in inevitable regional economic and political complications.

Most recently, these complications have manifested themselves as protests in Kazakhstan, where locals have expressed anger at the government’s decision to change legislation governing foreigners’ ability to rent land for lengthy periods of time. Public anger is rooted mostly in concerns that Chinese firms will exploit this legislation to slowly lease ever larger tracts of Kazakhstani land. Such problems have arisen in the past. In 2009, for example, when President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced a leasing arrangement, Chinese and Tajik censors blocked references in the media to a similar deal in Tajikistan in 2011.

In other contexts, China finds itself embroiled in corruption scandals. The recently deposed prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, Temir Sariyev, departed under a cloud of bribery accusations connected mostly to a road-building contract won by Chinese firm Longhai. Similar suspicions are often voiced in other countries, though details tend to be elusive. And finally, China continues to be concerned about security threats connected to the region. Lower level criminality affects Chinese entrepreneurs in the region who are sometimes seen as a soft touch by local criminals, while the government continues to express concern about terrorist groups and networks that are believed to be active in the region.

On more strategic level, a major challenge for Chinese officials is related to perception. There is a persistent sense among experts and officials in Central Asia that China’s interests and investment in the region mask some sort of hidden agenda. Such wariness is often exacerbated by a belief that China is only interested in the region’s natural resources, or sees Central Asia merely as a conduit to more lucrative markets elsewhere.

Aware of the perception issue, China has sought to address it. During Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Kyrgyzstan in May, he spoke to his counterpart Erlan Abdyldayev about the possibility of relocating Chinese factories to the country. In Uzbekistan, telecoms companies Huawei and ZTE have already realized the importance of this and established assembly plants there, while the Xuzhou Construction Machinery Group (XCMG) has sought to piggyback on the external construction push under the Belt and Road by building a factory in the country. In Kazakhstan, meanwhile, the government continues to hold out hope that the Special Economic Zones being developed at the Khorgos border crossing and elsewhere will turn into manufacturing hubs rather than just transit points for Chinese goods.

On the extractives front, China continues to be a major importer, though as Turkmenistan has discovered in the past year, China’s appetite for gas has its limits. While all the talk publicly has been about the pending realization of the trans-Afghan TAPI pipeline, signals are increasingly visible of further strings to the China-Central Asia pipeline being put on ice for the time being. And from the regional perspective, Central Asian capitals are growing as concerned about becoming reliant on the China market as they are about the steep drop in Russia’s economy.

The biggest driver of Chinese thinking towards Central Asia remains the Belt and Road. Highlighting the degree to which this is the lens through which Beijing views the region, Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his recent visit to Bishkek spoke of how China wanted to view the ‚ÄúSCO as a platform to speed up the docking of the Silk Road Economic Belt with the construction of the Eurasian Economic Union.‚ÄĚ The local branch of the Belt and Road, the Silk Road Economic Belt, is an all-encompassing concept that at its heart is about improved connectivity, regional development and investment. It increasingly seems as though it is going to become the overarching umbrella through which China will engage with the region.

This is a mixed blessing for the region. Given the centrality of the Belt and Road and Silk Road Economic Belt to Xi Jinping personally, it is clear that Central Asia will continue to benefit from this attention going forward. But there remains a question about how the region will be able to capture some local benefit beyond simply transit fees. It is clear that China feels like it has a voice that it wants to express sometimes ‚ÄĒ most recently in the form of an angry outburst from the Chinese Ambassador to Kazakhstan about the difficulty his co-nationals have had in obtaining visas ‚ÄĒ but it remains uncertain what Beijing‚Äôs long-term vision for the region is.

The question for the Central Asian capitals is the degree to which they can shape China’s approach in a way that maximizes the benefits that they seek. Central Asian leaders also want China to take a greater degree of responsibility for some regional security questions. As the first stop on the ideologically central Silk Road Economic Belt, Central Asia will be a consistent point in Chinese foreign policy in the coming years. What the long-term ramifications of this are, however, remains to be seen.

Editor’s note:¬†Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute and the co-editor of China in Central Asia

Further catching up on delinquent old posting, here is a piece I wrote for the EU’s foreign and security policy think tank EUISS. Part of a series they did on Central Asia, and bigger work they have been doing recently in support of the Latvian Presidency of the EU which has been focused on this topic. Big thanks to Eva for helping me connect with this project.

Central Asia: The View from China

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China‚Äôs rise in Central Asia is not a new phenomenon. For the past decade, Beijing has gradually moved to become the most significant and consequential actor on the ground in a region that was previously considered Russia‚Äôs backyard. In September last year, President Xi Jinping announced the creation of a ‚ÄėSilk Road Economic Belt‚Äô running through the region. Although this declaration is the closest thing seen so far in terms of an articulation of a Chinese strategy for Central Asia, it nevertheless offered more questions than answers.

To understand China’s approach to Central Asia, a wider lens needs to be applied to explore both the detail of what is going on and how this fits into a broader foreign policy strategy that is slowly becoming clearer under Xi Jinping’s stewardship.

The Long March westward

It is in the first instance important to look at the geographical link that exists between China and Central Asia. This flows principally through Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province which is home to a disgruntled Uighur population, some of whom are currently locked in a painful struggle with the Chinese state. An ethnic minority in China (though almost 10 million strong, with a substantial diaspora in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkey), the Uighurs are closer in terms of culture and language to Central Asian peoples like the Uzbeks. Stemming from Xinjiang (a region that covers a sixth of China’s landmass but contains roughly 1-2% of its population), Uighurs have long complained that their identity is slowly being eroded by Beijing-sponsored Han Chinese immigrants. This alienation has resulted in protests, as well as violence directed against the authorities, the resident Han population, and local Uighurs seen to be collaborating with the central government. The most recent bout of serious civil unrest can be traced back to 2009, when roughly 200 people were killed during riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. In the wake of this event, Beijing’s attention was drawn towards the troubled region, and a subsequent work plan laid out in May 2010 signaled a new push towards fostering development in the province.

This focus was not in fact completely new. Chinese officials had long worried about Xinjiang and the underdeveloped nature of China‚Äôs western frontiers. While coastal provinces like Shanghai and Guangzhou were booming, some regions in the centre and west were left behind economically. In addition, China‚Äôs foreign policy was almost exclusively focused on maritime disputes and the country‚Äôs relationship with the US. The reality is that if Xinjiang is to be developed, China needs a more prosperous region in its vicinity to trade with ‚Äď and through. Far from the coast, Xinjiang‚Äôs southern markets are closer to Europe or the Indian subcontinent than they are to China‚Äôs mighty eastern seaports. The result is an approach towards Xinjiang that is focused on economic development and improving its links through Pakistan and the countries of Central Asia.

A Chinese pivot?

The outcome of this approach is the development of the Silk Road Economic Belt, a corridor that (eventually) will connect Xinjiang to Europe. A project that is being implemented by Chinese companies with funding provided by the country‚Äôs policy banks, it seeks to help (re)connect Central Asia to China. The region is consequently being transformed from one which is wired to Moscow to one which is increasingly wired to Urumqi ‚Äď and Beijing. Unlike the US plan to forge a ‚ÄėNew Silk Road‚Äô, China has devoted substantial financial resources to its Silk Road Economic Belt ‚Äď some $40 billion has been allocated for external aspects, and $17 billion for projects within China. Beyond this, new international financial institutions created and funded by China ‚Äď such as the BRICS Bank or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank ‚Äď all point to a Chinese desire to help and fund the development of its immediate neighbourhood.

There are clearly selfish motivations for China‚Äôs investments ‚Äď from Turkmenbashi to Khorgos, Chinese traders are often the most dynamic players on the ground. But while the overall project is designed to help improve China‚Äôs undeveloped regions, there are also clear ancillary benefits for Central Asia.

A grander vision

China is, however, not solely an economic giant: it has demonstrated a growing willingness to engage in security matters in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (perceived by Beijing to be the most unstable of the Central Asian states) through bilateral military support and training. Beijing might not want to take full responsibility for the region’s security, but with every visit by a Chinese leader resulting in greater economic connectivity between these countries and one of China’s most sensitive provinces, it is becoming increasingly difficult for its government to simply ignore its place as a regional stakeholder.

That said, Beijing remains uncertain of how exactly to exert its power. And it is here that the EU might step in and play a role in influencing China’s posture. For example, Chinese officials and businessmen often fall into the same corruption traps as their European counterparts active in Central Asia. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and other European entities, however, effectively operate in the region, and their lessons learned are ones that Chinese enterprises could benefit from. China has likewise little experience in resolving border disputes, while European bodies like the OSCE or projects like the EU’s Border Management Programme for Central Asia (BOMCA) have an extensive history of being deployed in the region. If China’s wish to build a trade corridor through Central Asia is to become a reality, Beijing’s policymakers will have to establish ways to deal with the region’s complicated dynamics. Europe can help China with this aim, while also helping to promote greater regional stability. For example, joint training and capability building missions, cooperative security strategies, and efforts to counter drug trafficking and criminality in the region would advance both Chinese and European interests.

At a more strategic level, there is an opportunity in the Silk Road Economic Belt for Europe to develop its relations with China. It is not only part of Beijing’s vision for Central Asia, but has formed the contours of China’s foreign policy towards a raft of regional partners: economic corridors similar to the Belt are now are sprouting from every direction to and from China (including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor, and the Maritime Silk Road). This increases the importance of the Silk Road Economic Belt and offers a chance for Europe to play a role in a project that is both key for the Chinese leadership personally and important to a strategically significant region which Europe has expressed a keen interest in. The Belt already effectively exists. It has (under different auspices) been a reality for almost a decade or more. China’s leadership has decided this is a cornerstone project which ultimately should stretch all the way to Europe. If Europe were to reach back and thereby improve its relationship with China, there would be significant benefits for all actors involved.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

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 Pantucci, Alexandros 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‚Äôs decision to admit Afghanistan as ‚Äúobserver‚ÄĚ member and Turkey as ‚Äúdialogue partner‚ÄĚ (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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúJoint Declaration on the Establishment of Strategic Partnership Relations‚ÄĚ (Xinhua, June 8). This came in the wake of a visit to Tashkent by General Chen Bingde, Chief of People‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚ÄĒsomething 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs independent streak [2]. This is not to overplay Uzbekistan‚Äôs involvement of course‚ÄĒTashkent has so far refused to participate in anything but an observer role in the biannual ‚ÄúPeace Mission‚ÄĚ 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‚ÄĒsomething 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‚ÄĒsuch as heavy machinery, agricultural and transport equipment‚ÄĒare 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 ‚Äúenergetic and enthusiastic about the project,‚ÄĚ 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‚ÄĒand one that is seemingly deepening in the wake of the recent bilateral meetings between President Hu and President Karimov‚ÄĒthere 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‚ÄĒtwo of China‚Äôs largest telecommunications companies‚ÄĒcurrently 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‚Äôs 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‚ÄĒsomething 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‚Äôs increasing labor costs. Uzbekistan‚Äôs 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‚ÄĒoften linked to investment projects‚ÄĒto 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚ÄĒsuch 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‚Äď11, 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, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

A new piece for the South China Morning Post, this one a short op-ed with Alex drawing on ideas to emerge from our Uzbekistan visit. Very interesting to see the degree to which Korea is a visible presence there, quite in contrast to any other power. At the same time, China is clearly a player, but to a lesser degree – more on this distinction in the near future. As ever for more of our work on this subject, please go to the site I help manage: http://www.chinaincentralasia.com. The picture I have included below is one from our trip taken by the lovely Sue Anne Tay.

Uzbekistan courts China on its own terms

May 26, 2012

The Uzbek-Korean air and truck port outside Navoiy.

Among the many items festooning souvenir shops in the Silk Road city of Bukhara are a set of stamps commemorating Uzbekistan’s 15th anniversary of independence. Pride of place alongside President Islam Karimov on these stamps is not a prominent Uzbek, but, rather, the then president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun. For Uzbekistan, a close embrace with Korea is a good balancer against a dominant China.

Uzbekistan is in search of a post-Soviet model for development. Initially an eager partner of the West in the wake of the September 11 attacks, it fell out of favour following a hardline government response to violence in the city of Andijan in 2005. This led the nation to look to the Asia-Pacific as a model or partner. But this has not simply meant closer ties with China.

Uzbekistan chose to court Beijing on its own terms. Cognisant of the utility of China as a balancer against Russia, Karimov has been more active in the Chinese-instigated Shanghai Co-operation Organisation than the Russian-led alternatives in the region. But, at the same time, the Uzbek government tries to limit the import of Chinese consumer goods. High tariffs generally keep foreign products out, but Chinese ones are informally targeted, according to those active in trade with China.Analysts say the government has learned a lesson from Kyrgyzstan, where the economy is now almost entirely dependent on Chinese trade; Tajikistan, which is increasingly reliant on Chinese development; and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which are increasingly dependent on China as an energy consumer. Unlike these poor or natural-resource-heavy economies, Uzbekistan prides itself on being an industrial hub.

In contrast, Uzbekistan has embraced a close relationship with South Korea. With strong ethnic links on the ground through a residual Soviet Korean population, Karimov has welcomed Korean investment. It has been far more comforting for Uzbekistan to welcome medium-sized South Korea, a manufacturing nation that has made the shift from authoritarian government to controlled free-market economy.

To what degree has this policy worked? Can Uzbekistan successfully keep the Chinese behemoth at bay? China clearly has a footprint in the country, but has so far bided its time. As Uzbekistan gradually edges its economy forwards, it may find that increasingly the scope of China’s presence will be determined in Beijing and Guangzhou.

A new article on Kyrgyzstan based on my recent trip out there that was part of the bigger project I have mentioned in previous posts. I actually used to write for The National Interest more regularly (here is a previous piece on Europe), but it has been a while.

 

The National Interest

In the midst of a relatively calm election season, we have been travelling to Kyrgyzstan’s cities, villages and border posts to track the rise of China in Central Asia. The atmosphere around this election is less tense than in previous years, when governments have been ousted by street revolutions and transfers of power have yielded ethnic violence. But Kyrgyzstan’s new government will not alone decide the country’s fate.

Kyrgyzstan is a place between powers, and not just geographically. This is reflected in Jalal-Abad University, located in the country’s third-largest city, where respective wings of the central administrative buildings are run by the U.S. embassy-sponsored American Center and a Chinese government-funded Confucius Center subsidiary. In between sit Kyrgyz administrators.

The American Center provides the students with language courses, access to the Internet (only twenty-five minutes at a time) and a selection of educational movies to help with English (including Pulp Fiction, which struck us as maybe not the best English to be learning). In the Chinese wing, a pair of dedicated teachers provides various language courses for about 60 students. The best students get to go on paid trips to China. A bright display at the back of one of the classrooms shows groups of them in Xian, Shanghai and Urumqi.

Behind all this lies the reality that the lingua franca in Kyrgyzstan is Russian. The Chinese teacher used it to translate phrases. The English teacher in the American Center was Russian. Stuck between mountain ranges and great powers, Kyrgyzstan is a nation defined and dominated by what surrounds it.

This is most obvious in the economics, where the nation is now almost completely dependent on the reexport of cheap Chinese goods. A further 20 percent of GDP is generated in fees from the American “transit center” outside the capital Bishkek, with much of the rest coming from remittances from Kyrgyz men working menial jobs in Russia. Apart from charming handicrafts (and these are increasingly being replaced by Chinese-made look-alikes), the country itself produces very little.

This dependency worries the leadership. Some have proven adept at playing the great powers off each other, but others, like the former cabinet-level minister we met, are deeply concerned about where this leaves their nation. As one foreign observer based in the south of the country put it, “the country has not been allowed to develop by itself.”

But the Kyrgyzstan traveler can easily see why it has continued to be dominated by those around it. A picturesque land of nomads, it was forced through a period of industrialization by the Soviets that left them the inherited infrastructure they still depend on today. But it is falling apart, and foreign-aid agencies are only really interested in helping alleviate poverty. Into this steps China, a neighboring power eager to see the country stable and prosperous to provide knock-on stability in its underdeveloped Xinjiang province. It builds new roads, offers refining facilities to reduce dependence on foreign energy imports and is planning a railway project to connect the country to the broader region. It dispatches groups of teachers from Xinjiang universities to help teach Mandarin to young Kyrgyz and has even distributed free television receivers to homes across the south of the country.

This serves China‚Äôs interests. But it also offers opportunities for Kyrgyz who can “look at a map,” as one young Bishkek businessman put it. Being in the middle means you can serve as a transit point. This businessman coordinates shipments from Dubai and Guangzhou, bringing electronics to Bishkek for reexport to the Russian market. Like impatient businessmen everywhere, he played with his phone throughout our conversation, saying “next question” as he tired of subjects. But his success demonstrates what is possible when you are stuck in between. With an advanced degree and a smattering of Chinese and fluent English and Russian, he would have been the perfect candidate to administrate the Jalal-Abad University; instead, he focuses on profit. Once he contributed articles to English-language publications, but that policy stuff is not for him anymore, he said.

For good or ill, the future of a small Central Asian state such as Kyrgyzstan will be shaped not by government policy makers. Their power will never match the military; they will never have the economic and cultural clout of global powers with stakes in the region. But Kyrgyzstan’s businessmen, large and small, can turn what seems like dependence into opportunity. This is a lesson for many small countries stuck in between, geographically or otherwise. You may have to play the hand you’re dealt, but you can play it with clever resolve.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West (Praeger, 2011). They are conducting research for a book on China’s role in Central Asia and have a website at www.chinaincentralasia.com [4].

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