The False Assumption of Chinese Domination in Central Asia

by Joshua Foust on 11/13/2011 · 16 comments

There is a general assumption in most pop-studies of Central Asia based on the assumption that the region rarely has any agency of its own and is only to be understood as a pawn of the powerful countries on its periphery. The purest distillation of this trend is Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game, which more or less reduced the region to a battleground for the British and Russian Empires (a less readable, but more historical tome of a similar bent is Shareen Blair Brysac’s Tournament of Shadows).

This assumption that Central Asia is understood only as a playground for outside powers is underneath almost all Western writing about the region—and is probably the best reason so many modern books adopt the language of the Great Game to try to describe regional politics. This can take the rather conventional form of replacing the British with Americans and calling it a New Great Game, or in more recent times trying to describe the region as a series of “Great Games.” Either way, the locus of understanding the region lies in its value to outsiders, and most authors discount local preferences, plans, or strategies in the belief that wealthier, more powerful outsiders can essentially force outcomes on the local governments.

The most recent newcomer to this trend is China. In a provocative article for The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief, Rafaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen argue that China is slowly “surging” in Kyrgyzstan. Their evidence is a bit curious—China was not, by their own description, even mentioned in the recent election, but there are lot of Chinese goods available at the largest bazaars in the largest cities. Nevertheless, the authors argue that Kyrgyzstan’s economic dependence on China, which is undeniable, has larger implications.

One of the big pieces of evidence the authors muster is the development of Confucius Institutes at local universities, which teach Chinese language and culture to Kyrgyz students. There are 4,000 students at these institutes—a number that “pales in comparison to the number of young Kyrgyz able to speak Russian or English,” yet is nevertheless a “large and growing figure” that indicates Kyrgyz see China as an opportunity for income and growth. (Paradoxically, when I spoke with teachers at the American University of Central Asia and the OSCE Academy in October, they expressed concern that too many Kyrgyz were trying to learn English and not enough were getting good at Russian, which is the region’s lingua franca.)

But beyond a few thousand college students, some infrastructure development, and the gifting of some television receivers, the evidence for China’s growing domination in the region is scant. The existence of the China-controlled Shanghai Cooperation Organization seems about as relevant to Kyrgyz strategic decision-making as the Russia-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization. Most of Kyrgyzstan’s elites were raised in a Russian education system and can speak Russian fluently; few ever learned Chinese.

For all the world, the current hoopla over China in Central Asia sounds like the hoopla over Turkey in Central Asia in the 1990s. In the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War, Turkey found itself geopolitically displaced—it lost the USSR as the main eastern threat solidifying its membership in NATO, the Middle East was growing more turbulent, and while it remained obsessed with Greece and Syria the Turkish security sector grew more concerned with the Kurds, organized crime, and narco-human-arms trafficking.

According to Paula Sandrin (pdf), Turkey’s foreign policy in the 1990s was dominated by an obsession with security, and the rise in popularity of a doctrine called Neo-Ottomanism, which focused on the development of ties between Turkey and the former components of the Ottoman Empire. Turgut Ozal wanted to grow Turkey into the regional economic and security hub for the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia.

On the street in Bishkek, you can find tons of goods proudly manufactured in Turkey.

The push into Central Asia seemed to make sense for the Turks: the speak a related language, they’re Muslim (unlike Russia, the U.S., or China), they have a growing economy that could offer a great deal to the local governments, and they were willing to fund enormous cultural centers and universities years before any of the other outside powers. In Kyrgyzstan, you can find in 2011 evidence of an extensive economic relationship with Turkey—shopping malls built by Turkish construction firms have stores that are filled with products proudly labeled “Made in Turkey;” the largest and most functional bank, DemirBank, is Turkish; the largest foreign university is the Turkish university; and so on.

But, despite a good twenty years of effort, no one thinks Turkey is going to be an ascendant power in Central Asia anymore—not even Turkey. Despite a huge diplomatic, economic, and even security push, the Turkish “surge” into Central Asia fizzled out. The Turks are happy to import and export things to Central Asia, but beyond that the relationship hasn’t gone anywhere especially interesting.

No matter China’s plans, or its economic influence, the politics of Kyrgyzstan still tilt overwhelmingly toward Russia. Despite the probable harm to its China-fueled economy, Kyrgyzstan was warm to the idea of joining the Eurasian Union with Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus—a move that would ruin its current WTO-fueled favorable trading status with China. “Even those of us most concerned about the danger to sovereignty and national independence, we see that we need to integrate,” said Edil Baisalov, a prominent democracy activist and a former aide to the current president, in a recent interview with the New York Times. “We had better chain our car to the train of Russia and Kazakhstan.”

This makes sense. When Kyrgyzstani citizens run into trouble—say, when Uzbek citizens need to flee from ethnic persecution—they don’t flee to China. They flee to Russia. When Osh spasmed with violence last year, Kyrgyzstan reached out to Russia for help, not China.

There’s no doubt that China offers a great economic opportunity for the Kyrgyz, and the Kyrgyz businessmen who have figured that out have prospered. But there is very little evidence that this economic opportunity has translated into increasing political and social ties between Bishkek and Beijing. Rather, it looks like China is going to become another Turkey—a strong trading partner, and a source of goods and services… but not a controlling cultural influence. d

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Jakob November 13, 2011 at 3:23 pm

It is similar to the ‘China new best friend of Pakistan hype’ – it’s not completely untrue, but very highly overstated because it’s just fancy and easy to state that China swallows up everything. Mostly local or Chinese sources are not sought in the debate though, it’s more a projection of diffuse fears.

When I talked to people in the Tajik Pamir for example though, they were basically saying that their province was already sold off to the Chinese. They don’t own it officially, but practically in terms of economics and infrastructure. Same sentiments in the Pakistani North and to some extent even the Kashmir (again, personal communications with locals). The problem is, that such observations are then quickly translated into ‘domination’, which it is really not. Hasan H. Karrar’s ‘New Silk Road Diplomacy’, even with not the best title, is a sober and quick discussion of such claims. To really get some feeling for China’s interest in Central Asian policy I found Perdue’s ‘China marches West’ brick a great eye opener. Just because it’s founded in history and not some hazy Great Game domination guess work.

Michael Hancock November 14, 2011 at 11:07 am

Regarding Perdue’s book, I found it fell prey to issues similar to those highlighted by Joshua – that it did not give enough agency or power to the nomadic military powers of the Junghars, Kazakhs, etc. which had held off “superior” forces like China and Russia for centuries. It was a great book, but Perdue was very open about relying on Chinese language sources for his in-depth analysis. What really shines through in that book is not the wild forces of steppe nomads but the credible level of brutality wrought against the same by the Chinese military when given the chance.

R.Duke November 14, 2011 at 1:14 pm

I can say culturally, Central Asians do not like the Chinese on the whole. They are simultaneously uninformed about Chinese and fear their population size and economic influence.

China will always been a major player in the region but the -stan’s do not look to China the way the do to Russia and so long as that’s the case, China will not dominate the region.

Don Anderson November 14, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Comparing Turkey with China is a bit on the “well I need to compare China with something,” line of thought. There is really just no comparison in terms of economic size, direct economic participation and proximity. China is not leaning on cultural or religious issues to propel it. Proximity to one point five billion consumers of resources is more than enough. Having a non bankrupt, so far, economy also is a factor missed by US Centric analysts. The Chinese have been investing, and will continue to do so.

China is and will remain the main consumer of CA resources. CA competes directly with Russia in selling energy to China. The main infrastructure (read Trillions) projects in CA are actually currently devoted to servicing the Chinese Economy. Long term contracts and recent big investments come from Beijing. Minimizing this is missing the boat on the Post War on Terror world.

China’s direct influence on these countries in dollars and “sense” is far bigger than any Airbase or train system through five countries will ever deliver. CA in a large sense now “faces” East toward China, and not west toward Europe. It just makes sense.

China is not interested in forcing any issues. Natural attraction and economic focus do more than any Hillary Clinton pronouncements will ever do to expand the natural connections between East and Central Asia. Centrifugal force is more than enough.

This is not to minimize Russian influence which is still grounded in the past. Tsarist and Soviet histories served to unite CA and St. Petersburg/Moscow for most of almost three hundred years. Russian is the lingua franca for the Region, and surpasses even to some extent local languages especially amongst the elite. CA residents watch Russian TV and still to some extent consider themselves part of the Russian diaspora. These ties will not diminish in the short term. This is not to mention what is “close, close” working relationships with both the “legal” and “illegal” FSB world out there. The ties that bind are immense. Anyone who has worked in the energy field knows how this works.

Post War on Terror- there is Russia-there is China. One is supplying Capital and one supplies the overarching current political environment in all of these countries. Minimizing the effect of one or the other is really not necessary or relevant. There is no need for an “influence meter” or “scoreboard” on any of these issues.

The US/Others influence, beyond the Beltway, be it NGO, moral or Afghan pull out related is a fading ember of the last decade, no more. We are talking small money, interest, and necessity.

We need to forget any “Great Game” mechanisms as no more than parlour games on the level of Risk. Money, Culture, and logic prevails and in this CA is as far from the US power center as are both Far Eastern Russia, and China itself. This is just not a good fit, and a natural development over time for both China and in the past Russia.
Better to not miss the trend, than misread the tea leaves here.

Game over, time to relearn Spanish. Or Chinese. Russian will do also. The ties that bind are not with the West.

Catherine Fitzpatrick November 14, 2011 at 4:21 pm

This debate would be improved for me by the participants taking a list of all the major industries of Kyrygyzstan and all the foreign joint ventures involving China and assessing how much of a “great Chinese take-out” there is, as the late Roman Kupchinsky put it in his book by that title.

Certainly in Kazakhstan, there are large industries with considerable Chinese investment, and also Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. We’re told to follow the money on the Manas base issue (which I did, mentioning the $4.5 million a month fuel contract), so it makes sense to follow it on this, too. Although economic determinism is not always a way to describe a country; the US is considerably in debt to China, but is not Sinicized.

Glad to hear there seems to be a consensus or grudging admission that Russia is still the lingua franca of this region, it can be hard to get recognition of that fact.

John Walker November 15, 2011 at 9:18 am

Damn trolls and bots have done infested the blog man.
Dude, China has got to step off, cause they’re gonna get their fingers burned pronto.

Uzbek November 15, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Needless to say China dominates economic life in Central Asia – 100% of electronics and electric supplies, 90% clothing and shoes, and majority of other household goods come from China and in return China is buying up more and more of Central Asia’s oil and gas. As China grows stronger economically, it is poised to replace Russia as the main trading partner of Central Asian countries. However, as a person who grew up in Central Asia I doubt that China will be replacing Russia as a prevailing culture in the region. Tzarist and Soviet Russia did a pretty good job culturally tying Central Asia to Russia. Peoples of the region speak Russian fluently; they watch Russian TV and all of labor migrants go to Russia in search of work. Nobody even thinks of going to China for work, even though theoretically it would make more sense given the rate of growth n China. People do not look to China for leadership in Central Asia they look to Russia. There is another thing why China will not replace Russia in central Asia: historically, China was never interested in colonizing other countries and making them into microcosm of China beyond its borders. Europe did but China will not. They want to trade but beyond that they are not very interested in making Central Asia into microcosm of China.

Tajikistan has strong ties to Iran, culturally, linguistically. The territory of Tajikistan was a part of Persian empire for centuries. After the independence the same thing happened with Tajikistan and Iran which is similar to what happened between Turkey and Turkic countries of the Central Asia. People thought that Iran was going to replace Russia in Tajikistan. After the honeymoon was over, despite the linguistic, religious and historical ties to Iran, Tajiks prefer Russia. An ordinary Tajik, if he wants to leave his country he usually goes to Russia, not Iran, same as an ordinary Uzbek doesn’t go to Turkey, his first choice is Russia.

Nathan November 15, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Selling cheap exports isn’t domination. What Russia has over Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan is. Labor migration is what keeps these economies going — it’s what lets people afford Chinese consumer goods. Russia can turn that off.

Metin November 16, 2011 at 3:36 am

‘Labor migration is what keeps these economies going … Russia can turn that off.’

Why should Russia turn that off? Russia’s growing economy needs migrants and there is indication that will change anytime soon.

Nathan Hamm November 16, 2011 at 7:13 am

I agree, but they can, and that gives them tremendous leverage.

Uzbek November 18, 2011 at 11:10 am

Turning off labor migration is not in Russia’s best interest, economically or geopolitically. Those labor migrants are the strongest tangible Russian presence in Central Asia on top of Russian books, TV and Russian as the lingua franca. No labor migrants in Russia would mean no cheap labor to clean the streets, man the registers at supermarkets or build new homes, repair old ones in Russia. Geopolitically, it would mean that there is a vacuum into which Turkey or China would try to step in and fill the void. Russia knows better than that – by keeping Central Asia close Russia wins geopolitically and economically and it is in her interest not to turn off the channel of labor migration.

The recent spat between Russia and Tajikistan is a great example how important is Central Asian labor force for Russia. Tajikistan arrested two Russian pilots (one of them is an Estonian citizen, actually) who were allegedly transporting a huge load of narcotics from Afghanistan to Russia on their cargo plan. When they landed in Tajikistan they were arrested, put on trial and sent to jail for 8 years. Russia took this as a slap on the face and nationalists mounted an anti-Tajik campaign in Russia. Some demanded to introduce a visa system for Tajiks in retaliation. A visa system would make it very hard for Tajiks to go to Russia in search of work. As of now anybody from central Asian countries can travel to Russia without any visas. While Russia did make some statements explaining their displeasure with the Tajik moves they stopped short of even discussing the visa system. Because Russia knows better than that. They need to keep the country open for Central Asians because of above-stated reasons.

Labor migration is not a one-way street, Central Asian countries benefits hugely from money transfers migrants make from Russia. By some estimates migrant money transfers make up almost 30% of GDP in countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. That is as much as Uzbekistan’s biggest cash crop, cotton brings from exports. Russia would like to play this card of course but at the end it is Russia which gets burned if she cuts off labor migration.

Xenophon November 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm

This article advances a straw-man argument. Who has made the “assumption of Chinese domination in Central Asia?

Yes, Peter Hopkirk DID focus on Anglo-Russian competition in Central Asia. Why? Because his book was ABOUT Anglo-Russian competition in Central Asia–NOT Central Asia in general.

Of course, focusing on great-power competition in a particular region is often offensive to the specialists for whom the region is the be all and end all. If the phrase “The Great Game” is too cliched or otherwise irritating, then find another. But one had best not delude oneself that a strategically competitive great game is not ALWAYS going on in more intense or less intense iterations.

Central Asia is not simply “understood only as a playground for outside powers” in Western writing. However, except for Central Asia specialists, Westerners–those who think about the region at all, at any rate–are most interested in the region for its role in global great power competition. Best to get used to it.

The Jamestown Foundation is, of course, one of many neocon covens much of whose “analysis” is not worth the paper it’s written on, driven as it is by anti-Chinese, anti-Russian ideology, but this doesn’t change the reality of the new, intensified great game in the slightest. China has significant incentives to establish a dominant position in Central Asia OVER THE LONG-TERM and push out its competitors–the US and Russia–if it can. China is playing a long game, so it’s way too soon to assess just how the game will play out. The fact that China OBVIOUSLY does not currently dominate Central Asia does not mean that the game is not afoot. The Anglo-Russian competition of the 19th-20th centuries took considerable time to heat up as well.

The China-Turkey analogy is misplaced. China is an emerging global power with huge resource needs and a potentially huge politico-military capability. Turkey is a medium-size country, emerging as a regional power in Southwest Asia with some ethnic ties to Central Asia. What Turkey has done or failed to do has little to do with China and its grand strategy.

Those who do not focus on Central Asia may oversimplify the on-the-ground realities of the region, and, in such cases, you are right to make corrections. But regional specialists can be extremely myopic in their focus. Predominant Russian influence may or may not endure. Once upon a time, the Persian Gulf looked to Britain. Who does it look to now? Once, much of West Africa looked to France. Who does it increasingly look to now? Once India looked to the Soviet Union. Who does it look to now? Things change. China has no intention of falling into the same trap as Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. It is acting with deliberation. It may or may not achieve its ultimate aims in Central Asia and beyond, but geopolitics is real, and the Great Game–being played globally, not just in Central Asia–is real as well.

susi November 16, 2011 at 1:04 am

I think the people – at least in Tajikistan – would beg to differ about Chinese influence in their country. I can’t speak for the Kyrgyz (except for the complaints in the bazaars I heard in Bishkek and Osh) but I can speak for the many hundreds of people I have spoken with in Tajikistan. It is fine to theorize about the agency of the Kyrgyz citizens but when: 1. Chinese goods are flooding the markets 2. the Chinese have acquired a swath of valuable land 3. roads and tunnels are being funded by loans from the Chinese 4. and trucks from China – tens and even hundreds are flooding the roads in Tajikistan, your assertion that China has little influence in Central Asia doesn’t quite hold. Maybe that is true for the case of Kyrgystan but generalizing it out into all of Central Asia is a different story.

Joshua Foust November 18, 2011 at 11:22 pm


All you’ve described is the same sort of infrastructure-level activity everyone already acknowledges the Chinese engage in across the region. What’s your evidence for saying this translates into cultural appeal (e.g. a pass turning away from Russia or, in the case of Tajikistan, Iran) and toward China? Were Tajiks happy about having a chunk of their country ceded to China? Do Chinese diplomats and business exert power or influence over Tajiks officials or decision-making? That is the real question, and no matter the number of roads they pave or the trucks they import I have yet to see any evidence that China has actual influence. Even in Tajikistan.

AS November 18, 2011 at 11:16 pm

susi summarizes the main counterargument to this post well. Just because you can’t see the Chinese influence walking around the streets of Osh doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – particularly at the highest levels of government and business in CA. These critical areas of society are far from transparent to the mass majority of people in these countries let alone to an American blogger visiting for a week who doesn’t even speak Russian.

Joshua Foust November 18, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Great. So let’s focus on the highest levels of government and business in CA. Present your evidence that China’s many infrastructure projects have given them control over Central Asia (would you count Tajikistan’s recent ceding of territory to China?). Now take that and translate it into sentiment among normal people. Do normal people look to China or to Russia?

That’s your answer.

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