I’ve bee pushing back against the idea, advocated most eloquently by Alexandros Petersen and Rafaello Pantucci, that China will take over the future of Central Asia. This is a response, an argument that China really is the future of Central Asia.
By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen
China has always been a bashful power. Globally, the nation has taken on an ever more important role, but has been very careful to play its cards close to the chest. Rather than become involved in any overt power plays or geopolitical conflicts, it has chosen to quietly accumulate power and move with a view to a long-term trajectory. Typical of this trend is China’s role in Kyrgyzstan, where on our recent visit we observed a nation that while not visibly transformed into a province of China, was clearly somewhat alarmed by the growing influence that its neighbor to the east has on its economy.
This is not to say that China has somehow swept others out of the way to dominate the nation and the region completely. Clearly, Russia remains a dominant cultural force given its long history of occupation, and Russian is the natural lingua franca in Kyrgyzstan, grudgingly accepted even by more nationalist Kyrgyz in the south. However, our capacity to speak Mandarin helped us discover Kyrgyzstan’s burgeoning Chinese speaking community (government officials, businessmen, Chinese language students, Chinese exchange students and even Chinese traders) who helped shaped our understanding of the quiet but growing awareness of China amongst the Kyrgyz.
You have to know where to look. Russian pop music still conquers the cultural landscape and American food like pizza and burgers is the cuisine of choice for the young and well-heeled in Bishkek. But, China is increasingly influential where it counts. Mandarin is the new popular second language: Beijing’s Confucius Institutes hold positions of primacy in some of the country’s universities. China Aid signs are visible on public buses. Chinese state-owned enterprises are re-paving key transport arteries across the country, investing in natural resource extraction and are building a refinery in Kara-Balta to break Kyrgyzstan’s energy dependence on Russia.
Perhaps most importantly, China dominates economically, in a way that Turkey, Central Asia’s alternative power of the 1990s never did. One former cabinet level minister called it “economic dependence”. The pending decision to join the Russian Customs Union and the subsequent negative impact this would have on Chinese imports into the country was going to “destroy” regional markets like Kara-Suu, he said. Putting this to a Mandarin-speaking foreign ministry official later in the day, he laughed and said, “what do you expect?” China is the nation’s giant and productive neighbor and it is consequently no surprise it is Kyrgyzstan’s leading trade partner. In 2010, 61% of Kyrgyzstan’s imports come from China, followed by Russia with 17.2%. Because Kyrgyzstan currently lies outside of the Customs Union, Kazakh traders, whose country is already a member, travel to Kyrgyzstan’s bazaars to procure Chinese goods, which are significantly cheaper than if directly imported from China into Kazakhstan.
And none of this is to take into account the foreign observers we met: each one spoke with alarm about rising Chinese power in Kyrgyzstan and the region. In Osh, we were treated to a lengthy exposition of China’s long-term plan to absorb Kyrgyzstan. One rumor we were told by a Kyrgyz professor in Bishkek ran that the Chinese firms that had built the roads in Kyrgyzstan had made them thick enough to be able to withstand the weight of a Chinese tank. Having no tank on hand to test this, we instead went to have a look at the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. The many-storied compound towered over the temporary, low-rise buildings that make up the US Embassy. Insiders told us that China’s was mostly empty, standing ready for the day when Beijing decided it needed to expand its representation in the country.
China is not comparable to Turkey that shares no borders with Central Asia and many years ago blew its opportunity when it attempted to sweep in as the “agbey” (big brother) to the Turkic people’s of Central Asia. Turkish influence does clearly remain, but China has no such ambitions and is instead focused on developing Kyrgyzstan and other neighboring countries with a view to creating prosperity and stability in its traditionally restive Xinjiang province. Our numerous discussions with officials and analysts in Beijing and Shanghai confirm this focus. That China sees its future role in Central Asia as key to its own domestic development is perhaps the most striking indicator that its influence is serious and long-term, even though it may seem overly cautious to outside observers. China realizes Kyrgyzstan is important to its long-term stability and is able to play a slow game to make sure that it works out in its favor. To disregard this approach as non-existent is shortsighted and risks missing out on understanding the potentially most important recent shift in Eurasian geopolitics.
Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.
Image: An outpost of the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) responsible for repaving the Southern Transport Corridor highway in Kyrgyzstan from the city of Osh through Sary Tash to the Irkeshtan border with China. Photo by Sue Anne Tay.