Guest Post: China is the power of the future in Central Asia

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by Joshua Foust on 11/22/2011 · 22 comments

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.

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– 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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Reyhan November 22, 2011 at 3:01 pm

ağabey*, not agbey.

Uzbek November 22, 2011 at 3:58 pm

I have to agree that China is the dominant economic force in modern Central Asia. The main reason that made it possible? The Chinese economy is compatible with the economies of Central Asia, it produces what Central Asia needs and Central Asia has natural resources that China needs. So trade with China is logical and grows organically here. With Russia compatibility is not that great because the structure of the Russian economy by and large reminds of the economies of central Asia – it is dominated by the energy industry. So there is not much Russia can do if she wants to dominate Central Asia economically because she doesn’t have much to offer.

Moreover, as China moves its economy upstream by investing more and more on R&D and capturing new industries like solar power, super-speed train technologies, etc Central Asia will show more willingness to trade and cultural exchange allowing the culture of China make inroad to Central Asia. This is normal and I would welcome it. Everybody looked up to countries that innovate and develop skills in cutting-edge industries, Central Asia is not an exception.

That being said will China replace Russia eventually in Central Asia as the big brother? I doubt it. With its strong stamp on daily life in Central Asia, Russian culture, language will still remain as a dominant cultural force. As long as an average Joe in Central Asia considers Russia as a country of first choice to go in search of work, study or move to live, Russia will loom large in Central Asia.

Turgai November 23, 2011 at 8:32 am

There’s a smiliar hype about China taking over Africa and pushing out the Europeans and Americans there. OK it’s presence there clearly growns, we get a multipolar world order, but I don’t think that China’s ascendancy and the entire fuss made around it by pundits and pop analysts will last.

I don’t know whether there are other people on this forum who remeber that, but in the early nineties, the big thing was not ‘China’ but the economic miracle of Japan and the ‘Oriental tigers’ (South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore). For many, they were the ones who would take over everything. They were to become the world’s new economic core and geopolitical pole.

Has anybody noticed that these days, hardly anybody still speaks about Japan (unless its in relation to seaquakes, nuclear spills and social malaise), South Korea (unless it’s in relation to the umpteenth incident with North Korea), Taiwan and Singapore?

Uzbek November 23, 2011 at 8:53 am

I was a university student back in 1990’s and we did study in the Economics classes the Four Tigers of South-East Asia and it was a big deal back then. In retrospect, all the hype was due to their impressive gross over relatively short period of time. In one generation they were able to make a huge leap from a backward agrarian societies to a near-developed industrial societies. But as their economies matured the rate of growth slowed down and settled to 2-3% a year. South Korea even managed to graduated into a developed country and they now have the same problems as any developed country has these days – the growth is not as impressive as it used to be. The same thing will happen to China eventually – as its economy matures they will also settle. I have to say though China has a so much room to grow into given its low GDP per capita and an industrious workforce.

China’s one-party system makes decisions quickly and it is not a disadvantage when the country is roaring ahead and they need to make decisions on the fly. Before all of you start bashing the one-party system, let me say yes I acknowledge downsides, discontent of the general populace might grow into a revolt and destabilizing the entire country, etc but so far they have been able to make it work somehow. China might think about reforming the system when their economy matures and settles.

raff November 23, 2011 at 11:39 am

Thanks for your comments. My thought about the difference between China and the rising tigers within the specific context of Central Asia (or Kyrgyzstan in particular as our article focuses) is the importance of it to China’s poorer province. The Chinese logic towards the region is predicated on developing Xinjiang, this means that even if the Chinese boom eventually goes down (as it likely will at some point), Central Asia will continue to be a major concern. This is different to Japan/ROK/DPRK/Singapore/Taiwan.

I don’t disagree with Turgai’s assertion that when looking at Africa and Chinese investment there, we might see a levelling off. Maybe we already are.

Turgai November 24, 2011 at 4:08 am

The boom will not last indeed. First, everyone may be gawking at the dizzling ‘the sky is the limit’ changes and the nouveau riches in Shanghai, Shenzen and the Chinese Southeast in general. But there is another China, one that doesn’t fit in the pop picture. There are huge social faultlines in the country (and I don’t mean those between the Chinese majority and the ethnic minorities but bang within Chinese society itself) and much more social tensions under the surface than meets the eye. Inevitably, it will come into the open. Second, not too long from now China will face its own, and rather big, population aging problem.

Metin November 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm

wow, good speculation without any hard data to back up argument (with regards to compatibility), like old man gossiping in chayhanas. I wonder if there is any term like ‘compatibility’ in business economics.

In case of Uzbekistan, statistics for this year says that Russia remains Nr.1 trading partner. It accounts for ab. 24% of total trade, and is followed by Kazakhstan. China is Nr. 3, closely followed by Korea and Turkey. In fact, Russia has lots to offer compared to China.

Uzbek November 23, 2011 at 5:38 pm


Really mature of you sir, to try to discredit my post instead of debating in a civil way. Compatible means if you merge two economies they make a whole, one has to offer that second does not have. In case of China and Central Asia, this is very true. Central Asian economies are resource-based and China is the world’s biggest factory that needs all the resources it can get its hand on.

Metin November 24, 2011 at 2:23 am

Put it in a different way – China is labor abundant country and labor is cheap. That’s the main reason as to why China is a global factory.
Now, look at Central Asia and see – labor is abundant and cheap as well (except for Kazakhstan). That’s the main reason for labor export from Central Asia to Russia.

The reason, the region has not become manufacturing factory yet is its geographical isolated location. Though, there are some signs of that happening, e.g. GM cars and textiles production in Uzbekistan. From infrastructure point of view Russia is best positioned to remain a major economic partner, not China.

susi November 22, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Interesting. Interesting choice of scholars. Once again – a Kyrgyz-centric take on things. Very problematic. Eloquence is great but only if it doesn’t take the gift of gab into areas unknown to the authors. Generalizing across this landscape (meaning – using one country or case as a model for all of Central Asia) is so highly problematic, and for such obvious reasons, it does not need to be discussed here.

raff November 23, 2011 at 11:48 am

this is fair enough, but this particular piece is a reflection of a trip we made to Kyrgyzstan most recently. We were also in Kazakhstan, and found a similar vein of concern there, though phrased differently.

Kirstin November 23, 2011 at 3:21 am

Personally, I’d say Mandarin is becoming a popular third language, but I don’t think anybody is studying it instead of Russian. Do you have any data on that?

raff November 23, 2011 at 11:52 am

hard to get absolute data on this really. But there were certainly a number of people we met who were learning Chinese as they had been instructed by family for business reasons. Presumably, this meant they weren’t taking classes in another language instead, which one would assume would be either Russian or English.

Turgai November 24, 2011 at 4:01 am

You know, a lot of talk about a Chinese invasion and demographic colonisation of Central Asia is populism and what they call паникёрство in Russian.

I remember that when I was in Naryn, in Kyrgyzstan, some years ago, some people spoke about the ‘many Chinese’ who had settled in town ‘and took over things’. When I asked how much, approximately, the standard answer was: ‘I don’t know, but many’. And when I asked further where exactly they concentrated and worked, no-one could give a coherent answer.

BTW, in Osh, Almaty and Zharkent, many of the ‘Chinese’ traders are not ethnically Chinese but rather ethnic Uighurs, Kyrgyz and Kazakhs from Xinjiang who hold PRC citizenship.

Ryan November 28, 2011 at 3:45 am

It is purely anecdotal, but in the 2 years I have been here working with students in Bishkek, I have a seen a marked uptick in the number of young people studying in Chinese language departments, but, even though fewer people seem to be studying in Russian departments per se, the majority of students in Bishkek opt for a Russian language education. So while students I know are beginning to focus more on Mandarin due to economic opportunity, the language of instruction in these Chinese Departments is, as ever, Russian. That being said, among the young intelligentsia, it doesn’t seem that Chinese has yet attained that level of prestige that English seems to hold here in Bishkek. So I wouldn’t really expect Chinese culture to supplant the remains of the Russian and Soviet Empires anytime soon. After all, Manas fought the Chinese… or so I am told by my host family.

I always found this dichotomy interesting. Many locals complain about creeping American power in the same breath as future Chinese economic dominance, but only Mandarin seems tainted while English remains detached from the politics and culture of the Anglophone world. Mandarin is viewed as inextricably linked to China in a country where китайский (‘chinese’) often denotes something of low-quality at a bazaar. English, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be viewed as something uniquely British or American, but rather, like the new (and actually universally used) Esperanto.

Again, this is purely anecdotal evidence, gleaned from local friends in foreign language departments and college grads, so take it as you will.

Turgai November 28, 2011 at 5:13 am

“but rather, like the new (and actually universally used) Esperanto.”

Well, that’s what it actulally is, although I’d compare it more to what Latin or, in Central Asia, Persian, used to be in the Middle Ages. Esperanto is completely artificial whereas English, Latin and Persian are not.

Uzbek November 28, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Economic, educational and cultural dominance of the British Empire and after that the United States was the main reason why English became omnipresent in the world.

Mandarin has a log way to go to become a medium of communication outside China but it is headed the right direction. Only economic dominance may not make the language accepted elsewhere in the world. You need to spread the culture of the country as well which is not an easy thing to do.

People are usually receptive to dominant cultures, the cultures that others look up to. Dominant cultures are accepted widely and people want to be associated with those cultures because that’s where innovation happens, pop culture originates and trans-culture values are born. As China becomes a nation of innovators instead of imitators and adopts new technologies and new energy sources at a faster rate than the West (which has already began, look up solar power in China vs US or Europe) they will develop skills and experience at a faster rate too. Then they can teach/share that experience to outside world that will be more receptive to not only to Chinese business but also to other things Chinese, including language because they have skills and experience that other don’t. If you want to acquire that experience and skills you will learn Chinese because that’s the medium, a conduit for acquiring the knowledge. I guess then, less and less people will link Mandarin to a low-quality stuff in bazaars and start associating it with innovation and something good.

Uzbek November 28, 2011 at 12:57 pm

“long way”, sorry for a typo

Metin November 24, 2011 at 2:28 am

Do not forget Iran as the important power. It has historically attempted to have influence in the region. In future, if Iran manages to get out of international isolation, things can change a lot.

Uzbek November 24, 2011 at 8:55 am

Iran’s influence will remain marginal even if it somehow, in distant future, it manages to broker a deal with the West that ends the isolation. Iran is a theocracy with a strong hand of religion everywhere. Unless Iranians revolt against mullahs and oust them, secular Central Asia will have subdued and measured relationship with Iran.

One example for that is that Iran wants a visa-free travel with Central Asia. But none of the Central Asian countries want visa-free regime with Iran. While from the economics standpoint the visa-free travel makes sense it doesn’t make sense to the authorities and the ruling class from political standpoint. There are too many risks, especially given how paranoid Uzbek officials are about religion we will not have any significantly closer relationship with Iran than what we have right now.

Limonbay December 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm

I think we should not underestimate China and its plans for the future in this region. I can only be aware of their movements and a bit afraid if you ask me.

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I like wearing the canada goose jacket very much.When face the cold day,the Canada Goose Kensington Parka will keep me away from the cold.

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