A Chinese Kyrgyzstan?

by Joshua Foust on 11/8/2012 · 6 comments

The role of China in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan in particular, is the topic of much debate these days. By “these days,” of course, I really mean “the last several years” but this blog has been trying to follow the topic for the last several months (see here).

Typically, the line goes, is a variation of “China is spending a lot of money so therefore it is getting more influence and outmaneuvering the US/Russia/etc.” To put it gently, I find such claims difficult to support, principally because there just aren’t much data to suggest that China building businesses staffed mostly by Chinese workers actually gets China much political or economic influence. In fact, in some very high profile cases, Chinese investments (say, in mining) create outrage and even spark violent backlash.

So it was with great interest that I read this piece over at Jamestown:

Rhetoric aside, in reality, there are no serious systemic anti-Chinese and anti-Western sentiments among the Kyrgyz population, but nationalist parties actively use slogans calling for an end to the foreign “occupation” of the country to stir up their electorates. On October 3, Kyrgyzstan’s opposition tried to capture the parliament building, where the office of the president and his administration are also located. The gathering was organized by leaders of the opposition party Ata Zhurt and parliament members Sadir Zhaparov and Kamchibek Tashiyev. About 500 demonstrators demanded the immediate nationalization of the Kumtor gold mine, which is owned by the Canadian mining company Centerra Gold, but were soon dispersed (see EDM, October 5).

In noting events such as the October 3 rally in Bishkek, it is important to understand that Kyrgyz demonstrators who protest against foreign companies often do not really care about the level of foreign presence in their republic. After the first “Tulip” revolution in 2005, political protests in the Kyrgyzstan were allegedly connected with organized crime networks jockeying for power. And attacks against foreign as well as local companies have often been organized by local criminal leaders vying for control over these businesses or looking to extort money for “protecting” these companies (Kyrgyzstan newspaper “De facto,” August 30, 2011). Most participants in these rallies are unemployed people who are reportedly paid by its organizers. According to Bishkek-based human rights expert Toktaim Umatalieva, a participant of a rally “earns” $10–15 (Deutsche Welle, February 17, 2011).

See more on the October 3 rally here. This is a smart take on the role of China in Kyrgyz politics. While there is no doubt that China has invested deeply in Kyrgyzstan, and Kyrgyzstan’s economy is certainly dependent on cheap Chinese imports, it is a huge stretch to say China exerts any real influence or pull (or push) on Kyrgyzstan itself.

So while China’s investment strategy is interesting, it is not very noteworthy. At least at the strategic level. Keep that in mind next time someone trots out the tired old “China is taking over Central Asia” line.

Bonus: This BBC slide show of Chinese businesses in Central Asia (though mostly Tajikistan).

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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 Registan.net. 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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Bakhrom November 9, 2012 at 3:04 am

Interesting post, Joshua. I may be mistaking, but if not, in epic “Manas” Chinese people are referred as “Kalmaks” who were so to say in conflict with Kyrgyz nation. Possibly, it could be used by some politicians for creating image of enemy, who is actually does not exist. This not a proven fact though, just an idea that came to mind when I read your post. Have a nice day 😀

Marat November 9, 2012 at 8:49 am

Bakhrom, you are wrong. Kalmaks and Chinese are actually different, and generally the population knows the difference.

Bakhrom November 9, 2012 at 1:51 pm

In that case my apologies, as I wrote, I may be mistaking, thank you for correction

Arthur Borges November 11, 2012 at 3:09 am

When Americans speak of “taking over” a country, it means having the economy under IMF tutelage, zero currency controls that force a central bank to accept US dollars (USD), unfettered licence to buy out businesses, offer financial services and have a military base or two.

So, right, China is not going that way at all.

It will invest in resource development, strive for direct cross-trading in currencies to shortcircuit the USD and, in the longer run, Chinese companies will be starting up manufacturing facilities in a bid to save on the rising cost of labor at home. It will encourage greater mil-to-mil contacts and joint anti-terrorist exercises but it won’t go for bases. China will not interfere with domestic Kyrgyz issues but will pressure Bishkek not to tolerate use of its territory for Muslim insurgents seeking to split off largely-Muslim Xinjiang as a separate state.

Can it be any simpler?

Arthur Borges November 11, 2012 at 3:18 am

Finally, there is this old story about an eminence who was really picky about his neighbors, so when he was going to move, he had his potential neighbors thoroughly researched. Finally, he bought a new home for 11 million tael and most naturally invited his neighbor over for tea. The neighbor accepted but in the course of the encounter, he remarked that the eminence had paid a very high price for the house.
“I paid 1 milion for the house, and 10 million for the neighbor,” came the reply.

In other words, China’s considers her direct neighbors as a vital national interest.

Xenophon November 12, 2012 at 5:29 pm

“Typically, the line goes, is a variation of ‘China is spending a lot of money so therefore it is getting more influence and outmaneuvering the US/Russia/etc.’”

Though I concede my difficulty in fully grasping the syntax of this sentence, I have to say, JF, that it smacks of straw man argument. Instead of making generalized claims about what some nebulous “line” of argument is asserting, why don’t you just provide us some quotations? Then, we can actually judge for ourselves whether they are plausible or not. You give us paragraphs from Jamestown, but not one documented word from those you claim are trumpeting China’s attempt at “taking over” Central Asia.

Furthermore, how does the Jamestown passage, which focuses on the proposed nationalization of a Canadian gold company’s holdings in Kyrgyzstan amount to “a smart take on the role of China in Kyrgyz politics”? I don’t understand.

Switching gears, I think Arthur Borges makes good and compelling points about China’s Central Asia strategy.

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