A Hungry China Sets Its Sights on Central Asia

Along its western border, China's influence is only beginning to grow.

HuJintaobanner.jpgChinese President Hu Jintao arrives for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg June 14, 2009 (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

In the gravelly, uncertain road coursing through Kyrgyzstan's picturesque Alay Valley, it does not take long to stumble across the Chinese road workers' camp. Though just a dusty collection of prefab dormitories, the camps nevertheless proudly display the company's name, logo and various slogans in large red Chinese characters. A Kyrgyz security guard is fast asleep on his cot, and the camp is deserted except for a young engineer from Sichuan. He explains that they work six months out of the year, when snow doesn't block the passes. Next year, the road will be finished. He says his friends that work on Chinese-built roads in Africa get a better deal.

Further down the road, amid bulldozers and trucks full of dirt, are the road workers. They're slowly reshaping the mountains, molding them into smooth inclines and regulation grades. Then there are the trucks; hundreds of them, crowding at the Chinese/Kyrgyz border, all engaged in the increasingly active trade between the two countries. One of the truckers, a member of China's Muslim Uighur minority, is eager to chat. The roof of the world is his workplace. It takes three days to drive a 30 ton load from Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang province, through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. He and his colleagues bring 100 such loads across every week.

In many ways, China has a stranglehold on Kyrgyzstan's economy, so much so that, in the words of a former Kyrgyz cabinet member, the country's economy would collapse without its giant neighbor to the east. What little wealth that is generated in Kyrgyzstan is due to its role as a re-export center for Chinese goods headed for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, its richer neighbors, and Russia.

Kyrgyzstan is not a resource-rich country by most measures, but Chinese mining companies are active throughout its expansive countryside, exploring and extracting, sometimes in disregard of environmental consequences. These mining operations have occasionally been subject to raids from locals on horseback, but these attacks do not deter the Chinese. Kyrgyzstan does have some oil, but until now, it has not had the capacity to refine it into fuel. In the past, Kyrgyz drivers were dependent on their old colonizer, Russia, to refine the oil and ship it back to them for consumption. Not any more. A Chinese company is building a small refinery in Kyrgyzstan, using small-scale projects such as these to increase its influence in the country.

China's behavior in Kyrgyzstan is symptomatic of its wider approach to Central Asia, a remote region that has become central to Beijing's global diplomatic and economic profile. Driven by the Chinese economy's voracious appetite for natural resources, business opportunities along ancient trade routes, and a paramount desire to bring stability through development to a region bordering on China's restive Xinjiang province, these varied Chinese actors are rapidly reshaping a region that was both Russia's back yard and the United States' staging ground for operations in Afghanistan.

Consider one of China's largest firms, energy giant CNPC. Staring in 2007, CNPC built a pipeline connecting China's eastern coast with the immense natural gas fields of Turkmenistan in eighteen months -- a global record -- and is in the process of lengthening it to reach the resource-rich Caspian Sea.

China's behavior in Kyrgyzstan is symptomatic of its wider approach to Central Asia, a remote region that has become central to Beijing's global diplomatic and economic profile

A series of purchases through a Chinese-Kazakhstani joint venture is set to bring China control of 40 percent of Kazakhstan's gargantuan oil wealth. CNPC plans to expand its natural gas network to all six Central Asian states (including Afghanistan) in the next five years, not only sending gas to Chinese consumers, but also distributing it in the region in order to gain political favor.

Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. He co-runs chinaincentralasia.com.

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