No matter China's plans, or its economic influence, the politics of Kyrgyzstan still tilt overwhelmingly toward Russia
Chinese and Kazakh officials take part in a groundbreaking ceremony for a tax-free cross-border trade zone / AP
There is a general assumption in most pop-studies of Central Asia 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. 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-, and arms-trafficking.