Is China Trying to Take Over in Central Asia?

No matter China's plans, or its economic influence, the politics of Kyrgyzstan still tilt overwhelmingly toward Russia

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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.

According to Paula Sandrin, Turkey's foreign policy in the 1990s was dominated by an obsession with security, and the rise in popularity of a doctrine called Neo-Ottomanism, which focused on the development of ties between Turkey and the former components of the Ottoman Empire. Turgut Ozal wanted to grow Turkey into the regional economic and security hub for the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia.

The push into Central Asia seemed to make sense for the Turks: they speak a related language, they're majority Muslim (unlike Russia, the U.S., or China), they have a growing economy that could offer a great deal to the local governments, and they were willing to fund enormous cultural centers and universities years before any of the other outside powers. In Kyrgyzstan, you can still find evidence of an extensive economic relationship with Turkey -- shopping malls built by Turkish construction firms have stores that are filled with products proudly labeled "Made in Turkey;" the largest and most functional bank, DemirBank, is Turkish; the largest foreign university is the Turkish university; and so on.

But, despite a good 20 years of effort, no one thinks Turkey is going to be an ascendant power in Central Asia anymore -- not even Turkey. Despite a huge diplomatic, economic, and even security push, the Turkish "surge" into Central Asia fizzled out. The Turks are happy to import and export things to Central Asia, but beyond that the relationship hasn't gone anywhere especially interesting.

No matter China's plans, or its economic influence, the politics of Kyrgyzstan still tilt overwhelmingly toward Russia. Despite the probable harm to its China-fueled economy, Kyrgyzstan was warm to the idea of joining the Eurasian Union with Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus -- a move that would ruin its current WTO-fueled favorable trading status with China. "Even those of us most concerned about the danger to sovereignty and national independence, we see that we need to integrate," said Edil Baisalov, a prominent democracy activist and a former aide to the current president, in a recent interview with the New York Times. "We had better chain our car to the train of Russia and Kazakhstan."

This makes sense. When Kyrgyzstani citizens run into trouble -- say, when Uzbek citizens need to flee from ethnic persecution -- they don't flee to China. They flee to Russia. When the Uzbek-heavy city of Osh spasmed with violence last year, Kyrgyzstan reached out to Russia for help, not China.

There's no doubt that China offers a great economic opportunity for the Kyrgyz, and the Kyrgyz businessmen who have figured that out have prospered. But there is very little evidence that this economic opportunity has translated into increasing political and social ties between Bishkek and Beijing. Rather, it looks like China is going to become another Turkey -- a strong trading partner, and a source of goods and services, but not a controlling cultural influence.

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