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.