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Central Asia: China's Mounting Influence, Part 1 -- An Overview

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, 18 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Despite its geographic proximity, China for the past century played only a marginal role in Central Asia. Economically, politically and culturally, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan were firmly in Russia's orbit. But independence in 1991 brought changes -- among them the opening of the "Bamboo Curtain" to the East. Initially, it was shuttle traders bringing consumer goods from China who began to fan out across Central Asia. Then came big business and senior politicians. In just over a decade, China -- with its booming economy and growing political clout -- has become a major player in the region. In a joint project, RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia are examining China's growing influence in Central Asia, what is motivating Beijing to expand its role in the region, and what the future may bring. In the first of a four-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten gives an overview of the situation.

Chinese pop music blares from loudspeakers, mixing with the cries of Chinese traders at a busy local market.

Welcome to China? No, in fact, we are in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty, at the Ya-Lian bazaar.

Since it opened in 1997, the Ya-Lian has become one of the city's largest marketplaces, attracting thousands of shoppers to its stalls, which offer everything from household appliances and clothes to consumer electronics.

It is a scene repeated at hundreds of Chinese markets across Central Asia. Initially, the traders were locals bringing in scarce goods from just across the border to sell. But in recent years, they have been replaced by an influx of Chinese tradesmen who have set up more permanent shops and become a fixture of Central Asian urban life.
China's interest in countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan is motivated to a large extent by its need for energy resources. China's economy is booming, but its domestic oil and mining industries cannot keep pace with demand.


This street activity is just one sign of China's growing presence in the region. But at higher levels, Chinese officials and business leaders have been crisscrossing the region, signing cooperation agreements and contracts that aim to expand Beijing's foothold.

China's interest in countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan is motivated to a large extent by its need for energy resources. China's economy is booming, but its domestic oil and mining industries cannot keep pace with demand.

Chinese officials, as a result, have fanned out across the globe -- including Central Asia -- in search of suppliers, as Xu Yihe, senior reporter with the Dow Jones Newswires in Singapore, told RFE/RL.

"Chinese oil companies are almost everywhere in the world," Xu said. "They're dispatching teams of oil experts to negotiate oil projects, especially upstream projects in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and North America."

Those efforts are beginning to bear fruit. In May, after seven years of negotiations, China and Kazakhstan agreed to build a 1,000-kilometer pipeline from Kazakhstan's central Karaganda region to China's northwestern Xinjiang region by the end of 2005.

The pipeline will be a key link in a 3,000-kilometer project that aims to join China to the Caspian Sea. China has also offered to help Uzbekistan develop its small oil fields in the Ferghana Valley.

Chinese investment is also going into other energy resources, such as hydroelectric projects in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with scores of additional plans up for discussion.

Niklas Swanstrom is executive director of the program for contemporary Silk Road studies at Sweden's Uppsala University. Speaking to RFE/RL from Beijing, where he is a guest lecturer at Renmin University, Swanstrom said the quest for natural resources shapes China's policies in Central Asia, but it is not the whole picture.

China is rapidly emerging as a world power. In a decade or two, it might directly challenge the supremacy of the United States, Japan, and Europe. But before this happens, Beijing's leaders are trying to create a zone of friendly and stable countries around China's borders that will give them political support, as well as economic leverage in the future.

This has led Beijing to set up trade missions in every Central Asian country, invest in local enterprises, donate money to aid projects, and give a high profile to new bodies -- such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- that group the region's countries.

"The Chinese do want natural resources," Swanstrom said. "They do want oil and gas because China is in desperate need of these as its economy grows. But it goes deeper than that. They want to secure the borders. They want to make sure that Central Asia is a stable region. Because if Central Asia runs into military conflicts, it is likely to spread over to Xinjiang, China's westernmost province. And that would be a problem for the Chinese government. So part of this is to create stability in the Central Asia region because stability in Central Asia means stability for China. And also, it's in the Chinese interest to develop these markets, to create the infrastructure in Central Asia."

On the security front, Beijing has found eager partners in Central Asia's authoritarian leaders, who share its worries about Islamic militancy, as international affairs expert John Garver, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States, noted.

"I think there is a meeting of the minds between China's leaders on the one hand and the leaders of the post-Soviet Central Asian states on the other. And cooperation in this area takes the form of intelligence exchanges, police cooperation, training of police, training of military forces, and the design of military operations targeting terrorist activities," Garver said.

Omurbek Tekebaev, leader of Kyrgyzstan's opposition Atameken (Motherland) Socialist Party, told RFE/RL that it was the United States that involuntarily helped China expand its presence in Central Asia. He traced the rise to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.

"After 9/11, the United States broke the old stereotype, sending its troops to Central Asia and the Transcaucasus," Tekebaev said. "When the U.S. strengthened its position, China began to also show that it was interested in Central Asia. So, recently, the Chinese leadership told a meeting [of regional leaders] in Tashkent that it will invest about 4,000 million dollars in the Central Asian countries. For example, Chinese leaders spoke openly about their intention to pay the full cost of about $1.5 billion for the construction of a highway from China to Central Asia, via Kyrgyzstan."

Swanstrom of Uppsala University said Russia's sometimes tenuous grip over the region has paved the way for outsiders, including the Americans, to come in. But the Chinese -- because of their comprehensive regional economic and security interests -- have been the most effective.

"It has to do with the Russian domestic weakness to a certain extent, and that gives the Chinese and many other actors -- among them, of course, the United States and Europe -- an opportunity to move in," Swanstrom said. "But the Americans and Europeans have not taken that opportunity to the same extent that the Chinese have."

Not everyone in Central Asia is happy about China's interest in the region. There is a latent fear, especially in the countries bordering China, that Beijing is hungry for land. And if that is the case, even a small immigration of Chinese to the region would swamp the local populations.

Although it is vast in territory, for example, Kazakhstan's population of some 14 million people represents just over 1 percent of China's 1.4 billion people.

The charge is dismissed out of hand by Beijing officials. But Murat Auezov, a former Kazakh ambassador to China, was less than diplomatic when expressing his concerns.

"I know Chinese culture. We should not believe anything the Chinese politicians say," Auezov said. "As a historian, I'm telling you that 19th-century China, 20th-century China and 21st-century China are three different Chinas. But what unites them is a desire to expand their territories."

Swanstrom was more optimistic. For now, Russia continues to enjoy a decisive cultural and economic advantage in Central Asia. But he argued that breaking this monopoly could serve the Central Asians well.

"It doesn't necessarily have to be a zero-sum game, but from the Central Asian states, there's also interest in decreasing the Russian influence and to have Chinese influence -- maybe even Indian influence and American influence and European influence," Swanstrom said. "They have realized over the years that it's not good to have one dominant power in the region. They don't want it to be the Chinese or the Russians. They're trying to diversify the influence over the region, and they are very conscious about the fact that neither the Russians nor the Chinese would be the perfect actor to dominate the region."

(RFE/RL's Kazakh and Kyrgyz Services, as well as Radio Free Asia, contributed to this report.)
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