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Analysis From Washington - China and Central Asia

  • Paul Goble



Washington, July 8 (RFE/RL) -- During visits to Bishkek and Almaty last week, Chinese President Jiang Zemin signed agreements with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan designed to stabilize conditions along the border between China and these two Central Asian states.

But the Chinese president's actions unintentionally call attention to just how concerned Beijing now is about growing instability in its westernmost province of Xinjiang.

In Bishkek, Jiang signed an agreement with the Kyrgyz ending a border dispute between the two countries and expanding crossborder trade. While this accord completes the agreed demarcation of the border between China and the former Soviet republics -- an agreement with Moscow was put into effect earlier this year -- it may in fact open the door to expanded contacts between the Kyrgyz state and the Kyrgyz minority just over the border in China, with influences flowing both ways.

In Almaty, Jiang issued a joint declaration with Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev specifically warning the Uighur ethnic minority living in both countries against any move toward secession. It pledged each country to prohibit the activities of any separatist group on its territory directed against the territorial integrity of the other.

Chinese concern about the activities of Turkic groups in Xinjiang never absent in the twentieth century has been on the rise since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While Beijing has not been unhappy to see the waning of Russian power in the region, it has been very worried that non-Han Chinese groups in Xingjiang might see the independence of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as a model for their future.

And the Chinese authorities are now clearly disturbed by the very real possibility that increased Turkic activism in this region will only encourage the still very active and far better known national movement in Chinese-controlled Tibet.

Reports of increased ethnic activism by Uighurs and other Turkic groups in this region during the past two years and of armed clashes between them and the Chinese army and other Chinese security forces this year suggest that the Chinese concern has not been misplaced.

Until now, China generally had sought to contain this new ethnic assertiveness by the Uighurs and their ethnic allies through the liberal use of military force. But police power alone, even police power in a region so isolated from the world's media attention that it can be applied brutally, is not going to be enough.

In turning as now to a diplomatic strategy, China is implicitly acknowledging that fact. Moreover, it appears to be seeking to turn what has been an internal weakness into a potentially valuable foreign policy strength. As the Almaty declaration shows, China is not the only country whose territorial integrity might be threatened were an independent Uighuristan to emerge.

Kazakhstan's eastern borders and possibly Kyrgyzstan's as well could be threatened in that event, and by pointing this out, the Chinese are seeking to increase their influence with these two states.

And to the extent that both these Central Asian states are drawn toward China as a result, the influence of Moscow over them will be further reduced, something that will not make anyone in Beijing unhappy. Consequently, these two countries and their other Central Asian neighbors are likely to begin to act more independently as well, prompting the Russian government to react.

Thus, what to many undoubtedly seems like a very small ethnic issue very far away could have enormous geopolitical consequences -- and thus bears watching by everyone concerned with events in Eurasia.
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