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Kyrgyzstan: Beijing Steps Up Presence As Part Of 'Go-West' Policy

  • Antoine Blua

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev left China today after a three-day visit during which the two countries signed eight bilateral agreements. These packages included an Agreement on Friendship, Cooperation, and Good Neighborliness that finally resolved a border dispute between the two countries. RFE/RL looks at what Akaev's visit accomplished and at China's increasing role in Central Asia.

Prague, 25 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev today concluded a three-day visit to Beijing that observers say was critical in developing closer relations between the two countries.

Akaev held meetings with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Chairman of parliament Li Peng, and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. Kyrgyz Vice Prime Minister Kubanychbek Jumaliev, Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov, and Minister of Industry and Foreign Trade Sadriddin Jienbekov also traveled to China with Akaev.

Akaev and Jiang signed eight bilateral agreements, including an Agreement on Friendship, Cooperation, and Good Neighborliness that formally ends a border dispute between both states.

Adam Ward is a research fellow for Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. He told RFE/RL that Kyrgyzstan and China recognized that they needed to settle their border issues before full commercial and political relations could be realized.

China, Ward said, is embarking on a so-called "go-West" policy aimed at developing Xinjiang Province in western China. "So [China] is keen to formalize and normalize on all fronts its relations with countries that surround western China in order to ensure that commercial exchanges can be maximized, and the development of the region encouraged as a result. So I think this is part of an ongoing process of normalization in the attempt to set aside areas of dispute," Ward said.

Kyrgyzstan's parliament ratified at the end of May 1999 a border agreement ceding some 95,000 hectares of land to China. Bishkek had previously transferred 30,000 hectares to Beijing under a 1996 border accord. Also last month, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov signed in Beijing a treaty that hands over some 100,000 hectares to China.

The package of intergovernmental agreements signed Monday also covers cooperation between the two countries' Justice ministries, avoidance of double taxation, recognition of academic certificates, cooperation in the energy field, the opening of a Chinese culture and language center in Bishkek, and the easing of visa procedures. In addition, China also promised Kyrgyzstan about $2 million in aid.

At a Chinese-Kyrgyz business meeting, Yu Xiaosong, president of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, said his country is especially interested in improving the environment for cross-border trade, according to "Beijing Time."

Akaev noted the two countries share great potential in jointly developing industries like energy, transportation, mining, and processing agricultural products. He added that the development of western China will create great opportunities in tourism.

Charles Fairbanks is director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI) at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. He told RFE/RL: "The thing that Kyrgyzstan could provide, though not very much at the present, is electricity. Like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan has a lot of rivers, including the Syr Darya, which is one of the two most important rivers in Central Asia that could be developed to provide hydroelectric power. There is a need for investment, which conceivably could come from China," Fairbanks said.

According to Chinese customs, bilateral trade volume reached $56 million in the first four months of this year, a year-on-year increase of more than 17 percent. More than 500 Chinese enterprises are registered in Kyrgyzstan with a total investment of $30 million.

According to "People's Daily" newspaper, Jiang urged the two countries to promote cooperation between security, defense, and other law-enforcement departments, and to set up stable cooperative mechanisms for safeguarding security and stability in the two countries and the whole region. Jiang added they could take advantage of their geographical vicinity to raise economic cooperation and trade to a new level.

The IISS's Ward pointed out that this declaration fits with Beijing's "consistent theme" involving cooperation on political, economic, and strategic issues with the Central Asian republics. "Perhaps the most obvious example of this engagement is the role China has played in the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO], which has lost some of its momentum in recent months. But nonetheless, it's seen by China as a very important initiative," Ward said.

The SCO was established in 1996 to help defuse tensions along China's borders with the former Soviet Central Asian states. The grouping, which includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, has expanded its focus to include fighting terrorism, extremism, and separatism.

Since 11 September, Beijing has intensified its crackdown on suspected separatists in Xinjiang, emphasizing that such actions are necessary to ensure the success of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. Ward said he believes China recognizes that Central Asia has gained strategic significance deriving from the links the region has to Islam fundamentalism. "China has its own concerns about the linkages that Islamist groups in Xinjiang in western China have to various Central Asian countries. So it's keen to engage Central Asia to counteract some of the threats it sees emerging from that region," Ward said.

Ward said that by reiterating that China shares problems with Islamic extremism with its Central Asian neighbors, and that it is willing to tackle them through such measures as intelligence cooperation, extradition of suspected militants, and military aid, Beijing is attempting to regain lost ground in Central Asia without appearing as if it is trying to impose itself on the region.

Kyrgyzstan recently handed over to Chinese authorities two suspected Uyghur separatists accused of assassinating a moderate Uyghur leader and shooting members of a Chinese delegation in the country in 2000.

Last December, China and Kyrgyzstan agreed to work more closely to advance the already strong military ties during a visit to China of Kyrgyzstan's chief of general staff of the armed forces.

The following month in Dushanbe, Chinese Public Security Minister Jia Chunwang signed an agreement with his Tajik counterpart, Khomiddin Sharipov, on joint police operations and exchanges of information.

The interest of the Kyrgyz side, CACI's Fairbanks pointed out, comes out of a feeling of desperation coming from its economic situation. The London-based Economist Intelligence Unit expected Kyrgyzstan's real gross domestic product to grow only by around 2.5 percent this year, given falling gold output and continued weakness in the non-gold parts of the industrial sector.

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