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Commentary

Beijing's Stealthy Expansion In Central Asia

Word has spread in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere of growing Chinese involvement in Central Asia.
Word has spread in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere of growing Chinese involvement in Central Asia.
By Cholpon Orozobekova
Among the great powers vying for influence in post-Soviet Central Asia, China has been the quietest, most systematic, and most dangerous. With its booming economy, growing population, and relentless need for energy, China needs Central Asia for its future energy security, as well as for expanded trade and for securing its restive Xinjiang Province.

Unlike the United States (and, to some extent, Russia), China never makes political demands and never criticizes the authoritarian regimes of the region. Bejing never discloses its political goals or positions.

While Obama and Putin react to events in Central Asian countries like the April revolution in Kyrgyzstan, China keeps silent, staying aloof and never losing sight of its real goals and tasks. It keeps doggedly following its policy of offering the poor nations of the region soft loans in exchange for access to raw materials.

Some of the U.S. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks have shed light on China's approach to Central Asia. According to one cable, U.S. officials suspected China of offering Kyrgyzstan $3 billion to shut down the U.S. air base in the country. The February 13, 2009, cable describes a meeting between U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Tatiana Gfoeller and Chinese Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Zhang Yannian in which Gfoeller asked about the purported $3 billion offer. "Zhang temporarily lost the ability to speak Russian and began sputtering in Chinese to the silent aide diligently taking notes right behind him," the cable reads.

'All About Money'

When Gfoeller told Zhang that Washington was considering negotiating with Bishkek to keep the base open, he offered some "personal advice." "This is all about money," he said. He added that his Kyrgyz sources told him they needed $150 million. Gfoeller said the United States already provides that amount in assistance to Kyrgyzstan each year, and Zhang offered a simpler approach.

"Just give them $150 million in cash" each year and "you will have the base forever."

Zhang's words capture Chinese policies in Central Asia perfectly. It is all about money, not democracy or development or transparency.

Needless to say, this attitude rings a bell with the autocratic presidents of Central Asia. They noted, for instance, that unlike the United States, China gave its full support to Uzbek President Islam Karimov during the 2005 bloodshed in Andijon. Karimov's first foreign visit following the crackdown was to China, a trip that helped the Uzbek government face down mounting international pressure for an independent inquiry into Andijon.

The cooling of relations between Uzbekistan and the United States in 2004-05 gave a powerful push to Tashkent's economic relations with China. The leaders of the two countries met twice in 2005 (May in Beijing and July in Astana). In 2005 alone, China signed 20 investment agreements, credit contracts, and other deals for a total sum of about $2 billion.

Last June, Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to a further $2 billion in Chinese investment in Uzbekistan. The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has agreed in principle to purchase 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually from Uzbekneftegaz.

Such policies have secured the support of Central Asian autocrats for Chinese policies on the country's ethnic Uyghur minority. The Uyghurs are a Muslim group whose traditional home spans China's Xinjiang Province and three Central Asian countries. According to official statistics, some 210,000 Uyghurs live in Kazakhstan, 46,000 in Uzbekistan, and about 30,000 in Kyrgyzstan.

The Uyghurs of Central Asia have strong ties with those living in China, who have been struggling for greater autonomy for decades. Nonetheless, when Chinese security forces launched a brutal crackdown on Uyghur activists in the provincial capital of Urumqi in July 2009, an official statement of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (or SCO, which includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) expressed sympathy for the victims but emphasized that Urumqi was a domestic matter for China.

Beijing has effectively neutralized the Uyghur bid to gain support from the countries of Central Asia or the SCO as a whole.

Power Hungry

Central Asia is also crucial to China's drive for energy security. In 2004, China surpassed Japan to become the world's second-largest consumer of energy. Then in 2010 a United Nations agency reported that China had outstripped the United States to become the global leader.

To cope with this growing demand, China has pursued a wily strategy of distributing soft loans to the poor (and poorly governed) Central Asian states in exchange for access to key raw materials. In 2009, Kazakhstan got $10 billion from China to boost its flagging economy. At the same time, construction was completed on the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline. Initially, the nearly 3,000-kilometer pipeline will carry 200,000 barrels a day, but by next year, that figure is expected to double.

With substantial resources of oil, gas, coal, iron ore, zinc, copper, titanium, aluminum, silver, and gold, Kazakhstan is a particularly important relationship for China. Kazakh Oil and Gas Minister Sauata Mynbaeva recently announced that some 15 majority Chinese (50 to 100 percent) companies are active in Kazakhstan. The number of companies with smaller Chinese stakes is higher.

These companies extract about 80 million tons of Kazakh oil each year, of which an estimated 25 million tons is sent to China. Increasingly, China is become a strong rival to Russia in the energy sectors of Central Asian countries, while India and Japan have lagged behind. Already, China has a bigger stake in the Kazakh energy sector than Russia does. In 2009, China imported 18 million tons of Kazakh oil, while Russian firms (lead by LUKoil) extracted just 6.4 million tons.

The picture is similar in energy-rich Turkmenistan. There, China seeks to monopolize Turkmen natural-gas exports. According to Chinese figures, China will need 200 billion cubic meters of gas annually by 2020, while its own domestic production will be about 120 billion cubic meters.

Beijing expects that by then Turkmenistan will be able to make up the shortfall. In the Soviet period, Turkmenistan produced up to 90 billion cubic meters annually and exported about 70 billion.

Beijing has already signed contracts to purchase up to 40 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas annually. In December 2009, the first branch of the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan gas pipeline, with a throughput of 13 billion cubic meters a year, came on line. The second branch will be completed this year and the pipeline's total annual capacity will be 60 billion cubic meters.

In 2009, China gave Turkmenistan a $3 billion loan to develop the South Yolotan gas deposit. Last year, China approved an additional $4 billion to complete the first stage of this project.

Beijing sees Kyrgyzstan as a strategic base for trade expansion across Central Asia and the former Soviet space. Bishkek, for its part, seeks to maximize its profits from re-exporting Chinese goods. That trade is worth an estimated $250 million each year for Kyrgyzstan.

But the thing that concerns the populations of Central Asia most is the number of growing Chinese communities in each country. China always brings its own people, its own workers, to projects in Central Asia. According to best estimates more than 300,000 Chinese live in Kazakhstan now; there are about 200,000 in Kyrgyzstan, and about 150,000 in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan taken together. The growing Chinese presence in those countries often creates tensions with the local populations and creates suspicions about Beijing's intentions.

"We have to be very careful," a reader recently wrote on the website of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "There is a danger that we will become a province of China."

Cholpon Orozobekova is a Kyrgyz journalist based in Geneva. She has worked for BBC radio, RFE/RL, IWPR, and as editor in chief of independent newspaper "De Facto." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Marisa from: us
January 12, 2011 14:16
Beware neighbors of China and African countries! China has a lot of population to throw around and eventually the Chinese populations in your countries will overwhelm the native populations. Chinese always remain loyal to Beijing no matter what they say, and when the balance tilts, you will see your countries become provinces of China. It will happen - just take a look at Tibet and East Turkmenistan. Now it is happening in Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand - even the US and Canada slowly. No country is throwing their population around like China and the only issue is that the government is behind this expansionist movement and the Chinese are mere pawns in their grand scheme. Yes, it will take several hundred years for the entire process to be at the point of now return, but the government of China has such long range plans. They are unlike any other country in this regard - they plan for long term since the Communist Party of China is planning to be around forever. In the US, we only think to the next election, but not in China. So, little countries of central Asia - beware the promises of riches from the dragon since you will be sucked into its den.
In Response

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
January 13, 2011 11:24
And this is said by a probably white American citizen...

As far as I remember the USA was created by European immigrants while exterminating the native population of North-America...

The only successful 'expansionist' movements of the world was carried out by European colonialist forces such as Portugal, Spain, France or Great Britain.

AS you mentioned Australia and New Zealand let's have a look at thiose countries. They are far away from Europe however there population is mainly white with European origins... Oh and I remembers something like aboriginals in Australia...

The one who really 'threw its population around the world' was not else but Europe.

by: Ray Finch from: Lawrence, KS
January 12, 2011 16:10
Certainly don’t want to defend Chinese interests, but the author of this article presents a naïve and one-sided argument. I have not noticed anything ‘stealthy’ or ‘dangerous’ about the Chinese approach to Central Asian energy supplies. They have been upfront about their interests and have helped to develop some of these fuel reserves. The Chinese model of social and economic development may be better suited to the culture in Central Asia. The Chinese certainly have both geography and financial resources for capital investment within Central Asia. My guess is that many people in this region appreciate the Chinese investment.

Regarding Andijon and the recent problems in Kyrgyzstan, imagine the outcry and fear-mongering had the Chinese moved to quell these disturbances! Perhaps their 5,000 year history has taught the Chinese leadership about the dangers of trying to solve the problems of others.

The concern over how the Chinese might be willing to bribe their way into business is laughable. Granted the US does not like to use suitcases filled with money (except in places like Iraq and Afghanistan), but our leaders well understand just what makes this world go round (hint: it’s not democracy or human rights).

Finally, as an American in the 21st century, I find the author’s comments about the ‘yellow peril’ of Chinese immigration as racist and offensive. The Americans of Chinese descent in this country play an integral and positive role in all facets of life in the United States. They are responsible, hard-working, entrepreneurial and help to enrich and strengthen the social fabric of American life. I’m confident that they will bring these same qualities to the countries of Central Asia.
In Response

by: JEC from: Washington, DC
January 13, 2011 01:07
The author's comments about regional concerns with the growing Chinese populations tracks with what I heard from Central Asian scholars and with foreign diplomats based in Central Asia. We Americans need to understand we live in a bubble that in theory looks beyond racial/ethnic differences. This view, irrespective of its validity, isn't the way the rest of the world works.
I think the Central Asians have a legitimate concern about the Chinese and they are in a tough spot as thee regional security manager-Russia-is as equally helpless as they are in this matter.

by: Timur from: Kazakh
January 12, 2011 17:05
Chinese are in every country of central Asia. Yes, many people in this region appreciate the Chinese investment. But there is a danger of expansion, many people are concerned about this. Please don't compare US with Central Asian poor states. In these contries the situation is different. Some projects in energy sector are benifitial for both China and Kazakhstan, but not every state could benefited like Kazakhstan. Mostly, China's goal is to access to raw materials, it is truth. What we will have in 50 years? We have to think about this.

In Response

by: Beng from: Canada
January 17, 2011 11:35
I also sense a bit of fear-mongering from the author. But, I do not think it has become racism as many of those people of North/Central Asia look similar to people of Northern and Central China. If I understand correctly, China does not seek to rule how the Central Asian states operate or govern. As a Chinese person myself, I can tell you that Chinese people living abroad are generally-speaking progressive, industrious, respectful, and countries that accept us will thrive for a long time.
In Response

by: SIM from: former USR
January 18, 2011 09:33
Dear Beng, since you are Chinese, let me tell you one thing, first of all - you need a LIVING SPACE.!!! That's all.

by: mike from: Massachusetts, USA
January 12, 2011 23:22
This is another typical China-bashing article written by those who are increasingly alarmed by China's return to great power status. The fact is that China is growing, and it is trying to strike deals that are mutually beneficial to both China and other countries. So China does not follow the style of arrogant moral-lecturing/preaching and back-hand exploitation that western nations are so famous for...this does not make China a bad country. In fact, it makes China, while still a selfish power, many times better. As far as these Central Asian countries are concern, they benefit from Chinese investment, and they should be grateful. Quite frankly, who else has the money and the will to invest in them? The West is bankrupt.

by: Che Ahmad from: Msia
January 13, 2011 04:10
I don't want to take sides but I feel that the article is not only one sided but also bordering on racism. Anyone who reads history will be able to tell you who are the real power hungry oppressors and colonizers. Such an article in RFE only proves that the "ayrian" agenda remains the same all along.

by: Timur 2 from: Atyrau
January 13, 2011 10:55
"According to best estimates more than 300,000 Chinese live in Kazakhstan now; there are about 200,000 in Kyrgyzstan, and about 150,000 in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan taken together. "

I think someone has got their research wrong here !!!
In Response

by: Aizhan, Kyrgyz from: AUCA
January 14, 2011 08:32
It seems to me, Chinese live in CA much more than here specified. Many live without registration, especially in trademarkets. I completely support opinion of the author of this article. Here is no racism. Only who lived or has many times visited our countries able to understand the life of centralasian people. Those who never have been in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakstan, they don't have any representation about our shared problems.
In Response

by: The_Observer from: Australia
January 15, 2011 17:35
This is Central Asia that used to be part of the Soviet Union. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the people looked Chinese (or Mongolian) just as I wouldn't be surprised if they looked like Russians, Persians or Turks.
In Response

by: Central Asian
January 17, 2011 18:15
When you say "Chinese or Mongolian" you do realise dont you, that it is the cultural difference between the two makes a world of a difference? To you guys in Europe, Chinese may look similar to Central Asians, but the difference like between two different spicies. This is given that religious difference here plays about 0.00001% role.

by: P from: Former USR
January 14, 2011 11:51
I like RFE, but let's be honest, it's a cold war 'voice over the wire' tool funded by the State department. Still, the 'insipid' 'sneaky' and 'stealthyness' that is gracefully ladled onto China in this article lowers the quality of the report and damages the credibility of the news organisation, which overall is good. Interesting facts and stats' but this irritates me the same way as when the BBC leads its global news with an England cricket match - too much slant is a slow knife to your own foot.

by: Odette from: Germany
January 15, 2011 18:11
Amid the ongoing globalization it is just as important for China to have
a living space, which can be used for economic development as well as in the
interest of ensuring the country’s security. For the Central Asian Republics, China also becomes the natural choice given their landlocked position. In my opinion, Kyrgyzstan more concerned about growing China's influence. But there is no another way for poor and small country.

by: Edgar Emmett from: Kabul, Afghanistan
January 18, 2011 09:43
The article presents an accurate view from Central Asians regarding Chinese expansion into their territory. Following the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the more recent overthrow of Baikyev, Chinese stores were targeted by angry Kyrgyz who view the flood of Chinese traders as their rivals in the bazaars. The way the Chinese have stamped out Uyghur self-determination and autonomy in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is mirrored in their silencing of a Uyghur opposition in Central Asian countries. Supporters of China should consider her abysmal record on human rights before suggesting that the dragon is not dangerous. Beware the nose of the dragon under your tent, before long the whole beast will want to warm its behind by your fire.

by: centrasian
January 22, 2011 16:56
China is scary to me just like Taliban. Although I understand that Chinese people especially those who managed to leave their country and settle abroad are hard-working respectful, etc. I have encountered lots of information over time that tells me that China is racist and regards other nations to be inferior, it has Stalin-style gulag work camps for Uygurs and other people who disagree with policies, Chinese extraction companies abroad are among the most exploitative towards the local labour and yes, they also employ their own workers like e.g. Turkish companies coming to Central Asia. And the plight of people for better life and reforms in Central Asian countries is nipped in the bud with the help of China. The West does not behave much better though. Just like the West, China wants access to resources of Central Asia and, yes, more space for its own people.
Central Asian countries between themselves and with Russia are interconnected like Siamese twins. And better life and respect for human rights and free enterprise in these countries will come when Russia raises up as a power respecting human rights and free enterprise, rule of law and democratic checks and balances in its system. All the good changes come to Central Asia via Russia. On the other hand, Russia looks back at these countries and learns its lesson on how to rule with the iron fist. Russia should decide once and for all whether it wants to be a source of progress or a source of dark stagnation for Central Asia.

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