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.
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