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Qishloq Ovozi

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (left) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on May 15.

China hosted an international conference for the ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) trade transportation network on May 14-15.

The conference brought together leaders from 30 different countries, including three presidents from Central Asia -- Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kyrgyzstan’s Almazbek Atambaev, and Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyaev.

Central Asia borders China, and one could say Chinese projects in Central Asia were a basis for the concept of OBOR.

OBOR’s promise of enhanced trade and greater global connectivity is enticing but there are many aspects of OBOR that remain unclear. For example, who is paying for it.

On this week's Majlis podcast, we discuss Central Asia’s role in OBOR.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Bishkek, Przemtslow Ozierski, the deputy director of the Central Asia Strategic Center for Analysis, Dialogue and Development took part in the talk. From London, Dr. Raffaello Pantucci (@raffpantucci), director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, joined in. From Spain, Nicolas de Pedro (@nicolasdepedro), a research fellow in charge of the post-Soviet space at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, contributed his insight to the discussion. And I really enjoy the big picture stuff, so I said something also.

OBOR seeks to link more than 60 countries by road, rail, and sea in a new global trade network. Beijing has estimated some $1 trillion will be invested into developing this network.

Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced plans for OBOR in September 2013, but its origins go back to the 1990s when Beijing decided to develop the oil-rich Tarim Basin in China’s western Xinjiang region.

Pantucci recalled, "There was this huge push to develop the west because the Chinese thought they needed to develop their western regions, so the investment and the attention was really in Xinjiang, but then there’s no kind of logic to developing Xinjiang if the regions around it aren’t [developed]."

China made its first widely publicized entry into Central Asia in 1997, when it signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to construct an oil pipeline from western Kazakhstan to Xinjiang.

Between 2000 and 2010, fueled by Chinese loans and investment, a network of roads, railway lines, and pipelines was built between Central Asia and China.

OBOR already existed in Central Asia before Xi articulated it as a much grander project.

OBOR would enhance this infrastructure and turn Central Asia from an end-of-the-line region for trade with China into a transit region for trade extending from China into the Middle East and Europe.

In one of the promotional videos released ahead of the May OBOR conference, one actor says OBOR is "China’s idea… but it belongs to the world."

De Pedro said, "The Chinese are saying that the project is really neutral from a geopolitical and if you want from an ideological point of view." But he added, "It’s mainly perceived, at least by the Central Asians, Russia, and Western Europeans, as a project which has huge geopolitical and strategic implications.”

Central Asia does not have much choice except to open the region’s doors to OBOR. The discussion noted that since the Central Asian states became independent in late 1991 upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, only China has really stepped in economically.

Speaking about Kyrgyzstan, Ozierski noted, “"t’s very important for Kyrgyzstan to…use the OBOR escape from its landlocked perspective and open for the world.”

That is true for all the Central Asian states, and new routes to China have already opened up new possibilities for trade.

But it comes at a cost.

Central Asia’s infrastructure has improved and continues to improve with Chinese help. But the Central Asian governments have been taking huge loans from China to implement these projects.

Pantucci said in some cases "these loans are being taken on with a certain level of care and attention and there’s a thought to how are we going pay it back." But he added, "In some Central Asian contexts, you do question how ultimately that money is going to get paid back."

Kyrgyzstan’s Finance Ministry just reported the country’s debt to China’s Exim Bank is some $1.54 billion, some 40 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign debt and an amount Kyrgyzstan will be hard pressed to repay.

Similarly, China is Tajikistan’s biggest creditor, with Dushanbe now owing more than $1 billion, more than 40 percent of that Central Asian country’s external debt, and again a sum that seems beyond Tajikistan’s ability to pay back.

Ozierski said he believed there would come a time when China would have to write off some of this debt. But with China already having extended billions of dollars of loans for projects around the world and preparing to make another $124 billion available to help finance OBOR, writing off debts could spark a financially disastrous domino effect from poor nations involved in OBOR.

And de Pedro referred to an article from Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper last October that looked at Chinese projects and funding in Pakistan, taking the view of "the China-Pakistan corridor as a sort of new East India company, basically meaning that the pattern is a very colonial pattern."

There is another aspect of massive Chinese investment in Central Asia that now seems unavoidable and that is what security role China might play in the region in the interests of protecting its investments.

De Pedro said, "At some point, China will need to take a bigger role" in Central Asian security, despite distrust from not only the Central Asians but Russia as well.

The panel noted that China has been slowly increasing its security cooperation in Central Asia, particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, despite larger regional organizations already involved in the region, such as the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Pantucci pointed out China has some doubts about the ability of the CSTO or the SCO to stem the problems of Islamic extremism in South and Central Asia. So, in August 2016, China created a new group with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan to fight terrorism, an organization Pantucci said that was "very much focused around China’s concerns in those countries."

Pantucci said that despite what many think about China’s intentions with the trade routes or OBOR in general, "I don’t think this has all been very centrally planned out from Beijing."

"What is the consequence of when you, as a country, go into a country like Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan and become suddenly within the space of a short period of time the biggest sort of economic player in this country?" Pantucci asked.

The Majlis podcast looked at these matters in greater detail and discussed several other important facets of Central Asia’s growing connections to China and OBOR.

Podcast: 'OBOR' Means 'China,' And All That Comes With That
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.

Ethnic Turkmen Battle Militants In Northern Afghanistan
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For more than three years now, Qishloq Ovozi and the Majlis podcast have been following events in northern Afghanistan, in the provinces that border Central Asia, while the situation there went from concerning to unstable.

This reporting benefited greatly from the work and dedication of one person, Shamerdanguly Myrady, one of our correspondents in Afghanistan.

At significant personal risk, he has been making trips to northwest Afghanistan, his native area, to report on events as the situation there deteriorated. He just went again.

Myrady spent a week in Balkh, Jowzjan, and Sari Pul provinces at the start of May, and this is some of what he reported to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk.

Myrady said there were many armed groups operating in northwestern Afghanistan -- "just in the Shortepa district, there are at least 10 [different] groups."

Shortepa is in the northwest corner of Balkh Province and it borders Uzbekistan. The people of Shortepa, an area with a mainly ethnic Turkmen population, told Myrady the Taliban and militants from the Islamic State extremist group were operating in the district. Locals also said some of the militants were from north of the border, from Central Asia.

Myrady met a man in Shortepa who called himself "commander" Abdul Menan, the leader of one of the local "uprising" militias. Speaking about the militants, Menan said, "Just in our area they killed at least 27 men and two women."

Menan said that despite appeals to the authorities, no help had arrived. "No other choice remained to us," he said, "other than selling our property -- carpets, cows -- to buy weapons and attack" the militants.

Myrady said that in conversations with people around the three provinces it became clear local militias were being formed in many areas.

The 209th Corps, or Shaheen Corps, is responsible for northern Afghanistan. The 209th is stretched thin and that is the reason militant groups have been able to bring so many districts in northern Afghanistan at least partially under their control.

Some people told Myrady the attack on the Shaheen Corps base in Mazar-e Sharif on April 22 that left more than 130 soldiers dead shattered the confidence of many people that government forces could protect them.

This has led to an increase of paramilitary formations in the area, such as Menan's group. Myrady said that based on what people told him, it seems paramilitary groups such as the Arbaky are now doing most of the fighting in districts away from the provincial capitals.

The lack of government control has other consequences. Myrady said there was more opium poppy cultivation in northwest Afghanistan than any time he could remember.

According to a 2016 UN report, Badghis Province, which borders Turkmenistan, is the second-largest producer of opium poppies among Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Badghis is west of Jowzjan and Balkh.

People Myrady encountered told stories of vehicles being stopped by Taliban fighters and some people being taken away, of insurgents that locals described as "Daesh" or IS militants beheading locals.

There were also tales about the Taliban collecting money from villagers for electricity supplied by Turkmenistan, or simply collecting "zakat," or taxes, from locals.

Myrady said it appeared small bazaars selling weapons and narcotics are operating in some districts of northwestern Afghanistan where militants are in control, including districts on the border with Turkmenistan.

Myrady's reporting sheds some small light on the dire situation in northwestern Afghanistan. Recent reports on fighting in northern Afghanistan came from battlefields in Kunduz and Badakhshan provinces, in northeastern Afghanistan, along the border with Tajikistan.

The situation appears no better in northwestern Afghanistan, it just doesn't get reported, which makes Myrady's trips all the more important.

Toymyrat Bugaev from Azatlyk contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.