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Central Asia: China Brings Electronics, But Not Democracy

A Chinese-owned market on the outskirts of Almaty (RFE/RL) The 9/11 terrorist attacks against America prompted the United States to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. At the time, many predicted Washington would gain a new foothold in Central Asia. The United States established military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, U.S. foreign aid increased, and much American attention was focused on the region. Russia and China looked on warily. But the pendulum may be swinging back in Moscow’s and Beijing’s favor. China, especially, has expended great effort at winning friends in Central Asia and may become a force to be reckoned with. We look at the issues in this fourth part of our five-part series on the Battle for Central Asia.

Prague, 25 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Ask people on the streets of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek or Kazakhstan’s commercial center of Almaty who their country’s closest ally should be and most will answer automatically: Russia.

Oktyabr Kapalbaev, a university lecturer in Bishkek, says that geography and history are key factors. "Our closest ally should be Russia because we were part of the Russian Empire, then the USSR, and now the CIS. And Russia is our closest ally in the CIS. Russia has always helped us in the past and it will continue to do so in the future," Kapalbaev says.

Many people quizzed in Almaty concur. One man expresses a common view when he says no foreign country can unseat Russia from its dominant regional position thanks to its history, language, and culture -- all of which remain intimately familiar to Kazakhs and other Central Asians.

"The closest is Russia. We were under Russia for many years. I served as a soldier there, I studied there and I have relatives there," he says.

Despite Russia’s natural advantage, China over the past decade has been tirelessly nurturing its ties with the region. Chinese President Hu Jintao this summer made his second visit to Kazakhstan during which the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement. They reaffirmed their intention to build an oil pipeline from western Kazakhstan to China (Atasu-Alashankou). They also signed agreements on transport, trade, and science ties.

The Long Game

Across Central Asia, Chinese officials have signed similar deals, made numerous trips, and opened trade offices in hopes of bolstering Beijing’s presence.

Rana Mitter, an expert on modern China at Oxford University, explains Beijing’s strategy. "China is currently playing what I'd call a ‘long game’ in Central Asia," Mitter says. "It’s making investments -- both in terms of actual financial and physical capital -- but also in terms of diplomatic and diplomatic good will in the region, knowing that although things there change relatively slowly, the period in the next 10 to 15 years is going to be a very crucial one in Central Asia and that China must leave its footprint there. So I’d say they’re developing their presence."

For authoritarian states like Uzbekistan, closer ties with China present one great advantage. Unlike the United States, Beijing does not pressure its allies to democratize or liberalize its markets.

For authoritarian states like Uzbekistan, closer ties with China present one great advantage. Unlike the United States, Beijing does not pressure its allies to democratize or liberalize its markets.

There are two main reasons driving Beijing’s policy. One is the need for energy supplies.

Mitter says that as China is becoming more developed and its economy continuing to grow rapidly, its need for oil, gas, and other natural minerals has become greater. "One of the most notable discussions and disputes in recent months has been the future of a Kazakhstan petrol company, [for whose control] China ultimately managed to outbid India," Mitter says. "This is symptomatic of a much wider regional race for control over energy and therefore the economic effects that come from it."

The other reason is security.

Mitters says that after the fall of the Soviet Union, China faced a security problem on its western borders. "Not a very active one," Mitters says. "But one that might become problematic if those states, for instance, turn to a form of radical Islamism, which China would find very uncomfortable, particularly if the political situation changed. And therefore they think that it’s important to make sure that they have stable, and as they see it, moderate governments on their borders which will not interfere with regional stability."

For authoritarian states like Uzbekistan, closer ties with China present one great advantage. Unlike the United States, Beijing does not pressure its allies to democratize or liberalize its markets.

Fear Of The 'Black' Hordes

Nevertheless, it will be some time before China reaps a return on its investment in Central Asia. Language and cultural barriers will take years to surmount. And anti-Chinese attitudes run deep in some Central Asian countries, even among the younger generation. Fear of China’s enormous population is usually uppermost in Central Asian minds when talking about China.

Samat Smagulov, a 30-year-old construction worker in Almaty, cites a popular proverb to explain why Kazakhstan should favor Russia over China as an ally: "Russia. There is a proverb: If the 'black' Chinese [hordes] come, the 'white' Russian will seem like your own father."

While Europe and the United States have been flooded with high-quality goods manufactured in China, Chinese-made products available in Central Asia have a reputation for being shoddy -- something that has damaged the country’s image as an economic partner.

A man in Almaty, asked about his attitude to Chinese products, didn’t mince his words. "Very bad. Everything is such junk. For example, I bet you don’t buy any Chinese goods either, right?" he said.

In short, Central Asia presents a much more mixed picture than several years ago. China, Russia, the United States and other countries have all become regional players. Everyone is pressing their own advantage and no one has a monopoly on strategic relations.

In the long term, China may reap the biggest relative gains -- especially if one considers that it played almost no role in the region just a decade ago. But the United States cannot be counted out and it retains at least one major asset that beats even Russia’s close cultural links according to Gleason.

"The United States is a country that has from its earliest days been committed to human rights, to individual rights and to the improvement of the human situation," Gleason says. "Other countries around the world have not identified this as their most important vision of the future. As a consequence, in countries all around the world, people still look to the United States as a country that can provide values that will lead them to greater openness, a greater sense of individual freedom, greater commercial freedom. People continue to look at the United States from that perspective in the Central Asian countries and I would expect that will be something that continues to influence them in a significant way."

(RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Akan Imanov contributed to this report from Bishkek. RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service contributed to this report from Almaty.)

Read the other parts in the "Battle For Central Asia" series:

Oil, Diplomacy, And Military Might

China-Russia Bloc Challenges U.S. In Region

Russia And U.S. Often At Odds In Region

Iran, Turkey Struggle To Influence Region

Battle For Central Asia

Battle For Central Asia

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