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Central Asia: Some In Region Worried About Growing Chinese Power

Over the past decade, Beijing has developed friendly relations with Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, cooperating on a range of political, economic, and security issues. But many Central Asians continue to see China as a potential threat to the region.

Prague, 16 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- China's rise as a "great power" is raising fears in Central Asia that Beijing will eventually dominate the region both economically and militarily.

These fears come despite the friendly relations that have developed between regional governments over the past decade. China has repeatedly stressed that it wants to offer cooperation, not domination. But such assurances have not kept Central Asians like Dushanbe resident Abdelmalek Tordeli from worrying about the long-term consequences of a Chinese superpower. "In my opinion China will be one of the superpowers in the future. [But] I do not feel any threat for Tajikistan right now," he said.

Beijing's intensified diplomatic activity in the region was highlighted earlier this month when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Kazakhstan as part of his first foreign trip as head of state. After talks with Hu, President Nursultan Nazarbaev told reporters, "There are no unsolved social, economic or political issues between Kazakhstan and China today."

Central Asian officials are welcoming Beijing's higher regional profile, especially in Kazakhstan, where China offers an export alternative to the uncertain Caspian Basin development.

But Richard Faillace says Central Asian governments are still suspicious of Beijing even as their ties with China grow. He teaches foreign policy and diplomatic history at Kazakhstan's Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research in Almaty.

"There has always been this fear -- at least on the part of Kazakhstan's political thinkers and policymakers -- that someday there may be some sort of Chinese military invasion in the region. This is a very far-fetched scenario. I mean, I don't think it's a feasible scenario, but it is in the perception of the policymakers in Astana, and it's in the perception of the political scientists. So I think their policy is always guided toward want of appeasement with the Chinese," Faillace said.

Rana Mitter teaches modern Chinese politics and history at Britain's Oxford University. He noted that most regional fear of China is general, and rarely focuses on a specific threat. Apart from Beijing's determination to raise the Chinese flag over Taiwan, Mitter added, China is not behaving in an expansionist way. He said Chinese authorities are committed to projecting themselves as a peace-loving nation, and stressing that everyone can benefit from China's economic growth.

"The Chinese government and Chinese officials are extremely worried about the perception in the wider world that China poses any kind of threat. Diplomatically, the Chinese are always keen to project an image of international cooperation rather than confrontation. And they're very keen to be seen as good neighbors within the Asia-Pacific region," Mitter said.

Territorial disputes had been a sore spot in Chinese relations with Central Asia. But Beijing made significant concessions following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. It kept just 20 percent of the land disputed with Kazakhstan; with Kyrgyzstan, it kept 30 percent. In the case of Tajikistan, China dropped most of its claim to the Pamir Mountains.

But last year's ratification by the Kyrgyz parliament of a 1999 agreement to cede some 95,000 hectares of land to China prompted thousands of Kyrgyz across the country to protest. Bishkek had previously transferred 30,000 hectares to Beijing under a 1996 border accord.

Doolot Nusupuv is deputy chairman of the Kyrgyz nationalist Asaba (Flag) National Revival Party. He complained that the Kyrgyz government is making too many concessions toward an increasingly intrusive neighbor. "This is a problem. Our government should strengthen our [national] spirit, lead the country in the right direction, and develop our state in a positive way. Instead, it tells us that 1.5 billion Chinese might occupy our territory. Such an approach means our destruction even before [Chinese aggression] occurs," Nusupuv said.

Prior the recent closure of the border to prevent severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) from spreading to Central Asia, and the establishment of a new visa regime put into force on 14 June, an estimated 1,000 Chinese used to cross the border into Kyrgyzstan every month.

According to the new regulation, citizens on both sides of the Kyrgyz-Chinese border need a visa to cross. Previously, no visa was required by either side for journey of 30 days or less.

Central Asia's fears about China are rooted both in history and concerns about future jobs and regional influence. Murat Auezov, a former Kazakh ambassador to China, told RFE/RL: "I know Chinese culture. We should not believe anything Chinese politicians say. As a historian, I'm telling you that 19th-century China, 20th-century China, and 21st-century China are three different Chinas. But what unites them is the desire to expand their territories."

Auezov questioned whether it will be Chinese workers who will be hired to construct the planned pipeline to link oil-rich northwest Kazakhstan to China, and if so, what the conditions of their stay will be. The danger, he warned, is that the completion of the project may lead to an inflow of tens of thousands of Chinese migrants to Kazakhstan, including construction workers, cooks, and doctors.

Jorabeg Mirzaev, a professor at Tajikistan's state university in Dushanbe, is more optimistic. He predicts that regional relations with China will deepen and prove fruitful for everyone involved. "Of course China can threaten [us]. [But] if we strengthen our relations, then China can help us," he said.

For some Central Asians, the co-membership of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also includes Russia and Uzbekistan, is a guarantee against any kind of regional aggression from Beijing. "China should not take any step to threaten Tajikistan because now the SCO exists. And China and Russia are not supposed to do anything to threaten Tajikistan," one Tajik man told RFE/RL.

The grouping was established in 1996 to help defuse tensions along China's borders with the former Soviet Central Asian states. It has expanded its focus to include the fight against terrorism, extremism, and separatism as well as the promotion of economic cooperation.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik services contributed to this report.)