Kyrgyzstan’s recent peaceful presidential elections did not feature China as a campaign issue. For the most part, they focused on domestic issues and where foreign policy seeped in, it was mostly in the positive light that most Kyrgyz see Russia and separately its regional customs union, or perennial whipping boy the U.S. “transit hub” at Manas airport, outside Bishkek. Subsequent to the elections, the winner Mr. Atambaev declared: “In 2014 the United States will have to withdraw its military base from the ‘Manas’ international airport” (www.regnum.ru, November 1). China was not mentioned at all, even though a series of conversations and interviews up and down the country in the weeks prior to the election revealed a strange sense of unease about Kyrgyzstan’s growing dependence on China.
The paradoxical and unfocused nature of this concern was best exemplified in a pair of interviews conducted in Bishkek with a former cabinet-level minister and a young Kyrgyz e-businessman. The former official spoke in concerned terms of Kyrgyzstan’s “economic dependence” on China and the fact that “all small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the country had to deal with China” . The businessman on the other hand saw China as a giant opportunity: one has to “just look at a map” to see how important the country is going to be for Kyrgyzstan . While exact figures are hard to come by, a visit to a number of Kyrgyzstan’s large bazaars in Bishkek, Osh and Jalal-Abad all show high volumes of Chinese goods and, in some, long-term Chinese traders from as far away as Fujian province. While income from the U.S. airbase is important (according to the Congressional Research Service, accounting for some $501.5 million or 5 percent of GDP in 2010) and remittances from Kyrgyz in Russia or Kazakhstan remain a key provider of income in the country; it seems increasingly clear that China is bringing Kyrgyzstan into its economic sphere of influence . The question that seems to bother some Kyrgyz is what the potential implications are in the longer term.
China has taken a three-fold approach to Kyrgyzstan, accompanied by an informal fourth pillar and the overarching umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In the first instance, it has focused on economics and facilitating trade between the two countries, including infrastructure development. Roads linking Kyrgyzstan to China are being redeveloped by Chinese state-owned enterprises like the China Road & Bridge Company (CRBC), that won the tender in 2007 to complete a project partially-funded by China to develop the road from Osh to the Irkeshtam Pass with China . Due to be completed next year, a drive along it in September confirmed this schedule was being kept with the road almost completed. In other instances, the Chinese government has offered development in exchange for local mining concessions (www.24.kg, August 26). A practice emulated at a more local level by smaller Chinese mining firms south of Jalal-Abad (Reuters, September 21). The question of a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan train line continues to go unresolved, with skeptical observers interviewed in Bishkek pointing out that similar Chinese projects elsewhere overcame their difficulties rapidly, while officials tell the press that difficulties are focused on the question of how to rationalize the different gauges that would need to be deployed (AKI Press, October 12).
In parallel to this infrastructure development and trade encouragement, China has started to make a soft-power push in the region. This has come in the form of establishing a pair of Confucius Institutes in Bishkek with subsidiary branches in Osh and Jalal-Abad. Part of the international network of Confucius Institutes, they are focused on teaching Chinese language to young Kyrgyz, using Kyrgyz-Chinese text books and leveraging faculty and administrators brought in on two-year cycles from partners Xinjiang University and Xinjiang Normal University. Based on a recent count by a teacher at a university in Bishkek, the authors were told the Confucius Institutes and teaching stations had somewhere in the region of 4,000 students in total at every level across the country—a number that pales in comparison to the number of young Kyrgyz able to speak Russian or English. This large and growing figure probably reflects the opportunities that young Kyrgyz see in China or with Chinese firms in Kyrgyzstan. While the Confucian Institutes focus on language learning to prepare students to use Chinese in a business setting, teachers appear eager to stimulate their students' interest in other aspects of China’s culture and history giving informal classes in tai chi, paper cutting and Chinese dressmaking.
There are other aspects to China’s cultural influence in the region. In early 2009, the Kyrgyz government accepted a Chinese offer of 20,000 television receivers for individual homes in the Batken Oblast in southern Kyrgyzstan. Given the mountains and distance between Bishkek and certain isolated southern areas, locals were using antiquated receivers for their televisions and consequently getting news from Uzbekistan that painted the Bishkek leadership in a bad light. According to a senior foreign ministry official spoken to in Bishkek, part of the exchange that the Chinese government extracted for the receivers was to allow CCTV Russian to be broadcast directly into the country . In addition to this, however, locals in Osh report they are able to receive Xinjiang Television on their receivers without cable packages and are often surprised to find Kyrgyz language broadcasts included in the daily programming . At a more practical level, the Chinese government has donated Yaxing buses and tractors for Kyrgyz farmers to use (Xinhua, July 30) . In June 2011, the Chinese Ambassador announced a donation of some $14.3 million to Kyrgyzstan to fix roads, power stations, and to support the construction of the railroad in the country (AKI Press, June 20).
The third pillar of Chinese interests in the country is far more opaque: China’s security interests in Kyrgyzstan. Primarily focused on security threats directly linked with Uighur terrorist networks in China, the Chinese government has focused these relations at a very secretive and direct level and little is known publicly about how China has conducted its relations in this field. Stories and rumors abound of China seeking extradition of specific Uighurs (IRIN News, January 29, 2004). In one case recounted to the authors by a Kyrgyz official focused on religious affairs, at the Chinese government request, police in Bishkek aggressively suppressed a protest by Falun Gong supporters outside the Chinese Embassy. It was unclear if this was before or after the Kyrgyz court decision to revoke Falun Gong’s registration in the country (Associated Press, February 26, 2005).
A fourth informal pillar also exists to Chinese-Kyrgyz relations: the growing community of cross-border traders and the smaller local Chinese SMEs that are focused on developing interests in Kyrgyzstan. From a Chinese perspective, this community is one that needs to be assisted occasionally, such as when the Chinese government arranged buses and airplanes to evacuate Chinese citizens caught up during the riots in southern Kyrgyzstan last year (Xinhua, June 17, 2010). Chinese academics spoken to in Shanghai have expressed some concern about the number of Hizb ut Tahrir members amongst this community of traders, but this does not seem a live concern on the ground where there is little evidence of extreme religiosity amongst the Chinese traders found in Osh, Jalal-Abad or Kara-Suu bazaars. Chinese SMEs are focused in the mining industry and also have invested in a cement factory in Kyzyl-Kyia. In some cases, these firms have encountered local problems with accusations of poisoning and environmental despoliation, or with local groups expressing anger at outsiders coming in and taking what they see as their natural wealth. According to numerous local officials and foreign observers, however, this anger is not directed specifically at Chinese firms, but is a more general rage against all outside investors in the extractive industries .
Overlaying China’s bilateral relationship is its regional multilateral framework, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). For Kyrgyzstan, the SCO is primarily an international opportunity. Though almost universally regarded by ordinary Kyrgyz and foreign ministry officials alike as an exclusively Chinese vehicle, it is cautiously welcomed as a balance against Russia's Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Moscow-led regional Customs Union that is actively courting Bishkek . That said, Kyrgyz spoken to are quick to note that the SCO very loudly did nothing when political violence and ethnic strife rocked their country in 2010 (Xinhua, June 21, 2010). Its supposedly bringing together of China, Russia and the Central Asian states (except for Turkmenistan) to jointly combat the "three evils" of separatism, terrorism and extremism rings hollow when residents of Osh look at their half-empty, burnt out market. In interviews, Kyrgyz inside and outside the government wondered why China does not assert itself more politically through the SCO, though few would welcome such an eventuality .
Perhaps most important for a small state like Kyrgyzstan is the regular opportunity the SCO provides for dialogue on a range of issues with neighboring Central Asian states, especially Uzbekistan . With a closed border and the ever-present fear of perceived bullying from Tashkent, the SCO's regular head-of-state, ministerial and expert-level meetings provide a venue in which to reduce tensions. Having been beaten by Pakistan for the rotating seat on the UN Security Council, Bishkek will welcome the international attention it receives as the SCO chair and the host of its summit in 2013 (24.kg, June 16).
The real test for the SCO will come once Western forces begin to withdraw in earnest from Afghanistan and the region. The year 2014 is bandied about in Kyrgyz political discourse as the moment that Kyrgyzstan will be abandoned to the great powers of the region or the restitution of Kyrgyz sovereignty once the United States leaves the Manas airbase (Associated Press, November 1). It is an open question what role the SCO could play in a post-Afghan withdrawal environment with officials, academics and foreign observers met in Beijing and Bishkek concluding the SCO was not going to do much . Aside from Russia’s historical baggage with Afghanistan and a general lack of capacity from the Central Asian SCO members, a key reason behind this lack of action is a Chinese unwillingness to become too visibly involved in either local political disputes or larger geopolitical games.
For Kyrgyzstan, this contributes to a sense of uncertainty, bordering on foreboding, about China's presence in the country and the region. With China on the other hand, it is not clear what the nation wants or has the capability to do in Afghanistan, though its larger regional strategy is clearer. In the medium and longer-term the priority for China in Central Asia remains ensuring stability and development—something that is going to require more effort with Kyrgyzstan specifically given the nation’s poverty and lack of natural resources. Typical of Beijing’s cautious approach to international relations globally, China probably will continue to increase its presence and influence slowly. This will help develop the region abutting China’s restive western province Xinjiang (both in economic terms locally, but also as a transit route for Chinese goods to elsewhere) and hopefully, from a Chinese perspective, increase prosperity there too. This ultimately is the key to understanding Chinese involvement in Central Asia where the priority remains developing the region with a view to helping development in Xinjiang.
For Kyrgyzstan in particular, the main threat and difficulty to China comes in the form of the nation becoming a failed state that provides a shelter for separatist and terrorist networks seeking to launch attacks within China. Currently, it seems China has established strong connections and is willing to provide funding to prevent such groups from developing much capacity in Kyrgyzstan. In terms of becoming involved in fixing ethnic tensions within Kyrgyzstan, China however has expressed little interest in becoming involved, focusing instead on providing aid and reconstruction support when it is useful or requested. Typical of China’s approach to international relations elsewhere, this is all conducted in a quiet manner, something that will likely do little to improve local confidence in Chinese aims. Kyrgyzstan will continue to seek to assert its independence in policymaking by balancing the great powers off each other, but China’s slow surge has an ever-larger impact on the policy agenda even if it is not part of the public discourse.