View Full Version : Xinjiang Unrest Tests China's Ties With Central Asia

18-07-09, 13:30

The ethnic rioting that has rocked China's northwestern province of Xinjiang over the past few days has badly poisoned the already tense relations between the region's Uighurs -- Muslims who make up a plurality of Xinjiang's residents -- and the Han Chinese. It could also complicate China's increasingly important ties with its neighbors in ex-Soviet Central Asia.

The Chinese presence in Central Asia has grown in recent years, especially in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Trade between China and Kyrgyzstan -- much of it exports of cheap Chinese manufactured goods -- tripled between 2004 and 2006 (the last year for which data were available). What's more, between 10,000 and 100,000 Chinese merchants and workers now live in Kyrgyzstan.

But the Chinese influx has become increasingly unwelcome, and resentment is growing among many Kyrgyz. "The migrant flow from China should be reduced," one parliamentarian said recently. "There is a threat that in 15 years, the country will overflow with Chinese."

Popular sentiment in Central Asia, meanwhile, is supportive of the Uighurs. There is a substantial Uighur population in Kazakhstan, and Uighurs also are closely related to Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and other Central Asian peoples, speaking similar languages and sharing long histories. However, aside from Kyrgyzstan, none of the other Central Asian states are especially responsive to the desires of their populations. And at the governmental level, China has made strong inroads in Central Asia, with generous aid packages and large-scale investment in the region's rich oil and natural gas fields. Earlier this year, Chinese analysts were arguing that Chinese-Central Asian relations were at their strongest level ever.

China's interest in Central Asia is driven by Beijing's need for energy resources to fuel its booming economy. In April, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited China and came away with a $10 billion aid package. As part of the repayment, China will take control over a significant Kazakhstan oil company. An opposition political party objected to the deal, saying it "could do irreparable damage to our country's economic security, and even more so to its national security." However, the ruling party holds all of the seats in Kazakhstan's parliament. China also loaned Turkmenistan $4 billion in June, and the two countries are close to opening a pipeline to carry Turkmeni natural gas to China.

But Central Asia poses risks to China, as well. Because of the traditional ties between Uighurs and the ex-Soviet Central Asian peoples, Uighurs who have been persecuted in China have fled to Central Asia to continue their political activities, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Over the last several years, China has worked assiduously with the Central Asian states to quash Uighur activities outside China. China has used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security grouping led by Russia and China and including all the 'Stans except Turkmenistan, to press the Central Asian states to extradite Uighur political activists. According to Amnesty International, "The plight of Uighur asylum seekers in Central Asia has . . . worsened as these countries have strengthened their economic, military and political cooperation with China through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization." Most notoriously, in 2006, Uzbekistan extradited a Canadian citizen of Uighur origin to China, where he remains in prison.

There are signs that China is even more worried now about security threats from Central Asia: In response to the crisis in Xinjiang, China has suspended visas for Kazakhstani citizens who want to travel to Xinjiang, although they can still travel to other parts of China. The two countries have also tightened control over their border. For now, therefore, China's crackdown on Uighurs is not likely to have much of an impact on Beijing's relations with the governments of Central Asia, which generally have remained quiet on the issue.

Turkey, by contrast, has been outspoken in defense of Uighurs since the rioting began. That could create discomfort not only for Beijing, but also for the governments of Central Asia, many of which see China as a model not only for economic development, but for how to maintain a one-party state and to squelch dissent.

Among the general public of Central Asia, suspicion of China has already been running high, and people will likely compare their own government's response unfavorably in comparison with Turkey's. If the repression of Uighurs gets significantly worse -- and if Central Asians see Uighurs successfully battling a repressive government -- Central Asian governments may find themselves, like China, grappling with their own popular discontent.