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Star Bulletin
13-03-06, 10:05
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Shoppers walk below signs in both Chinese and Russian identifying the giant Rahat Bazaar market in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The signs are indicative of the growing economic influence of China, Central Asia's large neighbor.

China in, Russia out
China maneuvers to replace Russia as a dominant political influence in Central Asia

By Bill Sharp
wsharp@campus.hpu.edu

THE independent Central Asian "stans" -- Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan -- were long obscured from global view when they were individual republics of the Soviet Union. As independent nations, they are now of great interest to China, which is quietly and persistently seeking political leadership in the region through the Chinese dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

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Bill Sharp

About the author:
Bill Sharp is adjunct professor of East Asian International Relations at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary about events in Asia for the Star-Bulletin.

Historically, China played a dominant role in Central Asia with the mountainous desert region sending its tributaries to the Beijing court to pay homage. Central Asia has always been the global confluence of advanced East and West cultures and economies. After all, this is the area through which the Silk Road runs.

OWING TO A faltering Qing Dynasty and ineffectual Republic of China, Russian influence was paramount only during the last 100 years. Financially weakened and with its attention focused on Chechnya, Moscow's influence continues to atrophy. Chinese policy seeks regional leadership to eclipse U.S. influence, enhance the security of its Xinjiang Autonomous Region, to access oil and natural gas resources, and to increase investment and trade opportunities.

In 1991 Central Asian states declared independence from Russia and were immediately recognized by China. As Soviet republics, establishing international boundary lines with China was not a problem. To resolve international border demarcation problems, the Shanghai Five was established in 1991 consisting of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and China. Such issues were quietly and successfully settled.

THEN, in 2001, the Shanghai Five was transformed into the SCO and added Uzbekistan as a member state. A Chinese-dominated organization housed in a modern, shiny glass building in Beijing's Chaoyang District, the SCO is dedicated to resolving multilateral issues of concern to member states. That is preventing separatism, extremism, terrorism, drug smuggling and the spread of American influence. The SCO secretary general is Zhang Deguang, a highly experienced, senior Chinese diplomat who has served in the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and as ambassador to both Kazakhstan and Russia.

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Once known as Chinese Turkistan and located in China's northwesternmost corner, Xinjiang (the new border) is the home of China's Uighur minority. The Uighurs, who trace their ancestry to Turkey, are envious of the independence that their Muslim brothers in Central Asia enjoy. And many in Central Asia, including more than 300,000 Uighurs dispersed throughout the region, want to see Xinjiang become independent East Turkistan. Uighur freedom fighters have received terrorist training in Central Asia. Once trained, they find their way through porous borders to Xinjiang to promote independence and the formation of a fundamentalist Islamic state, often by bombing buses and markets. As a result, more than 400 people died between 1990 and 2001.

GIVEN THE inherent political instability in China proper, China is constantly concerned about unrest in Xinjiang where major weapons caches have been discovered. Moreover, the number of Muslim rebels has grown to the point where more than 250,000 -- one-tenth -- of People's Liberation Army soldiers are stationed in the autonomous region to ensure law and order, according to Swedish scholar Niklas Swanström's "China and Central Asia: A New Great Game or Traditional Vassal Relations?" in the November 2005 issue of the Journal of Contemporary China.

China is forever fearful of being geographically encircled by the United States; however, when the U.S. military entered Afghanistan, China overcame its fear and supported U.S. objectives. China reasoned that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan would be short and would help to eliminate the Taliban, which in turn would help to make China more secure. For once, China and America had a goal that they could cooperatively solve: the eradication of terrorism.

HOWEVER, as America enthusiastically turned to promoting democracy in Afghanistan, it was clear that America's stay wouldn't be short. The Chinese became more and more concerned as demonstrators took to the streets in the Ukraine, Georgia and nearby Kyrgyzstan demanding democracy. Chinese and American policy began to diverge.

For their part, most SCO leaders are not only secular but also authoritarian. They have little if any interest in being lectured by American officials about promoting democracy. Moreover, given that many Central Asian state leaders were one-time Communist Party leaders, they share a good lot of ideological perspective with the Chinese.

Chinese President Hu Jintao declared that Central Asia is crucial to Chinese economic development. In fact, much of Chinese foreign policy is driven by the need to create a secure supply of natural resources to keep China's development moving forward. Central Asian states offer abundant reserves of oil, natural gas and other natural resources. The recently completed Kazakhstan-China pipeline is a Chinese victory in the contest for control of Central Asian energy.

Furthermore, Central Asia offers a convenient location for building a land-based, well-protected pipeline from Iran and other Middle East oil-producing countries through Central Asia into Xinjiang and on to China's heavily populated, coastal industrial centers. Such a pipeline would offer a system of transporting oil secure from U.S. naval and air forces that can interdict sea routes extending from the Middle East, through the Straits of Malacca and north to Chinese ports. Moreover, the region is a good market for Chinese goods and other business deals, which will reap economic benefit for Xinjiang and China's Sichuan Province.

To enhance its access to natural resources and to cultivate the market, China's "yuan diplomacy" has kicked into high gear, making one loan of $5.7 million to Kyrgyzstan and another loan of $5 million to Tajikistan to buy Chinese products. While the countries are certainly glad to receive the loans, tying them to the purchase of Chinese goods might hurt China in the long run.

Spearheaded by the SCO, China's clout in Central Asia is growing. Russia's longstanding influence is receding and America's influence is mainly concentrated in Afghanistan, having been asked to leave Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad Air Base for pressuring the host government to democratize. That does not mean that there are no obstacles to Chinese policy success. Tenuous political stability in China proper is evident as the number of large-scale domestic protests continue to grow. Central Asian states are not always in agreement on trans-regional policies and play China off against Russia, when to their advantage.

However, it is Japan that offers the greatest challenge to China in Central Asia. According to Christopher Len's "Japan Brings Balance to Central Asia" in the Feb. 16 edition of Asia Times Online, Japan has given more than $2 billion to foster long-term economic and social change in the region. Area officials do not see Japan as being primarily interested in the acquisition of natural resources. Compared to the SCO, the Central Asia Plus Japan Initiative, Japan's counter regional organization, is far less visible. While Turkmenistan is not an SCO member and maintains a neutral foreign policy, it has joined the Japanese-sponsored organization.

Despite the role of both regional organizations, Central Asian states are fundamentally interested in their own well being. Free of China's policy to tie economic assistance to protecting Chinese security concerns, Japanese policy enjoys the advantage of focusing on economic development. Japan can help to counterbalance both Chinese and residual Russian influence.

China's use of the SCO to achieve regionalization in Central Asia is further evidence of its move from a diplomacy based on bilateral relationships to one founded on multilateral relationships, to enhance its security and ensure access to natural resources. Having not yet achieved the degree of success it would like, China continues to cultivate the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In Northeast Asia, the future of China's proposal to create a regional security system remains unknown. Of all three regional pursuits, China has been the most successful in Central Asia.



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