BACKGROUND: Kyrgyzstan is one of the most impoverished countries in Central Asia. It lacks own deposits of natural gas and oil, the major commodities on the world market which some of its Central Asian neighbors possess in abundance. The lack of resources and related poverty is one of the major reasons why Kyrgyzstan has proven to be possibly the most politically unstable country in Central Asia. Pressed both by a lack of resources and external as well as internal threats to the regime, Kyrgyzstan’s political elite has engaged in a continuous search for foreign sponsors. Bishkek’s foreign policy has proven highly unstable and has fluctuated in sync with the country’s internal instability. Three presidents have left office over the last twenty years, two of which were overthrown. The latest such development was the ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiev during the 2010 revolution and his eventual replacement with Almazbek Atambaev. Atambaev has, similar to the country’s previous leaders, been preoccupied with finding foreign sources of cash. While Russia stands out as one of the most likely donors and Atambaev has also sought to reinforce Kyrgyzstan’s toes with Turkey, the resources possessed by China dwarf those of any alternative international patron.
Atambaev’s active effort to attract Chinese investment is slowly starting to pay off. Bishkek assumes that the presence of Russian forces will provide the Atambaev regime with a modicum of security, although no guarantees exist in this direction as was demonstrated by Moscow’s reluctance to intervene during the 2010 events when Bishkek openly pled for help. Yet, it is clear that Moscow’s incentives for considerable economic investments in Kyrgyzstan are limited. As a consequence, Atambaev has turned to other potential donors, most notably Turkey. Turkey’s economic interest in Kyrgyzstan is enhanced not just by the notion of Turkic solidarity and Ankara’s latent pan-Turkism merged with Neo-Ottomanism, but also by Atambaev’s personal business ties in Turkey. As a result, Kyrgyzstan has benefited from an increasing amount of Turkish investment.
Yet, the potential of Turkey as an economic partner for Kyrgyzstan is clearly limited in comparison to China. Consequently, Bishkek has sought to encourage Chinese engagement in a variety of economic projects while simultaneously reinforcing its relationship with Moscow in the security sphere. In August 2012, Atambaev visited China and discussed a range of possible investments with China’s President Hu Jintao. These included opening branches of Chinese banks in Kyrgyzstan and building a railroad connecting China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In December 2012, Premier of China’s State Council Wen Jiabao visited Bishkek during a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), during which Atambaev stated that “We mainly discussed economy.”
IMPLICATIONS: While many of these projects are still at the stage of preliminary discussion, others have already been implemented. Chinese investors have built an oil refinery in Bishkek and the new electric switch station Datka in Kyrgyzstan’s Jalal Abad province. Indeed, Beijing has displayed an increasing interest in the region in response to overtures from Bishkek and other Central Asian states.
There are several reasons for these developments. First, the region can provide China with additional access to natural resources, primarily oil and gas. In addition, Central Asia possesses other crucially important raw materials, not least including Kyrgyzstan’s considerable deposits of uranium. China currently receives most of its imports of raw materials by sea where it is still far from a dominant power. The June 2012 announcement by then U.S. Secretary Of Defense Leon Panetta that the bulk of the U.S. navy would be relocated to the Pacific Ocean by 2020 clearly increased Beijing’s concern that its supply of vital resources could be cut off in case its relationship with the U.S. deteriorates. Central Asia is out of reach for the U.S. navy and the U.S. departure from Iraq and pending departure from Afghanistan imply a significantly reduced U.S. presence in this part of the world. Russia could certainly become a key supplier to China of important raw materials such as oil, yet China also needs alternatives. Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, is promising in this perspective.
China also looks to Central Asia together with other parts of Asia as an increasingly important market for Chinese goods. It is true that Central Asia could hardly replace the West, particularly the U.S., as a market in this respect. Yet, considering the slowdown of Western economies and the impediments to their recovery, Central Asia is becoming increasingly important as additional outlet for Chinese products.
Finally, Kyrgyzstan holds specific importance to Beijing in other important respects. While Russia and the U.S., at least during the Clinton and Bush eras, relied on military force to assert their positions in the region, China has employed different methods. As recent displays of China’s naval power and its continuously growing military budget demonstrate, Beijing does not discard the use of military force and China indeed increasingly demonstrates its naval power far from its shores. However, China’s foreign policy emphasizes a “peaceful rise,” with a clear stress on economic clout. Beijing’s regional influence in this context relies on indirect control through creating a web of economic dependencies, where military force is seen as a means of last resort but not as a major tool.
Following this strategy, China is seeking to create a financial institution under the framework of the SCO where Chinese capital, under the control of the Chinese state, would dominate. Beijing views Bishkek as an important partner in promoting this idea to the detriment of Russia, which would rather see the SCO evolving into an Asian version of Warsaw Pact where Russia, as Kremlin officials believe, could be a dominant power.
China’s increasing economic and cultural, and implicitly geopolitical, influence in Kyrgyzstan is likely to become more visible in years to come. A Chinese school is already opening in Bishkek and negotiations are ongoing to open a Chinese university. In the long run, if present trends continue, both Moscow and Washington may well discover that their mutual rivalry in Central Asia, including over Kyrgyzstan, prevents them from comprehending the rise of China’s influence which could eventually allow China to emerge as the dominant power in the region.
CONCLUSIONS: After long periods of geopolitical maneuvers, Kyrgyzstan seems to be moving closer to Russia in the military sphere due to its fear of Uzbekistan and Islamists from Afghanistan. Yet, economic interests instead move Bishkek closer to Beijing which in turn needs Kyrgyzstan to strengthen its position in Central Asia, for access to vital raw materials, and as an increasingly important trade partner. While Chinese influence is no larger than that of Russia, the U.S. and Turkey, this situation is likely to change if China’s economic expansion continues.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.