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Walking a Chinese tightrope: Kazakh quiet diplomacy produces limited results

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The Kazakh government, in defense of Kazakh and by implication Central Asian behind-closed-doors diplomacy towards China in the face of mounting domestic pressure, has offered a rare public account of its ability to improve conditions for its ethnic kin caught in a crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Kazakhstan’s detailing of its ability to reduce the number of Kazakhs among the reported one million Turkic Muslims incarcerated in re-education camps comes amid a significant expansion of what amounts to the most frontal assault on Islam in recent history.

Kazakh transparency is balanced by the government’s efforts to limit civil society pressure on the governments of both Kazakhstan and China to rollback Chinese efforts to severely restrict religious freedoms and alter the practice of the faith in Xinjiang and elsewhere in the country.

The crackdown that China says has helped it counter militancy and separatism in Xinjiang puts on the spot not only Central Asian nations with their ethnic and cultural links to Xinjiang but also Muslim and Arab countries.

In the most recent development, Chinese authorities have removed public Islamic and Arab symbols in Xinjiang as well as the neighbouring province of Gansu, home to non-Turkic Hui Muslims, a community that long prided itself of having adopted a form of Islam that had ‘Chinese characteristics.’

The moves, part of what China has termed an anti-halalization campaign, threatens to put out of business small entrepreneurs like butchers and restaurant owners that cater to a Muslim community that adheres to Muslim dietary and personal lifestyle laws.

The moves suggest that the crackdown is about more than alleged Uyghur militancy and separatism.

By providing a degree of transparency, the Kazakh government is not only defending itself against domestic criticism but also providing a justification for the Muslim wall of silence that has been only breached intermittently.

On a visit to Beijing last month, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman took that justification to its extreme by seemingly endorsing the crackdown with his statement that China had the right to undertake “anti-terrorism” and “de-extremism” measures.

Addressing parliament this week, Kazakh foreign minister Beibut Atamkulov said the government’s quiet diplomacy had ensured that the “number of Kazakhs in these (re-education) camps decreased by 80 percent.”

It remained unclear whether Mr. Atamkulov was referring to Kazakh and dual nationals or also Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent, He said that China had last year detained 33 dual nationals, 23 of whom were returned to Kazakhstan, suggesting that he was not speaking about the vast majority of Kazakh ethnic kin who have been detained and only have Chinese nationality.

Numbering approximately 1.5 million, ethnic Kazakhs are the second largest ethnic minority in Xinjiang after Uyghurs.

The minister said the government had received more than 1,000 enquiries about people reportedly detained in China and was “working on these issues case by case.”

Mr. Atamkulov’s ministry announced in January that China agreed to allow some 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to renounce their Chinese citizenship and leave the country.

It was not clear whether the Chinese decision applied to former re-education camp inmates or only Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent who qualify for Kazakhstan’s existing repatriation program.

A former re-education camp employee, Sayragul Sauytbay, who fled to Kazakhstan told a Kazakh court last year that she was aware of some 7,5000 Kazakh nationals and Chinese of Kazakh descent being incarcerated.

Atajurt Eriktileri, a Kazakh group that supports relatives of people who have disappeared in Xinjiang, says it has documented more than 10,000 cases of ethnic Kazakhs interned in China. The Xinjiang Victims Database says it has collected some 3,000 testimonies of prisoners and their families, half of which are from ethnic Kazakhs.

Gulzira Auelkhan, a 39-year-old Chinese citizen of Kazakh descent who spent 15 months in two re-education facilities before being transferred to work at a glove factory for a far below minimum wage, credits her husband’s lobbying of the Kazakh government on her behalf and publicizing of her plight for her release and ability to join him in Kazakhstan.

Eager not to provoke the Chinese, Mr. Atamkulov was careful not to criticize the crackdown. He acknowledged, however, that “there are questions regarding people of Islamic faith” but insisted that China has its own internal policy.”

Kazakh policy appears to demonstrate the ability of quiet diplomacy to achieve at best limited results. The government’s figures suggest that it is able to intervene only in cases of Kazakh nationals, a small fraction of Kazakhstan’s ethnic kin caught up in the Chinese crackdown.

By responding to cases of Kazakh nationals, China enables the Kazakh government to maintain its public silence in the hope that the government can manage mounting domestic pressure and hold steadfast.

That could prove to be a risky bet.

Ms. Auelkhan is living proof of the risk. She was warned when released that her relatives who remain in Xinjiang, two daughters and her elderly parents, would suffer consequences if she chose to speak out once she was in Kazakhstan.

“I know how awful these camps are, and I want the world to know about them. In Kazakhstan I can speak about this, so I am doing it on behalf of those still trapped in Xinjiang,” she says defiantly.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Central Asia

Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit and Later Developments: The Politics Analyzed

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The summit’s mood was a somber one, toned down by Ukraine war, mounting global economic and environmental crises.

Important developments are:

  1. Strengthening Economic Ties

New initiatives planned to develop economic and transport corridors, tourism and services trade and expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative. Trade within SCO grew 12 percent annually. China aims $2.3 trillion trade with SCO within next 5 years.

Today, China and Russia conducted $140 billion in trade, which will reach around $200 billion by yearend. India also increased purchases of Russian oil, coal, and fertilizer and became one of its largest fuel customers since the Ukraine invasion.

Pakistan plans to import Russian gas and Putin offered building a pipeline to supply it. Pakistan desperately needs Russian gas because of its energy crisis.

Meanwhile, economic developments in Central Asian resulting from Russian and Chinese investments have exceeding $61 billion.

  •  Strengthening Collective Security Mechanisms

There has been some success in collective security cooperation. The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure is functioning, and several new independent security mechanisms planned.

China and Russia had steadily built economic and strategic ties. Russia plans further strengthening them.

  • Expansion of the SCO

Iran has now become SCO’s ninth member. Belarus seeks full membership. Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia will become dialogue partners. Turkey’s received observer status. Eight countries are expected to become members.

5. Voice of Developing Nations

Joint statement on climate change called for balance between reducing carbon emissions and allowing poorer states to catch up with developed countries. SCO called for a balanced approach between emissions reduction and development.

  • Divisions within the SCO

Summit was expected to provide chance for Russia and China to make a case for new world order. However, the war sowed divisions, as no government favored Putin’s actions. Clinched in confrontation with the West, Putin denied isolation, but the summit proved otherwise.

Given the war, some Central Asian leaders worry about Russian behavior. Kazakhstan and Pakistan refuse to toe Moscow’s line. Kazakhstan has aided Ukraine. China’s refusal to condemn Russia has caused unease among some countries, hindering efforts building regional ties. Also complicating picture is India, which like China had not outrightly condemned Russia, nor participated in Western sanctions on it. India has strong military ties with Russia but is changing tone. Both China and India have mildly criticized Russia. On September 21 Putin raised the threat of nuclear response in the war and ordered reservists mobilization. He was widely condemned. America said threats were nothing new. So far, Putin seems undaunted by criticism.

Economic cooperation between China and Russia likely to grow being mutually beneficial. However, China trying to stay out of Ukraine mess and its danger. While Putin’s war has yet to spread beyond Ukraine, it could trigger larger war between Russia and NATO. Therefore, China has wisely urged Russia to de-escalate and called for a cease-fire. China continues balancing positions as the goal of Xi’s foreign policy is to put country first.

Since Biden supports India as permanent member of UNSC, it will also call Russia not to escalate conflict. Earlier, India had repeatedly called for diplomacy. Modi’s recent criticism of Russia is setback for Putin as war drives a wedge in relations.

  • Failures

Firstly, Modi did not meet Xi. The two have not met since the border conflict more than two years ago. Delhi is wary of Beijing’s growing regional influence, especially in Pakistan.

Also, the leaders of rivals Pakistan and India did not meet.

Two failed opportunities.

Secondly, the summit failed to take any meaningful action on the current global food and energy crisis linked to the war. Resultantly, the regional food supply may face even bigger challenges in the future.

Thirdly, region requires massive investment in climate resilience development. Though requested by Pakistan, climate action framework not discussed.

Fourthly, China and Russia failed committing needed financing of institutions because of their own economic weaknesses.

Fifthly, Russia’s Ukraine actions not condemned by members. Only Turkey’s President Erdogan urged Putin to return occupied territory to Ukraine.

Sixthly, there was leadership failure. For Putin, the summit was a chance to show that Russia was not isolated. For Xi it was an opportunity to shore up credentials as global political leader. Both failed.

Lastly, summit did not focus on regional challenges: war in Ukraine; rippling impact of rising regional food prices; energy crisis roiling economies; and climate emergency in Pakistan.

Today, SCO is not suitable for China to push any world order. As a multilateral organization, it is much weaker than EU or ASEAN. Fortification of SCO remains daunting challenge.

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Kyrgyz-Tajik Conflict: Small States Becoming Victim In Games Of The Great Powers

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Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan sign protocol on regulation of armed conflict in border areas. Photo: © AKIpress News Agency

The Military conflict on September 14th 2022, on the border of two post-soviet countries- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan took lives of more than 90 people from both sides. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan considers that the events which took place on September 14-17, 2022 necessary to state as a pre-planned armed act of aggression by Tajikistan against the sovereign state Kyrgyzstan. As a result of the inhuman actions of the Tajik side 59 citizens of Kyrgyzstan were killed and 140 were injured, about 140,000 people were forced to evacuate. But the Tajik officials and mass media actively accusing Kyrgyzstan of aggression and violation of non-attack agreements. Both sides blame each other for the outbreak of violence. As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan declared that the information of the Ministry of Foreign affairs and other authorities of Tajikistan did not correspond to reality. The Kyrgyz side has all the evidences (photo and video materials) that recorded the beginning of the aggression, as well as all the crimes committed by the Tajik military on the territory of Kyrgyzstan. If necessary, the Kyrgyz side is ready to provide this evidence.

Main Reasons.

The Kyrgyz-Tajik border 950 kilometers long. At the moment, Bishkek and Dushanbe have recognized only 520 kilometers of a common border, the rest of the sections since the collapse of the USSR are considered controversial and run along villages and roads.

The conflict has many aspects: here are territorial disputes, competition for the possession of water resources, and inter-ethnic problems. It is also associated with activities on the border of criminal structures, with smuggling, with drug trafficking. Radical religious organizations may also be involved in it. Therefore, all relations in the conflict zone between the Kyrgyz and Tajik sides are extremely aggravated. And the reason for the next clashes can be anything, any petty domestic situation.

In spring 2021 a similar bloody conflict took place on the border of two republics. As it turned out later, this escalation had domestic reasons. It was provoked by a dispute over the sharing of a water distribution point located between Kyrgyz and Tajik villages, which ended with a fight afterwards by killing each other by weapons. The state border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is 950 kilometers, and 520 km of it has not yet passed the demarcation procedures. Despite that the Central Asian states gained independence more than thirty years ago.

The reasons of the latest invasion of Tajikistan to the territory of Kyrgyzstan still not clear. What could be the reason of breaking the Agreement of non invasion? Why it started the same day of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit? Why its happening after the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict? Why Post-Soviet countries are in war with each other? Scholars and some officials have various assumptions about the latest bloody clash. “There are provocateurs and third forces.” – says the head of the government of Kyrgyzstan Akylbek Zhaparov.

The military conflict started the same date of the summit of the SCO in Samarkand. On September 14, the governments of China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed a long-anticipated  agreement to push ahead with construction of a railroad linking these countries that will  establish a shorter route to Europe bypassing sanctions-hit Russia. So according to some Kyrgyz officials the clashes on Tajik and Kyrgyz borders started after the signing of the agreement about the construction of the railway-plausibly as a warning about the discontent of Russia, which throughout the history of the Central Asian countries has tried to make the region as economically dependent as possible. Moreover the President of Tadjikistan Emomali Rahmon wouldn’t invade into territory of Kyrgyzstan without Putin’s support.

If the first group of people considering that two countries are in this battle because of Russian tactics, the second group of people like the Deputy of the State Duma of the Russian Federation Alexei Chepa noting that the cause of this conflict lies not only in unresolved disputes between the two countries. They suppose the external forces, primarily enemies of Russia, have decided to take advantage of the situation and create conflicts in the region. As they use the internal problems of Tajikistan and the conflict situation with Afghanistan, where the United States left a huge amount of weapons and a certain contingent of troops. And all this are aimed at using conflicts to further discredit Russia. We see this in the example of conflicts arising in Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan and in some countries of the Caucasus.

This conflict would repeatedly escalate and next time would lead more death of civilians until the demarcation and delimitation of Kyrgyz-Tajik borders process would be finished and signed. This kind of military battles can lead to the unleashing of a large-scale interstate conflict, as well as to the destabilization of the situation in the Central Asian region as well.

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Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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On September 15 and 16, 2022, the extended format of participants of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are scheduled to meet in Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road Karavansarai in Uzbekistan. SCO —founded in 2001— is the first international organization founded by Beijing. It started as the Shanghai Five with the task of demarcating borders between China and its Central Asian neighbors: Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Russia, and Tajikistan, following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The meeting in Samarkand marks the 21st Head of State summit of this organization, which is growing in international importance. All Heads of member states have confirmed their attendance.

SCO came to the attention of Washington policy makers, when Vladimir Putin used it as a vehicle to set a timeline on U.S. bases in Central Asia there to support operations in Afghanistan. Through direct engagement of President Bush with Chinese President Hu Jintao, this deadline was not repeated in the communique of the following year. This demonstrated Beijing’s unwillingness to have an open rift with Washington and made clear China’s leadership of the organization. Beijing’s interest in preventing anti-American statements has changed in the last 17 years. With the return of Great Power Competition in the Washington-Beijing relationship, who leads the SCO and what is on its agenda should be of considerable interest in Washington.

The SCO is no longer just a talk-shop between Russia and China with its Central Asian neighbors, but is now expanding to the Gulf, South Asia, South East Asia, and the Caucasus. The expanded membership of the SCO makes up 24% of the global GDP, more than half that of the G7 and more than that of the European Union in 2020. SCO’s expanded participant list accounts for 44% of the global population.

If those seeking membership status at the upcoming meeting in Samarkand achieve their goal, the SCO will include in its ranks: Azerbaijan and Armenia who recently fought a war in Nagorno-Karabakh; Saudi Arabia and Iran, competitors over the direction of the Gulf; and current members India and Pakistan, historic adversaries. Afghanistan and Mongolia are currently observer states in the organization. Partner countries of the organization are Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey, and Sri Lanka. The status of dialogue partner state will likely be granted to Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in September. Bahrain and Maldives are next in line for the latter status.

In 2005, the US had an opportunity to pursue observer status with the SCO. Those who supported it, saw it as opportunity for the US to shape this organization and for Afghanistan to reconnect with its neighbors with American support. Others thought our being an observer of the SCO would lend legitimacy to this nascent organization. Yet, overtime, flaws in the latter stance surfaced and was repeated by the Obama Administration’s failed attempt to isolate China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In a vote on April 7 for the suspension of Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council, Turkey was the only participant in the expanded SCO out of 18 countries that voted in favor of the resolution. Of the member states, all voted against the resolution, with India and Pakistan abstaining.

For members of the SCO, energy highlights their importance on the global stage and is a tool used in their foreign policy. Following the 2022 summit, SCO states, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, among others, will account for over half of the world’s oil production annually.

Until 2020, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization played a largely regional role for China, the heart of which was Central Asia. Initially reluctant, the recent rapid expansion of the SCO shows that China realigned the organization from a regional one, to one capable of implementing its global ambitions.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization gained greater significance with the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, where an economically weaker Russia can turn to China, a partner with no limits and its leadership over the SCO.

At the 2022 Boao Forum, President Xi restated the goal of the 2021 SCO Dushanbe Declaration, where he articulated a world order not directed by the West. At this same summit, SCO members approved Iran’s membership despite international sanctions after a 15 year waiting period. Xi articulated in a flourish, calling it a community of a common destiny of mankind.

This has echoes of Chairman Mao’s vision of world relations, dating back to the 1970s. In meetings with Dr. Kissinger, Mao posited that imperialism and hegemony violate the world order. Instead, China should expand into what is now known as the Global South, including countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. China’s mission lives on and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is becoming its vehicle.

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