In the context of the economic relationship between China and Central Asian countries, mostly Chinese officials emphasize relations as a win-win cooperation. In the context of the win-win cooperation, Central Asian countries export their products and raw materials to China and attract investment and financial assistance from China for improving their infrastructure. In return, China exports its products to these countries, gain new market, diversify its export-import and energy routes and expand its economic influence through Central Asia. With regard to the Sino-Kyrgyz relations, we analyze their economic relations in order to see whether the two countries’ relations bases on win-win cooperation or zero-sum cooperation. If both of them relation basis on win-win cooperation, we may see that in the long term, two countries benefit from economic relations, increase their interdependency and improve their economy. In contrast to win-win, if the basis of the relations on zero-sum cooperation, we see that one side benefits from economic relations in the long term and increase its economic influence, but other side increase its dependency to another side and only benefit economic relation in the short term rather than the long term.
Since gaining independence in the 1990s, economic relations with China play an important role in the Kyrgyzstan economy. Kyrgyzstan was the first country among Central Asian countries that it was a member of WTO. Membership of WTO created a range of opportunities to country improve its economic relations with China. When China became a member of WTO in 2001, two countries’ trade flows increased quickly (Omuralieva, 2014: 81). Kyrgyzstan located strategic geography for China because it plays an important role in diversifying China’s export-import routes and provide a wholesale market for Chinese goods. Chinese officials always argue that Sino-Kyrgyz relations are mutually beneficial and base on win-win cooperation. In this essay, we especially pay attention to China-Kyrgyz economic relations in the context of trade, investment, and aid policy in order to explain the relations between two countries whether base on win-win or zero-sum cooperation.
Trade and economic cooperation play important role for the development of Kyrgyz-Chinese relations. Cooperation in this direction is carried out in the framework of the signed intergovernmental Agreements on trade and economic cooperation in 1998 and the establishment of the Kyrgyz-Chinese intergovernmental Commission on trade and economic cooperation in 1994. China is the main trade and investment partner of Kyrgyzstan. China took the first place in trade and investment in the economy of Kyrgyzstan at the end of the 2016 and 2017. Trade between China and Kyrgyzstan is inherently unbalanced. Trade turnover between China and Kyrgyzstan was accounted for 1.597 billion US dollars in 2017. Export was 97.5 million US dollars, import – 1.500 billion US dollars(Embassy of the Kyrgyz Republic in the People’s Republic of China, 2018).Chinese exports to Kyrgyzstan consist of cloths, agricultural products, and light machinery while Kyrgyzstan’s exports toChina agriculture products and natural resources(Reeves, 2015: 122).
Besides, Chinese merchants play a dominant role with the trade network of Kyrgyzstan. Both Dordoi and Kara Suu bazaar are the large wholesale and retail market in Bishkek. Both bazaars due the low taxes and location plays key role for Chinese merchants. 75% of the goods of Dordoi bazaar and 85% of goods of Kara Suu bazaar come from China. Kyrgyzstan import China’s goods and re-export these goods to other regional countries. The monthly turnover of both Dordoi and Kara Suu bazaars were 331 million US dollars and 90 million US dollars respectively in 2012. We may say that these bazaars are the main motor of the Kyrgyzstan’s economy (Omuralieva, 2014: 86-87). Furthermore, China’s import of Kyrgyz products and raw materials also help to Kyrgyzstan to alleviate the impact of inflation (Tian, 2018).
In the context of the trade between two countries, despite the Kyrgyzstan’s gains as an importer and transporter of goods, Sino-Kyrgyz relations consist of the asymmetrical trade relationship. Firstly, last years, Kyrgyzstan textile and apparel sectors grow so fast and China play a key role in these sectors (Reeves, 2015: 122). Because cotton and wool are produced in Kyrgyzstan and export mainly China. In addition, due the lack of modern standards low quality clusters, Kyrgyzstan do not export these goods to developed countries or cannot compete other regional exporters such as China, Turkey and Korea but export to less developed western China’s cities, predominantly (Birkman, 2012: 24-25). Secondly and more importantly, Kyrgyzstan relies on China’s good for its commercial service sector because Kyrgyz traders has developed its commercial sector around the China’s imports which they re-export these goods to other regional countries, that is why, without Chinese imports, country’s service sector would collapse or lose its main sources for economic growths (Reeves, 2015: 122-123). According to Marlène Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse, Beijing has transformed Kyrgyzstan into a China-dependent economy that can survive mainly by re-exporting Chinese products (Omonkulov, 2020: 76).
Investment and Finance
China also play dominant role in Kyrgyztan economy in terms of investment and finance. Since 2001, China was the main source of the all FDI investment (Reeves, 2015: 123). Between 2006-2017, cumulative gross of Chinese FDI flow as equal to 2.3 billion US dollar and for this period China provided 25-50% of total FDI of Kyrgyztan, which is equivalen to 2-7% of the country’s GDP (Mogilevskii, 2019: 09).
Since 1990s, China mostly has been preferring to invest Kyrgyztan’s mining and oil sector. For example, in 2011, a Chinese company namely Zijin Mining purchased mine, which is located in Talas province in Taldy- Burak region and Chinese Full Gold Mine Company operated Ishtamberdy mine in Jalalabad province in the south part of Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2011(Omuralieva, 2014: 90-91). In 2012, Chinese company purchased old paper factor and 20 hectares of land in order to construct oil refinery. The company will invest 70 million US dollars for constructing factories. Furthermore, Chinese companies operate some 10 medium-sized mines producing gold-copper concentrate which is exported for refining to China(Mogilevskii, 2019: 10). In addition to mining sector, China also invests oil sector in Kyrgyzstan. For example, China financed two refineries in Kyrgyzstan, namely Kara-Balta and Tomok oil refineries. These refineries are supplied by CNPC-operated oil fields in neighboring Kazakhstan and produce 1.35 million refined products per year (Pradhan, 2018: 10). Moreover, China announced that it would provide $1.4 billion in FDI for constructing Kyrgyzstan-China oil pipeline (Reeves, 2015: 123).
In the context of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China also prefers to invest infrastructure and energy project in Kyrgyzstan. In terms of infrastructure projects,the planned China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and the North-South Highway, for which China’s Exim Bank has lent 400 million dollars for the construction of its first phase, are considered as one of the most ambitious transportation projects in Beijing’s Kyrgyzstan (Omonkulov, 2020: 72; Toktomushev, 2016: 02). By the help of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, China has a chance to diversify its export and imports routes and also secure its energy routes. For Kyrgyzstan side, officials in the country hope that attract Chinese investment. In addition, Kyrgyzstan will gain 261 million US dollars per year as a transit country. However, the project has been postponed for years due to government debt and domestic political concerns in Kyrgyzstan. That is why, China and Uzbekistan introduced combined road-rail corridor – freight from China will be unloaded in Kyrgyzstan to reach the Uzbek section of the railway by road (CHOICE, 2021).Apart from railway project, China gave 60 million Yuan unreturned credit to Kyrgyzstan for the construction of China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan highway in 2011(Omuralieva, 2014: 83-85).
With regard to the energy projects, China has financed the construction of the Datka electricity substation and the 405-kilometer Datka-Kemin transmission line. These projects help to improve country’s energy system and reduce its dependence from regional countries (Toktomushev, 2016: 02; Mogilevskii, 2019: 09). For securing its energy security, China also try to diversify its energy routes. From this perspective, Kyrgyzstan play a strategic role for China. In the context of the China-Central Asia gas pipeline energy project, China decided to construct one of the routes, namely gas line D, through theKyrgyzstan. Construction of the gas line started in 2018. By the way of the this project, Kyrgyzstan take a benefit as a transit country (Akıncı, 2019: 88; Omuralieva, 2014: 88).
China’s investment in Kyrgyzstan have both positive and negative effects to country’s economy. From the positive sides, firstly, some of the Chinese project is under the construction and some of the is completed recently, that is why we cannot expect major impact on the countries production capacity but we see these projects effects via comparison of the average annual GDP growth rates. A comparison of the average annual GDP growth rates in 2011-2017 and in 2000-2010 shows some increase from 4.2% per annum (2000-2010) to 4.8% per annum (2011-2017)(Mogilevskii, 2019: 12).There is no doubt that other factors also contribute the GDP growth but most Chinese investment increases share gross domestic products in Kyrgyzstan and affect positively to GDP. Secondly, improving the relationship with China contribute to Kyrgyzstan’s developing country’s total factor productivity (TFP) and help to country to develop an export-oriented economy, better market linkages. Moreover, China’s investment creates new jobs for local people.Furthermore, China’s investment inindustry of Kyrgyzstan inject energy to landlocked country’s economy and promote flexible and innovative entrepreneurial development in Kyrgzystan. One of the example is emerging sewing industry in Bishkek (Tian, 2018).Finally, Chinese investment contribute to improve Kyrgyzstan’s infrastructure.
Aid and Loan policy
Most of China’s assistance to Central Asian countries mostly consist of the soft loans (i.e. concessional or low-interest loans below market rates, which do not contain grant elements – and government- backed or subsidized investments in infrastructure and natural resources). Compare to the Western assistance, China’s assistance gives a great advantage to donor such asincreased access to energy resources and lucrative contracts for Chinese companies. Due the bad governance, poverty and instability, Kyrgyzstan is one the country that receive largest share of Chinese assistance. China is the one of the most important for Kyrgyzstan in terms of concessional loans and grant aid. China is the largest concessional loans provider to Kyrgyzstan which is account for more than 60% of the country’s planned funding between 2013 and 2016. Most of China’s loans and aid design to improve infrastructure projects, such as North-South highway or China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway. For example, China pledged 3 billion US dollar loans for infrastructure development. China is also main sources for the Kyrgyzstan in the context of the aid. For instance, China gives 16 million US dollar to Kyrgyzstan between 2000-2007 (Reeves, 2015: 123-124). In addition to the assistance for improving infrastructure, China also sends aid for building school and hospital, as a result of which, new and existing schools and hospitals benefit from improvement and upgrading of specialist equipment, technology and logistics. Finally, China also sends aid to Kyrgyzstan for reconstructing of the residential areas of Southern Kyrgyzstan which were affected violent ethnic riot in 2010 (Bossuyt, 2019).
Firstly, China’s aid to Kyrgyzstan help to country improve its infrastructure and break landlocked geography. Furthermore, improving of infrastructure also create a chance to Kyrgyzstan diversifies its export and import routes. Secondly, sending aid for modernizing or building new hospital and school may increase people’s lifestyle and contribute to education of younger people. Finally, China’s aid also helps to country upgrade its electricity generation plants and transmission line. Developing electricity system contribute to the energy independence of Kyrgyzstan.
The fast development of Kyrgyz infrastructure by the way of the massive inflow of resources resulted in the growth of Kyrgyzstan’s debt burden. China also main creditor of Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan’s debt to China reached 1.7 billion dollars or 44% of its total foreign debt (3.8 billion dollars) as of February 2018. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan borrowed a total of $ 4.5 billion from China’s credit line under the Belt-Road Project (Omonkulov, 2020: 75). Despite the positive impact of aid on Kyrgyzeconomy, growing debt also increase country’s dependency on China and lead vulnerable position versus China.
In the context of the Sino-Kyrgyz trade relations, despite Kyrgyzstan’s gains as an importer and transporter of Chinese goods, Sino-Kyrgyz relations consist of an asymmetrical trade relationship. Kyrgyzstan export mainly textiles and raw materials to China and import technological and manufactured products. Maybe Kyrgyzstan benefits from trade relations in the short term but, in the long term, Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on China increases. In addition, exporting mostly export raw materials to China, Kyrgyzstan does not improve its human capital and high skilled labor force. With regard to the trade relations, Sino-Kyrgyz relations seem to bases on zero-sum cooperation in the long term rather than win-win cooperation.
With regards to the investment, despite the contribution of Kyrgyzstan’s annual GDP growth rates and improve the total factor productivity and export-oriented economy, Chinese investment has different negative effects on the Kyrgyz economy. One of the main purposes of the Chinese investment in the mining, oil, and infrastructure sector is to increase the country’s extraction and export of natural resources. This creates a range of problems for the Kyrgyz economy. Firstly, these sectors provide fewer employment opportunities to the local population and increase short-term employment in the country, and most of the time Chinese companies prefer to use their own people for working compared to the local people. Besides, the job creation of China’s companies is limited and they mostly avoid technology transfer to the country. This situation also prevents the improvement of domestic industry. Secondly, extraction of the natural resource improves the certain sector and contribute corruption and unequal distribution of the wealth in the country. Furthermore, Chinese companies also violate the environmental standard. Finally, these sectors vulnerable the external shocks and increase the state’s dependency on China. As trade relations, in the long term, China’s investment affects Kyrgyzstan negatively and only let to improve the specific sector, especially mining and oil sectors, and this situation prevent the country to diversify its industry. With regard to the investment, as a trade relation, Sino-Kyrgyz relations seem to the basis of zero-sum cooperation rather than win-win cooperation.
Finally, in terms of the aid and loan policy, despite China’s aid and loans help to improve Kyrgyzstan’s infrastructure and develop its industry, it used to try to secure access to mining sites such as gold, ore deposits, and rare earth elements. Furthermore, it tries to involve in the exploration and development of gold deposits in the country. Despite the high unemployment rate in Kyrgyzstan, Chinese loans also promote Chinese firms for using Chinese equipment and laborers. Besides, China’s cheap and handy loans increase Kyrgyzstan’s dependency and vulnerabilities on China. This situation also causes to enhance China’s political and economic influence.
To sum up, in the context of the trade, investment, and aid and loan policy, despite the different positive impacts, Sino-Kyrgyz economic relations basis on asymmetrical economic relations and in the long term give the advantage of China over Kyrgyzstan in the context of the economic influence. As a result, take the example of the trade, investment, and aid and loan policy, we think that two countries’ economic relationship basis on zero-sum cooperation in the long term, rather than win-win cooperation, in contrast to China’s officials’ claims.
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Unrest in Kazakhstan Only Solidifies China-Russia Ties
The Russian-led military operation in Kazakhstan has presented an important test for Moscow’s ties with Beijing.
In early January, Kazakhstan was shaken by nationwide protests that sparked uncertainty in the central Asian nation that had hitherto remained largely stable. Though much remains to be seen as to how the events exactly transpired, Russia’s reaction to the unrest was quite direct and clear. In short order, Moscow activated the long-dormant Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to aid its allies in the Tokayev government.
The dispatch of some 2500 Russian, Armenian, Tajik, Belarussian, and Kyrgyz troops into Kazakhstan produced a lively debate. The discussion was led by questions on how China might react to upheaval in its neighboring country and, crucially, Russia’s leadership role in the response.
Many onlookers have long argued that such a development in Central Asia could easily spark tensions and wider divisions between the two powers. Yet, thus far, the potential for disruption in bilateral relations appears to have been greatly overstated.
Firstly, it is important to stress that Kazakhstan is a critically important country for China.
Beijing’s sprawling Belt and Road Initiative actively operates in Kazakhstan and the country serves as one of the key routes for China to reach Europe, either through Russia or the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus. Beijing has also heavily invested into the country ($19.2 billion in 2005-2020) and developed relatively stable bilateral ties with Nur-Sultan. The stability is no small feat in light of occasional difficulties surrounding such sensitive issues as the detention of ethnic Kazakhs in China’s westernmost Xinjiang region.
Both countries are also bound together by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a multilateral grouping founded in 2001 to facilitate security and economic cooperation in the heart of Eurasia. Moreover, both also are part of emerging closely linked groups of fellow authoritarian states bent on supporting each other lest liberal ideals undermine their one-party governance model.
Beijing’s reaction to the unrest in Kazakhstan was neither opposing nor endorsing Russia’s military move. However, in an unusually strong statement of support for Kazakhstan’s leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Xi Jinping supported the framing that the upheaval in Kazakhstan was an attempt to carry out a color revolution and needed to be quashed.
China also made an official statement through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that the entity is “willing to play a positive role in stabilizing the situation” in Kazakhstan. Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry also added that “safeguarding member states’ and regional stability has always been the principle and mission of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.”
Though relatively muted, China’s reaction to Kazakhstan reveals much about China-Russia relations in Central Asia. It has long been suggested that both players have had an unofficial division of labor in the region. Russia has been primarily preoccupied with security issues – military bases, drills, exchange of sensitive intelligence information. China, in contrast, has been active in the economic sphere through growing investment, increasing control of Tajikistan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s debt shares and generally blossoming trade ties across the region.
Lately, however, the unofficial arrangement seemed to be coming under pressure as China continues to make significant inroads into the security area. It opened a military base in Tajikistan and in late 2021 even announced funding a new semi-military complex to be manned by the Tajik personnel. The number and depth of military drills held by China and Central Asian states also increased.
The CSTO activation by Moscow and its allies, however, could signal the reversal of this emerging process with Russia firmly re-establishing its position as a sole security provider in Central Asia.
This does not however mean that China is eager to get embroiled in the Kazakhstan events. On the contrary, a careful reading of official Chinese statements shows Beijing is happy with Russia undertaking a security operation there.
The CSTO activation by Moscow and the successful completion of the operation also shows that the argument of China and Russia imminently heading toward a collision is inherently wrong. Both have grievances and perhaps deep concerns that in the longer run might resurface more concretely, but the two also learned to de-conflict.
Russia is confident that what China does is not undermining Moscow’s basic interests. Surely, Chinese economic presence hurts its Russian competitors, but the alternative to allowing Chinese presence would be to antagonize Beijing. That is not an attractive scenario for Moscow which seeks Beijing’s support in the age of increased competition with the West.
A similar approach prevails in China. It increases its security presence in Central Asia, but is also careful to explain to Russia that its moves are not intended against Moscow’s position. Beijing has also spent a great deal of time to assure Russia that the Chinese military base in Tajikistan is solely to confront potential threats to Xinjiang whether from Central Asia or from Afghanistan.
The subtlety of the China-Russia partnership lies in the fact that each acknowledges the other’s sphere of influence. Their cooperation as great powers, therefore, rests upon mutual respect.
Still, there are much deeper incentives propping up mutual understanding and serving as a major motivator to tone down differences. Opposition or even an outright enmity (at least in Moscow) to the US-led world system serves as a powerful glue for two Eurasian powers.
Central Asia as a Testing Ground
Ultimately, China and Russia also look at Central Asia as a testing ground for the construction of a post-liberal world order.
Both seek orders of exclusion in their immediate neighborhood, wherein Central Asia is obviously included. Ideally for Russia, a dominant position in the region could be exploited as it indeed was in under Romanov and Soviet rule.
However, cognizant of its diminished power, Moscow understands that exclusively managing the region would be impossible. Countering every move by other large powers would also be impractical and likely unfeasible in the context of today’s highly interconnected world. Hence, Russia has come to the realization that instead of trying to keep China at bay, it would be more efficient to actually build a condominium-style leadership over Central Asia.
A critical element to this new order is the exclusion of the collective West as best exemplified by Washington’s failure to attain Central Asian states’ agreement to renew its military presence in the region following the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
The emerging Central Asian order is similar to what Russia is trying to build elsewhere. In the Caspian Sea, Moscow now increasingly relies on Iran; in the South Caucasus Moscow on both Iran and Turkey, introducing a system where the presence of non-regional powers is limited if not altogether removed. Similarly, China pursues a closed order in the South China sea.
Thus, China has remained content in general with how the turmoil in Kazakhstan was contained. Discontent between Moscow and Beijing exists, but since the motivation for cooperation is even greater, China and Russia seem poised to successfully manage their great power ties.
Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers
Kazakhstan, like Ukraine, spotlights the swapping of the rule of law for the law of the jungle
When a Russian-led military force intervened earlier this month, it did more than help Kazakh President Qasym-Johart Toqayev restore and strengthen his grip on power following days of protest and violent clashes with security forces.
The intervention brought to the fore a brewing competition for spheres of influence in Eurasia between perceived Russian and Turkish worlds whose boundaries are defined by civilization and /or language rather than a nation state’s internationally recognized borders.
It is a competition that also impacts China, whose troubled Turkic north-western province of Xinjiang borders Kazakhstan.
Although not incorporated in the Turkey-led Organisation of Turkic States (OTS), the group, which also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan, recently signalled its affinity to China’s Turkic Muslims.
China’s brutal crackdown on religious and ethnic expressions of Uighur identity has sparked public dissent in Kazakhstan and Turkey and forced the two governments to perform a delicate balancing act to not always successfully avoid the People’s Republic’s wrath.
Countering perceptions that the Russian-led intervention in Kazakhstan boosted Moscow’s security primacy in Central Asia and weakened Turkish aspirations, widely respected Russia scholar Dmitri Trenin suggested that salvaging Mr. Toqayev was the best of President Vladimir Putin’s bad options.
“In order to preserve stable relations with an important ally, partner, and neighbour, official Russia has often turned a blind eye to the rise of ethnic Kazakh nationalism and reports of de facto discrimination against ethnic Russians in the country. Toqayev is by no means Moscow’s client, yet allowing him…to be toppled would, in Moscow’s thinking, allow the forces of ultra-nationalism to come to the fore,” Mr. Trenin said.
Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations, seeking to balance their relationships with Moscow and Beijing in the wake of the United States’ abandonment of the region with the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, see Ankara as a potential hedge.
Led by authoritarians who fear anti-government protests at home, Russia and Turkey had a common interest in beating back a popular revolt in Kazakhstan. As a result, standing aside as Russia stepped in may have best served Turkey’s interests.
Despite its close military ties with Kazakhstan, a Turkish intervention may have upset the delicate management of the Turkey-Russian relationship. The relationship is fraught with disputes in which the two countries are often on opposite sides of the divide.
While Turkish support for Mr. Toqayev may not have gone down well with Kazakh protesters, it is not likely to have put much of a dent in Turkish soft power in Central Asia that is built on linguistic and ethnic affinity, the popularity of Turkish music and cinematic productions, and investment in glitzy shopping malls.
Turkey also benefits from being a player that has successfully challenged Russia in regional conflicts such as the Caucasus, where it backed Azerbaijan in its 2020 war with Armenia, and further afar in Libya and Syria.
In a rivalry for dominance of the Black Sea, Turkey has also backed Ukraine and forged close defense ties with the embattled country. Home to a large Crimean Tatar diaspora, Turkey has vocally supported the Turkic community on the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.
Finally, Turkey has at times, albeit intermittently, taken China to task for its brutal crackdown on ethnic and religious expression of Turkic Muslim identity in Xinjiang. China sees the projection of a Uyghur ethnic, cultural, and religious identity as a mortal threat.
Turkish assertiveness seemingly emboldened Central Asian members of the Organisation of Turkic States, the formal Turkic equivalent of Mr. Putin’s notion of a Russian World that defines its frontiers defined by the geography of Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law.
Central Asian members of the organisation, a brainchild of the now embattled former president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, joined Turkey at its recent summit in November in Istanbul in sending subtle and less subtle signals to both Russia and China as well as Iran, countries with Turkic-speaking minorities.
By deciding to restrict association with the organisation to Turkic-speaking countries, the group hopes to keep Russia, China, and Iran at bay despite their being home to Turkic-speaking minorities.
Moreover, the Central Asians took no exception when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s far-right nationalist ally, Devlet Bahlevi, released a picture on Facebook at the time of the summit of him gifting the Turkish leader a map of the Turkic world that included chunks of Russia. The picture capped a year of the trumpeting of irridentist claims to Russian territory by nationalist Turkish media close to Mr. Erdogan.
Similarly, the Central Asians participated in the summit even though it opened on November 12, a politically sensitive date for China. Uighurs in Xinjiang twice declared their short-lived independence on November 12, first in 1993 and again in 1944.
Three weeks before the summit, Turkey joined 42 other, mostly Western countries in a United Nations statement that condemned the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang.
Raising the stakes further, 19 Uighur exiles have filed a criminal complaint with a Turkish prosecutor against Chinese officials, accusing them of committing genocide, torture, rape, and crimes against humanity.
Turkey is home to some 50,000 Uighurs, the largest community outside of China. Long a supporter of Uighur religious and cultural aspirations, Turkey has been careful not to allow the groups’ plight to rupture its relations with Beijing.
At the same time, it has not followed the example of the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain, as well as the secretary-general of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GGC), who on a visit to China this week reportedly expressed support for Chinese policy in Xinjiang.
Responding in October to assertions by China’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Geng Shuang, that Turkey had illegally invaded north-eastern Syria and was depriving Kurds of water, Turkish representative Feridun Sinirlioglu thundered that his country would not be lectured by “those who violate international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”
It was a war of words in which the kettle was calling the pot black. It’s not human rights, violated with abandon by all the region’s players, that are at stake. What is at stake is an international order based on legally defined nation-states that civilisational leaders like Messrs. Putin and Erdogan seek to rejigger with the law of the jungle that allows them to shift state boundaries at will in geopolitical jockeying.
Kazakhstan has lessons for the Gulf
Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan contains a cautionary message for Gulf foreign ministers visiting Beijing this week.
The intervention to stabilize the government of Kazakh President Kassym-Johart Tokayev, following mass protests, cemented Russia’s primacy when it comes to security in Central Asia, a swathe of land that is as much Russia’s backyard as it is China’s.
At least 164 people were killed in the protest, thousands wounded, and some 10,000 arrested. Mr. Tokayev described the protests as a foreign-instigated coup attempt involving terrorists.
The intervention reaffirmed a long-standing understanding that Russia, at least for the short-term, shoulders responsibility for security while China focuses on economic development in the region.
“China is happiest when someone else is dealing with Central Asian security questions,” noted Central Asia scholar Raffaello Pantucci. Like in Kazakhstan, “in the immediate fallout from the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, it was not Chinese soldiers or weapons that were rushed to Central Asian borders, but Russian ones.”
The question ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain and the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council ought to ask themselves is why China would wish to adopt a different approach toward security in the Middle East if it is reluctant to play an upfront role in its own backyard.
The Gulf ministers may point out that their region is key to China’s energy supply and increasingly important for its geopolitical influence. But that does not explain why China played second security fiddle to Russia in Central Asia, a region of equal strategic importance.
China’s problem and the Gulf’s bet have to be that there is no alternative to the United States, the Middle East’s current, increasingly unreliable security guarantor, which leaves both with few good choices.
With Russia having neither the apparent will nor the wherewithal to commit to a role in the Middle East similar to that it plays in Central Asia, China may have little choice but to step up to the plate ultimately.
As the United States, NATO, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) this week discuss with Russia the crisis over Ukraine, the Gulf states will likely closely monitor US and European responses to a possible Russian invasion of the East European state or efforts to destabilise it further.
The Gulf states are likely to find little reassurance in what already is evident with the massing of some 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border.
The US and European response will be limited to economic sanctions against Russia and military support for Ukraine but will stop short of direct military confrontation to reverse any Russian action.
Gulf states may be betting on a possible silver lining. China has much at stake in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. It has invested billions of dollars in the region central to its Belt and Road initiative that is designed to tie Eurasia to China through infrastructure, telecommunications, information technology, and energy.
Moreover, Central Asia borders on China’s strategic but troubled province of Xinjiang, with which it has close ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious ties.
In a rare move, China reportedly offered to send law enforcement and special forces to Kazakhstan, although only after Mr. Tokayev’s Russian-backed crackdown had already brought the situation under control.
The Gulf states are likely to hope that a greater, albeit gradual and discreet Chinese engagement in Central Asia, where it already before the Kazakh crisis had begun to expand its security presence, will persuade China to be more assertive in protecting its investments, assets, and interests further afield, including in the Middle East.
China established its first foreign military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa several years ago, just opposite the Gulf.
Yet, greater Chinese assertiveness is hardly a panacea. It won’t happen overnight and, therefore, will not help the Gulf deal with immediate threats, including a rise in regional tension should the Vienna talks between Iran and world powers fail to revive a 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.
Initial greater Chinese engagement is likely to focus on internal security in Central Asia by further assisting in creating surveillance states in a swathe of land prone to popular revolts.
That focus may be welcomed in the Gulf. Yet, with surveillance already a fact of life, that may not be what the Gulf most wants from China.
Like the United States, China could also attempt to improve the Gulf states’ ability to defend themselves through enhanced arms sales, joint exercises, and training.
Meanwhile, China has already exploited the US reluctance to sell certain weapons systems or to do so only under strict conditions. For example, China has in recent years opened its first overseas weapons facility for the production of drones in Saudi Arabia and is enabling the kingdom to manufacture ballistic missiles. In doing so, China risks fueling a Middle Eastern arms race.
Undoubtedly, Chinese engagement will come with strings. Unlike the United States, the Chinese won’t make pesty demands related to human and other rights but will want to ensure that Gulf states do not divert from the broad lines of Chinese policy.
As a result, the best the Gulf can hope for is that greater Chinese assertiveness will create an environment in which they have margins of manoeuvrability to play one against the other. It’s a modus vivendi, but not an ideal one.
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