Central Asia and Afghanistan: Insulation on the Silk Road, Between Eurasia and the Heart of Asia
China’s Central Asian Problem
On the freezing night of December 12, 1991, in the heart of Central Asia, I stood on the icy tarmac of the airport outside Ashkhabad, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan, watching as the five former Communist Party bosses and future presidents of the republics of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan arrived wearing fur coats and hats. The honor guard, the military band, and the dancing girls holding frozen flowers went through elaborate drills, shivering all the while as the dignitaries’ planes landed.
It was a critical moment in the history of the world. Four days earlier Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia, and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus had signed a treaty dissolving the Soviet Union. The five republics were now suddenly independent but nobody had consulted the Central Asian leaders themselves. Angry, frustrated, fearful, feeling abandoned by their “mother Russia,” and terrified about the consequences, the leaders sat up all night to discuss their future.
It was strange to see the heirs of conquerors of the world—Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babar—so cowered. They were tied to Moscow in thousands of ways, from electricity grids to road, rail, and telephone networks. Central Asia had become a vast colony producing raw materials—cotton, wheat, metals, oil, and gas—for the Soviet industrial machine based in western Russia. They feared an economic and social collapse as Yeltsin cast them out of the empire. That night a deputy Turkmen foreign minister told me, “We are not celebrating—we are mourning our independence.”
The next morning the leaders declared that they would all join the newly formed loose union called the Commonwealth of Independent States. There were doubts about the Central Asian states surviving and many of their 51 million people, members of some one hundred different ethnic groups, began to decamp for Russia. The birth of new nations had never taken place under so much doubt, fear, and lack of confidence by the very people being liberated.
It is important to remember this background when we look at Central Asia today, twenty-two years later and facing another momentous change—the departure of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014. The Central Asian countries have survived in spite of repression and lack of reforms in all five states, a civil war in Tajikistan, and protests, massacres, and economic decline in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Only the energy-producing states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have become more prosperous. Kazakhstan’s GDP per capita, now $13,900 in US dollars, and Turkmenistan’s GDP per capita of $8,500 together represent two thirds of the total GDP of Central Asia, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. In contrast, Tajikistan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s GDPs per capita each stands at little over $2,000.
Since September 11 and because of Central Asia’s borders with Afghanistan, the big powers—Russia, China, and the US—are showing a renewed interest in the region. Until now the Central Asian leaders have manipulated one big power against another in an astute and ruthless game of trying to extract the maximum benefit in loans, investment, weapons, or rent for bases.
As in 1991, Central Asia has reached a turning point and what comes next really worries it. Will the Taliban return to conquer Afghanistan and open the way for the Central Asian Islamist groups that are closely linked to al-Qaeda and have increased their forces while based in Pakistan? Will populist riots reminiscent of the Arab Spring sweep through the region? They have already done so twice in Kyrgyzstan, in March 2005 and April 2010, bringing down two presidents.
Will the weaker states, lacking economic resources, become hostage to China or Russia? Will the most important regional organization they all belong to—the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—help them overcome instability or will it continue to help them avoid making serious reforms?
China and Central Asia
None of the works under review provides the full answers to these questions, although Alexander Cooley’s book, Great Games, Local Rules, comes closest. They all agree on the unprecedented rise of China’s influence in Central Asia. Marlène Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse, scholars at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., demonstrate in The Chinese Question in Central Asia that China is already the dominant economic power in the region.
China has also taken care of one vital strategic interest since 1991: making sure that the Uighurs, China’s largest Muslim ethnic group who live in the western province of Xinjiang, do not seriously threaten to become independent and that the hundreds of thousands of Uighurs who live in Central Asia do not help them do so. During the 1950s large numbers of Uighurs fled the Maoist regime to seek shelter in Soviet Central Asia where they were relatively well treated.
After 1991 China put immense pressure on the three Central Asian states that border Xinjiang—Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan—to tightly restrict all Uighur political activity on their soil. China offered sweeteners such as resolving the border disputes that had plagued Chinese–Soviet relations in Central Asia for decades. Within a decade the borders between China and the Central Asian states were demarcated and settled, allowing for China’s rapid economic involvement in the region.
Still, Uighur nationalism and Islamic militancy have continued to mount in Xinjiang, as China has inundated the province with Han Chinese and severely repressed the Muslims. While the Uighur populations in Central Asia have been largely silenced, some Uighurs have been training and fighting with the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
During the past decade China has invested heavily in Central Asia. Laruelle and Peyrouse write that
in less than ten years, China has positioned itself as one of the top three trading partners for each of the Central Asian states. It controls a quarter of Kazakh oil and has built a pipeline going from the Caspian Sea to Xinjiang; has become the preferred client of Turkmenistan for its gas exports; has transformed Kyrgyzstan into an economic quasi-protectorate that survives mainly on the re-export of Chinese products, and Tajikistan into a privileged gateway to its presence in Afghanistan.
The findings of the two authors seem to me vital for any serious discussion of China’s future geopolitical role in Asia. Their trade figures show the remarkable pace of Chinese investment. In 2002 China’s trade with Central Asia was no more than $1 billion. In 2006 it reached $10 billion and by 2010, $28 billion. In contrast, Russia’s trade with Central Asia in 2010 was just $15 billion. China has broken the economic connections that traditionally tied Central Asia to Russia.
China also broke Russia’s monopoly of Kazkah oil and Turkmen natural gas. Now two Chinese-built pipelines, one originating in Atyrau on the Kazakh shores of the Caspian Sea and the other in Turkmenistan, carry respectively oil and gas across the length of Central Asia to Xinjiang from which new pipelines are being built to China’s industrial heartland on the coast. The gas pipeline will soon have spurs that will mop up further gas output in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and eventually Afghanistan. Cooley described in an interview “a growing sucking sound coming from the East.” These Central Asian energy supplies provide China with enormous security, since they much reduce Chinese dependence on seaborne imports of energy, which the US could try to limit.
However, China also faces much hostility in Central Asia, as it does elsewhere in the third world, for the ways it exploits the region while offering little in return. Chinese companies bring their own workers and equipment, refusing to hire locally, carry out local job training, or buy large quantities of local goods and produce. It is common to hear conspiracy theories about China buying up agricultural land in Central Asia or settling millions of its peasant farmers there. Central Asian people fear Chinese influence even as their leaders embrace China, which does not question them about their lack of democracy or human rights, or their reluctance to introduce economic reform. The West is considered too intrusive.
According to “China’s Central Asia Problem,” a recent report by the International Crisis Group:
China’s business practices are providing a negative image in a region where suspicions of China…are already high…. China sees a certain affinity between Central Asia’s authoritarian regimes and its own, and in public, at least, defends them with similar rhetoric.
The report suggests that China’s current trade and investment practices in Central Asia cannot last forever without more visible concern to improve the lives of the local population. Yet China appears to be repeating the same policies in Afghanistan, with which it shares a fifty-mile border in the Wakhan corridor. During the past decade it has refused to give serious help to the Afghans, whether in providing security or developing infrastructure. Over the last twelve years it has provided barely $2 billion in economic aid to Afghanistan—less than what a much poorer India has provided with many more enlightened projects.
Yet again China is making contracts for Afghan raw materials as they become available. China has invested $3.5 billion in the Aynak copper mine near Kabul and has made offers for several oil fields in northern Afghanistan. No doubt opening up Afghanistan’s mineral wealth to the market will provide desperately needed income to Kabul and in the long term help stabilize Afghanistan; but digging for minerals will have to wait until the war ends. China has the patience to wait out the civil war that may well continue after 2014, but there is still no guarantee that China will provide jobs, carry out job training, or actually invest in the Afghan people and their economic future.
China has brought the Central Asian states into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which both China and Central Asia consider as their most relevant multinational organization. Established in 1996 as the Shanghai Five, the SCO now includes four Central Asian states, Russia, and China—Turkmenistan professes neutrality and is not a member—while southern neighbors such as Iran, Pakistan, and India are trying to become full members. For many Western analysts, the SCO is a paper organization, unable to undertake joint military operations against terrorism or create greater unity among the Central Asian leaders, who are notorious for their unwillingness to cooperate with one another.
Yet China’s main aims have been achieved. The SCO, under its influence, has conveniently buried the Uighur problem under the slogan of fighting the three evils of “terrorism, separatism, and extremism,” which as far as the Chinese are concerned refer less to al-Qaeda than to the Uighurs. China commands overwhelming influence with the Central Asian regimes, who have provided it with a transport and trade door opening into Russia, Turkey, and the Caucasus.
Will China take a responsible part in both Central Asia and Afghanistan in the years ahead, contributing its diplomatic power to a regional peace settlement, helping to build infrastructure, and encouraging economic reforms in the poorest Central Asian states where it exerts the most influence? Or will it continue to be a greedy, extractive power shying off from political responsibilities in Central Asia and leaving the mess in Afghanistan for others to clean up?