BY AUSTEN DOWELL
While American foreign-policy experts and politicians are consumed with the threat of the so-called “rise of China” to US regional and global interests, it is easy to forget that other countries have to navigate their own complex relationships with the People’s Republic without the luxury of immense ocean defenses or a 11 to 1 advantage in aircraft carrier power projection.
The Russian Far East and Central Asia provide two different case studies for how various civil societies and policymakers have reacted to increased Chinese economic, military, and soft power. Being the longer-running and more bloody of the two border relationships, the Russian experience should provide both a model and a warning for Central Asians. The Sino-Russian case provides a potential forecast of how Central Asian leaders and societies will adapt long-term to the Chinese economic and soft power while also highlighting uniquely Central Asian factors that may spell trouble for all parties involved.
For our purposes, analysis begins with the solidification of borders that we would currently recognize along with the cultures that we now label as uniquely Soviet, Russian, Central Asian, or Chinese. Soviet and Chinese soldiers killed each other over the Zhenbao/Damansky Island as recently as 1969, well within living memory. Even while pursuing a series of border agreements and political rapprochement, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a number of inflammatory public statements regarding Chinese influence in the Far East, while one governor even once claimed that the Far East was going to become an “Asian Balkans.” A study of Russian media coverage of the complex issue conducted in 2009 called the reporting of the quantity of Chinese migrants in the region “among the most wildly abused data points in a country known for statistical anomalies.”
While rhetoric has been more muted over the last five or ten years in the Far East, the anti-Chinese sentiment of the 90’s has a lot in common with the rising tide of emotions in Central Asia. Riots in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (2016 and 2019 respectively) display a growing discomfort with Chinese migration, while charges of Chinese-financed corruption have played a large part in the show trial of former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Sapar Isakov. We can make the tongue-in-cheek claim that both border regions have approached Chinese strength through the pop-culture understanding of the Chinese term for “crisis,” commonly (and mistakenly) articulated as two characters supposedly representing “opportunity” and “danger”
Both the Russian and neighboring Central Asian governments have long viewed Chinese trade and investment as a potential catalyst for development. This pursuit of economic cooperation is frequently articulated by governments’ actions, such as the most recent iteration of the Russian/Chinese regional trade agreement or Kyrgyz and Uzbek acquiescence in creating the first ever transnational road between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. This has tied in with other initiatives impacting Central Asian nations under the aegis of the One Belt One Road initiative, but smaller engagement with Chinese companies or investors is now commonplace. For regions that have struggled economically like Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, cheap Chinese goods have formed the backbone of a thriving resale industry. Shuttle trade between local merchants of the three bordering Chinese provinces and the Russian Far East also represents a chance to stimulate stagnant economic prospects while not relying on the gargantuan and often unrealized infrastructure joint-ventures that have been proposed over the years.
The “danger” aspect is most commonly expressed by the public statements of political leaders (often contradicting their more-muted actual actions) which can be viewed as simultaneously an attempt to shape and direct public discourse while letting voters know that their fears of China are being heard and acted on. The perfect expression of these two competing goals is the renting or attempted renting of sovereign territory to be used by China, primarily in an attempt to provide more agricultural products for China’s booming population. In larger countries like Kazakhstan or Russia the economic wisdom of leasing excess land is clear, but both countries’ leaders have also had to deal with media hysteria over perceived Chinese meddling in domestic affairs. The danger side of the coin comes not only from traditional security concerns that Chinese migrants will overwhelm local communities and lead to annexation or espionage in strategic territory, but also from civil society’s pressure on the government to responsibly handle this perceived crisis. Xenophobia is rampant in both regions, from individual reactions to situations like inter-racial marriages or the success or failure of a Chinese-owned enterprise building to large-scale narratives of paranoia and hate. Finally, both regions have traditionally battled with particularly high levels of corruption, a dynamic that fuels worries that Chinese companies are encouraging bad business practices and graft; a complaint that is often echoed in American media about Chinese development projects and loans in African nations.
That being said, these two regions have crucial differences that have and will continue to color their responses to Chinese economic and soft power. First, there is the fundamental nature of governance and the relationship the affected border territories have with their leaders. To summarize a complex issue, many inhabitants of the Far East distrust their own government just as much as any potential competitor. More than a few influential Russians throughout history have painted this relationship as semi-colonial, while Putin himself has admitted that a significant percentage of commands from Moscow are never implemented in the East. When a 2000 survey in the area found that 82 percent of Russians believed that China intended to take back the Far East, another 46 percent believed that it would start with “peaceful infiltration” by Chinese merchants. This highlights the long-running and deeply-seated fear that China will literally take back the land itself, militarily dispossessing its distant and inefficient owner. As pointed out by authors like Parag Khanna, the chances of Chinese military domination of Eurasia are little to none, providing us with a situation where authorities and locals are most frightened by a practically unforeseeable future.
What’s more, Chinese development simply has not sparked the revolution that it was meant to. Chinese investment is not even in the top six of investors in the Far East, while initiatives to move factories into the area have been repeatedly foiled. The latest regional trade and border agreement seems to be an admission of this fact, with both parties settling for slow and steady cooperation.
If the Far East has settled into an untrusting if stable status quo, then Central Asia possesses the potential to turn much more nasty. This is the result of a number of factors: debt to China, uneasy public relationships with leaders, and the complex development of Central Asian societies into a civilizational culture that has found expression in anger at Chinese oppression of Turkic minorities.
Kyrgyzstani citizens have witnessed two major revolutions within the last 20 years, and a relatively vocal civil society combined with underfunded governments means that another revolution is constantly possible under the right combination of factors. In 2019, protesters burned down a number of Chinese-owned buildings in response to a perceived creeping Chinese control of industry, while the 2016 Western Kazakhstan protests were the largest the relatively-wealthy country has witnessed since independence. These actions illustrate societies where citizens are deeply suspicious of their own governments’ abilities to stay independent of Chinese control. This is undoubtedly fed into by the debt situation – with most of the nations of Central Asia owing large amounts to China.
However, these vague fears of economic domination and anger surrounding better-paid Chinese migrant workers in depressed economies have been catalyzed by Chinese domestic political oppression of its sizeable Turkic minorities in Xinjiang. While primarily targeting Uighur populations, these large “re-education” camps have swept up other Muslim, Turkic groups such as ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Hui. Although a tiny minority, a number of families in bordering Central Asian countries have had their kin illegally incarcerated in the camps. While it is unclear as to what extent these issues have captured the public’s imagination, the creation of the Atazhurt Zhastary (a non-profit volunteer organization to help ethnic Kazakhs and to lobby for government action in response to these atrocities) attests to the power of the issue to mobilize citizens despite the well-understood risk of being suppressed.
These developments may end up feeding into slowly developing ideas of Muslim and pan-Turkic identity that have been percolating since the end of Soviet rule. As separate nationalization projects (such as Uzbekistan’s Tamerlane projects, or Kyrgyzstan’s cult of Manas) develop, there is the possibility that they will combine and be subsumed by a greater “Silk Road” identity that is being hinted at with the unprecedented efforts of countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to re-open relations and encourage good-neighborliness with each other. It is quite possible that these disparate societies will latch onto Chinese suppression of their ethnic brothers and religion just across the border.
We thus have the paradox of citizens of a civilizational, nuclear power with one of the largest militaries in the world fearing direct Chinese invasion and occupation, while citizens of the small and relatively weak nations of Central Asia are primarily afraid of economic domination and affronts to national sovereignty percolating around a still-nascent idea of pan-Turkic identity. The Russian experience of co-existence has failed to provide policymakers’ desired economic outcome, but has nonetheless normalized and deescalated border issues. While the Central Asian countries have attracted the investment that the Russian Far East did not, these primarily economic and perceived cultural attempts at domination may end up creating further tension. This clash will not come with China itself (an absurdly wealthy and strong adversary) but with the representatives and governments of the people. Only time will tell if this bubbling discontent will lead to improved civil societies or bleed into catastrophic social unrest.
Image Source: wsj.net
About the Author
Austen Dowell is a Research Associate with the ERA Institute’s Central Asia Watch Project.
This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan e-think tank. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).