Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Uighuristan, Part 6

In Part 1, we introduced the People's Republic of China's (PRC) Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) as the scene of a terrorist attack, and I offered the observation that all might not be as it seems -- specifically, I wrote "I smell a rat."

In Part 2 and Part 3, we looked at the XUAR's important and growing role in China's economy, due to the XUAR's indigenous oil resources and its location astride the routes being taken for oil and gas pipelines coming in from Central Asia.

Central Asia -- mainly Afghanistan -- is also the source of over 90% of the world's opiate production, and consequently the XUAR is the gateway to China for an increasing flow of heroin, especially since the PRC's heroin interdiction efforts have been concentrated along the border with Burma, near the Golden Triangle, which is the world's second major opiate-producing region (although opiate production there is declining). In Part 4 and Part 5 we looked at China's heroin problem, with a focus on the heroin that is arriving from Central Asia, and with a focus on the heroin and related HIV/AIDS problem in the XUAR.

Taking into account that the XUAR is considered a part of the PRC, one might imagine that a series entitled Uighuristan at a blog called Stop Islamic Conquest would be about how ethnic Uighurs are seeking their independence from the PRC and trying to establish some kind of caliphate, and, indeed, there is a faction that is tied into the world's militant Islamist community, and which seeks to do just that.

However, there is much more to the situation than just a bunch of militant Islamists -- most Uighurs have legitimate complaints about their treatment at the hands of Beijing, and most Uighurs who are politically active seem to seek peaceful and lawful resolutions to their grievances.

Indeed, beginning in this post, we will be examining how Communist China is not just colonizing and exploiting the XUAR for its resources and location, but is moving beyond, into Central Asia.

We consider now China strengthens its role in Kyrgyzstan by Daniel Allen, August 1, 2008:

BEIJING - At the high-altitude Irkeshtam border crossing a convoy of shiny Chinese rigs waits to cross into Kyrgyzstan. Facing the deserted vehicles, a snaking line-up of battered Kamaz trucks with Kyrgyz plates sits patiently, returning to China to load up with more cheap cellphones, TV sets and plastic kitchenware.

Here, even at this remote trade conduit between Xinjiang and Central Asia, the Chinese economic juggernaut is dominating the dynamics of trade.

Chinese and Kyrgyz vehicles alike are tangible reminders of the huge imbalance that exists between these two countries: in 2006 the value of Chinese exports flowing into Kyrgyzstan was 150 times greater than the flow in the opposite direction. China is steadily strengthening political and economic ties with small, landlocked Kyrgyzstan, with one eye on the sizeable energy reserves of its neighbors to the north and west. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan's dependence on Chinese income and infrastructure grows deeper by the day.

Looking to fill the vacuum created when the Russians returned home from the five former Soviet Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, and the roubles dried up, China is now making moves to become the new Central Asian superpower. It is constructing roads, factories, power plants and pipelines and filling supermarket shelves with cut-price consumer goods bought with low-interest loans from Chinese banks.

Economic imperialism? Economic Darwinism? Or, good old-fashioned capitalism?

One of the principal mechanisms by which China is expanding its influence in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The grouping was initially formed as the Shanghai Five in 1996, bringing together Russia, China and the three Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, being renamed when Uzbekistan joined in 2001.

Despite its cosmopolitan membership, China is clearly the driving force behind the SCO, giving the organization's economic heavyweight the appearance of a well-intentioned mother hen. Last year saw Chinese President Hu Jintao's first state visit to Kyrgyzstan as he attended the annual SCO summit in the capital Bishkek, promising other SCO member states that "China would promote regional economic co-operation to advance towards mutual benefits and all-win results."

The growing influx of Chinese products into Kyrgyzstan has been accompanied by a similar inflow of Chinese citizens. Over the past 15 years Kyrgyzstan's Chinese population has swelled from zero to around 100,000 in a total population of a little more than 5 million. These immigrants marry locals, obtain Kyrgyz citizenship, ramp up their business interests, and buy apartments. Current plans to make the yuan fully convertible in Kyrgyzstan will only serve to accelerate the flow of both Chinese currency and people.

The influx of Han Chinese immigrants to Xinjiang has resulted in Uighurs becoming a minority in their own land.

Are the Chinese doing the same to Kyrgyzstan? Is this colonization?

One business analyst in Kyrgyzstan's second city of Osh, who wished to remain anonymous, commented, "It's obvious this country is fast becoming another Chinese satellite. Trade with China now accounts for almost 80% of Kyrgyz foreign turnover. The European Union and Russia seem to have no unified policy on Kyrgyzstan. In the end the Chinese will become so strong that they will directly influence government policy, and that will alter the foreign political orientation of Kyrgyzstan."

Indeed, the growing influence of China within Kyrgyzstan's corridors of power, and in the foreign policy of other Central Asian states, has led to fears in Washington that the SCO is being developed to counter US interests in the region. These fears have been strengthened by the recent inclusion in the SCO of Iran, Pakistan, India, Mongolia and Afghanistan as either observer or guest nations.

Despite claims by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao that the SCO is not being built up as a rival to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, the SCO has already secured the closure of a US military base in Uzbekistan in 2005. A similar base at Kyrgyzstan's Manas Airport in Bishkek, which is proving crucial for US and coalition operations in Afghanistan, remains open in spite of Sino-Russian pressure, although the rent has jumped to more than US$150 million a year (roughly 7% of Kyrgyzstan's entire GDP).

Kyrgyzstan is now paying for the price for not bending fully to Beijing's will. Bishkek's reluctance to close the Manas Base has been cited as a major factor in China's refusal to include Kyrgyzstan in a gas pipeline set to run from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang and beyond. Although the most direct route from Turkmenistan to China does pass through Kyrgyzstan, and the Kyrgyz government lobbied hard for inclusion in the project, Beijing’s move was interpreted by some as a warning to Kyrgyz leaders not to get too close to the US.

The United States has a reputation for short-sightedness and fickleness in some parts of the world.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the opportunity was there to bring the Central Asian countries into the world fold, helping them to develop in a way that was independent of both Russia and China, the major powers that are closest to the region, while resisting Islamification of the varieties offered by Saudi Arabia and certain elements in Pakistan.

(Being mostly Turkic Sunni Muslims, the people of the Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan have less in common with the Persian Shia Muslims of Iran; Tajikistan is a somewhat different case, as its people share culture, history and language with those of Persian descent, although the people of Tajikistan are still mostly Sunni.)

Instead, the United States and many other Western countries seemed to ignore the region until 9/11.

With 9/11, we began to pay the price for that inattention, and now we have an uphill battle to prove our attention isn't merely for our own convenience, be it for natural resources or for prosecuting the war against Islamist extremists.

Indeed, despite China's ascendancy, Beijing isn't getting everything its own way in Kyrgyzstan. Alarmed by strengthening Chinese-Kyrgyz and Kazakh-Kyrgyz ties, Moscow has taken steps to renew its interest in the country. Former Russian president and now prime minister Vladimir Putin recently announced plans to invest up to $2 billion in the Kyrgyz economy, and Russian energy giant Gazprom is investing $300 million in a joint venture with Bishkek to explore for new fuel reserves and build pipeline infrastructure. Only 7% of Kyrgyzstan's land is available for agriculture and it has relatively limited hydrocarbon resources.

It is wise, not just for Kyrgyzstan, but for all the countries of the region, to cultivate ties with several major powers -- China and Russia, but also the United States, the European Union, and perhaps Iran and others as well.

And Washington needs to understand and respect this, not finger-point and accuse a nation of being soft on terrorists just because its leaders see Iran in a different light than the current U.S. Administration does.

(And not a peep out of the current U.S. Administration about the real problem child in the greater region, Saudi Arabia -- but that's a separate matter.)

Preparatory work has been announced on a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which will start in Kashgar, in the far west of China's Xinjiang autonomous region, while China and Uzbekistan have announced their intention to accelerate construction of transit roads through Kyrgyzstan to facilitate growing regional trade. China has also helped to construct a road that links northern and southern Kyrgyzstan.

Pipelines and road improvement projects have been discussed linking the Central Asian republics to the Arabian Sea via Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well. Such projects would be a boon for all concerned.

In fact, in the series Genesis (which will soon conclude), we look at how a desire for stability in Afghanistan to enable such projects connecting Central Asia to Pakistan may have led some in Pakistan and the United States to support the rise of the Taliban.

Many analysts see power generation as another area where Kyrgyzstan may be able to generate much-needed income. Although a China-Kyrgyzstan partnership formed in 2004 promised $2 billion from China for construction of two hydroelectric sites on the Naryn River, Kyrgyzstan's "Tulip Revolution" in 2005, which saw the overthrow of president Askar Akayev, seems to have effectively scuppered the deal. However, the apparent recent willingness of Bishkek to privatize all national assets is almost guaranteed to bring about renewed Chinese investment in Kyrgyzstan's energy sector.

Privatization may not be wise, if the assets are then bought up by agents of the government of a foreign power (Communist China).

Not all Kyrgyz citizens resent China's growing influence within their nation's economy and internal affairs. Asel Amankulova, who runs a guesthouse in Karakol beside Lake Issyk-Kul, hopes that China can assume Russia's previous role in Kyrgyzstan. "I'm not saying the Soviet days were great, but at least we had enough to eat, enough water, and enough power," she says. "Now I'm struggling to feed myself, I've got this trickle of dirty water, and the town's plagued by constant blackouts. If China can help us by investing in this country then that's fine by me."

As the Chinese economy continues to grow, accompanied by spiraling energy and raw material demands, so the strategic importance of Kyrgyzstan to Beijing will undoubtedly increase. Kazakhstan and Russia, both currently awash with fossil-fuel dollars, are looking for foreign investment opportunities, and the US needs to retain its crucial foothold in Kyrgyzstan for Afghan operations.

Let the bidding begin?

In Part 7 we will have an update on China's long arms reaching deep into Central Asia via pipeline construction.

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