China and Central Asia: Post-Soviet Developments

29 september 2017

Muratbek Imanaliev - President of the Institute of Public Policy,  Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, former Secretary General of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation).

Resume: Central Asian attitudes to China are vastly different from how China is perceived in Europe, the rest of Asia and other parts of the world. Politicians, businessmen and ordinary people in Central Asia are either baffled or inspired by the geographical proximity of their huge neighbor.

Their natural reaction is to look for a geopolitical balance, and this, practically without an alternative, is Russia. But Russian-Chinese relations today are creating a favorable geopolitical background for a Central Asian-Chinese partnership.

However, certain Central Asian countries are counting – and occasionally not without success – on cooperation with the United States, although, as many believe, the Americans are losing interest in the region and its needs, and reengaging Afghanistan, something that cannot be overlooked by the region’s states.

Central Asian countries have no scientific, diplomatic, military, economic and journalistic Sinology of their own, and thus their priority for today is to establish research institutes to study China professionally.

The lack of sound scientific and expert writings led to the emergence of two very different images of China in the public consciousness.

First, some people increasingly fear China, which looms large in their minds as a potential global hegemon and aggressor. But the American and Central Asian “fear” of China are two different things.

Second, others admire China’s achievements and feel a growing interest toward its history, culture, traditional medicine, national sports and the Chinese language.

These two conflicting images coexist and never intermingle, which is clearly due to the lack or shortage of objective and accessible information. The Chinese, for their part, ought to know that their offer of economic and investment partnership unsupported by a parallel and synchronous advancement of “soft power” is unlikely to gain much and in a number of cases can even create considerable problems.

Soon after independence, the Central Asian states came face to face with a difficult border settlement problem inherited from the Soviet Union. The reaction of politicians and populations to separate Kazakhstan-China, Kyrgyzstan-China and Tajikistan-China border talks and the resulting documents was mostly negative. However, the opinion in Kazakhstan, for example, was less indignant than that in Kyrgyzstan, where many people believe to this day that their country has lost vast territories to China. But they tend to blame the loss on corrupt national leaders and officials rather than on China’s “aggressiveness” in territorial matters. Nevertheless, this influences China’s image in the public mind and often is used as a pretext for information and political manipulations.

Russian help in dealing with border problems and China’s reasonable and calm attitude to certain tricky Central Asian initiatives largely contributed to the signing of rather neat border agreements.  

The future of China and its domestic and foreign policies, primarily toward its neighbors, is a separate discussion topic. The focus is on the so-called Chinese demographic and economic expansion, which, as certain public figures believe, has deep roots in history. On the other hand, there are many people who emphasize China’s tolerance and love for peace, and remind their opponents that for a long time China was a target of aggression for foreign invaders.

China’s economic, scientific, cultural, and sports successes cannot be denied. The Chinese are industrious and thrifty, and this is held up as an example. Some press publications in Kyrgyzstan already call on readers to “learn from the Chinese.” This sentiment is particularly popular among business people and the military.

China is also of interest for the Central Asian youth, many of whom are enrolled in Chinese universities. Young people are pleased with the stability in the country, the tolerance of the local people and the lack of chauvinism and nationalism. Many of Central Asia’s young men and women are contemplating a future in China.  

The conceptual approaches of China’s Central Asian policy were detailed by Premier Li Peng in his 1993 speech in Tashkent and by President Xi Jinping in Astana in 2013.

Although the two addresses took place 20 years apart, continuity remains the hallmark of the Chinese policies to this day. But continuity does not mean immutability or dogmatism. On the contrary, it contributes to the dialectical development.

Put forward by President Xi Jinping, the One Belt, One Road initiative is neither a project nor a program. More likely it is a Chinese proposal to the Eurasian world to “continentalize” Eurasia via a socioeconomic, infrastructural, investment and financial process.

The One Belt, One Road initiative is of fundamental importance both for China and the world at large, signifying a transition from a “leadee” (a position recommended by Deng Xiaoping) to a world leader and the second biggest economy. This radically changes the logic and pattern of relations with China, primarily for its neighbors, but not the principles or mechanisms of cooperation.

The initiative is practically the first global programmatic approach to solving Eurasian problems in the PRC history. But there are many obstacles on this path.

The One Belt, One Road summit in Beijing has highlighted both achievements in implementing the initiative (such as moves to form its budget, map main routes and cooperation areas, suggest certain useful design solutions and basic components of the new “silk” diplomacy, etc.) and problems to be addressed.

Aligning One Belt, One Road and the Eurasian Economic Union offers considerable two-space opportunities for the Central Asian countries’ development. The resulting multi-channel compromise is a process open to accession by the Central Asian states.

The 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China due to be held later this fall should confirm successes, deal with problems and open new opportunities. 

Valdai International Discussion Club

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