This attack raises a few questions. Is there a growing resentment of China among Central Asian populations? Is this resentment a threat to Chinese interests in Central Asia? And could this change China’s approach in Central Asia or make its presence in the region questionable?
Over the past two decades, Beijing has become one of the most influential actors in Central Asia, surpassing Russia in economic terms. Hydrocarbons — mainly gas from Turkmenistan and oil from Kazakhstan — are at the forefront of Chinese activity in the region. But it also has its sights on a multitude of other sectors, in particular those linked to infrastructure and communication.
Central Asia’s proximity to China has proven useful for the region’s development. For a poor country like Kyrgyzstan, the re-export of Chinese products throughout Central Asia and Russia has generated new trade dynamics. From 2002 to 2015, trade grew by more than US$43 billion. In 2013, Sino–Central Asian relations developed further with the launch of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) program, which calls for regional economic integration through infrastructure projects and trade. The Chinese government has planned to invest some US$40 billion in the project.
But China’s influence in Central Asia is controversial.
To date, all Central Asian governments have spoken positively about their ‘excellent relations’ with Beijing. But they are not Sinophile by conviction. They are driven by a logic that has a Sinophobe dimension — the idea that it is better to maintain a healthy relationship with a large and feared neighbour. The ‘China question’ is becoming increasingly central to political debate in Central Asia and most believe that increased Chinese influence is a challenge for the region.
The topics of trade and economic relations are highly sensitive. Central Asian states are generally grateful for China’s help with infrastructure and with the provision of consumer products that are appropriate to the low standard of living in the region. But the energy issue raises concerns that an increased dependency on China could jeopardise national sovereignty.
In Kazakhstan, where Beijing’s investment in oil is strong, experts argue that Kazakh authorities have transferred too many energy resources into Chinese hands. This reflects a trend among many Central Asian experts who argue that Beijing is trying to co-opt the economies of Central Asia. The key accusation concerns the restriction of Central Asian economies to the roles of producers and exporters of primary resources.
Between 80 and 90 per cent of Chinese exports to Central Asia consist of finished, diversified goods, while about three-quarters of Central Asian exports to China comprises raw materials, petrol and ferrous and nonferrous metals. China is transforming these local economies into raw material support bases and is destroying, through mechanisms of competition, the already fragile post-Soviet industries that are key employers in Central Asia.
Views of China are still stamped by old clichés perpetuated by the Soviet propaganda machine which cast China as an enemy. Discourses on the Chinese ‘soft expansion’ (tikhaia ekspansiia) into Central Asia have become frequent in Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik newspapers. The ideas that China has not evolved and that the Chinese authorities in principle conceal their imperialist objectives are very widespread. Many Central Asian countries share the feeling that there exists a ‘civilisational difference’ between China and Central Asia — some conceive it in terms of Islam, others in terms of Russo–Soviet acculturation.
Sinophobia is increasingly prominent in Central Asia, a phenomenon that may have long-term social consequences. There have been violent incidents over the last several years targeting Chinese traders in Central Asian markets. This growing averseness is being used more and more by some nationalist political circles.
But it is very unlikely that Chinese presence in the region will deteriorate.
For Central Asian governments, despite some apprehensions, China is an essential partner to counterbalance the influence of Russia. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and policy towards Ukraine has made the governments of Central Asia uneasy. The people and governments of Central Asia are also aware of the economic opportunities provided by the relationship with Beijing.
Moreover, Sinophobe circles are presently unable to acquire institutional standing because such views directly bear on pro-Chinese policies. In authoritarian Central Asian regimes, Sinophobia may induce state organs to work against anti-China groups through legal pressures and extralegal activities. These groups also have divided motivations and social affiliations. They are comprised of political opponents, Uyghur associations, worker’s unions, small businesspeople and entrepreneurs, all of whom would have a difficult time formulating common viewpoints for the purpose of building genuine cooperation.
As the attack on its embassy in Bishkek has shown, Beijing’s interests in the region are subject to threats. An unfavourable economic environment, particularly an economic slowdown, could lead China to lessen its involvement in Central Asia. But with tens of billions of dollars of investment already in Central Asia and with vital political and strategic interests in preserving stability in the region, Beijing is very unlikely to do so. Instead it is more likely to remain Central Asia’s main economic partner over the coming years.
Sebastien Peyrouse is Research Professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University.