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The Chinese Question in Central Asia by Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse

For most readers, Central Asia may be something of an enigma. Geographically situated with the Caspian Sea to the west, China to the east, Russia to the north and Afghanistan to the south, the region has historical associations with the silk road—the famous trade route connecting Europe and Asia—and was for centuries a crossroads for the movement of goods and people.

The Chinese Question in Central Asia by Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse
Chinese Question in Central Asia; Domestic Order, Social Change, and the Chinese Factor, Marlene Laruelle, Sebastien Peyrouse (C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, October 2013)

Central Asia is isolated by mountains, steppe and desert, with a population of 60 million. In 2009, its combined GDP was $160 billion—less than Malaysia or Pakistan. This is tiny in comparison to China’s $8.3 trillion of GDP and 1.3 billion people. Nevertheless, it is not just its own region but a gateway to others, affording China an opening to Russia—a market of 140 million people—as well as to Iran and Turkey, with about 75 million each. And although Central Asia’s own market is modest (at present), with the exploitation of hydrocarbon fields, it can grow.

The countries in question are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, often colloquially collectively referred to as the ’Stans. For much of most readers’ lifetimes, they were part of the former Soviet Union, only gaining independence in 1991.

So it has only really been 22 years since these five countries made their debut on the world stage. Prior to independence from the former Soviet Union, it had little exposure to the outside world.  In The Chinese Question in Central Asia, Domestic Order, Social Change and the Chinese Factor, a slender volume that punches above its weight, Marlène Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse explore the ’Stans through the lens of China’s growing importance to the region. The big questions the book asks boil down to two: “what are China’s intentions toward Central Asia?” and “how does Central Asia feel about China?”


The Chinese point of view is laid out via a detailing of actions taken after independence largely amounting to asserting their economic presence. The authors survey academics to get a sense of the Central Asian reaction. “What is striking, however,” they note,


is just how little overall sympathy China elicits: there is a prevailing feeling of mistrust about Beijing’s possible “hidden” objectives. Local experts suspect, despite current positive effects China is having on Central Asian nations... China’s rapid rise over recent years has once again made it a cumbersome neighbor, one which the Central Asian states will have to reckon with regardless of future regime changes and geopolitical developments vis-à-vis Russia and the West.


From the ’Stans’ perspective, the authors feel the so-called Chinese question is bound up for all of them in fears of Chinese domination mixed with hopes of economic betterment. The current situation is one in which China exercises “soft hegemony” over the region. China is portrayed as “the only power whose weight in Central Asia is seen as a given with which one must learn to live.”

Remarkably little space is devoted here to discussions of Russia (whose language and culture still predominate), the U.S. (with its large military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) or even Turkey. And there is even less discussion of the immense wealth garnered by the countries’ leaders, nor of their (with the exception of Kyrgyzstan) despotic tendencies.

The book covers the economic rise of China (its trade with the region now tops that of Russia, largely driven by the hydrocarbon and mining sectors) and its role in creating the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) (a multilateral diplomatic forum which includes Russia, China and the Central Asian states). The authors surveyed Central Asian scholars and “experts” on the SCO and found it is largely viewed cynically. Konstantin Syroezhkin, a regional scholar with a dry sense of humor, is of the opinion that the SCO’s:


only functions were to settle the question of border disputes and neutralize the Uyghur diaspora; ... to regulate the Sino-Russian dialogue; and to supervise China’s rise in economic power, all objectives that were attained successfully.


Indeed, the “settling” of border disputes went mostly in China’s favor quite soon after the region’s independence, a process that could not have avoided a sense of asymmetrical power relations between China and each of the ’Stans individually. (They did not team up together in the process, each preferring to cut its own deal, and many of the experts the authors cited feel that Beijing did take advantage of the newly independent states). In the process, the re-jiggering of borders opened water rights issues that remain unresolved and to continue to breed resentment.

The book treats the issue of water rights seriously. Kazakhstan has a dispute with China over two of its main rivers, the Ili, rising in the Tian-Shan Mountains, and the Irtysh, which originates in the Chinese Altay mountains. In what has now become a pattern familiar to observers of regional water policy (c.f. the Mekong), Laruelle and Peyrouse note that China regularly draws off water from both rivers without seeking the consent of Kazakhstan and refusing to come to the table for negotiation. It is seen as “an issue that remains one of the main stumbling blocks between both countries.” To this end, the SCO has been of no help.

Compounding this situation is the Chinese “The Western Development Strategy” (xibu dakaifa) which encourages the cultivation of thirsty crops such as cotton and wheat for neighboring Xinjiang and its growing Han population, whose water needs are met by the Chinese canalization of the rivers with a 300-kilometer-long and 22-meter-wide canal, known as the Kara Irtysh-Karamay Canal. This depletion threatens the functioning of several important hydroelectric stations feeding key regions in Kazakhstan and endangers the health of Lake Balkhash.


There is a broad unanimity on this subject: all the experts consider that China’s attitude is indicative of the low regard in which it holds Kazakhstan’s economic and ecological situation.


China similarly has water issues with Kyrgyzstan. In a 2004 Sino-Kyrgyz border treaty, China was ceded 90,000 hectares of a valuable arable area, Uzengi-Kuush, and undermined border security by also ceding the “one and only road link between the three Kyrgyz border posts.” Kyrgyzstan lost access to control of the Sarydzhaz and Uzengi-Kuush Rivers, important glaciers and mineral resources such as tungsten. The authors draw a line from the popular outrage and unrest that followed to the Tulip Revolution in 2005. This may be a point of dispute, however the contradiction between China’s insistence on regional dialog through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and its unwillingness to come to the table for water talks is not.

* * *

Since independence from the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan—the oil power of the region—has looked to China to dilute its reliance on Russia as a sole outlet for its production. China in turn looks to diversify its reliance on Gulf oil. In this context, the relationship dynamic seems to be about long-term partnering (more so perhaps than for those Central Asian states with less bountiful resources). China has built a pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Xinjiang, requiring massive capital expenditures.

After initial missteps (in the late ’90s, two pipeline projects which were sidelined due to a combination of sanctions and low oil prices and a second, when in 2003 China was refused entry to the Agip KCO international consortium which exploits Kashagan, the country’s largest oil field) China built a significant oil presence in Kazakhstan. By the authors’ estimation, “In 2010, China ran approximately a quarter of Kazakh production…” This comes through China National Petroleum Corporation’s (CNPC) 85% ownership stake in Aktobe Munay Gas (which controls one-seventh of oil production in Kazakhstan), CNPC’s 2003 acquisition of onshore fields to feed the Sino-Kazakh pipeline, and its 2005 acquisition of Petrokazakhstan (by lobbing in a massive US$4.2 billion topping bid to knock CNPC’s Indian competitor out of the running).  

The book attempts to take the pulse of the relationship from the Central Asian perspective. Since most states are governed by authoritarian rule (Kyrgyzstan being the exception) and little dissent is permitted, the authors admit it is hard to find opinions that diverge from the official welcoming attitude toward the Chinese, with their willingness to invest in much needed “heavy” physical infrastructure. The authors note that “China knows how to buy, in the proper sense of the word, its partner”, pointing to several corruption scandals to do with the China National Petroleum Corporation’s establishment of its foothold in Kazakhstan. They add that Beijing’s offensive in the oil sector and the commensurate lack of transparency “constitutes one of the great topics of debate in the Kazakh parliament and features regularly in the media.”


In their conclusion, the authors remark on the Central Asian experts opinion of Beijing’s harsh treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and of the repression of local culture in Tibet, which evokes a most interesting observation. Noting that “the most pragmatically-minded” Central Asian experts argue that a return to Russian domination would not have as negative an impact as Chinese domination. Moscow’s control would be political, but not demographic or cultural, while Beijing “imperils the very survival of the nation.”

Finally the authors find, even among experts, a deep residual fear that Chinese ambitions “do not evolve” and that they are still driven by imperialist territorial desires. The authors give a clear-eyed view of an evolving situation. Going forward it is certain that the Chinese will play an imposing role.

Jill Baker is an Adjunct Fellow at the Asia Business Council in Hong Kong.