Staunton, March 24 – “It is impossible to imagine” the future of Central Asia without the involvement of China, Temur Umarov says; but “the more actively Beijing broadens its efforts at influence there, the stronger will be resistance” especially given what the Muslim countries of the region see as China’s repressive policies against Muslim peoples in Xinjiang.
In a major and heavily footnoted study published by the Moscow Carnegie Center, Umarov, a specialist on China and also Central Asia, says that “at first glance,” the Chinese strategy in Central Asia intended to produce a Pax Sinica there has remained unchanged (carnegie.ru/commentary/81265).
That strategy has been based on “three primary rules: non-interference in the internal affairs of these countries and their relations with each other, a stress on economic cooperation, and efforts to improve its own reputation.” But now, Umarov says, “Beijing’s behavior is changing,” in response to threats from Afghanistan and opposition to its investments in the region and actions in Xinjiang.
China has begun the construction of a base for Tajik forces on the Afghan border to block the movement of Islamist fighters from there into Xinjiang. It has stepped up its joint military maneuvers with the armies of the Central Asian countries, and it is training more Central Asian officers in Chinese military academies.
Beijing has long faced resistance to its involvement in the region by populations who see its presence as a kind of neo-colonialism from a new direction, the scholar says; but now, that resistance has been growing because of China’s repressive policies in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous District.
That should not have come as any surprise: Within Xinjiang currently live “about 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs, 180,000 Kyrgyz, 50,000 Tajiks and 10,000 Uzbeks, many of whom have been swept into the re-education camps Beijing has set up to try to pacify this long restive Muslim region. And that has sparked anti-Chinese protests in Bishkek and Nur-Sultan.
It is too early to suggest that Sinophobia is sweeping through Central Asia, but there are growing groups willing to protest with some figures in the opposition in Kazakhstan taking the lead in doing so, basing their complaints in many cases on the testimony of Kazakhs and others who have fled Xinjiang. (350,000 ethnic Kazakhs returned from there between 1991 and 2015.)
The governments in Central Asia mostly remain friendly to China, and that has created a split which may widen between pro-Chinese regimes and anti-Chinese populations, Umarov suggests. But the negative attitudes of the population divide as well, between those who fear its anti-Muslim repressions and those concerned about its role as the new “’Big Brother.’”
What makes tracking the situation difficult, the Carnegie expert says, is that “in the countries of Central Asia, there are no quality analysts on China.” The strong schools of Uyghur studies that had existed in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan collapsed in the 1990s. And as a result, the governments there do not have the expertise they need to navigate this situation.
Umarov implies but doesn’t say that this lack of expertise could mean dramatic swings in policy toward China by Central Asian countries who may react less to the situation as a whole than either to their own economic advantage or to protests from populations concerned about repression.