Staunton, January 23 – Over the last two years, Central Asians have taken to the streets to protest Chinese moves in their countries and what they see as the complicity of local elites in making this possible. The governments in the region, however, almost never criticize China; indeed, they often go out of their way to defend Beijing.
On the one hand, Temur Umarov says, these elites are well aware of China’s growing economic power and its willingness to punish any country that crosses it. But on the other, and more ominously, the Moscow Carnegie Center China specialist says, Beijing is working hard to buy their loyalty by enriching them and their families (carnegie.ru/commentary/83701).
As the Chinese present in Central Asian has grown, opposition to it and the national elites who have helped make it possible. Those elites, Umarov continues, “have learned to enrich themselves via the links of their countries with the Chinese and Beijing has effectively used this for strengthening its influence in the region.”
In Kyrgyzstan, favored officials allow Chinese goods to enter without registration or taxes and then take a cut of the earnings for their sale or onward shipping. In Kazakhstan, members of the families of top leaders have earned millions in dollars as consultants for Chinese companies doing business there.
In Tajikistan, elites are making money from a joint enterprise that mines and exports gold to China. And in Turkmenistan, the family of the dictator has excluded almost everyone else from dealing with Beijing and has profited. As a result, “the influence of the Chinese Peoples Republic is the strongest there in the region.”
This tactic should come as no surprise. China wants its firms to have favorable treatment in these neighboring countries. “But Beijing’s ambitions may not be limited to the construction of shadow schemes with leaders already in power.” It is now seeking to install leaders favorable to itself in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan by cultivating pro-Chinese politicians.
According to Umarov, “the growing dependence on China will further reduce the space for maneuver for Central Asia in its relations with its giant neighbor,” and Beijing is thus likely to use this to promote an expanded military presence in the Central Asia. That makes the latest Chinese moves a problem for Moscow.
Up to now, Moscow and Beijing have had a modus vivendi based on Chinese dominance of the marketplace and Russia’s dominance of the security situation. That was enough for China in the past, but it clearly isn’t now. Moscow thus has to decide how to react, either going along with its loss of position in the region or challenging China.
The intriguing reality, Umarov concludes, is that if the Russian government chooses the latter course, its most effective means may be to strengthen the statehood of the countries in Central Asia, a strategy that could limit Chinese expansion but also make the Russian presence in that region more problematic as well.