China's rise as a "great power" is raising fears in Central Asia that Beijing will eventually dominate the region both economically and militarily.
These fears come despite the friendly relations that have developed between regional governments over the past decade. China has repeatedly stressed that it wants to offer cooperation, not domination. But such assurances have not kept Central Asians …from worrying about the long-term consequences of a Chinese superpower…
Beijing's intensified diplomatic activity in the region was highlighted this month when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Kazakhstan as part of his first foreign trip as head of state…
Central Asian officials are welcoming Beijing's higher regional profile, especially in Kazakhstan, where China offers an export alternative to the uncertain Caspian Basin development…
Territorial disputes had been a sore spot in Chinese relations with Central Asia. But Beijing made significant concessions after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. It kept just 20 percent of the land disputed with Kazakhstan; with Kyrgyzstan, it kept 30 percent. In the case of Tajikistan, China dropped most of its claim to the Pamirs.
But last year's ratification by the Kyrgyz parliament of a 1999 agreement to cede some 95,000 hectares of land to China prompted thousands of Kyrgyz across the country to protest. Bishkek had previously transferred 30,000 hectares to Beijing under a 1996 border accord.
Doolot Nusupuv is deputy chairman of the Kyrgyz-nationalist Asaba (Flag) National Revival Party. He complained that the Kyrgyz government is making too many concessions toward an increasingly intrusive neighbor. "This is a problem. Our government should strengthen our [national] spirit, lead the country in the right direction, and develop our state in a positive way. Instead, it tells us that 1.5 billion Chinese might occupy our territory. Such an approach means our destruction even before [Chinese aggression] occurs," Nusupuv said.
Prior the recent closure of the border to prevent severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) from spreading to Central Asia, and the establishment of a new visa regime put into force last Saturday, an estimated 1,000 Chinese used to cross the border into Kyrgyzstan every month.
According to the new regulation, citizens on both sides of the Kyrgyz-Chinese border need a visa to cross. Previously, no visa was required by either side for journey of 30 days or less.
Central Asia's fears about China are rooted both in history and concerns about future jobs and regional influence. Murat Auezov, a former Kazakh ambassador to China, said: "I know Chinese culture. We should not believe anything Chinese politicians say. As a historian, I'm telling you that 19th-century China, 20th-century China, and 21st-century China are three different Chinas. But what unites them is the desire to expand their territories."
Jorabeg Mirzaev, a professor at Tajikistan's state university in Dushanbe, is more optimistic. He predicts that regional relations with China will deepen and prove fruitful for everyone involved. "Of course China can threaten [us]. [But] if we strengthen our relations, then China can help us," he said.
For some Central Asians, the co-membership of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also includes Russia and Uzbekistan, is a guarantee against any kind of regional aggression from Beijing. "China should not take any step to threaten Tajikistan, because now the SCO exists. And China and Russia are not supposed to do anything to threaten Tajikistan," one Tajik man said.
The grouping was established in 1996 to help defuse tensions along China's borders with the former Soviet Central Asian states. It has expanded its focus to include the fight against terrorism, extremism and separatism as well as the promotion of economic cooperation.
By Antoine Blua,
Asia Times, June 17, 2003