China’s growing international influence has been most evident in its south-east Asian periphery and sub-Saharan Africa, but its presence is now being felt in Central Asia, according to this report in The New York Times.
The five largely Muslim post-Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are considered vital alternative sources of energy and as a factor in stabilizing Xinjiang, where the communist authorities’ failure to address the grievances of Muslim Uyghurs has prompted violent unrest.
Beijing apparently views Central Asia as “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens,” and it is using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to ensure that it gets the largest slice, granting $10 billion in loans to SCO states last year.
But China’s growing leverage isn’t universally welcome, generating complaints about a lack of transparency in its investments and diplomatic relations and prompting protests in Kazakhstan against a proposed land deal.
Beijing also views the region as an arena in which it can undermine the influence of the United States, which has been the principal promoter of democratic reform in the region, while also – for vital strategic reasons – maintaining relations with the region’s largely authoritarian regimes.
China reportedly offered a $3 billion bribe to Kyrgyzstan to close the U.S. base near the capital, Bishkek.
The SCO has been described as an authoritarian international or autocrats’ support network, which, while primarily focused on security issues, also serves as a mutual defense mechanism for regimes alarmed by the democratic transitions in other post-communist states.
According to one analysis, the SCO represents a “formidable challenge” to democracy and human rights across the region “through its de facto legitimization of authoritarianism and by establishing itself as a counterweight to external democratic norms.”
The SCO’s declared priority is combating the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism and separatism even if, as one study notes, this has “too often acted as cover for suppression of ….. legitimate oppositional groups and the cutting-off of trans-regional ties between them.”
The SCO’s military activities also have a political intent, observers suggest. The group’s largest ‘anti-terrorist’ military exercise, Peace Mission 2007, started on August 9 in Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Area, and ended 8 days later in Russia’s Volga-Urals district.
“The drills in Xinjiang led some observers to speculate that the exercise was aimed at intimidating China’s Uighur population and Central Asia’s democrats,” wrote analyst Richard Weitz.
But the SCO is by no means a monolithic entity, partly because it has become an arena in which China and Russia are competing for influence across Central Asia.
Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008, the Kremlin notably failed to secure the group’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s independence. Given the demands for autonomy from its Tibetan and Uighur minorities, China, in particular, is reluctant to condone secessionist moves elsewhere.