Features | Diplomacy | Economy | Central Asia

China Courts Central Asia

Amid an unprecedented flurry of energy deals, Beijing strengthens alliances on Russia’s backdoor but struggles to keep Xinjiang as happy.

By Steve Finch for
China Courts Central Asia
Credit: REUTERS/Marat Gurt

Even by Chinese standards, the scale of September’s natural gas deal with Turkmenistan was significant. Standing side by side in the oasis city of Mary in the Karakum Desert, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov marked the completion of the first phase of the world’s second-largest gas field with warm smiles and yet further cooperation.

A new deal signed on the same day will see Turkmenistan deliver 65 billion cubic meters of natural gas through the world’s longest pipeline by 2016, an increase of 25 billion cubic meters.

The Galkynysh field is “another fine example of bilateral energy cooperation for mutual benefits,” Xi was quoted as saying in the state-run China Daily.

In an unprecedented tour also locking in energy deals with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, Xi has consolidated Chinese power in Central Asia as Beijing looks to reconfigure its economy based on cleaner, more diversified energy sources amid rising overall demand for fuels. But the impacts are expected to reach much farther and wider than simple economics or within China’s borders.

At stake are not only the prosperity of China and Central Asia, but also their respective security, geopolitical dynamics with Russia and the U.S. and the stability of one of China’s most restive provinces: Xinjiang.

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Energy Politics

“There is no energy without politics,” says Dr Avinoam Idan of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at John Hopkins University, Washington D.C.

A former Israeli diplomat in Moscow during the break-up of the Soviet Union, Idan says that the relatively recent independence of states in Central Asia is a key factor to remember. “These revenues from energy are so important, not only for their economies but also for their political stability and sovereignty,” he adds.

For Turkmenistan, natural gas made up 22.6% of total GDP in 2011, according to the World Bank, second only to Trinidad and Tobago, which has reduced its reliance on gas much more quickly in recent years. Uzbekistan generated just over 15% of its total output from gas the same year, and in 2010 overall energy production accounted for nearly 40% of Kazakhstan’s economy. With China pouring hundreds of billions of dollars of investment into the energy sector in every Central Asian state, these landlocked countries are in turn becoming increasingly dependent on the World’s second-largest economy.

China is now the largest trading partner of Turkmenistan ($10.37 billion in 2012) and Kazakhstan (with a target of $40 billion by 2015). It is the second-largest partner of Uzbekistan ($2.875 billion in 2012) and Kyrgyzstan ($5.6 billion in 2012), and the third-largest in the case of tiny Tajikistan.

Meanwhile, China’s “dependence on external resources is also increasing, which is expected to reach 50% in five years,” says Liao Na, vice-president of China-based energy consultancy ICIS C1 Energy.

For natural gas, Turkmenistan is the key supplier, with Chinese dependence on its increasingly close Central Asian partner tipped to climb from 23.8% of total consumption today to nearly 30% by 2015, adds Liao. And with new pipelines under construction extending and adding to the Turkmen-China line, these economic ties are locked in.

“No matter how the regional and global situation changes, developing the Turkmen-Sino relationship will always be the priority of both nations,” Berdymukhamedov told reporters in Ashgabat during Xi’s stop there last month.

Eclipsing Russia

China is starting to trump Russia when it comes to energy deals in Central Asia by offering better prices and related infrastructure paid for with low-interest loans. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the region is turning away from Moscow, or that the Kremlin and the Communist Party in Beijing don’t have mutual interests when it comes to these former Soviet states, says Idan of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

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“In terms of competition, this is really in the area of energy,” he says. “They share the same interests to see this region stable.”

In the past few weeks in Central Asian capitals and at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Bishkek ending Xi’s regional tour, the Chinese president has talked about security nearly as much as he has oil and gas.

On September 11, Kyrgyzstan became the last of the Central Asian states to upgrade its economic and security ties with China to the “strategic” level. But then Kyrgyzstan has been a unique case, a bastion of democracy among the authoritarian regimes entrenched elsewhere in the region.

The only capital in the world to feature both a U.S. and Russian airbase, Bishkek has been a key base for American military flights into Afghanistan and, meanwhile, the scene of unprecedented political unrest by recent Central Asian standards.

In March, 2005, protestors forced then President Askar Akaev to flee his office at the top of the parliament building, downstairs through an underground tunnel to the Russian airbase and out of the country, leaving the capital to an orgy of looting.

His successor, Kurmanbel Bakiyev lasted little more than five years before the next revolution, which eventually led to the relatively free and fair election of Almazbek Atambayev at the end of 2011.

Last month, Xi signed deals with Atambayev including a $3 billion loan for a gas pipeline to China, a new Bishkek power plant, an oil refinery and a motorway.

“The proposed new pipeline for the first time will transit through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan allowing these two cash-strapped countries to avail of relatively cheap Turkmen gas, but also over the long term reap the budgetary benefits of transit fees,” says Deidre Tynan, Central Asia project director for International Crisis Group (ICG) in Bishkek. “It’s a smart move on the part of Beijing to bring Bishkek and Dushanbe into the fold in this way.”

Troubled Xinjian

What this means for neighboring Xinjiang, China’s largest province and among its most socially unstable, are even less clear.

With governments more compliant towards Beijing, there is every reason to expect compliance in dealing with Xinjiang separatism and “transnational crime.”

In 2006, Uzbek police arrested and eventually extradited to China a man who reportedly goes by many names but most commonly Huseyincan Celil, a Uyghur imam accused of attacking Chinese officials from Xinjiang in 2002. A Canadian citizen, China declined to recognize his dual nationality and sentenced him to 15 years in prison on terrorism charges. Family members alleged the use of torture by Xinjiang police.

While China’s increasing friendliness with Central Asia is expected to tighten cooperation in such cases, NATO’s pullout from Afghanistan next year has less clear-cut security implications for its neighbors, including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Xinjiang.

Some analysts have speculated that Islamic militants from Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan could take advantage of the power vacuum left by departing American and allied forces, particularly in porous, remote border areas. Others have speculated that Central Asian Islamic militants who no longer have Western forces to target could instead turn their attention to Chinese authoritarianism over the more than 10 million Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

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“Instability in Central Asia worries Beijing as the potential for this to directly impact the situation in Xinjiang is significant,” says ICG’s Tynan.

A key question for the Communist Party is whether the classic Chinese model of authoritarianism mixed with economic opportunity can secure lasting stability in Xinjiang, according to Colin Mackerras, professor emeritus at the Department of Asian and International Studies, Griffith University, in Queensland, Australia.

Although Xinjiang has been largely stable since rioting led to the deaths of nearly 200 people in China’s only majority Muslim province in 2009, there has been sporadic unrest since, says Mackerras, a specialist on Xinjiang and Central Asia who has written about the 2009 violence.

“Their strategy is successful in the sense that Xinjiang has indeed got more prosperous, including for the Uyghurs. But at the same time ethnic disparities are getting wider, and so are regional disparities,” he says.

Dubious Benefits

Tangible evidence that Chinese development has helped the Uyghurs is sparse. Although the Turkmen pipeline passes through the provincial capital Urumqi, and the area has its own energy deposits, claims in the Chinese state press in recent weeks that Turkmen gas benefits an estimated “400 million people in China” fail to say how, and exactly who.

In southern Xinjiang, where the population is almost entirely indigenous, the average income per capita has been about half that for the province as a whole, which in turn ranked 18th out of China’s 31 provinces in 2011, in large part derived from natural gas revenues.

In September, Beijing approved a special economic zone in Kashgar, where 90% of the population are Uyghurs, and violence by “terrorists” in April reportedly left 21 people dead.

For Anwar Yusuf Turani, a Washington D.C.-based school teacher and prime minister of the exiled government of East Turkistan – the pro-independence name for Xinjiang – all of this is too little too late by Beijing.

Evasive about whether pro-independence supporters are present in Central Asia, he says that he communicates regularly with people in Xinjiang, even if it’s difficult with social media mostly blocked. “The Chinese government makes propaganda telling the people of East Turkestan that we should live in harmony, that the vast majority of the Uyghur people want to live with China,” Turani tells The Diplomat.

Ultimately China’s strict treatment of anyone who steps out of line in Xinjiang has had the desired effect of almost complete control, he says, accusing Beijing of everyday atrocities.

“As human beings, yes, we want to be rich, yes, we want to get our own economic benefits, use our natural resources,” says Turani. “But everything is just taken away from us so what can we do?”

Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.