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Throughout the end of September and till the Taiwan National Day on 10 October, China conducted provocative fighter maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait along with Naval exercises in the South China Sea. While the world was focused on these developments China once again very quietly achieved one strategic milestone in Central Asia using its ancient stratagem, ‘Stir up the Waters to catch a Fish’ – Create confusion and use this confusion to further your own goals(In chaos, it is easier to seize power.)
On 14 October, Kyrgyzstan got its new Prime Minister in Sadyr Zhaparov. Just days back he was behind bars serving a sentence for kidnapping a public official. The world didn’t take notice of the development and for the first time, Russia seemed to be losing grip over Central Asia.
IMPORTANCE OF KYRGYZSTAN
Why would China give importance to Kyrgyzstan over its relationship with Russia? These are some of the important aspects:
- Fergana Valley and surrounding Tien Shan mountain range: Kyrgyzstan controls the surrounding mountains thus controls the valley and Central Asia.
- Central Asian countries act as a buffer for China with the rest of Asia and Europe as well as connect them with Europe.
- Control of the region could give significant political and economic influence to China.
- Russia has an airbase next to the northern city of Kant. Russia has plans to install air- and missile-defense equipment and drones at this airbase. China is wary of the Russian presence there.
- Till 2014 the USA operated a transit center at Manas airbase near the capital city of Bishkek to support operations in Afghanistan. China doesn’t want NATO to utilize these bases in case the hostilities break out.
THE BONE OF CONTENTION: CHINA-KYRGYZSTAN-UZBEKISTAN RAILWAY
The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway was proposed in the mid-90s. However, much to China’s chagrin the project has dragged on for over 25 years. This year on 17 September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Chingiz Aidarbekov, met in Bishkek. Wang talked about a community of shared futures and interests. He said that China firmly supports Kyrgyzstan’s path of development and opposes any foreign interference in Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs. Wang stressed upon expediting mutual cooperation in the areas of economic relations. Aidarbekov also expressed Kyrgyzstan’s readiness to get involved in the Belt & Road Initiative and expedite the construction of China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway.
Just two days later, on 19 September, pro-Russia Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who had been pressing for a 3+1 format for over two years, once again reiterated that Russia should participate in the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad project. Adding a fourth country, with no direct linkage to the line made no sense to other participants.
China was always suspicious of Russia’s intentions. It had no direct economic benefit from the project. Russia has a dominant transportation position in the region. The proposed project does not run through Russian territory and in fact damages Russia’s current monopoly for transiting Chinese cargo to Europe.
THE CHINESE DESIGNS
China understands Russia’s delay tactics. However, China has its designs for the Central Asian countries and Afghanistan, which do not match Russian expectations. After years of economic engagement, China is ready to flex its muscles in the region, a move that could kindle discord with Russia.
Chinese investment in Central Asia often is done in nontransparent ways that bring great benefits to the elite and the powerful. As the BRI started expanding China expected using its usual methods so that its influence expands throughout Eurasia, at a rapid rate, however, Central Asia remains saddled firmly in the Russian grip. This has been frustrating and remains one of the most important tests of Chinese political and economic diplomacy. Till now China has been able to avoid public display of friction with Russia in the region, however, this is a pet project of Chinese President Xi Jinping. He is in a great hurry and getting frustrated with the delays.
The signs of friction started emerging in February 2020, when Kyrgyz authorities canceled construction of a $275 million Chinese logistics center. China was already upset with the delay in BRI projects. It had to move in and move in fast. The main hurdle was pro-Russia President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. China saw the opportunity in the chaos which ensued soon after allegations of vote-buying emerged in the 4th October parliamentary elections, and struck. The actions were well planned or spontaneous only Zhaparov can tell.
Asel Doolotkeldieva, a Kyrgyz academic is surprised at the astronomical ascent of Zhaparov. As per him, Zhaparov was a low-ranking politician and a convicted criminal. The whole thing has been orchestrated by forces working behind the scenes. He says that nobody can tell really how it’s possible that Zhaparov jumped from a place of detention immediately to the highest echelons of power. Nobody can answer this question currently and it’s puzzling all of us.
Has Sadyr Zhaparov been installed by China? Only time can tell. However, all indications are pointing towards that pro-Russia Sooronbay Jeenbekov was not pushing the Chinese agenda hard enough, and he paid the price.
CHINA IS READY TO UP THE ANTE
China’s task in the region is cut out clearly. China has its concerns for the underdeveloped and restive region of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, neighboring Central Asia. Therefore it seeks to create a zone of stability around the Turkic Muslim Uighur population. China’s growth is slowing down. CCP wields its power through the economy. Central Asia presents an opportunity for Chinese companies active in construction and infrastructure development. This reduces excess capacity at home in these sectors as well as presents opportunities for Chinese firms and workers abroad. BRI remains the biggest ambition of Xi Jinping. Central Asia is the backbone of the transportation networks that would support Chinese exports flowing to Europe and the Middle East.
China has realized one thing that if plans do not work out the way Deng Xiaoping had envisaged them, then China is ready to take the next step. To achieve Xi Jinping’s dream of making China the center of the universe, they would remove every impediment with impunity. They once again rely on age-old wisdom, “To Defeat the Bandits, Capture Their Leader”.