China Shrinks from Security Role

China has deferred to Russia on the crisis in Kyrgyzstan.

2010.06.21
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Kyrgyz-Soldiers-305.jpg Kyrgyz soldiers inspect the Uzbek district of Osh, June 20, 2010.
AFP

By Michael Lelyveld

BOSTON—China has kept its distance from ethnic violence in neighboring Kyrgyzstan as the country seeks security assistance from Russia instead, analysts say.

Despite its growing economic power in Central Asia, China has played a surprisingly small part in offering aid and relief to strife-torn Kyrgyzstan, where deadly riots erupted June 10.

There has also been little involvement of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the nine-year-old regional security group in which China plays a leadership role.

Instead, the embattled provisional government in Bishkek turned to Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of former Soviet nations in seeking peacekeeping forces to restore order in southern Kyrgyzstan.

So far, Russia has committed only troops to guard its own airbase in the northern part of the country, while CSTO has only agreed to send helicopters, fuel, and other supplies.

But experts say the appeal to Moscow shows the limits of China's power in Central Asia and the ineffectiveness of the SCO in responding to regional stability threats.

"The SCO, first of all, does not have the means to deal with violence like this inside a country," said Stephen Blank, a professor of national security studies at U.S. Army War College.

"Second, if they come to the SCO, then they're going to have to involve China," he said.

"The Russians ... and the other Central Asians don't want Chinese forces in Central Asia."

Starting June 14, China sent chartered planes from Urumqi in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) to evacuate 1,299 citizens from the southern Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalalabad after reports that some Chinese-owned businesses were looted and destroyed.

Meager response

The losses are believed to be incidental to the major clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, which killed some 2,000 people and drove 110,000 refugees into neighboring Uzbekistan, according to government officials.

Other countries, including Russia, evacuated their citizens from the country, as well. Up to 400,000 people were displaced by the violence, U.N. officials said June 17.

Ethnic Uzbeks represent about 14 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population. Sixty-five percent are Kyrgyz, 12.5 percent are Russian, and 1 percent are Uyghurs, the CIA World Factbook said.

But China's response has appeared meager, compared with its economic clout.

In 2008, China accounted for 71 percent of Kyrgyzstan's imports with a value of U.S. $3.3 billion, based on World Bank data.

Last year, Kyrgyzstan's trade with bordering Xinjiang alone reached nearly U.S. $3 billion, the Asia Times said.

On June 15, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang announced China would offer 5 million yuan ($731,000) in humanitarian aid, the official Xinhua news agency said.

The 20 tons of Chinese relief supplies reported by Xinhua compares with 129 tons of goods sent by Russia.

The United States, which operates an airbase in Kyrgyzstan, has pledged $32.2 million in emergency aid, the State Department said June 16.

The SCO offered little more than rhetoric, although it held its annual summit in Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent on June 11, as fighting raged near the border only 200 miles (320 kilometers) away.

According to a summit declaration quoted by Xinhua, "SCO members reiterated that the situation in Kyrgyzstan bears great influence [on] regional stability, and the other five SCO member states are willing to provide essential support and assistance to Kyrgyzstan."

Founded in Shanghai in June 2001, the organization was driven by China's goal of promoting regional stability and resisting separatism among ethnic minorities, particularly Uyghurs.

But it has largely failed to live up to expectations that it would turn into an important security group.

SCO members include China, Russia, and all the former Soviet nations of Central Asia except Turkmenistan. But in a statement, China's Foreign Ministry acknowledged that CSTO would take the lead instead.

"China has taken note of the CSTO meeting on the Kyrgyzstan situation and understands the organization's efforts to preserve peace and stability in Central Asia," spokesman Qin said.

CSTO consists of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, and the Central Asian states, minus Turkmenistan, largely overlapping with the SCO.

The events suggest that China may be the region's new economic powerhouse, but that it still relies on Russia for security in Central Asia.

"China might turn out to be the dominant economic player in a few years, but none of the Central Asian nations trust China," said Blank. "They fear it, they need it, they can't do without it, but they don't like it."

"If anybody has to, they want the CSTO to come in," he said.

'Distinct roles'

Alexandros Petersen, a nonresident senior fellow and Eurasia expert with the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the SCO's response has been largely limited to sending observers to a scheduled June 27 referendum on Kyrgyzstan's new constitution.

"If that's the only response, then this further delegitimizes in many ways the SCO as a security organization," Petersen said.

"This incident has revealed quite a lot about the SCO by the SCO's lack of involvement."

Analysts see the group only as a vehicle for expanding China's economic links in the region, he said.

Reactions to the unrest have also highlighted the "soft competition" between Russia and China in Central Asia.

"There are quite distinct roles, an economic one for China and a security-oriented one for Russia," said Petersen.

While the two Asian powers have separate strengths, they may serve to keep out Western influence by not competing directly in the same sphere, he said.

China has also shunned the role of regional strongman in deciding to bypass Kyrgyzstan with its recently opened Central Asia gas pipeline from Turkmenistan.

The route runs through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, but unlike former Soviet pipelines in the region, it skirts Kyrgyz territory.

By avoiding the energy-poor country, China has reduced the risk that its transit gas could be disrupted or tapped, but it has also shown reluctance to serve as a unifying force in Central Asia.

"You could say that from China's standpoint, it was a smart decision because the pipeline would have potentially been under threat with this unrest," Petersen said.

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