On the sidelines of the October 26 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Moscow, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Kyrgyz Prime Minister Felix Kulov met to discuss bilateral ties.
Wen confirmed that Beijing would back the new regime in Bishkek and expressed his hopes that bilateral economic and trade cooperation would continue. Furthermore “China will also steadily and firmly support Kyrgyzstan in its efforts to defend its independence and sovereignty, enhance national stability, and develop national economy.” Kulov, in turn, thanked China for supporting Kyrgyzstan throughout its difficult, early years of independence and emphasized that current international agreements would continue to be observed. Kulov also indicated that China and Kyrgyzstan would continue to work together on issues of mutual interest, namely terrorism, separatism, and extremism.
Beijing had cause to worry about relations with its neighbor. China invested considerable economic, political, and military resources in Kyrgyzstan, so it is no surprise that Beijing has been disconcerted by the rapid fall of the Akayev regime and the still-uncertain political evolution of the new regime there. Not only did China provide considerable military and economic aid to Kyrgyzstan, the two countries also conducted bilateral military maneuvers in 2002 and combined maneuvers with it and other members of the Shanghai-6 in 2003-04.
The new Kyrgyz government had already indicated that it would honor all of Kyrgyzstan’s existing commitments, apparently including the Shanghai Cooperative Organization’s (SCO) 2001 treaty and subsequent documents. Indeed, while acting foreign minister, Rosa Otunbayeva that not only would there be no fundamental change in foreign policy, that there will be no change at all in foreign policy. She also said that Kyrgyzstan’s relations with China are “alive and kicking.”
However, Beijing clearly was unnerved by the virtually overnight fall of the Akayev regime in March. Thus it has had publicly said little more than to urge a speedy end to the crisis and its hope that Kyrgyzstan would remain a reliable ally against terrorism. Specifically, China wants Bishkek to continue to clamp down on the Uighur diaspora inside Kyrgyzstan so that it cannot support opposition to Beijing at home. Hitherto China had been very successful in persuading President Askar Akayev to repress any Uighur agitation if he wanted Chinese investment, foreign aid, and military-political support. Now that the new regime professes to be more democratic and thus might incline to support Uighurs across the border and show a greater tolerance of the U.S. presence in Central Asia, Beijing is understandably nervous.
It also is disturbing to China that the revolution in Bishkek, which its observers interpret as a clear blow to Russian interests as well, met with no Russian reaction, again because its speed and intensity were too great. But it also suggests that Russia neither has the resources nor the will to defend its position in Central Asia or to act on behalf of Chinese interests there as is implicitly stipulated in the SCO’s founding documents.
The continuing uncertainty and instability in Kyrgyzstan, including the assassinations of several prominent businessmen (see EDM, October 25) must also give China pause because any weakening of established state authority might provide Islamic rebels and terrorists time to regroup and organize.
For the last three years, Akayev’s government was the Central Asian regime that most insistently pointed to the resurgence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and of groups like the Islamic Party of Liberation (Hizb-ut-Tahrir) as still existing and even growing, thereby indicating that the terrorist threat in Central Asia had not by any means been extirpated after the fall of the Taliban. Since Beijing well knows that there is much anti-Chinese sentiment in Kyrgyzstan, where its Consul in Bishkek was murdered in 2002, and resentment of China’s great power patronizing attitude towards Kyrgyzstan, the possibility of revived terrorism or of a pro-Western drift that it is powerless to prevent are among the potential outcomes that cause anxiety to its officials and observers. Indeed, during the demonstrations in Bishkek in April, protestors often targeted Chinese proprietors.
Finally there is much concern as to the significance of the Tulip Revolution for the SCO. Akayev apparently fled after consulting Moscow and the EU, not Beijing or the SCO. Indeed, the SCO has proven that it cannot coordinate mutual responses among its members or effectively intervene in a domestic uprising and since it is China’s main institutional venue for asserting its influence in Central Asia, its weaknesses have once again been revealed to everyone.
Beijing’s relations with Bishkek may be alive and kicking but it is not clear who is kicking whom. Neither can it be determined in what directions those relations are going or even if they are healthy. Thus we should expect to see some interesting new turns in Chinese policies toward both Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia as a whole as the trends set in motion by the Tulip Revolution become clearer.
(PLA Daily, October 28; BBC Monitoring, October 27; Taipei Times, April 4; Asia Pulse Ltd., April 5; China Business News, March 30; China Business News On Line, April 1; Interfax, April 6; Itar-Tass, March 31, April 6; Rossiiskaya gazeta, March 31)