Kyrgyzstan has increased its security cooperation with China in an effort to enhance its anti-terrorist capabilities. Since the deployment of U.S. military forces to Ganci airbase in Manas in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, the Kyrgyz authorities have continued to finely balance relations between Washington and Moscow. Yet there are growing signs that the Kyrgyz political and security leadership take seriously the development of security assistance from China. Bishkek does not necessarily view Beijing as an alternative, but as one more supplier eager to promote stability in the weak Central Asian state in recognition that transnational threats may spread into China, which has its own problems with separatists. With Russian and U.S. “bases” operating on Kyrgyz soil, President Askar Akayev has been keen to dispel the “myth” of competition between Russia and America, notably witnessed in the launch of his book, Optimistic About the Future: Thinking About Foreign Policy and World Order, in Moscow on September 13 (Interfax, September 14).
Officers from a specialized department in the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force visited the Kyrgyz Republic this month to develop mutual cooperation and focus on exploring ways in which China could assist in strengthening the Kyrgyz National Guard, which serves as an elite anti-terrorist force in the country. Lieutenant-General Zhang Yuzhong, deputy political commissar at the headquarters of the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force, said, “We have achieved our aim and built a strong bridge of friendship between our departments. This cooperation, I am sure, will be of use for the security of not only our own country but for the region as a whole,” (Vecherniy Bishkek, September 16). His remarks confirm that Beijing intends to promote the security interests of the whole region, rather than concentrating on fostering its bilateral relations with any favored state within the region.
The Chinese delegation’s visit was not simply for political show; there were also practical implications. Agreements were signed on long-term interdepartmental cooperation, hoping to build on the 20 Kyrgyz officers that currently receive education annually within China. China also agreed to supply mobile barracks, contribute materials to assist in building barracks, and provide vehicles, uniforms, and equipment for the Kyrgyz National Guard.
Army-General Abdykul Chotbayev, Commander of the Kyrgyz National Guard, was ready to capitalize on China’s experience with countering terrorism, and he secured more opportunities for his personnel to be instructed in China. The Chinese police have special teams particularly skilled in hostage negotiation and rescue operations. Chotbayev was only recently promoted by President Akayev and is apparently anxious to convince his political masters that he is securing progress in these areas, without relying too heavily on Moscow (Krasnaya zvezda, August 26). Nonetheless, given the continued reliance on sending Kyrgyz military personnel to Russia for education and training, the advance in Kyrgyzstan’s security relationship with China may be viewed in context; Sino-Kyrgyz cooperation is increasing, mirroring the growth in China’s economic power.
Kyrgyzstan’s security cooperation with China, according to Chotbayev, dates from 1997. It has grown in terms of the number of Kyrgyz personnel subject to contact with and training inside Chinese military-educational facilities. Given Kyrgyzstan’s recent security assistance from the United States in the area of anti-terrorist training, it is significant to note the level of interest attached to stepping up its ties with China. This goes beyond its commitments within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and focuses instead on bilateral agreements. China has supplied $60,500 worth of technical assistance to Kyrgyzstan in 2004, but its political dividend and practical input may be greater than these figures suggest (Kyrgyz Radio First Program, September 15).
Such bilateral visits are becoming more frequent. The recent visit of General Liang Guanglie, Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army illustrates this point; he headed a delegation visiting Bishkek September 3-10 and noted that both sides were serious in their intent to explore mechanisms for expanding future military cooperation (Xinhua News Agency, September 7). Bishkek’s propensity to seek security assistance from any foreign state willing to offer help serves to highlight the all too familiar weakness and poverty of the Kyrgyz security structures, within which any assistance is clearly considered better than none. While Akayev seeks to downplay competition between the United States and Russia, in a state where both powers have components of their militaries deployed in a show of force against international terrorism, behind the scenes, the Kyrgyz are equally keen to offer China an inroad into Central Asian security. Nevertheless, Akayev is equally bent on rapidly improving out-dated Kyrgyz weapons and equipment. Often promises of Western equipment are followed by bureaucratic delays, while China can deliver much faster. This more immediate response will give China a large return on minimal investment for years to come.