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. Not only did China provide considerable military and economic aid to Kyrgyzstan, it also conducted bilateral military maneuvers with it in 2002 and combined maneuvers with it and other members of the Shanghai-6 in 2003-2004. China has extensive interests in Kyrgyzstan, while Kyrgyzstan also needs to continue to attract Chinese investment and balance against Moscow and Washington.
The new Kyrgyz government has already indicated that it will honor all of Kyrgyzstan’s existing commitments, apparently including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) 2001 treaty and subsequent documents. Indeed, acting Foreign Minister Rosa Otunbayeva has said that not only will there be no fundamental change in foreign policy, but there will be no change at all in foreign policy. She has also said that Kyrgyzstan’s relations with China are “alive and kicking.” Meanwhile she and other officials have also urged Chinese businessmen and investors to retain their positions in the Kyrgyz economy.
However, it is clear that Beijing, though publicly adopting a cautious and muted reaction to the rapidly changing Kyrgyz situation, is uncomfortable with the virtually overnight fall of the Akayev regime. Thus Beijing has said little publicly beyond urging a speedy end to the crisis and hoping that Kyrgyzstan will remain a reliable ally against terrorism. In particular, 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 be inclined to support Uighurs across the border and show a greater tolerance of the U.S. presence in Central Asia, Beijing is understandably nervous.
So while publicly it confines itself to cautious and noncommittal statements, behind the scenes China is trying to strengthen its ties with Kazakhstan and cooperation within the SCO. As Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev observed on March 29, “China thinks that all of the Central Asian states must be free from external interference and advocates stability and prosperity in Central Asia.” It also is disturbing to China that the revolution in Bishkek, which its observers interpret as also being a clear blow to Russian interests, met with no reaction from Moscow, again because the speed and intensity were too great. But it also suggests that Russia has neither 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 must also give China pause, because any weakening of established state authority might provide Islamic rebels and terrorists the opportunity to regroup and organize until the government in Bishkek again tries to assert itself. For the last three years it was Akayev’s government that most insistently pointed to the resurgence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and of groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir as still existing and even growing, thereby indicating that the terrorist threat in Central Asia had not been by any means eased 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, many of the looters in Bishkek 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. Since it is China’s main institutional venue for asserting its influence in Central Asia, the SCO’s weaknesses have once again been revealed to everyone. If the SCO cannot defend rulers against internal threats, as some of its members had wanted and which China had been reluctant to support lest it encourage foreign intervention into its own domestic affairs, what then becomes of it? It seems quite likely that there already is a reassessment process taking place among Chinese elites concerning not just Sino-Kyrgyz relations but also China’s overall strategy in Central Asia. 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.
(Taipei Times, April 4; Asia Pulse Ltd., April 5; China Business News, March 30; China Business News Online, April 1; Interfax, April 6; Itar-Tass, March 31 and April 6; Rossiiskaya gazeta, March 31)