Over the past decade, Moscow has made regular use of private military and security companies to project power in areas where it wants to maintain at least limited deniability while taking advantage of the weaknesses of local governments (see EDM, March 16, 2017, March 22, 2017, March 27, 2018). It has employed such independent formations—or at least their simulacra—in Ukraine, Syria and especially in African states with relatively vulnerable or ineffective central governments (see EDM, January 21, 2020, April 29, 2020, January 20, 2021).
Other countries, including the United States, have themselves relied on private military companies, although they mostly acknowledge them as support elements for a formal military presence. China has done so as well in some African countries but only in a restricted way. Now, however, there appears to be a growing risk that Beijing may feel it can utilize such structures to defend its existing interests or project new power into at least one republic in Central Asia: politically unstable Kyrgyzstan (see EDM, March 3). Beijing already has significant investments there and has had serious problems with the government and local population in the past (see EDM, June 24, 2016 and March 3, 2021; see China Brief, August 12, 2020).
Chinese “private military companies” have not yet appeared in Kyrgyzstan, but some Russian experts are worried that they may show up soon and create problems for Moscow, for two reasons. First, there is Russia’s own security involvement in Kyrgyzstan—it has one military base in that country and has been talking about the possibility of establishing a second (see EDM, May 24, 2018 and February 22, 2019). Additionally, any such Chinese involvement might not only further destabilize that Central Asian republic but lead to clashes between the Russian Federation and China, something Moscow wants to avoid, especially at a time of growing tensions with the West. Stanislav Pritchin, a senior researcher at the Moscow Center for Post-Soviet Research in the Russian Academy of Sciences, has noted that the Russian government hopes China will not send private military companies into Kyrgyzstan, but it increasingly fears that anti-Chinese rhetoric by Kyrgyzstani politicians could unintentionally lead to that possibility in the future. At a minimum, he said, this is already “a risk” no one can afford to ignore (IA-Centr, March 15).
According to the Moscow-based analyst, political instability in Kyrgyzstan represents a threat to Chinese interests there. Beijing has invested heavily in that neighboring republic and clearly is concerned that continuing turmoil there may compromise its ability to maintain its economic and political presence. Every time there is a change in leadership in Kyrgyzstan, almost all aspects of life, including that of foreign investors, are put at risk of radical change because that country’s legal system is so underdeveloped that investors cannot count on their rights being protected under a new president or prime minister. That makes it arduous for foreign governments to enter into or stay involved in long-term projects, such as gold mining, and it simultaneously causes those already there to think about how they can defend themselves. But one potential tool may be private security companies, which can be deployed to defend firms without attracting the kind of adverse attention that more direct military involvement would provoke.
Kyrgyzstan’s legal code makes no provision for the presence of foreign private military companies, Pritchin contended. That makes the notion that Chinese units of this type might appear “an extreme variant” and possibly only “a scarecrow” designed to frighten Bishkek into doing more to protect Chinese firms. Moreover, he continues, it is possible China will seek to exploit security agencies or “other force resources” under the control not of the Kyrgyzstani government but under that of one or another political figure. Such a “hybrid” approach could allow China to take effective control over a key part of the security apparatus in the Kyrgyz Republic. In times of trouble in Kyrgyzstan, in 2005 and 2010, such domestic non-state security firms helped defend Chinese property, the Moscow analyst continued. So it is entirely possible that Beijing has maintained the kind of contacts with local interlocutors that would allow it to use them rather than inserting its own “private armies” in the future. At the same time, however, such an outcome would further weaken the central government in Bishkek.
Up to now, Pritchin suggested, China has been cautious in using its private military companies abroad. It did not send them to Turkmenistan, despite troubles there in 2015 and 2016; and when it has deployed them to African countries more recently, it was under rules that limit them to defending buildings rather than playing any broader role, at least for the time being. But in recent years, Beijing has felt increasingly free to throw its weight around internationally. And it may do so in this area as well, possibly with Kyrgyzstan as a testing ground where it can demonstrate China’s new capabilities.
Another factor that may prompt Beijing to use such organizations is increasing anti-Chinese attitudes in Central Asia in general and in Kyrgyzstan in particular, the Russian Academy of Sciences researcher argued. Many Kyrgyz are angry about what China is doing to its Muslim population in Xinjiang, actions that the United States government and numerous human rights groups have characterized as acts of “genocide.” Bishkek and other Central Asian governments generally have been reluctant to criticize Beijing despite the feelings of their own peoples. But that could change as new reports come out about what China is doing with its Muslims and as a new generation rises to power in Bishkek and other Central Asian capitals.
The state of politics in the Kyrgyz Republic is such, Pritchin asserted, that one or another faction may decide to play up the Chinese issue, and that could incite Kyrgyzstanis to attack local Chinese firms as has happened in the past. If that were to occur, the situation could deteriorate rapidly, China could send in its own “private military companies” and then, the analyst concluded, the outcome “will be really dangerous” for all concerned.