SINO-KYRGYZ RELATIONS AFTER THE TULIP REVOLUTION
Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 9
Of all the countries in Central Asia, post-revolution Kyrgyzstan seems to be the most likely candidate for closer bilateral ties with China. When Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev abruptly fled Bishkek on March 24, he left a power vacuum that may well be filled with whoever comes up with ready cash. Along with neighboring Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan has struggled with its Soviet economic legacy. Though Kyrgyzstan developed the most liberal foreign investment laws in the region after 1991, with the exception of a few high-profile projects like the Kumtor gold-mining complex, the economy remains heavily dependent on its agrarian sector. Although Kyrgyzstan’s democratic image was greatly damaged by the 2002 parliamentary and presidential elections (which were harshly criticized by foreign observers), the current political chaos provides China an unparalleled opportunity to secure its western flank.
For China, the agenda in Kyrgyzstan is simple – acquire access to the country’s immense natural resources while blunting the further penetration of U.S. and Russian military power. China has other weapons in its arsenal besides economic clout, most notably the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The Shanghai Five grouping was originally created in 1996 with the signing of the Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions by the heads of states of Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. In 1997 the same countries signed the Treaty on Reduction of Military Forces in Border Regions at a meeting in Moscow. Finally, in June 2001 the Shanghai five (along with Uzbekistan) signed the Declaration of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, praising the role played thus far by the Shanghai Five mechanism and aiming to transform it to a higher level of cooperation. Kyrgyzstan also broadened its contacts with China by opening a consular office in August 2002 in Artush in Xinjiang province. For Kyrgyzstan, the benefits were immediate; three days after the declaration was signed, Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoev announced that China was giving Kyrgyzstan $970,000 in military aid.
But even such a generous aid package did not alleviate the economic hardships in Kyrgyzstan. While wide-scale discontent over the fraudulent nature of the elections created the spark which eventually toppled President Akayev, the unrest was undoubtedly fuelled by economic misery. According to the government’s own statistics from 2002, more than four-fifths of Kyrgyz families live below the poverty line, while nearly 40 percent of the country’s 5 million inhabitants subsist on paltry incomes of less than 300 soms ($3) per month. From 1990-96 economic growth declined 49 percent. Kyrgyzstan’s industrial output now accounts for less than a quarter of the nation’s GDP, with over 40 percent of that production coming from the Kumtor gold mine. By the beginning of 2005 Kyrgyzstan had accumulated an external debt of $1.92 billion, five times more than the government’s annual tax revenue and nearly equal to its $2 billion GNP.
September 11th provided some relief for the country’s economic woes. In the aftermath of 9/11, Kyrgyzstan was quick to offer the U.S. basing rights, leasing Bishkek’s Manas airbase to the Pentagon in December 2001. The airstrip proved a cash cow for the authorities, who reportedly charged the Pentagon more than $7,000 for each aircraft taking off. In December 2002, Kyrgyzstan leased the Russians an airbase at Kant, only 18.5 miles away from Manas, which was the first Russian military base established outside the Russian Federation since 1991. Despite flirtations with the West, Kyrgyzstan has been increasingly drawn to Moscow to salvage its economy. In 2000, for example, Kyrgyz authorities tried to stem the brain drain of skilled Russians by making Russian an official language, and by promising the country’s Russian minority dual citizenship.
The Russian deployment, however, came at a time of protests in southern Kyrgyzstan against a controversial border treaty in May of that year under which the Kyrgyz government agreed to transfer 367 square miles of territory to China in an attempt to settle a long-running border dispute. In fact, it was this land transfer scandal that cemented the four major political parties into a unified opposition under the nominal leadership of former Vice president, Feliks Kulov, in prison at the time. Nor was Beijing’s territorial pressure on Kyrgyzstan unique: in May 2002 Tajikistan also ceded 386 square miles of territory to China. A government spokesman said that the area was unpopulated and “of no great value to Tajikistan.”
Kyrgyzstan’s deepening relationship with the U.S. raised alarms in Parliament in March 2003 when the Bush administration launched its attack against Iraq. Concerns were raised in Parliament that aircraft from Manas might be used to attack Iraq, threatening Kyrgyzstan. A pledge by Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov that the base would not be used to hit Saddam’s army was widely regarded with skepticism.
But while the Kyrgyz media saw the dark hand of Washington behind the unrest, the United States saw a Chinese influence. On March 19, Kyrgyzstan’s official Kabar news agency posted on its website a “secret” report dated December 2004 from the U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyz Republic Stephen Young analyzing the “pre-election situation.” While the report concludes that the Akayev regime is fragile, it is the comments about China that are the most revealing:
“As regards China, the prospect of Central Asian development puts Beijing into dependence on the Kyrgyz hydro-electric resources and electric power potential. Thus Kyrgyzstan foreign policy is aimed at trade and economic expansion that coincides with Chinese further plans, in particular those concerning electric power and water distribution. This reason should be taken into consideration when shaping a policy towards Beijing and its presence in the region. Our military presence in Kyrgyzstan ‘is annoying’ Beijing, and the temporary status of the air force base at Manas airport in Bishkek gives grounds to China to hope for would-be withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Kyrgyzstan. In this regard, we are sure to expect counteracting steps of the Chinese government against our military expansion in the region. At present China renders informal support to the politicians disposed to further development of relations with Beijing and restriction of our military contingent in Kyrgyzstan. In addition, Akayev’s assistance in the struggle against Uighur separatism and religious extremism is obviously insufficient…Taking into account arrangements of the Department of State Plan for the period of 2005-2006 to intensify our influence in Central Asia, particularly in Kyrgyzstan, we view the country as the base to advance with the process of democratization in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and limit Chinese and Russian capabilities in the area.” 
If true, such a “Chinese connection” could well influence Kyrgyzstan’s political future. On April 11 the Kyrgyz Supreme Court acquitted opposition leader Felix Kulov of corruption charges, clearing the way for him to run for president in an election due later this year. Kulov now represents the newly founded Civic Union for Fair Elections party. Both Russia and China have pledged to help Kyrgyzstan restore order under their SCO commitments. China seems content to confine its influence in Kyrgyzstan to economic issues. In January China offered a $900 million investment package, which includes building a hydroelectric station and two smelting plants as well as a railway and highways in exchange for access to Kyrgyz electricity, iron, tungsten and tin deposits.  The “Great Game” continues, however, as Russia’s Rusal announced in December 2004 that it would build an aluminum smelter with an annual capacity of 500,000 tons in the south of the country, along with two hydropower stations to produce electricity for it.
Washington’s interest in stability in Kyrgyzstan remains profound. In the aftermath of the Tulip Revolution, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hurried to Bishek, arriving on April 15 to reassure Washington that the new Kyrgyz leadership appeared willing to continue the previous administration’s foreign policy. Rumsfeld spent a little over an hour at Manas with the 800 U.S. troops and 100 Spanish air soldiers. In a significant sign of shifting attitudes, Interim President Kurmanbek Bakiev while he assured Rumsfeld that bilateral cooperation in the political, military, and economic spheres will continue, also said that Kyrgyzstan does not intend to serve as a base for surveillance aircraft or additional foreign military troops.
Despite the rivalry over Kyrgyzstan, the U.S., Russia and China have a common interest in combating the threat of Islamic extremism, which has entrenched itself in southern Kyrgyzstan. In 1999 and 2000 the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan launched raids from southern Kyrgyzstan into neighboring Uzbekistan. Emphasizing the growing ambitions of the IMU, leaders Juma Namangani and Tahir Yuldash announced from Dehdadi, Afghanistan in May 2001 the formation of the Hizb al-Islami Turkestan (“Islamic Movement of Turkestan”) from IMU elements. Azimov noted that the IMU leadership was effectively subsumed into al-Qaeda. In particular, China cannot help but be concerned about recent events in Kyrgyzstan and the threat of Islamic extremism. Considering how China’s own Xinjiang province with its 12 million restive Uighurs borders Kyrgyzstan, Beijing hopes to maintain contact and cooperation with the new government in Bishkek in order to effectively address these critical issues of regional security.
In the fractured Kyrgyz political climate, China, Russia and the U.S. will continue to strive to protect and expand their interests. China is weary of Islamic extremism coming out of Kyrgyzstan, but to its advantage, Beijing clearly holds the purse strings to Bishkek. China’s interest in its tiny but strategic Western neighbor can only increase, whether Moscow and Washington like it or not.
UPI international correspondent, Dr. John C. K. Daly received his Ph.D. in Russian and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of London and is an Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
1. Reuters, 20 May 2002.
2. https://www.kabar.kg/eng/calendar/05/Mar/19/1.htm. Visitors to the website now get an “Error 404 – file not found” message. The report is still available at the Kyrgystan Development Gateway website at https://eng.gateway.kg/cgi-bin/page.pl?id=1&story_name=doc7678.shtml. The rebuttal by the U.S. embassy claiming that the document is a “crude fabrication” can be found at https://bishkek.usembassy.gov/fraudulent_report_eng.htm.
3. The Moscow Times, 31 January 2005.