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The Silk Road Economic Belt and Its Discontents

Written by Ivaylo Gatev.

On 18 November 2014, an international freight train left the Yiwu railway container centre in China’s eastern Zhejiang province and began a 13,000km journey to the west. The train crossed China’s western border at the Alataw pass in Xinjiang province and made its way through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany and France before arriving at its final destination in the Spanish capital of Madrid. It took the train twenty days to deliver its cargo, comprising 1,400 tons of stationery, craft products and Christmas toys and decorations – a journey time which is two weeks faster than travelling the equivalent by sea. The containers returned to Yiwu along the same route several weeks later loaded with cured ham, olive oil, wine and other merchandise from Spain, completing what has been described as the world’s longest train journey.

This new two-way rail route is the latest in a series of proliferating rail links between China and Western Europe. Whereas in the past, virtually all container traffic between China and the European Union was by sea, a growing, albeit still small, share of that freight is now shifted by land. The volume of railway cargo is expected to reach 50,000 containers by the end of 2015.

In the last few years as many as five Chinese cities have established direct-rail freight services to Europe passing through Central Eurasia, including the city of Zhengzhou in China’s Henan province, which since 2013 has operated a regular freight train service to Hamburg, Germany, for the transport of a variety of industrial goods that arrive in Zhengzhou from different parts in China. The city of Chongqing in west China has, since 2011, dispatched Hewlett-Packard block trains to Duisburg in Germany. Chengdu in Sichuan province, Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province, and the eastern port city of Lianyungang, also operate direct rail services to Europe via Kazakhstan and Russia. The Yiwu-Madrid rail link opened yet another overland corridor for the transport of goods and commodities across Eurasia and was hailed as the modern version of the ancient Silk Road that once connected imperial China with Europe and the Middle East.

China’s revival of the Silk Road in the form of transcontinental freight trains addresses particular economic and security concerns. China has specific reasons for promoting the development of a land bridge across Eurasia, reasons concerning the desire to develop the country’s interior – not least the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. By promoting railway links with Europe, China hopes to turn some of its central and western cities into logistical and industrial hubs capable of competing alongside its more developed coastal areas for investment. So strong is the desire for hinterland development that some provincial governments are prepared to heavily subsidise their freight train services to Europe.

Investing in overland transport infrastructure will also help China to stay commercially competitive in the long run, by facing off competition from Southeast Asia which is better positioned to take advantage of maritime trade with Europe. Decreasing dependency on international sea lanes controlled by an increasingly belligerent United States is another tactical advantage offered by the revived Silk Road.

At the same time, the China-Europe freight trains have become an important element in the vision to build a Silk Road Economic Belt and a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The twin strategies, known collectively as the Belt and Road Initiative, were announced in 2013 by the new leadership in Beijing determined to play a greater role in the global economy. A clear formulation of the aims of this initiative can be found in the document Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road issued in March 2015 by the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China.

The document represents an action plan or a blueprint for a tous-azimuts engagement with many, though by no means all, of China’s closest and more distant neighbours, with a view to increasing connectivity and exchange along a network of sea and land ports and hubs. The Initiative prioritises the building of a new Eurasian Land Bridge, “connecting the vibrant East Asia economic circle at one end and the developed European economic circle at the other.” This will be achieved through setting up of “all-dimensional, multi-tiered and composite connectivity networks” in the field of not only transport, but also energy and telecommunications. The Road and Belt Initiative contains a notion of a shared future, anchored in the historical reality of the ancient Silk Road.

The authors of this action plan go to great lengths to emphasise the inclusive nature and mutually beneficial outcomes of the project. While differences between Beijing’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the Eurasian Economic Union between Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia appear to have been patched up at the highest level, resolution may prove to be more difficult in the case of the European Union. This is because the Economic Belt is predicated as much on the successful interconnection of transport infrastructure as on the mutual recognition of technical and industrial standards.

Unlike the Silk Road of yesteryear, the new Eurasian transport corridor negotiates different national, technological and administrative spaces. These spaces present obstacles in the form of different railway track gauges, electric current frequencies, accounting procedures, and systems of customs clearance and control that can be as formidable as the harsh climatic conditions prevailing in the Eurasian heartland. Building a land bridge across Eurasia requires concerted political will and coordination of activity necessary to overcome the challenges associated with establishing connectivity between the East Asian, former Soviet and European transport systems.

This is where the Silk Road Economic Belt comes to loggerheads with the EU. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union more than twenty years ago, Brussels has been working to reorganise, as far as possible, the region’s transport sector away from its post-Soviet model of development, and simultaneously fold it with the physical, regulatory and institutional networks centred on the EU. Through initiatives like Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Central Asia (TRACECA), the EU has been trying to set the rules of the game by advancing its transport legislation on the states of East Europe, South Caucasus and Central Asia.

Beijing’s Silk Road Economic Belt challenges these rules, because it promotes interoperability and mutual recognition of national regulations and standards rather than harmonisation and approximation with EU transport law. Instead of the selective or even wholesale transfer of the EU acquis in a range of transport and customs-related legislative areas envisaged by TRACECA, the Chinese initiative upholds national standards in the countries along the Economic Belt. In that sense, the initiative works at cross-purposes with what the EU is trying to achieve in the post-Soviet space.

The Economic Belt Initiative poses an even more fundamental challenge to EU objectives in Central Eurasia. For more than twenty years, Brussels has engaged the successor states of the USSR in projects of market reform based on a model of neoliberal governance. Through policies like Eastern Enlargement and the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy, Brussels succeeded in closing off any alternatives to the EU-centred system of supranational economic and political order.

The Beijing initiative calls that order into question. It declares, “respect [for] the paths and modes of development chosen by different countries.” With an emphasis on sovereignty, it offers an alternative to market liberalisation and supranational governance. According to the action plan, the Silk Road will be advanced by institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the BRICS New Development Bank, the Silk Road Fund, the China-Eurasia Economic Cooperation Fund, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Interbank Association. These bodies act as a counterpoint to Western-dominated institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Asian Development Bank, which are active in the region.

For the de-industrialised and de-populated East European states that joined the EU a decade ago, as well as those states further east who recently signed Association Agreements with the EU, the Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative would be a much needed source of economic revitalisation. These states have everything to gain from Chinese investment in their shrunken economies. Despite these potential benefits and for the reasons outlined above, it is doubtful to say the least that they will be allowed to participate in any meaningful way in the Economic Belt Initiative.

The revived Silk Road is off to a good start, but may well face challenges in the future. However, for now, the Chinese freight trains continue to shuttle across the Eurasian steppe.

Ivaylo Gatev is Lecturer in European Politics at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. Image credit: CC by Padmanaba/Flickr

A Pretext Out of Context: Contemporary China’s Obsession with Pan-Turkism

Written by Yitzhak Shichor.

Before 1990, Chinese academic journals rarely published articles on Pan-Turkism – usually once a year or less. However, from 1991 through 2014, some 1,332 articles on Pan-Turkism were published in China, reaching 109 in 2012 – an average of two publications every week. This dramatic upsurge is intriguing, given that since long before the beginning of the 21st century, Pan-Turkism had been practically dead as a politically active movement, and it was by no means a security risk or threat to any country, let alone China. Motivated by the Russian expansion into the Caucasus, Pan-Turkism had emerged in the second half of the 19th century as an attempt to unite all Turkic people along the Silk Road – from the Mediterranean in the west to China in the east. Though not originally an Ottoman idea, it was soon adopted by the Ottoman Empire, not only as a tool against Russian colonialism but also as an excuse for its own expansion.

Short-lived, Pan-Turkism was undermined by the emergence of Turkish nationalism following the 1908 revolution, by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following its defeat in World War I, and by the consolidation of Soviet rule over Central Asia. No longer an active political movement, Pan-Turkism survived as a vision, a memory, and an ideology among Turkish intellectuals and right-wing radicals. Even at its peak, in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Pan-Turkism had a modest impact on China, although for a while, it penetrated Xinjiang – populated overwhelmingly by Turkic-Muslim nationalities. Ottoman archives reflect the extensive correspondence between the Sultan and local Central Asian leaders, in particular Yaqub Beg, who had rebelled against China, set up an ‘independent’ kingdom in Kashgar in the 1860s and 1870s, received military and financial aid from the Sultan and recognised his ultimate authority and sovereignty over Kashgar, an integral part of China’s Qing Empire.

Following the suppression of Yaqub Beg’s rebellion, the influence of Pan-Turkism in northwest China – which had been marginal in any case – declined further, and practically ended when the Chinese Communists occupied Xinjiang in October 1949. Exchanges between China and Central Asia continued through the 1950s during the Sino-Soviet alliance, but the deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations afterwards sealed the borders. Whatever had remained of Pan-Turkism was now cut off from China for thirty years, from around 1960 to around 1990. In fact, Chinese scholars wrote that Pan-Turkism had “stayed basically in a state of hibernation” [zhefu zhuangtai] since World War II. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent independence achieved by the Central Asian states led to the resurgence of Pan-Turkism, although still more as a vision than a political agenda. While a few Turkish right-wingers revived the issue of Pan-Turkism and efforts were made to restore Turkey’s dominant role in Central Asia and along China’s western borders, these attempts have failed. Turkey was too weak to compete politically, economically and militarily with other claimants such as Iran, Russia, and China. Objectively, Pan-Turkism is by no means a threat to China, yet subjectively, Beijing behaves as if it is.

These developments, exacerbated by the newly opened borders between China and its Central Asian neighbours, coincided with, or triggered, a series of violent confrontations between Xinjiang’s Turkic minorities (primarily the Uyghurs) and Chinese authorities. It was these incidents that led to the wave of publications (published since the early 1990s) not only on ‘separatist tendencies’ in Xinjiang and among the Uyghurs, but also on Pan-Turkism. These studies, almost without exception, underline the linkage between Pan-Turkism (and Pan-Islam) and instability in Xinjiang and Central Asia since the 1990s – primarily in terms of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism. Associated with Pan-Turkism, these ‘three evils’ have become the primary target of the Shanghai Five – organised by Beijing in 1996 and expanded and renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2001 – and reflect much of China’s perceptions of Pan-Turkism, to this very day.

Beijing’s concern about the perceived revival of Pan-Turkism originates primarily in the end of the Cold War, which weakened the superpowers’ ability, or willingness, to restrain regional conflicts and external disruptive influences. Consequently, Turkey, mainly under Turgut Özal (prime minister 1983-1989, president 1989-1993), began to promote Pan-Turkism in Central Asia by increasing investments, providing loans and aid, expanding trade, funding the establishment of schools and, very effectively, using its media services. While Beijing is careful not to associate Turkey with Pan-Turkism directly (the Chinese term, fantojuezhuyi, derives from Tujue, an ancient Central Asia tribe, and not from the name Turkey, Tuerqi), there is little doubt that it holds Turkey responsible for promoting Pan-Turkism. “The Chinese Government showed its utmost discontent (jida buman) towards Turkey’s promotion of Pan-Turkism in the regions of Central Asia and the Caucasus.”

In fact, Turkey, with its cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious and geographical links to Central Asia, is regarded by Beijing as a proxy of the Western countries headed by the United States, which offer “secret support” for spreading Pan-Turkism in Central Asia. This support aims at seizing control over Central Asia and its strategic resources (oil, gas, uranium) and at undermining the interests of Russia, Iran and China. A principal cause for Beijing’s concern about the threat of Pan-Turkism is the long border (over 3,300km) it shares with Central Asia that serves as a corridor – a new Silk Road – to West Asia and Europe, and whose stability is vital for China’s security and economic growth; not to mention that more than half of Xinjiang’s population consists of Turkic ethnicities with extensive cultural, economic and religious connections to their kin across the border.

Despite all of these concerns, Beijing believes that Pan-Turkism has no future because it threatens the regional and international order and, therefore, will be rejected by most states. Thus, Central Asia’s countries themselves have become disillusioned about the fanaticism (kuangre) of Pan-Turkism and would by no means trade their newly gained independence for a “Turkic Union” – having experienced the Soviet Union. Moreover, Uyghurs, and other Turkic nationalities, have not always seen eye to eye with Turkey – and necessarily so. They are concerned about being assimilated into the Turkish nation, which is occasionally perceived as undermining their particular identity. Also, Beijing assumes that Russia would block the spread of Pan-Turkism which erodes its stability and territorial integrity as well as its trade and economic interests in Central Asia. Iran is also perceived as “strongly opposing” Pan-Turkism because it “threatens the existence of Iran as a country and a nation” (a quarter of whose population is Turkic) and whose leaders “detest Pan-Turkism and spare no efforts to resist it”.

Most Chinese analyses agree that Pan-Turkism is doomed to failure and is an episode in the progress of world history that provides no solution to ethnic conflicts. If this is the case, why are the Chinese so preoccupied by Pan-Turkism? Some answers are provided by the Chinese themselves. For one, they admit that Pan-Turkism will not disappear in the near future and that it will look for a chance to use international crises and downturns to strike again. For another, while political Pan-Turkism may not be realised, cultural Pan-Turkism will continue to develop so as to exploit emerging opportunities in order to infiltrate those marginal regions where ideological and legal systems are weak and cannot be controlled by governments. But there are other explanations for China’s so-called concern about Pan-Turkism. One has to do with Beijing’s response to potential rather than actual crises and its tendency to inflate threats – domestic, regional and global – and act in proportion to their perceived future and potential implications, not to their real and actual ones. The other explanation is that it is convenient for China to inflate the threat of Pan-Turkism and separatism in order to justify and legitimise its pressure on Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, and to continue its crackdown and suppression policies. Given its prospering relations with Turkey (considered China’s strategic partner) it is hardly conceivable that Beijing regards Pan-Turkism as a threat, now or, much less likely, in the future. It is, however, being manipulated to promote China’s domestic, regional and international interests; it has been used as a pretext – yet, an out of context one.

Yitzhak Shichor is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Asian Studies, University of Haifa. Image credit CC by Yunsheng/Flickr

Strategic impact of joint development and utilisation of hydropower resources between China and Kyrgyzstan

kyrgyzstan-mapBy Kunduz Rysbek.

Securing the energy supply necessary for China’s continued economic growth is heavily dependent upon mutual cooperation between China and energy providing countries. The joint development of Kyrgyzstan’s hydropower resources illustrates the importance of enhancing strategic mutual cooperation between China and Central Asian countries.[1]

Initially, China’s foreign policy toward Kyrgyzstan dealt predominantly with securing Kyrgyz backing for Beijing policies in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang). Certainly, this issue remains high priority for China’s national interest, but such overtures were not focused on building a strategic relationship. This situation is now changing rapidly.

Lucrative oil and gas deposits in Xinjiang are the engine for its economic boom. As such, arid Xinjiang is in dire need for additional water and energy resources. Demand has hastened the use of water resources and research into the hydro energy potential of the Tarim River, which flows to mid-western Xinjiang from Kyrgyzstan. Three-quarters of the river and its major tributary the Sary-Djaz (Aksu) river lies in Kyrgyzstan. Recently, China pledged to invest approximately 3 billion USD to build a cascade of hydropower plants down the Sary-Djaz.

Sary-Djaz is a trans-border river. According to the water convention of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) only two states, Kyrgyzstan and China, have legal rights to use its resources. So, what are the potential gains from this project for both China and Kyrgyzstan?

The Sary-Djaz project presents a solution to significant development issues China faces. Summer floods from the river do great damage to areas of Xinjiang. Its energy supply is mainly coal-power plants, which are not efficient in summer months and do not assist China in facing its commitment to reduce atmospheric emissions by 2020. However the dam project can resolve these problems in four ways. First, hydroelectricity provides an energy security net for Xinjiang with the potential to export to Central China. Secondly, the area of irrigated land is increased by using the water accumulated in reservoirs. Thirdly, the dams will allow for better control of water inflows and outflows, thus preventing summer floods. Lastly, China will acquire clean energy, thereby contributing towards the 2020 emissions reduction goal. 

Contrary to dry Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan possesses abundant water resources and a vast untapped hydropower potential. The majority of hydroelectricity is produced in the south. A proportion of the produced hydropower is transported to the north of Kyrgyzstan via the territories of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, thus forming the volatile Sary-Djaz2Central Asian energy circle. Taking into account the outdated transmission lines infrastructure, and recent statements by both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan about their potential exit from the Central Asian energy circle, the north of Kyrgyzstan’s energy-security remains under threat.

The Chinese government has issued Kyrgyzstan a USD 289 million loan package to construct new power transmission lines that will connect the south of Kyrgyzstan to the north. Construction of these lines will help to efficiently allocate energy throughout the country, as well as increase export volume to neighbouring countries. This will ensure Kyrgyzstan’s own energy security, and allow the country to emerge as a stable energy link between Central Asia and China.

The above analysis reveals cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and China in hydroelectricity development is mutually beneficial and is of strategic importance. Should the Sary-Djaz project be successful, it will serve as a showcase for other energy rich states in the region, boosting confidence in energy alliances with China.


 [1] The author would like to express her profound gratitude for cooperation to the Institute of Water Issues and Hydropower under the Kyrgyz Academy of Science, whose professional expertise and innovative thinking contribute to greater energy security in Central Asia and China. 

Kunduz Rysbek is a visiting teaching fellow in globalization studies at the Public Policy Academy under the President of the Kyrgyz Republic, and a graduate researcher at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan).

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Bilateral trade between Xinjiang and Kazakhstan: challenges or opportunities?

Xinjiang Kazakhstan trade 2by Cobus Block.

China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region shares 5,600 km of border with eight countries, including a lengthy 1,700 km with Kazakhstan.  Small wonder, then, that the region has grown into a local trading hub. In 2010 the total value of trade between Xinjiang and Kazakhstan was equal to 17% of Kazakhstan’s GDP.  For Xinjiang in that year, foreign trade value to its GDP was over 30 percent.

Given the importance of cross-border trade to Xinjiang’s economic development and social stability, bilateral trade between Xinjiang and Kazakhstan deserves a closer look. This case provides an excellent example of the prospects and challenges facing trade relations between China and Central Asian countries.

Kazakhstan is a natural market for Xinjiang’s products.  Urumqi, the capital and economic hub of Xinjiang, sits over 3,000 km from China’s eastern coast.  In contrast, it lies only 1,000 km from Almaty—the largest city in Kazakhstan.  While trade to Central Asia was only one percent of China’s total exports in 2010, it made up 83 percent of exports from Xinjiang in the same year.  Kazakhstan is by far the most important destination for exports from Xinjiang accounting for 52 percent of Xinjiang’s exports in 2010.  Nonetheless, the Customs Union, established in 2010 by Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, challenges Sino-Central Asian trade relations.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, exports from Xinjiang to Kazakhstan grew yearly.  In the late 2000s, however, bilateral trade between Xinjiang and Kazakhstan faced many challenges related to the global economic recession, social upheaval in Xinjiang and the establishment of the Customs Union.  The traders in Almaty and Urumqi making a living by bringing goods across the border suddenly found business much more difficult as new and unfamiliar regulations were enforced.  Crossing the border had never been easy, but traders and transportation companies had learned how to comply with necessary regulations and circumnavigate others.  New officials and requirements meant re-learning the ropes.  As a result, Xinjiang’s exports to Kazakhstan only moderately recovered in 2010 before falling again in 2011.

Xinjiang Kazakhstan trade3Kazakhstan’s entry into the Customs Union may also have triggered structural changes in bilateral trade.  Chinese officials distinguish between “general trade” and “petty trade in border areas”.  General trade covers goods traded by enterprises in China with import-export rights, while border trade refers to the trade of goods in border regions through treaty-authorized ports.  In general, border trade is smaller in quantity and less subject to regulation.  It is the realm of so-called “suitcase traders”—thus named for their tendency to take goods across the border in suitcases in order to avoid paying customs duty.

From 2001 to 2008, border trade exports grew exponentially, while exports in general trade rose slowly.  By 2008, border trade exports were five times the value of general trade exports.  In the wake of the economic downturn and the establishment of the Customs Union, however, border trade exports fell by half and failed to make much of a recovery .  Meanwhle, general trade exports rose quickly , accounting  for almost a third of total exports in 2011.

The establishment of the Customs Union may end the suitcase trade across the China-Kazakhstan border and force some of Xinjiang’s exporters to switch to more regulated methods.  Some in Xinjiang’s academic and business communities see this as a positive development.  Suitcase trade usually deals in low-quality goods, which hurts China’s reputation and the prospects of more forward-looking entrepreneurs.  In other words, although the Customs Union has altered trade patterns between Xinjiang and Kazakhstan, there are still plenty of opportunities for continued bilateral trade.

Cobus Block is a Fulbright Fellow researching trade between China and Kazakhstan.  He is currently based at KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Email: cobusblock@yahoo.com

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Kazakh repatriates from China: burden or asset?

 kazakhs ofnb xinjiangBy Nikolay Tyan.

The  increasing flow of people across national boundaries has become a new characteristic of  the 21st century. Transmigration should be beneficial to both sending and receiving countries; improving bilateral relationships and people-to-people diplomatic ties. However, in practice migration presents many challenges for and between states. The case of Kazakh repatriates from China demonstrates these tensions. There is great potential for this group to contribute to the development of the relations between Kazakhstan and China, yet substantial concerns over their integration remain.

Kazakhstan and China are neighbouring countries, sharing a 1700-km-long border. The issue of Kazakh repatriates in China can be traced back to 100 years ago when large numbers of Kazakhs became Chinese citizens resulting from treaties between Chinese and Russian Empires signed in 1860, 1864 and 1881. The 20th century witnessed political turmoil and civil wars in both states, as well as conflicts between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, leading to the end of cross-border flows of people in the 1960-70s. A fundamental change happened in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved, leading to the independent Republic of Kazakhstan. At that time around 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs were in China. Neither governments mentioned this ethnic group in official dialogues for establishing formal relationship.

However, in 1997 the government adopted a special program of the repatriation of ethnic Kazakhs living abroad (so-called Oralman). According to the Information-Analytical Center of Social-Political Studies in Post-Soviet States, over 65 thousand ethnic Kazakhs migrated from China to Kazakhstan from 1991 to 2009 following the official invitation. They are now the second largest group from a non-Soviet country in Kazakhstan, mainly settling along the Chinese border or around Almaty – the former Kazakh capital, biggest city and major business centre. It is reasonable to assume that  Kazakh repatriates can play a positive role in facilitating mutual understanding and enhancing business ties between Kazakhstan and China.

However, there are many challenges facing Kazakh repatriates. Many were engaged in small household farming in China and lack the occupational background to contribute to business links.  They also face barriers in integrating into Kazakhstani society. Although they are fluent in Kazakh language the written script differs in Kazakstan from China. Kazakh language outside the country is based on Latin or Arabic script whereas the modern Kazakh alphabet is Cyrillic. Furthermore, Oralmans are considered by local people as “strangers” because they come from another cultural environment and usually do not speak Russian, still the language of official communication in multi-ethnic Kazakhstan.

These problems stir the debate over who the “authentic Kazakh” is. Sectors of Kazak society argue that the repatriates are descendants of those who fled from the country. Hence, they did not contribute to the socio-economic rise of Kazakhstan. On the other hand, repatriates argue that they lived in this territory for centuries before their temporary migration to other states. They also see themselves as preservers of Kazakh culture and traditions, lost to Kazakhs due to the Russian/Soviet influence.

kazakhsAnother area of tension is financial support for Oralman. Some accuse them of excessive reliance on governmental aid, causing shortages in other areas.  While enjoying the benefits from Astana, many use the door provided by Kazakh legislation to retain their Chinese citizenship as “it is easier for their business and retirement payments”, according to the Chief of the Kazakhstan’s Migration Committee.

Kazakhs repatriates could be great facilitators in China – Kazakhstan relations, but so far large numbers lack a capacity to do so. The Kazakh government should take measures towards the better integration of repatriates to Kazakh society without losing their “Chinese roots”. Astana should not underestimate the potential of the returnees.

Nikolay Tyan is a former trainee at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan and a graduate researcher at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan).

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

New Players, Same Chess Board: Will the political power transition in Uzbekistan affect gas supply to China?

wuzibiekemapBy Rashid Gabdulhakov.

Ever since Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, its foreign policy is one of the most unpredictable in the Central Asia. Initially, Uzbekistan established close ties with the United States and Turkey, seemingly resenting everything that resembled the Soviet past. In the mid-1990s, however, all Turkish educational exchange programs and educational institutions (lyceums) were shut down by the government of Uzbekistan as they believed Turkish soft power was interfering with the national ideology of a young state. Uzbekistan’s partnership with the U.S. ended after soft sanctions were issued by western governments against Uzbekistan in 2005 -due to numerous human rights violations. While Uzbek President Islam Karimov was under great pressure from the Wes; conversely he received support from Russia, although, recently Uzbek-Russian relations have cooled.

Despite these fluctuations, Uzbekistan’s relationship with China remains stable over time. Trade between the two countries has increased, reaching USD 2.85 billion in 2010. Uzbek state that 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas will be exported to China in 2013 and predict the annual amount to be 25 bcm by 2016. China is concerned about security threats that could damage the existing relationship following regime succession in Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, I argue that China has little to worry about.

This is based on three factors: 1) Despite the political tension with Russia, Uzbek gas supplies to Russian companies continue, as the financial interests of the elite have a priority over politics. Selling natural gas to both Russia and China simultaneously is handy for Uzbekistan in the sense of controlling gas prices – setting up a competition in the scheme of supply and demand. This precedent promises a continuation of gas supply despite the regime change in Uzbekistan. 2) The nature of the regime change in Uzbekistan is likely to repeat the Turkmenistan scenario, where the President-for-life Turkmenbashi was silently replaced by the current leader – Berdimuhamedov. Both countries are authoritarian states. Like Turkmenistan, Uzbek political elite will not allow a violent power shift in the country through their control of mechanisms of state power. 3) Karimov’s successor will not “fall from the sky”. The new president will likely come from the current circle of prominent politicians, with stakes in the energy sector and personal interest in continuation of economic cooperation with China. In all reality, Uzbekistan does not have much of a choice. Who else would it sell its gas to, if not Russia and China? Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have gas reserves of their own, and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would not buy large amounts of gas, as their collective population size is only 11 million.

photo from Nengyuan.com
photo from Nengyuan.com

China ranks first among countries investing in Uzbekistan and second among Uzbekistan’s trade partners. Given the uncertainties of Uzbek-Russian relationship, Western criticism over the political situation, Uzbekistan has a tangible interest in maintaining its relationship with China.

Much like Beijing, Moscow has no interest in a violent power transition in Uzbekistan; both would be greatly satisfied with the Turkmenistan scenario, where the change of “captain” did not shift the course of the “ship.” Natural gas does not generate wealth if not exported; Berdimuhamedov continues to sell gas to Russia, and to the Chinese, much like his predecessor, the great Turkmenbashi – Saparmurat Niyazov. Even if the new leadership of Uzbekistan is going to take on a progressive policy (from the view point of human rights), the economic realities are going to be the same. Players change, the actors on the chessboard remain.

Rashid Gabdulhakov is a political analyst from Uzbekistan and a graduate researcher at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). 

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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