Sino-Central Asian Ties: Problems and Prospects

Swaran Singh, Research Fellow, IDSA


The extensive Silk Route trade network had connected China and Central Asia since ancient times. It is in view of this trade network that Central Asia had provided successive Chinese regimes the critical bridge to empires across Russia, Europe, West Asia and beyond. But, considering the fact that Central Asia had ceased to exist as an independent entity for a very long time, it seems appropriate to begin by demarcating the geography of what today constitutes this region. Very briefly, it comprises five ex-Soviet Central Asian Republics (CARs)-namely Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan-that had declared their independence from Moscow in 1991. As regards China's vision, much of their policy initiatives as also much of their expert analysis have restricted their focus basically to three Central Asian republics-namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan- that share land borders with China's sensitive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). On the other extreme, however, there are scholars who include even Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan into their framework of Central Asian policy analysis.1If anything, this variety only reflects the evolving shades of China's overall vision (or ambitions) vis-a-vis Central Asia which has since continued to be one of the foremost preoccupations for China's policy makers and its political leadership.

For CARs, it is China's rising military and economic power that has been both a matter of curiosity and concern. It is primarily these two fundamental elements of national strength that have been missing in CARs state-building exercise; and it is partly absence of these fundamentals that has been responsible for attracting so much external attention and interference which, of course, has both negative and positive implications. To cite a positive example, while the CARs look forward to China for making use of its free market and entrepreneurial skills, China remains attracted towards the CARs' rich deposits of hydrocarbons like petroleum, natural gas and other minerals and metals, access to which is vital for China's rapid industrial development. By contrast, considering that their ethnic identities have broadly been the basis for creation of all these CARs, China has to keep vigil on their spill-over effect on its restive Muslim minorities in its backward Western regions. Besides, continued clashes amongst the multiple territorial claims like those on Ferghana Valley and the civil war in Tajikistan are apt examples to show how these disputes have continued to disrupt their inter-state interactions both within and with Beijing thereby impacting on their travel, trade and commerce.2 Therefore, while the collapse of the former Soviet Union may have heralded the end of an era in which Chinese leaders had to deal with a formidable superpower on its borders preaching a rival brand of Marxism yet, the emergence of the CARs have created their own difficulties making it at best only a mixed blessing for Beijing. If anything, China seems faced with an equally formidable problem: Islamic fundamentalism, which has flourished in Afghanistan and Tajikistan and has direct implications for China's sensitive Xinjiang province. But, ethnic violence has also since come to be recognised as a major problem amongst these CARs thus obtaining for China a joint platform to deal with this menace. Terrorism has since come to be the common issue of the greatest concern between China and these CARs. And, as China begins to evolve its new joint strategies for resolving its problems on border demarcation, overlapping ethnic communities and terrorism with these CARs, this paper tries to examine China's inherent and evolving strengths and weaknesses and to plot some broad trends for the future of Central Asian policy initiatives.

China's Compulsion for Seeking Engagement

l To begin with, though the collapse of the former Soviet Union was initially seen as China's gain in terms of regional power and influence, the emergence of these smaller CARs on China's borders has created its own complexities. This is because CARs being formed on the basis of ethnic identity had virtually recharged separatist sentiments among China's minorities living in its Western provinces like Gansu, Qinghai, and its autonomous regions of Ningxia, Tibet and especially Xinjiang. China is known to have a whole host of ethnic groupings which have Central Asian origins and which have been nursing grievances against Beijing's nationality policies for a very long time. Therefore, given the uncertainties in CARs domestic politics as also in their inter-state equations within, as also with the new Russian Federation, their emergence had been a major cause of concern for Beijing.

l Secondly, while their ethnic overlap and its inherent contradictions had disturbed policy planners in Beijing, what soon began to spread panic was the fear about the unaccounted ex-Soviet nuclear weapons, missiles and fissile materials. Accordingly, this became their most immediate (though short term) concern and Beijing with the help of other major powers, played the lead in ensuring their safe retreat. Given the fact that China shared borders with Kazakhstan that had inherited the second largest nuclear and missile stockpiles (next only to Russia) this threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction across borders was the most critical factor goading China's initial engagement with at least a few of the CARs. But, by 1995, with the last nuclear weapon of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan having been surrendered and both having signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear countries, China gradually began to evolve more broad-based state-to-state interactions under new forums like the Shanghai Five which has achieved impressive results during their five summits. Nevertheless, while China may have resolved many of its immediate problems some others have continued to persist compelling it to continue seeking friendship.

l Thirdly, and more recently, in view of happenings within these CARs and their linkages with the unending quagmire of Afghan politics, terrorism has come to be China's critical priority with regard to the CARs. Continued instability within Afghanistan has been one of the main reasons for continued instability in its bordering states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan which has direct implications for China's own security and stability.3 Therefore, how China manages its relations with Central Asia has profound significance not only for security within, but even for its future relations with other Muslim states in the Middle East and South Asian region.4 This explains why in recent years Afghanistan has come to be such a major preoccupation for China's policy planning community forcing them to accommodate even a Taliban regime. At the same time, however, the 1990s have witnessed Beijing laying increasing stress on the issue of transnational terrorism at most regional and international forums including setting up of "Six plus Two" mechanism for Afghanistan, which includes China, Tajikistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan plus Russia and the United States.

l Fourthly, apart from these threat-based policy priorities, Beijing's long term policy-planners have also been keenly interested in ensuring access to Central Asian energy sources as also various other metals and minerals. To recall, China has not been able to pump enough oil to satisfy its increasing demand since 1993 when it became a net importer of oil. During the past year, it actually imported more than 40 million tons of crude oil and oil products, which amounted to 20 per cent of its total consumption for that year. This year, going by its imports during the first four months, the estimates have put it at 50 million tons which makes it about 25 per cent of the projected total consumption for this year.5 Especially, in view of China's rapid economic growth and free market economy, its domestic oil demand is expected to rise by around 4 per cent annually, creating a significant challenge for its energy security in the future. Similarly, though only 5 per cent of China's total gas geological reserves have been proven so far, the country's remaining recoverable gas reserves have already reached as much as 1,100 billion cubic meters.6

l Fifthly, in addition to safe access and availability of Central Asian energy sources which requires Beijing to evolve a constructive engagement with these republics, China has also been anxious about Central Asia's US connections that are seen in Beijing as part of NATO's eastward expansion exercise. All Central Asian republics except Tajikistan have already joined NATO's "peaceful partnership" and its North American Cooperation Council (NACC). Since the beginning of 1996, Washington specially created US Central Command (CENTCOM) that has held military manoeuvers alongwith forces of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. Washington's Central Asia policy has been geared by its strategic motivations of (a) seeking elimination of their nuclear weapons, (b) strengthening its foothold in the backyard of Russia and China and (c) in ensuring its access to energy resources. The CARs, have welcomed US military and political support primarily to pull out from their continuing economic crisis as also to ensure their regional stability and national security from perceived threats both inside and from outside. Obviously, these are not the most comforting reasons for policy-makers in Beijing.

l Sixthly, Central Asia has been linked to the Russian/Soviet empires for a very long time and, therefore, all its operational linkages to the outside world continue to run through Moscow giving Russia an advantage over Beijing. Meanwhile, due to US engagement with the CARs, Russia has become increasingly concerned and begun to re-assert its special relationship with these republics. After Vladimir Putin came to power in May this year, Russia and the CARs have established an "Alliance Relationship" as part of their effort to revive and strengthen their traditional ties. Russia and the CARs have also begun to strengthen cooperation in military and military technologies and during March-April 2000, military establishments of Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan have carried out joint manoeuvers. Given the fact that despite the best of relations China remains concerned with Russia's overall power profile, some semblance of control over this region offers one way of placing some restrictions on any unbridled revival of Russia's power profile.7

l And finally, many other actors like India, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Japan have also raised China's anxiety levels from time to time. Especially, powerful new players like Japan have moved in a big way, expanding their role in this region that was considered outside its traditional sphere of influence. To recall, Japan's involvement with CARs had begun with Prime Minister Hashimoto's re-orientation of Japan's "Eurasian Diplomacy" during 1997. This had resulted in Keizo Obuchi's first high-level visit to this region. This was partly spurred by the failure of Japan's National Oil Consortium to meet Tokyo's energy objectives. In 1999, Foreign Minister, Masahiko Komura traveled to Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan and propounded his thesis of resolving conflicts through economic development. He signed agreements granting loans of $23.9 million for improvement of Uzbekistan's airports and another 18.3 billion yen for future energy sector projects in Azerbaijan and 50 million for cultural exchanges. In all, since 1993 Japan has emerged as one of the top donors of official development assistance to this region. From 1993-1997, Tokyo increased its total package from $2.5 million to $156.8 million.8 All these factors have created their own pressure points for Beijing to continue seeking engagement with the CARs.

Central Asia's Incentives

But having covered China's compulsions for seeking engagement with CARs, this obviously has not been a one way street. The CARs have had their own strong reasons for continuing to seek engagement with China. Initially, of course, all these CARs including even the Russian Federation had sought refuge in aid packages from Western countries and Western-led lending institutions. Accordingly, the United States had clearly emerged as the most influential country in this region during the early 1990s. But it has gradually lost its pre-eminence during these last few years. Especially, considering Washingtons motivations, its staying power has played its own checks and balances. The US involvement in Central Asia, for example, has witnessed a visible downturn beginning from 1995, when Kazakhstan surrendered its last nuclear warhead and signed the NPT as a non-nuclear state. This down trend has further continued in view of gradual sobering down of estimates on Central Asian gas and oil reserves. This has clearly forced the CARs to explore other alternatives.

Both Russia and China have also gained from the fact that many US officials led by Secretary of State Ms. Madeleine Albright have since been openly critical of Central Asia's democratic standards and human rights record. Accordingly, the United States, which had initially tried to pump in economic aid to seek compliance with its policies has since resorted to more symbolic measures like according the CARs participation in western-led forums. In addition to ensuring their economic stability these forums are also interested in ensuring their political indoctrination in a certain direction. To recall, US had granted $311 million aid to Kazakhstan in 1994 followed by another aid package of $460 million for Kyrgyzstan during 1996. In 1997, US had signed an agreement with Kazakhstan worth 28 billion for exploring resources under the Caspian Sea. Till date, however, Kazakhstan has received only $2 billion of direct foreign investment in its gas and oil resources of which only $1.5 billion happens to be from the United States.9 This downtrend in US involvement with the CARs has since compelled these CARs to explore and build new partnerships providing China with new opportunities to step in and build its own relationship.

China's forays into Central Asia had begun from the first historic tour of Central Asia (except Tajikistan) by then Premier Li Peng in April 1994 when he had projected China's policy in terms of commercial interests, investment and trade based on supply of cheap consumer goods. But more than that exploratory travel, it was during his first official trip of Central Asia in 1998, that President Jiang Zemin had promised to provide them with conveniences to do ocean shipping using Chinese port facilities. He had also used this occasion to revive China's ancient links with Central Asia and popularise the theme of reviving the Silk Route network that has since caught the imagination of the CAR leaders. To begin with, the CARs have since begun to trade with the Republic of Korea, Japan, the United States, Australia, Thailand, and Malaysia through Chinese ports. In interviews, officials from Kyrgyzstan said they plan to export energy and minerals to third countries via northern Chinese ports. Similarly, economists of Uzbekistan say that their country hopes to ship daily-use items through China to cut costs and increase speed, and Turkmenistan also plans to lay a natural gas pipeline across China to Japan.10

In Tianjin, the largest port in northern China, cotton and minerals from Central Asia are loaded on to ships for Japan and the Republic of Korea, while electric appliances and machinery from East Asia and Southeast Asia are shipped the other way round. As early as in 1994, Qingdao, a port city in Shandong Province had become a transit point for trade with Central Asia. In 1999, a number of high-ranking officials, businessmen and journalists from Central Asia visited the ports of Tianjin, Lianyungang, Dalian, and Qingdao and many trading companies have since been set up by the CARs to make good use of these port facilities. Kuanysh Sultanov, Kazakhstan's Ambassador to China, told reporters that Lianyungang is the nearest gateway to the Pacific Ocean for his country and that Chinese ports will be a lever in the growth of his country's economic strength. And the countries of Central Asia have since last year started flying charter flights after signing cargo agreements with Lianyungang city-port authorities.11 Besides, the CARs have also evolved a whole range of new channels which have since greatly strengthened their linkages with China.

China's Policy Initiatives

Without doubt, the Shanghai Five forum has been the most important creation that has facilitated China's policy initiatives with regard to CARs. This forum comprises China, Russia and the three CARs of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and this was formed during their first summit at Shanghai in April 1996. The primary motivation for its creation had been the disputed borders and overlapping ethnic communities which had come to be the most important obstacle towards seeking peace and thereby sought development which was especially important for the nation-building exercise amongst these newly created states of Central Asia. Going by its track record of the last five summits during these past five years this forum has been extremely successful in generating mutual understanding and goodwill amongst these problematic countries. But more than these specific issues this forum has also tried to project itself as an alternative cooperative security paradigm for evolving the 21st century world order. To quote from Chinese President, Jiang Zemin's, speech at the fourth summit at Bishkek during 1999, "The new security model that we advocate, differs from that derived from the Cold War mentality, and its successful putting into practice have set a fine example in the international arena."12 Another important achievement of this last summit session was that it finally began its momentum towards expansion and the fifth summit at Dushanbe became the first one when the President of another CAR i.e. Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, actually participated in its deliberation as an observer which clearly portends its future.

To briefly recall their contributions-the first summit in April 1996 at Shanghai had put in place the first CBMs agreement where five member states had committed themselves not to use violence or threat of violence against each other. They had also agreed to have no military exercises aimed against each other and no military activities within 100 km of borders. At their next summit at Moscow in 1997 President Yeltsin had proposed creating a zone of peace along the 10,000 km border shared by these five countries. During the 1998 summit at Almaty (Kazakhstan), China succeeded in getting through a resolution where all agreed to reject all manifestations of national separatism and religious extremism and to ban on their territories activities harmful to the sovereignty, security and public order of any of the five countries. The 1999 summit was held at Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on August 24-25 which came out with a proposal for a nuclear weapons free zone in the region and urged all nations to jointly fight international terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious fundamentalism. And, during the most recent fifth summit at Dushanbe (Tajikistan) on July 5 this year, these five leaders not only reiterated their agreement on creating a nuclear weapons free zone in the region, to jointly fight international terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious fundamentalism, set up a Regional Center in Tajikistan to study these problems, but also strongly criticised Clinton's ballistic missile defence programme. They have also agreed to enlarge their agenda and organisation which will now include a series of annual meetings amongst their premiers, ministers and officials.

The second element of China's vision in building ties with Central Asia has been its focus on reviving the ideas and practices of China's Silk Route network. To begin with, it is important to underline that the historic Silk Route was not actually the name of any transnational highway in any current sense of the term. If anything, it symbolised a series of trading networks that facilitated the transfer of goods between Western markets in the Middle East and Europe and the Eastern markets primarily in China. In ancient times this extended from China's modern day city of Xi'an in northwest China to the Mediterranean Sea and was the most active route across Eurasia.13 Thanks to China's fresh initiatives, during 1990s, the last few years have witnessed a revival of interest in the Silk Route and efforts have been launched for building a rail/road bridge between China and Europe through Central Asia. What make this proposition extremely attractive for China is the fact that this is believed to be at least "8,000 km shorter than corresponding sea routes between Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal and considerably faster".14 This will connect the largest landmass of Eurasia and provide a bridge between the developed regions of Europe on one end and Japan, China and Southeast Asia on the other. Currently, the Central Asian region constitutes the weakest link for this Continental Bridge. And construction of the Eurasia Continental Bridge has been one proposal that the Chinese have been pushing hard as it promises to facilitate China's integration with Central Asian resources. This idea basically plans to build railways, expressways, air routes and optical fiber, oil and gas pipelines between Europe on the one end and Japan on the other.15

To look at China's specific initiatives at bilateral level with each of these CARs, one could begin by looking at China's interactions with the largest as also the most influential state amongst the CARS, Kazakhstan. At its birth, Kazakhstan had inherited the largest number of nuclear weapons, missiles and other military equipment from the former Soviet Union which had provided it special visibility and leverage amongst major powers. Though, Kazakhstan has since surrendered all its nuclear weapons and joined the nuclear NPT as a non-nuclear state, it still continues to wield influence due to its size and good behaviour and goodwill in the West. The bilateral relations between China and Kazakhstan had entered the primary stage following the Joint Statement on Neighbourly Relations announced by the two Presidents during Nazarbayev's first formal visit to Beijing during 1993. Since then Sino-Kazak bilateral trade has witnessed a steady growth between 10 to 12 per cent, and had crossed the $500 million mark during 1997 when it made Kazakhstan China's second largest trading partner amongst the countries of Commonwealth of Independent States next only to Russia.16

Petroleum products obviously remain the mainstay of their trade and commerce. Kazakhstan's petroleum production has grown at about 12 per cent and China has since emerged as a major player in its oil exploration efforts. The two had signed their first cooperative agreement at Almaty in 1997 where China had agreed to jointly develop Kazakhstan's refining capability, promising to invest $9.5 billion. In 1998, the two had begun to operate the Uzen oil-field and the Aktyubinsk oil and gas field in Kazakhstan. The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) purchased 60 per cent of stake in the Aktobemunaigas oil production enterprise for $325 million and pledged to invest another $4 billion in the next 20 years.17 By 2010, the annual production of Kazakh oil is expected to reach 10 million tons, placing Kazakhstan amongst the top ten petroleum production countries in the world. Similarly, these two countries have also debated on long-distance oil pipelines, which, once complete, will allow an increase in annual crude oil exports to China from the present 100,000 tons to 2.5 million tons. In addition, CNPC is now involved in developing two more oil fields in Kazakhstan.18

The steel industry has been another promising area in their bilateral cooperation. Although China's annual crude steel output has exceeded 100 million tons, it lacks high-standard, high-quality steel products, especially thin steel products where Kazakhstan has an advantage. In 1997, its steel output was up 8 per cent over the previous year, and exports of steel products accounted for half the total shipments. Each year about 300,000-500,000 tons of steel products are exported to China. China's Building Corporation is slated to go to Akmola, the newly selected capital, to take part in some of these projects. Similarly, seeing that the Almaty-Urumqi railway has now been in use for some time, the two governments have been discussing whether to extend the railway to Beijing or not. Besides, the two have been deliberating on how Chinese enterprises will invest in Kazakhstan's agricultural products processing industries, daily necessities production, tourism and medical fields.19

Similarly, China's ties with Tajikistan with emphasis on good neighbourlihood have been guided by the Joint Statement of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Tajikistan on the Basic Principles of Mutual Relations of September 3, 1993. Since then their trade had shown a steady increase though for 1998 it showed a decline of 4.9 per cent over the previous years and stood at $19.23 million.20 This has primarily been due to Tajikistan's internal unrest which has reduced China's exports and investment. Nevertheless, the two sides have continued to make serious efforts. During a summit meeting at China's port city of Dalian on August 13, 1999, the two sides had signed five major documents. These included (a) Joint Statement on Further Developing the Two Countries' Relations of Good Neighbourliness and Friendship and Mutually Beneficial Cooperation, (b) Agreement between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Tajikistan on the Sino-Tajik State Border, (c) Agreement for Friendly and Mutually Beneficial Cooperative Ties between China and Tajikistan; (d) an Automobile Transport Agreement; and, (e) a China-Tajikistan Agreement on Prohibition of Illegal Trafficking and Abuse of Narcotic Substances, Psychtropic Substances and Controlled Chemicals Precursors. Like all other CARS, the Tajik Government had also reiterated its position that the government of PRC is the only legitimate government of China and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.21 And more recently, during President Jiang Zemin's visit to Dushanbe to attend the fifth summit of the Shanghai Five the two sides also signed a Joint Statement of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Tajikistan on Developing Relations of Good Neighbourliness and Friendship and Cooperation Geared to the 21st Century signed at Dushanbe on July 4, 2000.

China-Turkmenistan ties have similarly been projected as aimed at evolving and consolidating equal and mutually beneficial interactions geared towards the 21st century. The outline of these ties has been enshrined in the principles laid out in various bilateral documents starting from the Sino-Turkmenistan Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations on January 6, 1992. The other major documents signed between them include Sino-Turkmenistan Joint Communiqué on November 21, 1992, the Sino-Turkmenistan Joint Statement on Further Developing and Strengthening the Relations of Friendship and Cooperation Between the Two Countries on August 31, 1998 and the Joint Statement Between the People's Republic of China and Turkmenistan signed at Ashkhabad on July 6, 2000. According to statistics available for 1998 their bilateral trade had reached $12.5 million which leaves a lot of room for improvement.22 Besides, Turkmenistan has a special attraction for Beijing considering that it possesses the fifth largest reserves of natural gas and has substantial oil fields and especially because it has been working hard to explore new export channels.

And finally, China-Kyrgyzstan ties have also been moving at a rather slow pace due to their continued border problems. However, their political interactions have been improving and just a day before his participation in the five-nation summit held at Bishkek last year, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev signed an agreement which would settle all disputes over common borders extending 1,000 kilometers. The accord provides a delimitation of the Kyrgyz-Chinese frontiers and paves the way for technical experts to begin work on specific demarcations. This problem had been going on for a long time. Akayev assured Jiang that Kyrgyzstan would not allow any force to carry out activities against China in Kyrgyzstan and reaffirmed his adherence to the "one China" policy.23

Continuing Problems: Overlapping Ethnic Communities

Just like China's strengths, its weaknesses have also made an equally critical contribution to the evolution of China-Central Asian policy initiatives. First and foremost, though all nation-states remain concerned over their sovereignty and territorial integrity, few put quite as much emphasis on these as does China which places it in a special category of countries dealing with the CARs. As regards China, while, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and Tibet may have been the most cited examples, the Chinese have always been equally concerned with Xinjiang which remains the most important factor determining its vision and views about the Central Asian region.24 The fact that the CARs were broadly formed on the basis of their ethnic composition seem to have encouraged China's minorities like Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongols, Kazakhs to accelerate their efforts for seeking self-determination which witnessed increased unrest and violence in these regions during the early 1990s. Especially, its Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where Uighurs (Turkic Kazakhs) constitute the majority has been a major factor leading to China adopting a twin policy of both engagement and containment with its bordering CARs.

The turbulent Turkic-Muslim majority of XUAR shares common history, tradition and culture with these CARs which has its obvious implications for the evolution of China's ethnic unity, territorial integrity and its secular identity which is going to face increasing challenges as it emerges as the next global power. Starting from the early 1980s, China had followed a liberal and pragmatic approach to religious and cultural affairs amongst its over 18 million Muslims. The majority of these Muslims live in China's XUAR where Uighurs alone numbered 7.2 million according to China's 1990 census. The second largest Muslim community in XUAR are Huis who numbered 682,900 and have historically played as a buffer between Uighurs and Hans with the latter having increased their numbers from a mere 250,000 in 1949 to 6 million in 1990.25 Uighurs have also been suspicious of Huis and see them as Han converts who are found in every county in every province of China. The Hui's have completely merged themselves in local communities and are not recognised as a separate community anywhere outside China. More specifically over 1.1 million nomadic Kazaks, who continue to have kin living in Central Asia's largest country Kazakhstan also play a strong political role in XUAR which also has nomadic Kirghiz (141,900) who have kin in Central Asia's most democratic country, Kyrgyzstan and are culturally and linguistically related to Kazaks. The small number of Uzbeks (14,500) have kin living in the politically powerful country of Uzbekistan, though Xinjiang's Persian speaking Tajiks (33,500) remain only distantly related to Tajikistan.26 Accordingly, this ethnic linkage gives XUAR a far more Central Asian profile for it to be considered an exclusive Chinese region.

Therefore, though its 530,000 sq. km landmass that comprises one-sixth of mainland China may have only a 15 million population, it makes XUAR's Muslims so critical in China's vision of Central Asia. China's alleged re-settlement policies have been particularly responsible for their continued alienation. According to official figures by China's 1990 census, ethnic minorities of Muslim populations constituted over 60 per cent including Uighurs 47 per cent, Hui 24 per cent Kazaks 7 per cent, and Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uzbeks roughly 1 per cent each.27 Reportedly, the composition of these ethnic communities has changed considerably in favour of Han Chinese who are now believed to constitute more than 50 per cent. In more recent years, Beijing is alleged to have resettled more than six million Han Chinese in XUAR diluting the population of Uighurs (ethnic Kazakhs) who now constitute less than half of the Xinjiang population.28 All this clearly helped them sustain their Sunni Islamic traditions towards fiercely defending their independence. This tradition had been particularly evident from the periodical uprisings against China during 1933, 1944 and 1949 all in the name of setting up what was called a Republic of East Turkestan. The Qing dynasty had annexed this region in 1759 and given it the name Xinjiang (new dominion) yet, successive Chinese rulers had "never directly controlled its new province because of the dearth of Han Chinese available to govern it."29 Just as in the case of Tibet, Chinese rulers had allowed the natives to rule themselves under the supervision of Chinese representatives and did not disturb them as long as they continued to owe allegiance to the Emperor. Given this volatile history, the New China under Mao Zedong, during 1955, declared the region as China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) granting it special concessions in terms of religious and cultural freedoms.

Over the years, however, massive resettlement of Han-Chinese in this region have been one of Beijing's methods to undermine this so-called 'splittistism'. There have been persistent complaints against Turkish language not being allowed for higher studies which means discrimination in higher education and consequently in employment opportunities for Turkic speaking Muslims. There have also been reports of restrictions or strict vigil on Uighur publishing activities and about the neglect of their monuments and other historic sites. Similarly, various other restrictions like those on mosque-building, child-bearing etc. which "prevents Uighur from developing their culture and civilisation" have been explained by Beijing as efforts to "assimilate and sinicize the Uighurs".30 This has its obvious linkages with the emerging ethno-political currents inside Central Asia. All these grievances have "drained China's resources or threatened China with contagion or conquest."31 All this has clearly sustained China's compulsions to continue seeking engagement with the CARs.

Energy Resources: Gas and Oil

Juxtaposed with China's sensitivities of Central Asia's ethnic linkages to Xinjiang, its ever increasing energy consumption and, therefore, need for access to Central Asian energy resources has been China's other major compulsion guiding its engagement with the CARs. Alongwith other powers, China has been engaged in exploring Central Asian energy resources and ensuring its own access and influence. One of the most ambitious projects signed by China includes a $ 11 billion, 5,730 km long gas pipeline project between Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China in which a consortium of companies from the United States, Japan and China have already been conducting preliminary surveys for quite some time. This project plans to exploit gas deposits from the right bank of the Amu-Darya and is expected to provide an alternative to the gas pipeline from Russia's East Siberian region.32 It has been reported that some more gas pipelines are also under study and one of these is expected to link the natural gas fields in Russia's Irkutsk with Rizhao of East China's Shandong province. It would later be extended to the Republic of Korea and Japan to make it commercially viable. The other is expected to run from West Siberia to Shanghai via Xinjiang.33 To cite a few more examples, on June 4, 1997, China's National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) had outbid its Russian and American counterparts to obtain exclusive rights to operate in the Uzen oilfield in western Kazakhstan for the next 20 years. The agreement, which was reported to be worth $ 4 billion, provides CNPC with 60 per cent of ownership in a Kazakh firm called Aktobemunaygaz. This was followed by Deputy Premier Li Lanqing signing a basket of agreements worth $ 9.6 billion during his visit to Kazakhstan in September 1997 which included construction of pipelines from western Kazakhstan to western China and another one from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan.

Therefore, despite repeated estimates which have down-sized Central Asia's oil and gas reserves, there remains no doubt that Central Asia stores abundant minerals, particularly petroleum and natural gas. It is estimated that the oil deposits in the region could be as much as 200 billion barrels, second only to the Middle East; the natural gas deposit could be 8,000 billion cubic meters, only less than those of Russia and the Middle East. According to a US State Department Report released in 1997, the petroleum and natural gas resources in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea could be converted into 4,000 billion US dollars.34 Besides, this region is also rich in iron, copper, lead, chromium, gold and other non-ferrous metals and rare metals. For instance, uranium deposits in Tajikistan account for one seventh of the total uranium deposits in the world. It becomes more and more obvious that in the light of the decline of petroleum and natural gas resources in the Gulf region, any power that controls these two kinds of strategic natural resources in Central Asia would be able to dominate the international energy market in the 21st century or even control the economic lifelines of some countries.35 But while these two may have been the most critical factors in guiding China's Central Asia policy since the early 1990s, experts and policy-makers have meanwhile added many more factors that define China's core national interests that broadly guide China's policy initiatives towards the CARs.

China's Policy Parameters

China's policy initiatives towards the CARs can be broadly categorised into two broad strands: (a) reviving the Silk Route as an umbilical cord between China and Central Asia and (b) creating the new framework of 'Shanghai Five' strategic forum which seeks to project itself as an alternative paradigm for evolving the 21st century world order. These remain geared to (a) ensuring China's continued access to Central Asian energy resources and (b) ensuring that ethnic linkages between CARs and Xinjiang do not have any negative impact on China's internal security and external ties. According to Prof. Ma Jiali of Beijing based China Institute for International Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), the following four strategic concerns have been guiding China's policies and interactions with these five CARs:

l Firstly, considering that China shares 3,500 km joint borders with the CARs, the foremost strategic concern of Beijing over this region has been to ensure the stability of this northwestern frontier so as to create a more favourable external environment that remains most essential to sustain China's socialist modernisation.

l Secondly, in view of Washington's attempts at using issues like Tibet, Taiwan and human rights to seek its goals of westernising, weakening and splitting China, it becomes imperative for China to ensure that any such engineered social unrest does not affect its security and stability. Accordingly, by strengthening ties with the CARs, China must suppress splittist elements by efficiently handling separatists and religious extremist infiltration from these equally vulnerable countries.

l Thirdly, China's engagement with the CARs provides Beijing with a buffer zone against the eastward expansion of NATO. Since the Kosovo War during mid-1990s, China has clearly felt squeezed from both West (NATO's Eastward expansion and its New Strategy) and East (US-Japan military alliance and its new interpretations).

l And finally, the fourth strategic concern of China is to seek a stable and reliable source of energy supplies. The rapid economic growth has made China hostage to energy supplies and considering the abundant oil and gas deposits in Central Asia, evolution of a reliable supply-demand relationship based on fair and reasonable prices will be in the common interest of both China and the CARs.36

These elements broadly explain China's core interests in engaging the CARs since the early 1990s. Factors that have particularly cemented their ties include the revelation to China that these Central Asian states remain equally concerned about threats of ethnic separatism and religious fundamentalism which has been the latent main worry of China's leaders and policy makers. It had all begun with the opening of the Urumqi-Almaty rail-line during 1992 which had revived regular trade and commerce between these two sides. In addition to this rail link which joined various Central Asian states to China's domestic markets and products, China opened 14 ports of entry to Central Asian trade with Xinjiang in April 1994. Later in 1998, China, Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan agreed to open a new highway from Kashgar through Krygystan to Tashkent in Uzbekistan and the CARs have since been using China's port facilities to trade with other major nations. Especially for states bordering on China like Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, the privilege of barter trade with China since the Soviet times combined with the new shortage of foreign exchange provided tremendous mutual attraction for cross-border trade and commerce. Also, during the initial years of their independence, the shortage of manufactured consumer goods and the availability of China's cheap consumer goods and complementary nature of their production had facilitated their mutual interactions. But, at the same time, there have been instances of occasional anti-Chinese reactions in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan as their markets get flooded by low-quality low-priced Chinese products threatening to put local enterprise out of business.37 But the Chinese have compensated for this excessive supply of consumer goods with huge investments in Central Asian energy sources. And thanks to their continued interactions the two sides have fairly streamlined their interactions during these last ten years.


To conclude, therefore, China has perhaps been one of the more successful countries in finding a foothold and ensuring its access to the CARs, especially amongst its leaders. While its cautious and steady approach in building engagement may have been partly dictated by its stakes in ensuring its own unity and integrity, this has also made its engagement with the CARs one of the most cost-effective exercises thus ensuring its survival for a very long time. Given the fact that for a country like China, which has a billion plus people, ultimately it is fundamental needs of food, water, energy, clean environment that will remain the most important elements determining the future course. Any chances of its further development would entail imperatives of a peaceful periphery including CARs. And considering that CARs themselves still remain in the midst of their own chaos of nation-building these very compulsions will also continue to dictate their policies with regard to China for a very long time. And finally, considering that they share deep rooted historical linkages that have survived all earlier historical watersheds the two sides are very likely to overcome their current challenges and pitfalls and to redefine their mutual policies and new equations in due course of time.



1. Ma Jiali, "Central Asia: Geo-strategic Situation and Big Powers' Policies", Contemporary Central Asia (New Delhi: vol.III, no.1, April 1999), p. 39.

2. David Nalle, "The Ferghana Valley-1999", Central Asia Monitor (London: no. 1, 2000), p.2.

3. Julie R. Sirrs, "Mixed Messages: The Contrasting Reactions of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the War in Afghanistan", Central Asia Monitor (London: no. 2, 2000), p. 1.

4. Diane L. Smith, "Central Asia: A New Great Game?", [Deptt. Of Army, Defence Department, United States], <>; also Lillian Craig Harris, "Xinjiang, Central Asia and the Implications for China's Policy in the Islamic World", China Quarterly (London: no. 133, March 1993, p. 112.

5. Zhao Shaoqin, "Nation may import 50 m. tons of crude oil in 2000", China Daily (Hong Kong: July 3, 2000, p. 9.

6. Shao Qin, "Experts call for oil strategy", China Daily (Beijing: January 10, 2000.

7. Sun Zhuangzhi, "US Strategy in Central Asia", Beijing Review (Beijing: vol. 43, no. 26, June 26, 2000), p. 11.

8. Michael Robert Hickok, "The Other End of the Silk Road: Japan's Eurasian Initiative", Central Asian Survey (London: vol. 19, no. 1, March 2000), pp. 17, 24.

9. Sun Zhuangzhi, "Central Asia not just for US", China Daily (Beijing: July 11, 2000.

10. "China provides trade gateway for Central Asia", China Daily (Hong Kong: June 9, 1999), p.5.

11. Ibid.

12. Shao Zongwei, "Summit agrees to promote regional security, stability", China Daily (Hong Kong: August 26, 1999), p. 1.

13. Hu Qihua, "Nation in joint oil, gas search", China Daily (Hong Kong: July 7, 2000), p. 2.

14. Mark Burles, Chinese Policy towards Russia and the Central Asia, (California: Rand Corporation, 1999), p. 38.

15. Sun Shangwu, "Eurasia network links China with outside world", China Daily (Beijing: January 14, 2000).

16. Dai Xaiohua, "China-Kazakhstan Trade and Economic Cooperation Promising", Beijing Review (Beijing: vol.41, no. 20, May 18-24, 1998), p.7

17. "Kazakhstan Sets Up Working Group to Implement Laying Oil Pipeline to China", FBIS-CHI-2000-0719, dated July 19, 2000.

18. Xaiohua, n. 16.

19. Ibid.

20. Hu Qihua, "Nation in joint oil, gas search", China Daily (Hong Kong: July 7, 2000), p. 2.

21. "Tajikistan inks deals with China", China Daily (Hong Kong: August 14, 1999), p. 1.

22. Hu Qihua, "Alarm Over Separatism", China Daily (Hong Kong: July 5, 2000), p. 1.

23. Shao Zongwei, "China, Kyrgyzstan inks deal on borders", China Daily (Hong Kong: August 27, 1999), p. 1.

24. Ross H. Munro, "Central Asia and China", in Michael Mandelbaum (ed.), Central Asia and the World, (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994), pp. 224-226.

25. Justin Ben-Adam, "China" in David Westerlund and Ingvar Svanberg (eds.), Islam Outside the Arab World, (London: Curzon Press, 1999), p. 191.

26. Ibid.

27. Dru Gladney, "The Muslim Face of China", Current History (Philadelphia: vol. 92, n. 575, September 1993), p. 279.

28. Diane L. Smith, n. 4.

29. Felix K. Chang, "China's Central Asian Power and Problems", Orbis, vol. 41, no. 3 (Summer 1997), p. 406.

30. Sultan Mahmut Kasgarli, "The Uighur Turks of Central Asia", Central Asia Monitor (London: no. 4, 1999), p. 29.

31. Lillian Craig Harris, "Xinjiang, Central Asia and the implications for China's policy in the Islamic World", The China Quarterly (London: no.133, March 1993), p.69.

32. "Turkmenistan, China Discuss Gas Pipeline Project", FBIS-CHI-2000-0706 dated July 6, 2000.

33. Qin n. 6.

34. Charlet Newman, "The Modern Silk Road", The Chronicle (New Carolina: October 25, 2000).

35. Jiali, n.1, p. 40.

36. Jiali, n.1, pp.44-45.

37. Yasmin Melet, "China's political and economic relations with Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan", Central Asian Survey (London: vol. 17, no. 2, June 1998), p. 239.