China's Growing Influence in Central Asia

Part 1: A Major Player in Need of Energy

November 19-- Chinese pop music blares from loudspeakers, mixing with the cries of Chinese traders at this busy local market. Welcome to China? No, we are in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty, at the Ya Lian bazaar.

Since it opened in 1997, the Ya Lian has become one of the city's largest marketplaces, attracting thousands of shoppers to its stalls offering everything from household appliances to clothes and consumer electronics.

It is a scene repeated at hundreds of Chinese markets across Central Asia. Initially, the traders were locals bringing in scarce goods to sell from just across the border. But in recent years, they have been replaced by an influx of Chinese tradesmen who have set up more permanent shops and become a fixture of Central Asian urban life.

Driven by energy demand

This street activity is just one sign of China's growing presence in the region. But at higher levels, Chinese officials and business leaders have been criss-crossing the region, signing cooperation agreements and contracts that aim to expand Beijing's foothold.

China's interest in countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan is motivated to a large extent by its need for energy. China's economy is booming, but its domestic oil and mining industries cannot keep pace with demand.

Chinese officials have fanned out across the globe -- including Central Asia -- in search of suppliers.

Those efforts are beginning to bear fruit. In May this year, after seven years of negotiation, China and Kazakhstan agreed to build a 1,000-kilometer pipeline from Kazakhstan's central Karaganda region to China's northwestern Xinjiang region by 2005.

The pipeline will be a key link in a 3,000-kilometer project that aims to join China to the Caspian Sea. China has also offered to help Uzbekistan develop its small oil fields in the Ferghana Valley.

Chinese investment is also going into other energy resources, such as hydroelectric projects in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with scores of additional plans up for discussion.

Greater strategic influence

But Niklas Swanstrom, executive director of the Program for Contemporary Silk Road Studies at Sweden's Uppsala University, says while the quest for natural resources shapes China's policies in Central Asia, it is not the whole picture.

China is rapidly emerging as a world power. In a decade or two, it may directly challenge the supremacy of the United States, Japan and Europe. But before this happens, Beijing's leaders are trying to create a zone of friendly and stable countries around China's borders that will give them political support as well as economic leverage in the future.

This has led Beijing to set up trade missions in every Central Asian country, invest in local enterprises, donate money to aid projects and give a high profile to new bodies like the Shanghai Cooperation Council that now groups the region's countries:
"The Chinese do want natural resources, they do want oil and gas because China is in desperate need of these as its economy grows," Swanstrom told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from Beijing, where he is a guest lecturer at the People's University. "But it goes deeper than that."

"They want to secure the borders, they want to make sure that Central Asia is a stable region. Because if Central Asia runs into military conflicts, it is likely to spread over to Xinjiang, China's westernmost province. And that would be a problem for the Chinese government," he said.

Beijing's fistful of dollars

Stability in Central Asia also means stability for China, Swanstrom added. "It's also in the Chinese interest to develop these markets, to create the infrastructure in Central Asia."

On the security front, Beijing has found eager partners among Central Asia's authoritarian leaders who share its worries about Islamic militancy.

"There is a meeting of the minds between China's leaders on the one hand and the leaders of the post-Soviet Central Asian states on the other," John Garver, international affairs expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States told RFE/RL in a recent interview.

"And cooperation in this area takes the form of intelligence exchanges, police cooperation, training of police, training of military forces, and the design of military operations targeting terrorist activities," Garver said.

Omurbek Tekebayev, leader of Kyrgyzstan's opposition Atameken Socialist Party, adds that China's cause was helped by the U.S. "war on terror" following the Sept. 11th attacks.

"After 9/11, the United States broke the old stereotype, sending its troops to Central Asia and the Transcaucasus. When the U.S. strengthened its position, China began to also show that it was interested in Central Asia," he said.

He said Chinese officials told a recent meeting of regional leaders in Tashkent that it would invest about U.S.$4,000 million in Central Asian countries. Chinese leaders also spoke openly about their intention to pay the full cost of a U.S.$1,500 million highway from China to Central Asia, via Kyrgyzstan, he said.

Niklas Swanstrom says Russia's sometimes tenuous grip over the region has paved the way for outsiders, including the Americans, to come in. But the Chinese -- because of their comprehensive regional economic and security interests -- have been the most effective.

Not everyone in Central Asia is happy about China's interest in the region. There is a latent fear, especially in the countries bordering China, that Beijing is hungry for land. And if that is the case, even a small migration of Chinese to the region would swamp local populations.

Although it is vast in territory, Kazakhstan's population of some 14 million people represents just over one percent of China's 1.3 billion people.

Suspicions of creeping colonialism are dismissed out-of-hand by Beijing officials. But Murat Auezov, a former Kazakh ambassador to China, says China's low-key foreign policy masks a deep-running expansionist tradition.

"I know Chinese culture. We should not believe anything the Chinese politicians say," Auezov told RFE/RL. "As a historian, I'm telling you that 19th-century China, 20th-century China and 21st-century China are three different Chinas. But what unites them is a desire to expand their territories."

Swanstrom is more optimistic. For now, Russia continues to enjoy a decisive cultural and economic advantage in Central Asia. But he argues breaking this monopoly could serve the Central Asians well: "It doesn't necessarily have to be a zero-sum game, but from the Central Asian states, there's also interest in decreasing the Russian influence and to have Chinese influence -- maybe even Indian influence and American influence and European influence."

"They have realized over the years that it's not good to have one dominant power in the region...They are very conscious about the fact that neither the Russians nor the Chinese would be the perfect actor to dominate the region," he said.


Part 2: The Battle For Oil

WASHINGTON, November 25 -- Spurred by 10 percent economic growth rates in the first half of the year, China has been seeking new oil sources in the region and around the world.

China has been an oil importer since 1996, but its recent boom has pushed it past Japan to make it the world's second- biggest oil consumer behind the United States. High demand has driven the country's state-owned oil companies into foreign markets that seemed too distant only a few years ago.

State companies have revived projects in Kazakhstan that have languished since 1997, when China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) promised to invest U.S.$9,500 million in pipelines and oilfields thousands of kilometers from home.

Energy security concerns

"They're just reaching out to wherever they can -- whether it's Azerbaijan, or Syria, or Russia, or Central Asia, or Venezuela -- to diversify these sources of imports," Robert Ebel, director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told RFA.

Veteran oil expert Otesin Zhumanov is amazed at the latest developments, saying that no one could have foreseen the extent of China’s involvement in the region's oil industry.

"I never thought that the Chinese would ever come here to run our business," Zhumanov told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Kazakh service.

"I did everything to make my two sons become oil managers and oil experts. We had no idea about foreign investors then, even to forecast such sort of developments."

Beijing pins hopes on pipeline

Kazakhstan is currently the only central Asian country that exports oil to China. Kazakh oil shipments to China, which are sent by rail, account for less than one percent of China's imports. But that could soon change -- thanks to an agreement this May to build a 1,000-kilometer oil pipeline from Kazakhstan's central Karaganda region to western China.

The Karaganda pipeline will eventually be connected to the Keniyaq oil field further West and the Caspian Sea. Since 1997, China has been modernizing the Kenqiyaq oil field in the Aqtobe region, in a joint project with the Kazakh state oil and gas company.

Beijing has invested some U.S.$1,300 million so far. More than 6,000 Kazakh workers are employed at the site, with another 6,000 working on other Chinese-run projects in the vicinity.

Nurmukhambet Abdibekov, Deputy Governor of the Aqtobe Region says the Chinese investment is already raising the standard of living for thousands of families. "This project is expanding," Abdibekov told RFE/RL in a recent interview.

"New jobs are being created. We are sure that it is very positive that the local citizens have got these opportunities, that they can get these new well-paid jobs to support their families."

Siberian supply setback

China's renewed interest in the Kazakhstan project follows hard on the heels of its disappointment with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his pledge in 2001 to build an oil pipeline from Eastern Siberia to China's petroleum capital of Daqing.

Instead, Putin has been lured by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his promises to finance a much longer, costlier line for the oil to the Pacific Coast.

But analysts question whether such projects have been looked at in the context of long-term fluctuations in the price of oil. "The question to me is whether these projects that are being looked at, at a very high oil price and very tight supply situation, really make sense in the very long term," Washington-based energy consultant Edward Chow told RFA.

"Because these are projects that are going to cost tens of billions of dollars, require 10 to 15 years to mature, build and pay out. And whether that high price environment will be sustained during that time is a very risky business proposition," Chow said.

He said that a more sensible approach would be to combine the energy potential of Central Asia and eastern Siberia in a coordinated strategy that could meet the needs of all consuming countries, including China, South Korea and Japan.

Part 3: Xinjiang's Thirst Strains Kazakh Water Sources

PRAGUE, November 29 -- Since China's annexation of the short-lived Uyghur state of East Turkestan in 1950, Beijing has pursued a development policy that has put considerable pressure on the local environment. This northwestern region, which borders Central Asia, is home to China's main nuclear testing site, a blight with which some Central Asians are all too familiar.

But the most immediate regional concern is water. China's "Go West" policy, which Beijing says is aimed at further developing poorer hinterland, requires ever-growing amounts of water, and will have long-term implications for Kazakhstan which shares a number of trans-boundary rivers with China.

A Tale of Two Rivers

"For Kazakhstan the most alarm concerns two rivers: the Ili and Irtysh," Mels Eleusizov, head of the Kazakh nongovernmental organization Tabigat, or Nature, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "The new infrastructure and plants in Xinjiang consume a lot of water. The drinking water needs are increasing too."

"If China continues to increase water consumption in the area, it will certainly affect the water resources on our side." Eleusizov said.

The Ili river flows through Xinjiang into southeastern Kazakhstan and terminates in Lake Balkhash. The Irtysh rises in China's Altai Mountains and also crosses into northeastern Kazakhstan, before flowing through Lake Zaysan to the Russian city of Omsk and then into the Ob River.

The increasing usage of river waters in Xinjiang, which has relatively little water resources and farming land, is a crucial side-effect of Beijing's policy of attracting ethnic Han Chinese settlers to the region in the name of stability and economic development.

"There's actually a lot of concern coming out in China in the government [media]," Ann McMillan, who researches the region at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, said. "There've been reports about the water table dropping, especially around Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang." "So they are aware that they've got major problems. And they’ve even started charging for water in some places. But for their development to go ahead they need water. So you've got a "Catch 22" situation," McMillan said.

Sources of vitality

The Irtysh and Ili are crucial sources of fresh water for the Kazakh populations. Both also play a vital role in the economy, providing water for the industrial, agricultural and fishing sectors.

"If the level of the river decreases, the environment along the banks will be affected drastically. Local citizens will suffer a lot," Kazakh MP Myrzageldy Kemel told RFE/RL. "Now nobody is paying attention to this, although in about 50 years [the situation] might be even worse than in the Aral Sea," said Kemel, who serves on a parliamentary committee for the environment. The Aral Sea, which has lost three-quarters of its volume since 1960, when Soviet-era planners began diverting its feeder rivers to irrigate cotton fields, is to be one of the world's worst man-made environmental disasters.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has warned that Kazakhstan's current largest lake, Lake Balkhash, is in danger of drying out if the government fails to adopt better water management practices and win Chinese cooperation over the Ili, the lake's main tributary.

The current construction by the Chinese of a 300-kilometer long and 22-meter wide canal to reroute water from the Irtysh is also of great concern, according to Abai Tursunov, a professor at the Kazakh Institute of Geology and Geography in Almaty.

Beijing may use 40 percent of river

"The completion of the canal will affect us drastically," Tursunov said. "Power stations will be very much affected. Nobody is raising the issue but gradually all this can lead to major environment problems."

Hydropower stations and factories are located along the Irtysh, while the Irtysh-Karaganda canal makes agriculture possible in central Kazakhstan. The river also provides drinking water to the capital Astana as well as to thee other major cities: Karaganda, Semipalatinsk and Pavlodar.

Chinese authorities have provided very little information on the project. But speaking to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Chinese Ambassador to Kazakhstan Zhou Xiaopei tried to be reassuring:

"We currently use 10-20 percent of the Irtysh's waters," Zhou said. "We are building new infrastructure. But we are going to use no more than 40 percent of the waters."

In 2001, Kazakhstan and China signed an agreement aimed at facilitating cooperation on trans-boundary water management. Through consultations the two states agreed to share information concerning the Irtysh, with the Ili being agreed upon afterwards.

But Zhakybay Dostay, also of the Kazakh Institute of Geology and Geography in Almaty, said the talks have led nowhere so far. "The joint Kazakh-Chinese inter-government commission meets every year without results. They just give figures, make statements, and sign documents. The problems remain."

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited Xinjiang in September. But there is no indication that he raised the issue of trans-boundary rivers with Chinese officials.

Part 4: China's War on Terror

PRAGUE -- Riding on the momentum of U.S. President George W. Bush's 'war on terror', China and its Central Asian neighbors have begun cooperating in the name of regional security.

So far, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- which groups China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan -- has shared information, staged some joint military exercises, and set up an anti-terrorism center in Tashkent.

But experts warn that such 'anti-terrorism' moves also serve another purpose for Beijing -- that of keeping the lid on Uyghur independence activists in its northwestern region of Xinjiang, many of whom engage in non-violent opposition to Chinese rule.

Uzbeks stunned by suicide bombs

In July 2004, a series of explosions rocked the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) recorded the following interview with a local resident:

Resident: There was an explosion. Are you a journalist?

RFE/RL: Yes.

Resident: One man blew himself up over there.

RFE/RL: Did you see it?

Resident: When I came he had already blown himself up. I came five or ten minutes after the explosion.

RFE/RL: Did people die?

Resident: One person died.

Suicide bombers attacked the Israeli embassy, and the state prosecutor's office on the same day. Uzbek authorities blamed radical Islamist groups for the blasts, which killed seven people, as well as for an earlier wave of violence in March that left nearly 50 people dead.

China pursues strategic agenda

They also presented the violence as part of global terrorism, saying the attackers may have had links with al-Qaeda.

China has also blamed a series of bombings and assassinations in the late 1990s on separatist Muslim Uyghurs, also alleging links to Osama bin Ladin.

"We are in full solidarity with China in the fight against the three evils -- international terrorism, extremism and separatism," Uzbek President Islam Karimov told reporters on the eve of an SCO summit in June.

At the same meeting, the group's members pledged to unite and step up regional efforts against terrorism and extremism. So far, experts say that's meant some intelligence sharing, treaties allowing joint criminal investigations, and military exercises.

In 2002 Kyrgyzstan became the first foreign country to hold military maneuvers with China. The following year, there were exercises involving SCO members in Kazakhstan and China. China has also called for international help in pursuing Uyghur independence activists overseas.

In recent years, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have both deported Uyghurs at China's request. "There are laws in the world according to which criminals must be held responsible," Li Hua, first secretary at the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, told RFE/RL in a recent interview.

Limited cross-border cooperation

The trouble is, says regional expert Niklas Swanstrom, some of those deported may be innocent. "When a country comes and says: 'Hand over the terrorists,' it’s really hard to say, 'No, we're not going to do that.' But in many of those cases, they are not necessarily terrorists."

Sadyk, a Uyghur living in Bishkek, told RFE/RL earlier this year that such deported Uyghurs are in grave danger. "Last year, Kyrgyzstan deported two young [ethnic Uyghurs] to China. The Chinese authorities tortured and killed them. Then they gave their bodies to their parents in Kashgar last September, saying disease had killed them."

Uzbek independent analyst Kamron Aliyev says central Asian authorities will seek to clamp down further on Uyghur groups in order to foster good relations with China.

"In Uzbekistan and in other Central Asian countries there are a number of independent Uyghur organizations which deal with their cultural, language, human rights and national dignity issues," Aliyev said.

"Local governments that are getting assistance from China now will be trying to close them down. Governments will try to restrict freedom of their activities. We can expect that Uzbekistan's security service will be conducting talks with China on these issues."

But other analysts say there will be other factors limiting the extent of cooperation between China and its Central Asian neighbors.

"One of the main characteristics of these states is that they are suspicious of each other, which is an obstacle to a deep-seated shift in attitudes to transnational threats such as terrorism and drug trafficking," Jane's regional security expert Alex Vatanka told RFE/RL.

"They are suspicious of the Chinese and I think they're trying to balance the Russians, the Chinese, the Americans against one another and -- given the poverty of the region -- maximize benefits to themselves."

"So far they seem to have done an OK job, but nothing is standing out as a prime example of how regional cooperation has achieved specific objectives. As far as pan-Islamism goes in the region, the threat is today what it was two, three years ago," Vatanka said.

Part 5: Uyghurs Count Costs of China's Quest for Stability

WASHINGTON—As China moves westward in its reach for economic and political growth, the net results are increasingly being felt in the northwestern Uyghur region of Xinjiang.

Beijing has made much of its multi-billion dollar "Go West" investment incentives, which it says are aimed at alleviating poverty throughout its economically deprived hinterland.

But Uyghur rights groups overseas and ordinary Uyghurs within China say Beijing's massive infrastructure spending drive has more to do with ensuring China's energy supplies and regional security than the welfare of the local people.

In a series of interviews with Radio Free Asia (RFA), Uyghurs describe life under Chinese rule in Xinjiang and a surge in social problems including forced unpaid labor, loss of land and livelihood to make way for Chinese-run development projects, and an increase in HIV/AIDS HIV/AIDS and drug abuse.

Additionally, as more Chinese migrant workers flood into Xinjiang, policies aimed at suppressing anti-Beijing sentiment and quashing separatist ambitions, Islamic religion and culture have multiplied.

Uyghur labor builds houses for Han Chinese

An agricultural official in the Xinjiang regional government confirmed the continued existence of a system of forced labor called hasha in remote areas of the countryside, in which laborers are not paid for their work. The official told RFA's Uyghur service, "At the moment, there is no money to pay the peasants. The money given to the government is very limited."

WASHINGTON—As China moves westward in its reach for economic and political growth, the net results are increasingly being felt in the northwestern Uyghur region of Xinjiang.

Beijing has made much of its multi-billion dollar "Go West" investment incentives, which it says are aimed at alleviating poverty throughout its economically deprived hinterland.

But Uyghur rights groups overseas and ordinary Uyghurs within China say Beijing's massive infrastructure spending drive has more to do with ensuring China's energy supplies and regional security than the welfare of the local people.

In a series of interviews with Radio Free Asia (RFA), Uyghurs describe life under Chinese rule in Xinjiang and a surge in social problems including forced unpaid labor, loss of land and livelihood to make way for Chinese-run development projects, and an increase in HIV/AIDS HIV/AIDS and drug abuse.

Additionally, as more Chinese migrant workers flood into Xinjiang, policies aimed at suppressing anti-Beijing sentiment and quashing separatist ambitions, Islamic religion and culture have multiplied.

Uyghur labor builds houses for Han Chinese

An agricultural official in the Xinjiang regional government confirmed the continued existence of a system of forced labor called hasha in remote areas of the countryside, in which laborers are not paid for their work. The official told RFA's Uyghur service, "At the moment, there is no money to pay the peasants. The money given to the government is very limited."

"In the other provinces in China where there has been rapid economic development, hasha was phased out long ago," the official said. "But here in Xinjiang, we still need it."

One man in his 30s from Kashgar city, said his continuing hasha assignments consisted of dredging and widening a river and irrigating fields.

"For one month out of every year for three years," said another man in his 40s, also from Kashgar, "we were forced to open up land that had never been settled before—it was just wilderness. We were also forced to build houses for Han Chinese immigrants who were resettling in the area."

Around 98 percent of the Han Chinese population are located in urban areas, while about 90 percent of Uyghurs live in rural areas. Uyghur groups estimate that the income of Han Chinese in the region is around 3.6 times that of the Uyghurs.

Some academics predict the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs will soon become an ethnic minority in their own land.

Chinese repression of Uyghurs

Human rights groups and Western governments routinely criticize China for its heavy-handed treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Beijing has backed the U.S.-led war on terror and called for international support for its campaign against Uyghur separatists, whom it has branded terrorists.

Uyghurs constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia. They declared a short-lived EastTurkestanRepublic in Xinjiang in the late 1940s but have remained under Beijing's control since 1949.

China's "stability" policy in Xinjiang began with the establishment of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or bingtuan, in 1949 in an effort to provide land and work for demobilized People's Liberation Army troops.

Today, the bingtuan is a vast, quasi-military organization with a population of at least 2.5 million people, roughly one-seventh of the total population of the region.

Recent reports have indicated that key bingtuan companies recruit only highly qualified Han Chinese from universities in inner China, and other companies have been known to exclude ethnic Uyghurs from applying in their job advertisements.

Losing a land

Millions have been made homeless across China by land-grabbing local authorities hungry to turn a profit, and Xinjiang is no exception.

Authorities near Atush city to the north of Kashgar have forced poor farmers away from their livelihoods to make way for a major property development, local residents told RFA.

"The government gave this land to us for 30 years. A farmer who violates the agreement will be penalized. Is it right to forcefully take the land given by the government for 30 years?" one Uyghur farmer from one of the affected villages said in an interview with RFA.

"The land you are giving us is unworked land and will take 10 years to make suitable for grape planting. When are you going to take this land away, too?"

In a separate incident, an elderly man in Kashgar was crushed to death during demolition work after he refused to move from an area being redeveloped by the municipal government, an eyewitness told RFA.

"Before demolishing the house, the truck driver said he quit, but the boss insisted and threatened him" the local resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, said.

Local police said the man had been warned repeatedly of the eviction order from his house, which they said was the property of the municipal government.

"We talked to him about moving out, but he still refused," an officer at the Yawage district police station in Kashgar told RFA. "Everyone else moved out. He was the only person left. He simply refused to move out. Finally, the wall collapsed while the tractor was operating," the officer said.

Local residents said this was not the first time that people's homes had been demolished with little notice.

An employee with the Kashgar Prefecture Petroleum Company told RFA that the government had demolished company housing for the mostly Uyghur employees living in extreme poverty—without the company's consent.

"That plot of land is ours," the employee said. "The municipal government gave it to a private developer without our permission. This private developer demolished a few of our buildings."

Company officials said they didn't dare offend the local government. One employee said, "For the local government, what they say is legal is legal. What they say is illegal is illegal. Our personal opinion is that it should be illegal."

Drug woes

According to official statistics, drug use in Xinjiang has risen sharply in the past 10 years and the level of addiction among Uyghurs is increasing.

Government statistics say approximately 56 percent of Uyghur users now inject drugs directly into their veins and 93 percent of all HIV/AIDS infections in the region come from sharing dirty needles.

It's estimated two percent of users are just seven or eight years old. One Urumqi police officer told RFA children become inducted into drug-using circles by peers or family members at a young age.

"Some of their parents were involved in using or selling drugs...There are many kids who died after using injections. Many people have died from using illegal drugs," the officer said.

This story was compiled from interviews given to RFA's Uyghur service in 2003 and 2004

http://www.rfa.org/english/news/in_depth/2004/11/19/central_asia/

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