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Sino- Kyrgyzstan Relations as a Partial Flavour of Sino- Nepal Relations

Paper No. 6602             Dated 18-June-2020

By Col. Rajnish Maahi

1.      Kyrgyzstan the second smallest country in the Central Asian Region (CAR), is akin to Nepal which is geo-strategically located between two giants, with Kazakhstan to its North and China to its South and East. The country is almost entirely mountainous with only seven percent of the land area suitable for agriculture. It possesses a limited range of natural resources compared to its neighbours, and is one of the most economically backward countries in CAR .Historically early Kyrgyz  who were subjects of the Gokturks and Uighyurs, but after defeating the Uighyur Khanate in 840 CE expanded their territory in Central Asia till 13th centuries CE, when Genghis Khan and the Mongols conquered them  and  the threat to the kingdom from neighbouring regions persisted till 19th century ,which forced them to seek protection from Russia. The Russian rule lasted until its independence from USSR in 1991.The kingdom of Nepal is also one of the smallest  and poorest landlocked country in South Asia having a similar background and geo strategic loc.

2.      Kyrgyzstan shares 858 km of borders with China, however it has settled it in 1998 and was ratified  in 2002 after  shares and 858 km border with, after conceding approx 90,000 hectares of its territory in the provinces of Naryn and Issyk-Kul 02. However, the ethnic Kyrgyz population is disposed either side of the border . Hence the importance of Kyrgyzstan for China, since it wants to control the unrest in its Xinjiang Uighyur Autonomous region (XUAR) and prevent the spill over of radical groups into China.

The same could be related to Nepal where in boundary has been resolved in 1961with  the desired control of Mustang rebels and Tibetans in exile in Nepal  by China . Kyrgyzstan like Nepal is a major centre for Chinese exports and currently China is the second largest trade partner of Kyrgyzstan with trade volumes of approximately $2.32 Billion. Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), development of infrastructure projects and Chinese intentions to set up free trade zones in Kyrgyzstan, form the other pillars of bilateral economic cooperation as it is important to China as a port of entry for oil from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The linguistic and cultural affinity with the Chinese (particularly Hui) people, Kyrgyzstan’s small Dungan community plays a significant role in bilateral trade akin to the Nepalese across the Himalayas with TAR. However, the prospect of Chinese cultural domination, resonates Russian nostalgia for the local Kyrgyz people, while the same could be said for ethnic Gorkhas and Tibetans in Nepal.

3.  In the enhancement of Defence and Economic Relations China seeks cooperation with Kyrgyzstan to curb any support to the separatist East Turkestan Movement or separatist Uighur movements from the Xinjiang Region akin to the Mustang valley rebels and the Tibetans in exile living in Nepal against the  accession of Tibet by China. In addition , both nations are signatory of the BRI Initiative and seek rail and road  linkages with mainland China. This railway link will potentially connect China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan with Turkmenistan, Ports on the Caspian Sea and even onto Iran and the Middle East akin to what is being tried for the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian sea.

Sinophobic Sentiments in Kyrgyzstan as Early Indicators:

4.      Anti-China sentiments were first observed during the power outage in Jan ’18, which left the Kyrgyzstan Capital without heating for days, while the concerned thermal power station had been upgraded the previous year by a Chinese company (Tebian Electric Apparatus Stock Co- TBEA); that was rumoured to have wrested the contract through dubious means akin to the failed West Seti hydro power project . In addition, numerous anti Chinese protests in Bishkek, Batken against Chinese firms and Uighur atrocities finds resonance with the exiled Tibetan population in Kathmandu. The government of  Kyrgyzstan and Nepal align with one China policy and are non committal on  Chinese  Xinjiang Policy. However the Kyrgyz like Gurkhas of Nepal are a proud and protective society, while a large no of ethnic Kyrgyz live in the western Xinjiang province and have close relatives on either side of the border. Hence Reports of Chinese excesses and religious prosecution in XUAR are assessed to be one of the primary causes of anti-China sentiments in Kyrgyzstan as the Kyrgyz are of Turkic origin and a vast majority is Muslim-two distinctions for Han Chinese which are the possibe resons for China's increasing unese.  

Also the Economic subjugation by China has dominated the regional markets of both nations and they are aware of the Chinese debt traps .The same has also started to manifest in some forms in the social media as well. The role of external players in the new Great game to include Russia for Kyrgyzstan and US and allies in Nepal will effect the shape of things to come.

        Part III : Implications

5.      Reports of Chinese crackdowns and reported massive violations of human rights in Xinjiang have served to create a negative image of China in Kyrgyzstan and around the world.  However, countries such as

Kyrgyzstan, who have deep economic dependence on China and having adopted Chinese narratives about the ‘three evils’ of “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism” – find themselves lacking any avenues to protest against Chinese Policies. The onslaught of COVID 19 has further reinforced the anti Chinese opinion,

6.      Implications for China.

(a)     Chinese interests in Central Asia have been part of a carefully crafted plan. Initially, Beijing sought to demilitarize the borders followed by a crackdown on the Uighur community, the creation of a collective security framework through the Shanghai cooperation Organization (SCO), the building of infrastructure and communications systems in the region, and finally, an influx of soft power.

(b)     The Chinese clout and investment Kyrgyzstan and Nepal is an irreversible phenomenon now. However, the future depends on the performance of present projects and investments as sold as a economic revival and poverty alleviation dream by the Chinese to both the nations .

(c)     At the leadership level, China still enjoys overwhelming access and support in Kyrgyzstan and Nepal. However, both the nations are aware of the debt traps and rampant corruption associated with major Chinese projects and hence will be nimble footed for future projects  proposed by the dragon.

7.      Implications for Russia.

(a)     Being a strategic confluence of civilizations, the Central Asian region has attracted various World powers, with each jostling for influence. Since the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union, Russia has resented her loss of influence over her member states and has repeatedly defined the region as its ‘near abroad’.

(b)     Facing economic challenges herself, it is improbable that Russia would undertake such a misadventure. However, Russia is unlikely to cede its strategic space to China & is likely to take advantage of Sinophobic sentiments to regain its influence in Kyrgyzstan.

8.      Implications for Kyrgyzstan.

(a)     Economic. The economic situation in the Kyrgyz Republic would be far worse without the huge Chinese investments and loans, as well as the jobs created by Chinese companies, albeit many of them temporary. Kyrgyzstan will thus continue to be heavily dependent on China for economic support.

(b)     Public Sentiment.

(i)      Kyrgyz people have historically demonstrated their will for independence, by overthrowing two powerful Presidents in popular uprisings (2005 and 2010). If not adequately addressed by the government, this Sinophobic sentiment has the potential of escalating to a much larger scale in the future.

(ii)     At a functional level, the implications are already evident. Ethnic Kyrgyz have reduced their travel to China, requesting their friends/relatives on the other side to visit instead. They are discouraging dealings with the Chinese, event at the cost of undertaking a financial loss.

9.      Implications for India.         The Indian image in the Central Asian States is that of an emerging economic power with a rich & diverse cultural background. Currently, Indian investments and trade with Kyrgyzstan is fairly low compared to China and Russia. The current Sino phobic sentiments in Kyrgyzstan has afforded an opportunity to India to increase its trade, diplomatic and defence cooperation relations with Kyrgyzstan; and in the process enhance Indian influence in the Central Asian Region. In addition, India recognises the importance of ROTI & BETI relations with Nepal and should endeavour to improve the same earnestly, less the situation goes from bad to worse in the Himalayan kingdom . The BIMSTEC  forum presents a great opportunity  for  generating mutual trust and confidence in this regard .

Conclusion

10.    The present nascent anti Sino sentiments in Kyrgyzstan and Nepal need to be studied in greater detail for shaping of the things to come. The important and geo strategic locations of CAR and the buffer Himalayan nation state in the ebullient South Asian region will play a crucial role in it . The current shift in focus in geopolitics towards the new great game of the  Mackinder’s heartland theory , signifies an important place for Central Asia, with China at its epicentre which seeks to establish a dominating and pivotal role in the new emerging world order, post the present  COVID pandemic crisis.

The writer ia an alumnus of Indian Military Academy and Madrs University and can be reached at rajnishmaahi@gmail.com

 

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