By Deirdre Tynan, Special to CNNEditor’s note: Deirdre Tynan is Central Asia Project Director of the International Crisis Group. The views expressed are her own.
China is spending billions of dollars in Central Asia, and is hoping for two things in return. The first is natural resources measured in cubic meters of gas, barrels of oil and metric tons of minerals. The second is more complicated and harder to measure: Beijing wants Central Asia states to be good neighbors – stable, predictable and not given to extremes.
Unfortunately, Central Asia is none of these things. What’s more, it borders China’s Xinjiang Province to the east and Afghanistan to the south, places that before the 20th century were linked by cultural similarities that remain as foreign to China today as they did during the reign of khans and emperors.
What Beijing is looking at beyond its western borders is in fact a region of great political risk and insecurity. Policy makers in Beijing recognize that Central Asia may soon exact a higher price than expected in terms of the political capital required to safeguard China’s borders and contain the brewing threats in the region. But, so far, China’s policy of non-interference prevents it from spending anything other than cash.
The reality is that Central Asia’s problems cannot be solved by cash alone. They are products of poor governance. Large swathes of the population, even in countries like Kazakhstan, which exudes a façade of progress, live in poverty and often without basic utilities and no political recourse. In Kyrgyzstan, political corruption, economic crisis and rising nationalism make it highly unpredictable, thus deterring foreign investment. Tajikistan is essentially a narco-state with a southern border to Afghanistan so porous it may as well not exist. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are both authoritarian regimes, with the latter in particular having no plan for leadership succession, yet an aging leader.
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Short of a new great wall, nothing will keep fighters originally from Central Asia and Xinjiang confined to Afghanistan if they choose to return home. Although few in Central Asia profess a commitment to radical strands of Islam – let alone to a global caliphate – many are exhausted by the status quo and feel powerless to exact change from a venal and corrupt political elite. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or the East Turkistan Independence Movement, closely aligned militant organizations, may find that while they cannot win the people’s hearts, they are able to at least find an audience, skeptical but willing to listen to anyone who claims they can do things differently.
In practical terms, if the IMU and their allies chose to re-engage with Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s security forces, poorly trained and underfunded, wouldn’t be able to give much of a fight. The only military challenge they might face comes from Uzbekistan, which on past form is more likely to over-react in a crackdown that takes more lives than it saves.
The West’s answer to this is to offer military training and excess military hardware leftover from Afghanistan – the latter a reward for cooperating on logistics matters during the war there. Privately, though, the Pentagon is aware that the states most in need of a boost in military capabilities are the ones that cannot be helped because of endemic corruption and years of decline.
There are also tensions between Central Asian states. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both view Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as fragile regimes which may at some point in the future require a firm hand. Uzbekistan is mostly likely to deliver a decisive blow in this scenario. Ethnic Uzbeks remain under intense pressure from strident nationalists in Kyrgyzstan, and both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could be portrayed as water thieves if proposed upstream hydroelectric power stations impact Uzbekistan’s irrigation intensive cotton industry.
Chinese policy makers are painfully aware that the country’s western neighbors are just as likely to implode under the weight of festering domestic problems as they are to fall victim to external forces over which they have no control. They pose a security conundrum with no obvious answer, and it appears that Beijing would prefer to cut its losses and seal its border if Central Asia topples into the abyss.
If China shuts up shop in Central Asia, Central Asia will be the loser. If anyone is capable of managing the region’s corrupt and authoritarian ways, it is China. Few others have the geographical interest or the funds to act in this high risk region. The question now is whether Beijing will do so.