Nov 12, 2004

East Turkestan: Fear of the dragon, China Still Spooks Its Neighbors

On the surface, relations between China and its Central Asian neighbours have never been better
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On the surface, relations between China and its Central Asian neighbours have never been better. September saw the start of the construction of a 1,000km (620-mile) pipeline that will take oil across eastern Kazakhstan into China's western Xinjiang region, and could eventually run all the way from the Caspian to the whole of energy-hungry China. The governments of Kirgizstan and Tajikistan are keen to strengthen their links with booming China. In May Tajikistan and China opened a new border crossing.

But the success of Central Asia's leaders in getting closer to China is viewed with considerable suspicion by their own people. Although there is no concrete reason to suspect China of bad intentions towards Central Asia since the region broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, ancient fears of Chinese expansionism still persist. Sinophobia is common;even among politicians, when speaking off the record.

The fears are strengthened by the growing number of Chinese in Central Asia. Officially, Kazakhstan has only 1,200-5,000 and Kirgizstan not many more than 5,000. Unofficially, estimates run to 300,000 Chinese in Kazakhstan alone, most of them traders. Even Uzbekistan, which has no border with China, admits to worrying about illegal immigrants from China. Some 1.3 billion people are crowded into China, whereas the whole of ex-Soviet Central Asia has only 60m.

The worries about what China might one day do are partly based on Soviet-era propaganda. It used to be drummed into all Central Asians that China was the prime enemy, because it claimed 1.5m square kilometres of Soviet territory, much of it belonging to the republics of Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan. The fear was reinforced in 1969, when Soviet and Chinese troops clashed along the border of Kazakhstan and China's Xinjiang province. That was only 21 years after China's Communists had got their hands on Xinjiang, and 19 years after China had marched into Tibet.

Although the governments of the three republics have managed to negotiate full border agreements with China since their independence; something the Soviet Union failed to do during its 69 years of existence; local people say they are convinced that the last word has not yet been spoken. Konstantin Syroezhkin, a China pundit in Kazakhstan's former capital, Almaty, says that, although the question of the common border may have been solved, other problems are still a worry. The decision to shift the capital to Astana in 1997 was taken partly in order to move it further away from the Chinese border.

Both Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan are now nervously watching the flood of ethnic Chinese moving to Xinjiang, and the economic boom in that part of China. New rail links and good roads are seen by some Central Asians as a potential springboard for China's expansion even further west, into Kazakhstan's vast and largely empty territory, maybe 20-30 years from now. All paranoid nonsense, of course.

Source: The Economist