Bustling trade between China and Kyrgyzstan has slowed to a trickle since deadly violence broke out in Kyrgyzstan, and experts say the crisis could diminish Beijing’s economic clout in the country while bolstering rival Russia’s already dominant influence.
Most days, as many as 200 trucks loaded with televisions, apples, T-shirts and other Chinese goods enter Kyrgyzstan at the Yi’erkeshitan Pass. On Thursday, however, no trucks and just four people crossed at the pass high in the Tianshan mountains in far western China’s Xinjiang region, according to an official with the border crossing administration.
“The entry is still open, but what happened in Kyrgyzstan really had an impact on the flow of people and trade across the border,” said the man, who like many Chinese bureaucrats would give only his surname, Wang.
Hundreds and maybe thousands have died in rampages led mainly by ethnic Kyrgyz against Uzbeks in the country’s south.
Before the violence, China had sought to exert primarily economic influence on its neighbors to the west, in what has been called a 21st century iteration of the “Great Game” — Russia and Britain’s fight for power in Central Asia more than 100 years ago.
Rather than cavalry troopers and spies, however, China has deployed intrepid traders who have established a thriving commerce in everything from fruit to car parts, electronics to textiles.
While Russia and the U.S. traded barbs about the presence of the others’ troops in the country, China’s professed noninterference paid great dividends: Bilateral trade jumped to $9.3 billion in 2008, according to Beijing’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, up from just a few hundred million dollars at the start of the decade.
But now, Beijing finds itself shut out of the primarily political and military solutions being offered by the Russia and the U.S.
The chaos is threatening trade with China, even while it provides an opportunity for rival Russia to reinforce its presence at a military base in the country’s north and help lead efforts to end the ethnic violence and alleviate a worsening refugee crisis.
Working through the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow is also providing aid to Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies, including helicopters, military vehicles and fuel.
Also stepping in is the United States, whose forces operate a crucial air base at the northern town of Manas. The U.S. is flying in relief supplies and working with Russia at the UN on a plan to help the refugees — a rare convergence of interests between Moscow and Washington.
China’s involvement in the crisis has thus far been limited to offering 5 million yuan ($732,000) worth of medicine, medical equipment, food, drinking water, blankets, and tents, while flying out almost 1,300 Chinese nationals from the battle-scarred city of Osh.
“The Chinese will suffer a direct decline of influence in the country in the short term, much due to the military presence of Russia,” said Niklas Swanstrom, an expert on China and Central Asia at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
“Depending on how Russia plays its cards, there is a risk that Russia will consolidate its political and military presence,” Swanstrom said.
Kyrgyzstan still remains heavily dependent on Russia for aid, energy and other key supplies, though Chinese products now account for much of Kyrgyzstan’s non-energy imports.
Also in jeopardy could be a railway line that would connect China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, unlocking energy and mineral resources and cutting transit time to European markets. Prolonged instability could push back construction indefinitely. China’s Railways Ministry did not immediately respond to questions about the line sent by fax as requested.
While hopeful that Russia can help stabilize the situation in Kyrgyzstan, Beijing is also warily watching how Moscow and Washington might use it to their advantage, Chinese Central Asia expert Sun Zhuangzhi wrote in Friday’s Global Times, a newspaper published by the ruling Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.
“It would be unfavorable and unacceptable to China if Russia and the U.S. were to exchange strategic interests amid the crisis and in the process involve some of China’s interests in Kyrgyzstan in that swap,” Sun wrote.
Photo: Ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz citizens look on during peace negotiations to call on ethnic Uzbeks to pull down a barricade between Uzbek and Kyrgyz districts in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, Saturday, June 19, 2010.