What does China want?

Jonathan Steele

  • Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia by Philip Shishkin
    Yale, 316 pp, £20.00, June 2013, ISBN 978 0 300 18436 5
  • The Chinese Question in Central Asia: Domestic Order, Social Change and the Chinese Factor by Marlène Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse
    Hurst, 271 pp, £40.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 1 84904 179 9

The usual view of the ‘stans’, the five states that emerged in Central Asia after the Soviet Union’s collapse, is that they are a potential site of geostrategic rivalry: it is after all the only place in the world where three imperial powers are fighting for control of the same territory. Russia, the most recent external ruler, exploited the area for two centuries; for commercial as well as nostalgic reasons it is reluctant to lose its remaining influence. China sees the region as a temptingly underpopulated and energy-rich borderland ripe for investment in new infrastructure, transport links, migration and settlement. The United States has built large military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which are all the more useful for being located on the frontiers of the increasingly assertive Russia and the rising military power of China. The risks of serious confrontation are clear.

There is, however, an opposing view, which holds that Central Asia is a small corner of minimal international significance, a semi-desert, with no outlet to the sea and a population set to be ruled for many more years by authoritarian regimes that have no interest in fomenting regional strife. Any competition between the world’s three most recent empires – Russia past, US present and China future – will be purely economic. Political Islam may be a threat, but jihadi militance is likely to pose more of a problem for the local regimes than for the three outside powers. Indeed, the potential threat from political Islam is more likely to lead to co-operation than conflict among the big three since they all have an interest in containing its spread.

These two books tend towards the latter view. Both emphasise the distinctions between the five states and the differences in their history. Both argue that the danger posed by Islamism tends to be exaggerated. With the exception of Tajikistan in the 1990s Islam hasn’t been a significant factor in any of the countries’ internal politics. As for global jihad, it is noticeable that there are few Central Asians among the foreign militants fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or in Syria. Gunmen from other parts of the former Soviet Union have turned up on these proxy battlefields, most notably from Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, but almost none from Central Asia. This shouldn’t be a surprise. During the Cold War some Kremlinologists claimed that the region was more prone to dissent and rebellion because its Muslim population was inherently anti-communist. The US and other Western governments expanded their broadcasts to Central Asia during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the hope of provoking revolt – the assumption being that the people were outraged by Moscow’s invasion. But most of the population had adopted Soviet secularism and, if they observed Islamic rites at all, did so as a marker of cultural tradition and not as a political statement. The Soviet high command sent a disproportionately high number of Central Asian conscripts to fight in the Afghan war and their confidence was repaid: only a few defected to the mujahedin resistance.

After independence in 1991 there was a boom in mosque-building, largely financed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. By permitting this construction, providing visas for foreign imams to come and preach, and letting Central Asians join the haj in large numbers, the region’s regimes sought to buy off potential Islamists. Just in case of trouble, Islamist political parties are banned everywhere except Tajikistan. The strategy seems to have worked. The rise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an armed group which operated out of the mountains in Tajikistan and northern districts of Afghanistan, was short-lived. There were a number of incursions into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000, but several hundred of its members were killed fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. While the Taliban were able to relaunch their movement a few years later, the IMU has remained marginal in Central Asia. There is no large pool of local sympathisers for it to draw on as there is in Afghanistan.

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