Lessons from China's "New Silk Road" in Kyrgyzstan

By Nicholas Steiner

Central Asian governments, from collaborative natural resource projects, to trade and joint security, increasingly see China as a powerful neighbor that must be engaged. Similar to the lobby structure that long existed between Central Asia and Moscow and still continues today to a lesser degree, the relationship between Central Asian governments and Beijing reflects similar clientelist elements. Although Central Asian governments differ widely in their attitudes towards China, there seems to be general agreement among them that an invigorated yet cautious partnership with the Chinese holds potential for long-term dividends. At the same time, a historic relationship exists between Chinese and Central Asian peoples whereby a flourishing exchange of materials and ideas once flowed along the Silk Road. While a 21st century version of this famed route would yield new wealth for those in an area of the world that has thus far received (or sought) a less equitable share of globalization’s benefits, it also carries the potential for hostility. Despite historical connections to claims of a renewed, Chinese-guided Silk Road across Central Asia, the relationships involved are largely based on the core interests of the Chinese and Central Asian states.

Kyrgyzstan is the largest Chinese export market among the nations of Central Asia. As this paper will reveal, Kyrgyzstan is also the Central Asian state that has been most cooperative at meeting Beijing’s demands. Rather than creating greater prosperity for Kyrgyz society as a whole, the Sino-Kyrgyz partnership has actually fostered greater instability in Kyrgyzstan – a dilemma that impacts the well-being of both Kyrgyz and Chinese interests there, and one that holds important lessons for the future of the “New Silk Road.” Rather than engaging instability in Kyrgyzstan at a level proportionate to its formal and informal involvement there, China continues to pursue symbolic security with Kyrgyzstan while furthering large-scale development and trade projects. Meanwhile, the Chinese and Kyrgyz governments have not taken serious respite in their grand patronage scheme to consider the devastating social impacts of the relationship, along with their implications for the well-being of Chinese and Kyrgyz citizens.

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