Central Asia: China Rolls West

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January 10, 2012:  The five former republics of the Soviet Union (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) have become an economic and political battleground between China and Russia. The more dynamic Chinese economy floods the five nations with cheap and popular goods. But the five nations fear Chinese economic and political domination and turn to Russia for diplomatic support in keeping the Chinese at bay. This Chinese influence has grown enormously in the past decade. It was in 2009 that Central Asian trade with China exceeded that of long-time trading partner Russia. The Central Asian states are particularly afraid at how the Chinese are buying farmland and bringing in Chinese to do most of the work for economic development projects. The Central Asians, like their Russian neighbor, fear an invasion from the east. But the Chinese are already moving in and the Central Asian states can't keep them away without suffering enormous economic losses. While Russia is more familiar, and less threatening, Russia is not a market for Central Asian exports. In fact, Russia is, like Central Asia, a major exporter of oil and natural gas. Thus the Central Asian states fear China even as they become more dependent on their eastern neighbor.

Central Asian rulers fear China but constantly find the Chinese too useful to resist. For example, China, like the Central Asian nations, is a dictatorship. Thus Chinese experience in controlling the Internet is very much in demand by Central Asian rulers. The same with all manner of security capabilities the Chinese possess.

The poorest Central Asian nation, Tajikistan, has coped by exporting a lot of its men to work overseas. As a result, about a third of Tajikistan's GDP is money sent home by these migrant workers. Taking so many young men out of the country has also made it more difficult for Islamic radical groups to recruit.

Central Asia's relationship with Russia is complicated by heroin and opium coming out of Afghanistan and the Central Asian drug gangs that move it to Russia. While China is a growing market for these drugs, it's easier to ship them there via Pakistan and the sea (to the Chinese coastal areas where most of the money, and demand, is). Russia is the highway to large drug markets in Europe. The Russian gangs have long had connections with Central Asia, making it easier to establish and maintain these smuggling networks. These drug cartels are well financed, heavily armed, and offer "gold or lead" (bribes or violence) to Central Asian officials. Most choose the bribes and ignore the growing number of local addicts. It's these corrupt politicians that provide Islamic radicals with supporters. But while there have been more Islamic terrorism incidents the number is still very small, and some of them have to be investigated a bit to make sure the violence wasn't just gangsters (who also use terror attacks). Thus there are a lot more gangsters (especially drug smugglers and distributors) than Islamic terrorists in the region. The Islamic radicals also find that most of the criminal gangs are hostile to Islamic radicals and this further limits the growth of Islamic radical groups in the region.

Turkey and Iran have tried to establish stronger relations with Central Asia because of ethnic affinity (Turkey is mostly Turk and Iran is 25 percent Turk), but this pales in the face of China's huge economic clout. Turkey offers the example of a Turkic Moslem nation modernizing and reducing corruption. Iran offers Islamic radicalism, which is not well received in Central Asia.

Most of the people in the region are at least nominally Moslem. During seven decades of communist rule, Islamic practices were strictly regulated and curbed. Since independence (after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991), the dictators that took control of most of the region have brought bad government and corruption. People looking for something better have found Islam a potential solution. Nothing else seems to be working. Although some Central Asian states have pledged to fight corruption, the results are largely cosmetic. Thus Islamic terrorism remains more of a threat than reality in the region.

January 4, 2012: In Tajikistan's capital, police arrested five members of an Islamic terrorist organization. Also seized was a large quantity of Islamic radical literature (print and CDs). For the last few years, Tajikistan has been arresting and convicting over a hundred Islamic radical group members a year.

January 3, 2012: In central Tajikistan a weapons cache was discovered, along with bomb making materials.

December 16, 2011: In western Kazakhstan security forces killed at least fifteen people and wounded over a hundred as they clashed with large crowds protesting corruption and government mismanagement. The crowd also contained many oil workers, who went on strike six months earlier and were fired. The government refuses to negotiate oil worker demands for better working conditions and higher wages. With jobs, especially high paying ones, in short supply the government has no problem finding replacement workers.

 

 

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