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After the Coup: Kyrgyzstan’s Relations with China

(Supporters of the opposition took over government buildings and opposition leaders formed an interim government. Source: BBC.)

By: Project 2049 Institute |

The latest revolt in the former Soviet Union occurred just across China’s western border, raising concerns about Kyrgyzstan’s relations with the region following the disposal of the Bakiyev government. In particular, Beijing is monitoring the unfolding events and their potential impact on its restive Xinjiang province and economic interests.

Perhaps of greatest concern is that destabilization or democratization in neighboring Kyrgyzstan may encourage the Uighur independence movement in Xinjiang. In the past, China has relied upon the Bishkek government to constrain the 50,000 strong Uighur minority, but if permitted, the population may seek a greater political voice. Furthermore, if the new government is unable to assert control or conduct peaceful elections, disorder could potentially provide space for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (designated by Beijing as a terrorist organization) cells in Kyrgyzstan to mobilize.

While Uighur traders provided a historic Sino-Kyrgyz link, bilateral trade has boomed with China’s recent economic growth, totaling $9.3 billion in 2008. As Chinese producers expanded beyond the domestic market, informal ‘shuttle trade’ across the border became more organized, and today, Chinese goods are abundant in Kyrgyz markets. It is unlikely that the new government will curb trade with China as imports of consumer goods have displaced indigenous small and medium production bases, making cross-border trade key for the availability of consumer goods. In Kyrgyzstan’s volatile political climate, a disruption in the availability of such goods would likely cause further unrest.

China’s economic presence has also been felt in other sectors. Chinese corporations have invested in the electricity sector and are also prospecting for strategic resources such as uranium. Other companies are connecting the two countries by road and railway to the rest of the region. Without the energy wealth of its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan has benefited from the influx of Chinese investment. As Russia, Kyrgyzstan’s other leading investor, rolls back projects due to the strain of the global financial crisis, China has filled some of the vacuum. Days before the coup, a Chinese energy company was considering a $300 million deal, rivaling a soft loan offered by Russia. If Russia remains in a weak position to exert economic influence, Kyrgyzstan’s relations with China will remain an important priority.

The continuing geostrategic significance of Kyrgyzstan to China and Russia is evident in the recent overtures of aid for the new government. However, the seemingly pro-Russian orientation of the new government – interim leader Roza Otunbayeva has already spoken with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin twice – may stoke Beijing’s concerns over Moscow’s political influence in Bishkek and could flame existing tensions in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. At this time, some in Zhongnanhai are undoubtedly looking for reassurance that Sino-Kyrgyz relations remain “alive and kicking,” as characterized by Otunbayeva following the Tulip Revolution.