A couple of months back, Robert Kaplan had a piece in the International Herald Tribune that started out with the words: ‘China’s blessed geography is so obvious a point that it tends to get overlooked in discussions of the country’s economic dynamism and national assertiveness.’
I imagine even if it did feel blessed back in April it feels a little less so now, with Beijing likely to be viewing with concern the ethnic unrest in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, where dozens of people have been killed and hundreds injured as crowds attacked and torched shops and cars as gun battles gripped the second city of Osh. The country’s interim government declared a state of emergency and effectively admitted it was unable to control the violence, reportedly asking for Russian military assistance to help stem the violence.
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China for its part has the immediate problem of ensuring the safety of its own citizens in Kyrgyzstan, and has reportedly sent a plane to airlift those caught in the violence between armed Kyrgyz gangs and ethnic Uzbeks.
Last year, Eurasianet ran an interesting piece looking at Chinese influence in Kyrgyzstan, including the city of Osh, where it noted that officials at the city’s passport office found it difficult to establish exactly how many Chinese were living in the province.
The article went on to state:
‘A xenophobic mood seems to be growing among those who have lost ground to Chinese traders. "First they started sending their goods, then they started moving in, and finally they marry our local women," said Kurbanov, the Osh-based trader. "Their children are not going to be Kyrgyz, they are going to be Chinese since their fathers have come from China."’
The violence in Kyrgystan is also an uncomfortable reminder of the ethnic tensions China faces within its own borders, tensions that flared last year in Xinjiang Province, where dozens were killed in violence that erupted after protests by Uyghurs over alleged discrimination by majority Han Chinese.
But back to Kaplan’s point, though, and it’s difficult to see how China’s geography could be considered geographically ‘blessed’, a word that would probably be appropriate for the United States, which has proved rich in natural resources and has two peaceful land borders, but which would hardly describe China.
Yes, as he notes, the country is in parts rich in minerals such as copper and iron ore. But China also has a tense and disputed border with India, has prickly relations with another neighbour, Vietnam, is engaged in a sometimes violent dispute over the nearby South China Sea with several countries in the region (it’s in dispute with various combinations of Brunei, Malaysia, The Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, the Pratas Islands, the Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Shoal) and has constantly to be on guard in case its recalcitrant and nuclear-armed neighbour North Korea should collapse, risking sending a flood of refugees across its border.