Crossroads Asia

China and Kyrgyzstan: So Near, Yet So Far

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Crossroads Asia

China and Kyrgyzstan: So Near, Yet So Far

The Sino-Kyrgyz border is, on paper, an important crossing but its development has been slow.

China and Kyrgyzstan: So Near, Yet So Far
Credit: Alessandra Colarizi

If only President Xi Jinping knew, maybe heads would roll. But, as the old saying goes, “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away,” and it’s hard for the watchful eye of the anti-corruption campaign to reach as far as this strip of land where China and Kyrgyzstan meet. The intrepid traveler who wants to cross the Sino-Kyrgyz border through the Irkeshtam Pass (the “smoothest” and most Southern) has to go through two border crossings, two checkpoints, and a 150 kilometer ride (using official taxis or hitchhiking) just to change sides. On the Chinese side, the final goal is an impressive modern structure resembling an airport terminal with a five-starred red flag waiving at the top. But inside, nobody is there to welcome you. No trace of officers either: only their photos, names and ethnicity posted at the entrance.

“Is it always like this around here?” I asked after more than an hour of waiting.

“Sometimes …” replied a Chinese Kyrgyz who seems to live this odyssey every day without the slightest hint of annoyance.

Ulugqat, Xinjiang Autonomous Region, about 90 kilometers West of Kashgar, does not seem to feel the backlash of the frequent outbreaks of violence attributed by local authorities to the separatist forces of East Turkestan. Neither does it seems particularly anxious to play his part in achieving the “Chinese dream” of a national renaissance.

In Beijing’s plan, that Western outpost should become the driving force of the “Go West Strategy,” a policy of revaluation of inland provinces, aimed at redistributing the economic growth, so far led by coastal regions, the true beneficiaries of Deng Xiaoping’s “reforms and opening up.” At the time, when China was considered the “world’s factory,” the focus of development was the Pearl River Delta; in this current era of the “new normal” economic development is being redistributed to the most backward and wild West, following the idea that progress and social harmony go hand in hand. The focus has shifted onto the land borders, and a lucrative patchwork of trade routes, that have been periodically leading Chinese dynasties to embrace Central Asia for over a millennium.

In the first quarter of 2014 China’s economy slowed to 7 percent, revealing the inability of the coastal provinces alone to support further recovery throughout the country. It is here that neighbors from west of the Great Wall come into play. Beijing has already prepared a “plan B”: draw a new pan-Asian connectivity in order to stimulate trade and cultural exchanges across the entire region. The project includes hardware (new roads, energy pipelines, railways) as well as software elements (cultural centers, free exchange of ideas and know-how). Despite its being officially a “win-win strategy,”from a geostrategic point of view it would ultimately return to China –whose power is traditionally terrestrial, more than maritime–the role of the Middle Kingdom lost in the 1800s. The difference is that this time, Beijing will eventually serve as the nerve center not just for mainland Asia, but for an African-Eurasian Empire, as explained by David Gosset, Director of Academia Sinica Europaea.

The One Belt, One Road project involves an area potentially covering 55 percent of the world’s GNP, 70 percent of its global population, and 75 percent of its known energy reserves. Enriched by a sea route that will reach as far as the African shores, the New Silk Road has its center of gravity in the “Heart of Asia.” As emphasized by Chen Gong, chief researcher at Anbound Consulting, the original project had a single land branch, projected towards Central Asia for the sake of Xinjiang and the neighboring countries, which share with Western China the same religion, idioms, customs and traditions.

Xinjiang shares about 2800 km of its border with three of the five Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the newly independent states inherited the territorial disputes pending between tsarist Russia and the Qing empire, the last of the Chinese dynasties. The disputes were finally closed in 2011, leaving in the hands of Beijing only a fraction of the lands claimed: respectively 3.5, 22 and 32 percent of what was initially asked from Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. An unusual concession allegedly accepted by Beijing in return for support from local governments in managing the Uyghurs, a Muslim group living in Xinjiang and Central Asia that speaks a Turkic language and with its aspiration for independence has been a major source of concerns for Beijing .

Beijing is deeply worried by Kyrgyzstan’s volatile political environment, as a “democratic oasis” subject to frequent political reversals, surrounded by totalitarian regimes. Chinese concerns have grown, especially after insistent voices began to point out an unusual radicalization among the most marginalized fringes of Kyrgyz society. All of this raises several unknowns about the future of the New Silk Road, in particular concerning Nanjiang, southern Xinjiang bordering with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan , Afghanistan. and India. Currently, 83 percent of Xinjiang’s total trade is focused on Central Asian states, and 80 percent of China’s total trade with Central Asia transits Xinjiang. In addition to the colossal push to the “Go West Strategy,” right after the 2009 Urumqi riots, the autonomous region was granted “extraordinarily important strategic status” in the nation’s development program. A complex of measures resulted in the establishment of the new Special Economic Zone in Kashgar and the status of special trade zones to the ports of Alatau and Korgas, making the region China’s most important gateway to Central Asia.

However, several years after the implementation of the Great Western Development Program, import-export trade remains concentrated in northern Xinjiang, along the border with Kazakhstan, while more southern land ports are still quite underdeveloped. Construction sites and a little market revive the area around the Korgas Border Crossing, a few kilometers away from the 528-hectare International Center for Boundary Cooperation (ICBC) officially opened on a windswept patch of the Chinese-Kazakh border in December 2011. For its part, the Irkeshtam Pass, which serves as entrance gate for Chinese goods from Kashgar to Karasuu bazaar in Kyrgyzstan’s part of the Fergana Valley, snoozes surrounded by high mountains. Although officially, it is said to be finished by 2020, so far the Kashgar’s Special Economic Zone is little more than a white elephant project on the outskirts of the city, that only few people know how to reach. Just next to a forest of cranes, a billboard covered with dust unconvincingly reads: “Chinese Dream, Kashgar Dream.”

“Here there will be a commercial podium and two 58-story towers,” an American-Uyghur taxi driver told me, pointing with his finger to a deserted building site.

Alessandra Colarizi is an Italian Sinologist, translator and freelance writer. Her research interest is focused on China-Central Asia relations and the New Silk Road. This piece was adapted from an article originally published by China Files (in Italian).