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Central Asia Winds of Change

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on April 4th, 2005

There has been a “change of sky” [biantian—i.e. the appearance of a new regime] in Kyrgyzstan, where the post-Soviet government, once one the most promising in Central Asia but later just another dictatorship, has been overthrown by people power, with its president fleeing to Moscow and then resigning. Almost certainly this is a glimpse of things to come, with immense strategic and economic interests at stake.

Above all, Central Asia contains some of the world’s last reserves of fossil fuels, needed in rapidly increasing quantities by both India and China, as well as the West and industrialized Asian states such as Japan and Korea (several hundred thousand ethnic Koreans live in Central Asia).

In recent years China has been attempting to secure some of this energy, as well as to solidify her political position in Central Asia. Like India, Russia, and the United States, all of whom are playing the same game, she has dealt with the dictatorial inheritors of the Soviet system—comparable to the old Ukraine, but which now face winds of change that may bring democracy or may bring Islamic theocracy, but are unlikely to leave the face of the vast and strategic region unchanged.

Kyrgyzstan (76,000 square miles, a little bit bigger than Nebraska) is dwarfed by its giant neighbor to the north, Kazakhstan (1,049,000 square miles, only a little smaller than India or Argentina, and almost twice the size of Mongolia). But Kyrgyzstan lies quite literally at the crossroads of Asia: it was here in 751 C.E. that Muslim armies inconclusively met the armies of the Turkic-founded Tang dynasty, whose empire included China, under the leadership of the Korean general Gao Xianzhi.

Kyrgyzstan shares a long eastern border with Turkish (or “Uighur”) Xinjiang (“new dominion” now part of the People’s Republic of China) the share the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644-1912, which also included China) acquired when she divided the old Turkish Central Asian empire with Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her southern border is with Tajikistan, her northern with Kazakhstan, while to the west she has a share of the rich Ferghana valley, which the Soviets carefully apportioned to ensure that the new Central Asian states they carved out in the 1920s would have something to argue over and thus keep them divided.

For most of the last few centuries, before imperial Russian and Manchu Qing armies moved in, political order in sparsely populated Central Asia, desert dotted with oasis cities, was provided by the Sufi Naqshbandi order, which still exists, although information about its true status is scarce. We do know, however, that Chinese converts to the order, who had traveled to Yemen (!) to join, led the great Muslim uprisings that shook the Qing Empire in the nineteenth century.

For Beijing these developments are a nightmare come true. The same Chinese newspaper article that talked about the “change of sky” reported that Beijing was now cracking down even harder on the Turkic independence fighters in Xinjiang—against whom her past policy has scarcely been mild. More importantly, the attempt somehow to bring to heel the Islamic Turks who find themselves within the borders of the People’s Republic of China has so far not succeeded at all—and if the hard line were in fact going to work, it would have worked decades ago. So it is almost certainly doomed to fail if it is attempted this time.

Beijing faces a dilemma. Her westward expansion has by and large been a source of problems: in Tibet, in Xinjiang which was engulfed by massive uprisings in the nineteenth century, suppressed only with difficulty and great brutality, and again after World War II.  Now the Turks that Beijing so fears may find active sanctuary, if not support, across the border. From a security point of view, it would make sense for China to mix as little as possible with the Islamic world as the two simply don’t get along, which would mean abandoning her western land empire.

But the need for energy and resources, as well as the desire somehow to keep everything under control, are likely instead, at least in the short run, to lead China to leap even more deeply into the morass of the utterly alien world of Central Asian Islamic states. Ominously, this world extends westward from China’s borders to the Caspian Sea and beyond. And Uighurs who are Chinese citizens can of course travel throughout the People’s Republic as they choose, forming an ideal network for independence minded terrorists. To solve this challenge from the Western frontier, an enlightened diplomacy, supported by genuine freedom for Muslims within China, might have a chance of success—but only a chance. The big stick, however, will be of no real use. And things will only get worse (from China’s point of view) as other Central Asian dictatorships follow Kyrgyzstan’s lead, as seems likely.

Should Tajikistan also “change sky,” China’s access to her potentially changeable ally Pakistan would be in jeopardy. The Pakistanis, after all, depended on China for nuclear weapons, but now they have those weapons. The Pakistani elites are mostly Muslim and English speaking, and do not get along well with the Chinese on a personal level. If the United States, India, and other countries are able to address some of Islamabad’s genuine grievances and needs, Pakistan could conceivably join an emerging Central Asian Islamic commonwealth, either voluntarily, or by a “change of sky” there as well.

Needless to say, the vital questions posed by these developments are now being dropped, as if without warning, on thoroughly unprepared laps in Beijing, Washington, and Moscow. In all three capitals we may expect to hear chanting of the familiar mantra, “stability, stability” and recommendations that for practical reasons (energy, politics) support be given to the devils they know. But that is not how history works. Change is coming, and statesmanship is the ability to handle change so that it ultimately proves beneficial. For this, knowledge above all is what is needed, and is sorely lacking, plus some serious thinking about the many possible shapes of the Eurasian future.

One is reminded of the old US military axiom about wars: “declare, then prepare.” Let’s not do that again.

Note: IASC, in cooperation with the University of Pennsylvania and other organizations, has for a year been modeling some of this through our “Eurasian Sand Table” project. The urgent need for more such work is made even clearer by recent developments.

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