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2:38 pm
Fri October 11, 2013

China's Growing Influence In Former Soviet Republics

With China’s rapid rise as a global economic power, it’s become increasingly fashionable to talk about reviving the Old Silk Road: the interlocking series of routes — dating back to pre-Christian times — along which merchants, pilgrims and soldiers travelled from East to West.

The latest person to talk romantically that period is Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his first visit of neighboring Central Asian states in September.

Although they have historically come under Moscow’s influence, the ex-Soveit republics are increasingly seen as strategically important for Beijing.

Guest

Copyright 2013 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

This is HERE AND NOW.

With China's rapid rise as a global economic power, it's become increasingly fashionable to talk about reviving the Old Silk Road, 4,000 miles of routes between Asia and Europe that date back thousands of years. Merchants, pilgrims and soldiers used the road to travel between China and India to Africa and the Mediterranean.

And during a modern tour of Central Asian states just last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping became the latest person to wax romantic about the Silk Road. It was the Chinese leader's first visit to these ex-Soviet republics, which are now strategically important to Beijing.

The BBC's James Coomarasamy has been traveling in Central Asia and sent this report.

JAMES COOMARASAMY: Here in the Jackie Chan workshop in the Chinese market in Dushanbe, Chinese workers are putting together plastic doors and plastic window frames. This is the traditional type of Chinese investment in this country: small scale, very basic rows of fairly ramshackled huts in which Chinese people are building and selling furniture and other wares. But what's happening now with Chinese investment in this part of the world is on a far, far larger scale.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COOMARASAMY: You only have to listen to the fanfare which accompanied Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent tour of Central Asia during which he signed billion-dollar deals and sounded poetic. In Kazakhstan, he evoked the smells of smoke and the ringing of camel bells along the Old Silk Road. But this investment is no nostalgic trip down on merchant-clogged memory lane. Beijing sees Central Asia as an important source of raw materials and stability. By boosting the economy just across its borders, it hopes to keep a lid on the simmering tensions inside them and its western province of Xinjiang.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

COOMARASAMY: We're here just outside the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, an example of what China is trying to do. A group of Chinese builders wearing yellow hard hats and small white and orange reflective vests are scraping cement out of a cement mixer and starting to build a new road, a road that will eventually link China with Tajikistan to its west, Uzbekistan to the west of that and into Europe. It's a permanent and a very pertinent example of China's Silk Road policy. But is everyone happy about it here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)

COOMARASAMY: Shading themselves from the fierce afternoon sun, a nearby group of Tajik men with long white beards and square black tubikchaker(ph) hats admire the Chinese workmanship and work ethic. You wouldn't get Tajiks making roads of this quality, they mutter wishfully. But while they like the way that China is changing their landscape, they're unhappy about a permanent Chinese presence.

: (Through Translator) I don't like the fact that the Chinese are settling here. It's a problem. They're going to stay here because there are jobs for them but not for us. The whole country is like a household. If you bring a foreigner in, be he Russian or Chinese, he changed the face of the household and changed it for the worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COOMARASAMY: So what are of the country with traditional links to this part of the world? The music and menu at this outdoor Dushanbe restaurant are reminders of Central Asia's enduring cultural connection with Russia more than two decades after the end of the Soviet Union. Moscow retains indirect economic clout here, thanks to the millions of Central Asians who work in Russia and send money home.

In Tajikistan, those remittances make up almost half the country's GDP. But according to political analyst Shair Juraev, after neglecting Central Asia for years, the Kremlins belatedly trying to counter the growing Chinese influence.

SHAIRBEK JURAEV: Russia is concerned about the Chinese ability to pour in money. Russia is not in a position to compete and counter that. Russia has certain visions for how to incorporate the current Central Asian governments, particularly Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan into its own economic network.

COOMARASAMY: And that network involves plans to expand the custom unions, which includes former Soviet republics to run in parallel to the bigger regional body, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to which, as the name suggests, China also belongs.

President Putin doesn't talk explicitly about competing with Beijing. And Central Asian governments maintain a pragmatic neutrality. Erines Otorbaev is deputy foreign minister of Kyrgyzstan.

ERINES OTORBAEV: (Through Translator) Kyrgyzstan is ready to work with all parties in the international community. We approach such matters from a standpoint of national interest, what's in the interest of our own country and our own people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COOMARASAMY: And as China pursues what it calls its Go West policy to try and trump Russian influence in Central Asia, analyst Shair Juraev says that Beijing knows that its large, northern neighbor still holds some pretty strong cards.

JURAEV: Chinese leadership recognizes the challenge of developing more political linkage with Central Asian societies and elites. We still live in Russian media sphere, Russian language sphere, and they are aware that our current political leader and probably even next generation of the elite are the Russia-trained professionals. So for China, it's not straightforward an easy thing to start projecting the soft power.

COOMARASAMY: But China is finding other ways to increase its influence with Central Asian leaders. I'm sitting in the Tajik capital Dushanbe by the fountains just in front of the new library here. It is the largest library in the whole of Central Asia, and it was built by the Chinese as a vanity project for this country's autocratic leader, President Rahmon.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

COOMARASAMY: And this is a smaller scale investment but with potentially longer term returns. Chinese funded Chinese lessons at the Confucius Institute of Tajikistan's National University. This Tajik student is convinced that the future lies with China both for him, for his region and for the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) I wanted to learn Chinese so I can become a translator. I think Chinese will one day become the international language like English is now.

COOMARASAMY: Russia may be frustrated that its old backyard is being paved for a new silk road. But for the moment, there seems little it can do about it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

That's the BBC's James Coomarasamy. Well, ahead on Monday, many U.S. businesses are saying they need to search outside the county to find qualified workers in science, technology, engineering and math. But we'll talk to one businessman and engineer who says that crisis is a myth, that there are plenty of qualified workers right here in the U.S. but not enough work for them. That's Monday. For now, you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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