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Why China, unlike Russia, won't be drawn on civil unrest in Central Asia

·5 min read

A shocked government of Uzbekistan earlier this month rolled back plans to strip its Karakalpakstan autonomous republic of the constitutional right to secede, after violent civil unrest left at least 18 people dead, with thousands of others wounded and some 500 detained.

The protests, which started out peacefully, were the latest example of civil strife in Central Asia, a traditionally stable region.

Deadly protests erupted in Tajikistan in May and also in Kazakhstan in January, the latter settled with the help of Russian troops at the request of Kazakh authorities through the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

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But China's reaction to recent events in its western neighbourhood has been relatively constrained. Beyond words supporting the governments of the Central Asian nations as they sought to quell social disorder, Beijing has not done much to promote stability, despite deep investment interests in the region, especially under its Belt and Road Initiative.

This geopolitical agnosticism, analysts said, allowed China's infrastructure projects to weather instability and political change.

"It's not like China likes political instability: it's negative for them, it's negative for their investments, and they would want stability because stability is better to do stuff in," Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said.

"But at the same time, what they're not going to do is get in, then ... bring that stability or force that stability."

He pointed to Egypt, where Chinese projects rolled on seamlessly despite a series of regime changes, from a government led by late president Hosni Mubarak, to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Mursi and the current military-backed government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

A stable Uzbekistan is important to China, not least due to the economic significance of the Central Asian country. China and Russia have been Uzbekistan's top two importers since 2016, according to official Uzbek figures. The upcoming 523km (325-mile) China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway is also expected to provide a cheaper trading route and greater market access for the region.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visits Karakalpakstan. Photo: Handout via Reuters alt=Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visits Karakalpakstan. Photo: Handout via Reuters>

China and Uzbekistan have also been each other's "comprehensive strategic partner" since 2016, which recognised common security interests, including not allowing any group to harm national security within their borders.

However, in response to the July unrest, Beijing only said it had "noticed the situation in Uzbekistan" and that it trusted President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to ensure his country's stability. And the secretary general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) - an eight-member regional bloc that includes Uzbekistan - only issued a brief statement more than a week after the unrest, expressing support for government efforts to stabilise the situation. Jiang Yan, the Chinese ambassador to Uzbekistan, has not issued a statement.

Sana Hashmi, a visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation in Taipei who researches the SCO, said the low-key response was consistent with China's long-held principle of non-interference.

"Specifically under the SCO, and with the bilateral relationship, they always say that there is no interference in countries' internal affairs, and specifically, these protests are considered as part of a country's internal affairs," she said.

Chinese troops participate in a closing ceremony for SCO counterterrorism military drills. Photo: Xinhua alt=Chinese troops participate in a closing ceremony for SCO counterterrorism military drills. Photo: Xinhua>

The protests in Karakalpakstan were considered to be within the realm of domestic politics, she said.

Pantucci said the lack of experience and negative public perception of China in Central Asia also deterred Chinese interventions along the lines of Russia's in Kazakhstan earlier this year.

Never before in the 30-year history of the CSTO had troops intervened to settle a conflict in another member state.

"Considering the kind of antipathy that there is towards China at a public level in large parts of the region ... it's probable that the presence of Chinese soldiers [would] only make the situation worse," he said. "And I think both the [Uzbek] government and the Chinese recognise that."

While Beijing leads the SCO, an Eurasian economic and security grouping whose security mandate is tackling the "three evil forces" - namely, terrorism, separatism and extremism - pragmatic concerns would not allow it to send in troops under the mechanism.

The SCO was formed in 2001 between China and the former Soviet republics on its borders - Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. One of its aims is to keep the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an ethnic Uygur militant group, at bay and prevent it from promoting separatism in China's far-western Xinjiang region.

Despite the security component of the SCO, Beijing has always been fixated on pushing economic goals rather than security, Pantucci pointed out.

"[China is] never really going to trust security to an organisation like this because it's unreliable. If there's a security issue, they're going to do it themselves bilaterally," he said.

The need to create the counterterror Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism in 2016 between Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan, Pantucci said, revealed distrust in the SCO as a security organisation when most of its members were already part of the bloc.

But the SCO was still needed, albeit not as a military alliance but a dialogue mechanism for regional security, said Zhu Yongbiao, an international relations professor at Lanzhou University.

"The three evil forces in Xinjiang have been controlled but that's not the case in Central and South Asia, where most SCO members are," he said. "And they still could have a direct or indirect impact on China."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.