By Wendy Chen, February 28, 2018
China’s rapid growth in recent years has drawn the attention of other regional and world powers. China’s skyrocketing GDP has caused many in the West to speculate that it will supplant the United States as the world’s leading superpower. What’s more, China does not only manage to develop quickly but is also lauded and respected by many other economic powerhouses and smaller countries: one of them being Kyrgyzstan.
Located in the resource-rich area of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan holds a key strategic position at the crossroads of the Middle East, Russia, and China. As such, many countries have shown special interest in Kyrgyzstan’s disposition towards them. Over the past few decades, the US has provided considerable military, economic, and other humanitarian assistance to the region through a bilateral cooperation treaty in 1993. In 2001, Kyrgyzstan also allowed the U.S. to open the Transit Center (a US military base) at Manas. However, the U.S.’s investment in Kyrgyzstan has born little fruit, as favorability ratings towards the US remain low. For example, from 2014 to 2018, data collected by the International Republican Institute, shows the percentage of Kyrgyzstanis who hold a positive view of the US shifted from only 35% to 42%. Meanwhile, over the same time period Kyrgyzstanis’ favorability rating of China increased from 54% to 70%.
Figure 1: Overall Opinion of China Held by the Kyrgystanis (2014&2018)
(Source: International Republican Institute)
China’s high favorability rating can be explained in part by its shift in policy toward Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, many neighboring powers have become increasingly interested in the newly-independent Central Asia areas. Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” policy, which from China’s focus shifted from military readiness to economic collaboration in Central Asia, has been praised by the Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev. This shift has allowed China to become one of the main economic partners of Kyrgyzstan. In fact, China has supplanted Russia, as the largest source of foreign investment in Central Asia. This investment, while multifaceted, is exemplified by China’s focus on hydropower.
Of the total foreign direct investment into Kyrgyzstan, China’s contribution accounts for over 50% in the recent years. Kyrgyzstan and China have many collaborative projects including the China-Kyrgyzstan railway project and Issyk-Kul ring road that have created a great number of jobs in Kyrgyzstan. China’s interest in improving infrastructure in Kyrgyzstan is driven in part by its desire to expand access for Chinese exports to the nations of Central Asia. Also, improved transportation infrastructure will facilitate the flow of much need fossil fuels and natural resources to China from resource rich Central Asia.
Through the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, China is seeking to establish free trade zones all over Central Asia (including Kyrgyzstan) which, once established, will boost trade and generate more wealth for the Chinese economy. Kyrgyzstan and China “have signed more than ten investment agreements (worth approximately $1.812 billion).” Political and economic ties with China, are expected to strengthen the historically weak Kyrgyzstani economy.
Despite many locals harboring distrust and suspicion of Chinese businessmen and workers (Bedeski and Swanstrom 2015), as a whole, Kyrgyzstanis are widely supportive of their nation’s close relations with China. Data shows, Kyrgyzstanis are more likely to view China as a better economic partner than the U.S., and to view the U.S. as a greater threat to their nation than China. For example in 2018, 38% viewed China as a partner, while 37% viewed China as an economic threat, compared to the only 13% viewing the U.S. as a partner, and 45% viewing the U.S. as a threat.
Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in reference to the act of a state achieving its’ goals with another state through collaborative projects that benefit the other state as opposed to coercion (Nye 2004). China’s success in Kyrgyzstan is but one example, of how China has advanced its interests in Central Asia through the use of soft power.
Bedeski, Robert and Swanstrom, Niklas. 2015. Eurasias Ascent in Energy and Geopolitics: Rivalry or Partnership for China, Russia, and Central Asia? Routledge.
Nye, Joseph S. Jr. 2004. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs.
Wendy Chen is a PhD student fellow at the Center for Security Policy Studies at George Mason University. Her research interests lie in international relations and soft power. Currently, she is working on a project examining countries’ soft power in Central Asia.
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