China lives in a dangerous neighborhood. North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan each share a land border with China and each state grapples with internal instability. However, despite friendly relations and growing commerce, Beijing’s influence in each country is decidedly limited. The recent unrest in Kyrgyzstan underscores China’s inability and unwillingness to assert itself in these neighboring states despite significant interests. The U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan further complicates China’s strategic outlook, heightening its suspicions of American intentions. China sees itself surrounded by not only nuclear armed and unstable states, but also America and its allies’ bases too. However, that American presence in Kyrgyzstan might also present an opportunity for the United States and China to cooperate on a challenge of mutual concern.
The stakes for China in Kyrgyzstan are high. Trade and investment between the two countries is growing, with more than 300 Chinese-invested joint ventures operating in Kyrgyzstan. And major infrastructure projects are being built by Chinese firms. Large numbers of ethnic Chinese and Uighurs live in Kyrgyzstan and Chinese businesses in the capital, Bishkek, were targeted by rioters this April when President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was deposed. The recent unrest in Osh (a city in southern Kyrgyzstan on the Uzbek border), which included systematic attacks against ethnic Uzbeks, is of particular concern to China. Unlike Russia, China shares 1,100 kilometer border with Kyrgyzstan, increasing the risk that unrest could spill across state lines into the political hotpot of Xinjiang province. China’s response to the violence in Osh thus far has been to evacuate 1,299 of its citizens on charter flights and deliver five million RMB ($735,000) in relief supplies for displaced persons. Undoubtedly, contingency plans for sealing the border are also being dusted off by Chinese authorities and the ample security apparatus in Xinjiang has its eye out for signs of local unrest. Otherwise, China has dutifully followed its long-held foreign policy of non-interference and sat on the sidelines as events play out in Kyrgyzstan. Beijing’s response also reflects the utilitarian limits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as well as China’s reluctance to project power beyond its borders to protect its interests. Rather than forcing an agenda in the SCO, Moscow arranged a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a group of former Soviet states that includes Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The tenth SCO summit held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan coincided with the clashes in Osh and appeared to do little to prevent the violence from occurring.
Kyrgyzstan has reportedly asked Russia and the United States—both operating significant military bases in the country—for assistance, though the response from each has cautious. However, the impending humanitarian crisis particularly in southern Kyrgyzstan and on the Uzbek border presents an opportunity for the United States and China to coordinate and cooperate on the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Kyrgyzstan. Both Washington and Beijing have expressed interest to expand cooperation in humanitarian-assistance missions around the world—including civilian and military efforts—making the situation in Kyrgyzstan a potential point of converging interests. U.S.-China cooperation in global humanitarian-assistance efforts are nascent, but stand in stark contrast to otherwise bleak U.S.-China military-to-military relations. China recently sent a handful of PLA doctors to serve on a U.S. Navy hospital ship operating on the Atlantic coast of South America, and U.S. military aircraft delivered supplies for the Sichuan earthquake relief effort in 2008. Civilian government-to-government cooperation in health projects are also deepening, particularly in the field of infectious-disease control.
While Chinese charter flights have already delivered 20 tons of aid to Osh, including food, water, tents, medicine and medical equipment, the United States and China have an opportunity to cooperate, or at least coordinate efforts to assess needs, procure supplies and deliver them. In addition to the straightforward delivery of goods, the provision of health and epidemic-prevention services to displaced persons are an obvious need where both Chinese and U.S. personnel could play an important role. In some aspects, American and Chinese strengths are complimentary; our logistics and airlift capacity could support Chinese medical teams that speak local languages and have ample experience conducting humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief missions. While the greatest need might be to meet the human security needs of Kyrgyz citizens, it seems unlikely that the United States, Russia or China will provide personnel for such a role at this point. However, a cooperative mission to help alleviate human suffering would be less sensitive and build much-needed trust between U.S. and Chinese operators.
Drew Thompson is Director of China Studies and the Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center.