There were hugs and a guard of honor for Premier Wen Jiabao on his recent visit to Tashkent for the prime ministerial meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). After all, in recent times Wen has been one of the few world leaders keen to meet Uzbekistan’s President Islom Karimov, a pariah in Western capitals for his two decades of authoritarian and corrupt rule.
But on this particular Central Asian tour, which also took in Turkmenistan, Wen’s smiles were accompanied by demands. He is asking for laws: China wants SCO member states – read Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – to improve their laws protecting foreign investment.
China has invested heavily in oil and gas extraction in both nations and is keen to see that the gas pipeline it is building out of Turkmenistan has a smooth journey eastward through Uzbekistan.
Beijing asking other states to make better laws to protect foreign investors will seem something of a double standard to those who know how China has dragged its feet over creating a level playing field within its own borders.
Unfortunately China isn’t alone in its hypocrisy. The EU has also been cozying up to energy-rich, democracy-poor Central Asian states recently. In October, European ministers agreed a six-month suspension of travel restrictions imposed on Uzbek leaders following the bloody suppression of a revolt over social conditions in the depressed agricultural town of Andijon in 2005.
The EU’s volte-face may be the clearest evidence yet of how the SCO has delivered results for China in Central Asia. Beijing sees the region as a vital alternative to Middle Eastern oil and, through its SCO influence, has succeeded in abating concerns about a US military presence in Central Asia.
Uzbekistan, for example, has been talked out of readmitting a US base which it hosted before Washington’s outcry over the Andijon massacre. Meanwhile Kyrgyzstan, also comforted by Beijing’s backing, recently discovered the confidence to threaten to close the US base on its soil.
China’s nimble diplomatic footwork extends to the Caspian region, home to 45% of the world’s natural gas reserves and the starting point for pipelines planned by the US and Russia. China did quick deals with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to tap the gas, and its pipelines are now much nearer completion than those of the competition. Beijing has even busted Moscow’s monopoly on Turkmenistan’s gas exports, charming the notoriously fickle nation into agreeing to a pipeline to Urumqi via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Unsurprisingly, energy topped the agenda of the second annual Euro-Asia Economic Forum in Xi’an, which has won the honor of hosting the talks shop every year. Apart from a few commitments to tourism and education, nothing much came out of the meeting.
But its popularity with the Central Asian officials points to another advantage of doing business with Beijing rather than Brussels or Washington – China never puts uncomfortable topics like human rights, corruption or democratic reform on the table when negotiating a trade or aid package.
Central Asian hearts and minds are also being won by the lure and proximity of China’s economy. University campuses across the country have become a cheap alternative to European and US schools for Central Asia’s middle classes.
Kazakhs and Uzbeks enrolled in degree programs in Beijing and beyond know their futures lie in being able to negotiate the next generation of energy deals in Chinese.
Less convinced are those who suffer most from China and Europe turning a blind eye to abuses in the name of energy access. Uzbekistan in particular is less than neighborly to struggling Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, often erratically blocking – or hiking the cost – of the gas it supplies to the two countries for political gain.
But who’s fit to criticize China now that the EU is lowering its standards to compete with Beijing in Central Asia? The timing of the SCO meeting in Tashkent and the EU’s freezing of sanctions will be a boon to the incumbent in Uzbek presidential elections coming in December.
No one doubts that Karimov will be reelected. Unfortunately we can only expect more of the same – corrupt, underperforming government – for Central Asia.