Beijing has yet to learn how to navigate messy politics, even when ignoring them hurts its image and interests.
The European Union explicitly backed President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, highlighting his “key role” in a solution out of the crisis. Washington followed with a message blasting the “attempt by organized crime groups to exert influence over politics and elections.” The Kremlin described the situation as “chaotic,” promised to engage all sides, and Vladimir Putin sent his personal representative to Bishkek to negotiate a deal. Even the UN is expected to send a delegation to discuss the situation with President Jeenbekov, tacitly acknowledging his legitimacy.
China, however, has been silent.
The one brief statement on the Embassy’s webpage consists of a anodyne reply during a daily press conference at the Chinese Foreign Ministry on October 5, the first day of protests. The spokesperson merely “expresses concern” and “hopes that parties will resolve the issue.”
The lack of any meaningful Chinese engagement is even more perplexing considering that unlike the U.S. or EU, China is a neighbor obsessed with stability on its borders, while deeply fearful of chaos and social unrest. Moreover, Beijing has in fairly short time become Kyrgyzstan’s single largest creditor, while the two countries deepened political relations by establishing a “strategic partnership” in 2013.
What’s more, in the wake of the flawed October 4 parliamentary vote, as chaos engulfed Kyrgyzstan, a number of Chinese-owned mines were attacked and seized. Chinese businessmen reported being targeted in their homes.
For a country that arguably has the most to lose if the crisis is not resolved, the Chinese statement is not only awkwardly bland and devoid of any meaningful detail – making it easily applicable to any country experiencing similar unrest – but does not befit a rising power and is oddly out of step with the international consensus.
Elsewhere, China has been acting like a superpower. As predicted by political scientist John Mearsheimer in the early 2000s, Washington’s expectation that China’s economic liberalization would lead to political liberalization has not come to pass. Instead, China is following in the footsteps of the U.S. and trying to become the most powerful state in its region, an Asian hegemon. Its militarization of the South China Sea, aggressive posturing towards Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, and a violent clash with India in June all support Mearsheimer’s 2005 prediction that China “would want to dictate the boundaries of acceptable behavior to neighboring countries.”
So why didn’t Beijing send to Bishkek Foreign Minister Wang Yi, or even better, Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, who has rank over Wang as a member of the Politburo?
The explanation can probably be found in one of the core – and now contradictory –principles of Chinese foreign policy: non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. While non-interference might have been a knee-jerk response in 1954 when the principle was first enumerated and China was an international weakling, much has changed. China is today is a global power and has started behaving accordingly. That includes interfering in others’ domestic affairs. From Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Germany, among many others, news of Chinese bullying is reported almost daily.
Others might argue that Kyrgyzstan, and for that matter the rest of Central Asia, belongs in Russia’s sphere of influence. While Moscow would agree with that assessment, and for years seemed happy for Beijing to take an economic lead while it dominated security ties, China has in recent years started eroding this division of labor. Its engagement with Central Asia increasingly includes security cooperation on top of its well-documented economic supremacy.
Beijing’s ambivalence is tied to the institutional and collective lessons the Chinese Communist Party has not absorbed over the decades. From the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen, from President Xi Jinping’s purge of critics to this year’s clampdown in Hong Kong, the Party has yet to learn how to navigate messy politics, even when ignoring them hurts its image and interests.