'Made in China' moves into Russia's backyard

Beijing announced this week a $294 million upgrade to roads linking it to western neighbors such as Kyrgyzstan.

Twenty years ago, Mamat Atmotoyev's refrigerator was made in Minsk and his samovar was likely to have come from the Russian city of Tula.

But things have changed in his native Kyrgyzstan since the fall of the Soviet Union, and now the products that he uses every day are more likely to be made in Dongguan, China, than in Donetsk, Ukraine.

Mr. Atmotoyev is the owner of a clothing shop, one of hundreds of tiny stalls at the massive Dordoi market outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital.

The bustling market is bursting with products of every kind, most of them Chinese. Constructed of stacked shipping containers which serve as both storage and storefront, Dordoi is not the exotic Silk Road bazaar of legend, but a more modern monument to the power of raw commerce.

As China's influence worldwide keeps pace with its economic development and thirst for resources, its neighbors such as Kyrgyzstan – a poor Central Asian state of 5 million people whose economy was once rigidly oriented toward Moscow – are increasingly drawn into a new orbit: Beijing's.

This week, China announced a $294 million upgrade to roads that link it to countries on its western border, including Kyrgyzstan. Chinese sales to the republic spiked 60 percent between 2004 and 2005. And in the first 10 months of last year, China's exports to Kyrgyzstan totaled $1.6 billion – a jump of more than 150 percent over the same period in 2005.

"From a political point of view, unfortunately, our leadership cannot admit that China is taking the lead," says Erlan Abdyldayev, a former Kyrgyz ambassador to China. "Today, we [Kyrgyz] always hear that our main trading partner is Russia, [but] neither Russian, say, nor Turkish, nor Western companies, for various commercial reasons, can compete with China."

Freed from the fuzzy math of the Soviet command economy, the financial calculus for the average Kyrgyz citizen is clear. "I could buy an English shirt for $100," says Atmotoyev, the shopowner in Dordoi, "but it's cheaper for me to buy a Chinese one for 100 som [$2.50], even if I throw it away after a month."

The appeal of Chinese products is much the same in Kyrgyzstan as anywhere else in the world: Chinese firms turn out plentiful consumer goods at affordable prices. In return, Ambassador Abdyldayev says, China's main economic goal in Central Asia is to seek out raw materials to feed its voracious economy. But it is far from alone.

Echoing the 19th-century duel between the Russian and British empires for control of Central Asian territory, today's major powers are engaged in another Great Game of sorts. But much like the Dordoi market is a less romantic version of the mythical Central Asian bazaar, the modern contest between superpowers lacks swashbuckling drama.

The prizes are the larger states with significant oil and gas reserves, such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. With limited fossil fuels buried under its mountains, Kyrgyzstan has less control over its own fate.

"Kyrgyzstan has been known for trying to court each of them, and promise each of these external powers the same things," says Sean Roberts, the Central Asian Affairs Fellow at Georgetown University in Washington.

For the Kyrgyz – who, like their neighbors, have to be worried about coming under the economic control of any one of the major powers active in the region – the size and economic might of China do represent some threat to their country's sovereignty, adds Dr. Roberts. "I wouldn't myself say that this is part of China's goals, but one of the things that people in Central Asia fear," he explains, "is that there might be some interest [by China] in moving into Central Asia territorially."

Former Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Muratbek Imanaliyev dismisses fears of Chinese domination. He says Kyrgyzstan – host to 35,000 Chinese workers – is simply one of several developing markets on China's periphery.

"There is no difference between Chinese investment and Kazakh, European, or American investment," Ambassador Imanaliyev says. "Of course, China wants neighboring countries to be loyal to its political positions," but its interests are primarily economic, he says.

The Chinese owner of a Bishkek cafe which caters to Chinese who work at Dordoi says that she, like most of her compatriots, came to Kyrgyzstan last year to launch her business and find some adventure.

"The competition is very high in China," says the woman, who withheld her name for fear of unwanted attention. "Here it is difficult, but not quite so hard," she says.

Imanaliyev suggests that the Kyrgyz should take advantage of China's economic presence rather than speculating about its motives.

"Kyrgyzstan needs to concern itself less with politics and more with the economy," he says.

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