The suicide bombing outside the Chinese Embassy in the capital of Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday signals that Chinese economic and political interests in Central Asia are vulnerable to terrorism, analysts say.
Beijing condemned what it called a "violent and extreme act." Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters the government urged authorities in Bishkek to launch a thorough investigation and punish whoever was responsible. The country's interior ministry labeled it a terrorist attack, which killed the bomber and injured three Kyrgyz employees at the site.
“The blast was so huge. We assumed it was Islamic State attacking the U.S. Embassy. No one even thought that the Chinese Embassy was the target,” Chingiz Sharshekeev, executive director of a property management company who lives across from the embassy, told VOA.
China’s far western Xinjiang region has long been the site of ethnic unrest and tensions between China’s Han majority and its ethnic Uighur minorities, who are mainly Muslims. In the past, Beijing has characterized violent uprisings as terrorist attacks. The U.S. State Department has criticized China for a lack of transparency in some of these incidents, and critics say Beijing has long used the pretext of terrorism to crack down on minorities.
However analysts say China’s increasing political and economic engagement in Central Asian countries is exposing Beijing to more risks of violence from terror groups.
“The attack on Chinese Embassy is a political act. There are certain anti-China tensions in Central Asia,” Dasym Satpayev, president of the Kazakhstan Risk Assessment Group, told VOA. “Members of the Chinese radical separatist groups have been detected visiting Central Asian countries.”
What motivated attack?
Medet Tiulegenov, a professor of comparative politics at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, said the bombing was a signature of Mideast-based radical groups, but the fact that the blast targeted Chinese interests raised questions about its motives.
“Possibly an act in Kyrgyzstan is just one instance of multiple actions against Chinese citizens and state entities in many countries,” Tiulegenov said.
Decades of rapid economic growth have propelled China onto the world's stage. It has been reinforcing a multipronged strategy in Central Asia — a region it sees as vital to its economic and national security objectives — to the point of pushing long-standing Russian interests into second place.
China experts say that with the rapid growth of China’s economy, demand for raw materials has shot up and Central Asia houses a number of raw materials that China needs. The region has become a significant market for Chinese goods and a good source of oil and gas for power stations.
Beijing has spent tens of billions of dollars in multilateral partnerships with the region’s countries in many areas, including energy, trade and transportation routes. It has provided generous long-term loans to many of the states in the region.
China has launched the "Silk Route Economic Belt" connecting China to the world through Central Asia, including an 1,800-kilometer gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
In Tajikistan, China has hugely invested in the energy and transportation sectors. Dushanbe has received hundreds of millions of dollars in loans for developmental projects. The two countries have signed numerous trade agreements.
Investments in Kazakhstan
China also has established strong trade and economic ties with oil-rich Kazakhstan. Beijing has invested tens of billions of dollars, mostly through state-owned enterprises, in various sectors, including the energy, oil-refining, steel, hydropower and automobile industries.
“China is expanding its economic presence in Kazakhstan after signing the cooperation agreements last year. Many Chinese business people are being seen in industry centers these days,” Munirjon Javaov, a freelance journalist and researcher on Kazakhstan affairs, told VOA.
China also has made major strides toward increasing its economic presence in Uzbekistan, with large investments in the oil and gas sector.
“China is number one among the partners of Uzbekistan in terms of investment,” Chinese Ambassador to Uzbekistan Sun Lizi told the Xinhua news agency in May 2015.
China is one of the major investors in Kyrgyzstan, too. Recent data show that China has become Kyrgyzstan’s largest trading partner, surpassing Russia in the first half of the current year.
“China’s economic involvement in our country is huge. The Chinese government itself is lending a lot of money to our government, and provides grants,” Sharshekeev said.
China has pledged to provide $3 billion for the reconstruction of the Soviet-era central electric plant that provides electricity and heat to Bishkek, Sharshekeev added. A $400 million project is building strategic roads connecting the south and north of the country. “Money started flowing for the projects, and all are running,” Sharshekeev said.
Chinese businessmen are reportedly very active in Kyrgyzstan. According to a lawyer with the Grata law firm, for the last four years, most of the firm’s clients have been Chinese.
“The exact amount of their investment is not available. What is clear is that they invest aggressively and are not turned away, even [with] corrupt officials in the government and agencies,” Sharshekeev told VOA.
More attacks possible
Analysts warn that terror attacks against Chinese interests may increase as it continues its economic and political endeavors in the region.
“China should realize that they are increasing presence in a ‘not-that-safe’ region. Practically every country in Central Asia faces issues with extremism and terrorism. Chinese citizens in this region, including investors, are potential targets for terrorist attacks,” Satpayev said.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack yet, but experts believe it was carried out by Muslim separatist Uighurs — a Turkic-speaking ethnic majority in northwest China's Xinjiang province that claims to be deprived of its rights in the mainland.
Uighur militants have been active in many parts of China’s neighboring countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and its southern neighbors. A significant number of the ethnic Uighurs also live in Central Asian states.
“Uighur radicals used to be active in small businesses in Kyrgyzstan. But on China’s demand, the Kyrgyzstan government closed down their offices, so they all went underground,” Azhdar Kurtov, a senior fellow at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, told VOA.
A large number of Uighur militants have reportedly joined rebel and extremist groups in Syria, including the Islamic State group.
“The Uighur fighters have been in Syria since the beginning of the war. They have been working with groups such as IS, the al-Nusra Front and other rebels that are now backed by Turkey,” said Mustafa Abdi, a Syrian media activist who closely follows the civil war.
VOA's Sirwan Kajjo and Fatima Tlisova contributed to this report.