Central Asia: a history of dispute between Russia and China

Central Asia: A history of dispute between Russia and China


08 | 06 | 2022


Origin and development of the five Central Asian 'istanes' and the different fate of the eastern part of the region, Xinjiang, in a harsh process of Chinese 're-education'.

In the picture

Cover of Adeeb Khalid's book 'Central Asia. A new history from the imperial conquest to the present ' (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021) 556 pgs.

As an area enclosed in a large landmass, at a huge distance from the open sea, with no coastal silhouettes to better visualise the geographical contours, the vast space of Central Asia tends to be perceived as an amorphous area , with convoluted borders and complicated nomenclature. We refer to these countries as a bloc - the 'Istanes' - which insists on giving these Central Asian countries a blurred attention , with no personality of their own. And it is true that for a long time the whole area was referred to by the same name, Turkestan (after the Turkic race that basically populated the region). In the 18th and 19th centuries it was a broad canvas on which the Russian and Chinese empires poured their influence and attempted dominance. Russia took Western Turkestan (today the five republics of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and China took Eastern Turkestan (the province of Xinjiang or Sinkiang, which Beijing is subjecting to a brutal assimilation process).

Precisely not leaving Xinjiang out and taking into account the whole of ancient Turkestan is perhaps the greatest success of the history of Central Asia written by Adeeb Khalid, a professor at Carleton College in Minnesota. It is clear from the map of the region that to exclude Xinjiang from the story is to cut a part of the whole: its inclusion completes a semi-circular outer rim - the steppe, the natural environment of nomadism and herding - that contains a central inner core, around the rich Fergana Valley, which spawned agriculture and urban life.

From this physical framework , human groups developed into distinctive nationalities in the second half of the 20th century. Interestingly, it was the Soviet Union's communism, which has so often been credited with a glacial effect on internal nationalisms (later thawed, with virulent effects, with the fall of the Berlin Wall), that fostered the disparate identities of Central Asian neighbours, Khalid notes. Communism became "tied to Soviet patriotism and this patriotism was multinational"; the USSR "was the only country in the world without a geographical or ethnic marker in its name". In contrast, Chinese nationalism tries by all means to do away with the specificity of the Uighurs of Xinjiang. "While the former Soviet republics became independent states, Xinjiang has gone in the other direction, being increasingly assimilated into China," writes Khalid, which is why he believes that "the Soviet past has been more blessing than curse for the independent states of Central Asia".

However, the author acknowledges that in economic terms the two territories - the west and east of the old Turkestan - have switched roles. If in the era of industrial development, the Soviet area had a clear advantage over the backward Xinjiang, today Chinese technological progress is making this province a hub in the projects to connect the Belt and Road.  

The book takes care to clarify some interpretations that Khalid considers erroneous. One is to see Central Asia as coveted by both Russia and Britain during the Great Game that pitted the two empires against each other in the 19th century. Khalid points out that the British were only interested in keeping the Russians at arm's length, away from the real ability to invade India, without properly harbouring territorial ambitions in that vast space that served as a buffer.

Another point that the author revises is to attribute the splitting of the Central Asian contour into five Soviet republics to Stalin's desire to be able to better dominate any secessionist tendencies of a larger subject. Khalid explains that the Soviet organisation management assistant established in the 1920s and 1930s actually sought to build the structure of the new state on the systems of spatial control that had already taken shape. Having ruled out a Central Asian Republic, the five republics came into being at the same time, some with higher status and some initially as autonomous entities within others, but even before World War II the boundaries were consolidated. Kazakhstan was initially an autonomous republic within Russia, on the grounds that its northern half of the steppe had been repopulated by Russians (a duality that still remains), but it soon moved separately. While having the same historical and ethnic origins - mixed with Persian elements in the case of Tajikistan, whose language is the only one without Turkish roots - each has evolved into a distinctive nation, so that, significantly, when the USSR was dissolved no one considered merging some or all of the Central Asian republics.

development In addition to offering a benevolent view of the effect that communism had on the national identity of the Central Asian republics (something that other scholars dispute), Khalid also stresses the positive influence that Islam has had in shaping these identities (here there is more unanimity). It has certainly been an element of resistance to the risk of Russian assimilation, even though the Soviet era stripped these peoples of the experience of a public religiosity. The author highlights this more cultural than ideological experience of Islam as a possible explanation for the fact that no radical Islamism or Islamic republic has emerged, despite sharing borders in some cases with the Afghanistan of the Taliban or the Iran of the Ayatollahs.

Although as a historical compendium of a region perhaps personally unfamiliar to the reader the first few pages devoted to distant epochs in time can be arduous (and the book is not short: over five hundred pages), Khalid's work is written in careful, elegantly phrased English that allows one to reach fluently into the more recent centuries. His direct knowledge of Central Asia - with first-hand experience of many places, including Xinjiang - and his perceptive weighting of judgements offer an up-to-date history of a area between Russia, China and India that in the minds of many remains somewhat undefined.