Is China About to Deploy Private Military Companies in Central Asia?

Over the past decade, Moscow has made reg­u­lar use of pri­vate mil­i­tary and secu­ri­ty com­pa­nies to project pow­er in areas where it wants to main­tain at least lim­it­ed deni­a­bil­i­ty while tak­ing advan­tage of the weak­ness­es of local gov­ern­ments (see EDM, March 16, 2017March 22, 2017March 27, 2018). It has employed such inde­pen­dent formations—or at least their simulacra—in Ukraine, Syria and espe­cial­ly in African states with rel­a­tive­ly vul­ner­a­ble or inef­fec­tive cen­tral gov­ern­ments (see EDM, January 21, 2020April 29, 2020January 20, 2021).

Chinese secu­ri­ty con­trac­tors in Africa (Source: Carnegie Tsinghua)

Other coun­tries, includ­ing the United States, have them­selves relied on pri­vate mil­i­tary com­pa­nies, although they most­ly acknowl­edge them as sup­port ele­ments for a for­mal mil­i­tary pres­ence. China has done so as well in some African coun­tries but only in a restrict­ed way. Now, how­ev­er, there appears to be a grow­ing risk that Beijing may feel it can uti­lize such struc­tures to defend its exist­ing inter­ests or project new pow­er into at least one repub­lic in Central Asia: polit­i­cal­ly unsta­ble Kyrgyzstan (see EDM, March 3). Beijing already has sig­nif­i­cant invest­ments there and has had seri­ous prob­lems with the gov­ern­ment and local pop­u­la­tion in the past (see EDM, June 24, 2016 and March 3, 2021; see China Brief, August 12, 2020).

Chinese “pri­vate mil­i­tary com­pa­nies” have not yet appeared in Kyrgyzstan, but some Russian experts are wor­ried that they may show up soon and cre­ate prob­lems for Moscow, for two rea­sons. First, there is Russia’s own secu­ri­ty involve­ment in Kyrgyzstan—it has one mil­i­tary base in that coun­try and has been talk­ing about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of estab­lish­ing a sec­ond (see EDM, May 24, 2018and February 22, 2019). Additionally, any such Chinese involve­ment might not only fur­ther desta­bi­lize that Central Asian repub­lic but lead to clash­es between the Russian Federation and China, some­thing Moscow wants to avoid, espe­cial­ly at a time of grow­ing ten­sions with the West. Stanislav Pritchin, a senior researcher at the Moscow Center for Post-Soviet Research in the Russian Academy of Sciences, has not­ed that the Russian gov­ern­ment hopes China will not send pri­vate mil­i­tary com­pa­nies into Kyrgyzstan, but it increas­ing­ly fears that anti-Chinese rhetoric by Kyrgyzstani politi­cians could unin­ten­tion­al­ly lead to that pos­si­bil­i­ty in the future. At a min­i­mum, he said, this is already “a risk” no one can afford to ignore (IA-Centr, March 15).

According to the Moscow-based ana­lyst, polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty in Kyrgyzstan rep­re­sents a threat to Chinese inter­ests there. Beijing has invest­ed heav­i­ly in that neigh­bor­ing repub­lic and clear­ly is con­cerned that con­tin­u­ing tur­moil there may com­pro­mise its abil­i­ty to main­tain its eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal pres­ence. Every time there is a change in lead­er­ship in Kyrgyzstan, almost all aspects of life, includ­ing that of for­eign investors, are put at risk of rad­i­cal change because that country’s legal sys­tem is so under­de­vel­oped that investors can­not count on their rights being pro­tect­ed under a new pres­i­dent or prime min­is­ter. That makes it ardu­ous for for­eign gov­ern­ments to enter into or stay involved in long-term projects, such as gold min­ing, and it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly caus­es those already there to think about how they can defend them­selves. But one poten­tial tool may be pri­vate secu­ri­ty com­pa­nies, which can be deployed to defend firms with­out attract­ing the kind of adverse atten­tion that more direct mil­i­tary involve­ment would provoke.

Kyrgyzstan’s legal code makes no pro­vi­sion for the pres­ence of for­eign pri­vate mil­i­tary com­pa­nies, Pritchin con­tend­ed. That makes the notion that Chinese units of this type might appear “an extreme vari­ant” and pos­si­bly only “a scare­crow” designed to fright­en Bishkek into doing more to pro­tect Chinese firms. Moreover, he con­tin­ues, it is pos­si­ble China will seek to exploit secu­ri­ty agen­cies or “oth­er force resources” under the con­trol not of the Kyrgyzstani gov­ern­ment but under that of one or anoth­er polit­i­cal fig­ure. Such a “hybrid” approach could allow China to take effec­tive con­trol over a key part of the secu­ri­ty appa­ra­tus in the Kyrgyz Republic. In times of trou­ble in Kyrgyzstan, in 2005 and 2010, such domes­tic non-state secu­ri­ty firms helped defend Chinese prop­er­ty, the Moscow ana­lyst con­tin­ued. So it is entire­ly pos­si­ble that Beijing has main­tained the kind of con­tacts with local inter­locu­tors that would allow it to use them rather than insert­ing its own “pri­vate armies” in the future. At the same time, how­ev­er, such an out­come would fur­ther weak­en the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Bishkek.

Up to now, Pritchin sug­gest­ed, China has been cau­tious in using its pri­vate mil­i­tary com­pa­nies abroad. It did not send them to Turkmenistan, despite trou­bles there in 2015 and 2016; and when it has deployed them to African coun­tries more recent­ly, it was under rules that lim­it them to defend­ing build­ings rather than play­ing any broad­er role, at least for the time being. But in recent years, Beijing has felt increas­ing­ly free to throw its weight around inter­na­tion­al­ly. And it may do so in this area as well, pos­si­bly with Kyrgyzstan as a test­ing ground where it can demon­strate China’s new capabilities.

Another fac­tor that may prompt Beijing to use such orga­ni­za­tions is increas­ing anti-Chinese atti­tudes in Central Asia in gen­er­al and in Kyrgyzstan in par­tic­u­lar, the Russian Academy of Sciences researcher argued. Many Kyrgyz are angry about what China is doing to its Muslim pop­u­la­tion in Xinjiang, actions that the United States gov­ern­ment and numer­ous human rights groups have char­ac­ter­ized as acts of “geno­cide.” Bishkek and oth­er Central Asian gov­ern­ments gen­er­al­ly have been reluc­tant to crit­i­cize Beijing despite the feel­ings of their own peo­ples. But that could change as new reports come out about what China is doing with its Muslims and as a new gen­er­a­tion ris­es to pow­er in Bishkek and oth­er Central Asian capitals.

The state of pol­i­tics in the Kyrgyz Republic is such, Pritchin assert­ed, that one or anoth­er fac­tion may decide to play up the Chinese issue, and that could incite Kyrgyzstanis to attack local Chinese firms as has hap­pened in the past. If that were to occur, the sit­u­a­tion could dete­ri­o­rate rapid­ly, China could send in its own “pri­vate mil­i­tary com­pa­nies” and then, the ana­lyst con­clud­ed, the out­come “will be real­ly dan­ger­ous” for all concerned.

Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 49 by Paul Goble

Related Posts