When the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China gathered in the desert of eastern Turkmenistan in December to inaugurate a new 1,800-kilometre natural gas pipeline running from Central Asia to China, it marked China’s dramatic entrance into a battle previously dominated by Russia and the West over access to the region’s natural resources. It also was a measure of Beijing’s increasingly confident foreign policy, and its growing ties to–and interest in–its neighbours of the former Soviet Union.
‘This project has not only commercial or economic value. It is also political,’ Turkmenistan’s president, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, said at the time. ‘China, through its wise and farsighted policy, has become one of the key guarantors of global security.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the five ‘stans’ of Central Asia became independent countries, China has for the most part taken a back seat to the United States and Russia in this strategic region. In the 1990s, the United States began trying to gain influence largely to secure access for US companies to the oil and gas reserves that were just starting to be discovered, while also, through various democratization and human rights efforts, trying to get the authoritarian governments to liberalize their political systems. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US focus turned to military cooperation as it set up air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The region was a useful gateway into Afghanistan (which borders Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and was also thought to be susceptible to the same sort of radical Islamism that vexed Afghanistan.
Russia has viewed all of this as an unwelcome intrusion into its backyard, and a threat to its own interests. The Soviet-era oil and gas infrastructure oriented all the export routes for Central Asia’s petroleum resources through Russia, from which Russian state-owned companies profit handsomely. US democracy promotion campaigns look, from Moscow’s vantage point, to be stalking horses for the sort of anti-Russian ‘colour revolutions’ that took place in Georgia and Ukraine. And US military bases in Central Asia compromise Russia’s strategic depth in the region–Russia has its own large military base in Tajikistan and smaller facilities in Kyrgyzstan.
China, meanwhile, has carried out relatively quiet diplomacy in Central Asia, focused on narrow issues like delineating borders between it and the newly independent states, and in gaining cooperation on shutting down networks of dissident Uyghurs, a Turkic people closely related to Central Asians who were using the ‘stans’ as rear bases for anti-Beijing activities.
For most of the past 20 years, China’s presence in Central Asia was innocuous enough to allow both the United States and Russia to believe that it benefited them. In US eyes, the primary goal was to loosen the grip that Russia had on these territories for centuries, and China would help in this. In addition, especially after September 11, the US welcomed China’s cooperation in fighting terrorism in Central Asia.
Russia, too, cooperated with China in Central Asia, especially in trying to thwart a US military presence there, in both of their backyards. They formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security group originally billed as a ‘NATO of the East’ and including all of the ‘stans’ except Turkmenistan, which in 2005 called for the United States to leave its military bases in Central Asia.