China Power | Diplomacy | Central Asia

Cooperation, Co-existence or Clash? China and Russia’s Ambitions in Central Asia

The two powers’ approaches to Central Asia may be a good indicator of their current partnership and future relations.

By Benno Zogg for
Cooperation, Co-existence or Clash? China and Russia’s Ambitions in Central Asia
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Particularly since 2014, China and Russia have been celebrating their “comprehensive strategic partnership.” In a symbolic step, they announced they would link the construction of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt – the land-based dimension of the Belt and Road Initiative – with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, followed by further steps toward that end since. The volume of their mutual trade has increased. Russia is China’s largest supplier of oil. Only weeks after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the two countries signed a gas deal worth $400 billion over 30 years. Russia sells its latest military technology to China and they have conducted several joint military exercises, such as an air patrol in the East China Sea.

In international organizations like the UN, China and Russia often pursue similar positions. They both advocate for a multipolar world order, for noninterference and the co-existence of different value systems. In this, they are united in their opposition to what they perceive as a U.S.-led liberal world order. Furthermore, at dozens of summits, Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are portrayed as getting along splendidly at a personal level.

Most observers’ reactions to these developments fall into two camps. Based on the factors mentioned above, some consider the relationship between the two powers as a de facto alliance, echoing many Russian voices, while China remains wary of such a term. As such, these observers argue, the partnership poses a serious challenge to the Western-led system. Another camp dismisses this rhetoric, pointing out that the Sino-Russian partnership is mostly based on their common opposition to the United States. Stark economic asymmetries – China’s economy is eight times the size of Russia’s – and cultural differences between the two partners are cited. Russian hopes of high-value investments by China, particularly in its underdeveloped Far East, have not materialized. Russia very much appears as an uneasy junior partner in this relationship, which would contradict its self-perception as a major power.

While such assessments of the sustainability of the Sino-Russian partnership diverge, they often share one element. Central Asia is usually pointed out as a region where their interests are most likely to collide on the ground. Central Asia and its five post-Soviet states implicitly form China and Russia’s backyard, and they both pursue interests there, while meaningful and coherent engagement by the West is largely absent. This begs the question of whether the two powers will cooperate in the region, whether they can pursue their respective interests as co-existence, or whether Chinese and Russian ambitions will clash. Moreover, the way they interact in Central Asia can serve as an indicator of how committed they are to their partnership, and whether their overall relations and strategic considerations have changed at some point in the future.

Russia is connected to Central Asia through infrastructure and their common Soviet past, and it is an important destination for Central Asian migrant workers. The Russian language is widely used as a lingua franca in the region. Russia shares the world’s longest interstate border with Kazakhstan, its close ally in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Three of the five Central Asian states host Russian troops. As such, Russia is interested in stability in the region, particularly with regard to radical Islamism.

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To China, meanwhile, Central Asia is an important source of resources, particularly gas from Turkmenistan and oil and uranium from Kazakhstan. It allows China to diversify its energy sources, which are mostly supplied from less stable countries and through waters largely controlled by the United States and its allies. Furthermore, Central Asia is considered an outlet for trade for China’s less developed Western hinterland, and a stable neighbor of its Xinjiang region, where Beijing tries to pacify the local Uyghur population in “re-education camps.”

Well into the 2000s, Russia’s dominance in Central Asia was unrivaled. However, China’s overwhelming economic weight has encroached on Russian hegemony. In 2009, the completion of pipelines to China broke the Russian monopoly on energy outlets for the region. Chinese energy companies control rising shares in the extractive sector in the region – and notably in Russia itself, too. Since 2015, China has been the region’s main trading partner overall, ahead of the EU and Russia, and its main source of investment. The two smaller states in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, already owe the larger part of their foreign debt to Chinese development banks.

Compared to China’s economic power, particularly the volume of funds for infrastructure in the framework of its Belt and Road Initiative, Russia and its rigid, protectionist, and politicized Eurasian projects pale. Many Chinese-led infrastructure projects crossing Asia circumvent Russia, with pipelines and railway lines passing south of Siberia. Kazakhstan, Russia’s closest ally in Asia, is a linchpin of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and receives more Chinese investments than Russia itself.

Despite these developments, Russia can today still convincingly claim to be the main political and cultural reference point for the region’s governments and wields considerable soft power through the wide use of Russian media. Russia remains Central Asian states’ main source of military equipment and overall their main security partner. Russia has even boosted its military activities in the region, for example through 2019’s Tsentr military exercise, which involved sizable troops contingents from its Central Asian partners.

At the same time, China’s influence is extending beyond economics. Through Confucius Institutes and the generous granting of scholarships, China is promoting its language and culture in the region. Central Asian states are increasingly relying on Chinese technology both in the civilian and military sector. Three Central Asian states have purchased Chinese-built drones, and Chinese private security is moving in to protect Chinese assets. In early 2019, reports were confirmed about a small Chinese military base in Tajikistan. While China still exercises restraint about its security presence in Central Asia, many observers in Russia are uneasy about this gradual loss of influence.

Nonetheless, a clash of Chinese and Russian interests in Central Asia in the mid-term is unlikely. Observers pointing to diverging interests in Central Asia underestimate the willingness of China and Russia to cooperate at the international level, especially given their lack of alternative partners, and to pursue their close partnership.

The Kremlin recognizes its asymmetries with China, both in Central Asia and overall. It is also aware that – despite rising approval of China in surveys – skepticism toward Chinese influence is widespread among Russians, particularly in Siberia. Russia can accept asymmetries, however, as long as China offers an alternative to relations with the West, treats Russia as an equal, and, through this, boosts Russia’s role as a major power. Meanwhile, China is confident it will have the upper hand in its relationship with Russia, mostly be able to dictate the terms of interaction toward Central Asia, but also benefit from Russia’s leverage and their common desire for stability in Central Asia. China is thus willing to pursue the current arrangement as well.

As a consequence, the two powers are ready to co-exist in the region, even to cooperate at times, for example with regard to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – even though they have different visions for the organization – or joint multilateral military exercises. China and Russia’s actions in Central Asia thus reinforce the impression that their partnership indeed is close, even though short of an alliance.

In the long run, however, rationales behind China and Russia’s partnership are likely to shift. It is, after all, driven by pragmatic interests, the states’ current leaders, and the global balance of power. Changing considerations underlying the Sino-Russian partnership may manifest themselves in Central Asia – their common neighborhood – possibly ahead of other contexts.

Based on such shifts, China may decide to abandon its current policy of self-restraint in Central Asia. China deciding to openly base military in the region, as opposed to its currently clandestine, limited presence in Tajikistan, would be perceived as a challenge in the Kremlin. Chinese and Russian state-owned companies may openly compete for contracts and market share in the resource and infrastructure construction sectors, but also in strategic assets like distribution networks. The two powers’ respective integration projects – whose underlying visions are essentially contradictory – may vie for influence and allegiance on the part of the region’s governments. In case of regime succession in Central Asia, China and Russia may end up bidding for different rulers.

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Currently, however, the Central Asian barometer of today’s Sino-Russian relations confirms that their partnership is genuine and likely to persist in the mid-term. As such, Central Asian states have some leeway balancing great powers’ influence, but Beijing and Moscow will not allow Central Asian states to play them off against each other. The notion of China and Russia showing weakness and open divergences in Central Asia anytime soon is wishful thinking on the part of the West.

Benno Zogg is a Senior Researcher in the Swiss and Euro-​Atlantic Security Team of the think tank at the Center for Security Studies (CSS). He is co-​editor of the monthly series CSS Analysis in Security Policy and Co-​Head of the Peace & Security Programme at foraus, a think tank on foreign policy.