International security dynamics in Central Asia are often framed in the “great game” terms of great power competition, but this shorthand can obscure the complexity of great power involvement in the region. The nature of existing competition can be further difficult to capture, in part, because the sovereign states of the region can affect, to varying degrees, how their powerful neighbors seek to wield influence in political, economic, military, and social spheres.
Today, Russian and Chinese interests in Central Asia are increasingly divergent, but rather than overtly compete, the pair routinely emphasize efforts to accommodate one another. Trends in China’s military engagement with the region could, however, upset the Sino-Russian equilibrium of recent decades.
In the post-9/11 period, Russia and China have shared a desire to limit U.S. influence in Central Asia, but U.S. engagement never took on serious hegemonic ambitions, remaining transactional as it focused on counterterrorism objectives.
At the same time, China’s rise in Central Asia has been swift. Beijing’s actions have largely remained complementary and at times cooperative with Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Successful early efforts to resolve border disputes led China to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to address their common interests in combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism.
“China and Russia have developed a robust, if asymmetric partnership, based on a desire for a more multipolar world,” Edward Lemon, an assistant professor at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School, told The Diplomat. In Central Asia, he said, “Thus far, China has been deferential to Russia’s “special role” in the region, consulting with Moscow before opening its base in Tajikistan in 2016, for example.”
In their new analysis of Russia and China’s security presences in Central Asia, Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the Wilson Center, and Lemon show that while Russian security sector engagement in the region has not diminished, China has dramatically increased its arms sales and joint military exercises. They conclude that in the short-term Russia and China are unlikely to interpret one another’s actions as hostile, but their coexistence in the region could be tested as China’s security role continues to grow.
Assuming the mantle of the Soviet Union, Russia has long identified Central Asia as its sphere of influence. It is the only power to offer Central Asian states a formal security guarantee under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and it maintains a network of bases and radar installations across the region.
Russia also maintains significant socio-political advantages over China in the region. China may have overtaken Russian trade dominance, but lingual and cultural ties developed during Central Asia’s long experience under Soviet rule gives Russia a distinct advantage via robust media and migrant labor ties.
China has belatedly invested in efforts to address the regional anti-Chinese sentiment that produced protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan last year. Sebastien Peyrouse recently wrote for The Diplomat that despite success in promoting the learning of Mandarin, its efforts to build cultural understanding and ease Sinophobia have been unsuccessful. He, however, does not think Beijing’s failed efforts to win over Central Asian publics can challenge Chinese engagement in the region.
Underpinned by the infrastructure development of its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, China has eclipsed Russia as the region’s leading trading partner; economic dominance that is only likely to grow. Indeed, as Peyrouse noted, the interest of Central Asians in Mandarin language training is primarily driven by potential pragmatic benefits in the form of economic opportunities tied to Chinese investment.
Although the BRI is a clear statement of intent from China that it will be the foremost economic power in Eurasia, Beijing and Moscow routinely make public statements that it is a win-win project for the two powers. Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes the BRI will complement Moscow’s own efforts to strengthen its economic ties with the region in the form of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
The complex, overlapping Russian and Chinese initiatives and more informal linkages with the Central Asian states have coexisted in a stable yet dynamic distribution of influence across various sectors. Both powers maintain friendly relations with the authoritarian leaders of Central Asia, but Moscow has maintained deeper socio-political and military connections while Beijing has grown to dominate regional economics. Shifting trends in Chinese security engagement, however, suggest that the military sector could become the most dynamic source of great power competition for regional influence.
Jardine and Lemon’s research shows that China’s share of the Central Asian arms market increased from 1.5 percent of arms imports between 2010 and 2014 to 18 percent of arms imports in the last five years. So far, those arms sales have not cut into Russia’s market share, which has remained constant around 60 percent over the last 10 years, but if the trend continues that may change.
Their research further shows that, although Russia also continues to lead the most joint military exercises in Central Asia, the number of Chinese-led exercises is increasing. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in 2015 that military diplomacy would be a key cog of Chinese foreign policy, China has conducted a growing number of bilateral exercises in addition to exercises run within the framework of the Beijing-led SCO.
While China is unlikely to supplant Russia’s socio-political role in the region any time soon, and has shown little interest in doing so, its growing security sector presence could destabilize the equilibrium of the past few decades, increasing the stakes of great power competition in the region.
“As China continues to increase its role in Central Asian security, Russia may start to feel its sphere of influence being encroached upon,” Lemon told The Diplomat. As the less viable great power in the long-term, “Russia would be wary of directly confronting China, but it could ramp up efforts to influence governments to cancel deals with China.”
The great power competition framework places an emphasis on the will of great powers, but it also offers opportunities for the sovereign states those powers seek to influence. “For Central Asian governments,” Lemon said, “increasingly competitive dynamics between external powers offer advantages as they can play external partners against one another.”
Ian J. Lynch is an independent foreign policy analyst with a Masters in Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asian Security Studies from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He tweets at @Ian_J_Lynch.