Central Asia Faces Challenges and Sees Opportunities Amid Complex Geopolitical Outlook

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Central Asia Faces Challenges and Sees Opportunities Amid Complex Geopolitical Outlook

A conversation with Temur Umarov about Russia, China, and Central Asia amid the war in Ukraine.

Central Asia Faces Challenges and Sees Opportunities Amid Complex Geopolitical Outlook
Credit: Depositphotos

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, Central Asia has found itself in the diplomatic spotlight – a showy summit with China’s president in Xi’an, a historic summit with the U.S. president in New York, and a busy schedule of diplomatic visits to the region. But Central Asia’s geopolitical position lends itself to oftentimes simplistic narratives that cast the region as the “backyard” of one power or the other, or perhaps a battleground-to-be between Russia and China. These narratives ignore the very real agency of Central Asia’s governments and societies, which while facing many challenges are also seeing, and seizing, opportunities.

“International relations, unlike physics or mathematics, do not operate logically and often have a chaotic and unpredictable nature,” reflected Temur Umarov, an expert on China and Central Asia and a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, in an interview with The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz. In the period since the invasion of Ukraine, it has become all the more evident that the geopolitics of Central Asia are complex, and the region’s states are navigating an evolving landscape.

How has the war in Ukraine affected Russia’s relations with the countries of Central Asia?

The war in Ukraine has certainly impacted Russia’s relations with Central Asian states. However, the effects are multilayered and more nuanced than they might initially appear.

Firstly, the invasion of Ukraine has created geopolitical turbulence and problems in the global economy, leading to rising prices for energy and agricultural products. This instability has had varying effects on different regions, with Central Asia being one of the most affected due to its overdependence on Russia’s economy and logistics.

Secondly, the war in Ukraine has presented a political dilemma for Central Asian countries. The invasion became a contentious issue that all five Central Asian states would have preferred to ignore, but in some contexts, it is impossible. As a result, the region’s leadership had to rethink and design a balanced diplomatic strategy that would allow them to pursue contradictory goals simultaneously: a) distance themselves from Moscow to the extent that the international community would not associate Central Asian states with Russia’s aggression, and b) ensure that the Kremlin doesn’t perceive that the region’s countries are turning their backs on Moscow.

At the same time, the war in Ukraine has opened up some opportunities for Central Asian states. Russia is diplomatically isolated, so it has more diplomatic resources to spend on the Central Asian region, which was never a real priority for Russia’s foreign policy. Since the start of the war, we’ve seen how the region has climbed up in the priority lists of Russian leadership, which can be evidenced by the number of visits and dialogues that political elites of Central Asian states have had with Russia. This allows some Central Asian states to achieve concessions from Moscow that they couldn’t have if Russia didn’t have weakened negotiation power. For example, Tajikistan managed to get Russia to finally label the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party as a terrorist organization.

On the economic front, there is also an opening for countries like Kyrgyzstan to become the main intermediary between Russia and the unsanctioned world: in 2022, trade turnover between the two states increased by almost 40 percent.

Are Russia’s losses in Central Asia whether in terms of reputation, or attention, or financial and development connections China’s gains? How do you view the interplay between Russia’s relations with Central Asia and China’s relations with the region? 

I would not draw a direct correlation between Russia’s “losses” and China’s “gains” in the region. International relations, unlike physics or mathematics, do not operate logically and often have a chaotic and unpredictable nature.

I certainly agree that Russia is losing its positions in Central Asia. However, this did not start with the war in Ukraine; it was a long-term trend that experts have been discussing for decades. Throughout the three decades between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the war in Ukraine, Russia was mostly described as a declining power in Central Asia. The majority of dominant positions that Moscow still enjoys there were mostly inherited from the USSR.

With the invasion, we are merely observing the intensification of a long-existing trend. Russia is becoming an increasingly unpopular partner from the perspective of Central Asian societies: the number of people who disapprove of Russian leadership grew unprecedentedly last year in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, according to a Gallup report.

The same long-term trend that regional experts have been observing for decades is China’s growth in Central Asia, which can be substantiated by trade, investment, and debt statistics. The intensification of ties that we are observing these days, especially considering the number of meetings between Beijing and Central Asian capitals, is more a part of long-existing processes than a result of Russia’s weakness. From this perspective, I think it is much more connected to China’s recovery from the long COVID diplomatic quarantine than to the war in Ukraine.

Most importantly, it is not in the interests of Central Asian states to replace one dependency with another. That is why they try to create an atmosphere in the region that will allow all interested states, not only China and Russia, to coexist there. For more on that, I recommend reading my co-authored piece in Foreign Affairs.

China hosted all five Central Asian leaders for a summit earlier this year that was heavy on symbolism. What were the most important substantive outcomes of the summit? What does it tell us about Central Asian relations with China?

I believe that most (if not all) summits are much more important from a symbolic perspective than from substantial outcomes. The main decisions in relations between states are not made during these highly protocolized meetings, but rather in routine day-to-day activities.

However, symbols are important when we speak about politics. As the China-Central Asia summit in Xi’an proves, festivities worthy of an Olympic opening ceremony can stimulate global discussions about China’s dominance in the region and its potential replacement of Russia there. But I would be cautious about jumping to these kinds of conclusions. Substantively, there was nothing new and groundbreaking as an outcome of the summit.

The most important thing to keep an eye on, I would say, is the discourse power that was visible: All five Central Asian states signed up to Beijing’s vague global development, security, and civilization initiatives, which for now do not lay any additional responsibility on any of the region’s states. In addition, China’s interactions in the law enforcement dimension and cooperation here was also discussed during the summit.

From a technical point of view, an important substantive outcome would include the establishment of the China-Central Asia heads-of-state meeting mechanism, which will allow leaders to meet regularly without the participation of other states (like under the SCO format). The next one is scheduled to take place in Kazakhstan in 2025. 

However, all that together with the growing importance of China in the region tells us only one thing: China is a crucial partner for the region, but not the only one. Central Asian states do not want to become overly dependent on Beijing and because of that try to balance China’s presence with Russia’s, as well as other states’ (Türkiye, broadly the West, countries of the Middle East, East Asia, etc.)

Has China’s approach to Central Asia evolved since the launching of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013? What are the core components of China’s engagement in the region?

I wouldn’t necessarily say so. The BRI itself is not a clear and well-thought-out plan; it is a vague initiative that the expert community believe to be an umbrella term for anything that China is doing outside of its borders.

What the BRI has successfully done with regards to China’s presence in Central Asia is to divert attention from Beijing’s security activities in the region to the economic component of the relationship.

However, in my view, security still is the priority of Beijing in Central Asia. Numerous research, such as that done by Niva Yau for the FPRI, support this view. It’s important not to oversimplify China’s security engagement with the states of Central Asia. For example, the event that so far had the biggest attention in the media was around China’s “military bases” in Tajikistan. The important point here is not to just label it as military, since the main engagement is happening under the control of law enforcement agencies from both sides, and this is a broader cooperation. Unlike the military, law enforcement deals with both domestic and international security issues.

The economic component of China’s presence in Central Asia is based upon the consensus between local leaderships and Beijing in security cooperation. So, it was never China’s primary goal to become the main economic power in Central Asia. When security is under question, Beijing prefers to pause its economic activities, as the latest political turbulence in Kyrgyzstan has shown. 

The trend visible in recent years is that Beijing shifts its focus from large-scale infrastructure projects to building medium- and small-scale enterprises that contribute to the region’s industrialization and create jobs for locals. Everything else, like cultural cooperation, media engagement, or people-to-people ties, comes only after all of the above mentioned.

Turning back to the war in Ukraine. What lessons do you think China is taking from the conflict, regarding its own relations with Russia and its own territorial ambitions?

I believe that, on the one hand, it’s too soon to fully understand what lessons China might be learning from the war in Ukraine as it is still ongoing. However, there are some that are already visible.

Firstly, there are “military lessons” from the war. Since I am not a military expert, I will leave it to my colleagues who are and will refer to the event that Carnegie hosted on that specific topic.

Secondly, there is an economic component to the current situation. What is happening right now with Russia’s economy being under an unprecedented amount of global sanctions is something that China might be preparing for. Of course, we cannot compare Russia’s economy (around 3 percent of global GDP) to China’s (the 2nd largest, almost 20 percent), but sanctions hurt and when targeted can have a tangible impact on the modernization of a country. If tensions with the West continue to intensify, these same economic weapons may well be turned against China. For more information on what kinds of lessons Beijing is implementing in its financial system, in making sure it will not be cut off from transactions network, or in resilience of its national currency, I recommend reading my colleague Evan Feigenbaum’s co-authored piece in Foreign Affairs.

Thirdly, I believe that China is learning from the current situation about the importance of alliances and the stability of the political regime. Russia’s isolation and the lack of enthusiasm in support of Russia’s actions from its traditional partners (like Kazakhstan) has shown, pragmatically speaking, how important it is for a country that is about to go into conflict with the global community to have strong and loyal partners around the world. Also, the Russian political regime has shown its fragility and has already gone through several crises and an attempted coup.

As even today the collapse of the USSR is a topic of great interest for China’s Russia scholars, today’s Russia provides a unique laboratory for studying authoritarian political regimes’ stability for Beijing.