Massive Chinese investment is flowing into Moscow’s strategic backyard. The Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union, ruled over the various ethnic groups of Central Asia for centuries. Now Beijing is making a concerted effort to solidify economic, transport, and political links with the volatile and resource-rich region, writes GIS guest expert Brendan O’Reilly.

While there are some strains between China and Russia over the former’s deepening influence and the latter’s diminishing regional clout, three factors continue to drive Sino-Russian cooperation in Central Asia - transnational Islamism, drug smuggling, and American regional objectives. With inter-ethnic tensions and massive economic potential added to the geopolitical mix, Central Asia is an important and dangerous crossroads for China’s expanding global influence.

Russia’s century-long domination of Central Asia ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it still has huge influence over the five independent countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Ethnic Russians account for between five and 20 per cent of the population in these countries. Russian is a co-official language in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Even with the recent crisis in the Russian economy, millions of workers from these countries find employment within the Russian Federation. Russian energy and mining conglomerates are hugely influential in the local economies.

China is now the largest trading partner of every one of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia

Various Chinese polities over thousands of years sought to expand their influence into the heart of Eurasia. Seeking to secure Silk Road trade from raids by pastoral nomads, the Han Dynasty expanded deep into Central Asia more than 2,000 years ago. In 751 CE (Common Era), the Abbasid Caliphate halted Chinese expansion at the Battle of Talas near the current Kazak-Kyrgyz border.

Trading partners

In the modern era, Chinese efforts to secure resources, trade and strategic depth in Central Asia have increased dramatically since the fall of the Soviet Union and the expansion of the Chinese economy.

Chinese economic influence in Central Asia is impressive. Trade has increased more than 100-fold since 1991 and is worth more than US$50 billion annually.

China is now the largest trading partner of every one of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Turkmenistan is ranked fourth globally in total natural gas reserves, Kazakhstan 12th, and experts believe much of the region’s energy resources remain undiscovered.

New pipelines have been built over the last decade, pumping the region’s massive energy resources east to China.

Beijing is implementing a plan for a new Silk Road Economic Belt to solidify Chinese economic dominance over the area - and to help develop China’s relatively impoverished and restive western regions.

Dangerous routes

The Chinese government agreed in 2013 to more than US$50 billion in infrastructure and energy deals with Central Asian states. Beijing pledged a further US$40 billion in 2014 to set up an infrastructure fund to boost connectivity in Asia.

The most ambitious plans would eventually link Central Asia with China, Southeast Asia and Europe by high-speed rail, dramatically cutting transport time, and allowing China to bypass potentially dangerous maritime routes.

The region is extremely diverse. The main ethnic groups are the once-nomadic Uzbeks, Kazaks, Kyrgyz and Turkmen, along with Persian-speaking Tajiks and Russians. The borders of the five Central Asian states were designed to be ethnically varied under Soviet control, to suppress local nationalism.

Energy-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are relatively prosperous, with per capita incomes of more than US$20,000 and US$12,000, respectively. Much smaller Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have annual average incomes of little more than US$2,000.

The countries are fairly similar politically, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, with each dominated by authoritarian leaders.

Political Islam

The region has seen a dramatic increase in the influence of political Islam since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Taliban took over most of Afghanistan in 1996. A civil war between Islamists and the secular ruling party during the 1990s killed up to 100,000 people in Tajikistan.

Similar revolts in Uzbekistan were savagely repressed. Thousands of the region’s Islamists have migrated to Syria more recently to join Islamic State.

Central Asia's independent states: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan
Central Asia's independent states: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan

All the Central Asian states have experienced an upswing in inter-ethnic tensions since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Fighting between majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan caused around 2,000 deaths in 2010, with tens of thousands more displaced. Drug trafficking, primarily heroin processed from Afghan poppies, is a huge regional issue.

Ruling governments in the Central Asian states, as well as Russia and China, face threats from ethnic separatism, drug trafficking and political Islam. China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in June 2001, in order to maintain the geopolitical status quo, pledging to fight the ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism.

Regional influence

US armed forces leased air force bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in late 2001 to support military efforts against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The subsequent expansion of American regional influence inspired the SCO to become an important Sino-Russian mechanism for checking American aims in Central Asia.

The SCO called for a timetable for US withdrawal from SCO member states in 2005, and the Uzbek government asked US forces to leave its territory. Kyrgyzstan, which also hosts a Russian airbase, asked US forces to withdraw in 2014.

However, important Sino-Russian tensions remain. Russia and the energy-rich Central Asian states are competitors in the Chinese market. Central Asian gas exports to Russia have dropped 60 per cent since 2009, when pipelines began carrying reserves towards China. Beijing uses its access to Central Asian natural gas reserves to negotiate favourable terms with Moscow.

China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative has a Russian competitor in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The EEU, consisting of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia - with Kyrgyzstan set to join - aims to create a European Union-style economic bloc of former Soviet states. The EEU’s primary goal is to encourage internal trade, which may have some negative effects for Chinese exports to the region.

Pipeline projects

While Beijing has been largely quiet over the EEU, the initiative was harshly criticised by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012. She said the customs union was an effort to ‘re-Sovietise’ the region, adding, ‘We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.’

The US has also been competing indirectly with Russia and China in Central Asia by supporting initiatives to build pipelines to bypass Russian and Chinese territory, such as the proposed Trans-Afghanistan pipeline (TAPI) running from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.

Central Asian gas exports to Russia have dropped 60 per cent since 2009, when pipelines began carrying reserves towards China

The other proposed pipeline project would see energy links built from Turkmenistan to Turkey via Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Caspian Sea. So far Iran, which controls the southern portion of the Caspian Sea, has opposed this pipeline, ostensibly on ‘environmental’ grounds.

The Sino-Russian dynamic in Central Asia could also face some geopolitical tensions, especially in the likely event of American influence decreasing in the region. Russia retains significant military resources in several Central Asian states and has pledged more than a billion US dollars’ worth of military aid to help Tajikistan fight Islamist rebels.

Strategic tensions

Although the US has officially halted combat operations in Afghanistan, a sizeable US military presence remains. Even in the absence of US forces in the area, Russia and China may want to keep their regional relationship amicable.

With China feeling pressure from America and its allies in the Pacific, and Russia under similar pressure in the West, the two powers have a mutual interest in keeping Central Asia free of strategic tensions.

The Sino-Russian relationship in Central Asia remains one of cooperation, precisely because of the perception of shared regional challenges. Moscow and Beijing are wary of any American strategic projection into the resource-rich area on their borders.

Beijing sees Washington’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ as an effort to check China’s regional rise. Relations between Russia and America have devolved into open competition over the conflict in Ukraine and resulting economic sanctions.

China and Russia share an interest in checking ethnic separatism in their Muslim-majority regions bordering Central Asia. While these threats are seen by both powers as greater than any strategic rivalry they may have in Central Asia, it seems likely that their cooperation will continue.

Key factors

The possibilities for Chinese influence in the region depend on two key factors. The first is local conditions within Central Asia itself. The Central Asian states have great potential, but they face similar issues of ethnic tension, political repression and radical forms of political Islamism.

The second factor is great power relations between China, Russia and the US. Without peace in Afghanistan, or a lasting solution to the India-Pakistan conflict, Russia, China and, to a lesser extent, the US will be the only countries with power projection capabilities in the region.

Eventually, the Central Asian states are likely to lay pipelines running west to Europe and south either through Iran, or through Afghanistan, to Pakistan and India.

However, these pipelines depend on Afghan peace and Indo-Pakistani cooperation, and a long-term solution to tensions between Iran and the US. These issues are very unlikely to be resolved in the medium-term, and so the region is hemmed in by Russia and China.

Ideal scenario

In the ideal scenario for Beijing, the Central Asian states develop economically and relations remain close between Russia and China. Chinese investment in infrastructure could help transportation of resources and goods between China and Central Asia, helping to develop China’s interior. The five Central Asia states could serve as a bridge, helping link China, Russia and Europe.

As economic opportunities increase, the region remains relatively politically stable. With its vast potential, relatively decent education and strategic importance, this is by far the most likely long-term outcome and in part explains Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to Pakistan and his announcement of massive infrastructure spending there.

Given economic development in a politically stable manner, and concurrent deterioration in Sino-Russian relations, the Central Asia states may have to choose between patrons in Moscow and Beijing. This rivalry could in turn heighten local ethnic tensions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to act as ‘the main guarantor of the safety of the Russian world’. Any ethnic violence targeting Central Asia’s sizeable Russian minority could invite military intervention from Moscow.

However, this scenario seems the least likely because regional confrontation between China and Russia would be likely to exacerbate local tensions to the point where serious violence erupts.

Worst case

The worst-case scenario for China, Russia and the Central Asian states is a regional disintegration concurrent with Sino-Russian rivalry. Multi-ethnic states could be torn apart as Russia and China back different factions to project their regional power.

Islamists and ethnic separatists could take advantage of the chaos and resulting economic hardship to spread violence into Russia and China’s border regions.

It is probable, however, that China and Russia could uphold their regional cooperation even in the unlikely event of the collapse of several Central Asian states. Both powers would have tremendous mutual interest in containing any ethnic or Islamist violence to the region.

It is highly likely that Moscow and Beijing will one day launch a joint military intervention to protect their interests in Central Asia in the event of local political collapse.

Looking specifically at the five Central Asia states, several possibilities appear.

Uzbekistan’s gold

Slightly less than half of Central Asia’s roughly 66 million people live in Uzbekistan. It borders every other Central Asian state, as well as Afghanistan.

The Uzbek economy is heavily dependent on gold and cotton exports. Uzbekistan is in a good position to profit with China’s economy demanding these raw materials.

It is probable that China and Russia could uphold their regional cooperation even in the unlikely event of the collapse of several Central Asian states

Politically, Uzbekistan is known to be particularly repressive, even by regional standards. The regime has killed dissidents by boiling them alive. President Islam Karimov, who has ruled since independence in 1991, brands all opposition as Islamist terrorism.

A collapse in the international gold or cotton markets would have a disastrous effect on the Uzbek economy, with increased potential for insurgency or revolution. Uzbekistan shares no borders with Russia or China. Any intervention in the event of a political collapse would have to be a regional effort, most likely under the auspices of the SCO.

Kazakhstan’s ties

With its huge geographic area and abundant natural resources, Kazakhstan - population 18 million - also stands to benefit from increased Chinese investment and infrastructure projects. It has a relatively diversified economy with strong and growing consumer spending.

Chinese businesses are putting down roots in Kazakhstan to tap into its consumer market, and its natural resources.

Kazakhstan, of all the Central Asian states, has the closest ties with Russia. Moscow’s space programme is run from land leased from Kazakhstan, and more than a fifth of the population is ethnic Russian.

The political situation is mostly stable. Kazakhstan is best placed - geographically, economically and politically - to benefit from China’s regional initiatives, and the current and probable long-term Sino-Russian cooperation.

Turkmenistan’s gas

Situated along Iran’s northern border, Turkmenistan, with its population of 5.2 million, has huge reserves of natural gas.

Its economy is increasingly dependent on exports to China, especially as exports to the south, via Iran or Afghanistan, remain politically impossible in the medium term.

The country is suffering something of a resource curse, as unemployment remains worryingly high.

Since the death of its eccentric post-Soviet autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006, the government has been liberalising slowly with political opposition tightly controlled.

Vulnerable Tajikistan

The poorest of the Central Asian states, with a population of eight million, the economy of mountainous Tajikistan is hugely dependent on remittances from Tajik workers in Russia.

There are few local resources or industry. However, it has immense hydroelectric potential and there are plans to export Tajikistan’s power through northern Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Tajikistan is particularly vulnerable to spillover violence and drug trafficking from Afghanistan.

With the government censoring any criticism of the regime, the allure of political Islam remains potent. Instability in Tajikistan is of huge concern to Beijing.

Divided Kyrgyzstan

The only Central Asian state to have undergone a ‘colour revolution’, Kyrgyzstan remains deeply corrupt and ethnically divided.

Like Tajikistan, it depends heavily on remittances from workers in Russia - and now, to a lesser degree, illegal workers in China.

However, Kyrgyzstan has abundant and relatively untapped reserves of gold, coal and uranium. These resources are increasingly attracting Chinese attention.

Kyrgyzstan’s border with China means it has the potential to rapidly benefit from increased Chinese economic influence, provided it can maintain political stability.

Final conclusions

Russia’s power in Central Asia has been waning for several decades, while Chinese influence has grown dramatically. So long as Beijing cooperates with Moscow’s core political goals, Russia is likely to accept greater Chinese influence in its former territory.

China seems set to profit tremendously from Central Asia’s potential, in the likely event that the region can maintain a reasonable degree of stability and cohesion.

Beijing invests out of long-term economic and political self-interest. China’s leaders fully expect their tens of billions of dollars of Central Asian investment to pay over the coming century.

For hundreds of years, Central Asia has been the object of the imperialist Great Game. China is currently winning the game by relying on pipeline politics and infrastructure development, instead of military adventurism.

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