Russia’s and China’s quiet contest in Central Asia

A map showing Central Asia’s five states, their energy resources and key crude oil and gas pipelines
The Central Asian countries have leveraged favorable geography and their own energy resources for fast development (source: dpa)
  • Russia is doing more business in Central Asia, but China remains the region’s biggest investor
  • The five “stans” are leveraging their big neighbors’ geostrategic interests for faster development
  • While Beijing is taking pains to avoid irritating Russia in its former backyard, competition and tensions are intensifying

For more than a decade after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the countries in Central Asia enjoyed a degree of independence in their internal and external affairs that they had not known for centuries before. The most vivid examples came to light following 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, when rights for the transit and basing of American troops were allowed in the region. That era seems to be over now, as great power competition has returned as a driver in international relations. What does this reversal augur for Central Asia’s five “stans” – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan?

The most likely scenario combines three simultaneous trends. Russia will step up efforts to strengthen its presence by trying to expand the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and enhancing its economic incentives. China, too, can be expected to increase its already massive investments in the region while pursuing selected political goals. The third trend involves an effort by the Central Asian governments to balance these relations with expanding ties to the outside world.

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