This Briefing analyses the evolving geopolitical dynamics in Central Asia as the region grapples with declining Russian influence and the ascent of Chinese power. This piece was written by Marina Gruzer and edited by Carla Smith.
In the thirty three years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has witnessed a rebalancing of power with Russia’s influence continuously on the decline and China’s economic and political leverage growing. Since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, this trend has been amplified and the former-Soviet Central Asian states are navigating an increasingly distant relationship with Russia. This briefing will discuss Russia’s declining regional hegemony along the following points: the impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Russia’s Greater Eurasian partnership, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the economic implications of China’s influence for Central Asia.
Central Asia has a long history of entanglements with the two regional powers and was a core recipient of international trade through the Silk Road as well as Chinese and Russian colonial expansion throughout the 17th and 20th centuries. Following Russian imperial rule, ending with the formation of the five Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Central Asia remained under the Russian political and economic sphere of influence. Historically for both Russia and China, influence over Central Asia has been crucial to access its natural resources. During Soviet rule, the imperial practice of extracting raw materials to use in Russian industries, like cotton from Uzbekistan and coal from Kazakhstan, continued. Furthermore, as the world’s biggest consumer of oil and gas, China also sees Central Asia as an opportunity to access the region’s raw materials. Inspired by the Silk Road, China launched its Belt and Road Initiate (BRI) in 2013, aiming to link Asian and European markets through infrastructural connectivity. The Central Asian states, geographically critical in achieving this, were among the first to receive BRI investments with 261 projects underway as of 2020.
The role of Central Asia in regional security
Additionally, both China and Russia see the region as key to ensure domestic and international stability. Since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has maintained strategic influence by establishing itself as a security guarantor for the region. In 1992, the creation of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) provided member states with collective military assistance in case of aggression from other states and actors. Similarly, Beijing sees Central Asia as critical to the security of the politically sensitive Xinjiang region and maintains a degree of security influence through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The SCO is important from Beijing’s perspective to target the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which advocates for Xinjiang’s separatism. Through the SCO, Beijing coordinates joint military and counter-terrorism exercises with member states. Therefore, China uses the SCO’s cross-border framework with Central Asian states to combat what they see as ‘ethnic separatism and religious extremism’ in Xinjiang’s independence movement. In this way, Central Asia’s policy and economy have been largely dictated by the dynamics and ambitions of the powerful regional blocs.
Theoretical Perspectives: Comparing Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership and China’s Belt and Road Initiative
In addition to the historical context of Central Asia’s relationship with Russia and China, it is also important to understand how the different geo-political worldviews of both powers complicate Central Asian dynamics. Russia’s foreign policy is rooted in its ambition to shift the international order away from the ‘U.S.-dominated unipolar order’ and to create a multipolar system. In this system, Russia would have a leading role in Central Asia to facilitate global multipolarity. A radical example of this is the concept of Eurasianism, appropriated by far-right politicians, in which Russia occupies a cultural middle ground between Europe and Asia and offers a ‘third way’ in its role as a global power. Eurasianism rejects the Western dominated order and argues that the geographical position of Eurasian territory inevitably develops an imperial structure. It argues that deviation from this political organisation will fail, making newly independent states return to a ‘unified political entity’. While it is not a prevailing view, a Eurasian doctrine would entail maintaining neocolonial influence over Central Asia. In its quest for multipolarity, Russia’s attempt to establish itself as a regional leader is exemplified by its proposed integration of the BRI with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) initiative into a ‘Greater Eurasian Partnership’, introduced by Putin in 2016. However, the national governments involved were never consulted on the coordination of this initiative and it was criticised as a ‘Russia-led concept’ by Central Asian states.
Alternatively, China’s geopolitical strategy is based on the concept of ‘win-win cooperation’ presented as a commitment to bridge the global North-South divide and “support other developing countries in enhancing their capacity for self-development.” Win-win cooperation through the BRI has been relatively attractive to Central Asia, as it falls in line with its development interests. For example, Kazakhstan sees the BRI as “an opportunity to acquire new capital inflows and new technologies” under its domestic ‘Nurly Zohl’ (Bright Path) development plan that aims to diversify away from Russia. Other BRI projects that have picked up pace since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine include the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway (CKU), which would allow China and Central Asia to avoid the impact of anti-Russian sanctions. Furthermore, the Greater Eurasian Partnership is perceived by Central Asia as a Russian attempt to counteract growing Chinese influence while also lacking consistency and Central Asian inclusion. Their suspicion is emphasised by Russia’s dominant role in the Eurasian Economic Union which allows it to act unilaterally within the union and make economic decisions without consulting Central Asian members.
However, many critics of the BRI believe that there is a risk of ‘zero-sum cooperation’ in which China would reap disproportionate economic benefits while its partners would become increasingly dependent on Chinese support. Kyrgyzstan is concerned that extensive investment from China, including the 21 BRI projects in the country, would lead to disproportionate debt. As of 2021, Kyrgyzstan’s sovereign debt exposure to China is approximately 29.8 percent of its GDP. Consequently, Kyrgyzstan is looking for alternative financing sources, for example Russia, to limit its debt to China. Therefore, while Russia’s diplomatic and economic influence is weakening in comparison to the growing Chinese investment, Central Asian states are still cautious about the implications of China’s presence.
The Impact of Russia’s 2022 Invasion of Ukraine
Russia’s security influence and traditional role as a provider of military stability have also declined. Continuously turbulent Russian foreign policy, especially the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, has led to weaker ties with Central Asian allies. Kazakhstan, Russia’s key partner, refused to support the invasion and did not recognise the ‘quasi-states’ of Donetsk and Luhansk. Additionally, to further diversify its international partnerships, Kazakhstan entered an intelligence sharing agreement with Türkiye, a NATO member state. This is an example of Central Asia’s ‘multi-vectoral’ foreign policy that aims to diversify trade and diplomacy away from Russia. Furthermore, it reflects how the war in Ukraine has eroded trust between the region and Russia, and has pushed leaders to continue a more active pursuit of independence from Russian influence.
Anti-Russian sanctions have enhanced focus on Russia's regional rivalry with China and provided an opportunity for increased Chinese influence. Both countries maintain influence in different sectors within the region. For example in Tajikistan, while $1.2bn of the total $3.2bn foreign debt is to China, the country relies on Russian military support to secure the turbulent southern border with Afghanistan. The EU’s 11th Package of sanctions included an ‘anti-circumvention’ strategy which would apply trade restrictions on countries who are involved in Russian attempts to bypass direct sanctions. With the risk of sanctions, Central Asian states need alternatives to establish economic independence and security. Seeing this as an opportunity, China was able to use the SCO to ‘channel’ its BRI policies in Central Asia through multilateral agreements with SCO Central Asian members to resume the construction of long delayed projects previously challenged by Russia. Therefore, China has overcome Russia’s influence within international organisations that they are both part of. This is reflected in the SCO backed promotion of the CKU railway to create the ‘Middle Corridor’ trade route alternative to the Russian Northern Corridor. Following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, cargo shipments along the Middle Corridor increased from 530,000 tons to 3.2 million tons providing Central Asian states with greater economic opportunities, escalating Russia’s isolation and emphasising Chinese influence.
Challenges to China's Rising Influence
However, China’s ostensibly growing influence in this case is not necessarily a permanent change in regional dynamics. The construction of the Middle Corridor, connecting China, Central Asia, southern Caucasus and Europe still requires significant infrastructure development which has been delayed due to factors outside Central Asia such as internal Georgian politics and “possible Russian meddling”. Additionally, in the case of Kazakhstan’s diversification, the landlocked oil exporting country does not have immediate access to sea ports that would give it access to international oil markets. This leaves Kazakhstan highly dependent on Russia as ‘96%’ of Kazakhstan’s oil exports are transported via the Russian Transneft oil pipeline and ports. Therefore, despite the impact of sanctions, Russia could still withstand rising Chinese regional influence and apply a degree of leverage on Central Asian countries.
In the long term, China's influence in the region could escalate further if Central Asian countries see the BRI as complementary to their multi-vector foreign policy. This would significantly weaken Russia’s regional position. With this in mind, a truly pragmatic approach from the Central Asian states’ perspective would apply caution to prevent excessive debts to China. China is already Tajikistan’s ‘largest external creditor’ and as of 2016 the country owes over ‘$1USD billion to China’s Export-Import Bank’. Diversifying sources of financial borrowing would give Central Asian states greater economic independence from both Russia and China while enabling their desired economic development. Consequently, this opens opportunities for Western involvement as seen in the USA’s increased trading interest in the region to counteract China’s challenge to a US dominated global order. However, with Russia's close connection to Central Asian leaders, as many attended Russian universities in the Soviet era, Russia is unlikely to lose its position entirely in the short term. Simultaneously, Russia is also unlikely to recover its initial influence especially with the growing anti-Russian sentiment among the younger Central Asian generation.