30.05.23 China Analytics

Shifting Tides: How China is seizing the initiative in Central Asia and taking Russia’s place

For the post-Soviet states of Central Asia, Russia has acted as a guarantor of security for decades, but the war in Ukraine has made it a dangerous neighbour, deals with which have fewer benefits and more risks. This shift, as in other areas, benefits China, which is eager to exploit the power vacuum created in the region by Putin's obsession with Ukraine. China's recent summit with Central Asian leaders and Beijing's growing influence in the region have raised concerns among Western policymakers. But the West can neither offer the Central Asian states the economic opportunities they desire, nor show the political solidarity with the region's autocracies that China has demonstrated. In any case, Russia is likely to soon lose the position it has held for the past few centuries as regional protector, which will be one of the biggest geopolitical consequences of the war in Ukraine on the 'global chessboard'.

The first face-to-face summit between the leaders of China and the five Central Asian states was held in Xi'an, China, on 18-19 May. Most of the public discussion during the summit focused on economic and trade issues, but the US Institute of Peace (USIP) highlights China's pledge to help the region ‘strengthen law enforcement, security and defence capabilities.’ This is consistent with Beijing's desire to play the role of global security guarantor as an alternative to the United States. According to USIP analysts, the China-Central Asia Summit (C+C5) should be seen as an important milestone in the reformatting of Sino-Central Asian relations: previously, the Chinese leadership conducted its Central Asian diplomacy solely through bilateral meetings or held meetings with Central Asian leaders under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The old format de facto recognised Moscow's priority interests, but this time China brought all five countries together in one place, and without Russia, with plans to institutionalise the practice (Beijing intends to set up a C+C5 secretariat), and with the next summit already scheduled for 2025. 

Russia has acted as the main guarantor of stability in Central Asia since the early 1990s. There are Russian military installations deployed across the region, and in January 2022 Kazakh leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to help suppress anti-government protests. However, the war in Ukraine has not only reduced Russia's ability to provide security in the region, it has also provoked anti-Russian sentiment and encouraged Central Asian leaders to expand their cooperation with China. 

For China, the window of opportunity was cracked open not only by Russia becoming mired in Ukraine, but also by the declining role of the United States in the region after its ‘flight’ from Afghanistan. By choosing Xi'an, once the eastern gateway to the Silk Road, Beijing has emphasised its deep historical ties to the region, which can also be seen as a challenge to Moscow, which considers the post-Soviet Central Asian states to be within its sphere of influence. The final text of the Xi'an Declaration is even bolder, tying the future of the signatories together: ‘the Parties… reaffirm their desire to jointly create a closer community of a common destiny for Central Asia and China’.

Neither Moscow nor Washington can compete with the economic incentives China is offering to the countries of the region. At the recent summit, Xi Jinping pledged ¥26 billion (over $3.6 billion) in financial aid and assistance to Central Asian countries, while US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who visited the region in March, pledged just $25 million in aid. Unlike the West, China does not impose any human rights or democratic requirements for the countries with which it does business. The regular corruption scandals involving Chinese companies and Central Asian elites, combined with Beijing's attitude towards anti-government protests that are seen as Western-inspired 'colour revolutions', are clear demonstrations that autocracy and nepotism are institutional practices common to China and Central Asian autocracies, and form the framework for their political proximity and solidarity.

Russia, which has entered a long period of economic stagnation, is hardly an economic competitor to China in any sense. On the eve of the summit, China's General Administration of Customs published data showing that trade between China and the countries of Central Asia grew by 37.3% in the first four months of 2023 compared to the same period last year. At the same time, the Chinese debt burden for the Central Asian states is growing: Chinese loans already account for 40% of Tajikistan's and 45% of Kyrgyzstan's foreign debt. For the moment, Moscow is as interested in economic relations with the Central Asian countries as the countries themselves are in economic relations with Russia, because these are the routes for Russian parallel imports and for circumventing sanctions.

However, as the Atlantic Council notes, Russia's disappearance and the withdrawal of the US could actually be a trap for the region, undermining the policy of balancing great power interests (known in Kazakhstan as ‘multi-vector diplomacy’). The Central Asian states are not interested in unilateral relations or heavy dependence on China, but in practice the declared 'multi-vector' approach is extremely difficult to implement under the current circumstances. China, for its part, is luring the countries of the region not only with economic 'carrots' and promises of security but also with 'sticks' by exploiting the memory of Soviet imperialism: Beijing has consistently promoted the narrative of harmonious coexistence among the Silk Road countries, contrasting this with the colonialist approach of the Soviet Union. Thus, Putin's failed attempt to regain control of Ukraine is likely to result in Russia losing its vital influence in Central Asia for the first time in centuries. And, this would be one of the most significant changes on the ‘global chessboard’ brought about by Russia's defeat in Ukraine.

However, the pivot towards China may not go down well in Central Asian public opinion, which welcomes the expansion of trade and energy relations with Beijing but does not support the idea of a Chinese military presence in Central Asia, according to a recent article by Foreign Policy. According to Jessica Nefi, Professor at Nazarbayev University, fears of not only Chinese dominance but also of direct military aggression from China (perhaps a legacy of the Soviet era) are widespread across the region. And these concerns leave the US and its allies with some, albeit limited, room for manoeuvre.