As Beijing ramps up its security inroads into Central Asia, the limits of China as a security provider in Central Asia remains significant. Russia fears growing Chinese influence, but larger issues such as cooperation against the US is prevailing, glossing over the existing tensions between Moscow and Beijing.
China’s growing global ambitions are often measured by its success in critical regions across the Eurasian landmass. One such area is Central Asia. This geographically closed space has been gradually opened by outside powers through new infrastructure projects since the end of the Soviet Union. China is one of the disruptors of this long-held status quo. Its growing appetite for resources has made Central Asia a critical element in its emerging quest for diversification of natural resources. The region’s geography too is critical for China as it allows the country to connect with West Asia and Europe. This also, however, makes Central Asia a region where potential social disturbances or other kinds of instability could have a spillover effect on China’s westernmost region of Xinjian.
Security, trade, and acquisition of resources are what motivate China’s policies toward Central Asia. The region has been, historically speaking, militarily dominated by Moscow, but the rise of China, which at times overshadows Russia’s traditional clout, has led to a serious debate on whether a great power competition would pit Russia and China against one another. A common understanding or a modus vivendi based on an unofficial division of labor between China and Russia has developed whereby Moscow dominates the security area, while Beijing expands economically into Central Asia.
Though China has been careful not to upend this informal understanding, over the past couple of years there has been a notable uptick in Beijing’s efforts to become a more active player in Central Asia’s security. In 2019, it was confirmed that Beijing had opened a military base in Tajikistan. This area is strategically important for two reasons: it overlooks one of the crucial entry points from China into Central Asia, and it is close to the vital corridor through which the country connects to the Afghan heartland. That corridor is essential to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In late 2021, it was reported that Beijing would fund a new complex in Tajikistan – a funding of around $10 million. The facility would be of semi-military nature, with personnel from Tajikistan’s Rapid Reaction Group (Special Forces), and would be located in the country’s Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous province, which borders on Afghanistan and China itself. As news about the new semi-military complex came out, other reports emerged indicating that, after a series of secret talks, Tajikistan had agreed to transfer full control of the 2019 military base to the Chinese. So far, the facilities have been used by both sides.
Beijing’s decision to open a second facility in Tajikistan followed a significant development in Afghanistan, namely the US’ hastened withdrawal from the country. Beijing’s concerns about the growing security threats manifested itself in the increase in number and scope of military drills held by China and Central Asian countries. Beijing fears that potential instability in Afghanistan would have a spill-over effect on Central Asia and China’s western frontiers. Quite naturally, China has striven to increase its security engagement with the region by increasing the number of military drills and even its actual security presence. One such drill by China was held with Tajikistan right in the wake of Taliban takeover of Kabul. Furthermore, there has been a significant shift in the scale of Chinese arms sales to Central Asian states. While Beijing accounted for only 1.5 percent of the region’s military equipment in 2010-2014, this number now stands at approximately 18 percent.
Overall, China’s security inroads into Central Asia have become more significant in scope. This quite naturally raises the question of how Russia views these developments. Moscow is seemingly careful and even silent about Beijing’s moves. Theories built on hard power calculus between an emerging power (China) and a traditional power (Russia) are not entirely satisfying. They preclude us from building a coherent long-term understanding of dynamics between the two states. Moscow loathes Beijing’s growing influence, but its politicians are hesitant to say so explicitly as China is critical of Russia amid its standoff with the West. While the West largely dislikes the concept of spheres of influence and puts a strong emphasis on multilateralism, China, which is in intense competition with the US and wants to preclude a Western presence in Asia, seeks a deeper partnership with Russia. This being the case, the Russian political elite is inclined to watch Chinese initiatives in Central Asia – worrying though they may be – with less public outcry.
Concerns and fears constantly lurk underneath, but Russia also views China as a significant piece in its strategy to push back against the Western-led liberal order. Similar views prevail in Beijing, which makes it clear that incentives to cooperate far outweigh the tensions which exist. Russia and China in Central Asia should not be seen necessarily as rivals.
The case of Kazakhstan
A good example of their growing cooperation despite existing difficulties is what happened in Kazakhstan in early 2022. Russia’s activation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) tested Moscow’s ties with Beijing and underlined the constraints the latter is facing. Though many argued that the development could spark tensions and wider divisions between the two powers, the potential for disruption in bilateral relations is greatly overstated.
In early January, Kazakhstan was shaken by a country-wide internal protest. Though much remains to be seen as to how the events exactly transpired, Russia’s reaction to the instability in one of its major allies was to activate the long-dormant Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The dispatch of some 2,500 Russian, Armenian, Tajik, Belarussian and Kyrgyz troops into Kazakhstan produced a lively debate on how China might react to the upheaval in Kazakhstan and what Russia’s response would be.
Both countries are also close through multilateral cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). They are also part of an emerging closely linked group of fellow authoritarian states bent on supporting each other lest liberal ideals undermine the one-party governance model.
Beijing’s reaction to the unrest in Kazakhstan was neither opposing nor endorsing Russia’s military move. The country nevertheless supported the idea that the upheaval in Kazakhstan was an attempt to carry out a color revolution and needed to be quashed. China also made an official statement through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that the entity is “willing to play a positive role in stabilizing the situation” in Kazakhstan. Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry also stated that “safeguarding member states’ and regional stability has always been the principle and mission of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.”
A different perspective
Though relatively quiescent, China’s reaction to Kazakhstan reveals much about China-Russia relations in Central Asia. As argued above, it has long been suggested that both players have had an unofficial division of labor in the region. Russia has been primarily preoccupied with security issues, while China has been active in the economic sphere. The CSTO activation by Moscow and its allies, however, could signal the reversal of this emerging process, with Russia firmly re-establishing its position as the sole security provider in Central Asia. This does not, however, mean that China was eager to get embroiled in the Kazakhstan events. On the contrary, a careful reading of official Chinese statements shows Beijing was happy with Russia carrying out a security operation.
The CSTO activation by Moscow and the successful completion of the operation also shows that the argument of China and Russia imminently heading toward a collision is inherently wrong (misleading). Both have grievances and perhaps deep concerns that in the longer run might resurface more concretely, but the two have also learned to ‘de-conflict’. Russia is confident that what China does is not undermining Moscow’s basic interests. Surely, Chinese economic presence hurts Russian competitors, but the alternative to allowing Chinese presence would be to antagonize Beijing. This is not an attractive scenario for Moscow, which seeks Beijing’s support in the age of increased competition with the West.
A similar approach prevails in China. It increases its security presence in Central Asia, but is also careful to explain to Russia that its moves are not intended against Moscow’s position. Beijing also spends a great deal of time underlining the fact that the Chinese military base is solely to confront potential threat to Xinjiang, whether from Central Asia or from Afghanistan. Thus, the subtlety of the China-Russia partnership lies in the fact that each acknowledges the other’s sphere of influence. Their great power cooperation rests upon mutual respect.
But there are much deeper incentives propping up the mutual understanding and serving as a major motivator to tone down differences. Opposition or even outright enmity (at least in Moscow) to the US-led world system serves as a powerful glue for the two Eurasian powers.
Ultimately, China and Russia look at Central Asia as a testing ground for what a post-liberal world order could look like. Both seek to build orders of exclusion in their immediate neighbourhoods and Central Asia is one of them. Ideally, Russia would have pursued a dominant position in the region as it indeed did in the Romanov and Soviet times. However, cognizant of its diminished power, Moscow understands that exclusively managing the region would be impossible. Countering every move by other large powers would also hardly be possible in today’s highly interconnected world. Thence comes Russia’s realization that instead of trying to keep China at bay, it would be more efficient to actually build a condominium style leadership over Central Asia.
A critical element to this new order is the exclusion of the collective West, as best examplified by Washington’s failure to attain the agreement of Central Asian States to renew its military presence in the region, following the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
The emerging Central Asian order is similar to what Russia and China are trying to build elsewhere. There is increasing reliance on Iran and Turkey in the South Caucasus, and on the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Caspian Sea, to introduce a system where the presence of non-regional powers will be limited if not altogether removed. Similarly, China pursues a closed order in the South China Sea.
Denying future tensions is still incorrect
While the argument that Russia and China would rather cooperate in Central Asia than fight each other seems powerful. Moscow is nevertheless worried that as China grows economically, it will embark on projection of its geopolitical influence beyond its borders, and Central Asia might be one such region. China relies on global trade routes for internal stability and enhancement of its position. It will eventually have to be more active beyond its borders, whether it wants to or not. The facilities in Tajikistan are just the first concrete step of what future Chinese involvement in various neighborhoods across Eurasia could look like.
Russia is worried about what a future world order shared with Beijing, filled with many unknowns, will look like. For Moscow, the US might be an uncomfortable power, but it nevertheless knows the limits of Washington’s ambitions and, most of all, often knows how to counter them (sowing divisions in the trans-Atlantic community by pushing for closer relations with Germany and France, another tool being to use Iran and the nuclear deal to pressure the West).
To conclude, China sees that Russia is being pragmatic. Blocking other powers from establishing economic and political influence in what once was the Soviet Union would be a futile and perhaps even unwise political move. Russia lacks the resources to unilaterally dominate such a large space as Central Asia. Criticizing China openly would undermine relations with Beijing and hurt Moscow now that its bilateral ties with the collective West are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Unable to forestall the growth of Chinese influence, Russia wants instead to take maximum advantage of Beijing’s emergence in Central Asia.
A rather simplistic scenario of an inevitable rivalry between the two Eurasian powers in Central Asia belies more nuanced developments in the region and fails to place it within the context of a changing global order. Open China-Russia rivalry is unlikely, at least as long as the US continues to pressure them both. Beijing and Moscow will be more inclined to divide their influence in Central Asia. Russia will be less vocal about Chinese economic advances while playing the major security role.
This unofficial arrangement might not be optimal for the Kremlin. After all, Russia singlehandedly dominated the region for centuries. But dividing it with China would still be less damaging than confronting China. We may thus see an accord between two major powers motivated by illiberal visions and the desire to put limits on the West’s geopolitical clout.
China will be ascendant in Central Asia and its inroads into the security sphere will become more profound. Nevertheless, Beijing’s power will remain overshadowed by Russian clout, as the events in Kazakhstan showed. Moreover, China will also be careful not to overstep the mark so as to avoid tensions with Russia. Both need each other in the era of great power competition with the US and is allies.
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