Will central Asia Divide China and Russia?


Eurasian Partners and Rivals

Over the past decade, China and Russia have taken steps to enhance their defence and economic ties, often in a bid to offset the power of the United States and the West.  On the defence side, the armed forces of China and Russia cooperate in many ways, often staging exercises together, while Russia has become a leading source of military technology and equipment for the expanding Chinese armed forces.  Economically, China has become a leading consumer of Russia energy and mining exports, while China is rapidly becoming a leading investor in Russia.  While ties between these two giant countries have grown in recent years, they have been tempered by fears in Moscow that China’s rising power will result in a more unequal relationship, with Russia in a junior position in any partnership with China.  Now, another issue is looming that could derail ties between these two countries.  This issue is Central Asia, where a power vacuum has developed that both countries are trying to fill.

Two Centuries of Russian Domination

Russia controlled most of Central Asia from the late 18th century until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and still sees this territory as unquestionably within its sphere of influence.  Nevertheless, Russia’s influence in Central Asia fell considerably in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, allowing rival powers such as the United States, Turkey and Iran to gain economic or military footholds in the region.  Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has moved to both rebuild its influence in Central Asia, while reducing the presence of these rival powers in the region.  While Russia is far from being able to reincorporate the region into a revived Russian Empire of sorts, it retains considerable interest in the region from a defence standpoint, while a large Russian ethnic minority remains in the region, particularly in the region’s most powerful country, Kazakhstan.  Indeed, Moscow’s actions in Ukraine over the past two years have sent alarm bells ringing across Central Asia, as these countries are fearful of Russia’s intentions in the region.

 China’s Rising Influence 

While Russia has been moving steadily to regain its lost influence in Central Asia, another country with significant interests in the region has also been increasing its presence in Central Asia, China.  Historically, China’s ties with Central Asia have largely been economic, highlighted by the Silk Road that connected China with Europe and the Middle East from ancient times until the opening of sea routes between the West and Asia in the 15th century.  In recent years, China has taken a newfound interest in the region for a number of reasons.  The main reason is economic, as not only does China covet the vast energy and mineral resources of Central Asia, but it is also seeking to revive the Silk Road in order to establish new trade links between China and key export markets in Europe and the Middle East that avoid seas controlled by the navies of the United States and other rival powers.  Moreover, the region of China that neighbours Central Asia, Xinjiang, as been beset by ethnic and religious unrest in recent years, with many militant groups in the region having ties with groups based in Central Asia.  Altogether, as China’s economic and military power continues to rise, it will move to further expand its influence in this strategic region and this will certainly trouble Russia.

A New Great Game in Central Asia

While Russia and China are both attempting to increase their power and influence over the countries of Central Asia, a power vacuum is forming in the region that could lead to a collapse of centralized power in many of the countries there.  For example, the region’s two most powerful countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, are both dominated by aging leaders that have been in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and neither leader has a clear successor as they have closely held power in their own hands.  Meanwhile, two Central Asian countries that share a border with China, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are struggling with deep internal divisions that could destabilize either country at any moment.  Should one or more Central Asian country experience a rapid loss of centralized power, Russia and China will find themselves with an opportunity to further increase their influence in the region, although any move made by one country will be viewed with suspicion by the other.  Certainly, Russia is fearful of the growing power imbalance between itself and China, so any further increase in China’s economic or political influence in Central Asia will cause concern in Moscow.  Furthermore, a showdown in Central Asia could revive other disputes between Russia and China that in the past have caused great tension between the two countries.  As such, Central Asia could prove to be a dangerous flashpoint involving the world’s second- and third-most powerful armed forces and could derail any attempts to expand bilateral ties between these two countries.

Source: International Strategic Analysis (ISA)