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The battle for hearts and minds in Central Asia: Russia vs. China

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a political and security alliance bringing together numerous Central Asian countries, as well as Russia and China, held its most recent summit in Bishkek on 14 June 2019. While this is an opportunity for Kyrgyzstan to play host, the meeting has also brought discussions of Russia and China’s influence in Central Asia back to the fore.

Russia and China have often competing, but occasionally overlapping political, economic and security interests in countries across the world. These interests can converge in places, such as the Arctic, or diverge, as in their growing competition on the arms market, and as they compete for global recognition as powerful political players. Central Asia is often overlooked as a theatre in which Russian and Chinese interests come together, and where the five republics are caught between the influences of these two large powers. The way in which the republics are able to balance these alliances will have a profound impact on the region in the coming years. But there are already early signs of discord.

Russia’s approach to Central Asia draws on its longstanding political alliances with all five republics, establishing itself as the main hard security provider in the region. Russia has set up military bases in three of the five republics, and trains and supplies weapons to many of their armed forces. While Central Asia does present an economic opportunity for Russia as an export market, Russia also uses its extensive investments in Central Asia’s infrastructure and business environment as an additional lever of political influence.

China’s influence in Central Asia is chiefly economic, with the goal of promoting its political hegemony. China is focused on using Central Asia’s territory as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to promote trade ties, and investing in Central Asia’s railway infrastructure. China relies on its economic links and the prospect of job creation as a way of promoting influence in Central Asia although China does have security interests in the region. Instability in Afghanistan and the spread of Islamist extremism are a joint security concern for China and Russia.

Between a rock and a hard place  

Thanks to its Soviet legacy, Russia’s political and security reach is relatively well-established in Central Asia, but not without tension. Kazakhstan criticised Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and has resisted Russia’s attempts to promote the benefits of the annexation in the media. But the recent handover of power in Kazakhstan - in which President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down - was widely thought to be organised with Moscow’s approval. There was much speculation at the time that Putin was closely observing the handover as a model for his own transition when his presidency ends in 2024. This is unlikely given the different political environments in Russia and Kazakhstan – while former president Nazabayev’s daughter Dariga is a highly visible part of the political system, Putin’s family life is extremely private and never publicly discussed.It has been reported that Nazarbayev had called Putin a few hours before his departure, and appeared to have discussed the transition with Moscow, indicating their close links on major issues.

This push-and-pull relationship is also playing out with China as its growing influence has begun to rankle locals in Central Asia. As Bishkek hosts the SCO summit, Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov will be keen to deepen trade ties with China, and to encourage investments in Kyrgyzstan’s infrastructure. Although ties between China and Kyrgyzstan may be progressing at an official level, locals have become increasingly dissatisfied with the country’s move towards China, and have protested in response. In January 2019, hundreds of demonstrators in Bishkek protested against illegal Chinese migrants, the government’s granting of citizenship to Chinese people married to Kyrgyz nationals, and against the persecution of Kyrgyz people in ‘re-education’ camps in China. Evidently, high-level diplomatic negotiations do not always translate into fruitful partnerships.

There may be similar scope for tensions with China in Uzbekistan. Since the change of administration in Uzbekistan in 2017, China has sought to promote bilateral ties, entering into several major gas deals, including the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, as well as constructing new railway tunnels. But on the ground, Uzbeks responding to local surveys maintain that Chinese investment has not had a tangibly positive impact. China will also face competition in Uzbekistan - since President Islam Karimov’s death in 2017, Russia sent large trade delegations to the country, most notably in October 2018, as an indication of its intent to improve deeper economic relations.

The tussle between China and Russia over Turkmenistan’s gas market is well-documented, and a serious cause of tension. Russia has looked to Turkmenistan in recent years to help strengthen its border with Afghanistan - although this has not been always positively received by the Turkmen -, and is renewing joint military training with Uzbek and Turkmen forces. Russia’s gas giant conglomerate Gazprom at the end of 2018 began to discuss the resumption of deliveries of Turkmenistan’s gas in 2019, which is highly likely to drive up frictions with China. While Turkmenistan’s political environment does not allow large protest movements to foster, Turkmenistan may become the locus of renewed business competition between Russia and China.

Countries such as Belarus – also looking to China for investment – have encountered similar pushback against China from locals. Residents there complain that investors employ Chinese labourers for large projects, without stimulating the local economy. Should China use these same business practices in Central Asia, this could stimulate the already nascent unrest. To take advantage of Chinese and Russian interest in their economies, Central Asia’s political leaders will be obliged to traverse a careful line, to ensure that Chinese presence does not spill over into regional instability.

SEnECA blog contribution by Emily Ferris, Research Fellow at the International Security Studies department of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London