Central Asia is a region that has recently seen the emergence of a growing rivalry between Russia and China. The latter seems to want to extend its influence on the area both at the institutional level, with initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and also through economic-infrastructural projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In order to avoid the risk of marginalization in its neighboring foreign countries, the Kremlin is forced to maintain its hegemony by enhancing relations with local pro-Russian regimes, maintaining its military presence, leveraging Russian ethnic minorities and limiting not only Western influence but also, and perhaps mainly, the Chinese one.
After having been gradually conquered by Russia during the nineteenth century, Central Asia followed the fate first of the Tsarist Empire and then of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991. After the independence of the five Central Asian republics, Russia developed a complex relationship with Central Asia. In fact, although the Kremlin is still the leading intermediary between Central Asia and Europe for energy transit networks, China, which shares a long border with some countries in the area and invests more and more in the resources of the region, is today the greatest challenger of Russian hegemony.
Xi Jinping’s project, revealed not surprisingly in Kazakhstan in 2013 and manifesting the willingness to create a “New Silk Road”, represented an epoch-making event for central Asian balances, demonstrating so the increase in Chinese influence on the region. In particular, as evidenced by many experts, a significant Chinese influence on Central Asia will be implemented, on the one hand, through the two land routes of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and, on the other, through the so-called “New Eurasian Land Bridge” (from western China to Europe) and the “China-Central Asia-Western Asia Corridor” (from western China to Turkey), touching the way of all five central Asian republics and Iran.
China has become the main trading partner of the region since 2014 and thanks to its massive investments in the energy production sector, it will soon be able to channel about half of the energy produced towards its borders. Among other things, in 2015 China and Kazakhstan expressed their willingness to tie the BRI with the Kazakh strategy of the “Light Path” as a prelude to a long-term economic-logistic-infrastructural collaboration. At the same time, Uzbekistan also announced its commitment to connect its New Development Strategy to the BRI. In spite of being in part directly involved in the Chinese initiative, the Kremlin still interpreted the BRI as an attempt to attract Central Asian countries into China’s geo-economic orbit, to the detriment of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). In addition, Chinese access to regional energy resources appears to be at odds with the Russian goal of monopoly control of the region’s energy sector.
The same for the institutional level, China appears to play a leading role in initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The latter, created in 2001 for political, economic and security cooperation, now is made up of eight member states (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan). In 2017, the inclusion of India was strongly encouraged by Russia in order to offset the influence in the organisation of China, which nonetheless supported the accession of Pakistan as an additional source of balance. However, precisely through the SCO, China is projecting itself as a real alternative leader to Russia for the security of the region.
With in this frame work, Moscow believes there are three future possibilities for Central Asia: to remain in the Russian orbit, to fall into a condition of chronic instability or to pass under Chinese rule.
This pointed out, it is important to highlight that, on the one hand, the Central Asian countries still vaunt significant cultural as well as military ties to Russia. On the other hand, nonetheless, China, as highlighted, will be a relentless presence in the long run. Therefore, if Russia is to maintain influence in Central Asia, it will have to be able to find solutions to counterbalance the growing Chinese influence.