The China-Central Asia Summit Downsizes Russian Role in the Region

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The recently concluded China-Central Asia Summit—the first of its kind—reflects China’s Middle-Kingdom aspirations—aiming to restore China’s historical position of prominence and influence in world affairs. What helps China support its Middle-Kingdom aspirations—strategic, economic, and connectivity—in Central Asia is the veil of reviving the ancient ‘Silk Route’. As Beijing clears its intent in Central Asia amidst Russia’s critical strategic dependency on China due to sanctions from the West, Moscow’s position in the region may be altering.

At the first China-Central Asia Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping presented a “vision of a China-central Asia community with a shared future” based on a development strategy for Central Asia involving infrastructure development to promote commerce as well as assuming new leadership in a region that has historically been under Russian sway.

With a total of 9 multilateral documents, 54 agreements, and 19 new mechanisms of cooperation signed, Beijing makes no mistake in conveying that the summit will have “an important and far-reaching influence on China’s relations with Central Asian countries, and carry global significance”.

The six parties—China and five central Asian republics—agreed to hold the summit biennially with the next one to be held in Kazakhstan in 2025. With the formalisation of the China-Central Asia Summit mechanism including the establishment of an official Secretariat in Beijing, China has also shown its long-term plan for the region.  

Xi reiterated that China wants to “expand industrial and investment cooperation, further develop transport corridors connecting China and Central Asia, support the establishment of a China-Central Asia energy development partnership, encourage cooperation on high technologies, and ensure food security in the region.”

While China is already a critical economic player in Central Asia, its intent to expand deeper, emanates from its looming industrial and strategic needs which also include exploiting the rare earth minerals.

On the security front, China is undoubtedly clear with its intentions to lead in the region and fill the gap caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the Xi’an declaration, China and the Central Asian republics agreed to “combat all forms of terrorism, separatism, and extremism, as well as drug trafficking and transnational organized crimes (and)…step up cooperation on bio-security, cyber-security, and disaster relief, and continue to help the Afghan people to maintain security and stability, and realize peace and reconstruction.”

This crusader approach puts China in the lead role—at least in principle for now. At a time, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has weakened Moskov’s dominance in Central Asia, Beijing certainly finds it an opportune time to exploit the situation due to its geographical proximity, connectivity, trade, and security interests in the region. Also, China’s entry into Moscow’s backyard is an indicator of Beijing’s long-held quest to independently interact with former Soviet republics.

For decades, China’s engagement with Central Asia was predicated on Moscow’s backing of Beijing’s regional interests. That could be altering now.

On the other hand, by befriending Russia’s ‘not allies but better than allies’—China, the Central Asian republics are seeking a balancer in Beijing. Although Russia has positioned itself as a protector of Central Asian republics, there is a chance that Moscow may turn out to be a serious threat to them as the validity of Central Asian republics has repeatedly been questioned by Russia—often referring to them as ‘artificial nations’.

Putin’s grand vision of ‘Russkiy Mir’—emphasising Moscow’s responsibility to protect the Russian minority outside of its boundaries, continues to pose a threat to the Central Asian republics. These republics have a substantial ethnic Russian population which is often seen as a tangible base for Russian influence. 

Thus, no surprise that none of the Central Asian republics have endorsed Russian aggression into Ukraine, though leaders of all-five republics stood alongside Putin as he decried the West for keeping Ukraine ‘hostage’ in his Victory Day speech on 09 May 2023.

For Russia, the Central Asian republics—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are key to its regional dominance and currently serve as a lifeline to Russian strategic needs amidst sanctions including its military needs. For instance, Kazakhstan is key to Russia’s critical military supplies from abroad despite Western sanctions.

A recent report by Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project claims that “Kazakh trade data strongly suggests that the country is used as an intermediary destination for Russian drone imports”.

While Central Asia is rooted as a lifeline to Russian strategic needs, the economic integration is certainly feeling the dent due to an absent Moscow due to its complete focus on Ukraine.  As a result, of Chinese visibility in the region, the Russian initiative for regional integration—The Eurasian Economic Union would lose ground to China’s vast global Belt and Road Initiative, signalling a tilt towards China.

Traditionally, Russia has exploited minerals, gas, and oil in Central Asia. Russia’s economic relations and influence in the region are strengthened by the active participation of Russian businesses in the extraction, transportation, and export of these resources.

For Central Asian republics—maintaining their traditional relations with both Russia and the West has grown more difficult in the present circumstances. The recent sanctions imposed by the West on Russia, are widely noticed by the five republics, eventually limiting their reliance on Russia, especially with regard to regional and economic security.

Hence, there remains little doubt that it will be none but China to fill the strategic vacuum, especially in a scenario where Russia has become hugely dependent on China. Yet the question remains, would Russia like to be a satellite state of Beijing? A perception that emerged out of the Sino-Russian Summit held in March this year in Moscow. 

Whether China will succeed in shifting Central Asia’s dependence on Russia in its favour on the economic and strategic front, remains to be seen. Yet it surely challenges Russian dominance in the region—something that Moscow is not in a position to challenge upfront in the existing circumstances.

Source: Modern Diplomacy