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Russia, China, Kazakhstan and The “New Great Game” in Central Asia

- By Paolo Pizzolo

- Original Article available here


The importance of Russia as main security provider in post-Soviet Central Asia has manifested clearly in the last few days, with Russian-led troops responding to the call of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and intervening militarily to end the unrest that broke out in Kazakhstan. The troops were sent by the Russian-led military alliance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes six former Soviet countries. The bulk of the 2,500 deployed soldiers belonged to the 45th brigade of the Russian army, which represent special forces that had already been used in various war scenarios like Chechnya, South Ossetia, and Syria. The Russian-led intervention confirmed Russia’s key role as security provider in Central Asia.

Notwithstanding, despite its enduring unmatched role as key regional security provider, if the Kremlin wants to maintain its influence in Central Asia it will have to counterbalance the Chinese influence in the long run. In fact, recently Central Asia has witnessed the emergence of a growing rivalry between Russia and China that may gradually overcome the so-called “axis of convenience” between Beijing and Moscow of the early 2000s. Today, Beijing seems to be willing to extend its influence in the region both at an institutional level, with initiatives like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and in economic and infrastructural projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). To avoid a marginalization in its “near abroad”, the Kremlin’s strategies to maintain regional hegemony include the creation of robust bonds with local pro-Russian regimes, the upkeep of a military presence in Central Asian countries, the support of Russian ethnic minorities and the marginalization of both Western and Chinese influence.

Although the Kremlin is still the main intermediary between Central Asia and Europe for energy transit networks, the rise of a Chinese influence in the Central Asian region is currently the greatest challenge to Russian hegemony. Historical liaisons and diverging interests could soon lead Moscow and Beijing towards a “New Great Game” in Central Asia. China’s project announced in Kazakhstan in 2013 to create a “New Silk Road” represented an epochal event for Central Asia’s balance of power, showing an increasing Chinese interest towards the region. Since 2014, China has become one of the main trading partners of the Central Asian region and a chief investor in the energy production sector. Moreover, in 2015, China and Kazakhstan expressed their willingness to link the BRI with the Kazakh “Bright Path” (Nurly Zhol) strategy as a prelude to a long-term economic, logistic, and infrastructural collaboration. At the same time, Uzbekistan also announced its commitment to connect its New Development Strategy to the BRI. Although directly involved in the initiative, the Kremlin interpreted the BRI as an attempt to lure Central Asian countries into China’s geo-economic orbit, at the expenses of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), of which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members. The Chinese access to regional energy resources represents a problematic circumstance that contrasts with Russia’s goal of maintaining a monopoly in the control of the region’s energy sector.

At the institutional level, China appears to play a leading role in initiatives like the SCO. Created in 2001 for political, economic and security cooperation, today the SCO has eight full-fledged member states (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan) and Iran as an acceding member. India’s inclusion in 2017 was strongly encouraged by Russia to counterbalance China’s influence in the organization, which nonetheless supported Pakistan’s membership as an additional source of balancing. However, precisely through the SCO, China is projecting itself as a concrete alternative to Russia as security provider in Eurasia.

Certainly, Central Asian countries still enjoy significant cultural and military ties with Russia. In fact, the Russian ethnic minority – rather conspicuous, for instance, in Kazakhstan – represents a relevant tool for the upholding of Moscow’s interests. Furthermore, from a military standpoint, as evidenced by the intervention in Kazakhstan, the CSTO still plays a paramount role in the region. Russia is still in control of the military bases of Baikonur, Sary-Shagan and Balkhash in Kazakhstan, the Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan and the military base at Dushanbe in Tajikistan. Furthermore, in the sphere of security, the Western presence in the region is negligible. Even the United States, after the expulsion from the Uzbek air base of Karshi-Khanabad (K2) in 2005 and from the Kyrgyz air base of Manas in 2014, is no longer present militarily in the area.

Against this backdrop, Moscow believes that the future possibilities for Central Asia are three: remain in the Russian orbit; fall into a condition of chronic instability; or pass under Chinese rule. Still, a future potential Sino-Russian rivalry in Central Asia may not necessarily materialize in open confrontation but rather in a geostrategic and geo-economic competition, or, as we may call it, in the “New Great Game” of the twenty-first century.

-Paolo Pizzolo is Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies (CCEIS) of the National Research University Higher School of Economics of Moscow, Moscow, Russia and Research Fellow at the Interdepartmental Research Centre for Cooperation with Eurasia, the Mediterranean, and Sub-Saharan Africa (CEMAS) of Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy.


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