An invisible wedge has been growing between Russia and its Central Asian neighbours since Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The unease is most particularly tangible in Astana. Any statements made by Russian officials that appear to put in question the statehood Kazakhstan gained after it was granted independence from the USSR prompt collective gasps.
At the same time, China has been on a charm offensive in the region to promote its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) vision.
“The China-Kazakhstan political mutual trust has grown stronger. Our two countries respect each other's independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and choice of development path,” declared a signed article released by Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of his visit to Astana in June. In itself, the statement is not remarkable in any way, but after Ukraine, Xi’s words are seen in Kazakhstan as part of a more reassuring approach to diplomacy.
The extent of China’s present-day role in Central Asia has so far not risen beyond the realm of economic expansion, and the Kremlin’s current official line is to welcome Chinese infrastructure investment, but already Russian media and experts have expressed concerns about Beijing’s steady encroachment on what has become known as “Russia’s backyard”.
Kazakhstan’s recent decision to begin a gradual transition away from the Cyrillic alphabet to a Latin alternative prompted Russian headlines such as “Kazakhstan’s transition to Latin alphabet is a signal for Moscow” and “By transitioning to a Latin alphabet Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would enter China’s zone”.
Yuri Solozobov, a political analyst at Russia’s National Strategy Institute, has suggested in interviews with Russian media that the decision should alert Moscow since “the commonality of the cultural space was one of three [pillars], along with energy [and] defence, which linked, by invisible ties, all the CIS countries”. He ambiguously added that the transition is “not a reason for [Russia to] panic, but for reflection and decision-making”.
In an interview published by RFE/RL, China expert Theresa Fallon remarked that “the Russians remain sceptical, in [my] view. Privately, Russians will tell you they are very concerned about [OBOR], but publicly they put on a very brave face”.
Other analysts believe such worries and speculations are misplaced.
“Central Asian countries, including Turkmenistan, are not interested in getting into total economic (and in the future, political) dependence upon a single ‘centre of power’,” Ruslan Izimov, a China expert at the Central Asian Institute for Strategic Studies, told bne IntelliNews. “In this case, such concerns apply to, in the first place, China. Thus, the countries of the region, first of all Kazakhstan, consistently pursue a multi-vector policy, that is, maintaining the balance of influence and participation of the external players.”
The Russian economy has in the past few years been struggling with the crippling effects of a double whammy – sanctions and low oil prices – which has led Central Asian nations to question the effectiveness of the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a free trade bloc seen by some as a political tool. In Kyrgyzstan, the country’s economic difficulties have been accompanied by the failure of Moscow to follow up on its commitments to construct two key hydropower plants.
The only Central Asian country Russia has been improving relations with has been Uzbekistan, given that the Russians ceased importing Turkmen gas in favour of Uzbek supplies and have defended Uzbekistan’s hydropower interests over those of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. As a consequence of taking Uzbekistan’s side in the dispute over the construction of Tajikistan’s Rogun Dam hydropower project, Russia has managed to push Dushanbe closer to Beijing.
As Beijing’s investments in the region continue to grow, it is inevitable that the country will eventually engage in protecting its investments. This can be seen already in growing Chinese military cooperation across the region.
Clear signs of the policy are visible in Beijing’s increased military cooperation with Tajikistan. The two countries held counter-terrorism exercises on the Tajik-Afghan border in 2016 and the giant eastern neighbour has offered to build several military outposts and facilities. The existence of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) did not prevent China in 2016 from forming a new group with Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan to combat terrorism.
This is part of a series looking at the implications of China's growing interest in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia.