Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov’s death could reshape Sino-Russian ties in Central Asia. So far, Central Asia has not become an object of rivalry between China and Russia. Within the region, Beijing and Moscow cooperate on some issues and avoid open conflict on others. In particular, China has respected Russia’s security primacy in Central Asia, while Moscow has not visibly impeded Beijing from developing strong economic ties within the region. But Karimov’s demise adds to the ongoing transforming of local conditions that present both opportunities and challenges for China-Russia relations.
Beijing and Moscow share important interests in the region. For example, they both want to limit transnational terrorism in Eurasia. Not only do both countries oppose terrorism in principle, but they fret how instability in Central Asia, fueled by the violence in Afghanistan and the Middle East, might harm their interests in Central Asia—or worse spillover into their own borders. Beijing is especially worried about its western province of Xinjiang, whose socioeconomic traits look like those of Central Asia. Uighur extremists, who employ violence to press for Xinjiang’s autonomy, were allegedly involved in the recent terrorist attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. Russia fears spillover into the North Caucasus, which has seen the local Islamist threat wax and wane.
The anxieties in Beijing and Moscow about transnational terrorism are long standing, but have become newly focused on the rise of the “Islamic State”—also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or its Arabic language acronym Daesh. The group has claimed responsibility for attacks against both countries. Uzbeks and other Central Asians have joined the Islamic State’s ranks in Syria, or the related militant groups affiliated with al-Qaeda fighting there; many of these groups also wage jihad with Beijing or Moscow.
Another common Chinese-Russian interest is limiting U.S. involvement in Eurasia. Both governments made their peace with the post-2001 U.S. military surge in Afghanistan and some of the Central Asian countries. They apparently reasoned that the United States and its NATO allies would subdue the Taliban/al-Qaeda terrorist network based there, to their benefit. Like everyone else, they were almost certainly surprised by the U.S. failure to follow its military victory with a successful political, state-building project. And like the United States and its allies, Chinese and Russians now fear would happen should Western troops leave Afghanistan under its present precarious circumstances. Even so, neither country seemed disturbed when U.S. forces withdrew from their last base in Central Asia, at Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan. Neither wants the Pentagon to have a permanent presence in Central Asia or even Afghanistan.
Moreover, both China and Russia have concerns about U.S.-backed democratization efforts and “colored revolutions” in Central Asia and beyond, including in their own countries. They claim the United States exploits democratic movements to topple governments friendly to them. Although China and Russia do not overtly aim to prevent other countries from pursuing a democratic path, in practice some of their policies have this effect. For example, their diplomats warn Central Asian governments about the dangers to their internal stability from U.S. calls for human rights, civil liberties, and media freedoms and have assisted these regimes to strengthen their Internet controls and internal security systems.
Sino-Russian cooperation regarding Central Asian economic issues remains below its potential. Their various energy and commercial projects are rarely in direct competition, but collaboration between Chinese and Russian companies in the region is modest. Whereas Moscow once dominated the Central Asian economies, Beijing has been building energy cooperation, and other economic ties, with all these countries, and is now the leading trade partner with some of them. Russian resistance to China’s growing economic presence in the region has been minimal. Russians potentially hope that Chinese trade and investment will strengthen regional stability as well as provide economic opportunities for Russian businesses.
Moscow may earlier have recognized its Customs Union, which has now become a larger Eurasian Economic Union, as an institutional means of indirectly limiting China’s regional economic penetration, by sustaining higher tariffs against Chinese goods. But Beijing has now launched its better-resourced Silk Road Economic Belt. Currently, China and Russia have in principle agreed to reconcile their two regional integration projects, though the details of how they will do this have yet to be clarified.
A reverse trend is evident in Afghanistan. A few years ago, Chinese companies made many large investments in the country, especially its natural resources, and China looked to become Afghanistan’s prime foreign economic patron. However, security problems and other issues have stopped Chinese companies from developing these assets, including their purchase of one of the world’s largest copper mines. Russian economic activity in Afghanistan has grown in recent years. Beijing may be encouraging Moscow’s reorientation, which includes deepening Russia’s economic ties with Pakistan, China’s main partner in South Asia, as well as Moscow’s opening direct communications with the Afghan Taliban, supposedly to exchange information about the shared threat from the Islamic State.
Notwithstanding Beijing’s superior economic ties in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, Russians can take solace in the powerful hold that the Russian language and culture has in Central Asia. China has been strengthening its soft power in the region, but surprisingly few Central Asians learn Chinese or study in China. The Russian media still dominates the region, which is run by Russian-trained elites.
For now, both China and Russia see Moscow as main foreign actor responsible for ensuring that the political transition in Uzbekistan proceeds in a manner that does not threaten regional stability. However, Beijing might feel pressured to assume a stronger security role in Central Asia if instability and terrorism grows considerably stronger in the region and Russia seems to have lost control of the situation.