[Academic] Russia and China Presence in Central Asia

Russia and China Presence in Central Asia; 
Rivalry and Cooperation on Economics, Energy and Security Issues

Since the collapsing of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were some significant changes on the constellation of international geo-politics in Euro-Asia, specifically in Central Asia . Even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Moscow has retained extensive political, economic, and security ties with the Central Asia countries (Weitz, 2008: 52).

Ariel Cohen, argued that Greater Central Asia, which includes Iran and Afghanistan, is vital for Russia as a source of hydrocarbons and other raw materials. This region is also a strategic transit route for Russia pipelines and rail roads which could become part of the “New Silk Road” for formidable developmental engine. However, the region is a major geopolitical battleground between China, which is a regional emerging power, with Russia (Central Asia Program, 2012).

China, as the closest big country with Russia, has some development on its relationship with Russia also with its neighboring countries of the former Soviet Union in terms of trade and political cooperation (Burles, 1999: ix). Burles (1999) also mentioned that Russia and Central Asia become major suppliers of energy resources to China’s rapidly growing economy.

Relations between Russia – China and China – Central Asia can be said as complicated since the leader in Moscow and the capitals of Central Asian countries seen the China’s growing power as a threat (Burles, 1999: ix). From geopolitical perspective, Central Asia has been becoming a “contestation zone” in terms of security, energy resources and commercial opportunities. Burles mentioned that China’s growing presence in Central Asia may be indicative of its impending ascendance in continental Asia, and may provide secure land links between China and states in the Middle East (and possibly even Europe) who share the China’s ambivalence toward American power.

Richard Weitz (2008: 51) mentioned that Central Asia represents the geographic region where the security interests of China and Russia most overlap. However, this shared security interests mean that the newly independent states of Central Asia, such as: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have not become venues for rivalry between Moscow and Beijing, but rather major unifying elements in Chinese-Russian relations.

With the weakening influence of Russia in the independent state in Central Asia, in this paper, the author would like to describe about how are the current Russia presence and influence in the region, especially its contestation with China as newly leading economic power, especially in terms of economics, energy and security issues.

Economic Potential in Central Asia


To understand how Russia and China interest in Central Asia, firstly we should understand what the importance of this region is. Central Asia has emerged as one of the world’s fastest growing regions since the late 1990s and has shown notable development potential, that is significant for a region comprising largely of small landlocked economies with no access to the sea for trade.

Dowling and Wignaraja (2006: 16) mentioned four advantages of the region. First, the region contains a significant base of the world’s natural resources (including oil, natural gas, gold, and other metals) and its economic prospects are closely linked to international commodity prices. Second, from geopolitical perspective, it is strategically positioned as a gateway between Europe and Asia and offers extensive potential for trade, investment, and growth.

Third, the region spans a vast geographical area, with widely differing natural conditions. Many economies are landlocked and have harsh climates, both of which impose large transactions costs on economic activity. Fourth, all the economies have had a legacy of socialist-oriented economic policies and several have embarked on market-oriented reforms emphasizing macroeconomic stabilization, trade openness, and private sector development.

Russia Interest in Central Asia


With this situation, Russian puts its economic goals in Central Asia that includes; ensuring its firms participate in developing the region’s energy resources and Central Asian oil and gas exporters continue to use Russian pipelines. Russian companies and business groups control much of the transportation systems for Central Asia’s oil , gas and electricity.

Richard Weitz (2008: 52-53) mentioned that Central Asia’s landlocked states still heavily rely on the Russia’s transportation, communications, supply-chain and other networks. It relates to the legacy of the integrated Soviet economy. The manufacturers from this region remain similarly dependent on Russian spare parts, technology and services. In other words, Central Asia is an area of special Russian influence. Furthermore, much Russian influence and assistance in Central Asia is legitimate and vital, such as: over drug-trafficking, illegal migration and some forms of security cooperation. Russia has genuine security interests in Central Asia, but it would be more convincing if it did not play the security card when no such threat exists (Nixey, 2012: 8).

In other side, many Russian companies still rely on Central Asian suppliers for essential natural resources, equipment, and other inputs. Russian firms have made some progress in developing suppliers in Russia to replace or supplement sources in other former Soviet states. The recent surge in world oil and gas prices has facilitated a major resurgence of Russian public and private investment in Central Asia.

Although most of Central Asian countries are landlocked and have historically depended on the Russia Federation for trade linkages, the growing forces of globalization will be increasingly important for the future trade prospects for this region (Dowling and Wignaraja, 2006: 82). But, for at least the next few years, Russia will continue to derive soft power from its Soviet legacy.

China Interest in Central Asia

Historically, China had ties for centuries with Central Asia, but since the 19th century, Soviet control of the region severed these relations and contacts (Weitz, 2008: 54). After the collapsing of USSR in 1991, China has reemerged as a major player in the region. China provides the Central Asian states vital non-Russian transportation routes through which the states can interact with international markets (Burles, 1999: xi).

Most importantly, China’s growing energy needs represent another force driving its increased interest and involvement in Central Asia. China’s growing interest in securing Central Asia oil and gas could lead Beijing to reconsider its policy of regional deference. Richard Weitz (2008) argued that with the combination of a booming economy and declining domestic energy production, it results China’s importation of an increasingly large percentage of its oil and natural gas. Chinese policy makers have sought to enhance their access to energy resources from Central Asia, as well as Russia (Weitz, 2008: 56).

Another concern of China in Central Asia is its economic relations and cross border trade with Central Asia countries. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is one of six autonomous regions in China. Its location in China’s western border, make Xinjiang become special in the eye of central government in Beijing. Xinjiang has unique geopolitical situation, where it becomes the frontier of China with Central Asia. China views Xinjiang as a continental bridge which extends China’s reach to Central Asia and simultaneously serves as a buffer to China proper (Warikoo, 2011).

Xinjiang is susceptible to various influences and has had a history of interaction with Russia and Russia’s central Asian republics, which is an economic advantage for China. But in other side it also becomes a serious liability. China’s program to develop the west and Xinjiang’s economic viability hinges on trade with near neighbors. However, as China moves to create infrastructure to integrate Xinjiang into the region, it created an undesired influences into the province.

In order to develop Xinjiang economy, China government also tries to expand its economic influence to Central Asia. Warikoo (2011) explained that central government created special economic zones to facilitate cross border trade of Xinjiang with adjoining Central Asian Republics, in a manner that most of the business and trade remain in the hands of Chinese. Xinjiang also used as a spring board to penetrate and influence Central Asian economy, polity and society (Warikoo, 2011: 181).

Shared Russian – Chinese Interest


Central Asia perhaps represents the geographic region where the security interests of China and Russia most intersect. Russia and China often compete for Central Asian energy supplies and commercial opportunities. These two governments share a desire to limit instability in the region (Weitz, 2008: 60).

The fact that now the countries of Central Asia still remain economically and politically oriented toward Moscow, albeit to varying degrees. This orientation is the product of Russia’s long domination of the region. But, with the declining of Russian power, Burles argued that China’s influence in Central Asia will be growing. The countries of Central Asia, even regions within individual countries, are slowly reorienting themselves in directions more appropriate to their geographic position, political conditions, and economic needs (Burles, 1999: 51).

China has never expressed any interest in spreading influence when formulating its own policies into Central Asia. However, as China’s economic, political and military power grows, this behavior toward deeper involvement of China in Central Asian affairs is likely to change. As it mentioned before, China’s main policy priorities involve avoiding instability in the region, securing access to energy resources and expanding economic cooperation.

The issue of ethnic separatism and terrorism in their border territories become the major concern of these countries in terms of security. China opposes the spread of extremism movement in Central Asia and supports the region’s security. Beijing’s primary motivation for this action is to minimize the potential for instability emerging in the region that might threaten its domestic stability and economic development (Burles, 1999: xi).

Another issue on regional stability and security is the US military presence in Central Asia, which creates the government of both Russia and China feel clearly uneasy. The regional instability following from the US invasion of Iraq that have seen the deposition of pro-Moscow governments around Russia’s borders have led many influential Russian to see the US presence as a major source of instability in its own rights (Weitz, 2008: 61). Russian and Chinese leaders have avoided directly challenging the American military presence in Central Asia. Despite the overlapping interests of Russia and China, their policies in the Central Asia region still frequently conflict.

As for the energy issues, in some respects, China and Russia should be natural energy partners. Chinese energy demand is soaring and Russia’s oil and gas deposits lie much closer to China than the more distant energy sources Africa and the Persian Gulf (Weitz, 2008: viii).

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization


The overlapping security interests between Russia and China have manifested themselves most visibly in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Weitz, 2008: 65). The making of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is become one of the ways to accelerating regional integrations and cooperation between Russian, China and Central Asia countries.

SCO started in 1996 and 1997, when Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan signed a document that established the ‘Shanghai Five’ to deal with border delimitation and fostering trust and good neighborly relations between the five countries. Then in June 2001 Uzbekistan joined the ‘Shanghai Five’ and then they signed the Declaration on the Establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Kalra and Saxena, 2007). Since its founding, SCO has essentially functioned as a Chinese-Russian condominium that provides Beijing and Moscow with a convenient multilateral framework to manage their interests in the newly independent countries of Central Asia (Weitz, 2008: 65).

SCO engages the Central Asian nations with Russia and China in the region, also observer countries, such as Afghanistan, Mongolia, India, Pakistan and Iran. The aim of SCO is not only about security and balance of power, but also focusing on economic and social integration of the region and has gone to great lengths to create confidence in its desire to promote prosperity and cooperation (Kalra and Saxena, 2007). The goals of the SCO are to encourage trade links, social and political cooperation, find joint solutions to problems of environment, infrastructure, education, and to build scientific and cultural links between member states, the region as a whole and internationally. The future of the SCO lays more and more in the realm of economic and social issues.

However, since 2003 the SCO has sponsored a number of anti-terrorist exercises that involve paramilitary as well as intelligence and law enforcement personnel. China and Kyrgyzstan in 2002 conducted the first bilateral anti-terror exercise within the SCO framework.


With the weakening of Russia, its influence in Central Asia is declining. This reality becomes a great chance for China to take over Russia’s influence in the region. However, Russia still has a dominant energy presence in Central Asia. Interesting argument from Nixey (2012) it mentioned that if the most Central Asian given a choice between dominion by Russia or by China, they would currently choose Russia. It shows that China should be patient to take this chance fully. The situation might be more complicated with the presence of the US military base in Central Asia, which can disturb the balance of power.

For China, influence in the Central Asia is a means to achieve other domestic and foreign policy objectives such as securing energy resources. But for Russia, influence is, at least in part, an end in itself (Nixey, 2012).


Author: Sunu Family

We are an Indonesian family living in Bonn, Germany since 2017. Our family consists of Ayah (Radit), Umi (Retno/ Chiku), Kakak (Zahra), and Adek (Faiq). We will share our experience living in Germany, our trips, thoughts, Umi's related research on her study, etc.

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