By Daniyar Kosnazarov and Iskander Akylbayev
The recent terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan, considered to be the most stable and prosperous state in Central Asia, followed by the assault on the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan exposed the vulnerability of the domestic and regional security environment. In addition to that, the ongoing power transition in Uzbekistan and Taliban activity near the Afghan-Tajik border raise serious security questions among geopolitical heavyweights such as Russia and China.
Moscow and Beijing’s shared interest in a stable Central Asia is not new. Both players are currently trying to increase their bilateral ties via security agreements and multilateral mechanisms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organ-ization (SCO). At the same time there is mutual understanding of the importance of limiting US presence in the region. Indeed, during the recent BRICS summit hosted in October 2016, President Xi and President Putin stressed that no power would be allowed to interfere into Central Asian affairs.
However, Beijing’s activation in regional security affairs challenges the established “division of labour”, where Russia primarily acts as security guarantor and China is increasingly responsible for the economic development of the region. These two major geopolitical neighbours may need to adapt their roles to ensure the right formula for cooperation in Central Asia.
In light of China’s gradual transformation from a mainly economics-oriented to a more security-conscious power, Moscow is trying to sell its counterterrorism experience gained in the Middle East to Central Asian elites. In the aftermath of the deadly attacks in the Kazakh cities of Aktobe and Almaty, on June 8, 2016, at the SCO defence ministerial meeting in Astana, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu stressed that Moscow is “ready to share its successful Syrian counter-terrorism experience with Kazakhstan”.
At the same time, Russia has become more active in capitalizing on the “discourse of danger” coming from Afghanistan to Central Asia. In particular, the Kremlin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, has stated many times that ISIS’s key objective in Afghanistan is to infiltrate the Central Asian region. Moreover, since the beginning of 2016, Russian high-ranking state and military officials have visited Tajikistan (April 6), Turkmenistan (June 8), Kazakhstan (June 8) where the key item on the agenda was increased security cooperation against a common terrorist threat.
However, the danger of the “Afghan factor” may not be the sole reason for Moscow’s concerns in the region. Beijing is gradually becoming a more assertive actor in the security field, particularly on counter-terrorism.
In February 2016, China and Tajikistan agreed to form a bilateral counter-terrorism centre in Dushanbe. Moreover, Tajik-Chinese cooperation resulted in Beijing’s announcement to build military outposts on the Tajik-Afghan border. While in August, China along with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan set up a counterterrorism cooperation mechanism in Urumqi. Despite on-going deadlock in Afghan peace talks, China’s membership of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) demonstrates its willingness to engage with other significant powers, such as the US, on the question of Afghanistan’s future. Moreover, China has its own channels for negotiation with the Taliban, while periodically inviting its members for talks in Beijing.
More worrying for Moscow is that China may also be gradually moving into the arms market that used to be dominated by Moscow. It has been reported that in 2015 Beijing for the first time provided Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan the HQ-9 air defence system. It was also reported that China had supplied Pterodactyl drones to Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, in the short and medium-term perspective, Russia will continue to be the key military and security player in Central Asia. China will not necessarily wish to be overtly involved in the security of a region that may undergo significant change if the status quo is altered. Given the potential security challenges presented by the current political transition in Uzbekistan, uncertainty over future succession in Kazakhstan and potential instability in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Beijing will continue to allow Russia the dominant security role in the region.
With growing domestic economic stagnation in Russia, in the long-term China could still challenge Moscow’s monopoly as a main security guarantor and may gradually increase direct engagement with Central Asian states in military and security spheres. Consequently, this could lead towards a more assertive Chinese policy, where Beijing will frame its own security agenda in the region, rather than following Moscow’s steps. This is particularly important as Chinese investment and capital in the region increases, indicating that China will need to protect its interests.
Another possible scenario that could affect China-Russia relations in Central Asia is détente between Russia and the West, where all major economic sanctions against Moscow are lifted. If the oil price increases as well, this would likely mean that Russia could refocus resources towards Central Asia, solidifying its status as a dominant military actor in Central Asia. At the same time, the gradual slowdown of the Chinese economy and the deterioration of Beijing’s relations with Washington and its neighbours in the Asia-pacific may rebalance China-Russia division of labour in Central Asia.
For Central Asian republics the change of the regional status quo, where Beijing replaces Moscow, may not be an ideal option. Central Asian elites are striving to become an indispensable partner for both powers. In fact, the concept of “division of labour” does not match aspirations of Central Asians states. It is more important to have the so-called “all-inclusive” responsibility, where both Russian and China take more comprehensive to Central Asia. Meanwhile, with the power transition in Uzbekistan, the growing trend of soft rapprochement with regional elites has the potential to enhance more robust inter-regional security cooperation. As a result, with more integrated regional security approach all Central Asian stakeholders can more actively define their own positions in this scheme and engage with Moscow and Beijing in a balanced manner.
Daniyar Kosnazarov is the co-founder of Sinopsis Center for Chinese and Central Asian Studies and an Analyst at Narxoz University (email@example.com). Iskander Akylbayev is an Astana-based expert on Central Asian affairs (firstname.lastname@example.org).