Islam Karimov’s death is the realisation of a regional concern that many have long worried about: succession amongst leaders of the Central Asian states. The question of who comes next has been a persistent concern, particularly in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Beijing is not immune to these worrries. On every visit to Beijing in which Central Asia has been a focus of discussions, there have been inevitable conversations with Chinese Central Asia analysts who have been particularly perplexed about what might happen in a post-Karimov Uzbekistan. Yet, now that this scenario has arrived, China seems unperturbed and experts spoken to seem equally unconcerned. Seen from Beijing, Uzbekistan post-Karimov is a case of business as usual.
The dynamic of the Sino-Russian relationship is one that has long perplexed Western decision makers and thinkers. At a geopolitical level they appear in lockstep in an anti-western front, but below the surface they seem willing to engage with the west against each other’s interests while also sharing some fundamental disagreements. The reality is that Moscow and Beijing have a sophisticated modus vivendi that both allows for a clear disparity in the relationship in Beijing’s favor, while at the same time retaining an equal sense of importance of the broader strategic relationship. The overriding priority for both remains to ensure that they have an ally against the West and as long as this need remains the axis of authoritarianism will persist.
The archetypal space to explore this complex divergence is Central Asia. On the one hand it is a region where China has gradually increased its footprint to become the most consequential actor on the ground, while on the other it remains linked inextricably to Russia through multilateral vehicles and long-standing ties. And while in other parts of Eastern Europe or the Caucasus Russia has reacted negatively to encroaching external influences with armed conflict (like Georgia or Ukraine), in Central Asia the slow creep of Beijing’s influence has happened largely with Moscow’s acquiescence, though not without some counter-reaction. Continue reading →
From 1949 until the late 1990’s Central Asia was conspicuous in Chinese foreign policy by its absence. China has since “rediscovered” Central Asia. Twice.
China first rediscovered the five Central Asian republics as a crucial source of energy and the key partner in fighting against separatists in North-west China. In the first decade of the 21st century, bilateral trade—primarily in the form of Chinese imports of energy and exports of manufactured products—witnessed extraordinary growth, reaching $51.1 billion in 2013. Meanwhile, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was established in 2001, and one of its main missions continues to be to “maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region”. Continue reading →
During the Putin-Xi summit that took place in Moscow on May 8, the leaders of Russia and China signed a joint declaration “on cooperation in coordinating the development of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) project and the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB)”. Moscow and Beijing’s declared goal in combining the two projects was to build a “common economic space” in Eurasia, including a Free Trade Agreement between the EEU and China.
The positive implications of such a connection are obvious. Cooperating with China can provide Russia and other post-Soviet countries with much-needed funding and technologies for the implementation of large-scale infrastructure projects, primarily in the sphere of transcontinental logistics. It is this auspicious aspect of the EEU-SREB merger that has attracted the most attention in academic papers published by experts. Continue reading →
China and Russia have a long history of conflict and competition in Central Asia. Sitting between the two great superpowers, the landlocked Central Asian nations appear to have little choice or control over their destiny, and are often considered to be pawns in a perpetual great game. Yet this narrow view misses the broader picture of the Sino-Russian relationship. It is undeniable that the region has been slipping out of Russia’s immediate economic sphere of influence for some time, but China has been making inroads with Russia’s full acquiescence. For Moscow and Beijing, Central Asia is increasingly a region of soft competition where they are very aware of and attentive to each other’s interests, rather than a source of conflict and tension.
Overriding any differences concerning the steppe are the larger realities of the Sino-Russian strategic relationship on the international stage, where the two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council continue to support each other’s refusal to bow to a Western-dominated global order. Russia may appear to be the loser in Central Asia, but the two powers have established a modus vivendi that suits the interests of both. The real geopolitical losers are likely to be the Central Asians, slowly slipping from Russia’s orbit into China’s.
Russian and Chinese scholars debate their countries’ relations in Central Asia. By Brian G. Carlson
“Brothers Forever: Russia Turns to the East” April 21, 2014 edition of The New Times (Новое Время), a Russian publication.
Same belt, different dreams
As China and Russia grow closer together strategically, a process that the Ukraine crisis has accelerated, their future relations in Central Asia remain unclear. China’s economic inroads into this region, which Russia regards as its backyard, have become a source of growing concern in Moscow, especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt during a speech in Astana, Kazakhstan, in September 2013. These concerns remain largely tacit among Russian officials, but they appear regularly in media and scholarly commentary.
During Xi’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 8 in Moscow, Russia and China issued a joint declaration expressing their desire to cooperate in linking the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). This declaration clearly states that Russia supports the construction of the SREB, while China supports Russia’s efforts to promote Eurasian integration through the EEU. The two sides pledged to seek the linkage of these projects in both bilateral and multilateral formats, above all in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which both are founding members.[i] The Russian government has grown increasingly supportive of the SREB in its official statements over the past couple of years, during which time Putin and Xi, as well as other high-ranking officials from both countries, have discussed the issue during frequent meetings.
Beneath this diplomatic veneer of cooperation, however, Russian government officials and scholars are grappling with the question of how to respond to China’s growing influence in Central Asia. Chinese scholars, meanwhile, are studying the implications of the SREB and focusing especially on the question of how to offer reassurance to Russia. Continue reading →
After the deterioration of Russian–Western relations over Ukraine, Moscow has shown itself keen to reinvigorate its relationship with Beijing as a preferred partner – especially but not exclusively in the all-important energy sector. In addition, the two countries’ common ambitions for a multipolar international structure enhance the mutual benefits of a strong partnership. Yet, Sarah Lain argues, the Sino–Russian relationship is characterised by increasing inequality, as Moscow finds itself needing Beijing more than Beijing needs Moscow.
Memorandum of intentions signed between the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Ministry of Defence of People’s Republic of China in 2014. Photo by Kadex
Kazakhstan has faced many security challenges during its 23 years as an independent country. Its geo-strategic position at the heart of Eurasia has led to its adoption of a multi-vector foreign policy championed by its leader and widely emulated in the region. Consequently it has looked to maintain good relations with all its neighbors and has sought membership of a range of international organizations and institutions that it believes enhance its foreign policy objectives. In recent years China has included Central Asia as a region for its economic ambitions, and in the process China has challenged Russia’s historical dominance in this region. As China’s economic activity grows in the region, it would be reasonable to assume that China would seek influence in the sphere of regional defence and security, including that of Kazakhstan. Continue reading →
A country that could benefit from Russia’s cancellation of South Stream is Turkmenistan. A country that holds almost 10% of the world’s gas reserves, and is home to the globe’s second largest gas field, Turkmenistan certainly has enough gas to supply more markets. After various gas supply disputes with Russia, and a general weakening in geopolitical relations, there is no doubt the European energy security would benefit from a boost in supplies from Central Asia.
Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources, Turkmenistan. Image Credit: Jim Fitzgerald
Recent steps indicate Turkmenistan is showing renewed signs of interest. In November 2014, Turkmengas signed a framework agreement with Turkey to supply the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline project (TANAP), a section of the Southern Gas Corridor project, set to be completed by 2018. The project proposes to transport 16 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas a year from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz II field in the Caspian Sea to Europe via Turkey, aiming to reach a capacity of 31 bcm by 2026.
There are very few details in the public domain about the Turkish-Turkmen deal. And it all sounds a bit familiar. It is not the first time that such a Turkish-Turkmen agreement to cooperate has been signed, and it is unclear if anything concrete has actually been decided.
Furthermore, there are many challenges to Turkmenistan’s participation in the project, the key one pertaining to the long-standing dispute over Continue reading →
The conclusion of the 14th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit hosted in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on 11-12 September 2014 resulted in the signing of key documents that set out procedures for accepting new members, including requirements that applicant states need to fulfil in order to achieve full SCO member status. Consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the SCO has not expanded since its evolution from the “Shanghai Five” in 2001. Despite this, discussions relating to SCO membership expansion, specifically in relation to India and Pakistan’s potential entries, have been on the SCO leaders’ table for a number of years. However, it was only at the recent SCO summit that the organization’s leaders have come closer to agreeing on the admission process for new members.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular supports SCO expansion. At the Dushanbe summit, he proclaimed the progress over SCO membership enlargement to be of great importance, emphasizing that when Russia takes the SCO chairmanship at the next summit in Ufa in 2015, Continue reading →
Parts of this article were adapted from the authors’ “China and Central Asia: A Significant New Energy Nexus” in The European Financial Review, April 30, 2013, accessible here.
China’s trade and energy cooperation with Central Asia has been expanding over the last ten years. Photo by Sue Anne Tay
Over the past decade China has aggressively developed its energy cooperation with Central Asia, which has an abundance of oil and natural gas deposits, and relative political stability. Through its energy relationship with Central Asia, China not only diversifies its access to new energy sources but also gains greater flexibility in playing regional geopolitics that advances its broader national interests.
Kyrgyz traders in Karasuu bazaar, Osh region, loading a shipment of televisions that came in from Xinjiang. Photo by Sue Anne Tay
China’s economic influence in Kyrgyzstan has been growing rapidly over the past decade. Thanks to Kyrgyzstan’s early membership in the WTO and its generally free economic environment, the country became a major importer, re-exporter and transporter of Chinese goods. As a result, bazaars have become major economic lifelines for Kyrgyzstan, concentrating great amounts of wealth and benefiting hundreds of thousands of people.
Although Chinese economic presence in Kyrgyzstan (and the wider region) is yet to translate into political influence, there are indirect political consequences for Kyrgyzstan. Over the past few years, shuttle traders importing Chinese goods have been at the forefront of the debate as to whether or not Kyrgyzstan should join the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union (CU). There are mixed feelings towards the union.
Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev and Russian president Vladimir Putin shake hands after signing the treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union Photo: kremlin.ru
On May 29 Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia signed into existence the Eurasian Economic Union (“EEU”), set to come into force in January 2015. The EEU’s aim is the economic integration of ex-Soviet countries, based on a European Union-style collective model. It builds on the Customs Union, signed in 2010, which implemented a common customs territory and removed internal border controls between the three states. Against the backdrop of a shifting geopolitical landscape sparked by events in Ukraine, and strengthening Russian and Kazakh bi-lateral relations with China, the original vision of the EEU may no longer be viable. Although they wish to show they have a diversified partner base, Kazakhstan and Russia also want to avoid perceptions of any overt economic threat to its shared Chinese partner. This is particularly relevant to Kazakhstan, which has in fact suffered economically from the initial implementation of the Customs Union, as laid out below.
Various Russian media outlets have loudly and repeatedly declared that China supports Moscow’s view on Ukraine. Recently, in an interview on Russian state television, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov characterised China as “our very close partners” with whom he has no doubts.
On the face of it, this interpretation is accurate, but the reality is far more complex, with China uneasy about Russia’s actions though it may share Moscow’s concerns.
Turkmenistan’s southeastern desert, not far from the border with Afghanistan, is a forbidding place. Its bleak, dusty vistas are punctuated by the ruins of ancient caravansaries: once rest stops on the old Silk Road. But, the silence of that long lost East-West artery is now regularly broken by the rumble of Chinese truck convoys. These are not ordinary tractor-trailers, either: they move slowly carrying massive loads of natural gas extraction equipment, and according to Turkmen officials, the shepherds’ bridges and village roads have had to be reinforced from the impact of their weight. The equipment is headed to one of the top five natural gas fields in the world; Formerly known as South Yolotan-Osman, in 2011 the field was renamed “Galkynysh” or “revival” in Turkmen. The name is apt because this gargantuan reserve of natural gas is the prize motivating CNPC, China’s largest oil company, to revive the old Silk Road — only this time by pipeline. Continue reading →