The Sheriff and the Banker? Russia and China in Central Asia
The last two-and-a-half decades of Russo-Chinese relations have been marked by tension: between the two countries’ growing friendship, and their diverging trajectories. China has successfully integrated into the world economy, grown stronger and more affluent, and subsequently begun to act either more confidently or, according to some observers, more assertively. Meanwhile, Russia has struggled economically, quarreled with the West, and become an undeclared revisionist power. Their close relations now face the challenges of growing asymmetry and a potential clash of interests, particularly in one region whose post-Cold War fate they have come to shape: Central Asia. There, for over a decade, the two seemed to have developed an understanding and an informal “division of labor.” Each side focused on providing what they were better positioned to do: security from Russia and investments from China.
There are legitimate doubts about the sustainability of this arrangement. Following a barrage of Western sanctions that have further weakened its economy, Russian power might decline so much that others do not trust its ability to play the role of security provider. In fact, Beijing has already taken independent steps to increase its regional security presence both bilaterally and multilaterally, including building bases for Russian allies like Tajikistan and setting up regional fora that exclude Russia.
Despite these developments, in the near term, Moscow’s existing network of institutional links with Central Asia makes it unlikely that it will abandon the region or be supplanted from its role. It will very much work to remain relevant. Moreover, China’s increased bilateral security assistance to some of Russia’s more vulnerable allies — especially Tajikistan — does not threaten Russia’s standing. In fact, it can be seen as a complementary activity that supports the two countries’ broader agenda of stability and protection of the regional governments friendly to them.
Division of Labor
As had been well-documented by others, Russo-Chinese ties grew steadily in the decades after the end of the Cold War and soared after 2014 when Russo-Western ties nosedived following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. At the same time, relations between Moscow and Beijing have also become more unequal. Deborah Welch Larson describes the situation as an “equal partnership of unequals.” Larson and other scholars like Marcin Kaczmarski recognize the significance of this problem and point out that the two had worked out a “modus vivendi” formula, especially in all-important Central Asia. An apparent “division of labor or influence” was unofficially established following the 2008-2009 financial meltdown. As Moscow struggled to economically support its Central Asian partners, Beijing stepped in and provided loans to some of the region’s main natural resources exporters like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The former received $3 billion for the development of additional gas fields, while Kazakh banks and oil companies were supported with $10 billion in loans. This broke Russia’s control over the export of gas by fully financing, at the cost of $8 billion, the Central Asia–China pipeline that opened in late 2009.
At the same time, in 2009 Russia and its allies upgraded their military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Here a milestone was the establishment of a 25,000-strong multinational jointly commanded Collective Rapid Reaction Force, charged with conducting “low-intensity operations, which include peacekeeping, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, emergency response, and countering narcotics trafficking and other transnational criminal activity.” While the organization struggled with inaction during past crises that affected its member states, such as the 2010 Kyrgyzstan riots and the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in early 2022 it had its first successful operation in Kazakhstan. For over a decade Russia has been the region’s nominal “sheriff” providing security, while China embraced the role of “banker.”
Asymmetry of Power
While embracing their unofficial roles, the power disparity between Moscow and Beijing has widened, most starkly in the economic sphere. In 1990, the two states’ economies were of comparable size, but by 2020 China’s annual economic output stood at almost 10 times the size of Russia’s. The economic gap between the two will only increase following the invasion of Ukraine and the imposition of harsh sanctions on the Russian economy, its banks, and financial institutions. According to various sources, the Russian economy is expected to drop 7 or 8.5 percent, or even as much as 15 percent.
In some ways, the Russian and Chinese economies are complementary. Each side has the access to resources or capital that the other wants. Mutual trade is growing but unbalanced. China is Russia’s top partner for imports and a destination for Russia’s products. However, Russia is not even among the top five destinations for China’s products. Moreover, trade is also heavily focused on exporting Russian raw materials, natural gas, and petroleum oils, which comprise 70 percent of its overall exports to China. Moscow has long been concerned that it would become China’s “natural-resource appendage.” In the long run, as it seeks to de-carbonize its economy, China may find its close economic partnership with Russia misaligned. Hence, the presently beneficial economic partnership has a near-term expiration date given the two countries’ long-term trajectories.
On the military end, Russia still maintains nuclear superiority with its 6,255 warheads, of which 1,625 are deployed. For comparison, China is estimated to possess around 350 total nuclear warheads. But In the domain of conventional arms, Chinese military spending is already 4.4 times higher than Russia’s ($293 billion to $65.9 billion, respectively). However, by considering purchasing power parity, which takes into account the cost variations between countries rather than market exchange rates, the gap is even wider. Russia’s actual military budget from 2014 to 2019 is believed to be between $150 and $180 billion annually. Conversely, China’s actual military spending is thought to stand at over $600 billion. At the same time, Moscow is still ahead of Beijing in its ability to produce certain advanced weapons systems. China continues to procure Russian-made Sukhoi 35 fighter aircraft and S-400 surface-to-air missiles. However, the technological gap is likely to shrink, especially as China grows more affluent and technologically more sophisticated. For instance, in 2017, it commissioned its indigenously produced fifth-generation fighter aircraft, the J-20.
Russia and China at a Central Asian Crossroads
In Central Asia, Russo-Chinese ties appear to be harmonious, but there is a potential for a falling out. It is worth remembering Alexander Cooley’s description of the two country’s relations: “public cooperation and private rivalry.” While Russian fears over the Chinese takeover of the Russian Fear Eastern regions have largely subsided since the successful 2008 border demarcation, there is a lingering concern in Moscow over a possible strategic displacement. Despite formal deference, friendly ties between their leaders, and an appearance of equality, the growing power gap inevitably produces a “senior partner” and “junior partner” dynamic in practice. Significantly, the fraught historical background, and Central Asia’s significance to Russia, complicate matters. For the better part of the past two centuries, Russia has been the region’s dominant power, and other states in the region regularly defer to it. Rising Chinese influence in Central Asia could complicate this dynamic, which could become a burden for Russo-Chinese relations.
Russia’s sense of entitlement to Central Asia, and other parts of the former Soviet space, was made clear in 2008. It declared this area a part of its “regions of privileged interests.” For years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian government viewed these countries as “the near abroad,” a term that underscores the inability of Russian leaders to reconcile with the fact that those states had since become independent. Hence, developing bilateral and multilateral relations with this region was emphasized as a priority in successive Russian foreign policy documents.
Russia and several regional states have institutionalized cooperation in security and economic issues and reached a level of integration that is uncommon in other Central Asian organizations. While these efforts are sometimes justifiably viewed with skepticism, they also highlight Central Asia’s significance to Russia. There are important reasons for this. The first is geography and Russia’s historical vulnerability. Lacking natural defenses has made Russia perennially vulnerable to invasions from both the west and east. It adopted a blend of imperial and semi-imperial conquest and control strategies over vast areas, including today’s Central Asia, to insulate itself from attack. The post-Cold War Russian state was equally concerned by the weakness of newly independent Central Asian republics and growing regional security challenges. Thus, it reengaged with the region, established the Collective Security Treaty Organization as a regional military alliance, and built its biggest foreign military base in Tajikistan. Second, Russia’s obsession with great-power-ness also translated into its desire to hold a privileged role as the region’s main (if only nominal) great power. With Russia’s loss of Soviet-era dominion over Eastern Europe, Central Asia is the only region where it can act as a great power. Indeed, Russia attaches real importance to symbolism. The restoration of its former status as a great power, and a member of some form of renewed Concert of Great Powers, has been an obsession of Russian leaders since the 1990s. More broadly, as they advocated for global multipolarity, Russian leaders believed that the future of their great power standing depended on leadership over one of the relevant global “poles” based on a regional integration association. Central Asia is thus the only region where Russia can still act and be seen as a great power.
China is aware of this. It has already ventured into Central Asia — most notably via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and later also through the Belt and Road Initiative. Nonetheless, it tried to calibrate its interaction with the region carefully. It has been mindful of the region’s practical and symbolic significance to Russia. As one scholar aptly observed, Beijing did not openly declare ambitions of regional leadership and instead pursues regionalism in functional ways. The Belt and Road Initiative was deliberately conceived with an undefined political dimension, nonexistent institutional side, and flexible approach that seems unthreatening to Russia. On the other hand, within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, there is formal equality of power between Russia and China. As I have argued elsewhere, Russia used this — to China’s unofficial displeasure but without formal objection — to push for policies like enlargement, which effectively weakened the organization by adding members like India and Pakistan, which had conflicting if not hostile relations.
Challenging the Status Quo
At the same time, the perception of the “division of labor” between Moscow and Beijing goes only so far. As I have written elsewhere, Russia had been pursuing a form of “cooperative hegemony” in the former Soviet Central Asia that sought to reinforce its once-dominant position. It established military-political and economic organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, wherein it formally shared power, provided “voice” opportunities, and regularly extended economic and other support to smaller partners to ensure their participation. Russia’s strategy, especially the promotion of the Eurasian Economic Union, which would be a source of regional economic growth and protection from outside economic turmoil, challenges the clear-cut “division of labor” between Moscow and Beijing. Moscow, too, wants to invest in Central Asia, even if it cannot compete with China. It has also been an attractive destination for laborers from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
At the same time, while serving as the region’s “banker” China has shown interest and willingness to get involved in the duties of a “sheriff” if its interests require it. Chief among these remains the security of its western borderlands and coordinating counter-terrorist activities in the region. As its economic clout in the region expands, it will become involved in political and governance-related issues. China has considerable investments across the region — including the 1,833-kilometer-long gas pipeline that runs from the borders of Turkmenistan, via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to China — and seeks to protect them. Research from the Center for Strategic and Security Studies suggests a possible future deployment of China’s private security companies to protect China’s considerable investments across the region from terrorism and anti-Chinese sentiment.
While Moscow has longstanding relations with Central Asian leaders, some of whom began their political careers during Soviet times, Beijing had also cultivated relations with local political elites. They understand and cooperate on issues that matter to Beijing — especially counterterrorism. Hence, despite the nominal division of labor and understanding of Russia’s formal “entitlement” to having an important say over Central Asia’s future, China has followed its own independent policies that do not always give way to Moscow’s preferences.
Notwithstanding their coordination in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China is willing to engage individual states bilaterally to attain these objectives. With its long, vulnerable border with Afghanistan, Tajikistan has received considerable Chinese assistance. The Washington Post reported sightings of Chinese soldiers in the country, whom some believe are members of the People’s Armed Police Force. China is believed to have signed an agreement with Tajikistan in 2016 and built five border guard stations, three garrison headquarters, and a training center. In late 2021 there was the announcement of another base construction, albeit one which would be operated by the Tajiks alone. Needless to add, Chinese authorities denied reports of their bases and servicemembers’ presence in Tajikistan.
More visible are China’s growing joint military drills with Central Asian states. Some were organized within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization format, where Russia is also a member and a participant. Between the first anti-terror exercise in 2002 and 2016, there were as many as twenty-two different exercises. China participated in the majority of them, as did Russia. However, China also conducted bilateral training with selected partners. A study shows that since 2014, at least 10 such trainings have taken place, including the 2015 joint counter-terrorism drills with Tajik special forces. Moreover, in 2019 it launched the “Cooperation 2019” series of exercises that increased interoperability between the People’s Armed Police and local states’ paramilitary units. Significantly, most drills between 2003-2016 were conducted with the armies of three states members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization: 16 with Kazakhstan, 11 with Tajikistan, and 10 with Kyrgyzstan.
Finally, China seems to have also undertaken specific parallel political initiatives that do not include Russia. An example is the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism, a counter-terrorism alliance where China coordinates security with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. In 2015, it also started the Lianyungang Forum with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. While involving somewhat lower-level dignitaries, this mechanism serves as a platform for advancing international law enforcement and security cooperation. Finally, in 2020, it launched the China + Central Asia multilateral foreign ministers’ meetings. Some Russian scholars see a potential for rivalry with the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. China has also grown as a relevant weapons supplier in the region supplying 18 percent of all transfers from 2015 to 2020, and donated or upgraded equipment to several individual states. However, this does not threaten Russia’s dominant role as the arms supplier to Central Asia, as it provided 80 percent of arms imports to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Its privileged position in this regard is enhanced by the discounts it offers to members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
The assumption of a Russo-Chinese “division of labor” in Central Asia needs to be considered in broad terms. Each side has specific security and economic objectives that it wants to secure on its own. Moreover, in its narrow sense, a division of labor assumes there would be no dramatic declines in the power of either Russia or China, and thus no urgency from one or the other to fill the role of its partner.
Yet Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will weaken the country’s economy and lead to its long-term political ouster from Europe. This will keep Moscow more focused on Central Asia where it has established durable networks of military and economic institutional links with regional states. There, it can act, appear, and (still) be treated as a great power.
On the other hand, China’s gradual and growing bilateral and multilateral security ties with some of Russia’s closest partners have not escaped Moscow’s sight. Officially, it does not admit any concern. In the words of Vladimir Putin, Russia understands China’s need to pursue defensive ties that help it protect its vast territory from regional threats. Jeanne L. Wilson correctly writes that while there are few signs of dissatisfaction, time might not be on Russia’s side.
However, Beijing’s bilateral support for poor and vulnerable states like Tajikistan helps Russia, too, by reinforcing its “soft underbelly.” Russia realizes that Central Asian states need it and will continue to rely on it, irrespective of their developing ties with China. This was visible in the cases of Tajikistan and Kazakhstan in 2021 and 2022, respectively, when the two asked for Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization to bolster their security and provide peacekeepers. The existing Russo-Central Asian institutionalized links remain important, which was clear during the Kazakh riots in January 2022.
More broadly speaking, even with diminished means Russia will not need that much to act as a regional security provider. The January 2022 Collective Security Treaty Organization peacekeeping mission in Kazakhstan required only around 2,500 peacekeepers, most of whom came from Russia and did not need to engage in any actual fighting. At that small a price, the operation reaffirmed the roles of both the treaty organization and Russia role as reliable partners to Central Asian states. Significantly, in a show of solidarity and respect for Russia’s nominal role of a “sheriff,” China expressed support for the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s peacekeeping mission in Kazakhstan. This and Russia’s lack of objection to China’s bilateral security assistance to Tajikistan are part and parcel of the two states’ synchronized vision for Central Asian security.
Janko Šćepanović, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Russian Studies in the School of Politics and International Relations of East China Normal University in Shanghai. His research focuses on Russia’s foreign policy in the former Soviet space, Southeast Europe, the Middle East, and institution-building in Eurasia. The views expressed here are his own.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defense