As Russian influence wanes, China steps up security role in Central Asia

By Kanat Altynbayev


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are shown at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Heads of State in Bishkek last June 14. Their countries are engaged in a rivalry for influence in Central Asia. [Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP]

ALMATY -- The Chinese regime is expanding its security presence in Central Asia at the expense of Russian influence, a recent think-tank study says.

Central Asia is undergoing a geopolitical transition in which the Russian and Chinese regimes are vying for influence, according to the report published May 27 by the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC.

Over the years, Moscow has lost its economic leverage in Central Asia despite the establishment in 2015 of the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, whose members include some Central Asian countries, according to the report.

Moscow's economic dominance has diminished in favour of Beijing, dropping from 80% of the region's total trade in the 1990s to just two-thirds that of Beijing's share ($18.6 billion per year now between Russia and Central Asia), it said.


Chinese workers in Bishkek in September 2008 pose next to construction equipment exported by China. [Kanat Altynbayev]


A Chinese-made outdoor surveillance camera can be seen June 5 in Bishkek -- an example of security assistance provided by Beijing to Kyrgyzstan. [Kanat Altynbayev]

For its part, Beijing has confidently stepped into this breach, primarily by funding a variety of infrastructure projects as part of its large-scale Belt and Road Initiative, which focuses on creating overland route systems so it can export its goods.

While Moscow remains the main security guarantor in the region, Beijing as made inroads in this area, the report said.

Beijing "has provided 18 percent of the region's arms over the past five years, a significant increase from the 1.5 percent of Central Asian arms imports that it provided between 2010 and 2014", according to the study.

The Chinese regime dominates in sectors where Russian technologies fall short. In recent years, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have received armed drones from Beijing, a strategic sector previously dominated by the United States and Israel, said the report.

Persistent Russian clout

Still, the Kremlin has continued to dominate when it comes to security.

Over the last five years, the Russian regime has held a 62% share of the regional arms market, while in 2018 it used Tajikistan as a launching point for a lethal strike on Afghanistan, its first against militants in Afghanistan since 1989, according to the Kennan report.

In addition, since 2002 the Kremlin has been co-ordinating the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a military bloc to which Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan belong.

The rivalry between Moscow and Beijing has hardly begun, Bradley Jardine, one of the lead authors of the report, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

"As China continues to grow as an arms supplier, it will have to eat into Russia's share and that's where we can begin to see some tensions between Beijing and Moscow," he said.

Growing Chinese security influence

Meanwhile, Beijing has been ramping up military co-operation with Central Asian states.

In one recent example, last August, Tajik and Chinese soldiers conducted counter-terrorism drills in mountainous areas of Tajikistan, RFE/RL's Tajik service reported at the time.

The goal of the joint exercises was "to practice operations by the two states' combat units in fending off threats by terrorist and extremist groups", said the Tajik Defence Ministry.

Military co-operation between the Chinese regime and Tajikistan "has grown noticeably stronger over the last five years", said RFE/RL at the time.

In October 2016, the two countries held joint exercises that involved about 10,000 participants, including 200 Chinese soldiers.

In addition, a journalist and satellites detected Chinese military facilities -- two-story buildings with lookout towers -- and Chinese troops in eastern Tajikistan, where the country borders China and Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported in February 2019.

Beijing has been beefing up its regional security presence, according to Toktogul Kakchekeyev of Bishkek, a reservist colonel in the Kyrgyz armed forces and former director of a task force on crisis management in Central Asia.

Through its Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of National Defence, Beijing provides Central Asian countries with material and technical assistance, including arms and military hardware, he said.

The Chinese regime "is penetrating Central Asia, using as an international legal basis its membership in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation [SCO], because in addition to economic programmes, the SCO embraces other responsibilities, such as fighting terrorism, religious extremism and drug trafficking", said Kakchekeyev.

Chinese-Russian friction looms

At the same time, Kakchekeyev said he is sure that Moscow will not cede its security role to Beijing, since "it will consider any acquiescence in this area as the beginning of Russia's pullback".

Chinese military assistance to Central Asia takes many forms, ranging from the supply of weapons to joint military exercises, said Yuri Poyta, head of the Asia-Pacific Section of the Centre for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies in Kyiv, Ukraine.

"China doesn't want its investment projects -- a vital instrument of 'soft power' -- to depend on Russia's readiness to protect them," he said.

Moscow, for its part, is displeased about the security co-operation between Central Asia and the Chinese regime, Poyta said.

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11 Comment(s)

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... I see history doesn't teach these guys anything. Commentators forgot who ordered the Dzungar army to fight the Kazakhs, who were behind it. Also, [they forgot] a great many battles between Kazakh and Chinese troops. They forgot who supplied modern weapons and mortars to Dzungars (the Russians, if you didn't know). They forgot the USSR banned Turkish history studies (arrested historians) in 1944 and suppressed the idea of Turkic unity (about 150 million people) everywhere. Its history and wisdom influenced the development of the whole world. Hence, unity for the Turks will change the world and bring Europe and the East into equilibrium (specifically China).


We need to strengthen the Union of Turkic States, and then we will have one more path. Bridges, railways and highways need to be built across the Caspian Sea. All Turkic states would be closer then.


Take out the sentence where it says: religious extremism.


Russia is definitely the main enemy.


The upcoming tactics by Russia in Central Asia are easy to predict if you know the signature style of Vladimir Putin's strategy. First off, he will let China put its tentacles into CAR [the author obviously means CA] as deeply as possible to scare the population out of their wits. And then he will come to "protect" people from the tangled embrace of the "Yellow Dragon" as a White Tsar Liberator. It was like that in Chechnya, Syria, and recently the same happened to poor Muscovites tortured to the extreme by the quarantine measures imposed by [Moscow] mayor [Sergey] Sobyanin. However, Russia will never cede Central Asia to anyone; knowledgeable people have figured that out long ago.


Russia is not a friend, but quite the contrary is an enemy


Bullshit. Russia has always been friends with CAR [CA]. China is temporary.


Both of them are not our friend, there is always their interest behind their every help and assistance. If there is no interest, there is no help. Especially with such large scale assistance. Both of them trying to enforce their geopolitical position, that is all.


The worst enemy Central Asia has is Russia. It daydreams about getting everything back that it had. No CIS country wants to go back; no one even thinks about it. Everybody is looking at the future. We need to bolster the Turkic Union; we need cutting-edge technologies and a vast multitude of plants and factories. We need to be involved in commerce with the whole world, and set up our own arms industry. No one will dare to enslave us again if we unite.


Well, that's just too much. What money would they have for Central Asia.


This year, they will deliver Chinese multiple rocket launchers to us that have a range of almost 200 km. And the Russkies didn't even want to sell their own. You can see who's a friend and who's the enemy here.