China, Russia and Security in Central Asia

In February, Central Asian news outlet Ferghana News quoted a number of officials in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense who stated that an agreement had been reached with the Chinese government to open a base in the Afghan province of Badakhshan, near the border with Tajikistan. Chinese officials were quick to deny these reports, with the Afghan officials then reaffirming them. The base, if opened, would be China’s second foreign military base following the opening of a naval base in Djibouti in 2017. It is also a further sign of China’s expanding role in providing security assistance to governments in Central Asia.

China’s rise to become the dominant external economic partner for many of the Central Asian states was swift. In 2000, China’s overall trade with the region amounted to just $1 billion. By 2013, when Xi Jinping announced the launch of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), it has soared to over $50 billion. China has become the region’s leading investor and the largest foreign holder of national debt. An unofficial division of labor exists between Russia and China; while China has become the region’s leading economic partner, Russia continues to play the role of security guarantor in a region it considered part of its ‘near abroad.’ But China’s recent actions are putting this division to the test.

Russia as Regional Hegemon

Central Asia’s governments had independence forced upon them in 1991. Pro-independence movements like those in the Baltics and Caucasus did not emerge in the region. In the March 1991 referendum on the future of the Union, the vast majority of Central Asians indicated their desire to stay in the USSR. Central Asia did not see a leadership transition with independence and the country’s new leaders remained deeply dependent on Moscow. The Russian government moved to keep Central Asia within its sphere of influence, establishing the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in May 1992 and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in December 1991. Yet Russia, paralyzed by its own domestic turmoil in the early 1990s, remained unwilling and unable to continue to provide security in Central Asia. Russian troops did not intervene when Tajikistan descended into civil war in 1992.

But slowly Russia entrenched its position as the leading external security partner for Central Asia. Reluctantly, Russia intervened to help broker a peace accord in Tajikistan in 1997. Its troops guarded Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan until 2005. Central Asia’s poorest states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, continue to be dependent on Russia. Russia continues to station troops in its bases in both countries, signing deals to extend its leases until 2027 in Kyrgyzstan and 2042 in Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remain reliant on Russia for fuel supplies. An estimated one third of their economies are derived from labor migrants working in Russia. Russia continues to take advantage of historical and cultural linkages with the region to maintain its influence. Although it may be declining, albeit slowly, as Ruth Deyermond has argued, Russia remains the regional hegemon in Central Asia.

Limited Interests: The United States in Central Asia 

The United States’ interest in Central Asia grew dramatically after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The Pentagon quickly negotiated basing deals in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to supply its war effort. As well as protecting its limited commercial interests in the energy-rich Caspian basin and securing its supply lines to Afghanistan, the US priority was to prevent what Fiona Hill called the “Afghanicisation” of Central Asia, spillovers from Afghanistan and the growth of homegrown terror groups. Central Asia is not a strategic priority for the United States and it has seen a number of setbacks in its role in the region. In 2005, the government of Uzbekistan evicted the US military from its base after the US criticized it for human rights abuses. Nine years later, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament passed legislation terminating the United States government’s lease of the Manas transit center. The US spent $1.9 billion on security assistance in the region between 2001 and 2016. But as the US presence in Afghanistan has waned, as have its security interests in Central Asia.

China’s Rise in Central Asia

China’s initial engagement with the region that borders its restive Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang was aimed at normalizing relations and demilitarizing the border. Beijing was instrumental in the establishment of the Shanghai Five in 1996, bringing together the leaders of Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and China; this became the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001, with the addition of Uzbekistan, and subsequently Pakistan and India in 2017.

Fears that Afghanistan and Central Asia could be used by radical Islamists as a base to radicalize ethnic Uyghurs and potentially launch operations against Xinjiang continues to shape China’s engagement with the Central Asian states. As China increases its investments in the region through SREB, there are concerns about the threat emanating in particular from the 250,000 ethnic Uyghurs who live in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. On August 30, 2016, a suicide bomber rammed the gates of the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, killing himself and wounding three other people. Kyrgyz officials identified the bomber as Zoir Khalimov, an ethnic Uighur who carried out the attack with support from the Nusra Front, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.

In recent years, China has built up bilateral security ties with each of the region’s republics. Beyond joint exercises organized through the SCO, Chinese troops have participated in joint drills with Tajik forces on the border with Afghanistan in October 2016 and Kyrgyz forces in June 2017. In October 2015, the governments of Kazakhstan signed a military deal by which both sides would conduct joint trainings to counter terrorism and insurgents. The region’s poorest republic, Tajikistan, which has a 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan has received the most direct assistance from the Chinese governments. China has funded the construction of new border posts on the Tajik-Afghan border, a new barracks in Dushanbe, renovate the Interior Ministry Academy and plans to open a joint counterterrorism center with the government of Tajikistan. China has also become a supplier of surveillance technology and military hardware to the region’s governments. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have bought Chinese-made air-defense systems and military drones.

A New Great Game?

China’s rise in Central Asia has led to speculation that competition, confrontation and a ‘New Great Game’ with Russia and the United States is inevitable. This tired cliché has characterized much of the journalistic writing on international relations in Central Asia since the fall of the Soviet Union. But it fails to capture the reality of relations between the Central Asian states and outside powers. As Richard Weitz has argued, this historical analogy is misleading and reduces the Central Asian government to mere pawns in the global geopolitical machinations of the great powers; today’s powers “cannot dictate outcomes the way imperial governments frequently did a century ago.” Alexander Cooley, in his book Great Games, Local Rules, demonstrated how adept local elites have become at extracting benefits and playing external partners off against one another. There have certainly been disagreements between Russia and China. Russia, for example, has blocked Chinese attempts to pursue its economic objectives through the SCO by establishing an SCO development bank and an SCO free trade zone. China has responded by pursuing these objectives without Russia through the Silk Road Economic Belt. But ultimately Russia and China’s shared interests in stability in the region and common understanding of security make conflict between them unlikely.

Russia, China and the Central Asian republics share suspicion towards the United States’ agenda to promote human rights and democracy in the region. They share common goals in countering terrorism and maintaining stability. And they have a common view that security is best provided by strong, authoritarian regimes that valorize ‘stability’ and ‘authority.’ Rather than focusing on human security, Russia, China and the Central Asian republics place emphasis on protecting regime security. They have used the language of security to frame political opponents as “threats to national security” and “terrorists.” To this end, all of them have adopted amorphous, flexible definitions of “terrorism.” China’s 2015 law defines terrorism as “any thought, speech, or activity that, by means of violence, sabotage, or threat, aims to generate social panic, influence national policy-making, create ethnic hatred, subvert state power, or split the state.” Russia’s 2006 law defines terrorism as an “ideology of violence,” wording that is also used in the SCO’s definition contained in its 2001 Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism. Central Asia’s governments have adopted similarly loose definitions. Uzbekistan’s 2000 draft Bill on Terrorism, for example, defined terrorism as “socially dangerous wrong doing.” Through the SCO, CIS and bilateral links, governments have shared intelligence, conducted educational exchanges, organized conferences and held joint training sessions. They have extradited terror suspects, often in violation of international human rights law.

Interactions between Russia, China and the Central Asian states are not purely competitive and based on a zero-sums logic; in terms of security, they have more to gain from cooperation than competition. What we have seen emerge in Central Asia is an authoritarian security community. First developed by Karl Deutsch, a “security community” is a group of states that are bound by mutual trust and a common interests in addressing collective problems. Deutsch outlined a number of basic conditions for the establishment of a security community. Security communities develop between states which enjoy strong ties with one another through trade, migration and travel. Frequent interactions, Deutsch argues, often leads to the convergence of interests and the idea that advantages can be gained from cooperation. Finally, members of a security community need to share some common sense of identity and purpose, what Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett refer to as a “we-feeling.” To varying degrees, China, Russia and the Central Asian republics share all of these features. Although competition and disagreements remain, they are bound by a shared commitment to authority, stability and containing US influence in the region.

As China continues to invest in the region, its role as a security provider to Central Asia’s governments is likely to further develop. With its long-term basing rights, historical linkages and patron-client relationships with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Russia remains the regional hegemon in Central Asia. China will not replace it as security guarantor in the near future. But as the US presence in the region continues to decline, Beijing is replacing Washington as the second most important security partner for the region. But rather than a New Great Game, we are seeing a degree of convergence of interests and norms between Russia and China. Ultimately, this will benefit the authoritarian governments of the region most as they will be able to continue to seek protection from outside powers while avoiding becoming totally dependent on any one external patron.

Edward James Lemon

Edward Lemon is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political Science, Columbia University. In his research, Dr Lemon examines authoritarian governance, religion, security and migration in Tajikistan. He is currently working on a book manuscript exploring the ways in which the government of Tajikistan has targeted political exiles who have fled the country. Since 2009, he has spent almost three years working and conducting fieldwork in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Poland. His research has been published in Central Asian SurveyThe RUSI JournalCaucasus SurveyCentral Asian AffairsForeign Affairs and the Review of Middle Eastern Studies.

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