Image source: Uzbek Government Photo

Though China and Russia share large incentives to cooperate, Beijing’s push into Central Asia creates a fundamental problem for Russia as the region’s geographic boundaries are redrawn through China-funded railways, tunnels and roads.

The China-Russia ties are growing across the board, ranging from the military cooperation to general geopolitical alignment to counter the US-led bloc. While there has been quite a lot of debate about the potential of China-Russia competition, the discourse has now shifted to the question of how both states can successfully manage to retain a peaceful stance towards each other and limit the potential for open geopolitical collisions. Perhaps, neither conveys a real situation on the ground – reality is somewhere in the middle. As will be shown below, though both are careful not to puncture the seeming alliance they are enjoying against the collective ‘West’, the China-Russia competition is nevertheless very active.

Subtly, the rivalry is cloaked in grand plans to build roads, railways and major investments, which rhetorically would benefit everyone. Diverging Eurasian geopolitical thoughts and visions, coupled with historical enmity matter, and Moscow and Beijing work stealthily to advance their respective interests across the Eurasian landmass. One region which stands out the most in this respect and also shows the increasingly changing balance of power in the supercontinent is Central Asia.

Escaping Geographic Destiny

Geographically isolated, with most of its critical infrastructure directed towards the Russian heartland, the region is a breeding ground for unfolding changes in the Eurasian balance of power. One of the misconceptions in the current studies on China-Russia relations and their potential competition is to expect something as drastic as what took place in Ukraine in 2014 which pitted Russia against the West. Nothing similar is likely to happen between Beijing and Moscow. Instead, we should be expecting relatively quiescent developments ranging from changing infrastructure to seemingly benign political gestures and statements that signal upcoming geopolitical shifts.

For Russia, ‘losing’ Central Asia is not about growing Chinese military influence in the region, but more about underlying and tangential issues. Serving as the region’s exclusive interconnector with the outside world, whether in imperial or Soviet times, in many respects, the dependence of Central Asia on Russia was contingent upon geographic inevitability. Moreover, the scope for alternatives was also limited as the neighboring powers (China and Iran) were poor and weak. Breaking this geographic prison, therefore, is tantamount to the loosening of Russia’s economic grip and consequential decrease of Moscow’s overall influence on Central Asia. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to talk about Russia ‘losing’ Central Asia not to China per se, but rather losing the region to the region’s states themselves, which will be capable of diversifying their trade routes and economic partners.

The Game of Trade Corridors

China’s role in opening up Central Asia is nevertheless instrumental, and trade corridors are a good indicator of changing times. Beijing’s active involvement in a new transportation route was unveiled in early September 2020 when a freight train from China, through Kazakhstan, reached the Turkmen city of Anev three days later, covering in total some 8780 kilometers.

China was also behind the opening of a new transportation corridor from the city of Lanzhou that runs through Kyrgyzstan towards Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent. Construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) route has been postponed for decades. Kyrgyzstan has been a major obstacle because of its financial troubles (government debt, which currently amounts to $4.7 billion, of which $1.8 billion, is controlled by China), anti-Chinese sentiments and internal political disturbances (recent events Bishkek serve as a reminder). Thence, Beijing and Tashkent introduced a combined road-rail corridor – freight from China will be unloaded in Kyrgyzstan to reach the Uzbek section of the railway by road.

Yet, looking at these changes only from a regional perspective would not suffice. The CKU route is set to be transformed into an international corridor running from China to Europe without transiting Kazakhstan and Russia. China is eyeing to puncture the geographic barriers with roads and railways to link Central Asia to western Asia.

For instance, the CKU corridor will allow Uzbekistan to reach out to Iran, China, or use the westward route across the Caspian Sea to link to European market. The latter possibility is especially geopolitically appealing making the route the fastest trail to European mainland by using significantly improved ports infrastructure in the Caspian and Black Sea such as Azerbaijan’s Ailat and Baku ports, and Georgia’s Batumi and Poti terminals. To this should be added recent reports on trains from Turkey heading to China through Georgia and Azerbaijan via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway.

This is not to say that Russia has not been playing its game. Russia’s opposition was one of the factors behind Bishkek’s procrastination for decades. Change in direction of the railways and roads would be damaging for Moscow. As the corridor could deviate some to 10-15 percent of the freight from the Kazakh-Russian route.

The Iran Factor

Furthermore, in December 2020 Iran unveiled a section of a railway from Khaf to Herat in west Afghanistan. Potentially, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan could entirely rely on Chinese railway standards which correspond to the Iranian and west European model, as opposed to Russian and Pakistani rail gauge. The Khaf-Heart line could also enable Turkmenistan to connect to Iran.

China is indirectly involved in opening up Central Asia to another important regional player – Iran. As Iran is experiencing the pressure from the West and is in dire need of investment, Chinese pivot has become of utmost importance for Tehran. Thence comes a definitive push to reach out to China. Expansion of railways and roads is critical. In August 2020 Iran unveiled two corridors into Central Asia: Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran (KTAI) route and the Iran-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan routes.

Considering the reports of upcoming whopping $400-billion investment agreement between China and Iran, both countries’ push into Central Asia (plus Afghanistan) is a long-term development which will help breaking the geographic limits of the region and therefore constrain Russian influence there. The agreement would involve Iran’s deeper integration within Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with a likely emphasis on opening new trade and energy routes with China.

China Getting Political

On top of the new trade corridors there has been an interesting development in China’s expansion of political contacts with Central Asian states. In July 2020, the “5+1” format video conference of the foreign ministers of China and the five Central Asian states was held. At what could have been an unremarkable event, the discussion revolved around political processes – a notable shift from China’s traditional emphasis on economic matters. Other Chinese initiatives, such as lending Uzbekistan $100 million via the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to support its battle with the COVID-19 pandemic are also notable in this respect.

These developments indicate the fluidity of the geopolitical order in Central Asia and how vulnerable Russia’s position really is there. Beyond cultural affinity, such as the prevalence of Russian language, Moscow’s grip on Central Asia’s is not as certain as it might seem. Alternative roads, railways and other infrastructure could do much harm to Moscow geopolitically, though the process is inconspicuous and incremental. Moreover, one of the fallacies common in analysis by western watchers on China’s Central Asia policy is that China is often portrayed as aiming to peel away the region from the Russian orbit – which should inevitably create troubles in bilateral ties with Moscow. 

In fact, what the Chinese have been doing so far was to empower Central Asian states through multiplying their trade opportunities. Also, this indirectly diminishes Russian influence and minimizes pretexts by which Moscow can accuse Beijing of anything resembling undermining Russian interests in the region. It is a long game to play, but one that looks to eventually turn out in China’s favor.