The Influence of China and Russia in Central Asia
Ongoing Rivalry and Shifting Strategies

Interview with Stephen J. Blank
April 9, 2013

With U.S. and NATO troops preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, the influence in Central Asia of other international actors will become increasingly important for regional stability and security. NBR talked with Stephen Blank (Strategic Studies Institute) about what China’s and Russia’s roles are in Central Asia, how their rivalry and strategies have changed over the past decade, and how a diminished U.S. presence will affect this critical region.

What do Russia and China each hope to achieve in Central Asia?

I would argue that both Russia and China, to a significant degree, project internal security concerns into Central Asia. The fundamental security threat for China in this part of the world is that Xinjiang Province might erupt. There has been low-level violence in Xinjiang for 30 years. Now the Chinese strategy—good Leninist strategy—is massive economic development and investment from the center into Xinjiang. China also hopes to stabilize the situation with regard to Central Asia through offering increased investment and trade opportunities on Chinese terms if the Central Asian countries renounce any possibility of support for Uighur organizations—for example, from Chinese Muslims’ relatives in Central Asia. Basically, China’s stance in this relationship is, “We’re prepared to do business with you, recognize your borders, and support your domestic systems of government as long as you do not render any support to the Muslim organizations in Xinjiang,” which the Chinese government calls terrorists or separatists. The Central Asian states are essentially in a position where if they want Chinese economic and political support—and they do—they have to play by China’s rules.

In the case of Russia, it is becoming more important that Central Asia be stabilized because of spreading Muslim unrest inside Russia. For example, 271 Muslims were recently arrested in St. Petersburg, apparently on grounds of incitement, while the jihadists in the North Caucasus have spread their influence into the heartland of Russia. Therefore, it is imperative for Russia to defend against Central Asia falling victim to the instability triggered by Islamic unrest emanating from Afghanistan or from domestic upheaval. What Moscow wants to do is preserve the status quo, namely the regional authoritarian regimes, which are modeled after Russia; establish beachheads for military bases and the right of intervention if necessary through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO); make major energy and other investment deals, particularly with Kazakhstan, in order to tie Central Asia economically to Russia; and build the Eurasian Customs Union as the centerpiece of the integration that Russia believes is taking place there.

What are the strategies for each country to achieve its goals?

For Russia, there are five major prongs to its strategy. The first three are intelligence penetration by the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) and FSB (Federal Security Service), which are all over Central Asia, although one does not see much in the press about this issue; attempts to perpetuate Russian military bases and the right of intervention through the CSTO; and the development of Russian military forces that can rapidly be projected into Central Asia, a version of rapid-reaction forces. For example, the new minister of defense has called upon the airborne forces, the VDV, to be a rapid-reaction force. The fourth prong involves major energy deals that tie these states up and keep them connected to the Russian pipeline network so that they cannot break free. Or if they do export gas, it goes to Asia and not to Europe, as in Turkmenistan’s case. Fifth, Russia hopes to fortify the Central Asian regimes against democracy promotion from the outside and to resist any American military or political presence in the area.

China’s strategy, given the primacy of the internal security goal and the fact that Xinjiang is an economy of force theater, is large-scale domestic investment in Xinjiang, which is then used to trigger large-scale trade and development with Central Asia. This includes the building of pipelines and comprehensive investment in infrastructure of all kinds to build the equivalent of a modern “silk road” through Central Asia to the Indian Ocean, through Pakistan and Iran, and to Europe. This includes energy, telecommunications, roads, rails, pipelines, power networks, the Port of Gwadar, and ultimately a pipeline all the way from Iran to China.

Can Russia resist the expansion of China’s interests and influence in Central Asia? What strategies can Moscow employ to slow Beijing’s movement in this direction, and are these likely to be effective?

First of all, I do not think Russia can resist China’s influence or compete on the same plane as China. Russia does not have the money. Although it is investing substantial amounts in Central Asia, much of the time that Moscow promises to invest, it does not actually do so, whereas China does follow through.

Second, Russia’s security orientation is much different than China’s. It is much more classical-realist military security. Russia claims that its forte in Central Asia is the provision of military security and a template for the kind of government Central Asian states have. But in commercial areas it is increasingly uncompetitive with China.

This strategy would only be sustainable for Russia if it could have much greater rates of economic growth than the Russian system will allow. Russia’s is a system that, frankly, is reaching the limits of its capability. I think that we are seeing the beginning of what Soviet scholars used to call the “revolutionary crisis” inside Russia, which will be a long-term crisis. This will make it difficult for the country to get high rates of economic growth and corresponding foreign investment in Central Asia, at least enough to compete with China.

There are strategies that Russian leaders can try to employ to slow China. One is of course to upgrade Russia’s military and economic presence. I think they can be partially successful there. A second option is to find people with whom they can cooperate. Russia has tried in the past, to some degree, to work with India as a balance for China, but that approach has not been particularly successful. The problem for Russia is that as long as it bandwagons with China globally against the United States, it will be difficult for Russia to compete against China regionally on terrain that is more favorable to China, such as investment and trade. Even in energy Russia is losing ground.

How long can Russia remain competitive with China?

The question hinges on what you mean by competitive. If you mean economically, I do not think Russia will remain competitive for long unless China falls into a major internal crisis. Some people think that might happen, but Russia cannot take that for granted. It is already clear that China is pulling ahead as the main commercial, financial, and investment power in Central Asia. For example, as Evan Feigenbaum pointed out, when Central Asian states go to raise money on the international money markets they go to Shanghai. There is definitely still a rivalry, but the respective strengths of the rivals are not the same.

How are China and Russia viewed by the Central Asian states? Are these states more amenable to engagement with China or Russia?

All the Central Asian states pursue what has been called a multi-vector policy, which amounts to balancing and playing off not only Russia and China, but the United States, Turkey, and even international financial institutions, among other groups. If Central Asian regimes had to name their preference, they would prefer Russia as the devil they know. The leaders are all products of the Soviet period and know how to deal with their Russian counterparts. Although China is not liked, and is even feared, regional states cannot do without China’s economic power and resources—they need Beijing’s assistance. So they have to put up with China and accept a lot of what it wants, even though China can be very demanding.

How might other actors affect Russia-China competition in Central Asia?

Iran does not have much leverage in Central Asia at all and is not going to. Pakistan has some influence through investment in trade, infrastructure, and military training, but the Central Asian states all are suspicious of Pakistan because of its bad reputation with regard to terrorism. It is also a weak state to begin with, so its influence is limited.

India for its part has failed to take advantage of the opportunities in Central Asia. There has been an enormous amount written in India about playing a role in the region, but when one looks at what is happening, the role is more aspirational than active. The fact of the matter is that China outpaces India in Central Asia by a visible order of magnitude. In Afghanistan, India is probably more present than China, because that country is closer to home and more vital for Indian efforts to blunt the alliance between Pakistan and terrorist groups that destabilizes Kashmir. However, once the United States pulls out, India’s position in Central Asia will erode because the United States creates the space for India in that region.

The European Union is long on talk and promotion of democracy but very backward in terms of most programs. Some programs have had success, but by and large the EU is a dollar short and a day late. It is not at all effective compared with Russia or China in Central Asia. International financial institutions will continue to play their role, but their scope of action is primarily limited to providing money for major projects.

What impact will the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan have on Central Asia?

Every one of the states involved in the region is extremely nervous about what is going to happen in Afghanistan after the United States leaves. I don’t think any of them believes the optimistic evaluations that are coming out of Washington. They are very worried about a civil war in Afghanistan, insurgents taking the country over, or terrorism spreading. China’s answer is to build strong economic integration, including with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other Central Asian states—its version of the new silk road. Russia’s answer is to project military power and establish bases in Central Asia, try to maintain those governments, contribute to their economic development in order to prevent a Taliban resurgence, and, to some degree, invest in Afghanistan—although neither Russia nor China is investing that much money there, relatively speaking. The Central Asian regimes are also extremely apprehensive.

I believe that once the United States withdraws in 2014 we will see more overt signs of Russo-Chinese rivalry in the region. At the global level, Russia and China compete against the United States and its interests, values, and policies. At the regional level, Russia is trying to figure out how to hedge against Chinese superiority, not just in Central Asia but in Southeast and Northeast Asia as well. The United States talks about a new silk road, but it has yet to articulate a clear strategy for Central Asia once it pulls out of Afghanistan. Funding is going to be cut or already has been cut, and the bureaucracy that administers U.S. policy toward the region lacks imagination. The silk road is thus still more aspiration than actual reality. The president has never said a word in public about it, and I don’t think it fools anybody on the ground. There are all these projects the United States is supposedly supporting, but if you look closely into what is going on, it is more rhetoric than reality.

If the United States thinks Central Asia is important or even vital to U.S. national interests, Washington will need to invest a boatload more money into the region. Not only that, but it needs to exercise real leadership, capability, and power. Washington says that it takes Central Asia seriously, but the facts suggest otherwise. What the United States is really looking for is to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. The main interest in that area is military in nature, while the real problems are economic and political, and the United States is not going to be able to address them.

This interview was conducted by Zara Rabinovitch, a Publications Intern at NBR.