As Russia and China become increasingly active in Central Asia, one country in particular could serve as a bellwether for their evolving dynamics: Kyrgyzstan. The small but strategically located country has been a focus of significant security and economic attention for both regional heavyweights. And while Moscow and Beijing have incentive to cooperate in Kyrgyzstan, given their shared economic opportunities and the growing instability in the region, their competing interests could lead to a more contentious relationship in the future.
In recent weeks, both Russia and China have stepped up their security relationships with Kyrgyzstan. On June 22, Vladimir Shamanov, the head of the Russian State Duma's Defense and Security Committee, announced that Russia was in talks with Kyrgyzstan (as well as with Kazakhstan) to send troops to Syria as part of a peacekeeping force. And later, on June 24, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev said that Russia had asked to expand its Kant military base in the country. For China's part, on June 27, the border forces of Kyrgyzstan and China held collaborative exercises to bolster their ability to counter weapons smuggling in China's Xinjiang region.
The increased security involvement in Kyrgyzstan by both Russia and China makes sense for two reasons. The first is Kyrgyzstan's location. The country borders China's restive Xinjiang province to the east and is close to the perennially unstable Afghanistan in the south, which means there is a consistently high risk of militancy from those areas spilling over into the country. And there is now the added concern of militants returning from the Syrian conflict, where thousands of Central Asians, including hundreds of ethnic Kyrgyz, are reportedly participating in the long-running insurgency. Both Russia and China worry that militant movements could jeopardize their influence throughout Central Asia and eventually reach their own borders.
Kyrgyzstan in particular has been vulnerable to militancy and jihadist violence. The country was the target of several attacks by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the jihadist group was driven into the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. More recently, in August 2016, a suicide bomber targeted the Chinese Embassy in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. The attack was perpetrated by an ethnic Uighur who was reported to be a member of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
Kyrgyzstan's domestic security challenges also have attracted China and Russia's attention. Revolutions swept Kyrgyzstan, one of the most unstable nations in Central Asia, in 2005 and 2010. In addition to regular economic slumps and political fragility, the country is also susceptible to ethnic violence, especially in its southern regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad. In June 2010, the frequent skirmishes between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations escalated into major clashes that claimed hundreds of lives. And though there have been no major protests or ethnic violence over the past few years, the risk of instability will rise as presidential elections scheduled for October approach. If Moscow and Beijing want to successfully pursue longer-term strategies in the country, they must be invested in preventing or at least managing that instability.
A Shrewd Partnership
For Russia and China, there are broader strategic interests at play in Kyrgyzstan. In particular, the country is a key component of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet periphery. Since Kyrgyzstan gained independence from the Soviet Union, Russia has consistently been the most powerful force in the country, and it has retained a military presence there for several decades now via the Kant air base near Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan is one of Moscow’s most loyal allies, serving as a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization military bloc and joining the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015.
But China's growing influence in Kyrgyzstan has challenged Russia’s dominant position. As China's economic power has grown, it has become more active in Central Asia, a region that provides Beijing with a vital source of energy supplies and a market for Chinese exports, not to mention a corridor to Europe and Eurasia. China has overtaken Russia as Central Asia's largest trading partner and in Kyrgyzstan, Chinese exports totaled $1.6 billion in 2016, nearly double the value of Russia’s. China has also engaged heavily in transport and infrastructure projects in Kyrgyzstan, as Central Asia forms a key component of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
So far, China’s growing presence in Kyrgyzstan — and Central Asia more generally — has not led to major friction with Russia. Low oil prices and Western economic sanctions have weakened Russia's economy, allowing China to invest in Kyrgyzstan-based projects in a way that Russia simply can’t match. China has also been careful not to compete directly with Russia in Kyrgyzstan, acknowledging the country’s role in the Eurasian Economic Union and pledging to work more closely with the economic bloc. Furthermore, Russia’s own ties with China have grown amid Moscow’s standoff with the West, and China has even integrated Russia into the Belt and Road project, via the New Eurasian Land Bridge corridor.
On the security front, joint military exercises between China and Russia have been on the rise in recent months, both on a bilateral level and in the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which also includes Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states and recently expanded to encompass India and Pakistan. Given that Russia and China share concerns over rising threats from the Taliban and the Islamic State in Afghanistan, further security collaboration between the two countries only makes sense.
Russia on Alert
But even if it is mutually beneficial right now for Russia and China to align on security and economic matters in Central Asia, Moscow will guard against the possibility of any other country's influence in the region growing too strong. And Russia will likely make a strong effort to ensure that it remains the most military dominant force in Kyrgyzstan. Indeed, this has happened before, following the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Though Russia initially allowed and supported a U.S. military presence in Central Asia as a springboard for its war efforts in Afghanistan, it later grew wary of the U.S. presence and facilitated the closure of the U.S. Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. If Russia believes that China’s security or economic operations in Kyrgyzstan are running counter to its own interests, Moscow could similarly challenge or even attempt to reverse Chinese moves in the country.
For its part, the Kyrgyz government may not want either Russia or China to have too much involvement in its affairs, given the volatile nature of the country’s political landscape. Atambayev, for example, said that he rejected Russia’s recent request to expand the Kant air base and instead proposed to build a joint base with Russia on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. (Russia has yet to officially respond.) Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Temir Jumakadyrov also said there were no official negotiations to send Kyrgyz troops to Syria as per Russia’s proposal, though unnamed sources have said the measure is under consideration.
Pushback from Kyrgyzstan could not only create friction between Bishkek and Moscow, but it also could heighten Moscow’s suspicions about China’s growing role in the country. And it could put Kyrgyzstan in a position to try to leverage the increasing Russian and Chinese interest for its own benefit, though perhaps at a cost. Several years ago, former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev followed a similar strategy in an attempt to drive up rental fees for U.S. and Russian air bases in the country. The move angered Russia, prompting Moscow to raise the prices it charged Kyrgyzstan for supplying energy, a move that became a major contributing factor to the 2010 revolution in which Bakiyev was ousted.
Suffice to say, Russia has little interest in relaxing its influence in Kyrgyzstan. Despite a growing partnership between Russia and China on Kyrgyz security and economic matters, that relationship is not guaranteed to last. The same factors that have driven the rise in Russian and Chinese collaboration in the country also have the potential to increase competition between them down the line. And that means that observers looking to track the state of relations between China and Russia would be wise to train their eyes on Kyrgyzstan.