For centuries, Central Asia has been a battleground for outside powers such as the Persians and the Mongols or czarist Russia and the British Empire. The region, a major transit hub since the days of the Silk Road, became all the more appealing to foreign states after the discovery of significant oil, natural gas and mineral deposits there. In the quarter-century since the Soviet Union's collapse, Central Asia's security has become a paramount concern, attracting the attention of two neighboring giants, Russia and China. But although their spheres of influence overlap in the region, the story of Moscow and Beijing's engagement in Central Asia has so far been one of collaboration, rather than competition — at least where security is concerned.
Securing Russia's Southern Flank
The five states of Central Asia have experienced significant upheaval in the post-Soviet era, including a civil war in Tajikistan, two revolutions in Kyrgyzstan and violent protests in Kazakhstan. The region has also revealed its vulnerability to Islamist militancy. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, for example, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan conducted attacks throughout Central Asia before authorities forced it into the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thousands of militants from Central Asia are believed to be fighting alongside the Islamic State today in Syria, and nationals from the region have repeatedly staged attacks abroad in places such as St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Istanbul and New York City.
For Russia, these threats are too close for comfort, and they've made the region's security a top priority for Moscow. In times past, Russia addressed the risk to its core around Moscow and St. Petersburg — an area lacking geographic barriers to protect against invasion — by expanding into Central Asia, establishing forts and military bases throughout the region beginning in the 18th century. Integrating Central Asia militarily at once brought it into Russia's orbit and defended against threats from surrounding states, including modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and China. During the Soviet period, the region's socialist republics served as a critical southern military outpost for Moscow, providing a launch pad for the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Today Moscow still operates army bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which, along with Kazakhstan, are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance under Russia's leadership.
Moscow maintains a presence in the area to contain its security problems and to keep them from spilling over into Russia. The country, the leading destination for Central Asian migrants, has been the target of numerous terrorist attacks by natives of the region. In addition, the states of Central Asia serve as a major transit point for narcotics coming into Russia from Afghanistan. Moscow works closely with governments in the region on counterterrorism and anti-narcotics operations as well as border security, conducting frequent joint exercises both on a bilateral basis and as part of the CSTO. Russia, moreover, is the primary weapons provider for each of Central Asia's states.
China Goes West
Like Russia, China views Central Asia's stability as a matter of national security. The region not only serves as an important buffer zone from nearby hotbeds of militancy, but it also is home to a large ethnic Uighur diaspora and a corridor for Uighur militants returning to China from Afghanistan or the Middle East. Although Beijing trails Moscow in its defense and security involvement in the area, China has become increasingly active in conducting joint military and counterterrorism exercises with Central Asian states. Beijing also has helped countries in the region with border security by providing financing and constructing checkpoints. And outside the former Soviet Union, Chinese forces have conducted anti-smuggling and anti-drug patrols alongside Afghan troops.
But the main reason for China's interest in Central Asia is economic. The region's abundant energy and mineral resources have led China to invest in major pipelines and infrastructure projects in the five countries, whose strategic position offers Beijing alternative trade routes to reduce its reliance on its eastern coast. To that end, China has made Central Asia a key component of its Belt and Road Initiative. These projects give Beijing great incentive to help stabilize Central Asia.
Keeping the Balance
Despite China's growing attention to security issues in Central Asia, it has successfully avoided rocking the boat with Russia, the region's traditional security power. The lack of friction stems partly from the broader strategic environment that has led Moscow and Beijing toward a convergence. Russia and China are equally striving to challenge the U.S.-led global order by establishing their own norms and rules for managing global security. With such similar aims, the two countries have moved to collaborate on numerous matters around the world. And in Central Asia specifically, they share a strategic interest in maintaining stability and keeping militancy, narcotics and weapons from crossing their borders. Many states in the region now conduct counterterrorism exercises with Russia and China alike. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in fact, have joined the two powers in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a platform for dialogue on Central Asian issues and regular military and security exercises among all participants.
But China has also managed to avoid stepping on Russia's toes in Central Asia because it has been willing to play second fiddle to the Kremlin on regional defense. Unlike Russia, China does not operate military bases or permanently station troops in Central Asia — and it hasn't demonstrated an interest in doing so anytime soon. (Beijing has categorically denied recent reports that it is constructing a base for Afghan troops near the Tajik-Afghan border.) Russia's appetite for overseas military deployments far outstrips that of China, at least for now.
Their seemingly amicable division of labor notwithstanding, the two countries probably won't see eye to eye in Central Asia in the long term. Beijing has been reluctant to put boots on the ground abroad, but it has been making international forays, establishing a naval base in Djibouti and increasing its participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions. As China continues to expand its economic ties in Central Asia, its security presence will likely grow in kind — perhaps upsetting Russia in the process. Developments such as weapons sales, for instance, would challenge Moscow's market position in the region. (China already sells surface-to-air missile systems to Turkmenistan.) Similarly, Chinese security initiatives that exclude Russia could ruffle some feathers in the Kremlin.
For the time being, though, Moscow and Beijing have found a mutually agreeable arrangement in Central Asia: Russia remains the dominant military power in the region, while Beijing takes the lead in economic activities. This understanding provides a basis for consultation on their efforts over security concerns. So long as China avoids pursuing permanent military deployments that challenge Russia in the region, and so long as the two agree on strategies to manage the region's threats, cooperation — not conflict — will characterize their relationship in Central Asia.