Updated: Nov 28, 2022
It’s been a long time coming. Even in 1998, Geoffrey J. Jukes, Kiril Nourzhanov, and Mikhail Alexandrov, in an article entitled “Race, Religion, Ethnicity and Economics in Central Asia,” managed to forecast many of the difficulties in Central Asia’s relationship with its “older brother,” Russia. Not only did Russia face competition from democratic countries, but the authors specifically note China as potentially pursuing “joint ventures or direct investment [in the region] that Russia is unlikely to be able to match.”
Looking back from 2022, their analysis is remarkably prescient. The authors also note that “Central Asian states are well-endowed with natural resources, but … to exploit them requires capital investment which neither the Central Asians nor Russia can provide.” And as you read this, China is working to provide it. In so doing, Beijing is not simply seeking to expand its influence in the region for soft power’s sake, nor are they adopting a zero-sum mentality vis-à-vis Russia.
Quite pragmatically, China’s efforts in Central Asia — perhaps even their entire foreign policy — are driven by a desire to reduce vulnerabilities. In this instance, increased energy imports from Central Asia not only help to reduce dependency on Middle Eastern sellers but also to minimize damage from a potential U.S. blockade of the Strait of Malacca, where the majority of China’s energy imports currently sail through. Given that such a scenario would be most likely to occur during a conflict over Taiwan, China’s inroads into Central Asia are just as much a part of their strategy to maximize strength and influence over the Indo-Pacific region writ large.
This is a classic example of geography serving to shape state decision-making on the international stage and, equally important, reiterates how events in one part of Eurasia reverberate throughout the supercontinent. Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine has distracted Moscow from developments in Central Asia and the Caucasus, accelerating the pre-existing trend of rising Chinese influence in the region and enabling further autonomy for Russia’s “little brothers.” Already, Central Asian leaders feel emboldened to demand or reject more from Moscow.
While history, cultural ties, and geographical proximity ensure that Russia will never be ejected from the region completely, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions — in 2022 alone — have created a clear before-and-after and, indeed, upset the regional balance of power. As the Biden administration noted in a different context, “the post-Cold War era is definitively over.” Central Asia, therefore, should now be understood not merely in a post-Soviet context but in the context of both the war in Ukraine and China’s rise. China and other regional actors such as Turkey and Iran will be looking for opportunities that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — to say nothing of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan — has created. The future of this region will be defined by a new era of strategic competition, much more so than before.
At the same time, every party involved in this new “Great Game” will need to be cognizant of the risks involved. For Central Asian states, a careful, diplomatic balancing act will be necessary. Competition between Central Asian states over natural resources will continue, and China’s growing engagement and influence runs the risk of switching one “older brother” for another.
Furthermore, this is not a region known for its stability: Border disputes, ethnic tensions, and Islamist terrorism are still prevalent, threatening Chinese projects in the region. The last of these threats should be watched carefully by all actors, especially the politically aware citizenry of all nations. If there’s one thing that the regimes of Russia, the U.S., and China all have in common, it is a propensity to respond to acts of terror with policies that have only made the problem worse.
Jacob K. H. Bennett is a graduate student pursuing an M.A. in Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Before coming to UT, he earned a B.A. in Communications from Northwestern State University of Louisiana and worked on Christian D. Menefee's successful campaign for Harris County Attorney. His interests include religious history, naval history, Russian/Soviet history and policymaking, Russia-China relations, East Asian security, and anything related to Taiwan.