Written by: Caroline Caywood
Edited by: Andrew Doris
The past few decades have been saturated with news and warnings of a rising China and a belligerent Russia. Seemingly forgotten, however, is the Central Asian region, which has historically garnered interest from both superpowers over the last century. With growing influence from Russia, China, and the West, Central Asia finds itself in a strategic geopolitical position. Further, increasing Sino-Russian cooperation has led to an unprecedented number of development projects in the region, unlocking the vast potential for growth in Central Asia.
Since the 19th century, Russian influence has permeated the Central Asian region following its conquering by the Russian Empire. A key area of interest, Central Asia proved incredibly pertinent during the era of the Soviet Union by providing much needed resources like petroleum and natural gas. In recent years, however, Central Asia has seen increasing Chinese influence as Russia’s position diminished following the fall of the Soviet Union and China’s continuous rise as a world economic power. Following the independence of Central Asian countries in the 1990’s, China began to invest heavily in fuel-oriented projects, including the China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline and the Central Asia-China natural gas pipeline. In the case of certain countries like Turkmenistan, the exporting of natural gas to China provides an overwhelming amount of the nation’s revenue and GDP, creating an enormous economic dependence on Beijing. According to a Stratfor report, the total amount of trade between China and Central Asia had grown to about $30 billion by 2016 while Russian-Central Asian trade reached only $18.6 billion for the same year. Despite this disparity, Russia maintains an economic influence through means other than trade, including remittances from Central Asian migrants who travel to Russia for work. Nations like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan who don’t export energy remain especially reliant on this revenue. While a clear discrepancy can be seen in the shift from Russian economic influence in the region to a stronger reliance on China, it is important to note that Russia maintains a stronghold on security in Central Asia through partnerships like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Both Russia and China have vested interests in keeping the region secure and away from the influence of violent extremism due to economic interests as well as minimizing the spread of militancy to their borders.
While Russia and China have historically remained divided over major cultural and strategic differences, recent moves in U.S. foreign policy may be driving these two powers to each other’s arms. A large increase in trade between Moscow and Beijing can be seen amidst heavy burdens brought by American sanctions on Russia. Coupled with a mutual disdain for American policies of containment over the past decades, this development could result in strengthened ties between Russia and China. One such area of cooperation in the Central Asian region stems from the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. Although this initiative is being spearheaded by China, Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed his support and willingness to become involved in projects despite his own ambitions for the Eurasian Economic Union.
With increased Sino-Russian cooperation in Central Asia, a question that must be addressed is the future of the region and what can be expected from it in the coming decades. One key benefit to be gained from growing Chinese investment is a diversified economy. Certain countries like Turkmenistan rely overwhelmingly on the export of natural gas and other resources, meaning infrastructure for new industries will help immensely in mitigating an over-reliance on any one source of GDP. On the other hand, many have warned about the implications of Central Asia depending too much on China for its financial well-being. One thing is for certain, however – a combination of improved trade infrastructure and Chinese tourism will revitalize any stagnant economies and bring new opportunities to the region.
But what are the implications of Central Asian growth in the West? One of the major takeaways to be gained from the region’s newfound economic strength is the role that the United States has played in laying the groundwork for Sino-Russian cooperation on a grand scale. From ongoing sanctions targeting Russia’s economy to increasing tariffs on Chinese imports, American policy has attempted to isolate the two world powers economically, leaving them with little choice but to turn to one another. The growth potential for Central Asia is yet another outcome of increasing Russian-Chinese collaboration and the United States can certainly expect to see more of this if economic isolation tactics continue.
Caroline is a current Program Coordinator with Atlantis Global and recent graduate of Baylor University where she pursued interests in U.S.-Russia relations, French and Russian language, and Model United Nations.